Spring look around the SEC
With spring practice underway, our SEC notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Can Florida find the right chemistry in 2006? Will Kentucky improve on defense? Can Mississippi State find the answer at tailback? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Thanks to his second scrimmage last Thursday, John Parker Wilson probably enjoyed this spring break a bit more than he would have otherwise. Parker regrouped from a shaky outing in Alabama's first scrimmage with the kind of performance coach Mike Shula expects from his quarterback. Wilson was 17-of-23 for 154 yards and a touchdown. That's after finishing 9-of-22 with two interceptions in the first scrimmage.
In particular, Shula felt Wilson was more decisive and more in control of what the Tide was doing on offense. Alabama has been off all this week on spring break and will return to the practice field on Tuesday. The annual spring game is scheduled for next Saturday. Whereas Brodie Croyle was pretty well confined to the pocket, Wilson is more mobile. The Tide will use him some on rollouts and bootlegs, which should help the offensive line. Alabama allowed an SEC-high 37 sacks last season.
The offseason has been an interesting one at Arkansas. Coach Houston Nutt fired quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke and brought in veteran NFL assistant Alex Wood to coach the Razorbacks' quarterbacks, who combined for 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. Nutt will also give up the play-calling duties after hiring Springdale (Ark.) High School coach Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. Malzahn just happened to coach one of the country's hottest quarterback prospects in Mitch Mustain, who eventually signed with the Hogs after wavering some on an earlier commitment. Although Mustain won't be on campus until this summer, the Hogs' new look on offense begins to take shape on Monday when they open spring practice. There's enough talent in the offensive backfield with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis that Arkansas could contend in the West if it gets improved play at the quarterback position.
Auburn fans don't need to be reminded that the Tigers' A-Day spring football game isn't much of an indicator for what's in store for the season. The game produced one touchdown last Saturday as the Tigers wrapped up spring practice. A year ago, there weren't any touchdowns scored, and the Tigers went on to lead the SEC in scoring offense and total offense.
Tailback Kenny Irons, who led the SEC in rushing last season, saw only minimal action this spring. Auburn did the same thing with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown two years ago. The only touchdown last Saturday came on a 53-yard pass from Brandon Cox to tight end Tommy Trott.
• The Tigers passed out their spring awards prior to the game. The most improved offensive skill player was receiver Courtney Taylor. The most improved offensive lineman was Antwoin Daniels. The most improved defensive lineman was nose guard Josh Thompson, and the most improved defensive back was Jonathan Wilhite.
• Auburn had more than 400 high school prospects on campus last Saturday.
Despite the 9-3 record last season, Florida coach Urban Meyer classified the Gators as a very average team that was close to becoming a pretty good team by the end of the year. To become a great team, he said the Gators will need better chemistry, and he points to the Florida basketball team as an example.
"I think they're unselfish, and I love the way they play," Meyer said of the Gators' basketball team. "I think they are a great team. Great teams win."
Meyer has been impressed enough with Billy Donovan's club this season that he plans on having some of the basketball players speak to his team about forming the right kind of chemistry.
• The Gators received a scare last week when senior quarterback Chris Leak was taken to the hospital with a staph infection in his left elbow, but Meyer said he should be fine for the start of spring practice on Wednesday.
The Bulldogs will hold a major scrimmage on Saturday, and while most eyes are on the quarterback battle, the player who's been as impressive as anyone this spring is junior tailback Thomas Brown. Coach Mark Richt said Brown has been a cut above everyone else. Georgia is especially deep at running back, with Danny Ware and Kregg Lumpkin also returning. The Bulldogs will need a strong running game to help offset the growing pains of breaking in a new quarterback. Georgia was third in the SEC in rushing offense last season. Brown, who shared time with Ware and Lumpkin, was the leading rusher on the team with 736 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry.
• As for the quarterback battle, Richt would like to see some separation this Saturday in the scrimmage. But he still thinks it will be too close to call coming out of the spring game on April 8. Right now, the Bulldogs are working four players at the position -- Joe Tereshinski, Joe Cox, Blake Barnes and Matthew Stafford.
The shortcomings have been many in Kentucky's program over the last couple of seasons, but nothing has caused the Wildcats more headaches than a defense that has given up points and yards in embarrassing numbers. If they're indeed going to make a move in Rich Brooks' fourth season, they will have to be more competitive on defense. They've finished last in the SEC each of the past two seasons in scoring defense and total defense.
A year ago, Kentucky's defense was among the worst in the country. The Wildcats allowed 34.1 points and 439.5 yards per game. Defensive coordinator Mike Archer switched to a 4-3 alignment last season, but it didn't do much good. The silver lining just might be that several younger players showed promise last season, including linebackers Braxton Kelley and Wesley Woodyard. True freshman linebacker Micah Johnson, one of Kentucky's highest profile recruits in years, is also likely to play right away.
• The Wildcats open spring practice on Wednesday.
The Tigers head into their second major scrimmage of the spring on Saturday with several of their marquee players either sidelined or limited. Among them: Quarterback JaMarcus Russell, running backs Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent, safeties LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels and receiver Early Doucet.
• Coach Les Miles said the offense made up some ground in last Saturday's scrimmage. That's after the defense had its way in an earlier situational scrimmage. Miles has been pleased with his offensive line, which is replacing several key performers from a year ago. Center Brett Helms and tackles Peter Dyakowski and Brian Johnson have all made impressions on Miles this spring.
• The Tigers will designate their final scrimmage next Saturday as their spring game.
Mississippi coach Ed Orgeron was quick to scoop up Art Kehoe as his offensive line coach in the offseason after Miami fired Kehoe. Orgeron was looking for any kind of boost he could get in the offensive line, which was a problem all last season. The Rebels were last in the SEC and 116th out of 117 Division I-A teams in rushing offense and had trouble moving the ball all season. Kehoe, who was at Miami for 25 years, hasn't hesitated to shake things up this spring. He's moved players to different positions, sometimes making multiple moves in a week. He also placed an advertisement in the school paper, hoping to attract some walk-on offensive linemen. The Rebels are trying to identify their five best linemen this spring regardless of position. One of the most recent moves was Thomas Eckers shifting from guard to center, a position he'd previously never played.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
To fully appreciate Jerious Norwood, you have to first understand how anemic Mississippi State's passing game was last season. Norwood got his yards despite defenses ganging up on his every move. Replacing him won't be easy for the Bulldogs, who will go into preseason practice before having firm answers at the tailback position. Brandon Thornton is probably the leader in the clubhouse, although he's been limited this spring because of offseason shoulder surgery. Thornton was Norwood's backup last season and had his best game in the season-ending 35-14 win over Mississippi. Thornton, who will be a sophomore, finished with 80 yards on 13 carries. His competition in August will come in the form of incoming freshmen Courtney Jones of Pensacola, Fla., and Anthony Dixon of Terry, Miss.
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier challenged his defense entering this spring to be more dynamic, and there have been some positive signs. Junior college newcomer Jasper Brinkley is making a strong bid for the starting middle linebacker job. If anything, Spurrier said the coaches have had to back Brinkley down this spring.
• The Gamecocks had a shorter scrimmage earlier this week and will hold a full scrimmage on Saturday. Spurrier wants to see that scrimmage before making too many evaluations on his offense or defense, but he saw enough this week to know that Blake Mitchell is pretty well entrenched at quarterback. He hit Sidney Rice on an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the scrimmage this week. Rice hasn't done much scrimmaging this spring, but said Mitchell's pass couldn't have been thrown any better.
The Vols return to practice next week after taking this week off for spring break. One of the priorities will be building on what they did offensively in the first scrimmage. Coach Phillip Fulmer has seen improvement in the play of his quarterbacks, and he thinks this unit has been more fundamentally sound. But he also knows the Vols have a long ways to go offensively before they will be able to compete for a championship in the SEC.
One of the biggest concerns remains the offensive line. Arron Sears is a star at left tackle. But after Sears, there are more questions than answers. The Vols had hoped that redshirt freshman Chris Scott would make more of an impression this spring, but they're still trying to decide if he's a guard or a tackle.
At this point, it appears Erik Ainge has the lead in the quarterback race, but Jonathan Crompton has had his moments. Fulmer almost certainly will name a starter coming out of spring practice and not let it drag on similar to last year.
Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson got a look at his two quarterbacks in a live scrimmage earlier this week. Sophomore Chris Nickson opened with the first unit, but redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams received the majority of the snaps. Johnson said the competition remains open between Nickson and Adams, and he wants to get as many looks as possible at both players.
• The Commodores moved junior linebacker Darnell Martemus to running back, a position that is precariously thin this spring. Starting tailback Cassen Jackson-Garrison and his backup, Jared Hawkins, have both been limited.
• Johnson has been impressed with the play of tight end Brad Allen and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff. Allen is poised to take over for Dustin Dunning and has been one of the offense's most consistent performers. Goff will be one of the leaders of the defense in 2006 after starting the last two seasons.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.