Spring look around the SEC
With spring practice under way, our SEC notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Will QB John Parker Wilson be the answer at Alabama? Can Georgia solidify its secondary? Will David Cutcliffe rejuvenate the Tennessee offense? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Forgive quarterback John Parker Wilson if he tries to forget the way spring practice ended for him. The sophomore threw two second-half interceptions in Alabama's spring game on Saturday following a strong showing in the first half. Wilson, taking over for Brodie Croyle, threw touchdown passes of 50 and 33 yards to D.J. Hall and directed the offense to three scoring drives against the first-team offense. But the two second-half interceptions stuck out like a sore thumb, especially to coach Mike Shula. Afterward, Shula made it clear that Wilson had to eliminate "critical mistakes" for the Crimson Tide to duplicate their 2005 success. Wilson finished 21-of-32 for 244 yards. An estimated crowd of 40,000 turned out for Alabama's spring game.
One of the glaring voids on Arkansas' defense coming into this spring was at linebacker. It was enough of a concern that defensive coordinator Reggie Herring decided to move Desmond Sims from defensive end, where he started all 11 games last season and led the team with 5½ sacks. Sims spent some time at linebacker his first two seasons at Arkansas, so the position isn't totally new to him. Still, he's spent every extra minute he can find in the film room this spring. The Razorbacks had only four scholarship linebackers on the roster entering the spring. Herring knew Sims' speed would serve him well at middle linebacker. The Arkansas defense was shredded for 464 yards in the first full scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. Running backs Darren McFadden and Peyton Hillis each had long runs. Herring said most of the big plays didn't come against the first-team defense, but he lamented how big a gap there is right now between the starters and reserves.
Everyone around the conference is well aware of tailback Kenny Irons, who led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,293 yards and 13 touchdowns. But Irons said the Auburn running attack will feature much more than just him this season. He thinks the Tigers' collection of backs will be the best and most versatile in the conference. Irons, who was held out of the spring game two Saturdays ago, said to watch sophomore Brad Lester and freshman Ben Tate. Irons thinks the Tigers will be able to do different things with their running backs, such as putting them out in the slot and moving them around, similar to what they did when Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown were sharing the backfield.
Florida football fans received some good news this spring: Receiver Andre Caldwell is back on the practice field after breaking his leg against Tennessee on Sept. 17 while returning a kickoff. Caldwell won't go through any contract drills, but he's doing everything else -- running routes, making cuts and going through passing drills. Most importantly, he says he's playing without any pain. The news on tailback Kestahn Moore isn't quite as encouraging. Coach Urban Meyer said Moore has a back injury that might require surgery. Moore was one of the top candidates to claim the Gators' starting tailback job. Meyer was in Indianapolis on Monday to watch the Gators' basketball team win the national championship.
With so much focus on the quarterback battle this spring, it's just as important for the Bulldogs to solidify their secondary. They lost three starters from last season, including cornerbacks DeMario Minter and Tim Jennings. Juniors Paul Oliver and Thomas Flowers have stepped into those spots this spring. Oliver started a couple of games last season, but this isn't a group laden with experience. The backups at cornerback are especially young. The lone returning starter in the secondary is senior safety Tra Battle. Speaking of the quarterback race, it doesn't appear coach Mark Richt is in any rush to name a starter. It's been a good spring for Joe Tereshinski, who's been working exclusively with the first team. Matthew Stafford, Joe Cox and Blake Barnes have all taken turns rotating in with the first unit.
Sorting out the quarterback situation is just one of the dilemmas Kentucky faces this spring. The Wildcats also need to find some receivers -- and fast. Keenan Burton is the only proven veteran on the squad. He has 46 career receptions, and nobody else has more than six. The situation was dire enough that offensive coordinator Joker Phillips talked basketball player Ravi Moss into trying out at the position, although the Moss experiment ended after a few days. This is a particularly critical spring for John Logan, Dicky Lyons and DeMoreo Ford. Lyons and Ford have both struggled with injuries in the past. One of the most unusual sights on the Kentucky practice field thus far has been 253-pound Maurice Grinter at safety. Grinter, a running back in high school, signed with Louisville originally but opted to walk on at Kentucky after he said Louisville coaches called him a few days before reporting day last August and told him they didn't have a scholarship available. The Wildcats prefer smaller backs in their offense, so Grinter is trying his hand at safety. He hopes to lose 10 to 15 pounds.
Until further notice, JaMarcus Russell is LSU's quarterback. But as the Tigers closed spring practice on Saturday, coach Les Miles left himself some wiggle room. He conceded that Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux made up ground this spring and will be a threat when preseason practice begins in August. Russell sat out the spring after separating his left (non-throwing) shoulder in the SEC championship game last season. He also underwent offseason wrist surgery. Flynn, the Peach Bowl star, was 12-of-26 for 167 yards and two touchdowns in the Tigers' spring game. Perrilloux, the country's most coveted high school quarterback prospect two years ago, was 11-of-26 for 145 yards and a touchdown. One thing seems certain about the Tigers' passing game. Senior receiver Dwayne Bowe looks like the go-to guy. He caught all three touchdown passes Saturday.
Coach Ed Orgeron said the offense and defense each had its moments Saturday in the Rebels' scrimmage. He said the defense started swiftly but the offense answered later in the scrimmage. Mississippi will close out its spring this Saturday with its annual spring game. Defensively, Peria Jerry continues to make plays from the end position. The 290-pound Jerry was a tackle last season but asked for a shot at end. Orgeron was also impressed by the play of receivers Marshay Green and Michael Hicks. They combined for 13 catches and more than 200 yards in receiving yards. They won't get to work with their trigger man until this summer. Orgeron has already anointed junior college signee Brent Schaeffer as the Rebels' starting quarterback. The former Tennessee player is finishing up his junior college course work.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
A little extracurricular activity has marred Mississippi State's spring practice. Six players have been charged with assaulting a police officer stemming from an incident at a Starkville nightclub this past weekend. Among those arrested were starting cornerback Derek Pegues and starting safety Keith Fitzhugh. Coach Sylvester Croom indefinitely suspended the six players on Tuesday. On the field, Croom couldn't be happier with the way junior quarterback Michael Henig has progressed this spring. Henig, looking more and more comfortable in the Bulldogs' West Coast offense, threw four touchdowns and no interceptions in Saturday's scrimmage.
South Carolina Gamecocks
The big sigh of relief coming out of the South Carolina camp last week was that sophomore receiver Sidney Rice's injury playing basketball wasn't any worse. Rice broke his left thumb last week and underwent successful surgery. Coach Steve Spurrier said the surgery shouldn't keep Rice from being ready for the fall, although he will miss the rest of the spring. Rice was an All-SEC selection last season and one of the most productive freshmen in the country. Without Rice, quarterback Blake Mitchell struggled in Friday's scrimmage (he was intercepted three times). In fact, the Gamecocks' defense finished with seven interceptions. The Gamecocks' spring game is scheduled for this Saturday. Spurrier announced that defensive end Shea McKeen would be allowed to return to the team, but with a three-game suspension next season. McKeen was arrested two weeks ago following an early-morning bar fight in Columbia.
It was eerily familiar to Tennessee coaches and players. The Vols went through their final full scrimmage of the spring on Saturday prior to their annual spring game this Saturday, and the offense struggled to do anything productive. The Vols failed to finish drives. Quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Jonathan Crompton each threw interceptions, and the receivers dropped catchable passes. The frustration was obvious in Ainge's voice as he talked to reporters afterward. David Cutcliffe, back as the Vols' offensive coordinator, said there's been improvement this spring on the practice field, but Cutcliffe admitted that it would have been hard to tell that on Saturday. The defense has set the tone most of the spring. Redshirt freshman linebacker Rico McCoy has been one of the stars, and the secondary should be one of the strengths of the team in 2006.
Coach Bobby Johnson did his best to be opportunistic after watching his offense struggle to get much of anything going Saturday in the Commodores' spring game. His hope is that his defense will be better next season. But down deep, he knows the growing pains without quarterback Jay Cutler will be significant. Sophomore Chris Nickson will step in for Cutler, but Nickson was limited this spring with a hamstring injury and didn't play in the spring game. Redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams worked with the first unit at quarterback and threw three interceptions Saturday. He was also victimized by dropped passes from his receivers. Defensively, the Commodores had three sacks, while cornerback Josh Allen, safety Reshard Langford and linebacker Jonathan Goff all had interceptions.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.