Spring look around the SEC
With spring practice winding down, our SEC notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Will Arkansas adjust to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's fast-break offense? Will Florida find some answers on the offensive line? Has South Carolina found another weapon on offense? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Alabama Crimson Tide
While John Parker Wilson might have some growing pains as Alabama's new starting quarterback, it appears that he'll have some playmakers at receiver to help ease that transition. D.J. Hall had a big spring practice. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior showed the kind of explosiveness the Crimson Tide coaches have been wanting to see since he arrived on campus. Junior Keith Brown missed the last part of spring practice with a toe injury but was more consistent catching the ball. Alabama will need both Hall and Brown to be stalwarts next fall, especially with no guarantees that Tyrone Prothro will be back from his broken leg. Junior wideout Matt Caddell also showed some promise this spring.
First-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is finding plenty of ways to use all his running backs in his fast-break offense. The Razorbacks have gotten the ball to tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones a number of ways this spring, from screen passes to swing passes to sweeps. McFadden and Jones, both sophomores, combined for 1,739 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last season. They're going through their first spring practice. The other thing Malzahn has done this spring is define Peyton Hillis' role with greater clarity. The 6-2, 230-pound Hillis was used more as a blocking back a year ago. But in Arkansas' first spring scrimmage, he rushed four times for 55 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 44 yards and a touchdown.
Despite the heavy personnel losses on defense, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said it wouldn't be any different next season on the Plains. The Tigers will either sink or swim with their defense. "We're always going to rely on our defense," Tuberville said. "If you can't play defense, you can't win in this league. We've got more speed than we've ever had, but we've also got more question marks. We're not as big on defense, but we've got a lot of guys who can run." The speed was evident last month in the Tigers' spring game. They sacked the Auburn quarterbacks eight times and held the first-team offense to 14 yards on 21 carries. With his brother, All-SEC tailback Kenny Irons, sitting out the spring game, senior cornerback David Irons was one of the stars with five tackles and an acrobatic interception of a Brandon Cox pass on a deep ball.
Florida's offensive line has taken its lumps this spring, but coach Urban Meyer isn't panicking. The Gators are replacing four starters from last season. Meyer said the only thing this group lacks is experience. His biggest concern is depth -- right now, he said the Gators have none up front. Junior Drew Miller seems to be settling in at right tackle after moving from guard. The left tackle is junior Phil Trautwein, although the Gators could end up flopping Miller and Trautwein. Steve Rissler started the final seven games last season at right guard, but he's shifted to center. Sophomore Jim Tartt is back at guard after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in 2005, and redshirt freshman Ronnie Wilson is the likely starter at the other guard spot.
The Bulldogs will go into preseason practice with Joe Tereshinski as their tentative No. 1 quarterback. How it all plays out once practice resumes in August remains to be seen, but none of the other three quarterback candidates did enough this spring to unseat Tereshinski. The spring game on Saturday had its ups and downs for each quarterback. Blake Barnes didn't play because of a broken thumb. Freshman Matthew Stafford started quickly with a 64-yard touchdown pass to Mikey Henderson on his first pass attempt, but Stafford completed just four more passes for 38 yards the rest of the way. Joe Cox suffered through a nightmarish four-interception performance, while Tereshinski was picked off twice. Coach Mark Richt said one bad performance by Cox wouldn't remove him from the race.
The first few weeks of Kentucky's spring practice have been splashed with aggressive defense, and that was again the case Saturday in the Wildcats' first full scrimmage of the spring. Coach Rich Brooks said the defense dominated, and it was a particularly tough day for quarterbacks Curtis Pulley and Andreé Woodson in the cold, windy conditions. All in all, Brooks thinks his defense is showing signs of improvement, but he's also not getting carried away. He wants to see it against another SEC offense. His concern right now is that more receivers aren't stepping up and making plays on offense. The Wildcats have tried some split-back sets, with Rafael Little and Tony Dixon in the same backfield, although the running game wasn't very effective in the scrimmage. Little will miss the rest of the spring after dislocating a bone in his right wrist during Monday's practice.
LSU's spring practice ended with one overriding question: How healthy will the Tigers be in the fall? Nearly 12 key players sat out the spring while recovering from various injuries or surgeries. One of those was quarterback JaMarcus Russell, whom coach Les Miles says will be ready after coming off a non-throwing shoulder separation last season and wrist surgery during the offseason. Matt Flynn looked more than capable in Russell's spot this spring; it will be interesting to see how Miles handles his quarterback situation. The jury remains out on how ready to play LSU's running backs will be in the fall, including Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent. It was a busy and successful spring for Jacob Hester, who moved from fullback to tailback. In addition to getting everyone well, the Tigers still have to settle on what their starting offensive line will look like in 2006. One change that was made toward the end of spring was Brian Johnson moving from tackle to guard.
Much of the chatter this spring in Oxford centered around new offensive coordinator Dan Werner's daunting task of trying to breathe some life into the Mississippi offense, which ranked near the bottom of most Division I-A statistical categories last season. The Rebels, who will plug in former Tennessee player Brent Schaeffer at quarterback when he arrives this summer from junior college, seemed to find a few playmakers this spring. Running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Mico McSwain and receiver Marshay Green made their presence felt. But in the spring game on Saturday, it was all defense. The Rebels' first-team offense was held to 178 total yards and only 31 rushing yards, while also turning it over three times. One of those fumbles was returned 55 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Charles Clark. Quarterback Seth Adams was sacked four times.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State closed out its spring on Saturday with its annual Maroon and White scrimmage, and coach Sylvester Croom was pleased on two fronts. His Bulldogs underwent what he called an extremely physical spring filled with contact and didn't get anybody hurt. What's more, he exits this spring thinking his team is as equipped as it's been since Croom arrived to compete in the SEC. The Bulldogs were 6-16 in Croom's first two seasons. The only offensive touchdown of the spring game was a 6-yard pass from Michael Henig to Tyler Threadgill, who emerged this spring after playing sparingly his first two seasons. The game's other touchdown came on a 50-yard interception return by cornerback Anthony Johnson.
South Carolina Gamecocks
It's obvious from the spring that coach Steve Spurrier will have another offensive weapon at his disposal next fall. Tailback Cory Boyd showed off the kind of speed the Gamecocks lacked last season with a 71-yard touchdown run in Saturday's spring game. Boyd was suspended last season for violation of athletics department policy. Had he played, Spurrier said he would have made a big difference. The Gamecocks didn't have a breakaway threat last season in the backfield. Boyd also demonstrated this spring that he can catch the ball out of the backfield. With All-SEC receiver Sidney Rice returning, the Gamecocks appear to have the skill players on offense to compete for the East crown in 2006. The question will be how well they hold up on the offensive line.
Coach Phillip Fulmer wasn't making any bold predictions coming out of Tennessee's spring game on Saturday, but he does think the 2006 Vols will be fundamentally better, more disciplined and more focused on the practice field. He hopes it all adds up to a run at the Eastern Division title in the fall. Many of the Vols' problems during last season's 5-6 debacle centered around the quarterback play. Erik Ainge, working under David Cutcliffe this spring, seemed to regain his confidence. He looked comfortable throwing the ball and in command of what the Vols were doing. He was 14-of-22 for 210 yards in the spring game and threw touchdown passes of 70 and 27 yards to junior receiver Robert Meachem, who provided the after-the-catch flair Tennessee desperately lacked last season.
The loss of quarterback Jay Cutler is sure to put a damper on Vanderbilt's passing game. But defending the pass next season might be just as much of a challenge. The Commodores ended spring practice last week with questions remaining in their secondary. They were 11th in the SEC last season in pass defense and gave up 17 touchdown passes. Gone from that unit, too, is dependable cornerback Andrew Pace. Among those vying to step in at cornerback are sophomores Josh Allen and Jared Fagan. They combined for eight starts last fall. Redshirt freshmen Darlron Spead and Joel Caldwell also have pushed their way into the rotation this spring. Redshirt freshman Ryan Hamilton is pushing senior Ben Koger for the starting free safety spot. One way or the other, the Commodores could be extremely young in the secondary.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.