Spring look around the SEC
Will Gus Malzahn make an impact on the Arkansas receiving corps? Will Brandon Cox become the quarterback Tommy Tuberville believes he is? Can the Gators live up to Urban Meyer's expectations? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and more.
Alabama head coach Mike Shula has seen what John Parker Wilson can do in the spring. For the second straight year, Wilson got most of the first-team snaps at quarterback for the Tide this spring. He did the same thing a year ago with Brodie Croyle recovering from knee surgery and Marc Guillon limited with back problems. The only difference is that this time it's Wilson's job in the fall. "He just needs to go play," Shula said. "In the spring game, he was 13-of-14 at the end of the first half and came out in the second half, forced a ball and threw an interception, a young mistake. He threw another interception at the end that could have been a touchdown pass. He's going to make some plays for us and going to make some mistakes, because he's young. But I think he's going to get better with experience, and I think our football team feels comfortable with him right now."
Much of the attention surrounding first-year Arkansas assistant Gus Malzahn has centered around his taking over the offensive play-calling duties from head coach Houston Nutt. But Malzahn also will be coaching the Razorbacks' receivers, a unit that wasn't very consistent this spring. In fact, the only one consistently making plays was junior Marcus Monk, who led the Hogs with seven touchdown catches last season. Several Arkansas receivers were hurt this spring or missed time with nagging injuries. The reality is that Malzahn will take any help he can get from the incoming freshmen at receiver, including one of his former players. Damian Williams, who played for Malzahn at Springdale (Ark.) High, will get a chance to show his stuff right away. So will London Crawford of Mobile, Ala. Of course, the guy on the team with the best hands is probably Peyton Hillis, who will split his time between fullback and H-back next season.
Tommy Tuberville believed in Brandon Cox before Auburn ever played a game last season. But what really sold Tuberville on his quarterback was the way Cox rebounded from such a dismal start. Cox threw for 342 yards in the season-opening 23-14 loss to Georgia Tech, but was intercepted four times in the second half. He only threw four more interceptions the rest of the season and finished his first year as a starter with 2,324 passing yards and 15 touchdowns. "There's a lot to learn in our business at quarterback, especially in our offense," Tuberville said. "I was proud of Brandon for bouncing back and making himself a better player. That's part of being a quarterback. You have to understand that things are not going to be perfect and that you've got to take the good with the bad, learn from the bad situations and go with them. Brandon did a good job with that last year."
For all the talk about Urban Meyer's spread option offense improving during his second season at Florida, Meyer is looking for something else to top that list -- the Gators' work ethic and preparation across the board. "Our players have got to work on their own time," Meyer said. Translation: Maybe he wasn't thrilled with some of the players' work ethic last offseason. And although he's not about to circumvent the NCAA's rules about coaches' involvement in offseason workouts, he has made it clear what's expected of the Gators this summer. "There's no way to have a functional championship team without working on it year-round," Meyer said. "The players know exactly what they need to work on. For example, the quarterback has to go out there and simulate the coverages and work with the wide receivers. We can't be out there, and I agree with the rule. But if it's not being done, then don't be surprised if they're very average."
The real competition will come in the fall. That's the assessment of Georgia's quarterback situation, as head coach Mark Richt gets caught up on watching tape of his four quarterbacks from this spring. He said Joe Tereshinski heads into the fall as the No. 1 guy; Richt expected as much, as Tereshinski had the clear-cut edge in experience. The player to watch is true freshman Matthew Stafford, who was easily one of the Bulldogs' best two quarterbacks by the end of spring practice. "The first day, Stafford didn't know what he was doing. He was fumbling snaps, couldn't get the cadence right and couldn't ball fake," Richt said. "Toward the end, he looked polished and looked like he ought to be able to compete pretty well in the fall." Richt expects to narrow the race to two quarterbacks about eight days before the Bulldogs' opener. Joe Cox and Blake Barnes are the other two vying for the job.
It's difficult to pick a place to start when outlining the problems that have plagued the Wildcats during Rich Brooks' previous three seasons in Lexington. Injuries were crippling a year ago, which further depleted any semblance of depth Kentucky might have had. But assuming that most everybody recovers in full for next season, Brooks thinks this could be one of his deepest teams at Kentucky. "One of my problems in all my years here is that we've worn down in the fourth quarter because we didn't have enough depth to rest some of our players," Brooks said. "That problem will be solved, and I look for a fairly significant improvement in our defense next year." Brooks was particularly impressed by the play of sophomore defensive tackle Myron Pryor. Brooks also thinks this offensive line will be the Wildcats' most productive since he has been there. "We'll be able to rotate people like we did at the end of last year," Brooks said.
Coach Les Miles isn't really concerned about keeping everybody happy at quarterback next season. His focus is making sure the Tigers play well enough at the position to give them a chance to return to the SEC championship game. Even though JaMarcus Russell missed the entire spring while recovering from wrist surgery and a shoulder injury he suffered last season in the league championship game, he'll get first dibs on the job when practice resumes in the fall. But Miles made it clear that Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux both made cases to start this spring. "I certainly hope there is a strong thread of team that runs through every position," said Miles, playing down any threat of a quarterback controversy dividing the team. "I think you can look forward to maybe a little more competitive situation [at quarterback]. I'd be the first one to tell you I think we look at the guy who won 10 games a year ago [Russell] first. But we feel very confident that there are some other very quality quarterbacks at that position that may play and deserve to play."
On paper, the Rebels look more potent on offense, more organized and more efficient. Even without next season's starter at quarterback, Brent Schaeffer, they had a bounce about them this spring that head coach Ed Orgeron liked. It's the main reason he brought in ousted Miami assistants Dan Werner and Art Kehoe to help revive an Ole Miss offense that was dreadful last season. Werner is the Rebels' offensive coordinator and Kehoe their offensive line coach. Orgeron has known them since his days as the defensive line coach at Miami. "Dan has complete control of the offense as far as what we're going to run and the type of offense we're going to run," Orgeron said. "I trust him and thought the combination of him and Art Kehoe coming together was great." Still, the final piece of the puzzle won't be available until Schaeffer arrives this summer from junior college. "You could see the speed of the offense wasn't what we needed and what we expect from Brent," Orgeron said.
Coach Sylvester Croom spent his first two seasons in Starkville counting on freshmen he didn't know much about. But not this coming season. Croom thinks he finally has some experience in key spots. "It does help, needless to say, when you go into the season and you've got the guys you think are going to start the ball game that have gone through spring practice," Croom said. "Both of the first two years, we've been waiting on freshmen or somebody to come in the fall and the only real work they had was during preseason camp." Croom said the area where the Bulldogs probably made the most progress this spring was in the passing game. He thinks Omarr Conner, who moved from quarterback to receiver toward the end of last season, can be the go-to receiver in the fall. Croom also said it's the most comfortable quarterback Michael Henig has been in the offense. "I feel a lot better about where we are from the first two seasons," Croom said.
Now that Tyrone Nix has taken over as the Gamecocks' sole defensive coordinator for next season, coach Steve Spurrier has offered the ultimate challenge: Get his offense the ball more often. "Defensively, we don't have the size most big-time SEC teams do," Spurrier said. "I wish we did. But we're not quite as big up front as we'd like to be. But if we scheme around it and get eight or nine [defenders] up around the line of scrimmage, we're going to have a chance to stop some people. We just really need to learn to play with effort and discipline the entire game and see what happens." Spurrier remains miffed about the way the Gamecocks "pooped out" in the Independence Bowl loss to Missouri last season. Moreover, he said the South Carolina offense was near the bottom of all Division I-A teams a year ago when it came to number of offensive plays run. "We had trouble getting the other guy off the field," he said. "We've got to have more three-and-outs and give our offensive guys more chances out there."
As the Vols enter what undoubtedly will be a critical offseason for them, the most serious concerns coming out of the spring center on the offensive line. The anchor is senior left tackle Arron Sears, whom coach Phillip Fulmer said the Vols might move around from guard to tackle next season to get favorable matchups. As talented as Sears is, he has struggled with injuries the past two years. Tennessee desperately needs him to hold up in the fall. After Sears, senior David Ligon has proved he can play both center and guard, but Ligon also was sidelined for part of last season with an ankle injury. Tennessee needs tackles Eric Young and Steven Jones, guards Ramon Foster and Anthony Parker, and redshirt freshman center Josh McNeil to step up and become bona fide SEC linemen. Without a doubt, though, new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe exited the spring with more questions about his line than about any other positions.
There was already enough to do at Vanderbilt this spring when you consider that the Commodores lost the most talented quarterback in the SEC. Jay Cutler went as the 11th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft. But making matters worse for coach Bobby Johnson was that several of the key returnees on offense missed time this spring with nagging injuries. "It was kind of frustrating that we weren't having our whole offense out there the whole time," Johnson said. Chris Nickson, poised to replace Cutler at quarterback, was hampered by a sore hamstring. The Commodores were also thin at tailback. "It kept us from being very consistent on offense," Johnson said. Still, the Commodores were able to create some depth in the offensive line, and Johnson thinks they will be more athletic on defense. Vanderbilt will need to find consistency on offense early during preseason practice. The Commodores' first two games in the fall are at Michigan and at Alabama.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.