SEC West spring recap

Updated: May 12, 2006, 4:08 PM ET
By Brett Edgerton | Special to ESPN.com

Can Alabama's defense answer some lingering questions this fall? How soon will it be before decorated recruit Mitch Mustain starts at Arkansas? Will Tennessee transfer Brent Schaeffer be the answer at Ole Miss? Can Mississippi State wake up a sleeping offense? Take a look at what questions were answered in the SEC West this spring, and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Alabama Crimson Tide
2006 Schedule
9/2 Hawaii
9/9 Vanderbilt
9/16 Louisiana-Monroe
9/23 at Arkansas
9/30 at Florida
10/7 Duke
10/14 Ole Miss
10/21 at Tennessee
10/28 Florida International
11/4 Mississippi State
11/11 at LSU
11/18 Auburn

2005 overall record:
10-2
Conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kenneth Darby* (1,242 yds)
Passing: Brodie Croyle (2,499 yds)
Receiving: D.J. Hall* (676 yds)
Tackles: DeMeco Ryans (76)
Sacks: Mark Anderson (7.5)
Interceptions: Ramzee Robinson,* Simeon Castille* and Juwan Simpson* (2)

Spring Answers: Unlike when Brodie Croyle went down in the past, Alabama should be able to survive life without him this time. Like Croyle, John Park Wilson is well-respected by his teammates and already seems to have a nice connection with receivers D.J. Hall and Keith Brown. Unlike Croyle, he can get out of the pocket with rollouts and bootlegs. As long as the protection is better this year -- and it should be -- the Tide will be just fine at quarterback. … They'll be fine in the rest of the backfield, too. Everyone knows what Ken Darby can do, but Alabama has plenty of depth. Redshirt freshman Roy Upchurch is one guy to keep an eye on. … The move of Antoine Caldwell to center for the Cotton Bowl was one of the few positives that came out of the front line in 2005. Just a sophomore, Caldwell already looks like a solid anchor for a still-young O-line. … 'Bama has plenty of questions in the depleted secondary, but it appears FS Jeffrey Dukes is going to help ease the pain. He was all over the place this spring. … Placekicker Jamie Christensen was consistent in the clutch last season, but that wasn't the case all the time. He made just 12-of-21 attempts (57 percent) from beyond 29 yards. Take this for what you will, but he was booming them during the spring -- hitting everything in sight.

Fall Questions: With the D taking some severe hits, can the offense find the end zone more frequently? The team was just 85th nationally in scoring last fall (22 ppg) and failed to convert enough on third downs. Of course, many of the struggles were effected directly by the play of the young O-line, which gave up 37 sacks. So is it going to be any better? And how long will it take for stud recruit Andre Smith to step in? Depth is still an issue, but the starting five shouldn't be a problem. … Will WR Tyrone Prothro make it back? The Tide's best playmaker until a gruesome leg injury ended his season last October, Prothro is off crutches and is said to be progressing OK, but we won't know anything further until June. … The 'Bama defense that was so dominant last season lost seven starters and there's competition and lingering questions everywhere. It looks like the light switch finally came on for tackle Dominic Lee, but who eventually wins the right end job: Keith Saunders or Bobby Greenwood? Losing DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach at linebacker hurts. Terrence Jones looks ready to go, but who wins out between former walk-on Matt Collins and redshirt freshman Prince Hall? What about the three vacated spots in the secondary? Dukes looks good at free safety, but what about strong safety? And who takes the competition between junior Simeon Castille and Eric Gray at the corner spot opposite Ramzee Robinson? Should be an interesting August in Tuscaloosa.

Arkansas Razorbacks
2006 Schedule
9/2 USC
9/9 Utah State
9/16 at Vanderbilt
9/23 Alabama
10/7 at Auburn
10/14 Southeast Missouri St.
10/21 Ole Miss
10/28 Louisiana-Monroe
11/4 at South Carolina
11/11 Tennessee
11/18 at Mississippi State
11/24 LSU

2005 overall record:
4-7
Conference record:
2-6

Returning starters
Offense: 10, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Darren McFadden* (1,113 yds)
Passing: Robert Johnson* (876 yds)
Receiving: Marcus Monk* (476 yds)
Tackles: Sam Olajubutu* (118)
Sacks: Desmond Sims* (5.5)
Interceptions: Vickiel Vaughn (4)

Spring Answers: We're not here to break down the Xs and Os of new coordinator Gus Malzahn's offense (he wrote a book for that). But we are here to tell you the running backs will be prominently involved. Sure, the main premise of his offense is the shotgun, no-huddle attack, but Malzahn has also taken a good look at his personnel at a school that leads the SEC in rushing over the last five years. You can joke about his jump from Springdale High School if you must, but the man knows offense and he's not a dummy. As he put it, sophomore TBs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones simply have the "wow" factor. They were both phenomenal as freshmen and they continued to break off big run after big run this spring. Then there's the bruising and versatile Peyton Hillis and the tiny and quickly emerging Michael Smith. Word is, Malzahn plans on using his backs in multiple ways: Lining them up wide, in the slot, running reverses -- anything to get the team's best playmakers the ball in open space. On the first play of the spring game, McFadden lined up wide and caught a 35-yard pass. … The O-line is only going to get better. After being named to the preseason All-SEC team, tackle Zac Tubbs (6-6, 360) proceeded to badly injure his ankle in the preseason. One medical redshirt later and Tubbs is back in the starting lineup, which allows Jonathan Luigs to move to a more natural spot in the middle, filling the line's only vacancy. … On the defensive side, senior Desmond Sims is taking his second tour of duty with the linebacking corps. In his first two years at Arkansas, Sims contributed at all three linebacker positions before defensive coordinator Reggie Herring moved him to defensive end last spring. He led the team in sacks last season, but he's moving back to the MLB spot vacated by Pierre Brown. Part of the reason the Hogs can afford to make such a move is because of strong play from the rest of the line. Jamaal Anderson, for one, is looking pretty unstoppable. Depth is better, too. The guys on offense sure seemed to have a tough time staying on their blocks when up against end Antwain Robinson. … After JC transfer John West bombed and Rashaad Johnson didn't cut it, the Razorbacks finally found their replacement for FS Vickiel Vaughn. The revolving door stopped at junior Michael Grant, who moved over from cornerback and is a championship sprinter on the powerhouse track team.

Fall Questions: Does anyone want to quarterback this new offense? You know, besides the kid who is prepping for his high school exams at the moment? Sophomore Casey Dick was atop the depth chart going into the spring and he ended it on the same line. But what happened in between was one of the more uninspiring spring quarterback duels that we've seen in some time. Dick was simply never consistent, and he looked like he took a step back from where he was a true freshman. So what does that tell you about junior Robert Johnson? The recurring hernia problems, for which he had surgery in early May, didn't help with mobility, but Johnson simply did not seize the moment. Let's be honest -- isn't it only a matter of time before Mitch Mustain, the most decorated recruit in school history and Malzahn's quarterback at Springdale, takes over this job? For that to happen by the season opener, head coach Houston Nutt swears it would take not only a phenomenal August by Mustain, but also an atrocious one by Dick. Stay tuned. … Defending the nation's 108th passing offense last season was really quite simple: Put double-coverage on Marcus Monk and you're set. To avoid the same grounded air game, the Razorbacks must have that speed guy, that guy at flanker who opponents are forced to respect. Frankly, it's the key to the whole offense. And we're thinking it might need to be one of the true freshmen. London Crawford? Damian Williams? … Arkansas is fine with its starting linebackers, but it might not be a pretty situation if they ever need to do a crazy thing like rest during the game. When recently asked who he sees as the backups, Herring said they were probably popping zits at prom, insisting they were not in Fayetteville. And he wasn't kidding around. … There's one extra-point attempt and zero field goal attempts between the two contenders at kicker, Jeremy Davis and Stephen Arnold. We're not saying that's necessarily a bad thing. Just not terribly comforting, that's all. … Neither is losing four games by four points or less. That's what the young Hogs pulled off in 2005, which tells you they were either not that far away or not that clutch. We shall find out soon enough. The mighty USC Trojans come to town for the season opener.

Auburn Tigers
2006 Schedule
9/2 Washington State
9/9 at Mississippi State
9/16 LSU
9/23 Buffalo
9/28 at South Carolina
10/7 Arkansas
10/14 Florida
10/21 Tulane
10/28 at Ole Miss
11/4 Arkansas State
11/11 Georgia
11/18 at Alabama

2005 overall record:
9-3
Conference record:
7-1

Returning starters
Offense: 5, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kenny Irons* (1,293 yds)
Passing: Brandon Cox* (2,324 yds)
Receiving: Devin Aromashodu (494 yds)
Tackles: Will Herring* (69)
Sacks: Stanley McClover (8)
Interceptions: Several players tied with 1

Spring Answers: Looks like Auburn's run of coordinator gems simply has no end. D-coordinator David Gibbs was scooped up by the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Tigers quickly grabbed Miami Dolphins assistant Will Muschamp, the highly respected former coordinator from the 2003 national championship LSU team. The defense might be even more aggressive under a man the players love and are already dubbing "the mad scientist." … To help replace the Williams tandem at linebacker (Travis and Antarrious), three-year starter Will Herring is moving up from safety and all indications pointed to a seamless transition in the spring. In fact, the 6-2, 220-pound Herring is practically a giant now that he's a part of the program's traditionally small linebacker corps. … Remember all the talk about Auburn rolling Wisconsin right out of the Capital One Bowl last year? Well, the Badgers didn't get the memo. And apparently the Tigers read it from start to finish. A season that was progressing so well ended on a sour note as Auburn simply didn't seem tough enough to beat a motivated Wisconsin group. Tommy Tuberville felt like his team didn't play tough enough in any of its losses and demanded a response. The result was the most intense spring session of his tenure. Perhaps the team was motivated by the Capital One Bowl field pass strength coach Kevin Yoxall wore around practice and in the weight room.

Fall Questions: How big are the losses of offensive tackles Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick? That's to be determined. We do know, however, how big the replacement candidates are. Try 6-4, 300-pound Leon Hart; 6-4, 325 Jonathan Palmer; and 6-8, 313 King Dunlap. The trio does have some experience -- and plenty of potential -- but Irons might need to run between the tackles more for at least a little while. … Now that both Ben Obomanu and Devin Aromashodu have completed their 11 years of eligibility at wide receiver (not to mention Anthony Mix), the Tigers have some questions to answer. Can Courtney Taylor re-emerge as the Courtney Taylor of 2004, when he led the team in receiving yards? Can players with very little experience such as Prechae Rodriguez and Robert Dunn step into the spotlight of the starting lineup? … Auburn lost two starters on the interior of the D-line and is banking on a bulked up Chris Browder to slide over from end to help out. What about the other spot, though? Josh Thompson, Pat Sims, Sen'Derrick Marks and Tez Doolittle are all in the mix. … Speaking of battles, the Tigers might have one on their hands between linebackers Tray Blackmon and Merrill Johnson. With Johnson out with an ankle injury, Blackmon tore things up during the spring and has positioned himself well for an August competition. Seniors Karibi Dede and Kevin Sears will fight it out for another starting spot. All four will be on the field plenty, though.

LSU Tigers
2006 Schedule
9/2 UL-Lafayette
9/9 Arizona
9/16 at Auburn
9/23 Tulane
9/30 Mississippi State
10/7 at Florida
10/14 Kentucky
10/21 Fresno St.
11/4 at Tennessee
11/11 Alabama
11/18 Ole Miss
11/24 at Arkansas

2005 overall record:
11-2
Conference record:
7-1

Returning starters
Offense: 5, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Joseph Addai (911 yds)
Passing: JaMarcus Russell* (2,443 yds)
Receiving: Dwayne Bowe* (710 yds)
Tackles: Cameron Vaughn (83)
Sacks: Melvin Oliver (9)
Interceptions: LaRon Landry* (3)

Spring Answers: With both Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent healing from torn ACLs, Jacob Hester proved the Tigers will go at least three deep in the backfield for what seems like about the ninth straight year. LSU got a sneak peak at what the stocky Hester could do when he rushed for 70 yards against Miami in the Peach Bowl. The part-time fullback runs hard, has good hands and is a solid blocker. And it helps that the coaches really like the progress made at fullback by converted linebacker Quinn Johnson. … At just 5-5 and 165 pounds, newcomer Trindon Holliday is easy to miss. And when he lines up in the slot and the Tigers get him the ball five or six times a game this fall, he's going to make sure people miss. The freshman can flat out fly and was making moves this spring that haven't been seen in Baton Rouge in quite some time. He'll also take over Skyler Green's old job as primary returner. Head coach Les Miles thinks Holliday might even be faster than his predecessor. … The Tigers needed some players to emerge on a defensive line that lost three starters. Junior Glenn Dorsey heeded the call. Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams left a gaping hole in the middle, but the coaches feel like Dorsey has what it takes to step right in. … Same goes for LB Darry Beckwith, one of the few true freshmen who saw some playing time last fall. Beckwith has played well enough to earn a starting job.

Fall Questions: JaMarcus Russell is the starter at quarterback -- let's get that much straight. The junior missed the spring recovering from surgeries on his wrist and non-throwing shoulder, but Miles really likes him and insists he's the guy. Nevertheless, with so much talent on hand, it's tempting to wonder what will happen if Russell struggles in August or early in the season. Matt Flynn was an impressive replacement in the bowl rout of Miami and Ryan Perrilloux is not far removed from being the can't-miss recruit who spurned Texas at the last minute. Both can run better than Russell, both split time with the first-team during the spring and both are clamoring to get their chance. … LSU has to be concerned with losing three starters from the O-line. Not only was Rudy Niswanger, Nate Livings and All-American Andrew Whitworth a talented trio on the field, but they also leave behind a leadership void. Brian Johnson is moving from tackle to guard, while Brett Helms will slide from guard to center. It's all a bit unstable and the team's offseason injury bug didn't help the situation. All in all, LSU had a dozen key players miss spring practice. … Dorsey locked up one spot at defensive tackle, but the other is up for grabs. Will it be Charles Alexander or Marlon Favorite? Or might it be Ricky Jean-Francois, a redshirt freshman also competing at the end spot? … The good news about the schedule? The Bayou Bengals play a record eight games in Baton Rouge. The bad news? LSU's four road trips are to Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida. Have fun with that.

Mississippi Rebels
2006 Schedule
9/2 Memphis
9/9 at Missouri
9/16 at Kentucky
9/23 Wake Forest
9/30 Georgia
10/7 Vanderbilt
10/14 at Alabama
10/21 at Arkansas
10/28 Auburn
11/4 Northwestern State
11/18 at LSU
11/25 Mississippi State

2005 overall record:
3-8
Conference record:
1-7

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Mico McSwain* (612 yds)
Passing: Michael Spurlock (1,703 yds)
Receiving: Mike Espy (543 yds)
Tackles: Patrick Willis* (128)
Sacks: Willis*, Garry Pack* and McKinley Boykin (3)
Interceptions: Several players tied with 1

Spring Answers: One answer came quickly. It's not often you see someone named the starter before the coaches even see him take a snap in practice, but that's how much the Ole Miss coaches think of Tennessee transfer Brent Schaeffer, who split time with Erik Ainge in 2004 before getting hurt. Walk-on Seth Adams came out of nowhere this spring to secure the No. 2 spot, but the offense is squarely in the hands of Schaeffer, who is coming off a one-year stop at the College of Sequoias. … Only one team in the country was worse on the ground last season than the Rebs, who averaged an embarrassing 73 yards per game. At the very least, don't be surprised if that average doubles in 2006. Not only can Schaeffer run, but Ole Miss also added BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a transfer from Indiana who had the staff drooling on the practice field last fall. He's a punishing back and a 1,000-yard runner waiting to happen, which will allow the team to move Mico McSwain to receiver on occasion. Those who fell asleep watching the Rebel offense last season will want to tune in if those three are on the field at the same time. … Robert Lane, a can't-miss QB recruit at one time, has moved to a tight end -- and it's perfect timing. New offensive coordinator Dan Werner arrives from Miami and his offense is always TE-friendly. Lane is a physical specimen and might have finally found his place. … The same can be said for Peria Jerry, who moved to defensive end and won the most improved defensive player award in the spring. He's the kind of intense player fiery head coach Ed Orgeron absolutely loves.

Fall Questions: Rebel fans, before you start having grand visions of exploding scoreboards, keep in mind the situations at receiver and on the O-line. Early enrollee Marshay Green looks impressive and McSwain will help, but the team lost its top four receivers and the leftovers are extremely green. In the trenches, longtime Miami O-line coach Art Kehoe is shaking things up by switching people around just about every day of the spring. He even put an ad in the school paper seeking large individuals who could walk on. What does that tell you? It tells us Kehoe has one of the biggest challenges of his career. … Ole Miss signed several high-profile recruits on the defensive side. How long will it be before they're thrown into the fire? For example, will Parade All-American Jerrell Powe start from Day 1 on a defensive line that lost every starter? … It was pretty much a three-way disaster at placekicker last season as not one of the team's trio of kickers made more than half their field goal attempts. You better believe that was part of the reason the Rebels only scored 13 points a game. Matt Hinkle, Robert Bass and Will Moseley all return, but if there's no improvement shown in August, it might be up to a true freshman in the fall.

Mississippi State Bulldogs
2006 Schedule
8/31 South Carolina
9/9 Auburn
9/16 Tulane
9/23 at UAB
9/30 at LSU
10/7 West Virginia
10/14 Jacksonville State
10/21 at Georgia
10/28 Kentucky
11/4 at Alabama
11/18 Arkansas
11/25 at Ole Miss

2005 overall record:
3-8
Conference record:
1-7

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jerious Norwood (1,136 yds)
Passing: Omarr Conner* (903 yds)
Receiving: Will Prosser* (286 yds)
Tackles: Quinton Culberson* (78)
Sacks: Willie Evans (15)
Interceptions: Jeramie Johnson* (4)

Spring Answers: It looks like QB Michael Henig finally might be comfortable in the West Coast offense. No one is handing him all-conference honors or anything, but the sophomore has made plenty of strides by playing well in all three scrimmages. Henig gained the most improved offensive player award during the spring. He won't run much, but he can read defenses quicker now and will look to continue the momentum that began with a solid outing in the thrashing of archrival Ole Miss. … Even though he's probably the fastest player on the team, WR Tyler Threadgill had a penchant for dropping passes and wasn't even listed on the pre-spring depth chart. He was a little-used backup who mainly stuck to special teams. But after a "wait, who is that again?" spring, Threadgill has at least for now positioned himself at the top of the depth chart. Maybe all that speed will finally get put to good use. … Confidence can be a tricky thing in big-time college football. Even the most confident teams will get beat if there's an overwhelming gap in talent. Now that head coach Sylvester Croom has many of his players in place, he feels that gap is closing -- and more importantly, so do the players. "We'll go into this year feeling like we can play with anybody on our schedule and have a chance to win," Croom told the press at the conclusion of spring practice. "That will be the first time since we've been here that has occurred."

Fall Questions: Are they confident enough to find the end zone this year? In 2005, the Bullies were among the nation's five worst teams in both scoring (13.9 ppg) and total offense (276 ypg). Before the Egg Bowl, State's highest point total in an SEC game was a whopping 10. So will anything be different this year? Can sophomore Brandon Thornton, who sat out the spring with an injury, replace the production of Jerious Norwood? Can the offensive line, a problem for quite a few years now, continue the positive signs it showed this spring? Converted QB Omarr Conner can be a solid possession guy at receiver, but can anyone truly stretch the field? The team's leading receiver last year tallied a mere 286 yards. Even option teams like Rice and Navy had receivers go for more than that. … DE Willie Evans left and he took half the team's sacks with him (15 out of 30, to be exact). Who makes up for that departure? Ends Titus Brown and Michael Heard think they are just as good and Avery "Caveman" Hannibal is also pushing for time. … MSU has to be better in the return game, both when it has the ball and when it doesn't. When the Bulldogs were kicking it, coverage was often spotty at best. When they were being kicked to, they would often either fumble or make a goofy decision. Time to get serious. State doesn't have enough talent to be giving away games on special teams.

Brett Edgerton is a researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at Brett.M.Edgerton.-ND@espn.com.

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