Spring look around the SEC

What is Nick Saban doing to turn around the Crimson Tide? Who will be the key defensive playmakers for the Gators in 2007? How will LSU's offense change next season? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama aimed high and scored high back in January in luring away Nick Saban from the Miami Dolphins to replace the ousted Mike Shula. Saban, embarking on his second tour through the SEC after leading LSU to a national championship in 2003, comes with a $4 million salary and the kind of expectations that go along with that kind of price tag. Patience won't be oozing over in Tide Land. One of Saban's biggest priorities after taking the job was getting the strength and conditioning program up and running the way he wants it. He's hammered away about the importance of discipline and conditioning, which is fitting. Under Shula, Alabama never came back to win a game in which it was trailing entering the fourth quarter.

Alabama begins spring practice on March 24 and will hold its annual A-Day spring game on April 21. John Parker Wilson returns at quarterback, as well as his top two receivers, Keith Brown and DJ Hall. Look for a battle this spring at running back. Among the holdovers are Jimmy Johns, Roy Upchurch and Ali Sharrief. Nobody has really distinguished himself as the starter. Terry Grant, who redshirted last season, could also be a factor along with a handful of newcomers. The offensive line was average to poor last season, but should be better with all five starters returning. Saban is talking about going to a 3-4 alignment on defense. Either way, the Tide have to find a pass rush. They were last in the SEC a year ago with only 13 sacks. Identifying the starting linebackers will also be key this spring; middle linebacker Prince Hall is coming off a solid freshman season.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Given the tumultuous offseason, Arkansas' coaches and players will probably be thrilled just to be back on the practice field again when the spring season starts for the Razorbacks on March 13. Their spring game is scheduled for April 14. Despite 10 wins in 2006, it hasn't been smooth sailing for the Hogs. Heralded quarterback Mitch Mustain is leaving the program after being given his release, and his high school teammate, Damian Williams, has already bolted. Their coach at Springdale (Ark.) High, Gus Malzhan, wasn't too far behind. After one year at Arkansas as the offensive coordinator, he left for Tulsa to become assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. Malzhan never felt like he was allowed to open up the offense at Arkansas the way he was promised and didn't wait around for a second year to see if things changed. David Lee, who was most recently with the Dallas Cowboys, now takes his shot at reviving what was a dismal passing game last season. He'll use the spring to put in a pro-style passing game with more play-action and different pass routes.

With Mustain on his way out, Casey Dick is the only experienced quarterback. Robert Johnson plans to stay at receiver and will practice there this spring. It's hard to blame Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt too much for not wanting to sling it all over the field last season. Nobody ran the ball more effectively than the Hogs. Tailback Darren McFadden is the most dynamic offensive weapon in the league, and Felix Jones isn't far behind. The Razorbacks have to replace three key cogs on what many considered to be the best offensive line in the league a year ago. And on defense, end Jamaal Anderson and cornerback Chris Houston will both be difficult to replace. Each has a chance to go in the first round of this year's NFL draft.

Auburn Tigers

The spring began on Feb. 27 for Auburn, and head coach Tommy Tuberville immediately zeroed in on one of his first orders of business -- finding a starting tailback. Kenny Irons' departure means a handful of backs will be vying for carries. Brad Lester has taken the early lead this spring, but Ben Tate will also make a push after closing last season with an impressive performance against Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. Tate was filling in for the suspended Lester, who still has to prove he's an every-down back. He looked the part in Saturday's scrimmage with 80 yards rushing. Redshirt freshman Mario Fannin wasn't far behind with 56 yards on 11 carries.

It's likely that the Tigers will use several running backs next season, especially now that Tristan Davis has moved back full time to offense. He played safety and returned kicks last season. The Tigers finished 11-2 in 2006, but their offense was hit-and-miss. They finished eighth in the SEC in scoring offense and ninth in total offense. Finding a few more big plays will be important, but Brandon Cox should be a year better and a year wiser. Equally important, he should be healthier. Cox battled injuries last season, but Tuberville thinks he's looked better this spring moving around and making plays. Cox threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith in last Saturday's scrimmage. The other touchdown by the offense came on redshirt freshman Tim Hawthorne's 38-yard catch. The Tigers hope Hawthorne can be a big-play performer. The defensive staff liked what it saw from the young linebackers in Saturday's scrimmage. Chris Evans had 11 tackles after stepping in for Merrill Johnson, who left early with a calf injury.

Florida Gators

How does Urban Meyer top last season, especially with his starting defense depleted? It won't be easy, but the Gators' recruiting has been strong enough over the last few years that they should again be right at the top when it comes to Eastern Division contenders. Defending their national championship, though, is probably a bit much to ask. Florida opens spring practice on March 21, and this will be Tim Tebow's chance to settle in as the every-down quarterback. He was a specialty player last season, and Meyer used him masterfully in the old single wing set. But Tebow still has to prove that he can beat SEC defenses throwing the ball. He's got one of the best weapons in the league to throw to in Percy Harvin, and the spring will be a good time for Meyer to come up with a few more ways to get Harvin the ball.

Just about all the key playmakers on defense are gone, which means guys like middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, safety Dorian Munroe and tackles Clint McMillan and Javier Estopinan have some big shoes to fill. Others have will have to tweak their roles. Linebacker Dustin Doe was a great special-teams player last season. The Gators will need him to grow up quickly at linebacker next season, as well as A.J. Jones, who missed all of last season after being injured in the preseason. The only two starters back from a year ago are strong safety Tony Joiner and end Derrick Harvey. The Gators have nine early enrollees from their 2007 signing class on campus and ready to go through spring practice. That's the most ever at Florida.

Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia opened its spring practice on Monday with very few questions concerning the quarterback situation. What a difference a year makes. That's all anybody wanted to talk about this time a year ago. Matthew Stafford is firmly entrenched as the Bulldogs' starter; he went through the normal ups and downs of being a true freshman starter in the SEC last season, but rebounded to play his best football in the last three games of the season. He looked the part of one of the country's most sought-after prospects in the Bulldogs' season-ending wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. That helped the ease sting of losses to both Kentucky and Vanderbilt, which had the Red and Black Nation seeing red.

The pressing question now for the Bulldogs as they point toward their April 7 spring game is who will protect Stafford. Three starters from the offensive line are gone, as well as the top backup. Fernando Velasco and Chester Adams return at guard. Josh Davis and Vince Vance enter the spring No. 1 at the tackle spots, with Chris Davis stepping in at center. The Bulldogs still need to find some proven playmakers at receiver. Right now, there are a bunch of guys with potential and nice credentials, but nobody who's done it on a consistent basis. The return of Sean Bailey, who sat out last season after injuring his knee, should help. The Georgia coaches are eager to get a look at tailback Knowshon Moreno, who redshirted last season and will push for a starting job. On defense, Marcus Howard, Rod Battle and junior college newcomer Jarius Wynn are the front-runners to replace the end tandem of Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson. One of the breakout candidates for next season is tackle Kade Weston. It's also a big spring for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. The Bulldogs lost three senior linebackers. The guy to watch in the secondary is safety C.J. Byrd, who has the ability to be the next great one for the Bulldogs.

Kentucky Wildcats

Rich Brooks promised last summer that Kentucky was deeper, more talented and better than at any point since he arrived in Lexington in 2003. Turns out he was right. The Wildcats finished 8-5 last season, including a 28-20 victory over Clemson in the Music City Bowl. It was their first bowl trip since 1999 and their first bowl victory since 1984. Their eight victories came close to matching the nine wins they managed under Brooks in the previous three seasons combined. One question Brooks won't have to answer this spring is whether or not his job is on the line. He was rewarded with a new four-year contract in February worth $1 million per year. Brooks had been earning $725,000 in the first four years of his original five-year deal. He was also able to get his assistants raises, meaning there should be more than a few happy faces in the Bluegrass this spring.

The Wildcats open spring practice on March 28 and will play their spring game on April 21. If the Wildcats are going to continue their momentum from a year ago, they have to find a way to stop people defensively. Brooks promoted defensive backs coach Steve Brown to defensive coordinator after Mike Archer left. Kentucky was ranked next to last nationally last season in total defense, but saved its two best efforts for the final two games against Tennessee and Clemson. As many as eight defensive starters are back, including the top five tacklers. Defensive end Ricky Lumpkin will be one to watch this spring. He redshirted last season, but the coaches love his total package. All the key figures are back on offense as well, including the SEC's top pass-and-catch tandem. Quarterback Andre' Woodson was the league's most improved player last season. He passed for 3,515 yards and 31 touchdowns, while being intercepted only seven times. Keenan Burton caught 77 passes for 1,036 yards and had 12 touchdown catches.

LSU Tigers

LSU opened spring practice on Feb. 26, and first-year offensive coordinator Gary Crowton didn't waste any time putting his stamp on the offense. The Tigers, who capped their 11-2 season in 2006 with a 41-14 drubbing of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, have a new look in more ways than one. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell is gone and will likely be the first pick in the NFL draft. Two of his top targets, Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis, are also headed to the NFL. Crowton, who was hired after Jimbo Fisher went to Florida State, is putting in more of a quick passing game and wants to call more plays where the quarterback can run. Don't be surprised if you see a little option out of the Tigers next season, either, as well as more runs out of the shotgun formation. Matt Flynn is No. 1 right now at quarterback. He was the hero of the Peach Bowl rout of Miami two years ago when Russell was injured. Ryan Perrilloux heads into his third year in the program after coming to LSU as the No. 1 prospect in the country. If he can't unseat Flynn, it will be interesting to see if he hangs around for another season.

Some felt head coach Les Miles was too stubborn about trying to run the ball last season, especially with the potency of the Tigers' passing game. Crowton has made it clear that he, too, will place a heavy emphasis on the running game, but look for more two-back sets and formations that feature two tight ends. Crowton, the offensive coordinator at Oregon before coming to LSU, was known for his innovative offenses when he was the head coach at Louisiana Tech and Brigham Young. Those teams threw the ball all over the field. Crowton isn't the only new offensive assistant the Tigers are getting used to this spring. Greg Studrawa steps in as the offensive line coach and D.J. McCarthy as the receivers coach. One of the best battles this spring should be at tailback. Keiland Williams ended last season as the starter, and Charles Scott and Jacob Hester also return. The newcomer to watch is Richard Murphy, who redshirted last season. The Tigers' spring game is scheduled for March 31.

Mississippi Rebels

Brent Schaeffer was named Mississippi's starting quarterback before he ever made it to campus last year. In retrospect, Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron probably put too many eggs in Schaeffer's basket. The former Tennessee quarterback, after putting up outrageous numbers in junior college in 2005, looked lost for much of last season. So when the Rebels opened spring practice last week, Orgeron declared the quarterback race open. Schaeffer is still the favorite to win the job, and he should be better and more consistent now that he's been in the system for a year. Also, this is his first spring with the Rebels. But if he shows shades this spring of the turnover problems that plagued him last season, Seth Adams would be next in line. Adams replaced Schaeffer in the second half in both the LSU and Mississippi State games last season. Like Schaeffer, Adams is going to be a senior and isn't interested in spending his final season on the bench.

The best news for Orgeron, who's 7-16 his first two seasons at Ole Miss, is that he finally has some quarterback depth. He's also giving practice snaps this spring to Michael Herrick and Cliff Davis. Jevan Snead, who transferred in from Texas, is also getting some quarterback work, although he won't be eligible until the 2008 season. The Rebels were last in the SEC last season in passing offense, but have 10 starters returning. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis returns after rushing for 1,000 yards in 2006. Finding some linebackers this spring will also be paramount now that Patrick Willis and Rory Johnson are gone, although Orgeron hasn't divulged many of the candidates. He's closed practices this spring and has been the only one available to talk to the media after practices. The Rebels will hold their spring game on April 7.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

To this point, it's been about changing attitudes and changing the culture at Mississippi State. But in Year 4 for Sylvester Croom, it probably needs to be more about changing the record. Croom inherited a probation-ridden mess when he took over in Starkville in 2004. The Bulldogs have won three games each of his first three seasons. That figure needs to go up next season, or he's going to start feeling some serious heat. Mississippi State athletics director Larry Templeton has said that Croom will have all the time he ever needs to turn the program around. The only problem with that is Templeton is on his way out.

The Bulldogs opened spring practice on Feb. 26, and not surprisingly, the focus has been on trying to establish more consistency offensively. They were 11th in the SEC last season in both scoring offense and total offense and struggled to finish drives. Quarterback Michael Henig returns after breaking his collarbone twice in 2006. He's about 15 pounds heavier and hoping all of his bad luck is behind him. Henig has to prove he can stay healthy, and he's had a few problems this spring with back spasms. Junior college newcomer Josh Riddle enrolled in January and is going through spring practice. He's worked with the first unit when Henig has been sidelined. The quarterback position is new to Riddle, who didn't start playing quarterback until his senior year of high school. Riddle isn't the only junior college newcomer to make waves during the first week of spring workouts. Dominic Douglas is pushing for a starting spot at strongside linebacker, and Jessie Bowman has looked good at defensive tackle. The Bulldogs were depleted up front defensively and can use all the help they can get there. Mississippi State will conclude spring practice on March 31 with its spring game.

South Carolina Gamecocks

The big blow in the offseason for the Gamecocks was All-SEC receiver Sidney Rice electing to go pro. With him back next season, the Gamecocks would have been as good a pick as any to win the Eastern Division. South Carolina fans shouldn't worry too much, though. The Head Ball Coach is pretty good when it comes to drawing up ball plays on offense. Steve Spurrier, entering his third season at South Carolina, hopes he finally has a defense that will allow the Gamecocks to make a serious run in the East. Coming off an 8-5 year last season, they open spring practice on March 20 and play their spring game on April. 14.

Ten defensive starters return from the team that outlasted Houston 44-36 in the Liberty Bowl. Tackle Marque Hall and end Terrence Campbell are still recovering from season-ending knee surgeries and won't practice much this spring. Several newcomers will get a look up front, including end Travian Robertson. Dustin Lindsey also returns after being academically ineligible last season. He was the starting middle linebacker for most of the second half of the 2005 season, but will likely shift outside with Jasper Brinkley now manning the middle. Brinkley had 14.5 tackles for loss last year. Casper Brinkley, Jasper's twin brother, is making the move from defensive end and could be the starter at strongside linebacker. Quarterback Blake Mitchell, a fifth-year senior, rebounded from an otherwise forgettable season last year with his best work in the last four and a half games. Starting with the second half of the Arkansas game when he replaced Syvelle Newton, Mitchell completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 1,469 yards and 10 touchdowns over the next 18 quarters. Kenny McKinley is the favorite to replace Rice as Mitchell's go-to receiver. The Gamecocks also need to settle at least three spots on the offensive line, while Cory Boyd returns as one of the league's most versatile running backs. He rushed for 823 yards and also caught 35 passes.

Tennessee Volunteers

The Vols were close to making a solid season one to remember in 2006, but they couldn't finish games at home against Florida or LSU. They opened spring practice on Feb. 22 with those games and the Outback Bowl disappointment to Penn State still fresh in their minds. There's work to do on both lines of scrimmage. On offense, Chris Scott will get the first crack at replacing Arron Sears at left tackle. Jacques McClendon played some last season as a true freshman. He's penciled in as one of the starters at guard next season. The situation is even more dire on defense. The Vols are lacking depth, and they also have to prove they can stop the run and rush the passer. They didn't do either very well a year ago. Tackle J.T. Mapu should be considerably better after simply surviving last season. He was returning after a two-year Mormon mission and wasn't in football shape.

Offensively, Erik Ainge is back after a superb junior season. Had he not injured his ankle against South Carolina, who knows what might have happened. The Vols are utilizing a no-huddle offense this spring, although it's been difficult to tell how effective it's been. Most of the guys who will probably be playing receiver for Tennessee next season aren't here yet. Junior college signee Kenny O'Neal and prep school signee Brent Vinson won't arrive until the summer. Of the guys on campus right now, Quintin Hancock and Austin Rogers have shown the most promise. The Vols scrimmaged last Saturday, and junior tailback Arian Foster had a big day. LaMarcus Coker is still their most explosive runner, but Foster is determined to regain the form he showed at the end of the 2005 season. Tailback Montario Hardesty isn't going through spring practice because of offseason knee surgery. The Vols will wrap up the spring on March 31 with their Orange and White spring game.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt proved last season that there was life after Jay Cutler. The Commodores finished 4-8, and it could have been much better. Bobby Johnson, in his fifth season as Vanderbilt's head coach, turned in perhaps his best coaching job yet at a place where football and wins simply don't mix. The Commodores won at Georgia and lost by a touchdown or less to Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi. The SEC's perennial punching bag was anything but an easy out in 2006. The Commodores open spring practice on March 13 hoping to build on last season's progress. Their spring game is scheduled for March 31.

Junior Chris Nickson developed into one of the league's best multidimensional quarterbacks last season. He led Vanderbilt in rushing with 694 yards and also threw for 2,085 yards. One of his priorities this spring will be eliminating some of the mistakes that plagued him a year ago. There could be a battle at running back this spring. Jeff Jennings is coming back from knee surgery after missing all of 2006, while Cassen Jackson-Garrison is the returning starter. Some of the best news for the Commodores this offseason was leading tackler Jonathan Goff deciding to stay in school after taking a look at the NFL draft. Vanderbilt needs to fill the outside linebacker spot vacated by Kevin Joyce's departure. Patrick Benoist played a lot there last season before fracturing his foot. The Commodores are also hoping for more consistency at cornerback, making this a big spring for sophomores Joel Caldwell and D.J. Moore.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.