Spring look around the SEC
With spring practices getting started, our SEC notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Has Alabama identified a breakaway threat? Who will Georgia find to rush the passer? What unit should be dramatically improved at Ole Miss? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Alabama Crimson Tide
One of the most wide open races this spring at Alabama will be the battle for the starting tailback job. The Crimson Tide opens practice on March 24, and it's difficult to pick a favorite at this point. First-year head coach Nick Saban has proven in the past that he's not afraid to play multiple backs, and it's usually a case of what have you done for me lately. Justin Vincent was one of the stars of LSU's 2003 national championship team, but was passed up on the depth chart by Joseph Addai and Alley Broussard the next year. Jimmy Johns is Alabama's leading returning rusher after gaining 293 yards last season, but there's been speculation that he might move to defense. The guy to watch might be Terry Grant, who was impressive last year as a true freshman in preseason scrimmages. But before he ever really had a chance to help the Tide, he hurt his shoulder and was out for the season. Alabama's longest run from a tailback last season was 37 yards. Grant might be that breakaway threat the Tide was lacking a year ago.
New offensive coordinator David Lee didn't exactly ease his way into Arkansas' first practice. The Razorbacks opened the spring with a 5:20 a.m. wakeup call on Tuesday. Lee, who wants to put in a pro-style passing game and use more play-action to take advantage of the respect Darren McFadden will receive from defenses, had quarterbacks Casey Dick and his backup, Nathan Emert, operating against live pressure on the first day. Both Dick and Emert stand just 6-foot-2, and that may be stretching it, so Lee has them throwing over 7-foot ladders to get to the rush. Head Coach Houston Nutt was happy with his quarterbacks' start, especially the way they handled the blitz. Last season, the Hogs were 11th in the SEC in passing offense, averaging just 149.5 yards per game. They also finished with a league-high 18 interceptions, and Dick had six of those in five starts. The Razorbacks will take the next week off before resuming spring practice on March 26.
The Tigers will wrap up the spring on Saturday with their annual A-Day game. Not surprisingly, the defense has gotten the best of the offense, and offensive coordinator Al Borges is the first to say that it's going to be a rebuilding job for him. The offense fared better in the second scrimmage than the first scrimmage, but head coach Tommy Tuberville was still peeved that the offense didn't show more consistency in finishing drives. The Tigers are replacing four offensive line starters from a year ago. Tackle King Dunlap is the only holdover. Defensive end Quentin Groves is the Tigers' best defender, but junior linebacker Chris Evans might have had the best spring. He finished with 11 tackles in last Saturday's scrimmage, matching his total in the first scrimmage. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mike Blanc also caught defensive coordinator Will Muschamp's eye and is making a strong push to crack the Tigers' rotation up front next season.
The assumption was that Florida head coach Urban Meyer was going to turn over the keys to the Gators' offense to Tim Tebow, who filled the role of quarterback specialist last season. Chris Leak is gone, and Tebow now has to prove he can be an every-down quarterback. But as the Gators get set to open spring practice next week, Meyer would again like to have some semblance of a two-quarterback system. Nobody can argue its effectiveness last season in the Gators' run to the national championship. Florida signed three quarterbacks in this class, and two of them are already on campus and will go through spring practice. Cameron Newton of Westlake High School in Atlanta and Bryan Waggener of Glendora Citrus (Calif.) Community College will get first crack at winning that No. 2 job behind Tebow. A third quarterback, John Brantley of Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala, Fla., arrives this summer. Meyer said one of the three quarterbacks will redshirt and the other two will likely play. Meyer also feels good about his offensive line at Florida entering the spring.
Finding replacements for the pass-rushing tandem of Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson was one of the priorities this spring for the Bulldogs. They think they've found at least one half of that equation in Jarius Wynn, a newcomer from Georgia Military College. He finished his junior college requirements in time to go through spring practice with the Bulldogs and has been one of the more impressive players. The 6-5, 275-pound junior would have probably gone to Georgia straight out of high school, but academic shortcomings forced him to go the junior college route. He was a second-team junior college All-American last season. Wynn's all-out style of play on every snap reminds some of David Pollack, although head coach Mark Richt still wants to see him improve on his technique. With Moses and Johnson both gone, the Bulldogs will be looking for anyone that can get to the quarterback next season.
Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks wanted stability and he got it. He enters spring practice, which starts on March 28 in Lexington, with a brand new $1 million contract and a staff that also received raises. The last few years, the talk this time of year usually revolved around how much longer Brooks would make it. But coming off last season's Music City Bowl victory over Clemson and now the new contract, Brooks said the biggest difference should come in recruiting, where he said other teams used his shaky job status against Kentucky. The Wildcats are expected to go into spring practice without their only two returning offensive linemen from a year ago. Brooks suspended Garry Williams and Christian Johnson for academic reasons, but said both players were eligible to rejoin the team if they improved academically.
With JaMarcus Russell prepping for the NFL draft, Ryan Perrilloux is getting some of the most extensive work of his career. Matt Flynn is the favorite to win the Tigers' starting quarterback job, but Perrilloux has had his moments this spring. Just getting the reps has been refreshing for a guy who was one of the country's most sought after prospects in 2005. He picked LSU over Texas after an intense recruiting battle. Perrilloux hasn't taken a meaningful snap in more than two years, but LSU head coach Les Miles has liked the way Perrilloux has competed this spring and the way he's stayed patient and made the most of his practice time. Perrilloux, who will be a sophomore next season after redshirting his first year at LSU, threw for more than 3,500 yards as a senior in high school.
Head coach Ed Orgeron has seen enough of his team this spring to know what its strength should be next season. The offensive line has improved dramatically under Art Kehoe, who joined Orgeron on the Rebels' staff last year as the offensive line coach. The Rebels finished last in the SEC a year ago in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense. Orgeron said the difference in Ole Miss' offensive line should be "night and day." Another reason for optimism on offense is that senior quarterback Brent Schaeffer says he's in the best shape of his life after admitting he was never in great shape a year ago after arriving on campus just before the start of preseason practice. Orgeron said the quarterback race remains open, but Schaeffer's increased comfort level with the offense and improved chemistry with his teammates should give him the edge. He's tried to be more of a leader this spring.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Junior Mike Brown has entrenched himself as Mississippi State's starting left offensive tackle. He was one of the bright spots for the Bulldogs on offense last season after being declared eligible by the SEC midway through the season. The 6-4, 295-pound Brown transferred from Florida to be with his sick mother in the Atlanta area and won an appeal to be eligible at Mississippi State without having to sit out a year. He started the final five games for the Bulldogs last season. After allowing 22 sacks in their first six games, they only gave up six in their last six games and raised their scoring output considerably. Already a strong pass blocker, Brown is concentrating on his run blocking this spring. He's one of the main reasons head coach Sylvester Croom feels the best he's felt about his offensive line since taking the job. The Bulldogs also have more depth up front than they've had under Croom.
South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks don't open spring practice until Tuesday, but there's been plenty of action surrounding the football program -- which typically isn't a good thing this time of year. Prized quarterback signee Stephen Garcia, already enrolled in school and planning to go through spring practice, was arrested twice in the span of two weeks. Head coach Steve Spurrier suspended him for the remainder of the semester, and he now won't be able to go through spring practice. There's also the chance that the university could take action against him. Garcia entered a pretrial diversion program in court earlier this week and agreed to counseling and several other requirements. His latest arrest came after a visiting professor on campus accused Garcia of keying his car following an argument over a parking space. Garcia was already in Spurrier's doghouse following his arrest on charges of public drunkenness and failure to stop on a police command stemming from an altercation at a Columbia nightclub.
The Vols had hoped to fine-tune a new-look, no-huddle offense this spring, but that was before quarterback Erik Ainge came down with a bum right knee. Ainge is out for the rest of the spring and will have surgery on Monday to repair torn meniscus in his knee. The Vols hope to get him back in June or July, so that he can start throwing with the group of new receivers they have coming in this summer. To this point, no current receiver has emerged as a proven playmaker this spring, which means Tennessee will likely be counting heavily on junior college newcomer Kenny O'Neal and prep school newcomer Brent Vinson next season. Ainge isn't sure how he hurt his knee. He's elected to have the meniscus repaired rather than simply removing it, which requires a longer recovery time, but doctors felt it was the best long-term solution for him. While Ainge is out, sophomore Jonathan Crompton will take over the Vols' No. 1 quarterback duties. Crompton filled in for Ainge last season against LSU and Arkansas after Ainge went down with a sprained ankle. The best news for the Vols this spring is that tailback LaMarcus Coker looks like a player that's ready to have a breakout season next year. He's clearly the best offensive weapon on the team.
The Commodores opened spring practice earlier this week, and one of the best sights for head coach Bobby Johnson was a healthy junior running back Jeff Jennings running around and looking like his old self. Jennings missed all of the 2006 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He also missed the last couple of games of the 2005 season after suffering a knee injury. "I didn't recognize him. I hadn't seen him in a while. I said, 'Who are you?'" Johnson joked. The Commodores like the possibilities in their backfield with Jennings healthy. Cassen Jackson-Garrison is back along with Jared Hawkins. Jackson-Garrison rushed for 614 yards last season, while Hawkins averaged 6.9 yards per carry. Quarterback Chris Nickson led Vanderbilt in rushing a year ago with 694 yards and also had nine rushing touchdowns. Another reason for optimism on offense next season is the return of offensive tackle Brian Stamper, who missed most of last season after undergoing back surgery. Stamper, who's practicing this spring after receiving a medical redshirt, was a second-team All-SEC pick in 2005.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.