- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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What Arkansas back emerged this spring? What were the surprises on Auburn's post-spring depth chart? Does the Georgia defense have some glaring holes? Who will be Erik Ainge's targets at Tennessee? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
One of the interesting things to watch under first-year Alabama head coach Nick Saban is how much freedom junior quarterback John Parker Wilson is given next fall. He's learning a brand-new offense this spring with a new offensive coordinator in Major Applewhite and a new head coach in Saban. It hasn't been too overwhelming for Wilson, though, as he seems to have adapted nicely. Wilson says he feels especially comfortable in the shotgun, and his teammates also have talked about how well he sees the field out of the shotgun. Much of what the Crimson Tide runs next season will resemble what Saban ran at LSU. But there will be some snippets of the spread offense Applewhite ran when he was on the staff at Rice. First-year offensive line coach Joe Pendry will add to the package based on some of his experiences in the NFL. He was the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator during their second year of existence in 1996 when they went to the NFC Championship Game.
As Saturday's annual A-Day spring game approaches, Alabama is still searching for its starting nose tackle. The plan at this point is to play a 3-4 next season, although an outside linebacker could be used occasionally as a rush end to give the defense more of a 4-3 look. Sophomore Lorenzo Washington is probably the favorite to be the starter at nose tackle, but he's been held out of contact this spring after undergoing pectoral surgery. Redshirt freshman Brian Motley, a former center, has worked with the first team this spring at nose tackle. Sophomore Byron Walton will also be a candidate when he returns from a broken hand.
Unfortunately for Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt, there was as much action off the field this spring as there was on the field. Talk about your distractions. The latest twist was Nutt releasing an open letter to fans earlier this week refuting rumors and Internet gossip that he'd had an inappropriate relationship with Fort Smith television news anchor Donna Bragg. A check of Nutt's phone records revealed that he and Bragg exchanged 1,063 text messages between Nov. 30 and Jan. 11. Nutt said his relationship with Bragg was that of a friend and a colleague in the community and that any suggestion that it was otherwise was "false, careless and purposely vindictive."
The Razorbacks concluded their spring practice on April 14 with their annual Red-White Game. In keeping with his policy this spring that star running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were not to be hit, Nutt allowed McFadden and Jones to be on the field for two snaps in the spring game. On both, McFadden lined up at quarterback in the shotgun in the Hogs' "Wildcat" formation. Nutt, knowing what McFadden and Jones are capable of, didn't want to take any chances this spring. He wants them both to be healthy when the season starts. In their absence, sophomore Michael Smith emerged as yet another playmaker in the Razorbacks' backfield. He had a 23-yard touchdown run and also caught a 20-yard touchdown pass. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound Smith has been plagued by injuries the last two years. Smith said he's willing to take whatever chances come his way next season with McFadden and Jones in front of him on the depth chart. Nutt said Smith was probably the offensive MVP for the Hogs this spring. Arkansas played the spring game without six defensive starters who were held out because of injuries. Nonetheless, the first-team defense held the second-team offense out of the end zone until late in the game.
The Tigers, who were the first SEC team to finish up their spring practice in late March, released their post-spring depth chart earlier this week, and there were a few surprises. Sophomore Sen'Derrick Marks was listed first at strongside defensive end after a productive spring. He came to Auburn as a defensive tackle. Junior Brad Lester was No. 1 at tailback, but the Tigers won't lack for depth at that position. Redshirt freshman Mario Fannin was bracketed at No. 2 along with sophomore Ben Tate. Fannin was the star of the spring game with 206 yards rushing on 13 carries. He had three touchdowns, including runs of 60 and 58 yards. Junior Tristan Davis is the fourth man in that rotation heading into the fall, and he had 100 yards in the spring game.
The Tigers, renowned for their speed on defense under head coach Tommy Tuberville, will feature plenty of bulk across the front. Senior end Quentin Groves, at 6-4 and 254 pounds, is the smallest of the starters. Marks weighs 287 pounds, while tackle Pat Sims weighs 304 and nose guard Josh Thompson 295. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was hoping to target some younger playmakers on defense this spring and thinks he found a few. One of those was redshirt freshman tackle Mike Blanc, who spent time with the first and second teams because of injuries to Marks and Jemarcus Ricks. Blanc is another 300-pounder. Redshirt freshman safety Zac Etheridge played well enough that he's in the running for a starting position in the fall. He also has cover skills and will play a role in Auburn's nickel and dime packages.
The real answers will come in the fall, but sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow exits spring practice on the heels of some strong performances throwing the football. He was superb last season in a specialist's role when the Gators faced short-yardage situations or moved into scoring position. But with Chris Leak gone, Tebow will have to be more of a passer if the Gators are going to be in contention for a second straight national title. He showed off his touch in the spring game last Saturday and finished 17-of-27 for 216 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Blue team to a 27-21 victory over the Orange team. Tebow had a sore shoulder in the spring game, but Florida head coach Urban Meyer said it actually helped him with his touch and overall management of the offense.
While Tebow was busy showing everybody in the Gators' spring game that he can be plenty effective throwing the football, there was a rediscovery of sorts among his targets. Junior receiver Louis Murphy, who was a part of Meyer's first recruiting class and had done very little in his first two seasons, caught eight passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Meyer said the entire spring was a productive one for Murphy, who credits senior receiver and new roommate Andre Caldwell for helping him regain his focus. Whatever Caldwell told him worked, because Meyer said Murphy would enter the 2007 season as one of the Gators' starting receivers in what's already a deep and talented receiving corps. Sophomore Percy Harvin rates up there among the top playmakers in the league.
The Bulldogs walked away from their spring game on April 7 with a bit of a quandary. Was their offense as dynamic as it looked, or was it more that their defense has some glaring holes? The Red team, comprised of the first-team offense and second-team defense, beat the Black team, consisting of the first-team defense and second-team offense, 34-21 in a G-Day game that featured 11 plays of 20 yards or more by the two offenses. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said there was too much miscommunication and that giving up too many big plays was a problem most of the spring. Martinez threaten to shake up the depth chart entering preseason practice. One change that was made before the spring game was Darius Dewberry moving ahead of Dannell Ellerbe at weakside linebacker.
One of the big questions for Georgia this spring was how well the offensive line would hold up. The Bulldogs' first unit was responsible for nearly 400 yards of total offense against the first-team defense. The likely starters in the fall are Trinton Sturdivant and Chester Adams at the tackles, Chris Davis and Scott Haverkamp at the guards and Fernando Velasco at center. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw two touchdown passes in the spring game, one of those a 60-yarder to Mikey Henderson. The player most Georgia fans can't wait to see next season, redshirt freshman tailback Knowshon Moreno, also didn't disappoint. He led all rushers with 68 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries and appears to be the most explosive member of a deep tailback stable.
It would be easier to put the "sleeper" label on Kentucky in the Eastern Division race if the Wildcats had stopped anybody on defense a year ago. In fairness, they were better toward the end of the season and held their own in a close loss at Tennessee and against Clemson in the Music City Bowl win. "On given games, we were a decent defense," Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks said. "The good news is that we return most of those guys, and 16 out of our top 22 were freshmen or sophomores last year. For us to be able to take the next step and compete with Tennessee, Florida and Georgia, we have to play better defense and still maintain the point production we were able to generate last year." Barring injuries, the Wildcats should be much better in the defensive line. Myron Pryor, Jeremy Jarmon and Corey Peters could play for several teams in the SEC. Trevard Lindley is one of the best up-and-coming cornerbacks in the league, while senior linebacker Wesley Woodyard is the top returning tackler in the league. Still, it's hard to forget the fact that the Wildcats had an astonishing 48 touchdowns scored against them last season.
Kentucky will conclude its spring this Saturday with its annual Blue-White spring game. Quarterback Andre' Woodson has been off-limits this spring to the defense, as Brooks doesn't want to take any chances with his getting hurt. Woodson has asked to see a little live contact just to get the feel again heading into the offseason. Woodson will have plenty of playmakers around him again, but there is still some uncertainty with the offensive line. Injuries have sidelined several starters, and left guard Christian Johnson remains suspended because of academics.
If you're looking for the best defense in the SEC for the 2007 season, LSU would be a good place to start. The Tigers, who wrapped up their spring practice in late March, boast a front seven that will be difficult to match. Their biggest recruiting coup in the offseason was getting star tackle Glenn Dorsey to return to school. He's the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in the league and probably would be getting ready right now for the NFL draft had he not been beset with so many nagging injuries last season. Dorsey told LSU head coach Les Miles that he was never 100 percent a year ago, which can't be a pleasant thought for opposing offensive linemen in the SEC.
With Gary Crowton coming over from Oregon as the Tigers' offensive coordinator, look for senior quarterback Matt Flynn to take off and run more next season, much the same way as former LSU quarterback Matt Mauck did a few years ago. Trindon Holliday is too small to be an every-down running back, but his greatest value may come in the passing game. Crowton will move Holliday around and try to get him in mismatches with defenders. Holliday will also factor into the Tigers' return game. In addition to finding a few more receivers, LSU is also hoping right guard Will Arnold can come back healthy. When he's been out there, Arnold has been one of the Tigers' best linemen. But he just hasn't been able to stay healthy.
The Rebels' entire offense was placed in a holding pattern a year ago while waiting for Brent Schaeffer to arrive from junior college. When he got there, the offense struggled and so did he. Head coach Ed Orgeron didn't say much about his quarterback situation this spring, other than Schaeffer and Seth Adams were competing for the job. But Ole Miss' spring game on April 7 said plenty. Adams worked with the first team and looked sharp in leading his team to scoring drives on its first two possessions. Adams, a former walk-on, finished 16-of-20 for 159 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Schaeffer spent most of his time this spring with the second unit and played only sparingly in the spring game. He finished 2-of-5 for 13 yards and also threw a touchdown pass. Afterward, Orgeron said that Adams definitely had a "leg up if anybody has a leg up" in the quarterback race. He termed Schaeffer's spring as "OK" and added that the former Tennessee quarterback needed to come back in shape for preseason practice. "Last year, he came in late, wasn't in shape and hurt the progress of our offense," said Orgeron, whose practices this spring were closed. Even though it appears that Adams may be the starter to open the season, the reality is that both quarterbacks will probably play. Adams is limited in the kind of throws he can make, while Schaeffer has to prove he can be more consistent and not commit the crippling mistakes that plagued him last season.
Now that linebacker Quinton Culberson has moved on, look for junior Jamar Chaney to become one of the Bulldogs' impact players on defense next season. Culberson led the team in tackles last season from his middle linebacker position. Chaney will slide over from his weakside spot to take over in the middle. He looked comfortable there this spring despite missing part of practice with hamstring problems. The 6-1 Chaney has bulked up to somewhere between 235 and 240 pounds. Two newcomers to watch at linebacker are junior Dominic Douglas and true freshman K.J. Wright. Douglas, whose speed was hard not to notice this spring, led Hinds (Miss.) Community College in solo tackles last season. He may end up splitting time with senior Gabe O'Neal at weakside linebacker. The Bulldogs can't wait to get Wright on campus. The Olive Branch, Miss., product was one of the top prospects in the state last year and could factor in at either of the outside linebacker spots. Some of the best news of the spring for the Bulldogs' defense was that junior college tackle Jessie Bowman successfully made the transition from Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College and earned a starting spot entering the fall. The 6-1, 315-pound Bowman will be one of the keys for Mississippi State next season, especially with the top three tackles from last season -- Deljuan Robinson, Andrew Powell and Antonio Johnson -- all gone.
Stephen Garcia wasn't around for spring practice, but South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier didn't waste any time reinstating the talented true freshman quarterback for the offseason. Garcia has been allowed to resume workouts with the team after being suspended following two misdemeanor arrests this winter. Spurrier said Garcia is down to his last chance, but added that he's anxious to see what kind of impact Garcia can have when preseason practice begins in August.
The Gamecocks ended their spring last Saturday in what Spurrier called a dominating effort by the defense in the Garnet and Black game. The Black team won 14-7 over the Garnet team, as starting quarterback Blake Mitchell completed just 13 of 39 passes and was intercepted twice. As pleased as Spurrier was with his defense, he ripped his offense for not having more success against a secondary that was only playing two coverages. Tyrone Nix, in his second year as the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator, returns 10 starters from last season. Spurrier said there's no question that South Carolina is better on defense than it was a year ago when the Gamecocks finished ninth in the SEC in total defense. "But until we beat somebody, I don't need to be talking," Spurrier said.
Off the field, Spurrier also created a stir in the state of South Carolina this week. He spoke out against the Confederate flag being on the State House grounds and said its removal would make South Carolina a "more progressive, better state." The Confederate flag used to fly atop the Capitol dome, but in a compromise reached by state legislators, was moved to a Confederate monument on State House grounds.
Senior quarterback Erik Ainge had surgery a little more than a month ago to remove a piece of torn meniscus in his knee, which shut him down for the remainder of the spring. The Vols ended their spring practice with their Orange and White game on March 31. Ainge didn't stay down for long. He's already back and working out and said this week that he was healthy enough to play in a game if the Vols were to play tomorrow. He said his routine has been throwing one day and jogging and then taking the next day off. He's also doing some running in water to rehab the knee. The only setback he had was a little swelling in his knee after the first time he ran. He said he's about 95 percent right now and will be more than ready to throw with the new receivers when they arrive on campus this summer.
The Vols are counting on junior college newcomer Kenny O'Neal and prep school newcomer Brent Vinson to add some punch to the passing game. Other than sophomore Quintin Hancock, none of the other Tennessee receivers made much of an impression in the spring. Ainge said the 7-on-7 drills this summer will be more important than ever. It will be up to him to teach the new receivers the offense and pass routes since the coaches aren't allowed to be out there. "I need to have some patience with them," Ainge said. "But at the same time, I have to plan on going to battle with the receivers we have here today." Ainge said he's already been in touch with all of the incoming receivers by phone. "Those guys have to come in ready and learn their playbook," he said.
Spring practice for the Commodores ended without any questions at the quarterback position. Chris Nickson is the man, as evidenced by a solid spring. He battled a sore hamstring last spring while trying to win a job that was already under the microscope. It's never easy when you're following in the footsteps of a player the caliber of Jay Cutler. Nickson, though, showed his versatility last season as both a passer and a runner and now enters his junior season having been healthy all spring. Head coach Bobby Johnson said his command of the offense is better and that he's doing things more naturally. Nickson accounted for nearly 2,800 total yards last season and 24 touchdowns.
Johnson was also pleased with the progress in the secondary this spring. One of the goals was to get more athletic back there. The Commodores were 10th in the SEC in passing defense last season, allowing 196.4 yards per game. Sophomore Myron Lewis made an impression on the coaches at cornerback after coming to Vanderbilt as a safety. He was one of the Commodores' most improved players this spring after playing sparingly a year ago. Johnson likes the 6-3, 195-pound Lewis' size and ability to go up and get the football. Sophomore D.J. Moore was the other starter at cornerback for much of the spring, with Reshard Langford and Ryan Hamilton returning as the starting safeties. Johnson thinks Hamilton will be more consistent next season.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.