Commentary

Coaching changes, position battles keys to SEC spring practices

Updated: February 29, 2008, 4:43 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

Everywhere you look in the SEC, there's change. Houston Nutt changed addresses, from Arkansas to Ole Miss. Bobby Petrino changed leagues, from pro football to college football, where he will take over for Nutt at Arkansas.

At Auburn, Tommy Tuberville has a new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator. But then, Tuberville goes through coordinators the way Steve Spurrier goes through quarterbacks. Speaking of the Head Ball Coach, he's already had two new defensive coordinators at South Carolina since the end of the 2007 season. The first was Brian VanGorder, who was gone in a blink to the NFL as the Atlanta Falcons' defensive coordinator. Spurrier then lured Ellis Johnson away from Mississippi State.

Two other coordinators, David Cutcliffe at Tennessee and Bo Pelini at LSU, left the SEC to take head coaching jobs. Cutcliffe went to Duke and Pelini to Nebraska.

SEC Power Rankings

With fewer question marks than any team in the conference, Georgia enters spring practice ahead of Florida, LSU and Tennessee in the SEC power rankings, writes Chris Low. Story

If you're keeping count, it all adds up to two new head coaches and 13 new coordinators.

You think they take their football seriously in the SEC? Seven head coaches in the league are now making more than $2 million annually.

The buildup to the 2008 season is already upon us. Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State open spring practice later this month. Here's a quick look at some of the key position battles, strengths and weaknesses of the teams, new coaches on the scene and other things to consider as teams return to the practice field:

Alabama Crimson Tide

Spring practice starts: March 13
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
• What will Alabama look like on offense with new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain coming over from Fresno State? For starters, Nick Saban hopes the Tide will be more consistent after scoring 14 or fewer points in their final three regular-season games in 2007.

• Everybody in T-Town can't wait to get a glimpse of the highly rated recruiting class Saban just reeled in, but most of those players won't be on campus until the summer. Receiver Chris Jackson, however, graduated high school early and will go through spring practice. The Tide desperately need help at receiver, too. The countdown has already begun for when the jewel of the class arrives: receiver Julio Jones, who is the No. 2-ranked recruit in the ESPN 150.

• The Crimson Tide should be improved at just about every position on defense. Look for big changes in the secondary, and also look for Saban to play any of the young players he thinks is ready. There is some concern, though, about the status of starting outside linebacker Ezekial Knight, who was hospitalized late last month.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Spring practice starts: April 3
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
• Arkansas and new coach Bobby Petrino are hoping for good news from the NCAA. The Razorbacks have asked for a waiver that would allow quarterback Ryan Mallett to be eligible immediately after transferring from Michigan when Rich Rodriguez replaced the retiring Lloyd Carr as the Wolverines' coach.

• The Hogs have already changed defensive coordinators and have yet to hold their first practice under Petrino. Willy Robinson, a former defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, was hired to take over for Ellis Johnson, who bolted for the South Carolina defensive coordinator's job when Brian VanGorder left to take the Atlanta Falcons' defensive coordinator's job. Robinson spent last season as the secondary coach for the St. Louis Rams.

• It's common knowledge that Arkansas' offensive backfield took a hit with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis all departing. But the Hogs were also gutted in the defensive backfield, particularly at cornerback.

Auburn Tigers

Spring practice starts: Feb. 28
Spring game: March 29
What to watch:
• New offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is bringing the spread offense to the Plains, and he's looking for somebody to run it now that three-year starter Brandon Cox is gone. Kodi Burns has the most experience, but junior college transfer Chris Todd will also battle for the job this spring along with sophomore Neil Caudle and freshman DeRon Furr, who graduated high school early and enrolled in January.

• How well has Auburn recruited on the defensive line? Put it this way: Quentin Groves and Pat Sims are both headed to the NFL, and the Tigers shouldn't miss a beat next season. Ends Sen'Derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman both have star potential. Marks may move to tackle. Junior college transfer Raven Gray is expected to make an immediate impact at end, although he'll miss the spring while recovering from knee surgery.

• The Tigers are deep at running back, and whoever adapts the best to Franklin's spread offense will play the most. Brad Lester and Ben Tate were Auburn's top two rushers in 2007. The most versatile back is Mario Fannin, who caught a team-high five passes in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, including a touchdown.

Florida Gators

Spring practice starts: March 19
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
• The Gators need to find a running game outside of Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow. They hope Emmanuel Moody, a transfer from USC, can fill that void. Moody was the Trojans' second-leading rusher in 2006 before deciding to transfer. He has three years of eligibility remaining after sitting out last season.

• Look for the Gators to spread the ball around even more this season on offense. You want speed? How about Percy Harvin and Chris Rainey lining up at several different positions? Carl Moore, one of the nation's top junior college receivers, is also on campus and will go through spring practice.

• The struggles in Florida's secondary last season were well-documented, and it's also well-documented that the Gators were trying to get by with freshmen. How much have Major Wright and Joe Haden grown up back there?

Spring Forward

New coaching staffs are making plans. New offensive and defensive schemes are on the chalkboard. Position battles are about to heat up. The games won't count again until August, but the preparation for the 2008 season is about to kickoff. Here's a quick look at what you need to know about spring practice.

ACC
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Big 12
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Big East
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Big Ten
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Pac-10
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

SEC
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Non-BCS
Spring primer
Spring power rankings

Georgia Bulldogs

Spring practice starts: March 3
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
• Quarterback Matthew Stafford shouldn't have any shortage of players to throw to next fall. The Bulldogs might be as deep at receiver as they've ever been under Mark Richt, and that counts some of the incoming freshmen. Finding that big-play threat will be a priority this spring.

• One of the most intriguing position battles will be at defensive end, where not even 13-game starter Roderick Battle is assured of a starting spot. Jarius Wynn is moving outside full-time after spending last season at tackle. Jeremy Lomax, Demarcus Dobbs and Michael Lemon are also possibilities.

• As good as Knowshon Moreno was last season in rushing for 1,334 yards and 14 touchdowns, there are some at Georgia who can't wait to get a look at redshirt freshman Caleb King.

Kentucky Wildcats

Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
• Offensive coordinator Joker Phillips has already been named Kentucky's head coach in waiting when Rich Brooks decides it's time to retire. If this is Brooks' last season, he leaves Phillips with a program that's as healthy as it's been in a long time.

• Now that Andre' Woodson is headed to the NFL, the quarterback race will come down to Curtis Pulley and Mike Hartline. They'll compete for the job this spring and will give the offense a slightly different look with their ability to run the ball.

• Most of the eyes will be on the quarterback battle this spring, but a bigger question might be who they're going to throw to now that receivers Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson and tight end Jacob Tamme are all gone.

LSU Tigers

Spring practice starts: Feb. 29
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
• Who knows what Ryan Perrilloux's future is with LSU after his latest suspension? Therefore, that makes this spring extremely important for the "other" two quarterbacks in the Tigers' camp: junior Andrew Hatch and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee. Hatch started his career at Harvard.

• Even though defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey will be doing his thing in the NFL next season, don't feel too sorry for the Tigers. Their other three starters up front will be back now that end Kirston Pittman was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. The guy to watch, though, is Ricky Jean-Francois, who was the star of the BCS National Championship Game and can play end or tackle.

• With Bo Pelini leaving for the Nebraska head coaching job, Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto will take over as co-defensive coordinators. Mallory coached the secondary and Peveto the linebackers the first three years under Miles. Former Arizona assistant Joe Robinson will be the special teams coordinator, relieving Peveto of those duties.

Ole Miss Rebels

Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
• Five-star tailback signee Enrique Davis of Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy won't be on campus until this summer. But with both of the Rebels' top two rushers from last season gone, don't be surprised if new Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt gets Davis on the field pronto in the fall.

• The status of middle linebacker Tony Fein was cleared up earlier this month after he met with Nutt and was allowed to remain on the team. Fein, the Rebels' second leading tackler last season, was reportedly involved in a run-in with the Ole Miss academic staff.

• How will new offensive coordinator Kent Austin adjust to the SEC? The former Rebels quarterback has coached in the Canadian Football League the past several years and runs a version of the spread. It will be interesting to see how his style jibes with Nutt's run-oriented approach.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: March 29
What to watch:
• The Bulldogs won't be able to fly under the radar as much in 2008 after winning eight games last season, including a Liberty Bowl victory over Central Florida. The expectations will be as high as they've been under Sylvester Croom, who's done a remarkable job of rebuilding this program.

• Defensive end Jimmie Holmes will be one to watch this spring. A junior college transfer a year ago, Holmes didn't make it onto campus until the summer. He played his best football toward the end of the 2007 season and will be one of the keys defensively for the Bulldogs in 2008.

• Offensively, Mississippi State has to improve if it's going to be a legitimate player in the West race. That means sophomore quarterback Wesley Carroll needs to take a big step, and the guys around him also need to make a few more plays.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Spring practice starts: March 19
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
• Steve Spurrier might have been a year premature in predicting last season that South Carolina was ready to compete for an SEC championship. This might be the year when you look at the mix of returnees and newcomers on the roster. It should be Spurrier's best team.

• Spurrier says the quarterback battle will be wide open among Stephen Garcia, Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher, but you've got to think that Garcia's versatility makes him the favorite. Had he not gotten into trouble, he might have played last season.

• The Gamecocks need a healthy Jasper Brinkley back at middle linebacker. They were never the same after he blew out his knee last season. The same goes for tackle Nathan Pepper, who also injured his knee.

Tennessee Volunteers

Spring practice starts: March 11
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
• The first order of business for new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson is settling on a quarterback. Junior Jonathan Crompton is the front-runner, but redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman will also get a chance to compete for the job this spring.

• Given the Vols' problems off the field, they probably can't wait to get back onto the practice field. Nine players have either been arrested, disciplined, suspended or kicked off the team since the Outback Bowl. The latest was senior punter Britton Colquitt, who was suspended for five games after he was charged with DUI and leaving the scene of an accident.

• Former starting safety Demetrice Morley will rejoin the Vols' secondary this spring after sitting out last season. He was dismissed from school for academic reasons following the 2006 season, but earned enough credit hours at a local community college to be readmitted.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Spring practice starts: March 11
Spring game: March 29
What to watch:
• The Commodores have to completely rebuild their offensive line, where all five starters are gone. The biggest loss was tackle Chris Williams, who has a chance to become the first Vanderbilt offensive lineman to go in the first round of the NFL draft since Will Wolford in 1986.

• Will Mackenzi Adams hold onto the starting quarterback job? He started the second half of the 2007 season after taking over for Chris Nickson, who's back for his senior season and had started in 18 straight games until Adams got the call against South Carolina and engineered a 17-6 win.

• The Commodores leaned on their defense in 2007 and finished 15th nationally. But three of their four starters up front are gone, as well as big-play linebackers Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.

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