Spring football: Can Kiffin walk the walk, more burning SEC questions
Lane Kiffin & Co. are implementing new offensive, defensive schemes for Vols
Florida sustained minimal losses and looks to avoid the post-championship falloff
LSU enters spring with unanswered questions, but should be closer to 2007 form
The SEC has produced the past three national champions, but it's also produced at least 50 percent of the nation's college football-related drama this offseason.
The high jinks began in December when Auburn stunningly hired Gene Chizik, who managed only five wins (but 19 losses) in two seasons as Iowa State's head coach. First-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin stirred the pot next. He swiped recruits from Florida and LSU, accused Gators coach Urban Meyer of breaking a non-existent NCAA rule and committed a few secondary violations of his own. Meanwhile, coach Houston Nutt signed 37 players at Ole Miss, and, just before spring practice, Alabama self-reported several violations involving athletes and textbooks.
Now, for a month, the focus can turn to the field. Expect plenty of hype out of Oxford, Miss., where enough players return from a 9-4 team to make a preseason top 10 ranking perfectly reasonable. And expect plenty of questions on the Plains as Chizik tries to replace Tommy Tuberville. But Auburn isn't the only program in a state of flux. Plenty of questions need answering in the SEC.
We've heard so much about first-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin this offseason. Can he actually coach football?
We know Kiffin doesn't have a verbal filter and we know he doesn't exactly have a working knowledge of the NCAA rulebook. But all those people gleefully predicting a flop may be sorely disappointed. We also know Kiffin can recruit; in a very limited window, Kiffin and his staff upgraded Tennessee's talent. This spring, we should get a taste of Kiffin the coach.
Kiffin, 33, certainly knows how to hire a staff. Go ahead and rip Tennessee for spending so much on assistants, but for a total payroll that ranks fourth in the SEC, the Volunteers bought an impressive amount of gridiron wisdom. It should be interesting to watch Kiffin's father, Monte, adapt his Tampa 2 defense -- a scheme so effective much of the NFL adopted it -- to the college game. The elder Kiffin probably has had fun this offseason dreaming up ways to use safety Eric Berry, one of the nation's best defensive backs. This spring, senior Dan Williams will work at nose tackle and competition will rage to fill the "under tackle" spot Warren Sapp made famous. The Vols don't have a lot of experience at defensive tackle, so Wes Brown may slide down from end.
Tennessee's offense, which had little identity last season, shouldn't have much trouble adjusting to the younger Kiffin's pro-style scheme. The Volunteers ran a pro-style offense under current Duke coach David Cutcliffe, so the quarterbacks should feel comfortable. Senior Jonathan Crompton and sophomore B.J. Coleman will split reps early this spring while junior Nick Stephens recovers from a broken wrist.
Will Alabama keep improving?
The Crimson Tide surged ahead of schedule last season, going from 7-6 in coach Nick Saban's first season to 12-2 in his second. A top-ranked recruiting class contributed sooner than expected as receiver Julio Jones, tailback Mark Ingram, nose tackle Terrence Cody and linebacker Don'ta Hightower made immediate impacts. Still, Alabama will have to replace more than the on-field contributions offensive tackle Andre Smith, center Antoine Caldwell and safety Rashad Johnson provided.
Those players suffered through the ugly end of the Mike Shula era, and they helped guide Saban's signees as the coach rebuilt the program. This season, new leaders will have to emerge. Junior linebacker Rolando McClain should be the bell cow on defense, while sophomore William Vlachos and senior Evan Cardwell will compete to replace Caldwell at center. Smith may be the toughest to replace, as Alabama's offensive struggles when Smith was suspended for the Sugar Bowl loss to Utah made clear. Senior Drew Davis, who played right tackle last season, will get the first crack at filling Smith's shoes. Some probably expect signee D.J. Fluker to jump in and start immediately, but that's an awful lot to ask of someone who didn't start playing offensive line until his senior year of high school.
The quarterback job is up for grabs, too. Junior Greg McElroy and redshirt freshman Star Jackson will compete this spring to replace John Parker Wilson, but Saban said this week he has "no timetable" to name a starter. If the competition continues into preseason, freshman A.J. McCarron may also get a shot.
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