Spring football primer: Burning questions for each SEC team
|SEC spring practice dates|
With recruiting deregulation on the shelf for the moment, Alabama coach Nick Saban can stop devising a way to end unemployment in his state -- remember, all those scared rival coaches thought Saban was about to hire 10,000 recruiting analysts so 'Bama could text each recruit at least a million times a day -- and begin devising a way to dominate on the field again. But even though Alabama is trying for its third consecutive national title and its fourth in five years, the Crimson Tide's top challengers should once again come from within the SEC.
Five SEC schools (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M) will start next season with either reasonable or semi-plausible national title dreams. Meanwhile, new coaches at Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee have excitement levels through the roof on their campuses. As usual, it's going to be a busy spring in college football's most dominant league.
• Alabama: Can the Crimson Tide revamp the offensive line and compete for a third consecutive national title? We know Alabama has the talent to reload at almost any position, but its 2012 offensive line was so good that it's difficult to imagine the Tide replacing guard Chance Warmack, center Barrett Jones and tackle D.J. Fluker -- along with position coach Jeff Stoutland, who went to the Philadelphia Eagles -- with no drop-off. On the coaching front, expect the Tide to be just as good. Nick Saban hired former Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal, who had taken the tight ends job at alma mater Miami, to replace Stoutland. Sophomore Ryan Kelly will try to fill the cleats of Jones, while Arie Kouandjio, the older brother of starting left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, could get a look at guard opposite Anthony Steen, who has 24 career starts at guard. At right tackle, junior Austin Shepherd and juco transfer Leon Brown could get a shot to replace Fluker.
• Arkansas: How will the Arkansas offense change under Bret Bielema? Bielema certainly has a blank canvas. Quarterback Tyler Wilson, tailback Knile Davis, receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg are gone. Now that he works in a league that requires a player to have two years of eligibility remaining to use the NCAA's graduate transfer exception, Bielema will probably have to rely on a quarterback already on the Razorbacks' roster. That means Brandon Allen or Brandon Mitchell probably will take over for Wilson. The happiest player in Fayetteville should be Jonathan Williams, who averaged 5.1 yards a carry as a freshman and now plays for the coach who prefers an offense that allowed Montee Ball to run for 55 touchdowns the past two seasons.
• Auburn: Will the Tigers rebound now that they're running the offense they were recruited to run? Quarterback Kiehl Frazier struggled mightily in a pro-style offense last year, but with Gus Malzahn back on the Plains, Frazier should have little trouble picking up the offense Malzahn -- then Auburn's offensive coordinator -- originally signed him to run. Even without Cam Newton in 2011, Malzahn's offense worked well with a power back (Mike Dyer) combined with a speedy back (Onterrio McCalebb). This spring, Tre Mason could fill the McCalebb role. Meanwhile, 215-pound juco transfer Cameron Artis-Payne could fill the Dyer role. (On the field. No one at Auburn wants anyone on the roster to reprise Dyer's off-field role.)
• Florida: Can the Gators develop an offense worthy of playing alongside their defense? Florida was last seen getting destroyed by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, but don't forget this was also the same team that put together possibly the best regular-season résumé in the country last year. In most of their 11 victories, the Gators won in spite of a limited offense. Will year two under coordinator Brent Pease bring a leap? Florida lost left tackle Xavier Nixon and left guard James Wilson, but with some young players developing and two transfers becoming eligible, the line could be much better. Sophomore tackle D.J. Humphries, a former five-star recruit who played in Florida's jumbo packages as a freshman, will begin spring as the first-team left tackle. Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska) should compete for starting jobs at left guard and right tackle. All that competition should produce a deeper, sturdier line in front of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who enters his first offseason as the unquestioned starter. Sophomore back Matt Jones should ease the departure of Mike Gillislee, and early enrollee Kelvin Taylor -- the son of Florida great Fred Taylor -- should also have a chance to win carries in the spring. The big question is whether the Gators can develop a decent receiver. Florida's best receiver may be on defense, though. Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy is the most explosive player on the roster, and he might wind up playing a big role on both offense and defense.
• Georgia: Can the defense rebound after losing nine starters? Coordinator Todd Grantham will have to earn every penny of his $850,000 salary this spring as he develops replacements for the all-star team that is leaving Athens for the NFL. The good news is the Bulldogs have some talented players waiting in the wings. For example, we learned last season during Alec Ogletree's four-game suspension that Amarlo Herrera is a future superstar. Now it's up to players such as defensive end Ray Drew and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons to prove they deserved all their recruiting hype. If they can, the Bulldogs might be in for a special season. We know the offense -- led by quarterback Aaron Murray and backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- will pile up points. If the defense develops quickly, Georgia will remain among the nation's elite.
• Kentucky: Can new coach Mark Stoops reinvigorate a reeling fan base? Early indications suggest the former Florida State defensive coordinator will do just that. On March 4, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart tweeted that 30,999 tickets had been distributed for Stoops' first spring game. Considering Joker Phillips' final spring game was essentially a friends-and-family affair, that's a substantial jump in excitement for a fan base that has had little to cheer about before basketball season. Those fans likely will see a quarterback competition. Maxwell Smith had established himself as Kentucky's best quarterback when an ankle injury ended his season in October. This spring, Smith is healthy and ready to compete with Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles for the job.
• LSU: Can John Chavis reload LSU's defense? After last year's win against Washington, Chavis said something quite telling. "We play a lot of people," Chavis said. "We don't recruit guys to redshirt. ... If you've recruited the right kind of people, they're not going to be here for four years anyway." Well, six of LSU's 2012 defensive starters declared early for the NFL draft. Now, Chavis must replace his entire starting defensive line as well as a cornerback, a safety and a middle linebacker. One Jalen (Collins) should join another Jalen (Mills) at cornerback. Meanwhile, junior Ego Ferguson will have every opportunity to grab a defensive tackle spot. Early enrollee Christian LaCouture should have a chance to contribute somewhere along the defensive line as well. Senior Lamin Barrow could replace Kevin Minter in the middle.
• Mississippi State: How will the Bulldogs replace two standout cornerbacks? Johnthan Banks won most of the awards last season, but counterpart Darius Slay was excellent on the other side. They're both gone in 2013, but Mississippi State has a deep group of corners ready to compete to take their place. Jamerson Love should lock down one starting spot, but the other one should be up for grabs. Taveze Calhoun played a lot last year, but he could face a challenge from redshirt freshman Will Redmond or juco transfer Justin Cox, who can also play safety. This competition should be helpful, because the Bulldogs will need a lot of defensive backs ready to play. With division rivals Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M running no-huddle spread offenses, a deep secondary will be critical.
• Missouri: Can the Tigers develop an SEC-ready team? Thanks to a Heisman-winning quarterback and a regime change that infused an already talented roster with the correct attitude, Texas A&M had no trouble adjusting to the SEC in 2012. Missouri, on the other hand, looked like it really missed the spread-out, less physical Big 12. Since the Tigers won't be changing leagues again anytime soon, they'll have to get used to the pounding in the SEC. That means developing depth on the offensive line so they don't suffer the offensive lapses they did while dealing with injuries last season. Missouri also needs a better running game to keep the pressure off quarterback James Franklin, who got mightily banged-up in his first SEC campaign. Help could be on the way in the form of tailback Henry Josey, who was leading the Big 12 in rushing when he suffered a gruesome knee injury in 2011. Josey will begin working his way back into the offense this spring, and he'll be a welcome sight.
• Ole Miss: With the bulk of the Rebels' vaunted recruiting class arriving in the summer, who can make an impact in the spring? Defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil won't take the practice field until preseason camp, but a few members of the class of 2013 could impact the depth chart this spring. Still, the biggest name now on campus is also the most familiar. Cornerback Nick Brassell, who started both ways as a freshman at Ole Miss in 2011, is back after a year spent in junior college getting his academics in order. The Rebels return all 11 defensive starters from 2012, but expect Brassell to supplant someone. Ole Miss coaches believe that if Brassell plays up to his potential, he could spend one more season in Oxford and then become quite wealthy in the NFL. Another potential impact early enrollee is tailback Mark Dodson, the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee. Dodson is the Memphis area's all-time high school rushing leader, and he may be able to earn some carries away from Jeff Scott, Jaylen Walton or I'Tavius Mathers.
• South Carolina: How will the Gamecocks reload in one critical personnel group? Bet you thought I was going to say tailback, but the combination of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds mixed with the rushing ability of quarterback Connor Shaw should ease the loss of Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles. More intriguing is linebacker, where the Gamecocks must replace everyone. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman should compete for the middle linebacker spot, while Marquis Roberts and Kelvin Rainey are splitting reps at weakside linebacker. (Cedrick Cooper, who will miss the spring after knee surgery, is the starter on the depth chart.) At Spur, the hybrid linebacker/safety spot ably manned by Devonte Holloman last year, redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs and junior Sharrod Golightly are competing for snaps this spring.
• Tennessee: Who will throw and catch for Butch Jones in his first season? Quarterback Tyler Bray is gone. So are receivers Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera. Essentially, the Volunteers are pressing the reset button on their passing game. Junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman will compete to replace Bray. Vincent Dallas, a receiver-turned-defensive back-turned-receiver, is the most experienced target. Sophomore Alton Howard, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound speedster who goes by "Pig," has the best nickname. He also may fit best in the spread offense Jones prefers.
• Texas A&M: We know Johnny Football and the offense will score, but how will the Aggies' defense adjust to some key losses? While Texas A&M coaches seem to have developed a nice succession plan to replace offensive tackle Luke Joeckel (move Jake Matthews from right tackle to left) and center Patrick Lewis (start Matthews' younger brother Mike), things seem less clear on the other side of the ball. The Aggies must replace one of the nation's best pass rushers (Damontre Moore) and two excellent linebackers (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart). At defensive end, Brandon Alexander should get the first crack at replacing Moore. Alexander played as a freshman in 2011, but he redshirted in 2012 as he adjusted from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end. By the time the Aggies reached the Cotton Bowl, the older players were raving about Alexander. Juco transfer Tommy Sanders is a prime candidate to take over one of the vacant linebacker spots.
• Vanderbilt: After a nine-win season, can the Commodores produce an equal or better encore? To replicate last year's success, Vandy will have to replace Jordan Rodgers at quarterback. Austyn Carta-Samuels, who started at Wyoming before he transferred to Vanderbilt and backed up Rodgers, is the leader. But watch out for Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman who left North Carolina's campus in January 2012 to enroll at Vanderbilt. Robinette, who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT in high school, is a fast learner. Meanwhile, the Commodores also must replace tailback Zac Stacy. This might be the chance for Brian Kimbrow, the jewel of James Franklin's 2012 recruiting class, to carve out a niche.