- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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With two new teams added to the mix, let’s take a look at what we learned in the SEC this spring:
1. Quarterback Central: The SEC gets a bad rap for not piling up Xbox-like passing yards, and granted, it wasn’t a great year for quarterbacks in the league last season. But did you know that an SEC quarterback has been taken in the first round of the NFL draft eight of the last 10 years? And that includes four quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall. The 2012 season has a chance to be one of the best in recent memory for SEC quarterbacks, especially if Missouri’s James Franklin returns to form after undergoing surgery in the spring to repair a torn labrum. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson and Georgia’s Aaron Murray are the two most established quarterbacks. Wilson likely would have gone in the first round had he come out this year. Murray has thrown 59 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, and he also has one of the more talented backups in the league in sophomore Hutson Mason, who shared Offensive MVP honors with Murray in the spring. Some early mock drafts have Tennessee’s Tyler Bray going in the first round, and Bray has one of the strongest arms in the league. Alabama’s AJ McCarron demonstrated in the BCS National Championship Game what he’s capable of and is poised to have a big junior season. South Carolina’s Connor Shaw is one of the more improved quarterbacks in the league, and the new guy on the block to watch is LSU’s Zach Mettenberger.
2. Lining up at LSU: How many defenses out there could lose a pair of first-rounders and come back the next season and potentially be even better? LSU’s defense certainly had that look to it this spring despite the loss of cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers, both of whom declared early for the NFL draft and were taken in the first round. It starts up front for the Tigers, who have the best pair of bookend defensive ends in the country in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Both are potential top 10 picks in the 2013 NFL draft. In the middle of that LSU defensive line is tackle Bennie Logan, who also has a chance to be a first-rounder. And from a pure talent standpoint, sophomore tackle Anthony “Freak” Johnson is exactly what his nickname suggests. Kevin Minter was one of the Tigers’ most improved players this spring at middle linebacker, and in the secondary, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon are all future pros. It’s obviously a defense that’s oozing with talent, but it’s also a defense that still has a chip on its shoulder with the way last season ended.
3. Fighting back: A long list of marquee players in this league missed the spring with injuries and still have to prove they’re all the way back in the fall. Franklin’s surgically repaired shoulder will be a huge key for Missouri in its first season in the SEC, and a lot of eyes will be on the two best running backs in the league. South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore missed the second half of last season after tearing knee ligaments, while Arkansas’ Knile Davis missed the entire season after fracturing his ankle in the preseason. At Ole Miss, they’re keeping their fingers crossed that linebacker D.T. Shackelford can return after he underwent a second knee surgery in March. He missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in the spring. Texas A&M running back Christine Michael is also coming back from an ACL tear. Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter went down in the third game last season with a torn ACL, and Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley is trying to work his way back from a torn ACL suffered in the regular-season finale against Florida State last season.
4. Hogs hanging tough: Sure, the whole Bobby Petrino scandal was embarrassing to the entire state of Arkansas. But the players and coaches on the team didn’t lose focus this spring, and the leadership really came to the forefront. Quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis and linebacker Tenarius Wright picked the team up and made sure that nobody was feeling sorry for themselves, and in the process, reminded everyone that all of their goals were still intact. Credit also goes to the Arkansas coaching staff for handing a very difficult matter about as well as it could be handled. There are more tests to come, but now that John L. Smith is in place as the interim head coach, the program has a clear leader for these next eight months. Nothing is more valuable than strong player leadership, though, and the Hogs proved during that turbulent month of April that they’re made of the right stuff.
5. Getting physical: It was obvious that Florida coach Will Muschamp never felt good about his team’s ability to line up and be physical last season in his first year on the job. There were times that the Gators were downright soft on their way to going 0-6 against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record. So this spring, just about everything they did was directed at being a more physical football team, a football team committed to running the ball and a football team determined to finish games. Muschamp has repeated several times since the end of spring practice that the Gators are a better team right now than at any point last season, and a lot of that goes back to this team adopting the kind of blue-collar, hit-you-in-the-mouth approach that has defined Muschamp’s coaching career. Clearly, he’s excited about where the program is headed, and he’s equally excited that he’ll be better equipped to play the way he wants to during the 2012 season.
1dMax Olson and Jake Trotter