NCF Nation: 2012 SEC spring preview

Spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 24, 2012
Now that you've seen what to watch in the SEC Western Division, let's check out the East:


Spring practice start date: March 14
Spring game: April 7

What to watch:

Finding offensive playmakers: Year 2 of the Will Muschamp era begins with the team trying to find someone who can make a few plays for this fall. New offensive coordinator Brent Pease has a host of unproven offensive talent to work with. Wide receiver Andre Debose was Florida's best deep threat last year, and the coaches raved about receiver Quinton Dunbar's potential, but neither was consistent enough in 2011. Maybe Florida can finally turn to bigger backs Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown in the playmaking department.

Toughening up the offensive line: The Gators' line struggled throughout the 2011 season. It wasn't always at 100 percent, but Florida's line also just wasn't tough enough -- mentally or physically. The Gators couldn't get the tough yards on the ground and didn't exactly protect quarterback John Brantley enough. The line should get a boost with early enrollees D.J. Humphries, who was the top offensive line prospect in the 2012 class, and Jessamen Dunker, but Florida will have to get improvement from players who return to a line that lost just one starter from last season.

Quarterback battle: Brantley is gone, leaving rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy. Brissett replaced Driskel as Florida's No. 2 quarterback last year, while Murphy has yet to take a college snap. Brissett and Driskel had plenty of down moments last fall but should get a chance to reinvent themselves this spring with new leadership and more practice reps. This spring will be extremely important for all three quarterbacks as they try to improve a position that struggled mightily the past two years.


Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

Isaiah Crowell's toughness: Crowell has the talent to be a star in this league. He has the size and athletic ability to cause a lot of headaches for opposing defenses. However, his inability to stay healthy -- and in games -- became more of a headache for Georgia's coaches and fans in 2011. Crowell needs to get tougher and be more reliable. He said as much after last season, but it's time to make good on his word. Crowell could get a push from early enrollee Keith Marshall this spring, and we know coach Mark Richt isn't afraid to play multiple backs.

Position changes: Richt made headlines recently when he said he'd be open to considering moving star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell to cornerback now that the Bulldogs are thin there. Maybe he'll play both ways. Also, rising sophomore Ray Drew could switch from outside linebacker to defensive end. He played both in high school. Georgia's offensive linemen also could play multiple positions up front.

The target on the Bulldogs' backs: There will be a lot more attention paid to the Bulldogs this spring, as they will probably enter the 2012 season as the favorites in the SEC East. Georgia returns just about everyone from a team that reeled off 10 straight wins on its way to the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs aren't just considered the East front-runners -- they also are being viewed as national championship contenders. But the Bulldogs can't let the hype get to them. We've seen this team underachieve when the expectations were high before.


Spring practice start date: March 21
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:

Offensive line auditions: The Wildcats must replace three offensive linemen this year. That process will begin this spring, and the good news is that veterans Larry Warford and Matt Smith return. Left guard Kevin Mitchell, who will be a junior this fall, started one game last year, while soon-to-be sophomore right tackle Darrian Miller started two games last fall, so there is some experience coming into the open spots. Trevino Woods, who didn't start a game last year, should be the favorite to play left tackle this spring, but he also can play guard. There's also a lot of depth to work with.

Defensive makeover: Danny Trevathan is gone, so Kentucky must find someone else to run the defense this season. There's no question that Trevathan was the heart of this defense, so replacing him won't be easy, but the Wildcats must find someone who can step up and be a player others can look up to. The Wildcats also lost six starters from their linebacking corps and secondary, meaning Kentucky will have to fill holes with youngsters. Mikie Benton and Ridge Wilson are the only returning starters not on the defensive line.

Maxwell Smith: With fellow quarterback Morgan Newton sidelined this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery, all eyes will be on Smith. He struggled at times last year, but Kentucky's offense was better when he was under center. Now, he'll have to make even bigger strides this spring if he wants to create a sizable lead in the race before Newton returns. Smith needs to work on his consistency, clean up his mistakes and develop better chemistry with his receivers.


Spring practice start date: March 6
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

Offensive adjustments: Missouri might return some key pieces at skill positions, but the Tigers must replace three offensive linemen and will have to tweak some things to make their spread offense efficient enough to face SEC defenses. It helps that quarterback James Franklin is a runner and Missouri has speed and depth at receiver and running back, but the team must make subtle changes to combat the improved speed Missouri will see on defense, especially off the edge.

Rebuilding up front: The Tigers will be without three starters on the offensive and defensive lines. That isn't exactly what any SEC team would like, considering games are won in the trenches in this league. Fortunately for Missouri, both sides saw multiple guys get playing time last season. Keep an eye on defensive end Brad Madison. He was viewed as a defensive player of the year candidate in the Big 12 last year but was limited by a shoulder injury.

Wide receivers: Franklin had a heck of a 2011 season, but as he gets ready for 2012, he's still looking for a big-play threat in his receiving corps. T.J. Moe returns as the Tigers' leading receiver, while Marcus Lucas was fourth in receiving last year. Both have the potential to be elite in this league, but can one leave spring with the title of playmaker? Lucas showed flashes last year, but flashes only go so far. Missouri needs to find a definitive receiving threat.


Spring practice start date: March 12
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

Marcus Lattimore's health: His knee injury took place at the halfway point of the season, so he won't be 100 percent for a while. Still, the word is that he's ahead of schedule when it comes to rehabbing his knee. ACL injuries can be tough to manage, but with Lattimore's determination, he'll do everything possible to come back sooner than expected. He likely won't take contact this spring, but it'll be interesting to see whether the Gamecocks get much use out of him before summer.

Finding receiving options: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, there's more pressure on South Carolina's receiving corps. Outside of Jeffery, the Gamecocks didn't have consistently reliable options in 2011. That has to change this year, and it starts with a productive spring. Ace Sanders should get more reps, and the coaches are excited about the big-play ability that speedster Damiere Byrd possesses. Also, keep an eye out for Shamier Jeffery, Alshon's little brother.

Connor Shaw's development: Things couldn't have ended any better for South Carolina's quarterback last season. After an up-and-down start, he rebounded in the final three games with 896 combined yards passing and rushing and 11 touchdowns. Now, it's time for him to sharpen his passing skills and develop more confidence in his passing ability. Accomplishing that will help his receivers as well.


Spring practice start date: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:

New coaching feel: The Vols enter spring practice with some new faces on the coaching staff. Six new assistant coaches will make their spring debuts this year. The most important might be defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and running backs coach Jay Graham. Sunseri is working to make Tennessee more multiple in its approach, adding more 3-4 looks, while Graham will have to fix a struggling running game. Tennessee players will need to adjust to new coaching styles and buy in quickly this spring.

Running backs: No group at Tennessee struggled quite like Tennessee's running backs last fall. The Vols were ranked 116th nationally in rushing offense and recorded just 11 rushing touchdowns (nine from running backs). Tauren Poole is gone, which means Graham will first turn to Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal, who combined for just 414 yards and four touchdowns last year. Devrin Young and Tom Smith will have to step up, while Tennessee will get some use out of early enrollee Alden Hill.

Justin Hunter's health: Losing Hunter was the first of a few blows Tennessee's offense took last year. He's arguably Tennessee's best receiver and one of the best deep threats in this league. He suffered his ACL injury at the beginning of the season, and he's reportedly ahead of schedule but won't take any contact this spring. The goal is to have him running and cutting well at the end of the spring.


Spring practice start date: March 16
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

Jordan Rodgers' confidence: He enters spring as the quarterback for the Commodores, but he has to improve the mental part of his game. He let it get the best of him at times last year, especially in last season's bowl game. He can lose his rhythm quickly at times. He needs to work on improving his confidence and take more command of Vandy's huddle this spring. He has the skill to be a top quarterback in this league, but his head has to follow.

Warren Norman's health: A knee injury forced the running back to redshirt last year, but the good news is that he spent the fall strengthening his leg by participating in each practice. The hope is that he'll be ready to go this spring, but you'd imagine that since this is his second knee injury, the coaches won't push him too much. Getting him to sprint and cut with ease will be important to his rehab this spring.

Keeping the edge: James Franklin's first year as a head coach was a success, but it's important that the attitude and personality that made Vanderbilt so confident last year roll over to the spring. The loss in the bowl game might have stunted that personality growth a bit, but it's important that the Commodores get it back. It will go a long way toward keeping the progress going.

Spring preview: Western Division

February, 24, 2012
We all know that football season never ends in the SEC. Well, it’s cranking back up in earnest next week, at least the spring version, when LSU opens spring practice Thursday.

As usual, there’s a lot that’s new in the SEC, including coaches and even a pair of new teams. Missouri settles into the Eastern Division and Texas A&M into the Western Division.

And while the league lost its share of star players, plenty of star power returns.

We’ll kick off our SEC spring preview with the West, home to the past three national champions, including Alabama this past season.

So without further ado …


Spring practice starts: March 9
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • McCarron takes charge: As a first-year starter this past season, quarterback AJ McCarron was more of a caretaker on offense for the Crimson Tide and performed well in that role. But next season, he will be asked to do more and will also need to take on more of a leadership role. He played his best game on the biggest stage in the BCS National Championship Game, so he enters this spring with a lot of momentum. If he takes the kind of step Alabama fans hope he will, the Tide will be a load on offense again in 2012.
  • Shuffling the deck up front: Replacing veteran center William Vlachos won’t be easy. He’s been a rock in the middle of that offensive line for the past three seasons. Alabama could end up replacing him with another rock. Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones will get a long look at center this spring after playing left tackle this past season and left guard the season before that. One of the keys for the Tide up front is Cyrus Kouandjio, who had his freshman season cut short by a knee injury. Physically, he’s exactly what you’re looking for at left tackle. However it shakes out, the Tide will get their best five on the field.
  • Reloading on defense: Most of the marquee playmakers on defense are gone, and the Tide were gutted in the secondary. But junior college cornerbacks Travell Dixon and Deion Belue are on campus and will be tossed into the mix this spring. It’s also a big spring for rising sophomore safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, and Alabama will be looking for a few more finishers when it comes to rushing the passer and a nose guard to replace steady Josh Chapman. One option may be sliding Jesse Williams inside, although the Alabama coaches like what he gave them at end during his first season on campus.

Spring practice starts: March 14
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Getting defensive: There’s a reason Paul Haynes is now calling the shots on defense for Arkansas. The Hogs simply had not made the kind of strides on that side of the ball that coach Bobby Petrino felt like they needed to make if they were going to break through and play for a national championship. Haynes comes over from Ohio State and brings with him an attacking approach. Arkansas fans liked what they saw in the Cotton Bowl, but replacing departing seniors Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas won’t be easy.
  • Ask and you shall receive: The Big Three are gone -- Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs. They comprised the heart of the Hogs’ talented receiving corps for the past three seasons and made a lot of plays. Now, it’s Cobi Hamilton's time to be the leader with a whole cast of less familiar faces jockeying to get into that starting equation this spring. It’s a chance for guys like Marquel Wade, Quinta Funderburk, Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon to show what they can do. Don’t forget about Chris Gragg, who returns as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the SEC.
  • Jewel of the Knile: There were some rumblings that Knile Davis was going to give it a go at the end of last season after fracturing his ankle in the preseason. It didn’t make sense to rush things, though, and Davis should be fully healthy for the 2012 season. How much he does this spring remains to be seen, but you know it’s important for him to at least be out there and getting back into the feel of football. He was doing some things at the end of practice last season. Obviously, the most important thing is to make sure he’s ready to go come September when the season begins, but the spring will provide a glimpse of where he is with his recovery. If he returns to the same form as the 2010 season, Arkansas fans are salivating at the thought of that offense with Tyler Wilson slinging it and Davis running it.

Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive restructuring: It was a nightmarish season a year ago for Auburn’s defense, making it no surprise to anybody that Gene Chizik overhauled things on that side of the ball. Only defensive line coach Mike Pelton remains in the same position. Everything else will be new on defense, including Brian VanGorder taking over as coordinator. Willie Martinez joins the staff as the secondary coach, and Tommy Thigpen moves from coaching safeties to coaching linebackers. The Tigers return most of their key players on defense, and youth was certainly an issue last season. But VanGorder’s challenge is getting this unit to play with more consistency and to be more fundamentally sound, particularly when it comes to tackling.
  • Quarterback quandary: Scot Loeffler steps in as the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator, and right off the bat, he has to settle on a starting quarterback. In the past, Auburn has taken its time with that decision. We’ll see if that changes with Loeffler. Clint Moseley has the most experience and finished last season as Auburn’s starter, but rising sophomore Kiehl Frazier has been around long enough now that he should have his first legitimate chance to win the job. One of the things Frazier has to prove this spring is that he can throw the ball well enough to be the every-down starter. True freshman Zeke Pike is also on campus and will practice this spring.
  • Making plays: With Michael Dyer now at Arkansas State, the Tigers have to find somebody else to lean on offensively. Dyer was the Tigers’ offense last season. There are plenty of candidates. Onterio McCalebb would be at the top of that list, and Tigers are also keeping their fingers crossed that receivers Emory Blake and Trovon Reed can stay healthy this season. But finding roles for guys like Tre Mason and Quan Bray will be equally important this spring. Both are supremely talented with the ball in their hands, and the Tigers need to find ways to get them both a lot of touches next season.

Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: March 31

What to watch:
  • Forgetting the past: As memorable as last season was for LSU, the way it ended has been difficult for anybody on the Bayou to forget. The 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game was a serious downer after 13 straight wins against a killer schedule and still has a lot of LSU fans fuming. The best thing for the Tigers is simply getting back onto the practice field and putting the past behind them once and for all. This will be an extremely talented team once again, but a team that everyone will expect to be right back in the championship race in 2012. Developing the right kind of chemistry and leadership will be critical, and that starts this spring.
  • Passing fancy: LSU coach Les Miles has already said that the Tigers will throw the ball more next season, and a big reason is because Zach Mettenberger steps in at quarterback. The Tigers have been spotty in the passing game each of the past two seasons, but throwing the ball downfield and hitting big plays in the passing game is what Mettenberger does best. This spring will be his first chance to be “The Man” for the Tigers, and a big part of that is gaining the trust, confidence and faith in all of the players around him on offense. With all the pieces in place to be a strong running team again, LSU could really take off offensively if Mettenberger has a big season throwing the ball.
  • Looking for linebackers: Go back and look at LSU’s signing class, and it’s obvious the Tigers felt like they needed to reload at linebacker. There will be a ton of competition for starting spots this spring at linebacker with a lot of new faces in that mix. Defensive coordinator John Chavis puts a premium on speed, which means you don’t have to be 240 pounds to play linebacker for him. He’s also proven that he’s not afraid to play young guys if they’re ready. This will be a big spring for rising junior Tahj Jones, who has the speed and athleticism to be a perfect fit in Chavis’ system.

Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Tyler Russell’s time: With Chris Relf gone, it’s Russell’s time to show what he can do as the Bulldogs’ full-time starter. He made four starts toward the end of this past season, and throwing the football from the pocket is his forte. Russell still needs to polish up on all of the other things it takes to be a good quarterback in this league, and the Bulldogs also need to create some depth at the position. Look for Dak Prescott to get a lot of work this spring, especially with Russell still nursing the knee he banged up during bowl practice. Prescott redshirted last season and will be a redshirt freshman.
  • Drawing a line: The Bulldogs are eager to get junior college newcomers Dylan Holley and Charles Siddoway on the field and see where they fit in up front in the offensive line and if they’re going to be ready to go in the season opener. Holley projects as a center, but could also play guard. Siddoway will get a shot at the Bulldogs’ left tackle job. Sorting out things across the board on the offensive line will be a priority for Mississippi State this spring.
  • Safety valve: The good news is that Mississippi returns two experienced cornerbacks in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield, but veteran safety Charles Mitchell is gone. What’s more, Nickoe Whitley tore his Achilles tendon in the Alabama game and won’t be full strength this spring. So finding some reinforcements at safety will be important. Some of the younger guys like Jamerson Love, Dee Arrington and Jay Hughes will have big opportunities to show what they can do, and cornerback Darius Slay could also get a look at safety.

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The big Freeze: First-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze wants to run a power spread similar to what Arkansas State ran on offense last season. One of the toughest parts of that transition will be getting the offensive line up to speed. Freeze isn’t sure what Ole Miss has returning in the offensive line is tailor-made for a power offense, which means the Rebels’ coaches have some coaching and some recruiting to do. Addressing the offensive line, period, will be a big priority this spring, especially with offensive tackle Bobby Massie deciding to turn pro.
  • Wallace on display: One of the things that held the Rebels back last season on offense was that they were never able to get any consistency at the quarterback position. There are still a couple of different options, but junior college newcomer Bo Wallace is probably the front-runner to win the job. He’s on campus and will go through spring practice and isn’t a stranger to Freeze’s offense. Wallace started his career at Arkansas State and redshirted in 2010 when Freeze was the offensive coordinator there. More than anything, Freeze is looking for some real competition at the position with Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti all returning.
  • Recovering on defense: It was a rough season for the Rebels defensively a year ago, and a lot of that was because they were on the field for much of the season. Getting a healthy D.T. Shackelford back at linebacker is huge after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL suffered last spring. It will be interesting to see how much he does in this spring practice. Either way, just having him back out there should help from a leadership standpoint and getting that edge back defensively. The Rebels need to find more finishers up front defensively after finishing 110th nationally with just 13 sacks in 12 games. Creating more turnovers is also a must. Ole Miss finished with 17 a season ago, which was tied for 95th nationally.

Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Sumlin takes over: First-year coach Kevin Sumlin takes over in College Station, and the spring will be his first real chance to place his stamp on the program. He’s already said that all jobs are open and purposely didn’t watch any film from the 2011 regular season. He wants to make his own evaluations on the field, which means there will be some serious auditions going on this spring. Sumlin ran a wide-open spread offense at Houston because that’s the kind of personnel he had. He’ll certainly modify his system to fit his personnel this first season at Texas A&M, which likely means running the ball more given the Aggies’ returning experience in the offensive line and their stable of backs.
  • Quarterback hunting: One of Sumlin’s first orders of business is finding a quarterback, and there’s at least four candidates on campus. The only guy with any game experience (and it’s not much) is rising sophomore Jameill Showers, who backed up Ryan Tannehill last season. The other two returnees are Johnny Manziel and Matt Joeckel, both of whom will be redshirt freshmen. Manziel is more of a runner, while the 6-4, 230-pound Joeckel is a pocket passer. Sumlin knows at least a little bit about Showers, Manziel and Joeckel. He recruited all three at Houston. There’s also true freshman Matt Davis, who’s already enrolled and will go through spring practice.
  • Finishing the drill: As all Texas A&M fans are well aware, the Aggies weren’t what you could call a second-half team last season. In fact, they were far from it, and time and time again wilted in the second half. Sumlin has made it known that one of his goals is for the program to toughen up both physically and mentally. In five of the Aggies’ six losses last season, they were ahead at halftime or at some point in the second half. The defense absorbed much of the blame and definitely has to improve as Texas A&M makes the jump to the SEC, but Sumlin wants to make sure this spring that he instills a programwide toughness that carries over into the fall.