SEC spring preview: Western Division

February, 22, 2011
2/22/11
9:00
AM ET
Mississippi State hits the practice field next Friday to kick off spring practice in the SEC, and several other teams will follow the next week.

Football is back, and here’s a snapshot of what to watch this spring in the Western Division:

ALABAMA

Start of spring practice: March 21
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • McCarron or Sims? If you’re looking for one of the more intriguing position battles of the spring, it doesn’t get much better than A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims battling it out for the Alabama starting quarterback job. Both players are extremely talented and were highly rated coming out of high school, and they’re vying to replace a guy who was the essence of precision, smarts and productivity all wrapped into one -- Greg McElroy. McCarron played a little bit last season as a redshirt freshman, while Sims redshirted. We’ll see if one separates himself enough this spring for Nick Saban to name a starter.
  • Back in the SEC: In addition to settling on a starting quarterback, the other thing the Crimson Tide would like to determine this spring is who will be protecting that quarterback from the left tackle position. Junior college signee Aaron Douglas is probably the guy to beat. He’s already on campus after attending Arizona Western College last year and drawing a wide array of interest from schools. He started his career at Tennessee, where he earned Freshman All-American honors in 2009 while playing right tackle for the Vols.
  • Rushing the passer: The Crimson Tide would like to amp up their pass rush next season, which means getting there without having to blitz all the time. Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw finished last season on fire and lived in the opposing backfield his last two games. This is an important spring for middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who’s also been used outside in pass-rushing situations. Hightower was coming off reconstructive knee surgery last season and didn’t appear to be all the way back. He’s eager to show this spring that he is all the way back and poised to be an All-SEC player again.
ARKANSAS

Start of spring practice: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Mr. Wilson: A year ago, Tyler Wilson got a chance to show what he could do with the first unit because Ryan Mallett broke a bone in his foot and missed the spring after undergoing surgery. This spring, it’s Wilson’s show again, although Mallett won’t be coming back this time. Wilson, a sophomore, is the odds-on favorite to win Arkansas’ starting quarterback job. He passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn last season on the road after Mallett was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he thinks Wilson can be a terrific quarterback, but wants to see him beat out Brandon Mitchell and Jacoby Walker for the job before handing him the keys to the Hogs’ offense.
  • Getting defensive: The Hogs’ defense took the kind of step last season that was required to get them to 10 wins. They went from 89th in the country in total defense in 2009 to 36th in the country a year ago. The key figures from that defense return next season, and Petrino has said he thinks Arkansas will be even better on defense in 2011 than it was last season. Finding a replacement for Anthony Leon at one of the linebacker spots will be important this spring, and the Hogs could still use some more speed in the secondary.
  • Fourth-quarter blues: Special emphasis was placed on winning the close games last season and getting it done in the fourth quarter. That will be a familiar cry on the practice field again this spring. All three of Arkansas' losses last season came on the heels of fourth-quarter breakdowns. The Hogs couldn’t hold a lead at home against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide rallied from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to win. At Auburn, the Hogs were snowed under by a 28-point Auburn avalanche in the fourth quarter. And in the Sugar Bowl, the Hogs couldn’t capitalize in the final minutes despite blocking a punt and recovering inside the Ohio State 20.
AUBURN

Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Playing with a target: Auburn emerged from the shadows last season to go 14-0 and win its first national championship since 1957. Nobody really saw the Tigers coming. Now, even though they lost great players the caliber of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, everybody will be circling the Auburn game on their calendars. With so many new faces in key positions, this team will have to establish its own identity and be prepared to get everybody’s best shot every weekend.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: It’s hard to imagine Auburn playing a game without departed senior offensive line starters Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Byron Isom and Ryan Pugh. They were together so long and made so many career starts alongside each other. This spring, the Tigers start the process of replacing their four rocks up front. The lone holdover from the BCS National Championship Game is right tackle Brandon Mosley, although A.J. Greene was also a starter last season until he injured his ankle. Redshirt freshman Ed Christian is definitely somebody to watch at one of the guard spots, and don’t forget about junior John Sullen, who can play guard or tackle.
  • Trotter in the race: Even as great as Newton turned out to be, coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn were careful to make sure Newton was clearly the guy before naming him the starter at the conclusion of spring practice and heading into the summer. Junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley were two of the guys battling with Newton last spring. But this spring, they will be battling each other for the starting quarterback job, a battle that’s likely to continue into preseason practice once heralded true freshman Kiehl Frazier arrives on campus this summer.
LSU

Start of spring practice: March 11
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby: Perhaps the most closely watched quarterback battle this spring will occur at LSU, where seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will try and hold off talented junior college signee Zach Mettenberger. Jefferson played better toward the end of last season, but the Tigers’ passing game was nonexistent for much of the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mettenberger put up huge numbers in junior college last season after starting his career at Georgia. He obviously didn't sign with LSU to sit and watch.
  • Kragthorpe to the rescue: Former Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe takes over as LSU’s offensive coordinator and does so after the Tigers finished 11th in the SEC last season in total offense and last in the SEC in 2009. Kragthorpe wants to make sure LSU is getting the ball in the hands of its best playmakers, but he also wants to make sure the Tigers are balanced. Their running game improved dramatically last season. With Stevan Ridley leaving early for the NFL draft, Spencer Ware is next in line after rushing for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
  • Special-teams makeover: The Tigers were gutted on special teams. Even special teams coordinator Joe Robinson left to take a job on North Carolina’s staff. Also gone are All-SEC place-kicker Josh Jasper, All-SEC return specialist Patrick Peterson and punter Derek Helton, who was second in the SEC with a punting average of 45.7 yards per game. LSU will be looking to fill voids across the board this spring in its kicking game, which was a big reason the Tigers won 11 games last season.
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Start of spring practice: March 4
Spring game: April 9
End of spring practice: April 11

What to watch:
  • New defensive chief: Manny Diaz was hired away by Texas to be the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator, meaning co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson is now the guy running things in Starkville. Diaz and Wilson worked together closely last season, so it’s doubtful much will change. Dan Mullen did bring in Geoff Collins to serve as co-defensive coordinator to Wilson and also coach the Bulldogs' linebackers.
  • Lining up linebackers: The Bulldogs lost all three of their starting linebackers from last season, including their top two tacklers in Chris White and K.J. Wright. Emmanuel Gatling was the other starter, although he shared time with Cameron Lawrence at one of the outside spots. So while Lawrence might have first dibs on one of those three starting jobs this spring, the competition will be fierce. Redshirt freshmen Felando Bohanna and Christian Holmes are two to watch in the middle. Chris Hughes played some last season as a true freshman on the outside, and third-year sophomore Michael Hunt will also be in the mix for a starting job.
  • Relf’s supporting cast: Chris Relf enters his senior season as one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC, and he’s also one of the league’s most improved players. The Bulldogs’ top threats in the running game return, but Relf will have several new guys he’ll be hooking up with in the passing game. Junior receiver Chad Bumphis has been working out and is expected back this spring after missing the Gator Bowl with a broken collarbone. The Bulldogs also redshirted several receivers last season they have high hopes for, including Malcolm Johnson, Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis. Getting a healthy Marcus Green back at tight end will also make Relf's life easier.
OLE MISS

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Lee to call plays: The last time Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t call his own plays was 2007 when David Lee called them during Nutt’s final season at Arkansas. Well, Lee has reunited with Nutt at Ole Miss for the 2011 season after coming over from the Miami Dolphins, and Nutt has again turned over the offensive play-calling duties to Lee in order to spend more time focusing on other areas of the team. Lee will build what the Rebels do offensively around an underrated stable of running backs, led by Brandon Bolden.
  • Quarterback questions: Jeremiah Masoli popped in at the last minute a year ago. But this time, it appears that the guy who separates himself this spring will be the Rebels’ quarterback for the season. Junior Nathan Stanley has the edge in experience. Randall Mackey is probably the most athletic, but will be limited this spring after undergoing knee surgery. Junior college signee Zack Stoudt is already enrolled and also eyeing the starting job, while West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti will be in the middle of the race as well if he receives a waiver from the NCAA and is allowed to play this coming season.
  • Building back the defense: After back-to-back seasons in 2008 and 2009 when Ole Miss’ defense was outstanding, Tyrone Nix’s unit came crashing down last season. More than anything, it’s a group that needs to regain its confidence this spring and play with that same attacking mentality that made the Rebels so effective on defense the previous two seasons. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford is a leader and the kind of guy you win with in this league, but Nix & Co. need to find a few more like him this spring, especially in the secondary.

Chris Low | email

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