What to watch in the SEC East this spring

February, 22, 2010
2/22/10
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Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues facing each SEC East team heading into the spring:

FLORIDA

Spring practice starts: March 17

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • Meyer’s involvement – Florida coach Urban Meyer says he will be refreshed enough to be back in time for the start of spring practice. That means his leave of absence will have lasted all of a month. It will be interesting to see how involved he is, because Meyer has always been such a hands-on coach in the past. In particular, does he back away from his role as special teams coordinator? Since Meyer arrived at Florida in 2005, the Gators have had some of the best special teams in the country. And with so many new faces on offense next season, special teams and/or field position will be more important than ever. The Gators will lose something if Meyer’s not running the show in the kicking game.
  • Brantley takes the reins – The Tim Tebow era is over, and now it’s John Brantley’s turn to put his stamp on Florida’s offense. This will be the second spring that he’s gotten a lot of the work with the first-team offense. He was extremely impressive last spring when Tebow was taking it easy with his shoulder. Obviously, Brantley is a different kind of quarterback than Tebow. He’s a pure passer who’s going to beat teams with his arm and not his legs. That’s not to say he’s a statue in the pocket, but he’s also not going to be bulling over safeties on third-and-2. As much as anything, Brantley needs to establish himself as one of the leaders this spring. With Maurkice Pouncey, Riley Cooper and Tebow all gone, new leaders have to emerge on offense.
  • Finding more playmakers – An even more important story this spring than Brantley taking over is who’s going to have his back on offense. In other words, who can he count on to make plays? Redshirt freshman Andre Debose is certainly a guy the Gators are counting on at receiver after undergoing hamstring surgery last year. Running back Emmanuel Moody will get a chance to be the workhorse on the ground, and Chris Rainey is moving to the slot position, meaning he’ll line up some at running back and some at receiver. Replacing Aaron Hernandez at tight end isn’t going to be easy. Freshman Gerald Christian enrolled early, and he will push redshirt freshmen Jordan Reed and Desmond Parks.
GEORGIA

Spring practice starts: March 4

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • Quarterback competition – With 10 starters coming back on offense, the quarterback race will be where all the drama is this spring at Georgia. Nobody has any meaningful experience to speak of. Junior Logan Gray played in spots last season. He’s a terrific athlete and may be better suited to play another position at some point, but he’s not giving up on quarterback. The two redshirt freshmen, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, both have their strengths. Murray is the more versatile of the two, while Mettenberger is a bigger pocket passer who can really throw it. We’ll see if anybody separates himself this spring or if the competition goes into preseason practice. Because of his versatility, Murray is probably the favorite. Mettenberger might still be a year away.
  • Implementation of the 3-4 – New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham takes over a Georgia defense that gave up big plays and points in bunches the last two seasons. The Bulldogs will shift from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 this spring, meaning some defensive ends will be moving to outside linebacker. The Bulldogs lost three senior defensive tackles, so somebody needs to step forward at nose tackle. DeAngelo Tyson may be the guy there. Justin Houston, who had 7.5 sacks last season, looks like a good fit at outside linebacker after playing end a year ago. Cornelius Washington is another guy who could blossom in the 3-4 as a pass-rusher. He has great speed and was always a bit thin at defensive end.
  • Replenishing the secondary – The Bulldogs lost three starters in the secondary, including both safeties. The decision by Reshad Jones to turn pro early really hurt their depth. This is a big spring for sophomore cornerback Branden Smith, who made more of an impact last season on offense. The top candidates at safety are Baccari Rambo and Jakar Hamilton, a junior college transfer who enrolled early and will go through spring practice. Down the road, top 2010 signee Alec Ogletree will be a factor somewhere, either at safety or linebacker. After finishing 10th in the SEC in pass defense last season and allowing a league-high 25 touchdown passes, the Bulldogs have to improve across the board when it comes to defending the pass.
KENTUCKY

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Settling on a quarterback – All eyes will be on the quarterbacks this spring. Morgan Newton finished last season as the starter and struggled through the normal growing pains any true freshman goes through in the SEC. Newton wasn’t very consistent throwing the ball, but the Wildcats were also careful in what they asked him to do. Senior Mike Hartline opened last season as the starter, but went down with a knee injury. He clearly has the most experience. We’ll see how his knee holds up. The third guy in the Wildcats’ quarterback derby is redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski. He tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder toward the end of his senior season in high school and wasn’t healthy enough to compete for the starting job last fall. He is now, though, and might be further along mentally at this stage of his career than any quarterback the Wildcats have had, according to first-year coach Joker Phillips.
  • Big shoes to fill on defense – Freshman linebacker Qua Huzzie will make his debut after injuring his shoulder in the preseason a year ago. He could be Micah Johnson’s replacement in the middle. Sophomores Ridge Wilson and Ronnie Sneed and redshirt freshman Will Johnson are three others who will get a lot of work at linebacker, especially with Sam Maxwell gone. Junior college safety Josh Gibbs is already in school and will get a shot right away in the secondary. Corey Peters was a force at tackle last season. But now that he’s gone, the Wildcats need Shane McCord and Mark Crawford to step up and be every-down players in the middle.
  • Rebuilding the offensive line – The Wildcats have to replace four starters on the offensive line. The only returning starter is junior guard Stuart Hines, who has All-SEC potential. The good news is that there are seven lettermen returning, so there is some experience. Junior Billy Joe Murphy will probably get first crack at left tackle. He started three games in 2008. Senior Brad Durham, who’s started seven games over the last two seasons, is the front-runner at right tackle. Sophomore Larry Warford played some last season as a true freshman and is a good bet to start at the other guard opposite Hines. The center position will be a battle between senior Marcus Davis and sophomore Matt Smith, although junior Jake Lanefski could move to center when he returns from a knee injury in August. Lanefski has starting experience as a guard.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • Sorting it out in the offensive line – For all the issues that have hounded Steve Spurrier since he took over at South Carolina in 2005, none have plagued him more than the Gamecocks’ inability to consistently get it done in the offensive line. Heading into next season, there’s enough talent in place for the Gamecocks to make a run in the East if they play better up front. Shawn Elliott, who comes over from Appalachian State, steps in as Spurrier’s third offensive line coach in the last three years. He inherits three returning starters, but nothing is set in stone. Some new faces to watch are tackle Rokevious Watkins and guard Nick Allison, both of whom redshirted last season. There’s a chance T.J. Johnson could move to center. However it shakes out, this is the telltale area for the Gamecocks in 2010.
  • Getting a clear plan on offense – This encompasses so many things, including finding some continuity in the offensive line and getting continued improvement from junior quarterback Stephen Garcia. But the other big component is establishing who the principal play-caller is going to be this fall and getting the chemistry down on the offensive staff. Spurrier has talked about getting better in the running game, but the Gamecocks have to commit to being a better running team, part of which means calling more running plays. Steve Spurrier Jr. has called the bulk of the plays the last two years. And while play-calling on game day can often times be overrated, the guy the South Carolina fans would like to see calling all of the plays is the Head Ball Coach.
  • Replacing Norwood and Geathers -- Between them, Eric Norwood and Clifton Geathers made their share of big plays for the Gamecocks last season, particularly Norwood. Shaq Wilson will likely move from middle linebacker to Norwood’s weak side spot. Wilson can blitz like a safety, and South Carolina will put in some special blitz packages for him. Reggie Bowens and Tony Straughter are two other guys to watch at that spot. At Geathers’ end position, redshirt freshman Chaz Sutton and sophomore Devin Taylor both have a ton of potential. And with Cliff Matthews on the other side, the Gamecocks have a chance to be really good on the defensive line if Sutton and Taylor come through.
TENNESSEE

Spring practice starts: March 18

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Quarterback competition – If experience in the program counts for anything, then senior Nick Stephens will have a leg up this spring in Tennessee’s starting quarterback competition. But for the third straight year, the Vols will have a new guy calling the shots on offense. Derek Dooley takes over the Vols’ program, and Jim Chaney will be his offensive coordinator. Chaney was under-utilized on the previous staff. One of the things Chaney will be looking for from Stephens is increased accuracy. Freshman Tyler Bray will also get a chance to show what he can do this spring. A heralded prospect from California, Bray is already enrolled in school. His first order of business is bulking up and getting stronger. The Vols also brought in junior college newcomer Matt Simms, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Chris Simms.
  • Finding offensive linemen – The anchor of Tennessee’s offensive line is sophomore tackle Aaron Douglas, who was a Freshman All-American in 2009. The only problem is that last season was his first on the offensive line after playing tight end in high school, and he’s the so-called veteran of the unit. He’ll probably shift to left tackle this spring after playing on the right side last season. After Douglas, it’s a scramble. Freshman Ja’Wuan James, who enrolled early and will go through spring practice, will get every chance to win a job. It’s critical for the Vols that JerQuari Schofield and Dallas Thomas have big springs. Tennessee’s going to need both of them to play next season. The center position is a huge mystery. Victor Thomas moved over from defense and could be the answer.
  • Finding leaders on defense – The backbone of Tennessee’s defense is gone in the form of Eric Berry, Dan Williams and Rico McCoy. All three were defensive playmakers and leaders. As new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox takes over, he’ll be looking for both playmakers and leaders this spring. Senior defensive ends Chris Walker and Ben Martin fit the bill in both areas. Getting Nick Reveiz back at middle linebacker after he tore his ACL last season is also a big lick for the Vols, although he’ll be limited this spring. The secondary is wide open. Not only is Berry gone, but Dennis Rogan turned pro, too. Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson is the most talented guy back there. Taking care of business off the field may be his greatest challenge. This is also a big spring for sophomore safety Darren Myles Jr., who could be a breakout player for the Vols.
VANDERBILT

Spring practice starts: March 17

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • Larry Smith has some competition – Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson hasn’t given up on Smith, not in the least bit. Most of the time last season, Smith simply didn’t have enough help around him to be successful. But what Johnson does want is for somebody to push Smith, which is the reason the Commodores brought in junior college quarterback Jordan Rodgers in January. Smith missed the final three games a year ago after tearing his hamstring and will have to play well to hold off Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The best scenario would be for one of those guys to win the job in the spring so that decision isn’t still hovering out there throughout the summer and into preseason practice.
  • Offensive line continuity – The Commodores have to replace the left side of their offensive line as well as center Bradley Vierling, who was a two-time captain. Left tackle Thomas Welch played in the Senior Bowl, so that tells you that Vanderbilt is losing some talent at that position. James Williams returns at right tackle after breaking his ankle in the second game a year ago and missing the rest of the season. Sophomore Ryan Seymour is the favorite to replace Welch at left tackle. This will be an important spring for him after moving over from defense last spring. Junior Kyle Fischer can play guard or tackle and is one of the most talented offensive linemen on the roster. Four younger guys to watch are redshirt freshmen Justin Cabbagestalk, Wesley Johnson and Mylon Brown along with sophomore Jabo Burrow.
  • Passing game – Johnson moved some duties around on his offensive coaching staff this offseason. Quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kiser will now be calling all of the offensive plays. His most pressing duty will be trying to establish some semblance of a passing game, which starts with identifying receivers. Anybody who shows the ability to make a play down the field this spring will get a chance come fall. The Commodores, who will continue to try and develop their no-huddle offense, have several promising young running backs and look set back there. It will be interesting to see how they incorporate redshirt freshman Wesley Tate into the offense. But overall, they desperately need to build some confidence and some momentum in the passing game this spring if they’re going to improve offensively in 2010.

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