SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 22, 2011
2/22/11
10:00
AM ET
Our SEC spring preview continues with a look at the Eastern Division:

FLORIDA

Start of spring practice: March 16
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Stamp of Muschamp: All eyes will be on Will Muschamp as he sets foot for the first time on a practice field as a head coach. He takes over for Urban Meyer, who won two national championships in six seasons at Florida, but let it get away from him last season. Muschamp’s first order of business is restoring that edge to the Florida program that made the Gators so successful under Meyer. It was a disjointed bunch a year ago with some obvious chemistry problems, but the talent is in place for Muschamp to come in and win right away if he can get everybody on the same page.
  • New life for Brantley: With Charlie Weis taking over as the Gators’ offensive coordinator, he plans to install a pro-style offense, which fits senior quarterback John Brantley a lot better than the spread attack the Gators tried to run with Brantley rotating in and out last season. Tim Tebow was a hit in that offense. Brantley was woefully out of place. But in this new offense, he gets a chance to do what he does best -- throw the ball from the pocket. He’ll also have true freshman Jeff Driskel pushing him every step of the way. Driskel, ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country, enrolled early and will go through spring practice.
  • Second time around: Remember that freshman class the Gators signed last year that was being hailed as perhaps the most talented ever? We start to find out a lot more about those guys this spring, and the Gators will need a lot more production out of that crowd, too. We’re talking about defensive linemen Ronald Powell and Sharrif Floyd, running back Mack Brown, receiver Chris Dunkley, safety Matt Elam and cornerback Joshua Shaw, to name a few. It’s time for some of the Gators’ younger talents to make their presence felt.
GEORGIA

Start of spring practice: March 10
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Murray’s ankle: There was a collective sigh of relief across the state of Georgia when it was learned that Aaron Murray’s ankle injury wasn’t more serious than it was. The Bulldogs’ sophomore quarterback sprained his ankle playing soccer this past weekend and says he will be ready to go for spring practice. Still, don’t look for him to overdo it, particularly early, which means sophomore Hutson Mason may get some increased reps with the first unit. This will be Murray’s third spring at Georgia, and he’s going to get plenty of work. Something says, though, that his soccer days are over.
  • Elevating the O-line’s play: Most Georgia fans would readily tell you that the Bulldogs’ play in the offensive line each of the past two seasons has been disappointing. There’s a new guy calling the shots up there this spring, former Alabama All-SEC performer Will Friend. Look for Friend to move some guys around and try to settle on the best combination. Cordy Glenn will get a shot at tackle, and Kenarious Gates may, too, after playing some at right guard last season as a true freshman. However it shakes out, the Bulldogs need to play with more consistency up front next season.
  • Lining up linebackers: Losing outside linebacker Justin Houston early to the NFL draft was a big blow. He was Georgia’s finisher on the edge in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense and was second in the SEC in sacks last season. Jarvis Jones, a talented transfer from Southern California, is probably the closest thing the Bulldogs have to Houston, which means he’ll probably start out on the outside. Jones also worked some on the inside last season. Senior Richard Samuel needs a big spring and could really help fill the void inside.
KENTUCKY

Start of spring practice: March 30
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Moving to the 3-4: Rick Minter came aboard as Kentucky’s new defensive coordinator prior to the bowl game last December and will continue the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 this spring. The Wildcats still need to recruit to this defense, in particular find a bigger nose guard, before going full scale to the 3-4. But Minter would like to create a hybrid position where he can take a linebacker and play him some at end, thus giving the Wildcats more flexibility. Kentucky isn't short on talent at linebacker, and junior Ridge Wilson could be a candidate for that hybrid role.
  • Newton’s law: Mike Hartline’s eligibility has run out, and Ryan Mossakowski is transferring. That leaves Morgan Newton as the Wildcats’ quarterback of record. Heading into his junior season, he needs a big spring with the focus clearly being on becoming a more consistent passer, while also establishing himself as a leader. He needs to prove it to the coaches. But more importantly, he needs to prove it to his teammates that he’s the guy to lead this team.
  • Finding the end zone: Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews combined for 22 touchdowns last season, but they’re now gone. Derrick Locke, when healthy, was one of the more dangerous breakaway threats in the SEC at running back. He’s also gone. The good news is that Kentucky returns four offensive line starters, but one of the priorities this spring will be identifying guys who can get the ball into the end zone, which is where Raymond Sanders, Brandon Gainer, CoShik Williams and La'Rod King all come in. Getting junior receiver Gene McCaskill back will help, too. He missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in preseason practice.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Start of spring practice: March 15
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Shoring up the pass coverage: Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant coach for the defense, is determined to get to the bottom of the Gamecocks’ issues covering the pass last season. They’re plenty talented in the secondary, but were beaten way too often and gave up far too many big plays. One change is Akeem Auguste moving back to cornerback from safety. Auguste played cornerback two years ago. The Gamecocks also hope redshirt freshman Victor Hampton can provide some coverage help when they go to extra defensive backs.
  • Retooling up front: Gone are four senior offensive linemen who started at some point last season. Of course, some of the best news for the Gamecocks is that they’re going to have the same offensive line coach for the second year in a row. When Shawn Elliott arrived last year, he was the third different offensive line coach at South Carolina in as many years. He did a nice job with the Gamecocks’ offensive line in his first season and was able to mix and match when guys were injured. Redshirt freshman A.J. Cann will have a chance to win one of the starting guard jobs, while junior college signee Kaleb Broome is already on campus and will vie for the right tackle spot.
  • Sustaining success: The Gamecocks made history last season by playing in their first SEC championship game. They’re likely to be favored in the East race again in 2011, but are they ready to embrace that role and properly manage those expectations? The leaders need to take charge of this team this spring and make sure there’s no complacency from simply having gotten to Atlanta last season. The goal now is getting there and winning a first-ever SEC championship. The Gamecocks have the returning talent to make that happen, but do they possess everything else it takes to win a title in this league?
TENNESSEE

Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Growing as an offense: The Vols were so young on offense last season that a lot of the time they were merely trying to keep their heads above water. But with the three true freshman offensive line starters a year older and quarterback Tyler Bray going through his second spring practice and being able to get his timing down that much more with receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, Tennessee has a chance to really have its offensive attack humming by the fall. Having everybody together this spring and working under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney should only expedite the process.
  • Living in limbo: Janzen Jackson, the Vols’ star junior safety, will not be around for spring ball. He’s withdrawn from school this semester to deal with personal problems. Tennessee hopes to get him back for the fall, but there are no guarantees. Brent Brewer, a former minor league baseball player who really came on at safety the latter half of last season, is suspended indefinitely from all team activities following his arrest on a domestic assault charge. The Vols signed two junior college defensive backs, Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier, but they won’t be on campus until this summer.
  • Beefing up the front: The Vols really like promising defensive ends Jacques Smith, Corey Miller and Willie Bohannon and will be looking to bolster their pass rush with those three coming off the edge. Senior Malik Jackson will likely stay inside after moving from end to tackle last season and leading the Vols in tackles for loss (11) and sacks (5). But there’s still a huge need for more muscle inside. Junior college signee Maurice Couch will certainly help, although he doesn’t arrive until this summer. Montori Hughes is coming off a disappointing 2010 season. The Vols will be looking for all the bodies they can find inside this spring.
VANDERBILT

Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Franklin’s debut: With the exception of offensive line coach Herb Hand, Vanderbilt will have an entirely new coaching staff running the show this spring. It will be the first collective look that new coach James Franklin has had at his team. It’s also his first chance to evaluate his returning talent, not to mention the returning players’ first chance to get a feel for Franklin and the new assistants on the practice field. Franklin has vowed that he won’t be afraid to take some risks and that the Commodores will be aggressive.
  • Smith’s time to shine: As quarterback Larry Smith enters his senior season, his slate is wiped clean with this new staff. He won’t stray too far from new quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne this spring and gets a chance to take an early lead in the quarterback battle before the three true freshmen arrive this spring. Jordan Rodgers will be limited this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery last year, but will also get a chance to prove to the new staff that he’s the guy to pump some life into a passing game that finished 105th nationally last season.
  • Identifying playmakers: The Commodores need to generate more big plays in 2011, and that goes for all three areas of the game. This is a big spring for younger receivers Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause and Chris Boyd. And on defense, Vanderbilt needs to find a few more finishers in terms of getting to the quarterback. The Commodores were last in the SEC with 20 sacks last season and were also last with 15 forced turnovers. Creating more short fields for the offense and making more happen on special teams will be a must next season.

Chris Low | email

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