SEC: Alden Hill

The other day I was asked a question about the SEC that caught me off guard a little.

And no, it wasn't about Bob Stoops or scheduling.

I was asked if the league would be a quarterback or running back league in 2013. Obviously, when you think about the SEC, you think of pound-it-out, grind-it-out football. Games are won and lost in the trenches and running backs are usually a team's most coveted asset. The more the merrier, too.

But the SEC returns some pretty good experience at both positions.

At running back, the SEC will be without four of the league's top 10 rushers -- Eddie Lacy, Mike Gillislee, Zac Stacy and Kendial Lawrence -- from the 2012 season. The SEC will be without three of the top 10 passers -- Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson and Jordan Rodgers.

Now, my math skills tell me that seven top players at a position is better than six, but the SEC is deep at running back this season. Of the seven top quarterbacks returning, six reached 2,500 passing yards, while only two made it to 3,000 yards -- Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel. Nine true starters return (Kentucky's Maxwell Smith missed most of last season and ended the spring behind Jalen Whitlow). So five teams are breaking in new starters.

The SEC saw eight running backs hit the 1,000-yard mark last season. There's a chance the league could not only reach that number again but it could eclipse it.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon takes over for running back Eddie Lacy as "the guy" for Alabama.
Alabama lost Lacy -- and his 1,322 yards/17 touchdowns -- but rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon appears more than ready to take over as the lead back. He rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and it sounds like he looked even better as the guy. He'll also have help from fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake, who played in 12 games last year, and Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, who are both returning from season-ending knee injuries. Remember, Fowler had nearly 400 rushing yards in 2011. True freshman Derrick Henry, who was tearing it up this spring before his leg injury, should help once he's healthy this fall.

Oh, and Alabama will welcome three more backs this summer, including ESPN 150 member Alvn Kamara.

Texas A&M and Florida will also have the luxury of a packed backfield. The Aggies return leading rusher (for a running back) Ben Malena (808 yards), but will also have rising sophomore Trey Williams, and transfers Brandon Williams and Tra Carson. Brandon Williams might be the most talented of the bunch, and none of these guys should get too tired with all those legs to work with.

The Gators lost Gillislee, but sophomore-to-be Matt Jones had an excellent spring. He knew the playbook backward and forward and showed a more physical style. He already has the goal of getting 1,500 yards. But he'll have help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who had a very solid spring, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor (early enrollee) and Adam Lane. The coaches feel very good about all four contributing a lot this fall.

Georgia is a little thin at running back, but with Gurley and Keith Marshall returning, the Dawgs could have the best running back duo in the SEC -- maybe the country.

Here's a quick look at how other SEC teams currently fare at running back heading into the summer:

Arkansas

The Razorbacks lack experience at the position, but sophomore Jonathan Williams made good strides this spring and looks poised to be the top back. He'll also have incoming freshman Alex Collins to help him this fall.

Auburn

Tre Mason and his 1,000 yards return. He should have even more space to work with in Gus Malzahn's spread, which could spell trouble for defenses. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne had a solid spring, and Corey Grant returns.

Kentucky

Leading rushers Raymond Sanders (669 yards) and Jonathan George (504 yards) return with two talented youngsters to help out. Dyshawn Mobley had an excellent spring and Josh Clemons is back from a devastating knee injury he suffered in 2011.

LSU

Legal issues have Jeremy Hill's fall status unknown for the fall. If he returns, he gives the Tigers on of the top backs in the league. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue return, but LSU will be thin at the position without Hill.

Mississippi State

LaDarius Perkins returns after his 1,000-yard season. He's a complete back and can hurt teams running and catching. Josh Robinson returns after a productive year as the backup. Nick Griffin has a ton of skill, but still hasn't reached his potential.

Missouri

Lawrence is gone, but Henry Josey is back and says he's 100 percent after his devastating knee injury in 2011. He was one of the Big 12's best and most explosive running backs before his injury. The Tigers have plenty of bodies at running back and should get good use out of Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough.

Ole Miss

Leading rusher Jeff Scott (846) is back and he'll be working with some solid sophomores in I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. True freshman Mark Dodson had a productive spring as well. Along with the six returning lettermen, Ole Miss will have three more signees on campus this fall.

South Carolina

Mike Davis isn't trying to be Marcus Lattimore, but he did a good job of taking his spot this spring. The rising sophomore can pound it or break out for that home run play. Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are back from injuries and ESPN 150 member David Williams will be in town this fall.

Tennessee

Marlin Lane's off-field problems didn't help things this spring, but Butch Jones was very happy with the play of Alden Hill and Rajion Neal this spring. Lane has every chance to come back and if he does the Vols will have a pretty solid three-headed rushing monster.

Vanderbilt

Stacy is gone, but Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow had good springs in Nashville. Jerron Seymour gives Vandy another body to use, as well. Tate and Kimbrow both have big-play ability, but they'll have to stay healthy because there isn't a lot of experience behind them.
Tennessee running back Marlin Lane is still suspended, coach Butch Jones said during Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference.

"He still remains suspended from all team activities, but we've given him and provided him certain criteria that he has to meet for reinstatement," Jones said. "Is he on that path to doing that? Absolutely."

Lane was suspended this month for disciplinary reasons, but Jones still seems optimistic that Lane, who was second on the team with 658 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2012, will return this fall.

"We're just taking it one day at a time with Marlin," Jones said. "He knows what he has to do to be reinstated at this time."

With Lane out for Saturday's spring game, backup running back Alden Hill rushed for a game-high 101 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry in the process. Rajion Neal, who led the Vols with 708 rushing yards and five touchdowns last season, registered 34 yards on 11 carries Saturday.

"Alden Hill had a tremendous spring for us," Jones said. "He's one of those individuals who kind of quietly kept getting better and bringing a high level of consistency each and every day. I thought Rajion Neal had a very good spring as well."

Lane was expected to grab a chunk of the carries this fall for a rushing offense that improved solidly from 2011 to 2012. Having a three-headed rushing attack would be huge for Jones in his first year, especially with so much inexperience at quarterback and wide receiver.

Opening spring camp: Tennessee

March, 26, 2012
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Schedule: Tennessee begins spring practice Monday and concludes with the Orange and White Game on April 21.

What's new: There was a lot of movement on coach Derek Dooley's staff this offseason. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville this spring. Sal Sunseri arrives as the Vols' new defensive coordinator after serving as Alabama's linebackers coach the previous three seasons. After being a defensive assistant at Alabama from 2010-11 and the defensive backs coach at Central Florida for a couple months, Derrick Ansley joined Tennessee's staff to coach the Vols' cornerbacks. Charlie Coiner is Tennessee's new special teams/tight ends coach. Josh Conklin left The Citadel to coach Tennessee's safeties, and Jay Graham left South Carolina to return to his alma mater to coach running backs. John Palermo and Sam Pittman round out Tennessee's new hires. Palermo will coach the Vols' defensive line, and Pittman will coach the offensive line. Tennessee also welcomed seven early enrollees -- Cody Blanc (wide receiver), Alden Hill (running back), Justin Meredith (tight end), Nathan Peterman (quarterback), Darrington Sentimore and Trent Taylor (defensive line), and Tino Thomas (defensive back).

On the mend: Wide receiver Justin Hunter and defensive back/linebacker Brent Brewer are both coming off of ACL injuries from last fall and will be limited during the spring. Linebacker Curt Maggitt, nose guard Daniel Hood and defensive back Prentiss Waggner all had offseason shoulder surgery and will be non-contact this spring. Offensive lineman Zach Fulton will be limited this spring as he tries to recover from a stress fracture suffered a couple of weeks ago during offseason workouts. Offensive lineman JerQuari Schofield and defensive lineman Corey Miller will not be practicing for academic reasons.

On the move: Dooley plans to move a few players around this spring. With Tennessee moving to a 3-4 defense, the team is adding to its linebacker depth. Brewer (defensive back), Channing Fugate (fullback), Jacques Smith (defensive lineman), and Willie Bohannon (defensive lineman) are all working at linebacker this spring. Smith and Bohannon will compete at the Jack linebacker spot. Maggitt is also moving to inside linebacker. Rajion Neal is moving exclusively to running back after playing both wide receiver and running back last season. Waggner is moving back to cornerback after playing safety last season. James Stone, a center last season, will play some guard and tackle this spring.

Questions: The Vols return a lot of bodies on defense, but with a new coordinator, new scheme, and several position changes, there will be starting jobs available. With the 3-4 coming in, Tennessee will be in search of a reliable nose guard. Maurice Couch played there more as last season progressed, but Tennessee's staff thinks very highly of incoming junior college noseguard Daniel McCullers, who will be on campus this summer. Having Hood limited also means depth is an issue there this spring. There is still a little uncertainty in Tennessee's secondary. Waggner moving to cornerback will help with boundary play, but it takes a solid player out of the safety spot. Redshirt senior Rod Wilks takes over at free safey, but has no career starts. The running back position also enters the spring with questions surrounding it. The Vols were last in the SEC in rushing last season, and lose starter Tauren Poole. Only three lettermen return, and none are proven. Neal and Marlin Lane will start spring getting the majority of reps, but they combined for just 414 rushing yards on 102 carries last season.

Key battle: Injuries to Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray certainly hurt Tennessee's offense last season, but being unable to run the ball effectively really kept the Vols from overcoming their struggles in the passing game. There is no question that Tennessee's run game, which ranked 116th nationally (90.1) last season, needs a major upgrade. Lane and Neal will get the first shots at earning the job this spring, but having Hill on campus early will definitely add some depth, and he should push both this spring. Sophomore Devrin Young, who rushed for 25 yards last season, will also compete for time this spring. Tennessee can't go another season without having much of a running game to speak of if it wants to take a step forward and compete for an SEC East title.

Don't forget about: Tennessee will get back a familiar face on defense this spring when linebacker Herman Lathers returns. After fracturing his ankle last June, Lathers missed all of the 2011 season, but will be full go this spring. Tennessee needs more linebackers, and adding a veteran like Lathers will help. Tennessee's staff is also excited about what Sentimore can bring to the defensive end spot. He played one season at Alabama before going the JUCO route in 2011. He's on campus now, and is listed on the Vols' two-deep at one of the end spots. Sentimore has a good shot at earning a starting spot this spring.

Breaking out: The staff has high expectations for offensive lineman Antonio Richardson. The sophomore spent 2011 playing on special teams, but after being such a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, the coaches are expecting him to compete for playing time even though the Vols return all five starters. With Fulton limited this spring, Richardson will get his chance to impress. Also, Lane is a player who has the physical tools to make a big jump this spring. He was a top high school prospect, and now has a chance to claim the running back spot for himself. He's a big body with pretty good speed, but Lane needs to work on his consistency.

All eyes on: Bray has yet to play a full season at Tennessee. A thumb injury kept him out for half of the 2011 season, but he appears to be back to full health. He wasn't great when he returned at the end of last season, but rust will do that to a quarterback. Now is a chance for Bray to get back into the swing of things and get more comfortable after his injury. It's also time for him to improve his leadership skills. Those have been called into question during his two years in Knoxville, but now that he's officially a veteran, it's time for him to take hold of this team. He has weapons around him to help his passing numbers, but Bray should look to improve this team as a whole by leading by both example and with his words.

Spring preview: Eastern Division

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

FLORIDA

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.

GEORGIA

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.

KENTUCKY

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.

MISSOURI

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.

SOUTH CAROLINA

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.

TENNESSEE

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.

VANDERBILT

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.

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