With spring practice wrapping up in the SEC this past weekend, ESPN reporters Alex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf discuss which players took the biggest step forward this spring.
With Arkansas and Tennessee both holding their spring games this past Saturday, the SEC is officially finished with spring football.
Now we get to take a look back at what happened, from the scrimmages to the injuries to the standouts.
Today, SEC reporters Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough each pick their team that made the most progress this spring.
Scarborough: Spring football is a hard thing to judge. There are no winners. For that matter, there are no losers either. So when it comes to grading how each team performed during the spring, I looked at who did the best job of answering their questions heading into camp. Who found potential starters? Who avoided injuries? Who made progress? And when I looked at all the programs in the SEC, Missouri was the team I felt did the best in all areas. They returned their quarterback, redshirt junior Maty Mauk. They returned their starting center, senior Evan Boehm. They brought in a new defensive coordinator, Barry Odum, while retaining their highly sought after defensive line coach, Craig Kuligowski. That was a good place to start.
But what I most wanted to see out of the Tigers was how they replaced defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden and how their new-look receiving corps would come together. And on both fronts, I liked what I saw.
Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White led the team in receptions last season, but when the spring depth chart was released, none of their names were on it. Much like the rest of the country, I had no idea who J'Mon Moore, Nate Brown and Wesley Leftwich were, but suddenly they were first-teamers. There were apparent growing pains early in the spring with the offense struggling during scrimmages. But by the time the spring game rolled around, there was improvement. I felt better about the group Mauk was so bullish on, touting their athleticism. Nine players had multiple receptions during the scrimmage and Moore hauled in a touchdown. After dropping 18 passes in the first two scrimmages, according to the Columbia Missourian, the first- and second-teams didn't have any drops during the first half of the spring game. In other words: progress.
As far as replacing Ray and Golden, I've learned to trust Missouri's ability to develop defensive linemen. They don't call it D-Line Zou for nothing. Remember that this time a year ago it was Kony Ealy and Michael Sam in need of being replaced. This time around, there's reason for optimism with Harold Brantley standing out at defensive tackle and defensive ends Charles Harris and Marcus Loud both having good springs. Harris led the team in sacks over the scrimmages (3.5) and Loud was only a hair behind (3). With both being sophomores, we're only starting to glimpse their potential. If Josh Augusta can capitalize on his considerable athleticism for a big man and Rickey Hatley can emerge as a starter, Missouri will have options up front.
Ostendorf: I'm with you. Spring football is difficult to evaluate. We don't see every practice, and the coaches aren't about to give anything away in the spring game. And most of the major position battles that we're watching -- they won't be won until fall camp.
But with all that said, I like what Steve Spurrier and South Carolina did this spring. Nobody's talking about them, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. Everybody was talking about them prior to last season, and they struggled just to make a bowl game. Sure, there are a lot of question marks surrounding this program -- the offense is having to replace six starters while the defense is searching for a new identity altogether -- and no, not every question was answered. But looking at your criteria for a successful spring, the Gamecocks found potential starters on both sides of the ball; they avoided injury for the most part (with the exception of the offensive line); and they made progress. That sounds like a win to me.
The biggest question mark was at quarterback where Dylan Thompson, the SEC's leader in passing yards, has moved on. However, unlike most of the quarterback battles in the conference, there seems to be a leader in the clubhouse at South Carolina with Connor Mitch. The sophomore had the most experience coming in, though that's not saying much, and he didn't do anything to lose the job. In fact, he was easily the most impressive quarterback in the spring game, throwing for 174 yards and a touchdown. The competition isn't over yet, but if the Gamecocks played tomorrow, Mitch would almost certainly be the guy.
Also, the offense will have no shortage of playmakers next fall. We all know Pharoh Cooper, but fellow wide receivers Shamier Jeffery, the younger brother of Alshon, and Deebo Samuel both emerged this spring. Samuel, in particular, drew rave reviews from the coaching staff and plays similar to former wide receiver Bruce Ellington.
Let's be honest, though. If South Carolina has any chance of competing in the SEC East, it's up to the defense. That's why Spurrier brought in longtime NFL assistant Jon Hoke as the new defensive coordinator this spring. And from what I saw in the spring game, I was impressed. Installing a new defense doesn't happen overnight, but the Gamecocks looked rejuvenated. They were flying to the ball and making plays. Junior college transfer Marquavius Lewis, who arrived in January, looks like he could be an elite defensive lineman in the SEC and should provide an immediate lift to this South Carolina defense that finished with just 14 sacks all of last season. There's still work to be done, but the spring was a good start.