SEC: Shaq Wilson

South Carolina spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
7:30
AM ET
2011 record: 11-2
2011 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners:
WR Ace Sanders, OG A.J. Cann, QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, CB Akeem Auguste, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Shaq Wilson, Spur DeVonte Holloman, S D.J. Swearinger

Key losses:
WR Alshon Jeffery, OT Rokevious Watkins, OG Terrence Campbell, Spur Antonio Allen, DE Melvin Ingram, CB Stephon Gilmore, DT Travian Robertson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Marcus Lattimore* (818 yards)
Passing: Connor Shaw* (1,448 yards)
Receiving: Alshon Jeffery (762 yards)
Tackles: Antonio Allen (88)
Sacks: Melvin Ingram (10)
Interceptions: Stephon Gilmore (4)

Spring answers

1. Shaw's development: The goal for quarterback Connor Shaw this spring was to work on the passing part of the position. The run-first quarterback showed flashes of transformation in his mindset toward the end of last season and it bled over to this year. He seems to be more confident in his passing and that will go a long way for the Gamecocks offense, as the downfield passing game was missing for most of South Carolina's season in 2011.

2. Running back depth: With Lattimore sitting out the spring, South Carolina turned to reserves Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles. Both performed well, but Miles was named the offensive player of the spring. He wrestled with returning to the Gamecocks, and still seems to be creating some drama about his return this fall, but if he comes back he'll be the No. 2 back. Miles made major strides in his game and his return would mean South Carolina has some insurance at running back if Lattimore struggles. Even if he returns at full health, having Miles there will give the Gamecocks a solid option to keep Lattimore fresh.

3. Shell's development: South Carolina's coaches were anxious to see what redshirt freshman Brandon Shell could do and he didn't disappoint. He ended spring as the starter at left tackle -- the same position that Rokevious Watkins manned last season. The Gamecocks lost two starters along the offensive line, but Shell provided a nice spark at the most important position along the line.

Fall questions

1. Lattimore's health: While word out of South Carolina's camp is that Lattimore was ahead of schedule with his knee rehab, it's still unknown if he will be back to his old self. It's hard to believe that anyone could come back from an ACL injury in this amount of time and be as effective and as good as Lattimore was, but his coaches think he can do just that. Until we see him play, there will still be some uncertainty. A healthy Lattimore makes this an SEC contender and maybe more.

2. Secondary: South Carolina has veterans Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger returning in its defensive backfield, but both dealt with injuries in the spring and the Gamecocks must replace three of its top four cornerbacks from last season. The injuries gave young guys the opportunity to get more reps, but questions still remain. Victor Hampton, listed as a starter, might be South Carolina's most athletic returning corner, but he has limited experience and a history of off-field issues. Brison Williams should enter the fall as a starter at strong safety, but has just one career start. He's one of two players at strong safety with game experience. Jimmy Legree and Cadarious Sanders are the only other corners with game experience. Expect redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian to compete for time as well.

3. Wide receiver: The Gamecocks will start the summer still wondering about the wide receiver position. Ace Sanders returns as the team's most productive receiver, but after that there isn't a lot of production. The good news was that Bruce Ellington returned to football this spring, but the bad news is that even with him back, Sanders is still the only receiver returning with 20 or more catches (29). Speedster Damiere Byrd showed progress and the coaches expect to get more from D.L. Moore, but the position is still a mystery. Incoming freshman Shaq Roland will be relied on a lot when he reports in the summer.
A lot of votes were cast and it came down to the wire, but the fans have spoken and South Carolina has won the poll battle of the defenses.

With nearly 12,000 votes cast, South Carolina barely claimed first place with 24 percent of the vote. Alabama was second with 23 percent, while LSU grabbed 21 percent. Georgia got 13 percent of the vote while the category of "Other" received 19 percent.

South Carolina is a solid pick when you look at who returns. Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor are back alongside tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Quarles really progressed as the season went on and provided a nice big, disruptive body against the run.

Veterans return at linebacker, with seniors Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens in the middle and DeVonte Holloman is back at the Spur, where he's at his best. Seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) are back in the secondary, as well.

Most of the questions for this defense lie in the secondary, with sophomores-to-be Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety) expected to start this fall. Williams collected a start against Florida last year, while Hampton did most of his damage on special teams. Expect offenses to key in on them early.

At this moment, I'd have to go with LSU. The Tigers return one of the best defensive lines in the country, with two potential first-rounders in ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. And LSU's staff is very excited about what Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson can do at the tackle spots. This line should be the strength of this team and it will make it hard to run and throw on the Tigers. It'll take pressure off the linebackers, which lose two starters.

The secondary loses Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor, but the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is back and so is Eric Reid, who might be the league's top safety. Keep an eye on Tharold Simon at cornerback. He should be a solid cover corner this fall.

Alabama is down a handful of starters from last year, but don't think that will send this unit into a tailspin. Defensive tackle Jesse Williams is an animal and linebackers C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard aren't slouches by any means. Yes, the secondary is a little green, but corner Dee Milliner and Robert Lester should help provide some stability. JUCO standouts Deion Belue and Travell Dixon impressed this spring and youngsters Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix look ready to be big contributors.

And with nine starters returning for Georgia, the Bulldogs should have another solid defensive squad this fall. There has to be some worry with four starters suspended for the beginning of the season, but at full strength, this defense will be a handful, especially with one of the best linebacking corps in the country that includes All-American Jarvis Jones, speedster Alec Ogletree and work horse Michael Gilliard. Once Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith are all back and together, Georgia's secondary will be potent.
We all know that defense wins championships and the SEC is very much a testament to that. Alabama possessed the nation's No. 1 defense last season and now possesses another national championship. Runner-up LSU ranked second nationally.

Alabama ran away with the crown as the nation's and the SEC's best defense, but that title is for the taking in 2012. Alabama is down key players from last year's squad, like linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive tackle Josh Chapman, and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and DeQuan Menzie.

SportsNation

Who will have the best defense in 2012?

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    24%
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    19%
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    23%
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    13%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 12,039)

Alabama's defense isn't as green as the 2010 group, but it's still drawing some comparisons to it. That's exactly what the Tide wants to hear. Nico Johnson seems primed to be a true leader at linebacker, while Adrian Hubbard could be a budding star at Upshaw's old position. Defensive backs Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are back and will be joined by a couple of JUCO standouts and talented sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Jesse Williams could be a real force at defensive tackle along with end Damion Square.

Then you have LSU. The Tigers lost All-World cornerback Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and two starting linebackers. Michael Brockers is gone at defensive tackle as well. But LSU is still loaded. The Tigers return Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, who should be fine with an expanded role at cornerback. Junior Kevin Minter really stepped up at linebacker last year and should pick up right where he left off. Even without Brockers, the line is solid with future first-rounder Sam Montgomery at one end position and the underrated Barkevious Mingo at the other. The two combined for 17 sacks last season.

Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson should provide some meat nastiness in the interior, while the very talented Eric Reid is back at free safety.

Georgia and South Carolina both finished the 2011 season ranked in the top five nationally in total defense. South Carolina was third, while Georgia was fifth, respectively. The Gamecocks lost first-round defensive end Melvin Ingram, but return freshman standout Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who many thought would be better than Ingram last season. Kelcy Quarles is back at defensive tackle and the coaches think he'll be even better in his second year.

Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last year, will grab time at linebacker again, while the very athletic DeVonte Holloman returns to the Spur for his senior year. There are questions in the secondary, but seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) return.

Georgia returns nine defensive starters. Brandon Boykin is gone at corner, and the Bulldogs will enter the fall with a lot questions in the secondary, especially with starters Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo suspended to start the season. Star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner this spring and fits right in, but there are depth issues at the position.

Other than that, the Bulldogs are still pretty stacked. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will serve a suspension to start the year, but Georgia will fill his spot by committee. Mike Gilliard, Cornelius Washington, Christian Robinson, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson provide Georgia with a very solid linebacking unit alongside star Jarvis Jones, who racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Georgia's defensive line should also be pretty stout with the massive John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers battling in the middle. Abry Jones really progressed at end as well this spring.

Or maybe someone else will step up and take the crown ...
Schedule: South Carolina opens spring camp at 4:15 p.m. ET Tuesday at the Bluff Road Practice Fields. The Gamecocks will conclude spring with the Garnet & Black Spring Game on April 14, beginning at 1 p.m. ET at Williams-Brice Stadium. All 15 of practices are open to the public, unless determined otherwise.

What's new: Four of South Carolina's nine assistants are new. John Butler, Jay Graham, Jeep Hunter and Ellis Johnson are all gone. Lorenzo Ward was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator, replacing Johnson. Ward will still focus on the cornerbacks this season. Head coach Steve Spurrier also added Kirk Botkin to coach linebackers/Spurs, Grady Brown to coach the secondary, Joe Robinson to coach special teams/tight ends, and Everette Sands to coach running backs. Joe Connolly also replaces Craig Fitzgerald as South Carolina's strength and conditioning coach. Also, South Carolina will be looking to replace kicker Jay Wooten and punter Joey Scribner-Howard. Walk-ons Landon Ard and Adam Yates will compete at kicker this spring, and sophomore Patrick Fish should be No. 1 at punter.

On the move: Safety DeVonte Holloman is looking to transition back to the Spur position after spending 2011 at safety. He worked at the Spur last spring, but the departing Antonio Allen played there last season. Also, Damario Jeffery is slated to move from the Spur to Will linebacker this spring. Jimmy Legree is moving back to cornerback after making a couple of starts at free safety last season.

On the mend: The Gamecocks will be without star running back Marcus Lattimore, who is still recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered halfway through the 2011 season. Running back Shon Carson is also out and recovering from a knee injury suffered last season. Sophomore offensive lineman Mike Matulis will sit out the spring after recovering from shoulder surgery, and senior cornerback Akeem Auguste will be limited as he tries to get over a foot injury that kept him out of all but one game last season. Safety D.J. Swearinger will miss the spring after having an operation on his foot. Offensive lineman Brock Stadnik will sit out the spring following shoulder surgery.

Questions: Auguste and Swearinger are dealing with injuries, South Carolina must replace three of its top four cornerbacks, and Holloman is moving back to the Spur, meaning the Gamecocks' secondary is loaded with questions. Sophomore Victor Hampton is expected to take one of the cornerback spots. He's talented, but has had off-field issues. He has the potential to be a key player for the Gamecocks. Depth behind him is a question, as Legree and Cadarious Sanders are the only other cornerbacks with game experience. A big spring from redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian could put him in the thick of it for a starting cornerback spot. Sophomore-to-be Brison Williams takes over at strong safety after playing in eight games last season, but depth behind him is a concern, as rising sophomore Kadetrix Marcus, Edward Muldrow and Sheldon Royster enter spring with six games of experience, all from Marcus. South Carolina must also find players at free safety.

Key battle: With Alshon Jeffery taking his talents to the NFL, and Bruce Ellington sticking to basketball, South Carolina enters the spring with little experience at wide receiver. Ace Sanders is the only returning receiver with 20 or more catches (29), and Nick Jones is the only other one with 10 or more catches (12). There are bodies, but not production. D.L. Moore and DeAngelo Smith should enter the spring as starters, along with Sanders. Both showed promise in the past, but they combined for just 11 catches last season. Lamar Scruggs is a junior, but didn't catch a pass last season. Speedster Damiere Byrd is back after missing four games last season because of NCAA issues. Also, redshirt freshmen Shamier Jeffery (Alshon Jeffery's brother) and K.J. Brent will need to have big springs. South Carolina is expected to get good use out of incoming freshman Shaq Roland, but the Gamecocks need to find at least two solid options before he arrives this summer.

Don't forget about: South Carolina's front seven should be solid again in 2012. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor will man the defensive end positions, while rising sophomore Kelcy Quarles, who enjoyed a tremendous freshman season, will help ease the loss of Travian Robertson inside. At linebacker, South Carolina only lost Rodney Paulk, and returns seniors Reginald Bowens and Shaq Wilson, who combined for 96 tackles in 2011. Seniors Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will also get time at the Will spot.

Breaking out: The coaches are very excited about the potential redshirt freshmen offensive tackle Brandon Shell possesses. He was a standout high school player, and will have every chance to earn the starting spot at left tackle this spring. He has supposedly had a good offseason so far, and has gotten stronger. If he's as good as the coaches say, he'll help shore up a line that has to replace two starters, including left tackle Rokevious Watkins.

All eyes on: Quarterback Connor Shaw saw vast improvements in his game as the 2011 season went on. He started to develop into more of a passer than a runner. While he still likes to run at times, you could tell that Shaw was making a conscious effort to rely on his arm first. In his last three games, Shaw averaged 219 yards and threw eight touchdowns to one interception. Now is the time for him to really come into his own as a passer. For South Carolina's offense to be successful, Shaw has to play smarter, and has to boost the Gamecocks' passing game. He'll also need to create better chemistry with his unproven receivers. South Carolina's offensive players will feed off Shaw's spring.
We move to linebackers today in our postseason position rankings.

Defensive lines are very important in this league, but there are other guys in the box who have to be pretty reliable as well in this league. This league has done a pretty solid job of producing some top talent at this position as well.

You can see what are preseason linebacker rankings looked like here.

And here are our postseason rankings:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDont'a Hightower had career highs in tackles (79), sacks (3.0) and interceptions (1) this season.
1. Alabama: This unit was at the top of our preseason rankings and didn't budge throughout the season. When you have two All-Americans in Courtney Upshaw, who was the defensive MVP in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and Dont'a Hightower it's pretty understandable to see why. Those two combined for 136 tackles, including 29 for loss. Nico Johnson was fourth on the team in tackles, while C.J. Mosley added 37 of his own. Alabama's defense was first nationally in total defense and first in rushing defense, allowing 74.2 yards per game.

2. Georgia: Linebackers are essential to any 3-4 defense, and the Bulldogs' group did quite well in 2011. Georgia ended up with one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 19 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He also had 49 quarterback hurries. Michael Gilliard was third on the team behind Jones with 65 tackles. While Alec Ogletree missed part of the first half of the season, the speedster still finished with 52 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. Cornelius Washington, Amarlo Herrera Christian Robinson combined to add 101 more tackles, as Georgia's defense ranked fifth nationally.

3. Arkansas: Arkansas' defense had a lot of bend in it last season, but the linebackers found ways to make plays. Newcomer Alonzo Highsmith was third on the team with 80 tackles, led with 12.5 tackles for loss and had 4.5 sacks. The star continued to be Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles (101) for the fourth straight year. Then there was Jerico Nelson, who was all over the field as that hybrid linebacker/safety. He came away with 70 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Ross Rasner, who played outside with Nelson, added 53 more tackles and two sacks.

4. Florida: The Gators' defense ranked eighth nationally in part because of the aggressive play of its front seven. Jon Bostic commanded the middle, leading the team with 94 tackles, including 10 for loss. Jelani Jenkins seemed to come more into his own outside, finishing third on the team in tackles. The big surprise was Lerentee McCray, who played both Sam linebacker and the hybrid Buck. He was one of Florida's most active linebackers and grabbed 7.5 tackles for loss. Ronald Powell started at the Buck, but saw most of his production from defensive end.

5. Vanderbilt: The Commodores entered the season needing to replace three starting linebackers and ended the year with a very impressive linebacking corps. It was led by vet Chris Marve, who was 10th in the league in tackles. Archibald Barnes had a solid year at the Will, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and grabbing two interceptions. Chase Garnham and Al Owens manned the Sam position and combined for 72 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Against conference foes, Vandy's rush defense ranked fourth in the league.

6. LSU: The Tigers were in search of that dominant middle linebacker all season and might have found a budding star in Kevin Minter, really grew into the position by the end of the season and was fifth on the team in tackles. He started 11 games, but shared time with Karnell Hatcher, who finished with 24 tackles. Ryan Baker was LSU's best linebacker, was an outstanding leader and was fourth on the team with 64 tackles. Stefoin Francois was the starter at Sam, but he accumulated just 11 tackles, while backup Tahj Jones registered 27. Still, LSU owned the No. 2 national defense.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks saw improvement from this group as the season went on. While the defensive line got a ton of credit, the linebackers did their part in securing the defense's No. 3 national ranking. Antonio Allen spent some time in the box at the Spur position and led South Carolina with 88 tackles and had 9.5 for loss. Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson, who returned from injury, rotated at the Mike and combined for 109 tackles. Will linebacker Reginald Bowens added 44 tackles.

8. Kentucky: The Wildcats owned the SEC's top tackler in Danny Trevathan (143), who should have received more national attention. Trevathan was one of the most active defenders around at the Will. Winston Guy played the hybrid linebacker/safety and was third in the SEC with 120 tackles. Ronnie Sneed added 71 more tackles. Kentucky's defense was much more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Rick Minter and got more exotic looks from its linebackers.

9. Mississippi State: Cameron Lawrence was a beast for the Bulldogs in 2011. He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles, and had 49 solo. Senior Brandon Wilson added 94 more tackles. Brandon Maye, who transferred from Clemson, was expected to make a bigger impact for the Bulldogs, but played behind Wilson and was 11th on the team in tackles. Sophomore Deontae Skinner added 69 tackles and Mississippi State ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense.

10. Tennessee: The Vols' top three tacklers were linebackers. The leader was senior Austin Johnson, who finished the season with 81 tackles, including 41 solo. Next were two true freshmen on the outside in A.J. Johnson (80) and Curt Maggitt (56). Both freshmen experienced up-and-down seasons, but were SEC All-Freshman selections. Herman Lathers, who was a projected started, missed 2011 with a fractured ankle, and after the big three, the Vols didn't get a ton out of their linebackers, as Dontavis Sapp was their next most productive linebacker with 20 tackles.

11. Auburn: The Tigers' defense really struggled in 2011 and gave up more than 200 rushing yards a contest. Auburn had to basically start over at linebacker, but lone returning starter Daren Bates had a heck of a year, ranking fourth in the league with 104 tackles. He really tried to make sure he played all over the field last fall. After that, the play was up-and-down. Senior Eltoro Freeman took over in the middle halfway into the year and finished with 58 tackles, while Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans combined for 83 tackles.


12. Ole Miss: The Rebels' defense had all sorts of problems defensively, including allowing 256.5 yards per game and 21 rushing touchdowns. The linebackers took a major hit with the absence of D.T. Shackelford, who missed the season with a knee injury. Mike Marry stepped up at the Mike and led Ole Miss with 81 tackles and five for loss. Freshman Serderius Bryant and junior Joel Kight combined for 122 tackles. Damien Jackson played the Spur and added 64 tackles, but Ole Miss' defense ranked dead last in the SEC.

SEC lunch links

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
12:23
PM ET
Some really tough news for Arkansas and Knile Davis, who's out for the season with an ankle injury. Davis is an outstanding football player and a really swell guy. He's fought back every time in the past when he's had injuries, and he'll fight back from this one, too. Best of luck to you, Knile.

Now, for some links:
We head to South Carolina for our latest look at the league's bounce-back players:

OFFENSE

Terrence Campbell, OG, Sr.: The sixth-year senior enters the fall as the starter at right guard for the Gamecocks, but he also brings with him a very inconsistent past. He started his career as a defensive lineman, before moving to right guard in his second season. He started nine games in 2008 before missing most of 2009 with a neck/shoulder stinger. In the two games he started, he played left guard. Last season, Campbell played in 10 of South Carolina's 14 games, but spent most of his time on special teams. This is the final go-round for the Gamecocks' most experienced offensive lineman and he's looking to finally put a full season together on the Gamecocks' starting offensive line.

DEFENSE

Shaq Wilson, LB, Jr.: Wilson is back after missing all but one game last season because of a hamstring injury. In the one game that Wilson did play in (against Auburn), he managed seven tackles and recovered two fumbles. His presence on defense immediately enhances that side of the ball for the Gamecocks. Wilson led South Carolina in tackles in 2009 and, after having a healthy spring this year, most expect him to regain the form he had before his nagging hamstring injury. Wilson exited the spring as the starter at weakside linebacker and is looking to regain his role as the quarterback of this defense.
AlabamaUS PresswireCourtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley are part of what could be the best linebacker corps in the conference.
Today we take a look at the SEC linebackers. The front sevens in this league are always good and 2011 shouldn't be any different.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. Alabama: There are a lot of strengths on this Alabama team, but the linebackers should be very fun to watch this fall. Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are back to full speed and are considered top players at their positions. With them back, the Tide should have a much more aggressive pass rush. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley improved even more this spring and will get time in the middle when Hightower is outside at the "Jack" position. Mosely blossomed as a freshman and could be a star in the making. Jarrell Harris seems to finally be coming around and Chris Jordan gives them another body in the front seven.

2. Florida: This group struggled to stay consistent at times last fall, but the new coaching staff was pleased with the progress it made this spring. There is a lot talent out there and now there are two distinct leaders in Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, who should occupy the middle when the Gators go to the 3-4. Both are tremendous athletes and should be a solid duo this fall. Florida also has former No. 1 high school prospect Ronald Powell playing that linebacker/defensive end hybrid spot called the Buck. He’ll stand up a lot this season and should elevate himself near the top of the SEC pass-rushing list. Cal transfer Chris Martin earned a ton of praise last year on the practice squad and will be a hybrid as well. Converted safety Dee Finley will play outside and there is some good, but young, depth in the wings.

3. Arkansas: This area of the team improved a lot during the season and this spring. It’s headlined by Jerry Franklin, who has led the Razorbacks in tackles the last three seasons. He has 271, including 21.5 for loss in his career. Strongside hybrid Jerico Nelson was second on the team in tackles and has the speed to get all over the field. Nelson will occasional drop back and play safety as well. This linebacker tandem will be one of the best out there this fall. The major plus for the Razorbacks is that there is finally some really good depth at the position. Bret Harris, Jarrett Lake and Terrell Williams came on strong on the outside this spring, while Ross Rasner was making strides until he was arrested and suspended indefinitely this spring.

4. Georgia: There is no shortage of athleticism in Georgia’s linebacker corps. Alec Ogletree moved down from safety and while he’s bulked up, he’s still got tremendous closing speed and will make a ton of plays at middle linebacker. Next to him is defensive leader Christian Robinson, who left spring as one of Georgia’s most consistent linebackers. On the outside, USC transfer Jarvis Jones will occupy the weak side and the coaches feel he might be more of a complete player than Justin Houston. On the other end, Cornelius Washington might not be getting a ton of publicity, but he’s no slouch and can run with the best of them.

5. LSU: Like most of the Tigers’ positions, this one might not have a ton of in-game experience, but the athleticism is too good not to praise. LSU lost leading tackler and monster in the middle Kelvin Sheppard, but there should be enough able bodies to make this unit one of the tops in the league this fall. Ryan Baker is now the leader out there and can keep up with some of the best offensive weapons out there. He’ll play on the weak side, while converted safety Karnell Hatcher moved down from safety and took reps at middle linebacker, but could find his home outside. Sophomore Kevin Minter spent his spring trying to fill Sheppard’s void and has made vast improvements. Senior Stefoin Francois provides veteran depth for the Tigers on the outside, while there are a few young, able bodies ready to contribute as well.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Mark Zerof/US PresswireKentucky's Danny Trevathan, left, led the league with 144 total tackles.
6. Kentucky: Things start with one of the nation’s best in Danny Trevathan. He led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and the word out of Lexington is that he’s looking to be even better this fall and wants to move around the field a lot more. Ronnie Sneed returns as the starter in the middle, after grabbing 61 tackles a year ago. He made some nice improvements this spring. Ridge Wilson will be another hybrid on the outside, and will occasionally lineup as a rush end for the Wildcats. The talented Winston Guy, who has played just about everywhere on Kentucky’s defense has finally settled into his home at linebacker and should play closer to the line of scrimmage and be a nickel linebacker.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks got an immediate upgrade to this position with the return of Shaq Wilson, after he missed last year with a hamstring injury. Wilson is known as the quarterback of the defense and led South Carolina in tackles in 2009. The player that could really make noise in this unit is DeVonte Holloman, who is moving from safety to the hybrid Spur position. He’ll drop back into coverage and rush from the outside to give the Gamecocks another weapon in the pass rush. Upperclassmen Reggie Bowens and Rodney Paulk will get some reps in the middle this fall, while Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will compete for time outside.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers are still trying to find out what this group is made of. Junior Herman Lathers will be back after he heals from an ankle injury this spring and he’s the most experienced player at the position. He had 75 tackles last season and will man the weak side for the Vols when he returns. Senior Daryl Vereen should get time at strong side, but he still has some developing to do. Senior Austin Johnson, a converted fullback, will get time in the middle with All-SEC freshman pick John Propst. The jury is still out on this unit and youngsters like A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Christian Harris will have to develop quickly.

9. Auburn: The Tigers are almost back to the drawing board at linebacker. Both Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are gone, leaving Daren Bates as the lone returning starter. Bates is a converted safety, but settled nicely into the linebacker position well last fall. Inexperience looms after that as sophomore Jake Holland is a projected starter in the middle and junior Jonathan Evans will get time at weakside. Former junior college standout Eltoro Freeman, has the potential to be a menace, but has yet to truly step up for the Tigers. They’ll need that light bulb to go on this year.

10. Mississippi State: First thing’s first -- the Bulldogs must replace three starting linebackers this season. That won’t be easy or fun in Starkville. But help could be on the way in Clemson transfer Brandon Maye, who was a three-year starter with the Tigers. Coach Dan Mullen said he’s a player they expect to come in and take one of those openings at linebacker. Mississippi State still has senior leader Brandon Wilson, who players fed off of this spring. Chris Hughes and Cam Lawrence also made strides, but expect a lot of rotation from new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson.

11. Vanderbilt: Chris Marve is one of the top linebackers in the nation. He’s got great field instincts and matches his skill with the best of them. Just having him on the field makes this group better. But after him, the Commodores have a lot of questions. Vanderbilt must replace outside linebackers John Stokes and Nate Campbell, and though there are six candidates, they have just start among them. Coming out of spring, juniors Tristan Strong and Archibald Barnes and sophomore Chase Garnham are the leading candidates to see valuable playing time.

12. Ole Miss: Losing D.T. Shackelford was an enormous blow to the Rebels. Not only was he Ole Miss’ best defensive player but he was the emotional leader of the team. He was going to carry this team as far as he could go. Now, the Rebels have a wealth of inexperience to deal with. Things got even worse when sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was dismissed following his arrest for public drunkenness. The pressure is now on incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top prospect coming out of the state of Mississippi. He could jump right into Shackelford’s spot. Mike Marry and Ralph Williams worked in Shackelford’s spot this spring and Joel Knight returns as a starter outside.

Clowney's impact should be immediate

March, 18, 2011
3/18/11
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, isn’t necessarily trying to temper expectations for Jadeveon Clowney when he arrives this summer.

After all, Johnson recruited him and knows the caliber of athlete the Gamecocks are getting in the country’s top-rated overall prospect.

But what are realistic expectations for the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Clowney in his first season?

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
David Allio/Icon SMIExpectations are already through the roof for incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney.
“I think it’s realistic for him to come in and be a starter, but I think it’s also realistic not to assume that,” Johnson said. “But once a kid gets the kind of attention and hype he did in the national media and all the recruiting services, he can never do as much as everybody expects him to. So I won’t even go there.

“But, physically, he could have put on a football uniform for the Carolina Panthers last year and played three games, and nobody would have known that he shouldn’t have been in there. That kid is physically ready to go, but there’s a difference in this league and high school. There are going to be some things he doesn’t do well.”

Other than his freakish athletic ability, the other thing about Clowney that jumped out to Johnson was how hard he played.

“There are a lot of big, tall, physical and fast kids in high school, and they don’t play like he did because they don’t have to,” Johnson said. “Jadeveon played like a reckless train.”

Big spring for Cann: It’s been a rarity under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina to see the same offensive line coach back for a second year in a row, but Shawn Elliott is going through his second spring.

The Gamecocks played much more consistently up front under Elliott last season and proved that they could run the ball in big games -- Florida and Georgia.

Elliott has a couple of holes to fill this spring and feels like redshirt freshman A.J. Cann may be the key to how everything comes together.

“If he can come in and we can insert him at one of those guard positions, then I think we’ve got something going,” Elliott said. “If he can’t step it up a notch, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board, but I think he’s going to do a good job this spring. He’s as physical looking a character as you ever want to see up front. He’s 6-3 and 310 pounds. I’m going to put the pressure on him to be that guy.”

The other thing Elliott plans to do this spring is see if senior Rokevious Watkins can move over from guard and be the Gamecocks’ starting right tackle.

“Watkins has changed his attitude,” Elliott said. “He wasn’t out of shape a year ago, but was a heavier guy. He’s leaned up and starting to do the right things. He’s in the weight room when he’s not supposed to be in there. He’s starting to do a little more than what’s expected of him. We’re going to experiment with him at right tackle because he’s so fluid. He could really be a strong right tackle and solidify us.”

Senior Kyle Nunn returns at left tackle and junior T.J. Johnson at center. Senior Terrence Campbell is the favorite to win the other guard spot.

“Terrence is a big, strong guy who filled in at guard in the bowl game,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to see if he can play in a full-time role.”

(Read full post)

South Carolina's pre-spring depth chart

March, 8, 2011
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South Carolina has released its pre-spring depth chart. The Gamecocks open spring practice next Tuesday.

There's sure to be some shuffling in the offensive line this spring while second-year offensive line coach Shawn Elliott tries to find the right combination. Redshirt freshman A.J. Cann is listed No. 2 at left guard behind senior Terrence Campbell, but Cann is a player the Gamecocks' coaches expect to make a move this spring. Also, sophomore Ronald Patrick is listed No. 2 at right guard behind senior Rokevious Watkins. Patrick was the backup to T.J. Johnson at center last season as a true freshman.

Look for Elliott to experiment with several different combinations this spring. The idea is to get the best five guys on the field. Junior college signee Kaleb Broome is listed behind redshirt freshman Cody Gibson at right tackle going into the spring, and heralded high school signee Brandon Shell won't be on campus until this summer.

Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia is listed as the starter going into the spring, but coach Steve Spurrier has already said that it will be an open competition at that position with sophomore Connor Shaw. Spurrier said the same thing this time a year ago. But with a year's experience and this being his second spring, it will be interesting to see if Shaw can make it more of a battle this spring.

Garcia was more consistent last season and had some big games, but he played poorly in the Gamecocks' last two games when he threw five interceptions.

Defensively, junior Shaq Wilson is back in the starting lineup at weak side linebacker after being plagued by hamstring problems and redshirting last season. He was the Gamecocks' leading tackler in 2009.

Senior Akeem Auguste has moved back to cornerback after playing safety last season. Auguste and junior Stephon Gilmore are listed as the starters at cornerback. The Gamecocks had recurring problems a year ago when it came to covering the pass.

SEC position rankings: Linebackers

July, 27, 2010
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Who in the SEC can claim the Linebacker U. moniker this season?

Here’s a rundown:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireExpectations are high for Alabama's Dont'a Hightower.
1. Alabama: How many teams lose a player the caliber of Rolando McClain in the middle and replace him with somebody just as talented? Dont’a Hightower made an amazing recovery from a serious knee injury and was going through contact in the spring. He’ll play in the middle of the Crimson Tide’s base defense and will rush the passer from the “jack” linebacker position on passing downs. Courtney Upshaw, Jerrell Harris, Chris Jordan and Nico Johnson are also back, and all four have star potential.

2. Georgia: With the Bulldogs going to a 3-4 scheme this season, that means junior pass-rushing specialist Justin Houston now falls into the linebacker category. Houston had 7.5 sacks last season from his end position. Sophomore Cornelius Washington also shifts from end to outside linebacker after collecting four sacks a year ago. The Bulldogs have moved senior starter Darryl Gamble from inside to outside linebacker, while senior Akeem Dent and junior Marcus Dowtin are also back. Dent and Dowtin were part-time starters last season.

3. Ole Miss: Two of the more underrated linebackers in the SEC are Ole Miss seniors Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Cornell started all 13 games in the middle last season and was third on the team with 79 tackles, including eight for loss. Walker started 11 games last season at strongside linebacker. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix also likes his younger talent, including D.T. Shackelford, Joel Kight and Mike Marry. Shackelford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout season. This is a productive and versatile group.

4. Auburn: The Tigers will line up with a pair of senior All-SEC candidates in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens. They both finished among the top 10 tacklers in the league last season, combining for 199 total tackles. The only problem was that they had to play just about every meaningful snap. The Tigers hope to have more depth this season. They didn’t have any last season and are moving Daren Bates from safety to a hybrid outside linebacker position. Bates led all SEC freshmen a year ago with 70 tackles. He wasn’t able to go through spring, though, because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.

5. Florida: Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper were major cogs in the Gators’ linebacker corps a year ago and made a ton of plays. Life without them will be different, but not impossible. That’s what happens when you recruit talented players like Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, both of whom had big springs. There’s also some experience returning. Senior A.J. Jones has 30 career starts and started the first 11 games a year ago at outside linebacker before injuring his knee. Senior Brandon Hicks has also been a part-time starter each of the past two seasons. There’s a lot of speed in this group.

6. South Carolina: The Gamecocks might have a little more depth than they had a year ago at linebacker, but what they don’t have is that proven playmaker on the outside. Eric Norwood filled that role as well as anybody the past two seasons, but now he’s gone. Junior Shaq Wilson was the team’s leading tackler last season, and he’s moving to one of the outside spots from middle linebacker. Senior Rodney Paulk returns in the middle after suffering through season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons. Senior Josh Dickerson is another guy who can move around and play different spots.

7. Tennessee: One of the most experienced positions on Tennessee’s team is at linebacker. The Vols had several players playing at a high level there last season only to be injured. They’re all back, including senior Nick Reveiz in the middle. Tennessee’s defense was never the same after he left the lineup with a knee injury. Senior LaMarcus Thompson is also back after battling through injuries a year ago, and the same goes for senior Savion Frazier. Sophomore linebacker Greg King is currently suspended, but he also showed promise last season as a freshman.

8. LSU: Senior Kelvin Sheppard returns as one of the top middle linebackers in the SEC. He’s a tackling machine who was fourth in the league in tackles a year ago with 110. He’s one of those defenders who’s a factor on every play. The key for the Tigers will be how quickly the players around him grow up now that veterans Jacob Cutrera, Harry Coleman and Perry Riley have all moved on. Sheppard thinks junior Ryan Baker is ready to shine at weakside linebacker after being a force on special teams the past two seasons. Junior Stefoin Francois is the top candidate to step in on the strong side after starting his career as a safety.

9. Vanderbilt: Linebacker has been one of the Commodores’ strong suits for several years now, and that shouldn’t change this season with junior Chris Marve manning the middle. A first-team preseason All-SEC selection, Marve has racked up more than 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons. Senior John Stokes, who’s already been accepted into Vanderbilt’s medical school, returns at one of the outside linebacker spots. The Commodores could use a healthy Tristan Strong, who tore his ACL last season as a redshirt freshman.

10. Mississippi State: Gone is hard-hitting Jamar Chaney, who came back from an injury last season and helped anchor the Bulldogs’ defense. Senior Chris White will move over to play in the middle after starting all 12 games and recording 75 tackles last season. Senior K.J. Wright returns as one of the best big-play defenders on the team after finishing with 6.5 tackles for loss and forcing two fumbles last season. After White and Wright, the Bulldogs will be counting on several younger players at linebacker.

11. Arkansas: The Hogs need to improve across the board on defense, and linebacker is no exception. Junior Jerry Franklin has started since he was a freshman and finished with 94 tackles last season. He’s capable of playing in the middle, but Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino wants to leave him at weakside linebacker and give him a chance to make more plays against both the run and pass. The Hogs still need to settle on a middle linebacker. Senior Jermaine Love and sophomore Terrell Williams were battling it out in the spring.

12. Kentucky: Junior Danny Trevathan returns at weakside linebacker. He’s the Wildcats’ leading returning tackler. But after Trevathan, there’s not much game experience at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie made a big impression on the coaches last preseason before hurting his shoulder. Sophomore Ridge Wilson is another younger player who needs to come through for the Wildcats at linebacker.

What to watch in the SEC East this spring

February, 22, 2010
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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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