SEC: Warren Norman

Two SEC players have decided to end their football careers.

Vanderbilt backup running back Warren Norman confirmed to The Tennessean Tuesday that his playing career is over due to thinning cartilage in his knees, while Georgia announced on Wednesday that rising senior fullback Alexander Ogletree, the twin brother of Alec Ogletree, has decided to end his football career for "medical reasons."

Norman was one of the most exciting freshmen to watch in the SEC back in 2009. He earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors that year after breaking SEC records for all-purpose yards by a freshman (1,941 yards; 161.8 yards per game) and kickoff return yards (1,050 yards). He also matched the SEC record by returning three kickoffs for touchdowns and led the Commodores with 783 rushing yards, which was the second-highest total for a freshman at Vandy.

Norman battled a knee injury and a broken hand in 2010, but still led the Commodores with 459 rushing yards and shared the team lead with four rushing touchdowns. But the knee injuries cost him his entire junior season and caused him to play sparingly last fall. He appeared in eight games and registered 75 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries last season.

With Norman and Zac Stacy (Vandy's leading rusher the past two seasons) gone, Vanderbilt will now expect even more from rising redshirt senior Wesley Tate, rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow and rising junior Jerron Seymour starting this spring. The Commodores also signed three-star back Rapheal Webb, who will arrive this summer.

Norman will hold a news conference this afternoon.

As for Ogletree, he was listed as the No. 1 fullback for the latter part of the season, but started just two of the eight games he played in all year. He finished his playing career with just 37 rushing yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He carried the ball three times for 14 yards and a touchdown last fall.

The loss of Ogletree will now open up things at fullback for the Bulldogs. Walk-on Merritt Hall, who started six of the 12 games he played in last year, will compete with rising sophomore Quayvon Hicks, who played in 12 games last season primarily on special teams.

Lunchtime links

February, 27, 2013
Checking out some links on a Wednesday.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 25, 2013
We're taking a look at key storylines for all seven teams in the SEC Eastern Division.

Chris will take a look at the main issues in the Western Division on Tuesday.


Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding at linebacker: The Gators have to start figuring out the linebacker situation. Do they go with redshirt junior Michael Taylor in the middle, who’s a run-stuffer but has to come off the field in passing downs? Or do they try sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside at 218 pounds as a freshman and has hopefully bulked up a bit? The most likely scenario is Morrison, which means UF has to find a weakside linebacker. That could be freshmen early enrollee Daniel McMillian or Alex Anzalone. The strongside starter should be, at least entering the spring, redshirt junior Neiron Ball.

2. Robinson's growth: One of the most scrutinized players this spring will be receiver Demarcus Robinson. He was the only one of UF’s five receiver signees to enroll early and he’ll be given every chance to win a starting spot. UF’s receivers have been below average for the past three seasons and the Gators desperately need someone to become a consistent playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Robinson, who caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.

3. Driskel's confidence: Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as a starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves on his decision-making, release and accuracy. He’s sure to benefit from not splitting reps 50-50 any longer. But just as important as Driskel’s development is what happens behind him with redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. Neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Why is that important? Because Driskel has not been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He missed starts as a freshman and sophomore because of ankle injuries. UF was lucky in 2012 to have Jacoby Brissett, who had played significantly as John Brantley’s backup in 2011. With Brissett transferring to NC State, the Gators no longer have that luxury.

-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation


Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding the defense: Georgia begins its transition to a completely new collection of defensive talent this spring. No longer are Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins on the roster. In fact, the Bulldogs must replace a total of 12 defensive players who were either full-time starters or key contributors, and at some positions, the possible replacements have little to no college experience. That makes this a pivotal time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to begin identifying which players will fill those roles, as the Bulldogs will have little margin for error when they open the season against Clemson’s explosive offense Aug. 31. Some names to watch this spring: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.

2. Developing the youngsters: The good news for Grantham and the other defensive coaches is that they brought in a number of January enrollees who should be able to help immediately. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and John Atkins hope to fill the void left by Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at noseguard. Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter will immediately enter the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can help address Georgia’s depth shortage in a secondary that lost four key players. Georgia’s 13 early enrollees -- more than twice as many January enrollees as Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever brought in before -- will help fill needs on both sides of the ball, but the defense is where the newcomers were most necessary.

3. Offensive line reps: For the most part, Georgia used the same starting lineup along its offensive line throughout the 2012 season and each of those starters should return this fall. But two of those starters -- right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus -- underwent surgeries during the offseason and will miss all or part of spring practice. There was a good chance that offensive line coach Will Friend was going to deploy more players in his line rotation this fall anyway, but the valuable practice reps that will be available with Burnette and Theus sidelined might make a deeper rotation even more likely. Someone still has to take advantage of the opportunity, however.

-- David Ching, DawgNation


Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Getting used to new coaches: New coaches are roaming Kentucky’s football facility this spring. Mark Stoops brings a more defense-minded philosophy to Lexington, but his coaches will have to get things going on offense if the Wildcats are going to improve in 2013. There are always awkward moments when transitioning to a new staff, but now’s the time to create valuable trust on both sides.

2. Finding offensive playmakers: Stoops might have a strong defensive background, but the Wildcats have to find answers on offense. Injuries were an issue last year, but for two straight years the Wildcats had real problems finding consistent playmakers on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith returns, but he needs more than just wide receiver La’Rod King to help him. Getting running back Josh Clemons back would be big, but expect the coaches to turn to a young group of receivers and running backs.

3. Tougher team: One thing Stoops wants from his players is a tougher identity. Stoops wants to build a stronger team from the ground up. He’s taking a page from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when it comes to preparing his new team. This spring, we’ll see just how much of an emphasis the coaches put on the weight room and conditioning before hitting the football side of things.


Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. Josey's rehab: The Tigers will be keeping tabs on running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after suffering a devastating knee injury midway through the 2011 season. He was the Big 12’s best running back before his injury and Mizzou needs him back. The staff has had to be patient, but this could be a crucial time in his rehab, as he looks to get his football legs back.

2. Rebuilding the front seven: Mizzou must replace a lot in its front seven. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s absence leaves a gaping hole up front, while linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden must be replaced. Lucas Vincent will be first in line to take Richardson’s spot, while Darvin Ruise, Donovan Bonner and Michael Scherer are three players to watch at linebacker.

3. Toughening up: Injuries ravaged Mizzou’s offense last year, but it’s clear that Mizzou wasn’t in the playing shape that it would have liked to be in during its first year in the SEC. Injuries are part of the game, but gaining that toughness factor this spring will go a long way for the Tigers in 2013. The SEC is more than just a grind, and the Tigers found out the hard way that conditioning in this league is a little different than in the Big 12.


Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. New backfield options: Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles are gone, so the Gamecocks will have to turn to their younger backs. Brandon Wilds missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury but should return this spring. Rising sophomore Mike Davis has all the tools to be a big-time player for the Gamecocks and could be the top option in the Gamecocks’ backfield. Shifty Shon Carson also returns from a knee injury, so South Carolina will have a solid group to work with this spring.

2. QB controversy: Quarterback Connor Shaw might be tabbed as the starter, but with him out for the spring, Dylan Thompson will take the first-team reps. Thompson proved to be very valuable last year, and both will play this fall. Thompson has become one of the most vocal players on the team and is a strong leader. A good spring could bring some real controversy to the position.

3. Holes at linebacker: South Carolina will be without its two-deep at linebacker and “Spur” DeVonte Holloman is gone. That means there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to finding viable replacements. Sharrod Golightly will get the early crack at the Spur, and keep an eye on Kaiwan Lews, who was a true freshman last year and has a lot of potential to work with.


Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. New coaches on the block: With Butch Jones in town, the Vols have to get used to their third head coach in five springs. Jones and his staff have helped bring some much-needed energy to the program since arriving, but now it’s time to develop vital on-field chemistry between the coaches and players.

2. Receiving help: The Vols’ offense took at major hit at receiver. Juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson made the leap to the NFL, while deep threat Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera graduated. Tennessee will now turn to a host of inexperienced receiving targets, including rising sophomore Alton Howard and early enrollee Paul Harris.

3. Quarterback battle: With Tyler Bray leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will work with rising junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley has the edge when it comes to game experience, but with a new staff, this battle will be wide-open. They will also need to make strides before freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson get on campus this summer.


Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Replacing Rodgers: Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is gone. The good news is Austyn Carta-Samuels has good experience after starting two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is someone the coaches also are excited about, especially with his dual-threat ability, and should really push Carta-Samuels the whole spring.

2. Running back battles: The Commodores lost star running back Zac Stacy, so veteran Wesley Tate, who has bounced around positions, and rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who has the do-everything look to him at running back, will share reps. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour also return, making for quite the talented backfield.

3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.
It's time to take a look into our own crystal balls here on the SEC blog. Now that bowl season is over, we're taking a look at some potential breakout players for the 2013 season.

We are looking for guys who made the jump like Alabama's Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon, or Georgia's Todd Gurley. Players like Florida's Mike Gillislee, South Carolina's Ace Sanders and LSU's Kevin Minter are also great examples of what we're looking for. Now will these candidates be as spectacular as the guys above? We'll have to wait to find out -- but we think they have the ability to make a difference next fall. Players who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors from either the media or the league's coaches weren't eligible for our list.

We're starting with the SEC East. We'll take a look at five offensive players to keep an eye on in 2013 and then move over to the defense later today.

Here are five offensive players in the East to keep an eye on in 2013 (in alphabetical order):

Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: With Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles gone, the Gamecocks will turn to their young guys to get their running game going. Davis was used more once Lattimore went down with his season-ending knee injury. Davis ended the season with a decent first-year résumé, averaging 5.3 yards per carry by season's end. Davis is a tough runner, who showed some elusiveness at times last fall. With the starting running back spot up for grabs, Davis has a chance to have a big second year with the Gamecocks.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
AP Photo/L.G. Patterson/AP PhotoDorial Green-Beckham revved up his production at the end of the season, catching 21 passes in the last five games.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri: He was supposed to be an instant star for the Tigers, but it took him a while to get used to playing at the college level. The former top recruit caught just 28 passes in his first year, but 21 of them came in Mizzou's last five games. He showed some big-time, big-play ability throughout the year and with his late-season momentum, Green-Beckham could really breakout in 2013. With T.J. Moe gone, the Tigers will need another major weapon in the passing game and Green-Beckham has all the tools to be one of the best receivers in the SEC.

Matt Jones, RB, Florida: Gillislee was the Gators' top offensive weapon in 2012, but he's graduating, leaving a major hole in Florida's offense. With a passing game that needs major work, the Gators will likely be looking to run the ball a lot in 2013, and Jones showed down the stretch that he has the strength and speed to make some plays for the Gators. For someone who ran so upright in high school, Jones packed way more of a punch than a lot of people expected in his first year, especially during the second half of the season. He'll enter spring as the Gators' No. 1 back.

Brian Kimbrow, RB, Vanderbilt: The sophomore-to-be entered his freshman year as the Commodores' prized recruit. Now that Zac Stacy will be graduating, Kimbrow will get even more looks on offense next fall. Wesley Tate and Warren Norman will still be in the backfield, but Kimbrow has the explosiveness and elusiveness that could make him a star for the Commodores. He carried the ball just 66 times but was second on the team with 413 yards. For the non-math majors, that's 6.3 yards per carry.

Justin Worley, QB, Tennessee: With Tyler Bray taking his talents to the NFL, Worley is first in line to be the Vols' new starting quarterback. Now, a lot is going to look different in Knoxville with Butch Jones calling the shots and those two monster receivers gone, but Worley was a top QB prospect coming out of high school and has show flashes here and there. He's had his rough patches in the past, and he'll have a battle on his hands with redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, but he has a chance to put up some numbers this fall if he's named the guy. Also, having some of those talented youngsters to throw to won't be so bad.
Depth charts for all 14 SEC teams are out, so let's take a look at them.

I'll handle the Eastern Division, while Chris takes a look at the West later today.

I've added some notes of my own for each team:


Depth chart
  • The first thing you notice is that "Or" comes up a few times. The quarterback spot is still up for grabs, as sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will play by quarters against Bowling Green Saturday. The "X" receiver spot has three names by it with Frankie Hammond, Latroy Pittman and Andre Debose competing for that spot. Everyone is still waiting for Debose to be more of a complete player.
  • Both corner spots might appear to be up for grabs, but it would be a shocker if sophomores Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy didn't start. Roberson has the talent to be an All-SEC player at some point, while the staff thinks Purifoy is an extremely athletic player. Also, seeing Antonio Morrison behind Jelani Jenkins is impressive. He's been solid since arriving this spring.
  • You don't see De'Ante Saunders on there at free safety. Will Muschamp said he's battling a hamstring injury and will be out two weeks. Corner Jeremy Brown is also battling a wrist injury and isn't on the two-deep, either.

Depth chart (Page 2)
  • It's hard to say how much we can really make of Georgia's depth chart. Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree are both listed as starters. Rambo and Ogletree could still sit out a couple of games due to their reported failed drug tests this spring and Mark Richt hasn't said if either will play Saturday.
  • Malcolm Mitchell is listed as a starter at cornerback, opposite Branden Smith, and is a third-team receiver. That sounds about right, as Mitchell has primarily played corners since the spring. He has taken some reps on offense, so you might see him on both sides of the ball Saturday.
  • Two guys to keep an eye on are center David Andrews and outside linebacker Ramik Wilson. Andrews might be the key to the offensive line. He has done very well at center and there was some worry that he might not be cut out of the position. If he had to move this line might have been in disarray. Wilson received a lot of praise from his teammates this spring and he continued to show out this fall. He won't outshine Jarvis Jones this fall, but he'll cause a stir on defense.

Depth chart
  • You can tell that the Wildcats aren't afraid to throw out some younger players this fall. Kentucky has 24 sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen listed on its two-deep for Saturday. That's a lot, especially for a team that is looking to revamp both sides of the ball. There could be a lot of growing pains for this team early.
  • Sophomore receiver Demarco Robinson and redshirt freshman receiver Daryl Collins might be currently listed as backups for the Cats, but don't let that fool you. Both have been very impressive since the spring and both will get plenty of chances to see the field Saturday. Having three senior starters at wide receiver will help bring those two along, but I expect them to breakthrough eventually.
  • You won't see sophomore Josh Clemons listed on the two-deep at running back, as he's out after his knee was cleaned up. CoShik Williams and Raymond Sanders are listed as co-starters. I'm also curious to see what happens at linebacker. Four new starters are in and there were questions surrounding the weakside position. Former quarterback Tyler Brause moved ahead of Malcolm McDuffen, who exited spring as a starter. Joker Phillips has said this will be a day-to-day competition.

Depth chart
  • The Tigers enter Week 1 against Southeastern Louisiana pretty banged up, especially on the offensive line. Potential starting guards Jack Meiners (knee) and Travis Ruth (triceps) are both out with injuries, and so is backup right tackle Taylor Chappell, who tore the ACL in his left knee and is out for the season. Starting corner Kip Edwards and projected starting free safety Braylon Webb are listed as doubtful with knee injuries. It's probably best to rest these guys if they could aggravate their injuries before the Georgia game next week.
  • Gary Pinkel also announced on Monday that running back Henry Josey is out for the season. He hasn't recovered from his devastating knee injury, but this was no surprise at all.
  • Some good news is that four starters -- linebacker Will Ebner, nose guard Matt Hoch, wide receiver L'Damian Washington and tight end Eric Waters -- made the two-deep after they were held out of last week's scrimmage. Listed behind Waters at the tight end/"Y" receiver spot is freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. Missouri wants to use him both inside and out, so expect him to move around Saturday.
  • Sophomore Kony Ealy and junior Michael Sam are listed as the starting defensive ends, with senior Brad Madison behind Sam. Madison's shoulder has healed, but maybe it says more about how far the others have come. Madison should still get solid reps, but keep an eye on Ealy. He has breakout potential.

Depth chart
  • The first thing that stands out to me is that top signee Shaq Roland is listed as a third-team wide receiver behind Ace Sanders and DeAngelo Smith. It might say more about how the others have done, but Roland is someone this staff has been very excited about and hopes he can make an instant impact on offense. He isn't taking Sanders' spot, but he'll get on the field.
  • That secondary looks pretty green without Akeem Auguste in it. He's out after tearing a muscle in his right thigh, meaning junior Jimmy Legree, who moved from safety this spring will get the start against Vanderbilt Thursday. Legree began last season as a starter, but lost his spot after struggling during the first two games. First-time starter Victor Hampton is at the other corner spot. He's unproven, but the staff is excited about his talent and athleticism.
  • Freshman tight end Jerell Adams might be listed as a second-teamer, but the coaches have been very impressed by him this fall and he'll have every chance to get some solid playing time early.

Depth chart
  • Junior Rajion Neal did a good job of staying ahead in the running back race. After an impressive spring, he will enter Friday's opener against NC State as the Vols' starter. He edged out Devrin Young and Marlin Lane, who both made good strides this spring. He has a lot of pressure to deal with, as Tennessee was awful running that ball in 2011.
  • Tennessee is hoping to get much more out of its defensive line this fall and junior college transfers Daniel McCullers and Darrington Sentimore could be the answers. Both came in with a ton of hype and snatched starting spots at nose guard and end, respectively. McCullers' arrival moved Maurice Couch from tackle to end. Derek Dooley has said the line is still a work in progress, but a lot is expected from Sentimore and McCullers.
  • Byron Moore and Brent Brewer are listed as co-starters right now, but Moore let it slip last week that he was named the starter. This could be another position that won't be settled right away. The secondary will get a nice test against the Wolfpack, so that could make things clearer for Week 2.

Depth chart
  • Redshirt junior Warren Norman is back, but he might have to wait his turn for reps. He's listed on Vandy's second team, but Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour are on the first team. If the Commodores line up with two backs Seymour could be out there before Norman, who is coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2011.
  • The defensive side has a few guys who were banged up listed as starters. Inside linebacker Chase Garnham was limited during fall camp, but he's set to start Thursday against South Carolina. So are defensive tackles Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter.
  • Looking at that offensive line, you'll see nothing but underclassmen on the second team. While that's a good sign for the future, it could be worrisome for this staff if a starter goes down this fall. Staying healthy up front is critical for this team.

One good reason: Vanderbilt

August, 13, 2012
Our "One good reason" series concludes with a look at the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Good reasons:
Let's see what the Commodores might have in store in 2012:

Vanderbilt will make it to a bowl game in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history: Enough offensive talent comes back to get a good amount of points on the board.

The Commodores were one of the most surprising teams on offense last year and the playmakers who made that happen return in 2012. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers had his ups and downs last year, but he made strong strides this spring and the coaches feel he'll be much better this fall. It'll help that wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who combined for 72 catches and 1,251 yards and 13 touchdowns, return. Rodgers will also benefit from having youngsters Josh Grady and Kris Kentera to throw to as well. Both are converted quarterbacks and had solids springs. Junior receiver Jonathan Krause could be a solid option for Rogers as well.

Carrying the ball shouldn't be an issue either, as Zac Stacy and his 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns return. Stacy enters the fall as the SEC's top returning running back (stats-wise) from last season. And he'll have some help with Warren Norman coming back. Injuries have wrecked his past two seasons, but he's ready to get back to his old rushing ways. Also, keep an eye on freshman Brian Kimbrow, who could get some carries this fall as well. The Commodores aren't short of talent at all in the playmaking department this fall and could give some defenses fits.

Why it won't: The Commodores won't sneak up on anyone this fall.

Forget the fact that Vandy's offensive line still needs some work and will have to tap into its group of youngsters this fall; the Commodores are more respected this season. That's a good thing and a bad thing. The bad part about it is that the Commodores' SEC counterparts won't be taking them for granted this year. You think Georgia isn't hyped up to play the Commodores in Athens this fall? I think everyone remembers the ending to last year's game. South Carolina dominated Vandy's offense last fall, but the score was still closer than it should have been. Starting the season with the Dores should provide the Gamecocks with some early motivation. Florida and Tennessee also squeaked out close wins against Vandy and should be better prepared this time around. Hey, and rival Ole Miss is itching for an SEC win. The Rebels certainly have Nov. 10 circled on their calendars.

Vandy made its run to a bowl last year because of solid nonconference play. The Commodores went 4-0 against nonconference foes in 2011, but this season they have to go on the road to play Northwestern and Wake Forest, which is no doubt still smarting after that 41-7 beatdown it suffered to Vandy last year.

The culture is different at Vandy, but its opponents know that as well, and they'll be ready for the Commodores this fall.
The Mississippi State duo of Johnthan Banks and Chad Bumphis leads a contingent of 12 SEC players on the preseason watch list for the 2012 Paul Hornung Award, which is presented to the most versatile player in major college football.

Georgia's Brandon Boykin was the 2011 winner.

There are 49 players on the preseason watch list. The SEC leads the way with 12 players. The Pac-12 is second with 10 players on the list.

Here's a complete rundown of the SEC players on the list:
Players from all FBS teams are eligible, and appearing on the Paul Hornung Award watch list is not a prerequisite for winning the award. That said, look for Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell to play his way into consideration this season as both a cornerback and receiver for the Bulldogs.
Schedule: The Commodores' first practice is on Thursday, and their first day in pads is on Aug. 7. They open the season on Aug. 30 at home against South Carolina, which will air at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Returning starters: Nine on offense, eight on defense and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.

Star power: Running back Zac Stacy returns this fall as the SEC's top statistical back from a year ago after he broke Vanderbilt's single-season rushing record with 1,193 yards and single-season rushing touchdown record with 14.

New faces: The Commodores welcome in six true freshmen offensive linemen. That's big for Vanderbilt, considering the depth issues along the offensive line. The coaching staff will be looking to expedite the learning process for them, as they'll all be expected to compete for some sort of time this fall. Also, the staff is especially excited about incoming frosh Brian Kimbrow, who could lineup at running back and return punts for the Dores. And don't forget that former Montana QB and Mountain West Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels is eligible to play this fall and will continue to push Jordan Rodgers in camp.

Don’t forget about: Running back/return specialist Warren Norman is back and should be healthier than he's been since his sophomore year. Norman was Vandy's top rusher back in 2009 and was also one of the league's best kick returners. Injury cut his 2010 season short and he missed all of 2011 with a bad knee. If he's back at 100 percent, he'll not only bolster Vandy's return game but he should add another solid weapon in the running game.

Big shoes to fill: Linebacker Chris Marve wasn't just a tremendous player out on the field for the Commodores, he was the unquestioned leader of this team inside the locker room. This spring, Chase Garnham did a pretty good job of filling in for Marve on the field, but growth is still needed for him to become an impact player on defense. The staff has been happy with Garnham in the leadership department, but more is expected during camp and when the season starts.

Key battles: Vandy returns two starters on the offensive line -- Wesley Johnson and Ryan Seymour -- and there is still a lot of inexperience that offensive line coach Herb Hand will have to deal with. One interesting battle should be between sophomores Spencer Pulley and Joe Townsend for the center spot. The third receiver spot is also up for grabs, with juniors Wesley Tate and Jonathan Krause battling redshirt freshman Josh Grady.

Rising star: Grady made the move from quarterback to wide receiver and shined this spring. The staff has always been excited about his potential because of how athletic of a player he is, and it seems as though he has the best chance to be a big-play threat at receiver. He showed his versatility this spring by lining up receiver, running back and as the Wildcat quarterback.

Bottom line: James Franklin turned Vandy around during his first year, after the program underwent a major attitude adjustment. There was more confidence and excitement surging through the program last year, and it has spilled over into Year 2 of Franklin's tenure. The Commodores have to replace some key defensive weapons and are thin on the offensive line, but there are enough offensive playmakers returning to make the Commodores' offense fun to watch. And if the defense holds up like last year, the Commodores could go bowling for a second straight year.
We took a little hiatus from the position rankings last week while attending the SEC media days.

We’ll pick back up today with special teams. Place-kickers and punters are important, especially those with experience, but so are dangerous return men. We also looked at net punting and the way teams covered kicks last season.

Here’s how we would rank the special teams units in the league heading into the 2012 season:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/John BazemoreLSU's Tyrann Mathieu has become perhaps the nation's most feared player on special teams.
1. LSU: Where are the Tigers not loaded for 2012? They again should be outstanding in the kicking game with place-kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing both returning. Alleman was 16-of-18 on field goals last season, and Wing averaged 44.4 yards per punt. The Tigers were third nationally in net punting (41.15 yards), and Tyrann Mathieu is back after averaging 15.6 yards on punt returns and taking two back for touchdowns.

2. Florida: Coach Will Muschamp said last week that Caleb Sturgis was the best kicker in the country. Sturgis was a Lou Groza Award finalist last season and made 22-of-26 field goals. He was one of only two FBS kickers to make three field goals of 50 yards or longer. The Gators also have an assortment of speed in their return game. Andre Debose was second in the SEC in kickoff return average and took one back 99 yards for a touchdown.

3. Auburn: The Tigers have a trio of dangerous return men in Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason and Quan Bray. McCalebb and Mason both returned kickoffs for touchdowns last season. Junior punter Steven Clark was a Ray Guy Award finalist last season. He was third nationally with 33 punts inside the 20. Junior place-kicker Cody Parkey returns after making 13-of-18 field goals. Auburn led the SEC in kickoff coverage and tied for third in net punting.

4. Arkansas: The Hogs love their kicking combo of junior place-kicker Zach Hocker and senior punter Dylan Breeding. Hocker was 21-of-27 on field goals, and his 40 touchbacks ranked second nationally. Breeding led the SEC in punting with an average of 45.3 yards per kick. Joe Adams won’t be weaving his magic on punt returns any more, but Dennis Johnson is equally dangerous when he’s back there as the deep man.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels have one of the top senior kicking duos in the conference returning. Bryson Rose was 9-of-11 on field goals, while Tyler Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt and was second in the SEC with 28 punts downed inside the 20. Ole Miss was second in the league in kickoff coverage and fifth in net punting. Jeff Scott is also back after averaging 17.2 yards on punt returns, including a 67-yard touchdown.

6. Missouri: Senior Trey Barrow earned second-team All-Big 12 honors last season as a punter when he averaged 44.8 yards per punt, which ranked him ninth nationally. He also filled in later in the season as the place-kicker and was 7-of-9 on field goals, but was outplayed this spring by redshirt freshman Andrew Baggett. E.J. Gaines and T.J. Moe are both veteran return men.

7. Texas A&M: Senior Dustin Harris is one of the top return men in college football. He led the country last season in punt return average with an 18.6-yard average. The big loss is Lou Groza Award winner Randy Bullock, who made 29 of his 33 field goal attempts, including 13-of-16 from 40 yards or longer. Redshirt freshman place-kicker Taylor Bertolet has some big shoes to fill.

8. Alabama: Kicking field goals wasn’t one of the things defending national champion Alabama did best last season, but Jeremy Shelley came through in the BCS National Championship Game and returns for his senior season. Junior Cody Mandell was ninth in the SEC in punting a year ago, and the Crimson Tide were shaky in kickoff coverage. They also have to replace Marquis Maze in the return game.

9. Vanderbilt: Junior Warren Norman is healthy again and ready to showcase the same form that earned him SEC Freshman of the Year honors when he returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. Incoming freshman Brian Kimbrow could also provide some fireworks in the return game. The Commodores didn’t make any field goals longer than 40 yards last season, but were third in the SEC in net punting.

10. Mississippi State: Junior punter Baker Swedenburg is the most proven component of Mississippi State’s special teams. He averaged 41.8 yards a kick last season, and the Bulldogs were sixth in the league in net punting. Senior Brian Egan and freshman Devon Bell will compete for the place-kicking duties after Derek DePasquale made 12-of-18 field goals last season.

11. Kentucky: Senior place-kicker Craig McIntosh has gone from walk-on to one of the most dependable place-kickers in the SEC. He made 12-of-14 field goals last season and also took over the kickoff duties later in the season. Replacing punter Ryan Tydlacka won’t be easy, and the Wildcats’ return game was non-existent in 2011. They were last in the SEC in punt return average (1.8 yards).

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks need to make more happen in the return game and hope Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington can fill that void. They also will break in two new kickers. Landon Ard is a redshirt freshman place-kicker, and there’s still a battle raging at the punter position. South Carolina was last in the SEC in kickoff coverage a year ago and 11th in net punting.

13. Tennessee: The Vols were last in the SEC in net punting last season, and covering kicks, period, has been a problem for some time on Rocky Top. They’re also looking for more consistency when it comes to kicking field goals. Junior Michael Palardy was 9-of-14 last season. Making more happen in the return game would help, too. Speedy sophomore Devrin Young may be the answer.

14. Georgia: The Bulldogs were a train wreck on special teams last season. They couldn’t cover kicks, and senior place-kicker Blair Walsh had an off year. Now, Walsh is gone along with veteran punter Drew Butler. That means the Bulldogs will have a new place-kicker and a new punter, and their most dynamic weapon in the return game, Brandon Boykin, also has to be replaced.
We continue our position rankings by looking at some of the hardest working players in the league. Running backs are very important in the SEC and more is always better around these parts.

Past rankings:
On to the running backs:

[+] EnlargeSpencer Ware
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe powerful Spencer Ware should be a key part of LSU's running back depth this upcoming season.
1. LSU: The Tigers claim the top spot thanks to depth, talent and more depth. They have five guys back there who could start for a lot of teams. Michael Ford is the speed guy. Spencer Ware is a bruiser who also has great cutting ability, Alfred Blue is extremely versatile and strong, and Kenny Hilliard is an even bigger bruiser. This group combined for 2,338 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns last fall. Keep an eye out for freshman Jeremy Hill, too.

2. South Carolina: Marcus Lattimore alone would warrant the Gamecocks being near the top. All reports coming out of Columbia are that he’s healthy and ready to pick up where he left off when he hurt his knee. Sophomore Brandon Wilds was excellent in filling in for Lattimore last season, veteran Kenny Miles has said he will be back for his senior season and the talented Shon Carson should be back after his ACL injury.

3. Arkansas: It was a close call between the Hogs and the Gamecocks. Similar to Lattimore, Knile Davis insists he’s as good as new after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle. Dennis Johnson can do a little bit of everything and certainly won’t be forgotten about in the Hogs’ offense, while Ronnie Wingo Jr. returns for his senior season.

4. Alabama: Eddie Lacy gets his shot to be the Crimson Tide’s feature back now that Trent Richardson is gone, but Nick Saban prefers to share the wealth. Who wouldn’t when you’ve got a true freshman on campus as talented as T.J. Yeldon? Don’t forget about Dee Hart, either. Hart would have played some last season had he not been injured. And Jalston Fowler adds another big, bruising body to Bama's backfield.

5. Texas A&M: If the NCAA rules that Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams is eligible this season, the Aggies may move up this list. Williams was sensational this spring, and Christine Michael also returns after rushing for 899 yards last season prior to tearing his ACL. In addition, incoming freshman Trey Williams was one of the premier running back prospects in the country.

6. Vanderbilt: We're still not sure what Warren Norman can do, as he returns from his knee injury. Jerron Seymour is a do-it-all guy. The centerpiece of the Commodores’ offense will again be Zac Stacy, who set a school record last season with 1,193 rushing yards. He’s the leading returning rusher in the SEC. Highly-touted freshman Brian Kimbrow could also be used at running back.

7. Mississippi State: The competition this preseason at running back ought to be fierce at Mississippi State. Speedy LaDarius Perkins is the likely starter, but the Bulldogs’ coaches can’t wait to see what a healthy Nick Griffin can do. There are two talented redshirt freshmen -- Josh Robinson and Derek Milton -- who’ve also been waiting their turn.

8. Georgia: Losing Isaiah Crowell was a real blow for the Bulldogs, but they’re not lacking in talent. We won’t have to wait long to see if true freshman Keith Marshall is the real deal, but he's at his best when he's in space or used in the passing game. Ken Malcome had a very good spring and was a co-starter heading into summer. Incoming freshman Todd Gurley will be called upon this fall as well.

9. Auburn: Onterio McCalebb remains one of the top breakaway threats in the league, but he's going to need help. Tre Mason could emerge as the Tigers' every-down back. Transfers Mike Blakely and Corey Grant also impressed this spring and will add good depth. Either way, losing a player the caliber of Michael Dyer always stings.

10. Missouri: People forget that Kendial Lawrence was the starter before he went down with an injury last year. He regrouped well and was even better this spring. Marcus Murphy was out last season with a shoulder injury, but will be back and adds explosion to the backfield. Big-bodied rising senior Jared McGriff-Culver returns and should get carries along with redshirt sophomore Greg White. It still looks as though leading rusher Henry Josey won't be healthy enough for the fall.

11. Florida: Mike Gillislee has been inconsistent during his career, but is perhaps the key to the team and is the first downhill runner Florida has had since Tim Tebow. The Gators also hope this is the year finally Mack Brown comes on. Hunter Joyer might be best true fullback in the league and Trey Burton will also play a role as an H-back/fullback.

12. Tennessee: The Vols will be searching this preseason for their go-to back. Junior Rajion Neal has gotten bigger and stronger and may be the most explosive back. He left spring practice tied with an improved Marlin Lane and Devrin Young for the starting spot. Tennessee's rushing game has to improve greatly, as it ranked 116th nationally last year.

13. Kentucky: All four top rushers are back, but none eclipsed the 500-yard mark last year. The Wildcats hope Josh Clemons can recover from a knee injury that cut short his promising freshman season. CoShik Williams was Kentucky's leading rusher last year (486) and is one of the Wildcats' more elusive backs. Jonathan George will be in the mix again, while Raymond Sanders figures to be healthier this fall.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels can’t afford to lose top back Jeff Scott, whose academics are still being monitored. Seniors Devin Thomas and H.R. Greer provide depth, but have combined for 125 career rushing yards. Redshirt sophomore Nicholas Parker has dealt with shape issues and has yet to see any game action, while Tobias Singleton moved from receiver to running back this spring. The Rebels will have to turn to their incoming freshmen for help here.

Vanderbilt spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
2011 record: 6-7
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:
WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OG Ryan Seymour, C Wesley Johnson, LB Archibald Barnes, Chase Garnham, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson

Key losses:
TE Brandon Barden, OT Kyle Fischer, DE Tim Fugger, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Zac Stacy* (1,193 yards)
Passing: Jordan Rodgers* (1,524 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Matthews* (778 yards)
Tackles: Chris Marve (91)
Sacks: Tim Fugger (8)
Interceptions: Casey Hayward (7)

Spring answers

1. Finding more leaders: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin wanted to leave spring with more leaders than started with. By his accounts, a few veterans stepped up with guys like Marve, Fugger, Hayward and Fischer gone. Franklin said that if the Commodores were going to build off of last season's success, some veterans had to step up and take hold of the team. Guys like Jordan Rodgers, Chase Garnham, Walker May, Trey Wilson and Zac Stacy really expanded their roles as leaders and will be leaned on even more this fall.

2. Marve's replacement: Finding someone to take over for Marve in the locker room was one thing, but filling his position on the field is another. Exiting the spring, Franklin thinks he found the perfect player for the job in Garnham. He moved from the outside to the middle and really excelled at Marve's old position. Garnham was one of the Vanderbilt's most consistent defensive players this spring and the coaches expect to perform this fall.

3. More playmakers: The Commodores return much of their offense this season, but it sounds like the coaches found a few more players. People know about Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but a few other players caught the coaches' eyes like redshirt freshmen Josh Grady and Kris Kentera, who were former quarterbacks. Grady showed his versatility by playing all over the field at receiver, running back and as a wildcat quarterback. It looks like Kentera earned some playing time at H-back this fall, helping to take pressure off Matthews and Boyd.

Fall questions

1. Offensive line: Spring practices have not addressed any of the issues the Commodores have on the offensive line. Ryan Seymour and Chase White began spring by rehabbing injuries, leaving Vandy with just nine healthy bodies up front. As spring went on, Franklin said there were times when his team sometimes had just seven linemen to work with. It was bad enough that Vandy rarely went through practices with a full offensive line taking reps. Six true freshmen linemen will enroll at Vandy this fall, but there's no question this unit is the biggest worry for the Commodores.

2. Quarterback consistency: While Rogers made improvements to his game, he still showed the inconsistency that frustrated Franklin last season. There's no question he has the athletic ability to be a solid starter in this league, but he sometimes fails to stand tall in the pocket and deliver solid throws when things collapse around him. That kind of play really hurt Vandy's offense last season. He was pushed by 2009 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels during the spring and the battle is expected to continue through fall camp.

3. Warren Norman's health: After missing all of the 2011 season with a knee injury, Norman returned to the practice field this spring. Though he was non-contact, he showed some improvement in his mobility. It's still unclear how healthy Norman will be and if really complement Stacy in the running game. Rising sophomore Jerron Seymour is the one other returning running back that registered carries last season.
There was a lot of coaching movement in the SEC last year, but the league entered the 2011 season with just two new head coaches in Florida's Will Muschamp and Vanderbilt's James Franklin.

Both won six games during the regular season, while Muschamp's Gators won their bowl game. Franklin's 6-7 debut was considered far more successful than Muschamp's 7-6 year because of both programs' history and the talent difference.

What's in store for both coaches in 2012? Well, ESPN colleague Ryan McGee took a look at 10 second-year coaches and both Franklin and Muschamp made his list. McGee graded their debuts, looked at needs for 2012 and gave a little analysis. Take a look:

Record: 6-7
Grade: B
2012 needs: Offensive traction, kicking game

Franklin attacked his first two national signing days with such vigor he became a Vandy YouTube sensation. He also went after his SEC rivals, including Tennessee, and his players on the sidelines.

Keep in mind, this is Vanderbilt. The Commodores aren't used to that kind of intensity, just as they aren't used to going to bowl games, which the Commodores did for just the second time since 1982 and the fifth time ever.

The biggest immediate needs are offensive consistency and kicking it between the uprights. Solving the first problem comes down to two fixes: A) Getting quarterback Jordan Rodgers (Aaron's little brother) to be more patient and complete more passes, and B) Finding help for senior tailback Zac Stacy, who ran for 1,193 yards one year ago but was visibly gassed late in games.
Record: 7-6
Grade: D
2012 needs: Offensive leadership, turnovers

Here's the thing about screaming and yelling and slobbering all over everyone on your sideline, especially the refs. It's kind of like Crash Davis' explanation of fungus on one's shower shoes. If you win, people think such rants are just part of your colorful personality. If you fail to beat an FBS team with a winning record and spend all season flirting with your school's first losing season since 1979, however, it comes off as a little thin.

There's no doubt that injuries on offense hurt, but it's not as if the Gators' roster was suddenly barren of athletes. Muschamp, heralded as a defensive guru, watched his D give up 133 rushing yards per game, ranked 40th nationally.

Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has departed for Kansas. That might not be a bad thing. Neither is the number of seniors who have departed -- only 11. But a roster packed with youth needs to buy into what the coach is selling. If they don't soon, The Swamp will get ugly in a hurry.
My thoughts:
  • What Franklin did in 2011 was very impressive, but it wasn't good enough for him. He wasn't happy with the close losses or the bowl loss. He wasn't happy with the losing record. He has made that perfectly clear this spring and is looking for Vandy to take the next step right now. There are some veteran leaders that aren't around anymore, but Franklin recently said that he's found a few players on both sides of the ball who stepped up more as leaders this spring. The expectations are going to be higher and teams won't overlook the Commodores this fall.
  • Making sure Stacy has a solid, consistent running partner will be key for Vandy's offense. I think you'll see Warren Norman take that role. Remember, he was once Vandy's top running back until he was injured. The coaches feel he'll be 100 percent this fall and if he plays like he did as a freshman, he'll add another talented offensive weapon for the Commodores.
  • Franklin has a lot of support from Vandy's program and community. A dip in Year 2 won't totally hurt him, but if he wants to keep the momentum going, making another bowl is the goal. He's recruited well, but prospects want to continue to see progress. A sub-par season might turn recruits off.
  • Muschamp got sort of a mulligan in-house when Urban Meyer told bigwigs at Florida that he left the Gators' new coach a "broken" program. But that won't help him in Year 2. Spring went much better for the coaching staff and players, as more guys bought in. That might be more important than players improving on technique at this point in Gainesville. The Gators had major discipline issues when Muschamp first arrived and it took some time for those issues to be squashed.
  • Florida has to find out who is going to be the guy at quarterback, but what might be more important is how the offensive line performs and how downhill the running game can be. Florida's line was below average for most of last season, making it tough for anything to happen on offense. Though it was just 15 practices, Florida's line looked better, Muschamp said, because guys were more mature and tougher.
  • Muschamp says he's happier with this team and sees a ton of improvement. However, no 2011 mulligan will help another losing record in conference play.

SEC lunch links

April, 11, 2012
Making the rounds in the SEC:

Opening spring camp: Vanderbilt

March, 16, 2012
Schedule: Vanderbilt begins spring practice Friday at 5:15 p.m. ET and concludes with the Black and Gold Spring Game on April 14, in Vanderbilt Stadium. Coach James Franklin has decided to open all 14 of Vanderbilt's spring practices to fans.

What's new: Franklin added two new assistants during the offseason. George Barlow comes over from New Mexico to coach the Commodores' defensive backs and serve as the defensive recruiting coordinator, while Josh Gattis left Western Kentucky to coach Vandy's wide receivers and will serve as the offensive recruiting coordinator. Vanderbilt will also see more of transfer quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who came from Wyoming last season, after being the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year in 2009. After sitting out 2011, Carta-Samuels will compete with Jordan Rodgers for the starting quarterback spot. Joining the battle is early enrollee Patton Robinette.

On the mend: Running back Warren Norman sat out all of the 2011 season with a knee injury and will be limited for most of the spring. Offensive linemen Ryan Seymour and Chase White, safety Javon Marshall, fullback Marc Panu, linebacker Tristan Strong, and running back Jerron Seymour won't go through contact this spring. Offensive lineman Mylon Brown, who was suspended due to violation of team rules and wide receiver Brady Brown, who decided not to return to the team, are not on the spring roster.

Questions: Vanderbilt must replace four key starters and leaders from last year's defense. Gone are linebacker Chris Marve, cornerback Casey Hayward, defensive end Tim Fugger and safety Sean Richardson. Marve, Richardson and Hayward were Vandy's top three tacklers last year, while Fugger led the Commodores with eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Hayward is also tied for first in school history with 15 career interceptions. Vandy will also enter spring with a thin offensive line, with only nine healthy bodies to work with up front. With Seymour and White rehabing and Brown suspended, the Commodores likely won't have two full lines to work with. Also, can the Commodores continue to play and practice with the new confidence Franklin instilled in last year's team? That will be key for Vandy because the Commodores will likely receive more attention this spring, so keeping that edge will go a long way.

On the move: Outside linebacker Chase Garnham is expected to move inside and play at Marve's spot at middle linebacker. Josh Grady is moving from quarterback to wide receiver, while Kris Kentera is also moving from the quarterback spot and will work at tight end/H-back this spring.

Key battle: Rodgers had his ups and downs last year as the Commodores' quarterback, but his downs stuck out in Vandy's bowl loss to Cincinnati. He completed 4-of-14 passes and threw an interception in the first half. Now, Rodgers will have a fight on his hands this spring with Carta-Samuels and Robinette. Carta-Samuels proved he has the talent to push Rodgers after some success at Wyoming, while Robinette will certainly benefit from enrolling early. Vanderbilt returns most of its offensive production from last season, including running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but the quarterback play has to be more consistent in 2012. Rodgers made the offense go for most of the year, but his struggles held Vandy back at times.

Don't forget about: Vandy has one of the most productive running backs in the SEC from a year ago lining up in its backfield once again. Stacy was third in the league in rushing last season (1,193) and was second with 14 rushing touchdowns. He was Vandy's most consistent offensive player last year and really helped add big-play ability when the Commdores had the ball. Stacy broke Vandy's single-season rushing record in the final game of the regular season when he rushed for 184 yards against Wake Forest. He will enter the season eighth on the school's list in career rushing yards (2,002) and trails career leader Frank Mordica by 630 yards.

Breaking out: The Commodores have a few players who could turn some heads this spring. Sophomore defensive tackle Barron Dixon has a big lower body and is built like your typical SEC defensive tackle. He didn't play much last year, but with holes up front, he'll have a chance to grab a spot this spring. Also, redshirt freshman Derek King has a chance to really compete in Vanderbilt's secondary. He sat out last season, but with Hayward and Richardson gone, he has a shot to earn some playing time. Keep an eye on offensive guard Jake Bernstein because Vandy needs a lot of help on the offensive line and the redshirt freshman will be called upon often this spring.

All eyes on: There will be a lot of attention paid to the quarterback spot this spring. Rodgers is the favorite heading into spring, but he'll really have to show improvement in his composure and his decision-making in order to leave spring as the starter. He's extremely talented and athletic, but he has to get the mental side down in order to develop heading into the 2012 season. The good thing is that Vanderbilt returns enough weapons to help in that department. Also, Norman should get more attention paid his way as well. He was one of Vandy's best offensive and special teams weapons when he was healthy, so making sure he makes improvements in his speed this spring will be key. Adding him back to the offense this fall will be big for the Commodores.

Spring preview: Eastern Division

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.