SEC: Zach Mettenberger

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s spring practice is officially in the books. Now that it’s over, we thought it might be fun to review two sets of our predictions from before the spring and see how close we came.

Prediction No. 1: Freshmen will contend for playing time

[+] EnlargeEdward Paris Jr.
Max Olson/ESPN.comLSU early enrollee Edward Paris is making an impact at defensive back.
Outcome: Although it’s clear that freshmen such as tailback Leonard Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and safety Jamal Adams -- none of whom will arrive until this summer -- are likely contributors in 2014, this prediction mostly referred to the redshirt freshmen who will see their first action this fall. It also referred to early enrollees defensive back Edward Paris and quarterback Brandon Harris, who participated in spring practice and stand a good chance of playing this season.

We were hardly going out on a limb here, but it appears as though plenty of redshirt freshmen secured 2014 playing time over the last month. Players worth mentioning from that group include receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore.

Prediction No. 2: Anthony Jennings keeps the QB job

Outcome: To be determined. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in last Saturday’s spring game, but LSU’s coaches and players insist the competition is far from over. Jennings etched his name into LSU lore by leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas last year in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger, but his mediocre performance in the Outback Bowl and highly average spring game -- he threw two interceptions, both to linebackers who returned them for touchdowns -- leave this race wide open.

Jennings might very well start the opener against Wisconsin, but we can’t claim victory (or accept defeat) on our quarterback prediction at this point.

Prediction No. 3: Right guard isn’t the only offensive line job that’s up for grabs

Outcome: Right guard is the only spot that didn’t return a starter, so it was clearly up for grabs. We were curious as to whether new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes might shake things up along the line, but it doesn’t appear that he did.

Returning starters La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Elliott Porter and Jerald Hawkins apparently held onto their starting roles, although it wouldn’t be completely untrue to say that some of their jobs were up for grabs had one of the reserves put together a dominant spring. Nonetheless, the right guard battle -- Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic all remain in the running for the job -- was the only one that seemed highly competitive this spring.

Prediction No. 4: Rashard Robinson keeps rising at cornerback

Outcome: Another fairly safe prediction here. As long as Robinson remains on the active roster, it seems highly likely that he will build upon his late charge in 2013 and become a star in the secondary.

Harris and Rob Bolden teamed up to beat him on a pretty throw down the sideline in the spring game, but Robinson otherwise held up well last Saturday. After shutting down Texas A&M superstar Mike Evans last season, Robinson has LSU fans excited about his potential -- and he didn’t seem to hurt his cause on the practice field this spring.

Prediction No. 5: Danielle Hunter improves as a pass rusher

Outcome: Anyone who saw Hunter manhandle the second-string offensive line in the spring game -- including back-to-back sacks on one possession -- would say this prediction seems to be sound.

LSU posted just 27 sacks last season, which was a big drop-off after the last few Tigers teams boasted at least one or two scary pass rushers. Jermauria Rasco led the team with just four sacks, and Hunter tied for second with three.

It would be a major upset -- and a big disappointment -- if Hunter fails to exceed that total this fall.

Now let’s take a look at our predictions for five players to watch during the spring: Paris, Jennings, Fanaika, wide receiver Quantavius Leslie and defensive lineman Mickey Johnson.

There were some hits and misses here. Jennings was an obvious choice since he and Harris were clearly going to battle for the quarterback job. Picking either one made sense, but we went with Jennings since he was the more experienced player. Harris was the contender who generated all of the positive buzz in the spring game, however.

Fanaika, Leslie and Johnson are all veterans at positions with major playing time available, so they seemed like good picks. Fanaika is still a leading contender to start at right guard and Leslie had a productive second scrimmage (four catches, 135 yards and three touchdowns), although he was quiet in the spring game. But Johnson dealt with injuries during the spring and was not a factor in the Tigers’ competition at defensive tackle.

The problem with our Paris prediction was that we projected him as a contender at safety, which is where ESPN listed him as a prospect. The early enrollee practiced at cornerback during the spring, so we can’t feel too good about that prediction. But he was working with the second-team defense by the end of the spring, so at least he flashed some potential.

If we could redo the list, we’d place Harris, Washington, Diarse, Bain and sophomore Kendell Beckwith -- who shifted to middle linebacker this spring -- on there.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
PM ET
Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:

Q&A: LSU QB Zach Mettenberger

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
9:00
AM ET
video
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Although 20 of his former LSU teammates also worked out before NFL scouts at Wednesday’s pro day, Zach Mettenberger was the story.

The former Tigers quarterback seemed a bit displeased by his performance in his first public workout since undergoing surgery to repair the injured ACL and MCL in his left knee in early January. But his performance seemed to impress the pro scouts and coaches in the room, likely reinforcing his stock as a second-round pick in next month’s draft.

Mettenberger discussed the throwing session with a contingent of media members on Wednesday. Here is a portion of what he had to say:

Q: How do you think you showed what you can do in coming back from the knee surgery?

A: I have been saying for a couple weeks now that I’m healthy and good enough to know, and I don’t think all of y’all believed me. I think one thing I wanted to do is show that I could go out there and take an explosive drop and throw the ball downfield like everyone knows I can. It was great to get out there and throw the ball around with all my guys that I threw with for three years for one final time.

Q: What do you think this shows about your recovery?

A: I think people think it’s pretty remarkable at 13 weeks, where I’m at. I did a lot of good things today, but sometimes I just hold myself to almost an unrealistic standard. I wasn’t too pleased with myself on some of those throws today, but all things considered, I thought I did OK, but still a lot to improve on.

Q: How close are you to 100 percent?

A: Right now I’m probably 85, 90 percent. I think by rookie camp in May, I’ll be 100 percent.

Q: Have you had any private workouts with teams yet?

A: I haven’t had any private workouts with teams. Hopefully I’ll get more now since they’ve seen that I’m OK. You saw with the Clemson offensive lineman, he got hurt [Brandon Thomas tore his ACL in a private workout with the New Orleans Saints last week], I think, my feedback from teams, they’re afraid to work me out because they don’t want me to injure anything. So I haven’t had any private workouts, but I’ve been throwing every day with the guys here in town. We were able to jell, mesh kind of how we were, but we were still off a little bit on timing things. But I thought we did pretty well today.

Q: Do you have any workouts scheduled?

A: Yeah, I’ve got a few. I’m flying to the Jaguars tomorrow [and Saturday with the Lions]. I’ve got a couple the rest of this week and then next week. So I’m excited for all those.

Q: What do you think you’ve proven about your health?

A: I think I’ve shown that I’m not going to start the season on the PUP list. I think I showed that I’m healthy enough to go through practice, compete for a job and by the time the season rolls around in September, I should be fully healed, no question.

Q: Did you ever doubt that you’d be back so quickly?

A: You tear your ACL in late November and have surgery in early January, you kind of doubt being back in three months and throwing. But I had [LSU head trainer] Jack Marucci with me and Dr. [Brent] Bankston and they kept reminding me that I was going to be fine in three months. And here I am three months later and they were right. I probably should have stressed a little less and just listened to Jack.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU is scheduled to hold its final spring walk-through on Tuesday, which will officially send the Tigers into the offseason.

As Les Miles’ club wraps up its 15 spring workouts, here are five things we took away from the last month on the practice field:

[+] EnlargeJennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings' ability as a running quarterback will be a weapon LSU can utilize this fall.
1. Those QBs can move: Having seen Anthony Jennings play a bit as a freshman, we already knew he had some wiggle. But freshman Brandon Harris looks to be at least his equal in the running-quarterback department after he had 76 rushing yards and a touchdown in last Saturday’s spring game.

Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, it’s a certainty that his playing style will differ wildly from predecessor Zach Mettenberger, who stood like a stone in the pocket. With either Jennings or Harris under center, defenses will have to respect that he can take off and make big plays with his legs.

“Oh boy, isn’t that fun to see?” Miles asked, referring to a 41-yard run that Harris made in the second quarter. “You go back in there and the defense makes a mistake and let me tell you what happened: One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home. And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds.

“That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”

Jennings still seems to have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while looking to pass. Iowa sacked him four times in the Outback Bowl, and his defensive teammates got to him four times in the spring game. Harris seemed to have a better idea when to tuck it and run, which doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea for either of them, as they can both be dynamic runners when they leave the pocket.

2. Linebackers will be strong: Saturday was a great day for LSU’s linebackers. Not only did Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones both intercept Jennings' passes and take them to the house for touchdowns, but Ronnie Feist (14 tackles) and Lamar Louis (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle for a loss) were their respective teams’ leading tacklers.

Feist seemed to be everywhere, continuing what Miles said was an impressive spring from a physicality standpoint.

“When he hits you, you’re hit,” Miles said of Feist. “There’s no pretend to it.”

Senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter apparently left a major impression on his coaches this spring as well. Not only was he among the defense’s honorees in awards for leadership and for outstanding performance, but he was the lone winner of the Jimmy Taylor Award, the team’s comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance.

3. Offensive playmakers still must emerge: It seemed like a foregone conclusion even before spring practice started that some of the team’s top offensive players for 2014 weren’t on campus yet. Spring didn’t do much to change that perception.

Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- who dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the spring -- were adequate at tailback, but freshman Leonard Fournette will inject some star power to the position once he arrives on campus. Likewise, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and the new receivers will add explosiveness at a position that was riddled with injuries throughout the spring. The receivers were nearly nonexistent in the spring game.

LSU wide receivers totaled seven catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Sounds pretty good, right? But five of the catches, 130 yards and both touchdowns came from one player: Travin Dural.

Otherwise, the group frequently dropped passes and misplayed catchable balls, proving that they need every bit of the available practice time this summer to develop chemistry with their quarterbacks. Dural looks like a star in the making, but the others have a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint.

4. Tight end talk seems legit: DeSean Smith and the Tigers’ other tight ends expressed hope this spring that they would get more opportunities to catch passes in 2014 than they did last season, when wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham got most of the looks from Mettenberger.

They said that’s how things had been going in practice, and Saturday looked to continue that trend. Smith led the way with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but Dillon Gordon (2-32), Logan Stokes (1-26), John David Moore (1-20) and Travis Dickson (1-8) also made receptions. In all, the tight ends accounted for eight of the Tigers’ 21 catches in the final spring scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems pleased with the weapons he has at his disposal at the position.

“Every year, with different personnel, creates a whole new set of opportunities, and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical,” Cameron said. “I was thrilled -- for the most part -- I thought they made the most of it.”

5. Defense is on the comeback: Judging by the way the White team (which featured the starters) throttled the Purple team’s offense on Saturday, it looks like LSU’s first-team defense has the potential to rank among the SEC’s best this fall.

The Purple team accounted for 179 yards of offense on 46 plays -- 53 rushing on 27 carries and 126 passing on 6-for-19 attempts. The Purple converted for a first down just once out of 11 third downs.

After saying earlier in the week that he overthought things in his first season as a starter, defensive end Danielle Hunter seems to have cut loose now. He recorded two sacks on Saturday and was a regular presence in the Purple team’s backfield.

He was only one member of a sizable group of defensive players on both teams who flashed major potential in the scrimmage. Things seem to be looking up for defensive coordinator John Chavis’ bunch.
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
BATON ROUGE, La. – A new season brings an entirely new set of challenges for LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

This time last year, he had just opened his first spring in Baton Rouge, so the main objective was teaching a mostly-veteran group of offensive players his way of executing on offense. Now that they've been together for a year, more players are familiar with Cameron’s system, but they will rely on an entirely new set of skill players.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanNow in his second year at LSU, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron isn't slowing down the implementation of his offense for his young signal-callers.
Cameron, however, hasn’t exactly spoon-fed quarterbacks such as sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris this spring. Not initially, anyway.

“At the beginning, he threw a lot out at us. Now we’re trying to perfect those plays,” Jennings said after Tuesday’s practice. “So I don’t think he’s put in a lot -- as much as I think last year [when] he put in a lot of things because he had a veteran quarterback. So now he’s put in a lot of things early and trying to make us perfect those things we’re doing.”

That in itself has been a work in progress. Although LSU’s offensive players insist that they’re improving with each practice together, the Tigers understandably have plenty of work to do before they can match the efficiency of departed leaders like quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill.

And it hasn’t helped that both the receivers and running backs have dealt with injury and depth issues during the spring, with several months to go until a touted group of 2014 signees at those positions arrives.

At times, the results have been ugly -- like in a practice last week, when the quarterbacks and receivers struggled to connect in a simple passing drill where they were working on slant routes. Because of the array of inaccurate and dropped passes, a frustrated Cameron made them repeat the routes again and again.

“Until we can throw a slant, we aren't going to throw another route, I promise you,” Cameron yelled. “We’ll be the simplest -- I’ll tell you what, we’ll run 1950s football until we can do this. We’ll run one route the whole year.”

Obviously a transition from one of the most prolific foursomes in LSU history to a group of largely inexperienced players wasn't going to occur seamlessly. But you’d never know it from the way Cameron has approached the spring, according to senior center Elliott Porter.

Asked whether Cameron has slowed things down for the new quarterbacks, Porter’s response was emphatic.

“No! That’s not right,” Porter chuckled. “It’s Coach Cam. Coach Cam believes in going full speed. If we get it, we’re going to get it. That’s it. That’s how we do things around here. If you couldn't do it, you wouldn’t be here. That’s what you have to look at. We’re not slowing down for no one and we’re going to keep moving and keep doing it. You’re smart enough to get it.”

After all, Porter pointed out, there will be times in the fall where the Tigers must adjust on the fly while preparing for an upcoming opponent’s defensive scheme. They won’t have time to take things slowly for youngsters then, either.

“It’s college football, baby,” Porter said. “I believe Coach Cam and [offensive line coach Jeff] Grimes and Coach [Les] Miles are the best ones to prepare you for the NFL. That’s the type of pace you go by. You just don’t know, in a game week, if you change something whole about your offense, we have two days to change it. Maybe one. You really have to be able to adjust and adjust fast.”

Nonetheless, quarterback guru Cameron has the luxury of drilling the small details of the position with his youngsters this spring, since the opener against Wisconsin is still five months away.

As Jennings noted, Cameron probably hasn’t operated as briskly as he might have otherwise with more experienced quarterbacks, but LSU veterans are still observing the methodical progress the youngsters are making under Cameron’s tutelage.

“I feel like he’s getting the quarterbacks really prepared for the fall. … That’s what has kind of been going on, but the guys have been picking it up real good at practice,” senior tailback Kenny Hilliard said. “Hopefully they just continue to get better and learn from Coach Cam and just carry that on to the fall.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- There are distinct differences between the coaching style of LSU’s new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, and the methods of his predecessor, Greg Studrawa. Perhaps the most obvious for an outside observer is that the decibel level on the practice field has dropped several notches.

Hard-nosed and extremely vocal, Studrawa -- whom Les Miles did not retain after the 2013 season, and who has since accepted the same job at Maryland -- could have come straight from Central Casting to play the role of an offensive line coach. Grimes, on the other hand, does his teaching without all the yelling.

[+] EnlargeJeff Grimes
Jeff Lack/Icon SMIFormer Hokies O-line coach Jeff Grimes has brought an "attention to detail and technique" to LSU, according to coach Les Miles.
“If [Grimes is] on the practice field, you probably wouldn't even notice him. You notice Stud because he was out there yelling and doing all those things and being passionate like that,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “Grimes is just a guy that just wants everything to be perfect. He's kind of like Coach Miles. They're both kind of the same in that facet. So I can tell you right now, we're better this week than we were last week just because of Coach Grimes.”

That’s not to say that Grimes lacks an edge. It’s there when necessary -- just not as loud.

“He’s upfront. He won’t sugarcoat anything. He’ll just tell you how it is,” said senior Fehoko Fanaika, who is battling for the Tigers’ starting right guard spot.

LSU’s offense relied heavily on a foursome of NFL-caliber skill players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- a group that helped the Tigers become the first SEC team to boast a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.

However, the Tigers’ offense was fairly average overall, ranking in the middle of the SEC pack in both total offense (seventh, 453.3 ypg) and scoring offense (sixth, 35.8 ppg). The offensive line’s play certainly factored into those middling results, ranking 57th nationally with an average of 1.92 sacks allowed per game.

Miles, however, believes Grimes’ focus on “attention to detail and technique” will help a line that returns four starters become a more effective group this fall.

“I think we’ll be better. I really do,” Miles said. “But it has to do with the duality of veteran offensive linemen getting to a point in their career where they’re making the final adjustments and Jeff coming in with a real nice focus for them there. I think it should be pretty quick.”

Just because Alexander, left tackle La'el Collins, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins are all back doesn’t mean Grimes has guaranteed starting roles to the returning starters. The Tigers have at least seven linemen whom the coaches like -- throw Fanaika (guard), Evan Washington (guard or tackle) and Ethan Pocic (center, guard or tackle) into the mix -- and want to evaluate as potential starting combinations.

“Everyone’s been moving around a lot. Coach Grimes has been moving us around. He’s trying to see where he likes people at,” Pocic said.

That type of experimentation is fairly common during the spring even among coaches who didn’t just arrive on campus. But in this case, Grimes is simply getting a feel for his personnel -- and they’re getting a feel for him, which they quickly noticed does not include the in-your-face tactics one might expect from an offensive line coach.

“Coach Grimes is one of the most specific, technical guys you'll meet in your life. Automatically, right off the bat, he got us better,” Alexander said. “Coach Stud was a great coach and I love him. He got us better, as well, but just Coach Grimes has a different way of approaching things. He's more mellow.”

In Grimes’ profession, results are what matter, not coaching methods. He has been successful in that regard, most notably during Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship run, but also in stops at Virginia Tech, Colorado, BYU, Arizona State and Boise State.

Starting with his first practice on campus, Grimes’ reputation as a technician caught his head coach’s attention. Miles said last week that it was paying off, with linemen picking up the finer points of their positions that can lead to an overall more productive performance from his group.

“I think our guys are responding to it,” Miles said. “I think the guys are really in position to do so in other words. It’s pretty much a veteran group and there’s always the final footwork, if you will, or the final course, the head placement. I think Jeff’s coming in at the right time for these guys and making that point.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – Early enrollment is frequently beneficial in that it helps a newcomer address a team’s immediate need, but its value goes well beyond the short term. Imagine what LSU’s spring position battles might look like if eight signees hadn’t joined the Tigers in January 2013.

“There’s no question, if they had not been here in January and moved and advanced in their knowledge of what we’re doing, then they’d have a very difficult time competing,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

If not for the valuable experience he gained last spring, Anthony Jennings -- one of two quarterbacks who early enrolled last year, along with Hayden Rettig -- almost certainly wouldn’t have catapulted up the depth chart the way he did, much less completed a game-winning comeback against Arkansas in place of injured senior Zach Mettenberger. And Jennings and Rettig wouldn’t be as far along as they are now in learning the nuances of Cam Cameron’s offense if not for that low-pressure springtime learning environment, since the Tigers already had an established starter in Mettenberger.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsIf Anthony Jennings didn't enroll early, it's doubtful he would have been ready to step in for the injured Zach Mettenberger and lead LSU to a comeback win over Arkansas.
“I’m definitely more confident because I’ve known all the guys for a year now,” Jennings said. “I’m confident in everybody on my team rallying around me to become a better leader and a better quarterback.”

Quarterback being the high-profile position that it is, perhaps it’s the most noticeable place where the Tigers benefited from last year’s big group of early enrollees. But LSU is actually better off at several positions because of those eight players who early enrolled last January -- a group that also includes defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive linemen Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic and receivers John Diarse and Avery Peterson.

Nearly all of those players are in the thick of the competition to grab a starting spot this spring.

“Think about Ethan Pocic. He was our second-team center last year. He shows up here in January or he doesn’t finish at center. He’s not there,” Miles said of Pocic, who played offensive tackle throughout high school, but backed up Elliott Porter at center last season and could contribute at a number of different positions this fall.

“It’s a tremendous advantage for these guys that show up early. There’s no question,” Miles continued. “And it’s a tremendous advantage for us. We get to see what they look like, how they think and is there somebody that we should count on other than them, short term, or do we say, ‘No, move him in because he’s got it.’”

Take Diarse for example. The redshirt freshman probably would have played last season but for an ankle injury he suffered during preseason camp. But he wouldn’t have been in position to back up Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry in 2013 -- much less occupy the starting position he currently enjoys -- if not for his experience last spring.

Louisiana’s 2012 Mr. Football, Diarse was a star dual-threat quarterback at Neville High School in Monroe. He admits that he had a lot to learn about playing his current position, receiver, when he arrived last January.

“It blew my mind the first couple of months into it -- it blew my mind how much detail and technique that it takes to be a receiver,” Diarse said. “Just coming in last spring kind of put me ahead of the 8-ball and now I’m just picking up tidbits here and there to better myself every day.”

Three of the five 2013 early enrollees who played last season -- Stokes, Jennings and Pocic -- all started at least one game. LaCouture played in all 13 games as one of the top reserves on the defensive line, while Fanaika played behind Trai Turner at right guard in several games and worked on the Tigers’ field-goal unit in 12 contests.

All five players are either the leading candidate to start at their position this fall or to play in some sort of a rotation, thanks in no small part to the head start they got this time a year ago.

“You’ve got to learn quick,” LaCouture said. “Spring ball is something that really helped me out -- coming in and knowing the pace of the game, knowing the plays right off the bat. That way when we hit fall ball, it was quick and we were rolling and we were getting ready for that.”

Now he’s in position to help guide less experienced teammates at a position where LSU desperately needs leadership. NFL draft early entrants Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played the vast majority of the key snaps at defensive tackle last season, thrusting 2013 signees LaCouture, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain into position where they might play much bigger roles this fall.

LaCouture is the only member of the trio who played last season, so if LSU’s line performs anywhere near a championship-caliber level -- which might be one key in whether LSU becomes more than an also-ran in the SEC title chase -- the knowledge and experience he gained last year could become even more valuable.

“It was an awesome experience,” LaCouture said. “It was something for me that I’ve always grown up wanting to do. I wanted to come in here [and] it was so great for me having spring ball and preparing myself to do that with the help of Coach Brick [Haley, LSU’s defensive line coach] and the older guys, [defensive coordinator John] Chavis also and Coach Miles.

“Having Ego, Freak [Johnson] and all the guys that left for the draft helped me build my way up for now where I can lead the team this year, just do as much as I can to produce a national championship.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were both supposed to roll right before attempting a pass during a drill at LSU’s practice on Monday, but Harris ran right up Jennings’ back and disrupted his timing enough to prevent him from even making a throw.

Jennings’ frustration quickly evaporated into empathy, however, because it was only a year ago that he was doing the exact same thing to Zach Mettenberger.

“That’s fine with me,” Jennings chuckled after practice, the Tigers’ second team workout of the spring. “I did the same thing to Zach, so Zach was in the same predicament. I guess I’m like the veteran of the quarterbacks [now]. That’s hard to say coming in when I guess I’m a sophomore now. But I know how it is. You’re not going to be perfect right when you arrive on campus. You’re working to start. It’s all fun; it’s all fine. I’m just ready to get him going and teach him everything that I know -- and I’m still learning, too.”

[+] EnlargeJennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSophomore Anthony Jennings is looking to jump into being LSU's starting quarterback, but he'll be challenged by Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
Jennings put himself on the map as an early enrollee last spring, eventually claiming the Tigers’ backup quarterback job as a true freshman and starting the Outback Bowl in place of injured senior Mettenberger. Harris is on campus as an early enrollee not only in an attempt to learn Cam Cameron’s offense prior to preseason camp, but to try to win the starting job.

Understandably, Harris still has plenty of work to do on that front. He’s only been on campus for two months after all. He doesn’t possess a veteran’s understanding of the offense or a feel for the personnel around him yet. And that’s enough to rattle anyone’s confidence -- even a player whom every recruiting service ranked among the nation’s top dual-threat prospects for 2014.

The constant theme that everyone seems to be reinforcing to the freshman is positivity. Even when Cameron would chastise Harris for reflexively clapping after misfiring on a pass Monday, he'd give his young quarterback a fist-bump moments later in an attempt to encourage him.

“It’s definitely going to benefit him,” said receiver John Diarse, who is in line to start as a redshirt freshman after enrolling early a year ago. “I’ve been trying to talk to him here and there whenever I get an opportunity, just stay encouraging, stay upbeat because everybody can’t do it and apparently you have your opportunity because somebody believes you can do it. So just believe in yourself, stay confident and like [strength and conditioning coach Tommy] Moffitt tells us every day, practice positive self-talk and just believe that you can do it and take your time with it.

“Don’t try to be in a rush, don’t worry so much about the media or just the pressure around you. Just focus on yourself and what you can do.”

The media probably won’t be an issue for Harris. As a freshman, he is off limits to reporters until further notice. His plate is full enough in simply adapting to college life and trying to decipher LSU’s offense -- much less compete against Jennings and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig.

But with nearly six months remaining until the Tigers’ opener against Wisconsin, nobody is winning the quarterback job now.

“The older guys obviously know cadence, and there’s some comfort there,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We want to allow a quality competitive environment for Brandon Harris and the other quarterbacks, so we have to bring Brandon to speed, just a comfort of the offense, and then let’s have at it. Let’s see who’s best.”

For now, Jennings wants to prove that he’s more like the player who came off the bench to lead the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas than the one who struggled in his first start, the bowl win over Iowa where he completed just 7 of 19 pass attempts for 82 yards and an interception.

“I don’t think that game was one of my best games. If it was, I don’t think I would be starting,” Jennings said, later adding, “I watched [film of the Iowa game] so many times, I don’t think you’d believe it.”

Jennings and Rettig were both in Harris’ position a year ago, so while they both have the advantage of a year in Cameron’s system, nobody has a decided experience advantage -- particularly now that senior Rob Bolden has shifted to receiver in an attempt to earn some playing time.

Everyone in the quarterback room has plenty to prove, which is why Jennings said he has been spending six days a week at LSU’s football building in an attempt to learn as much as possible from his offensive coordinator.

It should be a competition where knowledge of the offense and daily consistency become enormously important factors as the coaches weigh their options at the position. Jennings is in the lead for now, but he knows -- and Miles guaranteed on Saturday -- that the starting privilege against Wisconsin is “going to be given to no one, earned by the one that plays.”

“[Harris and Rettig] wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t play on this level,” Jennings said. “They’re going -- just like I am -- to try to progress every day. Brandon’s throwing the ball well, still has a lot of things to learn in the offense, but I was in the same predicament last year. Hayden’s just learning along with me. He’s throwing the ball well, he’s speaking, he’s vocal. So we’re all trying to get better as spring goes along, and I think they’re progressing rapidly.”

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 7, 2014
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Here we are at the end of another week, but thankfully a small taste of football is temporarily returning.

Let's take a look around the SEC as some schools have already opened spring practice and some are preparing for their first workout.

Opening spring camp: LSU

March, 7, 2014
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Schedule: The Tigers open spring practice on Saturday. They will conclude with the spring game on April 5 at Tiger Stadium.

What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.

[+] EnlargeWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
Attrition: The Tigers once again suffered a big hit from early NFL entry. LSU receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and right guard Trai Turner all entered the draft despite having eligibility remaining.

On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.

New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.

Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?

Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.

Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.

All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.

Will SEC defenses improve in 2014?

February, 25, 2014
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With so much quarterback talent leaving the SEC after the 2013 season, it seems nearly impossible for the league's offenses to maintain their production from a year ago. There is simply too much to replace at the game's most important position to predict that SEC offenses won't experience at least a temporary efficiency gap.

Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and the Alabama defense will have their work cut out for them with the high-powered SEC offenses.
They're all gone now, leaving offensive coordinators at some of the league's most prominent programs to start over with new quarterbacks -- and in some cases, quarterbacks who haven't started a single game.

That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.

The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.

Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.

You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.

And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.

Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.

That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.

Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.

Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.

So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.

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