Thursday, March 29, 2007
Spring look around the SEC
By Chris Low Special to ESPN.com
Has Auburn improved its offensive attack? Which QBs are in the lead at LSU and Ole Miss? Has South Carolina found the answers on its defensive line? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The Alabama players are getting their first taste of new head coach Nick Saban on the practice field this spring, and they've obviously gotten the message about not being too forthcoming with the media. Saban, similar to his polices at LSU, wants one voice coming out of the program. Freshmen don't talk and rarely do his assistants. Even the upperclassmen have been guarded, although senior defensive end Wallace Gilberry was taken aback at how short Saban is. "You hear all these stories about him. I'm thinking he's a giant," Gilberry jokingly told the Birmingham News. "But I was like, 'This guy isn't as big as I thought he was.' I kind of relaxed a little bit." On a more serious note, Gilberry went on to say that Saban gets the best out of his players. "He's going to make you a better man." Saban has made a few position changes already, most notably moving Keith Saunders from defensive end to outside linebacker. Saunders started at end last season and will continue to rush the passer. He'll just do it from his drop linebacker spot in the Tide's new 3-4 scheme.
The Razorbacks lost senior defensive tackle Marcus Harrison for the rest of the spring and likely for part of the 2007 season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a freak play in practice on Monday. Coach Houston Nutt said Harrison came down on his knee awkwardly after jumping over a pile. Harrison also has a bone bruise, and his recovery is being estimated at five to six months. Harrison began last season as a starter before an injury knocked him out of the starting lineup. Another member of the Hogs' defensive line, junior end Antwain Robinson, will be allowed to finish spring practice despite his arrest on shoplifting charges last week. Nutt said Robinson will be disciplined internally, including extra running and participating in community service. Robinson is Arkansas' best returning defensive lineman. He was second on the team last season with 8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
Auburn's offense had trouble scoring points last season. The Tigers finished eighth in the SEC in scoring offense. The way they finished this spring, though, would suggest that offensive production won't be a problem next season. The offense scored five touchdowns in the Tigers' A-Day spring game on March 17 and then came back in the final scrimmage of the spring a few days later and was even more productive. Redshirt freshman tailback Mario Fannin certainly left a lasting impression heading into the summer with 206 yards rushing on 13 carries. He had touchdown runs of 60, 58 and 11 yards. Tristan Davis also rushed for 100 yards on 15 carries. The defense was missing at least four starters in that final scrimmage, but that didn't stop defensive coordinator Will Muschamp from saying that his guys were physically and mentally whipped. The scrimmage started ominously enough for the defense when starting quarterback Brandon Cox connected with Rod Smith, who broke a tackle and raced 75 yards for a touchdown. Cox, looking healthy this spring after injuries plagued him all of last season, finished the day 14 of 19 for 302 yards and three touchdowns.
The No. 1 priority this spring for the defending national champion Gators was rebuilding a defense that lost nine of 11 starters. Some new names are beginning to emerge. Sophomore linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe are off to good starts, and coach Urban Meyer likes the leadership qualities that Spikes, in particular, has shown. A few others who've caught Meyer's eye are sophomore defensive tackle Brandon Antwine, redshirt freshman defensive end Lawrence Marsh, redshirt freshman linebacker A.J. Jones and true freshman cornerback Joe Haden. An early enrollee, Haden has been working a little with the first-team defense. The only starters back from last season's defense are senior safety Tony Joiner and junior defensive end Derrick Harvey, who led the Gators with 11 sacks. While Florida won't be as big or as experienced on defense next season, Harvey thinks the Gators will be faster. A good sign for the defense is that it's won both of the scrimmages to this point, including the goal-line scrimmage Saturday. Meyer was happy with the way the defensive line performed in that scrimmage, but he was also miffed over the number of fumbled snaps that plagued the Gators on offense. So far, junior Kestahn Moore is working with the first team at running back. Sophomore Brandon James has been his backup, although redshirt freshman Chevon Walker has had his moments.
The Bulldogs hope junior college newcomer Jarius Wynn can continue to build on what's been a strong spring. He could be their answer at defensive end, where they're losing both Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson. Marcus Howard and Roderick Battle are the other candidates at end, although both are a little undersized. The battle for the left offensive tackle spot grew a little more interesting this week with sophomore Vince Vance's return to practice on a limited basis after injuring his knee the first week of spring drills. True freshman Trinton Sturdivant and redshirt freshman Josh Davis had moved ahead of Vance, but he thinks he'll be able to play in the Bulldogs' spring game on April 7. Coach Mark Richt said Sturdivant, who graduated high school early to be able to go through the spring, would probably be the Bulldogs' starter at left tackle if the season were to begin today. Richt is counting on senior guard Fernando Velasco to be the Bulldogs' leader up front next season. Velasco redshirted last season. For the time being, Mikey Henderson and Sean Bailey have supplanted Mohamed Massaquoi and A.J. Bryant as Georgia's first-team receivers. The Bulldogs had more dropped passes than Richt or anybody on offense cares to remember last season.
Running back Rafael Little, one of the SEC's most versatile running backs, will be limited the first two weeks of spring after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason. Kentucky already had some questions to answer on its offensive line as spring practice opened on Wednesday, but there may be more of those guys sitting than practicing this spring. Starting guard Christian Johnson was suspended for academic reasons, and coach Rich Brooks isn't sure when Johnson will be back. In addition, offensive linemen Jorge Gonzalez, Zach Hennis, Justin Jeffries and Jason Leger are still recovering from offseason surgery and won't be able to have any contact. The Wildcats will also be without starting free safety Marcus McClinton for a while. He was suspended by Brooks after being arrested last week and charged with wanton endangerment for allegedly setting off homemade explosives. Those charges were reduced this week in court to second-degree disorderly conduct, paving the way for McClinton to rejoin the team at some point. This will be the debut of new Kentucky defensive coordinator Steve Brown, who was promoted from defensive backs coach last season.
The Tigers concluded their spring practice Saturday with senior quarterback Matt Flynn strengthening his hold on the starting spot by throwing for 135 yards on 11 of 22 attempts with a touchdown. Sophomore Ryan Perrilloux was 8 of 23 for 155 yards and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell. Coach Les Miles suggested afterward that both Flynn and Perrilloux could play in the Aug. 30 season opener at Mississippi State, and Miles was adamant that the Tigers would need both next season. But at this point, it's pretty clear that Flynn has a better grasp of the Tigers' offense and is more comfortable in making all the right checks and reads. No matter how many quarterbacks the Tigers play next season, they will have to get used to a receiving corps that's not nearly as deep as it was a year ago. With Craig Davis and Dwayne Bowe getting ready for the NFL draft, Early Doucet was the star of the spring game with nine catches for 115 yards. Look for Miles to get the ball to the versatile Doucet any way he can next season. Doucet also had a 64-yard punt return in the spring game and finished the day with 229 all-purpose yards.
Mississippi coach Ed Orgeron has stuck by his guns this spring, meaning he's not divulging much of anything about his team. That said, it's anybody's guess who will be the Rebels' starting quarterback in the fall. The competition between Brent Schaeffer and Seth Adams has gone back and forth all spring, and Orgeron isn't ready to say if there's a leader. The closed practices have only made it more of a mystery, and the two combatants haven't shed much light on the battle, either. Schaeffer, the former Tennessee quarterback, was the Rebels' starter last season after arriving late from junior college. He struggled all season and never seemed to get in sync with what Ole Miss was trying to do offensively. Schaeffer was replaced by Adams in the second half of both the LSU and Mississippi State games. The Rebels were last in the SEC a year ago in most offensive categories. Orgeron has hinted that the competition between Schaeffer and Adams will probably go on until the summer. The Rebels will end the spring on April 7 with their annual spring game.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
With Saturday's spring game looming, Mississippi head coach Sylvester Croom is starting to feel better about his offense. Part of his optimism stems from the play of junior college newcomer Josh Riddell, who was one of the stars of Saturday's scrimmage. Riddell, who played at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif., last season, was 7-for-10 passing for 86 yards and a touchdown over the weekend. He was directing the second-team offense, and the Bulldogs are looking for as much insurance as they can get at the quarterback position after seeing Michael Henig break his collarbone twice last season. Riddell didn't play quarterback until his senior season in high school and is still learning the Mississippi State playbook. Henig only completed four of his 25 pass attempts in the weekend scrimmage, but his receivers had several drops. Afterward, Croom said receivers Tony Burks and Brandon McRae, specifically, needed to be mentally tougher. Anthony Dixon started at tailback and had a 46-yard run, but Christian Ducre got most of the work in the backfield. The transfer from Tulane rushed for 100 yards, but also had two fumbles, which didn't sit well with Croom.
South Carolina Gamecocks
One of the biggest differences in the Gamecocks this spring is that they have some depth in the defensive line. They were hurting enough last season up front that they moved linebackers Casper Brinkley and Ryan Brown to the defensive line. Head coach Steve Spurrier hopes those days are behind him. Four new defensive linemen are on campus and going through spring practice with the Gamecocks. Three more will arrive this summer. Travian Robertson graduated high school a semester early so that he could get a head start. So far, he's looked the part of a big-time pass-rusher and finished with two sacks in Saturday's scrimmage while working with the second-team defensive line. Clifton Geathers and Ladi Ajiboye are newcomers from Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, while Jonathan Williams is a junior college transfer. Ajiboye, a one-time Virginia Tech commitment, also had two sacks. The Gamecocks are hopeful that incoming freshman Cliff Matthews will also provide some immediate pass-rushing punch when he arrives this summer. He had 15½ sacks last season as a high school senior in Cheraw, S.C. In the Gamecocks' first scrimmage last weekend, the defense more than stood its ground. Quarterback Blake Mitchell led a 70-yard touchdown drive on the opening series, but the offense only crossed midfield twice in the next 10 possessions.
Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe was so upset with his quarterbacks following Saturday's scrimmage that he ordered them to run stadium steps immediately after it ended. The Vols' passing game hasn't exactly clicked this spring with starter Erik Ainge out after undergoing knee surgery. The one bright spot has been Quintin Hancock, who starred in the preseason scrimmages last season, but was lost in the shuffle behind the now-departed threesome of Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. The Vols will end their spring Saturday with their annual Orange and White game. It's been difficult to tell what kind of progress they've made on offense because of all the linemen either out or limited. They're also counting on junior college newcomer Kenny O'Neal and prep school newcomer Brent Vinson to provide some pop to the passing game when they arrive on campus this summer. Defensively, the Vols have toyed with a 3-4 alignment. They're simply that thin in the defensive line, although head coach Phillip Fulmer said tackles Demonte' Bolden and Dan Williams made some strides this week. Jerod Mayo was hoping to make the move from weakside to middle linebacker, but he can't seem to get his knee healthy. One of the Vols' most dynamic athletes on defense, Mayo has struggled to avoid injuries.
Provided everybody stays healthy, the Commodores could boast one of the best offensive tackle tandems in the league next season. Brian Stamper is back after being sidelined last season with back surgery. He's also been out this spring with a foot injury. Vanderbilt's left tackle, Chris Williams, may be one of the most underrated players in the conference. The Commodores are also trying to build some depth at the position. Thomas Welch, who actually played some quarterback in high school and came to Vanderbilt as a tight end, has shifted to tackle and is working with the first team in Stamper's absence this spring. The Commodores' defense had its way in Saturday's scrimmage. Defensive linemen Gabe Hall, Curtis Gatewood, Broderick Stewart and Quavian Lewis all had big days. Hall and Lewis each had three sacks. Sophomore cornerback D.J. Moore had two interceptions, including one thrown by starting quarterback Chris Nickson on the second series of the scrimmage. The Commodores will hold their annual Black and Gold spring game on Saturday.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.