Spring has sprung and now the dog days have begun, that time between the end of spring practice and August, when football starts up again with a real sense of urgency. Now that all 12 Southeastern Conference teams have finished their spring football, it’s time to take a look at what gains were made and what needs to be accomplished in the next three months.
The Florida Gators answered the single most important question of all on day one of spring practice when Urban Meyer was not only present but fully involved in the coaching. If Meyer is at the helm, Florida is going to be very good again. Although the Gators will rely on more youngsters than they have in a long while, there is no mistaking that this is a roster loaded with talent from top to bottom.
THE GOOD NEWS: The good news is that Johnny Brantley is the real deal at quarterback and he will be throwing behind a veteran offensive line that should be as good as there is in the Southeastern Conference headed by Mike Pouncey, who elected to stay one more year and move over to the center position held the last couple of years by his twin brother Maurkice, who was the first round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Jeff Demps running track, Mike Gillislee had a chance to prove he’s game ready at tailback and he delivered, showing he has the strength to run between the tackles and the burst to break free once he clears the line of scrimmage. By the end of the spring, wide receiver was one of the strong points of the team with Carl Moore, Deonte Thompson and Chris Rainey all showing they can make the plays.
THE BAD NEWS: Veteran defensive tackles Terron Sanders, Lawrence Marsh and Brandon Antwine all missed spring football and while all three are expected to be healthy in August, having them ready to go is critical to Florida’s defensive plans. If the Gators are healthy enough to rotate 11-12 in and out on the defensive line the way Dan McCarney wants, the Gators are going to be very, very good defensively in the fall. If they’re not ready to go, the Gators are going to have to rely on freshmen Shariff Floyd, Dominique Easley and Leon Orr. While all three are big and talented, they are still freshmen.
THE NEXT BIG THING: We saw a glimpse of what Chris Rainey can do in the slot in the Sugar Bowl when he ran four times for 27 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 71 yards and returned kicks for another 126 yards. Rainey gives the Gators that weapon they need in the slot to create havoc for opposing coordinators the way Percy Harvin used to do. Rainey has 1,237 rushing yards in his career (7.1 per carry) and 13 receptions for 198 yards (15.2 per catch).
TIME TO MAN UP: Carl Moore arrived with plenty of hype out of junior college but he caught only 14 passes in 2008 and missed all of last year with a bulging disc in his back that has been surgically repaired. He caught eight passes for 130 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. With his size (6-4, 220), he needs to be the productive receiver over the middle and in the seam that opens things up for the deep threats on the outside.
THE REST OF THE SEC EAST:
SOUTH CAROLINA: Spring football in Columbia showed off the gains made on the recruiting trail the last three years. This is the deepest and most talented team from top to bottom of the roster in the Steve Spurrier era at South Carolina and the general feeling is that anything less than a nine-win season will be a disappointment. Spurrier may have the quarterback he’s been looking for to run the offense and he’s got a defensive coordinator who is always going to put a quality product on the field.
The Good News: The good news is that Steve Spurrier should have a running game to go with one of the more talented groups of wide receivers in the SEC. Sophomore Jarvis Giles and incoming freshman stud Marcus Lattimore should give the Gamecocks a very good 1-2 punch in a running game that will be helped by a much-improved offensive line that made good progress in the spring under former Appalachian State offensive line coach Shawn Elliott.
The Bad News: Quarterback Stephen Garcia showed very little signs of improvement in the spring and unless he changes his ways substantially and becomes a hard worker in the summer, he is going to find himself riding the pine in the fall. Of course, that’s only bad news is freshman Conner Shaw makes no improvements over the summer. If Shaw’s game accelerates at the same pace it did during the spring, then Garcia’s plight will actually be good news for South Carolina fans.
Best Players: CB Stephon Gilmore, WR Alshon Jeffery, TB Jarvis Giles, CB Chris Culliver, DE Cliff Matthews, OT Jariel King
The Next Big Thing: Conner Shaw skipped the final semester of high school so he could participate in spring practice. By the end of the spring he was looking like the best rookie quarterback Spurrier has had since Shane Matthews picked up the offense and made it work immediately back in 1990. If Shaw continues to improve over the summer the way he improved during the spring, there is every good chance he will be the starter at quarterback in the fall.
Time to Man Up: It’s time for Stephen Garcia to grow up. He’s been in the system for four springs now and he is still making bad decisions. Of course, the bad decisions aren’t restricted to the football field. Until he figures out that he needs to spend more time in the film room than in the downtown watering holes in Columbia, he’s going to continue to struggle.
GEORGIA: Aaron Murray started the spring in a three-way fight for the starting quarterback job and within a few days after spring practice ended he was the last man standing because Zach Mettenberger got booted from the team and Logan Gray indicated he wants to transfer. If Gray doesn’t change his mind and leaves, Georgia will be starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback and the only backups will be true freshmen. This is a tenuous situation for Coach Mark Richt, who is feeling some heat after two disappointing seasons in a row. The Bulldogs were 10-3 in 2008 when they were everybody’s favorite to win the national championship and they were 8-5 last season. Murray better be good in 2010 or else he could be learning a whole new offense from a brand new coaching staff in 2011.
The Good News: Georgia returns 10 players with starting experience on the offensive line including center Ben Jones and guard Clint Boling. If left tackle Trindon Sturdivant is fully recovered from his knee injury, Georgia could have one of the better offensive lines in the country. Keeping these guys healthy has been a real problem the last two years.
The Bad News: The bad news is that Georgia lost almost everyone who played in the secondary last year. Some might view that as good news considering the way the secondary played, but this is going to be a really weak area once again. Georgia gave up 25 touchdown passes last year. The prognosis for giving up fewer than 25 in 2010 is not good.
Best Players: WR A.J. Green, OG Clint Boling, C Ben Jones, TB Washaun Ealey, TE Orson Charles, DE Justin Houston, LB Daryl Gamble
The Next Big Thing: Tight end Orson Charles had a nice freshman season with 23 catches for 374 yards and three touchdowns. He’s so good with the ball once he makes the catch that Georgia is going to try to find ways to get the ball to him in the middle of the field.
Time to Man Up: DeMarcus Dobbs looks like Tarzan but too many games plays like Jane. He’s a defensive end in the new 3-4 alignment and it’s time for him to start making plays. He’s a senior so his clock is ticking.
KENTUCKY: New coach Joker Phillips spent the spring looking for depth and playmakers on a defense that lost its best three players in linebacker Micah Johnson, corner Trevard Lindley and nose tackle Corey Peters. Phillips got the production he was looking for on offense in the spring, but the defense showed its inexperience. Phillips feels happy about the athletes he has on that side of the ball but he can’t feel good about their youth and inexperience.
The Good News: Quarterback Mike Hartline responded to the challenge of Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski with his best spring ever at Kentucky. Newton and Mossakowski also turned in good spring, leaving Kentucky with its best quarterback situation in years. Newton is by far the most talented of the three and eventually, he should assert himself and take over as the number one quarterback.
The Bad News: Kentucky feels it has good athletes at linebacker and in the secondary but the defensive tackles lack size and experience. If these guys don’t grow up in a hurry, it spells big trouble for the Wildcats in the fall. Mister Cobble looked like one defensive tackle who will be able to hold his own, but the other one? That’s a question that won’t be answered until August at the earliest.
Best Players: WR Randall Cobb, LB Danny Trevathian, DE Quinn Evans, OG Stuart Hines.
The Next Big Thing: Sophomore tailback Donald Russell only got 10 carries last year but he gained 137 yards and one of those carries went 79 yards for a touchdown. Russell is the back with the size (210 pounds) and power to grind the ball between the tackles and he has the speed to pick up big yards once he gets into the secondary.
Time to Man Up: Wide receiver Chris Matthews arrived from junior college with a big play reputation but he got only 354 yards and three touchdowns out of 32 receptions last year and it seemed he had trouble getting separation from corners. He had a good spring but unless he can come through as a legitimate threat to get down the field, teams are going to double and triple up on Randall Cobb.
VANDERBILT: Spring finished with Vanderbilt looking pretty much like Vanderbilt has looked the last four springs — strong on defense and not so good on offense. In the spring game, it wasn’t until the 14th and final possession that the offense put a touchdown on the board. The defense had something to do with it, but the offense was still pretty bad. How bad was it? At the end of the spring, Larry Smith still looked like the starter at quarterback and he turns bad quarterbacking into an art form.
The Good News: Vanderbilt has linebackers who could start for nearly any team in the SEC led by tackling machine Chris Marve and a secondary that could be one of the best in the league led by safety Sean Richardson and corner Casey Hayward. The Commodores have a defense that can stop people. Now if the offense will just keep them off the field and score a few points.
The Bad News: The bad news is at quarterback where the spring ended with Smith still number one. Vandy coaches were so hoping either Jared Funk or Jordan Rodgers could step in and get the job done in the spring. Although both Funk and Rodgers were starting to look decent by the end of the spring, neither one of them did well enough to supplant Smith. If Larry Smith is Vandy’s quarterback, the Commodores will struggle to win three games in the fall.
Best Players: LB Chris Marve, S Sean Richardson, CB Casey Hayward, TB Warren Norman, TB Zach Stacey, OT James Williams
The Next Big Thing: Walker May might not have ideal size (6-4, 220) for a defensive end, but he is so quick that he spent the entire spring in the offensive backfield disrupting things. Although Vandy lost two quality defensive ends, neither was as quick as May, who could be a real playmaker if he can carry the spring momentum into the fall.
Time to Man Up: Jamie Graham has spent the last two seasons shuffling between wide receiver, running back and corner. He’s never stayed at any one position long enough to be completely effective. Now that he’s moving to corner fulltime, he needs to channel all that speed and athletic ability into production.
TENNESSEE: It was a bubble gum and baling wire kind of spring for Derek Dooley, Tennessee’s first year head coach. He spent the entire spring just trying to hold things together for a team that was left with far too many holes by the departed Lane Kiffin. Dooley will enter the fall without a quarterback on his roster who has ever taken a Division I snap and four fresh faces on the offensive line. Over on the defense, he spent the spring trying to patch together a secondary and trying to locate a couple of SEC caliber tackles.
The Good News: Dooley might have found three answers in the secondary in sophomore safeties Janzen Jackson and Darren Myles Jr. and junior corner Art Evans. If he can find another corner in August, at least one position will have the talent to compete in the SEC.
The Bad News: The offensive line is undersized, inexperienced and it’s probably going to start three true freshmen in the fall in JaWuan James, JerQuari Schofield and James Stone. When you start three true freshmen on the offensive line, that’s a sure sign that a long season is in the making.
Best Players: WR Gerald Jones, WR Denarius Moore, DE Chris Walker, LB Nick Reveiz, TE Jeff Cottam
The Next Big Thing: With Bryce Brown transferring out, that left the tailback spot wide open and Tauren Poole came through in a big way. Poole showed toughness between the tackles and the ability to break the long one.
Time to Man Up: Ben Martin came down to a Florida-Tennessee signing day decision and chose the Vols. So far, he hasn’t come anywhere close to living up to the hype. He has 63 tackles and 4.5 sacks to show for his career. With all the losses in the secondary, the Vols will need a great pass rush to compensate this season. Time for Martin to show up.
THE SEC WEST:
ALABAMA: Alabama played its spring game before a crowd of 93,000, all of whom expect Alabama to run the table a second straight year and win another national championship under Nick Saban, whose statue will be unveiled outside Bryant-Denny Stadium before the season opener. While there is no mistaking that Alabama has a boatload of talent, the spring wasn’t without questions starting in the secondary. Alabama lost 10 starters on defense and while there are plug and play types in the front seven, it’s a bit more complicated in the secondary. The offense looked very good throughout the spring and it might have to carry the load in the fall, at least until the defense gets some experience.
The Good News: The offense was hitting on all cylinders nearly the entire spring and some observers thought sophomore Trent Richardson ran the ball better than Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Julio Jones had a productive spring, good news considering he had an off year last season. Marquise Maze is firmly entrenched opposite Jones but the Tide found a third receiver in redshirt freshman Kendall Kelly, who is a nice combination of size (6-3, 215) and speed.
The Bad News: When Robby Green was suspended for the entire 2010 season, that was a big blow to a secondary which returns only safety Mark Barron. The new corners will be talented but very young. There is a lot of confidence in sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick, who will take over for All-American Javier Arenas, not nearly as much confidence in the other corner where several battled to fill the void of departed first round NFL Draft pick Kareem Jackson. If Alabama has a real weakness, it’s in the secondary.
Best Players: RB Mark Ingram, RB Trent Richardson, QB Greg McElroy, WR Julio Jones, DE Marcell Dareus, LB Dont’a Hightower, S Mark Barron, C William Vlachos, OT James Carpenter
The Next Big Thing: Now that Javier Arenas has graduated, Dre Kirkpatrick will be on the field. He’s got the size and speed to be a great cover corner. He’ll get his chance to prove it in the fall.
Time to Man Up: Josh Chapman has spent the last two seasons backing up Mt. Cody. Now it’s his turn to be the immovable force in the middle of the Alabama three-man defensive line. He has always looked good in a backup role but can he log starter’s snaps?
ARKANSAS: Arkansas came out of the spring looking like a million dollars on offense, which is no surprise to anyone. The Razorbacks have skill players out the wazzoo led by quarterback Ryan Mallett and four wide receivers who all have that play in the NFL look about them. The problem is stopping people and if they made any improvement at all in the spring, it was only marginal.
The Good News: The offense looked more explosive in the spring with running backs Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson looking like go-to guys. The offensive line, which did a good job in pass protection but struggled in the run game last year, looked vastly improved in that area during the spring leading Bobby Petrino to believe he will have a more balanced offense in the fall.
The Bad News: With the exception of Jerry Franklin, who needs to add muscle to stand up to the pounding of SEC football, the linebackers really aren’t very good. Not only are they average to below average in ability, there isn’t any depth either. Unless something changes between now and the fall, teams are going to run all over the Razorbacks.
Best Players: QB Ryan Mallett, WR Joe Adams, WR Cobi Hamilton, WR Greg Childs, WR Jarius Wright, LB Jerry Franklin
The Next Big Thing: Tailback Ronnie Wingo averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season as a true freshman. He’s added 14 pounds of muscle so he will carry 232 pounds to go with his sub-4.4 speed. He looked like an every down back in the spring.
Time to Man Up: Jerry Franklin can be very, very good when he comes to play. That’s the problem. He doesn’t always come to play. He has started for two years at linebacker. Now it’s time for him to become the leader because unless someone steps up his game both as a productive player and as a leader of the defense, Arkansas is going to have to win games in offensive shootouts.
AUBURN: There is an air of excitement at Auburn after spring #2 under Gene Chizik. Last year’s 8-5 record came as a surprise and there is plenty of optimism about the future with Cameron Newton pulling the trigger at quarterback. Newton arrived in January, mastered offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s complicated playbook and looked like the guy the Tigers need to add an element of explosiveness to the Auburn offense in the fall.
The Good News: The offense should be able to move the ball either on the ground or through the air and the offensive line has four starters who have more than 100 starts combined. While there is a question about who will be the go-to back in the fall, there is no lack of durable candidates and the receivers, led by Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachary, are serious deep threats.
The Bad News: Eight starters return on defense so there should be some improvement due to experience, but there is a serious lack of playmakers, particularly in the secondary and there’s not a lot of depth. Freshmen and redshirts are going to have to play a key role if Auburn is going to have any kind of rotation on defense. Josh Bynes is a fine middle linebacker but he’s got to have help.
Best Players: Josh Bynes LB, WR Darvin Adams, WR Terrell Zachary, RB Mario Fanin, RB Onterrio McCaleb, OT Lee Ziemba,
The Next Big Thing: Former Gator Cameron Newton led Blinn Junior College to the national championship in December and was on campus at Auburn in January where he proved to be a quick study with the playbook. At 6-6, 242, Newton can run like a gazelle and while he’s not exactly a pinpoint passer, in the Malzahn offense he doesn’t have to be. If he’s nearly as good as he looked in the spring, Auburn is going to have an offense that drives defensive coordinators nuts.
Time to Man Up: Kodi Burns has all kinds of talent. He can run. He can throw. He can catch. What he’s never done is prove he can do it all over the course of a season. He’s capable of being that one player who must always be accounted for on the field but he’s never been consistent. It’s time for him to show that he can bring it every single game.
LSU: The heat is on LSU coach Les Miles, who is 17-9 since winning the 2007 national championship and nothing happened this spring to give the Tiger faithful reason to believe that help is on the way. The defense is well stocked with athletes who can run and there is a lot of faith that coordinator John Chavis will once again put a good unit on the field. The offense is still the big question mark and after a spring in which neither Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee showed any kind of consistency, the Tigers will go into the fall on very shaky ground.
The Good News: LSU seems committed to get Russell Shepard on the field. There are those that would argue that he’s better than either of the quarterbacks, Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, but at least he will be on the field somewhere and that’s an improvement over last season when neither Les Miles or offensive coordinator Gary Crowton could decide what to do with him. Shepard is a playmaker. Put the ball in his hands and he will make something happen.
The Bad News: Gary Crowton is still the offensive coordinator and Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee are still the quarterbacks. LSU will play good enough defense to win most games, but with Crowton calling the plays, LSU’s offense has been in steady decline since the 2007 season. That’s Crowton’s MO: a great season followed by decline.
Best Players: CB Patrick Peterson, CB Morris Claiborne, OT Joseph Barksdale, WR Terrence Tolliver, WR Reuben Randle,
The Next Big Thing: Redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Montgomery, a 6-4, 240-pound athletic freak, was so good off the edge that he required a double and triple team to keep him away from the quarterbacks in the spring. LSU coaches think he can be the next great LSU defensive lineman.
Time to Man Up: Terrence Tolliver arrived with all the hype but so far he’s been anything but spectacular. He had 53 catches for 735 yards last season but he also had double digit drops and didn’t have a play longer than 45 yards. His career numbers are 85 catches for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, certainly not what you’d expect of a guy who was considered the number one wideout in the country his senior year in high school.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Mississippi State finished the spring looking like a team confident enough to take the next step. After last year’s surprising 5-7 mark, Dan Mullen has the Bulldogs making significant strides but he’s still trying to build sufficient depth. The Bulldogs will be much improved at nearly every position in the fall but it will take another one or two recruiting classes to have the kind of depth Mullen needs to win consistently in the SEC.
The Good News: Mullen came out of the spring with quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell in a dead heat but that’s not a bad thing. Mullen knows a thing or two about using two quarterbacks (see Florida, 2006). He’s got the power runner he wants in Relf and the thrower he needs in Russell. If he can figure out how to shuffle them in and out effectively, the Bulldogs should be much improved on offense.
The Bad News: Other than Chad Bumphis, who is an SEC caliber receiver, the Bulldogs really don’t have a receiver who can consistently get open. Mullen has to hope that the receivers work long and hard in the summer and that someone emerges to take the burden off Bumphis.
Best Players: DE Pernell McPhee, WR Chad Bumphis, C J.C. Brignone, OT Derek Sherrod, S Johnthan Banks
The Next Big Thing: When we say big thing, we really mean big thing because juco transfer James Carmon is a 6-7, 350-pound defensive tackle who showed in the spring that he can occupy two gaps and collapse the pocket from the inside. The Bulldogs were undersized in the middle last year. If Carmon comes through in a big way, they’ll be much improved against the rush in the fall.
Time to Man Up: Robert Elliott arrived as one of the most highly touted running backs in the country. Injuries cost him much of his freshman year and last year Anthony Dixon had a monster season so Elliott only got 44 carries but he averaged 5.5 yards and showed some real instincts for finding open space. With Dixon graduated, it’s time for Elliott to become the go to guy at tailback.
OLE MISS: With a new and inexperienced quarterback, the Rebels put their spring emphasis on running the ball. The Rebels have no shortage of tailbacks with Branden Bolden, Enrique Davis and Rodney Scott and if the line makes the kind of progress Nutt expects between now and the season opener, Ole Miss should be able to play ball control, which will help enormously with a defense that has a very young secondary.
The Good News: With Jerrell Powe collapsing the middle at nose tackle, Ted Laurent eating up space at the other tackle and Kentrell Lockett coming off the edge at end, the Rebels should be very strong up front. Outside linebacker Allen Walker is one of the more underrated players in the SEC and middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell just gets the job done without a lot of fanfare. If the Rebels can find answers in the secondary, they’re going to be one of the better defensive teams in the SEC.
The Bad News: The secondary lost three of its four starters. The only returning is sure tackler Johnny Brown at safety. The Rebels are going to be very young and inexperienced, but defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix thinks he’s got enough talent and depth. He just has to hope the youngsters he’ll be playing can grow up quickly.
Best Players: NT Jerrell Powe, DE Kentrell Lockett, TB Brandon Bolden, OT Bobbie Massey, LB Allen Walker
The Next Big Thing: Keep an eye on sophomore wide receiver Pat Patterson. He caught only 12 passes for 180 yards behind Shay Hodge last year but now it’s his turn to show what he can do. He’s got the speed to stretch defenses and he showed in the spring he can make the tough catches.
Time to Man Up: Bradley Sowell had a year to forget at left tackle. Nobody expected him to be as good as the man he replaced, Michael Oher, but Sowell struggled from day one, particularly against speed rushers off the edge. Sowell has to step up his game this year or one of those rookie quarterbacks is going to end up in the hospital.