Welcome to spring practice wrap-up week. With most spring practices in the books, it’s time to take a look at each Power Five team’s early 2017 storylines. The final part of our series is the SEC, which is once again Alabama and everybody else at the moment.
ALABAMA (2016 record: 14-1)
Key takeaway: There’s a quarterback battle. No, no there isn’t. The praise that freshman Tua Tagovailoa has garnered for his play throughout the spring is deserved. But Jalen Hurts was a pretty impressive freshman a year ago and there’s nothing that should lead you to believe Alabama has a quarterback controversy.
Hurts is learning a new offense anyway. After playing under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and then Steve Sarkisian in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Brian Daboll is Hurts’ new playcaller. Hurts has already said that they’ve been learning from New England Patriots’ plays and expect the offensive playbook to grow over summer practices.
Position battle: For most teams, losing three linebackers the quality of Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams to the NFL would mean a drop-off in the following season. Not at Alabama. The Tide still have a surplus at the position and it was evident in Saturday’s spring game.
Rashaan Evans will probably start at one inside linebacker position while Keith Holcombe had 10 tackles and two sacks in the spring game. Anfernee Jennings is set to start at outside linebacker and there should be plenty of playing time for Christian Miller too.
Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned Shaun Dion Hamilton, who should be ready for the season. Hamilton suffered a torn ACL in December and sat out the spring.
Straight from the coach: The offensive line depth chart isn’t sorted out yet, but Nick Saban doesn’t seem too worried.
“Competition is healthy for your team and I know it’s really significant to all you all’s job that you know who the first team is and who the second team is,” Saban said after the spring game. “But it really isn’t significant to my job at all. What’s significant to my job is to have guys keep competing. Iron sharpens iron so good guys competing against good guys making each other better so we’ve got more guys that can play winning football.”
Trend: Down at Alabama could be two losses instead of one. Up is an undefeated season with a national championship. The odds mean down has to be the choice here, right?
For more Alabama news, visit BamaInsider.com.
Key takeaway: The Hogs gave up over 300 yards rushing three times in 2016 including a 543-yard game by Auburn in October. Opponents rushed for six yards a carry against Arkansas last season, so the Razorbacks hired former Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads to help fix the defense. Rhoads has spent the spring installing a 3-4 defense.
Position battle: It’s not so much a position battle for T.J. Hammonds but a spring of learning two positions. Hammonds has been practicing at running back and wide receiver. He could see more time at the latter position because Arkansas returns Rawleigh Williams at running back. Williams ran for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago.
Straight from the coach: Arkansas’ spring game is Saturday. It’s the last spring game among the SEC’s 14 teams and coach Bret Bielema said last week that he enjoyed his team playing so late in the spring.
“I kind of stumbled into that during my time at the other place,” Bielema said. I always — we develop our kids a little longer. I really believe in an eight-week winter program which always puts our spring game as one of the last.”
Trend: Arkansas fixing its run defense woes would go a long way to being competitive in the SEC West. But it’s the SEC West, where Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M are also all eyeing improved seasons and a shot at Alabama. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but we’re going to say Even
For more Arkansas news, visit HawgSports.com.
Key takeaway: Is Shaun White getting Wally Pipped? White missed spring practice because of a broken arm he suffered in the Sugar Bowl. That paved the way for Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham to assert himself on the practice field.
“I plan to sit down and go back through all the film throughout the spring from Day 1 to Day 15, and see what I did good, what I did bad, what I need to get better on. I think that’s the first step to really improving as a player,” Stidham said after Auburn’s spring game via AuburnSports.com.
“Throughout the summer, which is going to be crucial for us, just getting in there and doing some lonely work by myself and throwing with those receivers and making sure I know the protections of the offensive line, make sure we’re on the same page. I think once fall camp comes around, we’ll run smooth.”
Position battle: Outside of quarterback, Auburn has a glut of talent at running back to create a potential logjam in 2017. Leading rusher Kamryn Pettway (1,224 yards) is back, as is Kerryon Johnson, who ran for nearly 900 yards and led the team with 11 touchdowns.
A wild card could be Kam Martin, who averaged over seven yards a carry in 2016. A former Baylor commit who signed with Auburn in 2016, Martin has been working on gaining weight this spring.
Straight from the coach: “It was good for him to get out in front of a crowd, he hadn’t been out in front of a crowd playing football in a long time,” Malzahn said of Stidham’s spring game performance. The transfer sat out the 2016 season.
Trend: Auburn’s defense carried it in 2016. With an offense that could be explosive, the defense can be worse in 2017 and the Tigers can be better. Up
For more Auburn news, visit AuburnSports.com.
Key takeaway: Florida lost a lot of talent to the NFL on defense. But the Gators should be solid again in 2017. The defensive line is still really deep and boasts former top recruit CeCe Jefferson. Linebacker was a different story during spring. Projected starter David Reese missed the spring because of a wrist injury and last year’s starters Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone went to the NFL. Kylan Johnson and Vosean Joseph are the two players currently projected at the outside spots.
Position battle: Stability — and excellence — at quarterback would go a long way for Florida in 2017. And after spring practice, McElwain said that Feleipe Franks emerged ahead of Kyle Trask. The two got the majority of reps at spring practice because Luke Del Rio sat out the spring because of a shoulder injury.
So is Franks the starter in the fall? Is it Del Rio, who keeps his starting job after missing the spring? Or is it a quarterback who isn’t even on the roster? Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is still undecided on his next school. If he comes to Florida, there’s a pretty good chance he’d start. Grad transfers typically don’t go to a school to sit on the bench.
But Florida may not even be an option for Zaire. The school can’t take grad transfers at the moment because two grad transfers in 2015 didn’t complete their academic requirements. But if the SEC overturns the ban in May, Zaire could come to Florida.
Straight from the coach: “We’re better, and we’re continuing to get there,” McElwain said of his offense. “Here’s the good thing, we’re back now to where we’ve got the roster balance … we’re better up front, there’s no doubt about it and I’m excited about our offensive line.”
Trend: We’re taking McElwain at his word. Florida’s offense has been dreadful to watch at times the last few years. Like Auburn, a solid offense can help make up for any drop in defense. Florida is Up.
For more Florida news, visit InsideTheGators.com.
Key takeaway: The biggest moment of Georgia’s spring practices didn’t have anything to do with what happened on the field. 2017 signee D’Antne Demery was released from his scholarship after he was accused of hitting his girlfriend following the spring game last weekend. Given the accusations, cutting Demery was the right thing to do for Georgia and coach Kirby Smart.
On the field, Georgia’s defensive front should be one of the best in the SEC in 2017.
Position battle: Is there a quarterback controversy in Athens? Much like in Tuscaloosa, the answer is probably, likely, mostly no. QB Jacob Eason struggled at times as a freshman in 2016 but he also showed flashes of potential. Freshman QB Jake Fromm showed flashes of potential in spring practices and should solidly be the No. 2 to Eason. As UGASports.com notes, all of Eason’s success in the spring game came against the Nos. 2 and 3 defenses while Eason faced Georgia’s top unit.
Straight from the coach: Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship was 4-6 on field goals kicking for both teams in the spring game and coach Kirby Smart publicly defended his performance.
“He made the one he had to make,” Smart said via Dawg Nation. “The good thing is he got a lot of experience in that game, right? He had to kick for this team, he had to kick for that team. I don’t know which one he’s going to eat with. It might be beanie-weenies, it might be steak.”
The Blankenship family’s relationship with Smart was a bit rocky in the offseason — Blankenship’s father said his son deserved to have a scholarship after his 2016 performance. And perhaps he hasn’t gotten the scholarship because Smart knows Blankenship may not be the primary kicker in 2017. As Dawg Nation notes, the team added David Marvin, a grad transfer kicker from Wofford.
Trend: Things need to go up for Georgia in 2017. Or they at least need to be better than Mark Richt’s Miami team. While Smart has a vat of goodwill to rely upon among Georgia fans, he’s better off building that up with a good season than withdrawing it with another 8-5 campaign. Up.
Key takeaway: The Wildcats were too busy showing off their TaxSlayer Bowl bling to practice this spring.
Kidding. The Wildcats boast a defense that returns its top four tacklers, including defensive end Denzil Ware who led the team in sacks. Finding another pass rusher to complement Ware and linebacker Josh Allen is a must for 2017. Given the youth on Kentucky’s defense, it could be an improved unit.
Position battle: Drew Barker is back at quarterback, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be a contributor in 2017. Barker had back surgery and was a limited participant in spring drills. Stephen Johnson is also back, and it reasons that he’ll be the starter in 2017 after ending 2016 as the main QB. From Cats Illustrated:
As far as quarterback, the best news is Gunnar Hoak looks like a capable quarterback. I’d be surprised if Stephen Johnson isn’t the starting quarterback when the Wildcats take the field against Southern Mississippi, but Hoak will see action at some point this season. His spring performance was encouraging, especially if Drew Barker never returns to what he was before his back injury.
Straight from the coach: “I just feel like there’s fewer questions across the board,” coach Mark Stoops said after the spring game. I think we made strides up front. I think we all know — I’ve talked about it — we need to get better fundamentally and play better up front on the defensive line and we’ve improved there.”
Trend: It’s the spring and it’s the SEC East, so let’s be optimistic. Up
Key takeaway: Arden Key is back for 2017.
I am not sitting out my junior year.
— Arden Key (@ArdenKey49) April 26, 2017
Key’s status didn’t seem to be in question since he returned to the team earlier in the spring after a leave of absence. But it’s now official — or as official as can be — that Key will be back for his junior season.
Position battle: Assuming Danny Etling is healthy for the start of fall camp, LSU is set at QB. RB Derrius Guice was fantastic in 2016 and he’s the unquestioned No. 1 entering the fall. At wide receiver, things are much more unsettled. With the departures of Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural to the NFL, D.J. Chark is LSU’s top returning receiver. After that, it’s a bit of a mess. Via TigerBait.com.
It appears that senior Russell Gage and sophomore Drake Davis are the next two wide receivers. No wide receiver other than Chark made a reception in the spring game. Sophomore Stephen Sullivan has yet to make a move up the depth chart. Sophomore Dee Anderson was nowhere to be found Saturday night. Etling did not have a good spring game, but the receivers may have been worse. This area remains a primary area of concern for the Tigers.
Straight from the coach: “We need to get better as we saw today,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said after last weekend’s spring game. “We are not ready to play a football game yet. We consider this preseason game No. 1. As we all know, preseason game No. 1 there’s a lot of things to correct.
Trend: We’ll go with Even here. LSU’s got a lot of talent once again, but how many times have we said that?
For more LSU news, visit TigerBait.com.
Key takeaway: 2017 is a pivotal season for Ole Miss and coach Hugh Freeze. As the specter of NCAA sanctions looms over the program and players from vaunted recruiting classes largely gone from campus, Ole Miss is attempting to rebound from an injury-plagued and disappointing 2016.
Position battle: Who’s going to replace Evan Engram? The tight end was a first-round pick by the New York Giants in the NFL draft and leaves a gaping hole in Ole Miss’ offense for 2017. The two top contenders to start at tight end are Octavious Cooley and Dawson Knox. Both sophomores are learning a new offense too, as Phil Longo is in his first season as Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator.
Straight from the coach: “Offensively, I think our offensive line is going to be really solid,” Freeze said after the spring game. “We need to stay healthy there for sure. I think they’re going to protect [quarterback Shea Patterson] and be efficient in the run game.
Trend: It’s hard to see Ole Miss having a bounceback year given the losses and the turmoil. Maybe we’ll be surprised. Down
MISSISSIPPI STATE (6-7)
Key takeaway: The Bulldogs have a new defensive coordinator and it’s a name familiar to many SEC fans. Former Louisville and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is now in charge of Mississippi State’s defense. He’s tasked with improving a defense that allowed 6.3 yards a play in 2016 and gave up nearly 32 points a game.
Position battle: Fred Ross is gone, so the Bulldogs have to figure out who will catch passes from Nick Fitzgerald. Donald Gray is the team’s leading returning receiver, but it’s a bit muddied after that. Ross and Ray caught 113 passes in 2016. Malik Dear, with 23, is the only other MSU receiver who had more than 10 receptions. But Dear suffered a torn ACL in the spring and may not be available for much of th 2017 season.
Straight from the coach: “When we walk off the field [at the end of spring practice] we cannot take a step back,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said after the team’s spring game. “As a team, as individuals, as anybody. Now we might not take huge steps because we’re not practicing as a full team all the time but we’ve got to maintain or maybe a slight increase of where we’re at.”
Trend: After going to a bowl at 5-7 a year ago, Mississippi State should be in a bowl game at .500 or above. Even
For more Mississippi State news, visit BulldogBlitz.com.
Key takeaway: Missouri’s 2016 was the first time the Tigers had missed a bowl game in consecutive seasons since 1999-2002. Missouri is far from the doldrums of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but a third-straight season without a bowl appearance isn’t acceptable.
The Tigers’ offense was improved in 2016, but anything was an improvement from the disastrous Missouri offense of 2015. While time of possession is an overrated statistic, Missouri’s offense put its defense on the field way too often with possessions that barely took time off the clock. Holding on to the ball longer, even on a three-and-out, will help the defense in 2017.
Position battle: Missouri needs to replace first-round pick Charles Harris on the defensive line as well as defensive tackles Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta. 2017 will be a huge test of the defensive line depth that Missouri has done a great job replenishing over the past 10 years.
Defensive tackle Terry Beckner, a highly-rated recruit in the class of 2015, should be healthy after knee injuries the past two seasons. Marcell Frazier, Jordan Harold, Terez Hall and Nate Howard should be in the rotation at defensive end.
Straight from the coach: “I like the progress this team has made for 15 days,” Mizzou coach Barry Odom said after the spring game via Power Mizzou. “We’ll take this, we’ll take the entire body of work through spring practice — the process of 15 days and meetings — and we’ll continue to build and teach on that to try to get the right guys in the right spots on offense, defense and kicking.”
Trend: Missouri could be a sleeper in the SEC East. The division is going to be much better than it was in 2016, but the Tigers get South Carolina and Florida at home. Up
For more Missouri news, visit PowerMizzou.com.
SOUTH CAROLINA (6-7)
Key takeaway: The Gamecocks are counting on QB Jake Bentley to take a step forward in 2017. The starting job is Bentley’s to lose after the transfer of Brandon McElwain. If Bentley makes strides, the offense should be pretty good as RB Rico Dowdle and WR Deebo Samuel are also back.
Position battle: South Carolina has a lot of replacing to do on the defensive front. Four of seven starters are gone including linebackers TJ Holloman and Jonathan Walton. The team brought back just three scholarship linebackers, which means the Gamecocks will need some contributions from incoming freshmen in 2017. And some help from a player that was missing in 2016.
Skai Moore, who had 110 tackles in 2015, missed all of last season. He’s back and expected to start at one outside linebacker spot while T.J. Brunson is currently penciled in at the middle linebacker spot.
Straight from the coach: “We were a soft organization last year and it was disappointing,” Will Muschamp said earlier this year. “To put that on the field. Call it like it is. Physical is a state of mind and we’ve got to continue to buy into that and understand that.
Trend: If South Carolina can find contributors on defense, the offense should make it a threat to win a game or two where the Gamecocks are underdogs. Up
For more South Carolina news, visit GamecockCentral.com.
Key takeaway: Tennessee has stopped focusing on the SEC now that it’s won the championship of life.
OK, that joke will never get old. But Tennessee’s main goal this spring was to get familiar with an offense that has a lot of new faces at skill positions. Gone are QB Josh Dobbs, RB Alvin Kamara and WR Josh Malone. RB John Kelly, who averaged 6.4 yards a carry is back, so the run game should be productive behind a deep offensive line. But it may take a bit for the passing game to catch up. It’ll also be a big win if Tennessee can simply stay healthy in 2017 after the injuries that plagued 2016.
Position battle: The quarterback position isn’t finalized. Quentin Dormady spent 2016 as Dobbs’ backup and is competing with redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano.
Guarantano was a four-star prospect and the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2016. New offensive coordinator Larry Scott said earlier this spring that he expected the quarterback competition to go all the way through to fall. From the Times Free Press:
“As far as the install goes, we’re maybe 50 or 60 percent through it,” said Scott, who is in his first year as coordinator after coaching tight ends last season. “The biggest thing with us is about the teaching, refinement of the details and all the things we talk about with being DAT (details, accountability, toughness) way.”
Straight from the coach: “The great thing is every day you get an opportunity to better yourself,” Jones said about his quarterback competition. “I feel comfortable with all of our quarterbacks. I thought they progressed exceptionally well and they just need to continue to do that.”
Trend: Vol fans would take another 9-4 season, right? Even
For more Tennessee news, visit VolQuest.com.
TEXAS A&M (8-5)
Key takeaway: Like Georgia, the biggest storyline surrounding Texas A&M’s spring was involving something that didn’t happen on the field. Kirk Merritt, who had been practicing this spring, pled not guilty in March with exposing himself to two tutors last fall. He’s now no longer a member of the team.
Merritt was a likely starter at wide receiver. And while Texas A&M saw him as a possible key contributor in 2017, it’s headscratching why he was practicing with the team if it knew what happened in the fall.
Position battle: A&M defensive end Myles Garrett was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. The Aggies not only have to replace his production — and deal with attention that was diverted to him when Garrett was on the field — but also the production of Daeshon Hall, the other starting defensive end in 2016. Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson are set to take their places, but A&M will probably need help from four-star freshmen Jayden Peevy and Tyree Johnson in the fall.
Straight from the coach: Sumlin didn’t speak after Texas A&M’s spring game. Here’s his media gathering from April 5.
Trend: We’re not very bullish on A&M this year. The offensive line should be solid and pave the way for a good run game. But can the Aggies get to eight wins again if Auburn and LSU are improved? A&M travels to UCLA to open the season and has a crossover game at Florida. Down
For more Texas A&M news, visit AggieYell.com.
Key takeaway: It feels like Vanderbilt got done with spring practice a long time ago. The Commodores had their practices in March and return a lot of key players off last year’s Independence Bowl team. But Vandy does lose Zach Cunningham, a likely second or third round pick in the NFL draft. Cunningham was arguably the best defensive player the SEC in 2016.
The offense needs to be better too. QB Kyle Shurmur improved as the season went along and the Commodores are counting on him to make the offense capable of explosive plays every now and then in 2017.
Position battle: While Vanderbilt has a lot of depth at running back and receiver, the offensive line is needing to replace two starters. From the Tennesseean:
After all, this unit has been a source of his praise throughout spring. And offensive line coach Cameron Norcross showed last season that he could improve the unit quickly. But the fact remains that Vanderbilt must replace perhaps its two most valuable linemen in left tackle Will Holden and center Barrett Gouger. Guard Bruno Reagan looks to be a leader on the line. But redshirt freshmen will be in the rotation in the season opener, so time will be needed to show progress.
Straight from the coach: “Every team in this conference has their time. I’m not saying this is going to be now for us, I’m saying this is my first senior class,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “So when you start to look at juniors and seniors — college football is a junior and senior sport. So now I have guys who are fifth years and fourth years who have been in this system a while.”
Trend: It feels like we’re high on everyone in the SEC East. But Vandy shouldn’t be any worse than it was last year. If there’s as much improvement as there could be, the division standings could be a muddled mess. Up
For more Vanderbilt news, visit VandySports.com.
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