SEC Spring College Football Practice Update
College football players started reporting for spring practices over the past few weeks, meaning it’s time to take a look at the programs and see what we can expect in the fall. Let’s start by taking a look at the teams in the SEC and then be sure to take a look at our 2008 NCAA football preview. See something you like or dislike in the SEC spring update? Be sure to discuss it on one of the many great SEC forums listed in our NCAA message board directory.
Alabama Crimson Tide (7-6)
First practice: March 13
After an excellent 6-2 start under new coach Nick Saban last season, Alabama faltered down the stretch to finish the season 7-6. They closed out their season with a win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl, though it was hardly a decisive victory. In their second year under Saban, the goal for Alabama this season is consistency. A few factors make this a very achievable goal.
Fifteen starters return for the Crimson Tide, which means they have a solid core to build around. In addition, Saban deserves credit for bringing in one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country. Fans of the Tide are impatient to see what that recruiting class can do, but for the most part, they will have to wait. One of the biggest draws in August will be receiver Julio Jones, who made it to #2 in ESPN’s rankings of the top 150 recruits. Additional receiver help has already arrived in the form of Chris Jackson, who is on campus after his early graduation from high school, and will participate in spring practice. Look for a possible quarterback controversy if last year’s starter, John Parker Wilson, can’t show an improvement in his ability to deliver the ball consistently.
Arkansas Razorbacks (8-5)
First practice: April 3
The Razorbacks finished strong during the regular season last year, winning five of their last six games. Unfortunately, they capped their season with a painful loss to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl. The team will look to erase that memory as they move into the 2008 season.
New coach Bobby Petrino will have his work cut out for him trying to replace two-time Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden in the backfield, and the additional departures of Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis will not make his job any easier. The Razorbacks may have to look to redshirt sophomore RB Michael Smith to get the job done, given their lack of experience at running back. Petrino and his squad are hopeful that the NCAA will grant a waiver making transfer QB Ryan Mallett, from Michigan, eligible to play right off the bat. Failing that, Casey Dick will have to find a way to be successful with a team that has essentially been gutted. The defense will also need to adjust to a number of new starters, especially at cornerback, and a new coordinator. It’s not all bad news for Arkansas fans, however. While the team is certainly dealing with a number of changes, Petrino has done a solid job recruiting, and the Razorbacks have the potential to be an exciting young team. Watch for them to improve as the season progresses.
Auburn Tigers (9-4)
First practice: February 28
Auburn fielded an exciting young team last season, and they had a solid year, finishing with an overtime win against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Coach Tommy Tuberville will try to build on the successes of last season, though he will have to do it without a few standout players on the defensive line.
This will be a year of changes for the team, as the Tigers switch to a spread offense. There should be a good battle for the starting quarterback spot, as frontrunner Kodi Burns tries to beat out junior college transfer Chris Todd and a couple of young challengers in sophomore Neil Caudle and freshman DeRon Furr. Once the quarterback is in place, the team has the offensive line talent and the depth at running back to have a big year on the ground. On the defensive side of the ball, good recruiting may be able to minimize the impact of losses on the defensive line. Look for a strong year, if the Tigers can get all of their new pieces in place fairly quickly.
LSU Tigers (12-2)
First practice: February 29
Coming off of an excellent year, LSU doesn’t look to have many weaknesses. They lost two triple-overtime battles during the regular season, which did not prevent them from making it to the BCS title game against Ohio State. Once there, the Tigers beat the Buckeyes to claim their second national championship in five years. Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, the departure of Glenn Dorsey does not look as though it will slow down the team too much. Les Miles has managed to bring in a truly impressive group of recruits, which means LSU will be contending for some time.
This looked like junior quarterback Ryan Perrilloux’s chance to show what he could do, but his recent indefinite suspension may keep him out of the lineup. If that is the case, there will be an opportunity for Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch or redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee to take over the position. The line play should be very strong on both sides of the ball, although there are some openings on defense at the cornerback and linebacker positions. The defense might take some time to adjust to their new co-defensive coordinators, but don’t count on it. Look for the Tigers to have another very competitive year.
Ole Miss Rebels (3-9)
First practice: March 17
New coach Houston Nutt will be looking to turn things around after Ed Orgeron’s team went 3-9 and finished dead last in the SEC this past season. Despite their poor finish, Ole Miss is not without talent. The team came close to upsetting both Florida and Alabama last year, but they couldn’t quite get the job done in either game. Both games provided a glimmer of hope for a team looking to reinvent itself in 2008. With an infusion of new talent, they certainly have a shot at an improved finish.
The Rebels definitely have some strong players on defense, and the offensive line play should be pretty solid. More offensive help is on the way, thanks to Texas transfer quarterback Jevan Snead, and UCLA transfer Jeremy McGee at running back. McGee and Cordera Eason will have to pick up the slack after the departure of the team’s top two runners. The backfield will also gain a boost with the arrival of highly-touted recruit Enrique Davis, a tailback, in August. Despite missing spring practice, Davis will probably be pressed into action early in the season. With some young talent, a new offensive coordinator, and a new head coach, Ole Miss will be looking forward to a new season, and hopefully a move up in the conference rankings.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-5)
First practice: February 26
Mississippi State burst onto the scene last season, fighting their way to a surprising 8-5 record. They capped their successful season with a Liberty Bowl win over UCF, and they’ll look to carry that momentum through to this season, with fifteen starters returning to the team.
One area where the Rebels will look to improve is at quarterback, where coaches and fans alike are hoping that sophomore Wesley Carroll can use his experience from last year to grow into a more consistent and efficient passer. The running game should be strong again, which will provide a boost to the offense, but center Royce Blackledge will definitely be missed. The defense did a great job of limiting opponents’ scoring last season, and it should be a strength again this year. Look for coach Sylvester Croom to try to get more out of his offense on the way to another bowl game appearance.
Florida Gators (9-4)
First practice: March 19
Despite losing several key players after their 2006 championship, the Gators fielded a strong team last season, but ended the year with a disappointing loss to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman winner Tim Tebow led a prolific offense, but their young, often-exploited defense kept the team from being a title contender. The focus for Urban Meyer and the Gators in 2008 will be on providing better defensive support for an explosive offense.
A few talented new players will join Tebow and the seven other returning starters on offense this season. Topping the list is USC transfer Emmanuel Moody, who will add a new dimension in the backfield, while taking some of the running load off of Tebow. Speedsters Percy Harvin and Chris Rainey, who line up at a variety of positions, will be joined by junior college receiver Carl Moore for spring practice. On defense, the Gators hope that adding some young talent to their core of eight returning starters will improve their pass defense, which was last in the SEC in 2007. They have some potential difference-makers in linemen Troy Epps and Earl Okine, and cornerbacks Jeremy Brown and Janoris Jenkins. Look for an impressive season from a team that has enough talent to play for another national championship.
Georgia Bulldogs (11-2)
First practice: March 3
Georgia had an outstanding season in 2007, made all the more impressive by the youth of their team. They finished the season with seven straight wins, and a decisive victory over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs (and their fans) were disappointed by their exclusion from the BCS championship game last year, and they will enter this season as one of the favorites to win it all.
Fifteen starters will be back for the Bulldogs, including standout runner Knowshon Moreno, and quarterback Matthew Stafford. Despite Moreno’s undeniable skill, many fans can’t wait to get a look at redshirt freshman rusher Caleb King. Georgia looks to have impressive depth at the receiver and defensive end positions, which will lead to some interesting battles. This should be a great year for Mark Richt and his squad, as they attempt to live up to the preseason hype.
Kentucky Wildcats (8-5)
First practice: March 26
Rich Brooks and his players have a solid foundation to build on this year, as they’re coming off of two winning seasons, and two consecutive victories in the Music City Bowl. The Wildcats also took down BCS champion LSU in a triple-overtime battle during the 2007 regular season. Their biggest challenge in 2008 will be on offense, as they attempt to fill the holes left by departing quarterback Andre Woodson, wide receiver Keenan Burton, running back Rafael Little, and tight end Jacob Tamme.
Despite the losses on offense, the Wildcats have eight returning starters on defense, and a solid recruiting class to pick up the slack. Recruits Aaron Boyd (WR) and Sean Stackhouse (TE) may have to get used to the college game in a hurry, as Kentucky looks for dependable targets for their new quarterback. Curtis Pulley and Mike Hartline will battle it out for that starting spot, while returning runners Tony Dixon, Derrick Locke, and Alfonso Smith will provide depth in the backfield. Look for the defense to be the stronger of the two units, as new players on the offense take time to adjust.
South Carolina Gamecocks (6-6)
First practice: March 19
The Gamecocks got off to a great start last season, but watched their bowl hopes slip away as they lost five of their last six games. They struggled on the ground, both in setting up the run and in defending the run, and were hampered by injuries down the stretch. After the departure of quarterback Blake Mitchell, the battle for the starting spot might be the most compelling story out of spring practice this year.
Stephen Garcia, Chris Smelley, and Tommy Beecher will all fight for the top QB spot. Garcia is perhaps the most talented of the bunch, but back-to-back arrests kept him out of spring practice last year, and missed classes may keep him off the field this spring. Steve Spurrier is anxious to find a leader for his offense, and not just because he’s under quite a bit of pressure to produce this year. He has a good shot at a quality season, with ten starters returning on defense, and some talented recruits picking up the slack on offense. Look for a serious improvement over last year, if South Carolina can settle on a quarterback, and keep everyone healthy.
Tennessee Volunteers (10-4)
First practice: March 11
Tennessee did very well last season, winning the SEC East, and finishing with a victory over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. This was a strong, surprising performance for a team that played unevenly in their first few games, including a difficult blowout loss to conference rival Florida. Phil Fulmer and the Volunteers will be looking to build on the successes of last season, though much will depend on the performances of their new quarterback, and their largely new defense.
Having installed new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, the team will look to select a replacement for quarterback Eric Ainge. Junior Jonathan Crompton is the favorite to start, but will face some competition from redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman. The offensive line remains intact as part of a core of ten returning starters on offense, so pass protection should remain a strength for the Vols offense this year. Arian Foster will return at running back and has a shot at the career rushing record, in addition to providing backfield consistency. The defense, on the other hand, will need to adapt to some changes as they attempt to replace Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl at linebacker. The front seven for the defense will also have a new look, as only two starters from last year’s squad remain. Expect a motivated group of players, as the Volunteers attempt to forget their offseason problems (nine players have run into trouble with the team since last season) by returning to the field.
Vanderbilt Commodores (5-7)
First practice: March 11
At the end of last season, Vanderbilt was once again left out of the bowl game hunt. While they have certainly made strides in being more competitive in a talented conference, the Commodores have to face next season without a number of key starters.
The entire offensive line will be new this year, which is not good news for the Vandy quarterback. Mackenzi Adams ended last season as the starter, but during spring practice he’ll face competition from senior Chris Nickson and three-star recruit Larry Smith. The team will be without receiver Earl Bennett, and the Commodores will have to see more production out of the rest of the receiving corps if they hope to get the most out of their quarterback. On the defensive side, Coach Bobby Johnson will be looking to replace linebackers Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs, though the secondary remains intact, and the team’s best pass rushers will return. Johnson has some strong recruits this year on defense, which will help to maintain the Commodores’ high level of defensive play. This could be a rebuilding year for Vanderbilt, which would be disappointing for a team that had the talent to be in contention for a bowl game in each of the past two seasons.
By Jennifer Nessel
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