SEC football analysis: Sizing up the teams after spring drills

jerickson@ledger-enquirer.comApril 29, 2012 

ALABAMA (12-1)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense, 3 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 14; A-Day: White 24 , Crimson 15

Pressing question: Replacing seven starters and a stockpile of draftable talent on defense is still a work in progress. Safety Vinnie Sunseri appears to be ready to make an impact, but the front seven needs work.

Question answered: Even though Eddie Lacy sat out the spring, the Crimson Tide have plenty of talent at running back. Freshman T.J. Yeldon dominated A-Day, and Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart both made strides.

Still searching: Backup quarterback Phillip Sims has decided to transfer, leaving the Crimson Tide with only redshirt freshman Phillip Ely and incoming freshman Alec Morris, who hasn't taken a snap yet.

ARKANSAS (11-2)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense, 3 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 21; Spring game: Red 65, White 0.

Pressing question: Bobby Petrino is gone after a scandal that rocked Arkansas. John L. Smith takes over on an interim basis. How that changes the Razorbacks' chances in 2012 remains to be seen; Smith was hired after spring practice ended.

Question answered: Three Arkansas receivers were taken in the NFL Draft, but the Razorbacks haven't missed a beat. Cobi Hamilton had 11 catches in the spring game, tight end Chris Gragg also played well and Marquel Wade, Maudrecous Humphrey are next in line.

Still searching: New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes is trying to remake a unit that has held Arkansas back, but the Razorbacks were missing some playmakers on defense this spring. Haynes says tackling has to improve.

AUBURN (8-5)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 16; A-Day: Blue (offense) 36, White (defense) 27.

Pressing question: Auburn did not name a starter at quarterback. Kiehl Frazier appears to have grabbed the momentum, but Clint Moseley and, to a lesser extent, Zeke Pike, will still have a chance to overtake Frazier when two-a-days start.

Question answered: Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's new scheme allows defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford to rush the passer at will, and the Tigers' rushers made huge strides in the spring. LaDarius Owens and Keymiya Harrell have also shown promise.

Still searching: As many as five running backs -- Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Mike Blakely and incoming freshmen Jovon Robinson -- are battling for carries, and there's no clear-cut leader. Auburn's coaches want the running backs to be more physical in the Tigers' new offense.

FLORIDA (7-6)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 7; Spring game: Blue 21, Orange 20.

Pressing question: Neither Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel took command of a quarterback race that won't have a clear-cut starter until the fall. Coming out of the spring, Will Muschamp said the two are very close, with similar skill sets, and he thinks Florida can win with either.

Question answered: At running back, senior Mike Gillislee will be the starter after flashing a combination of power and speed in the spring, with Mack Brown handling backup duties despite the loss of both Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.

Still searching: Defensive end Ronald Powell tore his ACL in spring practices, an injury that could force him to miss the start of the season. Powell led the Gators with six sacks last season, and if he can't go, somebody will have to step up in his place.

GEORGIA (10-4)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 10 defense, 1 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 14; G-Day: Red 32, Black 31.

Pressing question: Right now, it's impossible to tell how much the suspensions, both real and possible, of Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Branden White and Alec Ogletree will affect Georgia early. That's a lot of first-unit talent likely to miss games.

Question answered: Georgia might have more depth at running back than anybody else in the country. Carver product Isaiah Crowell and Ken Malcome both had strong springs and big G-Day performances, and freshman Keith Marshall flashed talent before injury.

Still searching: Malcolm Mitchell led Georgia in receiving yards-per-game as a freshman, but he's moving to defensive back full-time. How Georgia uses him on offense and special teams -- he will play both -- remains to be seen.

KENTUCKY (5-7)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 21; Spring game: Starters 35, Reserves 28.

Pressing question: Kentucky's offense may be more wide-open due to the talents of sophomore receiver Demarco Robinson, quarterback Maxwell Smith and the rest of the skill-position players. Coach Joker Phillips says they want to throw it 45 times a game.

Question answered: Unlike most SEC teams, Kentucky has no competition at quarterback. Smith, the sophomore who took over late last year, is the starter, and he was 29-of-45 for 353 yards in the spring game.

Still searching: Right now, Kentucky has no punter. The Wildcats' punters were so subpar in spring ball that Phillips did not have the team punt in the spring game, and he has repeatedly said the team's punter is likely not on the team yet.

LSU (13-1)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams.

Spring practice ended: March 31; Spring game: White 24, Purple 17.

Pressing question: LSU threw the ball down the field a lot in its spring game, and the Tigers may be looking to be more explosive after a lack of offensive punch cost them the national title in 2011.

Question answered: For the first time in a while, LSU has a clear-cut starter at quarterback. Mettenberger grabbed the job in the spring and won't let go after showing off a solid combination of poise and arm strength.

Still searching: Undersized linebacker Tahj Jones won one starting spot at outside linebacker, but a freshman will likely hold down the other spot next to middle linebacker Kevin Minter. Right now, Ronnie Feist leads the pack.

MISSISSIPPI (2-10)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 3 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 21; Spring game: Red 24, Blue 23.

Pressing question: The trigger man for Hugh Freeze's wide-open offense is still a mystery. Barry Brunetti and junior college Bo Wallace are battling it out for the spot. Freeze has said he may play two quarterbacks next season.

Question answered: Former quarterback starter Randall Mackey has a new role in Freeze's offense as a slash player. At times, Mackey, the starting passer at the end of last season, will line up at receiver, running back and wildcat quarterback.

Still searching: An offensive line that gave up 33 sacks in 2011 has gotten no better, and the depth at the position is very thin. No matter who the quarterback is, it's going to be hard to get going if Mississippi can't protect against SEC West defenses.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (7-6)

Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 21; Spring game: Maroon 33, White 22.

Pressing question: Finding somebody to block is becoming problematic. Talented guard Tobias Smith missed the spring to recover from knee surgery, and in his absence, the line remained in a state of flux throughout the spring.

Question answered: The days of Dan Mullen using three quarterbacks in the same game are over. Tyler Russell is the Bulldogs' starter, and he's going to throw it a lot after completing 24-of-43 for 312 yards in the spring game.

Still searching: At safety, the Bulldogs have few answers despite returning a starter in Nickoe Whitley, who was limited in the spring. Without a healthy Whitley, Mississippi State has very little in the back end of the defense.

MISSOURI (8-5)

Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense, 2 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 14; Spring game: Reserves 34, Starters 10 (first half only).

Pressing question: Returning quarterback James Franklin is supposed to recover from a torn labrum by the time the season starts. If healthy, Franklin instantly becomes one of the SEC's top quarterbacks. If not, the Tigers face an uphill battle.

Question answered: If Franklin is healthy, he has plenty of targets to throw to. Entrenched No. 1 receiver T.J. Moe was dominant, Dorial Green-Beckham arrives in the summer and Gahn McGaffie emerged this spring as a versatile piece out of the slot.

Still searching: At defensive tackle, the best athlete, Sheldon Richardson, missed the spring, and a former tight end, Matt Hoch, beat out incumbent Jimmy Burge for a starting spot. Beyond those two, the depth is thin in the middle of the defense.

SOUTH CAROLINA (11-2)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 1 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 14; Spring game: Black 38, Garnet 24.

Pressing question: Marcus Lattimore still hasn't made lateral cuts on his surgically-repaired left knee -- that happens Wednesday -- and the talented back could be the key to the Gamecocks' push for an SEC title. Whether or not he's healthy in the fall will be a situation to closely monitor.

Question answered: Quarterback Connor Shaw appears to have improved now that he's the undisputed No. 1. Used sparingly in the spring game, Shaw still hit on 6-of-7 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns, and he looks ready to add a passing dimension to the Gamecocks' offense.

Still searching: A pair of projected starters in the secondary, safety D.J. Swearinger and cornerback Akeem Auguste, missed the spring due to injury, and the Gamecocks are trying to replace NFL draft picks Stephon Gilmore and Antonio Allen.

TENNESSEE (5-7)

Returning starters: 10 offense, 8 defense, 2 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 21; Spring game: Orange 17, White 14.

Pressing question: Tennessee's defense is switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, and the results have been mixed so far. In the spring game, the new 3-4 gave up 236 rushing yards.

Question answered: Sophomore Marlin Lane appears to have taken control of the starting job at running back. Lane rushed for 106 yards and two explosive touchdowns on just nine carries in the spring game, and he will try to breathe life into one of the nation's worst rushing attacks.

Still searching: At Jack linebacker, the spot occupied in Alabama's defense by Courtney Upshaw, Jacques Smith is trying to duplicate that kind of pass rush, and getting to the quarterback will be key if Sunseri's scheme is going to work in the first year.

TEXAS A&M (7-6)

Returning starters: 9 offense, 5 defense, 2 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 28; Spring game: White (offense) 48, Maroon (defense) 44.

Pressing question: Jameill Showers appears to be the frontrunner as the starter after completing 20-of-31 passes for 203 yards in the spring game, but new head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't named a starter between Showers and Johnny Manziel.

Question answered: Replacing the production of departed running back Cyrus Gray and the possible delayed recovery of Christine Michael should not be a problem. Ben Malena and Will Randolph both played well enough in the spring to soothe any fears.

Still searching: Depth on defense looks painfully thin. For a unit that was torched at times in 2011, that's problematic, especially if injuries strike at some point in the Aggies' first season in the SEC West.

VANDERBILT (6-7)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense, 3 special teams.

Spring practice ended: April 14; Spring game: Black 33, Gold 0.

Pressing question: Vanderbilt seemingly has a proven starter at quarterback in James Rodgers, but coach James Franklin has repeatedly said there is no starter yet. Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels is Rodgers' competition for the job.

Question answered: Former QBs Josh Grady and Kris Kentera moved to slot receiver and H-back, respectively, and both will play big roles as playmakers. Grady can play wildcat quarterback, and Kentera's a natural receiver.

Still searching: Offensive line had only seven players healthy for spring ball, which made it impossible for the Commodores to identify a starting lineup. Heading into the fall, Vanderbilt has to get guys like returning starter Ryan Seymour and prospect Chase White healthy.

-- Joel A. Erickson

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