March 14, 2010

What's the biggest spring story in the SEC?

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college football coverage staff for his opinion about a topic in the sport.

THIS WEEK'S QUESTION: What is the biggest spring practice storyline in the SEC?

I'm most interested in the quarterback situations around the SEC. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia will have new starters. Florida will, too, but at least the Gators know John Brantley is their guy. LSU's Jordan Jefferson has to show improvement. Kentucky is going to have an intense competition for the starting job. Arkansas' Ryan Mallett is sitting out spring drills with a broken foot. Quarterback situations always are vital, but especially in the SEC. There are going to be a lot of new starters in the conference, but the new starters won't have dominant running backs behind them to relieve some of the pressure. Outside of Alabama's Mark Ingram, the SEC's top returning rushers are Kentucky's Derrick Locke, Vanderbilt's Warren Norman and Florida's Jeffery Demps.


While many eyes will be on Florida as it looks to replace Tim Tebow, I am more interested in what is going on at Georgia. This is a huge season for Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. He overhauled his defensive staff, canning coordinator Willie Martinez, ends coach Jon Fabris and linebackers coach John Jancek, and hired Dallas Cowboys assistant Todd Grantham as coordinator, Warren Belin as linebackers coach and Scott Lakatos as secondary coach. The lone holdover on the defensive staff is line coach Rodney Garner. Grantham is the key guy: He arrives with an extensive NFL background and will install a 3-4 defense. Will the players adapt quickly? The offense also has issues as it looks for a quarterback. It's a three-man race between Logan Gray and redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger. This is Richt's biggest spring in Athens.


I'm curious to see how LSU's offense develops over the course of the spring, specifically how the move of Russell Shepard to wide receiver works out. Shepard was the No. 7 prospect and the second-ranked quarterback, after Matt Barkley, in the 2009 recruiting class. At this point, Les Miles doesn't project him as an SEC quarterback. Instead, it looks as if Shepard will have a role similar to the one Percy Harvin played at Florida. The Tigers even went out and hired Gators receivers coach Billy Gonzales to help with the transition. If Shepard develops this spring, LSU could have a dangerous group of wide receivers. Shepard's move also is a vote of confidence in Jordan Jefferson, who was shaky last season but remains the No. 1 quarterback in Baton Rouge.


All the quarterback battles will be important, but I will be most interested in what is happening with Alabama's rebuilt defense. The Tide will have nine new starters. And those new guys aren't replacing run-of-the-mill players; Rolando McClain, Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas and Terrence Cody were special talents. Look at what happened to USC last season. The 2008 USC defense was excellent and had eight players selected in the '09 NFL draft; the 2009 USC defense took a big dip. I'm not saying the Alabama defense is going to take that big a dip -- the Tide have recruited extremely well -- but to think there won't be some kind of drop-off with that many new starters is delusional. Nick Saban and his defensive staff are excellent, and they certainly will earn their money this spring working with all those new starters. The rebuilt defense also could mean the offense becomes more aggressive, and that will be worth watching, too.


I'm interested in getting the first clues as to how Alabama plans to replace all those departed stars from its national championship defense. Alabama was second in the nation in scoring defense, total defense, run defense and pass efficiency defense on the way to winning the national title last season. But most of the top players from that defense are gone. Alabama figures to open the season atop the national polls, but the Tide's chances of repeating depend in large part on whether they can continue to play outstanding defense without Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas. There's a sense that Alabama has recruited so well the last couple of years that the Tide can replace all those star performers without suffering too much of a drop-off. This spring should give us an idea of whether that optimism is justified.


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