March 3, 2006

Replacing big names no problem in SEC

A quick look around the SEC reveals lots of new faces in important places.

Three marquee quarterbacks played their final seasons in 2005 D.J. Shockley at Georgia, Brodie Croyle at Alabama and Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt. Shockley led the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship. Croyle guided the Tide to a strong season in the SEC West and Cutler propelled the Commodores to their first five-win season since 1999.

Even the schools with returning quarterbacks are not without controversy. Tennessee suffered the first losing season during Phillip Fulmer's 14 seasons in Knoxville and the Vols still haven't decided on a signal-caller. Heavy QB competition also is expected at Arkansas LSU and Kentucky.

But don't fret for the SEC. This still is one of the top leagues in the country, and it probably will have a couple of teams in the hunt for the national title into December.

Here's a look at what's happening as spring gets into full swing:

Breakout Performers | Impact Newcomers | Position Battles | New Schemes | Best by Position

SEC East 2005 Record
1. Florida 9-3, 5-3
The best thing you can say about the Gators that you can't say about most of their brethren in the East is they have an established quarterback. How well he fits this offense is a matter for debate. Then again, at Urban Meyer's last two stops the offenses exploded in his second year. There are problems along both lines and in the secondary.
2. Georgia 10-3, 6-2
The big question in Athens: Who will take over for D.J. Shockley? Mark Richt needs to get it sorted out soon from among Joe Tereshinski, Blake Barnes, Joe Cox and Matthew Stafford. The Dawgs also have significant losses to worry about in the defensive backfield.
3. Tennessee 5-6, 3-5
There was total disarray in the house of the Vols last season, but new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe will help Phillip Fulmer restore order. The big question revolves around the quarterback situation: Will Erik Ainge step forward or yield to redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton?
4. South Carolina 7-5, 5-3
The offense returns almost all of its firepower, but there are questions on the offensive line - which lost three starters. The defense also has some holes that need to be filled, especially at linebacker.
5. Kentucky 3-8, 2-6
The secondary figures to be the strong suit for an improved defense. The quarterback situation still has to be worked out, and wide receiver is a concern. It is nice, though, to have Rafael Little to take a little of the edge off for UK.
6. Vanderbilt 5-6, 3-5
Without Jay Cutler to keep the Commodores in games, it may be a return to years past - and that's not a good thing. The defense also lost its glue, All-SEC linebacker Moses Osemwegie.

SEC West 2005 Record
1. LSU 11-2, 7-1
The Tigers will be looking for some new blood on the offensive and defensive lines, but they're loaded at the skill positions and signed another great recruiting class. LSU also should have lots of swagger after its throttling of Miami in the Peach Bowl.
2. Auburn 9-3, 7-1
All you need to know about the Tigers is QB Brandon Cox and RB Kenny Irons are back. The offensive line needs tweaking, but the questions are on defense - specifically at tackle and at safety. Will Muschamp is the third defensive coordinator for Tommy Tuberville in three years.
3. Alabama 10-2, 6-2
A maligned offensive line returns with plenty of experience and adds five-star recruit Andre Smith, which is good because it no longer has a heady senior QB to bail it out. The defense also suffered heavy graduation losses, including All-American LB DeMeco Ryans.
4. Arkansas 4-7, 2-6
One thing is certain: Freshman All-American RB Darren McFadden can run it and will run it behind a talented offensive line. There is some young talent on defense, too, and Houston Nutt may need it all to come together quickly.
5. Ole Miss 3-8, 1-7
Brent Schaeffer and a host of other recruits will step into major roles right away. You can at least figure on the Rebels being more fun to watch.
6. Mississippi State 3-8, 1-7
The defense must carry the load for an offense that has questions at almost every position. The secondary figures to be the backbone.

Five players who will emerge this season
1. Mohamed Massaquoi, So., WR, Georgia: The Charlotte, N.C., native had a respectable freshman season with 505 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 38 receptions. It may be unreasonable to expect him to double those numbers, but he should be closer to that than a repeat of last year's statistics.
2. Jarvis Moss, Jr., DE, Florida: For a guy who didn't start last season and didn't register a tackle until the fourth game, Moss sure spent a lot of time in opponents' backfields. The Texas native finished as Florida's leader in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (11). He'll build on those numbers with full-time duty this season.
3. Robert Ayers, So., DE, Tennessee: The 6-3, 230-pound South Carolina native was first on the lips of his head coach and teammates when they were asked to name a player who could have a breakout season. They say he's quick and can really get off the edge.
4. Jeff Owens, So., DT, Georgia: Played as a freshman out of necessity and saw action in all 13 of the Dawgs' games last season. Owens posted 2.5 sacks, 16 tackles and 16 quarterback pressures. With a year under his belt and more help alongside, he should blossom.
5. Robert Lane, Sr., TE, Ole Miss: Everyone in the conference knows Lane (6-3, 225) is a phenomenal athlete. The Rebels may have found the best place for him after allowing him to compete for the QB job then switching him to fullback. He caught 17 passes last season for 213 yards and a touchdown. As a full-time TE with Brent Schaeffer throwing to him in Dan Werner's offense, the sky is the limit.

Five Impact Newcomers (freshmen or transfers)
1. Matthew Stafford, Fr., QB, Georgia: The bet here is Mark Richt will have Stafford,'s No. 1 QB in the class of 2006, ready to go for the first snap in the opener against Western Kentucky. Why waste an opener against a Division I-AA team on anyone other than the guy you hope will man the job all season?
2. Brent Schaeffer, Jr., QB, Ole Miss: In case you don't remember him running around as a freshman at Tennessee, he's that much better now. Witness his junior college season numbers: 40 TD passes, six interceptions, nearly 3,000 passing yards. And he rushed for 854. SEC West, consider this your notice.
3. Andre Smith, Fr., OL, Alabama: Scouts throughout the country believe he is one of the best linemen ever to enter the college game. There's no question he starts for the Tide from Day One.
4. Percy Harvin, Fr., WR, Florida: The Gators' fastest receiver (Chad Jackson) left early for the NFL, making room for the new fastest receiver. Harvin was's No. 1 recruit in the nation. Chris Leak should fall for him quickly.
5. Greg Smith, So., DT, Auburn: The five-star prospect steps out of the junior college ranks and will have every opportunity to start right away. At 6-3, 315, he had 37 tackles for loss in one season at Northeast Mississippi Community College.

Position Battles to Watch
Alabama: Linebacker. The Tide has the unenviable task of finding replacements for DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach, which wouldn't be easy no matter the depth. The Tide will look to junior Matt Collins, a former walk-on, and redshirt freshman Prince Hall.
Arkansas: Safety. With the offense set and the defense reasonably stable in the front seven, the secondary is a concern. True freshmen John West and Matt Hewitt could get into the mix with returnees Desmond Williams, Kevin Thornton, Kevin Woods and Elston Forte.
Auburn: Weak side linebacker. Sophomore Merrill Johnson and redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon will battle through the spring to shore up a linebacking corps that lost a couple of starters.
Florida: Running back. Junior DeShawn Wynn is the incumbent, but he has a tendency to work his way into the doghouse. Some in Gainesville believe sophomore Kestahn Moore may be headed for a breakout season. Markus Manson is in the mix, too.
Georgia: Quarterback. Mark Richt has said he wants to give all four candidates snaps with the first team during the spring. That means senior Joe Tereshinski, sophomore Blake Barnes, redshirt freshman Joe Cox and five-star freshman Matt Stafford all have a shot to be under center for the Dawgs.
Kentucky: Wide receiver. With three of last year's top four targets gone, it's wide open at wide receiver in Lexington. Of course there also is the mystery to be solved as to who will be throwing to the new guys, Andre' Woodson or Curtis Pulley.
LSU: Defensive tackle. Both starters need to be replaced in the interior, with one spot almost assuredly going to Glen Dorsey. The battle for the other spot figures to be chiefly between Charles Alexander and Ricky Jean-Francois. One could wind up playing some at end.
Mississippi State: Running back. The departure of all-time leading rusher Jerious Norwood leaves a gaping hole in an already-suspect offense. Sophomore Brandon Thornton will get the first crack at filling Norwood's shoes, with fellow sophomore Brandon Hart also in the mix.
Ole Miss: Linebacker. It's nice to have Patrick Willis in the middle. That said, the Rebels will look throughout the spring at who will get to play next to the All-America candidate. On the weak side, the top contenders for playing time are Quentin Taylor and Antonio Turner, a converted running back. On the strong side, Garry Pack will duel with Leron King.
South Carolina: Wide receiver. Who's going to keep National Freshman of the Year Sidney Rice from constant double-teams? The candidates to play opposite Rice include sophomore Kenny McKinley, who had some moments last year but not enough (25 receptions for 291 yards), and senior Noah Whiteside, who was injured in last year's spring game and never fully recovered. A pair of redshirt freshmen also could be factors: O.J. Murdock of Tampa, Fla., was a four-star recruit, and Freddie Brown III was a three-star recruit out of in-state powerhouse Duncan Byrnes.
Tennessee: Linebacker. The Vols must replace their entire starting unit from a year ago, though there are plenty of excellent candidates. Heading into spring, the starters appear to be Jerod Mayo on the weak side, Marvin Mitchell in the middle, and Rico McCoy on the strong side. Ryan Karl also could figure in somewhere.
Vanderbilt: Linebacker. The Commodores have to replace two of three linebackers, including Moses Osemwegie, their leading tackler for three consecutive seasons and an All-SEC first-teamer last year. The contenders include Marcus Buggs and Brandon Bryant.

Teams with new schemes
Arkansas offense: Former Springdale (Ark.) High School head coach Gus Malzahn makes his jump to the college ranks to be offensive coordinator for Houston Nutt. He comes along with his quarterback, five-star prospect Mitch Mustain. Now, how much of his hurry-up, no-huddle offense is coming with him remains to be seen. A call to the Arkansas football office garnered a reply of: "Tell them we'll be multiple." Malzahn's offense had some spread option and run-and-shoot elements. Expect a lot of shotgun formation with RB Darren McFadden alongside the quarterback.
Auburn defense: The Tigers will stick with a 4-3 under new coordinator Will Muschamp. He says he also will mix man and zone coverages and see how his personnel adjusts. "I think the bottom line is you have to be multiple," Muschamp said. "There are a lot of good coaches and good players out there and if you become too one-dimensional then the good teams will end up getting you. That's my No. 1 goal and job is to get out there early in the spring and decide if we can be a team that can mix coverages and be multiple."
Ole Miss offense: One-back set, two TEs. Multiple. Dan Werner comes over from Miami with some interesting weapons at his disposal, including junior college QB Brent Schaeffer, freshman RB Cordera Eason and converted QB Robert Lane at tight end. Lane is a terrific athlete who caught 17 balls playing at fullback last season. He could have a breakout year similar to Greg Olsen's 2005 season at Miami. The Rebels also are making a number of position changes on offense, so it will be almost an entirely new look.
Tennessee offense: Two-back set. Multiple. Phillip Fulmer told that ideally his offense would be 50 percent run/50 percent pass. We're not sure we buy into that or that he and returning offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe do either. While coordinator in Knoxville from 1993-98, Cutcliffe called 56 percent running plays. Keep in mind that includes all four of Peyton Manning's seasons, when UT was throwing the ball more than it had at any time in its history. In the Vols' national championship season in 1998, they ran more than 65 percent of the time. Look for Cutcliffe to ground the Vols, take some pressure off his quarterbacks and control the clock.

Best of the SEC by Position
1. Chris Leak, Florida
2. Brandon Cox, Auburn
3. JaMarcus Russell, LSU
4. Brent Schaeffer, Ole Miss
5. Blake Mitchell, South Carolina
Running back
1. Kenny Irons, Auburn
2. Darren McFadden, Arkansas
3. Kenneth Darby, Alabama
4. Arian Foster, Tennessee
5. Rafael Little, Kentucky
1. Sidney Rice, South Carolina
2. Earl Bennett, Vanderbilt
3. Courtney Taylor, Auburn
4. Dwayne Bowe, LSU
5t. Dallas Baker, Florida & D.J. Hall, Alabama
Offensive line
1. Arron Sears, Tennessee
2. Tim Duckworth, Auburn
3. Daniel Inman, Georgia
4. Michael Oher, Ole Miss
5. Brian Stamper, Vanderbilt
Tight End
1. Martrez Milner, Georgia
2. Chris Brown, Tennessee
3. Tate Casey, Florida
4. Robert Lane, Ole Miss
5. Cole Bennett, Auburn
Defensive line
1. Quentin Moses, Georgia
2. Justin Harrell, Tennessee
3. Marquies Gunn, Auburn
4. Greg Smith, Auburn
5. Jarvis Moss, Florida
1. Patrick Willis, Ole Miss
2. Sam Olajubutu, Arkansas
3. Brandon Siler, Florida
4. Earl Everett, Florida
5. Will Herring, Auburn
Defensive back
1. LaRon Landry, LSU
2. Jeramie Johnson, Mississippi State
3. Jonathan Hefney, Tennessee
4. Reggie Nelson, Florida
5. Demetrice Morley, Tennessee
1. Brandon Coutu, Georgia
2. Jamie Christensen, Alabama
3. Bryant Hahnfeldt, Vanderbilt
4. James Wilhoit, Tennessee
5. Chris Hetland, Florida
1. Kody Bliss, Auburn
2. Gordon Ely-Kelso, Georgia
3. Blake McAdams, Mississippi State
4. Jacob Skinner, Arkansas
5. Eric Wilbur, Florida is committed to covering Spring Football like no one else. Our national writers will be visiting campuses all over the country to bring you the very latest news and give you an inside look at Spring Practice. This is the second in a series of Spring Football conference previews.

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