May 22, 2006

New faces all around the SEC

In 2004, David Cutcliffe was on the sideline as Ole Miss' coach and Brent Schaeffer was under center as Tennessee's quarterback.

By the fall, they will have traded schools, but both are hopeful to revive each program. Tennessee and Ole Miss went 4-12 combined in SEC play last year.

While Cutcliffe returned this spring as the Volunteers' offensive coordinator, Ole Miss spent March and April learning how much it needed Schaeffer to arrive from junior college in the fall.

Faces changed for SEC teams this spring, even if it wasn't to the degree of last season when four teams LSU, Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss hired new coaches.

Auburn, one of the preseason favorites to win the conference in 2006, hired its third defensive coordinator in three seasons. Former Miami Dolphins assistant Will Muschamp took the post held by David Gibbs in 2005 and Broyles Award winner Gene Chizik in 2004.

Former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, who coached future Hog QB Mitch Mustain, took the offensive coordinator position this spring with the hopes of balancing the Razorbacks' offense.

Two teams that missed bowl season last year ended the spring trying to replace their best players Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler and Mississippi State running back Jerious Norwood.

Alabama (10-2, 6-2)
The most important thing: Alabama's pass protection will be improved.
Travis Reier of BamaOnLine.com: : "That may not seem like much of a statement considering the Crimson Tide ranked last in the SEC in sacks allowed a season ago. Alabama returns four of five starters on the offensive line and will have a solid athlete, John Parker Wilson, taking over for Brodie Croyle. Wilson's mobility will lead to fewer sacks, but he must be selective in picking his spots to run. Having a stable of talented running backs led by Kenneth Darby will also go a long way in keeping the heat off of Wilson and those in charge of protecting him."
Player to watch: Cornerback Ramzee Robinson
Reier: "With three of his teammates in the secondary gone to the NFL, Robinson will be asked to hold down the fort, something he's capable of doing. Arguably the SEC's top returning corner, Robinson, whose intense work ethic has made him a favorite among the coaching staff, heads into his third season as the starter on the left side and he'll likely finish his Alabama career as a team captain."
Arkansas (4-7, 2-6)
The most important thing: Arkansas is striving for balance on offense.
Trey Biddy of HawgSports.com: "In recent seasons, Arkansas' running game has been the best in the SEC, but the Razorbacks wanted to throw the ball more last season. The result was a passing game that finished second-to-last in the SEC in passing yards per game. Arkansas made two major moves in the offseason, hiring 26-year coaching veteran and former NFL offensive coordinator Alex Wood to instruct quarterbacks and first-year college coach Gus Malzahn to coordinate the offense. Malzahn's innovative offense will employ more no-huddle and shotgun looks. Arkansas' best three players on offense are running backs, and it will not be uncommon to see them lined up anywhere from running back, fullback, H-back or wide receiver all at the same time. The offense is not overly complicated, but there was a long adjustment period the first two weeks of practice."
Player to watch: Running back Darren McFadden
Biddy: "The 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore will be just 18 years old when Arkansas kicks off summer practices. He shattered the freshman rushing record at Arkansas despite limited carries the first half of the season. He also played with torn cartilage in his knee. As the spring progressed and the receivers failed to stand out, McFadden lined up more at wideout. He has a chance to put up big-time numbers as a runner, receiver and as a kick return specialist. When the ball is in his hands, he looks like the biggest player on the field, and he has incredible speed. Barring injury, he could be on the verge of stardom."
Auburn (9-3, 7-1)
The most important thing: Auburn's defense will be more aggressive.
Bryan Matthews of AuburnSports.com: "The transition to new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp's defense turned out to be much more difficult than expected this spring. A unit that finished sixth in the SEC in total defense - including a league-high 39 sacks - was revamped. The players have to learn a new system and new terminology. Auburn's new defense was more aggressive in the spring with blitzes and showed several new looks - including some 3-4 packages. Junior Quentin Groves worked at both defensive end and outside linebacker."
Player to watch: Linebacker Tray Blackmon
Matthews: "Rated a five-star and the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker in the class of 2005, it didn't take long for Blackmon to assert himself in his first spring practice. After redshirting last fall, Blackmon won the starting weakside linebacker position. He displayed a great nose for the ball and produced several of the spring's biggest hits. Blackmon will be a youngster on a defense that will start nine upperclassmen."
Florida (9-3, 5-3)
The most important thing: The Gators will pick up where they left off at cornerback.
Guerry Smith of GatorBait.net: "The Gators learned they have two cornerbacks who can be as productive as the departed Vernell Brown and Dee Webb, assuming true sophomore Avery Atkins is back at practice for the beginning of two-a-days. Coach Urban Meyer said Atkins will be back after missing the last six practices of the spring for personal reasons. Atkins has tremendous cover ability, and senior Reggie Lewis looked good in the spring. Lewis, who played wide receiver through his redshirt sophomore season, will try to emulate Brown and have a huge final year after having a small role previously. The emergence of Atkins and Lewis will allow Florida to take risks with the front seven. Corners in aggressive schemes have to be able to cover one-on-one, and Atkins and Lewis proved they could handle that responsibility in the spring."
Player to watch: Safety Reggie Nelson
Smith: "He will play free safety in Florida's base defense and will line up close to the line of scrimmage in the nickel because he is an excellent blitzer. Nelson, a true playmaker, is capable of handling all four positions in the secondary with his speed, cover skills and tackling ability. Don't be surprised if he has five sacks and five interceptions, something that might never have been accomplished in Florida history."
Georgia (10-3, 6-2)
The most important thing: Georgia built depth on both sides of the ball.
Steve Patterson of UGASports.com: "The Bulldogs built depth across the board. In the secondary, where they lost three starters from the 2005 SEC Championship squad, several young players - most notably true freshman Asher Allen - had a good competition all spring. Now, each of the four spots has at least one solid backup. Youth also emerged on the defensive line, where the team has to replace both starting tackles. On offense, the wide receiver corps was depleted due to injuries to three players. However, Mike Henderson - who moved from cornerback to receiver - provided a spark and was the team's leading receiver in the spring game."
Player to watch: Cornerback Asher Allen
Patterson: "Unless true freshman Matthew Stafford is named the starting quarterback in August, another freshman will probably have the biggest impact on the team early. Allen challenged for a spot on the first team during the spring and is in the mix as a return man. One way or another, the announcers will call his name early and often. That said, if Stafford is named the starter before the season he will steal that spotlight."
Kentucky (3-8, 2-6)
The most important thing: Wide receiver remains a question mark.
Jeff Drummond of CatsPause.com: "Kentucky has developed solid depth on the offensive line, an impressive trio at running back in Rafael Little, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith and has two viable options at the quarterback position with pocket passer Andre Woodson and the scrambling Curtis Pulley. However, the wide receiver position remains a question mark headed into 2006. The Wildcats had only four scholarship receivers healthy this spring, and one of those was a converted quarterback. As a result, the passing game struggled and the defense won the majority of the 11-on-11 battles. Kentucky needs a healthy Keenan Burton and help from incoming freshmen if it hopes to mount a balanced offense."
Player to watch: Defensive tackle Myron Pryor
Drummond: "Pryor, a sophomore, emerged as a potential star. He dominated the line of scrimmage with his combination of strength and quickness. Pryor came to Kentucky weighing close to 340 pounds, but he is down to 297. He turned in a 4.87-second 40-yard dash at the team's pro day testing and displayed that explosiveness on a routine basis during the spring. His play reminded many of former Kentucky standout and first-round NFL selection Dewayne Robertson."
LSU (11-2, 7-1)
The most important thing: The Tigers began to find replacements for departed leaders along the O-line.
Mike Scarborough of TigerBait.com: "Two areas of importance for LSU were finding a cohesive group on the offensive line and finding out who would become leaders. The program lost some valuable players in both departments to graduation. With the loss of Andrew Whitworth, Nate Livings and Rudy Niswanger, the Tigers offensive line will have plenty of new faces in 2006. There is little room for error when it comes to injuries. Key players and newcomers to watch are Brett Helms at center, junior college signee Phil Loadholt, redshirt freshman Ciron Black and true freshman Matt Allen. In the leadership department, some players Coach Les Miles said could fit the role are defensive end Chase Pittman, wide receiver Craig Davis and running backs Justin Vincent and Jacob Hester."
Player to watch: Offensive lineman Brett Helms
Scarborough: "Like Rudy Niswanger in previous years, Helms is the Swiss army knife of the LSU offensive line. He can play multiple positions and has the tenacity that Tigers offensive line coach Stacy Searels wishes was present in all of his linemen. If Helms is not starting at center, he will be starting at guard. He might be the line's most valuable player."
Ole Miss (3-8, 1-7)
The most important thing: Ole Miss needs Brent Schaeffer on the field in the fall..
Grant Gannon of RebelSports.net: "When Ole Miss signed former Tennessee quarterback Brent Schaeffer in February, Coach Ed Orgeron named him the Rebels' starter for the fall. That's a tall task for a man who still hasn't finished his graduation requirements in junior college. Still, Ole Miss, with the addition of Schaeffer, should be improved on the offensive side of the ball. In the two years since Eli Manning left, the Rebels have not found a quarterback. Walk-ons, Connor Wise and Seth Adams and redshirt freshman Billy Tapp held the job in the spring but didn't show they had what it takes to be successful in the SEC. Ole Miss' success in 2006 depends almost solely on Schaeffer's expected arrival sometime this summer."
Player to watch: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Gannon: "He would have been the Rebels' greatest offensive weapon last fall, but NCAA transfer rules kept the former Indiana back on the sideline. Those who saw Green-Ellis on a day-to-day basis agree he gives Ole Miss an every-down back capable of heavy workloads through a 12-game season. He was so dominant in the spring Orgeron moved last year's leading rusher, sophomore Mico McSwain, to wide receiver at the end of spring practice. Ole Miss' offense will be greatly improved with both Schaeffer and Green-Ellis."
Mississippi State (3-8, 1-7)
The most important thing: Mississippi State will have to wait until fall to solidify the run game.
Rob Haralson of BulldogBlitz.com: "While the defense has improved since Sylvester Croom arrived on campus, the offense has been nearly nonexistent. Defections and injuries have depleted the offensive line, but this year the only major loss is center Chris McNeil. The consistency should help solidify things even without State's all-time leading rusher, Jerious Norwood. An immediate replacement is not set. Brandon Thornton has the early advantage, but he sat out the spring with an injury. Courtney Jones, Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth are promising, but they are true freshmen. Derek Ambrose has received a medical redshirt after tearing his ACL last year and Tulane transfer Christian Ducre will also be immediately eligible. While the stable is full, it will be August before one of these players makes an impression on the coaching staff."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Omarr Conner
Haralson: "After spending nearly three years at quarterback, Conner made the transition to wide receiver late in the season and made an immediate impact. After having been on the other end of numerous dropped passes throughout his career, he has done everything possible to help out new quarterback Mike Henig. After going through spring drills, he will be more prepared in the fall. His contributions should help lessen the pressure on a young running back corps."
South Carolina (7-5, 5-3)
The most important thing: Despite low numbers, the offensive line should regroup.
Brian Shoemaker of GamecockCentral.com: "With only seven scholarship offensive linemen on the roster, the biggest concern heading into spring practice may have been the offensive line. The starters, left tackle Gurminder Thind, left guard Thomas Coleman, center Chris White, right guard James Thompson and right tackle Jamon Meredith aren't as talented individually as last year's first-teamers. However, they might be better as a group. Depth is still a concern, but help will arrive this summer in the form of junior college transfer Clarence Bailey and several highly touted freshmen."
Player to watch: Linebacker Jasper Brinkley
Shoemaker: "After some less-than-stellar performances over the past few seasons by junior college transfers at South Carolina, red flags are raised when more junior college players are signed. In the case of 6-foot-2, 250-pound Brinkley, the concern appears to be unwarranted. Brinkley was a starter at middle linebacker almost from the beginning of spring practice."
Tennessee (5-6, 3-5)
The most important thing: The offense regained its confidence.
Brent Hubbs of VolQuest.com: "Last year, Tennessee's offense struggled, ranking No. 80 or below nationally in major offensive categories. But more importantly, the Volunteers struggled with confidence and the little things that separate good plays from bad. The Vols' offense still has a way to go with its confidence, but the Volunteers are going to do it the right way following the return of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. The offense this spring struggled only one day with several dropped passes, and it was much improved with its on-field discipline with alignments and assignments. This offense will be more efficient in 2006."
Player to watch: Linebacker Rico McCoy
Hubbs: "McCoy redshirted last year with a foot injury that led to surgery. This spring, McCoy was cut loose on the field and everyone got to see what the coaching staff fell in love with during the recruiting process. McCoy possesses big-time speed and a real nose for the football. He was everywhere this spring in scrimmage settings."
Vanderbilt (5-6, 3-5)
The most important thing: Vanderbilt is faster on defense.
Jesse Johnson of VandySports.com: "Vanderbilt won five games for the first time since 1999 and was competitive in all but two of its losses because of its offense. However, the defense would not be able to sustain leads for the Commodores due to a lack of team speed and depth. During the spring, all three units of the defense were quicker to the ball and looked more like a swarming-style unit rather than a read-and-react unit. Depth could be an issue with most of these positions, but overall the speed defensively improved. That could lead to shaving off a couple of points per game from last year's average."
Player to watch: Linebacker Jonathan Goff
Johnson: "Throughout most of the spring, Goff - who battled inconsistency during his Vanderbilt career - looked sharp going through drills and acted like a leader. The team voted him defensive captain at the end of spring practice. Goff, at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, took over some games last season - including games against Arkansas and Tennessee. He posted 63 tackles last season. He might be ready to take a step up in production as he showed quickness to the ball, solid tackling and a mean streak that hasn't been seen much during his early years."

What We Learned from Spring Practice Series
Big Ten: Growing pains for Big Ten, Notre Dame Big 12: Rest of the conference now chasing Texas
Big East: Several teams facing QB questions ACC: Looking to rebuild in the trenches
Pac-10: Plenty of backfield talent left in Pac-10 SEC: New faces all around the SEC



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