February 20, 2007

Inside spring drills: SEC Preview

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Many college football fans would consider an eight-win season, including a bowl victory, a succesful year. If that team had 15 returning starters - and all-conference players at quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end - loyal followers would have cause for optimism.

If it were to face its toughest competition in the upcoming season at home, it seems that squad would be anointed the preseason favorite for a conference championship.

But that's not necessarily the case in the Southeastern Conference, where the numbers line up with the ease of a New York Times Sudoku puzzle.

Kentucky, which boasts the aforementioned resume, looks good on paper unless that paper in bound into a history book. The 2007 Wildcats are hoping to post back-to-back bowl victories for the first time since 1950-1951, when Bear Bryant was coaching UK.

With seven offensive startes and nine defensive starters returning from an 8-5 campaign, South Carolina looks good on paper, too. At least they would seem to look better than a team which loses three prospective first round NFL Draft choices, like LSU.

One might assume that a team that loses its quarterback, running back and nine defensive starters would struggle the following season - unless that team is Florida. Despite the reasons for optimism at several SEC programs, the Tigers and Gators are still the teams to be in their respective divisions.

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

SEC: PROJECTED 2007 FINISH (with 2006 record)
1. LSU (11-2, 6-2): Losing JaMarcus Russell will hurt, but Matt Flynn will ease the pain. The Tigers are still solid at receiver, they should be better at running back and Glenn Dorsey and Darry Beckwith will anchor a solid defense. LSU is capable of winning 11 or more games.
2. Auburn (11-2, 6-2): The offensive line loses four starters. Kenny Irons and Courtney Taylor are also gone. But Ben Tate could be Auburn's next great running back and Quentin Groves is one of the nation's premier pass rushers. The Tigers defense will get a boost if linebacker Tray Blackmon stays out of trouble.
3. Alabama (6-7, 2-6): Four of Alabama's losses were by a touchdown or less. Can a new coach make a difference in winning close games? You bet he can. But so can having eight offensive starters returning, including quarterback John Parker Wilson and receivers DJ Hall and Keith Brown. The running game must be upgraded, though.
4. Arkansas (10-4, 7-1): Darren McFadden is the leading contender for the 2007 Heisman Trophy. Quarterback Casey Dick is back, along with 1,000-yard rusher Felix Jones and receiver Marcus Monk. However, the defense must be rebuilt and the Razorbacks must face Alabama, Tennessee and LSU on the road.
5. Mississippi (4-8, 2-6): Coach Ed Orgeron has been the subject of a few jokes and a funny song, but the Rebels got better as last season progressed. If quarterback Brent Schaeffer proves he has more than potential, the Rebels could get the last laugh next season.
6. Mississippi State (3-9, 1-7): Three consecutive three-victory seasons is unacceptable anywhere. In order for the Bulldogs to buck the trend, they must upgrade the offense. Staying healthy will be a good first step in that direction.
1. Florida (13-1, 7-1): The national champion Gators have no place to go but down. However, the fall shouldn't be too far. Do-it-all talent Percy Harvin is a touchdown machine at whatever position he's playing. Andre Caldwell is a proven receiver. The defense has holes to fill - particularly at linebacker - but end Derrick Harvey is a star. Quarterback Tim Tebow must prove he can throw as well as he runs.
2. Tennessee (9-4, 5-3): If quarterback Erik Ainge continues to improve at the rate he did last year he'll be a Heisman Trophy contender. The extent to which he'll miss receiver Robert Meachem may determine whether the Vols keep moving forward or take a step back.
3. Georgia (9-4, 4-4): Improving an offense that ranked 90th nationally has to be the top priority. The Bulldogs have some defensive issues, too. The pass rush - or lack thereof - is a concern. On the bright side ... quarterback Matthew Stafford has a year of seasoning, the secondary is sound and the schedule is favorable.
4. Kentucky (8-5, 4-4): Last season, the Wildcats posted their first bowl victory since 1984. Quarterback Andre' Woodson will enter next season with a streak of 162 passes without an interception. The Wildcats have four skill players - including versatile running back Rafael Little - who have been named All-SEC in the last two seasons.
5. South Carolina (8-5, 3-5): Sidney Rice and Syvelle Newton are gone, but Steve Spurrier is still on the sideline. Because of that fact alone the Gamecocks shouldn't be taken lightly. Remember, they were a blocked field goal away from beating national champion Florida. Seven offensive starters and nine defensive starters return. They will need them all to handle a vicious road schedule that takes them to Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas.
6. Vanderbilt (4-8, 1-7): The Commodores keep getting closer to ending their long bowl drought (no appearances since 1982), but keep coming up short. A rugged schedule may deny them again. Better-than-expected quarterback Chris Nickson and receiver Earl Bennett are a potent offensive tandem.

Auburn RB Ben Tate
Ben Tate, RB, Auburn: The Tigers always have outstanding running backs, and Tate figures to be next. Tate rushed for 392 yards on just 54 carries as a true freshman. With Kenny Irons gone, Tate's carries should increase sharply. So should his yardage - if the offensive line isn't a liability.
J.T. Mapu, DT, Tennessee: Last year Mapu arrived late, out of shape and weaker than ideal after two years on a Mormon mission. Injuries and uninspired play on the defensive line forced him into the lineup, and he had only eight tackles. With a year to regain strength he should be much better and play more like he did in 2003 when he had 26 tackles, 4.5 of which went for losses.
Freddie Fairchild, LB, Arkansas: As a freshman, Fairchild recorded 59 tackles. Last season, he played just two games before an ACL tear ended his 2006 campaign. Healthy again, Fairchild will return to the starting lineup. He should be a key figure in the Razorbacks defense, which must replace the linebacker production of Sam Olajubutu and Desmond Sims.
Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU: Although LaFell only caught five passes last season, two went for touchdowns and he averaged 28 yards per catch. With Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis headed for the NFL, the LSU offense must replace 124 catches, 1,826 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia: As a heralded freshman Stafford struggled early and bounced in and out of the starting lineup. He settled in late and passed for 519 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception in leading the Bulldogs to three consecutive victories to close the season. That solid finish indicates he may be on the verge of becoming the quarterback many expect him to be.

Five impact newcomers
Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno
Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia: Rated the No. 10 running back prospect in 2006 by Rivals.com, Moreno undoubtedly had the ability to contribute last season. However, he sat out a redshirt year because Georgia was thought to be deep at tailback. Well, Thomas Brown tore an ACL, Danny Ware opted for the NFL and Kregg Lumpkin is the leading returning rusher with 798 yards. Moreno may challenge Lumpkin for the starting job.
Ricky Lumpkin, DT, Kentucky: Wildcats coaches raved about Lumpkin's performances in practices while he redshirted last year. They're hoping to rave about his play in games this year. Lumpkin posted 10 sacks and 101 tackles as a high school senior.
Nevin McKenzie, S, Tennessee: The Volunteers must replace three starters in the secondary. McKenzie, the 12th rated junior college prospect by Rivals.com, could fit right in at safety. He has good size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and speed and is a good tackler. He posted more than 90 stops and five sacks last season at Trinity Valley CC.
Allen Walker, LB, Ole Miss: The former four-star defensive back recruit is primed to make a significant contribution. He has added bulk, and it's a good bet he will move to linebacker. Ole Miss is hurting at linebacker because Patrick Willis and Rory Johnson are headed to the NFL. If he doesn't fit in at linebacker, Walker will move back to the secondary.
Richard Murphy, RB, LSU: A former four-star recruit, Murphy sat idle while the NCAA Clearinghouse approved his eligibility. He likely could have contributed immediately for an offense whose leading rusher gained only 440 yards. However, Murphy was forced to sit out a redshirt year. Back on the field, he could add some punch to the Tigers' running game.

Position battles to watch
Alabama: Nick Saban has a history of using a lot of backs and then sticking with who's hot. He'll have several from which to choose, starting with Jimmy Johns. As Kenneth Darby's primary backup, Johns gained 293 yards a year ago. Roy Upchurch, Ali Sharrief and speedy redshirt freshman Terry Grant will also vie for the starting job. In August, highly regarded freshman Demetrius Goode could get into the mix, too.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks have the leading Heisman Trophy contender in running back Darren McFadden, but his candidacy and production may be dependent on how well the Hogs replace three lost starters in the offensive line. All-SEC selections Tony Ugoh and Stephen Parker have moved on. Jose Valdez, Colin Tucker, DeMarcus Love, Jim Hart, Nate Garner and Ray Dominguez will vie for the honor of ushering McFadden to New York.
Auburn: Running back is more glamorous, but the most wide-open competition will be in the offensive line. Tackle King Dunlap is the lone returning full-time starter. Jason Bosley got three starts at center and will be expected to lock down that position, but the other three spots are up for grabs. Senior Leon Hart has another chance to live up to his potential, while Mike Berry and Tyronne Green will be leading contenders for playing time.
Florida: The Gators won the national championship with converted receiver Percy Harvin at tailback. They will try to find a more traditional running back next season. Kestahn Moore, Mon Williams and signees Bo Williams and Chris Rainey hope to fill the bill. Moore rushed for just 282 yards last season. Bo Williams and Rainey - a small, elusive speedster who can be used like Harvin was - were both four-star recruits in the 2007 recruiting class.
Georgia: The loss of defensive ends Charles Johnson and Quentin Moses means the Bulldogs lose 14 sacks. Replacing at least some of that production (or is it destruction?) is vital. Georgia has no shortage of candidates, but an enormous shortage on experience. Injury-slowed Jeremy Lomax, converted linebacker Marcus Howard and sophomore Roderick Battle who combined for 20 tackles last season represent the experience there. Demarcus Dobbs, Michael Lemon, Kiante Tripp and Brandon Wood will also get a look at end.
Kentucky: The Wildcats must replace their center and the right side of their offensive line. Four andidates center Jorge Gonzalez, guard Jason Leger and tackles Justin Jeffries and Zach Hennis are recovering from injuries and won't be involved in contact this spring. Eric Scott could make a big move at center and junior college transfers Jess Beets and Josh Winchell could claim starting spots.
LSU: Perhaps it's a testament to the talent on LSU's roster that kicker and punter might be the most unsettled positions. Chris Jackson had handled punting duties since 2003, and he kicked off as well. Meanwhile, kicker Colt David, who has limited range, converted just 61.5 percent of his field-goal attempts and was only 3-for-7 from 40 yards or longer. Brady Dalfrey and Patrick Fisher will try to replace Jackson, while incoming freshmen Andrew Crutchfield - ranked No. 3 nationally by Rivals.com - and Josh Jasper will join a couple of holdovers to push David.
Mississippi: Last spring Brent Schaeffer was named starting quarterback even though he didn't arrive on campus until August. The starting job might not come as easily this year. Schaeffer completed only 47.1 percent of his passes last season and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). Once known for his running ability, Schaeffer rushed for only 100 yards lasts season. That's not the kind of performance that secures a starting job. Senior Seth Adams and redshirt freshmen Cliff Davis, a former Alabama signee who spent three years in the Houston Astros organization, will challenge Schaeffer. Michael Herrick, the all-time California high school passing leader, will also be in the competition for the starting QB spot. The incumbent remains the favorite to start, but if he doesn't raise his level of performance why not make a change?
Mississippi State: The competition figures to be tight at quarterback, where Mike Henig and Tray Rutland are coming off injury-interrupted seasons. They will get an additional challenge from Josh RIddell, a transfer from Los Altos Hills (Calif.) Foothill College. The Bulldogs have a very good receiver in Tony Burks, but need to find someone that can get him the football consistently.
South Carolina: Most of the Gamecocks' offense returns, but the interior offensive line has to be rebuilt. Both guard spots are open with James Thompson and Kevin Young among others fighting it out there. Garrett Anderson could be in the mix, too, but he might be moved to center where he'll compete with William Brown and Pierre Andrews.
Tennessee: In a move to protect Erik Ainge's blind side, Eric Young moves to left tackle to replace departed starter Arron Sears. That leaves a hole and a compelling competition at right tackle. Redshirt freshman Ramone Johnson and sophomore Chris Scott are the likely contenders. Tackle was a position of strength for the Vols last season. If Johnson or Scott is able to claim and hold that position, it will remain that way.
Vanderbilt: Two-thirds of the Commodores' linebackers corps is set with Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs. Competition for the weak side spot primarily involves Nathan Campbell and Brandon Bryant, though incoming recruits John Stokes and Chris Marve could eventually be factors, too.

Teams with new schemes
Alabama: Nick Saban will employ a multiple offense with some components of the spread mixed in. Some plays won't include a fullback or tight end, which were a staple in Mike Shula's Pro-I.
Arkansas: New offensive coordinator David Lee will use the pro-style offense from the Dallas Cowboys. Lee figures to feature the tight end more than the spread that was sometimes used under Gus Malzahn. Lee's system is more in line with coach Houston Nutt's philosophy, and Nutt should be more comfortable working with Lee than he was with Malzahn.
Georgia: New offensive coordinator Mike Bobo called more misdirection and counter plays than Georgia typically uses in the Peach Bowl. The Bulldogs won't be as good at tight end as they've been in recent years, so the Bulldogs anticipate using four wide receivers in some sets.
LSU: Just how much the look and scheme changes remains to be seen, but the Tigers' passing game is expected to be more aggressive and open under new offensive coordinator Gerry Crowton. He oversaw potent offenses as head coach at Louisiana Tech and BYU.
Mississippi: Defensive coordinator John Thompson runs a "Voodoo" defense, which will feature more movement and blitzing off the edge. The Rebels feel like they will have better talent on defense, so they're more willing to take chances.

Best by position
Defensive linemen
1. Andre' Woodson, Kentucky
2. Erik Ainge, Tennessee
3. John Parker Wilson, Alabama
4. Matthew Stafford, Georgia
5. Chris Nickson, Vanderbilt

1. Glenn Dorsey, LSU
2. Quentin Groves, Auburn
3. Derrick Harvey, Florida
4. Wallace Gilberry, Alabama
5. Sen'Derrick Marks, Auburn
Running backs
1. Darren McFadden, Arkansas
2. Felix Jones, Arkansas
3. Rafael Little, Kentucky
4. Keiland Williams, LSU
5. LaMarcus Coker, Tennessee

1. Jerod Mayo, Tennessee
2. Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina
3. Jonathan Goff, Vanderbilt
4. Darry Beckwith, LSU
5. Prince Hall, Alabama
Defensive backs
1. Earl Bennett, Vanderbilt
2. Percy Harvin, Florida
3. DJ Hall, Alabama
4. Early Doucet, LSU
5. Keenan Burton, Kentucky

1. Jonathan Hefney, Tennessee
2. Paul Oliver, Georgia
3. Aairon Savage, Auburn
4. Simeon Castille, Alabama
5. Trevard Lindley, Kentucky
Tight ends
1. Jacob Tamme, Kentucky
2. Cornelius Ingram, Florida
3. Cole Bennett, Auburn
4. Brad Cottam, Tennesssee
5. Eric Butler, Mississippi State

1. Brandon Coutu, Georgia
2. Ryan Succop, South Carolina
3. Josh Shene, Ole Miss
4. Jamie Christensen, Alabama
5, Colt David, LSU
Offensive linemen
1. Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas
2. Brian Stamper, Vanderbilt
3. Antoine Caldwell, Alabama
4. Andre Smith, Alabama
5. Phil Trautwein, Florida

1. Britton Colquitt, Tennessee
2. Tim Masthay, Kentucky
3. Rob Park, Mississippi
4. Blake McAdams, Mississippi State
5. P.J. Fitzgerald, Alabama

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