SEC spring review

Let’s take a look at some of the storylines that played out this spring in the SEC as well as some of the questions that were answered and unanswered.

And in case you missed them, here are my Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 spring reviews.

Is LSU’s Jefferson a finished product?

Much of the talk coming out of LSU camp this spring was about the improvement of quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who is entering his final season in Baton Rouge. After his promising effort in the Tigers’ Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Georgia Tech a few seasons ago, Jefferson never seemed to quite make the jump to established SEC signal caller. Instead, he found himself in a quarterback competition in fall camp the last few seasons before splitting time with Jarrett Lee. Entering this spring, all the talk was about Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger, who many thought would wrest the starting job away.

Jordan JeffersonICONHow long will Jordan Jefferson be able to hang onto the starting job at LSU?

However, Jefferson impressed head coach Les Miles and new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe enough to keep the gig — despite a less-than-stellar 4-of-14, one-interception effort in the team’s spring game.

It’s safe to say that a good portion of LSU fans are still yearning for Mettenberger to ultimately line up under center, but all indications are that Jefferson will be the one looking across the line of scrimmage at the Oregon defense in the season opener at Cowboys Stadium. But even if he excels in fall camp and against the Ducks, it’s only a matter of time — no matter how much Miles and his staff have confidence in him — before he faces adversity in the rigorous SEC. Will we then see Lee or Mettenberger, even if it’s on a rotational basis?

This team is built to win and currently sits at No. 1 in my post-spring Top 25. Running back Spencer Ware had a great spring as he looks to prove that his Cotton Bowl performance was the real deal, and the depth chart is always loaded with talent on defense, which makes the losses of stars Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis and Kelvin Sheppard easier to bear.

Did the defending champs find suitable replacements for their key losses?

Auburn began spring drills without 35 scholarship players from the team that knocked off Oregon in the BCS national championship game, including Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, Darvin Adams and Lee Ziemba. The offense will certainly look different without Newton, who had no problem being a one-man show or spraying the ball around to his talented playmakers. Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb didn’t see much action in the spring game because the coaches already know what they can do, so seeing what kind of aerial attack they may have was of primary concern.

Head coach Gene Chizik wasn’t too impressed with either Barrett Trotter or Clint Moseley, the two replacement options for Newton, so the battle will pick up again in fall camp. It will be most interesting to see the adjustments coordinator Gus Malzahn makes to this unit without the athletic Newton under center.

Defensively, Ted Roof’s unit came into the spring needing to replace seven starters. The Tigers may not be as stout against the run next fall, but the secondary should be much improved. Last season, the defensive backfield was susceptible to the big play. Helping the cause will be a pass rush that should be effective, led by sophomores Corey Lemonier and Nosa Eguae and junior Dee Ford.

Can the Tide reclaim SEC superiority?

Trent RichardsonICONTrent Richardson paces the Tide's rushing attack.

It’s very possible, as long as either sophomore AJ McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims is steady under center in replacing the battle-tested Greg McElroy. Both signal callers had nearly identical spring game numbers — McCarron was 21-of-38 for 222 yards and one interception while Sims went 19-of-38 for 229 yards and a pick. Head coach Nick Saban has even hinted at playing both and letting their regular season play make the decision. Whoever is under center, he will be complemented by a strong rushing attack paced by Trent Richardson, who should have a big season with Mark Ingram moving onto the NFL. But who will emerge at receiver in Julio Jones’ absence?

While the offense is finding its way, the defense will carry the load. Statistically speaking, ‘Bama finished with one of the better defenses in the nation in 2010, tied for third in scoring defense. But the pass rush wasn’t as dominant as it was in 2009 and the secondary made mental mistakes that led to blown coverages, resulting in big plays at inopportune times. Those shouldn’t be concerns in 2011 with this talented, experienced and deep unit.

Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw headline a strong front seven, while safety Mark Barron is the veteran of a secondary that battled the injury bug this spring but should be back to full health by fall. DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick could emerge as the best pair of cornerbacks in the country and will cause opposing offenses nightmares. Alex Watkins is being counted on to become a consistent pass-rush specialist, while Arizona Western College transfer Jesse Williams could emerge as an impact nose guard.

The West division will certainly be stacked in 2011, but the Tide has as good a chance as any team of sitting atop the standings at the end of the year—as long as there are no issues at quarterback.

Other thoughts:

First-year head coach Will Muschamp put his stamp on the Florida program when he dismissed star cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Even before he was let go, the secondary had major questions. The former Texas defensive coordinator intends to change the culture in Gainesville, and that's a great thing. The defensive line should be a force, which will help a green defensive backfield. And new coordinator Charlie Weis will make this offense run smoothly, even one quarterbacked by much-maligned John Brantley.

Mark RichtICONMark Richt's coaching seat is warmer than it's ever been in Athens.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt enters a pivotal season in Athens. After winning 10 or more games in six of his 10 seasons, Richt has accumulated 12 losses over the last two campaigns and led the team to its first losing season since 1996 last year. Quarterback Aaron Murray leads an offense that could feature top running back recruit Isaiah Crowell, who could have a chance to receive a lot of playing time with Washaun Ealey out of the backfield mix. But will Todd Grantham’s defense be improved in year two under his leadership?

Based off of his head coach’s recent comments, Stephen Ga rcia will be back under center at South Carolina. In Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks arguably have the league's best running back and receiver. The offensive line also returns four starters. Head Ball Coach knows the fate of the 2011 season rests in the hands of Garcia and not backup Connor Shaw. Although if the 97th-ranked pass defense doesn’t improve, the Gamecocks may find it difficult to win the East division once again.

Tyler Wilson will settle in nicely as Arkansas’ new starting quarterback because he has perhaps the best set of receivers in the nation. In addition, Knile Davis has emerged as one of the best running backs in the country. The Razorbacks suffered a tough loss this spring, however, when backup running back Broderick Green suffered a torn ACL. I love Davis, but we’ll have to see how he holds up over an entire year.

It’s hard to envision Houston Nutt having a successful 2011 season in Oxford. Ole Miss was woeful defensively last year, and the team lost linebacker D.J. Shackelford — its best defender — to a torn ACL this spring.

Dan Mullen lost his defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, along with his standout linebackers from 2010, K.J. Wright and Chris White. But the Mississippi State head coach was pleased with the play of Brandon Wilson in the middle and Deontae Skinner was impressive on the outside. Meanwhile, the defensive line had an outstanding spring game, recording 11 tackles for loss in the contest.

Tyler Bray had a woeful spring game, causing some Tennessee fans to wonder if his late-season emergence at quarterback was a fluke. It wasn’t. There’s no need to worry about Bray, but there is reason to be concerned about the team’s reliance on a host of junior college and young players on defense. Will safety Janzen Jackson return to the team?

First-year head coach James Franklin will change the losing culture at Vanderbilt. The problem is that every season in the SEC is an uphill battle for the Commodores. Still, Franklin will get this program to minor bowl games. Wesley Tate leads a deep backfield, but Vandy lacks playmakers.

I’m looking forward to seeing Rick Minter’s defense at Kentucky. He’ll bring a variety of looks to try to force turnovers, but he’ll need some pass rushers to emerge. On offense, second-year head coach Joker Phillips will need to find some playmakers after losing the trio of Randall Cobb, Chris Matthews and Derrick Locke.

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