Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues facing each SEC West team heading into the spring:
Spring practice starts: March 12
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Retooling the secondary — The Crimson Tide are losing three starters in the secondary, and another guy who played a good bit last season, safety Robby Green, is in limbo. The battle for the two starting cornerback spots this spring will be fierce. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick has star potential with his combination of talent and swagger. Coveted freshman signees DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton both enrolled early and will go through spring practice, while sophomore B.J. Scott will also get a shot at one of the three starting positions in Alabama’s nickel defense along with LSU transfer Phelon Jones, who already has SEC experience. Junior college newcomer DeQuan Menzie arrives this summer, so there will be a bunch of new faces in the Alabama secondary next fall. And with Green’s eligibility in question, another guy to watch at safety is sophomore Robert Lester, a teammate of Julio Jones’ in high school. Scott could also play safety if needed.
- Cody’s replacement — Even though Terrence Cody wasn’t an every-down player for Alabama, he was a one-man wrecking crew against the run. Teams simply didn’t run between the tackles against the Crimson Tide. Junior Josh Chapman is the most experienced of the inside guys and played behind Cody the last two seasons. The defensive coaches are eager to get a more extensive look at sophomore Kerry Murphy this spring. He may have as much pure talent as anybody up front. He got a late start getting to Alabama because of qualifying issues, but was a big-time recruit. Damion Square is a wild card and can play any position on the defensive line. He’s back after tearing his ACL in the second game, but will be limited this spring.
- Special teams makeover — Don’t underestimate the importance special teams played for Alabama each of the past two seasons. Place-kicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald both had excellent senior seasons. Freshman place-kicker Cade Foster is already enrolled in school and will show off his leg in the spring. Christian Kauffman is walking on and will be on campus this summer. Freshman punter Jay Williams will be on campus in the summer. Equally important is finding a dynamic return man. How many games did Javier Arenas win for the Crimson Tide the last few seasons? Julio Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, Marquis Maze and Terry Grant are all more than capable candidates. We’ll see who emerges.
Spring practice starts: Feb. 25
Spring game: March 27
What to watch:
- Finding an identity on offense — After last season’s woeful showing, the Tigers have to find an identity on offense. They weren’t particularly good at anything a year ago and finished 112th nationally in total offense (304.5 yards per game). The first part of that equation this spring will be revving up the running game. Even though Charles Scott and Keiland Williams are both gone, junior Stevan Ridley has all sorts of ability, and senior Richard Murphy will be back after missing most of last season with a knee injury. LSU coach Les Miles also brought in former Florida assistant Billy Gonzalez to be the Tigers’ passing game coordinator. It’s not a talent issue. There’s more than enough talent on LSU’s roster to be one of the top offensive clubs in the league. The key is utilizing that talent properly.
- Searching for Russell Shepard — It’s pretty obvious by now that Shepard isn’t going to be an every-down quarterback at LSU. In fact, don’t be surprised if he takes very few snaps at quarterback this spring. Miles believes Shepard might have been spread too thin last season at all the different positions, which is the reason he’s going to work primarily at running back and receiver this spring. He’s one of the most dynamic athletes on LSU’s roster, and the Tigers have to find a way to get his hands on the ball more than they did during his freshman season. Finding his niche in this offense will be critical this spring.
- Jefferson’s next step — It’s true that quarterback Jordan Jefferson tended to hold onto the ball too long last season, but it’s also true that there were more than a few breakdowns in LSU’s offensive line. The Tigers gave up a staggering 37 sacks. Jefferson has to get a better feel for the pressure this spring, where it’s coming from and when he has to get rid of the ball. The LSU coaches will be looking for him to make a big jump from his sophomore to junior season. Either way, redshirt freshman Chris Garrett will get a good look this spring, too. The 6-4, 220-pound Garrett is more of a classic drop-back passer with a big arm.
Spring practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Overhauling the offense — With a new coordinator (Dave Rader) and new players at just about every position, the Rebels will take on a different look in 2010. The first order of business is settling on a starting quarterback. Sophomore Nathan Stanley is probably in the best position to win the job, but redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton will also get a long look this spring. Don’t count out multipurpose junior college newcomer Randall Mackey once he arrives in the summer, either. With Houston Nutt calling the shots on offense, the running game is always going to be what drives Ole Miss. Dexter McCluster won’t be around to break 70- and 80-yard touchdown runs anymore, which means Brandon Bolden, Rodney Scott, Tim Simon (if he’s healthy) and Enrique Davis will have split up the backfield duties. If Davis is going to make his move, it needs to be this spring.
- Sophomores stepping up — Several talented, younger players in the program will need to take that next step if Ole Miss is going to have the kind of success it has during Nutt’s first two seasons in Oxford. In particular, there are a cluster of sophomores who showed a lot of promise last season as freshmen. They have to become leaders and prime-time players this coming season. Some of those guys include D.T. Shackelford at linebacker, Jesse Grandy at running back, return specialist or anywhere he can get his hands on the ball and Pat Patterson at receiver. If Patterson matures both on and off the field this spring, he’s got a chance to be Ole Miss’ next great receiver in the mold of Shay Hodge. And on the offensive line, tackle Bobby Massie needs to become a dominant player.
- Plugging in Dorsey at end — The Ole Miss coaches will get their first look at 6-8, 255-pound Wayne Dorsey in their defense this spring. He’s the kind of guy who should fit perfectly into what defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is looking for from his ends and was a force in junior college as a pass-rusher. Dorsey signed in December and is already enrolled in school. The Rebels had to have an impact player at end after losing Marcus Tillman, Emmanuel Stephens and Greg Hardy. Dorsey was one of the top junior college players in America, and getting him on campus for spring practice was huge.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues facing each SEC team heading into the spring:
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 10
What to watch:
- Meyer’s involvement – Florida coach Urban Meyer says he will be refreshed enough to be back in time for the start of spring practice. That means his leave of absence will have lasted all of a month. It will be interesting to see how involved he is, because Meyer has always been such a hands-on coach in the past. In particular, does he back away from his role as special teams coordinator? Since Meyer arrived at Florida in 2005, the Gators have had some of the best special teams in the country. And with so many new faces on offense next season, special teams and/or field position will be more important than ever. The Gators will lose something if Meyer’s not running the show in the kicking game.
- Brantley takes the reins – The Tim Tebow era is over, and now it’s John Brantley’s turn to put his stamp on Florida’s offense. This will be the second spring that he’s gotten a lot of the work with the first-team offense. He was extremely impressive last spring when Tebow was taking it easy with his shoulder. Obviously, Brantley is a different kind of quarterback than Tebow. He’s a pure passer who’s going to beat teams with his arm and not his legs. That’s not to say he’s a statue in the pocket, but he’s also not going to be bulling over safeties on third-and-2. As much as anything, Brantley needs to establish himself as one of the leaders this spring. With Maurkice Pouncey, Riley Cooper and Tebow all gone, new leaders have to emerge on offense.
- Finding more playmakers – An even more important story this spring than Brantley taking over is who’s going to have his back on offense. In other words, who can he count on to make plays? Redshirt freshman Andre Debose is certainly a guy the Gators are counting on at receiver after undergoing hamstring surgery last year. Running back Emmanuel Moody will get a chance to be the workhorse on the ground, and Chris Rainey is moving to the slot position, meaning he’ll line up some at running back and some at receiver. Replacing Aaron Hernandez at tight end isn’t going to be easy. Freshman Gerald Christian enrolled early, and he will push redshirt freshmen Jordan Reed and Desmond Parks.