Wes Byrum’s 19-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights at University of Phoenix Stadium to win the national championship for the Auburn Tigers and give the SEC its fifth straight crystal football seemed like it happened just yesterday. Well, the road to six in a row will begin shortly on practice fields throughout the south. With that in mind, here are the top spring storylines for each of the six SEC East teams.
Florida Gators - The Offense
Let’s see, what’s the best way to describe Florida’s offense last season? Anemic? Unorganized? Horrendously pathetic? How about “all of the above.” New head coach Will Muschamp caused quite a stir this offseason, luring former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis away from the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs to come run his pro-style offense in Gainesville. We’ve seen a lot of pro-style teams go to the spread, but we haven’t seen many spread teams go back to the pro-style. It won’t be easy, but Florida certainly has the athletes to make it work. Quarterback John Brantley, who was ridiculously out of place running the spread, will get the benefit of spring practice to adjust to Weis’ schemes. Chris Rainey will see more chances to shine as a receiver, and if Deonte Thompson can hold on to the ball, they could provide the one-two punch at wide receiver to make the Gators’ passing game lethal.
Georgia Bulldogs - The Running Game
Georgia’s offense turned to jello last season when star wide receiver A.J. Green was suspended for the first four games due in large part to an inconsistent running game. The Bulldogs hope they fixed that problem on National Signing Day by signing Isaiah Crowell, the No. 1 running back in the nation. But before Crowell steps foot on campus, the veterans in the Bulldog backfield will be have the chance to shine in spring practice. Junior Washaun Ealey’s indefinite suspension opens the door for senior Caleb King to finally emerge as the superstar that he was supposed to be when he came to Athens. But King has done nothing to suggest that he can handle that responsibility during his career, so don’t hold your breath. Redshirt freshman Ken Malcome impressed coaches last fall, and almost had his redshirt taken off when King was suspended and changeup back Carlton Thomas was injured. Whoever it is, somebody has to step up for the Bulldogs at running back this spring. Crowell is already being touted as “the next Herschel,” but asking a true freshman to shoulder the load to open has career against Boise State and South Carolina is probably too much to ask.
Kentucky Wildcats - Quarterback
Let’s not kid ourselves; Mike Hartline was no Aaron Rodgers. But he wasn’t half-bad either. Hartline beat out Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski prior to last season for the Kentucky starting quarterback job. Now that Hartline’s eligibility has been exhausted and Mossakowski transferred out of the program, Newton, a junior, will get the chance to solidify the job this spring. Newton saw limited action in 2009 subbing for the injured Hartline, leading Kentucky to a 5-3 record in games in which he started. Newton’s competition this spring will likely come from Maxwell Smith, a 6-foot-4, 220 pound redshirt freshman from Van Nuys, Calif. Whoever steps in at quarterback, he will be counted on to make smart decisions with the football. With Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb gone to the NFL, the Wildcats will be short on playmakers in 2011.
South Carolina - The Secondary
The Gamecocks hope that they fixed the hole Cliff Matthews left at defensive end with the signing of Jadeveon Clowney, but more pressing issues lie a few yards behind where Mr. Clowney will be lining up this fall. Once thought to be the strong point of the South Carolina football team, the Gamecocks secondary was torched last season to the tune of 242 passing yards per game – 10th in the SEC. The Gamecocks were overworked and out-of-sync all season, so what better time than to get back in sync than spring practice? Stephon Gilmore, Devonte Holloman, Antonio Allen and Akeem Auguste all return, and will hope to cure whatever it is that was ailing the Gamecock secondary last season. South Carolina will likely start 2011 in a place that it hasn’t been before – SEC East favorite. In order for the Gamecocks to repeat as division champs, they will need the secondary to step it up. After all, it’s harder to repeat as division champs than it is to win it the first time.
Tennessee Volunteers - The Secondary
This was supposed to be a position of strength for the Vols. That was, of course, until safety Janzen Jackson withdrew from school and safety Brent Brewer was arrested on domestic abuse charges. Jackson, who withdrew to address lingering personal problems, was arguably the Vols’ best returning player. If he does not come back to the program, only 14 of the 24 players from Lane Kiffin’s only recruiting class at Tennessee would remain on the roster. Brewer has been suspended by head coach Derek Dooley pending an investigation into the domestic abuse charges. If neither of these two players return to the Vols for spring practice, expect a wide open battle for the two starting safety spots.
Vanderbilt - The Offense
It should come as no shock that a team that finished 110th in the nation in total offense has some work to do. But for Vanderbilt, that’s just your average offseason. Vandy at least made an effort to make a splash in the offseason during its head coaching search with its pursuit of Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. In the end though, the Dores settled on former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin as their guy – and he’s got some work to do. Luckily for Franklin, Vandy will get 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year Warren Norman and junior Zac Stacy back from injury to replenish a Commodore running back corps that was ravaged by injury in 2010. At quarterback, senior Larry Smith is back for what seems like his 13th year of eligibility. He will battle with junior Jordan Rodgers this spring for the quarterback spot. Rodgers is the brother of Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.
Barrett Sallee covers the SEC for www.CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @BarrettSallee
2010/2011 Off-Season Column Archive:
Six SEC East Pre-Spring Storylines – February 17, 2011
CFN Analysis – The SEC Schedule – February 10, 2011
Ealey Suspension Leaves Georgia In A Bind – February 9, 2011
SEC Signing Day Review – February 3, 2011
CFN Analysis – Signing Day 2011 – February 2, 2011
Dream Team Won’t Save Richt – January 31, 2011
Five Thoughts On Kragthorpe – January 24, 2011
Ridiculously Early SEC West Rankings – January 23, 2011
LSU Hires OC Four Years Too Late – January 20, 2011
Ridiculously Early SEC East Rankings – January 19, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cam Turns Pro – January 14, 2011
BCS National Championship Review – January 11, 2011
CFN Analysis: Cotton Bowl – January 8, 2011
Five Thoughts On Why Auburn Wins – January 7, 2011
Five Thoughts On Dan Quinn – January 5, 2011
Tuesday Question: Should Rich Rod Be Fired – January 4, 2011
Five Thoughts on Charlie Weis – January 4, 2011
CFN Analysis: Charlie Weis as the Florida OC – January 3, 2011
CFN Analysis: Outback Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Gator Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Capital One Bowl – January 1, 2011
CFN Analysis: Liberty Bowl – December 31, 2010
CFN Analysis: Music City Bowl – December 30, 2010
End Of The Season Accountability – December 27, 2010
Pryor Can’t Be Compared To Newton – December 23, 2010
Ranking The SEC Bowl Games – December 19, 2010
Malzahn Makes The Right Move – December 14, 2010
Five Thoughts on Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Florida Hires Muschamp – December 12, 2010
CFN Analysis: Cam’s Heisman Landslide – December 11, 2010
Five Thoughts On Urban Meyer – December 9, 2010
Meyer Leaves Legacy, Question Marks – December 8, 2010
Click here for the 2010 regular season archive
Click here for the 2010 Three & Out archive
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