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May 8, 2008

Several SEC teams making changes

VIDEO: Steve Megargee breaks down the SEC

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SEC Spring Review
SEC teams have won the past two national titles, and Georgia will be a trendy preseason No. 1 pick this season. The Bulldogs focused a lot of effort this spring on remaking their offensive line, but there still are concerns. Arkansas and Ole Miss have new coaches and installed new offensive schemes, while Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee have new offensive coordinators and also installed new systems.
OVERVIEW: Quarterback John Parker Wilson showed signs of bouncing back from a late-season slump in 2007 by throwing for 265 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. Wilson adapted well to new coordinator Jim McElwain, who arrived from Fresno State. Starting linebacker Ezekial Knight sat out spring practice after the second heart-related hospitalization of his career. Knight's status remains uncertain for the fall. Former tailback Jimmy Johns could clear up some of the Tide's depth concerns at linebacker. Johns moved to linebacker in the practices leading up to the Independence Bowl and performed well enough in his new role this spring to challenge for a starting spot.
LINGERING QUESTION: Who's going to catch the ball? Alabama still must figure out who's going to step up now that DJ Hall, Keith Brown and Matt Caddell have departed. Redshirt freshman Darius Hanks made a case for himself by catching four passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, though Tide fans are awaiting the arrivals of five-star prospects Julio Jones and Burton Scott this fall.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Clemson in Atlanta.


OVERVIEW: Arkansas showed it probably will be more balanced offensively under new coach Bobby Petrino. The Razorbacks passed the ball more than half the time in their spring game. The change in philosophy could boost quarterback Casey Dick, who threw for 404 yards and two touchdowns in the scrimmage. Michael Smith, a 5-foot-7 junior running back, showed he could handle a bigger role in the offense. Tight end D.J. Williams capped a huge spring by catching nine passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
LINGERING QUESTION: How good is the defense? Arkansas already has gone through two coordinators during the Petrino era, with Willy Robinson taking over after Ellis Johnson left for South Carolina. Six projected starters on defense were injured for at least part of spring practice, so nobody really knows how well the Razorbacks will stop people this fall. Arkansas lost all four starters from the secondary.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Western Illinois


OVERVIEW: The decision to hire new coordinator Tony Franklin before the Chick-fil-A Bowl allowed the Tigers to have a smoother transition to his spread offense this spring. Sophomore Kodi Burns showed the most improvement of anyone from start to finish as he attempts to win the quarterback competition. Other players making major strides included tight end Tommy Trott and defensive end Michael Goggans. New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads arrives from Pittsburgh and inherits a talent-laden group that looks particularly strong in the front seven.
LINGERING QUESTION: Who's the quarterback? Burns went 12 of 15 for 213 yards and two touchdown passes in the spring game, but that doesn't mean he has the edge over junior college transfer Chris Todd. The competition could last all the way up to the season opener.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Louisiana-Monroe


OVERVIEW: While much of the attention is focused on USC transfer Emmanuel Moody, a different running back ended up having the best spring. Chris Rainey ran for 75 yards and caught a 65-yard touchdown pass in the Orange and Blue Game to boost his chances of earning a feature role this season. Star receiver Percy Harvin missed much of spring practice because of an injured heel, but he should be back this summer. John Brantley and Cameron Newton remain in a nip-and-tuck battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Guard James Wilson's decision not to transfer should add depth to the offensive line, but defensive tackle remains a major concern. Don't be surprised if true freshman Omar Hunter receives ample playing time this fall.
LINGERING QUESTION: Who will get the majority of the carries? Florida coach Urban Meyer said senior-to-be Kestahn Moore had the edge coming out of spring practice, but Rainey and Moody could push their way atop the depth chart before long. Rainey showed his explosiveness all spring, and Moody rushed for 111 yards on 14 carries in the Orange and Blue Game.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Hawaii


OVERVIEW: Redshirt freshman Caleb King proved himself capable of replacing Thomas Brown as the guy to complement Knowshon Moreno in the backfield. King capped a solid spring by rushing for 31 yards on six carries in the G-Day Game. True freshman center Ben Jones capitalized on his early enrollment by catching on quickly and challenging for a spot in the starting lineup. Spring practice didn't settle the identity of Brandon Coutu's replacement at kicker. The most likely candidate for the job is true freshman Blair Walsh, who didn't participate in spring practice.
LINGERING QUESTION: Who will fill what positions on the offensive line? The Bulldogs still haven't sorted out the five players who will start on a line that doesn't include a senior. Georgia needs to find replacements for center Fernando Velasco and right tackle Chester Adams. The probable starters at tackle are Trinton Sturdivant on the left side and Kiante Tripp on the right side, but the middle of the line remains unsettled. Returning starters Clint Boling and Chris Davis almost certainly will stay in the starting lineup, but their positions are uncertain.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Georgia Southern


OVERVIEW: Kentucky has earned bowl bids in each of the past two seasons primarily by throwing the ball well enough to win high-scoring games. But the Wildcats could rely more on their defense and running attack now that Andre' Woodson has departed. While the quarterback position remains unsettled and the receiving corps lacks depth, the Wildcats have plenty of talented running backs. Alfonso Smith rushed for 170 yards in the Blue-White Game and should share carries with Derrick Locke, Tony Dixon and Moncell Allen. End Jeremy Jarmon returned from minor knee surgery and showed signs that he could become one of the SEC's top pass rushers. David Jones had a huge spring and should team with Trevard Lindley and Paul Warford to give the Wildcats plenty of depth at cornerback. The biggest concern left on defense is finding an end to complement Jarmon. The answer could come from elsewhere on the defense. Reserve defensive tackle Ventrell Jenkins and linebacker Johnny Williams worked out at end on an experimental basis this spring.
LINGERING QUESTION: Who's the quarterback? Kentucky coach Rich Brooks hasn't decided which of the two candidates Curtis Pulley or Mike Hartline will replace Woodson. Pulley went 12 of 26 for 134 yards and rushed for 82 yards in the spring game, while Hartline was 11 of 28 for 124 yards. Pulley is more mobile, but Hartline is considered the better passer. Pulley actually threw with a surprising level of accuracy this spring, while Hartline showed he has more mobility than Woodson.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 31 at Louisville


OVERVIEW: The big story surrounding LSU came after spring practice, when quarterback Ryan Perrilloux was kicked off the team. The departure of Perrilloux will force LSU to open the season with Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch or redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee running the offense. Both got plenty of reps while Perrilloux was serving a suspension during spring practice. Hatch went 13 of 17 for 184 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game, while Lee was 7-for-13 for 181 yards with two touchdowns. Wide receiver Demetrius Byrd, who emerged as a major big-play threat last year, continued that trend in the spring game by catching four passes for 132 yards. Richard Murphy made a strong case that he warrants more carries by rushing for 145 yards and scoring three touchdowns in the spring game. Murphy's performance should catch the attention of Keiland Williams, who was benched in the spring game after an early fumble. Chris Hawkins and Jai Eugene ended spring practice as the favorites to take over for the departed Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon at cornerback, though both positions remain up for grabs.
LINGERING QUESTION: Is Hatch or Lee ready? As talented as the Tigers are at just about every other position, they won't have a chance of winning another national title without consistency from their quarterback. But if either Hatch or Lee can deliver the steady performances that Matt Flynn provided last year, LSU could contend for a championship again.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Appalachian State


Ole Miss
OVERVIEW: Jevan Snead provided evidence that he could end Ole Miss' recent history of inconsistency at quarterback. Snead, a transfer from Texas, capped a solid spring by going 20 of 26 for 269 yards with two touchdowns and an interception at the Grove Bowl. Marshay Green, who ranked third on the team with 31 catches last season, moved to defense midway through spring drills and quickly emerged as the Rebels' top cornerback. Allen Walker performed well enough to exit spring practice as a probable starter at linebacker, but he was charged with a DUI on April 19 and has been indefinitely suspended. Cordera Eason rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries in the Grove Bowl and will go into preseason camp as the Rebels' No. 1 running back. But he could have a tough time this summer holding off a challenge from five-star prep school transfer Enrique Davis. Fumbling remains an issue for Eason.
LINGERING QUESTION: Can the Rebels shore up their back seven on defense? Ole Miss ranked last in the SEC in total defense and pass efficiency defense in part because of problems at linebacker and in the secondary. Greg Hardy and Peria Jerry lead a formidable front four, but Ole Miss' strength at the line of scrimmage won't matter if the Rebels can't cover anyone. Green's move to defense should help in that regard, but his ability to soar atop the depth chart so soon after a position switch underscores the Rebels' lack of strength in the secondary.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Memphis


Mississippi State
OVERVIEW: Much of the news surrounding Mississippi State this spring occurred off the field. Offensive tackle Mike Brown and defensive tackle Quinton Wesley were dismissed from school before pleading guilty to charges of possession of a firearm on educational property. Derek Sherrod moved over from right tackle to replace Brown on the left side. Mark Melichar and Quentin Saulsberry are working on the right side. Defensive back Anthony Johnson, linebacker Jamon Hughes and defensive tackle Rodney Prince also have left school, though Johnson and Prince could return before the start of the season. Wide receiver Jamayel Smith and linebacker Dominic Douglas were named the top offensive and defensive players of the spring. Offensive lineman Michael Gates and defensive lineman Kyle Love were named the most improved players.
LINGERING QUESTION: Can the defense keep it up? Mississippi State emerged as one of the nation's biggest surprises last season primarily because it ranked seventh in the nation in pass defense and 20th in pass efficiency defense. The Bulldogs will try to match that success this year without former coordinator Ellis Johnson, now at South Carolina. New coordinator Charlie Harbison has the benefit of working with safety Derek Pegues, who enters his senior season as a legitimate All-America candidate.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Louisiana Tech


South Carolina
OVERVIEW: Redshirt freshman quarterback Stephen Garcia was expected to challenge for a starting job, but he instead was serving a suspension for the second consecutive spring. Coach Steve Spurrier named junior Tommy Beecher the starting quarterback at the end of spring practice, though the competition could continue this summer. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson moved Eric Norwood from end to linebacker and shifted Cliff Matthews from linebacker to end. Brian Maddox showed signs that he could challenge Mike Davis for the right to replace Cory Boyd as the Gamecocks' chief tailback. Maddox ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries in the spring game.
LINGERING QUESTION: Who's the quarterback? Although Spurrier gave Beecher the edge at the end of spring practice, the competition probably will last all the way to the season opener. Beecher threw three interceptions and Chris Smelley was picked off five times in the spring game, which could create an opportunity for Garcia if he can end his off-field troubles.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 28, vs. North Carolina State


OVERVIEW: The Volunteers spent the spring adjusting to the changes instituted by new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson. Tennessee will now use a "strong side" and a "quick side" on the line, which means guards and tackles have to learn how to play both the left side and right side instead of spending the entire season at one spot. Clawson also likes to move his receivers around to exploit particular matchups instead of keeping a guy at the "X" spot or "Y" spot all season. Jonathan Crompton continued to separate himself from the other quarterback contenders by going 13 of 20 for 266 yards in the spring game. Demetrice Morley showed no signs of rust after coming back from a year-long suspension; he should team with Eric Berry to give the Vols one of the nation's top safety tandems. Chad Cunningham had an erratic spring as he attempts to fill in for punter Britton Colquitt, who is suspended for the first five games of the season.
LINGERING QUESTION: Do the Vols have enough depth on the defensive line? The departures of Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds will force Tennessee to break in two new starters at defensive end. The Vols also don't have much experience behind projected starters Robert Ayers and Wes Brown. Tennessee does return its two starting tackles from last season (Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams), but the Vols don't have many experienced backups. The lack of depth could prevent the Vols from rotating defensive tackles the way they usually like to do.
FIRST GAME: Sept. 1, at UCLA


OVERVIEW: Vanderbilt showed signs that it intends to spread the ball around a bit more now that Earl Bennett has moved on to the NFL. Senior George Smith appears likely to replace Bennett as the Commodores' No. 1 receiver. Vanderbilt has a solid secondary that features a budding star in cornerback D.J. Moore, who demonstrated this spring that he had improved his pass coverage. Moore had an exceptional sophomore season, but he occasionally had trouble covering deep routes. That shouldn't happen as often this fall. Vanderbilt's lack of depth at defensive tackle will force the Commodores to rely heavily on Adam Smotherman, who has battled knee tendinitis for much of his career. The knee didn't bother him this spring. Vanderbilt's running game looked improved under first-year running backs coach Desmond Kitchings, though that could reflect the team's weakness at defensive tackle. Jared Hawkins looked like the Commodores' top running back this spring.
LINGERING QUESTION: Can Chris Nickson regain his 2006 form? Nickson looked like one of the conference's top young quarterbacks two seasons ago, but he took a giant step backward last fall and was replaced by Mackenzi Adams late in the season. Nickson performed well for most of spring practice, but his struggles in the spring scrimmage could lead to questions about whether he can handle pressure. The Commodores are counting on Nickson because he has more upside than Adams, whose mobility can't compensate for his lack of accuracy.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 28, at Miami (Ohio)


Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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