Spring practice has mostly concluded throughout the SEC East. What we learned from each team:
The offense was much improved, but it had to be after the sputtering, plodding mess that led to a 4-8 disaster a year ago. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, fresh from David Cutcliffe’s staff at Duke, said that 15 spring practices would be enough to learn the new system and by all accounts, they were. The Gators were much more excited and flowed much smoother, although it was spring. Jeff Driskel is back for another year under center, and if a very thin offensive line can stay intact, Florida can get back to where it’s used to being.
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Incumbent quarterback Hutson Mason looked great after starting two games last year in relief of the injured Aaron Murray, and then taking it through a spring session, but that’s about the only settled thing out of the Bulldogs’ camp. With a new defensive coordinator and staff, nobody seems assured of a starting job, not even Georgia’s superlatives from last season. Ramik Wilson, who led the SEC with 133 tackles; Amarlo Herrera (112); nor linebacker Leonard Floyd (a team-high 6.5 sacks) are presumed to start this season but DC Jeremy Pruitt cautioned prognosticators not to jump the gun on those assumptions.
It’s really about the same as it was last year – not much to show at present, but so, so much hope. A school coming off consecutive two-win seasons has already had 28,000 seats spoken for a spring game because it knows that this will be the year that all of the prep talent that Mark Stoops hoarded is going to shine. Nothing is settled yet across many positions, but Stoops has to feel like a poker-playing octopus – he’s got a lot of cards in a lot of hands.
The most surprising team in the conference last year understandably struggled offensively this spring, after losing its best passer, rusher and three best receivers, but the progress of quarterback Maty Mauk has been impressive. Mauk got to play a lot last year and has channeled that development into finding more options among his receiving crew, which lost Dorial Green-Beckham midway through the spring and was hurting in the first place. The defense practiced without three projected starters due to injury, but still looked good shutting down Mauk and Company in the spring game. Repeating 12-2 may be a stretch, but the Tigers definitely have the chops to win double-digit games.
No surprise that Dylan Thompson was going to be the Gamecocks’ next quarterback, but USC may have raised some eyebrows on just how good it’s looking on offense despite losing Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington. Thompson will have all kinds of talent to get the ball to, and is blessed with an experience-dominated offensive line in front of him. Defensively, USC has to replace a lot of holes in the secondary and may not be settled there until its season-opener, but it’s hoping that the trend of last year’s linebackers – young in the first six games, formidable in the final seven – is repeated.
In the spring game, the offense looked really, really good and the defense looked really, really bad. It’s the spring, so it shouldn’t be taken too lightly; on the other hand, it’s young talent that didn’t know enough to scale it down in the spring. Josh Malone has become the hot name among the SEC as a future star wide receiver, and the Volunteers already had one of those in Marquez North. The Volunteers looked terrific with big-play offense, but it also seemed as if the defense had no idea how to tackle. That’s not going to fly in the SEC. Butch Jones won’t name a quarterback until the preseason, but his biggest decisions will be on who’s going to stop the other quarterback.
New coach Derek Mason is walking into a bear trap, with a program that reached tremendous highs under James Franklin but is teetering on a precipice due to his and several other stars’ departures. Mason has switched the Commodores to a 3-4 defense, leaning on his outside linebackers to make the plays, and seems to be going to a run-based offense since his quarterback may not even be on campus yet. After two 9-4 seasons, expectations are raised. Mason knows how hard it will be to keep it there – but also knows that players who wouldn’t have looked Vanderbilt’s way in the past are now already on the team.
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