Spring practice has mostly concluded throughout the SEC West. What we learned from each team:
It’s not so much deconstructing what Alabama should look like, it’s more like finding out what small pieces they lost and who’s next in line. The Crimson Tide are great and going to be great – how great is the question, and their standard. It’s not easy losing A.J. McCarron, who just won games despite the criticism over his skills, but Blake Sims and Florida State transfer Jake Coker will be on hand in the fall. T.J. Yeldon is a dynamic tailback. In the spring, Alabama’s defense stood out the most, led by D.J. Pettway and Xzavier Dickson. If there is anything remotely glaring, it was that the Tide still can’t seem to hit a field goal after one was missed and another was blocked on A-Day.
Very quiet from the far-flung outpost, as the Razorbacks have yet to hold their spring game, but one big spot of news was that senior quarterback A.J. Derby has moved to tight end and has flourished there. This is good news for a Bret Bielema-constructed offense that likes to play ball control and grind clock, not put up gaudy numbers. With Alex Collins back to run the ball, the Razorbacks should be improved – but there seems to still be that lack of passion about Arkansas football, which was started when Bobby Petrino took that ill-fated motorcycle ride. It’s just not there anymore, much like the team’s success.
Tre Mason (nor his 1,800-plus rushing yards) is no longer around, and while the Tigers are going to run this year, they wanted to emphasize the pass in the spring. They did so, with returning quarterback Nick Marshall helping throw for 386 of 657 yards in the spring game. Running or passing, Gus Malzahn is going to make life difficult for opposing defensive coordinators, and the defense has vowed to quit being known as just a fourth-quarter unit. While it certainly took its lumps in the spring, it also made receivers and backs pay with head-snapping hits throughout the spring session.
Like Alabama, the Tigers are expected to be good again after a recent run of very-good seasons. The question is if LSU is going to again rival Alabama for first place in the SEC West, or if it’s content to slide between/below Auburn and Texas A&M for supremacy. LSU is still deciding between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings at QB and it remains to be seen which tailback of four will be the guy. The defense seems as nasty as ever – a big reason why Jennings or Harris hasn’t grabbed the No. 1 role is because it’s hard to look good when pick-sixes are being returned on you.
The Bulldogs threw and threw and threw some more over the spring, taking advantage of a deep corps of receivers and seeing how well quarterback Dak Prescott approached the session. He did well, as did backups Damian Williams and Nick Fitzgerald, leading many to think that MSU will be a pass-happy offense this season. The defense, led by budding superstar Chris Jones, returns nine starters. The biggest question is if MSU can simply survive in the rugged West – Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU are road games this year.
Is it now time for the banner recruiting class to really show its face? All signs point to a big yes. With Bo Wallace back for another year to run things under center, the Rebels have the weapons around him – they worked on running the ball much more this spring, led by I’Tavius Mathers, and the defense looks strong. Cody Prewitt leads from his safety spot and other stars such as C.J. Hampton and Tony Conner also return. It’s a good thing when talking about how good the defense is and not even mentioning former No. 1 national recruit Robert Nkemdiche.
The post-Johnny Era begins with a lot of uncertainty. Senior backup QB Matt Joeckel decided to transfer when it became apparent he wasn’t going to play, leaving the job to Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill. Hill didn’t help his cause with a spring arrest, and Allen is a true freshman. Whoever wins the job, Kevin Sumlin’s offense isn’t going to change. The Aggies will throw and throw a lot. Their defense may have to pave a few games if A&M’s offense struggles at first, but the looming question will always be if the team can be as exciting and dangerous as it was with Manziel calling the shots.