Six SEC West teams went through the motions of spring practice with every intention of challenging Alabama’s dominance of the division, conference and nation. Do they have a shot? Let’s take a look at all seven division members and how they look after spring practice.
We might as well start with the bully on the block. Are there any chinks in the armor? Not many, but rivals looking for hope can point to three losses along the offensive line. Those same rivals, though, understand that quarterback A.J. McCarron and running back T.J. Yeldon are back, and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, probably the Tide’s marquee NFL prospect, still is around to clear the way for them. The defense will take a little longer to come around, but no one expects the Crimson Tide to slide on that side of the ball.
“We had a good spring, probably not a great spring,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think our defense is a little bit of a work in progress. We have some really good players coming back. We have to put 11 guys out there who are going to do things with the discipline to execute and play together as a unit.”
People concerned about a Big Ten coach bringing a stodgy style to the SEC didn’t see Bret Bielema’s Wisconsin Badgers score 70 on Nebraska to win the Big Ten championship game in December. Bielema now takes his chances in the most dominant conference in the country.
“Excited to be in the SEC and make a run,” he said.
Whether he still is excited about it in December is yet to be seen. Quarterback Tyler Wilson, tailbacks Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton are gone. The defensive line, bookended by Trey Flowers and Chris Smith, showed this spring it probably will be the Razorbacks’ strength.
“I am going to get a lot more educated (about the league) in the fall,” Bielema said. “We’ve been working a lot more on our team (this spring).”
Gus Malzahn is back at Auburn and not only must rebuild the roster but also the reputation of the Tigers. A winless conference season all but wiped out the memory of the 2010 national title, and now Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator for the title team, returns to re-install some pride and his fast-paced offense.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we are in a lot better shape than we were before the spring,” Malzahn said. “We want to get our edge back, that mental and physical toughness that Auburn is known for.”
Quarterback Kiehl Frazier has had a year in Malzahn’s system, but Jonathan Wallace came out of spring practice with the lead in the competition to be the starter. The offensive line has four starters back, but not a lot of skill position talent emerged this spring despite the fact that the offense gained 425 yards in the first half of the spring game.
Former USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is now in charge of the Auburn defense and must overhaul a unit that lacks SEC size.
Remember all that running back depth the Tigers had last year? It could all be gone now. Spencer Ware and Michael Ford are off to the NFL, and Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 124 yards against South Carolina last year, is indefinitely suspended after an arrest on a battery charge. However, quarterback Zach Mettenberger is back and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron spent the spring trying to bolster the Tigers passing game.
“It will be an offense that will challenge the defense to defend both the run and the pass,” Tigers coach Les Miles said.
The nine LSU players drafted by the NFL in April included defensive stars Sam Montgomery, Kevin Minter and Eric Reid. On the plus side, four offensive line starters return.
Quarterback Bo Wallace, who accounted for 31 touchdowns last year, missed spring due to a shoulder injury but will be full go this summer. He will return to a unit that was a pleasant surprise under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. In fact, the Rebels offense exceeded expectations so much last year that Freeze already is telling his fan base it’ll be tough to repeat that performance.
“We were fortunate last year to get through the season playing the same five offensive linemen and wide receivers. I don’t think we can count on that again,” Freeze said. “We are still early on our journey. We have a lot of work to do, particularly on (offense).”
There are 19 returning starters but not a lot of proven playmakers. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche is coming off a freshman All-America season, and his brother and one-time Clemson commitment, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, could contribute as a true freshman in the fall.
If there’s a make-or-break season for a coaching staff in the SEC this year, it’s probably in Starkville, where fifth-year coach Dan Mullen has a fifth-year senior quarterback in Tyler Russell, who is coming off a 24-touchdown season.
“It’s huge (to have Russell back),” Mullen said. “He understands the pressures and expectations of being a Southeastern Conference quarterback. His input on decision making overall is huge because of that experience. We expect him to have a huge year this year.”
Defensively, the Bulldogs spent the spring trying to find cornerbacks. They lost two, Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who were taken in the second round of the NFL draft. Senior safety Nickoe Whitley, whose diving tackle attempt led to Marcus Lattimore’s torn left ACL in 2011, is the best player returning in the secondary.
Last season was not a dream. Freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel really did account for 47 touchdowns while averaging 393.6 yards per game by himself and winning the Heisman Trophy.
“He continued to improve (this spring), and I think he’s going to continue to get better,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Two significant transfers, Tra Carson from Oregon and Brandon Williams for Oklahoma, will add even more punch to the offensive backfield. So the offense is set. Defensively, the Aggies used the spring to work on finding replacements for end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter.