Muschamp likes spring progress but still has areas of concern
Spring football has ended at every SEC school, and the league’s 14 head coaches participated in a teleconference Monday to update the progress of their teams. Here’s the No. 1 question (and the best guess at the answer) for the seven Eastern Division schools:
Q: How good can Feleipe Franks be?
A: The Gators considered playing the 6-foot-6 four-star prospect late last season but decided to hang onto his year of eligibility. “Based on what we saw in spring, it was a really good decision,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said. “I was excited about what he was able to do in the spring. He’s done a really good job so far in what we’re doing in this phase.” McElwain has won the East in both his seasons as head coach in Gainesville, and Franks looks like the first quarterback who may win bigger than that.
Q: Can Kentucky continue to rise?
A: In the last four years, the Wildcats have gone from seventh to sixth to fifth and finally to fourth in the SEC East standings. In 2016, Kentucky won four SEC games, as many as it had won in the previous three years combined. Now the challenge is to move from the middle of the pack into the top three in the conference. Coach Mark Stoops sees progress in the fact that he’s not counting on any true freshmen to come in and play this year. “Overall, I feel like there are a lot less questions for us than there have been in the past,” Stoops said.
Q: Will the offensive line be better?
A: The Bulldogs have a talented young quarterback in Jacob Eason and another waiting in the wings (Jake Fromm) if Eason falters. They have plenty of running back talent, including a healthier Nick Chubb. What they’ve got to have is an offensive line that plays better than last year’s misfit group. “I feel good about a few of them, but I’ll be honest with you, every job we have is open,” coach Kirby Smart said. “In fall camp, we are going to have four or five new guys come in there to compete. I hope we have enough depth for there to be good competition.”
Q: Will an experienced quarterback help the Tigers bounce back?
A: After two division titles, Missouri has fallen to the back of the pack in the East. Last year, first-year coach Barry Odom finished 2-6 in the league and 4-8 overall, but this spring, junior quarterback Drew Lock gave him reasons to believe that things might get better soon. “He made so much positive progress this spring,” Odom said. “If you look at the jump he made from freshman to sophomore year, I feel like he had that much of a jump from the end of the season last year to end of spring practice. He understands and embraces the opportunity to be the leader.”
Q: How many freshmen will play on defense?
A: Every time coach Will Muschamp has spoken since the end of spring practice, he’s made it clear that his defensive personnel is not where it needs. Monday was no exception. “We have a lot of knowns coming out of spring offensively,” he said. “We have some unknowns coming out defensively. There are going to be some new faces playing for us (on defense) in the fall that didn’t go through spring. That may be to either start or provide depth on our football team.”
Q: Have the Volunteers lost their momentum?
A: Coach Butch Jones doesn’t think so. “I think our program has a lot of momentum,” he said, but last year was supposed to be Tennessee’s year and it finished 4-4 in the conference. On Monday, Jones trumpeted his team’s six NFL draft selections in April as proof of progress, but that’s a lot of talent gone too, including quarterback Josh Dobbs. “The SEC is the most competitive conference in all of football from top to bottom,” Jones said. “We started from ground zero in building this program in the toughest football conference in America.” Now he has to keep in going in Year 5.
Q: Will the offense be better?
A: The Commodores finished 13th in scoring in the SEC last year (23 points per game) even while everyone lauded the talent of tailback Ralph Webb. Webb is back this year, which will help, but the true indicator will be whether junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur can build on the progress he was making at the end of last season. Coach Derek Mason believes he can. “He did a good job of leading this group, and that’s what we wanted to see from him,” Mason said.