First-year SEC head coaches’ focus this spring

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Four new head coaches have already started installing their systems for the future. Bret Bielema and Butch Jones have already started trying to change the culture of their programs having already opened up for spring practice, and Gus Malzhan and Mark Stoops will try to accomplish that same task later this month.

A first-year head coach is tasked with changing the perception of the program and culture of the team. First-year head coaches instill a concrete foundation of toughness and build for the future, hoping that foundation leaves a lasting impression for years to come. Coaches can change the perception of their program in the first year, but often times it takes different players and multiple recruiting classes to completely change the culture.

But there’s no time for waiting in college football’s power conference. These coaches have to get to work and expedite the programs with what they inherited.

Bret Bielema, Arkansas

Top Priority: Identify offensive playmakers

Arkansas lacked a sense of toughness last season. From former coaches saying players quit to having the worst secondary in the conference, the Hogs struggled to find any type of identity under interim head coach John L. Smith.

Arkansas opened up spring practice this past week, and Bret Bielema’s main focus this spring will be on the offense. Identifying playmakers is the biggest issue. Replacing Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson is no easy feat, and Bielema is known for his pro-style, smash mouth offenses. Luckily, he inherits a veteran offensive line to lean on, led by center Travis Swanson, and a future star running back Jonathan Williams to develop. Along with installing the offense, he’ll need to first identify a starter at quarterback. Returners Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell, along with transfer AJ Derby, are the ones to watch. Arkansas and Bielema’s identity of toughness will be evident next season, and making sure the players understand the offense along with that toughness will be key in Bielema’s first season.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Top Priority: Identify difference makers on defense

Gus Malzahn is the offensive wizard of the new head coaches, and I’m not as worried about his offense when compared to his defense. The Tigers finished 13th in the SEC and 81st in total defense under Gene Chizik and Brian VanGorder’s leadership. Namely, the tackling was absurdly bad, and there was no development, growth or maturation throughout the season.

New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, with his new 4-2-5 scheme, is tasked with developing former top recruits into impact players. Namely, the linebacker play was putrid in 2012. Returners Jake Holland, Cassanova McKinzy, Justin Garrett and Kris Frost have to become impact players and take their games to the next level.

Johnson is considered one of the top defensive minds in the game, and he and his staff are in charge of developing what Gene Chizik could not.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Top Priority: Install the air raid offense

Some say Kentucky has a quarterback quandary, but it’s just the opposite. Max Smith is the perfect signal caller for Mark Stoops and Neal Brown’s new air attack offense, despite the flashes shown by both Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles in Smith’s absence. Brown is a Mike Leach and Hal Mumme disciple, and you can bet the Wildcats’ offense is aiming to post crooked numbers on the stat sheet.

Vertical passing games are tough to defend, and Brown’s ‘12 Texas Tech offense put up serious numbers. In fact, his passing offense finished second in the country, throwing for more than 355 yards per game. But while the quarterback is important, wide receivers are just as crucial, and Kentucky has a select few. Leader La’Rod King is gone, and leading returner Demarco Robinson has shown flashes he could be All-SEC. Rising sophomores Daryl Collins and DeMarcus Sweat are two Brown and his staff must develop in the coming weeks.

The Wildcats won’t beat anyone lining up and running a pro-style offense, but a vertical passing game is tough for any defensive coordinator to prepare for in a week’s time. It’s almost the perfect recipe for Kentucky to notch six wins next season, but the offensive progress this spring will be crucial to the foundation for first-year success.

Butch Jones, Tennessee

Top Priority: Fix the defense

All three levels of Tennessee’s defense are equally important and equally as bad. The Vols’ 2012 defense was not only the worst in the SEC, but it was statically the worst in Tennessee history. A massive part of the lack of success was Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 system, which featured players out of position who couldn’t tackle air. Now, however, Butch Jones and John Jancek are re-installing a 4-3 system, one that fits the defense much better.

Defensive linemen Maurice Couch and Daniel McCullers must elevate their game, along with linebacker/defensive end Jacques Smith and outside linebacker Curt Maggitt. Eric Gordan and Justin Coleman will likely be the two corners, while the secondary welcomes back its best player, Brian Randolph, from a season-ending injury. Along with Randolph, Byron Moore, Brent Brewer and LaDarrell McNeil will compete for starting spots. The one staple of the defense is linebacker AJ Johnson, and he could be the top Mike linebacker in the SEC. Johnson’s overall leadership, experience, ability and prowess are crucial.

The Vols’ defense will be stronger in ‘13, but how much stronger? It won’t get any worse, and it’s likely the new system will help them have success earlier in the season. Gains from this spring are invaluable to an underachieving defense.

Photo Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

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