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SEC East’s most important spring players

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The spring is the best time for coaches to get a feel for their roster, and it’s also a great time for players who may have been stuck down on the depth chart to emerge and contribute. The following players are crucial for their teams’ success next season, and it’s important that all experience growth and exit spring a better player.

SEC East

Florida: QB Jeff Driskel, So.
2012 stats: 156 of 245, 1,646 yards, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, 408 rush yards, 4 TDs
Buzz: Assuming Florida replaces running back Mike Gillislee appropriately with Matt Jones, Mack Brown or Kelvin Taylor, the passing game is more under the microscope this spring. Jeff Driskel’s development, in particular, will be one of the most anticipated aspects of Florida’s spring game. Hesitant at times as a sophomore, Driskel has a much higher ceiling than most figure. He has a strong arm and is usually very accurate, but he had little to no receiver help. Driskel’s development will be key for Florida in whether or not they become a legit SEC Championship contender. The nation’s 118th best passing game needs a boost, and it all comes back to Driskel.

Georgia: DE Ray Drew, So.
2012 stats: 23 tackles, 1 TFL, 8 QBH
Buzz: Aside from keeping the entire offense healthy, the most important guy certainly on the defense is Ray Drew. The rising junior hasn’t lived up to his massive potential yet, and he’s a ‘tweener defensive end. Drew is almost too small to play DE in 3-4 and too big to play OLB. Drew is up to 280 pounds and moves well for his size, but this is the year he must make a transition from the actual depth chart to an impact player. Sometimes it just takes longer for the light switch to flip, and hopefully for the Bulldogs’ sake, 2013 is Drew’s year.

Kentucky: QB Max Smith, So.
2012 stats: 103 of 150, 975 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs
Buzz: Some say there is a QB controversy at Kentucky between Max Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, but Smith is the immediate future. He can throw the rock; he proved it when he was healthy in 2012, throwing for 975 yards in just three full games. The Air Attack offense bodes well for the best pure pocket passer on the team in Smith, and his understanding, ability to take the reigns of the offense and emergence as a leader is so crucial this spring. Now, Kentucky has needs everywhere on both sides of the ball, but Smith’s grasp of the offense, health and arm are the biggest keys for Kentucky being competitive in ‘13. Without explosive plays from the quarterback, nothing will change.

Missouri: RB Henry Josey, Jr.
2012 stats: Injured
Buzz: I keep asking myself how Missouri can improve upon their mediocre offense, and I keep coming back to Henry Josey. Josey missed the entire season in 2012 because of a brutal injury suffered in 2011. But in ‘11, Josey rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns, and he was the key cog to James Franklin’s fantastic year, too. It’s unknown what percentage Josey is truly at this spring, but knocking the rust off, keeping him healthy and more confident this spring bodes well for a much-improved offense in ‘13.

South Carolina: WR Shaq Roland, Fr.
2012 stats: 5 rec. for 80 yards, 1 TD
Buzz: With South Carolina star receiver and punt returner Ace Sanders heading to the NFL early, the Gamecocks are in need of impact receivers. And the former Mr. Football in South Carolina Shaq Roland has all the tools in the country to become the Gamecocks’ premier receiver of the future. Few freshmen make impacts, and many don’t. And Roland was one who didn’t, nabbing just five catches for 80 yards. However, he’s crucial to Steve Spurrier’s passing attack. Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd return, but Roland has the higher ceiling of all three. His development this spring with an added number of reps will be critical to the offensive success in ‘13.

Tennessee: DB LaDarrell McNeil, Fr.
2012 stats: 58 tackles, 1 BU, 1 PD, 1 FF
Buzz: LaDarrell McNeil is a future star player for Butch Jones. He started the last seven games at safety and notched 58 tackles in his first year. Tennessee had one of the worst pass defenses in the country, mostly due to the scheme and play calling of Sal Sunseri. Tennessee gains back Brian Randolph, and McNeil’s versatility will allow him to play either safety position. His development and emergence this spring could make Tennessee’s maligned secondary a strong point in ‘13.

Vanderbilt: DE Caleb Azubike, Fr.
2012 stats: 21 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 QBH
Buzz: One of the top breakout candidates in ‘13 is Caleb Azubike. The Commodores lose three starters along the defensive line, and Azubike is the leading candidate to be the everyday starter opposite Walker May at end. His greatest asset is his speed, and he’s coming off a freshman campaign that saw him set the record for freshmen sackers with four. This spring’s continued development and ability to get stronger as a player is crucial to James Franklin and Bob Shoop.

Photo  Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports





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