Ah, spring is in the air. Can’t you smell it? I know the Big Ten can’t because they’re shoveling snow, but down here in the South, we’re getting ready to start hearing those pads popping and coaches’ whistles jarring eardrums.
Every SEC East team has one primary area of focus as spring practice kicks off. And Georgia starts as early as next Saturday. Be sure to check out the spring schedule for every team as practice starts to roll around.
Florida: Passing Game
Key Player: QB Jeff Driskel
Yeah, I know Florida lost three defensive linemen, two linebackers and two safeties to either graduation or the NFL Draft. The once-arguable top defense in the country in 2012 will have several nobodies filling the roster needs. But that’s the most important area of focus for Florida. The country’s 118th best passing game must be improved. That takes developing Jeff Driskel as a passer, developing non-impact wide receivers, and suiting up a competent pass blocking offensive line. Florida can no longer rely on Mike Gillislee to tote the rock 30 times per game, and Jordan Reed is no longer there as the primary weapon in the passing game. For once, veteran receiver Andre Debose must be a breakout player in the spring. Debose, along with Quinton Dunbar must develop, and early enrollee freshman Demarcus Robinson must be ready to play. However the biggest X-factor for every single roster player is quarterback Jeff Driskel. He had ice water in his veins at times during the season. Yet at other times, Driskel looked like a true freshman. Florida’s passing game is under the microscope this spring.
Georgia: Defensive Line
Key Player(s): NT John Taylor and DL Ray Drew
Haven’t you heard that Georgia lost all the star defensive players who catapulted them to being just the 32nd best defense in the country? The most underachieving unit in ‘12 will have a total makeover in ‘13, but that’s not all bad. The key, though, is the development of the defensive line, the heartbeat of Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense…or any 3-4 defense for that matter. We know Garrison Smith can play, and he could see some time at nose tackle. But Smith should hold down one defensive end spot, leaving two vacant positions to be filled. Remember the ‘Dream Team’ 2011 recruiting class? Well, outside of Isaiah Crowell, no player was as highly touted as Ray Drew. The defensive end blue chipper has yet to make a meaningful impact. And the time is now. Drew must develop as the other defensive end, and that leaves redshirt freshman John Taylor to emerge as the team’s top nose tackle. Taylor’s 6-4, 335-pound massive frame could clog up some running lanes in a hurry, and he’s the primary key to the Bulldogs’ development of the 2013 defensive line.
Kentucky: Wide Receivers
Key Player: Demarco Robinson
Mark Stoops hired Neal Brown to conduct the ‘13 version of the Kentucky air attack offense. The Wildcats’ offense will go nowhere if they just line up with a pro-style offense and run it right at bigger, faster and more talented teams. And hiring Brown immediately registered as a sexy hire that differentiated them from others. Brown has three quarterbacks to work with, but Max Smith will win the job. However, even with a great passing game, the offense goes nowhere without receivers who can make a couple guys miss in the open field. And the leading receiver from 2012 La’Rod King is gone, leaving veteran Demarco Robinson as the big play threat. Robinson had a solid year in 2012 with 28 catches for 297 yards, but he caught zero touchdowns and has so much more to give an offense. AJ Legree, DeMarcus Sweat, Brookie Cobbins, Daryl Collins and Rashad Cunningham all must continue to develop this spring as well.
Missouri: Offensive Line
Key Player(s): Justin Britt, Travis Ruth, Evan Boehm, Max Copeland and Brad McNulty
The injury bug that devastated the Missouri offensive line in 2012 will make it better in 2013. Travis Ruth and Taylor Chappell were injured for the entire season and top lineman Elvis Fisher was out indefinitely, although he came back later in the season. That forced inexperienced players like Evan Boehm and Brad McNulty into playing immediately. Lost in a forgettable season was the valuable playing time and experience gained. Getting Ruth and Chappell back healthy will do wonders for a club that looked lost and paper thin along the offensive line in 2012. And the offensive line remains the biggest question mark for the Tigers as they head into spring practice and on into the 2013 season.
South Carolina: Linebackers
Key Player(s): Edward Muldrow, Mason Harris and Cedrick Cooper
To say South Carolina has a vacancy at linebacker is like saying Jadeveon Clowney is a decent pass rusher. In fact, four seniors graduated from a strong linebacking corps that helped lead the Gamecocks to the fourth best defense in the SEC in 2012. However, Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens, Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery are gone. And the time for developing the remaining seven true linebackers on the roster is now. Only one of the seven is a junior and the other six are sophomores and freshmen. The three of Edward Muldrow, Mason Harris and Cedrick Cooper have to emerge this spring. In the fall, the Gamecocks will get a nice boost from incoming freshmen Larenz Bryant, Skai Moore, Jonathan Walton, Mohamed Camara and Gerald Turner, but for now, the Gamecocks must identify some backers they can pencil in for 2013.
Key Player(s): Justin Worley and Nathan Petterman
Butch Jones has several areas of concern on offense, particularly at wide receiver, along with the worst defense in the SEC, but no concerns are bigger than quarterback. The great thing for Jones and his staff is that four starters and the core of a veteran and very underrated offensive line returns, along with two running backs in Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. And with breaking in a new quarterback, Jones will need to have protection for the quarterback and a running game. And Tyler Bray isn’t walking back through that door. However, Bray wouldn’t be the best fit for Jones’ offense anyway, and I’m not even talking about his lack of leadership skills. Bray’s backup Justin Worley is largely considered the favorite to win the job. He has some game experience and looks to be a serviceable quarterback who could develop into a good one. However, Peterman is more agile afoot, and he could give the offense a little bit of a different dimension than Worley brings. One of Worley or Petterman better lock the job up this spring, but incoming freshman Josh Dobbs may be the future anyway.
Vanderbilt: Defensive Line
Key Player: DE Caleb Azubike
One of the strong points to one of the more underrated defenses in the SEC has been a veteran defensive line. However, three of those veterans aren’t returning, led by tackle Rob Lohr. Only Walker May returns in 2013, and it presents a problem for James Franklin. He has a strong linebacking corps and a strong secondary to lean on once again, but the teeth of his defense has holes. Franklin knows he has a strong unit everywhere except the defensive line. But look for rising sophomore defensive end Caleb Azubike to be a difference maker this spring. The defensive line could hold the primary key to taking that next step as a program or taking a step back in 2013. Along with Azubike, Jimmy Stewart, Kyle Woestmann, Darien Bryant, Barron Dixon and Jared all have to develop this spring.
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