With spring football in full swing for 13 of 14 teams (Kentucky starts Friday), let’s take a trip around the SEC East and check out this spring’s most important players.
Florida: QB Jeff Driskel (JR)
2013 stats: 42 of 61, 477 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs
Buzz: It goes without saying this spring is crucial for Jeff Driskel and Florida. The new offense will cater to his strengths and should use his running ability more, but the jury is still out on Driskel and whether he can become the player Florida recruited him to be. Learning a new offense isn’t easy, but it should help simplify his reads and decisions in his passing progression. He has an 11-win season to draw experience from, and Florida’s spring game should be interesting to watch the progression of the new offense under Driskel’s leadership.
Georgia: QB Hutson Mason (SR)
2013 stats: 67 of 110, 968 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs
Buzz: Let’s get something out of the way: Hutson Mason isn’t Aaron Murray, and Georgia doesn’t want him to be Aaron Murray. Mason can be an effective game manager and still win 10 games or more, because there’s so much talent returning around him. Mason spelled Murray and gained valuable experience against teams shooting live bullets. He was instrumental in a big come-from-behind victory against Georgia Tech, and he got a bowl loss under his belt. It’s better to show signs of struggle against Nebraska than against Clemson or South Carolina in 2014, right? Mason doesn’t have to play the role of Murray, but his role has, uh, dramatically increased.
Kentucky: RB Braylon Heard (JR)
2013 stats: Did not play
Buzz: Heard sat out all last year due to the transfer rule. He rushed for 452 yards and one touchdown in two seasons with Nebraska, and he’ll easily be a focal point of the offense. The Ohio native stayed true to Kentucky’s newfound pipeline. 247Sports’ rated Heard as a four-star prospect exiting high school and the country’s No. 31 player overall, and getting him ready to handle an offensive load this spring will be key for the Wildcats’ offense, regardless of who wins the quarterback job.
Missouri: CB Aarion Penton (SO)
2013 stats: 16 tackles, 1 INT, 1 pass breakup
Buzz: Prior to Penton’s spring arrest, he was the most important player for the Tigers, and he still is after his arrest, although he was immediately suspended, per Mizzou policy. Penton, however, remains one of the Tigers’ most important players this spring. From a secondary that lost three starters, Penton looks to have a seamless transition to replace All-SEC EJ Gaines in 2014. Even with his status currently unknown, Penton is so important to Dave Steckel’s defense.
South Carolina: DE Darius English (rSO)
2013 stats: 19 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 FF
Buzz: With Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton now gone, Darius English becomes the most important player this spring. The 6-6, 235-pound defensive end has some big shoes to fill. English is an excellent pass rusher, and he showed flashes of being the guy who creates havoc in the backfield for the Gamecocks’ defense. This spring is crucial for English, as well as the defense that replaces key vacant positions. English has added 20 pounds this offseason, up from his playing weight of 225 last season. He hopes to be 260 by fall camp.
Tennessee: LB/DE Curt Maggitt (rJR)
2013 stats: Did not play
Buzz: Maggitt sat out all of last season recovering from a knee injury suffered during the 2012 season. Linebacker is his natural position, but Tennessee has tinkered with Maggitt at defensive end this spring. He’s an athletic specimen who hasn’t played his best football to date. Maggitt is becoming a leader during spring practice, and playing alongside AJ Johnson could make them a lethal combo. The Vols’ defense was statistically one of the worst in the league, and Maggitt inserted into the lineup immediately makes them better.
Vanderbilt: LB/DE Caleb Azubike (JR)
2013 stats: 31 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 QB hurries
Buzz: With Vanderbilt’s 3-4 defensive switch, Caleb Azubike now plays outside linebacker. Azubike’s switch is crucial, as he’s the team’s best returning pass rusher. He has rare speed and athleticism for a 6-4, 260-pound specimen, and the Commodores’ surge the last few years has been led by defense. Azubike hopes to help continue that, and he’s one player who Derek Mason can count on to get into opponents’ backfields and make plays.
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