1 lingering question for each SEC team with spring football in the books
And just like that, spring football is in the books.
Gone, but never forgotten, spring football is in the rearview mirror and we can all pretend that fall is just a few days away instead of a few months away.
There are plenty uncertainties moving into the summer months, especially for a conference that has 10 new offensive coordinators. In fact, LSU, Vandy and maybe Ole Miss are the only SEC programs that return their starting quarterbacks and primary offensive play-callers.
Hence, why so many of these lingering questions are related to the offensive side of the ball:
Alabama — What do we really know about this passing game?
With Bryce Young off to the NFL, there were always going to be questions about his successor. But in addition to searching for that answer into fall camp with Ty Simpson vs. Jalen Milroe, we’re not sure how Tommy Rees is going to right the wrong that was Alabama’s 2022 receiving corps. Is decorated JUCO transfer Malik Benson gonna be the guy? Is JaCorey Brooks about to put it all together? Or will Jermaine Burton be a bit more consistent? And can Maryland CJ Dippre be heavily utilized in Alabama’s offense in similar, but different ways than Michael Mayer at Notre Dame? It’s “TBD” on all the above.
Arkansas — Who will be the alpha on that defense?
The ageless Bumper Pool is gone, as are the oft-injured Jalen Catalon and 1-year wonder Drew Sanders, who left for the NFL after an All-American season. Travis Williams inherited a group in need of a major overhaul. It’s a schematic change, but Arkansas’ defense needs a bit of a culture change. That starts up front. Maybe Landon Jackson, who was everywhere in the spring game, is a good candidate to step into that alpha role. He got his feet wet last year after transferring from LSU, but maybe he can be the not only an All-SEC guy, but also the emotional leader that the Hogs need.
Auburn — Did Robby Ashford show Hugh Freeze enough?
The spring game conditions were awful for passing, so don’t hold it against Ashford and that quarterback room that it only combined for 5 completions on A-Day. The question that lingers is whether Ashford impressed Freeze enough to make him invest in him as his first QB1. The Auburn coach said that they were going to be seeking help in the portal at quarterback, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll get a guy who can beat out Ashford. Freeze talked about how the evaluation of Ashford felt incomplete because of how he was used once he took over the starting job, and because so much of his game is mobility-based, a spring sample size wherein quarterbacks aren’t live made that task more challenging. For now, Ashford appears to be the favorite in the clubhouse.
Florida — What’s Billy Napier’s plan to spark this offense?
I keep hearing about how confident the Florida staff is in Graham Mertz, and how he’ll have a better chance for success in the Florida offense. Never mind the fact that he never figured it out as a 3-year starter at Wisconsin, or the fact that Florida didn’t exactly add a new bevy of weapons in the transfer portal. The good news is that Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson Jr. should be one of the better 1-2 punches in the SEC. The bad news is that the Gators had them last year, and it still didn’t prevent those maddening offensive droughts. Even in the expected event that Florida adds another quarterback in the post-spring window, I’m still not sure how Napier turns around a passing game that posted a 126.4 passer rating vs. SEC competition last year.
Georgia — What will this defensive line look like?
That would’ve been a perfectly fair question to ask about a group that had the likes of Jordan Davis, Travon Walker, Jalen Carter and Devonte Wyatt all bounce in the past 2 years. But then the spring portal window began with the surprising news that expected starter Bear Alexander entered the transfer portal and committed to USC on Sunday night. That was a brutal development for a group that looked a bit overmatched in the spring game. Will veterans like Warren Brinson and Naz Stackhouse hold down the fort? Or will defensive line coach Tray Scott develop an underclassman into a superstar? It’s easily the most unproven UGA defensive line since 2019, and perhaps even earlier. Georgia’s 3-peat hopes could come down to how much that group rises to the occasion.
Kentucky — Is the offensive line improvement going to be as advertised?
You can’t run the pro-style scheme Liam Coen wants to run if your offensive line play is horrendous. Without Coen last year, that’s exactly what the Cats were up front — horrendous. Nobody in Power 5 allowed more sacks than UK and Will Levis was a human pinata. But reports out of camp were positive. Levis’ replacement, NC State transfer Devin Leary, said that group, which added 2 expected starters via the transfer portal in Tanner Bowles (Alabama) and Marques Cox (Northern Illinois), is “10 times better” than the group he saw last year. That’ll determine if UK’s offense can get back to its 2021 ways.
LSU — What’s the plan for Garrett Nussmeier?
I find the LSU signal-caller’s next step fascinating. After his 294-yard showing against that vaunted Georgia defense in the second half of the SEC Championship, Nussmeier is entering Year 3 on the Bayou with legitimate expectations. The elephant in the room is that Jayden Daniels is entrenched as the starter in his final year of eligibility. Will Nussmeier get a decent amount of reps? Will Brian Kelly utilize a 2-quarterback system of sorts a la Dan Mullen? Or will Nussmeier be tasked with taking over the starting job in the event of a Daniels injury? I suggested Nussmeier should start in Week 2 against Grambling State, and that Kelly should announce that now. But my guess is as good as anyone’s for what’s next.
Mizzou — Is Sam Horn going to get the look Mizzou fans have been waiting for?
Last year, it was understood that Sam Horn wasn’t going to be a fixture of the quarterback plans after arriving in summer after baseball season. He needed a year to get into the strength program and learn the offense. But now, after an up-and-down season with Brady Cook as the incumbent starter, will Horn have a path to playing time? We know that Eli Drinkwitz brought in former 4-star recruit Jake Garcia from Miami. We also know that the offensive play-calling duties will shift from Drinkwitz to new offensive coordinator Kirby Moore. It probably didn’t help matters that Horn suffered a forearm strain this spring that interrupted his freshman season on the diamond. It’ll be interesting to see how this battle plays out into fall and if Mizzou fans will get their wish to see the decorated multi-sport recruit at some point in 2023.
MSU — Are we really about to see ground game reliance?
Not since 2019 Kylin Hill have we seen MSU truly put a heavily reliance on its ground game. It’s hard to do that when you’re throwing the ball 50 times a game. In the post-Mike Leach era, Zach Arnett opted for the Kevin Barbay offense, which will be much closer to balanced. But how balanced will it be? And does MSU, who lost Dillon Johnson in the transfer portal, have the personnel to run the football consistently? In the spring game, even just getting some of those exchanges seemed like a challenge. That comes with the territory when you run the ball less often than anybody in America. Under Barbay in 2022, Appalachian State was in the top 1/3 nationally in rushing attempts per game, and it ranks No. 21 in yards/carry. Whether Barbay can scheme the run game in Year 1 will be a major question.
Ole Miss — Is Pete Golding about to go all Toby Keith?
As in “how do you like me now?” We didn’t really get to see a good sampling of the Ole Miss defense in the Grove Bowl because Lane Kiffin had Golding run the 4 base defenses without blitz packages. So it’s tough to say if Golding, who became public enemy No. 1 at Alabama, will show his former team he knows how to run a defense. What we do know is that Ole Miss got off to a promising start last year that totally spiraled by season’s end. We also know that the expectations in Oxford, where fans haven’t seen a top-50 scoring defense since the Hugh Freeze era, are just a touch different than the ones Golding left in Tuscaloosa.
South Carolina — Why should we assume the running game will be better?
I mean, we’re a season removed from Marcus Satterfield deciding the only way he can get Jaheim Bell the ball was to move him from tight end to tailback. Satterfield (Nebraska) and Bell (Florida State) are gone to new schools, as is the talented but oft-injured MarShawn Lloyd (USC). What remains is Juju McDowell, who averaged 3.5 yards per carry and had 2 touchdowns, and converted quarterback/receiver Dakereon Joyner. Shane Beamer did add Newberry College transfer Mario Anderson, and there’s hope that 4-star freshman Dontavious Braswell can make an impact when he arrives over the summer. But man, for a group who failed to crack the top 100 in rushing, that’s a lot of uncertainty for a group who desperately needs a shot of life.
Tennessee — Can the Nico Iamaleava buzz be calmed?
I get it. His talent in that scheme should be a fun thing to watch. We’re talking about the Vols’ most talented quarterback recruit of the 247sports rankings era playing in an offense that produced 5 consecutive top-8 scoring seasons and the No. 5 finisher in the Heisman Trophy voting. It’s OK to be excited, especially after Iamaleava looked the part in the spring game. But Joe Milton is the starter. The unquestioned starter. The question is if Milton is going to have a significant leash as the starter, or perhaps it’s whether we’ll ever find out. Milton has been getting rave reviews this past year for his improvements after losing the starting job to Hendon Hooker. But if Milton starts off 2023 like the guy we saw in 2021, those Iamaleava chants — they’ll just be “NI-CO! NI-CO! — will be heard loud and clear.
Texas A&M — Bobby Petrino will have how much control of the offense?
Copy and paste that sentence for the foreseeable future. Sorry if I sound like a broken record, but come on. This is the No. 1 most interesting topic in the entire SEC heading into the start of the 2023 season. How much control over play-calling will Petrino get and will Jimbo Fisher, who has never given up control of play-calling duties during his time as a head coach, be willing to give his new OC credit if and when he succeeds? And if Petrino doesn’t succeed, will Fisher throw him under the bus and take over play-calling duties? Any outcome is an entertaining one for an A&M offense who can’t get any worse than it was last year (I think).
Vanderbilt — Is this the year Clark Lea’s defense takes shape?
As much as Vandy rose above expectations by getting to 5 wins with a bowl-or-bust regular season finale, the defense has still been largely overmatched in the first 2 years under Lea. It was No. 125 nationally in scoring defense, No. 128 against the pass and in yards/play allowed. That ain’t gonna cut it. Vandy only ranks No. 80 in percentage of returning defensive production and standout Anfernee Orji is off to the NFL. But in Year 3, the spring returns have been promising. Christian James and Nate Clifton are solidifying a defensive line that should be improved and De’Rickey Wright closed the spring with a pick-6 in the spring game. Lea has high expectations for what his defense can become. Whether that looks like anything other than the cellar dweller it’s been the first 2 years remains to be seen.