10 interesting SEC players to watch this spring
Spring football practice has arrived for a number of SEC schools, and it’s a valuable time of year for coaching staffs.
It allows them to size up the roster, make position changes and find out who’s in shape and who didn’t put in the offseason work.
While coaches and players are hard at work, fans can get a glimpse of what the next season might bring. Who’s going to replace that all-conference linebacker? Which youngster will emerge as the new quarterback?
These are questions being sorted out, and here are 10 players who will be right in the middle of those conversations:
10. JOVON ROBINSON, RB, AUBURN
Robinson came to Auburn last season as the top-ranked junior college player in the country, but got off to a slow start. After rushing for only 20 yards in the first seven games, he took on a larger role when Peyton Barber went down with a shoulder injury and piled up 619 yards in the team’s final six games.
That included 126 yards and a touchdown in a Birmingham Bowl win over Memphis, and that performance likely gives him momentum heading into the new season.
He’s sharing carries with Roc Thomas in workouts right now, but Robinson will want to cement his place atop the Auburn running back pecking order with a strong spring.
9. AHMAD FULWOOD, WR, FLORIDA
Sometimes, the misfortune of others can open a door for a player to redeem what’s been a mediocre career. The Gators are hoping that’s the case with Fulwood.
The senior wide receiver was a four-star recruit and a U.S. Army All-American, but has managed only 35 catches in three seasons. But with Antonio Callaway missing in action this spring — and his future on the team uncertain — this could be Fulwood’s chance to shine.
He has size (6-foot-4) and experience. This spring, his team is lacking in both of those commodities at receiver. Fulwood has one more shot to make good as a college player, and he’s never had a better opportunity.
8. FRED BROWN, WR, MISSISSIPPI STATE
Like at Florida, a starting receiver missing spring workouts can open the door for another player to shine. Fred Ross will miss the spring while he recovers from groin surgery, so Fred Brown becomes the most experienced receiver in camp.
Brown was third on the team in receiving in 2015 with 27 catches for 412 yards and three scores, but someone will need to help replace the 60 catches, 918 yards and 10 touchdowns that De’Runnya Wilson took with him to the NFL Draft.
The senior wideout will be the top target for the players competing for the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback job this spring, and he’ll want to lock down a starting spot opposite Ross come September.
7. HAROLD BRANTLEY, DT, MISSOURI
Last June, Brantley suffered a broken leg and a knee injury in a car crash so scary that then-coach Gary Pinkel said he was “lucky to be alive.”
Nine months later, he’s taking part in spring drills for new coach Barry Odom. He still has some work do to get back into football shape, but his coaches are excited to have him back in the fold.
“The progress he’s made, would I count him out come fall? No, I’m not counting him out,” defensive line coach Jackie Shipp told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “But for me to say what I think will happen, some people’s bodies come back quicker and all those different things. You don’t know what might happen. But he’s got some special genes to him, I’ll tell you that.”
6. DEMARQUIS GATES, LB, OLE MISS
It’s odd to see a team’s leading tackler on a list like this, but this is an important spring for Gates.
His 76 stops were tops for the Rebels last fall, but with the departures of C.J. Johnson and Christian Russell, he will have to take more of a leadership role.
Gates will spend time at the middle and outside linebacker spots this spring, since the newcomers who should see time in the middle (namely Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo) won’t be on campus until summer.
5. AUSTIN SMITH, DE, TENNESSEE
Smith didn’t see a ton of action last fall, but he did start the bowl game at strong-side linebacker. It doesn’t look like he’ll be starting there again anytime soon.
The first week of spring practice found him working as a defensive end, where the Tennessee Journalist suggests that he might be used “in a Curt Maggit-esque role.”
It’s a move that could result in more playing time, assuming he shows he can handle the transition this spring.
4. KEITH FORD, RB, TEXAS A&M
Ford had 392 yards and five touchdowns for Oklahoma in 2014, and has been biding his time since he transferred to Texas A&M after that season.
That time is now, and Ford is hoping to earn the starting nod in the Aggies’ backfield alongside fellow OU transfer, quarterback Trevor Knight.
With Tra Carson no longer around to serve as the lead back, Ford is the odds-on favorite to do exactly that.
3. BRANDON HARRIS, QB, LSU
Harris passed for 2,158 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, and with the transfer of his primary competitor for the job in 2015 (Anthony Jennings), this may have been a relaxing spring for the junior.
Purdue transfer Danny Etling, however has other ideas.
Etling has looked pretty good this spring. So much so, in fact, that his head coach had this to say:
Miles on Etling, Harris: "I think Brandon is probably the starter and I think Danny is coming like heck." #LSU
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) March 12, 2016
It could just be coach-speak, designed to keep both players hungry. Or it could be that a quarterback battle is brewing. Time will tell, but Harris will want to have a good spring just in case.
2. BLAKE BARNETT, QB, ALABAMA
If history is any indicator, there won’t be a clear winner of Alabama’s quarterback race until a few games into the regular season. But that doesn’t mean that the players involved won’t be trying to speed up the time table.
One such player is redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. He was a five-star recruit and the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the nation last fall, and competed well in summer camp last season.
Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell will be pushing him hard for the job, but Barnett has a chance — with a strong spring — to be the starter this fall.
1. JACOB EASON, QB, GEORGIA
No conversation about highly touted young quarterbacks in the SEC would be complete without Eason.
The five-star recruit from Lake Stevens, Wash., was the third quarterback at the Bulldogs’ first spring practice this week, but every indication is that he’ll be given every chance to wrest the job away from the incumbent, graduate transfer Greyson Lambert.
It will be stunning if Eason doesn’t find his way on the field at some point in 2016. How quickly that comes to pass could depend on how well he plays in the next few weeks.