2016 offensive and defensive identities: SEC West
Over time, every college team develops a reputation for playing a specific style of football.
In some cases, a team’s style is about as traditional as Alabama’s uniforms. At other schools, that style can change as quickly as an audible.
Look at what Florida has done with its past four coaches. Steve Spurrier’s “Fun ’N’ Gun” attack morphed into a run-based spread offense under Urban Meyer before changing to a more physical and conservative approach under Will Muschamp. Jim McElwain’s Gators obviously still need a QB, but they are trying to develop a balanced pro-style “O.”
Whether it is via coaching moves or personnel changes, what are the specific tweaks in identity that will define every SEC West team on offense and defense in 2016? What is the core brand of every unit?
Let us fill you in.
With Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry gone, expect the Tide to go from making their top running back carry the ball 40 times a game to spreading it around in the passing game to quality pass-catchers such as Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard.
Of course, the big question is who will replace Jacob Coker at quarterback. Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett and David Cornwell are in the mix.
Plus, in Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, the Tide has talented potential replacements for Henry. Once those competitions are decided, expect offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin – as he has done the past two seasons — to find a way to frustrate opponents with the run and the pass.
Defense: Fantastic front seven once again
Despite losing SEC Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Ragland, Alabama’s linebacking corps won’t miss a beat in 2016. It starts with Reuben Foster, and he’ll be joined by fellow returnees Shaun Dion Hamilton, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans. When you also factor in returning linemen Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson, the defensive coordinator transition from Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt should be seamless.
Offense: A bullying running game that sets up play-action
The names may change, but don’t expect Bret Bielema’s system to. Running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are heading to the NFL, so Kody Walker will need to step up. Tight end Hunter Henry is also pursuing a pro career, but Jeremy Sprinkle is ready to replace him. Brandon Allen is graduating, so either his younger brother Austin or USC transfer Ricky Town has a chance to start.
Arkansas’ biggest departure might be offensive line coach Sam Pittman, but Bielema obviously has faith in his replacement, Kurt Anderson.
Defense: A formerly strong group searching for leadership
Bielema’s defenses usually play physical, bruising football. But under defensive coordinator Robb Smith, the Hogs have taken a step back the past two seasons, especially last year, when Arkansas finished 12th in the SEC in scoring defense (27.4 points per game). Someone, perhaps LB Dre Greenlaw, needs to give these Razorbacks some teeth again.
Offense: Hurry-up read option with more of an emphasis on the running game
Gus Malzahn would love to have one of his starting quarterback candidates grasp his system and hold onto it for a full season or two, like Nick Marshall did in 2013-14. But he doesn’t have that option. It’s never a good thing when your two returning QBs – Jeremy Johnson and Sean White – are coming off a 2015 season when they combined for just 11 passing TDs and 11 INTs. It definitely helps that Jovon Robinson is returning, but Malzahn has to resist the temptation to use his running back a Nick Saban-like 40 times a game.
Defense: Has good pieces, but constantly in flux
Kevin Steele will be Auburn’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons. Steele will have some standouts he can turn to this year – defensive linemen Byron Cowart and Carl Lawson, plus cornerback Carlton Davis to name a few. Hopefully, for Auburn’s sake, they work well enough together so that Malzahn’s team regains an identity on defense.
Offense: Run-heavy, but still lacking balance
Stop us if you’ve heard this before. The Tigers will once again hand off the ball to Leonard Fournette, and why not? He was the best back in the country last year before running into Alabama’s defense. QB Brandon Harris improved but still is not where LSU needs him to be. He and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron need to mix things up and find even more ways to get the ball to WRs Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural.
Defense: Another team in transition
Like Auburn, LSU has a head coach who is feeling the heat in Les Miles. Another similarity is their recent revolving one-year door at defensive coordinator with Dave Aranda following Steele and John Chavis. But according to ESPN.com, in three seasons under Aranda, Wisconsin ranked first nationally in total defense, second in scoring defense, third in pass defense and fourth in run defense. So that bodes well for Miles and Aranda, who gets to work with returning defensive linemen Davon Godchaux, Christian LaCouture, Arden Key and Lewis Neal and defensive back Jamal Adams, among others.
Offense: Run first, throw to Fred Ross and Fred Brown second
Dan Mullen used to churn out 1,000-yard rushers, but none of his running backs gained more than 413 yards last year. That was totally understandable when you consider that QB Dak Prescott was the Bulldogs’ leading rusher in 2015, and he will be replaced by either Elijah Staley, Nick Fitzgerald or Damian Williams.
When Mississippi State needs to throw, Ross and Brown are excellent targets, but the Bulldogs’ inexperience at QB will force a running back to take charge. Maybe Brandon Holloway can be Mullen’s next 1,000-yard rusher.
Defense: Another team in the midst of change
We’ve detected a pattern here. Like Auburn and LSU, Mississippi State has gone through defensive coordinators lately like, well, you get the comparison. Peter Sirmon, who was USC’s associate head coach, recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach, replaces Manny Diaz, who left Starkville to become Mark Richt’s defensive coordinator at Miami.
Because Sirmon has coached nothing but linebackers for the past five seasons, we’re not quite sure how he’ll fare in his new position. But he can certainly do a lot worse than having LB Richie Brown as his group’s leader entering 2016.
Offense: Pass, pass and pass some more
After a terrific 2015 season, Chad Kelly is clearly the engine that makes the Rebels run, er pass. Laquon Treadwell, Kelly’s top target from a year ago, is NFL-bound, but Ole Miss’ returning receiving corps might be even stronger this year, starting with Damore’ea Stringfellow. Quincy Adeboyejo, Markell Pack, Damarkus Lodge and Van Jefferson round out the group, which is the Rebels’ strongest unit on offense. Hugh Freeze still has to find a running back who can replace Jaylen Walton.
Defense: It all starts up front
Imagine that! Here’s an SEC West team that hasn’t changed its defensive coordinator every year over the past three years. Dave Wommack, who has been with Ole Miss since 2012, is back, and so are some key Rebels, including linebacker DeMarquis Gates, who led the team with 76 tackles last season. But like it was last year, the line – which loses two big names in Robert Nkemdiche and Woodrow Hamilton – will once again be the strength because of its depth and experience.
Offense: Solid pass catchers, questions at QB
The winds of change have blown at full force in College Station, and we’re not only talking about 2015 starting quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, who transferred. Transitions abound for the Aggies, who have a new offensive coordinator in Noel Mazzone — who held the same post at UCLA – and a new offensive line coach in Jim Turner.
The one recent constant at A&M has been its receiving corps, which returns its top four wideouts: Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil.
Jake Hubenak and Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight will compete for the right to throw to them. And Mazzone will have to find a replacement for 1,000-yard rusher Tra Carson.
Defense: Fast and athletic
DE Myles Garrett and DB Armani Watts are the most important returnees for John Chavis’ group, which allowed 75 fewer yards per game than in 2014. Defensive linemen Daylon Mack and Daeshon Hall also return to an A&M team that got started 5-0 in 2015 before chaos hit.