4 storylines I'll be following during this weekend's SEC spring games
Like a warm southern breeze, spring came and went.
This weekend, we’ll have our final spring games of 2021 and until fall camp, we’ll be left with nothing more than over-produced hype videos. That is, in terms of action. The headlines never stop.
But before we close the door on the spring that’s been 2 years in the making, let’s look ahead to 1 thing to watch for from each of the 4 SEC spring games on Saturday:
1. How ready does Haynes King look for the big time?
I wrote a few weeks ago that I thought King was the No. 1 X-factor in the SEC this year. If he can maximize the pieces around him — a 3-headed rushing attack and 10 of 11 dudes who caught a pass are returning — that’s what can take A&M up a notch. It’s not that Kellen Mond held the Aggies back in 2020. But some of the athleticism that King brings to the offense can’t be taught. He’s also more willing to fit balls into tight windows. That’ll be for better or for worse.
Here’s 90 seconds of nothing but Haynes King throwing darts at yesterday’s Texas A&M spring practice.
— Mike Lucas (@KAGS_Lucas) April 18, 2021
This is a unique spot for A&M, at least in recent memory. Mond never missed a start during the Jimbo Fisher era. King being out there with the first-team offense — I expect Zach Calzada will also get some of those reps — will be weird in itself.
I’m not so much focused on King’s rushing ability in a spring game setting wherein he figures to be basically 1-hand touch. We won’t see the full arsenal. What we should still get to see is how he makes decisions on the move, and how in sync with these experienced pass-catchers he is (that goes double for the much-less experienced Demond Demas).
For those outside of A&M, now would be a good time to hop aboard the King hype train.
2. The Ole Miss defense that just has to be better
We know Lane Kiffin’s thing is to preemptively put his arms in the air and say “touchdown” before a play is run. He did that on the legendary clipboard/play sheet toss last year against South Carolina, and he did that as a coordinator back at Alabama. Ole Miss’ MoMo Sanogo told me that Kiffin does that in practice all the time, and it’s more of a way to challenge the defense. At first when he did it last year, the offense usually won that battle. Now, though, Sanogo said the defense has been much better at getting the last laugh in those spots.
Why do I say all of this? Because the Ole Miss defense simply has to pull its own weight in order for the program to make its next step in 2021. It was the worst run defense in the SEC and it surrendered nearly 7 yards per play. Not great.
And to be fair, Kiffin’s squad kicked off 2021 with its best defensive performance of the 2020 season in an upset win against Indiana in the Outback Bowl. It also returns 83% of its defensive production from last year, and we’ll get a full season of the versatile Otis Reese after he was held up by SEC intra-conference transfer nonsense. Alongside A.J. Finley, the back end of this group figures to be the strength.
Will we see those moments where it can actually confuse Matt Corral and the Ole Miss quarterbacks? Or will it look like once again, the Ole Miss offense is no match for the defense. Both units are loaded with experience (17 total starters back), so just in general, this should be a much different spring than last year for that reason alone. Thankfully, we’ll actually get a game to see that on display.
I always say I have no idea what fans root for at a spring game. If I’m an Ole Miss fan, I’m rooting for that defense to look like the same group that stymied Indiana.
3. Dakereon Joyner’s WR growth
I know, I know. I should probably be looking at Luke Doty’s growth as much as anything on Sunday (the game was rescheduled because of weather). I am. I want to see how Marcus Satterfield uses him and if he can stretch the field. But I’m ready to be excited for Joyner’s development.
There aren’t 5 guys in the SEC I’d want to succeed more than Joyner, who stuck it out at South Carolina after he was asked to switch from quarterback to receiver. Last year, he didn’t get the all-important offseason to develop as a route-runner. This year, he’s been getting rave reviews in camp. It’d be nice to actually see that on display. Joyner is also getting reps in the return game, but I really want to see how he gets in and out of his breaks and if he can get separation.
The loss of Shi Smith is among the most noteworthy of any SEC team this offseason. Quietly, the Gamecocks have had to replace 1 stud receiver each of the last 3 years (Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards being the other 2). There are a ton of targets up for grabs at receiver, and with Joyner’s ability to make people miss in the open field, he’s as intriguing a candidate as any to get them.
I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of Luke Doty to Dakereon Joyner this year!! Can’t wait! pic.twitter.com/Nf3dl9FLv7
— Caroline Rick (@Caroline_Rick_) April 3, 2021
4. Hendon Hooker’s ability to run Josh Heupel’s offense
It’s technically a 4-quarterback battle in Knoxville. If Michigan transfer Joe Milton joins the Vols, it’ll reach 5. Of course, we won’t see Milton on Saturday. We will see another Power 5 transfer, Hooker. The Virginia Tech transplant is my pick to win the starting job in Year 1 of the Heupel era. But if Harrison Bailey or Brian Maurer come out on Saturday throwing darts while Hooker looks overwhelmed, well, let’s just say no prediction is set in stone (I’ll be surprised if Kaidon Salter doesn’t redshirt with the < 4 games threshold).
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that’ll happen. I’m not sure Bailey or Maurer will be able to process as quickly as Hooker, who has the most experience in that group. He also has the most mobility if that first or second read isn’t there. Something tells me Tennessee’s starter will need that this year behind that new-look offensive line. That could be magnified in a spring game wherein quarterbacks don’t really get a ton of freedom to escape and make plays in the open field.
Whatever the case, Hooker can stretch the field. He doesn’t need to have some all-world arm to execute this offense. But I think his size and arm strength will surprise those who didn’t watch him much at Virginia Tech or at Tennessee’s open practice last week.
Hooker has a prime opportunity to get a little separation from the pack on Saturday.