5 big takeaways from Saturday's spring games
Four SEC teams had official “spring games” on Saturday: Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina.
While there’s plenty of time between now and September kickoffs, and more players will arrive this spring, there are a few important takeaways we were able to glean from the formalized scrimmages.
Here are our five biggest observations from Saturday’s games:
1. QB competitions remain unsettled, and in some cases concerning
It’s no shock, but Georgia coach Mark Richt, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and Florida coach Jim McElwain all emerged from Saturday’s spring games unsure of their team’s starting quarterback.
Expect more of the same after next weekend’s spring games.
Gamecocks QB Perry Orth’s goal-line flutter on Saturday was an embarrassment, to put it mildly, but he wasn’t the only one throwing ugly ducklings around the SEC. There were plenty of off-target throws and missed connections in the passing game.
We did get some insight into where each competition stands now, though read into it with caution.
South Carolina: Connor Mitch (10-of-16 for 183 yards Saturday, including a touchdown to Darius Rucker) may have emerged from spring practice with the slightest advantage, at least from an outsider’s point of view. But dual-threat freshman Lorenzo Nunez, due in Columbia this summer, could be a factor, as could Michael Sarnecchia.
Florida: Will Grier and Treon Harris have performed evenly all spring, and Saturday was no exception. Grier was the starter “for today,” McElwain said, and seems to fit his system more than the dual-threat Harris. He made a pretty back-shoulder throw Saturday when he caught the corner unaware of the ball. But so far there’s no true indication he’s ahead of the more experienced Harris.
Georgia: The Bulldogs have made it a two-man race between Brice Ramsey, he of the big arm, and Faton Bauta, the dual-threat guy who is much-improved as a passer. Neither did enough Saturday to win the job, but they both appear competent enough that the offense will be fine if one or two of the talented backs stay healthy. Ramsey was hit-or-miss, with greater upside when he hit, while Bauta appeared like the more steady, reliable option.
Ole Miss: Much like the Gators, it’s been tough for the Rebels to evaluate the options behind what’s been a makeshift offensive line. But Ole Miss is in win-now mode, and finding a good quarterback could be the difference in two or even three wins in 2015. Freeze surprisingly named a leader — Ryan Buchanan ahead of Chad Kelly and DeVante Kincade — but Buchanan was 5-of-16 for 49 yards and an interception Saturday, and his lead is “so minute.” Read more of what Hugh Freeze said after the Grove Bowl. Can Kelly progress enough to win the job by the fall?
2. Will Muchamp misjudged Florida’s roster
Muchamp, now Auburn’s defensive coordinator, insisted that he left behind “a deep, talented roster, so don’t let that new guy tell you he ain’t got any players.”
Granted, the Gators went through spring practice with an alarming number of injuries at offensive line and linebacker. The team just learned one of its two experienced offensive linemen, Roderick Johnson, may have suffered a career-ending neck injury April 3.
But the general perception for those who watched Florida’s spring game is that the team still is full of holes, lacks depth and is nowhere near competing for an SEC title. Outside of Demarcus Robinson and some tight ends, this isn’t a good offense now, and it won’t be this fall. The defense has no one the caliber of the outgoing Dante Fowler, either.
Even if Jim McElwain is one of the better offensive coaches in the college game — and he may be — the Gators need one or even two more recruiting classes with some capable offensive linemen and skill players before Florida’s offense will be dangerous.
3. South Carolina’s pass defense will be much better
Judging by passer rating, only Vanderbit’s defense was worse during the 2014 season. The Gamecocks gave up 511 passing yards to Kenny Hill (Texas A&M), 321 to Shane Carden (East Carolina) and 301 to Joshua Dobbs (Tennessee), while less-developed throwing quarterbacks like Kentucky’s Patrick Towles and Auburn’s Nick Marshall completed a high percentage of passes.
The Gamecocks’ pass defense shouldn’t be much of a liability in 2015, though. The team’s young secondary, players like Al Harris Jr. and Chris Lammons, should benefit from getting so much playing time as true freshmen and will improve. But even more importantly, the team’s non-existent pass rush (14 total sacks) should go from a major weakness to at least a minor strength.
The group of pass rushers didn’t have a dominating performance in Saturday’s game. But South Carolina named Marquavius Lewis its defensive player of the spring. He and Dexter Wideman should give the team at least an adequate pass rush, and also make life easier on Darius English — not to mention the still-young secondary.
4. Replacing David Andrews still an unsolved concern
Entering Saturday’s G-Day game, it appeared that sophomore Isaiah Wynn had an opportunity to all but lock down the starting center job vacated by Andrews.
But Wynn had a shaky day snapping the football, including one that went over Brice Ramsey’s head for an 18-yard loss that set up third-and-33 from the 2-yard line. A conservative, run-first offense focused on high-percentage passes cannot afford that kind of negative play during the season.
The Bulldogs return four of five starters on an offensive line that was perhaps the most unheralded weapon in the entire SEC last season, keeping Hutson Mason clean and springing Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel for huge gains. But it won’t be so easy to replace Andrews, the glue of that group.
Georgia plans to give left guard Brandon Kublanow another long look this week, and redshirt senior Hunter Long had a “calming effect” for the second offensive line, Richt said. Saturday’s game may have confused the evaluation for the Bulldogs coaches, and it’s crucial the team picks the right player.
5. No Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson, no problem for Ole Miss
The Rebels must replace two All-Americans in the secondary, a rarity for any team. But the biggest concern on defense is at middle linebacker, where the team has moved defensive end C.J. Johnson, not at defensive back.
Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges appear ready to be above-average SEC defensive backs, if not All-Americans. Trae Elston is “very comfortable” handling the unit’s checks and adjustments, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. (Prewitt did that previously.)
And with Mike Hilton out for some of the practices due to a broken thumb, C.J. Hampton was the “biggest surprise” of the spring, Wommack said. The individual star power won’t be as big, but especially with the team’s strong defensive line, the Ole Miss secondary again should be one of the best in the SEC.