As spring practice nears, 1 question I have about every SEC West team
It seems like only last week we were wondering whether Clemson could slow down the most prolific offense in SEC history.
The reality is that question was answered, emphatically, almost 2 months ago. Another college football recruiting cycle has been completed, recruits have enrolled, staffs have been adjusted.
As spring ball for some starts this weekend, here’s 1 question I have about every SEC West team.
Alabama: Can Tua adjust?
Tua Tagovailoa is coming off arguably the greatest single season in SEC history. He nearly set SEC records for yards and TDs. He guided Alabama to a perfect regular season, another SEC title and a fifth consecutive Playoff berth.
What’s the next step on his road to the NFL? Adjusting to the game. He didn’t do that in the national title game against Clemson, and the Tigers took full advantage. Twice, Clemson’s DBs baited Tagovailoa with pre-snap looks that showed one thing but delivered another. The deep ball interception was even more obviously deceptive than the early pick-6.
Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen anticipated the go route and broke on the ball before it left Tagovailoa’s hand. He essentially ran the route. The check-down was wide open, but if there’s one criticism of Tagovailoa’s scouting report, it’s that he’s stubborn with the pre-snap read and almost always wants to hit the home run.
INT: showed 2-high pre snap, but corners bail on snap. Fairly common. Tua made up his mind pre snap. Example of Clemson baiting a throw. pic.twitter.com/TPcrlvFXrm
— Matt Wyatt (@RadioWyatt) January 14, 2019
Until he adjusts and punishes them with second and third reads, expect the better defenses he faces to show one thing and play another.
(I’d also like to know why Alabama didn’t force Chick-fil-A to find a better opening opponent than Duke, but that’s another question for another day.)
Arkansas: Who’s going to win the QB job?
Without question, Chad Morris wasn’t thrilled with his QB production in 2018. He turned to a true freshman Connor Noland, who wasn’t quite ready. He pursued graduate transfer Kelly Bryant, whom he recruited to Clemson. He landed grad transfer Ben Hicks, his former QB at SMU.
Familiarity doesn’t guarantee success, but it provides a nice head start. I expect Hicks to win the job, Noland to continue to learn on the job and 4-star K.J. Jefferson to make things really interesting.
Auburn: What happens with Joey Gatewood?
Bo Nix is the flavor of the month. Such is often the case as college football reveals flaws high school ball couldn’t, and every cycle produces the Next Great Thing.
I’m not ready to give up on Gatewood, but my opinion hardly matters. Only one voice does: Gus Malzahn’s. He recruited both.
Malik Willis and Cord Sandberg are in the mix, too, but the Gatewood vs. Nix quarterback race is the most intriguing in the league.
LSU: How good is John Emery?
We won’t find out until fall camp, but if Emery is, indeed, LSU’s next great in-state RB, the Tigers’ offense will be more dangerous than it was in 2018.
Nick Brossette was a pleasant surprise last season, a first-time starter who pounded his way to 1,000 yards. But the Tigers lacked the big run. Heck, Joe Burrow had the Tigers’ longest run — 59 yards — and only run longer than 50 yards.
High school tape doesn’t always translate, but freshmen have had success in the SEC. Recently, too. Emery has better speed than Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who, ideally, continues his role as a complementary change of pace back.
Mississippi State: Can the revamped defensive line hold up?
Joe Moorhead is an offensive head coach, so most of the spring will be spent discussing Keytaon Thompson’s development. Fair enough. But Nick Fitzgerald wasn’t the Bulldogs’ biggest loss. Somehow, MSU has to find a way to replace two potential first-round picks off its defensive line. That’s usually an Alabama problem. Now it’s Moorhead’s.
MSU hasn’t had a DL drafted in the first round since Fletcher Cox in 2012. It hasn’t had 2 defensive players taken in the first round since 1982. So this spring is unique.
Chauncey Rivers, an original 4-star Georgia signee in 2015, is a likely candidate to plug one of the holes. There are other 4-stars who have waited for an opportunity.
Ole Miss: How much does Jerrion Ealy like baseball?
The Rebels held off late charges from other pursuers to sign Ealy. That’s the good news. Can they hold off Major League Baseball, too? Ealy entered his senior season as a projected first-round draft pick in June. Those signing bonuses start at $2M. A Top 10 pick could earn twice that.
Ealy, an outfielder whom MLB.com ranked the No. 18 prospect in the draft class, has said money won’t be a deciding factor. We’ll see. It’s extremely rare for position players to walk away from that money. Another factor: Ealy’s position. Running backs are at risk every play. He’ll likely have to choose signing bonus and pro baseball or football.
Texas A&M: Who emerges as RB1?
The Aggies and Mississippi State both were hit hard by personnel losses, especially on defense.
So while Jimbo Fisher and defensive coordinator Mike Elko will have many questions to answer on that side of the ball, the most drama will involve the race to replace Trayveon Williams as RB1.
It’s possible that Fisher develops some type of rotation between the returnees and hyped recruits.
But that’s not usually Fisher’s style. At FSU, only once did he have 2 RBs get more than 120 carries apiece in the same season. Georgia, by comparison, has had 2 RBs get at least 130 carries apiece each of the past 3 seasons. Alabama had 3 get at least 110 apiece last season.
It’s highly likely that Kellen Mond, second last year with 149 attempts, again will have more rushes than the Aggies’ RB2.
Fisher isn’t afraid to play freshmen, either. Jashaun Corbin will enter spring as the top contender for RB1, but if in-state standout Isaiah Spiller shows he’s ready in fall camp, he’ll play.
One thing is for sure: Fisher isn’t going to abandon the run.