The biggest spring takeaway for every SEC East team
Spring is officially in the books. That means no more spring games and no more way-too-early predictions. The next time we watch practices, we’ll be within a month of actual football.
We at least have a better idea of where we stand now than where we stood a month ago. So what is the big spring takeaway for each SEC team?
Yesterday, I went through the West. Today, it’s the East:
Florida — It’s Feleipe Franks vs. Kyle Trask
I think a lot of people came into spring thinking that Franks and early enrollee Emory Jones were the two favorites to win the starting quarterback job. I think a lot of people left spring thinking that Franks and Trask are now the two favorites.
That was based on Dan Mullen’s handling of Jones throughout the spring, including in the spring game when he didn’t enter until we already saw Franks and Trask play multiple series. While Jones showed promise, all of the attention will turn to Franks and Trask in fall camp.
I think Trask is the better fit. He’s more accurate, he has a better understanding of the quick-hitter throws and he at least has a willingness to run the ball. Franks showed some of that mobility in the spring game, but I still question if he’ll be efficient enough to run Mullen’s offense.
Mullen hasn’t tipped his hand on which one will be the guy, but I fully expect this to be a 2-man race with a pair of 2016 recruits throughout fall camp.
Georgia — Kirby Smart isn’t sugar coating anything for his defense
Wait, shouldn’t I be talking Justin Fields? OK, quick Fields take.
(I like Fields. A lot. Who doesn’t? The dude has a cannon and he can get upfield extremely well when he scrambles. If I have one critique of him, it’s that he holds on to the ball too long before getting out the pocket. I expect him to get snaps in 2018, and that presence will improve. All in all, he was about what I expected to see.)
The thing in camp that turned my head was Smart’s treatment of the defense. He pretty much criticized each unit publicly and whether it was for not having depth or just not being good enough, he got the point across.
I especially think Smart will continue to be publicly critical of the secondary. Not surprisingly, Deandre Baker and the Dawgs defensive backfield looked solid on Saturday. Even if they do look like Georgia’s best overall unit and could end up being one of the nation’s best, don’t expect too many pats on the back from Smart.
Smart fully understands that there’s a legitimate championship expectation now. His defense raised the bar last year. With all the new faces he has to work with, the last thing he wants is for that bar to come back down.
Kentucky — Quarterback battle is far from over
Fun fact here. Did you know that Kentucky is the only SEC team that has a quarterback battle involving 2 players without an FBS snap? That’s not ideal for a team that struggled to throw the ball last year.
What would’ve been ideal was if either Terry Wilson or Gunnar Hoak ran away with the starting job. That didn’t happen. Instead, the spring showcased what looks like a 50-50 battle to replace Stephen Johnson. We know the mobility and deep ball is there with Wilson and we know that the accuracy is there with Hoak.
In this case, I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Mark Stoops name a starter somewhat early in camp (internally) just so they can get enough reps with the No. 1s. But let’s be honest. Benny Snell is still the most important piece of the offense until further notice.
Mizzou — Some question marks surrounding Drew Lock
Let’s start with the obvious. We have no idea how this Derek Dooley experiment is going to work. That’s the great unknown that has Mizzou fans more anxious about anything.
But I’d be somewhat anxious about the pass-catchers, too.
Yes, I know there’s talent. But after losing J’Mon Moore, leading returning receiver Emanuel Hall got injured just before the spring game after colliding with Lock in practice. We also saw Albert Okwuegbunam (the sophomore tight end who caught 11 TD passes last year) go down early in the spring game. Hopefully those are minor injuries as expected.
While Harry Ballard III and Johnathon Johnson made nice plays in the spring game, this is still a position group that struggled with drops last year. Those guys have to be consistent options if Mizzou is going to light up scoreboards like it did last year (Johnson had 2 or less catches in 7 games). It’ll be interesting to see how Dooley gets them involved.
And well, to see if Dooley doesn’t spoil what the Tigers have going on offense.
South Carolina — Offense will have new identity
So I thought that the Gamecocks would run a bit more tempo and that we’d see some new things under Bryan McClendon. I didn’t think that we’d see a complete and total transformation. I’m not sure if this group will look like Oregon like Tom Luginbill said they looked like.
“I’ve NEVER seen a Will Muschamp offense like this…no lie….you would have thought they were old school Oregon with their tempo” – @TomLuginbill on @GamecockFB in spring. #SECThisMorning @SIRIUSXM App/Channel 374.
— Peter Burns (@PeterBurnsESPN) March 27, 2018
Still, we saw that tempo in the spring game. Jake Bentley looked pretty comfortable doing it, too. That was perhaps the best sign from the spring game.
If South Carolina really is going to compete with Georgia for the division title as many speculate will be the case, this unit has to undergo a significant transformation. It also can’t be dependent on the health of Deebo Samuel. We saw how that turned out last year (the No. 99 scoring offense).
But all systems are a go for a complete turnaround after McClendon’s first spring in charge.
Tennessee — Jeremy Pruitt is definitely not intern Butch Jones
Hooooooo weeeeeeee. No amount of fire emojis was too many for this quote after Tennessee’s spring game.
Jeremy Pruitt: Our fans today were like our football team. Some were here and doing great, some weren’t here for legitimate reasons, and some should have been here and weren’t. That sounds just like our team.
— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) April 21, 2018
That’s no made-up trophy. Neither was giving the team’s spring performance a ‘D’.
I mean, I knew that Pruitt was extremely different than Jones. Their backgrounds and basic methods of communication were black and white. But even I didn’t realize just how different they were.
A quote like that might’ve been more critical than anything that Jones ever said in his 5 years in Knoxville, and his teams were 14-24 in conference play. Pruitt said that after a spring game! And he had more than 60,000 people there!
It definitely caught plenty of people by surprise to see such a critical comment. But that’s the tone Pruitt is trying to set for his team, especially for a first-team defense that was outplayed on Saturday. Tennessee could use a little dose of reality. This is still a team coming off a winless season in the SEC. That’s not the squad that needs a participation trophy.
Or rather, a “champion of life” trophy.
Vanderbilt — Could the bar be set any lower for Derek Mason?
Spring is supposed to be the time for optimism. Everyone is undefeated, right? Vandy feels like the exception to the rule. Even the spring game was cold and nasty.
Maybe my mindset is skewed because the Commodores wrapped up spring ball before anyone in the SEC, but it’s hard to imagine a Power 5 team with less excitement about the upcoming season. That’s a problem for Derek Mason, who probably doesn’t want to see the headlines if his team crumbles to another 1-7 mark in conference play. ESPN’s FPI win projection for his program was set at 3.9, which means that just making a bowl game would be considered a lofty feat.
The one thing that could change all of that is if Kyle Shurmur has a monster year. Shurmur is getting some draft buzz after making a major leap as a junior. Without Ralph Webb, the offense will be built around the veteran signal-caller.
Maybe Shurmur can lead the Commodores past a remarkably low bar that was set for Mason this spring.