Every SEC team's most heated position battle this spring
The first glimpses of the fingerprints the new coaches leave on the SEC will be revealed this spring with a host of quarterback competitions.
But that’s far from where position battles end. There’s the Alabama secondary, Georgia linebackers, and who will follow Ralph Webb in the Vanderbilt backfield?
There are some teams who have an incumbent, or long-term QB as a likely front-runner, but several have been inconsistent and may benefit from a coaching change and fresh look. However, they must fend off a highly-regarded recruit, or two.
Here are the most heated position battles across the SEC this spring:
Few units will lose the sheer number of players and corresponding talent than the Crimson Tide secondary, which counts six players as departures, most notably Minkah Fitzpatrick. As has been the case during this championship run, there is no shortage of replacements. But none more intriguing than Saivion Smith, the former LSU player who transferred to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Smith practiced with Alabama during the College Football Playoff period after he was ranked the No. 1 junior college prospect nationally and the No. 1 junior college cornerback. Other key players on a long list of heir apparents are Deionte Thompson and Shyheim Carter, who each have experience, while Trevon Diggs will be another player to keep an eye on.
For the first time since 2013, an Allen brother won’t be the starting quarterback. The candidates to take the helm are sophomore Cole Kelley, junior Ty Storey, redshirt freshman Daulton Hyatt, and a dark horse in incoming freshman Connor Noland. Kelley would seemingly be the favorite because he has the most experience, but it’s obviously a new playbook for everyone under new coach Chad Morris, who prefers a dual-threat. Kelley started four games and played in nine games last season. He finished with 1,038 yards, 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
Under Gus Malzahn, the Tigers typically go with a primary running back who receives the bulk of carries. It was the case with Peyton Barber, Cameron Artis-Payne and Tre Mason. Now the question is, will it be Kam Martin, Devan Barrett or JaTarvious Whitlow? Whitlow suffered an ankle injury and missed last season, while Martin showed flashes in 2017, however, there may be questions if he can handle a 25-30 carry load per game. Barrett would need to prove his durability, but his versatility is an asset.
This will be a question of a new coaching staff offering Feleipe Franks another chance and a sort of change of scenery feel, or will the rebuilding effort start from the outset with incoming freshman Emory Jones. There’s also Kyle Trask and Jake Allen in the mix. Jones is an early enrollee and was the No. 4 dual-threat QB in this class. Franks has had an uneven start to his career and has yet to put a firm grasp on the starting job despite multiple chances. Trask redshirted two years ago, then had a foot injury last year. Allen also redshirted and dealt with a back injury.
Replacing inside linebacker Roquan Smith will not be easy. But we already saw glimpses from Monty Rice, and Tae Crowder was a hero in the Rose Bowl for his play on the squib kick. There’s also Juwan Taylor, who started at Vanderbilt, and a trio of former 4-star recruits in Nate McBride, Jaden Hunter and Channing Tindall.
The QB battle will dominate headlines, but there are other holes to fill in the backfield. Despite his fumble in the frustrating loss to Troy, Nick Brossette is the dean of the Tigers’ backfield, and has 46 carries for 306 yards, which is a healthy per carry average. But after the fumble, he was in the dog house and didn’t get a carry for eight games. Brossette will compete with rising sophomore Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and incoming freshmen Tae Provens and Chris Curry.
Drew Barker’s announcement that he is transferring adds more intrigue to a heated offseason competition at quarterback. Junior college transfer Terry Wilson is a dual-threat with three seasons of eligibility remaining. Rising sophomore Gunnar Hoak is also expected to contend, along with redshirt freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood.
One of the more noticeable changes in the Joe Moorhead-led team will be the passing offense, specifically the wide receivers, and that’s set to get an infusion of competition with early enrollees Devonta Jason and Stephen Guidry. The Bulldogs only had one senior among its top five wide receivers last season, and the leading receiver, junior Jesse Jackson, had just 276 receiving yards on 27 catches. Sophomore wide receiver Deddrick Thomas had a team-high four touchdown catches.
The Tigers will need some new pass rushers to make an impact following the departures of Marcell Frazier and Jordan Harold, who combined for 10 sacks last season. Terry Beckner Jr., who had 7 sacks, is one candidate to fill the void, but competition will be plentiful. Nate Anderson and Tre Williams were listed as backups to Harold late in the season, and Chris Turner is another freshman on the other side.
After the departure of 1,000-yard senior Jordan Wilkins, the Rebels will look for new faces at running back, and the options include mid-year enrollee Isaiah Woullard and Eric Swinney following the late-season serious knee injury to D’Vaughn Pennamon. Swinney, who dealt with his own knee injury earlier in his career, should compete with D.K. Buford and Woullard.
The Gamecocks finished 12th in the SEC in rushing offense, and after a banner freshman season, Rico Dowdle struggled with just 251 rushing yards in 2017. A.J. Turner was the team leader with 531 yards, and Ty’Son Williams (below) chipped in 471 yards. No running back rushed for more than 3 TDs. Though Mon Denson had recent knee surgery, look for him to be in the mix as the Gamecocks continue to search for their next 1,000 yard rusher.
Before December signee JT Shrout arrives, Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride should battle to be the starting quarterback under new coach Jeremy Pruitt. McBride’s 2017 season is perhaps most remembered for Butch Jones playing him against Southern Miss as a replacement for the injured Guarantano. Many saw that as burning McBride’s redshirt. McBride ultimately played in two games and started against Missouri. He completed 17-of-40 passes for 152 yards with a touchdown pass and two interceptions. As a redshirt freshman, Guarantano started six games and played in nine last season. He threw for 997 yards and 4 touchdowns with 2 interceptions.
Despite Nick Starkel’s 499 passing yards in the Belk Bowl, expect Kellen Mond to give him a push this spring, especially if he polishes some of his dual-threat strengths. The fact that it’s even a question of the starting quarterback should offer a glimpse into QB race. It was noticeable that Texas A&M coaches went out of their way to praise Mond in the aftermath of the bowl game to suggest that they not only don’t want him to transfer, but he could be in the mix in 2018.
Vandy lost two of its three best receivers, so replenishing that position group certainly is a priority as the offense becomes more and more the Kyle Shurmur Show.
But replacing an all-time great in Ralph Webb is the biggest task. The top option is Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a 4-star recruit in the 2015 class. Vaughn is from Nashville, and Vandy was in the mix when he chose Illinois. Jamauri Wakefield, who shined during last spring’s scrimmage, had 115 yards last season, and some wondered why he didn’t see the field more.