My biggest post-spring area of concern for every SEC team
And that’s all she wrote.
Spring is over and the transfer portal panic is in full swing. Ahead of the May 1 deadline to play immediately this upcoming season, we’ll see no shortage of action from SEC teams who are trying to address areas of weakness.
That’s all well and good. In all likelihood, though, 1 player won’t suddenly wipe a weakness of the board. Unless we see some stunning transfer like Kayshon Boutte bolting for another program in need of receiver help, it’s fair to say that said program will still have question marks at receiver.
This “area of greatest concern” is a fluid list. Injuries happen. Suspensions happen. Fall camp happens. Shoot, more transfers happen.
But for now, this is my biggest area of concern for every SEC team:
Alabama — The offensive line
The spring was a reminder that the Alabama offensive line is far from a vintage group, and not just because it didn’t have anyone who could block Will Anderson. A group that struggled in atypical fashion last year lost its best player in Evan Neal, and is now hoping to protect the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
The Tide added Vanderbilt’s Tyler Steen, which should add some needed experience, but in pass protection, PFF graded him No. 43 among 50 qualified SEC tackles. That was slightly ahead of Chris Owens, who is the other tackle Alabama needs to replace. Not ideal, especially after a year in which the Tide allowed 41 sacks in 15 games.
Arkansas — The WR depth
I’m sorry, but any time you’re replacing a receiver with 3 times as much production as the next-closest guy, that’s a big deal. Jadon Haselwood won’t fill the massive hole left by Treylon Burks, nor should be expected to. The 5-star Oklahoma transfer is tasked with becoming a go-to receiver for the first time in his career.
Trey Knox, who was once considered the 1-2 punch alongside Burks in that 2019 class, is playing tight end. Ketron Jackson Jr. has high expectations after an encouraging spring, but he’s still young coming off a true freshman season in which he caught 5 passes. Malik Hornsby getting reps at receiver is a fun spring storyline, and he could become a weapon, but it’s hard to envision a high-volume role for the converted quarterback. KJ Jefferson needs some new go-to targets who can get separation if he’s going to take another step while also keeping those turnovers down.
Auburn — The QB room
If I felt like I was fighting for my job, I wouldn’t want Auburn’s options. That sounds harsh, but that’s reality after the offseason Bryan Harsin endured. TJ Finley and Zach Calzada each have roughly an entire season’s worth of lackluster reps against SEC competition, Robby Ashford is promising, but he’s never played a snap at the FBS level and Holden Geriner is a true freshman. It’s not a great sign that Finley is the elder statesman of that group having arrived on campus a year ago.
Usually a quarterback room with 3 Power 5 transfers has more favorable options. Honestly, the unknown of Ashford seems more appealing than hoping that Finley or Calzada can suddenly turn into above-average SEC starters. But even that seems like a major question mark for Harsin heading into a pivotal year.
Florida — The pass-catchers
Billy Napier has been about as honest as any coach in the country talking about how much his team needs to add depth before that May 1 deadline. Receiver would be a great place to target considering that Florida lost leading receiver Jacob Copeland (Maryland) and No. 3 receiver Kemore Gamble (UCF) to the transfer portal while the veteran Rick Wells is also out of eligibility. That means the Gators are replacing 3 of their top 5 receiving leaders, and 5 of the top 7 if you include pass-catching backs Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis.
Justin Shorter is back, though he has yet to live up to that 5-star hype. Perhaps a more steady quarterback situation will lead to bigger roles for Trent Whittemore and Xzavier Henderson. Anthony Richardson needs guys who can move the chains and get separation. If he’s going to eliminate those mistakes and help Florida keep its head above water in SEC play, go-to targets need to emerge in a hurry.
Georgia — The cornerback depth
Outside of Kelee Ringo, Georgia once again has some cornerback needs with Derion Kendrick off to the NFL and Latavious Brini and Ameer Speed off by way of the portal. Between Kamari Lassiter, Daylen Everette and Nyland Green, it’s no secret that Kirby Smart desperately needs another corner to step up. Those guys played a combined 169 snaps this past season, 158 of which came from Lassiter. He’ll get a little help this summer with Julian Humphrey and Jaheim Singletary arriving, but still.
The Dawgs had issues in the secondary that were covered up by that all-world defensive line. Life gets tougher in coverage when you’re not consistently getting home with 3-4 man rushes. Teams are going to likely avoid Ringo and try to attack UGA’s inexperience at the other cornerback spot.
Kentucky — The defensive line
Josh Paschal was quietly one of the SEC’s top defensive linemen in recent memory. He became a versatile leader in the front of Mark Stoops’ defense. Losing him and nose tackle Marquan McCall was significant for that group. Kentucky is stocked pretty well at linebacker, but the ‘Cats need to find some run defense help. Ideally, that would come via former 4-star recruits Justin Rogers and Josaih Hayes along with the emerging Octavious Oxendine on the interior. We know that Stoops typically rotates several guys in those spots.
Kentucky made pretty significant strides defending the run last year. It was the first top-20 run defense of the Stoops era. It’s not a surprise that it coincided with the program’s second winning season in SEC play since the 1970s. Consider that another reason the ‘Cats can’t afford a significant dip up front.
LSU — The corners
Brian Kelly took over a team in need of replacing Eli Ricks, Derek Stingley Jr., Cordale Flott and Dwight McGlothern. No big deal. To Kelly’s credit, he signed 3 Power 5 corners in Sevyn Banks (Ohio State), Greg Brooks Jr. (Arkansas) and Jarrick Bernard (Oklahoma State). Good. LSU somehow failed to crack the top half of the FBS rankings in pass defense in 2021, which was a year removed from impossibly finishing last in 2020. LSU was pretty thin at the position from a recruiting standpoint in recent memory, despite the fact that it had some individual stars.
Those new additions have a steep hill to climb in a division that’s loaded with high-octane passing offenses. The “DBU” nickname should probably be put on the back burner for the time being.
MSU — The offensive tackles
Losing both tackles is a tough pill to swallow for any team. Losing both tackles for a team that throws the ball 50 times per game? Yeah, that’s a different beast. It’s especially tough to replace an offensive tackle with pass protection skills like Charles Cross (PFF graded him No. 7 overall among Power 5 offensive tackles), who is expected to come off the board in the first 15 picks of the NFL Draft. Cross really took his game to the next level in 2021, which was one of the reasons Will Rogers and the Air Raid could actually settle in a bit instead of getting stopped by a mere 3-man pass rush. When Cross opted out of the bowl game, it was a daunting glimpse into what the MSU offensive could look like with him gone.
Who will step into these new roles? Based on Mike Leach’s comments in the spring, it’s still an open battle at right tackle, but second-year player Albert Reese could be the guy. As for the all-important left tackle spot, JUCO transfer Percy Lewis could have the right veteran frame for the spot (he’s 6-8, 345 pounds) or fellow former JUCO transfer Nick Jones, who stepped into a starting role in the bowl game with Cross out, could become an option. Whatever the case, Leach needs someone who can become a reliable force like Cross.
Mizzou — The QB room
It’s no secret that Mizzou fans were frustrated with quarterback play in 2021. That’s why Connor Bazelak is off to Indiana. It’s also why Eli Drinkwitz was reportedly in the mix to land Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels and Georgia transfer JT Daniels. Both ended up elsewhere. What does that mean? Brady Cook and Tyler Macon are engaged in a quarterback battle, which true freshman Sam Horn will join in the summer unless he chooses professional baseball.
That’s not ideal. Not in a division that suddenly has loaded up at the position via the transfer portal in the last year-plus. Hendon Hooker, Will Levis and Spencer Rattler could all enter the season on the short list of the top quarterbacks in the country. That’s not including the immensely promising Anthony Richardson at Florida, nor is it including Stetson Bennett IV, AKA the guy who won a national title last year. Meanwhile, Mizzou appears it’ll turn to a totally unproven option. That’s daunting, especially with Tyler Badie off to the NFL.
Ole Miss — The linebackers
Go figure that Ole Miss could lose its historically dominant quarterback, its top 3 running backs, its top 3 receivers and its offensive coordinator, yet my biggest concern isn’t even on that side of the ball. That’s the Lane Kiffin effect. But as we saw in 2020, Ole Miss has an awfully low defensive floor and it can revert back there in a hurry if new starters don’t rise to the occasion.
Gone are the likes of Chance Campbell, Lakia Henry, Mark Robinson and MoMo Sanogo. Those guys played a combined 1,890 snaps last season. Campbell especially was a key part of that Year 2 rise with DJ Durkin. With Durkin now gone, new defensive coordinator Maurice Crum needs to find the right mix with limited returning options (Ashanti Cistrunk and Austin Keys) and new transfer portal options. TCU transfer Khari Coleman and Central Michigan transfer Troy Brown could help fill that void. It’s probably not a great sign that the most promising player of that group, Keys, was out for the spring with an ankle injury. Ole Miss will have very 2020 vibes on defense if it can’t figure out some options at linebacker.
South Carolina — The offensive line
What the Auburn, Florida and UNC wins covered up was the mostly poor season from the South Carolina offensive line. They were a hindrance to the scheme that Scott Satterfield wanted to run. A promising backfield ended up being No. 93 in FBS in rushing and perhaps even more alarming, it was No. 121 out of 130 FBS teams with just 9 rushing touchdowns. That wasn’t just the byproduct of a banged up Kevin Harris, either.
With Rattler now taking over at quarterback, South Carolina should have more teams respecting his downfield accuracy, which means fewer loaded fronts. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Gamecocks are hoping that development and continuity spark a better overall unit. Dylan Wonnum returned for his 6th season, but he was banged up in spring. Tackles Tyshawn Wannamaker is expected to compete for a right tackle spot, but he struggled immensely in pass protection in 2021. South Carolina returns 3 guys with starting experience at the guard spots, though. Perhaps that, with the combination of Rattler’s skill set, will allow that group to avoid being the liability it often was in Year 1 of the Shane Beamer era.
Tennessee — The interior defensive line
I thought Matthew Butler was one of the most underrated players in the SEC. He played a versatile, pivotal role up front for a group that had basement-level expectations with the mass exodus of the Jeremy Pruitt fallout. But now, Butler is gone as the leader of that group and defensive coordinator Tim Banks will look for a new alpha up front.
Maybe that’ll be former Kansas transfer Da’Jon Terry, who has 2 years as a rotational guy at the Power 5 level. Elijah Simmons got a lot of buzz in the spring after shedding some weight. He has freakish athleticism — he was throwing down dunks as a 6-2, 340-pound high schooler — and would ideally be the versatile force that Campbell was. Promising spring or not, someone who struggled with weight and injury issues is being tasked to take over for someone who rarely left the field like Butler. With the high-tempo fashion that Tennessee runs its offense with Josh Heupel, that position can’t take plays off. It feels inevitable that Tennessee’s run defense, which ranked No. 36 in FBS, takes a step back in a post-Butler world.
Texas A&M — The pass-catching depth
On the surface, you might look at the dynamic veteran Ainias Smith and the 5-star true freshman Evan Stewart and think that the Aggies will be just fine at the pass-catcher spots. But look a little closer and it’s easy to see why there’s some concern. The once-promising Caleb Chapman hit the portal, as did former 5-star wideout Demond Demas. Three-year starters Jalen Wydermyer and Isaiah Spiller didn’t line up out wide, but they ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in catches in 2021. They’re off to the NFL.
On top of that, Smith is mostly a slot guy and true freshmen like Stewart typically don’t make a significant impact in Fisher’s offense. A&M desperately needs Stewart to play like an upperclassman, and it would help if Jalen Preston and/or Moose Muhammad III became move-the-chains guys out wide. None of those guys has really shown they can get consistent separation downfield in the SEC. If A&M is going to come anywhere near a division title, it needs several non-Smith options to emerge as steady targets.
Vanderbilt — The offensive line
You know it’s a bad sign when the offensive line looks overmatched in a spring game against a Vandy defense that had 9 sacks last year. Unfortunately for Clark Lea, that’s still the case. To make matters worse, 3-year starter Tyler Steen left Vandy for Alabama.
The good news? Four other starters are back. Bradley Ashmore is back to start at tackle, and on the interior, Delvin Xavier Castillo and Ben Cox return at guard beside center Julian Hernandez. That unit needs a significant improvement after it finished No. 106 in FBS in yards per carry and it ranked No. 123 in FBS in rushing scores. Only 5 of those 8 rushing scores came against SEC competition, too. It’s still a trenches league. If Vandy doesn’t get a noticeable upgrade at the line of scrimmage, that SEC drought will last another season.