One key question each team needs to answer this spring
Spring football is always the first benchmark to what a program will turn out to be each fall. There are issues to resolve, dilemmas to sweat through, decisions to make or put off until summer.
It’s the first carryover from the fall, when coaches see what they actually have from those returning, and the first audition for those added to the mix on National Signing Day. It might not be the most crucial checkpoint during the calendar year, but it may be the most telling, good or bad.
Spring football brings the cold reality from the bone-chilling winter, as in, what positions need to be better, who needs to work harder and how can we accomplish this? There’s no longer anywhere to hide for anyone. The only saving grace is there’s so far to go until the snaps actually count that the Spring Issues List is always more of a warning than a deadline.
That list is always long and unforgiving. And there’s always that one issue coaches write down first, at the very top, not because the list is in alphabetical order but because it’s the most pressing issue or question going into the summer. So we’ll take each SEC team and try to guess what’s at the top of their Spring Clipboard of Concerns, the one question they want most to be answered by the time the wind blows away that last empty Coke bottle from the deserted stands after the spring game.
Is new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s plan working? Many a demanding Crimson Tide fan raised both eyebrows when Daboll replaced Lane Kiffin (and Steve Sarkisian), wondering if he was the right guy to keep Jalen Hurts’ career curve on the upswing, or wondering who the heck Daboll was. So a lot of nerves in Tuscaloosa can be calmed just by Daboll proving through the spring that the offense and specifically Hurts are in good hands.
Because once that connection is established between Daboll and Hurts, assuming it will be, then Bama fans can start worrying about who the next defensive star is going to be in the absences of Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster. But in 2017, Tuscaloosa’s springtime storyline microscope centers squarely on Daboll.
Can the much-maligned defense show early progress in Paul Rhoads’ new 3-4 defense? The blown leads, turning potential big wins into heartbreaking Saturdays. The dizzying 31.1 points allowed per game. And now a change at defensive coordinator. All of that adds up to big-time intrigue in examining how Rhoads points the defense through the spring as he transitions from defensive backs coach to the guy calling the defensive shots.
No, the Razorbacks can’t win any important games in April with a retooled defense, but they can certainly show their fans that progress could very well come this fall and not the next. A fan base turns its intense eyes to Rhoads.
Online sports betting has come or is coming to a number of SEC states down south. Residents of states where legalized sports betting exists can bet on things like the Heisman race, SEC football games each week and more... all right from their mobile device.
Can transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham prove in such a short time and after a long layoff that he’s on the way to taking over? Yes, Stidham is ultra-talented, as he showed at Baylor in 2015, and yes he can potentially take Auburn’s offense to a level Sean White couldn’t. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be ready to do it immediately, after not playing last year and now trying to take the reins for an SEC program with big-time expectations. That’s why Stidham having a strong spring could prove so exciting, because if he’s able to carve out his niche in a few months, imagine what that could mean come summer and fall?
Auburn doesn’t need to know that Stidham is the guy this spring. That would be unfair. But it would help to know this spring if he’s on the way to being the guy, as so many are banking on. The first fan comment underneath a video of Stidham’s very first spring practice is so very telling, because it’s probably the difference between Auburn being good and great. It says simply, “please pan out.” That verdict will come in the fall. But a springtime Stidham victory would be mighty huge, too.
Can the Gators find some offensive rhythm? This question, which Doug Nussmeier’s unit will need to answer soon, has nothing to do with who wins the tightly contested and much-publicized quarterback battle. It has everything to do with cohesion, because Luke Del Rio is out this spring with a shoulder injury and the quarterbacks battling for the job in his absence, namely Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, have a lot of returning weapons at their disposal but no starting experience.
That means there’s a lot of potential for an offense that’s struggled the past few years — and also means there’s a lot of progress yet to be made. If that continuity between the inexperienced quarterbacks and the returning talent can show itself through the spring (and in Friday night’s spring game), the Gators will have a big jump on everyone in the SEC East going into the summer.
Can Jacob Eason become more than just a caretaker for his amazingly talented returning backfield? We won’t know the answer to this question until the fall, when the wins and losses are tabulated. But we can examine in the spring in Athens how the highly touted Eason, after an up-and-down freshman season, is progressing in the early stages of his all-important second season.
This is the fall Eason needs to show he was worth all that hype. But before Eason can star in the fall, he needs to prosper in the spring, with his arm and his mind, and start to become a leader of a program that has immense expectations attached to it this season.
Can Kentucky establish someone to replace longtime center Jon Toth? The Wildcats need to begin to answer this question this spring if they want to build on last season’s breakthrough season under Mark Stoops. You don’t just replace four-year starters overnight or even during one spring, particularly at an all-important position like center. But whether junior Bunchy Stallings is the answer or someone younger, there’s got to be more than just blind hope that Toth’s departure doesn’t undo what Stoops has built in Lexington.
Can new offensive coordinator Matt Canada establish his system early? In other words, is Canada the right fit for Baton Rouge after knocking it out of the park at Pitt? He certainly brings maximum energy to spring practice, and that’s usually half the battle when it comes to winning over a new group of college-aged player. LSU has a Heisman Trophy candidate in its backfield in Derrius Guice, so Canada has a head start most new offensive coordinators could only dream about.
If those LSU offensive players can exit the spring and say something like, “We got ourselves a coordinator,” and the connection is built, then just think of how ahead of the game LSU will be compared to the past several years under Les Miles’ staff.
How much confidence is Todd Grantham infusing into the defense? Grantham has a mighty challenge on his hands this season with a unit that allowed an eye-popping 31.8 points per game last season. But before he can begin to turn the defense around on fall Saturdays, he has to change the mind-set in March and April. This is the defensive equivalent of what Canada faces in Baton Rouge, only with a much, much higher degree of difficulty.
Can Drew Lock become the bona fide leader of a rebuilding program? He’s got immense talent, a top-notch coordinator in Josh Heupel, some confidence he can succeed in Heupel’s system and a load of weapons returning. Now there’s no excuses for Lock. And with a rebuilding defense, no room for error. Lock’s hair is shorter than last year and you would think his leash would be longer, because he’s been through everything once. He says he’s got a different outlook this spring. There are not a lot of certainties on this team, so Lock has to be the rock that keeps this program together, and that mind-set starts in the spring.
This one is kind of obvious. Can Hugh Freeze keep it all together in the face of the pending NCAA storm? There’s already a self-imposed one-year bowl ban, with more NCAA sanctions to follow, so there’s already no postseason for the Rebels to play for. Freeze needs to have won over the crowd so to speak this spring, the crowd being his players and the program in general. If Freeze can convince his kids there is still plenty to compete for, that will be his most crucial victory of the 2017 calendar year.
Will the offensive line allow Jake Bentley to prosper? Bentley showed so much promise last season, coming off the bench to ignite an offense and a program. But without a halfway stable line in front of him, we all know the offense goes to pieces and the quarterback pays the price. The Gamecocks allowed 41 sacks last season, the most in the SEC. Four starters return on that shaky line, but they have a new coach guiding them in Eric Wolford, so some spring renewal isn’t out of the question.
Can the Vols regroup mentally after such a down second half in 2016? Yes, the Vols have to replace Derek Barnett and Joshua Dobbs. That will be hard enough. But after such an emotionally charged start to last season that was followed by such a deflating ending, including losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt down the stretch, it’s important that by spring’s end the Volunteers still believe they’re supposed to be good because they play at Tennessee. That sounds simple but isn’t, not after settling for a 4-4 finish in the SEC and giving up 45 points to Vandy.
Can the Aggies develop adequate production at defensive end? Two players on that D-line graduated, including standout Daeshon Hall, one transferred and the other is Myles Garrett, who just might be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. So Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies are starting over at defensive end and defensive line coach Terry Price has an enormous challenge this spring building that area back up, or at least starting the process. At least the Aggies have Zaycoven Henderson, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke returning at defensive tackle, but that doesn’t solve the problem on the ends. Maybe the spring can start to do that?
Can the Commodores find another offensive niche not named Ralph Webb? Webb can’t do it all by himself, as was proven again last season because even though Webb had another monster season and even though Vandy went to a bowl, the Commodores still had to win their last two games to finish 6-6 before getting blown out in the Independence Bowl. All-purpose speedster Darrius Sims has graduated, so he won’t be there to complement Webb. Developing another runner — maybe Donaven Tennyson? — and/or seeing Kyle Shurmur continue to progress would be welcomed this spring because the Ralph Webb Show by itself likely won’t get Vandy back in a bowl game.