Predicting the team MVP for every SEC East team this spring
In the SEC East, everything seems to be falling into place for Butch Jones and his Tennessee Volunteers. At least it when it comes to on-the-field issues.
The Volunteers have increased their win totals each of the past two seasons, finishing 9-4 in 2015. Plus, three teams in their division – Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri – have made head-coaching changes and are in the midst of major transitions.
As spring practice gets underway, here is a prediction of which SEC East players will make the biggest impact over the next month and beyond.
Jim McElwain had a successful first season in Gainesville, with his Gators defeating Georgia on their way to winning the division and finishing 10-4. CB Vernon Hargreaves III, DE Alex McCalister and RB Kelvin Taylor – all early NFL Draft entrants – are major losses whose departures will be felt.
The QB situation is still murky, and with four players vying for the starting job and sharing reps, it might be hard for an MVP to emerge from this group.
Frankly, we give a damn about Scarlett — Jordan Scarlett that is. As a freshman last year, Scarlett led Florida’s backs with 5.3 yards per attempt on just 34 carries, but don’t be surprised if he takes the ball and runs with it in the race to replace Taylor as the Gators’ No. 1 rusher.
New head coach Kirby Smart brings his stellar defensive credentials with him to Athens, where his offense might not be that bad, either. It certainly helps to have a returning QB in Greyson Lambert to go along with prized incoming recruit Jacob Eason battling to be to be the starter.
But Georgia has become “Running Back U” in the SEC, and this year will be no different. Not many teams can replace an injured Nick Chubb with someone as talented as Sony Michel and still have depth at the position.
Nevertheless, that’s what the Bulldogs boast in backups Brendan Douglas, Tae Crowder and A.J. Turman. But there’s another back who has caught our eye.
Incoming recruit Elijah Holyfield may be the Real Deal for Georgia. He might have not have enough experience to float like a butterfly all the way up the Bulldogs’ depth chart, but like his famous pugilist dad Evander, he could knock out his competition before all is said and done.
At first glance, the Wildcats appear to be in better shape on offense as they approach the spring. New QB Drew Barker is unproven but talented and he has a running back he can fall back on in Stanley (Boom) Williams.
Because Kentucky allowed 27.4 points per game last season to finish tied with Arkansas for next to last in the SEC, our focus is on defense. Look for CB Chris Westry to build on his 2015 season, when he had 36 tackles, 8 pass breakups, 2 interceptions and a sack.
It’s no secret that the Tigers were a mess on offense last season, averaging just 13.6 points per game to finish ahead of only Kent State in all of the FBS. RB Russell Hansbrough and QB Maty Mauk have played their last games for Mizzou, but the Tigers are hoping that new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will make any kind of difference.
New head coach Barry Odom is a defensive guy, and the Tigers were excellent on that side of the ball in 2015, finishing fifth in the FBS and second in the SEC behind Alabama in points allowed per game (16.2). A key cog for Odom this spring could be safety Anthony Sherrils, who was Missouri’s third-leading tackler last season with 64 stops and added 6 pass breakups.
New Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp has plenty of areas to fix. And for starters, it will be up to new co-coordinator Kurt Roper to improve an offense that finished 12th in the SEC in scoring at 21.9 points per game.
Roper’s next order of business will be finding a starting QB out of a group that includes returnees Perry Orth (12 TDs, 9 INTs last season) and Lorenzo Nunez along with true freshman Brandon McIlwain. With Brandon Wilds — who led South Carolina with 567 rushing yards last season — graduating, the top tailback spot will also be up for grabs.
Meanwhile, Muschamp’s main concern will be shoring up a defense that allowed a whopping 6.03 yards per play last year. Luckily for him, standout LB Skai Moore is returning, and look for him to dominate spring ball.
The Volunteers enter the year loaded on offense. Joshua Dobbs – who led SEC QBs with 671 rushing yards last season – and standout RB Jalen Hurd anchor an attack that should pile up plenty of yards and points.
However, Tennessee might be just as impressive on defense after allowing 20 points per game in 2015, which was good for fifth in the SEC. New coordinator Bob Shoop has plenty of talent at his disposal, including DE Derek Barnett and LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
But the Vol who could emerge the most this spring is LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. The 6-1, 224-pounder had quite the freshman year, finishing with 66 tackles – 6.5 for a loss – 3 sacks and an interception, and is ready to make even more of an impact.
Three big names are returning on offense: QB Kyle Shurmur, RB Ralph Webb and OL Andrew Jelks, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury. They will try to help offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig improve an attack that produced just 15.2 points per game last season, which was 13th in the SEC.
So with head coach Derek Mason entering his third year in Nashville, it’s not surprising that defense remains Vandy’s bread and butter, led by All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham. However, we expect big things this spring from fellow LB Josh Smith — the top-rated recruit in Mason’s 2015 signing class according to 247Sports — who had seven tackles during his freshman season while appearing in all 12 games.