Most pressing question each SEC team faces entering fall camp
If only your favorite SEC team had one and only one pressing question entering fall camp. It would all be so simple, wouldn’t it?
But simple is hardly ever reality, and life in the rugged Southeastern Conference is a yearlong grind full of complex challenges.
For now, though, we’ll leave the laundry list of issues behind and focus on that one thing that might keep fans thinking (or worrying) out loud on steamy southern summer nights.
Alabama: What will the front seven look like?
Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Dalvin Tomlinson combined for a staggering 56.5 tackles for loss last season. Not surprisingly, all four will be playing on Sundays this fall, as Alabama loses five of its front-seven starters.
So while the rest of the SEC pretends to cry for the Crimson Tide, Nick Saban can roll out edge-rushing talents like Christian Miller, Terrell Hall and Anfernee Jennings, as well as a laundry list of capable names that should solidify the interior. But until then we can sort of pretend Bama could have a problem replacing all that NFL-bound talent.
Arkansas: Who replaces Rawleigh Williams III?
Williams’ abrupt retirement from football after sustaining a second scary neck injury during the Razorbacks’ spring game was both very unfortunate for Williams and very untimely for the Hogs, who need to scramble now to find something close to a replacement for a guy who rushed for 1,360 yards last fall. That guy, at least to start with, could be Devwah Whaley, who quietly rushed for 634 yards last season as a freshman.
The Razorbacks can ramp up their recruiting efforts for 2018 at running back, but that won’t solve the sudden problem for 2017. If it becomes one, that is. Maybe Whaley steps in and seizes the opportunity. Or maybe it’s freshman Maleek Williams, who raised eyebrows in the spring.
Auburn: Can Stidham become the leader of the offense?
Sean White isn’t going to remind any Auburn fans of Cam Newton anytime soon, but he’d be a nice fallback as the quarterback competition picks up again in August on the Plains. That’s when we’ll see if the old reliable White can hold off the highly touted Jarrett Stidham, who dazzled a bit at Baylor and did more dazzling last month in Auburn’s spring game.
Sometimes, the quarterback battle can be a subplot at fall camp. Not here. Stidham didn’t come to Auburn to watch White be solid if not spectacular. So when camp begins all eyes will be on the dynamic Stidham trying to once and for all unseat White and give the Tigers something closer to what they had with Newton than what they’ve had since.
Florida: Can Gators finally find their next great QB?
The remedy for Florida’s early December blues is finally finding a quarterback who can advance the program to the heights it realized under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. It doesn’t mean the QB has to be all-world. It just means he has to be closer to Tim Tebow than Treon Harris. Feleipe Franks appears to be the logical answer, and that’s probably the outcome Gators fans should wish for in fall camp, considering Franks’ 4-star credentials and his progression this spring.
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Franks doesn’t have the job sealed up yet. But he’s on the way to being the next guy and maybe, finally, the right guy. UF’s chances to win again come early December kind of rest on his shoulders — no pressure though.
Georgia: What about those wide receivers?
The Bulldogs’ top target from last year’s group, Isaiah McKenzie, was drafted in the fifth round by the Broncos. Where does that leave Kirby Smart’s passing game, and specifically Jacob Eason, who will be expected to make a jump in Year 2 while also helping carry the Bulldogs’ burden of great expectations?
Can Terry Godwin, Javon Wims and Riley Ridley, along with early enrollee Jeremiah Holloman, be a respectable group and cause foes to fear something other than the elite running tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb? Having Michel and Chubb back is an embarrassment of riches. But without at least steady wideouts that backfield surplus doesn’t mean nearly as much.
Kentucky: Can Barker unseat Johnson at QB?
Lost amid the euphoria of Kentucky’s breakthrough season was that Drew Barker, not Stephen Johnson, won the starting job coming out of fall camp. Then the 4-star phenom injured his back and was gone for the season, and in came Johnson to kick-start Kentucky’s climb up the SEC East ladder.
Will the opportunistic Johnson hang on to the starting job he took and ran with last fall? Probably, yes. Barker didn’t participate in the spring game, but he did go through some non-contact drills this spring. If the resilient Barker is healthy come fall, things could get interesting at quarterback for a program with a suddenly healthy degree of expectations.
LSU: Can the defense recreate itself after big-time losses?
While Bayou Bengals fans wait to see if Matt Canada can turn around the offense, the defense is forced to replace eight starters. Five LSU defensive players were drafted last month. That’s a lot for Dave Aranda to try to replace in one offseason at a program where the standards on defense have been set so high. The spring game was a good sign. But the fall will tell the real tale.
If LSU has any designs on pushing Alabama in the SEC West — and that’s the unofficial message on the Tigers’ unofficial chalkboard before each season — it must get contributions from big-time 2016 recruits such as Michael Divinity at linebacker and Saivion Smith at cornerback.
Mississippi State: Can Brown’s production be replaced?
Richie Brown led the Bulldogs in tackles the past two seasons. He was their rock, their brick wall in the middle. But he’s gone, so now what happens to a defense that allowed 31.8 points per game last season, which ranked 13th in the SEC?
Mississippi State has its fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons in Todd Grantham, and maybe he leans now on Leo Lewis, J.T. Gray or Gerri Green. Lewis had 79 tackles last season after redshirting in 2015. Will he be the next version of Brown, or at least some version? To be in bowl contention, the Bulldogs must find the answer, or answers.
Missouri: What will the pass rush look like without Harris?
The Tigers’ pass rush struggled last season — and that was with Charles Harris, who the Dolphins took with the 22nd overall pick in the draft with the idea that he would soon replace Cameron Wake as the team’s star pass rusher. So what’s Mizzou’s pass rush going to look like with Harris gone?
The hope in Columbia has to be that Barry Odom’s play-calling that began in midseason and sparked the pass rush will carry over to this fall. Odom said the Tigers have installed five differently structured packages for the defense. We’ll find out if that translates into anything that makes the Tigers not miss Harris so much. The Tigers had 51 sacks the past two years with Harris on the field — and four without him on the field.
Ole Miss: Can McGriff turn around the defense — again?
Hugh Freeze’s future as coach, and if he can lead the Rebels through the NCAA jungle, is the obvious question looming over the program. But we’ll go purely football on this one and ask if the Rebels’ defense can hold up and not force Shea Patterson to have to outscore teams in his first full season as the starter.
Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff returns to Oxford for his second stint on Freeze’s staff. In the first go-around in 2012, McGriff was co-defensive coordinator and helped a young Rebels defense lift Ole Miss from 2-10 the year before to a 7-6 record. Now he’s back to do at Ole Miss what he did at Auburn last year as co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, and that’s improve things defensively across the board.
South Carolina: Can Bentley raise his game?
Jake Bentley came out of nowhere last fall and gave the Gamecocks life in the second half of the season, leading them to an unlikely berth in the Birmingham Bowl, where he threw for 390 yards. Now comes the hard part, as every SEC defensive coordinator has a book on Bentley now.
He’ll be the target of every game plan, and he’ll have the burden of expectations to deal with from his team and his fan base that want to believe last season wasn’t some mirage. Fortunately, he’ll also have his top weapon back in Deebo Samuel, who’ll headline a talented group of returning wideouts. Bentley did impress in the spring game. Now can he do it again, and better, come fall, and even sneak the Gamecocks into SEC East title contention?
Tennessee: Can the offensive line come together?
The Volunteers’ offensive line will be under close watch this summer, and then in the fall when the snaps count. It’s more crucial than ever that the line be at least adequate because Joshua Dobbs isn’t running around back there anymore with his experience, savvy and ability to cover up for any of the offensive line’s mistakes.
Whether it’s Quinten Dormady, who impressed so much in the spring game, or Jarrett Guarantano or Sheriron Jones who gets the opportunity to follow Dobbs in Knoxville, it’s going to be vital that the line isn’t collapsing in front of the new guy. Jashon Robertson and Trey Smith will need to be better than they showed in the spring game, when the quarterbacks were trying to pull escape acts despite being in the safe haven of the Orange and White Game in April, not October against Alabama.
Texas A&M: What becomes now of the Aggies’ pass rush?
Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in last month’s NFL Draft, and his stud defensive end bookend Daeshon Hall are gone along with their astounding combined 48.5 sacks. Can seniors-to-be Jarrett Johnson and Qualen Cunningham even begin to replace the dynamic duo? What about converted linebacker Landis Durham? Redshirt freshman Justin Madubuike is coming off a serious back injury.
Look, you don’t lose the top pick in the draft and a third-rounder and not take a hit at that position the following year. But there won’t be any sympathy around the SEC. And if the Aggies’ replacements aren’t at least capable this fall, there won’t be many wins either.
Vanderbilt: What about that depth at linebacker?
While Ralph Webb was rampaging into the Vandy record book on offense, linebacker Zach Cunningham was building up a portfolio that couldn’t be ignored by the NFL. He went in the second round of the draft to the Texans, and now the Commodores are left to try to replace his production and leadership.
Good luck with that. Oren Burks could develop into a guy who could play on Sundays one day, but he’s not Cunningham, a consensus All-American. Burks will be the unit’s new leader but depth is a concern, with Ja’Karri Thomas and Landon Stokes both having completed their college careers. The position can’t turn into a liability because Vandy’s drive to get to back-to-back bowl games has little margin for error.