Stock up/stock down: SEC East teams and players
It’s risky to draw definitive conclusions from spring practice, but we’re nothing if not adventurous.
Today, we’ll journey around the SEC East and identify teams and players that are trending up — or perhaps heading in the other direction:
New coach Kirby Smart asked Dawg Nation to pack Sanford Stadium for the spring game, and did they ever. The team smashed the school record, and set a SEC mark, for attendance at a spring game with 93,000 fans.
The program wasn’t exactly downtrodden before Smart’s arrival — they won 10 games for the 10th time in 15 years — but there’s a renewed buzz and excitement among the fan base that can’t be ignored.
That good feeling was intensified with the strong spring game outing for freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, and the chorus of fans shouting for him to start the opener grows louder every day.
BRANDON MCILWAIN, QB, SOUTH CAROLINA
Speaking of true freshman quarterbacks who dazzled fans at spring games, the Gamecocks had one, too. McIlwain finished 19-for-26 for 169 passing yards and two touchdowns while adding another touchdown on the ground.
He’s also shown leadership and maturity off the field since his arrival in January, and with injuries hindering Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez this spring, he’s the front-runner for the starting job at the moment.
DREW LOCK, QB, MISSOURI
While McIlwain and Eason are facing the prospect of dealing with SEC defenses as true freshmen, Lock has been there and done that already for the Tigers.
On Oct. 3, he became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Mizzou since Corby Jones in 1995. He finished last season with 1,332 yards, four touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing 49 percent of his passes.
This season, with a new coach and offensive coordinator, Lock appeared in his first spring game. He went 9 for 13 for 134 yards and two touchdowns on the day, and drew praise for his maturity and poise during spring workouts.
It’s not a stretch to say that his development is the key to any success the Tigers may have this season.
LUKE DEL RIO, QB, FLORIDA
Del Rio took a winding road to Gainesville, with stops at Alabama and Oregon State, but if the spring is any indication, he’s home.
Facing a crowded field for the starting job, he turned in a sparkling performance in the spring game, going 10 of 11 for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
Those numbers impressed coach Jim McElwain, who has since said that Del Rio was leading the race for the job.
And he already sounds like a quarterback.
“They do a great job of installing the plays and putting guys open for us,” Del Rio told the Orlando Sentinel. “I just kind of let the O-line do what they do, let the wide receivers do what they do and I just went through the progressions. It’s easier that way. Coaches are right, run the offense. It works.”
DENZIL WARE, DE/LB, KENTUCKY
Spring practices are usually about skill position battles, like the one in Lexington Drew Barker won over Stephen Johnson II for the quarterback spot.
Ware had other plans, however, stealing the show at Kentucky’s spring game. He racked up 10 tackles — five of those for losses — and four sacks in three quarters of action.
“I’m just going to play full speed,” Ware told the Lexington Herald-Leader about his mindset before the Blue-White Spring Game. “I’m going to make mistakes full speed. I’m not going to be timid today.”
D’ANDRE WALKER, LB, GEORGIA
Ware wasn’t the only pass rusher making mincemeat of his teammates on the offensive line during the spring. Walker had four sacks in the G-Day Game, and Smart was quick to praise his improvement after the game.
“D’Andre has done a really good job of becoming better as a player,” Smart told the Macon Telegraph. “He’s working really hard. He’s learning. (Outside linebackers) coach (Kevin) Sherrer has done a great job with him. D’Andre has improved. I’m very pleased with D’Andre’s work ethic.”
He seems destined for a reserve role this season behind Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, but he’ll should still get plenty of chances to chase opposing quarterbacks this fall.
C.J. DUNCAN, WR, VANDERBILT
Duncan was slated to be a big part of the Commodores’ receiving corps last fall, but wound up missing the season with a leg injury.
He was back in a big way this spring, hauling in two passes for 50 yards in the spring game. With one of the nation’s least effective offenses last season, a healthy Duncan gives Vanderbilt another weapon in its quest to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2013.
KENTUCKY WIDE RECEIVERS
Despite praise from coordinator Eddie Gran in the weeks leading up to the spring game, and two long touchdown catches in the game, drops were still an issue for the Wildcat receivers.
There were several in the Blue-White Game, and there were enough in the scrimmage the week before to raise the ire of tight end C.J. Conrad.
“Too many drops, real quiet and just didn’t have the energy we needed,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “So the leaders need to step up like myself.”
The margins are too fine in the SEC to have drops, and you can bet that this will be a focus all summer long.
SOUTH CAROLINA SECONDARY
Spring contests are zero-sum games — or put more simply — when one player or group succeeds, another must have failed. So when we praise McIlwain for his poise and accuracy, we must ask questions about the Gamecocks secondary that made it possible.
To be fair, the schemes and formations were vanilla, but there were still enough blown coverages and missed opportunities to force turnovers to be a bit concerning.
In the days leading up to the spring game, coach Will Muschamp told reporters that they were a long way from being a good secondary. That gap needs to close quite a bit before September.
GEORGIA’S OFFENSIVE LINE
Walker’s four sacks came at the expense of the offensive line that had trouble generating much push in the running game or consistent pass protection.
Smart mentioned getting stronger or some variation of that theme during the game when he was part of the play-by-play, in interviews with sideline reporter Shannon Spake and then to assembled media after the spring game.
It’s a minor quibble, and one that will be more easily sorted out than the quarterback battle.
Injuries are a part of every spring for SEC programs, but Tennessee took that to ridiculous levels this season.
A staggering 24 players were out of the spring game, and the team went into that exhibition with only three healthy scholarship wide receivers. Of course, two had standout performances: Preston Wilson and Jeff George.
“The major difference is we had 24 players out in the spring,” coach Butch Jones said after the game. “In years past, we would have had to cancel the spring game. A lot of those were pre-existing injuries from the fall. We held individuals out that maybe could have possibly played, but we didn’t want to risk anything.”
Here’s hoping the Volunteers will have shaken off the injury hex by the time the games start counting later this fall.