SEC stock watch entering spring practice
With National Signing Day in the books and spring football starting soon across the SEC, we take a look at the programs whose stock rose in recent weeks, and those that are trending down.
There’s a new No. 2 in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide must replace Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, but the Alabama offense received a big boost by adding Bowling Green graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter.
A 6-foot-3 wideout that caught 94 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Falcons last season, Dieter was recently photographed wearing Henry’s old No. 2 jersey number. Dieter will team with Freshman All-American Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster, as well as All-American candidate tight end O.J. Howard, to give the Tide one of the strongest receiving corps in the nation.
Even replacing starting quarterback Jake Coker shouldn’t be a major problem. First-year quarterbacks Blake Sims (College Football Playoff) and Coker (national championship) give the team a good track record. Add running back Bo Scarbrough, practically a clone of Henry, and the Alabama offense shouldn’t miss a beat.
The Bulldogs closed strong on Signing Day, finishing with a top 10 class despite making a coaching change. Georgia also got some great news in mid-February when offensive tackle Tyler Catalina, a graduate transfer from Rhode Island, backed out of a commitment to Iowa State and announced he would sign with Georgia.
Catalina, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound tackle that earned second team all-CAA honors for the Rams last season, is expected to compete for a starting job in 2016. His arrival gives the unit an immediate boost as new offensive line coach Sam Pittman looks to rebuild a depth chart without John Theus, Kolton Houston and Hunter Long.
Auburn’s loss is LSU’s gain. The Bayou Bengals lost one of the nation’s top recruiters when running backs coach Frank Wilson left Baton Rouge for an opportunity to become the head coach at UTSA, but coach Les Miles was able to bring in former Auburn receivers coach Dameyune Craig to help fill Wilson’s shoes on the recruiting trail. He probably couldn’t have found a better replacement.
Craig won’t have an opportunity to coach receiver Trey Quinn, who announced his intentions to transfer – joining John Diarse and Kevin Spears, who both left LSU prior to Signing Day.
The 2015 season was rough for Missouri, and it’s never easy to replace the winningest head coach in school history. However, the departure of Maty Mauk could be addition by subtraction given that the quarterback was a major distraction, including three suspensions in a four-month period.
Without Mauk on the roster, new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel can concentrate on preparing Drew Lock – who was 2-6 as a starter last year as a true freshman – to be the full-time starting quarterback. Lock’s development will be key to turning around an offense that averaged 280.9 total yards of offense and 13.6 points per game last season, which ranked dead last in the SEC and No. 125 and No. 127 in the nation, respectively.
Lock also will have the benefit of Alabama graduate transfer wide receiver Chris Black and junior college running back Natereace Strong, both of whom should provide an immediate impact.
The Gamecocks suffered through a disappointing 2015 season and then replaced a legendary head coach. But, like Mizzou, the Gamecocks are trending up heading into spring practice.
New head coach Will Muschamp has assembled one of the SEC’s best recruiting staffs with right-hand man and first-year defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson, linebackers coach Lance Thompson and co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Bryan McClendon. The group helped South Carolina finish strong on Signing Day, landing several immediate impact players like JUCO cornerback JaMarcus King.
Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has three quarterbacks with starting experience at his disposal – Perry Orth, Connor Mitch and Lorenzo Nunez – plus freshman early enrollee Brandon McIlwain, who may be the most talented player of the bunch.
It’s been a quiet offseason for the Commodores. That’s a good thing for a program looking to build on the momentum it gained on the field in 2015, particularly on defense. Vanderbilt also has the benefit of kicking off spring practices in the SEC on Feb. 22.
The Razorbacks have holes to fill on offense due to graduation (quarterback Brandon Allen tops the list) and early entry to the NFL (running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and offensive lineman Denver Kirkland).
Arkansas also had to replace running backs coach Jemel Singleton (left for the NFL) and offensive line coach Sam Pittman (left for Georgia). Adding Reggie Mitchell from Kansas was a good move, but that’s a lot of turnover for a program looking to take the next step in the SEC West.
It’s important not to overstress the impact of one assistant coach, but Dameyune Craig’s departure was a blow. Craig was one of the best recruiters on the Auburn staff, which also lost a trio of top recruiters to South Carolina after the regular season.
The former Auburn quarterback played a big role in the Tigers’ strong finish on National Signing Day, particularly in landing ballyhooed wideout prospect Nate Craig-Myers from Florida – one of Craig’s regular territories. Craig also has strong connections in south Alabama, and specifically his hometown of Mobile, which will hurt Auburn and help LSU.
Craig also added some interesting comments during his introductory presser at LSU, saying he no longer felt like he fit in on the Auburn staff and that taking the job in Baton Rouge was not a lateral move despite a similar job title.
The Florida Gators made an unexpected trip to the SEC Championship Game in the first year of the Jim McElwain, and followed up with a solid recruiting class. Heading into the spring, former starting quarterback Treon Harris will switch positions to wide receiver, opening the door for Luke Del Rio and former Purdue QB Austin Appleby to compete for the top spot on the depth chart.
McElwain also made one of the best position coach hires of the offseason by adding Torrian Gray (defensive backs). Gray, a longtime Virginia Tech assistant, has a terrific reputation both as a recruiter and as a player developer. In 10 years with the Hokies, Gray coached five All-American defensive backs and sent 10 players to the NFL.
After strong starts in both 2014 and 2015, Kentucky crumbled down the stretch and finished 5-7 both years – one win shy of bowl eligibility. The Wildcats haven’t been to a bowl game since 2010 and haven’t posted a winning record since 2009.
Head coach Mark Stoops didn’t mesh with offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, prompting the Wildcats to turn to Eddie Gran as the third offensive play-caller in three seasons in Lexington. Stoops also was forced to search for a replacement for recently promoted co-defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, who took a job at Alabama after coaching the Wildcats secondary for the last three seasons. The job remains open.
Though it did make a splash with the signing of five-star defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State suffered its share of disappointments on National Signing Day. Touted wide receiver A.J. Brown signed with Ole Miss and then made strong comments about Mississippi State not recruiting him hard enough. Four-star offensive lineman Scott Lashley, who was considered a long-time lean to MSU, chose Alabama instead.
Also, head coach Dan Mullen has had to overhaul his coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz left for Miami, which means the Bulldogs will have their third defensive play-caller in three seasons. Mullen has had to replace five other staff members, including Tony Hughes, who left for the head coaching job at Jackson State.
March 7 can’t come soon enough for the Tennessee Vols. The start of spring practice will be a welcome distraction from the headlines current and former players have made in recent weeks, including everything from junior college transfer Alexis Johnson and former offensive lineman Mack Crowder’s arrests to renewed interest in a locker room incident involving Peyton Manning from 1996.
It’s been a rough few months for Texas A&M. Prior to playing in the Music City Bowl, the Aggies lost former five-star quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, both of whom had starting experience. Allen, who transferred to Houston, later made waves by blaming former A&M start Johnny Manziel for hurting the culture of the program.
Then, the hated Texas Longhorns stole the headlines on Signing Day by finishing stronger than any program in the country, thanks in part to signing A&M’s top target Brandon Jones. Adding salt to the wound, one of Texas A&M’s top defensive recruits, Alton Robinson, was arrested.
Finally, head coach Kevin Sumlin was reportedly interested in adding Texas assistant Brick Haley to the Aggies defensive coaching staff, which would have reunited him with A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis, but Haley chose to stick with the Longhorns.
STOCK VOLATILE (UP, THEN DOWN?)
No SEC West team is in a better position at quarterback than Ole Miss. Chad Kelly will be under center after a record-setting performance in his first year in Oxford. While Kelly won’t have Laquon Treadwell catching passes or Laremy Tunsil protecting his blind side, Ole Miss has one of the deepest groups of pass-catchers in the league and landed a star-studded recruiting class that includes five-star tackle Gregory Little.
However, the pre-signing day belief that just a handful of the 28 NCAA violations alleged against the university’s athletic programs involve the football team, most of them pre-dating coach Hugh Freeze, appears to be incorrect. New information from mid-February suggests that nine of the 13 violations uncovered by the NCAA occurred under Freeze.
A potential NCAA punishment may be mild, but recurring headlines connecting the Rebels and rules-breaking could prove troublesome in recruiting circles moving forward.