What beat writers learned about the SEC West this spring
Arkansas punctuated an entertaining SEC spring with its Red-White game Saturday, leading to what the division’s coaches hope is a quiet two months.
While we wait for SEC Media Days to signify the coming of fall practice, the beat writers who cover the seven SEC West teams have given us plenty to digest. Here are the major developments and storylines that emerged for each team this spring.
- Cooper Bateman appears to have emerged from the spring as the current leader in the quarterback competition, but it’s far from over. Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts in particular hope that four more months in the incubator will help them wrest away the job.
- Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris did enough to alleviate concerns about how the Tide would replace Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake.
- It may be very difficult for Calvin Ridley to repeat his 1,000-yard season. Robert Foster, who looked like the No. 1 receiver last spring, is healthy again. Gehrig Dieter, a 1,000-yard receiver for Bowling Green last year, is headed to Tuscaloosa, perhaps as the team’s slot receiver. ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard should get targets as well at one of the deepest position groups in the SEC.
- Reuben Foster is the new vocal leader of the defense, replacing Reggie Ragland as the player who handles the calls at inside linebacker.
- The defensive line may not be as deep as it was last year. But the pass rush won’t suffer with Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson still present. And Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson look like breakout candidates.
- Anthony Averett, another of Alabama’s defensive backs that doubles as a sprinter, had an excellent spring and could be one of the surprise names to get significant playing time this fall. AL.com reports that he’s a first-team member of the defense in certain packages.
- A “quarterback competition” turned out to be no competition at all. Austin Allen will replace his brother Brandon Allen as the team’s starter. Beat writers collectively have written that Austin Allen at least has the potential for a smooth transition, though he’ll have to prove it in game situations.
- The Razorbacks will have to wait on the offensive gem of the ’16 class, running back Devwah Whaley, who is expected to join the team this summer. But McTelvin Agim, a composite five-star player, participated in spring practice. He already looks like an impact performer, and he’s nasty to boot — punching at least two teammates in practice.
- The defensive line looks like a real strength, as Deatrich Wise Jr. finally has matured. He looks like “the best defensive end in the Southeastern Conference no one talks about,” writes Eric Bolin of the Arkansas News.
- Receiver is one of the deepest positions across the SEC in 2016, and Arkansas is no exception. Dominique Reed may have the highest ceiling, but he has struggled to gain weight. As a 6-foot-3, 175-pound speedster, a little extra muscle on his frame would be scary for SEC defenses.
- Arkansas is still looking for a second tight end to emerge behind Jeremy Sprinkle. Meanwhile, the team has been using a lot more three- and four-receiver sets. That’s good news for Cody Hollister, one of the bright spots of spring.
- John Franklin III, Jeremy Johnson and Sean White exited spring more or less even in the quarterback competition. But there are signs that Franklin III could seize control in the fall. He improved from the first scrimmage to the last and his running ability is an interesting dynamic.
- Tigers fans looking for positive news after a disappointing 7-6 season and lingering questions at quarterback can google “Marlon Davidson.” The true freshman defensive lineman is being written about as a potential starter.
- Speaking of the defensive line, Auburn looks so much different with a healthy Carl Lawson on the field.
- Whether or not you believe in labels like “hot seat,” coach Gus Malzahn finds himself at a critical juncture of his coaching tenure at Auburn. With all the changes among his staff in the last two years, he’s taking a more hands-on approach in 2016.
- Jovon Robinson still is competing with Roc Thomas, but exiting the spring he looks like the clear No. 1 running back on the roster.
- Expect H-backs Chandler Cox and Kamryn Pettway to be more involved in the offense this year.
- New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is indeed installing the 3-4 as the team’s base defense. That’s necessitated several position changes, including Arden Key to outside linebacker and Davon Godchaux to nose tackle. Most interesting, though, may be how the defense handles a lack of linebacker depth. Aranda has moved three players to linebacker from other positions.
- Duke Riley seems to be in line to replace Deion Jones as the team’s starting weak-side linebacker.
- There’s been a big emphasis on improving the passing game this spring, and LSU hasn’t tried to hide it. There’s a cautious optimism that’s developed regarding Brandon Harris, who had a good spring game but still didn’t do all that well at connecting on deep balls.
- By adding Dameyune Craig and Jabbar Juluke to the coaching staff that already contains Ed Orgeron, LSU very well may stake claim to holding the most enthusiastic staff in the conference. Both coaches, along with Aranda, have been well received.
- LSU wants Leonard Fournette to drop some weight, but it did allow him a surprising number of carries in the spring game.
- Expect to see plenty of freshman cornerback Saivion Smith, who showed off his ball skills this spring.
- The Bulldogs exit spring with a quarterback competition still very much muddled. Nick Fitzgerald seems to be a popular pick in the media, but Damian Williams, Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano all seemed to remain part of the conversation. There’s just not much separation at the position — at least not yet.
- The team’s defense controlled two of the three scrimmages, including a six-interception performance in one practice.
- Sophomore Brandon Bryant, responsible for three of those picks, endured “minor wrist surgery” after the team completed its 15 spring practices. He should be healthy before the fall.
- The early departure of De’Runnya Wilson, the dismissal of Fred Brown and an injury to Fred Ross saw the team searching for playmakers among the young receivers on the roster this spring. Malik Dear is one of the emerging standouts.
- Offensive line continues to be a potential concern for Mississippi State after a down year in 2015, but there were encouraging signs in the spring game, at least in terms of run blocking.
- New defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon has named his hybrid linebacker/defensive end position as “Viper.” Will Coleman looks like a potential standout playing the position, and Johnathan Calvin also made four “sacks” during the team’s spring game.
- Chad Kelly missed practice due to hernia surgery, and coach Hugh Freeze has a tough decision to make at quarterback. Kelly is the sure-thing starter. But what to do with Shea Patterson? The true freshman looked good relative to his inexperience and got extra reps with Kelly out. Should Freeze redshirt him in 2016, or should Patterson get mop-up duty as the backup this year?
- The Rebels receiving corps remains deep despite losing Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core. Redshirt freshman Van Jefferson is eager to make his mark after struggling with the idea of sitting out in 2015.
- There’s a lot of competition at safety. Tony Conner’s recovery from knee surgery seems to be going well, and he should start. But Trae Elston and Mike Hilton are gone as well. C.J. Hampton figures to play a major role, but there are several younger players competing for time.
- Even without Robert Nkemdiche, the defensive line could be nasty. Some of the Rebels’ headliners include Fadol Brown, Marquis Haynes, Issac Gross, D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks.
- There’s some degree of consternation at offensive line, but the interior could be as good as it has been since Freeze arrived in Oxford, according to one writer. The real concern may be at tackle. The team should be anxious to get five-star Greg Little involved this summer and fall to find out how he’ll mesh within the offense.
- Trevor Knight is no sure thing at quarterback, Kate Hairopoulos writes. But there’s a lot of optimism about Knight as a player and even more as a leader after spring practice. And with so much talent at receiver, it won’t take an otherworldly year from Knight to move the football.
- New coaches Noel Mazzone (offensive coordinator) and Jim Turner (offensive line) have been much-welcomed additions to the staff. At least in spring, with no real adversity to account for, the staff and players seemed more united than last year’s soap opera.
- Despite all the headlines and attention commandeered by the offense in the last six months, beat writers are saying that John Chavis’ defense quietly was the story of the spring game. Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall and Armani Watts resembled All-SEC type performers.
- The team remains thin at linebacker. But Shaan Washington, Otaro Alaka, Claude George and Richard Moore represent a much-improved nucleus. The hope is that those players are much more confident in the defense and ready to prevent the big plays that have plagued the Aggies in recent seasons.
- Speedy Noil burst onto the scene in 2014 as a true freshman, one of the most promising wideouts in the conference despite playing through a hamstring injury for much of the season. Since then, he’s dealt with disciplinary issues and injuries. He’ll be suspended for the season opener against UCLA, but Texas A&M has seen a more consistent, mature approach from him this spring.