Spring superlatives: Which SEC moments and developments carried the most significance?
There’s no better way to recap the spring than by making up some superlatives.
Well, at least that’s what I believe.
We can talk quarterback battles and power rankings all summer. But for a day, let’s talk in absolutes.
There was absolutely no shortage of significant developments in the SEC this spring. What a change it was from last year, wherein spring practice was shut down before it ever got good.
In honor of actually having spring practice, here were the SEC superlatives of spring ball:
Most significant injury: George Pickens tears ACL
Brutal. Just brutal.
Pickens tearing his ACL begged the obvious question — why is UGA cursed? Pickens was poised to have his best, most consistent year yet playing in Todd Monken’s offense with JT Daniels. Some had Pickens as the top returning receiver in the SEC in 2021, so naturally, the news was met with collective groans from Athens.
But I’d argue that once the shock wore off that Pickens would be sidelined indefinitely, there’s been more optimism. Part of that is because of Georgia’s other pass-catching weapons, which includes Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, James Cook, Darnell Washington and others. There’s also now optimism that Pickens could return in the latter half of the regular season after the clean tear of the ACL. If UGA still has national title hopes and Pickens returns in November, look out.
Still, though. Losing one of the most talented receivers in America for what’ll likely be the majority of the season was still a tough development.
Strangest transfer: Mike Woods leaves Arkansas for Oklahoma
Woods went from starring in Arkansas’ spring game and getting hype alongside Treylon Burks as the SEC’s top 1-2 punch at receiver to entering the transfer portal in a matter of days. The dangerous deep threat was expected to play a huge role in Arkansas’ offense after finishing the season on a tear, yet we found out shortly following the spring game that Woods was taking his talents to Oklahoma.
On the surface, one might think he just wanted to have a shot at playing for a national championship. But the timing of Woods’ departure has many (myself included) wondering if there’s more to it. At first, it was speculated that Woods would follow receivers coach Justin Stepp, who returned home to Columbia to take the same position at South Carolina. But Woods poured cold water on that take.
Rumors have circulated that an off-the-field issue led to Woods’ transfer, and that it wasn’t as simple as wanting to play in Oklahoma’s offense. Whatever it was, Woods’ absence is significant. There are only so many players who can change a game at a moment’s notice like he can.
Instead of heading into summer with loads of momentum after all sorts of key upperclassmen returned for another season, Arkansas left spring scratching its head.
Strangest quote: Bo Nix harks back to Jesus’ criticism
I’m just gonna leave this one here and you can interpret it how you choose, reader of this column:
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix on handling criticism: “One thing that always sticks out to me is, even going to the cross, Jesus had people talking bad about him. So if they were talking about him, then they’re going to consistently talk bad about me, that’s for sure.”
— Josh Vitale (@JoshVitale) March 17, 2021
That’s certainly one way to look at it.
Best low-key shade that probably wasn’t meant to be low-key shade: Shane Beamer’s non-party spring game … a day after Ole Miss’ “Party In The Sip”
To be clear, I’m not saying that Beamer watched the Ole Miss spring game, which featured a red carpet and was billed as #PartyInTheSip, and thought to himself, “I’m gonna throw some shade at that premise.” He’s got bigger fish to fry.
But let’s connect some dots here. Who do you think Beamer referenced when he said this? Because if there was 1 program in America that had a “spring festival,” it was Ole Miss:
Beamer asked if he treats the spring game differently than any other spring practice:
“I didn’t want to come out here and turn it into a spring festival or spring carnival. We’ve got too much work to do.”
Added there’s a layer of fun to it, but needed the day to be productive.
— Ben Portnoy (@bportnoy15) April 25, 2021
To be fair, Beamer is right. His team does have a lot of work to do in his first year as an FBS head coach. It has major roster attrition, and he took over a program that has 1 winning record in SEC play in the Playoff era. Compare that to Ole Miss, which has work to do itself obviously, but is likely starting in the Associated Press Top 25 with Lane Kiffin in Year 2.
Kiffin and Beamer obviously have different approaches. At this time last year, Kiffin probably wouldn’t have had the approach he has now, which is one of play-sheet flying, high-octane, scoreboard-lighting fun.
Whatever the case, I was probably the only one sitting here connecting those cross-division dots. Moving along!
Most entertaining spring game entertainment: Mic’d up Jimbo Fisher
If you didn’t watch A&M’s spring game from start to finish like I did, well, you should catch a replay on SEC Network. Fisher with a mic on evaluating his team was fantastic. Go figure that he was probably nicest on his quarterbacks throughout the day.
But we got moments like Fisher ripping Ainias Smith for a route he ran, we had Fisher criticizing “you receivers” with a mixed in “dag-gummit” after some drops and missed routes spoiled a few plays for the offense and we had Fisher yell at the quarterbacks for jumping on fumbles.
“STOP JUMPING ON THE BALL!”
We’d also get the little moments like Fisher’s post-play interactions with his quarterbacks. “Smart 13. Smart.” And there was my personal favorite “nice job, Zachy.”
Haynes King and Zach Calzada didn’t necessarily get beat up by Fisher in the way one would assume given his history of being particularly demanding of his quarterbacks. What made Fisher entertaining was actually how he built them up, and how he’d blame receivers for dropping passes, or the offensive line for not holding the protection.
This pretty much summed it up:
If Jimbo Fisher gets this fired up coaching in the spring game, can’t imagine what he says during games in the fall.
Mic’d up Jimbo has been the highlight of the Texas A&M spring game so far.
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) April 24, 2021
Can we start a GoFundMe to add to Fisher’s $75 million contract so that he’s mic’d up every game? Please?
Quietest spring: Florida
We knew that would probably be the case when Florida announceed that it wouldn’t host a spring game. It instead announced that it would air a 2-hour behind-the-scenes special on SEC Network … which didn’t really shed much light on spring camp.
Something tells me that’s exactly the way that Florida drew it up. After a roller coaster 8-4 season that was unique at seemingly every turn, the Gators needed a quiet offseason. No major scandals, no major arrests, no more coaching rumors, etc.
In February, we heard Dan Mullen’s comments about his contract, and how “that’s somebody else’s press conference.” That, in my opinion, was at least somewhat noteworthy given the fact that Mullen is still without an extension 3 years into a 6-year deal. It doesn’t mean it won’t get done, but that’s a much different tone than “we’re hoping to get that done soon,” which was basically what was being said at this time last year.
In the 2 months after that? Florida managed a low profile, which hasn’t always been the case in Gainesville.
Loudest spring arrival by a freshman: Agiye Hall
For the entire offseason, I’m going to have Joe Tessitore screaming “AGIYE HALL!” burned into my brain. Tessitore said the Alabama true freshman’s name so loudly for a reason — he was brilliant. Hall had about as loud of a 4-catch day as one could have.
Alabama has some talented, promising freshman receivers. Agiye Hall is one of them. Highly-ranked prospect from Florida who has flashed at times this spring with plays like this. pic.twitter.com/jbRVbmWInD
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) April 17, 2021
Hall, if he wasn’t before, is on the radar of every Alabama fan now. He deserves that. If he becomes a bit like freshman George Pickens, it wouldn’t be surprising.
Expecting Hall to be 2012 Amari Cooper? Don’t go there. Hall still needs to show he can separate at this level, and Alabama’s target share could be a bit different with John Metchie on the field. Rarely do freshman receivers step into the SEC and dominate from the jump.
But would I bet on Hall making his share of highlight-reel plays for Alabama’s new-look offense this fall? Absolutely.
Loudest spring arrival by a transfer: Wan’Dale Robinson
It seemed like basically every time we saw footage of a Kentucky practice or heard someone comment about the offense, Robinson’s name was mentioned.
There are sky-high expectations for the Nebraska transfer to fill the Cooper Kupp role in Liam Coen’s offense. He’s got a dead leg in the open field that’ll surely leave many an SEC defender in the dust. Robinson came back to his home state to take on more of a prototypical receiver role than what he had as a hybrid player at Nebraska, where he was too often asked to run into 8-men boxes.
Robinson still figures to get some work in the ground game alongside the promising Chris Rodriguez, though it’ll look different from what we’ve seen from Kentucky in the past. One could argue that Robinson would’ve been the best returning player on Nebraska’s roster. In spring camp, he flashed some of that play-making ability and quickly earned the respect of his Kentucky teammates:
EVERYBODY WANTS TO TALK ABOUT WAN’DALE ROBINSON!!!!
— BBN Tonight (@BBNTonight) April 22, 2021
Assuming he’s eligible and not forced to redshirt with the current NCAA transfer rules, get ready to know Robinson’s name well, SEC fans.
(If you want to hear more from Robinson, I had him on The Saturday Down South Podcast.)
Savviest spring move: Josh Heupel invites fans to open scrimmage
I’ll admit that I’ve been pretty critical of Heupel so far.
I wasn’t crazy about not talking to the recruit who he pulled the scholarship from the day before National Signing Day. I thought Heupel taking 3 weeks to hire his defensive coordinator and getting some public rejections was a tough look. Some of the discipline issues his team had with arrests weren’t the best message to send that the new coach had total control of the program. It also would’ve been nice if Heupel had gotten some of his big transfer portal entries to stay in Knoxville.
But I thought Heupel’s move to host an open practice and scrimmage on a Saturday morning at Neyland was a smart move. Fans got to see the offense in action before the spring game.
If you’re Heupel, that’s the biggest asset you have in Year 1. You need to create a culture that you’re playing a fun, unique brand of football that fans and recruits are going to want to watch. His goal should be to follow the 2020 Ole Miss model. Obviously, Heupel isn’t as outspoken as Kiffin, but that would be an incredible accomplishment to turn Tennessee into a fun team to watch on that side of the ball, given the recent history.
With how limited fan access has been this past year, that was a wise move for Heupel to open the doors and not to treat his offensive overhaul like it was some massive secret. At Tennessee, everyone knows how important that fan support is. Public opinion matters, and Heupel isn’t the type of guy who is going to kiss babies and smile pretty for the cameras. That’s not how he operates. He wants his offense to do the talking.
Giving fans that up-close perspective was a sign that Heupel is understanding the bigger-picture elements of his new gig.
Most competitive spring QB battle: LSU
With all due respect to other battles, LSU takes the cake. Why? Myles Brennan highlighted LSU’s spring game with a fake spike, touchdown bomb, sideline taunt and multi-dance touchdown celebration. That happened in 10 seconds.
Spring Games are where your QB fits a fake spike, Bike Life + The Griddy into a 10-second span.
Exhibit A: Myles Brennan pic.twitter.com/0zpcOODTps
— Shea Dixon (@Sheadixon) April 17, 2021
If that’s not pure competition at its finest, I don’t know what is.
It’s clear that it’s Brennan vs. Max Johnson for the LSU starting job. Both performed well in the spring game and have earned serious praise in camp. It’s clear that this won’t be decided until deep into fall camp. Obviously from LSU’s perspective, it’s OK if this is a 2-horse race. Brennan came into spring camp looking like a man possessed, and if there was a perceived gap between him and Johnson, it appears closed.
This is going to be a fascinating battle because if Johnson were to win it, not only would we see the Year 2 southpaw operate in a talented offense, but one would think Brennan would have a significant Power 5 market to play elsewhere, depending on how deep into fall the battle lasts. And if Brennan were to win it, we’d get to pick up where we left off after his season-ending injury spoiled his excellent start last year.
Talk about a defining decision for Ed Orgeron. Right now, though, it appears he has 2 plenty capable options to lead his program in 2021.