Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each SEC West team
The spring has sprung in the SEC as teams get their first look on the field at the talent they’ve assembled for the 2016 season.
Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team in the SEC West as they enter spring drills.
Strengths – Defensive line: The Tide benefit from the return of All-SEC first team defensive end Jonathan Allen and budding star Tim Williams (12.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks), a hybrid rush specialist who could play his way into first-round-draft-pick status with another excellent season. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can elevate the play of Da’Shawn Hand and Daron Payne, the unit could easily return to prominence.
Weaknesses – Offensive line/linebacker: The term “weakness” is relative, but Alabama has some concerns. Chiefly, who starts at quarterback and in the backfield? Alabama always reloads at those positions and Lane Kiffin has proven success with first-year quarterbacks — see Jake Coker this season for proof. The line has some holes that needed plugging after the departure of center Ryan Kelly and Dominick Jackson. Defensively, Nick Saban will be challenged to fill the voids at linebacker with the departure of Reggie Ragland.
Strengths – Wide receiver: Arkansas lost quarterback Brandon Allen to graduation. Whoever emerges — Austin Allen, Rafe Peavey, Ty Storey or Ricky Town — will throw to one of the best collection of pass-catchers in the SEC.
The Razorbacks return wide receiver Drew Morgan, who had 10 receiving touchdowns in 2015, as well as Dominique Reed and Jared Cornelius.
The trio tallied 1,771 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2015. The unit also returns Keon Hatcher, who led the Hogs in receiving in 2014 (558 yards, 6 TDs) before missing most of last season with a foot injury.
Weaknesses – Secondary: Arkansas allowed the most passing yards in the SEC in 2015, 275.2 per game — 118.7 more than conference leader Georgia. Bret Bielema didn’t sign an elite cornerback in 2016, instead adding just two three-star safeties to The Hill.
The fourth-year head coach did bring in five defensive lineman, including five-star in-state phenom McTelvin “Sosa” Agim, as well as well as four linebackers, to help ease the pressure on his secondary. The silver lining is that Hogs’ last line of defense returns everyone except strong safety Rohan Gaines, leaving senior Jared Collins and juniors Josh Liddell and Henré Toliver as options with starting experience.
Strengths – Special teams: Daniel Carlson is one of the top place kickers in the SEC and beyond, connecting on 23 of 27 attempts to lead the conference. The rising junior was a unanimous All-SEC first team selection, a Walter Camp second-team All-American and one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award. Auburn also returns Rudy Ford, who finished second in the SEC in kick-return yards (429 yards, 28.6-yard average). The defensive back is expected to compete once again with Kerryon Johnson (386 return yards, 27.6 average) for kick returns, giving Auburn one of the top units in the conference.
Weaknesses – Quarterback: Jeremy Johnson and Sean White failed to gain any true momentum in 2015 as Auburn was one of four SEC teams that threw more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (11). John Franklin III, a JUCO transfer, was signed to compete for the job.. The Tigers also need to solve their woes at the offensive tackle position to protect the quarterback.
Strengths – Running back: Leonard Fournette (nation-best 162.8 yards per game) is back and motivated after being snubbed by the Heisman committee in 2015. Fournette needs 1,570 yards to supplant Kevin Faulk as the Tigers’ all-time leading rusher — and could do it in just three years. LSU isn’t a one-trick entity, either. Derrius Guice, would like start on many other teams, was an SEC All-Freshman selection last season after rushing for 436 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Weaknesses – Linebacker: The Tigers need more consistency from quarterback Brandon Harris, but the biggest hole is at linebacker, where Kendell Beckwith is the lone returning star. LSU’s only other returning linebackers with much experience are Duke Riley and Donnie Alexander, owners of one combined career start (Alexander). Les Miles added Michael Divinity, a four-star outside linebacker, as the only linebacker in his 2016 recruiting class. Divinity is enrolled and should make a case for playing time during spring drills.
Strengths – Linebackers: Richie Brown is a star in the making, registering team highs for tackles (109) and sacks (6.5). He returns to the middle linebacker role for his senior year flanked by Gerri Green and J.T. Gray, who combined for 114 tackles and 6.0 tackles-for-loss. The unit also adds Holmes (MS) Community College-transfer Traver Jung. Jung redshirted in 2015 due to the team’s depth at linebacker, but could make his 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash presence felt, starting this spring.
Weaknesses – Quarterback: The Bulldogs are starting over, and none of the candidates has much game experience. There are other issues, such as retooling the offensive line, but selecting Dak Prescott’s replacement is a spring priority.
Strengths – Quarterback: The secret is out. Chad Kelly is back after a record-breaking junior season. The Rebels’ success in 2016 will be largely predicated on the success of Kelly and how well the Ole Miss can protect him. Which brings us to…
Weaknesses – Offensive line: The line will look different in 2016 after losing four primary starters to graduation and the NFL. Laremy Tunsil was the headliner at left tackle. The hope is prized recruit Gregory Little is a step-in starter. Alex Givens and Rod Taylor, the latter who will miss the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, are replacement options. Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims each had at least four starts at guard.
Strengths – Wide receiver: It might not matter who plays quarterback in 2016. As long as they can get the ball to any of the Aggies’ receivers, they should be just fine. Star sophomore Christian Kirk, who tallied 1,009 yards and 7 touchdowns, while also leading the team in kick- and punt-return yards as a freshman. Josh Reynolds (907 yards, 5 TDs), Ricky Seals-Jones (560 yards, 4 TDs) and Speedy Noil (226 yards, 2 TDs) also return, giving new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone plenty of weapons to deploy.
Weaknesses – Offensive line: Left tackle Avery Gennesy returns, but that’s about it when it comes to game experience. Jermaine Eluemunor and Jeremiah Stuckey have some experience, but not enough to guarantee a rotation spot. Kevin Sumlin brought in five offensive linemen with his 2016 recruiting class to help with depth. Tops among them is Kellen Diesch, a four-star prospect from Trophy Club, Texas.