Ten SEC coaches and players with the most to ponder as summer arrives
Spring football is long gone and summertime is here, so there should be a rare bit of calm for everyone intensely invested in those 14 SEC football programs, right?
But look at it another way. It’s also the second week of June. Soon it’ll be Father’s Day, and then the Fourth of July. And then you’ll be able to say fall camp is only a month away. So the start of summer also means we’re not that far from kickoff.
So for 10 driven players and coaches, this is one last fleeting chance to reflect on what’s happened so far in 2017 and imagine what could be if things go just right this fall. For these 10 — and we’ll alternate between coaches and players in our list — the pressure of SEC football is like that enormous wave you’ll see at the beach this summer: it’s closer and more challenging than it appears.
Matt Canada, LSU offensive coordinator
The 45-year-old went to school in the Big Ten (Indiana) and made his coaching name last year in the ACC (Pittsburgh), being named one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant. He arrives in Baton Rouge, home of hearty expectations from a wonderful but demanding fan base that wants to finally see its offensive talent maximized after too many years of falling short.
Canada turned Pitt into an offensive powerhouse last season, and while Pitt isn’t even close to being LSU, he arrives with the expectation that the Tigers will soon reap the benefits of Canada’s vast playbook. Head coach Ed Orgeron kicked that expectation level up a few notches this spring when he said: “His offense is kicking our defense’s tail this spring. It’s causing problems.”
Derrius Guice is one of the best running backs in the nation, a possible Heisman Trophy candidate, and he’s supposed to cause defenses many problems. So it would seem Canada has a running start on this turnaround thing. Guice can’t wait to get started for real in the new offense, and just imagine Canada, with his first shot in the SEC “big-time” in a coaching career that began in 1994, sitting on a boat fishing this summer, thinking about what it all could mean come fall.
We don’t know if Canada has a boat or likes to fish, but LSU thinks it got a great catch in a guy who’ll try to help the Tigers beat Alabama for the first time since 2011. That’s really what he was brought in for, right?
Feleipe Franks, Florida quarterback
We can do “the list” here, but all that would do is make Gators fans angry. “The list” would be the quarterbacks who have tried unsuccessfully to be the next great Florida signal-caller since Tim Tebow left Gainesville after the 2009 season. “The list” would be what’s kept the Gators from returning to the lofty perch atop the SEC they once owned, the place in which Alabama has taken residence for most of the past decade.
This is where Franks comes in. Last year, he was highly touted but clearly not ready. So UF was left with the Austin Appleby-Luke Del Rio combo that once again got it to the SEC title game but also once again wasn’t nearly good enough to generate enough points against Bama on the first Saturday in December. Fast-forward to this year’s spring game and Franks started to put a new spin on UF’s quarterback scenario, throwing for 119 yards and a touchdown to lead the Orange Team to a 31-0 win.
Franks hasn’t won anything yet, meaning games or the starting QB job. But it’s been a long wait in Gainesville, and “the list” has grown with each year. While classmate Kyle Trask is still fighting Franks, dynamic graduate transfer Malik Zaire has arrived from Notre Dame to make things a lot more interesting, and Del Rio and incoming freshman Jake Allen will be heard from, it’s Franks’ job to win and his shot to finally make quarterback a strength again at The Swamp. Think he’ll be mulling all that while firing passes on some sandlot this summer?
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Wesley McGriff, Ole Miss defensive coordinator
McGriff returns for his second coaching stint in Oxford, but his job is two-fold this time around: He’ll be tasked with trying to revive a defense that struggled mightily last season, and he’ll have to do it under the dark cloud of an NCAA investigation. That means McGriff will have to deal with the physical, football aspects of tackling and stripping the ball, and also the mental aspect of motivating his unit with no bowl game as a possible reward at the end of the season.
McGriff made a big impact in previous stops with the New Orleans Saints in 2013 and last year at Auburn — just check the statistics — and now he returns to Oxford, where in 2012 as co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach he helped the Rebels’ defense finish second in the SEC and in the top 15 in the country in tackles for loss and sacks per game. Think McGriff might be thinking about an encore turnaround this summer as he paces in his home, or at least a hearty improvement?
For someone who’s worked wonders everywhere he’s been, McGriff probably isn’t very interested in hearing about what he can’t do.
Devwah Whaley, Arkansas running back
Whaley was already an important member of the Razorbacks’ offense going into 2017, but when Rawleigh Williams III was abruptly forced to retire from football this spring, Whaley went from backfield sidekick to main man. The 2017 script changed just that fast for the sophomore who’s been clocked at 4.42 in the 40-yard dash.
Whaley posted a respectable 602 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a freshman “change of pace” guy last year, giving defenses something else to think about besides Williams. Now Whaley has a lot more to think about as he holds that football in his hands and stares at the TV, imagining the season opener with the crowd roaring in Little Rock on Aug. 31 and him as the starter.
Yes, freshman Maleek Williams should pitch in as the Hogs adjust to life without Rawleigh Williams. But Whaley got a taste last year in a backup role, can catch the ball out of the backfield and can ultimately calm Hogs fans still despondent over Williams’ unfortunate exit from football.
Nick Saban, Alabama head coach
Four national titles in eight years and a statue outside his own stadium would seem to end any thought of restless summers for Saban. Right? Well, start with the fact that this was one of those offseasons where Saban isn’t coming off a championship and throw in the fact that the Crimson Tide were one play from winning it all in 2016, and restless will be Saban’s middle name over the next few months.
Saban will surely soak up many fine days at his gorgeous lake house, where he “gets away from football,” and he even made an appearance at the Stanley Cup Final in Nashville. But that fire inside him will start burning more and more as fall camp inches closer each day. That’s just who he is. Especially after Title No. 5 slipped away.
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt running back
What can a guy who has already cemented his spot among the SEC’s all-time great running backs possibly have to think about going into his senior year? Well, pretty much everything. Because Webb, already the Commodores’ career rushing leader in three seasons with 3,347 yards to go with 22 touchdowns, decided to put off the NFL for one more year and return to Nashville, he’s set the bar at such a high level that you wonder if he realizes it quite yet.
That’s where Webb’s relaxed but focused summertime of reflection will come in handy. Webb is a Vandy guy, which means he’s smart. He knows exactly what he’s gotten himself into. He knows the injury risks he’s taking by coming back for one more year of SEC greatness — and punishment. Webb led Vandy to a bowl last year and must think he can do a little better this fall than sneaking into bowl eligibility at 6-6.
You know Webb has a vision of how he wants his four-year crusade to end. And you know that’ll be on his mind one or more times per day over the next two months, as the NFL is forced to wait another year for him.
Doug Nussmeier, Florida offensive coordinator
Forget about who wins the aforementioned quarterback job, whether it’s the flashy Franks, the safe choice in Del Rio or the late-arriving Zaire from Notre Dame. Nussmeier knows his offenses haven’t carried their end of the bargain the past two years as the defense carried the Gators to Atlanta and, ultimately, into bad situations against Alabama.
There is genuine pressure on Nussmeier to finally present a dynamic offense, and there are no excuses with all of the key ingredients returning from last season at wideout, running back and tight end. He even got an unexpected, talented addition to the fascinating quarterback derby he’ll oversee in fall camp with the left-handed Zaire bringing his gameday experience from South Bend to Gainesville. Nussmeier will surely imagine all summer how it will all finally work out this fall.
He has talked about building culture and it all being a process, and he’s right, but sooner or later it all has to turn into something substantial — or else.
Jarrett Johnson, Texas A&M defensive end
Try being Johnson this summer as he mulls just how he’s going to help replace Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Of course, it’s not going to all fall on Johnson to be the answer as the Aggies deal with life without Garrett and Daeshon Hall, but Johnson is one of the key guys who’ll be asked to step in and be capable and maybe even a little more than that.
Johnson is a senior now, and it’s not like he hasn’t had a taste of success. Quite the contrary. Johnson was third on the Aggies last season with 4 1/2 sacks, he has 50 tackles and 10 1/2 tackles for loss in his first three years, and while he might not be Garrett or Hall, he can be motivated by the fact that some expect a gigantic drop-off in Texas A&M’s pass rush in 2017.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach
Stoops led the Wildcats out of the SEC wilderness last season and to a bowl game, and for a few weeks there Kentucky was in contention for an SEC East title and it wasn’t even winter. The Cats even knocked off their nationally ranked rival, Louisville, in dramatic fashion, on the road. In terms of Stoops coaching family accomplishments, this was right up there. But that taste of winning at a place like Kentucky will only make Stoops and a suddenly excited fan base want it more.
So during those idle summer days in Lexington leading into fall practice, Stoops will be dreaming of a winning encore, say eight wins this time around, which is very possible with 17 starters returning.
Jake Bentley, South Carolina quarterback
It was all so new and wonderful for Bentley in 2016. He emerged off the bench and turned South Carolina’s season into something worth remembering, complete with a bowl berth. He threw for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns with a 65.8 completion percentage in starting the final seven games of the season, winning four of them.
But now comes the hard part, and Bentley knows it. He’ll spend his summer believing — not just hoping — that this is the “runway” to another launching point for South Carolina football, and for himself, this fall. The fiery competitor has used plenty of words this offseason to motivate himself, his teammates and the opposition, and the word “championship” will probably race through his mind every morning he wakes up until fall camp begins.