Athlon previews the spring storylines from the SEC East.
The SEC East should be one of the nation’s most intriguing conference title races to watch in 2014. Missouri is the defending champion, but South Carolina, Georgia and even Florida should be in the mix this season.
Missouri was defeated by Auburn in the SEC Championship last December, but Gary Pinkel’s team clearly showed it can compete in this conference after finishing 5-7 in 2012. Missouri has a few holes to fill, and new starting quarterback Maty Mauk needs more seasoning before this team is ready to win the East once again. However, the Tigers 12-2 mark and division title last year was no fluke.
Elsewhere in the East, this year’s spring practice session is a crucial point of Will Muschamp’s tenure at Florida. The Gators have elite talent, and the defense was one of the best in the conference last year. However, the offense struggled mightily and changes to the staff were made at the end of the regular season. Did Muschamp make the right moves? If hiring Kurt Roper as the offensive coordinator and Mike Summers as the line coach backfires, Muschamp’s tenure in Gainesville will be in jeopardy.
Georgia and South Carolina will be picked near the top of the East this year, and both programs have question marks to answer on defense. The Gamecocks must replace three standouts from the defensive line, while the Bulldogs will be looking for answers across the board after a disappointing performance in 2013.
The intrigue extends to Tennessee, where the Volunteers and Commodores have plenty to work on this spring. Tennessee has a large signing class coming to Knoxville, and Butch Jones needs a handful of recruits to play right away this year. Vanderbilt will be adapting to new coach Derek Mason this spring, and the offense needs to develop a quarterback.
Kentucky is making progress under second-year coach Mark Stoops, and improvement should be noticeable from this team this spring.
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SEC East Spring Outlook
Starting over on offense:
After a 4-8 mark last season, Will Muschamp enters 2014 on the hot seat. The Gators’ defense held up their end of the bargain last year, as they allowed just 308.6 yards per game. But the offense was simply dreadful. It’s hard to find many positives on this unit after 2013, as Florida barely averaged over 300 yards per game in SEC action (312.5) and managed just 4.7 yards per play. Muschamp fired coordinator Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis and brought Kurt Roper from Duke to call the plays, while former Kentucky and USC assistant Mike Summers will coach the line. The staff moves were clearly necessary, and Muschamp appears to have made the right hires. But the bigger problem for the Gators is with the personnel. Is quarterback Jeff Driskel ready to take the next step in his development? Or will incoming freshman Will Grier push for the job? At running back, Kelvin Taylor is a future star. However, the offensive line is a concern. The Gators still lack proven options at receiver, but Andre Debose is back in the mix after missing all of last season with a knee injury. There’s no question Florida should be solid on defense next year. But Muschamp’s future in Gainesville will hinge on how far the offense develops this offseason.
Jeremy Pruitt’s first chance to work with the defense:
After one very successful year at Florida State, Pruitt left Tallahassee for a chance to call the defensive signals at Georgia. Pruitt is no stranger to the SEC, as he spent six seasons at Alabama prior to his one-year stint with the Seminoles. Even though Aaron Murray departs at quarterback, the Bulldogs are in good shape on offense with Todd Gurley returning at running back, along with new signal-caller Hutson Mason. But for Georgia to return to the SEC title game, it has to find some answers on defense. Youth was a factor in the struggles last season, with the Bulldogs allowing 31.8 points per game in SEC contests. With 10 starters back and another year for the young players to develop, Georgia’s defense is poised to make significant progress on the stat sheet. Now it’s up to Pruitt to take this defense to the next level. This spring is all about Pruitt putting his stamp on a defense and making the necessary changes after a disappointing effort last year.
Finding the right pieces on offense:
As expected, Mark Stoops’ first season in Lexington was a struggle. Kentucky won only two games and was held without a victory in SEC play. But despite the 2-10 mark last year, there’s plenty of positive momentum for Stoops and his staff. The Wildcats are recruiting well, and a handful of young players contributed in 2013. As Stoops looks ahead to 2014, both sides of the ball have concerns to address but improvement from the offense is essential after averaging just 14.8 points per game in SEC contests. Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow each threw for over 1,000 yards last season. However, both players will face competition from incoming freshman Drew Barker for the starting job. It’s tough to throw a true freshman in the lineup in the SEC, but Barker ranked as the No. 119 recruit in the 247Sports Composite, so there’s no doubt he has the talent to play right away. At running back, Kentucky should have an improved rushing attack with Jojo Kemp and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard leading the way. And four players that caught at least 20 receptions last season are return at receiver. Coordinator Neal Brown has more talent to work with this spring. Can he begin to fit the pieces together? Or will the quarterback battle extend into the fall?
New faces on defense:
The defending SEC East champs return only nine starters from last year’s team. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, and Missouri still has enough talent to challenge for the division crown. New quarterback Maty Mauk was impressive last season, while the skill positions are set with Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy returning at running back, along with Dorial Green-Beckham and Bud Sasser at receiver. The offense will face a transition period, but there is little reason to be concerned about this unit. The defense figures to get the most attention from coach Gary Pinkel and coordinator Dave Steckel this spring. The Tigers are losing a handful of key players, including ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy and cornerback E.J. Gaines. The line may not miss a beat assuming Markus Golden and Shane Ray continue to play at a high level. Replacing Gaines won’t be easy, but sophomores Aarion Penton (16 tackles) and John Gibson (14 tackles) played their share of snaps in 2013. Missouri may take a step back on defense next season with a handful of key performers departing. However, the drop-off may not be as great as some may suspect with a solid core of talent still in place in Columbia.
Rebuilding the defensive line:
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and line coach Deke Adams will have their hands full this spring. The Gamecocks lose three key performers from last year’s defensive line, including ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Quarles were both first-team All-SEC selections, and Sutton registered three sacks last season. South Carolina isn’t hurting for options in the trenches, but it’s hard to replace the talent that Clowney, Sutton and Quarles are taking to the NFL. Darius English has flashed potential in a backup role over the last two years and was listed as the backup to Clowney in 2013. Gerald Dixon and Mason Harris are slated to battle to replace Sutton, while J.T. Surratt will anchor the middle with Quarles departing. Other names to watch include Gerald Dixon Jr. and Kelsey Griffin at tackle, along with incoming junior college recruit Jhaustin Thomas. Dante Sawyer was expected to push for time in the fall, but the Georgia product will instead go to junior college. As we mentioned earlier, there’s certainly talent and potential here. However, it’s unrealistic to expect the same caliber of play of last year’s group. With matchups against Texas A&M and Georgia in the first few weeks of the season next year, this defensive line will be tested early in 2014.
Restocking the offensive line:
Losing five players at a particular position isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that unit struggles all season and can be replaced with more talent and upside the following year. However, that usually doesn’t hold true when discussing the offensive line. Tennessee loses all five starters in the trenches, including standout left tackle Antonio Richardson. There’s very little in the way of proven commodities for coach Butch Jones, as junior Mack Crowder made one start last season, and Marcus Jackson made five as a freshman in 2012. Considering the losses up front, it was no surprise Jones hit the recruiting trail hard for replacements. Junior college recruit Dontavius Blair is expected to push for time, while Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson enrolled early to compete this spring. It’s not easy to blend five new offensive line starters together in a short amount of time. But Jones and his coaching staff should be busy this spring trying different combinations and pairings to find the right mix up front.
Patton Robinette or Johnny McCrary at quarterback?:
New coach Derek Mason will spend this spring implementing his schemes on both sides of the ball. The Commodores are coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, and the cupboard isn’t bare for Mason and his staff. The defense needs attention in the secondary, but most of the focus for Vanderbilt will be at quarterback. Patton Robinette started three games last year and will face a challenge from talented redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette threw for 642 yards and four touchdowns in limited action last year. However, his completion percentage was just 52.3 and he tossed five picks on 88 attempts. McCrary was a three-star prospect by 247Sports in the 2013 signing class and threw for 9,025 yards and 78 touchdowns in his high school career. One factor that might complicate the quarterback battle is the turnover at receiver. The Commodores lose standout Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause, leaving Jordan Cunningham (15 receptions) as the team’s leading receiver. The battle between Robinette and McCrary could extend into fall practice as Mason and coordinator Karl Dorrell give both players a chance to lead the offense in 2014.