Spring Primer: SEC East

How does Athlon Sports see the SEC East this spring?

How does Athlon Sports see the SEC East this spring?

-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)

Spring Primers: ACC Coastal | ACC Atlantic | Big 12, Part 1 | Big 12, Pt 2 | Notre Dame | Big East, Part 1 | Big East, Pt 2 | SEC West | SEC East | Big Ten Leaders | Big Ten Legends | Pac-12 North | Pac-12 South

Florida Gators

2010 Record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Spring practice: March 16 – April 9

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 4

Spring storylines facing the Gators:

1. Two words: Regime change. Even if Urban Meyer is still living in Gainesville and offering daily advice to the new coaches, Florida will need to break in a brand new, albeit very experienced, coaching staff. Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis, and to a lesser extent Dan Quinn, will have loads of talent with which to work, so the pressure immediately falls to the coaches.

2. And Weis’ first order of business is to pick a signal caller – a position that saw running backs, tight ends and receivers line-up to take the snap a year ago. In Weis' pro-style scheme, expect John Brantley to reassert himself as the prodigy he was touted as prior to 2010. After flirting with transferring after last fall, Brantley has quickly changed his tune and is excited about the new scheme that fits his pocket-passing skills better. Expect a lot of reps for Brantley this fall.

3. The offensive skill players are freakishly deep and talented. And it appears that the quarterback is happy. So that leaves an offensive line that has to replace 48 starts from four starters from last fall. Xavier Nixon, James Wilson, Matt Patchan and Jon Halapio need to gel quickly along the front line if they expect to give Brantley the time he needs to throw.

4. No one should be deeply concerned about replacing names like Justin Trattou and Duke Lemmens with names like Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and William Green. But finding replacements for Ahmad Black and Will Hill at safety should be a major focus of Muschamp this spring. There is no shortage of talent, but Matt Elam and Josh Evans will need to take on much bigger roles at the back-end of this defense.

Redshirts to watch: OL Chaz Green, LB Michael Taylor, WR Chris Dunkley, LB Chris Martin (transfer)

Fantasy tip: Brantley went way too high in drafts a year ago based largely on anticipation. He didn’t fit the system and struggled. Yet, with a year of experience and a new scheme, Brantley could actually be undervalued this summer.

Early Enrollees: RB Mike Blakely, QB Jeff Driskel, TE A.C. Leonard, DL Clay Burton, WR Javares McRoy, DB Pop Saunders, P Kyle Christy

Georgia Bulldogs

2010 Record: 6-7, 3-5 SEC
Spring practice: March 10 – April 16

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7

Spring storylines facing the Bulldogs:

1. One of the first orders of business will be to rebuild the wide receiving corps. All-world superstar A.J. Green is gone and will be tough to replace. So is Kris Durham. But plenty of untapped talent returns in the form of the speedy Tavarres King (who will play flanker) and the supremely gifted Marlon Brown. Rantavious Wooten, Michael Bennett, Israel Troupe and Chris Conley will get a chance to show what they can do. King and Brown have the most physical gifts and should be Aaron Murray's top targets this fall.

2. Each year it seems Georgia enters the season with a major strength at the offensive line. But lately, it doesn't seem like they have ever been able to reach their full potential. Now with Clint Boling and Josh Davis gone, it must rebuild again. This time with a new general as Mark Richt hired Will Friend from UAB to take over the O-line duties when Stacy Searels bolted for Texas. Ben Jones will return at center and Trinton Sturdivant and converted guard Cordy Glenn will likely man the tackle spots. Finding solid guard play this spring will be key for Friend and the O-line.

3. Three of the four starting linebackers are gone, including potential first-round pick Justin Houston. This group also lost its coach when Warren Belin left for the NFL and was replaced by another NFLer Kirk Olivadotti. It appears that converted safety Alec Ogletree (movement seems to be a theme of this practice) and Christian Robinson will handle interior work while Cornelius Washington and USC transfer Jarvis Jones battle for outside playing time. Look for plenty of freshmen to be in the mix come summer camp too. This will be a key position to watch this spring.

4. Keep an eye on the development and maturity of the backfield. Murray's talents are obvious and he needs to continue on his career path. After a sprained ankle in a soccer game in February, Murray expects to participate fully in spring practice. A quarterback needs to gel quickly with his receivers and can never work too hard on his efficiency. The tailbacks need even more work. Caleb King and Washaun Ealey have serious issues focusing but have all the ability in the world. If either of them could simply stay out of trouble, they could start and excel at running back. These two knuckleheads might not feel the depth chart heating up yet, but when star freshman Isaiah Crowell shows up, they better be ready to compete.

Redshirts to watch: RB Ken Malcome, WR Michael Bennett, OL Brent Benedict, OL Kolton Houston, NT Mike Thornton

Fantasy tip: Murray is a special player and will be high on my draft board - especially if the wide receiving corps comes together quickly. Ealey is the fantasy misnomer. If he starts all 12 games, the sky is the limit for his production - first or second round good. But he needs to do some serious maturing if he expects to start every game.

Early Enrollees: QB Christian LeMay, WR Christian Conley

Kentucky Wildcats

2010 Record: 6-7, 2-6 SEC
Spring practice: March 23 – April 23

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 8

Spring storylines facing the Wildcats:

1. Morgan Newton set career highs in yards, attempts and completions in his start in the BBVA Compass Bowl last winter. But the burly passer failed to separate himself from the competition. Coordinator Randy Sanders said it will be an open competition, and Newton has the athletic ability and the experience edge over the other options on the depth chart. Who would have thought life without Michael Hartline could look so bleak?

2. The first thing Kentucky could do to help its signal caller is find replacements for two of the school's best. Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and Chris Matthews have all moved on to the NFL. That is 3,571 yards from scrimmage Sanders is trying to replace. It's easier said than done. Raymond Sanders, CoShik Williams, La'Rod King, Matt Roark, Brian Adams and a pair of redshirt tailbacks will be vying for touches. One or two players needs to step up and give the quarterback dependable options - beit at running back or wideout.

3. The secondary and linebackers return largely intact and could be some of the best in the SEC - as far as Kentucky standards at least. Most of the talent returns up front as well, with the exception of Ricky Lumpkin and DeQuin Evans. Look for the right combination of Taylor Wyndham, Collins Ukwu, Mark Crawford, Donte Rumph and Luke McDermott to settle in up front.

Redshirts to watch: TE Alex Smith, RB Brandon Gainer, RB Miles Simpson, DB Dale Trimble

Fantasy tip: With uncertainty surrounding the Kentucky offense, the only sure thing could be running back Raymond Sanders. However, Sanders isn't a lock to get 1,000 yards this season and fantasy owners should take a wait and see approach with the Wildcats.

Early Enrollees: DL Jabari Johnson, LB Tim Patterson, QB Maxwell Smith

South Carolina Gamecocks

2010 Record: 9-5, 5-3 SEC
Spring practice: March 15 – April 9

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7

Spring storylines facing the Gamecocks:

1. Every spring article written over the last three or four years should begin with keeping Stephen Garcia out of trouble. The supposed returning starter was suspended for a big chunk of spring practice this year, due to what many believe was a curfew incident at the bowl game. If the Tiger can never change his stripes, it might be Connor Shaw time in Columbia. If Garcia can ever stay focused, with the talent at the skill positions, he could make a run at SEC Player of the Year. One thing is sure, Steve Spurrier's patience is wearing thin.

2. The guy carrying the ball is most certainly NOT an issue for this team. In fact, Marcus Lattimore might be the most talented running back in the nation. But replacing two key starters along the line, Garrett Chisolm and Hutch Eckerson, as well as very underrated fullback Patrick DiMarco, is an issue. A great offensive line is what South Carolina has been missing for years and it held up just enough (eighth in SEC rushing and sacks allowed) to get the Cocks to the title game. Filling a hole left by an all-SEC performer is no easy task.

3. Finding a replacement for star defensive end Cliff Matthews will be key on defense. To lesser extent Ladi Ajiboye, LB Josh Dickerson and DB Chris Culliver all need to replaced as well, but Matthews was the big threat - he single-handedly ended Matt Simms career. Whether it is Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram or Chaz Sutton, Spurrier needs to find someone to fill the void. Otherwise, this defense returns a ton of talent in the secondary and plenty of experience at the linebackers. Of course, there is that small defensive end recruit from Rock Hill whose arrival this summer could help stimulate competition too.

Redshirts to watch: CB Victor Hampton, LB Qua Qilchrist, WR Nick Jones, OL A.J. Cann

Fantasy tip: Do not think that you can draft Marcus Lattimore too early. Adrian Peterson might be the only player in the country better than Lattimore at his own position - yes, I am including the NFL. Filling holes up front and getting consistent quarterback play are small questions which may affect Lattimore's draft stock. Tough to go wrong with freak of nature Alshon Jeffery either.

Early Enrollees: OL Kaleb Broome, QB Martay Mattox, DT Kelcy Quarles, DB Brison Williams

Tennessee Volunteers

2010 Record: 6-7, 3-5 SEC
Spring practice: March 22 – April 16

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

Spring storylines facing the Vols:

1. Yes, it is true that there are some talented young options at receiver stepping into prominent roles this season. Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and Zach Rogers have all the raw ability in the world to make plays. They just don't have the experience. Or the luxury of having Denarius Moore, Luke Stocker and Gerald Jones out there to plow grass too. If Hunter can get a little bigger/stronger and Rogers stays motivated, this has the makings of an outstanding strength of the team rather than a weakness.

2. To Tyler Bray, Stocker was a nice safety net over the middle that will be missed. But to Tauren Poole, he was his lead- or seal-blocker. Another blocker, guard Jarrod Shaw, needs replacing as well. However, the only good thing about having an extremely young offensive line, as the Vols most definitely did a season ago, is that they can only get better. There could be a lot of talent in this group, but they have to continue to make strides as a whole.

3. Big holes were left by the exodus of Chris Walker and Gerald Williams, and to a lesser extent Victor Thomas. Young, highly touted freshman Jacques Smith and Corey Miller got their feet wet last season but need to take big steps this spring. Finding some rush ends to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks will help take the burden off what could be a thin linebacking corps that loses senior leader Nick Reveiz. The front-seven is likely the biggest question mark on this team, but the Vols have a lot of young, talented options.

Redshirts to watch: LB Martaze Jackson, P Matt Darr

Fantasy tip: Tyler Bray looks the part at quarterback, but the offensive line is still very young. Losing the veteran presence of Moore and Jones on the outside will also put more pressure on the young receiving corps of the Vols. Look for Poole to be the only legit weekly fantasy starter from this unit.

Early Enrollees: QB Justin Worley, WR Vincent Dallas, OL Mack Crowder, OL Marcus Jackson, TE Brendan Downs, DB Justin Coleman

Vanderbilt Commodores

2010 Record: 2-10, 1-7 SEC
Spring practice: March 18 – April 17

Returning Starters: Offense – 10, Defense – 8

Spring storylines facing the Commodores:

1. With more returning starters than any other SEC team, Vandy needs to get its coaching staff settled into its new routines quickly. And picking a quarterback is first priority. Larry Smith is the incumbent with the most experience but lacks consistency. Jordan Rodgers, younger brother of Super Bowl Champion Aaron, is still recovering from injuries that have plagued his career on West End. This should be the first, big decision for James Franklin and his new staff.

2. The running game will have to be productive to give the quarterback any chance to succeed. The good news is the Dores return an O-line that is completely intact - but without definition yet. The running backs are extremely talented but can never stay on the field. Getting the big uglies up front to gel quickly - and keeping the explosive Zac Stacy and Warren Norman on the field - will be key for this offense.

3. The secondary should be a major strength of this team, but replacing a pair of linebackers and a defensive end is needed. Luckily the most talented player on the team is linebacker Chris Marve, who returns to lead this unit. Finding solid contributors around him and solidifying the defensive line are going to be the focus of the defensive staff.

Redshirts to watch: WR Chris Boyd, DT Vince Taylor, DE Kyle Woestmann, OL Andrew Bridges

Fantasy tip: These two tailbacks are talented. The issue is the offensive line, quarterback's consistency, injury concerns and a brutal SEC schedule. IF Stacy or Norman can stay healthy and get the bulk of the carries, there could be some sneaky spot-starts in 2011 - like Elon, Army and Wake Forest.

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<p> Athlon takes a look at some of the key questions from around the SEC East this spring.</p>

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