One of the most rewarding parts of spring practice for coaches is finding those pleasant surprises, whether it’s players who fly in under the radar and step up at positions of need or players little-used to this point who look like they’re going to be key contributors in the fall.
Several of those guys have emerged this spring in the SEC.
Here’s a look:
Sterling Bailey, DE, Georgia, RSo.: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained his defensive linemen at all three positions this spring, and Bailey stood out at both end and nose guard. He’s poised to be a valuable run-stopper for the Bulldogs after playing in only three games last season as a redshirt freshman.
Kentrell Brothers, LB, Missouri, RSo.: Brothers appears to be all the way back from the broken leg he suffered in preseason camp two years ago. He’s pushing Darvin Ruise hard for the starting weakside linebacker job and has been impressive this spring. Brothers had 14 tackles last season and didn’t make any starts.
Justin Garrett, LB/S, Auburn, Jr.: Stuck behind Daren Bates the past two seasons and playing only sparingly, Garrett has gone from an undersized linebacker to the “Star” in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme. He’ll be part-linebacker and part-safety and has shown the kind of speed and tackling ability this spring that Johnson is looking for at that hybrid position.
Joe Morrow, WR, Mississippi State, RSo.: Morrow has been a spring sensation for the Bulldogs in the past, but it’s yet to translate during the season. He caught just five passes last season as a redshirt freshman and was plagued by a bum knee. But this spring, Morrow has been much more consistent and has given his teammates and coaches confidence that he can be a go-to receiver. He’s an inviting target at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and a tough matchup for smaller cornerbacks.
Floyd Raven, S, Texas A&M, Jr.: A backup cornerback a year ago, Raven has moved to free safety and is currently sitting atop the depth chart. His athleticism and playmaking skills make him a natural back there. He’s intercepted Johnny Manziel a couple of different times in scrimmages. The key will be fully understanding his role at safety and what all that entails. If he gets that down, look out.
Dontavis Sapp, LB, Tennessee, Sr.: First-year coach Butch Jones said following Saturday’s second scrimmage that Sapp has been “amazing” this spring. Some pretty lofty praise for a guy who made just 17 tackles last season. But with a new staff and a new defensive scheme, Sapp has prospered. The former safety can play any of the three linebacker positions and is a fixture on special teams.
Austin Shepherd, OT, Alabama, RJr.: The Crimson Tide lost three starters from an offensive line that most people considered the best in the country a year ago. Shepherd, entering his fourth year in the program, has waited his turn and has the edge right now over junior-college newcomer Leon Brown in the battle for the starting right-tackle job.
Mitch Smothers, OG, Arkansas, RSo.: Smothers has found a new lease on his football life under first-year offensive-line coach Sam Pittman. After redshirting last season, Smothers has played his way back into the starting lineup at left guard. He was a starter at tackle to open his true freshman season in 2011, but was benched after the first four games and spent the rest of the season watching from the sideline.
Carlos Thompson, DE, Ole Miss, RJr.: A big get for the Rebels out of high school, Thompson has played in just 11 games during his first three years on campus. He redshirted last season to get stronger, and the Ole Miss coaches have been impressed with the results. He’s been more physical and has held up better at the point of attack. With C.J. Johnson out for the rest of the spring with a broken fibula, Thompson has made the most of his opportunities. He could be a breakout player in the fall for the Rebels.
D.J. Welter, LB, LSU, RJr.: Academics derailed Welter last season after he played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The feeling coming into the spring was that Lamin Barrow would move from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker to replace Kevin Minter. But so far, Welter has played well enough in the middle that the Tigers haven’t felt like they needed to move anybody.