SEC position battles to watch in the spring

Positions will be won and lost all across the SEC this spring.

And in some cases, nothing will be settled until preseason practice resumes in August.

Here are five position battles to keep an eye on as spring practice in the SEC gets under way on Feb. 25 with LSU kicking it off. Two months later, Arkansas and Kentucky will both shut it down on April 24 with their spring games:

1. Georgia quarterback: Joe Cox won’t be around to blame anymore. He’s gone after one year on the job, meaning this spring will be one big scrap for the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback job. Junior Logan Gray is one of the most athletic players on the team and will probably get first dibs on proving that he’s the guy. Whether or not he throws the ball well enough to play winning football in the SEC remains to be seen, which means it will probably come down between redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger. Both were on campus for spring practice a year ago and know the system. Mettenberger is a taller, pocket passer with a big arm, while Murray possesses the kind of versatility all coaches are looking for in a quarterback. The early indications are that Murray has that “it” factor and may be the one to beat.

2. Alabama cornerback: Not only is Alabama short one cornerback, but both starting cornerbacks from its national championship team are gone with Kareem Jackson leaving early for the NFL. Don’t feel too sorry for the Crimson Tide, because there’s a cache of talent waiting in the wings. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick has all sorts of potential after coming in last season as one of the top defensive back prospects in the country. He certainly isn’t lacking for confidence. Nick Saban also went out and signed two of the top cornerbacks prospects in the country this year in DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton, and both players are already on campus and will go through spring practice. Don’t forget about LSU transfer Phelon Jones, either, and junior college newcomer DeQuan Menzie will arrive this summer.

3. Tennessee running back: Montario Hardesty was one of the most pleasant surprises in the league last season. He was a workhorse for the Vols after enduring injury concerns for much of his career. He led the SEC with 282 carries while rushing for 1,345 yards, which was 300 yards more than he’d gained in his first three seasons combined. The reality is that it may take a couple of players to replace his production. Sophomore Bryce Brown is a big, strong runner who showed flashes last season, but was probably overhyped coming out of high school when he was tabbed by some as the No. 1 prospect in the country. The guy to watch is junior Tauren Poole, who didn’t get much of a chance under the previous staff. He’s got to watch his fumbling. Redshirt freshman Toney Williams was extremely impressive last spring before tearing his ACL in summer workouts, while sophomore David Oku is a guy who can catch it and run it.

4. South Carolina weak side linebacker: It’s known more commonly around Columbia as Eric Norwood’s position, although the Gamecocks were able to move the three-time All-SEC selection around to different spots during his career. He provided so many big plays over the last couple of seasons that replacing him won’t be easy. One of the guys who will probably get the first shot is sophomore Reggie Bowens, who has great speed and has been trying to find the right position after coming to South Carolina as a safety. He was out the entire season two years ago with a shoulder injury and was plagued by knee problems last season. Junior Shaq Wilson had to move inside last season because of injuries in the middle, but also could end up moving back to the weak side. Tony Straughter and Quin Smith are two other guys to keep an eye on this spring.

5. Mississippi State running back: Few players in the league left bigger shoes to fill than Anthony Dixon when you consider how big a part of the Mississippi State offense he was last season. There’s no substitute for being able to turn around and hand the ball off to a bruising back the caliber of the 245-pound Dixon. With him gone, it’s going to be a free-for-all to see who emerges as the starter. Junior Robert Elliott has been one of those “potential” guys who may be due for a breakout season. He has great speed and acceleration, but just needs to do it on a consistent basis. Montrell Conner is a 215-pound speedster that redshirted last season. The Mississippi State staff is eager to see what he can do this spring, while junior college newcomer Vick Ballard is already enrolled and will go through spring practice. Ballard rushed for 1,728 yards and 22 touchdowns last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.