With spring practice officially over in the SEC, we're breaking down the top priority for each team to address between now and the start of fall camp.
Earlier today, we examined the East. Now it’s time to look to the West.
Alabama: Shore up the secondary
Anthony Averett is back at cornerback and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison form one of the best safety tandems in the country. Still, Alabama’s secondary was torched during the spring game, allowing more than 600 yards passing. But it was the long plays that bothered Fitzpatrick most. "I was really disappointed in the team because we didn’t finish at the end," the junior safety said. "We kind of let the offense get on the field and finish. So basically it was like how we lost in the championship game when (Clemson) drove down the field and capitalized on our mistakes and we let them with the game." If allowing long passes becomes a trend for Alabama's defense, that could spell trouble.
Arkansas: Develop weapons in the passing game
Sure, Austin Allen might be one of the top three returning quarterbacks in the SEC. But what does it matter if he doesn’t have anyone to throw the ball to? Jeremy Sprinkle, Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan are all gone, leaving only Jared Cornelius -- the team’s third-leading receiver last season -- as the only familiar face. Deon Stewart and T.J. Hammonds are a couple of names worth remembering as Arkansas looks to develop starters at receiver.
Auburn: Find more pass-rushers
Marlon Davidson and Deshaun Davis have shown the ability to get to the quarterback, but who else? Jeff Holland has experience, but hasn’t broken through yet, and with Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams now gone from the front seven, Auburn's defense needs to find its next crop of pass-rushers. Paul James III's solid spring game could put him in the running, and former No. 1 recruit Byron Cowart could benefit from a position change as well. With Carlton Davis back at cornerback and seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety, the secondary could be among the best in the SEC -- if quarterbacks aren’t given all day to throw the football.
LSU: Get Canada and Etling on the same page
Coach Ed Orgeron boasted about how Matt Canada's newly installed offense was giving the defense fits all spring before the spring game happened. Then came the thud of Danny Etling's 4-for-11 passing performance prior to the game being moved out of Tiger Stadium because of weather. Granted, LSU didn’t want to show Canada’s full playbook and Etling wound up needing a procedure on his back, but still. The scrimmage showed just how far Etling has to go before the comparison to Nathan Peterman and his resurgence under Canada at Pitt sticks.
Mississippi State: Build Fitzgerald a supporting cast
The good news from Mississippi State’s spring game was that the defense finally showed up under new coordinator Todd Grantham. The bad news? The offense was manhandled and star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald became a turnover machine. Fitzgerald, who was the most productive quarterback in the SEC last season in terms of total offense, should be fine. The real question, however, is who will help him on offense. Fred Ross is gone at receiver, leaving big shoes to fill, and a lead back must emerge to take the onus off of Fitzgerald running the ball 15-20 times per game.
Ole Miss: Generate a running game
Shea Patterson could be one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in the SEC next season, and his receiving corps is absolutely loaded. So don’t worry about the Rebels putting up yards through the air. The running game, on the other hand, is another story. In what’s become a familiar theme of Hugh Freeze’s tenure as head coach, establishing a ground game absent quarterback runs is needed. Jordan Wilkins, the favorite to start, missed all of last season after being ruled academically ineligible, and the potential No. 2 back, Eugene Brazley, averaged five carries per game and caught 14 passes last season.
Texas A&M: Establish a pecking order at QB
There’s no law out there that says you have to leave the spring with a starting quarterback. As we saw with Auburn and Jeremy Johnson, sometimes that approach can backfire, in fact. But when you wrap up the spring and there’s no clear sense of who the top candidate is, well, that can be a problem. Just look at Texas A&M’s spring game: Jake Hubenak averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt; Kellen Mond completed only 4 of 12 passes; and Nick Starkel was an uninspiring 10 for 27 for 184 yards and a touchdown. So who do you take from that bunch? Mond might be the choice because of his athleticism, but who knows? Splitting reps between two quarterbacks is hard enough. Kevin Sumlin and his staff better hope there’s some separation before fall camp so he’s not trying out three quarterbacks.