Spring preview: Western Division

We all know that football season never ends in the SEC. Well, it’s cranking back up in earnest next week, at least the spring version, when LSU opens spring practice Thursday.

As usual, there’s a lot that’s new in the SEC, including coaches and even a pair of new teams. Missouri settles into the Eastern Division and Texas A&M into the Western Division.

And while the league lost its share of star players, plenty of star power returns.

We’ll kick off our SEC spring preview with the West, home to the past three national champions, including Alabama this past season.

So without further ado …


Spring practice starts: March 9

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

  • McCarron takes charge: As a first-year starter this past season, quarterback AJ McCarron was more of a caretaker on offense for the Crimson Tide and performed well in that role. But next season, he will be asked to do more and will also need to take on more of a leadership role. He played his best game on the biggest stage in the BCS National Championship Game, so he enters this spring with a lot of momentum. If he takes the kind of step Alabama fans hope he will, the Tide will be a load on offense again in 2012.

  • Shuffling the deck up front: Replacing veteran center William Vlachos won’t be easy. He’s been a rock in the middle of that offensive line for the past three seasons. Alabama could end up replacing him with another rock. Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones will get a long look at center this spring after playing left tackle this past season and left guard the season before that. One of the keys for the Tide up front is Cyrus Kouandjio, who had his freshman season cut short by a knee injury. Physically, he’s exactly what you’re looking for at left tackle. However it shakes out, the Tide will get their best five on the field.

  • Reloading on defense: Most of the marquee playmakers on defense are gone, and the Tide were gutted in the secondary. But junior college cornerbacks Travell Dixon and Deion Belue are on campus and will be tossed into the mix this spring. It’s also a big spring for rising sophomore safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, and Alabama will be looking for a few more finishers when it comes to rushing the passer and a nose guard to replace steady Josh Chapman. One option may be sliding Jesse Williams inside, although the Alabama coaches like what he gave them at end during his first season on campus.


Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:

  • Getting defensive: There’s a reason Paul Haynes is now calling the shots on defense for Arkansas. The Hogs simply had not made the kind of strides on that side of the ball that coach Bobby Petrino felt like they needed to make if they were going to break through and play for a national championship. Haynes comes over from Ohio State and brings with him an attacking approach. Arkansas fans liked what they saw in the Cotton Bowl, but replacing departing seniors Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas won’t be easy.

  • Ask and you shall receive: The Big Three are gone -- Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs. They comprised the heart of the Hogs’ talented receiving corps for the past three seasons and made a lot of plays. Now, it’s Cobi Hamilton's time to be the leader with a whole cast of less familiar faces jockeying to get into that starting equation this spring. It’s a chance for guys like Marquel Wade, Quinta Funderburk, Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon to show what they can do. Don’t forget about Chris Gragg, who returns as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the SEC.

  • Jewel of the Knile: There were some rumblings that Knile Davis was going to give it a go at the end of last season after fracturing his ankle in the preseason. It didn’t make sense to rush things, though, and Davis should be fully healthy for the 2012 season. How much he does this spring remains to be seen, but you know it’s important for him to at least be out there and getting back into the feel of football. He was doing some things at the end of practice last season. Obviously, the most important thing is to make sure he’s ready to go come September when the season begins, but the spring will provide a glimpse of where he is with his recovery. If he returns to the same form as the 2010 season, Arkansas fans are salivating at the thought of that offense with Tyler Wilson slinging it and Davis running it.


Spring practice starts: March 21

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

  • Defensive restructuring: It was a nightmarish season a year ago for Auburn’s defense, making it no surprise to anybody that Gene Chizik overhauled things on that side of the ball. Only defensive line coach Mike Pelton remains in the same position. Everything else will be new on defense, including Brian VanGorder taking over as coordinator. Willie Martinez joins the staff as the secondary coach, and Tommy Thigpen moves from coaching safeties to coaching linebackers. The Tigers return most of their key players on defense, and youth was certainly an issue last season. But VanGorder’s challenge is getting this unit to play with more consistency and to be more fundamentally sound, particularly when it comes to tackling.

  • Quarterback quandary: Scot Loeffler steps in as the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator, and right off the bat, he has to settle on a starting quarterback. In the past, Auburn has taken its time with that decision. We’ll see if that changes with Loeffler. Clint Moseley has the most experience and finished last season as Auburn’s starter, but rising sophomore Kiehl Frazier has been around long enough now that he should have his first legitimate chance to win the job. One of the things Frazier has to prove this spring is that he can throw the ball well enough to be the every-down starter. True freshman Zeke Pike is also on campus and will practice this spring.

  • Making plays: With Michael Dyer now at Arkansas State, the Tigers have to find somebody else to lean on offensively. Dyer was the Tigers’ offense last season. There are plenty of candidates. Onterio McCalebb would be at the top of that list, and Tigers are also keeping their fingers crossed that receivers Emory Blake and Trovon Reed can stay healthy this season. But finding roles for guys like Tre Mason and Quan Bray will be equally important this spring. Both are supremely talented with the ball in their hands, and the Tigers need to find ways to get them both a lot of touches next season.


Spring practice starts: March 1

Spring game: March 31

What to watch:

  • Forgetting the past: As memorable as last season was for LSU, the way it ended has been difficult for anybody on the Bayou to forget. The 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game was a serious downer after 13 straight wins against a killer schedule and still has a lot of LSU fans fuming. The best thing for the Tigers is simply getting back onto the practice field and putting the past behind them once and for all. This will be an extremely talented team once again, but a team that everyone will expect to be right back in the championship race in 2012. Developing the right kind of chemistry and leadership will be critical, and that starts this spring.

  • Passing fancy: LSU coach Les Miles has already said that the Tigers will throw the ball more next season, and a big reason is because Zach Mettenberger steps in at quarterback. The Tigers have been spotty in the passing game each of the past two seasons, but throwing the ball downfield and hitting big plays in the passing game is what Mettenberger does best. This spring will be his first chance to be “The Man” for the Tigers, and a big part of that is gaining the trust, confidence and faith in all of the players around him on offense. With all the pieces in place to be a strong running team again, LSU could really take off offensively if Mettenberger has a big season throwing the ball.

  • Looking for linebackers: Go back and look at LSU’s signing class, and it’s obvious the Tigers felt like they needed to reload at linebacker. There will be a ton of competition for starting spots this spring at linebacker with a lot of new faces in that mix. Defensive coordinator John Chavis puts a premium on speed, which means you don’t have to be 240 pounds to play linebacker for him. He’s also proven that he’s not afraid to play young guys if they’re ready. This will be a big spring for rising junior Tahj Jones, who has the speed and athleticism to be a perfect fit in Chavis’ system.


Spring practice starts: March 22

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:

  • Tyler Russell’s time: With Chris Relf gone, it’s Russell’s time to show what he can do as the Bulldogs’ full-time starter. He made four starts toward the end of this past season, and throwing the football from the pocket is his forte. Russell still needs to polish up on all of the other things it takes to be a good quarterback in this league, and the Bulldogs also need to create some depth at the position. Look for Dak Prescott to get a lot of work this spring, especially with Russell still nursing the knee he banged up during bowl practice. Prescott redshirted last season and will be a redshirt freshman.

  • Drawing a line: The Bulldogs are eager to get junior college newcomers Dylan Holley and Charles Siddoway on the field and see where they fit in up front in the offensive line and if they’re going to be ready to go in the season opener. Holley projects as a center, but could also play guard. Siddoway will get a shot at the Bulldogs’ left tackle job. Sorting out things across the board on the offensive line will be a priority for Mississippi State this spring.

  • Safety valve: The good news is that Mississippi returns two experienced cornerbacks in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield, but veteran safety Charles Mitchell is gone. What’s more, Nickoe Whitley tore his Achilles tendon in the Alabama game and won’t be full strength this spring. So finding some reinforcements at safety will be important. Some of the younger guys like Jamerson Love, Dee Arrington and Jay Hughes will have big opportunities to show what they can do, and cornerback Darius Slay could also get a look at safety.


Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:

  • The big Freeze: First-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze wants to run a power spread similar to what Arkansas State ran on offense last season. One of the toughest parts of that transition will be getting the offensive line up to speed. Freeze isn’t sure what Ole Miss has returning in the offensive line is tailor-made for a power offense, which means the Rebels’ coaches have some coaching and some recruiting to do. Addressing the offensive line, period, will be a big priority this spring, especially with offensive tackle Bobby Massie deciding to turn pro.

  • Wallace on display: One of the things that held the Rebels back last season on offense was that they were never able to get any consistency at the quarterback position. There are still a couple of different options, but junior college newcomer Bo Wallace is probably the front-runner to win the job. He’s on campus and will go through spring practice and isn’t a stranger to Freeze’s offense. Wallace started his career at Arkansas State and redshirted in 2010 when Freeze was the offensive coordinator there. More than anything, Freeze is looking for some real competition at the position with Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti all returning.

  • Recovering on defense: It was a rough season for the Rebels defensively a year ago, and a lot of that was because they were on the field for much of the season. Getting a healthy D.T. Shackelford back at linebacker is huge after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL suffered last spring. It will be interesting to see how much he does in this spring practice. Either way, just having him back out there should help from a leadership standpoint and getting that edge back defensively. The Rebels need to find more finishers up front defensively after finishing 110th nationally with just 13 sacks in 12 games. Creating more turnovers is also a must. Ole Miss finished with 17 a season ago, which was tied for 95th nationally.


Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 28

What to watch:

  • Sumlin takes over: First-year coach Kevin Sumlin takes over in College Station, and the spring will be his first real chance to place his stamp on the program. He’s already said that all jobs are open and purposely didn’t watch any film from the 2011 regular season. He wants to make his own evaluations on the field, which means there will be some serious auditions going on this spring. Sumlin ran a wide-open spread offense at Houston because that’s the kind of personnel he had. He’ll certainly modify his system to fit his personnel this first season at Texas A&M, which likely means running the ball more given the Aggies’ returning experience in the offensive line and their stable of backs.

  • Quarterback hunting: One of Sumlin’s first orders of business is finding a quarterback, and there’s at least four candidates on campus. The only guy with any game experience (and it’s not much) is rising sophomore Jameill Showers, who backed up Ryan Tannehill last season. The other two returnees are Johnny Manziel and Matt Joeckel, both of whom will be redshirt freshmen. Manziel is more of a runner, while the 6-4, 230-pound Joeckel is a pocket passer. Sumlin knows at least a little bit about Showers, Manziel and Joeckel. He recruited all three at Houston. There’s also true freshman Matt Davis, who’s already enrolled and will go through spring practice.

  • Finishing the drill: As all Texas A&M fans are well aware, the Aggies weren’t what you could call a second-half team last season. In fact, they were far from it, and time and time again wilted in the second half. Sumlin has made it known that one of his goals is for the program to toughen up both physically and mentally. In five of the Aggies’ six losses last season, they were ahead at halftime or at some point in the second half. The defense absorbed much of the blame and definitely has to improve as Texas A&M makes the jump to the SEC, but Sumlin wants to make sure this spring that he instills a programwide toughness that carries over into the fall.