Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues facing each SEC West team heading into the spring:
Spring practice starts: March 12
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
Retooling the secondary -- The Crimson Tide are losing three starters in the secondary, and another guy who played a good bit last season, safety Robby Green, is in limbo. The battle for the two starting cornerback spots this spring will be fierce. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick has star potential with his combination of talent and swagger. Coveted freshman signees DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton both enrolled early and will go through spring practice, while sophomore B.J. Scott will also get a shot at one of the three starting positions in Alabama’s nickel defense along with LSU transfer Phelon Jones, who already has SEC experience. Junior college newcomer DeQuan Menzie arrives this summer, so there will be a bunch of new faces in the Alabama secondary next fall. And with Green’s eligibility in question, another guy to watch at safety is sophomore Robert Lester, a teammate of Julio Jones’ in high school. Scott could also play safety if needed.
Cody’s replacement -- Even though Terrence Cody wasn’t an every-down player for Alabama, he was a one-man wrecking crew against the run. Teams simply didn’t run between the tackles against the Crimson Tide. Junior Josh Chapman is the most experienced of the inside guys and played behind Cody the last two seasons. The defensive coaches are eager to get a more extensive look at sophomore Kerry Murphy this spring. He may have as much pure talent as anybody up front. He got a late start getting to Alabama because of qualifying issues, but was a big-time recruit. Damion Square is a wild card and can play any position on the defensive line. He’s back after tearing his ACL in the second game, but will be limited this spring.
Special teams makeover -- Don’t underestimate the importance special teams played for Alabama each of the past two seasons. Place-kicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald both had excellent senior seasons. Freshman place-kicker Cade Foster is already enrolled in school and will show off his leg in the spring. Christian Kauffman is walking on and will be on campus this summer. Freshman punter Jay Williams will be on campus in the summer. Equally important is finding a dynamic return man. How many games did Javier Arenas win for the Crimson Tide the last few seasons? Julio Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, Marquis Maze and Terry Grant are all more than capable candidates. We’ll see who emerges.
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
Playing without Mallett -- It will be sophomore Tyler Wilson’s show this spring at quarterback with Ryan Mallett out with a broken bone in his left foot. Wilson will get some help from redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell and true freshman Jacoby Walker, who enrolled early and will also participate in spring practice. Obviously, the Hogs would like to have their main guy under center with everybody getting better around him, but it’s also a chance for Wilson and some of the other quarterbacks to get valuable practice time with the first unit. Having a second-team quarterback who’s ready to step in as opposed to having one who’s in over his head is the difference between saving a season and going belly-up if the starter happens to go down.
Making strides on defense -- The Hogs will be older and more experienced on defense next season, and they’re hopeful that means they will be stingier. Depth at linebacker remains a concern, but the secondary should be better with the return of cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. For precautionary reasons, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he’s not sure how much contact Madison will get this spring. Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis are gone from the defensive line, but Petrino thinks the defensive front will be good. Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose, Tenarius Wright, Zach Stadther, D.D. Jones, Patrick Jones and Lavunce Askew are all back. Petrino says it’s paramount that the Hogs develop more depth at linebacker this spring, and ultimately, find a way to eliminate the big plays.
Loaded backfield -- It’s no secret that Arkansas is loaded at receiver, but Petrino really likes the potential in the backfield, headlined by sophomore Ronnie Wingo Jr. He has track speed and has beefed up to 230 pounds. He’s primed for a breakout season. It’s also a backfield that appears to have all the pieces. Broderick Green is pushing 250 pounds and gives the Hogs that power back down around the goal line, while Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis are guys who can do a little bit of everything. With new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis coming over from Nevada, look for the Hogs to tweak their running game and use a lot of the Pistol formation that was so successful for Klenakis at Nevada.
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
Linebacker depth -- The Tigers were so thin at linebacker last season that Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens had to play every snap in the overtime win against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Both of those guys are back, and both should be primed for big seasons. But one of the priorities this spring is building some depth around them. Junior Eltoro Freeman should be more consistent in 2010 after coming over from junior college last season. Redshirt freshman Harris Gaston was injured for much of last season, while sophomore Jonathan Evans played well late when he was forced into action. Freshman signee Jessel Curry was a midterm enrollee. The rest of the linebacker reinforcements -- LaDarius Owens, Jake Holland and Jawara White -- will be on campus this summer.
Newton stepping in at quarterback -- All signs point to junior college newcomer Cameron Newton being the guy to beat at quarterback. He’ll go through spring practice after signing in December. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound Newton can run and pass, which is what Gus Malzahn is looking for in his spread offense. Redshirt freshman Tyrik Rollison was thought to be the Tigers’ quarterback of the future until his suspension prior to the bowl game last year. Now, his status remains up in the air. Senior Neil Caudle will also get a shot this spring. Remember that Chris Todd sort of came from the back of the pack last season to win the job.
Difference-makers on defense -- Antonio Coleman was the SEC’s sacks leader and tackles for loss leader a year ago, but now he’s gone. Who’s going to take his place when it comes to making the big plays on defense? Senior Antoine Carter is the odds-on favorite at Coleman’s end spot, but the guy the Auburn coaches were really excited about last season was freshman Nosa Eguae, who injured his foot just prior to the season and wound up redshirting. It’s also a big spring for junior tackle Nick Fairley. He made some big plays inside last season after coming over from junior college, but needs to show more consistency. Junior college players are typically much better their second season in the program.
Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: March 27
What to watch:
Finding an identity on offense -- After last season’s woeful showing, the Tigers have to find an identity on offense. They weren’t particularly good at anything a year ago and finished 112th nationally in total offense (304.5 yards per game). The first part of that equation this spring will be revving up the running game. Even though Charles Scott and Keiland Williams are both gone, junior Stevan Ridley has all sorts of ability, and senior Richard Murphy will be back after missing most of last season with a knee injury. LSU coach Les Miles also brought in former Florida assistant Billy Gonzalez to be the Tigers’ passing game coordinator. It’s not a talent issue. There’s more than enough talent on LSU’s roster to be one of the top offensive clubs in the league. The key is utilizing that talent properly.
Searching for Russell Shepard -- It’s pretty obvious by now that Shepard isn’t going to be an every-down quarterback at LSU. In fact, don’t be surprised if he takes very few snaps at quarterback this spring. Miles believes Shepard might have been spread too thin last season at all the different positions, which is the reason he’s going to work primarily at running back and receiver this spring. He’s one of the most dynamic athletes on LSU’s roster, and the Tigers have to find a way to get his hands on the ball more than they did during his freshman season. Finding his niche in this offense will be critical this spring.
Jefferson’s next step -- It’s true that quarterback Jordan Jefferson tended to hold onto the ball too long last season, but it’s also true that there were more than a few breakdowns in LSU’s offensive line. The Tigers gave up a staggering 37 sacks. Jefferson has to get a better feel for the pressure this spring, where it’s coming from and when he has to get rid of the ball. The LSU coaches will be looking for him to make a big jump from his sophomore to junior season. Either way, redshirt freshman Chris Garrett will get a good look this spring, too. The 6-4, 220-pound Garrett is more of a classic drop-back passer with a big arm.
Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
Tyler Russell’s stage -- Certainly nobody is going to hand the starting quarterback job to redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, who was one of the prizes of the Bulldogs’ 2009 signing class. But he will get every chance to win the job this spring. Junior Chris Relf isn’t going anywhere and was effective as Mississippi State’s designated running quarterback when he returned from his suspension last season. Still, it’s Russell who has the most upside to be the kind of every-down quarterback Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is looking for in his offense. Mullen didn’t think Russell was ready last season and didn’t push him. We’ll have a better idea of how ready he is after this spring.
Life after Anthony Dixon -- When you take away almost 1,400 yards rushing from an offense, that means somebody waiting in the wings better be really special or that two or three people better be poised to step up and divvy up that production. It’s probably going to be the latter for the Bulldogs, who face the task of replacing Dixon and his 126.5 yards per game. Junior Robert Elliott has the most experience. Freshman Montrell Conner redshirted last season, while junior college newcomer Vick Ballard is in school and will also go through spring practice. Look for sophomore receiver Chad Bumphis’ role in this offense to grow exponentially, too. He’s one of those guys who makes plays no matter where you put him.
New identity on defense -- Mullen brought in Manny Diaz from Middle Tennessee to run the Mississippi State defense along with Chris Wilson from Oklahoma. Wilson will serve as co-defensive coordinator and also coach the defensive line. The Bulldogs finished 11th in the SEC last season in both total defense and scoring defense. There’s some young talent in place defensively, not to mention a dominant presence up front in senior end Pernell McPhee. Diaz’s goal is to bring more of an attacking mentality to Mississippi State’s defense, and that starts this spring. The Bulldogs have a chance to be really good in the secondary when you look at all the young guys who made plays back there last season.
Spring practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
Overhauling the offense -- With a new coordinator (Dave Rader) and new players at just about every position, the Rebels will take on a different look in 2010. The first order of business is settling on a starting quarterback. Sophomore Nathan Stanley is probably in the best position to win the job, but redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton will also get a long look this spring. Don’t count out multipurpose junior college newcomer Randall Mackey once he arrives in the summer, either. With Houston Nutt calling the shots on offense, the running game is always going to be what drives Ole Miss. Dexter McCluster won’t be around to break 70- and 80-yard touchdown runs anymore, which means Brandon Bolden, Rodney Scott, Tim Simon (if he’s healthy) and Enrique Davis will have split up the backfield duties. If Davis is going to make his move, it needs to be this spring.
Sophomores stepping up -- Several talented, younger players in the program will need to take that next step if Ole Miss is going to have the kind of success it has during Nutt’s first two seasons in Oxford. In particular, there are a cluster of sophomores who showed a lot of promise last season as freshmen. They have to become leaders and prime-time players this coming season. Some of those guys include D.T. Shackelford at linebacker, Jesse Grandy at running back, return specialist or anywhere he can get his hands on the ball and Pat Patterson at receiver. If Patterson matures both on and off the field this spring, he’s got a chance to be Ole Miss’ next great receiver in the mold of Shay Hodge. And on the offensive line, tackle Bobby Massie needs to become a dominant player.
Plugging in Dorsey at end -- The Ole Miss coaches will get their first look at 6-8, 255-pound Wayne Dorsey in their defense this spring. He’s the kind of guy who should fit perfectly into what defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is looking for from his ends and was a force in junior college as a pass-rusher. Dorsey signed in December and is already enrolled in school. The Rebels had to have an impact player at end after losing Marcus Tillman, Emmanuel Stephens and Greg Hardy. Dorsey was one of the top junior college players in America, and getting him on campus for spring practice was huge.