Spring look around the SEC

Who are the leading candidates to replace Brodie Croyle, D.J. Shockley and Jay Cutler at Alabama, Georgia and Vanderbilt? What does the loss of Mike McLaughlin mean to Auburn's backfield? Is Kentucky coach Rich Brooks on the hot seat for 2006? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Spring practice began: Feb. 24
Spring game: April 1
Area of concern: Brodie Croyle was one of those players who opposing coaches swore played six or seven seasons. It probably would have seemed even longer had he not missed some time to injury. With him gone, sophomore John Parker Wilson is the favorite this spring to take over at quarterback. Marc Guillon also is getting some work with the first team. Tailback Kenneth Darby missed last Saturday's scrimmage with tendinitis in his knee, but Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch each had long runs. The Crimson Tide also has some big holes to fill on defense. All three starting linebackers are gone, as well as three of the four starters in the secondary. Redshirt freshmen Prince Hall and Zach Schreiber have both worked some with the first team this spring at linebacker.

Arkansas Razorbacks
Spring practice begins: March 27
Spring game: April 15
Area of concern: The Razorbacks return just about every starter from last season's 4-7 team. But the player Hog fans can't wait to see is a newcomer. Heralded quarterback Mitch Mustain, who's from nearby Springdale, won't be on campus until August. He'll join his old high school coach, Gus Malzahn, who was hired by Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt to run the offense and call plays. Nutt previously had called his own plays. It's not a given that Mustain will step right into the starting job at quarterback. Casey Dick led the Razorbacks to two of their four wins after taking over late in the season a year ago.

Auburn Tigers
Spring practice began: Feb. 28
Spring game: March 18
Area of concern: The Tigers' first full scrimmage of the spring produced some bad news. Fullback Mike McLaughlin injured his knee, and head coach Tommy Tuberville later announced that McLaughlin had torn his ACL. He was the only scholarship fullback on the team. Offensive coordinator Al Borges said the Tigers could use a tight end in a fullback or H-back role, and there's always a chance they could go to the two tailback set that worked so well with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. Tuberville had promised that this would be a physical spring, but he certainly didn't want to lose one of his starters in the first scrimmage. The Tigers haven't been afraid to try players in new positions. Safety Will Herring, for example, has moved to linebacker.

Florida Gators
Spring practice begins: March 29
Spring game: April 22
Area of concern: Chris Leak has been Florida's starting quarterback for so long that it's hard to think of the Gators with anybody other than Leak behind center. But this is a big spring for Leak as he enters his senior season. He didn't adapt particularly well to Urban Meyer's spread-option offense and really only seemed to get comfortable once Meyer tailored the offense more to Leak's strengths toward the end of the season. Leak is not a running quarterback. That's not what he does best, which could make for an interesting spring. The Gators brought in one of the country's most coveted high school quarterbacks in Tim Tebow, who does fit the run-pass mold that Meyer likes. Tebow already has enrolled and will go through spring practice. All in all, the second time around in Meyer's system should be easier on everyone.

Georgia Bulldogs
Spring practice begins: March 4
Spring game: April 8
Area of concern: D.J. Shockley got his one and only chance last season and led Georgia to an SEC championship. Now that he's gone, the Bulldogs have a full-fledged quarterback competition on their hands. Head coach Mark Richt said the players competing for the job this spring are Joe Tereshinski, Joe Cox and Blake Barnes. Of course, the one guy everybody's watching, though, is true freshman Matthew Stafford, who enrolled early and is going through spring drills. Many recruiters thought he was the best high school quarterback in the country last season, and it's only a matter of time before the strong-armed Texan makes his presence felt at Georgia.

Kentucky Wildcats
Spring practice begins: March 29
Spring game: April 22
Area of concern: After just nine wins in his first three seasons, Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks needs his Wildcats to make a move next season or he'll most likely be the one on the move. This is pretty much a make-or-break season for Brooks. The good news is that he has 15 starters returning from last season. The bad news is that the Wildcats still aren't particularly deep. The hottest competition this spring will be at quarterback, where Andre' Woodson and Curtis Pulley will battle for the job. There will be a fresh set of eyes watching, too. Randy Sanders, the former offensive coordinator at Tennessee, was hired by Brooks to be the Wildcats' quarterbacks coach.

LSU Tigers
Spring practice began: March 4
Spring game: April 1
Area of concern: LSU head coach Les Miles said one of his biggest concerns is developing the right leadership, especially with the Tigers losing the likes of
Kyle Williams, Rudy Niswanger, Joseph Addai and Andrew Whitworth. The quarterback battle this spring will be between junior Matt Flynn and redshirt freshman Ryan Perrilloux, who was one of the country's top prep quarterbacks in 2004. JaMarcus Russell, who started last season, is sitting out the spring while he recovers from wrist surgery and a separated shoulder he suffered in the SEC championship game. Flynn probably has the most momentum after earning offensive MVP honors in LSU's 40-3 rout of Miami in the Peach Bowl. Running back Alley Broussard still is working his way back from a torn ACL that caused him to miss all of last season.

Mississippi Rebels
Spring practice begins: March 4
Spring game: April 8
Area of concern: Mississippi head coach Ed Orgeron has four new position coaches, including offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dan Werner and associate head coach/offensive line coach Art Kehoe who were fired at Miami. Werner will have to wait until the summer to get a glance at his future quarterback. That's when junior college signee and former Tennessee quarterback Brent Schaeffer arrives on campus. The Rebels' best player, linebacker Patrick Willis, will miss the spring after undergoing offseason surgery on his right foot. Willis' decision to return for his senior season only added to Ole Miss' strong recruiting class.

Mississippi State Bulldogs
Spring practice begins: March 6
Spring game: April 8
Area of concern: The first order of business is finding a replacement for departed tailback Jerious Norwood, who was Mississippi State's offense the last two seasons. The Bulldogs hope junior college receiver Tony Burks can help upgrade what was an anemic passing game last season. He's a 6-foot-4 athlete who can go get the football. Former quarterback Omarr Conner also will go through the spring at receiver. The Bulldogs have 13 starters returning from last season's 3-8 team, although head coach Sylvester Croom isn't ruling out several of the younger players emerging in starting roles. He said the only two incumbents who were safe were middle linebacker Quinton Culberson and fullback Bryson Davis.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Spring practice begins: March 14
Spring game: April 8
Area of concern: Steve Spurrier is known best for wanting to throw the football all over the field and lighting up scoreboards. But he said his South Carolina team needs to concentrate more on the fundamental aspects of the game (like blocking and tackling) if the Gamecocks want to make any noise in the Eastern Division. They finished 7-5 last season and beat Tennessee and Florida along the way, but were shredded on defense in a 38-31 loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. Receiver Sidney Rice was one of the best freshmen in the country last season. He could be even better this season if redshirt freshman O.J. Murdock is as good on the other side as some around the USC camp think he might be.

Tennessee Volunteers
Spring practice begins: March 2
Spring game: April 8
Area of concern: David Cutcliffe isn't necessarily a new face around Tennessee, but he is to the current players. It hasn't taken Cutcliffe long to make his presence felt in his second stint as the Vols' offensive coordinator. One of the things missing offensively last season for the Vols was attention to detail, and Cutcliffe has driven that point home repeatedly this spring. Erik Ainge went into the spring as the No. 1 quarterback, and redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton was No. 2. Phillip Fulmer wants to have an established starter coming out of the spring and not have to go through a similar fiasco as last season. There are several spots open on defense, but defensive coordinator John Chavis likes the potential of such youngsters as Rico McCoy, Jerod Mayo, Robert Ayers and Antonio Reynolds.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Spring practice begins: March 14
Spring game: April 1
Area of concern: Vanderbilt was that close last season. If not for a disappointing upset loss to Middle Tennessee State, the Commodores would have been playing in a bowl. One of their three conference wins came over Tennessee, and they had Florida on the ropes in Gainesville before a weak excessive celebration call by the officials kept them from going for the win. The sobering reality, though, is that the Jay Cutler era is over. He was the SEC's most talented quarterback last season and willed the Commodores to several wins. Sophomore Chris Nickson and redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams are the top candidates to replace Cutler. Whoever wins the job will have one of the best receivers in the conference to throw to in sophomore Earl Bennett.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.