Yes, I know that March Madness cranks up in full gear on Thursday. But by the end of next week, every team but two in the SEC (Kentucky) and ACC (Virginia Tech) will be into spring practice. So we’re going to spend the next four days talking about what we know and what we don’t know about each division of those two conferences.
Now I need your input here. There is a lot that we’d don’t know and spring practice is about finding some answers before things heat up in August. If there is something you don’t know about a team that you think is important, let’s hear it.
We’re going to start today with the SEC East. On Thursday we’ll discuss the SEC West. These teams are in alphabetical order. Then we’ll move to the ACC.
FLORIDA (13-1, practice starts March 25, ends April 18)
What we know: The defense is set. Of the top 22 players on defense in the BCS championship game against Oklahoma, 14 were freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores. Even the leadership returns as LB Brandon Spikes is back for his senior season. Talent will not be an issue for the Gators in 2009. Great expectations might be. Just ask Georgia. Also, that No. 15 guy at quarterback is pretty good.
What we don’t know: Will Florida really miss Percy Harvin? Don’t get me wrong. I believe Harvin was one of the most gifted players to come along in this generation. But rarely was he completely healthy. There is just so much speed on this team with Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps, Brandon James, Deonte Thompson etc., that I have to believe that new OC Steve Addazio will be able to get by without Harvin.
GEORGIA (10-3, practice started March 17, ends April 11)
What we know: The running game, and really the whole offense, is going to be just fine. Yes QB Matthew Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno are gone, but the offensive line, which had to be patched together for all of the 2008 season, is now solid and finally has some depth. Now cross your fingers that the injury bug does not hit. QB Joe Cox doesn’t have the pure talent of a D.J. Shockley, another Georgia quarterback who waited his turn behind a star, but he does have the leadership. That should give OC Mike Bobo the luxury of bringing his freshman quarterbacks along more slowly.
What we don’t know: Is there an elite athlete who will step forward at defensive end? While a lot of Georgia fans seem to be concerned about rebuilding the secondary, it won’t matter who plays defensive back if the Bulldogs can’t rush the passer. Georgia was eighth in the SEC in quarterback sacks with 24 last season. Kiante Tripp moves back to DE from OL. Three defensive ends will miss the spring. Somebody has to step up and be a difference maker at this position or the Georgia defense is going to struggle again.
KENTUCKY (7-6, practice starts April 1, ends April 25)
What we know: The defense is going to be good. CB Trevard Lindley of Hiram, DE Jeremy Jarmon and middle linebacker Michael Johnson would have all been reasonably high NFL draft picks had they chosen to pass up their senior seasons. All will be coming back and so coach Rich Brooks expects his defense to be strong in 2009. Kentucky’s defense was disappointing last season, finishing 11th in the SEC at 332.4 ypg.
What we don’t’ know: Who is going to play quarterback? Mike Hartline, a junior, started the season but then lost the job to freshman Randall Cobb. Cobb had knee surgery at the end of the season and not play in the Liberty Bowl. Kentucky also has a talented freshman coming in the fall in Morgan Newton. Kentucky averaged 22.6 points per game last season with a rebuilt offense. That unit must get better.
SOUTH CAROLINA (7-6, practice started March 3, ends April 11)
What we know: Ellis Johnson will have another good defense. Despite all the issues on offense, and there were many, South Carolina had a chance to win each week because of its defense. The Gamecocks got some bad news Tuesday when DT Ladi Ajiboye was suspended indefinitely. If he doesn’t return, that hurts their depth. But with OLB Eric Norwood (9 sacks) back this unit has a chance to be as good as the one that finished fourth in the SEC (291.9 ypg).
What we don’t know: Will Stephen Garcia make it through spring practice unscathed? Better hope so because he’s the only quarterback Steve Spurrier has right now. Garcia’s former competitors, Chris Smelley (transferred to Alabama to play football) and Tommy Beecher (transferred to Liberty), are gone and there is nobody else in camp who has taken a snap. Garcia was suspended the past two spring practices. Spurrier has hired a new quarterbacks coach in G.A. Mangus, hoping to accelerate Garcia’s improvement this spring.
TENNESSEE (5-7, practice started March 10, ends April 18)
What we know: Every position is open, except Eric Berry’s. Every player starts with a clean slate and a chance to win a job under new coach Lane Kiffin. The most notable exception is Berry, who was a warrior every week while Tennessee was struggling at the end of the Phillip Fulmer era. The challenge for new DC Monte Kiffin will be finding a lot of different ways to put Berry in position to make plays. Defense was never the problem in 2008 (Tennessee led the SEC at 263.5 ypg). It won’t be in 2009.
What we don’t know: The Vols have running backs, but who is going to block? Tennessee has made headlines by grabbing two highly recruiting running backs in Bryce Brown and David Oku. There are a number of proven running backs in camp. But the offensive line was inconsistent a year ago, which is why the Vols were ninth in the SEC in rushing (122.9 ypg). Chris Scott (6-5, 346) from Riverdale needs step up and be a big time tackle. Unless somebody dramatically improves at quarterback, the Vols figure to be average at best at that position. So an effective running game will be essential.
VANDERBILT (7-6, practice starts March 10, ends March 28)
What we know: The Commodores are going to be better. With only 10 seniors, Vanderbilt was supposed to be rebuilding in 2008. Now they return 19 starters from a team that went to its first bowl in 26 years and won only the second bowl game in its history over Boston College in the Music City Bowl.
What we don’t know: Can quarterback Larry Smith keep it up? Vanderbilt shuffled quarterbacks Chris Nickson and Mackenzie Adams all of last season and both were ineffective. At the end of the season coach Bobby Johnson turned to redshirt freshman Larry Smith, who started his first game in the Music City Bowl (10 for 17, 121 yards). Vanderbilt was sixth in the SEC in scoring defense (19.6 ppg) in 2008. But the Commodores only scored 19.2 points per game. This spring will be about finding ways to score more points and take some of the pressure off the defense.