Gainesville, Fla.–I spent yesterday at Florida’s practice and will spend today at the football offices meeting with players and coaches. I will file a report on the Gators later this week. But first, let’s look at Five Burning Questions about the SEC East as Spring practice gets into full gear. (Note to my ACC friends: I’m finishing the week with Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and will preview the ACC early next week).
1. Who is going to make the plays for the Florida offense? Based on what I saw at practice on Monday, there are going to be a lot of guys making plays. Yes, Tim Tebow is gone but I saw a lot of speed and a lot of talent. After waiting his turn, John Brantley takes over at quarterback with an NFL arm. This kid is good and he’s going to have a bunch of weapons at his disposal. Chris Rainey is moving to the Percy Harvin position and will have a big year. The list of receivers goes on and on: Carl Moore, Deonte Thompson, and Andre Dubose (didn’t practice Monday) are all big-time. Emmanuel Moody, the transfer from Southern Cal, is expected to have his breakout year at running back. With a veteran offensive line returning (minus center Maurkice Pouncey) Florida looks like a team that is going to score a bunch of points. They have to be the early favorite to repeat as SEC East champs.
2. Will the Georgia offensive line jell early? This time last year I thought the Georgia offensive line of 2009 would be the best since the SEC championship team of 2002. That was based on depth that had been developed after two years of playing a bunch of young guys plus the return of LT Trinton Sturdivant, who had missed all of 2008 with a knee injury. Well, Sturdivant was hurt again before the season and was lost. The offensive line, for all its promise, really struggled until the final third of the season, when it played well and Georgia was able to run the ball consistently. Now Sturdivant is back and there is a lot of experience including right tackle Josh Davis, guards Cordy Glenn and Chris Davis. I really like center Ben Jones. Georgia certainly has the running backs (Washaun Ealey, Caleb King) to move the football. But the offensive line needs to be a cohesive unit from Day 1. If Georgia can run the ball at the beginning of the season, the quarterback situation will take care of itself.
3. Will South Carolina FINALLY be able to run the football and protect the quarterback? For all the discussion about quarterback Stephen Garcia, the fact remains that South Carolina has had the worst running attack in the SEC the past three seasons. The Gamecocks also gave up 37 quarterback sacks, which tied LSU for last in the conference and was 105th nationally. In Shawn Elliott, Steve Spurrier has hired his third offensive line coach in the past three years.. Elliott, formerly at Appalachian State, will bring a lot of energy to a group that returns three starters up front. South Carolina already has a quality running back in sophomore Jarvis Giles and signed one of the nation’s best high school running backs in Marcus Lattimore, who arrives this summer. If South Carolina can improve in running the ball and protecting the quarterback, then the offense doesn’t fall completely on the quarterback. Like most quarterbacks, Garcia makes better decisions when he’s not running for his life.
4. Is Nick Stephens the quarterback at Tennessee? Yep. I think so. Stephens started six games in 2008, Phillip Fulmer’s final season as head coach. But last season Lane Kiffin and his staff settled on Jonathan Crompton early and Stephens only attempted 13 passes. Still, he’s the only guy in camp who has attempted a pass at this level of competition. When I was in Knoxville last Friday I was assured that it was a three-man race among Stephens, JUCO transfer Matt Simms, and Tyler Bray, a newcomer from California. I was also told that every guy will get a lot of throws in practice and that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and head coach Derek Dooley will scrutinize each man very carefully. I don’t believe a starter will be named until this summer but my money is on Stephens for pretty obvious reasons: The second game on Sept. 11 is against Oregon, the defending Pac-10 champs. The third game is against Florida, which has won 26 of its last 28 games. Can’t throw a rookie into that fire no matter how good he looks in practice.
5. Can Kentucky keep it going under Joker Phillips? There have been a lot of really good coaches at Kentucky—Bear Bryant and Jerry Claiborne quickly come to mind. But no coach in the history of the school had ever taken the Wildcats to four straight bowl games until Rich Brooks, who retired after the 2009 season and turned the program over to his offensive coordinator, Joker Phillips. Phillips has a lot of work to do if Kentucky is going to go to its fifth straight bowl. I met with Phillips a couple of weeks ago when he was passing through Atlanta. I see two major areas of concern: 1) Cornerback Trevard Lindley and linebacker Micah Johnson were All-SEC caliber players and won’t easily be replaced on defense. They were difference makers. Redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie could take Johnson’s place and be as effective. While Kentucky will be solid at the quarterback position, where sophomore Morgan Newton will compete with Mike Hartline and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski, the Wildcats must find four new starters on the offensive line. That’s not easy in this league.
Can Vanderbilt do something—anything–about its offense? After last season head coach Bobby Johnson had seen enough. His team averaged only 8.9 points in SEC games which is a big reason why the Commodores went 2-10. Johnson shook up one of the most stable coaching staffs in college football moving Jimmy Kiser, the play caller, into the offensive coordinator’s position. Quarterback Larry Smith, who looked to have so much promise going into last season, was very inconsistent and completed only 46.9 percent of his passes. He will be challenged in the spring by JUCO transfer Jordan Rodgers (brother of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers) and redshirt freshman Charlie Goro, a former Parade All-America. Goro led his high school team in the Chicago Area to a 14-0 record and a state championship as a senior.
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