It was a busy weekend of Spring Football. So what did we learn?
1. SEC East opponents who are expecting—or hoping—for a huge drop off at Florida may be disappointed. Of course Florida will not be as good this season as the past two seasons when the Gators went 26-2. The personnel losses—QB Tim Tebow, CB Joe Haden, DE Carlos Dunlap, LB Brandon Spikes, TE Aaron Hernandez—are just too great. But Florida clearly has its quarterback in John Brantley, who completed 15 of 19 passes for 201 yards in the spring game. The Gators obviously have a lot of guys who can catch the ball like Andre Dubose, a big time recruit who sat out last season after hamstring surgery, Carl Moore and Chris Rainey. They have two options to run the “Tebow package” in Trey Burton and tight end Jordan Reed. Yes, there is a lot of work to do on defense. But when you look at the schedule, Florida will be favored in every game it plays except for an Oct. 2 trip to Alabama and possibly a Nov. 27 trip to Florida State. The rest of the SEC East has even more issues than the Gators. Somebody in that division, like Georgia or South Carolina, is going to have to step up. Florida is coming back to the field this season, but not that much.
2. It’s official. Tennessee is building for the long haul. Dave Hooker of the Knoxville News-Sentinel made this point over the weekend and I agree with it. The departure of quarterback Nick Stephens, who was losing his first team snaps, is further confirmation that new Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is in the process of changing the football culture back to something more stable and reliable than the blip of the Lane Kiffin area. The coaching staff pretty much knew Stephens was not going to be the guy, but at least he had played. They could have given him enough snaps to keep him in the program for insurance for this season.
Whereas the Kiffin regime was all about selling Tennessee as the Southern Cal of the East and as a spring board to the NFL, Dooley wants to create a more stable environment and sell the entire experience at Tennessee: program, tradition, education, football, etc. I still think that approach can work with NFL obsessed teenagers and parents if it is sold correctly.
But it is a long-term approach that requires patience. Will the Tennessee fans have patience? The Tennessee fans I talk to absolutely know the deal and are prepared for the struggle ahead. It will be an interest process to watch.
3. All Clemson can do is wait for June: This much seems pretty clear after Clemson’s spring game on Saturday. If Kyle Parker returns as the Tiger quarterback, Dabo Swinney’s bunch can win the ACC Atlantic division for the second straight year. Despite a practice schedule interrupted from time to time by his commitment to the Clemson baseball team, Parker completed seven of 15 passes for 75 yards in the spring game. The numbers don’t tell Parker’s story. His presence does. Parker is expected to have a big decision to make after the Major League Draft in June. If the up-front money is good, does he walk away from college football and turn the job over to redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd? Boyd, who was once committed to Tennessee, is going to be a very good quarterback. He just isn’t ready right now.
4. Stephen Garcia would be wise to do a lot of throwing—and a lot of thinking—this summer. As a third-year starter you would think that the light is starting to come on for South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia. Unfortunately for the star-crossed junior there continues to be a short between his talented arm and his less than finely tuned decision making process. After Saturday’s spring game, a time when a quarterback with 16 starts should be in control, head coach Steve Spurrier refused to even acknowledge Garcia as the starter. “Stephen should be our best player but sometimes he doesn’t act like it or perform like it,” Spurrier told The State newspaper in Columbia. My advice to the young man: Don’t go to the beach this summer. Don’t go out partying with your friends. Spend every free moment throwing to your receivers and watching film. In other words, work on your game. Your head coach thinks you’re lazy and has made it clear that he will not go into this season with you as the only option at quarterback. Spurrier once benched Danny Wuerffel, 1996 the Heisman Trophy winner. If freshman Connor Shaw proves to be a viable option, the Head Ball Coach will bench you.
5. A healthy Christian Ponder will contend for the Heisman Trophy: Ponder, Florida State’s rising senior quarterback, was playing as well as anybody in the country last November when he decided to tackle Clemson safety DeAndre McDaniel during an interception return. The monster hit caved in Ponder’s right shoulder and he was done for the year. There was some concern that he might not be ready for spring ball, but last Saturday he completed 16 of 34 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Despite missing the last four games of the 2009 season, Ponder led the ACC in total offense with an average of 321.8 yards. “He’s gotten better every day that he has been on our campus,” head coach Jimbo Fisher told me. “He knows exactly what he is doing out there.” With a veteran offensive line and improving receivers, I think this guy is going to have a monster year.
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