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SEC East Spring Practice Primer

By Matt Smith
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It might still be February, but spring football is about to get underway in the SEC.

It might still be February, but spring football is about to get underway in the SEC. Vanderbilt kicked things off on Monday, while Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina get started later this week.

Despite Georgia coming oh-so close to a national championship, the SEC East was laughable last season. Three teams missed the postseason entirely, while Missouri didn’t beat a Power Five team until November. A pair of coaching changes at traditional powers have brightened the future, but the present still suggests a sizable imbalance between the SEC’s two divisions in 2018.

Let’s look at the major questions facing the seven SEC East teams as spring practices commence around the division.


2017 Record: 4-7 (3-5 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 10 (QB Feleipe Franks, RB Lamical Perine, WR Tyrie Cleveland, WR Josh Hammond, OT Martez Ivey, OT Jawaan Taylor, OG Fred Johnson, OG Brett Heggie, C. T.J. McCoy)

Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (DE Cece Jefferson, DE Jabari Zuninga, DT Khairi Clark, LB David Reese, LB Jeremiah Moon, LB Vosean Joseph, CB Chauncey Gardner, CB Marco Wilson)

Practice Opens: Mar. 16

Spring Game: Apr. 14 (3 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Duh, the quarterback battle. College football’s most successful quarterback developer meets its most quarterback-starved program on the field for the first time this spring. Two Jim McElwain signees, sophomore Kyle Trask and redshirt freshman Jake Allen, could get lost in the shuffle in the new scheme under Dan Mullen, so look for redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks and early-enrolling freshman Emory Jones to battle for the No. 1 job. Jones is the future, but Franks is just mobile enough to be a legitimate, even if temporary, fit for what Mullen wants to do.


2017 Record: 13-2 (7-1 SEC); defeated Oklahoma in Rose Bowl; lost to Alabama in CFP National Championship game

Offensive Returning Starters: 8 (QB Jake Fromm, WR Terry Godwin, WR Riley Ridley, TE Isaac Nauta, OT Andrew Thomas, OG Kendall Baker, OG Ben Cleveland, C Lamont Gaillard)

Defensive Returning Starters: 4 (DE Jonathan Ledbetter, DT Tyler Clark, CB Deandre Baker, S J.R. Reed)

Practice Opens: Mar. 20

Spring Game: Apr. 21 (4 p.m. ET, ESPN)

What to Watch: It’s a complete reboot at linebacker, as the ‘Dawgs say farewell to arguably the most talented position group in all of college football last season. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer has also moved on, taking a position on former Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s staff at Tennessee. There are significant losses on the front and back ends of the defense as well, but there are at least a few familiar faces to help bridge the gap in what will likely be the last year before this roster is truly on par with Alabama. Even without Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, I have few concerns at running back. Sophomore D’Andre Swift and freshman Zahmir White won’t miss a beat.


2017 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC); lost to Northwestern in Music City Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 7 (RB Benny Snell, WR Tavin Richardson, TE C.J. Conrad, OT Landon Young, OT George Asafo-Adjei, OG Logan Stenberg, OG/C Bunchie Stallings)

Defensive Returning Starters: 9 (DE T.J. Carter, DT Adrian Middleton, DE Denzil Ware, LB Josh Allen, LB Jordan Jones, CB Chris Westry, CB Derrick Baity, S Mike Edwards, S Darius West)

Practice Opens: Mar. 5

Spring Game: Apr. 13 (6:30 p.m., SEC Network)

What to Watch: Stephen Johnson exhausted his eligibility, and Drew Barker chose to play his fifth year elsewhere, so Kentucky does not have a quarterback on the roster who has attempted a pass. The battle to succeed Johnson likely comes down to sophomore Gunnar Hoak and junior college transfer Terry Wilson, who will participate in spring practice. The skill sets aren’t all that dissimilar to the Barker vs. Johnson battle of 2016, with Hoak the more statuesque pocket thrower and Wilson bringing more mobility. Wildcats offensive coordinator Eddie Gran always delivers results, so Big Blue Nation should feel confident that the right decision will be made, whether it be in April or August. The defense is largely status quo, and could be the best unit in the six-year Mark Stoops era.


2017 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC); lost to Texas in Texas Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 9 (QB Drew Lock, WR Johnathon Johnson, WR Emmanuel Hall, TE Albert Okwuegbunam, OT Yasir Durant, OT Paul Adams, OG Kevin Pendleton, OG Tre’Vour Simms, C Trystan Castillo)

Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (DT Terry Beckner Jr., DT Markell Utsey, LB Terez Hall, LB Cale Garrett, LB Brandon Lee, CB Adam Sparks, CB DeMarkuus Acy, S Kaleb Prewett)

Practice Opens: Mar. 6

Spring Game: Apr. 14 (1 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Hello, Derek Dooley. Given the former Tennessee head coach has never been an offensive coordinator at any level, there is no track record for how he will direct the Tigers offense. He’s got a great quarterback in Lock and a veteran offensive line, but will he go as fast as predecessor Josh Heupel? No one truly knows. Defensively, there’s another pass rush void to fill with the departure of Marcell Frazier. The transitions have been seamless at edge rusher since 2013, but there is some concern on the outside, requiring Terry Beckner Jr. to continue to be a dominant force on the interior. The back seven looks solid.


2017 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC); defeated Michigan in Outback Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 9 (QB Jake Bentley, RB Rico Dowdle, WR Bryan Edwards, WR OrTre Smith, WR Shi Smith, OT Dennis Daley, OT Zack Bailey, OG Donnell Stanley)*

Defensive Returning Starters: 6 (DE Keir Thomas, DE D.J. Wonnum, DT Javon Kinlaw, LB T.J. Brunson, NB Jamyest Williams, CB Rashad Fenton)*

*WR Deebo Samuel and LB Bryson Allen-Williams were starters in 2016, but only started three games in 2017 and are not considered returning starters

Practice Opens: Feb. 28

Spring Game: Mar. 31 (Noon ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: If you’re looking for the biggest threat to Georgia in the SEC East, it’s probably the Gamecocks. The offense is loaded with experience, with the only spring question marks coming on the interior of the line. Second-year position coach Eric Wolford did an excellent job last season, as South Carolina went from allowing 41 sacks in 2016 to just 29 last season. The secondary will have some fresh faces, including at both safety positions, but Will Muschamp defenses always are solid at the back end, and there is plenty of quantity from which to pick. Developing the quality could determine whether or not the Gamecocks can truly compete for a division title come autumn.


2017 Record: 4-8 (0-8 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 6 (QB Jarrett Guarantano, WR Marquez Callaway, WR Brandon Johnson, WR Josh Palmer, OT Trey Smith, OT Drew Richmond)

Defensive Returning Starters: 5 (DE Jonathan Kongbo, DE Darrell Taylor, LB Quart’e Sapp. S Nigel Warrior, S Micah Abernathy)

Practice Opens: Mar. 20

Spring Game: Apr. 21 (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Where does the leadership come from? This isn’t going to be a great season record-wise, but it can lay the groundwork (brick by brick?) for big things to come in the Jeremy Pruitt era. John Kelly, Ethan Wolf, and Jashon Robertson were offensive leaders that have departed, while the defense loses mainstays Kendall Vickers, Colton Jumper and Rashaan Gaulden. No one in that group is irreplaceable from a talent perspective, but the Vols don’t have many places to turn for that veteran locker room voice with just 11 starters back. Pruitt left a locker room at Alabama that could lead itself. At Tennessee, the current situation couldn’t be much different.


2017 Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 7 (QB Kyle Shurmur, TE Jared Pinkney, OT Justin Skule, OT Devin Cochran, OG Saige Young, OG Edigio DellaRipa, C Bruno Reagan)

Defensive Returning Starters: 4 (DE Dare Odeyingbo, LB Charles Wright, CB Joejuan Williams, S LaDarius Wiley)

Practice Opens: Feb. 26

Spring Game: Mar. 24 (5 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: The bad news? Vanderbilt returns just four starters on the defensive side of the ball. The good news? The 2017 defense that dominated through the first three weeks fell apart once SEC play began, allowing 43.3 points per game in conference play, so the near-total reboot might not be a bad thing. Head coach Derek Mason has added a defensive coordinator for the first time since his debut season in 2014, bringing in former Stanford colleague Jason Tarver. The Commodores hit the transfer market hard, but the only notable defensive addition is Nashville native Rutger Reitmaier, who joins the Vanderbilt defensive line after not playing as a freshman at Oregon last season. Expect more simplicity this year after Mason tested his experienced 2017 group with a complex scheme. The offense is never going to be prolific in the SEC, so it’s on the defense to put last year’s disaster behind it and climb back to respectability.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.