Upon his return, Steve Spurrier wasted no time poking fun at one of his long-time rivals this spring. And the rival, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, quickly fired back with a verbal barb of his own.
Alabama tailback Kenneth Darby, a second-team All-SEC selection, is the league's top returning rusher in 2005.
JASON GETZ/Tuscaloosa News
It almost seems like old times now that the ol' ball coach is back - even if he is draped in South Carolina red and black now.
The return of the visored one (and the eccentricities that come with him) is just one of the reasons this has been a scintillating (and somewhat surreal) spring in the SEC.
South Carolina isn't the only school celebrating a new coach, a new beginning. So is Florida with Urban Meyer, LSU with Les Miles and Mississippi with Ed Orgeron. Excitement and expectation levels have risen to dizzying heights at those schools.
And it's pretty much the same all across the league - because that's just the way it is this time of year. Everyone is undefeated. No one is worried about losing. And everyone is fired up and feeling they're better than a year ago - even Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Here is a team-by-team look at some of the highlights in a very eventful spring in the SEC:
ALABAMAWhile arch-rival Auburn's starting backfield was getting scooped up in the first round of the NFL Draft, Alabama's idled on the sidelines, sitting out the spring with injuries sustained last season. The good news for the Tide is quarterback Brodie Croyle and running backs Kenneth Darby and Tim Castille are expected back in the fall. Croyle participated in some non-contact work in the spring. His limited time presented an opportunity to true freshman quarterback John Parker Wilson and he ran (and passed) with it. Wilson threw for 168 yards in the spring game and was the game MVP. He also won the Bart Starr Award as the most improved quarterback. (Wilson, by the way, was UF wide receiver Chad Jackson's quarterback in high school). ... With Castille, Darby and Aaron Johns (ankle) sidelined, the Tide had no scholarship tailbacks in the spring game. ... True sophomore D.J. Hall was named the team's most improved wide receiver. ... Because of a lack of depth at defensive tackle, the Tide is considering going to a three-man defensive front.
ARKANSASIn an attempt to keep his young team focused, Hog coach Houston Nutt had a black tarp placed on the fences and closed practice to the media and fans. Nutt opened scrimmages, but the Razorbacks canceled several of those because they didn't have enough healthy offensive linemen. For the same reason, Arkansas did not hold a full-scale spring game. Instead, the Hogs had a 48-play scrimmage, which was dominated by the defense. The No. 1 defense pitched a shutout, gave up only one first down, recorded 3¶ sacks and forced two turnovers. ... The Hogs still don't know who will replace quarterback Matt Jones. Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel were inconsistent and the battle for the job will carry over into the fall. ... In the spring scrimmage, the quarterbacks combined to throw only 14 passes, completing seven for 93 yards. ....Desmond Sims moved from linebacker to end and was an immediate hit - especially on the quarterbacks. He had three sacks in the spring scrimmage. ... The Hogs are playing a more aggressive, blitzing defense under new coordinator Reggie Herring, who came from North Carolina State.
AUBURNCoach Tommy Tuberville was pleased with all the publicity Auburn garnered on draft day, but now he has to replace those first-round stars - running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams and quarterback Jason Campbell. At the end of drills, AU's starting backfield consisted of tailback Tre Smith, fullback Jake Slaughter and quarterback Brandon Cox, a lefty with a strong passing arm. ... Cox had an excellent spring game, completing 13 of 22 passes for 226 yards. Kenny Irons, a transfer from South Carolina, led all rushers with 73 yards on 18 carries. ... Courtney Taylor has emerged as a big-play receiver. ... Defensive end Stanley McClover was a unanimous choice for MVP in the spring game after recording five sacks. McClover and fellow defensive end Quentin Groves were dominant most of the spring. ... The offense struggled with consistency most of the spring and had problems finishing drives. ... Calvin Baker, the likely No. 2 quarterback, completed four of 12 passes for 84 yards in the spring game. ... Tuberville made sophomore safety Tony Bell miss the first 10 practices to catch up academically. ... The A-Day Game drew a crowd of 35,006.
LSUNew coach Les Miles must have been feeling a little bit like a Nutt because he also closed spring practice to the fans and media. While Nutt wanted to keep his Hogs focused, Miles apparently didn't want any secrets getting out to LSU opponents. ... Miles said the quarterback position is wide open between sophomore Jamarcus Russell and redshirt freshman Matt Flynn. But Russell was clearly the better quarterback in the spring game, throwing four touchdown passes, and the word in Baton Rouge is he's the man at QB. Miles apparently wants to officially keep the competition open because he wants to see how incoming true freshman Ryan Perrilloux performs in August. ... Two wide receivers from Florida had big springs - Xavier Carter (Melbourne Palm Bay) and Amp Hill (Jacksonville First Coach). Hill is finally healthy after missing last season with a knee injury. ... Starting tight end David Jones missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury. ... Sammy Joseph, a transfer from Colorado who sat out last season, has emerged as a probable starter at cornerback. ... Outside linebacker Cameron Vaughn moved from outside to middle linebacker.
MISSISSIPPINew coach Ed Orgeron apparently shares some of Miles' spring paranoia. Before the start of drills, he instructed the media not to reveal depth charts and injury reports. ... Orgeron said the quarterback situation remains "a work in progress." Michael Spurlock, Robert Lane and Ethan Flatt will compete for the No. 1 job again in the fall. Spurlock opened the 2004 season as the starter, but lost his job and his confidence along the way. The new coaching staff apparently has restored his confidence. He threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. ... Larry Kendrick never seemed to find the right position for his talent at Florida and transferred to Ole Miss two years ago. The Rebels can't decide where he belongs either, so he's playing three positions - running back, wide receiver and fullback - and producing at all of them. He is considered a key player in the offense. ... Starting offensive tackle Tre' Stallings was moved to offensive guard late in the spring. ... Early in drills, a fan sustained a broken hip in a sideline collision with a player. The incident prompted the coaches to move the crowd further away from the practice field. ... Attendance for the Grove Bowl was 24,722.
MISSISSIPPI STATESylvester Croom's tough discipline apparently has taken hold in Starkville. Over the past year, 17 scholarship players have departed for various reasons. ... Like Meyer at Florida, Croom is making a concerted effort to bring former players back into the program. ... The only serious injury of the spring belonged to Croom. A few days after the spring game, Croom underwent surgery for a partial knee replacement. The knee had been bothering him all last season and forced him to move about at practice in a golf cart. ... ESPN2 televised the spring game and Croom was in the booth providing color commentary. ... After the spring game, Croom said the Bulldogs are better at every position except offensive tackle. He said the Bulldogs will be tougher and better fundamentally in 2005. ... Jason Husband moved from wide receiver to tight end and was named most improved offensive player. The most improved defensive player was tackle Avery Hannibal. ... Starting tailback Jerious Norwood (who beat UF last season with his last-minute TD run) was held out of the spring game as a precaution. The spring game drew a crowd of 12,000.
FLORIDAChris Leak tightened up his throwing motion, improved the velocity on his passes and proved with a strong spring game that he can excel running Urban Meyer's spread offense. ... No clear starter emerged at tailback, where DeShawn Wynn, Skyler Thornton and Markus Manson will continue competing in August. ... At the end of the spring, starting offensive guard Lance Butler was moved to tackle and starting tackle Taveres Washington went to guard. ...Meyer feels good about his No. 1 offensive line, but is concerned about the struggling play of the No. 2 unit, which includes two true freshmen (Eddie Haupt and Ronnie Wilson). ... Redshirt freshman Derrick Harvey emerged as a top prospect at defensive end. ... Chad Jackson has become UF's big-play receiver. ... Former fullback Billy Latsko made a smooth transition to linebacker and will help the depth situation there. ... The unsettled place-kicking job is wide open heading into August. ... Meyer received a verbal commitment from prized quarterback prospect Jevan Snead of Stephenville, Texas, earlier this week
GEORGIAThe 'Dogs came up with a new offensive look in the spring game - the wishbone. The Red team, consisting of the No. 1 offense, put the offense in as a goof for the game, but it produced impressive results and just maybe the formation will show up occasionally in the fall. "I like it," said Thomas Brown, who rushed for 67 yards and enters two-a-days at the No. 1 tailback. ... After failing to score a touchdown in the previous two scrimmages, the offense showed life with D.J. Shockely at quarterback in the spring game. Shockley threw three touchdown passes and completed 11 of 19 passes for 193 yards. ... Massive tight end Leonard Pope (6-foot-8), was named the best offensive player of the spring and cornerback Tim Jennings the best defensive player. ... Two defensive starters - linebacker Derrick White and tackle Kedric Golston - were suspended from the first two games of the season for off-the-field incidents. ... Tailback Kregg Lumpkin, who missed last season after undergoing ACL surgery, sustained some serious scrapes when his scooter collided with a university vehicle a few days after the spring game. ... The spring game drew a crowd of 24,117.
KENTUCKYThe Wildcats welcomed back two key players who sustained season-ending injuries in 2004 - wide receiver Tommy Cook (knee) and cornerback Bo Smith (head trauma). Cook likely will be the Wildcats' go-to receiver after catching eight passes for 170 yards in the spring game. ... Andre Woodson had an excellent spring and emerged as the clear starter at quarterback. He threw for 478 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. ... UK fans are happy about this: new offensive coordinator Joker Phillips likes to throw the ball down the field instead of dinking and dunking like the 'Cats did the past several seasons. ... UK switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense in an attempt to improve its run defense. Opponents averaged 5.0 yards a carry and scored 26 touchdowns against the 'Cats' run defense last season. ... Coaches think Jacob Tamme will be one of the SEC's best tight ends this season. ... Durrell White moved from linebacker to defensive end and Muhammad Abdullah went from free safety to strong safety. ... Starting middle linebacker Jon Sumrall gave up football due to a chronic neck injury.
SOUTH CAROLINAThose league rivals (Fulmer, especially) hoping to see Spurrier fail in his return probably find comfort in the fact Spurrier hasn't found (or at least settled on) a quarterback yet. They should remember this: it was pretty much the same at UF when he first arrived in 1990. Shane Matthews eventually rose from fifth or sixth on the depth chart to take the job late in the spring (and went on to become SEC player of the year a season later). The problem now is spring is over and Spurrier still doesn't know who's going to run his offense. Blake Mitchell has shown some promise and threw for 175 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Antonio Heffner is very athletic but lacks understanding of the passing game. The best QB for Spurrier's offense probably is Mike Rathe, but the former junior college transfer is still awaiting word from the NCAA whether he'll be granted a sixth year of eligibility. He saw only limited practice time because of that uncertainty. ... Syvelle Newton, last season's starting quarterback, moved to wide receiver and has excellent potential in this offense. USC's best receiver, Noah Whiteside, injured his ankle in the spring game and required surgery. Coaches are hopeful he'll return in August. ... Tackle Stanley Doughty was named the team's best defensive play of the spring. ... Daccus Turman was named outstanding running back of the spring.
TENNESSEEDespite a growing image problem because of a rash of recent arrests and disciplinarian problems, the Vols still emerge from the spring as the favorites to win the conference. The first priority in August will be to settle on a quarterback. Rick Clausen and Erik Ainge were in a dead heat at the end of the spring. The most impressive quarterback early in drills was Brent Schaeffer, but he was suspended after he was arrested for battery and has since left school. ... Clausen, the younger brother of Casey, had the best spring game, throwing for 154 yards. Ainge was somewhat erratic, completing only five of 13 attempts for 94 yards. ... The most improved players of the spring were center David Ligon and guard Ramon Foster on offense and defensive back Corey Campbell and linebacker Ryan Karl on defense. ... The strength of the team is at linebacker, where defensive coordinator John Chavis said the starting three of Kevin Simon, Jason Mitchell and Omar Gaither are all excellent NFL prospects. ... Simon returned after missing last season with a major knee injury. He did not participate in contact drills. He's bench pressing 465 pounds now and is expected to be full speed for the start of two-a-days.
VANDERBILTThere was no need for a quarterback search in Nashville, where talented Jay Cutler decided to return for his senior season. Offensive coordinator Ted Cain says Jay Cutler is the best quarterback in the SEC. ... Cutler had a solid spring game, completing 15 of 27 passes for 155 yards. ... The story of the spring probably was the defense, which allowed only two touchdowns in 16 possessions in the spring game. ... Both TDs in the game were scored by Jeff Jennings, who pulled ahead of Cassen Jackson-Garrison for the starting role at tailback. ... Redshirt freshman offensive tackle Chris Williams has gone through a remarkable growth spurt since he arrived on campus last summer as a rather thin 240-pounder. He know weighs 320 pounds and has increased his bench from 300 to 400 pounds. ... Herdley Harrison moved from linebacker to defensive end, while Marcus Buggs made the move to linebacker from defensive back.
4. South Carolina
5. Mississippi State
6. Ole Miss
Conference champion: Tennessee
HonorsCOACH OF THE YEAR: Phillip Fulmer.OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: QB Chris Leak, Florida.DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DE Stanley McClover, Auburn.UPSET SPECIAL OF THE YEAR: South Carolina over Georgia (yes, it's a real reach, but maybe Spurrier is still in the 'Dogs' heads).
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling (352) 374-5022