SEC spring practice primer


Urban Meyer will return as head coach of the Florida Gators on Wednesday after taking a brief leave of absence for health reasons.

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Published: Monday, March 15, 2010 at 1:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 15, 2010 at 1:33 p.m.
Across the southeast, spring has sprung, bringing SEC football with it. Gatorsports.com provides you with in-depth previews of all 12 teams.

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
2009 record: 14-0 (BCS National Champions)
Practice starts: March 12
Spring game: April 17, 3 p.m., ESPN (A-Day)
Recruiting: The Tide hauled in a consensus top-five class for the third straight year and were able to address various deficiencies, especially in the secondary. Alabama was able to get six defensive backs to help shore up the depleted unit. The Tide signed a class of 26.
Early enrollees: Eight. Five-star DB DeMarcus Milliner, QB Phillip Sims, OL Austin Shepherd, OL Chad Lindsay, DT Brandon Lewis, DB John Fulton, RB Jalston Fowler, K Cade Foster.
Offseason changes: Alabama loses nine defensive starters that made a huge impact on their national title team. They lost a first-team All SEC selection off of the defensive line (Terrence Cody), at linebacker (Rolando McClain, who declared early for the draft), and cornerback (Javier Arenas). The Tide also lost kicker Leigh Tiffin and tight end Colin Peek.

Top priorities for spring
Defense: All of it. The Tide lost seven seniors and two juniors who were starters in 2009. That is the bad news. The good news is that they have All-SEC safety Mark Barron, who had seven interceptions in 2009, returning for his junior year. Bama also gets back Marcell Dareus, who led the team in sacks last season with 6.5. It is the other nine positions that will be battled for this spring. Replacing linebacker Rolando McClain will be important during the spring. Saban will have Nico Johnson, who played last year as a freshman, but not Dont'a Hightower, who Johnson replaced last season. Hightower suffered a knee injury and likely won't be back at full speed until August. Alabama certainly has no lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball, it just needs to be developed. The Tide also have five-star defensive back DeMarcus Milliner as an early enrollee, as well as another defensive back and a defensive tackle. Nick Saban would love emerge from spring practice with a set starting lineup on the defensive side of the ball.
Special teams: Alabama needs a kicker and a return specialist. The departure of Javier Arenas, a dangerous returner, and Leigh Tiffin, a first-team All-SEC kicker, have left a huge void. Bama will need to find a playmaker in the return game and an accurate kicker to take out of spring drills.

Spring strengths
Offense: All of it. Greg McElroy hasn't lost a game as a starting quarterback. Running back Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy last season. Alabama also returns receiver Julio jones, who looks to be set up for a breakout season after a subpar 2009. Not only that, but the Tide also have Trent Richardson behind Mark Ingram, and teams will not be able to rest when Richardson comes into the game. As much as Alabama's defense is a question mark going into spring practice, its offense is an exclamation point. Alabama does lose tight end Colin Peek, who accounted for 313 yards and three touchdowns last season. Bama has plenty of time to develop another tight end, even well into the season. Peek had nearly a third of his yardage (92) and two thirds of his touchdown receptions (2) in the Tide's last three games. They also lose two offensive linemen, but have some experienced backups.

— Jon McDonald


ARKANSAS
2009 record: 8-5 overall, 3-5 in SEC
Practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 24
Recruiting: Signed 26 commitments, ranked No. 35 by Scout, led by 4-star signee Calvin Barnett (DT, 6-3, 305) of Tulsa, Okla., who broke his verbal commitment to Oklahoma State.
Early enrollees: QB Jacoby Walker
Offseason changes: Lost three starters on offense from the 2009 team, including running back Michael Smith, wide receiver London Crawford and offensive guard Mitch Petrus. On defense, the Razorbacks lost four, including defensive end Adrian Davis, defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard, middle linebacker Wendel Davis, safety Matt Harris and cornerback Jerell Norton (declared for NFL). Arkansas hired two new assistant coaches in defensive line coach Steve Caldwell, who held the same position for 14 years at Tennessee under coach Phil Fulmer, and offensive line coach Chris Klenakis, who spent the previous six years at Nevada using the successful Pistol formation (averaged NCAA-leading 344.92 yards per game rushing in 2009).

Top priorities for spring
Defense: With such an explosive offense, what separates this team from becoming a bigger threat in the SEC West is its defense, which in 2009 ranked last in the league in total defense (401.8) and pass defense (251.8). Suffice to say improvements here are a top priority. Head coach Bobby Petrino is particularly concerned about lack of depth at linebacker and the play of the secondary, which gave up too many big plays last season. The unit should be better with the return of cornerback Isaac Madison, sidelined all of last year because of a knee injury. Middle linebacker Jerry Franklin (Jr., 6-1, 241), who led the team in tackles last season, also returns. The defensive line lost two starters, but Petrino seems confident the line will be fine with DeQuinta Jones (So., 6-5, 307), Patrick Jones (Sr., 6-1, 309), Alfred Davis (So., 6-1, 326) and Tenarius Wright (So., 6-1, 238) battling for playing time.
Running back: Gone is tailback Michael Smith, an explosive threat and dependable receiver out of the backfield who missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. The Razorbacks certainly have depth at running back, but are looking for someone to step in as the primary back. Among the contenders that Petrino has high expectations for is sophomore speedster Ronnie Wingo Jr., whose weight is up to 230 pounds and seems primed for breakout year. Also returning is power back Broderick Green (Jr., 6-2, 250) and Dennis Johnson (Jr., 5-9, 205), who ran for 107 yards in Arkansas' near upset at Florida last season.
Quarterback: With the SEC's top quarterback, junior Ryan Mallet (3,624 yards, 30 TDs in 2009), sidelined after foot surgery in February, the Razorbacks will be looking for someone to seize the back-up role this spring. Sophomore Tyler Wilson, redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell and true freshman Jacoby Walker, who checked into school early, are the candidates. Wilson has the most experience, passed for 218 yards and two touchdowns last season.

Spring strengths
Wide receivers: Arkansas returns its top five passing targets from 2009 in Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, Cobi Hamilton and all-SEC tight end D.J. Williams. The group combined for 169 receptions, 2,901 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Quarterback: Although he won't play a down during the spring because of injury, Mallet gives the Razorbacks one the top quarterbacks in the country. It will be interesting to see if he can deliver another outstanding season, unlike another SEC West Division quarterback, Jevan Snead, was unable to do at Ole Miss.
Offensive line: Arkansas only lost one offensive lineman from last season, and this season's line, led by senior tackle Ray Dominguez (6-4, 329), is very experienced and should be one the SEC's best.

— Larry Savage

AUBURN TIGERS
2009 record: 8-5, 3-5 SEC
Practice starts: March 14
Spring game: Saturday, April 17, 1 p.m., ESPNU (A-Day)
Recruiting: Auburn went into its A-Day game in 2009 as an unheralded team with a new coach and needs galore. This year, things could not be more different for coach Gene Chizik's Tigers. Auburn had a top 25 recruiting haul in 2009, with Scout.com slotting the class as high as 16th in its recruiting rankings. Entering 2010, however, Auburn proved it is a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting front. Rivals.com rated the Tigers' incoming class 4th overall, and ahead of all but one SEC school (Florida). The class is 32 players strong, and includes six offensive linemen and one of the best running backs in the nation in Michael Dyer from Little Rock (Arkansas) Christian.
Early enrollees: Five. QB Cameron Newton, DE Craig Sanders, TE Brandon Mosley, OL Roszell Gayden, LB Jessel Curry
Offseason changes: Lost three starters on offense, including quarterback Chris Todd and running back Ben Tate and offensive tackle Andrew McCain. On defense, the Tigers lost three including cornerback Walt McFadden and defensive end Antonio Coleman. Also, highly-touted quarterback Tyrik Rollison, who was a freshman in 2009, transferred to Sam Houston State.

Top priorities for spring
Running back: Dyer's transition is a top priority, but will have to wait until the summer. The Tigers, who lost 1,300-yard rusher Ben Tate to graduation, will look to develop the quality tailbacks they already have during the spring. Last season, Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin had 850 combined rushing yards. Fannin was also the team's second leading receiver with 413 yards while seeing limited action in a handful of games because of concerns over a shoulder injury. The Tigers need both backs to run their offense properly. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn knows the importance of having two backs ready for summer practice. If Fannin and McCalebb perform well in spring, the addition of Dyer during summer will make Auburn a backfield juggernaut in the fall.
Quarterback: Signing junior college transfer Cameron Newton was huge for the Tigers, but he will need the entire spring to learn Malzahn's offense. Newton threw for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns for Blinn Community College in Brenham, Texas last season while adding another 655 on the ground. Newton went the junior college route after being kicked off of Florida's team by coach Urban Meyer in 2008 after an incident involving the theft of a laptop. Now, he gets a second chance at becoming a starter in the SEC. With Chris Todd gone and Tyrik Rollison transferred, the onus is on Newton to grasp the offense and become the Tigers' starter. Kodi Burns, who went into last spring battling for a starting quarterback job, was moved to wide receiver at the beginning of last season. Auburn has only two other quarterbacks on its roster for 2010, and both are unproven. One is Neil Caudle, a fifth-year senior who has only attempted 28 passes in his career. The other is redshirt sophomore Barrett Trotter, who was in line to have some role in Auburn's offense in 2009, but tore his ACL and missed the year. If Newton is not the starter going into summer, that will be the biggest storyline.
Defensive line: Auburn loses two starters on the line, end Antonio Coleman and tackle Jake Ricks, but returns two seniors in Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc. Either way, the Tigers will need to find some playmakers in the trenches to improve a unit that ranked 78th in the country last season in rushing defense. The 156 yards per game given up on the ground ranked ahead of only Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the SEC. Four-star recruit Craig Sanders, a defensive end, is enrolled early and should be able to compete for playing time right away. This is one area where an overhaul in spring could pay big dividends during the summer, when the Tigers get five new defensive linemen on campus. Included in those five are two four-star defensive tackles, Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker

Spring strengths
Offensive line: The Tigers return four starters, all seniors who have played in a combined 123 games, and already have four-star junior college recruit Roszell Gayden on campus to compete for the other open spot. Line play will be the key to the Tigers' season, and having five upper classmen fighting for the offensive tackle position left open by departed senior Andrew McCain will be a dream scenario for offensive line coach Jeff Grimes.
Linebackers: The Tigers return their two leading tacklers from last season, Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, both linebackers. The two combined for nearly 200 tackles last season, and each is entering his senior season. If the Tigers can shore up the defensive line during spring, the pressure could be taken off of the linebackers, allowing them to make even more plays. Spring will also be a proving ground for junior linebacker Eltoro Freeman, who had a lackluster campaign in 2009 with only 31 tackles. If Auburn can get more production out of Freeman, the corps could have a dominant year. Either way, the Tigers will have two four-star recruits, LaDarius Owens and Jake Holland, competing for playing time at linebacker come summer.

— Jon McDonald

FLORIDA GATORS
2009 record: 13-1
Practice starts: March 17
Spring game: Saturday, April 10, 1 p.m. (Orange and Blue)
Recruiting: Even with Urban Meyer's leave of absence casting a shadow of doubt over how recruits would react, Florida hauled in the nation's No. 1 class according to scout.com an ESPN. The Gators got four rivals.com five-star rated players, all on the defensive side of the ball. They included defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, defensive end Ronald Powell and defensive back Matt Elam.
Early enrollees: Eleven. DB Matt Elam, DB Jaylen Watkins, OL Ian Silberman, DB Joshua Shaw, WR Solomon Patton, DT Leon Orr, DB Jordan Haden, ATH Robert Clark, TE Gerald Christian, QB Trey Burton, DE Neiron Ball.
Offseason changes: Florida was hit hard by juniors leaving for the NFL draft. The Gators had the most early entries of any other team in the NCAA this year with five. All five were major contributors and three were on defense. What hits even harder is losing All-American Heisman-winning do-everything quarterback Tim Tebow. He was probably one game away from rushing for 1,00 yards and passing for 3,000 yards in 2009, and his presence both as a player and a leader will be sorely missed. The Gators also lost their leading receiver (Riley Cooper), defensive quarterback (middle linebacker Brandon Spikes), defensive coordinator (Charlie Strong). Florida added Teryl Austin from the Arizona Cardinals as defensive coordinator, and had to replace wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales, who left for LSU's passing coordinator job, with Central Michigan's Zach Azzanni. The Gators also welcomed back running backs coach Stan Drayton, who had spent the last two seasons with Tennessee.

Top priorities for spring
Quarterback: John Brantley has the keys now, and how he drives the offense will determine what Florida does in the SEC and national title races. If he can build on the flashes of brilliance he has in mop-up duty over the past two seasons, the Gators could be in for a treat. If not, it could be a season of learning-on-the-job. Just don't expect Brantley to do what Tim Tebow did in his first season as UF's starting quarterback, which is the Heisman Trophy.
Wide receiver: The losses of Tebow's two favorite targets in 2009 (Riley Cooper and tight end Aaron Hernandez) will still hurt John Brantley, so the Gators will need a playmaker (or two) to emerge during spring at the wideout position. Deonte Thompson showed, at times, last season that he was ready to be a go-to guy, now he will be relied upon heavily. If Thompson can't prove to be a reliable No. 1 receiver, the onus might fall to Omarius Hines, Frankie Hammond, Jr., or the oft-injured Carl Moore, who were all thought to be bigger factors last season than they actually were. There is also the wild card: Andre Debose. Before being sidelined the entire 2009 campaign due to injury, he was touted as the leading candidate to help diffuse the loss of Percy Harvin. There is talent all across the board, but spring will indicate whether that promise can be carried over to the field during the fall.
Linebackers: The Gators lose two starters, Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper, from a team that went 13-1 last season. Replacing them will be at the top of the list of defensive needs. Senior A.J. Jones is a good building block to begin with, but will need two guys to step up and help him. One of those guys is Brandon Hicks, a senior who backed Jones up last season. The other could be Jon Bostic or Jelani Jenkins. Both Bostic and Jenkins had good showings in fall practice last season, but Bostic recorded little meaningful playing time due to the lineup in front of him and Jenkins was hobbled by injuries. If Bostic can improve from last season and Jenkins can get healthy, the linebacker corps could be a pleasant surprise for UF.

Spring strengths
Running back: Despite losing Tebow, who rushed for over 900 yards in 2009, Florida's backs remain one of its biggest strengths. Meyer should be able to assimilate Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody into the new offense under quarterback John Brantley. Moody could be relied on even more this season as a blocking back and a bruising runner, that is if Meyer can trust his ability to hold on to the ball. Demps and Rainey add the dimension of speed and elusiveness that Meyer has put a premium on, and will have a huge impact during the spring and beyond. Spring will be a time for offensive coordinator Steve Addazio and running backs coach Stan Drayton to decide what the best combination of backs will be for every situation.
Secondary: Despite losing safety Major Wright and corner Joe Haden, Florida still has talent and depth in the secondary. With Janoris Jenkins at cornerback and Will hill and Ahmad Black coming back at safety, the Gators will have the luxury of developing some younger talent to replace Haden at the other corner. Three highly touted defensive backs are already enrolled and ready to participate in spring drills, one of which is Joe Haden's younger brother, Jordan. With five-star defensive back Matt Elam and four-star rated Joshua Shaw also in the mix, UF should have a high-level competition going on for playing time in the secondary. While they are freshmen, Florida has a history of getting young guys into its regular rotation. See: Wright, the elder Haden, Hill and Jenkins.

— Jon McDonald

GEORGIA
2009 record: 9-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC
Practice starts: March 4, off for spring break, restarted March 16
Spring game: April 10, 2 p.m.
Recruiting: Bitter rivals on the field, the Bulldogs are just as bitter of rivals of SEC East king Florida off the field in recruiting. Georgia didn't challenge the Gators for a top class (Rivals No. 15, Scout No. 22), but it is still plenty talented with 19 commitments, one five-star in LB/S Alec Ogletree and nine four-star commitments, six on Defense: OL Bruce Benedict, DE Jalen Fields, DB Jakar Hamilton, OG Kolton Houston, RB Ken Malcome, DE Dexter Morant, DT Garrison Smith, DE T.J. Stripling and DT Mike Thornton.
Early enrollees: S Jakar Hamilton, OG Kolton Houston
Offseason changes: The Dawgs really only lost starting quarterback Joe Cox on offense, who had a rather lackluster 2009 season. The biggest changes come on defense, in which seven starters are gone, including tackles Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens (and backup Kade Weston), and all-SEC linebacker Rennie Curran and safety Reshad Jones, who both declared for the NFL. Head coach Mark Richt is hoping a change in coaches will spark a change in performance from his defense, which has struggled the last few years. Former Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach Todd Grantham steps in as defensive coordinator, replacing Willie Martinez. Former Connecticut assistant Scott Lakatos (secondary) and Vanderbilt assistant Warren Belin (linebackers) also join the staff. With Grantham, Georgia will change from a 4-3 (linemen-linebackers) alignment to 3-4, one of the reasons junior Richard Samuel (6-2, 232) has moved from tailback to linebacker.

Top priorities for spring
Quarterback: With Cox gone, the quarterback position is wide-open, with three primary candidates in redshirt freshman Zach Mettenberger (6-5, 229), junior Logan Gray (6-2, 195) and redshirt freshman Aaron Murray. Early on, it appears Murray (6-1, 209), the former standout at Tampa Plant High School, has the inside track considering Mettenberger's situation. During the weekend after the first spring practice, the 18-year-old was arrested in Remerton, Ga., and charged with underage consumption/possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct, obstruction and two counts of possessing fake identification. According to the police report, Mettenberger was transported to Lowndes County Jail, and was released on bond. He has a court date schedule for April 27. According to the school's athletic association policy, a conviction would result in a mandatory suspension of at least one game. Of the three QB candidates, only Gray has any college experience, playing just spot duty in 2009, completing 5 of 12 passes for 31 yards and two interceptions.
Defensive line: With the shift to a 3-4 alignment, some of the defensive ends will move to outside linebacker. Among those is Justin Houston (6-3, 260), a second-team All-SEC selection, who had 7.5 sacks last year and is expected to move to an outside linebacker spot. DeAngelo Tyson (6-2, 295) and Abry Jones (6-3, 290) are both expected to see time at tackle.
Secondary: Georgia lost three starters in the secondary, which included both safeties. Sophomore cornerback Branden Smith, who played some on offense last year, is expected to have an impact this spring. Baccari Rambo and Jakar Hamilton, a junior college transfer who enrolled early to participate in spring practice, are the leading candidates at safety.

Spring strengths
Offensive line: Two years ago, Georgia had the skilled players (Matt Stafford, Knowshon Moreno), but didn't have a good offensive line. Too young, too inexperienced. That's not the case this coming season. Everyone is back on the line, led by senior All-SEC tackle Clint Boling. The Bulldogs allowed the least sacks last season (12) and should be one of the real strengths of the 2010 team.
Wide receiver: Believe it or not, A.J. Green (6-4, 205) will only be a junior this season. Although it seems he has been at Georgia forever, the first team All-SEC receiver remains a big target and a home run threat (1,772 yards, 109 catches, 14 TDs). Tampa's sophomore Orson Charles (TE, 23 catches, 3 TDs in 2009) is expected to have an even bigger role this season.
Running back: With an experienced line in front of them, Georgia figures to run more this year with Washaun Ealey (717 yards as freshman) and junior Caleb King (594 yards, 7 TDs). Richt is hoping for an effective running game will take some of the pressure off the quarterback.

— Larry Savage

KENTUCKY
2009 record: 7-6, 3-5
Practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 24
Recruiting: A late push helped redeem Joker Phillips' inaugural recruiting class, which finished 49th nationally (second to last in the conference) according to Rivals. The highlight for the Wildcats was signing four-star tight end prospect Alex Smith, who was previously committed to North Carolina. Another key signee from UK's 26-deep class was three-star Miami Central running back Brandon Gainer, who was ranked as the 52nd best player in the state of Florida.
Early enrollees: S Josh Gibbs and DE Justin Henderson
Offseason changes: The waiting game is over for former coach-in-waiting Phillips. Rich Brooks retired after seven seasons as Kentucky head coach, leaving the position to a coach who was named his successor in January 2008. Phillips, who spent the past five years as the Wildcats' offensive coordinator, made changes to the staff, hiring offensive line coach Mike Summers (Arkansas), and defensive line coach David Turner (Mississippi St.). He also brought in former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin as his wide receivers coach.

Top priorities for spring
Starting quarterback: One of the Wildcats top spring priorities is deciding who will take the snaps. Senior Mike Hartline will try to win his starting job back from sophomore Morgan Newton, who replaced Hartline midway through last season when he went down with a knee injury. Newton proved he could make plays with his feet as a true freshman, winning in tough SEC road environments such as Georgia and Auburn. Newton's play-making ability makes him the front-runner for the starting job, but Hartline's experience gives him a shot. Kentucky also has redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski, who could change things with an impressive spring outing. Whoever wins the job will need to improve on a passing offense that was last in the conference in 2009 with only 142.8 yards through the air per game.
Offensive line: With the Wildcats replacing four starting offensive linemen and fullback John Conner, the team will have to overhaul its blocking unit during the spring. Senior Moncell Allen will shift over from running back to help fill the void left by Conner, one of the team's offensive leaders.
Defense: Kentucky is losing a lot of talented defensive players, notably linebackers Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell, cornerback Trevard Lindley and half of the defensive line. Spring practices will be crucial, giving Phillips an opportunity to evaluate his defensive talent and try to improve a pass rush that was last in the conference with only 16 sacks in 2009. Among the six returning starters on defense, linebacker Danny Trevathan and defensive end DeQuin Evans, who was third in the conference in tackles for loss last year with 12.5, are the standouts.

Spring strengths
Offensive playmakers: A goal for the offseason will be finding the best way to utilize some of the Wildcats' faster players like running back Derrick Locke and do-everything receiver Randall Cobb, second and third respectively in SEC all-purpose yards last year. If Phillips can get the offense clicking in the spring, this could be a tough unit to stop. Locke trailed only Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram (18) in the conference for total touchdowns with 15 last season.
Special teams: Both of Kentucky's top playmakers also made quite an impact in the return game in 2009 with Locke leading the SEC in kick return average (29.6 yards and a touchdown) and Cobb coming in at third in the conference in punt return average (13.5 yards and a score).

— Adam West

LSU TIGERS
2009 record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
Practice starts: Started Feb. 25
Spring game: Saturday, March 27, 3 p.m. on ESPN2 (LSU National L Club Spring Game)
Recruiting: With Les Miles at the helm, LSU has enjoyed some of its best recruiting years in the history of the program. 2010 was no different as Miles and his staff signed another top 10 class, rated as No. 6 by Rivals.com, No. 7 by Scout.com and No. 8 by ESPN. A premium was put on speed, and the Tigers hauled in an array of prospects that could help boost the offense when they arrive in the summer. One of those prospects is five-star athlete Spencer Ware, who played running back and quarterback in high school. He should be able to compete immediately for playing time at one of those positions once he steps on campus this summer.
Early enrollees: Two. Four-star offensive lineman Evan Washington and tight end Ken Adams.
Offseason changes: The Tigers lost some big stars from last year, especially on offense. First-team All SEC offensive lineman Ciron Black will be hard to replace, but so will running backs Keiland Williams, Charles Scott and Trindon Holliday. Holliday also ran back kickoffs for the Tigers. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell, according to some experts a first-round NFL draft pick, was another big loss. Another star, Chad Jones, the second-team All-SEC defensive back, entered the draft after his junior season. LSU also got three new assistant coaches, one of which, Billy Gonzalez, was receivers coach at Florida and helped develop NFL rookie of the year Percy Harvin.

Top priorities for spring
Running back: In losing Scott, Williams and Holliday, the Tigers lose nearly two-thirds of their rushing production from last season. That's the bad news. The other bad news is that Russell Shepard, showed some promise last year as a playmaker out of the backfield, is moving to wide receiver. Miles had many options with Shepard, including moving him to quarterback or trying him at running back. But, at least during spring practice, Miles has decided that Shepard, the top quarterback prospect in the nation in 2009, will battle for a spot at wideout. Where does that leave the backfield? In the hands of redshirt sophomore Michael Ford, and senior Richard Murphy, who is still recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him for most of 2009. Miles has been impressed with the play of Ford so far in spring practice, noting that he is trying to get the team to be more physically dominant. He should have a better idea if his rushing attack will be a strength or a glaring weakness by the end of spring.
Wide receiver: The Russell Shepard experiment could work out, but the Tigers have other pressing issues at the wideout slot. The loss of Brandon LaFell will be felt, as he led the Tigers with 792 receiving yards last season. Terrance Toliver, who should step in and fill LaFell's spot, broke his hand during an altercation outside of a bar, after which he was arrested. Although Toliver will not be suspended, he is participating in spring drills with a cast on his hand, which is not ideal for Toliver or his quarterback. Toliver and Shepard need to perfect their timing with their starting quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, during spring or risk undermining Jefferson's confidence as summer approaches.
Quarterback: Jefferson showed flashes of leadership in 2009, but LSU's passing game finished ninth in the SEC. This spring, Miles needs Jefferson to take full-time ownership of the team. If Jefferson can mature, even with the turmoil and change going on at wide receiver, the quarterback position could become a strength. If Jefferson continues to take unnecessary sacks and doesn't find a way to make plays, LSU's entire season will suffer. Miles has been happy so far this spring with Jefferson's work ethic and demeanor on the field, but it is far too early to assume that Jefferson has become the leader LSU will need him to be.

Spring strengths
Defensive backs: Despite losing safety Chad Jones to the NFL draft, the Tigers' secondary can still hold its own. Second-team All-SEC selection Patrick Peterson had a breakout year in 2009, and could follow Jones' lead by going pro if he has a stellar year as a junior. The Tigers are trying senior corner Jai Eugene at safety, where they also have heralded 2009 recruit Craig Loston vying for playing time. The Tigers were able to move Eugene because of the emergence of Morris Claiborne. If these moves work out for the Tigers, and indications so far this spring is that they are, the secondary could become the cornerstone of a defense that could be one of the best in the SEC. A solidified secondary will allow LSU to devote more time to developing its linebackers and defensive line, which could become dominant forces if some senior leaders step up.

— Jon McDonald

OLE MISS
2009 record: 9-4 overall, 4-4 in SEC
Practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 17, 2 p.m.
Recruiting: The Rebels signed 25 commitments, led by five-star junior college transfer DE Wayne Dorsey (6-8, 255), who had 15 sacks in JuCo and is expected to make an immediate impact along the defensive line. They also signed six four-star commitments in DE Carlos Thompson, WR Vincent Sanders, DT Carlton Martin, DE Delvin Jones and junior college transfers QB Randall Mackey and safety Damien Jackson. Scout ranked the Ole Miss class No. 14 while Rivals ranked it No. 17.
Early enrollees: DE Wayne Dorsey, S Damien Jackson
Offseason changes: The Rebels lost five on offense, led by WR/RB Dexter McCluster, WR Shay Hodge and QB Jevan Snead, who declared early for the NFL. They also lost five on defense, including ends Greg Hardy and Marcus Tillman. Head coach Houston Nutt added Dave Radar as co-offensive coordinator, working with co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Mark Markuson. Radar worked two stints at Alabama, as offensive coordinator during Mike Shula's years from 2003-2006. He also served as quarterbacks/receivers coach on Ray Perkins' staff from 1983-85. Radar has been out of coaching since Shula was fired in 2006. The Rebels endured a tragedy on Feb. 19 when safety Bennie Abram died, collapsing during the first day of the team's routine conditioning.

Top priorities for spring
Offensive line: Ole Miss has two offensive linemen to replace. With an inexperienced quarterback in Nathan Stanley, head coach Houston Nutt is counting on his line to open holes for Rebel runners. Returning on the line are juniors Bradley Sowell (tackle) and Rishaw Johnson (guard), and sophomore tight end Ferbia Allen, who was more of a blocker than a receiver last season (6 catches, 46 yards).
Quarterback: When Snead made his surprising move to forego his senior season for the NFL, the Rebels' offensive expectations took a big hit. A lot of pressure rests with redshirt sophomore Nathan Stanley (6-5, 215), who played sparingly in 2009, completing 11-of-23 passes for 163 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Rebels will also give a look to redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton and multipurpose junior college transfer Randall Mackey when he arrives in the summer. Cornerbacks: The Rebels lost both starting cornerbacks from 2009 (Marshay Green, Cassius Vaughn), but do have experienced players in junior Marcus Temple and senior Jeremy McGee, who combined for 28 tackles and two interceptions last season.

Spring strengths
Defensive line: Although the Rebels lost Hardy and Tillman, they have plenty of talent returning on the defensive front, led by senior nose tackle Jerrell Powe (6-2, 340) and senior end Kentrell Lockett (6-5, 240). And with the addition of JuCo transfer Wayne Dorsey at end, Ole Miss should have one the SEC's best front lines.
Running back: Junior tailback Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) is expected to be the main ball carrier this coming season. Bolden shared duties with McCluster in 2009, but still rushed for 614 yards with four touchdowns, and caught 20 passes for 209 yards and one TD.

— Larry Savage

MISSISSIPPI STATE
2009 record: 5-7, 3-5 SEC
Practice starts: March 23
Spring game: Maroon-White Spring Game, April 17
Recruiting: One of second-year coach Dan Mullen's goals when he arrived in Starkville was bringing in all of the top talent that the Magnolia State had to offer. The former Florida offensive coordinator accomplished just that in this year's class with 19 of his 26 signees hailing from Mississippi. Some of the highlights of the class, ranked 38th overall in the nation and ninth in the SEC, include offensive lineman Damien Robinson, defensive end Kaleb Eulls and athlete Michael Carr.
Early enrollees: DT James Carmon, RB Vick Ballard and OT Blaine Clausell
Offseason changes: Mullen made some changes to his defensive staff, hiring Manny Diaz (Middle Tennessee St.) to replace Carl Torbush as defensive coordinator and Chris Wilson (Oklahoma) to be co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. A big change on defense will be the absence of linebacker Jamar Chaney, 10th in the SEC with 90 tackles.

Top priorities for spring
Running back: The Bulldogs will also need to replace Anthony Dixon, the SEC's leading rusher from last season with 1,391 yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior Robert Elliott, one of the state's top recruits in 2007, will likely start, but top JUCO running back Vick Ballard could make a push in the spring. Quarterback: It is unclear who will take snaps for the Bulldogs this fall, but this unit could have a lot of upside. Tyler Russell, a four-star recruit and former Mississippi Mr. Football, redshirted his first year on campus and probably has the best shot at securing the job. Chris Relf can make plays with his feet and has an advantage in experience. Dylan Favre, the nephew of future NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre, isn't the biggest guy, but he will get to try to prove his bloodlines in spring practice. He racked up video-game numbers in winning a state title as a senior at Bay St. Louis St. Stanislaus, throwing for 5,589 yards and 63 touchdowns and rushing for 1,265 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Defense: This unit is definitely a spring priority with Mississippi State finishing 11th out of 12 SEC teams, giving up 366 offensive yards per game.

Spring strengths
Wide receiver: Sophomore receiver Chad Bumphis caught 32 passes for 375 yards in his freshman year, and will likely be utilized more now that he has a season under his belt. Bumphis, who got a few carries last season, might get even more involved in the running game with Dixon gone. Mullen may try to use him in a similar role that he had Percy Harvin in during his time as Florida's offensive coordinator.
Offensive line: The whole starting line for a ball-control offense that ranked first in the SEC with 227.6 rushing yards per game is back. How they fare without Dixon is the big question.

— Adam West

SOUTH CAROLINA
2009 record: 7-6, 3-5 SEC
Practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 10 (Garnet & Black Game)
Recruiting: The Gamecocks enter the season with high expectations due to experience (15 returning starters) and depth thanks to a string of solid recruiting classes. The 2010 class, ranked 25th by Rivals and 34th by Scout, is considered strong as far as Division I football goes but ranks behind seven other SEC schools. Spurrier's latest class includes 23 players and features five-star running back Marcus Lattimore. The Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes product was rated the top running back by both of the top recruiting services.
Early enrollees: JUCO MLB Toquavius, QB Connor Shaw, FB Matt Coffee
Offseason changes: South Carolina's all-time leader in sacks (29) and tackles for loss (54.5) Eric Norwood is gone, leaving big shoes to fill for Shaq Wilson, who will move from middle linebacker to Norwood's vacated weakside spot. Also gone is massive defensive end Clifton Geathers, who left early to take his chances in the NFL Draft. Quarterback Reid McCollum announced he was leaving the program in January, leaving the Gamecocks without a backup with playing experience behind starter Stephen Garcia. Offensive line coach Eric Wolford left to take the head coaching job at Youngstown State, opening the door for the Gamecocks' new O-line coach Shawn Elliott.

Top priorities for spring
Backup quarterback: As the SEC's active leader in career passing yards (3,694) and total yards (4,078), Garcia is Spurrier's likely starting quarterback entering his junior season. The issue that must be settled during spring practice is who will back up a quarterback that was sacked 37 times in 2009. With McCollum off the roster, Spurrier lacks a backup with playing experience so the spring will be vital to developing a reserve quarterback. The front-runner for the job is early enrollee freshman Connor Shaw, brother of former Georgia Tech QB Jaybo Shaw who recently transferred to Georgia Southern. Shaw struggled in windy conditions during his first spring practice, but Spurrier was impressed with his quick release. Other quarterback options include sophomore Aramis Hillary and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who took some snaps out of the Wildcat for USC last year.
Offensive line: Elliott, who came to South Carolina after nine years of coaching Appalachian State's offensive line, will try to improve a unit that struggled in 2009. Four starters return from last year, so the Gamecocks have more experience. This year's recruiting class included six offensive linemen, including Rivals.com four-star center A.J. Cann. Elliott has moved sophomore guard T.J. Johnson to center, which he believes will strengthen the unit.
Running backs: The spring provides an opportunity for one of South Carolina's running backs to try to beat out incoming freshman standout Marcus Lattimore, who won't be on campus until June. Brian Maddox, Kenny Miles and Jarvis Giles will get their chances to prove they deserve playing time in the fall. Maddox is a solid blocker, while Miles led the team in rushing last season with 626 yards. Spurrier will try to get fullback Patrick DiMarco, nephew of Gator alum and veteran PGA Tour golfer Chris DiMarco, more involved in the offense this season. DiMarco may see playing time at H-back and tight end this season. With a five-star freshman back coming in, the question is if Spurrier will alter his pass-first offense to get Lattimore more touches.

Spring strengths
Wide receiver: Spurrier is trying to give Garcia more playmakers to throw to this season by moving 6-5 receiver Tori Gurley to slot, so both he and 6-4 receiver Alshon Jeffery will be on the field at the same time. Jeffery led the team in receptions (46), receiving yards (763) and touchdowns (6) in 2009. Couple what should be an improved running game with good size at receiver, and the Gamecocks' offense might be dangerous.
Secondary: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is probably the Gamecocks' best player, and he will line up opposite of senior Chris Culliver, who moved over from free safety. Culliver will sit out the spring as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Sophomore strong safety DeVonte Holloman has bulked up to help deliver some big hits. Junior Akeem Auguste will move from cornerback to free safety.

— Adam West

TENNESSEE
2009 record: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in SEC
Practice starts: March 18
Spring game: April 17
Recruiting: The Vols, who endured a coaching change just weeks before National Signing Day, signed 25 commitments, led by five-star wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers (6-3, 206) from Calhoun, Ga., who rejected, among others, Georgia and Florida. They also brought in 12 four-star prospects: QB Tyler Bray, DT John Brown, DB Dave Clark, WR Justin Hunter, OL Jawuan James, DE Eddrick Loften, WR Ted Meline, DE Corey Miller, WR Matt Milton, RB Rajion Neal, DE Jacques Smith and OL James Stone. Rivals ranked Tennessee's class No. 9 while Scout ranked it No. 15.
Early enrollees: QB Tyler Bray, ATH Channing Fugate, OT Ja'Wuan James, WR Ted Meline, DE Corey Miller, WR Matt Milton, QB Matt Simms and DE Jacques Smith.
Offseason changes: When Lane Kiffin resigned from Tennessee on Jan. 12 to succeed Pete Carroll at Southern Cal, it certainly shocked the Vol Nation. In only one season, the controversial Kiffin had certainly put the Vols back on the college football map with his often verbal jabs at opposing coaches and programs, particularly Urban Meyer and Florida. On Jan. 15, Derek Dooley, son of Georgia legendary coach Vince Dooley, was named Tennessee's new football coach. Derek Dooley had coached at Louisiana Tech the previous three seasons. Dooley did an exceptional job in keeping most of the Vols' top recruiting prospects in Knoxville. Among his notable assistant coaching hires is rising defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who spent the previous four seasons as defensive coordinator at Boise State. Tennessee lost six players on offense from the 2009 team, led by tailback Montario Hardesty, who finished third in the SEC in rushing (1,345 yards, 13 TDs). Also gone is quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who passed for 2,800 yards and 27 TDs last season. The Vols also lost five on defense, led by strong safety Eric Berry, who is foregoing his senior season and could be one of the first picks in the April's NFL Draft.

Top priorities for spring
Quarterback: Senior Nick Stephens certainly has the most experience to step in as starter, ahead of heralded California freshman Tyler Bray (6-6, 189), who enrolled in school early and will be there at spring practice battling for the starting spot. Also there will be JuCo transfer Matt Simms (6-3, 210), son of former NFL great Phil Simms and younger brother of ex-Texas quarterback Chris Simms, who originally committed to Louisville in 2007. Stephens played in three games last season as Crompton's backup, completing 9-of-13 passes for 142 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also started six consecutive games as a sophomore, ahead of Crompton, passing for 840 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Offensive line: Sophomore right tackle Aaron Douglas (6-6, 282), a freshman All-American in 2009, is the lone returnee along the line. He will likely switch to left tackle during the spring. True freshman tackle Ja'Wuan James (6-6, 305), who enrolled early, will go through spring practices and is expected to battle for a starting position. Redshirt freshmen JerQuari Schofield (6-6, 315) and Dallas Thomas (6-5, 268) are also expected to have big springs and challenge for playing time. Victor Thomas (6-4, 286) moved over from the defensive side and could be a candidate for center.
Secondary: Eric Berry was more than just a great safety for the Vols, he was one of the team leaders. With him gone, along with cornerback Dennis Rogan (declared for the NFL draft), the Vols are hurting for experience in the secondary. Sophomore Janzen Jackson, who last year had off the field issues, is talented enough to compete for one of the safety positions along with sophomore Darren Myles Jr. Junior Art Evans has the most experience in the secondary, and returns as a starting cornerback.

Spring strengths
Running back: Sophomore tailback Bryce Brown (6-0, 215) is expected to have a breakout season after splitting time with Hardesty last season. Even though Hardesty got the majority of the carries, Brown still rushed for 460 yards with three touchdowns. He should be one of the top running backs in the SEC this season. Fellow sophomore David Oku, another highly touted recruit, should also see plenty of action in the backfield.

— Larry Savage

VANDERBILT
2009 record: 2-10, 0-8 SEC
Practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 10
Recruiting: The Commodores' 2010 recruiting class was pretty solid by Vanderbilt standards, ranking 61st nationally according to Rivals but was still last in the SEC. That ranking included four-star running back Rajaan Bennett, the first member of the Rivals250 to ink with the Commodores. Bennett was tragically killed in an apparent murder-suicide by his mother's ex-boyfriend in mid-February, a devastating emotional and athletic blow to the Vanderbilt football team.
Early enrollees: Safety Kenneth Ladler and JUCO QB Jordan Rodgers.
Offseason changes: Coach Bobby Johnson made some changes to his staff during the offseason, promoting quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kiser to lead an offense that ranked last in the conference in 2009. Last year's offensive coordinator Ted Cain was given the position of tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. Running backs coach Des Kitchings was named running game coordinator, and wide receivers coach Charlie Fisher becomes the team's passing game coordinator.

Top priorities for spring
Starting quarterback: The Commodores need to settle on a quarterback this spring. Last year's starter Larry Smith, who missed the final three games of the season with a hamstring injury, will have to compete with junior college signee Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Smith may be the incumbent, but Vanderbilt was near the bottom of the conference in passing offense, so his starting job isn't exactly safe.
Offensive line: For a team that will likely try to run the ball with standout sophomore Warren Norman, the Commodores will need to assemble a quality offensive line. Vandy loses center Bradley Vierling and the left side of its line, so the spring will be key to finding some guys to fill in and provide some push against tough SEC defenses.
Defensive line: Vanderbilt will need to replace both starting defensive ends (Broderick Stewart and Steven Stone). The Commodores would benefit greatly from an improved pass rush.

Spring strengths
Running back: Even with the loss of top recruit Bennett, the running back spot is still a strength for the Commodores. Norman had a breakout year as a freshman in 2009, leading the SEC in all-purpose yards with 1,941 yards. Granted, 1,050 those yards came on kick returns, but rushing for 783 yards as a freshman in the SEC is still pretty impressive. Sophomore Zac Stacy also racked up 478 yards on the ground in his freshman season, so Vanderbilt has a couple of young talented guys that come into 2010 with added experience.
Depth: While extensive injury problems helped contribute to a 2-10 season, they also gave many of Vanderbilt's younger players a chance to see the field early. What hurt them last year could end up being a blessing going into spring practices.
Wide receiver: Senior wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore combined for 86 receptions and more than 1,200 yards last season. Those totals may dip a bit this season with a new quarterback. Tight end Luke Stocker also is back, giving Tennessee excellent targets for the fall.
Defensive line: Senior defensive ends Chris Walker (6-3, 232) and Ben Martin (6-3, 239) are returning starters and excellent pass rushers. Walker had a team-leading six sacks last season.

— Adam West

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