Posted by Jerry Hinnen
With all six spring games completed, we wrap up spring practice in the SEC East, team by team. In alphabetical order:
FLORIDA: When spring began, we said the Gators might have the most interesting offense in the country. Urban Meyer's former spread-option death machine, destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up, by none other than Charlie Weis, in the image of the steady no-frills pro-style attacks Will Muschamp saw work for old boss Nick Saban, as piloted by 2011-or-bust quarterback John Brantley? That's quite the storyline they've got going there.
But the Gators will have to hope it's a story that will be rewritten come the fall. While no one was expecting the offense to look like Weis's old New England Patriot attacks after three weeks of practice, no one was expecting it to put on a 13-10 spring game universally panned as a hideous eyesore, either. Brantley went an ugly 4-of-14 after missing his first six passes, the leading rusher was a walk-on defensive back, and the entire offensive output for the game amounted to 340 yards.
Much of that can be pinned on a wicked rash of injuries that took out most of the offensive line, an entire stable of running backs, multiple receivers, etc.; encouragingly, much of it can also be pinned on a rampaging defensive line led by Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell, all members of Meyer's loaded 2010 class and all looking posied to make good on their five-star hype. But the bottom line is that much of it can also be pinned squarely on Brantley, who Muschamp and his other coaches universally lauded for an excellent spring but who showed little of that alleged improvement when playing in public.
Does it matter? Give him a solid summer and a solid fall camp, and it may not. But until Brantley proves he's something other than what he's appeared to be since the moment Tim Tebow left -- in over his head -- skepticism is in order.
GEORGIA: The biggest question entering the most critical spring of Mark Richt's spring tenure concerned the Bulldogs' biggest players: could their offensive line bounce back? When you have Aaron Murray, Orson Charles, a fleet of talented (if still unproven) receivers, and eventually Isaiah Crowell, if you have a line, you're going to have a heck of an offense.
There was good news and bad news on that front, the latter a devastating torn ACL suffered by fifth-senior and projected starting tackle Trinton Sturdivant. But there were positives, too, namely a terrific spring from potential All-SEC center Ben Jones and guard-to-tackle position switch Cordy Glenn. G-day primary tailbacks Ken Malcome and Caleb King combined for 69 yards on 12 carries, a not-so-shabby 5.8 yards per-carry. Overall, the line was impressive enough this spring that senior Justin Anderson -- billed as a potential starter on the OL -- has been moved to defense.
The Dawgs had themselves a fine spring on the defensive front as well, with newly bulked-up nose tackle Kwame Geathers the talk of the Bulldogs' spring camp and converted safety Alec Ogletree providing a big boost the linebacking corps. The secondary is unsettled and one of those aforementioned receivers needs to emerge as a go-to target for Murray, but if the improvements in the front seven and offensive line aren't mirages, the Bulldogs wil be back in the thick of the East race all the same.
KENTUCKY: Consider it a successful second spring for Joker Phillips and the Wildcats. We noted that with nearly all of the major players from 2010's surprisingly effective Wildcat passing game gone, Phillips would want to make rebuilding that passing attack around junior quarterback Morgan Newton priority No. 1 in spring camp. And though we'll have to wait until fall to see the finished results, for now it looks like Mission Accomplished: Newton had a terrific spring, capped by a 23-of-44, 256-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Wildcats' Blue-White Game.
Things weren't perfect: the Wildcat receivers were plagued by drops, and a defense still adjusting to new co-coordinator Rick Minter's aggressive schemes paired several big plays with several breakdowns. But with Newton cementing himself as a reliable option under center and a veteran line paving the way for new tailback Raymond Sanders to average better than 7 yards a carry, there's far more optimism for the Wildcat offense coming out of spring than going in.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Whatever storyline you might have constructed ahead of time for the Gamecocks' spring, it was always going to overshadowed by the continuing Stephen Garcia circus. Until Carolina receives a definitive word one way or the other on Garcia's return (though as we wrote earlier today, that return seems likely), the team is going to be in something close to suspended football animation. The lack of developments aside from Garcia was only enhanced by the fact that so many of Carolina's key players -- Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore, an offensive line with four returning starters -- are known commodities.
That said, the Garnet-Black Game showed that if Garcia doesn't come back, the Gamecocks won't be totally lost at quarterback. Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson combined to go a productive 23-of-40 for 344 yards (though Thompson threw a pair of picks), and on an offense with weapons like Lattimore, Jeffery, and tailback Kenny Miles (43 yards on just 6 carries in the spring game), "productive" should be enough.
The downside: those passing numbers came against a Gamecock secondary that got routinely torched in 2010 (FBS 97th in pass defense). Garcia or no Garcia, more improvement in that secondary will be necessary to take Carolina back to Atlanta.
TENNESSEE: Entering spring, the road to improvement for the Volunteers was clear: get stronger, more physical, better along each line of scrimmage, then let the Vols' cadre of up-and-coming skill position stars -- led by sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray -- do the rest.
The Vols made plenty of headway on the first part of that equation; the White team earned a dominant victory over the more starter-heavy Orange in the Vol spring game thanks in no small part to a bruising run game led by second-string tailback Raijon Neal; defensive linemen on both squads were able to get consistent quarterback pressure; and offensive lineman Alex Bullard and defensive tackle Daniel Hood won the team's top awards for spring performance. Both lines remain so young that there's still a long way to go to SEC dominance, but it seems unlikely they'll be pushed around the way they were at times in 2010, either.
But as for the other part of the equation, stay tuned. Bray went a miserable 5-for-30 quarterbacking the defeated Orange side, with Derek Dooley suggesting afterwards that perhaps Bray had been overconfident. Bray is expected to take a major step forward in his first full season as the Vols' starter, but if that step winds up as minor as the spring game proposes it might be, all the line improvement in the world won't push the Vols back into relevance in the SEC East.
VANDERBILT: When you finished last season dead last in the conference in both total offense and total defense -- and you are Vanderbilt -- any kind of improvement in any area will be music to new coach James Franklin's ears. But fortunately for the 'Dores, they saw some green shoots in two positions that have been partocularly troublesome the past few seasons.
One is quarterback , where previously scattershot senior Larry Smith completed 16-of-26 for 233 yards and a touchdown, leading his Black side to a 19-7 win over the Gold. The other is the defensive line , where defensive tackle Colt Nichter recorded a pair of sacks and defensive end Kyle Woestmann collected a sack and an interception. But when you're Vandy, you'll take whatever you can get.
"The big thing," Franklin said, "is that we stayed healthy."
For the same review of the SEC West, click here.