Posted on: April 20, 2011 3:06 pm
Posted by Bryan Fischer
All twelve SEC head coaches jumped on board a conference call to talk about their Spring Practices. Here's a few notes on what each coach said.
Les Miles, LSU
On senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson:
"He gets it out of his hand so quickly now and goes through his reads much quicker," Miles said. "There's much less hesitation in his decision-making process. I also think going into your senior year, there's a want to have a great senior year, and the leadership position is something your quarterback must embrace.
Miles also said that new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe has been a major help for all of the quarterbacks on the roster. Backups Zach Mettenberger and Jarrett Lee pushed Jefferson this spring and will continue to do so in the fall, which makes the team better.
Will Muschamp, Florida
On quarterback John Brantley this spring:
"I’m really pleased with his poise, leadership and habits off the field studying what we need to do to be successful,” Muschamp said. “He’s got the ability and we’re very pleased.”
On Brantley's tough spring game:
“I don’t think in the spring game John had much of a chance,” Muschamp said. “I was behind him and saw it coming pretty fast, too.”
Muschamp made Florida's policy on grayshirting very clear, in that they don't do it period. He also mentioned that Javares McRoy transferred because he wants to play with his brother and Chris Dunkley left because, "sometimes things don't fit." All the injured Florida players should be healthy and ready to go this summer.
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
"Well, we like the way the rule is now because we actually sign four or five guys that are on the bubble of qualifying. This year we've got about five that haven't quite done it and probably three that won't make it," Spurrier said. "We could not sign all of our guys which was embarrassing for us a little bit and for them. Sometimes time heals a lot of wounds. It appears that one guy in particular will be able to sign and come with us when all the freshmen report. Our state education is.. a lot of them are borderline of qualifying or not. It's helpful for the University of South Carolina to be able to oversign."
Spurrier touched on suspended quarterback Steven Garcia, which you can read more about here. It's the Old Ball Coach's 66th birthday today and he said he was teeing off with Boo Weekley at a pro-am this afternoon. Spurrier was upbeat on current quarterback Connor Shaw, even joking he "is from our planet," in contrast to Garcia.
James Franklin, Vanderbilt
On the challenge at Vandy:
"I love the word daunting. To me, it's an opportunity, it's a challenge," Franklin said. "Just like everything else in life, it's how you look at it and perceive the situation. The way myself, this staff and this program looks at it, we have a chance to really do something special."
Franklin said the team stayed healthy for the most part this spring which was key because of depth issues. The spring was mainly about laying a foundation and the head coach felt they did that.
Derek Dooley, Tennessee
On the fan base being more united with some stability in the program:
"I hope fans see a coach who wants to be here and appreciates the tradition and the history of Tennessee football and has a good systematic approach on and off the field," Dooley said.
The head coach also said his honeymoon was over with the fans and that it ended at kickoff of last season. Dooley dismissed some of the struggles of quarterback Tyler Bray in the spring game because of the way he performed throughout the spring. He briefly touched on the 'Dooley Rule' that was implemented requiring a runoff of time in the last minute of a game on a penalty and said that it makes the game better.
Nick Saban, Alabama
On meeting with players to evaluate their progress:
"We go over a player's strengths, weaknesses, things he needs to work on, academic circumstance, personal issues, problems, leadership things he can contribute," Saban said. "It's pretty comprehensive to sit down and talk, sort of develop a plan for what that person needs to do to be successful personally, academically and athletically."
Saban discussed the quarterback battle between Phillip Sims and A.J. McCarron, including the possibility of playing both. Saban mentioned walk-on defensive back Ranzell Watkins as one player who is in the competition for a starting job because of his hard work this spring.
Bobby Petrino, Arkansas
On the QB battle between Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell:
"I think they still have a long way to go," Petrino said. "They both have great leadership qualities but they have a ways to go to do their job well so they can lead by example first."
Petrino said the Spring Game was one of the most attended in history and was a big deal because it was televised. He was pleased with figuring some of his offensive line out this spring and thought his defense showed off the veteran unit's maturity. Petrino mentioned having four good receivers will help the offense tremendously no matter the quarterback.
Houston Nutt, Ole Miss
On QB Randall Mackey's spring:
"I thought Randall Mackey had an outstanding spring," Nutt said. "You can see why he was a junior college All-American quarterback. He can really spin the play and buy some time, he has some escapablity and is very accurate. We knew he could be in the shotgun but he got up under center much better."
Nutt said Mackey was ahead in the quarterback derby but nothing is finalized until this fall. He thought the few seniors on the team really stepped up and showed great leadership. Nutt also liked the way the defensive tackles got better as the spring went on and felt they also became more physical. He labeled Wesley Pendleton as the surprise of the spring.
Mark Richt, Georgia
On spring practice overall:
"I think we got better, we practiced with the right amount of intensity," Richt said. "We competed well, guys were competing for jobs, competing in offense versus defense."
Richt said the offensive tackle situation is fluid and still up in the air and the third guy could end up playing both left and right tackle. Richt said he wouldn't ban social media for his players because he knows it's such a big part of their lives. "They sacrifice enough with the amount of time they put in," he said. Richt did mention that it would be an issue if a guy is irresponsible with it. Richt wouldn't comment on the locker room thefts that occurred a few weeks ago.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
On the quarterback position:
“The competition, to me, is wide open right now,” Mullen said. “Chris Relf, obviously, did a great job this spring. I don’t know if he separated himself from all the other guys but he also has the experience and has played in the game and has done nothing to not be our top quarterback at this point going into the summer.”
Mullen didn't comment on any of the injuries on the team. He mentioned that since there were so many young players, it was good to get some practice time with them and they did a great job. He said the defense won't really change with the departure of Manny Diaz but that they would try a few new things. Mullen said he doesn't have a top-flight wide out but the group overall is very solid.
Gene Chizik, Auburn
On the all the distractions around the program:
"We only focus on one thing and that's what we can control,' Chizik said. "We know we're doing everything the right way and feel good about the direction of the program. We don't pay attention to any outside distractions."
Chizik thought there was an eagerness to learn from the younger players on the team but they have a long ways to go. He wanted the quarterbacks to be more consistency and will be a battle into the fall. Incoming quarterback Kiehl Fraizer will be in the mix as well.
Joker Phillips, Kentucky
On what he's gotten out of spring football:
"I've really been pleased with the progress of our team defensively," Phillips said. "I'm really pleased after 14 practices that we're getting the best personnel on the field and we're unitizing some of our better people."
Phillips liked the development of the quarterbacks and feels they can be a better passing team in the fall. He said they're in "desperate need" of somebody stepping up on the perimeter at wide receiver and being a playmaker.
Tags: A.J. McCarron, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Bobby Petrino, Boo Weekley, Brandon Mitchell, Chris Dunkley, Chris Relf, Connor Shaw, Dan Mullen, Derek Dooley, Florida, Gene Chizik, Georgia, Houston Nutt, James Franklin, Jarrett Lee, Javares McRoy, John Brantley, Joker Phillips, Jordan Jefferson, Kentucky, Kiehl Frazier, Les Miles, LSU, Manny Diaz, Mark Richt, Mississippi State, Nick Saban, Ole Miss, Phillip Sims, Randall Mackey, Ranzell Watkins, SEC, Steve Kragthorpe, Steve Spurrier, Steven Garcia, Tennessee, Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson, Vanderbilt, Wesley Pendleton, Will Muschamp, Zach Mettenberger
Posted on: April 18, 2011 4:51 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
When Tennessee's coaches assigned starting quarterback Tyler Bray and most of the starting offensive talent to the "Orange" squad for their Orange-White spring exhibition, what they probably had in mind was letting the Vol fans get a good, positive look at their 2011 offense doing good, positive things.
Thanks to an outing by Bray we're going to charitably call "terrible," it didn't exactly work out that way. The Orange side was throttled by the lesser-regarded White team 24-7, with Bray completing just five of his 30 passing attempts against a Tennessee pass defense that ranked 81st in the country last year.
Derek Dooley said the White's physical dominance of the Orange side was "fun to watch," and for a coaching staff that needs a bigger boost from their running game this fall, seeing tailbacks Tauren Poole and Raijon Neal have big days probably was. But Dooley also didn't hide the fact that Bray's day had been a disappointment:
“You know what I said Thursday — if Tyler would have gone 27-of-30 for 300 (yards) I would have said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing good,’ ” Dooley said. “If he would have gone 5-for-30, which is what he did, ‘It’s just the spring game, it doesn’t matter.’Still, there's bad, and then there's 5-for-30 bad. Bray had a nice finish to the season, but much of his success came against the defenses of teams like Memphis and Vanderbilt; a full season's worth of battles against the likes of Alabama and Georgia will be something else entirely. If Bray's already feeling "a little bit confident" about his own abilities -- to the point of completing 16.6 percent of his passes in a spring game -- Tennessee can only hope Saturday's pratfall will do its deserved part to keep that kind of confidence in check.
Posted on: April 15, 2011 11:07 am
Edited on: April 15, 2011 11:10 am
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
It's come too late to save Tennessee's infamous last-second -- or more accurately, post- last-second -- Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina. But in the wake of the Tar Heels saving themselves from watching the clock run out by accidentally committing an offensive penalty, the NCAA has now officially followed the NFL's lead in instituting a 10-second runoff for offensive infractions inside the final minute of either half.
Technically, the runoff isn't mandatory; the defending team has the option of declining both it and the penalty if they happen to be behind.
The new rule was recommended in February by the NCAA's Football Rules Committee and approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, who naturally led their release with the panel's relatively minor change to receivers' ability to block below the waist. The NCAA also offers no recommendations on what to call the new clock regulation, though the "Dooley Rule" has to be the leader in the clubhouse.
Reviewing the other rules changes:
Posted on: March 30, 2011 11:03 am
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
It's amazing what a little bit of winning -- both on the field and the recruiting trail -- can do for a college football coach.
Just ask Steve Spurrier, who despite a handful of speedbumps this spring is still basking in the glow of last year's surprising SEC East title and the Gamecocks' flurry of recent in-state recruiting coups, from Alshon Jeffery in 2009 to Marcus Lattimore in 2010 to now Jadeveon Clowney in 2011. After years of mediocrity and persistent rumors each subsequent (sevin-win) season would be his last, Spurrier now says he's ready to coach well into the middle of this decade, if not beyond. As he told the Sporting News:
“I think we have the best talent since I’ve been here,” he said, “and I’m feeling really good about where the program is at and where I’m at. I’ve got at least three or four more years in me."
By this point, it seems silly to doubt him. Even as Spurrier also admits he expected "to do a little bit better" when he first arrived in Columbia, he now has both the sort of team that can contend for divisional titles and a division -- thanks to the surprising struggles at Georgia, Tennessee and Florida -- that's more wide-open than at any time in its 20-year history.
Add in that even with the relative disappointment of Spurrier's first seasons he's still enjoyed more sustained success than any other coach in Carolina's (inexplicably poor) history, and it's the safest of safe bets that the Ol' Ball Coach is going to be at the Gamecock helm for as long as he wants to be. If he says that's three to four years or more, thanks to the likes of Jeffery and Lattimore and Clowney, it's almost certainly going to be three or four years ... or more.
Posted on: March 29, 2011 3:45 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
This just in: LSU has been really, really terrible the last couple of years at throwing the ball.
OK, so that's not exactly a breaking story. But it does help explain the obvious, vivid frustration of the Bayou Bengal receivers when they discuss the departure of former play-caller Gary Crowton ... and, more importantly, their excitement at the arrival of new play-caller Steve Kragthorpe:
"I think we'll be more aggressive than we were last year," wide receiver Rueben Randle said. "I think we'll take more shots. Like in the scrimmage the other day, the first play, we took a shot down field. It kind of got us all excited as a receiving corps to see that" ...It's not unusual to see players extolling the virtues of a new coach, but the not-so-subtle digs at the previous coach aren't necessarily your run-of-the-mill responses. There's also Peterson's "ball wasn't there" complaint, which might interpreted as a dig at incumbent quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Peterson also wasn't shy about hailing the potential of new JUCO transfer (and former Georgia signal-caller) Zach Mettenberger:
Mettenberger has excelled at the deep ball and has a quicker delivery than Jefferson, who tends to wind up.The overall tone from the LSU receivers makes it clear that Jefferson is still considered the likely starter ... but it's also clear that Mettenberger has their (and no doubt Les Miles's) attention.
You can't blame the LSU receivers at all for their excitement; players like Randle, Peterson, and Russell Shepard were some of the most highly-prized recruits in the country, and couldn't have imagined they'd spend two years playing for one of the most buttoned-down, ineffective, unexciting passing games this side of the triple option. The hire of Kragthorpe was widely panned after his crash-and-burn tenure as Louisville head coach, but compared to Crowton's final two years, things literally could not get any worse from the LSU passing perspective. His arrival and the potential represented by Mettenberger are, without question, good things for the Tiger receiving corps.
But are they good things for LSU? It's not enough for Kragthorpe to simply open up the offense; it's going to have to be opened up efficiently and effectively, and with a reliable quarterback under center, as anyone who remembers Dave Clawson's 40-pass debacles with Jonathan Crompton at Tennessee could tell you. And with Mettenberger lurking, a team-dividing quarterback controversy could rear its ugly head if Kragthorpe can't get Jefferson to finally fulfill his ample potential.
Yes, LSU's receivers should be excited. But LSU fans, on the other hand, might be better served to take the wait-and-see approach.
Posted on: March 23, 2011 2:08 pm
Edited on: March 23, 2011 2:44 pm
Posted by Bryan Fischer
College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at USC, who started spring practice last Friday.
Spring Practice Question: Is there depth on both sides of the ball in year two of the Lane Kiffin era?
At a time when most college students were just waking up for their first class of the day, quarterback Matt Barkley lofted a beautiful deep ball to wide receiver Robert Woods to wrap up USC's first spring practice. The perfectly thrown post route was one of the few things the Trojans looked sharp at during their first early morning workout, which began at 7:30 a.m.
"Kiffin always wants to end on a bang," Barkley said. "We're just getting used to it. There should be better tempo in the days to come."
Many USC players arrive at the football facilities at 5 a.m. to stretch and get taped before heading to meetings at 6 a.m. The practices are similar to how Pac-10 rival Oregon operates but Kiffin's idea switch to the early practices was not a result of what the Ducks have been doing.
"It's actually something, over the last couple of years, that I wanted to do," Kiffin said. "Because of class schedules you have to do it a year in advance because of registration and to block these hours. At Tennessee we wanted to do it but we weren't there for a full year before spring. It's something I want to look at in the spring and could be a possibility for the fall."
Although Kiffin hasn't made up his mind on the practice schedule this fall, he is hoping several of his players are able to get some playing time in before the spring ends. After battling a general lack of numbers and several injuries throughout last season, the Trojans will limit full contact drills and do more 7-on-7 in place of full team periods.
“The scary thing is, we’re 19 short and we just started," Kiffin said. "Usually you’re short at the end of spring. Hopefully we don’t add to that list, and possibly get some guys back.”
A 20th player, tailback Marc Tyler is likely to be added to the list after aggravating his hamstring muscle while stretching out for a pass on the first day. One young player who could use the opening to get into the mix at running back is redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan. Fully recovered from knee surgery his senior year in high school, Morgan is reportedly the fastest player on the team and could be a nice change of pace back to pair with a bruiser like Tyler. Also in the mix is Dillon Baxter, who hopes to rebound from a disappointing freshman campaign and translate some of the talent that made him a YouTube sensation in his first season.
Paving the way for the backfield is a talented but limited group of offensive lineman. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil is healthy and is looking to build on a very solid debut season protecting Barkley's blind side. Returning starter Khaled Holmes will receive snaps at both guard and center but will be limited the first few weeks with a neck stinger. Center Abe Markowitz and guard/tackle Kevin Graf will sit out some or all of spring practice due to injuries. Some reinforcements have arrived in junior college transfers David Garness and Jeremy Galten. The two should provide added depth but they must quickly get up to speed with the offensive terminology.
Things aren't much better, depth-wise, across the trenches on the defensive line. Tackle Christian Tupou will be limited while recovering from a knee surgery last season and defensive end Wes Horton will also miss part of spring practice with a foot injury. Defensive end Armond Armstead is being held out after being hospitalized for a heart condition and hopes to be cleared by doctors by the end of the month. Position coach Ed Orgeron is looking to get the most out of the group that is practicing, including talented defensive end Nick Perry and defensive tackle DaJohn "Juicy" Harris.
Linebackers Chris Galippo, Devon Kennard and Shane Horton will also watch most of spring practice from the sideline. Though all three are expected to start in the fall, their vacant positions will allow many of the younger players to receive extra repetitions and build a bit of depth at a position that has had it lacking for several years. Marquis Simmons, Hayes Pullard and safety-turned-linebacker Dion Bailey are three of the players the coaching staff has high hopes for and expects to get better with the added practice time.
"Even though it's a bummer that those guys missed, it's kind of a blessing in disguise that we can get the young guys a bunch of work," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "At linebacker, it's all about reps and seeing things 1,000 times. The only way you can see things 1,000 times is if you get snaps. The young guys are getting a bunch of work so it's actually good for us."
The secondary is probably the healthiest of any of the position groups and has several players who should compete for playing time. Safeties Marshall Jones, T.J. McDonald, Jawanza Starling and Demetrius Wright are a talented, physical group that gives defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin a lot of flexibility on the back end. Though senior starter Shareece Wright is off to the NFL, Nickell Robey, Tony Burnett and Brian Baucham all have experience at cornerback and redshirt freshman Anthony Brown has looked good in practice as well.
The defensive backs usually has their hands full going against a fast group of wide receivers every day. A freshman All-American, Woods has easily become the number one option on offense and is - quite simply - a playmaker with the ball in his hands. Brandon Carswell, De'Von Flournoy and Markeith Ambles should all contribute for new receivers coach Ted Gilmore but red zone target Kyle Prater will be sidelined with a foot injury. Senior tight end Rhett Ellison will be an integral part of the offense and don't be surprised to see youngsters Christian Thomas, Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer involved in two tight end sets.
With a deep group of weapons on offense, USC is looking to experiment with more of a spread-based attack this spring. The coaching staff is hoping that Barkley's third year of spring practice and an offense that relies the quarterback making plays translates into an even better season this fall.
"He needs to take the next step from being a really good quarterback to a great quarterback," Kiffin said. "Last year he improved a lot on his decision making and you saw his touchdown to interception ratio increase dramatically. Now he needs to do that again and take a leadership role and put everything on his back. He did that at times last year but now he just needs to be more consistent with that."
Left somewhat unsaid by the coaches and the players however, is the status of USC's NCAA infractions appeal. The Trojans are hoping to play in a bowl game this upcoming season and have asked for several scholarships back from their original penalties stemming from the Reggie Bush case. It has been nine weeks since USC argued their case in front of the Infractions Appeals Committee and it's very likely that the team will have to deal with a decision coming in the middle of spring practice.
"I haven't thought about it in awhile," Barkley said. "It's not affecting how I'm playing right now. We're obviously hoping for the best in whatever comes out of that situation but it's not affecting how we're getting ready for the season."
In the mean time, the work in and around Heritage Hall continues. There's no new system to learn on either side of the ball and the coaching staff returns mostly intact so the Trojans' focus this spring is mostly on themselves. Kiffin hopes to find some depth in his second year as head coach and there's certainly some talent on the roster.
Despite being down in numbers, there's some depth this season for USC. Only time will tell how much there really is though.
Tags: Abe Markowitz, Armond Armstead, Brandon Carsell, brian Baucham, Chris Galippo, Christian Thomas, Christian Tupou, Cody Kessler, D.J. Morgan, DaJohn Harris, David Garness, De'Von Flournoy, Demetrius Wright, Devon Kennard, Dillon Baxter, Dion Bailey, Ed Orgeron, Hayes Pullard, Infractions Appeal Committee, Jawanza Starling, Jeremy Galten, Jesse Scroggins, Joe Barry, Kevin Graf, Khaled Holmes, Kyle Prater, Marc Tyler, Markeith Ambles, Marquis Simmons, Marshall Jones, Matt Barkley, Matt Kalil, Max Wittek, Mitch Mustain, NCAA, Nick Perry, Nickell Robey, Oregon, Pac-10, Randall Telfer, Reggie Bush, Rhett Ellison, Robert Woods, Shane Horton, Shareece Wright, Spring Practice, Spring Practice Primer, T.J. McDonald, Ted Gilmore, Tennessee, Tony Burnett, USC, Wes Horton, Xavier Grimble
Posted on: March 23, 2011 12:36 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
SEC fans, it's time to get out your calendars, open your datebooks, fire up your scheduling apps ... whatever you need to do to make sure your fall Saturdays are clear. Because the final SEC 2011 football schedule has been released -- you can view it in PDF grid form here -- and as expected, it's got more than its fair share of mouth-watering dates. Our choices for the highlights:
Sept. 3: South Carolina has sadly abdicated their semi-traditional opening Thursday night throne, so Western Kentucky's expected throttling at Kentucky is the only SEC action on the season's first night. But that's more than made up for by the matchups waiting on Saturday: Boise State traveling to Georgia, Oregon and LSU meeting at Jerry Jones's Dallas space palace, newly independent BYU visiting Oxford to take on Ole Miss ... even East Carolina's matchup against the Gamecocks in Charlotte could prove interesting. In this cupcake-sodden day and age, you can't ask for anything more from an opening weekend.
Sept. 17: LSU starts the weekend with a sneakily-difficult Thursday night trip to Starkville to take on Mississippi State , the same situation in which the Bulldogs nearly upset the eventual national champions last season. From there we get the first real test of the Will Muschamp era as Tennessee visits Florida for the week's headliner. But there's still plenty of quality nonconference goodness after that: Auburn visiting Clemson, Kentucky hosting Louisville, Carolina taking on Navy's triple option.
Oct. 8: Though this doesn't apply to Alabama -- which will have already battled both Arkansas and Florida by this point -- this is the week the divisional races really get going, with three critical rivalry showdowns: Auburn at Arkansas, Florida at LSU, and Georgia at Tennessee. We'll know which teams are the true league favorites by this point.
Nov. 5: The rest of the slate's not particularly eye-catching -- though South Carolina's visit to Arkansas could be intriguing -- but it doesn't much matter when the presumptive SEC Game of the Year, co-league favorite LSU at co-league favorite Alabama, falls on this afternoon.
Nov. 26: Rivalry week in the SEC, and it promises to be as good as it's ever been: Muschamp's Gators trying to reassert themselves as the dominant Sunshine State program against Jimbo Fisher's resurgent Florida State; the always-competitive Battle for the Golden Boot between LSU and Arkansas, with a division title potentially on the line; the Gamecocks trying to build on last year's throttling of Clemson with another win in the Palmetto State bloodfeud; the usual hatefest between Georgia and Georgia Tech, with both teams trying to prove once and for all 2010 was a fluke; Kentucky tries once again to break the longest one-team-to-another losing streak in the country against Tennessee; the Egg Bowl , still underrated in terms of the animosity generated; and, oh yeah, an Iron Bowl meeting between the past two national champions that could very well carry national title implications again.
Inbetween these peaks, even the valleys will feature games like Auburn-Florida, Alabama-Penn State, Florida-South Carolina, Arkansas-Texas A&M, the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party ... it's going to be the same brutally intense SEC season it always is. If there's any problem with finally getting our grubby paws on the conference's schedule, it's that it also reminds us of how long we have to wait to have the goodies it promises are delivered.
Tags: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Battle for the Golden Boot, Boise State, Clemson, East Carolina, Egg Bowl, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Iron Bowl, Jimbo Fisher, Kentucky, Louisville, LSU, Mississippi State, Navy, Oregon, Penn State, SEC, SEC schedule, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Western Kentucky, Will Muschamp, World's Largest Outdoor Coctail Party
Posted on: March 22, 2011 3:14 pm
Edited on: March 22, 2011 4:19 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Tennessee , who starts spring practice today .
Spring Practice Question: Can Tennessee make enough strides along the line of scrimmage to threaten the teams at the top of the SEC East?
There was a time when Tennessee fans would have greeted a 6-7 overall record featuring one SEC win over a team that wasn't Vanderbilt or Kentucky -- and that one coming over an utterly mediocre Ole Miss outfit -- with as much hostility as a Gator frigate or Tide destroyer attempting to take sail alongside the Vol Navy. But that time came before the decline of Phil Fulmer and the abbreviated reign of Lane Kiffin, the combination of which turned what had been one of the nation's most feared programs into a smoking orange crater when Derek Dooley was hired in early 2010. Given the major headaches Dooley inherited, the bottom-of-the-barrel expectations for 2010, and the infamous victories against LSU and North Carolina that got yoinked away after the final whistle, 6-7 really wasn't so bad ... and so it's no surprise that rather than looking for a rail on which to run Dooley out of town, Vol fans enter 2011 with a healthy amount of optimism regarding both their head coach and the program's direction.
But steadying the Vols' ship is one thing. Bringing it safely into port alongside Florida or Georgia or now South Carolina atop the SEC East standings is something else entirely. And though no one will blame Dooley for not bringing home a divisional title in 2011, there will undoubtedly be some disappointment in Knoxville if the Vols aren't more competitive against the aforementioned trio; even with the Gators and Dawgs fielding their weakest teams in a decade or more, Tennessee fell to each by a combined 41 points. Though a second-half comeback made the Vols' contest against the division-winning Gamecocks more interesting, ultimately that game ended in a 14-point UT loss, too.
So how does Dooley close the gap? The easiest answer will be getting an entire season out of quarterback Tyler Bray , the true freshman who took over from the erratic Matt Simms at midseason and sparked a startling offensive resurgence, leading Tennessee to 335 or more yards of offense in its final six games despite the team not crossing that threshold once in its first seven.
But as starry-eyed as Vol fans might be regarding Bray's future, even Dooley's not expecting him to be a finished product this fall. "If he doesn't understand something, he doesn't care. He's just going to do something else," Dooley said at a pre-spring media luncheon Monday. "We'll be the ones throwing our hats because he throws it to the wrong guy and it's a touchdown."
It wasn't a surprise, of course, that the Vols struggled with an entirely new offensive line and new starters at both defensive tackle positions. But struggle they did: dead last in the SEC in sacks allowed, dead last in both total rushing and yards per-carry, ninth in yards per-carry allowed, ninth in sacks in conference play. However you sliced it, the Vol lines weren't pretty.
But they were also some of the youngest in the country, and there's reason to think they'll be substantially better this year. On offense, NFL-sized (6'7", 320 pounds) true freshman tackle JuWuan James earned a starting job in fall camp, started all 13 games, and landed first-team Freshman All-SEC honors. Fellow freshmen James Stone, Zach Fulton, and JerQuari Schofield had all likewise entered the starting lineup by season's end, with sophomore Dallas Thomas also making a name for himself. Assuming the five of them take the leap forward expected of rising sophomores (and a rising junior) who have their first year of serious action already under their belt, the Vol line could go from a position of obvious weakness to a borderline strength.
It's much the same story along the defensive front. Ends Gerald Williams and Chris Walker may have graduated, but there's plenty of talent left in their place. The new defensive tackle pairing of Montori Hughes and Malik Jackson had its positive moments as well as its struggles (Jackson led the team with five sacks) and should be much-improved in their second year in the starting lineup. On the ends, yet another true freshman -- Jacques Smith -- came on late in the year and landed on the league all-freshman team. Fellow true frosh Corey Miller was almost as impressive in limited time, and the two look set to serve as sophomore bookends this season.
Overall, the Volunteers will remain so young on both lines that neither can be expected to join the ranks of the SEC's best just yet. But with burgeoning talents like Bray, running back Tauren Poole, wide receiver Justin Hunter, and corner Marsalis Teague (not to mention Janzen Jackson, the troubled safety who withdrew from school with personal issues but who Dooley says is "on pace" to return), as long as there's improvement up front, there should be improvement on the scoreboard as well.
Some of that improvement is likely. But we'll find out this spring how much the Vols can actually expect ... and if it's Dooley or the Gators, Dawgs, or Gamecocks who need to be sweating once spring is done.
Tags: Chris Walker, Corey Miller, Dallas Thomas, Derek Dooley, Florida, Georgia, Gerald Williams, Jacques Smith, James Stone, Janzen Jackson, JerQuari Schofield, Justin Hunter, JuWuan James, Kentucky, Lane Kiffin, LSU, Malik Jackson, Marsalis Teague, Matt Simms, Montori Hughes, North Carolina, Ole Miss, SEC, South Carolina, spring practice, Spring Practice Primer, Tauren Poole, Tennessee, Tyler Bray, Vanderbilt, Zach Fulton