2017 fall camp goals: One thing every SEC West team must accomplish in August
How each SEC West team can do its part to join Alabama in helping the division's swagger back
The SEC West used to be known as the best division in college football. Now, it seems more like it's Alabama and a six pack of store-bought cupcakes.
Sure, those cupcakes might look good in the bakery section of your favorite supermarket, and you might drive home really excited to tear into them. But when you do, the chalky taste leaves you wanting something more. Alabama isn't exactly as tasty as it used to be, either. The one-dimensional offense of last year existed by choice and necessity, and haunted Alabama in the end.
Pads start popping around the west this week. Here's what every team needs to accomplish in fall camp:
Alabama -- Stretch the field: Alabama's biggest problem is no secret, and it's up to sophomore Jalen Hurts to fix it. As a true freshman in 2016, Hurts finished eighth in the SEC and tied for 62nd nationally among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt at 7.3. In crunch time, things got much worse. It dropped to 5.0 during Alabama's final three games of the season -- the SEC Championship Game against Florida, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl semifinal against Washington and College Football Playoff National Championship against Clemson. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three of those teams finished in the top 15 nationally in pass defense.
Coach Nick Saban will shout about his biggest goal of fall camp from the highest mountain top. "I think the goal in the offseason for Jalen was all about becoming a more efficient, consistent and effective passer," he said on ESPN's Mike and Mike last week (37:00 mark). "That's not that he couldn't do it a year ago. We were a little hesitant and risk-averse in how we tried to develop him and what we asked him to do in that role. He certainly did a fantastic job for us and made a lot of plays in a lot of ways. But that's the one thing in the offseason. If we can create a little more balance by being a little more efficient in the passing game, I think that would help us be a better offense."
With wide receivers Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, Jerry Jeudy and Cam Sims on the field, Hurts will have plenty of weapons. It's up to new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to work with Hurts and the receivers to make it happen.
Arkansas -- Tighten up the defense: Coordinator Paul Rhoads was promoted after serving as coach Bret Bielema's secondary coach a year ago, and he was handed a rather daunting task -- fix a unit that gave up an SEC-worst 6.75 yards per play in 2016. How's he going to do it? Switching to a 3-4 scheme is one of Rhoads' top priorities. Its purpose is quite simple.
"There will be a lot of same schemes, a lot of the same coverages, but coming at it with the ability to bring different pressure," Bielema said at SEC Media Days. "More importantly, I think in today's world, too, the 3-4 aligns quicker and a little bit more simplistic to multiple offenses in a shorter amount of time, and that should help us."
There are some solid pieces for Rhoads, including defensive end McTelvin Agim and linebacker Dre Greenlaw. Can those guys improve and adjust? It'll be what makes Arkansas a tough-out or pushover in a year that should feature more dynamic offenses lining up on the other side of the ball.
Auburn -- Get better in pass protection: Auburn's offensive line was dominant against the run last year, and with guard Braden Smith (who could move to tackle), center Austin Golson and tackle Darius James back, that shouldn't change. In pass protection situations last year, though, the Tigers looked lost.
Enter new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and quarterback Jarrett Stidham along with a newfound dedication to more balance. How much of that balance is achieved depends on the offensive line's ability to develop.
"The Auburn offensive line will be asked to take more 'professional' pass sets this fall," said SEC Network analyst and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic. "Not as quick and more stressful. These will be required to run deeper and elongated drop backs by the quarterback. Body balance, hand placement and quality footwork -- including lateral agility -- will be a must."
There will be times when Auburn will be forced to pass, not just do it when when it wants to. In order to be effective, coach Gus Malzahn needs to make sure his offensive line is comfortable prior to kickoff of the season opener.
LSU -- Make Danny Etling great: The senior signal-caller for the Tigers is coming off back surgery to correct a lingering issue dating back to his Purdue days. If that isn't enough to make life easier, the addition of new coordinator Matt Canada should do the trick.
"Matt runs a very diverse offense, a lot of shifts, motions, use of personnel, fly sweeps," first-year coach Ed Orgeron said at SEC Media Days. "He makes it difficult to defend, but the thing I like best about Matt was he talked about being a team player, and he talked about running a balanced offense, 50 percent run and 50 percent pass."
But just how good can Etling be? How good will he need to be? LSU lost four games in the regular season last year due in large part to the fact that its offense couldn't be dynamic in the passing game when it needed to be. Canada should help, but it's still up to Etling to execute. With offenses around the conference likely forcing him to do so more often in 2017 than they did in 2016, he will have to win more games with his arm than he did a year ago despite the presence of star running back Derrius Guice.
Mississippi State -- Get comfortable with Grantham: The one-year Peter Sirmon experiment was a disaster for coach Dan Mullen. Todd Grantham steps into that defensive coordinator role with a goal of making the Bulldog defense somewhat adequate. "It was great to get somebody of his level to come to Mississippi State and run our defense," said Mullen at SEC Media Days.
Grantham's NFL-style scheme was extremely complicated when he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2010-13, but he adapted to the college life during his time at Louisville. At Mississippi State, he'll have a solid core to work with including defensive end Jeffery Simmons, linebacker Leo Lewis and a secondary with some potential that includes Brandon Bryant and Jamal Peters.
Their biggest goal is to make sure the lines of communications between the players and coach are open, everybody is on the same page and there's no confusion once toe meets leather. The Bulldog offense is a known commodity. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is a bona fide weapon as a dual-threat quarterback who should make life miserable for opposing defenses. But if State doesn't fix its own defense, Fitzgerald's accolades will go for naught.
Ole Miss -- Get back to football: Yes, this sounds daunting considering the circumstances. But it's not impossible. The abrupt forced resignation of coach Hugh Freeze has ushered in even more turmoil than it already faced with the ongoing NCAA investigation, and now Matt Luke must piece this thing together as best he can. Luckily for Luke, there are weapons for him to use offensively that will make the Rebels, at the very least, dangerous.
Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson returns after getting his redshirt burned in early November 2016. He has a loaded and talented wide receiving corps that includes A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Van Jefferson, Markell Pack and DaMarkus Lodge. The Rebels also have their offensive line since Freeze took over prior to the 2012 season.
Focus on that. Focus on football. Get in that proverbial "bubble" and try to block out as much of the outside noise as possible. If the Rebel players and coaches can do that, there's still a chance to at least be relevant in 2017 for actual football purposes.
Texas A&M -- Find a quarterback: Coach Kevin Sumlin enters the year on one of the hottest seats in the country and faces a daunting task of traveling to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA in the opener without a starter locked in under center. He has to find one in fall camp.
"Those three guys have done a phenomenal job in the offseason, working together, organizing 7-on-7s, moving the team, being leaders, enjoy each other's company," he said at SEC Media Days. "But we'll see you in the fall. We'll see what direction we go. [Offensive coordinator] Noel Mazzone does a great job with them."
Sumlin needs to narrow the competition to two as quickly as possible and eventually get to one a couple of weeks prior to the season in order to get unquestioned No. 1 snaps for the eventual winner. The Aggies will only go as far as their quarterback will take them.
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