The pollen has washed away, the sun is shining, and pads have stopped popping around the SEC after all 14 teams wrapped up spring practice in April. With that comes a little clarity. Coaches have started to answer pivotal roster questions, freshmen have positioned themselves for big debuts and players have adjusted to coaching changes that have brought changes in schemes.
What is the biggest lesson we learned about every SEC team this spring? Let's break them down, team by team, as we enter the long offseason stretch of spring meetings, media days and chatter ahead of the 2019 season.
|Defensive line taking shape: If any coach in the country deserves the benefit of the doubt replacing the monsters up front, it's Nick Saban. With that said, he still has to go out and actually do it. Quinnen Williams and Isiah Buggs are no longer there, but some young players look ready to join the rotation. Freshman DJ Dale emerged as a legit option to battle Phidarian Mathis at nose tackle, and defensive end LaBryan Ray should take over opposite Raekwon Davis with freshman Antoino Alfano pushing for some time as well. There are some questions for Saban -- perhaps even more than normal -- but the Crimson Tide will be just fine up front.|
|Stable quarterback play: Ben Hicks came over from SMU to play for his old coach Chad Morris, Connor Noland spent the spring playing baseball, and former Texas A&M signal-caller Nick Starkel will come in this summer to vie for the starting gig. Two graduate transfers and an unproven redshirt freshman fighting it out doesn't exactly scream stability. But all three are Morris guys who can run his offense -- unlike last year's primary quarterbacks Cole Kelley and Ty Storey. That's the important thing. It's safe to consider Hicks as a player-coach, who helped everybody around him get more acclimated to the offense heading into the summer. Starkel and Noland will swoop in this summer and give him all he can handle. Last year was a bridge year for Morris with 2019 looking more like the first real season he can place his stamp on the Razorbacks.|
|Back to the hurry-up, no-huddle: Gus Malzahn broke up with former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey in the offseason and will return to calling plays in 2019. It worked in the spring game, which is a good sign for the Tigers considering they had the same result in the Music City Bowl against Purdue. The quarterback picture came into focus a bit with redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix separating from the field. What helps a new quarterback? Speed and simplicity. Malzahn has the speed part nailed after what we've seen following the split with Lindsey. That will go a long way toward developing the simplicity that will ease the transition to a new quarterback and back to what made Malzahn so intriguing.|
|Offensive line still a work in progress: The Gators lost four starting offensive linemen off of last year's squad, and the new faces started to settle into their new places during Dan Mullen's first 15 practices of the 2019 season. Center Nick Buchanan has vaulted into the role of the leader up front, and guard Brett Heggie at least has some experience over the last two seasons while fighting through injuries. Tackles Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance appear to be in line to become starters with Chris Bleich likely starting opposite Heggie at right guard. But Mullen said after the spring game that he wouldn't rule out bringing in a graduate transfer to give him some options heading into fall camp.|
|Front seven still developing: Georgia finished 13th in the SEC in tackles for loss and 12th in sacks a year ago, and that has to be fixed in order for the Bulldogs to get over the hump. Tyler Clark played well down the stretch two years ago and might be one of the stars up front along with Jordan Davis. Top recruit Nolan Smith didn't do much in the spring game at linebacker, but he was praised throughout spring. One of the standouts was freshman Nakobe Dean, who looked like the second coming of Roquan Smith. If coach Kirby Smart can get him on the field with fellow linebackers Tae Crowder and Monty Rice, it might be the recipe for success in the front seven.|
|Replacing Benny Snell is tough, but do-able: Kentucky's offense was missing in action quite a bit last year despite the presence of Snell. With star linebacker Josh Allen also gone, the 2019 season might be one that relies a little more on the offense. It looks like bridging that gap and becoming more explosive is at least a possibility. A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke each looked strong in the spring game, and could team up to replace Snell's production. Couple that with Terry Wilson being more comfortable taking the snaps, and there's at least a shot at a more explosive offense.|
|Opening things up seems possible: Tigers fans have been clamoring for a more dynamic offense ever since former coach Les Miles started falling short on offseason promises on an annual basis. This time, it looks like coach Ed Orgeron and second-year offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger might be thinking about considering the possibility of actually opening things up. There were four receiver sets, a little more tempo and more creativity in the passing game under passing game coordinator Joe Brady. If that actually happens this fall -- which, at this point, is fair to doubt -- then LSU might actually be a legit title contender.|
|Coaching staff overhaul has to work: It's easy to assume that the offense is going to drop off after the losses of quarterback Jordan Ta'amu and wide receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf. But the presence of new offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, established running back Scottie Phillips and an unquestioned starter under center in Matt Corral looked like it can at least keep the Rebels in games, even if there is a drop off. You got a glimpse of the new 3-4 defense under coordinator Mike MacIntyre in the Grove Bowl, and there's clearly room to grow. But switching schemes takes time, and there's a lot of that left in the offseason. If the Rebels can find a way to play just a little bit of complementary football, they'll at least contend for a bowl game.|
|Addition by subtraction on offense: With three stars gone off of last year's defense, it's fair to say that the offense will probably have to pick it up a bit. It should. Nick Fitzgerald struggled as a passer last season, and the few glimpses we've seen of Keytaon Thompson suggest that he can provide a boost. He tossed three touchdowns in the spring game and had a 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in limited action last season. The receiving corps struggled last year, but tall targets like Stephen Guidry and Osirus Mitchell should become bigger factors with Thompson slinging it around.|
|Kelly Bryant seems comfortable: The graduate transfer from Clemson got off to a hot start through the air in the spring game with eight straight completions, many of which were dimes deep downfield on the run. If you're a Missouri fan, that's all that you needed to see. Bryant has the wheels and is capable of doing what is necessary on short and intermediate routes. But he was unable to stretch the field deep in his one year as the starter with Clemson. There were some momentary lapses of consistency in the spring game, but that's acceptable considering the short time he's been on campus.|
|This is finally his defense: It has taken three full recruiting cycles, but coach Will Muschamp finally has the depth and versatility up front on defense that he has been hoping to gain. Javon Kinlaw and Kobe Smith should be forces in the middle of the defensive line, Kier Thomas is a veteran who will play a ton, and Zacch Pickens is a five-star stud who appears to be primed for an immediate impact. Kinlaw and Thomas were banged up a bit this spring, which gave some valuable reps to players who will be counted on in the rotation. Add in veteran D.J. Wonnum at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot, and this could be one of the surprise units in the SEC.|
|This is going to be a darn good offense: Junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw four touchdowns in the spring game and looked comfortable with new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. He was a game-manager last year (12 touchdowns, three interceptions) but showed flashes of becoming a difference-maker in key spots -- including at Auburn. He has three big targets and three leading receivers back in Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer back, and top two rushers Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan. The offensive line looked a little shaky in the spring game, but there's plenty of time to fix that.|
|The ground game is still building: Trayveon Williams might go down as one of the most under-appreciated running backs in SEC history, and coach Jimbo Fisher's primary goal this spring on offense is to find a way to replicate his production. It doesn't have to be with one guy, and judging by spring practices, it likely won't be. Jashaun Corbin will likely be RB1 and has plenty of explosiveness, but he was out this spring. Cordarrian Richardson sat out the spring game as well but could be the man toting the rock inside. Uncertainty around fellow bruiser Vernon Jackson's health status could place more pressure on Richardson and give more touches to Jacob Kibodi, who was one of the stars of the spring game. If Ryan McCollum can step in at center for Erik McCoy, the Aggies ground game won't miss a beat.|
|No replacement for just yet: Quarterback Kyle Shurmur moved on after a solid career in West End, and his successor is still a mystery heading into summer workouts. Ball State transfer Riley Neal went a long way toward solving that mystery in the spring game when he went 8-of-12 passing in miserable conditions, but junior Deuce Wallace was out with an injury. Neal threw 46 touchdowns in three-plus years at Ball State. So barring unforeseen circumstances, Neal looks like he'll be the starting quarterback for the Commodores when the open the season at home against two-time defending SEC East champion Georgia.|