SEC Spring Practice in Review: the West
Looking back at what we learned in the SEC West.
With all 14 camps in the books -- thanks for getting there eventually, Texas A&M -- it's time to review the 2012 spring football season in the SEC. Here's what we learned (or think we did, anyway), in the East, and immediately below, in the West:
ALABAMA: The Tide aren't going to miss Trent Richardson as much as you'd think. Yes, there was that Mark Ingram guy a couple years back who won that Heisman thingy for which Richardson finished up a mere finalist, but we're going to say this anyway: Richardson was the best Alabama running back since Bobby Humphrey in the mid-1980s.
So why are we also saying that the Tide will easily clear whatever hurdle Richardson's departure to the NFL left behind? Several reasons, the first being that five-star true freshman T.J. Yeldon looks ready to live up to his Marcus Lattimore-like hype, piling up 179 yards from scrimmage in the Tide's "A-Day" game to earn MVP honors. The second is that even with an unsettled outlook at wide receiver, AJ McCarron looks ready to be the Tide's biggest weapon at quarterback in recent memory. He completed 29 of his 42 A-Day passes for better than 300 yards and two touchdowns -- albeit with three interceptions. And while there are still some kinks to be worked out in the much-younger-than-usual defense, Nick Saban was much more complimentary about its work ethic and focus across the spring than he was with a similar unit in the Tide's last post-championship season, 2010.
Add all that up with the likely fall return of de facto tailback starter Eddie Lacy (out this spring following surgery), and the bet here is that whatever struggles the Tide might have in 2012, they won't come down to the empty shoes in the backfield.
ARKANSAS: Tyler Wilson + Knile Davis = it may not matter who's the coach. It's not the average program that can lose its brilliant head coach in a tortuous, tawdry off-field scandal, replace him with a coach most famous for his pratfalls at Michigan State, and still come out of spring with legitimate national championship aspirations. But Arkansas has been much better than average the past two seasons and have anything but an average quarterback under center these days judging by Tyler Wilson's mammoth spring: 101 passes completed out of 146 for 1,600 yards, 15 TDs and no INTs across three scrimmages and the spring game. Add in a fully healthy Knile Davis, ready to repeat his 2010 feat of leading the SEC in rushing, and you're looking at the no-brainer favorite for the league's best offense.
To be fair, the Hog defense still has a ton to prove. But in a league where points remain at a premium, it's still not hard to look at the Razorbacks' offensive spring and imagine them playing "catch me if you can" on a whole series of conference scoreboards this fall -- Bobby Petrino or no Bobby Petrino.
AUBURN: For better or worse, Kiehl Frazier will be the quarterback. The Tigers still have a metric ton of questions to answer after a quiet spring, like exactly what Scot Loeffler's offense will look like, whether the apparent upturn in the defensive line's aggressiveness and production under Brian Van Gorder can be maintained into live game action, or -- after a spring in which the Auburn coaches weren't always pleased with running backs or receivers not named Emory Blake -- if Loeffler has the playmakers on offense to make whatever scheme he adopts work.
But barring a surprising late charge from senior Clint Moseley, the Tigers do all but know that sophomore Kiehl Frazier will wind up their starting quarterback. Though Moseley had the advantage of seniority and a handful of starts in the second half of 2011, he was limited throughout spring drills by an injured shoulder. Frazier took that opportunity and ran with it, drawing positive reviews in practice and hitting 7 of 9 for 92 yards and adding 21 more on the ground. Though Moseley hit 5 of 6 himself, it's impossible to find an Auburn observer who doesn't now believe Frazier has the inside track on the starting job -- and given that he's an athletic sophomore with plenty of upside still to explore, it's hard to see him giving it back to his less-mobile, older competition.
LSU: The Tigers have the weapons to do things in the air. Will they? Les Miles' team has boasted one of the most three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses in major college football the past few seasons, and while that attack could be effective -- and even ruthless -- at times, it wasn't a surprise to see Miles promise to open things up under new rocket-armed quarterback Zach Mettenberger. And sure enough, the Tigers' spring game featured a legitimate display of actual aerial fireworks, with Mettenberger going 14 for 25 for 270 yards. Three of those 14 completions went for 49 yards or more, with receivers like Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. showing off an explosive streak.
So we know the Tigers have the pieces to put together an offense that can put fear into opposing defenses both on the ground and in the air. The only question: When push comes to shove this fall, will Miles let Steve Kragthorpe really put them to use? We'd say "yes" given that Miles seemed as frustrated with the Jordan Jefferson-Jarrett Lee tag team as anyone by the end of the national title pratfall, but it's Les Miles. Who knows?
OLE MISS: Miracles shouldn't be expected. Give Hugh Freeze this: he hasn't shied away from the job he has ahead of him in Oxford. Asked after 11 spring practices if his new team was where his old Arkansas State team was after his first 11 practices there, Freeze answered that the Rebels were "probably not as far along." But that wasn't out of character for Freeze this spring, as he -- justifiably -- bemoaned everything from his offensive line play to his defensive depth to the team's rampant academic problems. The quarterback Freeze anointed as the favorite for the 2012 starting job, Barry Brunetti, completed just 4 of 10 passes in the Rebel spring game; his biggest competition, JUCO transfer Bo Wallace, hit 16 of 26 but already has an underage drinking citation and a cameo in an off-campus brawl.
There are some positives for Freeze nonetheless -- the receiving corps, in particular, where Donte Moncrief had a huge spring and converted quarterback Randall Mackey looked like an immediate-impact playmaker -- but the bottom line is that it's hard to pinpoint what spring developments truly suggest the Rebels are ready to move out of the division cellar.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs are going airborne. Dan Mullen made his name with Florida's Tim Tebow-led plowhorse running attack and had his best season in Starkville when Chris Relf and the option was doing much the same for the Bulldogs in 2010. But if State's spring practice was any indication, that's not going to be Mullen's chosen route to victory this year. Strong-armed junior Tyler Russell put the ball in the air 43 times in the Maroon and White game, finishing with 312 yards and two touchdowns. Russell's potential array of targets looks far and above anything Relf had to work with, including senior holdovers Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis, redshirt freshman Joe Morrow and sophomore Jameon Lewis. Both Morrow and Lewis had impressive springs and look ready to become major contributors.
Of course, this is still Dan Mullen we're talking about, and the Bulldog backfield still features a dynamic home-run threat in LaDarius Phillips, so don't expect the Bulldogs to go Mike Leach on us or anything. But those halcyon 2010 days of Relf and Anthony Dixon lumbering over the line-of-scrimmage for six or seven plays at a stretch are done for now.
TEXAS A&M: Jameill Showers is your Aggie quarterback. Probably. The Aggies opened their first spring practice under Kevin Sumlin with no less than four quarterbacks vying to replace the departed Ryan Tannehill. But it didn't take long for the sophomore Showers -- Tannehill's 2011 backup and the only candidate with on-field experience -- to adjust to the spread schemes of Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and move to the front of the pack by "showcasing the strongest arm and most poise in pocket" (per Aggie RapidReporter Brent Zwerneman.) Showers capped his spring with a 20-for-31, 203-yard, two-touchdown, no-interception performance in the Aggie spring game. Unless freshman Johnny Manziel can answer with a massive fall camp, the job looks like Showers' to lose.
And assuming he hangs onto it, Showers is going to have to prove that his spring was no fluke, or else; the nearly 600 yards of offense racked up by the Aggie offense in the spring game might suggest that the attack is well ahead of schedule, but it also suggests that new defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has his work cut out for him making the switch from the Aggies' old 3-4 to his preferred 4-3.
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