SEC Football: Every Coach's Biggest Challenge in Spring Practice

Seph AndersonCorrespondent IIIFebruary 19, 2013

SEC Football: Every Coach's Biggest Challenge in Spring Practice

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    Every SEC football coach faces important challenges in spring practice.

    A good spring practice provides a springboard to summer success, while a not-so-great spring leaves a lot to be desired heading into summer camp.

    From Alabama's Nick Saban looking to fill needs on the offensive line to Vanderbilt's James Franklin looking to fill a multitude of starting positions on both sides of the ball, there's no denying the importance of spring practice to every SEC coach.

    Now, let's take a look at every SEC coach's biggest challenge in spring practice.

     

Nick Saban

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    Alabama must replace offensive linemen Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack. It's vitally important to the Crimson Tide's SEC title and national title hopes in 2013, and Nick Saban is well aware.

    Offensive success for a team like Alabama begins along the line of scrimmage.

    QB A.J. McCarron certainly has his share of wide receivers to target on offense, but Alabama is traditionally known for their powerful ground game. In 2012, the Tide averaged 227.5 rushing yards per game. That was good for No. 16 nationally, despite playing against daunting SEC defenses.

    Which Crimson Tide reserves can fill the giant shoes of the departing Jones, Fluker and Warmack?

    Reserves Ryan Kelly, Arie Kouandjio and Chad Lindsay are names thought to be among the early leaders.

    Despite their lovers' quarrel in the BCS National Championship, QB A.J. McCarron and C Barrett Jones shared a wonderful chemistry together at Alabama. Can McCarron develop a similar relationship with C Ryan Kelly?

    Better yet, how will new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal mesh with his linemen, after offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland departed for the same position with the Philadelphia Eagles?

    It should be interesting to see how things shake out up front for the Crimson Tide in coming months.

    However, it's Alabama. I'm sure things will work out just fine.

Bret Bielema

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    The John L. Smith experiment at Arkansas has run its course, and I think I hear a thunderous calling of the Hogs in Fayetteville.

    Arkansas AD Jeff Long stole Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin in a grand slam hire.

    While the new head Hog had a tremendous amount of success in Madison, WI, many across the SEC wonder what the learning curve may be for Bielema in the SEC.

    In 2011, Bobby Petrino led the Hogs to their first Sugar Bowl appearance since 1980. Despite Petrino's off-the-field troubles, there's no denying that he was taking the program to heights unseen.

    After the miserable year Razorback players suffered through last season under Smith, Bielema's biggest task will be to try and quickly pump a positive vibe back into the locker room.

    If the new head coach can develop a good rapport with his new team this spring, Arkansas should be in really good shape heading into the summer practice. 

    To begin the 2013 campaign, the Hogs play Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL), Samford and Southern Mississippi all in the state of Arkansas. If they can get past a solid ULL club in their opener, Bielema could have his team looking to match their four wins from all of last year when they travel to Rutgers on Sept. 21.

    It will be interesting to see how Bielema and the Razorbacks gel over spring practice.

Gus Malzahn

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    For Auburn fans, the season that was 2012 is finally a thing of the past.

    With Gene Chisik gone, Gus Malzahn is ready to take over the reigns of the plains.

    Unlike Bielema at Arkansas, players and fans around the Auburn program are already very familiar with their new coach. From 2009 to 2011, the new head coach served as Tiger offensive coordinator before leaving for Arkansas State in 2012. 

    There shouldn't be the same adjustment period at Auburn as there may be at Arkansas. However, Malzahn will need to revive the mindset of a team that went 4-8 (0-8 SEC) last season. It was ugly.

    What will be the biggest challenge for Malzahn this spring?

    Make progress in finding a consistent player to start at quarterback in 2013. 

    Having used three different starting quarterbacks last season (Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley and Jonathan Wallace), the Tigers desperately need to find a single man to go with this season.

    Realizing the need for enhanced quarterback play, Malzahn signed three QBs in his 2013 recruiting class. In addition to junior college transfer Nick Marshall, Auburn added Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith from the high school ranks.

    QB Kiehl Frazier likely enters spring with the starting job, but how long can he keep it with the onslaught of young talent coming to the plains?

    The new Auburn head man will be carefully watching the competition this spring, but the Tigers may well end up with a completely different starter after summer practice.

Will Muschamp

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    If Will Muschamp could have held practice the day after the Sugar Bowl, he would have. Unfortunately, he must wait until spring practice to officially move past the 33-23 loss to Louisville.

    Minus a 17-9 loss to Georgia on Oct. 27, the Gators would have likely played for a national title in 2012. Instead, they drew a tough Sugar Bowl opponent, Louisville, and lost. 

    While he looks to start mentally fresh this spring, Muschamp's biggest order of the moment will be trying to replace seven starters on defense. That's a lot, even for a team as talented as the Gators.

    S Matt Elam, DT Sharrif Floyd and LB Jelani Jenkins all declared early for the NFL Draft, while LB Jon Bostic, DB Josh Evans, DT Omar Hunter and DE Lerentee McCray graduated.

    A largely new-look defense will also be without defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, as Quinn heads to the pacific to run Pete Carroll's defense in Seattle. Muschamp promoted linebacker and special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin to lead the Gator defense in 2013.

    With the return of a healthy LB Ronald Powell and younger players stepping up this spring, Muschamp and Durkin hope to solve at least a portion of the defensive puzzle this spring.

Mark Richt

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    While Georgia is loaded with talent, Mark Richt loses a large number of defensive starters from 2012.

    Among a number of seniors lost on defense are LBs Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, both of whom are expected to be first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft.

    Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, most recently having flirted with taking the same position with the New Orleans Saints, remains with the Bulldogs. At least for now, Georgia fans. 

    It's a near-complete rebuilding job on defense for Grantham in 2013, and a unit that may take a few games to truly figure out the best starting 11 for the Bulldogs. 

    Regardless, defensive depth becomes a big concern for Georgia moving into 2013.

    During spring practice, the biggest challenge for the Bulldogs will be at least ending with a blueprint in terms of defensive starters and backups before freshmen arrive for summer camp.

    The offense will be dangerous in 2013, but exactly how good Richt's team will be in 2013 ultimately depends on the development of an inexperienced defense.

Mark Stoops

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    Kentucky Wildcat football will have a new look and feel this season.

    For a team that had made five consecutive trips to bowl games between 2006 and 2010, the Joker Phillips-led Wildcats only mustered up two wins last season. That's bad, even for Kentucky.

    Hired in late November, Stoops quickly went to work as he tried to salvage some semblance of a 2013 recruiting class in Lexington. He did just that, inking the No. 36 recruiting class per ESPN.

    Stoops won't really face a challenge over spring practice. Rather, he'll present big blue nation with reason to believe brighter days are ahead. Not only thanks to his defensive genius, but thanks also to a new style of offense coming to Lexington.

    Kentucky fans love their basketball, so they're sure to like Stoops' new offensive coordinator, Neal Brown. He loves the fast-break style of offense, and he's very good at what he does.

    Granted Brown had more offensive weapons last season at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders finished the year ranked No. 2 nationally in passing offense (361.9 ypg) and No. 12 nationally in total offense (501.4 ypg). Without question, Neal Brown is one of the great young coaches in America.

    Returning players will obviously be in for a learning curve this spring, but Stoops should begin to lay the groundwork ahead of the arrival of freshmen this summer.

    Kentucky fans are excited, and they should be. The Cats may be the surprise of the SEC in 2013.

Les Miles

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    Did Les Miles petition Roger Goodell to add his Tigers to the NFL? If not, he should.

    The mad hatter of college football lost 11 underclassmen to the 2013 NFL Draft, not to mention 13 seniors that won't be around help Miles reshuffle the deck in Baton Rouge.

    Losing 11 underclassmen to the NFL, in one year? That's crazy.

    Among key losses for the Tigers are DEs Bennie Logan and Sam Montgomery, LB Barkevious Mingo, OT Alex Hurst, P Brad Wing, RBs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware and S Eric Reed.

    This spring, Miles' biggest challenge will be to sort through his talented roster to try and fill the gaps.

    Fortunately for the Tigers, they are probably one of only a handful of teams capable of replacing the lost talent without any drastic drop-off. Thanks to the perennial recruiting success Miles achieves every winter, he should leave spring practice with a pretty good feel of who his likely starters will be at various positions.

    One position that will have to be replaced, often overlooked in college football, is punter. Australian Brad Wing opted to leave for the NFL after only two seasons with the Tigers. Having only played in 23 games at LSU, Wing still leaves the school with a 44.6 yard-per-punt career average (No. 1 all-time in LSU history).

    Punting certainly doesn't win games, but having a dependable punter to back up opposing offenses in the SEC can put a team in better position to win close games.

    Miles only has two true punters on the 2013 roster at this time: Jamie Keehn and Trent Dominique. Fellow Australian Keehn is the odds-on favorite to win the starting job. However, Keehn didn't even play football in high school. Will he adjust quickly to game atmospheres in the SEC?

    Only Les Miles would have different Australian punters in back-to-back years. What are the odds?

    A strong spring by Jamie Keehn could loom large for LSU in 2013.

    Now who will be the next Australian punter recruited to LSU?

Dan Mullen

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    At 8-0 entering their game against the Crimson Tide last year, Mississippi State fans were "believing."

    They had good reason to after Mullen had led his team to an 8-0 record on October 27, 2012.

    Then, things quickly went south for the Bulldogs. After a 38-7 loss in Tuscaloosa, Mullen's team went on to lose to Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and Northwestern to close out the season. The lone win during that stretch came against Arkansas in Starkville, MS.

    After a crushing loss to rival Ole Miss, followed by a loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, Dan Mullen and the rest of the Bulldogs can't wait for spring practice to arrive. It signals a new season is ahead.

    For the 2013 campaign, Mississippi State will return seven starters on offense and six on defense. QB Tyler Russell returns, but unfortunately without his three leading wide receivers from last season. The key loss on defense will be CB Johnthan Banks, expected to be a late first round draft pick in April.

    During spring practice, Mullen first must rally the troops after the dismal finish last season. Once a renewed spirit is alive and well, the top Bulldog and former Florida offensive coordinator must begin developing a new wide receiver corps for Tyler Russell.

    To be as successful as they want to be in 2013, it's crucial a solid wide receiving corp be established and functioning prior to the first snap this fall.

Hugh Freeze

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    Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebels have received a great deal of national attention as a result of Freeze's No. 5 recruiting class in 2013. Freeze not only inked a great class in February, but he also helped guide Ole Miss to a 7-6 season in 2012.

    However, all eyes are now on the 2013 season and what may or may not be for the Rebels.

    In year one, Freeze successfully changed the culture in Oxford to a winning one. In his sophomore season, he hopes to become relevant again in the SEC.

    The single biggest challenge for Hugh Freeze over spring camp will be grounding everyone close to his team, from starting QB Bo Wallace to the backup water boy. Folks around the Ole Miss program are riding high on the heels of a miraculous turnaround last season and an epic recruiting class signed.

    While there is good reason to be excited, Freeze knows it all just needs to be tempered a little. Good things are headed the Rebels' way, but all good things come in due time. Ole Miss could go out and win 10 games next season, seriously, or they could fight to become bowl-eligible.

    Freeze returns nearly every meaningful starter from 2012, not to mention several true freshmen that will arrive in the summer and likely earn starting spots come fall.

    Freeze's biggest challenge during spring practice will be to keep his team grounded and focused on one day at a time. "Win the Day" is the coach's motto on and off the field, and that's exactly what he needs his players to do: win each day, one day at a time. If he can achieve that goal, Ole Miss is capable of making some noise in 2013.

Gary Pinkel

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    The inaugural year for Missouri in the SEC wasn't exactly what Tigers fans had in mind.

    Gary Pinkel's Tigers only notched five wins in 2012, although they played admirably in close losses to Vanderbilt (19-15), Florida (14-7) and Syracuse (31-27). Had the Tigers pulled out even one of those games, they would have ended up in a bowl game with six wins.

    After seven consecutive winning seasons and bowl bids prior to last season, the folks in Columbia simply expect more from their beloved Tigers. Spring practice will provide the Tigers with an opportunity to put the past behind them and look forward to a better sophomore season in the SEC.

    What will be the biggest challenge for Gary Pinkel during spring practice?

    Leaving spring ball with a pretty good idea of who will be the starting quarterback in 2013.

    Currently, Missouri has nine quarterbacks on their spring roster. That's not a typo, either. However, six of the nine signal callers are freshmen entering 2013. James Franklin and Corbin Berkstresser shared  snaps for the Tigers at various times last season. Both return to compete for the starting job in 2013, but there is a younger player that may just end up as starter come fall: redshirt freshman Maty Mauk.

    Mauk posted prolific numbers during his high school career in Ohio, earning him Parade All-American and Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year honors. Having used a redshirt last season, Mauk got a chance to sit back and learn the Missouri offense for a full season.

    Clearly the fan favorite in Columbia, will a solid spring outing by Mauk leave Gary Pinkel with a quarterback controversy heading into the summer?

    Will Maty Mauk lead the charge for Missouri in 2013?

Steve Spurrier

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    After a thrilling 33-28 victory over the Michigan Wolverines in the 2012 Outback Bowl, Steve Spurrier hope to ride the wave of momentum into spring practice.

    The glaring void for the Gamecocks in 2013 will be at the running back position, as junior Marcus Lattimore has left for the NFL and senior Kenny Miles has graduated. Behind Lattimore and Miles in 2012, freshman Mike Davis had the next most carries in the backfield with only 52.

    It's a good thing Davis was able to gain a little experience last season, because he will be likely be Spurrier's workhorse entering the upcoming season. A backfield plagued by injury over the past few years, South Carolina is fortunate to have a healthy, quality player like Davis entering spring practice.

    Coming out of high school in Georgia, Davis was rated the No. 6 running back in 2011 by ESPN. Understanding the need for another great young running back in Columbia, Spurrier signed 6'1'', 190-pound David Williams to his 2013 class earlier this year. The Pennsylvania native was listed as the No. 6 running back in the nation by ESPN.

    If sophomore Mike Davis can have a solid spring camp, the Gamecocks can then look to develop David Williams in the summer in hopes of providing quality depth at running back. Throw in a returning, healthy Shon Carson and Steve Spurrier could have a loaded backfield in the fall.

    This spring, the ol' ball coach will keep an eye on the performances of Mike Davis and Shon Carson.

Butch Jones

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    Ever since Phillip Fulmer left Rocky Top in 2008, Tennessee has simply not been Tennessee.

    The future looked bright when Lane Kiffin was hired, but we all know how that turned out. Next, there was reason to believe Derek Dooley would have the same type of success as his father. Well, neither of those hires turned out to be very fruitful.

    Next up, former Cincinnati Bearcat head man Butch Jones. Welcome to Knoxville.

    Having served three-year stints at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati over the past six seasons, only once has Jones finished a season with fewer than eight wins. The one exception was a 4-8 campaign in his first year with the Bearcats in 2008. Remember, Jones took over for Brian Kelly in Cincinnati.

    On paper, the Jones hire at Tennessee appears to be a very solid one. Now, he will get a chance to display his talents to the nation as Volunteer fans across the country hope for the best. They shouldn't be disappointed. Given a couple of years, Jones should have them signing Rocky Top early and often.

    There is a lot of work to be done during spring practice, but Jones first and foremost must help returning players develop a winning attitude. As early as spring, he can begin to instill a new sense of passion among Volunteer players and fans. That shouldn't be very difficult; they're hungry.

    While the new coach will have adjustments to make on both sides of the ball, his biggest challenge will be to start determining who will be his starting quarterback this fall. Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman figure to be the two men to fight it out during spring.

    Worley has only attempted 110 passes over his two years in Knoxville behind Tyler Bray. On the other hand, Nathan Peterman was a redshirt freshman last season. The interesting note about Peterman: Butch Jones actually recruited him to play for the Bearcats in Cincinnati.

    Both men will be available for evaluation during spring practice, but Jones will surely hold off on naming a starter to maintain competition through the summer. However, the new ball coach should close out spring with a pretty good idea of who he thinks can lead the Vols in 2013.

Kevin Sumlin

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    It was a banner inaugural year for Texas A&M in the SEC, but the past is the past.

    What can Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies do as an encore in 2013?

    Regardless of how defenses try and adjust to Johnny Manziel and the potent Aggie offense in 2013, Texas A&M is still going to be extremely productive on offense. That being said, the biggest area of focus for the second-year head coach entering spring practice will be to fill voids on defense.

    The most glaring loss to the A&M defense is DE Damontre Moore to the NFL. A player expected to be picked as high as the top five in the upcoming NFL draft, Moore was a force to be reckoned with last season forcing 12.5 sacks, 80 tackles and 20 tackles for loss.

    Not only will Moore not be available, but neither will Spencer Nealy on the defensive line. While not posting numbers anywhere close to what Moore did in 2012, Nealy still recorded two sacks and 40 tackles. With these two men gone, Kevin Sumlin will use spring practice to scout possibilities for replacements prior to freshmen arriving in the summer.  While Julien Obioha and Kirby Ennis return this season, the losses of Moore and Nealy leave big shoes to fill.

    This spring, the Aggies can look to players like Brandon Alexander and Tyrone Taylor to step up. These two and other reserves need to have a quality spring, because this summer a host of highly touted true freshmen defensive linemen will be chomping at the bit to earn their stripes.

    Credit has to be given to Sumlin and his recruiting staff for signing players like NG Isiah Golden, DE Polo Manukainiu and DT Justin Manning. The trio should go a long way in assisting the Aggies as they look to fill the shoes of Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy.

    Without question, the Aggies will look for at least one of the three entering freshmen to become an integral part of the 2013 defense this fall, maybe more.

    In the interim, Sumlin will be challenged to evaluate returning reserves like Alexander and Taylor as he looks forward to the arrival of a quality group of freshmen this summer.

James Franklin

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    Last season, James Franklin led the Commodores to their greatest season in the program's history.

    Likely to begin the upcoming season ranked in the Top 25, Franklin probably faces the greatest challenges of any SEC coach this spring. He has brought the program out of the darkness and into the national spotlight, but he loses a whole lot of starters from the 2012 squad.

    On offense, QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy and OGs Josh Jelesky and Ryan Seymour are gone.

    On defense, the situation is even worse as three defensive linemen (DE Johnell Thomas and DTs Colt Nichter and Rob Lohr), a linebacker (Archibald Barnes) and a safety (Trey Wilson) have departed.

    Noting the absences at these various positions on both sides of the ball, Franklin will be challenged to evaluate which of his players may be ready to start in the fall. It's a tall order to replace so many key contributors, but Franklin is fully capable of meeting the challenge.

    Possibly the biggest question entering spring is who will lead Vandy's offense next season?

    The obvious choice would be senior Austyn Carta-Samuels, a one time quarterback for the Wyoming Cowboys. The 2009 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year gained nearly two full seasons of college football experience while at Wyoming, and he was the top reserve for James Franklin in 2012. However, redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is sure to provide quality competition for the starting nod.

    At running back, Vandy must replace the talented Zac Stacy. Fortunately, true freshman Brian Kimbrow carried the ball 66 times for 413 yards last season and three touchdowns. This spring, all eyes will be on Kimbrow to pick up the load that Stacy was responsible for last season.

    It's going to be a busy spring for James Franklin as he looks to put together many missing pieces.

    Moving past spring, he may even be able to use some true freshmen from his No. 22 recruiting class (ESPN) this summer. Hoping for another great season in Nashville, I think it's safe to assume the head coach will take a look at every option on the table before the fall.