Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema
While teams like Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina work this spring to win the crystal football, there are more intriguing storylines in the SEC. Sure, there are holes for all of the contenders to fill, but they pale in comparison to the work being done by the new head coaches in the SEC.
Gus Malzahn, Bret Bielema, Butch Jones and Mark Stoops each has a rough road in front of them, and that journey began with spring practice.
How has each of the SEC newbies handled the pressure? Let's take a spin around the SEC and check it out.
Of all the SEC newcomers, Gus Malzahn is best equipped to handle the transition. Malzahn is only one year removed from his offensive coordinator post at Auburn, so he was familiar with the roster before even being considered for the job.
That roster is loaded with talent that has underachieved on the Plains.
The Tigers got off to a late start this spring, and after five practices, Malzahn is encouraged by the progress of his players and their ability to handle the waves of information being thrown their way.
"I told the guys after practice we've got a long way to go," Malzahn said Wednesday in quotes released by Auburn. "The great thing is the next couple of practices we should see improvement. We're trying to get them to think like we want to them to think. We're trying to get them to play like we want them to play. We're being very physical."
Quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace have been splitting reps with the first-team offense, and neither has established a lead in the race for the starting quarterback job. Should that be concerning to Tiger fans? Not really. It's way too soon in spring practice to worry about that.
Did Auburn make the right move with its defensive position changes?
Malzahn, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and the Auburn staff made some smart decisions on the defensive side of the ball, according to AL.com. Justin Garrett and JaViere Mitchell moved from linebacker to the hybrid "star" position in the 4-2-5, LaDarius Owens stepped back from defensive end to linebacker and Chris Landrum moved from H-back to linebacker to add some depth.
All of those moves are designed to get size and speed in the right places on defense—a defense that looked completely lost in 2012.
Only five practices in, it's a little too early to gauge how Malzahn is handling the process. But in true hurry-up, no-huddle fashion, the Tigers will be wrap up the spring just three-and-a-half weeks after starting—tied with Florida for the shortest time span in the SEC.
So far, so good for Malzahn.
Unlike Malzahn, first-year Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is charged with not only rebuilding a program, but rebuilding a roster.
First things first, Arkansas needs a quarterback. Last year's backup Brandon Allen is in a battle this spring with quarterback-turned-wide-receiver-turned quarterback Brandon Mitchell this spring. Mitchell possesses the dual-threat capabilities that can add a different dimension to the running game, but it appears Allen has the edge for the time being.
The rising sophomore completed 11-of-19 passes for 137 yards, one touchdown and one pick in Arkansas' first scrimmage of the spring, while Mitchell completed 7-of-14 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown.
“I would think going into today Brandon Allen might’ve had a little bit of an edge,” Bielema told the Arkansas News Bureau. “But I really like the way Brandon … Brandon Mitchell’s got great presence with the team."
Defensively, it's been a work in progress for the Hogs. The good news is that the defense responded well in the first scrimmage, particularly the level of physicality that's being demanded by the staff.
“We’ve been building it, but we hadn’t pulled the pin and let everybody fly and run,” Bielema told the Arkansas News Bureau. “(Saturday) was part of that and I was very, very happy offensively and defensively, the way that transpired. I was happy with the way they were hitting."
Off the field, however, Bielema hasn't handled himself well. While speaking to the Saline County (Ark.) Razorback Club last week, he compared his Big Ten record to Nick Saban's record while at Michigan State and said that the SEC is talked about all the time because of one team—Alabama.
He played it off as a joke to the pep rally, but no matter where it was said, it's still silly to think that the SEC is all Alabama. If that's what Bielema thinks, he's in for a very rude awakening.
Butch Jones' first year on Rocky Top has gotten off to a great start. The offense is picking up the system, the defense is adjusting to the scheme change and—oh by the way—the Vols are ranked No. 6 in the 247Sports.com team composite index for the class of 2014.
Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman are fighting it out for the quarterback spot, but unlike the previous staff, the offense is being installed in a more progressive manner.
"We have been installing different protections and pass plays just about every day," Worley said after Wednesday's practice. "I'm really enjoying it so far. I'm glad they aren't throwing the whole offense on us in four days where we are out there trying to tread water."
Considering the roster turnover at quarterback and wide receiver, that's the proper approach. When all else fails, the Vols can always rely on running back Rajion Neal and that veteran and talented offensive line.
The new 4-3 defense from defensive coordinator John Jancek couldn't be much worse than the unit last year that finished last in the SEC in total defense (471.3 YPG) and scoring defense (35.7 PPG). Defensive tackle Daniel McCullers has dropped down to 355 pounds, and should be a force on the interior line. Jacques Smith's move from outside linebacker back down to defensive end, which may be the key to unlock his potential.
The bottom line is that it can't get much worse on defense for the Vols, and moving back to the 4-3 will expedite the resurgence.
The new regime in the Bluegrass State has already turned around the internal perception of the program. The program has already sold more than 23,000 tickets for the spring game according to Kentucky.com, which is up from the 4,500 fans who attended last season's contest.
Not much progress has been made on the quarterback battle between Max Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow, but Stoops is recognizes that it's a learning process under new offensive coordinator Neal Brown and his air raid offense.
"They look good at times and look bad at times," Stoops told Kentucky.com. "That comes down to the players around them as well. Players have to make plays, and the other 10 guys around the quarterback, they need to be in position and doing the right things and making plays."
After the start Smith had last season, expect him to separate himself from the field. As a sophomore, he threw for 975 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions in four games before an ankle injury cost him the season.
Defensively, the injury bug bit the program again this spring with the shoulder injury to presumed defensive tackle starter Donte Rumph. He will miss the rest of spring practice according to Kentucky.com, but that shouldn't prevent him from being a major contributor in the fall. Stoops has given new life to the Kentucky program, and that's evident by the buzz it has established this spring. So far, so good.