SEC Football: Top Spring Practice Battles to Watch For
It seems like just yesterday that the final second ticked off the clock at the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena and Florida State ended Auburn's remarkable run with a 34-31 victory over the Tigers. But here we are on the brink of the new season, with SEC programs on the verge of kicking off spring practice and their quests for the first national title of the College Football Playoff era.
But if an SEC team is going to raise that trophy in Arlington next January, position battles must be settled first. Those position battles start this spring, with several SEC programs looking to fill holes on the roster.
What are the top position battles to keep an eye on this spring?
Our picks are in this slideshow.
7. Alabama Quarterback
The race to replace A.J. McCarron as Alabama's starting quarterback begins this spring, with Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod, Cooper Bateman and early enrollee David Cornwell vying for the lead in the race.
Sims is the veteran backup who's the most experienced of the bunch, Bateman is the former hot-shot recruit, and Cornwell is the new kid on the block with the big arm and huge upside.
This will undoubtedly be the most widely discussed position battle of the offseason, but the reason that it's not at the top of this list is that it won't be settled this spring.
Cornwell is coming off an ACL injury that cut his senior season in high school short, and even if he participates in spring practice, new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will want to see him at full strength with a full grasp of the offense during fall camp.
Former Florida State backup and rising junior Jacob Coker will join the competition in fall camp after finishing up his degree, and there's no way Kiffin and head coach Nick Saban would bring him in without giving him a chance to win the job in 2014.
The Alabama quarterback battle this spring will be interesting because it will produce one and perhaps two primary contenders for the job, but the battle won't begin in earnest until Coker arrives on campus this summer.
6. Auburn Linebackers
Defense was a sore spot for the Auburn Tigers last year, particularly in the secondary, where they finished 13th in the conference in pass defense (257.7 yards per game). Departures of two starters in that secondary leave major holes, but that battle likely won't be settled until this summer when the Tigers get a talent injection from the 2014 recruiting class.
If head coach Gus Malzahn has his way, the battle at the two linebacker spots in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defense won't last as long.
Middle linebacker Kris Frost battled consistency and recently departed starter Jake Holland for playing time throughout the 2013 season, but had a breakout performance in the BCS National Championship Game, with seven tackles. Auburn needs Frost to build on that performance and become consistent, because it will go a long way towards solidifying the Auburn defense as a whole.
If he doesn't show the consistency needed to be a star, the staff could do some mixing and matching.
Starting "Will" linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is certainly athletic and big enough to move to the "Mike" spot, and Anthony Swain and Kenny Flowers could certainly jump into the mix for a starting spot with solid spring performances.
Malzahn needs his two linebacker spots settled, particularly the "Mike" spot, currently occupied by Frost, heading into fall camp. If it is, the rest of the defense will be better off knowing who the quarterback of that unit will be.
5. Tennessee Quarterback
Tennessee struggled to a 5-7 record in 2013 and struggled to find a quarterback who could provide stability to a program that has been remarkably unstable for going on six years.
Justin Worley started the season for the Vols, throwing for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions before a thumb injury versus Alabama ended his season. Nathan Peterman played sparingly during the first four games of the season before his season was lost with a hand injury, and then-true freshman Joshua Dobbs tossed only two touchdowns and six interceptions as Tennessee's starter down the stretch.
Someone has to step up and take control of the quarterback spot, because injuries and ineffectiveness prevented that from happening last year. Joining that mix will be redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson, who sat out last season with a leg injury.
Worley is likely the favorite heading into spring, but Ferguson will be the one to watch. If he can play well and convince the coaching staff that he can be reliable, don't count out his leading the race exiting spring practice.
4. Alabama Cornerbacks
Alabama pass defense was an illusion last season. It looked great on paper after giving up just 180.3 yards per game though the air, but games aren't played on paper. On the field, Alabama's defensive backs struggled often—especially when they were tested by mobile quarterbacks who had the ability to stretch the field with their arms.
Recently departed starter Deion Belue was picked on at times and only had one pick on the season, and head coach Nick Saban was forced to use a revolving door of young defensive backs at the other starting cornerback position.
Hot-shot prospect Tony Brown enrolled early to get a jump start on fellow freshman Marlon Humphrey for playing time, and will join Eddie Jackson, Bradley Sylve, Geno Smith, Jarrick Williams and ultra-versatile Cyrus Jones in a spring position battle for playing time in a talented yet unstable defensive backfield.
Watching the crowded crew battle for position will be intriguing as the spring progresses.
3. Florida Wide Receivers
Will an outside playmaker in Gainesville please stand up?
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Florida's offense has been stuck in a rut over the last few seasons thanks to an outdated scheme and quarterback play which has been inconsistent due to injury and ineffectiveness. That quarterback spot under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper should be Jeff Driskel's, but whom he'll be throwing to is still largely a mystery.
Leading receiver Solomon Patton is gone, as is veteran Trey Burton. That leaves veterans Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose and Latroy Pittman battling with younger potential stars Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson, Marqui Hawkins and others for work in Roper's hurry-up offense.
Robinson has the upside, but was suspended for the second time of the season in late November for violating team rules. Whether it's Robinson, Fulwood or one of the veterans, somebody has to step up and help Driskel out.
2. LSU Quarterback
Anthony Jennings stepped in for injured starter Zach Mettenberger late in the Arkansas game in 2013, and promptly led the Tigers on a 99-yard, game-winning touchdown drive with 1:15 to play.
He's the next big thing, right?
Well, maybe not.
Jennings looked average at best in LSU's 21-14 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl, completing seven of 19 passes for 82 yards, zero touchdowns and one pick. He was still new to the job, and considering that running back Jeremy Hill took over that game, it isn't cause for major alarms to go off in Baton Rouge.
But it opened the door ever so slightly for true freshman Brandon Harris, an early enrollee; redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig; junior Stephen Rivers; and senior Rob Bolden. It'll likely come down to Harris, Jennings and Rettig this spring, but watching how the battle shakes out and who emerges as the leading contenders will be fascinating.
The Tigers have several other position battles to come, including at wide receiver and running back, where hot-shot recruits Malachi Dupre and Leonard Fournette, respectively, will battle for playing time in fall camp.
1. Texas A&M Quarterback
Former quarterback Johnny Manziel led Texas A&M into the SEC with relative ease, complete with a Heisman Trophy and enough momentum to renovate and expand Kyle Field.
Now, it's up to Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen or Matt Joeckel to pick up the slack after Manziel left for the NFL two years early.
Joeckel is the most experienced of the bunch. The rising senior threw 293 yards and two touchdowns a year ago, and got the start in the season-opener versus Rice while Manziel was serving his half-game suspension stemming from last summer's autograph scandal.
But he isn't the dual-threat playmaker the Aggie offense is used to.
Hill is, and saw action in mop-up duty in five games last year, throwing for 183 yards and a touchdown. Head coach Kevin Sumlin successfully adapted his offense to Manziel when he got the job prior to the 2012 season, and if he wants to continue down that road, Hill will be his guy.
The wild card is true freshman Kyle Allen, an early enrollee. The nation's top pro-style prospect in the class of 2014 has the accuracy and arm strength to be a superstar, and if he adjusts to the college game quickly, he could lay the groundwork for winning the job this spring.