SEC Football: Things We Learned from 2014 Spring Games
Eleven of 13 SEC spring games are already in the books (Texas A&M will not play one, due to renovations at Kyle Field), and the two that aren't, at Arkansas and Kentucky, involve teams that went 0-16 in conference play last season and are 2-30 in that regard since 2012.
So now feels like a fair enough time to reflect.
With so much turnover within the conference—especially at quarterback—the SEC feels more wide open in 2014 than it has in years past. That holds doubly true after the spring game at Alabama, where AJ McCarron was sorely missed under center.
But other offenses did not look quite so rusty, and some looked downright impressive in their first public sample before the season.
How much that means is up for debate (and different in every case), but after Jameis Winston parlayed his great spring game into a Heisman Trophy and national title at Florida State last season, we would be remiss to ignore any big-time performances.
Here's what spring season has taught us.
Alabama Needs Jacob Coker ASAP
The trio of players who emerged as the leaders toward the end of spring camp—Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris—all failed to impress at quarterback during Alabama's spring game, making Florida State transfer Jacob Coker an even bigger favorite to win the job that he might have already been.
He needs to get up to speed as soon as possible.
The biggest disappointment was Sims, who is a senior, and had played well in the previous scrimmages but looked uncomfortable in the public exhibition. "I thought ... the game speeded up today and [Sims] tried to speed up with it, rather than just staying in his rhythm," said head coach Nick Saban, according to Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com.
This leaves the Tide in an uncomfortable position. Coker has the arm strength and tools to make this a dangerous vertical offense, but he will not have much time to learn the scheme after enrolling this summer. He will only have a month or so of practices to get acclimated with his teammates in pads.
Perhaps this is an even bigger problem than we realized.
Auburn Can Pass the Football
Auburn's offense was scary on the ground last season, and while even the loss of Tre Mason will not change that in 2014, its ability to balance the run with the pass will be different (i.e., much better).
That ability was on full exhibition Saturday, when Nick Marshall completed 13-of-22 passes for 236 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, leading an attack that returns its top receiver from last season in Sammie Coates and adds what should be one of the SEC's top receivers in JUCO transfer D'haquille Williams.
Williams was the top-ranked JUCO recruit on the 247Sports Composite and was rated a 5-star by the site's subjective rankings. He more than fit the billing in his first public exhibition, catching five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown—a fade lobbed toward the corner of the end zone that he snared over a looming defensive back.
The last time a JUCO receiver was ranked as high as Williams, it was Cordarrelle Patterson. The last time a JUCO player ranked so high and came to Auburn, it was Cam Newton. Both played just one year of college football and made the Pro Bowl as rookies in the NFL.
And Williams looks poised to follow suit.
Dan Mullen Might Have His Best Offense Since the Florida Years
Dan Mullen is an offensive-minded coach, having served four years as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator during the prime of the mid-2000s Florida Gators.
It's been easy to forget that, though, during his time at Mississippi State. Mullen has done a great job and fielded a bunch of competitive teams, but they have often been founded in defense or (to put it kindly) balance instead of offense.
That could all change in 2014. Quarterback Dak Prescott came on toward the end of last season and has generated some sleeper Heisman buzz this winter. He could rightfully be called the best quarterback in the SEC, and he returns almost every meaningful skill player around him.
That continuity was clear during MSU's spring game, which featured 653 passing yards from three Bulldogs quarterbacks, according to the Associated Press. If the defense plays up to its usual serviceable mode of efficiency, this could be the year Mullen finally threatens to make some real noise in the SEC West.
Florida's Offense Will Not Be as Big, Dumb and Ugly
Is this the death of big, dumb, ugly, Will Muschamp football?
One can only hope.
The Gators offense came out firing under first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, running at a higher tempo and allowing dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel to take extended reps from the shotgun (where he belongs). And the early returns looked great.
"I'm extremely pleased with the day offensively with 15 practices and how far we've come," said Muschamp after the 23-23 tie, according to Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com. "I think you can attribute all that to Roper and the offensive staff and the job they've done."
Everything went wrong in Gainesville last season, and while some if it was coach and personnel related, some of it was also bad luck.
The injury situation was remarkable, and things of that nature tend to normalize from year to year. Florida's offense shouldn't be as snake-bitten (or as insipid) this upcoming season.
That makes it a real threat to win the SEC East.
Leonard Floyd Should Be a Beast Under Jeremy Pruitt
Of all the standout defensive performances we've seen so far during SEC spring football season, none felt as important as that of Leonard Floyd, who is adjusting—and adjusting well—to a new hybrid role in Jeremy Pruitt's defense.
Similar to how he used Christian Jones on last year's national champion Florida State defense, Pruitt has been moving Floyd around between three-technique on the defensive line (when the team plays 4-3) and standing up at outside linebacker (when the team plays 3-4).
The early results have been rosy. Floyd was un-blockable for most of the G-Day game, finishing with six tackles and two pass breakups and earning some postgame love from Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com.
"It's a harder role, because I'm in the trenches more and in a three-point stance more than I was last year," said Floyd a week before the spring game, according to David Paschall of the Times Free Press. "Yet I don't have to think as much. All I have to think about is rushing the quarterback."
That is scary news for SEC quarterbacks.
LSU's Best Hope Is a True Freshman QB
Anthony Jennings' LSU career got off to an incredible start in 2013, as he took the reins from injured starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger and led the Tigers to a comeback win over Arkansas with a 99-yard drive and game-winning touchdown pass (albeit on a blown defensive assignment).
At the time, it was reasonable to assume the then-redshirt freshman would be the starter in 2014. That is, after all, as auspicious as debuts can get. But since the Arkansas game, Jennings has looked putrid in a bowl win over Iowa and has been thoroughly outplayed in the spring game by early enrollee Brandon Harris, which has made him, perhaps, the underdog before fall camp.
Harris dazzled in the public exhibition, completing 11-of-21 passes for 195 yards, rushing for 77 yards, not throwing an interception and accounting for four total touchdowns, per B/R's Carter Bryant. Jennings, meanwhile, turned the ball over a couple of times and generally looked to have a far more limited ceiling in an offense that needs new playmakers after losing so much talent to the NFL draft.
In his postgame story, B/R's Barrett Sallee argued that the job is now Harris' to lose. That story included a poll, and that poll showed that 87.5 percent of voters think Harris will be the starter next season. Only 9.9 percent favor the older QB in Jennings.
Numbers like those speak volumes.
South Carolina Will Be Fine Without Connor Shaw
This isn't something we learned, per se, from the South Carolina spring game, but rather something we had reassured.
Dylan Thompson can ball.
Thompson has been the oft-used backup to Connor Shaw these past few seasons, and he's charged with replacing Shaw full-time as a senior in 2014. Because of his experience, most Gamecocks fans are not worried with how Thompson will perform, but his last meaningful reps came at Missouri in 2013, when he was shutout for three quarters, and Shaw had to pull a Willis Reed to win the game.
But Thompson came out and looked confident in South Carolina's spring game, completing 8-of-11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown, according to B/R's Charles Bennett. He moved well around (and outside of) the pocket, managed the offense efficiently and seemed well prepared to lead this unit in Shaw's wake.
As long as Thompson stays healthy, Gamecocks fans can rest easy.
Tennessee's Youngsters Are Ready
Tennessee's group of early enrollees was the size of some schools' recruiting classes, and, by and large, the youngsters played well.
That holds especially true at the top of the recruiting class, where a trio of blue-chip skill position players have a chance to play early and help Butch Jones restore the program to its former glory.
JUCO transfer Von Pearson played well on the outside at receiver, while straight-standing running back Jalen Hurd, who missed most of his senior year of high school with an injured collarbone, led all rushers with 66 yards, according to Mike Herndon of AL.com.
But the real star with receiver Josh Malone, who caught six passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns. Combined with sophomore receiver Marquez North, Malone, Pearson and Hurd give the Volunteers hope for not just 2014 but also for the year that follows.
The future is bright down in Knoxville.