SEC Football Coaches Facing the Toughest Tasks This Spring
With all that talk about SEC football being down a year ago, Alabama went out and saved the day with (another) national championship.
So much for that argument, huh?
Regardless, the fact remains that over the past couple of years, the league is nowhere near as strong from top to bottom as it has been in recent memory.
Offensive playmakers abound around the league, and defensive talent is sprinkled in, too. But with all the new coaches and new quarterbacks interspersed throughout many of the member institutions, this isn't going to be a year where the SEC is full of familiar faces.
Yes, staples such as LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Georgia running back Nick Chubb (if healthy), Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd, Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett will provide plenty of star power.
But questions still are plentiful. As spring kicked off across the Southeast over the past couple of weeks, a bunch of new faces began trying to establish their footprint at new programs.
What's it going to be like without Mark Richt on the Georgia sideline? When SEC media days kick off, Steve Spurrier's quips will be absent for the first time in years. Who will replace Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland's swarming all around the field for tackles? What about Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott's flinging darts?
Can Alabama coach Nick Saban find the next great running back to replace Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry?
Some tasks, as always, are tougher than others. Saban has a deep pool of 5-star talent from which to choose, so Dan Mullen replacing Prescott looks a lot more daunting. And with pressure on every single coach throughout the conference, your list is going to be different than mine and everybody else's.
So, without further ado, let's take a look at the SEC coaches facing the most difficult tests this spring. As usual, make your selections known in the comments.
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema: Replacing All That Offensive Impact
The majority of teams around the SEC could make this list as having unresolved quarterback issues. Alabama, Florida, Georgia and many others are in shoulder-shrugging mode when asked who is going to be the dependable signal-caller option when August rolls around.
But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has a tougher task.
Not only must he replace departed senior Brandon Allen, who threw for 3,440 yards, 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but Bielema also must find an answer for 1,500-yard rusher Alex Collins, who reached paydirt 20 times.
With those guys, star tight end Hunter Henry, two stud offensive linemen and running back Jonathan Williams no longer on the roster, it's going to be a new era in Fayetteville.
Bielema does have another Allen waiting in the wings—Brandon's younger brother, Austin. There are a lot of other options, too. Ty Storey, Rafe Peavey, USC transfer Ricky Town and freshman Cole Kelley all could find their way into the mix.
The job is expected to be the younger Allen's after he backed up his brother a season ago.
"If Allen performs and shows command of the huddle, as well as thorough knowledge of the playbook, he will be the starter come day one of the 2016 season," the Arkansas Traveler's Leonce DeLoch wrote of the redshirt junior. "The real race is at the second string of the depth chart between Town, Peavey and Storey. That will be one of the more intriguing things to look out for this spring."
When it comes to running back, the worries are lessened a little bit, considering Bielema always has a 1,000-yard rusher. And when we say always, it isn't hyperbole. The longtime coach has guided at least one runner to that threshold the past 10 years, dating back to his days at Wisconsin.
The Hogs have plenty of able options, such as sixth-year senior Kody Walker, freshman star Rawleigh Williams and newcomer Devwah Whaley, who could fill that role.
Georgia Coach Kirby Smart: Installing an Offense with Newness All Around
Speaking of revamping your offense, Georgia is having to do the same thing.
On the flip side of the ball, it isn't going to be that big of a deal for the Bulldogs considering they were already running a 3-4 scheme under former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (and even before him). Also, Smart, Pruitt and new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker are all Saban disciples, so the curve won't be too sharp.
Offensively, though, it's a different story.
The centerpiece of the Dawgs' potential dominance is still rehabbing a shredded knee suffered on the first play of the Tennessee game a season ago. That, of course, is all-world running back Nick Chubb, who may have been college football's best player before the injury.
Thankfully for him—and all of college football—that recovery process appears to be going very well. Georgia 247Sports writer Jake Rowe noted last week that Chubb continues to take handoffs from quarterbacks in drill work.
"While the road to a full recovery is still long for the 1,500-yard rusher, Chubb, who worked out in full pads like the rest of his teammates, continues to try and prove that it's not a matter of 'if' but a matter of 'when' his comeback is complete," Rowe wrote.
Following a late commitment from Davis Kelly, according to the Red & Black's Evan Greenberg, Georgia now has four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster to go along with Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert (who began last year as the starter), Brice Ramsey (who also played) and stud freshman Jacob Eason.
Though Lambert began spring drills as the starter, he's likely just warming the seat for Eason, who was one of the most coveted recruits in the entire country.
Smart told Jason Butt of the (Macon) Telegraph that he has "no timetable" for naming a starter. But given the debacle that was the position for UGA a year ago, Eason should get a long look.
Coordinator Jim Chaney is appreciated throughout college football for his work with offenses of all kinds, and he'll get a chance to imprint his mark on the Dawgs, especially considering Smart is a defensive-minded head man.
There are tons of questions for Georgia, but if Chubb returns to full strength and a quarterback emerges, there's definitely no shortage of talent.
Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen: Navigating Life Without Dak Prescott
Simply put, Dak Prescott is irreplaceable.
That doesn't mean Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen can't find a player who can fill enough of a role at quarterback that the Bulldogs program he's built can't continue to be successful. But it's an awfully big hole to fill.
The 6'2", 230-pound former signal-caller elected to return for his senior season in 2015, and Prescott was pretty close to a one-man highlight reel in leading the Bulldogs to a 9-4 record. He threw for 3,793 yards, 29 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran for 588 more and scored 10 times on the ground.
Mullen has probably lost a lot of sleep this offseason thinking about replacing him, but the rest of the SEC is certainly happy to see him go.
As ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff wrote, the man tasked with replacing Prescott isn't a stranger to the situation. Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson was the player who supplanted longtime NFL quarterback Alex Smith when he left Utah to become the top overall pick back in 2005.
"It's a process," Johnson told Aschoff. "The biggest thing is you don't do it in one year. You have to continue to build your talent pool and build your cupboard."
There's just nobody proven in the Bulldogs stable. Damian Williams, redshirt sophomores Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, and redshirt freshman Nick Tiano are the candidates.
Fitzgerald completed 80 percent of his passes last year and looked strong in relief of Prescott. Many believe the former option quarterback will take over for him. It's an unenviable position, but it's one Fitzgerald is looking forward to trying to win, according to Scout.com's Steve Robertson:
I think it's going to be more of a competition evenly going in (for) all four of us. I think today we all did our thing. We were out there on the first day back just getting into the groove of things. Without Dak, obviously it's a little different. It's a big leadership role that went away that we're going to have to fill. It might not be just one person. It might be a lot of people that have to come together and step up to be a leader in this offense.
You don't just easily replace a legend. Finding the next Prescott isn't going to be easy, but the biggest problem for Mullen is he also doesn't have an established running game to take the pressure off the situation. That's why it's a huge spring for the Bulldogs.
LSU Coach Les Miles: Moving Past All Last Year's Drama
LSU has enough on-the-field concerns to have to worry about the future of its head coach, Les Miles.
Perhaps last year's drama, which included an "Is he or isn't he fired?" narrative throughout the final week of the regular season, galvanized the program. But then, there's the state of Louisiana's budget crisis since the close of the season that is reportedly leaving the 2016 campaign up in the air.
Whether it's a scare tactic or not, you never like to hear: "Student-athletes across the state would be ineligible to play next semester," which Gov. John Bel Edwards said (via NOLA.com), according to the Sporting News' Bob Hille. "That means you can say farewell to college football next fall."
Drama. Drama. Drama.
Can you envision a season without the Bayou Bengals? Is that even possible? Regardless, that must have some sort of impact on any player who pays a bit of attention to the news.
The Tigers just signed offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to a new deal despite his inability to develop a quarterback. They're in danger of burning the career of a generational running back in Leonard Fournette if they can't get him some help on offense.
Even though Miles went out and made one of the biggest splash hires of the offseason in luring Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to Baton Rouge, Aranda inherits a unit that struggled under one-year coordinator Kevin Steele, finishing 10th in the league in scoring defense.
How firm is the footing of Miles and his staff members?
Well, recruiting certainly wasn't hurt. Ed Orgeron, Corey Raymond, Frank Wilson and Co. went out and signed the nation's third-ranked recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Wilson then left to become the head coach at University of Texas-San Antonio, but the class could be the cornerstone of a resurgence.
LSU will be loaded with talent and equipped to get things headed back in the right direction if Aranda is a hit and quarterback Brandon Harris can take another step forward in '16.
The last thing any team wants to worry about is who the players will be playing for in the future. If the Tigers can move beyond that, they can compete for the SEC West title.
South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp: Building a Defense from Scratch
Well, maybe Will Muschamp doesn't have to build a defense completely from scratch. He does have linebacker Skai Moore, who is one of the league's top defensive playmakers.
The 6'2", 218-pound tackle machine should move into the school's all-time tackles list during his senior year, but he's going to need plenty of help to make the Gamecocks formidable on that side of the ball again.
South Carolina was dead last in the league in total defense last year, allowing more than 429 yards per game after finishing next to last only to Texas A&M in 2014. That was despite Spurrier going out and hiring former Florida and NFL assistant Jon Hoke to lead his defense.
The Gamecocks also brought up the rear in the SEC, allowing 27.5 points per game.
Even though Carolina had longer than anybody to look for a head coach after Spurrier retired during the season, the Gamecocks wound up making a hire many thought puzzling.
One thing that isn't being questioned is the buzz around the program since Muschamp's hire. The Gamecocks finished 26th overall in recruiting, and they are trying to rebuild a roster that won just three games a season ago.
"Coach Boom" has gotten a bit defensive recently when answering questions about lessons he has learned in the past couple of years, which have seen him fired from a forgettable tenure as Florida's head coach, hired as Auburn's defensive coordinator and then picked by the Gamecocks.
"I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me what I've learned," Muschamp told USA Today's Dan Wolken. "What did I learn? You need to score more points. It's real simple. We're not splitting the atom."
The problem with the past few years in Columbia is it has been difficult to score more points than the Gamecocks gave up. There are issues all over the field, but Muschamp must fix the defense.
His track record is pretty good in that department.
Tennessee Coach Butch Jones: Focusing on Football with Off-Field Obstacles
There are very few questions facing a Tennessee football program this year that appears loaded with talent on the football field.
The Vols took steps forward in each of coach Butch Jones' three seasons on Rocky Top, and the Vols appear poised for another leap this year. But they've got to overcome the alleged issues being discussed in the headlines.
A sweeping Title IX lawsuit filed by eight "Jane Does" allege that the University of Tennessee has spent decades "creating a hostile sexual environment that led to assaults and then using an adjudication process that is biased in favor of athletes," according to the Tennessean's Nate Rau.
This past week, UT responded to the allegations formally, accusing the plaintiffs of "irrelevant and incorrect (if salacious) allegations intended to inflame the passions of journalists and sports fans alike," according to the paper.
The turmoil has kept the Vols in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in an offseason that would otherwise be filled with hype surrounding the return of Dobbs, running backs Hurd and Alvin Kamara, defensive end Derek Barnett, cornerback Cameron Sutton, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and many others.
It hasn't been an easy offseason for the Vols, who aren't blind to the headlines.
"We're being attacked right now," Reeves-Maybin said, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel's MJ Slaby. "It's kind of unfair to us, but this is something we can get through."
It didn't help matters that defensive tackle signee Alexis Johnson was charged with aggravated assault during the height of the headline onslaught.
Suffice it to say, the Vols were proud to see spring practice and actual football get here.
The bottom line is it is highly unlikely that any of these swirling off-the-field accusations should touch what happens on the field in '16, unless anything more explosive comes out. There's still plenty of time to turn the attention toward improving on offense and defense, and becoming a championship-caliber team.
The focus for the 2016 Vols should be staying out of any further trouble and letting the lawyers sort out the rest.
Can they put all this negativity in the rearview mirror? Can they band together in an us-against-the-world scenario that galvanizes the team? All of that remains to be seen. But the team appears loose and uber-talented on the spring practice field, showing no ill effects of the choppy waters in Knoxville.
With the criminal case of former Vols A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams slated to start this summer, it isn't going to get any easier for UT, who will need all the veteran leadership present on the roster to not let any of this be an on-the-field distraction.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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