2016 Spring-Game Goals for Every SEC Football Team
It's that time of year again—the time when SEC football fans flock en masse to stadiums across the Southeast by the thousands and watch glorified practices in game settings.
We're nearing spring-game season.
Many of the programs across the league will have their games over the course of the next three weeks. Vanderbilt got a head start on everybody, already playing its spring finale in Nashville entering coach Derek Mason's third year.
With spring drills already at least halfway over in most places, many teams already know the things on which they need to work. Coaches are getting extended looks at young guys, quarterback battles rage for numerous teams across the league, and new names will replace departed superstars.
Speaking of new names, many first-year coaches will be manning the sideline for their teams for the first time this spring. In Georgia, Kirby Smart replaces longtime Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, and over in South Carolina, Will Muschamp will stand where Steve Spurrier did a year ago.
Barry Odom replaces Gary Pinkel in Missouri, and numerous new coordinators will be testing their schemes against their own team's defenses, too.
It's a time for a veritable scavenger hunt of sorts where coaches try to find what they have and know what they've got to work on over the long summer months.
So, what are some of the goals for SEC teams? Some have several, while others are only a couple of areas away from competing for championships. Let's take a look at some of the biggest things that teams across the league want to accomplish as spring winds down.
Alabama: Showcase the Next Great Running Back
Everybody who cares anything about Alabama football or who loves to hate the Crimson Tide is talking about the quarterback battle at the Capstone.
Sure, that's the big story because everybody loves a signal-caller rumble.
But the bigger story for coach Nick Saban is replacing Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, who ran for more than 2,200 yards and scored 28 touchdowns a season ago for the national champions.
Why is that more important? Well, for the past couple of years, Bama has waged a quarterback battle. Did that matter? The Tide didn't have elite play from that position either of the past two years, but Blake Sims and Jacob Coker did enough to lead their team into the College Football Playoff.
A big reason for that was the dominance of the running game and the defense.
Alabama is loaded with talent all over the field, and though it lost a lot of playmakers on defense, there are tons of players to fill the gaps. The biggest question is who is going to replace Henry, who was a dynamic, massive force with the ball in his hands.
Like always, there are candidates to carry on the torch that began with Mark Ingram and then moved to Trent Richardson, T.J. Yeldon and Henry.
The guy who is expected to carry the load is 6'2", 230-pound Bo Scarbrough, who has a huge spotlight on him despite only having 18 collegiate carries. As a matter of fact, ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough wrote that some are already tagging him with Heisman Trophy odds.
"He's going to be a great one," former UA defensive tackle Jarran Reed said, according to Scarborough, prior to the national championship game. "His time is coming. … He's another Derrick Henry."
Sophomore Damien Harris was one of the most heavily recruited runners in the country out of high school as well. So, like always, there are capable bodies. But it's not always easy to replace a legend. Alabama has proved it can navigate the SEC without a star quarterback, but a runner must emerge.
Arkansas: Improve the Secondary
A familiar face will lead the Arkansas secondary in 2016, as coach Bret Bielema went out and made a home run hire when he got former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads.
Rhoads has his work cut out for him.
Last year, the Razorbacks struggled on the back end of their defense, allowing 7.92 yards per net attempt, which was last in the league and 112th nationally. The overall pass defense allowed more than 275 yards per game, which was 116th nationally and also last.
That's downright awful.
With the Arkansas offense probably not putting up the firepower it did last year due to having to replace quarterback Brandon Allen, tight end Hunter Henry and running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, the defense is going to have to pull its weight more.
There is a lot of experience returning with starting cornerbacks D.J. Dean and Jared Collins and safety Josh Liddell. Four more returnees played key snaps a season ago.
So, it's not unreasonable to think those guys have learned how to play together and could take a big leap forward if the Hogs' front can get more pressure on quarterbacks. Rhoads is a good coach with a strong defensive resume, so it's going to be interesting to see what the veteran coach can do with a veteran squad.
A lot of the pressure will fall on Liddell, who has the ability to be a star. According to Gridiron Now's Leslie Koerdt, "Liddell has shown the ability to play at a high level, but the Hogs need him to do that consistently."
If the Razorbacks can find a couple of stars back there and get solid play from the rest, that area can get a whole lot better. They need it to.
Auburn: Find the Most Dependable Playmaker at Quarterback
Auburn banked on junior Jeremy Johnson to live up to the hype a season ago after several national pundits labeled him a dark-horse Heisman contender.
Instead, he looked nowhere near like the star who had shown glimpses of his potential while backing up Nick Marshall in the two years prior. Johnson got rattled early and often and was rendered ineffective and ultimately benched in favor of Sean White.
Fast-forward a year, and Johnson is trying to get back in good graces as a senior. He still has that big frame, bigger arm and massive potential, but he no longer has the clout. White, too, is surrounded by question marks after some up-and-down play in 2016 once head coach Gus Malzahn inserted him into the lineup.
A new player is thrown into the equation with JUCO transfer John Franklin III, a former Florida State player who transferred out of Tallahassee and lit up the junior college ranks as a run-first dynamic athlete.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the Tigers had plenty of success in the past with Marshall and a guy by the name of Cam Newton, who you may have heard of.
Tigers fans don't care who plays quarterback so long as somebody plays it well. There's no shortage of talent at running back with Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson, and Kerryon Johnson will deliver a nice change of pace.
The offensive line should get better as the year progresses, and Malzahn signed one of the best wide receiver classes in the country, so there's talent among the pass-catchers. Defensively, the Tigers have a lot of nice pieces, too.
But being poor at quarterback can derail anybody. This spring has witnessed a full-fledged battle. A winner needs to emerge soon, and those guys can take a huge step forward during the A-Day Game.
Florida: Establish an Offensive Identity
For a team that won 10 games, went 7-1 in the SEC and represented the East in the league championship game, the Florida Gators certainly were putrid on offense.
Once Will Grier was suspended, UF struggled to get anything going under Treon Harris and had to win football games with one of the nastiest defenses in the country.
There's going to be plenty of talent for defensive coordinator Geoff Collins again in 2016 despite the loss of some stars such as Vernon Hargreaves III, Jonathan Bullard and Antonio Morrison, but the real questions lie on the other side of the ball.
What is this year's Gators offense going to look like? How long will it take offensive-minded head coach Jim McElwain to make his mark offensively? Is oft-traveled new quarterback Luke Del Rio the man who can turn the Gators around on that side of the ball, or will talented freshman Feleipe Franks be too good to keep off the field?
Junior transfer Austin Appleby, who left Purdue, and freshman Kyle Trask are in the mix, too.
"The comfort of the (other) 10 guys on the field having been through the system now, knowing how to practice, knowing what the expectations are, it has really helped the quarterback position," McElwain told ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson. "It's not a whole group of people learning something new. So we're ahead of what we're able to do and how we're able to do it."
That's good news for a Gators team that needs some offensively. It has to improve in the passing game, but running wasn't the greatest asset a year ago, either.
JUCO running back Mark Thompson comes in to help a group that lost Kelvin Taylor but still has Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett. Florida must get more production on the ground to help its young signal-callers.
So, what's that offense going to look like? The best news for UF is it still looks strong defensively and could even be elite. While the offense is coming along, it would be hard-pressed to be as bad as it was a season ago.
Georgia: Set the Tone for the Kirby Smart Era
With all that talent on Georgia's roster built year after year with all that Peach State talent, Kirby Smart's biding his time as Alabama's defensive coordinator looks to have paid off.
Now, he gets to start his head coaching career at his alma mater with potential playmakers everywhere.
The only concern now is Smart has to look smart in assembling a team and formulating a game plan on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, that shouldn't be an issue. He has a familiarity with coordinator Mel Tucker, with whom he coached a year in Tuscaloosa. Since the Bulldogs already ran a 3-4 base package, and the two coaches who'll handle most of the play-calling duties worked together, that transition should be seamless.
The offense may be a different story.
Yes, the theme throughout the SEC is familiar with all these offensive issues, but the Dawgs have an identity crisis. They have to forge ahead this spring without superstar running back Nick Chubb making plays, and if they can do that, he'll only make them that much better when he returns from his injury.
Everybody wants to see freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, but when will he be ready? UGA fans wrinkle their noses at the thoughts of Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey running the show, but both of those guys at least have experience. Eason doesn't.
Sony Michel can make plays in Chubb's absence at running back, but what kind of offense will he be at the forefront of under coordinator Jim Chaney?
The new offensive style promises to be some variation of a pro-style set, and while the defense appears set, what kind of swagger will the unit bring? That's going to be the most fun part about this spring game.
Smart was known as a dynamic recruiter under Saban who had a ton of success in Georgia and was able to relate to players. That's exciting for Bulldogs fans. How will all that translate now that he finally has a team on which he can make his own personal stamp? We're about to find out.
Kentucky: Build Defensive Depth
The past two years, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops had his team on the brink of bowl contention just after the midpoint of the season.
In both seasons, the Wildcats fell short.
They have to get over that hump, or Stoops may be looking for another job. He's recruited well enough for UK to be making the postseason now, and this season will really turn up the heat on the Stoops regime.
In order for the Cats to get over that hump, they need to build some depth on defense. That's going to be a tall order this year considering that most of the front seven is in flux besides massive nose guard Matt Elam.
Kentucky had ridiculous turnover in the front seven, losing defensive tackles Melvin Lewis and Cory Johnson, as well as ends Farrington Huguenin and Jabari Johnson. Linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan are also gone.
Stoops was going to have a cornerstone around which to build that front in former star recruit Jason Hatcher, but that was until he was booted off the team in February after getting arrested for marijuana trafficking.
So, in an important year for the coach and the program, UK is starting basically from scratch in the front seven. According to the Courier-Journal's Jon Hale, of the projected top eight Wildcats linebackers, only Denzil Ware played significant snaps, starting 11 of 12 games.
"I still got a lot to learn," Ware said. “When you become a veteran that means you know everything. There's no mistakes, no nothing. I'm far from that."
He must learn quickly. As far as help, it'll probably come in the form of a pair of transfers—former Nebraska player Courtney Love and Minnesota transfer De'Niro Laster.
New defensive linemen are everywhere, too.
Stoops brought the kind of talent into Kentucky the Wildcats hadn't seen in a long while, and a lot of that was on the defensive side of the ball. It's time for that talent to translate.
LSU: Get Leonard Fournette Some Help
Everybody is sick of hearing it by now, but the LSU Tigers must find some playmakers to surround megastar Leonard Fournette with, or his career on the Bayou will come and go without any championship contention.
Coach Les Miles has another star runner in the wings with Derrius Guice, who'll make plenty of noise in '16 alongside Fournette as he runs toward a Heisman campaign, but where are the passing-game weapons?
The Bayou Bengals have a lot of talent on the perimeter. But, as has been the case in recent years, they don't have anybody who can consistently get them the ball.
The frustrating tandem of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterback Brandon Harris returns to the heat of the spotlight being focused squarely on them, and it's time they produced.
Cameron is a longtime NFL coordinator who was expected to bring immediate clout to Miles' staff, but he's never really produced a premier quarterback. Harris has loads of talent, but he's yet to put it all together.
This offseason, Harris sought advice from a new source, Tigers wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig, who left his alma mater Auburn, where he played quarterback and was a similar player as Harris. The new Tigers assistant told WWLs Glenn Guilbeau:
You normally see a huge gain from year to year with experience. Matter of fact, Brandon came by my office to see me, and I talked to him about my experiences playing this position. One thing that I took out of playing a full season was the flow of the game—just understanding that you just have to manage it. And he said he understood that. Managing shifting momentum, whether it's positively or negatively, is important. And once you feel it going in a negative way, you make sure you’re doing something to calm your players or make a play to change it.
It's those highs and lows Harris must manage, especially in the rugged SEC. All of the elements are there for the Tigers to be great, but they have to put everything together.
Everybody knows what Fournette can do. It's just a matter of who's going to help him out. The search to identify reliable offensive players will continue in the spring game.
Mississippi: Figure out the Offensive Line Issues
For the first time in years, Ole Miss isn't having a spring football game. But that doesn't exclude the Rebels from this list.
Coach Hugh Freeze's program appears on the cusp of competing for big things. Sure, it's going to be tough to replace stars such as Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, but the Rebels have recruited well enough to do that.
They have a star senior quarterback in Chad Kelly and a slew of talented receivers for him to throw to, and the Landsharks defense is going to be strong again too.
But there are questions. While the Rebels have a bunch of talented running backs who haven't proved they can shoulder the load yet (see: Eric Swinney), the biggest worry is on the offensive line.
Every single starter from a season ago is gone. Four seniors left, and Tunsil bolted after his junior year since he's expected to be the top overall pick in the NFL draft.
Left guard Javon Patterson (who started six games a season ago) and right guard Jordan Sims (four starts) are a nice start. Center Sean Rawlings showed flashes after moving from right tackle, where former tight end Jeremy Liggins is expected to play.
Redshirt freshman Alex Givens is a player who can develop into a quality blindside player at left tackle.
Despite all the potential, there was no hesitation when ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf asked Freeze about the question marks by at the start of camp:
We start with offensive line as always. It seems like that's probably constantly going to be a question mark from year to year. If you look nationally, that is probably the hardest position to (fill). If you are good at that spot, you've got a really good chance—if you’re good there and have a good quarterback. It's a bit different (for us). We lost six guys. That is a lot out of an offensive line room to lose.
All those playmakers won't matter if Kelly doesn't have time to throw the ball. So, finding the right five on the line is the No. 1 priority throughout this spring. If Freeze can do that, he may lead his team to Atlanta.
Mississippi State: Get a Semblance of a Running Game
The only answer when somebody asks, "How is Mississippi State going to replace Dak Prescott's production?" is that it can't.
Prescott is a generational-type player who was, at times, a one-man show for the Bulldogs offense a season ago. Yes, coach Dan Mullen had some star receivers, but Prescott is the one who got them the ball. He also led the team in rushing and was a force to be reckoned with throughout his career.
Quarterback is going to be the biggest question mark.
That's even more reason why the most important goal for the Bulldogs this spring needs to be finding a strong running game to help the new quarterback along.
Last year, MSU's running backs were atrocious. The leading rusher was diminutive runner/receiver Brandon Holloway, who wound up with 413 yards and no touchdowns. Ashton Shumpert added 228 yards, and Aeris Williams had 206 yards and three touchdowns.
That isn't cutting it. Those numbers must improve dramatically in 2016.
Those guys and Dontavian Lee provide a deep backfield, but they're unproven. Sure, there are a lot of options for Mullen, but he has to have somebody seize control alongside Holloway.
"They're all at different stages within their careers," Mullen told the Clarion-Ledger's Will Sammon. "We got four young guys to me that I really want to see grasp the offense and take some giant steps forward, being prepared to go play. And really great consistent, play-making performances from the older guys."
That's essential if the Bulldogs are going to continue their competitive streak they've built with Prescott at the helm the past two years. They have to move on, and the offense must become a much more collaborative effort in his absence.
Missouri: Find Some Offensive Playmakers
Drew Lock was a recruit that many teams around the nation coveted when he committed to the home-state Tigers, so you'd expect a player with all that talent to be a shoo-in to start for a team in need of offensive playmakers.
But after a season where the Tigers were historically horrible on offense, Lock's job is open, just like the rest of them. He'll battle Marvin Zanders and Jack Lowary, who transferred to MU from Long Beach Community College.
It would be a shock for anybody other than Lock to start, but new Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Heupel recently talked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Dave Matter about the need for a fresh start all over the offense under new coach Barry Odom.
When asked about Lock, he instead chose to discuss all three signal-callers battling for the job.
"They've pushed themselves to get better," Heupel said. "They've all grown, I think, just understanding offensively what we're going to do."
A new playbook isn't such a bad thing after a year where the Tigers probably wanted to burn their old one. They were next-to-last nationally in scoring offense, averaging 13.6 points per game. They ranked 113th or lower in total offense, rushing offense and passing offense too.
So, Odom must find some dependable playmakers.
One who could emerge after getting some experience a season ago is jitterbug running back Ish Witter. Junior receiver J'Mon Moore and former Alabama senior receiver transfer Chris Black could also break out; the latter left because of Heupel's uptempo air-show offense.
It will be interesting to see if Heupel's new scheme breathes new life into a stagnant offense. The Tigers certainly need it.
South Carolina: Find Some Defensive Playmakers
The South Carolina Gamecocks are facing the exact same conundrum that Missouri is, just on the opposite side of the ball.
Defensive-minded first-year head coach Will Muschamp inherits a horrible defense in Columbia, and he is charged with fixing it. He'll have help in longtime trusted assistant Travaris Robinson, who coached defensive backs with Muschamp for years dating back to his Florida days.
Robinson is known as one of the best recruiters in the nation, but he's going to have his work cut out for him on the field.
At least he has a cornerstone around which to build. Linebacker Skai Moore is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the entire SEC, and he's a guy that offenses must scheme around every game. Beyond him, the Gamecocks must find some players who can help them improve upon two terrible years in a row.
While questions remain about Muschamp's ability to be a successful head coach after struggling in that position at Florida, there aren't many concerns about his defensive acumen.
SBNation's Ian Boyd brought that to light using the advanced metric of S&P+ statistics, which gauges efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers:
There are numerous Will Muschamp doubters, who believe his time at Florida firmly established he's not SEC head coach material. But there's no doubting his bona fides for the task of turning around the Gamecocks' moribund defense. He's fielded top-20 defenses six times in the last decade, per S&P+, and his three LSU defenses in the pre-S&P+ era all ranked in the top 16 in points allowed per game.
Players such as defensive back Chris Lammons, cornerback Rico McWilliams, converted linebacker Jordan Diggs and several talented defensive linemen all have the potential to help the Gamecocks improve. But it all depends on how they respond to the fiery Muschamp.
When he got through to his guys as an assistant, Muschamp was revered. When he was struggling as the head coach at Florida, his intensity came under scrutiny from media and players alike.
So, the culture shock will be interesting to watch in Columbia. If the Gamecocks respond, they can make a massive turnaround in just one year.
Tennessee: Improve the Downfield Passing Game
This really could be the year where Tennessee begins competing for championships again after a near-decade slumber.
But the Vols must get their passing game heading in the right direction. That direction is vertical.
Everybody who has watched senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs play knows he's a dynamic playmaker who has the wheels to get away from defenders and the knack for squeezing every single possible yard out of a play when he tucks and goes.
If you've watched a lot of Tennessee football over the past couple of years, you also know Dobbs has passing lulls where he winds up throwing behind receivers, at their feet and anywhere but in their hands.
You're also aware that the Vols receivers have been one of the most underachieving units in the league the past three years.
So, if the Vols are going to be a threat to the Alabamas and Floridas of the world, they have to be able to move the ball through the air when teams load up against that stellar rushing attack.
Gone are receivers Marquez North, Von Pearson and Johnathon Johnson, but UT still has a bunch of talent on the perimeter in Josh Malone, Preston Williams (who is having a terrific spring), Jauan Jennings and Josh Smith.
Redshirt freshman Vincent Perry could also cause a stir, and the Vols signed a big, versatile wide receiving class that consisted of five players with varying skill sets who could find themselves quickly in the mix for playing time.
Dobbs may never be the most consistent downfield passer, but now UT has the versatility in the receiving corps to put some speedsters out there who can get yards after the catch to go along with the big-bodied field-stretchers.
You can't be one-dimensional and win the SEC, so the Vols have to get to where they can depend on Dobbs to move the chains through the air. Fans would love to see some steps in that direction this spring.
Texas A&M: Start the Trevor Knight Era in Style
For all of Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin's success luring top-shelf quarterbacks to College Station, he certainly showed a propensity to lose them following a forgettable 2015 season.
Former elite prospects Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) and Kyle Allen (Houston) bolted the Aggies after a year where Sumlin shuffled around quarterbacks, couldn't find the right guy and wound up alienating both of his potential future weapons.
They have another star recruit coming in 2017 5-star Tate Martell, but in the interim, Sumlin hopes to help rekindle former Oklahoma star Trevor Knight's career. He transferred to A&M for his final season after losing his starting job to Baker Mayfield a season ago.
There was a time when Knight was the talk of college football, torching Alabama in a shocking Sugar Bowl upset two years ago before injuries and inconsistency derailed his career in Norman.
But Knight has so many weapons with which to work at A&M, and he isn't short on talent, either. If he can fling darts to Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds and others, they'll do the rest. There are reports of another quarterback battle in College Station again this spring, but it would be a stunner if Knight wasn't the guy.
A&M's 247Sports reporter Jeff Tarpley recently discussed the race to be offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's signal-caller once the season starts, as Jake Hubenak also has starting experience:
…[Y]ou have to eventually like Trevor Knight's chances of winning the starting job because he’s a big, strong player who also was an accomplished runner at Oklahoma out of the zone read. In addition, Knight has a strong arm and can make the downfield throws necessary in the offense but also the quick throws on all of the shorter routes. Today’s workouts emphasized the initial mesh between the quarterback and running back and less on the short throws that we’ve seen so much of during spring practices.
Sumlin is in a bit of hot water because of his inability to compete for championships despite pulling in some of the nation's top recruits year after year. The questions following the transfers of Murray and Allen didn't help matters, either.
Now, many are writing the Aggies off. But they still have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, and now, they have an experienced quarterback throwing to a bunch of receivers who'd start for anybody in the nation.
That's a good problem to have. A&M's coaches have to go out and not have any other problems.
Vanderbilt: Get Kyle Shurmur Some Receiving Weapons
It's the first day of April, and Vanderbilt's spring practice is already in the books. That may sound crazy, but while other teams are still sorting out their biggest issues, the Commodores already know theirs.
Unfortunately for coach Derek Mason, there are several of them.
The program took some important steps forward in 2015 after Mason's disastrous first year. Yes, the 'Dores still went 4-8, but they weren't horrible. There were times when the defense showed signs of life. They also found a couple of potential offensive playmakers in running back Ralph Webb and freshman quarterback Kyle Shurmur.
But Mason must surround those guys with better players.
This spring, he was able to help matters considerably when receiver C.J. Duncan returned from an Achilles injury that cost him the entire 2015 season after being the team's best receiver in '14. Also, tight end Jared Pinkney also played well after his season-ending injury.
The talk of drills was receiver Trent Sherfield, who looked spectacular at times, and Nathan Marcus is another tight end who should help the Commodores. But just when you think that things may be falling into place, Mason won't name Shurmur the starting quarterback.
Junior Wade Freebeck still has the chance to unseat Shurmur, though that would be surprising considering all the strides he made as a true freshman a season ago. It sounds like Mason is just building the competition suspense to motivate his youngster.
It takes time to build a program, and though former coach James Franklin left things in OK shape in Nashville, Mason changed a few things to fit his style, and that set the Commodores back a couple of years. But now, it's time to win, and if he doesn't, Mason will be looking for a new job.
VU actually has some players who look like they'll be able to help on offense, but the team has to find the right mix and hope coordinator Andy Ludwig can call plays that can consistently get them the ball.
If they do, Shurmur may wind up being one of the brightest, most unexpected spots in the entire league in '16.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.