Spring Practice Preview: SEC

Spring Practice Preview: SEC

This article is part of our Spring Practice Preview series.

College football spring practices are firing up, which means RotoWire will preview key job position battles at schools across the country. This article will feature the top job battle at each school within the conference and provide a projected outlook for the group for the 2019 campaign.

The SEC landscape is changing with several programs looking like they will take a step forward in 2019. Texas A&M is a trendy sleeper with 10-win upside (and six-win downside thanks to a brutal schedule), and Tennessee and Florida seem to have found long-term solutions with their head coaches. Elsewhere, the usual suspects have their own playoff aspirations with Alabama, LSU, Georgia, and Auburn all fielding loaded rosters.

As with any conference, this spring will be about identifying replacements at key positions and starting to sort out what the best 22 might look like on each side of the ball. Some schools, like Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, and Florida, are returning the bulk of their starting offensive skill players and will focus on cultivating championship-level depth. Other schools, like Auburn Missouri, Mississippi State, Mississippi, and Vanderbilt, are faced with replacing multi-year starters at quarterback. 


Position of Interest: Quarterback  Running back

If you're a recruiting nutjob like me, you've been anxiously waiting for Najee Harris to be set free. Well, Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris are gone and the Tide can't keep Najee on the bench anymore.

For those who need a refresher, Harris was the No.2 overall player and No.1 running back in his recruiting class back in 2017, ahead of Florida State's Cam Akers. He's massive for a running back at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds and he quietly led the Tide in yards per carry this season (6.69) in addition to putting up more yards (783) than Jacobs. One of his more memorable moments came in Alabama's national championship win over Georgia when he took over in the second half and gashed the Bulldogs for 64 yards on six carries, helping spark the comeback.

Harris is arguable more talented than the duo that got more carries than him in 2018, and now he becomes the best candidate to be a true bellcow for Alabama since Derrick Henry.

Still, we all know Alabama is loaded and loves to empty the bench once it has the game in hand. This makes Brian Robinson Jr. a name to keep on your sleeper list. He wasn't overly impressive in 2018 (4.32 YPC on 63 attempts) but he did rip off 6.8 YPC as a true freshman in 2017. There's more than enough in the tank for Robinson to be an impact player despite playing second fiddle.


Position of Interest: Quarterback

Jarrett Stidham is gone after a successful two years on the Plains. His tenure came at a time where Auburn was shuffling through disappointment after disappointment (hey, you guys remember future Heisman Trophy Winner Jeremy Johnson?). Now it seems that Stidham's tenure -- a success by almost any measure -- has turned out to be a double-edged sword. His steady presence at the helm the last two years did not leave much room for Auburn's future quarterbacks to get game experience.

Now Auburn has to parse out four talented quarterbacks that enter this spring with nothing to really separate them in terms of a pecking order.

There's Malik Willis, a junior who has 378 total yards (309 rushing) through his first two seasons. Sophomore Joey Gatewood follows him in terms of experience within the program, but he only saw playing time at the end of Auburn's blowout win over Purdue in the bowl game. Beyond Willis and Gatewood, there are two other options. The first is Auburn legacy and early enrollee Bo Nix, who is billed as the team's future at quarterback, but it remains to be seen whether he's the present, too.  And then there's Cord Sandberg, who joined the program after spending a few seasons playing minor league baseball.

All four enter spring on equal footing, according to Justin Ferguson of The Athletic. Not to diminish the importance of spring practices at other programs, SEC or not, but the progress from the quarterback room at Auburn is arguably the biggest storyline of any position group in the nation. When a team like Auburn, which returns the bulk of its stifling defense, is on the precipice of vying for a playoff berth, finding a viable quarterback is of the utmost importance.


Position of Interest: Receiver

The quarterback battle is set to heat up this summer once Nick Starkel arrives from Texas A&M. Until then, there's still plenty for Arkansas to sort out this spring. 

Arkansas is in desperate need of getting more production out of its passing game, especially when coach Chad Morris' offense is clicking on all cylinders when it's a pass-first attack. During his SMU days, the Mustangs would routinely throw it more than 50 percent of the time. With that, there's added pressure on Arkansas' young receivers to get up to speed. 

As I noted in my Signing Day article, Arkansas is in a position where young players could rocket up the depth chart after a disastrous 2018. The elite recruiting class the Hogs brought in, including several high-end early enrollees, only strengthens that notion. Arkansas lost top receiver La'Michael Pettway and the rest of returning wideouts didn't do enough to exactly lock up starting roles for the coming season. 

Michael Woods is the best returning receiver, but he has just 18 grabs for 206 yards to his name. Beyond him are the talented freshmen like Trey Knox and Shamar Nash that are getting experience this spring. They are also competing with more experienced players like Jordan Jones and Deon Stewart. Expect this to be a hotly contested battle that only intensifies through the summer. 


Position of Interest: Running Back

Florida ran with a deep rotation at running back last season and it returns leading rusher Lamical Perine. However, Jordan Scarlett's departure for the NFL leaves 131 carries up for grabs for an intriguing group of runners. 

Dameon Pierce showed promise as a freshman with 424 yards on 69 carries and adds physicality to the group at 5-foot-10 and 216 pounds. Joining him among the likely contributors is Malik Davis, who is fully recovered from a foot injury that ended his season in Week 3. As a freshman in 2017, Davis ran for 526 yards -- good for second on the team -- on just 79 carries. His explosiveness is arguably the best of the group and his re-emergence this spring is a major development for the Gators. 


Position of Interest: Receiver

Four of Georgia's top five pass catchers from 2018 are off to the NFL. That quartet accounted for 54 percent of the team's targets and 61 percent of its receiving yards. That's a lot to replace and there's only one true contributor out wide that's returning in Jeremiah Holloman.

Holloman was a breakout performer for the Bulldogs as a sophomore, catching 24 of 39 targets for 418 yards (10.7 YPT) and five touchdowns. His role isn't in question; he'll be Georgia's top target entering this season. The question is how does Georgia fill out the rest of its receiver depth chart?

Some of the answers aren't even on campus yet with Miami transfer Lawrence Cager and five-star freshman George Pickens not arriving until summer. That leaves Georgia with the likes of Demetris Robertson, Kearis Jackson, and  Tyler Simmons as the likely next three up for now.

Robertson came to Georgia last summer via a transfer but his first year in Athens didn't quite live up to expectations as a former five-star recruit. In fairness, Robertson's 2017 at California was wiped out by injury and his arrival for fall camp didn't give him much time to learn the offense and get into game shape. Now that he's had a season to get embedded into the system, Robertson will have the chance to recapture the promise he showed as a freshman at California in 2016 when he racked up 757 yards and seven touchdowns on 50 catches.

Tyler Simmons is the only other receiver on campus with legitimate playing experience, but that only extends out to 14 career catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns. He does have excellent speed and was a big play threat on end-arounds in 2018 with five carries for 131 yards and two scores. He should enter spring as the favorite for the No.3 role, but Simmons isn't as much of a lock as the other two mentioned above.

Behind Simmons is an inexperienced but talented group that features Matt Landers, Tommy Bush, and Kearis Jackson.


Position of Interest: Running Back

Kentucky is replacing its all-time leading rusher in Benny Snell. Next up is A.J. Rose, a redshirt junior who acquitted himself well last season with a 6.2 YPC and five touchdowns over 71 rushes. Is he 289 carries worth of running back like Snell was? I'm not sold. Kentucky is going to need to figure out what else it has in the backfield because the run game is going to be the key to the offense.

Don't believe me? Kentucky was 13th in the nation in rushing play percentage in 2018, Terry Wilson is still the quarterback, and Eddie Gran is still the offensive coordinator. Wilson is going to eat up a good share of the rushes, but Kentucky still needs to find out how it's going to get to 300+ carries from its backs.

According to Ben Roberts of the Lexington Herald-Leader, redshirt freshmen Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke are a thunder-and-lightning type of duo that will be in the mix.  

"Those three are going to be competing like crazy. I loove the room. Benny left it in great shape. They know what it takes to be a great running back and the physicality you have to have in this league. And so that's what I'm looking for from those guys.

"We'll see how we compete. … It could be a running back by committee. I don't know. We'll see how it goes. I'm not afraid of AJ being in there — whoever that guy is, whoever wins that spot — being that guy who has the most reps."

There you have it. Committee time in Lexington.


Position of Interest: Tight End

The story this summer will be the arrival of five-star running back John Emery Jr., but until he shows up, the running back situation will be incomplete.

Since receiver and quarterback are settled up at the top, let's look at tight end. Foster Moreau is gone to the NFL after a productive career highlighted by 46 catches for 550 yards and five scores over his final two years. Thaddeus Moss and Jamal Pettigrew would seemingly be next in line for the Tigers, but both are still working their way back from injuries that will keep them limited this spring.

Junior college transfer T.K. McClendon is enrolled and taking part in practice already. The coaching staff will get a long look at McClendon as he gets reps with the first- and second-team offenses and he'll be able to make a case for a starting role. Brody Miller of NOLA.com  adds that converted center Charles Turner will also be in the mix at tight end this spring.


Position of Interest: Wide Receiver

Mississippi's road to replacing three NFL-caliber receivers (D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge) starts this spring. The Rebels brought in two receivers as early enrollees in Jadon Jackson and JUCO transfer Dontario Drummond and more talent will be arriving this summer. Elijah Moore and Braylon Sanders are a couple of players who got their feet wet last season and are primed to take over as starters this fall.

Moore is coming off a freshman season in which he caught 36 of 50 targets for 398 yards and two touchdowns while Sanders brought down 16 of 28 targets for 271 yards and a touchdown. Per Nick Suss of the Clarion Ledger, Moore is primed to be set to take over as the top dog in the offense this fall. He'll work out of the slot, which is where A.J. Brown did most of his damage before Metcalf was injured last season. 

Sanders should fill one of the outside spots, leaving one more spot up for grabs.

Between Jackson, Drummond, and redshirt freshman Miles Battle, Mississippi will have quality options from which to choose as its WR3.

It will also be interesting to see how the infusion of Rich Rodriguez at offensive coordinator will change the passing game tendencies.

Mississippi State

Story Line: Finding a new normal

Mississippi State's offensive personnel is one of the more interesting groups in the nation. On the one hand it lost two multi-year contributors at important spots with both Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams exhausting their eligibility. While that'd usually be a tough pill to swallow for any team, Fitzgerald and Williams' heir apparents have already showed more than just potential; they've shown legitimate ability.

Keytaon Thompson is set to take over for Fitzgerald and there's plenty of reason to believe he'll live up to the high standard set by his predecessors. Thompson started the opener last season and racked up 473 yards and seven touchdowns. Yes, it was against Stephen F. Austin, but those are the type of numbers you'd hope he'd be able to post against that level of competition. He also led the Bulldogs to a bowl win over Lamar Jackson's Louisville squad at the end of the 2017 season. If Thompson can bump up his accuracy (47 percent completion rate over 105 career passes) he'll be one of the SEC's most dangerous quarterbacks.

At running back we have an even clearer picture of what the future looks like in Kylin Hill, who took 78 carries for 393 yards and two scores in 2018. Williams' departure opens up a workhorse role for Hill, and Nick Gibson and Robert Rivers stand to pick up carries as well.

The Bulldogs also return most of their top contributors at receiver from 2018 in Osirus Mitchell, Stephen Guidry, Deddrick Thomas, and Malik Dear. However, their production screams for a major improvement. None of them had more than 400 receiving yards, none of them averaged more than 8.7 YPT, and none of them had more than four touchdowns. You can only blame quarterback play so much. If this group doesn't pick up the slack, it wouldn't be shocking for Mississippi State to see what it has in its younger options.


Position of Interest: Wide Receiver

Usually you'd think replacing a four-year starter at quarterback would make that the top position to monitor. While it's still a prominent story, there's not much drama in terms of who will be taking snaps for the Tigers this spring and fall with Kelly Bryant staying put despite the bowl ban. We'll steer our look at Missouri to its outside receiver group that is looking to replace Emanuel Hall and Nate Brown.

Jalen Knox and Kam Scott look to have a future playing on the outside for the Tigers after successful freshman campaigns. Knox had a bigger role, picking up 413 yards on 26 receptions (50 targets) and Scott was dynamic when given the chance, turning his 11 targets into 214 yards and two touchdowns. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch adds that Arkansas transfer Jonathan Nance is making a strong early impression this spring and should challenge for a role out wide as well.

I'm close to being sold on what Missouri has in the receiving corps from a talent perspective. It'll be on Bryant to jell with this group and get the most out of its collective potential. That starts this spring.

South Carolina

Position of Interest: Running Back

The Gamecocks continue to search for a true No.1 at running back after going five straight years without a thousand-yard rusher. In the longer view, it looks like South Carolina will be leaning on the same three running backs that it did a year ago between Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner, and Mon Denson. But a report from Ben Breiner of The State notes that Turner is spending some time on defense this spring and Dowdle is sidelined by an undisclosed injury.

Those factors are opening up reps for freshman enrollee Kevin Harris, who is a massive back at 5-foot-10 and 235 pounds and is getting positive reviews out of the early practice sessions. Coach Will Muschamp said that Harris is "a young player but certainly we think has got a big upside." It will be interesting to see what Harris and other inexperienced backs like Lavonte Valentine and Deshaun Fenwick can do with their reps while the projected top two or three backs are out or limited.


Position of Interest: Quarterback development

Jarrett Guarantano's first two seasons have been a little rocky. He hasn't always been put in a position to succeed, though. Whether it's been playing under Butch Jones or going through growing pains under coach Jeremy Pruitt last season, Guarantano hasn't had it easy.

He is tasked with learning a new offense once again with ex-Georgia OC Jim Chaney coming to Knoxville. After a recent practice, Guarantano's progress within the new system was praised. "I think the game has really slowed down for Jarrett...I think he's got a pretty good understanding for what we're trying to do. He knows how to prepare, " Pruitt said.

New systems don't always reach their pinnacle in year one and different doesn't always mean better. But Chaney had some promising stretches at Georgia that leads one to believe he can get this Tennessee offense pointed in the right direction, and Guarantano's athleticism can add a dimension to the offense that wasn't always there at Georgia. We'll probably only get lip service on how good Guarantano looks this spring without any mention of growing pains, but he's someone to keep on your watch lists this fall, especially if you're buying a Tennessee resurgence.

Texas A&M

Position of Interest: Tight End

One of the biggest surprises in the fantasy landscape last season was the emergence of then-unknown JUCO transfer Jace Sternberger. His 48 grabs for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns (140 fantasy points) would've had him as the top fantasy receiver on most SEC teams. Now that he's off to the NFL, Texas A&M has a major hole to fill.

Next up is Baylor Cupp, an early enrollee and high four-star that was the No.1 tight end in the 2019 class. It's a rosy expectation to think he'll come in and immediately start and produce, but his talent coupled with participation in spring ball means he'll at least have a shot, especially in this offense. Even if Cupp doesn't produce, the Aggie passing game will still be dangerous thanks to Quartney Davis, Kendrick Davis, Camron Buckley, and Jhamon Ausbon


Position of Interest: Quarterback

This is another SEC school replacing a four-year starter, but unlike Missouri, the succession plan isn't set in stone. The Commodores brought in graduate transfer Riley Neal from Ball State, who was limited to played a grand total of six games his final two seasons there. While it was encouraging that his rushing production (357 yards, five touchdowns) was back to normal last year after breaking his leg in 2017, he looked shaky as a passer with his completion percentage dropping down to 57.9 percent from 67.7 percent. Neal will also be behind Deuce Wallace in terms of experience within the system. Wallace has been on campus for three years but did not appear in any games last year due to suspension.

Adam Sparks of the Tennessean notes that this is a competition that won't be fully hashed out this spring and is set to last into fall camp.

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John McKechnie
John is the 2016 and 2021 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since 2014.
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