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March 1, 2007

Spring Football Team Capsules: SEC

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The Southeastern Conference has long argued that it's the premier conference in college football. It doesn't take a Vanderbilt-educated lawyer to make its case.

Two of the last four SEC champions Florida in 2006 and LSU in 2003 have won national championships. Another SEC champ in that span Auburn in 2004 finished undefeated, but politics and BCS BS prevented the Tigers from playing for the national crown.

That would seem to prove the SEC champion typically is of national-championship caliber, and that winning the conference championship is more important in the SEC than in any other league.

Therefore, spring football is of keen interest for several SEC teams that have championship potential, both regionally and nationally.

Much of the spring focus at LSU will be deciding between quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux. At Florida, it will be rebuilding a dominant defense and transitioning Tim Tebow from backup quarterback to starter. Arkansas will be shaking off the effects of a controversial offseason and maximizing the ability of running back Darren McFadden, a Heisman Trophy favorite. At Auburn, it will be bolstering its offensive line. Tennessee hopes to find a group of receivers to catch Erik Ainge's passes. At Alabama, new coach Nick Saban will try to find a spark in the running game while maintaining a solid defense.

Addressing those issues this spring will go a long way in determining which team wins the SEC title in December. It may also go a long way in determining a national champion in January.

SEC East Spring Capsules
FLORIDA
Spring practice starting date: March 21
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR Percy Harvin. The most valuable player of the SEC title game showed against Florida State and Arkansas what he can do when he's healthy. Expect him to replace Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr. as the nation's most dangerous all-purpose player.
Player on the verge: QB Tim Tebow: We found out last year how well he can run. Now we'll find out how well he can pass.
Impact newcomer: S Major Wright: This hard-hitting defensive back from Fort Lauderdale could step right in as the heir apparent to Thorpe Award finalist Reggie Nelson. Then again, true freshman safety Jerimy Finch and redshirt freshman Bryan Thomas might have something to say about that.
The big question: Will Florida replace almost all of its defensive starters as seamlessly as Ohio State did it last year? Safety Tony Joiner is the only returning player who ranked among the Gators' top seven tacklers last season.
GEORGIA
Spring practice starting date: March 5
Spring game: April 7
Top returner: CB Paul Oliver: He closed the regular season by holding Biletnikoff Award winner Calvin Johnson to two catches for 13 yards in a victory over Georgia Tech. That performance should earn Oliver serious preseason All-America consideration as he heads into his senior year.
Player on the verge: CB Bryan Evans: Although a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee bothered him early in the season, Evans still broke up six passes as a redshirt freshman. The Oliver-Evans combination could make things difficult for opposing quarterbacks this fall.
Impact newcomer: RB Knowshon Moreno: This redshirt freshman could benefit from Danny Ware's decision to enter the NFL draft. Moreno, a former four-star prospect, is a likely candidate to share carries with returning starter Kregg Lumpkin.
The big question: Can Matthew Stafford pick up where he left off?: After struggling for much of his freshman season, Stafford ended the year by directing the Bulldogs to consecutive victories over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Georgia's hopes of contending for a Southeastern Conference title rest on whether Stafford can show why Rivals.com made him the No. 1 quarterback in the 2006 recruiting class.
KENTUCKY
Spring practice starting date: March 28
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: Andre' Woodson, QB: In 2006, Woodson emerged as one of the SEC's premier passers. He threw for 3,515 yards and 31 touchdowns while completing 63 percent of his attempts. Equaling those marks will be difficult, but much of Kentucky's success will be dependent on Woodson having another strong season.
Player on the verge: LB Micah Johnson: The former four-star recruit posted 29 tackles as a true freshman and is expected to be much more productive next season.
Impact newcomer: DT Ricky Lumpkin: He drew raves from Wildcats coaches while practicing as a redshirt last year. He posted 10 sacks and 101 tackles as a high school senior, and the faithful in Lexington are hopeful he proves productive on this level, too.
The big question: Can the Wildcats put together a reasonably-effective defense? In 2006 the Wildcats ranked 118th out off 119 teams in total defense. Considering the Wildcats' offensive talent, an average defense would make them a team with which to be reckoned. New defensive coordinator Steve Brown has his work cut out for him.
SOUTH CAROLINA
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: LB Jasper Brinkley: He made a big splash in his first season in Columbia by recording 107 tackles fourth in the SEC. He also had 14 tackles for losses and five sacks. With another year in the scheme, Brinkley could be better.
Player on the verge: RB Cory Boyd: Last season he made amends for sitting out the 2005 campaign due to suspension. He came back and led the Gamecocks with 823 rushing yards and figures to have better totals this season. Consider he carried at least 20 times just twice, missed a game and did not get a carry in another game.
Impact newcomer: WR Larry Freeman: Freeman also played quarterback last season at Pearl River CC and caught 47 passes there as a freshman. Rated a three-star recruit by Rivals.com, Freeman could emerge as an effective receiver opposite Kenny McKinley.
The big question: How effective will the Gamecocks be in replacing three lost starters in the offensive line. A year ago, South Carolina ranked 20th nationally in total offense. Steve Spurrier's offense returns most of its skill players. But duplicating last season's offensive success may depend on to what degree guards Thomas Coleman and Seth Edwards and center Chris White are missed.
TENNESSEE
Spring practice starting date: Feb. 22
Spring game: March 31
Top returner: QB Erik Ainge: He may have shown more year-to-year improvement than any other quarterback in the nation last season. If Ainge keeps up that rapid rate of progress, Tennessee just might have a shot at earning a BCS berth.
Player on the verge: CB Roshaun Fellows: This former freshman All-America selection missed the entire 2006 season with a torn pectoral muscle. Fellows' return should boost a Tennessee secondary that loses three of last year's starters.
Impact newcomer: DB Nevin McKenzie: This junior-college transfer won't be able to participate in spring practice, but he still could move right into the starting lineup. The Vols need a safety to start alongside Rivals.com second-team All-American Jonathan Hefney.
The big question: Who will catch Ainge's passes? Robert Meachem's decision to enter the NFL Draft means the Vols must replace their three best receivers from last season - Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. Coach Phillip Fulmer will be counting on some young players to step in and help fill the void immediately.
VANDERBILT
Spring practice starting date: March 13
Spring game: March 31
Top returner: WR Earl Bennett: In two seasons Bennett has caught 161 passes and scored 15 touchdowns. There's no reason to think he'll slow down in 2007. He's arguably the best receiver in the SEC and has a pretty good quarterback throwing to him.
Player on the verge: QB Chris Nickson: As a successor to Jay Cutler, Nickson proved more than able. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also rushed for 694 yards, which is a bonus. Now, if he can lower his interception total (he threw 13 picks last season).
Impact newcomer: LB Nate Campbell: Vanderbilt has had a nice run of linebackers, and Campbell might be the next good one. A former two-star recruit, he's likely to emerge as the starter on the weak side. He had more than 350 tackles in three high school seasons.
The big question: Can the Commodores post their first winning season in 24 years? The offense looks solid, but the defense is shaky. The caliber of play at cornerback could determine whether the Commodores finally return to the postseason or settle for another near-miss.

SEC West Spring Capsules
ALABAMA
Spring practice starting date: March 24
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: CB Simeon Castille: He's carrying on a family tradition of playing a strong corner for the Tide. Last season, Castille became the first Alabama player to make two interceptions in a game since 2003 - and he did it twice. Duplicating last season's five interceptions may be difficult because few passes may be thrown his direction.
Player on the verge: OT Andre Smith: Starting all 12 games as a true freshman showed that Smith is very good. Given another year of preparation, he could prove special. Perhaps he can give the Tide's running game a much-needed boost. He had 62 knockdown blocks last year.
Impact newcomer: RB Terry Grant: A shifty and speedy running back, Grant played only 15 snaps last season before missing the final nine games with an injury. Alabama has no shortage of candidates to replace the departed Kenneth Darby, but Grant could be used in a variety of ways.
The big question: Can new coach Nick Saban repair a defense that lost a half dozen starters? The Crimson Tide returns almost all of its offense, so it figures to improve there. But the defense, especially the front seven, could be vulnerable after losing two starting linebackers and two tackles.
ARKANSAS
Spring practice starting date: March 13
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: RB Darren McFadden: The 2006 Heisman Trophy runner-up will enter the 2007 season as a favorite to win the prize. Will the Razorbacks find as many different ways to get him the ball now that former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has left for Tulsa?
Player on the verge: LB Freddie Fairchild: After starting nine games at linebacker as a freshman in 2005, Fairchild collected 12 tackles in two games last year before a knee injury shut him down for the rest of the season. Fairchild should be poised for a breakthrough season as he helps lead a linebacking corps that must replace Sam Olajubutu and Desmond Sims.
Impact newcomer: WR Marques Wade: This 6-foot-4 receiver might have made an impact last year if he hadn't gone down with turf toe during preseason workouts. Wade returns as a redshirt freshman and should help diversify a passing attack that relied almost solely on Marcus Monk last year.
The big question: Will the off-field soap opera carry into the season?: Arkansas has endured so much controversy and discord in the last couple of months that it's easy to forget this team won 10 games and captured the SEC Western Division title last year. You have to wonder whether all these unwanted headlines will lead to a lack of chemistry.
AUBURN
Spring practice starting date: Feb. 27
Spring game: March 17
Top returner: DE Quentin Groves: This Rivals.com third-team All-American provided huge performances in victories over Florida and Alabama. If he delivers efforts like those on a consistent basis, Groves could emerge as the nation's top pass rusher next fall.
Player on the verge: RB Brad Lester: The departure of Kenny Irons makes Lester the next person attempting to continue Auburn's tradition of quality running backs. Lester rushed for 510 yards and nine touchdowns while backing up Irons last season, but he could double that yardage total this year.
Impact newcomer: WR Tim Hawthorne: Somebody has to step in and replace Courtney Taylor, who led the Tigers with 54 catches for 704 yards last year. Hawthorne is a former four-star prospect who could contend for that open starting spot as a redshirt freshman.
The big question: Who will fill the holes on the line?: Left tackle King Dunlap is the only returning starter on an offensive line that must replace Rivals.com All-America guards Ben Grubbs and Tim Duckworth, center Joe Cope and right tackle Jonathan Palmer.
LOUISIANA STATE
Spring practice starting date: Feb. 23
Spring game: March 24
Top returner: DT Glenn Dorsey: He made the surprising decision to return after earning All-America honors last season. If he repeats his 2006 success, Dorsey should be one of the first five players taken in next year's NFL Draft.
Player on the verge: WR Brandon LaFell: Although LaFell caught only five passes last year, he sure made them count. He averaged 28 yards per reception and scored two touchdowns, including a 58-yard score in the Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Now that Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis have departed, LaFell should have more chances to show off his big-play ability.
Impact newcomer: RB Richard Murphy: This redshirt freshman's explosiveness should help him find a role in a backfield that already includes Keiland Williams, Alley Broussard and Jacob Hester.
The big question: How much will the Tigers miss JaMarcus Russell? Matt Flynn starred in a 2005 Peach Bowl victory and Ryan Perrilloux is a former five-star prospect. However, neither candidate is nearly as proven as Russell.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
Spring practice starting date: Feb. 26
Spring game: March 31
Top returner: WR Tony Burks: Despite a plague of injuries at quarterback, Burks still managed to catch 35 passes last year. He averaged a whopping 24.3 yards per grab and scored five touchdowns. His average will likely drop, but his number of catches and receiving yards should increase.
Player on the verge: SS Keith Fitzhugh: He has played in every game since arriving in Starkville, and logged 10 starts as a sophomore a year ago. His 59 tackles were the fourth most on the team, and he also had an interception. He helped hold South Carolina's Sidney Rice to a career-low two receptions.
Impact newcomer: WR Brandon McRae: A transfer who sat out last season, McRae led Morehead State in receiving as a true freshman. The Bulldogs can use some sure hands. Last season, the Bulldogs' second leading receiver managed just 25 catches.
The big question: Who still step in to fill three vacant positions in the defensive line? Titus Brown, who posted 14 tackles for loss in 2006, is set at one defensive end. However, the rest of the line is uncertain. The likely starters at defensive tackle are sophomore Quinton Wesley, who played primarily on special teams and was slowed by an ankle injury last year, and Kyle Love - who managed just seven tackles. Meanwhile, senior defensive end Avery Hannibal has just 24 career tackles. Depth is just as uncertain.
OLE MISS
Spring practice starting date: March 2
Spring game: April 7
Top returner: TB BenJarvus Green-Ellis: He sat out a season after transferring from Indiana but showed he was worth the wait. He rushed for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns and earned All-SEC recognition last season.
Player on the verge: T Michael Oher: The 6-foot-6, 322-pounder was rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 7 offensive line prospect coming out of high school three years ago. He received freshman All-American honors playing at right guard, but moved to left tackle last season. The Rebels are hopeful he'll reach his vast potential this year.
Impact newcomer: DB Ashlee Palmer: A former standout at Compton (Calif.) CC, Palmer did not play football in 2006. However, he will definitely be on the field for the Rebels next season. The 6-foot-2, 214-pounder could play at safety, receiver, tight end or linebacker.
The big question: Can Brent Schaeffer show he's an elite quarterback? He was a bitter disappointment a year ago while rushing for just 100 yards and completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes. He threw more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (nine). He has to be more consistent and make better decisions.



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