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SEC East Spring Practice Primer

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith breaks down everything you need to know about spring practice in the SEC East.

The SEC East was divided nicely into tiers in 2018. Georgia was the head of the class once again. Kentucky and Florida were solid, top-15 teams. Missouri and South Carolina were up-and-down top-30 teams. Tennessee and Vanderbilt brought up the rear for the second straight year.

Will 2019 be another Bulldogs runaway? It may seem that way, but experience resides in the middle and lower classes of the league, with Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky all returning no more than 12 starters each. Is there enough talent in the pipeline for the top of the division to maintain their perch?

We’ll begin to find that out during the spring. South Carolina and Vanderbilt will hold their first of 15 workouts on Wednesday, and the other teams will soon follow suit as the calendar turns to March. Before the teams return to the field, let’s take a look around the SEC East and see what the division’s seven teams hope to discover over the next two months.

FLORIDA

2018 Record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC); defeated Michigan in Peach Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 5 (QB Feleipe Franks, WR Tyrie Cleveland, WR Van Jefferson, WR Josh Hammond, C Nick Buchanan)

Defensive Returning Starters: 7 (DE Jabari Zuniga, DT Kyree Campbell, LB David Reese, CB Trey Dean, CB C.J. Henderson, S Donovan Stiner, S Brad Stewart)

Practice Opens: TBD

Spring Game: Apr. 13 (1 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alternate)

What to Watch: It’s been a rarity of late in Gainesville, but it’s safe to say there won’t be much of a quarterback competition at Florida this spring. Feleipe Franks shook off a midseason slump to lead the Gators to four straight wins to close the season, highlighted by a 17-point comeback against South Carolina. The redshirt junior should hold off rising sophomore Emory Jones. The focus of the spring will be on the offensive line. After finally ending a multi-year streak of shaky offensive line play in 2018, the Gators now must find four new starters. While each level of the defense lost a key early entrant to the NFL Draft (DE Jachai Polite, LB Vosean Joseph, and CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson), there’s still plenty of experienced talent returning.

GEORGIA

2018 Record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC); lost to Texas in Sugar Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 6 (QB Jake Fromm, WR Jeremiah Holloman, OT Andrew Thomas, OT Isaiah Wilson, OG Solomon Kindley, OG Cade Mays)

Defensive Returning Starters: 6 (DT Julian Rochester, DT Tyler Clark, LB Walter Grant, CB Richard LeCounte, S J.R. Reed, S Tyson Campbell)

Practice Opens: TBD

Spring Game: Apr. 20 (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Who will Jake Fromm be throwing to in the fall? The receiving corps suffers some huge losses, as only 38 percent of the Dawgs’ 2018 receiving yards came from players who are returning. Jeremiah Holloman will be tasked to be the No. 1 receiver after a 24-catch sophomore season a year ago. Georgia still isn’t sure what it has in another former 5-star recruit, Demetris Robertson, who only touched the ball four times as a sophomore after transferring from Cal. 5-star recruit George Pickens should play right away, but he won’t arrive in Athens until the summer

KENTUCKY

2018 Record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC); defeated Penn State in Citrus Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 5 (QB Terry Wilson, WR Lynn Bowden, OT E.J. Price, OG Logan Stenberg, C Drake Jackson)

Defensive Returning Starters: 5 (DE Calvin Taylor, DT Adrian Middleton, DT Quinton Bohanna, LB Kash Daniel, LB Boogie Watson)

Practice Opens: TBD

Spring Game: Apr. 12 (6 p.m., SEC Network)

What to Watch: There’s a lot of experience and star power leaving Lexington. Running back Benny Snell and edge rusher Josh Allen were two of the most decorated players in modern Kentucky football, but both are now off to the NFL. A veteran secondary led for the last few seasons by recruits from the initial surge early in the Mark Stoops era will be starting over. With a pretty stout front seven, the greatest concern should be on offense, especially with the deficiencies that the Wildcat’s 10-3 season was able to mask. Without Snell, the passing game must expand. Wilson only had to throw an average of 21 passes per game last season. Keep an eye on rising junior wideout Josh Ali.

MISSOURI

2017 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC); lost to Oklahoma State in Liberty Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 7 (WR Jalen Knox, WR Johnathan Johnson, TE Albert Okwuegbunam, OT Yasir Durant, OG Tre’Vour Wallace-Sims, C Trystan Colon-Castillo)

Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (DE Akial Byers, DE Chris Turner, DT Walter Palmore, LB Cale Garrett, CB DeMarkus Acy, CB Christian Holmes, S Tyree Gillespie)

Practice Opens: Mar. 4

Spring Game: Apr. 13 (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

What to Watch: Despite the shocking news earlier this month that the Tigers will be ineligible for the postseason this fall, the overly harsh ruling from the NCAA did unite the Missouri community. Motivation shouldn’t be a major concern, despite knowing that the season will end on Thanksgiving weekend, but replacing one of the two best quarterbacks in school history in Drew Lock is. That’s why Mizzou pushed hard to land Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant, and the Tigers now hand the keys to a player who led the purple and orange Tigers to the No. 1 ranking in the final College Football Playoff rankings in 2017. Derek Dooley’s offense is going to look different with the change in skill set from Lock to Bryant, and the two will need every bit of the next six months to ensure they’re in sync come autumn,

SOUTH CAROLINA

2018 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC); lost to Virginia in Belk Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 7 (QB Jake Bentley, RB Rico Dowdle, WR Bryan Edwards, WR Shi Smith, OT Dylan Wonnum, OG Darius Hutcherson, C Donnell Stanley)

Defensive Returning Starters: 7 (DE D.J. Wonnum, DT Javon Kinlaw, DT Keir Thomas, LB T.J. Brunson, LB Sherrod Greene, LB Daniel Fennell, CB Jaycee Horn)

Practice Opens: Feb. 27

Spring Game: Apr. 6 (Noon ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Did the Gamecocks max out in their 9-4 2017 season? In all honesty, probably, especially with Florida looking like Florida again, but there still should be optimism in Columbia with Bentley back for a fourth season as the starting quarterback. Every unit suffers some losses from the 2018 team, but none stick out as major question marks. The right side of the offensive line needs some new starters, and the secondary has some work to do. However, a Will Muschamp defense rarely disappoints at the back end. This roster has a lack of true difference-makers, but there’s an aura of stability in the program, a far cry from both the end of the Steve Spurrier era and Muschamp’s failed tenure at Florida.

TENNESSEE

2018 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 10 (QB Jarrett Guarantano, RB Ty Chandler, WR Marquez Callaway, WR Josh Palmer, WR Jauan Jennings, TE Dominic Wood-Anderson, OT Drew Richmond, OG Jerome Carvin, OG Nathan Niehaus, C Ryan Johnson)

Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (LB Deandre Johnson, LB Darrell Taylor, LB Daniel Bituli, LB Darren Kirkland Jr., CB Bryce Thompson, CB Alontae Taylor, CB Baylen Buchanan, S Nigel Warrior)

Practice Opens: Mar. 7

Spring Game: Apr. 13 (6 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Tennessee returns players responsible for 94 percent of its yards from scrimmage in 2018, so the starting position battles this spring and summer will be minimal. That said, after a 5-7 season that ended in two blowout losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, status quo won’t be accepted on Rocky Top. Jeremy Pruitt stole Jim Chaney from Georgia to run the Vols’ offense. Chaney’s experience should bode well for Guarantano, a fourth-year junior who is a capable player that hasn’t yet put all the pieces together. Defensively, Tennessee is mostly set at linebacker and defensive back, but the defensive line is a question mark. Pruitt signed two JUCO defensive linemen, but they won’t arrive until the summer.

VANDERBILT

2018 Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC); lost to Baylor in Texas Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 8 (RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, WR Kalija Lipscomb, WR C.J. Bolar, WR Chris Pierce, TE Jared Pinkney, OT Devin Cochran, OG Edigio DellaRipa, OG Cole Clemens)

Defensive Returning Starters: 5 (DE Dayo Odeyingbo, DT Drew Birchmeier, LB Dimitri Moore, S Frank Coppet, S Tae Daley)

Practice Opens: Feb. 27

Spring Game: Mar. 31 (Noon ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Bringing back eight starters on offense would seemingly bode well for the Commodores, but they’re replacing four-year starting quarterback Kyle Shurmur and coordinator Andy Ludwig, who moved on to Utah. Derek Mason stayed in-house with quarterbacks coach Gerry Gdowski replacing Ludwig, but he did look elsewhere to replace Shurmur. Ball State graduate transfer Riley Neal has enrolled and will compete with sophomore Deuce Wallace this spring. Wallace was suspended for the 2018 season, so he’ll be working his way out of the doghouse. Neal should have an edge, having thrown 434 career passes at Ball State, including playing at Notre Dame last year the week before Vanderbilt did. Despite the contrast in experience, this should be one of the SEC’s few true quarterback competitions this offseason.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.