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SEC West Spring Practice Primer

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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There’s a lot of new blood in the division that will try to do what their predecessors couldn’t and take down the Crimson Tide.

The SEC West is home to six of the last nine national championships, but the division saw its eight-year stranglehold on the SEC Championship Game end last year when Auburn was blown out by Georgia.

The division is still the stronger of the two in the conference, but transition at its middle-tier programs has knocked the SEC West from its perch as the best division in college football. Alabama is still the king of college football, and Auburn has been to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls, but each of the other five programs have first or second-year head coaches. There’s a lot of new blood in the division that will try to do what their predecessors couldn’t and take down the Crimson Tide.

Spring practices kick off this week around the division, with Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss hitting the field. What should we be paying close attention to this spring? Let’s take a closer look at each of the seven teams in the SEC West.

ALABAMA

2017 Record: 13-1 (7-1 SEC); defeated Clemson in Sugar Bowl; defeated Georgia in CFP National Championship

Offensive Returning Starters: 7 (QB Jalen Hurts, RB Damien Harris, TE Hale Hentges, OT Jonah Williams, OG Lester Cotton, OG Matt Womack, C Ross Pierschbacher)

Defensive Returning Starters: 2 (DT Isaiah Buggs, LB Anfernee Jennings)

Practice Opens: Mar. 20

Spring Game: Apr. 21 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN)

What to Watch: While there likely won’t be a resolution until August, the Alabama quarterback battle will be the story of the offseason. This isn’t your cookie-cutter quarterback battle between new faces trying to replace a multi-year starter. The Jalen Hurts vs. Tua Tagovailoa competition is between a guy who won a national championship game and another who came one second away from winning a national championship game. Save a bad interception and an inexplicable sack, Tagovailoa was brilliant coming off the bench to replace an ineffective Hurts against Georgia, but those mistakes, despite his added jolt to the passing game, could cost him in an offense that demands ball security and avoiding negative plays. The defensive backfield is completely starting over with its top six players from 2017 all gone, but it’s hard to ever be concerned about an Alabama secondary.

ARKANSAS

2017 Record: 4-8 (1-7 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 9 (RB Devwah Whaley, WR Deon Stewart, WR Jonathan Nance, TE Austin Cantrell, TE Jeremy Patton, OT Brian Wallace, OT Colton Jackson, OG Johnny Gibson Jr., OG Hjalte Froholdt,)

Defensive Returning Starters: 7 (DE McTelvin Agim, DE T.J. Smith, DE Randy Ramsey, LB Dre Greenlaw, LB De’Jon Harris, CB Henre Toliver, S Josh Liddell)

Practice Opens: Mar. 1

Spring Game: Apr. 7 (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Square pegs, meet round holes. Chad Morris arrives from SMU hoping for a quick fix, but the Razorbacks have recruited for an entirely different offensive system. Sophomore Cole Kelley has adequate mobility, relatively speaking for a quarterback nearly 270 pounds, but he’s probably not the future for Morris, who inherited Tajh Boyd when he arrived at Clemson in 2011 and made his mark nationally as the Tigers offensive coordinator. I found the John Chavis hire as defensive coordinator to be uninspiring, so it will be interesting to see what the Hogs do on that side of the ball, which was atrocious a year ago. I would have preferred an outsider rather an SEC retread given Arkansas’ inherent recruiting challenges on defense, but Chavis should at least be able to cut down on big plays after the Razorbacks allowed 33 of 30 yards or longer in 2017.           

AUBURN

2017 Record: 10-4 (7-1 SEC); lost to UCF in Peach Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 6 (QB Jarrett Stidham, FB Chandler Cox, WR Darius Slayton, WR Nate Craig-Myers, WR Ryan Davis, OT Prince Tega Wanogho)

Defensive Returning Starters: 6 (DE Marlon Davidson, DT Dontavius Russell, DT Derrick Brown, LB Deshaun Davis, NB Jeremiah Dinson, CB Jamel Dean)

Practice Opens: Feb. 27

Spring Game: Apr. 7 (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: There is some reloading to do at running back and in the back seven, but the biggest concern on The Plains will be the offensive line. Four primary starters depart, as does position coach Herb Hand, who moved on to Texas after two seasons. A familiar face returns in J.B. Grimes, who led the Tigers offensive line in their last SEC title season in 2013. Is redshirt freshman Calvin Ashley ready to slide in at right tackle? How do the interior position sort out with a couple part-time starters back in Mike Horton and Marquell Harrell? For the Tigers to repeat in the SEC West, they’ll need their front to play like it did for most of 2017, not like the final two games when they barely cracked 200 combined yards on the ground on 75 carries in losses to Georgia and UCF.

LSU

2017 Record: 9-4 (6-2 SEC); lost to Notre Dame in Citrus Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 4 (WR Stephen Sullivan, TE Foster Moreau, OG Garrett Brumfield, OG Ed Ingram)

Defensive Returning Starters: 5 (DT Rashard Lawrence, LB Devin White, CB Greedy Williams, S John Battle, S Grant Delpit)

Practice Opens: Mar. 10

Spring Game: Apr. 21 (6 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: LSU is hitting the reset button again on offense after seeing nearly every major contributor depart and parting ways with offensive coordinator Matt Canada after one tumultuous season. Sophomore Myles Brennan and redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse will battle to replace Danny Etling under center. Brennan has some game experience from last season, but Narcisse may have more long-term upside. The offensive skill positions are starting from scratch, with the top two running backs and wide receivers both out the door, so it’s not a great situation for whoever wins the quarterback job. The defense suffers some key losses in the front seven, but the major worries in Baton Rouge are once again on offense.

OLE MISS

2017 Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 8 (WR A.J. Brown, WR D.K. Metcalf, WR DaMarkus Lodge, TE Dawson Knox, OT Greg Little, OG Javon Patterson, OG Alex Givens, C Sean Rawlings)

Defensive Returning Starters: 7 (DT Benito Jones, DT Josiah Coatney, LB Detric Bing-Dukes, CB Myles Hartsfield, CB Ken Webster, S Zedrick Woods, S Jaylon Jones)

Practice Opens: Feb. 27

Spring Game: Apr. 7 (2 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

What to Watch: The two consistent deficiencies for Ole Miss since their rise back to prominence, aside from the NCAA, have been the offensive line and linebackers. The former stabilized last year, as tackle Greg Little played close to the level of the five-star recruit that he once was. Linebacker, however, remains a huge problem. The Rebels simply haven’t recruited well enough at the position, and their one-year stopgap attempts have failed. Leading 2017 tackler DeMarquis Gates moves on, leaving only a couple of part-time starters returning in Donta Evans and Detric Bing-Dukes. This will be a critical spring for rising sophomore Mohamed Sanogo, who must be a significant contributor this fall after playing in 11 games and recording eight tackles as a freshman.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2017 Record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC); defeated Louisville in TaxSlayer Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 9 (QB Nick Fitzgerald, RB Aeris Williams, WR Keith Mixon, WR Jesse Jackson, TE Farrod Green, OT Stewart Reese, OG Darryl Williams, OG Deion Calhoun, C Elgton Jenkins)

Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (DT Jeffery Simmons, DT Braxton Hoyette, LB Montez Sweat, LB Gerri Green, LB Leo Lewis, CB Chris Rayford, S Brandon Bryant, S Mark McLaurin)

Practice Opens: Mar. 20

Spring Game: Apr. 21 (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: With Nick Fitzgerald not yet back from a November ankle injury, the installation of the new offense under head coach Joe Moorhead will be slowed a bit. Fitzgerald should be fine come September, but his activity in the spring will be limited to mental reps. The more interesting side of the ball is the defense, as Bob Shoop begins his third different SEC coordinator job. Technically, the Bulldogs will move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under Shoop, but with increasingly blurred lines between the two these days, there’s not a complete overhaul required. Shoop inherits a great situation with eight starters returning and perhaps the most talented defense the program has ever fielded.

TEXAS A&M

2017 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC); lost to Wake Forest in Belk Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 8 (QB Kellen Mond, RB Trayveon Williams, WR Jhamon Ausbon, OT Koda Martin, OT Keaton Sutherland, OG Ryan McCollum, OG Connor Lanfear, C Erik McCoy)

Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (DE Landis Durham, DT Kingsley Keke, LB Tyrel Dodson, LB Otaro Alaka, LB Buddy Johnson, CB Debione Renfro, CB Charles Oliver, S Derrick Tucker)

Practice Opens: Mar. 19

Spring Game: Apr. 14 (5 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: The Kellen Mond-Nick Starkel quarterback battle is interesting, but both sophomores are capable players who likely will both have a role for the 2018 Aggies. To me, the defense is more intriguing. While it will be nearly impossible this spring to measure the progress of Mike Elko’s units after Jimbo Fisher plucked him away from Notre Dame, a quick fix is expected given what he did in just one season with the Fighting Irish. The pass rush should be a strength, as four of the top five Aggies in sacks last season return, led by defensive end Landis Durham’s 10.5 quarterback drops in 2017. Give Fisher’s offense a competent defense, and this team will have a great chance to win nine games for the first time in the post-Johnny Manziel era.

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.