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SEC West 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 West.

After a dominant first half of the decade, the SEC West slipped for a few years amidst turmoil at LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, and the chronic soap opera-esque shenanigans that go on at Auburn. However, now with some coaching stability in the division, the league has reclaimed its position as the unquestioned toughest division in college football.

The division has won nine of the last 10 SEC Championship Games, and it went 4-1 in bowl games last season. Three New Year’s Six bowl berths for the SEC West in 2019 is within reason, and there’s little reason to think Alabama won’t be back in the national championship game for a fifth straight year and seventh time in nine seasons.

Summer bodies are made in the winter, as many of us tell ourselves this time of year, and likewise, great football teams are made in the offseason. That includes spring practice, which gets underway this week. First up is Ole Miss, which takes the field for its first formal work since its Egg Bowl defeat on Thanksgiving Night.

Let’s take a look around the division as spring practice commences in the SEC West.

ALABAMA

2018 Record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC); defeated Oklahoma in Orange Bowl; lost to Clemson in CFP National Championship

Offensive Returning Starters: 6 (QB Tua Tagovailoa, WR Jerry Jeudy, WR De’Vonta Smith, WR Henry Ruggs, OT Jedrick Wills, OG Alex Leatherwood)

Defensive Returning Starters: 6 (DE Raekwon Davis, LB Anfernee Jennings, LB Dylan Moses, CB Patrick Surtain, S Xavier McKinney, STAR Shyheim Carter)

Practice Opens: Mar. 12

Spring Game: Apr. 13 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN)

What to Watch: Last season, the secondary was the unit to watch throughout the offseason after Alabama lost its top six contributors from the 2017 team. There isn’t a group this offseason that lacks any starting experience, but the offensive line does have some questions. Star left tackle Jonah Williams is off to the NFL early, and interior mainstays Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton have exhausted their eligibility. The Crimson Tide have two starters back on the right side in Wills and Leatherwood, but also have a new position coach with Brent Key leaving to return to his alma mater, Georgia Tech. A recognizable name to college football fans now leads the offensive line, as Nick Saban tabbed Kyle Flood to replace Key. Flood was the head coach at Rutgers for three seasons before being unceremoniously fired in 2015 after being involved in academic improprieties.

ARKANSAS

2018 Record: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 6 (RB Rakeem Boyd, WR Mike Woods, WR Deon Stewart, TE Austin Cantrell, OT Colton Jackson, C Ty Clary)

Defensive Returning Starters: 6 (DE McTelvin Agim, DT T.J. Smith, LB De’Jon Harris, CB Jarques McClellion, S Kamren Curl, NB D’Vone McClure)

Practice Opens: Mar. 1

Spring Game: Apr. 6 (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

What to Watch: 2018 was never going to be a good year in Fayetteville, but 2-10 was a certifiable disaster. Chad Morris failed to fit the square Bret Bielema pegs into the round holes of a spread offense, and the Hogs failed to win an SEC game. To help an offense that scored just 23 points over the final three games, Morris brought in a familiar face in graduate transfer quarterback Ben Hicks, who Morris coached at SMU in 2016 and 2017. Hicks is on campus and will go through spring work. John Chavis’ defense will be good enough to keep the Hogs competitive in at least half of their SEC games, but the offense has to take major strides for Arkansas to be able to think about a bowl game in the fall.         

AUBURN

2018 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC); defeated Purdue in Music City Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 7 (RB Kam Martin, WR Seth Williams, OT Prince Wanogho, OT Jack Driscoll, OG Mike Horton, OG Marquel Harrell, C Kaleb Kim)

Defensive Returning Starters: 7 (DE Marlon Davidson, DE Nick Coe, DT Derrick Brown, CB Noah Igbinogehne, S Jeremiah Dinson, S Daniel Thomas, NB Javaris Davis)

Practice Opens: Mar. 18

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

What to Watch: Hello, Bo Nix. Auburn hasn’t recruited and developed a productive quarterback of its own since Brandon Cox, whose final season was in 2007. Nix, who enrolled on The Plains last month, is the son of former Tigers signal-caller Patrick Nix, who led the Tigers to 21 straight wins in 1993 and 1994 under Terry Bowden. The younger Nix ranks as the top dual-threat quarterback in the country via the 247Sports Composite rankings, and he’ll battle Malik Willis to serve as Jarrett Stidham’s replacement. When the eyes of the Plainsmen aren’t on Nix, they’ll be focused on wide receiver and linebacker, which were hit hardest by departures. Both lines are loaded with experience.

LSU

2018 Record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC); defeated UCF in Fiesta Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 8 (QB Joe Burrow, WR Justin Jefferson, WR Ja’Marr Chase, WR Derrick Dillon, OT Saahdiq Charles, OT Austin Deculus, OG Damien Lewis, C Lloyd Cushenberry)

Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (DE Rashard Lawrence, DE Glen Logan, DT Breiden Fehoko, LB Michael Divinity, LB Jacob Phillips, CB Kary Vincent, CB Kristian Fulton, S Grant Delpit)

Practice Opens: Mar. 7

Spring Game: Apr. 6 (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: The roll of the NFL Draft early entry dice rarely seem to go the way of the Tigers, but LSU got some good news in January when Lawrence, Divinity and Fulton all announced that they would return to Baton Rouge. Linebacker Devin White and cornerback Greedy Williams are big losses, but those two were no-brainers to turn pro. What does that all mean? For the immediate future, it means limited question marks this spring. Finding a No. 2 running back emerging behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire would be nice, but every other position group is in a great state.

OLE MISS

2018 Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 3 (RB Scottie Phillips, OT Alex Givens, OG Ben Brown)

Defensive Returning Starters: 9 (DE Qaadir Shepard, DT Josiah Coatney, DT Benito Jones, LB Willie Hibbler, LB Mohamed Sanogo, CB Jalen Julius, CB Keidron Smith, S Myles Hartsfield, STAR Vernon Dasher)

Practice Opens: Feb. 26

Spring Game: Apr. 6 (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: After swimming for most of his first 18 months as a head coach, Matt Luke has put his stamp on the Ole Miss program, bringing in two new coordinators with Power Five head coaching experience in Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre. Rodriguez walks into the more difficult situation, as the Rebels are replacing their starting quarterback, three offensive line starters, and more than 75 percent of their receiving production. Elijah Moore and Braylon Sanders will be asked to pick up where A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, and D.K. Metcalf left off at wide receiver. There are still depth concerns on defense, but Luke and MacIntyre feel pretty good about an experienced starting eleven.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2018 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC); lost to Iowa in Outback Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 7 (RB Kylin Hill, WR Osirus Mitchell, WR Deddrick Thomas, TE Justin Johnson, OT Greg Eiland, OT Stewart Reese, OG Darryl Williams)

Defensive Returning Starters: 4 (LB Leo Lewis, LB Erroll Thompson, CB Cameron Dantzler, NB Brian Cole)

Practice Opens: Mar. 5

Spring Game: Apr. 13 (2 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

What to Watch: The linebacking corps is really good, but its potential won’t be maximized if Mississippi State can’t prevent a major drop-off in front of them. There isn’t another Jeffery Simmons or Montez Sweat on the roster, but the Bulldogs have to figure out a way to replace their production along the defensive line. It’s a big spring for Kobe Jones, a junior defensive end who to this point in his career is more known for his involvement in Ole Miss’ NCAA infractions case than for his production on the field in Starkville. Offensively, Keaton Thompson has seen enough game action the past two years that the departure of Nick Fitzgerald isn’t overly worrisome, especially with key contributors returning on every other offensive unit.

TEXAS A&M

2018 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC); defeated N.C. State in Gator Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters: 6 (QB Kellen Mond, WR Jhamon Ausbon, WR Quartney Davis, OT Dan Moore, OT Carson Green, OG Jared Hocker)

Defensive Returning Starters: 4 (DT Justin Madubuike, CB Charles Oliver, CB Debione Renfro, S Derrick Tucker)

Practice Opens: Mar. 20

Spring Game: Apr. 13 (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

What to Watch: Mike Elko took over a great situation when Jimbo Fisher plucked him away from Notre Dame a year ago to run the Aggies defense. He now faces a huge rebuild after the departure of seven starters and with the outstanding 2019 recruiting class probably not ready to make a major impact. There wasn’t a true star on last year’s Texas A&M defense, but you’re going to hear a lot of ex-Aggies’ names called on Day 2 and Day 3 of April’s NFL Draft. Trayveon Williams may have the most undervalued running back in the nation last year, and now Fisher’s offense may have to take a committee approach. There are plenty of viable options, but the spring should help establish a pecking order at running back heading into the fall.

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.