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SEC West Spring Primer

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith's preview of spring ball for the SEC West's seven teams.

It’s March. For some SEC fanbases (notably one), that means it’s all basketball, all the time. For others, it’s the first full month of college baseball. For most, however, March means spring football. Its importance continues to dwindle with players on campus year-round, but don’t tell the coaches that the four-to-six weeks of practices don’t offer much value.

Among the seven SEC West teams, only Alabama and Texas A&M return their head coach and both coordinators. Change is a plenty with two new head coaches in the state of Mississippi with Q-ratings dramatically higher than their predecessors, a reload at LSU after an unforgettable championship season, and another fresh start at Arkansas.

The 2019 season ended with LSU at the front and center, and the Tigers will be the first SEC West team to hit the practice field this spring, doing so this coming Saturday. The other six teams will follow over the next two weeks. Before practices commence, let’s look and what we know and we have to learn around college football’s strongest division.

 

ALABAMA

2019 Record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC); defeated Michigan in Citrus Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters (5): RB Najee Harris, WR DeVonta Smith, OT Alex Leatherwood, OG Deonte Brown, OG Evan Neal

Defensive Returning Starters (4): NG D.J. Dale, LB Shane Lee, LB Christian Harris, CB Patrick Surtain

Practice Opens: Mar. 13

Spring Game: Apr. 18

What to Watch: In terms of a talent drain, it could have been a whole lot worse for Alabama. Sure, the Crimson Tide had their usual sizable crop of juniors leave early for the NFL, but some key starters, notably running back Najee Harris and left tackle Alex Leatherwood, delayed the professional ranks until 2021. As usual with a new toy, all eyes this spring will be on true freshman quarterback Bryce Young. The California native will compete with quasi-incumbent Mac Jones, who started four games last season, and redshirt freshman Taulia Tagovailoa. Few positions are more scrutinized than the quarterback at Alabama. Couple that with a trio of competitors that all have intrigue and name value, and we’ll likely have Nick Saban in “Quit asking!” mode very quickly.

 

ARKANSAS

2019 Record: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters (8): RB Rakeem Boyd, WR Mike Woods, WR Treylon Burks, WR Trey Knox, OT Myron Cunningham, OT Dalton Wagner, OG Ricky Stromberg, C Ty Clary

Defensive Returning Starters (6): DE Mataio Soli, LB Bumper Pool, CB Montaric Brown, CB Greg Brooks Jr., CB Jarques McCllelion, S Joe Foucha

Practice Opens: Mar. 16

Spring Game: Apr. 25

What to Watch: Everything. A new head coach with the energy of a teenager. Two well-known coordinators. A transfer quarterback who has started part of three different seasons in the SEC. 2020 is a year of hope for Arkansas and its loyal legion of fans, which was provided none of it during a current stretch of 24 SEC losses in 25 games. There’s a low ceiling with this roster, but if Sam Pittman and his staff can maximize it (which probably means 5-7), that bodes well for Pittman’s ability to turn Arkansas into a poor man’s LSU with a more hands-off approach to scheme and game planning a la Ed Orgeron. Florida transfer Feleipe Franks is already on campus and is likely to be the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback after the team had five different starters in 2019. If he clicks with new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, this offense has enough to be entertaining, if not all that effective. Quite simply, it’s a long climb back for Barry Odom’s defense, but having a former SEC head coach on staff should be a major benefit to Pittman.

 

AUBURN

2019 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC); lost to Minnesota in Outback Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters (3): QB Bo Nix, WR Seth Williams, WR Eli Stove

Defensive Returning Starters (5): DE Big Kat Bryant, DT Tyrone Truesdell, LB K.J. Britt, LB Owen Pappoe, S Christian Tutt

Practice Opens: Mar. 16

Spring Game: Apr. 11

What to Watch: Gus Malzahn wanted to call plays. Until he didn’t. And then he wanted to again. But now he doesn’t. Enter new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, a longtime acquaintance of Malzahn who also worked his way into major college football through the high school ranks and through Tulsa. Morris was a failure as a head coaching, go 4-20 at Arkansas, but he has the trust of Malzahn and the resume to suggest the Tigers offense can finally figure out rivals Georgia and LSU. He has the quarterback in rising sophomore Bo Nix, but not a whole lot else in terms of experience. Auburn wins big when it has a top running back – Tre Mason, Kerryon Johnson, and Boobie Whitlow. We’re not sure if Auburn has one on its roster right now after Whitlow’s surprising decision to transfer. Spring won’t provide a definitive answer, but it should tell us who Malzahn and Morris think the best candidate to emerge into one is.

 

LSU

2019 Record: 15-0 (8-0 SEC); defeated Oklahoma in Peach Bowl, defeated Clemson in CFP National Championship

Offensive Returning Starters (3): WR Ja’Marr Chase, WR Terrace Marshall, OT Austin Deculus

Defensive Returning Starters (5): DE Glen Logan, DT Tyler Shelvin, CB Derek Stingley, S Jacoby Stevens, S Kary Vincent

Practice Opens: Mar. 7

Spring Game: Apr. 18

What to Watch: Championships breed change. It’s happened to Alabama many times over, and now it’s happening at LSU after the Tigers’ historic 15-0 season. Longtime NFL coordinator Scott Linehan is the new partner of Baton Rouge mainstay Steve Ensminger in directing the LSU offense, while fiery former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini returns to the bayou for a second stint as defensive coordinator after winning a national championship there in 2007. As far as the roster, the losses are both sizable and significant. Does junior Myles Brennan have the confidence of the staff now that he’s in line to be the No. 1 quarterback? Is John Emery ready to be an every-down running back as sophomore? Ed Orgeron has recruited very well, but can all the talent be molded together in the same, magical way that it was a year ago?

 

OLE MISS

2019 Record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters (7): QB John Rhys Plumlee, WR Elijah Moore, WR Jonathan Mingo, WR Dontario Drummond, OG Royce Newman, OG Ben Brown, C Eli Johnson

Defensive Returning Starters (5): LB Jacquez Jones, LB Lakia Henry, LB Sam Williams, CB Keidron Smith, S Jon Haynes

Practice Opens: Mar. 17

Spring Game: Apr. 18

What to Watch: There’s energy around the Ole Miss program for the first time in the post-Hugh Freeze era. That’s what Lane Kiffin brings. His first task will be deciding on a quarterback, but primary 2019 starter John Rhys Plumlee is spending most of the spring playing baseball. Sophomore Matt Corral boomeranged back to Oxford after Kiffin arrives, as he’s a better fit with Kiffin than he was with former offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez. The defensive line is completely starting over, with the strength of the defense undoubtedly being the linebackers, a unit that returns not only three starters but also 2018 leading tackler MoMo Sanogo, who missed almost all of 2019 with a broken ankle. There appears to be enough talent for Ole Miss to be a fun team to watch, but there might not be enough for the Rebels to improve their record very much.

 

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2019 Record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC); lost to Louisville in Music City Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters (5): RB Kylin Hill, WR Osirus Mitchell, OT Greg Eiland, OG Dareuan Parker, OG Stewart Reese

Defensive Returning Starters (4): DE Marquiss Spencer, DT Jaden Crumedy, LB Errol Thompson, S C.J. Morgan

Practice Opens: TBD

Spring Game: Apr. 11

What to Watch: Despite being known for his Air Raid passing attack, new head coach Mike Leach might be prescient to rely on a running game led by the SEC’s most productive running back in 2019, Kylin Hill. Leach did land a big-time grad transfer at quarterback in Stanford’s K.J. Costello, but he won’t arrive in Starkville until the summer. Third-year starter Osirus Mitchell leads the way at receiver, but there’s not much behind him, with junior Austin Williams’ 22 career catches the second-most among returning receivers. Defensively, coordinator Zach Arnett is a Rocky Long protégé who takes over a unit with key losses on all three levels. Leach has made of his career out of doing more with less. He begins his Mississippi State tenure in a familiar position of question marks and uncertainty.

 

TEXAS A&M

2019 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC); defeated Oklahoma State in Texas Bowl

Offensive Returning Starters (8): QB Kellen Mond, RB Isaiah Spiller, WR Jhamon Ausbon, TE Jalen Wydermyer, OT Dan Moore, OT Carson Green, OG Jared Hocker, OG Kenyon Green

Defensive Returning Starters (6): DE Tyree Johnson, DT Bobby Brown, LB Anthony Hines, LB Buddy Johnson, CB Myles Jones, S Demani Richardson

Practice Opens: Mar. 23

Spring Game: Apr. 18

What to Watch: 2020 was always the year Aggies fans were pointing to. Some early NFL departures tempered the mood a bit, but this roster is good enough to win double-digit games for the first time in eight years, and the schedule is much friendlier. Kellen Mond may never be a superstar, but he’s now a 30-game starter and is now fully ingrained in Jimbo Fisher’s offense. He’ll need a couple new targets to emerge, but has an experienced line in front of him. Replacing Justin Madubuike on the interior of the defensive line is spring’s biggest priority for Mike Elko’s defense. The back seven is in pretty good shape, but the Aggies did lose starting cornerback Debione Renfro to the NFL and starting safety Leon O’Neal to the transfer portal.

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.