The SEC’s 10 Biggest Question Marks
By Matt Smith
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As we pass the halfway point between the end of the 2013 season and the start of 2014, where do the greatest concerns in the SEC lie?
Every coach follows the same script when assessing his team this time of year.
“We made a lot of progress in the spring, but we have a long way to go to get to where we want to be.”
For some SEC position groups, that road is much longer and windier than others. In an 85-scholarship world, not every unit on a team can have both elite talent and sufficient depth at every position. Injuries, attrition and misevaluations, in addition to the simple numbers game, always leave a team with at least one giant question mark as spring turns to summer and summer eventually turns to fall.
As we pass the halfway point between the end of the 2013 season and the start of 2014, where do the greatest concerns in the SEC lie? Let’s look at the conference’s 10 biggest question marks.
Alabama Defensive Backs
Nick Saban’s bread and butter has always been the secondary. While their numbers were still well above par in 2013, the Crimson Tide struggled against the pass in some big moments, most notably in losses to Auburn and Oklahoma. Alabama now must replace cornerbacks Deion Belue and John Fulton and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri while waiting on the status of cornerback Eddie Jackson. The sophomore suffered a torn ACL in April and could miss the entire season. The talent in the Tide’s secondary cannot be questioned with the likes of Landon Collins, Cyrus Jones and Geno Smith. However, their prospects for the fall can be.
Auburn Defensive Line
To say Auburn’s defense was simply along for the ride on the Tigers’ run to the national title game last year is not without merit. Of course, Auburn would likely not have finished 13 seconds short of a second championship had it not been for a phenomenal finish to the season by end Dee Ford. The star of the Senior Bowl, as well as four-year contributor Nosa Equae, have left the Plains. While there’s a nice group of seniors, most of the elite talent along the defensive front is young. That should make for some good position battles during the fall after injuries in the spring limited the development for the group as a whole. Junior college transfer Davonte Lambert has an opportunity to make an immediate impact.
Quarterback controversy in the SEC is not specific to LSU. Among conference title contenders, however, no quarterback situation is murkier than that in Baton Rouge. Zach Mettenberger’s departure seemingly paved the way for sophomore Anthony Jennings, who led the Tigers to an Outback Bowl victory over Iowa. Spring changed that tone, as true freshman Brandon Harris showed off his talent with three touchdown passes in the LSU spring game. The gap between the two is now narrow, if not non-existent. If LSU is to win 10 games for the sixth time in Les Miles’ eight seasons, one of the two will have to emerge.
Tennessee Offensive Line
The glass half-full line of thinking in Knoxville heading into the 2013 season was that veteran line play on both sides of the ball could override a dearth of skill position talent and lead the Vols to a winning season. That didn’t happen, and now the roles have reversed, with the concerns on Rocky Top lying in the trenches. All five starting offensive linemen have moved on, a rarity even in an era with so much nomadism due to transfers and early NFL entries. Junior guard Marcus Jackson is the only player with any significant experience. One notable junior college addition, Dontavius Blair, has to be good enough to crack the starting lineup at tackle in the fall.
Arkansas Defensive Line
2013 was a certifiable disaster for Arkansas. The Razorbacks failed to win an SEC game for the first time ever. If 2014 is to go better, it’ll have to come with the help of a youthful defensive line. Three of four starters must be replaced, led by defensive end Chris Smith, who threatened the school’s career sack record last season. Byran Jones and Robert Thomas also are gone, leaving end Trey Flowers to anchor a line lacking in experience. Tackle Darius Philon had a productive redshirt freshman season in a rotational role, but now must make the leap to a full-time player in the toughest division in college football.
Florida Wide Receivers
The lack of skill position talent in Gainesville in the Will Muschamp era is more than alarming; It’s Florida, for goodness sake. While recruiting at those spots tailed off late in the Urban Meyer era, Muschamp has done little to rectify the most glaring holes on his roster. A trio of sophomore wide receivers must flourish in new coordinator Kurt Roper’s system, which turned far less talented players into all-conference performers at Duke. Quinton Dunbar brings experience, but it’s up to Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Alvin Bailey to make this offense and allow Muschamp to return for a fifth season in 2015.
Texas A&M Linebackers
Even with a 20-6 record, it feels like Texas A&M left quite a bit on the table during the all-too-brief Johnny Manziel. That burden falls on the Aggies defense, which allowed 49, 33, 38, 45, 24, 41, 34, 28 and 48 points in the team’s nine games against major-conference competition. There are few answers on the entire A&M defense, but linebacker is a particular concern. The Aggies only lose one starter, Steven Jenkins, but the remainder of the linebacking corps have failed to show many signs that they can be the unit that turns the Aggies defense around. Sophomore Darian Claiborne was suspended for the spring. Senior Tommy Sanders was out injured. Help isn’t necessarily on the way either, as only two linebackers were signed in February.
Missouri Wide Receivers
Losing two receivers with careers as productive as Marcus Lucas’ and L’Damian Washington’s were was bad enough for Missouri. Then came the April bombshell that former No. 1 recruit Dorial Green-Beckham was dismissed from the team. Players responsible for 27 of the Tigers’ 31 receiving touchdowns last season are now gone. Seniors Jimmie Hunt and Bud Sasser have both been part of the rotation for the past two seasons, but must be more than just role players this fall for quarterback Maty Mauk. Texas transfer Darius White has one final chance to live up to the hype with which he arrived in college as a five-star recruit back in 2010.
Georgia Offensive Line
Despite suffering injuries at almost every other offensive position last season, Georgia was able to maintain a stable offensive line. Mainstays Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee all have left, requiring some retooling for offensive line coach Will Friend. Two-year starter John Theus, one of just two returning starters along with center David Andrews, shifted from right tackle to left during the spring to replace Gates. Redshirt sophomore Greg Pyke had an impressive spring, locking down one of the guard positions vacated by Burnette and Lee. There is only one (possibly two) positions to settle during fall camp, but with Andrews the only player back at his 2013 position, there are some issues to address here.
South Carolina Defensive Line
Yes, Jadeveon Clowney is gone. But one player, even one as freakish as Clowney, doesn’t make a unit. South Carolina also must replace Clowney’s fellow bookend, Chaz Sutton, and tackle Kelcy Quarles, who helped the team win 11 games in three consecutive seasons. Senior tackle J.T. Surratt is the lone returning defensive line starter for the Gamecocks. There’s junior Gerald Dixon. And there’s also junior Gerald Dixon, Jr. I don’t know anything about having a common name, but I’d imagine that it could get confusing for both the two Gerald Dixons and defensive line coach Deke Adams. The Gamecocks also received some bad news in the spring when four-star signee Dante Sawyer failed to qualify academically and headed to junior college.