published Thursday, March 15th, 2012

SEC East teams' spring objectives

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (11) looks to throw a pass.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (11) looks to throw a pass.
Photo by Associated Press.

GEORGIA

Spring starts: Tuesday

Biggest plus: Aaron Murray is in his third year as the starting quarterback, and the defense could have 10 of its 11 projected starters prepping for the NFL draft this time next year. That scenario would occur if linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree bypass their senior seasons, which would leave end Garrison Smith as the only returnee for 2013. That's obviously getting ahead of things, but it does show that this year's defense is expected to be as good as any nationally.

Biggest challenge: The Bulldogs have three offensive line starters to replace, including former guard and tackle Cordy Glenn, a projected first-round pick, and former center and "glue guy" Ben Jones. Kenarious Gates, a starter at guard last season, is expected to get the first crack at Glenn's left tackle spot, and former Dalton High tackle Watts Dantzler is hoping to land a starting role as well. This area could have a new look this summer, when heralded tackle signee John Theus arrives.

Spring game: April 14


FLORIDA

Spring started: Wednesday

Biggest plus: Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina had statistically superior defenses to Florida last season, but finishing fifth in the league also meant finishing eighth nationally. The Gators allowed 299.5 yards a game and return everybody but tackle Jaye Howard, so expect to see an even better unit this year with Sharrif Floyd, Omar Hunter and Ronald Powell up front, Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins at linebacker and Matt Elam at safety.

Biggest challenge: The Gators would have led the nation in most offensive plays last season were it not for the other 119 Bowl Subdivision teams, so new offensive coordinator Brent Pease is assured of a busy spring. Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will vie for the starting quarterback job, while heading the tailback chase are Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown, who are not new to Gainesville but have yet to make an impact. The team's weakest area the past two seasons has been receiver, but if Pease can find the right skill pieces, he may have the league's best line -- headed by the tackle trio of Matt Patchan, Xavier Nixon and Chaz Green -- outside of Tuscaloosa.

Spring game: April 7


KENTUCKY

Spring starts: Wednesday

Biggest plus: The Wildcats were a wretched 118th in total offense last year (259.75 yards a game) after losing quarterback Mike Hartline, tailback Derrick Locke and receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews from the 2010 team. Their successors struggled to stay healthy and struggled in general, but quarterback Morgan Newton, tailbacks CoShik Williams and Josh Clemons and receiver La'Rod King return. Newton injured his shoulder in late October but delayed surgery until after the season, so he will be very limited this spring. Maxwell Smith will take the first-team reps.

Biggest challenge: The tidal wave of departures that ravaged Kentucky's offense last season is shredding the defense now. The Wildcats started three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs in most games a year ago, and six of their back eight must be replaced. The most notable departures are linebacker Danny Trevathan and linebacker/safety Winston Guy, who combined for 263 tackles and 25.5 tackles for loss last season.

Spring game: April 21


MISSOURI

Spring started: March 6

Biggest plus: Moving to another league comes with many unknowns, but the Tigers are entering the SEC with a lot of stability. Coach Gary Pinkel matches Georgia's Mark Richt in league longevity, with each entering a 12th season at his school, and Missouri has won at least eight games in each of the past six seasons, which is a feat matched only in the SEC by LSU. Along with Pinkel comes returning quarterback James Franklin, who threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns last season while completing 63.3 percent of his passes.

Biggest challenge: The Tigers finished fourth in the Big 12 last season in total defense, but that was only good for 61st nationally. They will have to improve significantly in order to challenge for titles in the SEC, and that will have to start with replacing defensive tackles Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno, who combined for 75 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss last year.

Spring game: April 14


SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring started: Tuesday

Biggest plus: Was former quarterback Stephen Garcia coming off or going on suspension last spring, or did he do both? For the first time in Steve Spurrier's eight years in Columbia, the Gamecocks appear to be very solid under center. Connor Shaw replaced Garcia and led South Carolina to a program-record 11 victories last season, and he threw for eight touchdowns and one interception in the final three games. The junior has built on that by setting offseason conditioning records for a Gamecocks quarterback in the 40-yard dash, bench press and power clean.

Biggest challenge: The Gamecocks will lose their share of talent in next month's NFL draft but should withstand the losses in most areas except receiver and cornerback. There is no outside receiving threat right now to replace Alshon Jeffery, and coaches are still waiting for promising redshirt sophomore Victor Hampton to emerge as a quality corner.

Spring game: April 14


TENNESSEE

Spring starts: March 26

Biggest plus: Tennessee's passing game has the ability to improve even with receiver Justin Hunter remaining sidelined from the torn ACL he suffered early last season. Da'Rick Rogers is the SEC's top returning catcher after amassing 1,040 yards last year, and joining the position is Cordarelle Patterson, a two-time All-American from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. All three receivers have definite NFL potential, and if Patterson catches on quickly this spring and Hunter is back to form in August, the Vols could pose plenty of problems once the season starts.

Biggest challenge: For the passing game to click, the Vols will need help from their running game. They have ranked last in the SEC in rushing for two straight years, and Marlin Lane, who averaged 23.3 yards a game and 3.7 yards a carry, is the team's top returning tailback. The offensive line is a concern, as is the linebacker situation, where A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt will have to go from overachieving freshmen to unit leaders.

Spring game: April 21


VANDERBILT

Spring starts: Friday

Biggest plus: The Commodores will be more familiar during the second go-round in James Franklin's system, which is 1-for-1 in bowl appearances, and return their top skill players offensively. Zac Stacy is the SEC's top returning rusher from last season with 1,193 yards, and Jordan Matthews had 778 receiving yards a year ago. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback but is expected to be challenged by Austyn Carta-Samuels, who sat out last season after transferring from Wyoming, where he was the Mountain West Conference freshman of the year in 2009 and had 2,094 total yards in 2010.

Biggest challenge: Vandy returns seven defensive starters from a unit that finished 18th nationally, but those who are gone will be sorely missed. Linebacker Chris Marve was a four-year starter who was named to the All-SEC freshman team before earning All-SEC first- or second-team honors his last three seasons. The secondary took a substantial hit with the departures of Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson.

Spring game: April 14

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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