The Crimson Tide's progress pleased coach Nick Saban, who won't be lacking for leaders this fall.
Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and C.J. Mosley could comprise the SEC's best linebacker trio in recent memory, with Hightower heading the bunch. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound redshirt junior amassed 69 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last season after playing three full games in 2009 before tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament.
"I feel a lot better," Hightower said after the A-Day game. "I just feel like my old self. I'm back in shape and my weight is down, and I'm playing a lot faster. It feels great after all the hard work I put in."
Saban said the defense played more as a unit this spring than it did last season.
With quarterback Greg McElroy, tailback Mark Ingram and receiver Julio Jones preparing for next week's NFL draft, the new offensive leader is tailback Trent Richardson. Last season, Richardson rushed for 700 yards on 112 carries, or 6.2 yards per carry.
"He's been waiting around for a couple of years," guard Barrett Jones said. "Let's face it - he would've started anywhere else in the nation, but he's been such a great teammate and waited his turn. I think he's going to be rewarded for that patience.
"He's going to step up and have a great season, and we're looking forward to doing our part in helping out with that."
Although Alabama and LSU are likely to be the league's highest-ranked teams in the preseason, it may not be wise to overlook the Razorbacks.
The Hogs will be breaking in new starting quarterback Tyler Wilson, but they return tailback Knile Davis, who rushed for 1,322 yards last season, and a receiving corps headed by Jarious Wright, Greg Childs and Joe Adams. Wright had five catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, which had a record crowd of 42,000.
Coach Bobby Petrino has gone 5-7, 8-5 and 10-3 his first three seasons and is more comfortable in Fayetteville than ever before.
"We've actually been working on our playbook and putting things together," Petrino said. "We flipped on some video from our first year here, and we're obviously a much better football team. It's good that our players and our coaches understand how we're going to work.
"The standards have been set on what we expect in practice and for our preparation, and that allows you to go out there and get better every day."
Need a breakout player for 2011 in the SEC? Try Tigers sophomore tailback Spencer Ware.
The 5-11, 225-pounder from Cincinnati did a little bit of everything last season, collecting 73 yards on 14 rushes and 84 yards on eight receptions and catching Auburn by surprise with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Rueben Randle. This spring, he proved a viable replacement to Stevan Ridley by capping productive practices with 94 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries in the spring game.
"He handled the competition well, and I think he looks forward to it," coach Les Miles said. "He looks forward to it when it's his teammates, and he looks forward to it when it's a defense he can run the football against. He's got great ball skills, and he's a very physical back who can make cuts.
"I think if Spencer Ware continues on the path that he's on, he will have a very strong career here at LSU."
Defensively, the Tigers had to replace their top player at every level following the departures of tackle Drake Nevis, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and cornerback Patrick Peterson. Kevin Minter, an Atlanta-area sophomore, will supplant Sheppard, while Michael Brockers, Josh Downs and Bennie Logan are the top three tackles.
Tyrann Mathieu, who was outstanding as a true freshman last season, is not only replacing Peterson but inheriting his No. 7 jersey.
Rebels coach Houston Nutt is no stranger to playing freshmen, having relied on quarterback Casey Dick and tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones when he was at Arkansas in 2005.
This year, he already is pointing to linebacker C.J. Johnson, defensive tackle Uriah Grant, defensive backs Aaron Garbutt and Senquez Golson, and receivers Nickolas Brassell, Donte Moncrief and Tobias Singleton as newcomers who could help way sooner than later. Johnson, a consensus top-25 national prospect, could be starting the opener after D.T. Shackleford was lost for the season with a right ACL tear this spring.
"C.J. Johnson looks like a sophomore in college physically," Nutt said. "We're very thin at corner. This will probably be the biggest, as far as the number of freshmen who will play, that we've had in a while."
The Rebels were a disaster defensively last season, but Shackleford was a bright spot, leading the unit with five sacks as a sophomore. He had become the leader this spring, but Nutt said defensive ends Wayne Dorsey, Kentrell Lockett and Jason Jones have that role now.
"D.T. just took complete ownership and was just unbelievable in the way he went about things," Nutt said.
Chris Relf quarterbacked the Bulldogs to a 9-4 record last season that included wins over Georgia, Florida and Michigan, but third-year coach Dan Mullen has not anointed him as this year's starter. Relf competed this spring with Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre, Brett Favre's nephew.
"I don't know if Chris separated himself from all the other guys, but he also has the experience and has played in the games and has done nothing to not be our top quarterback at this point," Mullen said.
The biggest challenge this spring was finding a replacement for defensive end Pernell McPhee, who is expected to be a third- or fourth-round selection in next week's draft. Vying for his spot are senior Sean Ferguson and juniors Shane McCardell and Trevor Stigers.
"We're still young out there at that position," Mullen said. "Pernell is a guy that's going to go on now and play in the NFL, and you just don't always replace those guys with somebody else."
At the start of last season, Nick Bell would have been the likely successor to McPhee, but Bell died in November from a rare form of cancer.