With the success of Alabama, the persistence of Ole Miss and the desire of Texas A&M and Auburn to climb out of the cellar, all eyes have been focused on the SEC West. But don’t neglect what the SEC East may have in store this season. Here’s an update by Randy Capps at Saturday Down South.
Spring practices are underway (or at least will be pretty soon) across the SEC. It’s a chance for a sneak peek at how your favorite team will shape up for the 2016 season.
Here’s a look at the biggest strengths and weaknesses for each SEC East team heading into the spring:
Strength — Running back: Last year’s starter, Kelvin Taylor, bolted early for the NFL, but the cupboard is far from bare at the position. Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett were both highly-touted recruits in the 2015 class, and both got their feet wet last fall.
JUCO transfer Mark Thompson, a 1,300-yard rusher at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College, is also on hand to help carry the load. There’s more than enough talent here to absorb the loss of Taylor.
Weakness — Quarterback: The Gators’ quarterback problems are well documented, but coach Jim McElwain at least has a few more options at his disposal for his second year in charge in Gainesville.
Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby, Oregon State and Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio and a pair of true freshmen — Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks — will all get the chance to be the solution this spring.
Strength — Secondary: All four starters return from the Bulldogs’ secondary — a unit that led the conference in passing defense last fall (156.5 yards per game).
Junior safety Dominick Sanders is the headliner after tying for the league lead with six interceptions last fall, but Quincy Mauger, Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish are also capable performers.
Weakness — Kicker: For the first time in 10 years, there are no scholarship kickers on the roster. It’s not quite as dire as it sounds, since preferred walk-on Rodrigo Blankenship actually kicked in the U.S. Army All-American Game.
Still, the fact that coach Kirby Smart is still courting kickers has to be at least a little concerning.
Strength — Running back: The four leading rushers from last season all return, giving the Wildcats plenty of options at the position.
Stanley “Boom” Williams led the way with 855 yards and six touchdowns, but Jojo Kemp (555 yards, 6 TD), Mikel Horton (313 yards, 3 TD) and Sihiem King (127 yards, 1 TD) also add a tremendous amount of depth.
Weakness — Quarterback: With the transfers of Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips, the job fell to Drew Barker, who had a cup of coffee as the starter late last season.
JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson II will provide a little spring competition at the position, and based on the buzz out of Lexington on Signing Day, he’ll get a fair chance to win the job.
Strength — Defensive line: Defensive ends Walter Brady and Charles Harris each had seven sacks last fall while tackles Terry Beckner Jr., Josh Augusta and Rickey Hatley did a good job plugging the middle.
All of them return in 2016, meaning that the pieces are in place for either a 3-4 or a 4-3 alignment for the Tigers under new coordinator DeMontie Cross, a former Tigers safety and teammate of Barry Odom.
Weakness — Offensive line: The bad news is that four of the five starters are gone. The good news is that the unit didn’t play all that well for most of the year.
New offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, formerly of Arkansas State, will have his hands full crafting a new starting five. There is, however, plenty of room for improvement after allowing 30 sacks and rushing for a league-low 115 yards per game last season.
Strength — Linebacker: Skai Moore’s decision to put off entering the NFL Draft may have disappointed his barber, but it made the linebacking corps one of the few stable positions on the roster.
Moore led the way with 111 tackles and four interceptions, but T.J. Holloman (63 tackles) and Jonathan Walton (42 tackles) also bring starting experience to spring practice.
Weakness — Skill positions: There are questions at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. True freshmen and inexperienced returners will provide some of the answers.
There was a heavy infusion of talent in this freshman class, and more than a few of them will play key roles for the Gamecocks this fall.
Strength — Defensive line/linebackers: Six of the seven who started the bowl win over Northwestern return. The one player that doesn’t, tackle Owen Williams, will be replaced by a former five-star recruit in Kahlil McKenzie.
There’s talent all over, led by end Derek Barnett and linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. The secondary must replace two starters, which could mean more playing time for Evan Berry, but overall there are very few questions on this roster — on paper.
Weakness — High expectations: Tennessee will be a trendy pick to win the SEC East, and some will even suggest that the playoffs are a possibility.
How this team, the same one that struggled to win close games early last season, handles that sort of praise will be one of the more interesting SEC storylines in 2016.
Strength — Running back: Ralph Webb has a shot of leaving Nashville as the school’s all-time leading rusher. He put up 1,152 yards and five scores last fall, and needs just 1,079 yards to overtake Zac Stacy for the top spot in school history.
Josh Crawford, who had just 18 carries as a freshman, will try to cement the backup role in the spring.
Weakness — Quarterback: Kyle Shurmur overtook Johnny McCrary for the starting spot late last season, and now that McCrary has transferred, Shurmur is the undisputed starter heading into 2016.
His numbers were below average, as he connected on fewer than 43 percent of his passes last fall, but he did throw more touchdown passes (5) than interceptions (3).