With spring football wrapped up and the start of another season just four months away, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned and what we still need to learn for each team in the SEC.
What did we find out about the quarterback situations at LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, among other schools? How will Georgia replace all the talent it lost on defense? What does Alabama need to do to return to the top of the heap? Alex Scarborough and Chris Low break it all down.
What we learned this spring: For all the talk about what he wasn’t last season, Stetson Bennett proved that he’s a championship quarterback, and that was only reinforced this spring. He’s also going to have a few prime targets at tight end, as LSU transfer Arik Gilbert showed that he’s ready for a breakout season after sitting out last season for personal reasons. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Gilbert is going to be a matchup nightmare for defenses, and when Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington — both of whom missed the spring practices with injuries — are added to the mix, good luck to teams trying to cover the Dawgs’ tight ends in 2022.
What we need to learn by Week 1: Nobody is going to feel sorry for Georgia because of all the dynamic defenders the Dawgs are losing to the NFL, particularly in the front seven. Eight players from last season’s generational defense are headed to the NFL, with five taken in the first round. That’s a ton of talent exiting, even for a program that has recruited as well as Kirby Smart & Co. Who are the emerging stars on this next Georgia defense? There are plenty of candidates, and it helps to have a player as talented as defensive tackle Jalen Carter returning. But there are gaps to fill for the defending national champs on defense, which should make for a competitive preseason camp.
What we learned this spring: There’s no quarterback drama in Gainesville as Billy Napier takes over in his first season as head coach of the Gators. It’s Anthony Richardson‘s job — case closed. Richardson battled injuries a year ago and spent much of the season as a backup to Emory Jones, who has since entered the transfer portal. The 6-4, 237-pound Richardson showed off his arm strength and other physical skills this spring. As important as Richardson’s talent is for Florida’s offense, the fact that there will be no guessing as to who the Gators’ quarterback will be should make for a smoother transition for the new coaching staff.
What we need to learn by Week 1: Stopping the run was a problem for Florida last season, and there were heavy losses this offseason across the defensive line, both to the NFL and the transfer portal. Maybe that’s not a bad thing given that Florida finished 85th nationally a year ago in stopping the run (allowing 163.9 yards per game). Either way, the Gators are going to be counting on a bunch of new faces and younger players both at defensive tackle and defensive end in 2022. It’s not like Florida hasn’t recruited well at those positions. The real issue will likely be depth, more specifically creating depth during preseason camp.
What we learned this spring: As coach Mark Stoops has continued to elevate Kentucky’s program to heights the Wildcats haven’t enjoyed in decades, the offense has continued to improve. The return of quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez gives UK one of the best one-two punches in the SEC, and it’s always a plus to have a veteran quarterback returning. The loss of big-play receiver Wan’Dale Robinson to the NFL means other receivers will need to step up, but Stoops is optimistic that the Wildcats’ offense will be even more balanced and creative in 2022 with new coordinator Rich Scangarello coming over from the NFL, where he was the San Francisco 49ers‘ quarterbacks coach.
What we need to learn by Week 1: The Wildcats were able to keep defensive coordinator Brad White after LSU and coach Brian Kelly made a run at him, which was a huge win for the Big Blue. Kentucky finished fourth in the SEC in scoring defense a year ago (21.7 points per game), but the jury is still out on whether the Wildcats will be any better at stopping stronger passing games, especially with top pass-rusher Josh Paschal gone. In its three losses last season to Georgia, Mississippi State and Tennessee, Kentucky allowed 910 passing yards, eight touchdown passes and had no interceptions (with opposing quarterbacks completing 82.2% of their passes). Making matters worse, the Wildcats tied for 125th nationally in turnover margin. They forced only 12 turnovers and turned it over 23 times.
What we learned this spring: Regardless of who wins the starting quarterback job, he should be surrounded by plenty of talent at the skill positions. Five-star receiver Luther Burden looked the part this spring after enrolling early, and he wasn’t the only one to impress. Sophomore Dominic Lovett will play more in the slot, while returning receivers Barrett Banister, Tauskie Dove and Chance Luper all had touchdown catches in the spring game. Stanford transfer Nathaniel Peat is the favorite to replace Tyler Badie as the Tigers’ feature back.
What we need to learn by Week 1: Most eyes will be on the quarterback competition between sophomore Brady Cook and redshirt freshman Tyler Macon, but the Tigers’ defense under first-year coordinator Blake Baker is a more pressing question. Several veteran players, particularly in the secondary, were missing this spring while recovering from injuries. Missouri added a few players who should help via the transfer portal, but it’s a unit that needs to be considerably better if the Tigers are going to enjoy their first winning season since 2018. They finished 113th nationally a year ago in scoring defense (33.8 points per game) and 106th in total defense (434.7 yards per game).
What we learned this spring: After starting four different quarterbacks a year ago, the Gamecocks have their starting QB for the 2022 season. Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler went through spring practice and drew rave reviews from his new teammates about his ability to make big throws down the field, put the ball in tight windows and the way he came in and let his work ethic and performance do his talking. Rattler will give the Gamecocks a dimension at quarterback they haven’t had in some time, and while the expectations will be off the charts, he’s highly motivated to prove that he’s truly one of the country’s elite quarterbacks.
What we need to learn by Week 1: The Gamecocks still need to prove that they can run the ball better than they did a year ago, particularly around the goal line and in other short-yardage situations. All five offensive line starters from last season are back, but the Gamecocks’ issues in running the ball weren’t all on the guys up front. South Carolina ranked 95th nationally a year ago in yards per carry (3.78) and scored just nine rushing touchdowns in 13 games. MarShawn Lloyd and Juju McDowell are the returning running backs, but Christian Beal-Smith transferred in from Wake Forest after leading the Demon Deacons in rushing last season.
What we learned this spring: The Vols’ offense was outstanding in Year 1 under coach Josh Heupel, especially once Hendon Hooker established himself as the starting quarterback. With Hooker back for a second season in the same system and with the same coaches, he demonstrated this spring that he has a chance to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Hooker threw 31 touchdown passes and just three interceptions a year ago, and with an entire offseason for the Vols’ passing game to develop, they should be able to broaden their attack and do even more next season, especially with top target Cedric Tillman back.
What we need to learn by Week 1: The majority of Tennessee’s defensive starters are back, although tackle Matthew Butler and cornerback Alontae Taylor were key losses. Either way, the Vols have to find a way to get off the field on third down and not give up as many costly plays on that down. They ranked 101st nationally in third-down defense a year ago and were especially porous on third down in close losses to Pittsburgh, Ole Miss and Purdue. It remains to be seen how much more effective Tennessee will be in pressuring the quarterback, and the Vols also need to prove they can be better in the secondary in terms of giving up big plays. They tied for 109th nationally last season by allowing 49 passes of 20 or more yards.
What we learned this spring: There’s still some sorting out to do at the quarterback position, as neither Ken Seals nor Mike Wright established himself as the front-runner to win the job. Seals and Wright combined to throw just 13 touchdown passes a year ago compared to 15 interceptions, but the Commodores need to play better around whoever the quarterback is next season. Vanderbilt signed three quarterbacks in its 2022 class, including three-star AJ Swann, who shouldn’t be counted out in the quarterback chase. He threw a touchdown pass in the spring game to fellow freshman Jayden McGowan.
What we need to learn by Week 1: It has been a recurring theme for Vanderbilt going back decades and will again be a huge challenge as Clark Lea enters his second season as coach: Can the Commodores develop the kind of depth necessary to be competitive in the SEC, especially on the offensive and defensive lines? It certainly didn’t help to lose offensive tackle Tyler Steen, who transferred to Alabama. Improvement in the offensive line will be vital if the Commodores are going to improve on their 2-10 record from a year ago, and the reality is that several younger players are going to have to grow up in a hurry in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
What we learned this spring: It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Alabama coach Nick Saban has figured out the transfer portal. Rather than go for wholesale changes, Saban has opted for an approach similar to NFL free agency, filling needs that couldn’t be easily met through recruiting. Former LSU All-American Eli Ricks stepped in for Josh Jobe at corner; Georgia’s former leading receiver, Jermaine Burton, helped replace the production of John Metchie III and Jameson Williams, and former Georgia Tech All-ACC running back/return specialist Jahmyr Gibbs is lined up to replace Brian Robinson. After what we saw this spring, Gibbs appears to give Alabama something it lacked at the position last season: game-breaking speed.
What we need to learn by Week 1: There was no more glaring problem coming out of A-Day than the offensive line. Even if we cut the first-team unit some slack and acknowledge things would have been different if Bryce Young hadn’t been in a no-contact jersey and could have run, it still wouldn’t account for a whopping 12 sacks allowed. Getting Darrian Dalcourt and Emil Ekiyor healthy by fall camp should help, as should the late addition of former Vanderbilt starter Tyler Steen through the portal. Regardless, it’s a group worth watching if Young and the offense hope to replicate last year’s success.
What we learned this spring: Bryan Harsin is still the head coach after an attempted coup, and Auburn is still interested in getting its tight ends the football. Other than that, there weren’t a lot of questions answered. The offensive line, which had several key players out, struggled, and the receivers didn’t exactly inspire confidence with their drops during last month’s scrimmage. The defense, which lost a number of players through the draft and the transfer portal, appears to be a work in progress. But, again, the tight ends figure to have another big season after catching 12 of the team’s 31 total receptions on A-Day.
What we need to learn by Week 1: Give TJ Finley and Robby Ashford credit for executing the offense during the spring game. Neither quarterback turned the ball over or seemed overwhelmed by the moment. But the fact is that neither won the job with their performance. How could they when Zach Calzada wasn’t around to throw his hat in the ring? The former Texas A&M starter was sidelined while he continues to recover from an injury. When he’s back to 100% during fall camp, the real competition will begin and we’ll see who steps up to replace three-year starter Bo Nix, who left for Oregon via the portal this offseason.
What we learned this spring: Losing linebackers Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan — the team’s second- and third-leading tacklers last season — hurts. But the Razorbacks found a way to keep top tackler Bumper Pool and pair him with a talented transfer in former Alabama linebacker Drew Sanders, who has the ability to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. The end result: a front seven that, along with linemen Taurean Carter and Zach Williams, should solidify a defense that has been revamped on the back end.
What we need to learn by Week 1: Speaking of the secondary, there’s work to be done there. During the offseason, it lost three starters — Montaric Brown to the NFL draft and Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. via transfer to LSU. Getting fourth-year safety Jalen Catalon back provides the coaching staff with an anchor to build around and adding former LSU defensive back Dwight McGlothern helps, but Arkansas needs to see improvement from backups such as Hudson Clark and Malik Chavis.
What we learned this spring: Brian Kelly inherited a roster filled with holes, which is why he was so active in the transfer portal. But last month’s spring game was a reminder that LSU is not without talent. Defensive tackle Maason Smith is a star in the making, and freshman offensive lineman Will Campbell is as solid an anchor to build around as you’re going to find in the SEC. The running back room is well stocked with the return of John Emery Jr., and the receivers should fare well once Kayshon Boutte recovers from last year’s injury. The big question is at quarterback, but even then all of Kelly’s options — Myles Brennan, Jayden Daniels and Garrett Nussmeier — have experience and have shown they have the talent to compete at a high level.
What we need to learn by Week 1: It goes without saying that Kelly will have to quickly find his starting quarterback. Daniels is the most dynamic option given his ability as a runner, but Brennan is savvy and a good caretaker of the ball. Nussmeier, meanwhile, has a live arm but is unpredictable. Taking a step back, though, the overall roster still needs work between now and fall camp. There are a lot of positions that are too thin in terms of scholarship players, including cornerback, where Kelly focused a lot of his efforts by bringing in four transfers.
What we learned this spring: Maybe Lane Kiffin, the self-styled “Portal King,” didn’t need to dip into the transfer market to find its next quarterback. Kiffin went back to his old haunt of USC and signed former blue-chip prospect Jaxson Dart, who appeared to be the front-runner on paper. But then came the spring game, our first good look at the position and the impression that sophomore Luke Altmyer had the upper hand. While Altmyer ran with the first-team offense, throwing for two touchdowns and no interceptions, Dart was with the second team and looked rusty, especially in the first half when he overthrew receivers and tossed two picks.
What we need to learn by Week 1: Dart still has plenty of time to win the quarterback competition, but what shouldn’t be overlooked is how the new-look offense jells ahead of the season opener against Troy on Sept. 2. Remember, outside of the offensive line, there isn’t much continuity. There are transfers pretty much everywhere: tight end Michael Trigg, running backs Zach Evans and Ulysses Bentley IV, and wide receivers Malik Heath, Jalen Knox and Jordan Watkins.
What we learned this spring: Linebacker Aaron Brule transferred to Michigan State and defensive back Martin Emerson left for the NFL, but another offseason with coordinator Zach Arnett in charge is a win for a defense that has the players to succeed in 2022. Adding defensive backs Marcus Banks from Alabama and Jackie Matthews from West Virginia helped solidify the secondary. At linebacker, it appears the trio of Jett Johnson, Nathaniel Watson and Tyrus Wheat is poised to be joined by DeShawn Page, who made strides this offseason after transferring from junior college and playing sparingly last season (11 tackles).
What we need to learn by Week 1: While the Bulldogs’ neighbors to the north try to settle on a quarterback, there are no doubts in Starkville about who’s in charge after Will Rogers threw for 4,739 yards as a sophomore last season. But a question remains: Whom will he be throwing to? Makai Polk took his team-leading 105 receptions and turned pro, and Malik Heath and his five touchdown catches transferred to Ole Miss. The sure-handed Austin Williams is back, but State needs someone (Antonio Harmon?) to step up.
What we learned this spring: There’s no decision imminent at quarterback, but that might not be a bad thing because none of the three contenders have taken themselves out of the race to replace Zach Calzada, who transferred to Auburn. Haynes King, who missed most of last season, sure looked healthy when he ran for a 21-yard touchdown in the spring game. And LSU transfer Max Johnson appeared to be comfortable in his new home when he threw a 40-yard touchdown pass. Freshman Conner Weigman is a wild card in the competition, but the longer the top-ranked pocket passer in the 2022 class stays in the mix, the more serious his candidacy becomes.
What we need to learn by Week 1: Aaron Hansford, the team’s top tackler, is gone. So is DeMarvin Leal, the leader in sacks and tackles for loss. And don’t forget Leon O’Neal, a veteran presence in the secondary who was third in passes defended and fourth in tackles. In other words: The defense has some holes to fill. The good news is that help is coming, especially up front, from the Aggies’ No. 1-ranked recruiting class. Four of their five five-star signees play along the defensive line, and only one of those freshmen — Gabe Brownlow-Dindy — participated in spring practice.