Spring review: Arms race reloads in SEC East

Returning quarterbacks likely will tell tale of who goes to Atlanta

jkendall@thestate.comMay 6, 2013 

South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw (14)

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

Coming out of spring practice, it’s no surprise that all seven SEC East teams think they became better and are headed in the right direction as the 2013 season looms. Here are the post-spring details on the Gamecocks and the six teams that will compete with them for a trip to Atlanta in December.

Missouri

2012: 5-7 overall, 2-6 SEC

The Tigers first year in the SEC did not go well. Quarterback James Franklin, a senior, is back and healthy and will be in charge of turning around the perception of himself and the Tigers.

“We always evaluate everything, whether we win 10 games or have our first losing season in eight years,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “For the most part, our evaluations came out that we are going to continue to do the things we do. We are very comfortable with our program and our foundation and who we are.”

Sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham will be expected to have a breakout year under first-year offensive coordinator Josh Henson. The early departure of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson won’t help the defense, but defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy could be difference makers.

Florida

2012: 11-2 overall, 7-1 SEC

It’s hard to remember the Gators won 11 games after disappointing and unimpressive losses to Georgia and Louisville at the end of the season, but Florida considers itself one of the top three contenders in the SEC coming out of spring practice.

Florida coach Will Muschamp raved about the maturity of junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who struggled at times last year. If sophomore Matt Jones is as good as expected at running back and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy can help during part-time duty at wide receiver, the Gators should be able to make their offense more of a threat in 2013.

Georgia

2012: 12-2 overall, 7-1 SEC

The Bulldogs were yards away from winning the SEC, and probably the national championship, but they spent all spring revamping a defense that lost seven starters, including Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree. Still, Georgia coach Mark Richt is cautiously optimistic.

“I think we have the right ingredients. We will have to wait and see,” Richt said. “I think we have enough of a talent base to get it done. We just have to get it going in the right direction. We are excited because there are a lot of guys who are anxious to prove they can do it. The guys are hungry and willing, and we feel like we have a chance.”

Senior quarterback Aaron Murray has 10,091 career yards and probably will finish the season as the SEC’s all-time leading passer. Plus, sophomore running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall should be better.

Kentucky

2012: 2-10 overall, 0-8 SEC

The Wildcats replaced Joker Phillips with Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops after a 10-loss season, and Stoops has his work cut out for him.

“We need to get better in the secondary, and we need to get better at wide receiver,” Stoops said frankly, and that’s barely the half of it.

The story of the preseason will be the quarterback battle, which Stoops says still has three participants — Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow. Whitlow is a fantastic athlete and had the best performance in the spring game, throwing for 193 yards and two touchdowns.

Stoops has the fan base excited. More than 50,000 showed up for Kentucky’s spring game, which is more people than came to the Wildcats last two homes games combined.

South Carolina

2012: 11-2 overall, 6-2 SEC

The Gamecocks have a favorable schedule for the first time in three seasons, which will put more importance on the Sept. 7 game against Georgia. The downside is tailback Marcus Lattimore and special teams sparkplug Ace Sanders are gone, as are safety D.J. Swearinger, linebacker Shaq Wilson and defensive end Devin Taylor.

“We need to replace a whole bunch of defensive players,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. “We should have a lot of good players ready to play that haven’t played much and looking forward to seeing what we can do in 2013.”

The quarterback rotation between senior Connor Shaw and junior Dylan Thompson will be the most interesting storyline of the season.

Tennessee

2012: 5-7 overall, 1-7 SEC

After a disastrous season under Derek Dooley, the Volunteers went with Butch Jones, whose first order of business was instilling what he calls the “Tennessee Standard of Excellence.”

“From Day 1, our players have done a great job of that,” Jones said. “I thought it was an extremely productive spring.”

The offensive line should be solid with the return of “Tiny” Richardson and Ja’Wuan James, but the rest of the offense is going to be a work in progress. At quarterback, South Carolina native Justin Worley and freshman Nathan Peterman are competing for the starting job. Wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter and tight end Mychal Rivera are gone, though.

Vanderbilt

2012: 9-4 overall, 5-3 SEC

Coach James Franklin was encouraged after his second team competed with his first team during the spring game, losing when a last-minute drive stalled.

“I think that the gap we had between the first team ad the second team is not nearly as significant as it has been in the past, and that’s going to help us grow,” Franklin said.

Senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is expected to take over for Jordan Rodgers, but freshman Patton Robinette is very talented. Whoever is quarterback will have one of the league’s best receiver tandems in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.

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