2015 SEC post-spring football roundup: News and notes on Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and more.
A roundup of news and notes from the SEC spring football teleconferences on Tuesday and Wednesday:
• Everett Golson sweepstakes: Last week Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson announced his intention to transfer. Per NCAA graduate transfer rules, Golson would immediately be eligible to play at another school. Since then, the signal-caller has been linked to a number of SEC programs including Florida, Georgia and Alabama. These reports come despite SEC transfer rules that might prevent Golson from playing for any team in the conference.
SI.com’s Andy Staples reported that Golson visited Florida in Gainesville on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Gators coach Jim McElwain confirmed the transfer of quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg to Columbia, leaving the roster with just two scholarship signal-callers—Will Grier and Treon Harris—this summer. McElwain wouldn’t comment on the possibility of Golson landing at Florida, but he wouldn’t squash the option of adding another transfer. “We’re always looking to help the organization fill holes where needed,” McElwain said. “Obviously, [Golson] mentioning us is exciting."
Golson will also visit Georgia this week, per a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Coach Mark Richt followed McElwain’s lead and offered no details regarding his interest in Golson. The program has three scholarship quarterbacks: Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Jacob Park. Ramsey is the presumed leader to replace Hutson Mason as the starter. “Basically I try to keep any prospects in the same vein where I don’t make public comments on prospects,” Richt said.
• Quarterback toss-up in Tuscaloosa: For the second consecutive year, Alabama closed spring practice without naming its starting quarterback. Last fall’s passer, Blake Sims, is one of nine starters gone from the Crimson Tide attack. Despite the uncertainty under center, coach Nick Saban said ending spring without a starter isn’t bad. “I think all the quarterbacks made progress this spring,” he said. “I think we have several guys that we would still like to continue to look at, give reps to.”
Five quarterbacks went through spring practice, including senior Jake Coker, a transfer from Florida State who lost the competition for the job last season. Coker took first-team reps during Alabama’s spring game, while freshman David Cornwell manned the second team. For now, however, Saban said the offense is keeping its options open. “I think there’s three, four guys there that all showed promise in spring,” Saban said. “Our two young freshmen [Cornwell and Blake Barnett] both made a lot of improvement and showed a lot of promise. This is going to be something we’re going to have to follow through the summer and fall camp.”
• LSU moves on from John Chavis: LSU’s defense was one of the best in the SEC last season, finishing second in the league in scoring defense (17.5 points per game). But that unit lost vaunted defensive coordinator Chavis, who had coached in Baton Rouge since 2009, to Texas A&M during the off-season.
LSU responded by tabbing Alabama assistant Kevin Steele as its new coordinator. Steele took over a unit this spring that returns just six starters, but coach Les Miles doesn’t seem fazed by the shake-up or the idea of facing Chavis in the SEC West.
“Certainly, John’s a very fine defensive coordinator and a quality person,” Miles said. “I have no issues there. The only thing I can tell you is, we like Kevin Steele. We like how we’re running the defense here. We’ll be as productive as we’ve been. It just makes it a little bit more competitive when you look across the way and see a guy who’s been on your staff for a couple of years.”
Miles also offered an update on his quarterback race between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings. The coach praised both players’ improvement, and while Miles said he hopes to name a starter, he won’t guarantee that will happen by LSU’s opener against McNeese State on Sept. 5.
“I would like to have a starter,” Miles said. “I’d like to have the guy. But I could also see a time where you’d have a necessity to play them both. I would like to see those guys going into fall camp, one separating himself from the other and it be a clear-cut decision. That being said, if that does not happen, we can’t make it happen. We’ll end up playing the guy that we feel is best for the team.”
• The healing process continues in Oxford: Ole Miss closed spring with good news on the injury front. Coach Hugh Freeze said offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, who broke his leg in the Peach Bowl loss to TCU, appears on track to be ready for fall camp. “We actually got a video yesterday from our training staff, and it was his first day to run,” he said. “We thought he looked good and doctors think everything is healing very nicely.”
Ole Miss’s go-to receiver, Laquon Treadwell, didn’t practice during the spring, but Freeze said he is also progressing nicely. Treadwell suffered a fractured fibula and a dislocated ankle in a Nov. 1 game against Auburn. Freeze said Treadwell will keep working his way into a rhythm and return as the Rebels’ top target. “We’ll put him in some contact—I think you have to,” Freeze said. “It won’t be every day, it will certainly be guarded. But he’s got to get back to feeling very comfortable in playing in this league and how physical it is. We held him out in spring, and I think that gave him plenty of extra time. He should be full speed when camp starts.”
• Arkansas gets defensive: The Razorbacks entered this spring looking to replace five starters on defense, most notably departed linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon. That duo combined for 27 tackles for loss, including 10.5 sacks, in 2014 and made the Hogs’ line one of the best in the conference.
But coach Bret Bielema sounded positive regarding the future of his defensive line. He singled out a number of players who made significant strides this spring, such as defensive tackles Bijhon Jackson and Taiwan Johnson and end JaMichael Winston. Perhaps more importantly, Bielema likes his depth at that position. “D-line, in particular, we’re now probably eight players deep, maybe even 10 players deep, to where we feel like we can go into a game in the SEC and have good rotation and not have a huge drop-off,” Bielema said.
• New quarterback on the Plains: For the first time in his college coaching career, Gus Malzahn returned a starting quarterback when Nick Marshall kept his job at Auburn last season. In 2015, it’s back to that familiar task of breaking in a new passer. That said, the Tigers’ next signal-caller is hardly an unfamiliar face.
Malzahn tabbed Jeremy Johnson as his starting quarterback at the end of spring practice. This week the coach said his team has already taken to Johnson’s leadership. “Jeremy had an outstanding spring,” Malzahn said. “Of course, we knew a lot about him already. The last two years, he was our backup, and he got a lot of quality experience in games. Probably more importantly, he got a lot of reps with our ones the last two years. He’s taken charge, and this is his team. Not just offensively, but defensive players are responding to him.”
• Kentucky replacing a star duo: The Wildcats struggled on defense last season, finishing ninth in the SEC in yards per play allowed (5.5). Still, defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith shined. Dupree earned first-team All-SEC honors and was selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Smith went in the fourth round to the Baltimore Ravens.
Finding a replacement for Dupree, in particular, was high on coach Mark Stoops’s list of spring priorities. “Defensively, it’s very difficult to replace a guy like Bud Dupree,” Stoops said. “We’ll have to do that by committee and get some guys going quite a bit. But overall I’m pleased with where we’re headed defensively.”
• New blood at South Carolina: It’s no secret how bad South Carolina’s defense was in 2014. In fact, Steve Spurrier pointed to the NFL draft as proof of just how little the Gamecocks had on that side of the ball. “We didn’t have any defensive players drafted, so we weren’t quite as talented as we have been here,” Spurrier said. “That was a big reason, I think, why we ended up being 7-6.”
To fix that problem, Spurrier brought in former NFL assistant Jon Hoke as the team’s new co-defensive coordinator. Hoke, who coached with Spurrier at Florida, oversaw the secondary during spring practice, while Lorenzo Ward handled the defensive line and linebackers. The Gamecocks return eight starters on that unit, and Spurrier said the new coaching combination helped during spring practice.
When it comes to play-calling this fall, Spurrier said the playbook is Hoke’s to lose. “Jon Hoke is doing the defensive calling and so forth during the game, practice and so forth,” Spurrier said. “But they’re both very active.”
• Hoping for health on Rocky Top: The injury bug hit Tennessee hard this spring. Volunteers coach Butch Jones said an “inordinate amount of individuals” were out with injuries during practice. According to Jones, the total came to 16.
Injuries only highlighted the concern Tennessee faces in the middle of its defense, where departed linebacker A.J. Johnson leaves a major void. Johnson was an All-SEC selection, and Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jakob Johnson, two guys expected to make an impact in that role, were out for the spring. Jones said it was hard to get a feel for the position without a fully healthy roster. “We continue to still be a work in progress,” Jones said. “Not having Darrin Kirkland available in spring really hurt us. He’s a young man we brought in here who is extremely competitive, intelligent. Also, Jakob Johnson didn’t participate in spring.”
• Anchored down on offense: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason knows his offense can’t get much worse in 2015. In Mason’s debut campaign at Vandy, the program started four quarterbacks and lost the most turnovers (29) of any team in the SEC. The defense wasn’t much better, and the Commodores finished 3-9 as a result.
Mason responded by firing his offensive and defensive coordinators at the end of the season. Mason, a former Stanford defensive coordinator, opted to take over the play-calling for his defense. He then hired Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin to oversee the offense. “I felt like Andy was a great hire,” Mason said. “His history of successful offense, wherever he’s been, is well-documented. He came in and immediately got to work, and this football team hasn’t looked back. He’s brought consistency, identity and character to this offensive unit.”
Mason said he wants to avoid a quarterback carousel this season. Patton Robinette, who played in six games in 2014, left the team in March to pursue medical school. Robinette’s exit left Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck as the two viable options under center. Mason said he has sensed a renewed energy in the quarterback room under Ludwig. “The biggest part that they’ve been able to grow in is the leadership part,” Mason said. “We have to be the first ones in and last ones to leave, and those [quarterbacks] have been consistently staying in contact with Andy, organizing throwing sessions, film sessions with their guys.”