With all 14 camps in the books -- thanks for getting there eventually, Texas A&M -- it's time to review the 2012 spring football season in the SEC. Here's what we learned, or think we did, anyway, in the East:
FLORIDA: Brent Pease knows what he's doing. When even your official site describes your 2011 spring game -- or maybe your entire 2011 offensive performance -- as the thing "the University of Florida fan base endured last year," you know there's both a lot of work to do ... and a lot of goodwill ready to be bestowed on the guy who does it. The Gator spring game showed that new offensive coordinator Pease could very well be that guy, having apparently turned the light on for both the sophomore quarterbacks vying for the Florida starting job; Jacoby Brissett hit 9-of-16 for 233 yards, while Jeff Driskel went 12-of-14 for 147 yards. Combine the two into one performance, and you get a 70 percent completion rate and an average of 12.6 yards per attempt. Fourth-stringers on defense or not, those are legitimate numbers, and you don't have to look any farther than John Brantley's in the 2011 version -- 4-of-14, 45 yards -- to know that a step forward has been taken
Of course, it's still just the spring game, Driskel and Brissett are still just sophomores, and more than anything Pease will also have to ensure that the positive murmurs about tailback Mike Gillislee and the overhauled Gator ground game -- not unlike those heard around Gainesville at this time last season -- are than hot air this time around. But compared to the first and only spring of the Charlie Weis regime, it's clear that Pease is a much, much better fit for both the available talent and the (run-obsessed) head coach for which Pease works. Florida may not be world-beaters offensively, but the evidence of spring is that they won't be the pushovers of the past two seasons, either.
GEORGIA: The sky isn't falling. It hasn't been the smoothest of offseasons thus far for Mark Richt, not with suspensions of one type or another plaguing the secondary and a handful of arrests reviving the "Richt needs to get his program under control" sniping from certain corners. But nothing that's happened off-field has actually lessened Richt's grip on the program, nor anything on-field suggested at all that Georgia shouldn't maintain its perch as the 2012 East favorite. The one practical bit of fallout from the rash of secondary suspensions (assuming Bacarri Rambo stays with the program) might be a vulnerable defensive backfield in Week 2 vs. Missouri, but even that concern was alleviated as converted wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell flashed high-level skills at corner. Elsewhere, Aaron Murray was Aaron Murray (112 yards in "G-Day" game, including 33-yard touchdown), Ken Malcome and Isaiah Crowell seemed to push each other forward at tailback, a revamped offensive line found its new pair of tackles, and Todd Grantham still sounds bullish on his defense. If you're looking for reasons to downgrade Georgia's chances for 2012, there's nothing to see here yet.
KENTUCKY: The buzz isn't there. If you're Joker Phillips, you had to hope that between the long-long-awaited victory over Tennessee to close the 2011 season and maybe some residual pro-Kentucky sentiment after the basketball 'Cats' run to the national title, there would be a pep in the program's step this spring. And on the field, there were some positive signs: potential starting quarterback Max Smith hit 29-of-45 passes in the Blue-White game for better than 350 yards, freshman wideout Demarco Robinson flashed some sorely-needed big-play ability, and a veteran first-string defensive line that hasn't always pleased its coaches this spring properly dominated the second-string offensive line lined up against it in the spring game.
But as for buzz, forget it: the Wildcats promised the Blue-White Game's first 5,000 attendees a free poster commemorating the Tennessee win, but -- as predicted by Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue -- those "first" attendees wound up being "every" attendee, as the Wildcats stretched to get their official attendance of 4,500, the second straight year the Blue-White game hasn't cracked 5,000 fans. Phillips is no doubt doing his best, but it's hard to believe anything is really changing in Lexington when even those fans closest to the program can't be convinced it is.
MISSOURI: Check back later. It would be nice to reach a few actual, firm conclusions about the Tigers' 2012 based on their spring output. But with so many key figures unavailable, the team that took the field for the Black and Gold game may not look all that much like the team that takes Faurot Field this fall. Quarterback James Franklin? Out with that torn labrum. Key defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson? Out with a shoulder injury. Dorial Green-Beckham? Not enrolled yet. Henry Josey? Months away from contributing.
In those players' absences, there was good news and bad news. On the good side, converted tight end Matt Hoch shone at defensive tackle and looks poised to start; tailbacks Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy looked capable of handling tailback duties, going for 153 yards on just 16 spring game carries; and though quarterback Corbin Berkstresser wasn't as sharp as he could have been in the Black and Gold game, he still finished spring with better overall numbers than Franklin did in 2011. On the bad, the loss of projected starters Marvin Foster (at defensive tackle, already one of the thinnest spots on the roster and tight end Eric Waters to torn ACLs is a major blow.
So in the end, was there more good or bad news? Ask us when we see if the spring stars can provide legitimate depth this fall ... or if they were just keeping seats warm.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The secondary is a question mark. Given that the Gamecocks' head coach himself said this spring that the only thing the team really does is "just try to keep from having injuries," it's tough to take anything that happens during spring in Columbia too seriously. (And don't think the team hasn't taken that attitude to heart, not when no less a key figure than Jadeveon Clowney openly goes half-speed during the spring game for his roommate's benefit--and does so essentially with his coaches' blessing.) But even with that disclaimer, the passing numbers for the Gamecocks in the Garnet-Black are worth a raised eyebrow--6-for-7 for 128 yards for Connor Shaw, 15-for-20 for 168 yards for likely backup Dylan Thompson, and even an 7-for-9 outing for likely third-stringer Andrew Clifford.
That's a collective 28-for-36, and while not all (or even most) of those passes came against the Gamecock starters -- even the nominal first-string wasn't the first-string, as several players were rested -- we're still talking about Connor Shaw and his backups throwing to a vertically-challenged receiving corps. Spurrier may be happy, but we're thinking about the loss of Stephon Gilmore and remembering 2010, when the Gamecocks' 97th-ranked pass defense was a glaring Achilles heel. Shaw may be just that good, but he also may not be.
TENNESSEE: It's not 2011. That doesn't necessarily mean 2012 is destined to be the job-saving turnaround Derek Dooley needs. But to borrow a term from certain economic forecasts, there's "green shoots" to be found in the Vols' play this spring. Some new-found depth at running back and competition along the offensive line led to an impressive performance on the ground in the Orange-White Game, the one area where the Vols simply must improve. A year after a positively disastrous spring game, Tyler Bray put together a solid effort and continued to grow into the leadership role the Vols need from him. And a defense plagued by injuries the past few seasons escaped the spring without any major damage, giving its high level of experience a chance to pay off in the fall.
Again, how much any of that counts for come September is still to be determined. But after a rotten 2011 that started with a lackluster spring, Dooley will take it.
VANDERBILT: The offense is going to be OK, at worst. There's no more dangerous prediction in SEC football than to say good things are coming for the Vanderbilt offense, which can more-or-less count the good things that have happened for it since Jay Cutler's departure on one hand. But that's what we're predicting anyway. We knew coming into spring that the running game would be fine, what with 1,000-yard rusher Zac Stacy still around and four starting linemen returning ... and that was before leading 2010 rusher Warren Norman returned from the injury that cost him all of 2011 looking close to 100 percent.
The great unknown (as it has been at Vandy since, well, forever) was -- and will be -- the passing game. But wide receiver Jordan Matthews ended 2011 as a leading candidate for a breakout 2012, and did nothing to short-circuit that candidacy in the spring game, finishing with 7 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns. The 'Dores might have also uncovered a second playmaker in redshirt freshman slot receiver Josh Grady, who ran for 35 yards, threw for 58 more, and accounted for two touchdowns. If Jordan Rogers can just be a bit more accurate -- he finished 14-for-29 in the spring game, even as his black side rolled to a 33-0 victory -- James Franklin's team could be due for more than just another mid-level bowl berth.
SEC West coming Thursday.
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