The Advocate’s SEC spring football review

LSU

Last season: 10-3, 5-3 SEC

Coach: Les Miles

Key Returners: LT La’el Collins, RB Kenny Hilliard, LG Vadal Alexander, FB Connor Neighbors, DE Jermauria Rasco, DE Danielle Hunter, LB Kwon Alexander, CB Rashard Robinson, CB Tre’Davious White, S Jalen Mills.

Key Losses: QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham Jr., RB Jeremy Hill, RG Trai Turner, DT Anthony Johnson, DT Ego Ferguson, WLB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston.

Biggest Issue: Who replaces Mett?

Sophomore Anthony Jennings got a head start when he rallied the Tigers past Arkansas, but followed it up with a middling performance in an Outback Bowl win over Iowa. Meanwhile, Parkway’s Brandon Harris, the nation’s No. 5 dual-threat quarterback, enrolled early. In their only public appearance, Harris made a strong statement: He showed touch on deep throws, natural pocket awareness and a good sense of when to scramble. Jennings, though, looked harried at moments and didn’t help his case by throwing two interceptions that were taken back for scores. Still, Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said the battle for the starting job will go into August.

Top Position Battle: Defensive tackle

Sure, right tackle is also intriguing, but the front needs stability in the middle. For now, sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas both appear in line for promotions after serving as understudies. But who gets the next two slots in the rotation? Is it Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore or Mickey Johnson? Will Frank Herron move inside? Incoming freshman Travonte Valentine, the No. 3 recruit at his position, may have a case. Even if the starters are set, there’s still intrigue.

Keep an eye on: Freshman reinforcements

So Hill is gone? OK, plug in St. Augustine’s Leonard Fournette, the nation’s top overall prospect. You lost the best receiving tandem ever to grace Baton Rouge? Top wideout Malachi Dupre and sure-handed Trey Quinn move in this August. Need help at safety? Jamal Adams gets here, too. Yes, the Tigers lost a lot. But Miles, Cameron and defensive coordinator John Chavis have been blunt: The newcomers will have a chance to make their mark. Remember, not everyone can enroll early.

Alabama

Last Season: 11-2, 7-1 SEC

Coach: Nick Saban

Key Returners: RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, MLB Trey DePriest, NG Brandon Ivory, CB Cyrus Jones, SS Landon Collins, C Ryan Kelly, LG Arie Kouandjio.

Key Losses: QB A.J. McCarron, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, RG Anthony Steen, DE Ed Stinson, WLB C.J. Mosely, SS Vinnie Sunseri, LB Adrian Hubbard, DE Jeoffry Pagan, CB Deion Belue.

Big Issue: Finding a signal-caller

So McCarron was just a system guy? Well, the three-year starter takes his 9,019 yards and 77 touchdowns along with an efficient 66.7 completion percentage with him. This spring was about finding his replacement. Redshirt senior Blake Sims went just 13 of 30 for 178 yards and tossed two interceptions in the spring game, but he was 40 of 62 for 455 yards in two scrimmages. Saban also said the play-calling was vanilla, with the Tide only using 10 percent of the playbook. So, it seems Sims, who’s only seen spot duty, is in the lead over early enrollee Cooper Bateman. But Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives to add another contender to the mix.

Top Position Battle: Left tackle

Cyrus Koaundjio’s absence has a trickle-down effect on whoever is under center. Right now, the duel appears to be a two-man race between sophomore Brandon Greene and freshman Cam Robinson, a West Monroe product and the top tackle recruit in the nation, who enrolled early. Robinson moved over a week before the spring game and started. He had a mixed performance, but wasn’t swapped out.

Keep an eye on: Who is next up in the front seven?

Defensive end A’Shawn Robinson racked up 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, and Ivory is back in the middle. But what about replacing Pagan? Junior college transfers Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway, who had a 29-yard pick six in the spring game, are vying for the job. At linebacker, DePriest is a steady hand, while Reggie Ragland’s time may have come to step up inside, but he’s in a battle with sophomore Reuben Foster.

Arkansas

Last season: 3-9, 0-8 SEC

Coach Bret Bielema

Key Returners: QB Brandon Allen, OT Brey Cook, RB Jonathan Williams, RB Alex Collins, TE Hunter Henry, DE Trey Flowers, CB Tevin Mitchell.

Key Losses: C Travis Swanson, FB Kiero Small, WR Javontee Herndon, DE Chris Smith, DT Robert Thomas, DT Byran Jones, PK Zach Hocker.

Biggest issue: Where are the playmakers?

The Razorbacks have a reliable duo in running backs Alex Collins (1,026 yards, four TDs) and Jonathan Williams (900 yards, four TDs), but need additions to appear. The offense had just 149 plays of 10-plus yards, which ranked 11th in the SEC. Only Keon Hatcher (27 catches, 346 yards) had more than four grabs. Receivers D’Arthur Cowan, Eric Hawkins and tight end Hunter Henry need to evolve.

Top Position Battle: Quarterback

OK, so Bielema has said Allen has the inside track for his second season starting. But Allen struggled last season, too. He completed just 49.6 percent of his passes, and a 97.3 passer rating in SEC action was the conference’s worst. Younger brother Austin Allen, a redshirt freshman, and early-enrolling freshman Rafe Peavy — a four-star recruit — are looking to assert themselves. So far, though, Allen seems to be holding down that spot.

Keep an eye on: Can the secondary find stability?

Four defensive coordinators and four position coaches in as many seasons doesn’t help. A year ago, the Hogs allowed 235.0 yards per game passing, and its secondary notched just six interceptions. There’s experience in senior safeties Alan Turner and junior Rohan Gaines, along with senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel. Coaches have raved about improvements, but specifics have been short. The proof will be in the production for a unit that gave up 75 completions longer than 10 yards — which ranked No. 112 nationally.

Auburn

Last Season: 12-2, 7-1 SEC

Coach: Gus Malzahn

Key Returners: QB Nick Marshall, WR Sammie Coates, C Reese Dismukes, LB Cassanova McKinzy, LB Kris Frost, CB Jonathan Mincy, S Robinson Therize.

Key Losses: RB Tre Mason, LT Greg Robinson, FB Jay Prosch, DE Dee Ford, DT Nosa Eguae, CB Chris Davis.

Biggest Issue: Will the Tigers put the ball up?

Malzahn hinted this spring the Tigers’ aim was to become more efficient through the air. Last season, Marshall averaged just 152.0 yards per game throwing, while his 59.4 completion percentage was 10th in the SEC. In the spring game, he looked poised, throwing for 236 yards and four TDs. But that was against a beat-up defense and no pass rush. If the Tigers offense expands its wrinkles and Marshall can build on his accuracy, then Malzahn’s open-throttle attack may be more menacing.

Top Position Battle: Running back

Mason, a Heisman Trophy finalist, left early after amassing 1,816 yards and 23 TDs as a junior. Spring started the derby among Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne and Peyton Barber for the lead spot in the rotation. Grant, a senior, can provide a burst on the edge, and he had 128 yards and a TD on just five carries in the spring game. Payne, a senior, can bruise his way between the tackles. Yet Auburn may be more inclined to throw the ball — or that was the goal this spring — than last season with Marshall more polished. There’s also the looming arrival of five-star recruit Racean Johnson. Expect this runoff to last through August.

Keep an eye on: Defensive depth

Coordinator Ellis Johnson said Auburn may not be able to roll players through as much as it did last year. Plus, the injury bug took a sizable bite this spring, with 11 defensive players missing periods of time and five sitting out the spring game. The secondary returns three of four starters, while McKinzy is trying to transition to middle linebacker. Finding a replacement for De Ford, who had 101/2 sacks at end, among Carl Lawson, Elijah Daniel and LaDarius Owens is imperative.

Florida

Last season: 4-8, 3-5 SEC

Coach: Will Muschamp

Key Returners: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar,

Key Losses: WR Trey Burton, WR Solomon Patton, LT Xavier Nixon, RG Jon Halapio, C John Harrison, DT Dominique Easley, CB Jaylen Watkins, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson,

Big Issue: Will Roper lead a revival?

In Muschamp’s three seasons, the Gators never ranked better than 10th in total offense and eighth in scoring in the SEC. At times, UF’s attack seemed intent on not losing a game rather than attacking. Well, coordinator Brent Pease is gone, and in is Kurt Roper, who was lured from Duke. The early returns have been positive with his up-tempo, no-huddle system. Players report more confidence in the scheme,which ran 111 plays and rolled up 666 yards in the spring game. Quarterback Jeff Driskel appears to have an early grip on the controls, and the question is what growth takes place over the summer.

Top Position Battle: Cornerback

Sophomore Vernon Hargeaves is back, but there’s a jumble after him on the depth chart. And it’s one that will be sorted out and pieced together in fall camp. The Gators lost five members of the secondary in the offseason. Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor are elite talents who enrolled early, and both are in the mix for a starting spot, but three more cover men are due to arrive in the summer.

Keep an eye one: Fleshing out a D-Line rotation.

Dante Fowler Jr. leads three returning starters on defense, but the line needs some reclamation. Muschamp and coordinator D.J. Durkin wanted Jay-Nard Bostwik and Caleb Brantley at tackle, but both struggled with consistenncy. Redshirt sophomores Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister made waves at end, but between now and September the program needs to find 10 bodies — the optimal number — to sub the way it wants.

Georgia

Last Season: 8-5, 5-3 SEC

Coach: Mark Richt

Key Returners: RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Michael Bennett, WR Chris Conley, WR Justin Scott Wesely, WR, Malcome Mitchell, ILB Ramik Wilson, OLB Jordan Jenkings, CB Damian Swann, CB Shaq Wiggins.

Key Losses: QB Aaron Murray, LT Kentarious Gates, RG Chris Burnette, TE Arthur Lynch, DE Garrison Smith, SS Josh Harvey-Clemons.

Big Issue: Just who will play defense.

The arrival of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State drew plenty of attention, but the exact imprint left on the UGA defense remains undefined. What is clear is that no job is secure. Converted linebacker Leonard Floyd, who’s moved to end, has drawn praise, but gleaning anything furtherhas been tough. Pruitt is known to quickly yank defensive backs who can’t get the job done. His inside linebackers coach said it’s “jumping the gun” to presume Wilson and Amarlo Herrera are inked in to start. Even Richt said the depth chart is fluid.

Top Position Battle: Left guard.

Four slots seem secure. Or they do in theory. What happens and who mans this spot has a domino effect. For example, if sophomore Brandon Kublanow get its, John Theus stays at left tackle and Kolton Houston plays RG. But if Mark Beard excels, he can play left takc, Theus would swap to the right side and Houston would play left guard. Basically, don’t tab Theus to protect the blind side, and hope August brings some answers.

Keep an eye on: Life being fine after Murray.

A knee injury against Georgia Tech ended the illustrious career of AaronMurray, but understudy Hutson Mason, a redshirt senior, may be just fine. He went 18 of 27 for 241 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, while Richt offensive coordinator Mike Bobo praised his pocket presence, mechanics and decision-making with the ball. The Bulldogs will have the backfield tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, and a quartert of experienced receivers outside. If Mason can replicate his 68.9 completion percentage from scrimmages, then the offense may not miss a beat.

Kentucky

Last Season: 2-10, 0-8 SEC

Coach: Mark Stoops

Key Returners: LT Darrian Miller, RT Jordan Swindle, C Jon Toth, WR Javess Blue, DE Bud Smith, DE Za’Darius Smith, CB NAte Willis, S Ashely Lowery.

Key losses: OG Kevin Mitchell, TE Jordan Aumiller, RB Raymond Sanders, DT Donte Rumph, DT Mister Cobble, LB Avery Williamson.

Biggest Issue: Picking a quarterback

On April 16, Jalen Whitlow took himself out of UK’s four-man derby when he announced he would transfer. Still, offensive coordinator Neal Brown has to make a choice between Drew Barker, Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles. Barker has looked polished mechanically and steady, even though he’s only in his first semester on campus. Towles, a former four-star prospect, may have seen the proverbial light come on this spring as a redshirt sophomore. Brown’s version of the Air Raid needs a pilot, and this spring is as vital in appraising their credentials.

Top Position Battle: Offensive line.

There’s a trio of backs fighting for time in the backfield, but three more spots on the line unclaimed. John Toth swiped the center job from Zach Myers last season, and is it his permanently? At left guard, Zach West and Teven Eatmon-Nared will grapple. Meanwhile, Kevin Mitchell’s graduation leaves right guard open for the taking.

Keep an eye on: Is the defense better?

The offense is getting the bulk of the attention in Lexington, but the SEC’s No. 13 unit can’t put up a repeat performance. The Wildcats have nice pieces in ends Bud Dupree (61 tackles, 7 sacks) and Za’Darius Smith (59 tackles, 6 sacks), but can the rest of the defense’s eight returning starters make a similar impact?

Ole Miss

Last Season: 8-5, 3-5 SEC

Coach: Hugh Freeze

Key returners: QB Bo Wallace, RB Jaylen Walton, WR Laquon Treadwell, LT Laremy Tunsil, DE Bryon Bennett, DT Robert Nkemdiche, LB Serderius Bryant, FS Cody Prewitt.

Key Losses: RB Jeff Scott, WR Donte Moncrief, RT Pierce Burton, DE Cameron Whigam, PK Andrew Ritter.

Biggest Issue: Depth, at last

Since taking over three years ago, Freeze’s refrain has been the Rebels’ need for seasoning in their two-deep. Maybe that’s here. The Rebels had 16 starters back in the fold, including nine on defense. Veteran quarterback Bo Wallace is back, while Alabama and LSU try to replace starters. Sure, Moncrief is gone, but Treadwell just moves outside. Walton is cut from the same cloth as Scott: quick and a solid pass catcher. Back-to-back top-20 recruiting classes have infused talent. So the question is whether this spring set the table for the Rebels to stir rumblings in the SEC Western Division.

Position Battle: Cornerback

Derrick Jones, a sophomore, appears to be the No. 1 cover man for defensive coordinator Dave Wommack. But the battle for No. 2 may last into August. Senquez Golston, a senior, has racked up 20 career starts and picked off six passes. Yet he may be more athlete than technician. The other option is Mike Hilton, a junior with 16 starts of his own who has also seen time at nickel corner. He’s physical, but may not be a consistent option in coverage. Almost every other position on defense seems set.

Keep an eye on: Will Ole Miss go deep?

Freeze wants to go fast, and his passing game features elements of the scat attack made famous by Noel Mazzone. Still, the Rebels weren’t able to push the ball vertically at times last season while Wallace endured nagging shoulder problems. Sure, the Rebels had 10 pass plays of 50-plus yards, ranking among the best in the nation. Yet a lot of those were catch-and-run plays. Now, Treadwell is outside, and Quincy Adeboyejo will work in the slot — moves that may facilitate giving Wallace another reliable deep threat.

Mississippi State

Last Season: 7-6, 3-5 SEC

Coach: Dan Mullen

Key Returners: QB Dak Prescott, RB Josh Robinson, WR Jameon Lewis, LT Blain Clausell, C Dillon Day, DE Preston Smith, LB Benadrick McKinney, CB Jamerson Love.

Key Losses: RB LaDarius Perkins, LG Gabe Jackson, RT Charles Siddoway, DE Denico Autry.

Biggest Issue: Rotation in the trenches

The Bulldogs ranked fourth in the SEC for total defense against the run last season, and they should have enough bodies up front to be tough again. State brings back 19 of 22 starters in its defensive two-deep, and eight of its 10 linemen saw action last year. This spring has left Mullen and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins optimistic they can now easily roll groups through on the line.

Position Battle: Left guard

Three people — Jamaal Clayborn, Justin Malone and Ben Beckwith — are fighting for two spots. Beckwith platooned with Archie Muniz at center while Dillon Day was out with an injury, but neither was stellar. So the conundrum going into August is two-fold. How does the order shake out at guard, and just how confident can State be in its options in the middle of the line if Day goes down?

Keep an eye on: Options aplenty for Prescott

Perkins is gone, but the staff sounds confident in Robinson to be a lead back. More important, though, is that Prescott — now free of splitting time with Tyler Russell — has his top three receivers back in the fold. In the spring game, Prescott went 7 of 9 for 131 yards and ran for a 6-yard touchdown. He looked settled and at ease. With those steadying supports around him this fall, maybe the confidence carries over.

Missouri

Last season: 12-2, 7-1 SEC

Coach: Gary Pinkel

Key Returners: QB Maty Mauk, C Evan Boehm, Mitch McGovern, Mitch Morse, WR Bud Sasser, LB Kentrell Brothers, DT Matt Hoch, DT Lucas Vincent, SS Ian Simon, FS Braylon Webb.

Key Losses: QB James Franklin, RB Henry Josey, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L’Damian Washington, WR Dorial-Green Beckham, Justin Britt, DE Kony Ealy, DE Michael Same, LB Andrew Wilson, CB E.J. Gaines.

Biggest Issue: Mauk’s the Man.

Outside of Georgia and South Carolina, Mizzou may be best equipped to endure the massive turnover this offseason the SEC at the quarterback spot. Sophomore Maty Mauk, who started four games last season while starter James Franklin recovered from a separated shoulder, appears at ease stepping in. Gary Pinkel’s already declared him the starter, and Mauk backed up that procolamation by completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 446 yards and a TD in three scrimmages. Offensive coaches are comfortable with him calling plays. And he’s cut down on his risky throws in to tight windows and exercised prudence to earn that freedom.

Top position battle: Wide receiver.

OK, this is more of a hunt than a battle. The Tigers lost 195 catches with the depatures of Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington along with Pinkel booting troubled star sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham. The five receivers left? They have 72 combined grabs for 847 yards. Bud Sasser is the most experienced set of hands, while Jimmie Hunt showed he can work down field and as a possession receiver. Still, Missouri needs to identify a deep threat in camp.

Keep an eye on: The next set of pass rushers.

Kony Ealy and Michael Sam were a tandem teaming up for 21 of Mizzou’s SEC-leading 41 sacks last season. Sam, the conference’s defensive player of the year, was a senior, while Ealy jumped to the NFL early. No problem. Shane Ray and Markus Golden had 22 tackles for loss and 11 sacks as backups. Now, the question is can they be productive full time after feasting on lines worn down trying to stop MU’s two marauders off the edge.

South Carolina

Last Season: 11-2, 6-2 SEC

Coach: Steve Spurrier

Key Returners: RB Mike Davis, WR, Damiere Byrd, WR Shaq Roland, LT Corey Robinson, RT Brandon Snell, C, Clayton Stadnik, LB Kaiwan Lewis, LB Marquis Roberts, SS Brison Williams, FS Kadetrix Marcus, DT J.T. Surratt.

Key Losses: QB Connor Shaw, DE Jadeveon Clowney, WR Bruce Ellington, RG Ronald Patrick, DT Kelcy Quarles, DE Chaz Sutton, CB Victor Hampton, CB Jimmy Legree.

Big Issue: Thompson’s Time?

The Gamecocks lose perhaps the SEC’s most underrated signal caller in Connor Shaw. Yet Dylan Thompson doesn’t represent a long fall off a cliff. The redshirt senior split reps over the past two seasons, making four starts. Now, he is just a 55 percent career passer, and struggled with forcing throws — see a interception every 30 attempts — last year. But Thompson said he felt pressure to make big plays, fearing he’d be parked on the bench again. Now, with the job his alone, he’s exercing more prudence, content to take short throws or capitalize on timing routes. If a nuanced grasp of the playbook meshes with experience from 25 careers appearances, maybe the transition will be seamless.

Position Battle: Back-up Quarterback.

That said, Spurrier may have to check his penchant for swapping passers mid-game. Sophomores Perry Orth and Brandon Nosovitch have a combined three passes between them in mop-up time. Both are dual-threats, but early-enrolling Connor Mitch — a four-star recruit and pocket passer — may have more raw potential. Still, keeping Thompson healthy is imperative, because the alternatives are unproven.

Keep an eye on: Moving pieces in the seconadary.

Sure, the defensive line lost three starters, including a guy named Jadeveon Clowney. But in two of the past three seasons, the Carolina secondary has helped the Gamecocks rank in the SEC’s top three teams defending the pass. Now they’re short-handed. A long-time thumper in strong safety Brison Williams shuffled to corner, while J.J. Marcus and T.J Elder scrap to fill his place. There were only three healthy corners in spring, too: Rico McWilliams, Jamari Smith and Sidney Rhodes. Only McWilliams, with four starts, is truly seasoned. Expect the five freshman covermen to get long looks in August.

Tennessee

Last Season: 5-7, 2-6 SEC

Coach: Butch Jones

Key Returners: QB Joshua Dobbs, QB Justin Worley, WR Pig Howard, WR Jason Croom, WR Josh Smith, WR Marquez North, SS Brian Randolph, FS LaDarrell McNeal, CB Cameron Sutton.

Key Losses: RB Rajio Neal, LT Antonio Richardson, LG Alex Bullard, C James Stone, RG Zach Fulton, RT Ja’Wuan James, DT Daniel McCullers, NG Daniel Hood, DE Corey Miller, LB Dontavis Sapp, MLB A.J. Johnson, SLB Brent Brewer.

Big Issue: Who is the trigger man?

The Volunteers exited spring without an answer. Heck, putting together a pecking order might be tough at this point. Worley, who went 11 of 13 for 151 yards and a score in the spring game, was a steady option and has a nice resume with an upset of South Carolina last year. Riley Ferguson, who might have the best pure arm strength, struggled with an interception, a pair of three-and-outs and getting dropped for three sacks. Oh, and Dobbs saw action in five games a year ago. Like many of its SEC peers, the looming issue in preseason camp is solving a dilemma the most important position is still elusive.

Top Position Battle: Offensive line.

All five starters are gone, and that means a slew of skirmishes to replace them. Back up center Mack Crowder and guards Kyler Kerbyson and Marcus Jackson have been understudies but now need to make moves. High intrigue comes at the bookend spots. Freshman Coleman Thomas has handled all early reps on the right side after getting on campu searly. Meanwhile, walk-on Jacob Gilliam and JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair are jostling for the right to set up shop at left tackle.

Keep an eye on: Who emerges on the D-Line?

Again, four key players are out the door in Knoxville. Curt Maggitt, who missed last season recovering from a knee injury, is back and the best hope to pump up the Vols sack total from a SEC-worst 18 last season. He??ll move between end and working at linebacker, but the rest of the slots have to be sifted out. JUCO transfer Jordan Williams can play end or move inside, and Danny O’Brien has been solid, too. DiMarya Mixon is another option after enrolling in January when he didn’t qualify at Nebraska. Still, Jones says the freshmen signed in this class better be ready for meaningful snaps.

Texas A&M

Last season: 9-4, 4-4 SEC

Coach: Kevin Sumlin

Key Returners: WR Malcome Kennedy, LT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, RB Trey Williams, RB Tra Carson, MLB Darian Claiborne, SS Howard Matthews, CB Deshazor Everett, DE Julian Obioha.

Key Losses: QB Johnny Manziel, LT Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, WR Derel Walker, RB Ben Malena, WLB Steven Jenkins, CB Toney Hurd Jr.

Biggest Issue: Replace Johnny Football

That task got tougher when Matt Joeckel transferred to TCU. By default, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen are left. Hill earned up mop-up duty last season, but ran a similar scheme at fabled Southlake Carroll outside Dallas. But he was suspended after a March 28 arrest for public intoxication. Then there is Allen, who is the top pro-style signal-caller in this class but still needs to digest the playbook. Maybe Joeckel would have been surpassed, but he at least offered the security blanket of experience.

Position Battle: Go-to wide receiver

Ricky Seals-Jones, who is 6-5, 225 pounds, was a four-star recruit and fits in the same mold as Evans. Seals-Jones is coming off a new injury, but was healthy in workouts. New Orleans native and Karr graduate Speedy Noil, though, might emerge early as a threat out of the slot after getting to College Station early. Reports are, he’s been crisp in his route-running and trouble for the Aggies secondary. Given the issue at quarterback, identifying a reliable threat is progress.

Keepn an eye: The defensive front

The lighter, faster Aggies line struggled against bigger bodies in the trenches, and Texas A&M’s defense ranked just 10th in sacks and tackles for loss. Meanwhile, youngsters such as end Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall got seasoning. That was indicative of a season when Sumlin used 17 true freshman at times. Already, early-enrolling freshman Zaycoven Harrison may have snagged the starting nose tackle spot, and incoming freshman Myles Garrett, a five-star recruit, may push starting end Gavin Stansbury for time. The exact pecking order is something to monitor in August.

Vanderbilt

Last Seaons: 9-4, 4-4 SEC

Coach: Derek Mason

Key Returners: RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, RT Andre Jelks, RG Spencer Pulley, C Joe Townsend, LG Jake Bernstein, LB Darreon Herring, MLB Jake Sealand, DE Kyle Woestman.

Key Losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, SR Wesley Tate, LT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, SS Javon Marshall, LB Karl Butler, DE Walker May, CB Andre Hal.

Big Issue: Spring forward.

It’s a new regime in Nashville. Just what it erects is still in up the air. What is apparent is that Mason, who arrived afer a highly-lauded tenure as Stanford’s defensive coordinator, will try to impart the same workman-like persona that took root on the West Coast. His 3-4 scheme, one noted for its success in stopping sped-up spread attacks, will feature outside linebackers, while the offense will be rooted in a trio of running backs: Ralph Webb, who had 114 yards in the spring game, Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour.

Position Battle: Quarterback.

Fluid. That’s how to describe what amounts to a six-month audition for the Commodores starting gig. Patton Robinette stepped in for the final two games last season, but this spring showed a need for better timing and touch on throws downfield. Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary needs to speed up reads and handle progressions more efficiently. Meanwhile, former LSU backup Stephen Rivers will likely arrive this summer and try to put his own candidacy forward.

Keep an eye on: Can receivers catch on?

The Commodores offense seems set along the line and in the backfield, but which ever quarterback wins the job will be learning on the fly witha new corps of pass catchers. C.J. Duncan and Gerald Perry made good strides this spring, but returners Jordan Pruitt and Trent Cunningham only combined for 18 catches and 177 yards. What about involving the tight end? Steven Scheu and Kris Kentera are sophmores that snagged 19 grabs last season. As far as recruits, the only help arriving is three-star prospect Caleb Scott and a two-star talent in Rashad Canty.