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May 19, 2009

Whispers: Plenty of questions in the SEC

Spring practice is finished across the nation, but not every question was answered.

Each school has one big, vexing query that hangs over its program.

This is the second part of a series examining the biggest question each "Big Six" squad faces. This week, we look at the SEC.

ALABAMA: Will the offensive line hold up? It was the strongest area on the team during last season's 12-2 run. But the unit lost three starters, including first-round pick Andre Smith (tackle) and third-round pick Antoine Caldwell (center). Junior college transfer James Carpenter looks like a solid option in Smith's old spot, but center remains an issue. It's especially vital that the big guys come through when you consider that the Tide is breaking in new junior quarterback Greg McElroy.

ARKANSAS: Will the secondary hold up? Last season, the Hogs ranked 10th in the SEC and 54th in the nation in pass defense (204.2 ypg). The defense returns nine starters, but the two players being replaced are cornerback Jamar Love and strong safety Dallas Washington. In particular, the rebuilt secondary must improve at defending the long ball. Coordinator Willy Robinson liked how cornerbacks Isaac Madison and Ramon Broadway and free safety Tramain Thomas played in the spring. And cornerback Jerell Norton impressed after redshirting in 2008 because of hernia surgery and a hamstring injury. Robinson wouldn't be shocked if some incoming freshmen help a horrid defense that ranked last in the SEC overall.

AUBURN: Is there a quarterback in the house? When spring drills closed, juniors Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle were the top candidates. However, don't count out senior Chris Todd (shoulder) and redshirt freshman Barrett Trotter (knee), who were dealing with injuries. There's also a chance a true freshman Clint Moseley or Tyrik Rollison could emerge. Still, Burns and Caudle are the front-runners to operate Gus Malzahn's attack. Burns started seven games and ranked ninth in the SEC in total offense last season, when Caudle played sparingly in two games.

FLORIDA: Who is going to catch Tim Tebow's passes? The wide receivers typically draw one-on-one coverage in the Gators' spread attack, so it's imperative they take advantage. If the receivers can't break man coverage, the attack bogs down. The staff is counting on senior David Nelson to be a go-to guy and leader. Others to watch are sophomore Deonte Thompson, senior Riley Cooper and redshirt freshman Frankie Hammond Jr. Tebow also will have a security blanket in tight end Aaron Hernandez.

GEORGIA: Who will replace Knowshon Moreno? The Bulldogs could take a committee approach, using the likes of sophomores Caleb King and Richard Samuel, redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas and incoming freshman Washaun Ealey. Or perhaps someone from that group will emerge as the feature back to replace Moreno, who left school early and was a first-round pick.

KENTUCKY: Who will step up at wide receiver? Sure, some folks may think a bigger issue is how playing time will be resolved at quarterback between the likes of junior Mike Hartline, junior Will Fidler and touted incoming freshmen Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton. But who will be on the receiving end of the passes is a more pressing query. Without a doubt, sophomore Randall Cobb is the top target; he's a great athlete who also plays quarterback in the "Wildcat" formation. But if he doesn't get help, UK's offense will look a lot like it did in 2008: a moderately successful passing attack that didn't keep foes from stacking the box to stuff the run.

LSU: Will new coordinator John Chavis make the defense better? The unit fell hard after Bo Pelinibolted to coach Nebraska and Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory took over as co-coordinators. The Tigers' defense ranked ninth in the SEC (325.5 ypg). The pass defense was especially horrid, ranking 11th in the league (215.4 ypg). That caused Les Miles to pursue the respected Chavis after the Vols' staff was let go. More than any scheme changes, Chavis injected a new, aggressive attitude and a sense of ownership among the players. And mental mishaps won't be tolerated.

OLE MISS: How will the left side of the offensive line hold up? Tackle Michael Oher and guard Darryl Harris are gone. At guard, the Rebels will turn to senior Reid Neely, who has a few starts under his belt. The tackle spot remains unsettled. Sophomore Bradley Sowell is penciled in as the starter, but massive (6-7, 345) incoming freshman Bobby Massie will get a long look during fall camp. It's vital that the Rebs find a good tackle to help protect star quarterback Jevan Snead. If Snead gets hurt, Ole Miss is in trouble.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Are some of the incoming freshmen ready to produce? They better be, especially at the skill positions on offense in new coach Dan Mullen's spread scheme. All eyes are on quarterback Tyler Russell, who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Mississippi last season. Several true freshmen receivers also need to deliver, including the likes of Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Brandon Heavens.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Will an offensive line develop? The spring was all about trying to develop attitude up front. Count on new line coach Eric Wolford whipping his men in shape. Three starting slots are set Jarriel King at left tackle; Garrett Anderson at center and T.J. Johnson at right guard. Competition at left guard and right tackle will continue in August.

TENNESSEE: Can Jonathan Crompton develop into a winning quarterback? He sure wasn't last season, which was a big reason the Vols had the 115th-ranked offense in the nation (268.8 ypg) and ranked 110th in scoring (17.3 ppg). Tennessee really has no competition for Crompton, who at one point was benched last season. Will his teammates have confidence in him? Further muddling Crompton's chances to succeed is a line that lacks depth and has just one returning tackle who has played in the SEC.

VANDERBILT: Will senior running back Jared Hawkins be healthy? He missed spring practice recuperating from foot surgery. The Commodores also have Kennard Reeves and Gaston Miller, but neither is as good as Hawkins. That could leave Vandy coach Bobby Johnson looking at incoming freshmen Warren Norman, Zac Stacy and Wesley Tate to carry a big load.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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