What the SEC's First-Year Head Coaches Need to Accomplish This Spring

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterFebruary 11, 2013

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnJosh D. Weiss-USA TODAY Sports

In the SEC, there is no rest for the weary. 

That's particularly true for first-year coaches trying to stabilize their respective programs.

Recruiting is over (for the most part), but spring practice is right around the corner. While recruiting will go a long way towards fixing several key issues down the road, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops and Tennessee head coach Butch Jones have even more pressing needs to address once spring practice kicks off.

What's the biggest issue facing each of the SEC's first-year head coaches in spring practice?


Arkansas Razorbacks: Find a Quarterback

Sure, Arkansas' defense hasn't exactly been great over the last few years. But immense roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball will make Bielema's transition year very challenging.

Running backs Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and offensive guard Alvin Bailey are all gone from last year's squad, but there are suitable replacements at most of those spots.

Finding a replacement for quarterback Tyler Wilson, however, is much more of an unknown.

Brandon Allen filled in when Wilson was knocked out of action last season, and he will certainly get a crack at taking over the starting job. The 6'3", 212-pounder played in five games last season, completing 42.9 percent of his passes for 186 yards, one touchdown and three picks.

He wasn't ready for the job when called upon last season, but another cycle of offseason work with the position up for grabs could go a long way to help his progression.

The Hogs could also move former dual-threat quarterback Brandon Mitchell back to compete after the rising senior spent the majority of the 2012 season at wide receiver. At 6'4", 230 pounds, Mitchell has the measurables to be a legitimate weapon and has completed 58.1 percent of his passes during his first three years.

Rising junior Taylor Reed will also get a look, and incoming freshmen Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell could join the competition when they get to campus later this summer. Having a No. 1 quarterback isn't a necessity exiting spring practice, but Bielema needs to have a good idea of how the battle is shaping up so that the eventual winner gets plenty of No. 1 snaps in fall camp.


Auburn Tigers: Develop Linebackers

The quarterback battle at Auburn will dominate headlines this spring, but let's be honest—first-year head coach Gus Malzahn set records with Chris Todd taking the snaps in his first year as Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2009. Whoever wins the job will be fine.

Auburn's most pressing need is solidifying its front seven, which was atrocious against the run in 2013. The addition of signees Carl Lawson, Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams should allow the talented yet underachieving defensive line rotate for a full 60 minutes, which leaves the linebacking corps as the most pressing issue facing Malzahn in his first spring as Auburn's head coach.

New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme essentially uses a middle linebacker, an outside linebacker and a "star," which is a hybrid linebacker/safety position that's key to run support.

Cassanova McKinzy and Jake Holland are the leading candidates to lock down the middle linebacker spot. McKinzy played in eight games in 2012, tallying 23 tackles as a freshman, and should battle returning starter Jake Holland for playing time.

Sophomore Kris Frost and junior Justin Garrett are both athletic enough to be big-time weapons at outside linebacker and will likely battle for that spot, but both could shift to the "star" position if that's what Johnson decides to do.

Figuring out how all of the pieces fit into the linebacker puzzle will be big for Johnson because the Tigers only landed two linebackers in the class of 2013.


Kentucky Wildcats: Settle on a Quarterback

The cliche is that no player should ever lose his job due to injury, so common sense says that rising junior Maxwell Smith should be the Kentucky quarterback in 2013.

But the coaching change that brought in Mark Stoops changes things quite a bit, and settling on the No. 1 quarterback this spring will allow the new staff to devote more attention to other position battles.

Smith completed 68.7 percent of his passes for 975 yards, eight touchdowns and four picks in four games last season before an ankle injury ended his season. With new offensive coordinator Neal Brown bringing in his pass-happy attack, having a quarterback with an accurate and strong arm will be important. Smith could thrive in this system.

But don't be surprised if rising sophomore Patrick Towles makes a run. The 6'5", 242-pounder with a big arm played in four games before getting injured himself, giving way to Jalen Whitlow. Whitlow is more of a dual-threat quarterback and got plenty of experience last season, but he could be fighting an uphill battle in the new offense.


Tennessee Volunteers: Fix the Secondary

The Vols return eight starters on defense, but it's a defense that finished last in the SEC in total defense in 2012 (471.3 YPG) and 13th in passing defense (282.5 YPG). 

First-year head coach Butch Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek have their work cut out for them in 2013. Justin Coleman and Eric Gordon will likely lock down the two cornerback spots, while Byron Moore, Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil and Brent Brewer will all contend for playing time at the two safety spots.

Tennessee is going through its third defensive scheme change in three years, but there is talent in the secondary. Getting those players comfortable with Jancek and the new staff will be key and will go a long way toward fixing the issues.

A lot of attention will be paid to the battles at quarterback and wide receiver, but a veteran offensive line and an underrated running back corps should keep the offense on track. If the Vols don't fix the defense, it really won't matter all that much.