SEC Football: 9 Most Crucial 2014 Fall Camp Battles
SEC football programs across the country open fall camp this week—many with substantial questions yet to be answered.
Some of those answers won’t come until the season begins.
The vast majority, though, will be discovered during fall camp. Whether coaches decide to make public what might be obvious during closed practices, naturally, varies from program to program.
Today, we will focus on positions that see few substitutions, thus making the starting competitions more important.
Of course, quarterbacks will get the most attention—typically only one can play at a time and coaches are hesitant to give more than one player significant practice repetitions.
Other positions that will get the most attention include offensive line and safety.
While competitions such as the tailback race at Auburn might be intriguing—largely to figure out who might be a potential breakout star of the year in the SEC—it isn’t a crucial battle.
Remember, Tre Mason hadn’t locked down the starting job by the season opener last year, and he finished as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
If numerous players stand to receive numerous opportunities, the importance of who “wins” the job fall camp diminishes greatly.
Here is a look at our nine biggest position battles entering fall camp.
Jacob Coker vs. Blake Sims vs. Cooper Bateman
Of all the position battles during fall camp, this one likely carries the greatest national championship picture implications.
Jacob Coker is the likely starter despite the fact that he has never taken a snap during an Alabama practice.
That is, of course, unless you ask coach Nick Saban.
During SEC media days, Saban took the opportunity to declare the quarterback race “an open competition.”
Saban praised Blake Sims’ play during spring practice, while also acknowledging his 2013 backup’s struggles during the spring game.
Still, all the speculation will center on Coker, as it should.
Coker left Florida State not simply to collect national championship rings—something he could have done in Tallahassee just as well as he might at Alabama.
He left because beating 2013 Jameis Winston out for the starting position seemed highly unlikely, even after FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said Coker pushed Winston deep into camp last year.
Coker joined the Crimson Tide because he wants to start.
Talented quarterbacks choose schools where they have a great opportunity to win the starting job, as Saban has said, if not a guarantee that they will.
Promises or not, Coker is the most likely player to be under center when Alabama opens against West Virginia in Atlanta on Aug. 30.
Patrick Towles vs. Reese Phillips vs. Drew Barker
During SEC media days, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops seemed to indicate one of his three quarterbacks left spring practice with a lead, but he’s not ready to give away any secrets just yet.
“There is some clarity in there, but there’s also a lot of competition to go,” Stoops said in Hoover, Alabama (h/t The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith). “I’m not going to go there too far, but I was pleased with the way we played. We played better at that position. I think...there may be a pecking order, but the job’s not won.”
If a coach of any program deserves the right to play coy at this stage, it’s that of Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t won an SEC game since 2011.
Maxwell Smith also could emerge in the mix at some point once he gains medical clearance to return to the field.
Stoops, like virtually all coaches at this stage, wants to at least internally declare a starter at the position sooner than later.
Our own Barrett Sallee suggested back in April that true freshman Drew Barker should start to provide Kentucky hope for the future.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown has run successful passing games at Troy and Texas Tech.
Any hopes of an immediate fix disappeared early during last season’s 2-10 campaign. Brown and Stoops alike hope to a new mix of potential starters can provide different results.
Anthony Jennings vs. Brandon Harris
Anthony Jennings seemed to have the inside track to win this competition when spring practice opened.
The rising sophomore came in for injured starter Zach Mettenberger and led a game-winning touchdown drive during the regular-season finale against Arkansas.
Jennings also started during the Capital One Bowl—though his extended playing time presented a far less impressive performance than his initial outing.
By the time the spring game ended, though, this race had been turned completely on its head by Brandon Harris.
LSU coach Les Miles didn’t indicate if Harris officially pulled into the lead with his strong spring, but he acknowledged the true freshman at least has a decent chance to win the position.
“It will be a very competitive event from start to finish,” Miles said at SEC media days (h/t The Advertiser).
Both quarterbacks will give the Tigers an ability to run from the pocket.
Miles also bragged on Harris’ throwing ability.
“He’s innately accurate. He’s got great footwork,” Miles said in Hoover, Alabama (h/t The Advertiser). “He can extend a play, get out of the pocket, move around. But probably the best thing about him is he anticipates that great play, too. He has the opportunity to see it and has the arm to get it there.”
Considering that LSU opens with a neutral-field game against Wisconsin, it would be wise for Miles to settle on a starter quickly—especially if that player is an incoming true freshman.
Justin Worley vs. Nathan Peterman vs. Joshua Dobbs
Tennessee opens its quarterback situation in the same place it ended last year—not entirely sure which of its three options gives the Volunteers the best chance to win.
All three players started in 2013.
None enjoyed particularly strong results.
Coach Butch Jones fielded a few questions about the position during SEC media days, offering very little in terms of answers.
Justin Worley opened as the starter last year but came out of the Oregon game because of ineffective play. A week later, Nathan Peterman made his first career start and broke his hand against a Florida defender’s helmet when throwing a pass.
So trying to figure out which of the two might have an advantage seems little more than guesswork at this junction.
Joshua Dobbs, a true freshman last season, offers the most athleticism and running ability—a pair of attributes that could come in handy considering Tennessee replaces its entire offensive line this season.
More on the offensive line issues later.
Texas A&M QB
Kyle Allen vs. Kenny Hill
The name “Johnny Manziel” is now a part of Texas A&M history.
Before spring started, Matt Joeckel seemed to have as good a chance as anyone of winning the starting job this fall. It made sense as the most sensible move, giving Kenny Hill an extra year to mature and Kyle Allen a chance to redshirt.
Coach Kevin Sumlin had other ideas.
Joeckel viewed his chances of winning the starting job after spring practice and decided he had a better chance to go somewhere new.
So the Aggies will undergo a youth movement at quarterback this season, turning either to true freshman Allen or sophomore Hill.
Allen, rated by 247Sports as the top quarterback prospect in the class of 2014, enrolled early to compete for the job.
He enters fall camp positioned well to potentially win the job.
Hill would have had a better chance to win the position before he got arrested and subsequently suspended for public intoxication.
Still, Hill offers more of an athletic presence at the quarterback position.
He isn’t Manziel, but then again, who is?
Like most coaches who will choose a starter during preseason camp, Sumlin showed exactly zero interest in discussing the competition or who might be leading as of SEC media days.
He went as far as attempting to circumvent questions on the matter.
“I didn’t come here today to tell you who the quarterback was going to be, so we can eliminate those questions,” Sumlin said in Hoover, Alabama. “That will play itself out.”
Sumlin later talked a little about his two candidates, pointing out that both are accustomed to pressure—Allen as the nation’s top quarterback prospect. Hill has grown accustomed to high expectations because he played for Southlake Carroll (Southlake, Texas) High School—a program with visions of winning the state championship every season.
“Both these guys have shown the ability to be resilient,” Sumlin said at SEC media days. “Both have been through it a little bit as high school and younger players. Certainly none of them have been through what they’re going to face that day.”
Considering the talent Sumlin recruits to the position, this could be the lone opportunity for either player to become the starter at A&M.
Stephen Rivers vs. Patton Robinette vs. Johnny McCrary
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has a lot to learn from his SEC brethren.
When asked about the starting quarterback position during SEC media days, Mason—gasp—actually admitted one of his contenders “has the leg up.”
The quarterback, Patton Robinette, is the only one of the three who has experience.
Robinette started last season—albeit with up-and-down results—when Austyn Carta-Samuels got injured.
Stephen Rivers transferred in from LSU in hopes of winning the starting nod.
Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary might be the biggest reason for optimism for Vanderbilt fans. The former U.S. Army high school all-American selection likely has the highest upside.
Mason talked about giving six quarterbacks the same chance to win the starting job, but look for that number to be trimmed to three very quickly.
Whoever wins the fall competition should feel good once he does. Twice during SEC media days, Mason declared himself “a one-quarterback guy.”
Shon Coleman vs. Patrick Miller
Auburn doesn’t lose much from its dynamic offense that set the league on fire last year.
It does, however, need to find a replacement for left tackle Greg Robinson.
Along with tailback Tre Mason, Robinson was one of the great breakout stars for the Tigers last season. Robinson emerged at the end of the season as one of the nation’s top offensive tackles. NFL scouts noticed.
When the draft came around, the St. Louis Rams selected Robinson second overall.
Robinson’s overpowering run-block technique helped open holes for a ground attack knowledgeable in how to take advantage of them.
How his successor performs is one of the few question marks facing Auburn heading into 2014.
The Tigers might not be especially close to settling on Robinson’s replacement.
Coach Gus Malzahn said little about the competition during SEC media days, noting only that Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller are battling for the spot.
Coleman ranked No. 22 in the Rivals 100 when he initially signed with Auburn in 2010.
That spring, though, Coleman was diagnosed with a form of leukemia.
Just by returning to even compete for the tackle position, Coleman is already one of the greatest feel-good stories of the year.
Miller started five games last year for Auburn and looks to crack the lineup again.
James Crepea of The Montgomery Advertiser indicated that Miller “is on the outside looking in” of this competition.
Last year’s starting safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were expected to solidify Georgia’s back line of defense for the next few years.
Who takes over at the position remains to be seen.
Based on a blog entry by Chip Towers at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, J.J. Green might actually be a front-runner for one of the jobs despite spending the entire season at tailback last year.
The other spot is just as open with Corey Moore battling Quincy Mauger. Both gained valuable experience in 2013.
All positions open
Experience won’t really be a factor in this competition.
Tennessee lost 182 starts across its offensive line during the offseason. It returns just six.
Guard Marcus Jackson is the lone projected starter with any experience with the first-team offense at Tennessee.
The rest of the line seems likely to be filled by some collection of walk-ons, incoming freshmen, junior-college transfers and career reserves.
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