Questions for each SEC team in spring: Alabama's defense, Texas and Oklahoma debuts among storylines to follow

The 2024 season is a crucial one for college football. Following the latest wave of realignment, every power conference will have a new lineup. The College Football Playoff is expanding to 12 teams for the first time in its relatively brief history, opening the door for schools that have been routinely excluded in the past. And, of all the leagues at the FBS level, the SEC may stand to benefit the most from all these changes. 

The SEC is poised to have multiple teams compete for a spot in that expanded playoff format. Though the league isn’t welcoming as many newcomers as other power conferences, its two additions — Oklahoma and Texas — boast elite brand recognition and on-field success. 

But postseason pursuit starts with spring practice. All 16 teams in the new-look SEC have taken the field at this point, giving coaches a glimpse at what their 2024 squads will look like. In Missouri’s case, spring practice is already in the rearview mirror. 

With so much change, each team has at least one burning question to iron out before the first practice period of the year culminates in televised spring games. Prominent programs like Alabama are breaking in a new coach for the first time in almost 20 years, while others are replacing assistants and overhauling position groups after natural attrition and transfer portal losses. 

With that in mind, here’s one question every SEC team — except Missouri, which has already completed its spring sessions — must address as spring practice unfolds. 


What does the defense look like? Defense was a hallmark for former Alabama coach Nick Saban. No matter what else was happening, the Crimson Tide could hang their hat on production from that side of the ball during the legendary leader’s 17-year career. Though Alabama went through plenty of defensive coordinators during that span, the defense itself maintained the same identity with Saban engineering things from the top and molding the system to his philosophy. 

But a new era is underway in Tuscaloosa. Former Washington boss Kalen DeBoer is stepping in and bringing defensive coordinator Kane Wommack — former coach at South Alabama — with him. Wommack is adamant that his 3-4 nickel defense isn’t a grand departure from what Saban ran at Alabama, but both DeBoer and Wommack are certain to introduce some new wrinkles as the team takes on their image. 

There’s certainly a lot for Wommack to figure out from a personnel perspective. Alabama is losing four starters from its secondary and key pass rusher Dallas Turner to the NFL Draft. Though the starting linebacker spots are in good shape, the Crimson Tide lack depth in that area. Spring is important for identifying where players fit in the (apparently not so) new system, and which young prospects will step up to fill the new vacancies. 


Which quarterback replaces KJ Jefferson? Arkansas’ biggest offseason blow came when longtime starting quarterback KJ Jefferson entered the transfer portal. Jefferson was one of the most dynamic players in the SEC, and though he never quite lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon him by external voices, the Razorbacks could always count on him to put the offense on his shoulders and make things go. 

Now, the Razorbacks have a 6-foot-3, 247-pound hole to fill at the most important spot on the field. It’s issue No. 1 for new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, whose coaching specialty lies at the quarterback position. In an attempt to fill the void, Arkansas sniped former Boise State starter Taylen Green from the transfer portal. Though he isn’t a one-to-one comparison to Jefferson, he has an equally unique frame — standing at 6-foot-6 and 221 pounds — and a comparable ability to make plays with his legs. 

Green won’t just walk into the starting role, though. Arkansas returns fifth-year senior Jacolby Criswell, who signed with North Carolina in 2020, spent his first three years on the bench and transferred to Arkansas ahead of the 2023 season to serve as Jefferson’s backup. He’s finally getting a chance to battle for the starting job after throwing for 143 yards and three touchdowns in spot duty last year. 


Can anybody push Payton Thorne? Hugh Freeze has put a lot of effort into improving the stagnant offense he inherited, from bolstering the offensive line via transfers to signing one of 2024’s most impressive wide receiver hauls — a group headlined by in-state five-stars Cam Coleman and Perry Thompson. But all the flashy new toys in the world aren’t worth much if quarterback Payton Thorne can’t improve entering his second year with the program. 

The former Michigan State transfer won the starting job in 2023 and played in 13 games, finishing the year with just 1,755 yards passing and 16 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He did surprise some with his rushing ability, posting an impressive 515 yards on the year, but his limitations were obvious. He has sub-standard arm talent, he’s prone to slumps and his decision-making isn’t quite as advanced as one would expect with five years of experience under his belt. 

Regardless, Thorne is back for a sixth collegiate season. Odds would suggest he’s already hit his developmental ceiling. All this to say, Auburn could benefit from someone pushing Thorne. Former four-star Holden Geriner will get an increased opportunity with Robby Ashford transferring, and redshirt freshman Hank Brown may parlay an impressive Music City Bowl showing into a big offseason. True freshman Walker White, the No. 5 quarterback in the class of 2024, has a chance to turn heads by enrolling in the spring. The Tigers are hoping that crowded competition will breed excellence. 


Who’s calling the shots on offense? Florida coach Billy Napier was adamant in February that he wants to retain his offensive play-calling responsibilities. However, he also shifted his offensive staff this offseason with the clear implication that some duties would change. The Gators promoted tight ends coach Russ Callaway to co-offensive coordinator. He has a background as a playcaller at Samford, and early indications are he will have a hand in shaping Florida’s passing game. Rob Sale is back as offensive coordinator, though that’s mostly a nominal title and he has a more direct hand in the offensive line’s development. Maybe Florida integrates a system where Napier has a final say on the actual play, but he leans more on assistants for input during the game. Whatever it may look like, spring is the perfect time to iron that structure out ahead of what will be a crucial season for Napier. 


Who steps up at cornerback? It’s hard to find any holes when looking at Georgia’s roster, but if there is one major question mark, it lies in the secondary. Specifically, the Bulldogs are losing two starting cornerbacks to the NFL Draft. Kamari Lassiter is a potential first-round pick and Tykee Smith’s versatility is virtually irreplaceable. On top of that, UGA is breaking in a new cornerbacks coach (Donte Williams) and a new secondary coach (Travaris Robinson) this spring. 

It helps that Georgia is returning one starter in Daylen Everette, though he was inconsistent in 2023. His potential running mates on the outside are sophomore Daniel Harris, who finished his freshman season with one tackle, and third-year DB Julian Humphrey, who’s coming off a season-ending injury suffered in November. Five-star freshman Ellis Robinson is a name to know, too. The slot corner position — known as STAR in Georgia’s nomenclature — seems to be in good hands with sophomore Joenel Aguero, but he has big shoes to fill with Smith’s departure.  


Can transfer QB hit the next level? Kentucky enters the 2024 season staking its offense on yet another transfer quarterback. Will Levis came over from Penn State in 2022, and despite developing into an eventual second-round NFL Draft pick, it’s hard to say he had an elite collegiate career. The Wildcats replaced him with NC State transfer Devin Leary in 2023. Kentucky had the SEC’s fourth-worst pass offense with Leary calling the shots, as he failed at least 200 yards passing in six contests. Enter former Georgia signal caller Brock Vandagriff, who despite being the No. 5 QB in 247Sports’ transfer rankings, never rose above a reserve role in three seasons with the Bulldogs.

Vandagriff looked like a perfect fit in former offensive coordinator Liam Coen’s pro-style offense. Then Coen left for the NFL late in the coaching carousel and Kentucky quickly hired Boise State’s Bush Hamdan to replace him. Hamdan has a past coaching quarterbacks, including a stint in the SEC with Missouri, so maybe he can unlock Vandagriff’s potential. Kentucky needs Vandagriff to rise above average if it wants to make an impact in the new-look SEC. 


Can LSU fix its defensive front? LSU was robbed of a potentially special 2023 season by a defense that ranked bottom-three in the SEC against both the pass and the rush. LSU subsequently parted ways with defensive coordinator Matt House and called on Missouri’s Blake Baker to replace him. At the top of Baker’s to-do list should be sorting out LSU’s defensive front, which underscored a lot of the defensive issues last season with its lack of disruptiveness and inability to hold up against the run. To compound matters, LSU’s two most effective defensive linemen — Maason Smith and Mekhi Wingo — are off to the NFL, and several key reserves entered the transfer portal. That leaves the Tigers with two returning scholarship defensive linemen. LSU needs to get more from edge rushers Sai’vion Jones and Bradyn Swinson, who combined for five sacks in 2023.

Mississippi State

How does Jeff Lebby acclimate? Given his track record as an assistant and success as an offensive coordinator at multiple stops, it’s no surprise that Lebby is getting his first shot as a head coach in a high-profile conference like the SEC. But, it is that experience that may cause some apprehension about Lebby’s first year. He’s never been a head coach at any level, and now he inherits a Mississippi State program that is on its third coach since December 2022 following the tragic death of Mike Leach. With the likes of Texas, Georgia, Missouri and, of course, Ole Miss on the schedule in his first two years, this spring is crucial for Lebby as he looks to establish an early identity, install his gameplan and rally a Bulldogs team that’s fallen on hard times in recent years. 

Ole Miss

What’s the answer at running back? Quinshon Judkins’ decision to enter the transfer portal was one of the biggest surprises in the winter window given his role as a focal point of the Rebels offense and his emergence as one of the best bell-cow backs in the nation. Now, Ole Miss has a whopping 271 carries up for grabs in its backfield. Versatile threat Ulysses Bentley is back after a 500-yard rushing performance in 2023, but he hasn’t handled 100 carries in a single season since 2020. LSU transfer Logan Diggs joins the team for spring, but like Bentley, he doesn’t profile as a workhorse. The options are sparse outside of those two, though there’s certainly an opportunity for a younger player to make an impact. Ole Miss will likely employ a stable of backs in 2024, and the spring will be crucial in deciding that rotation. 


Can Oklahoma make the offensive line work? Oklahoma’s offensive line attrition is well-documented. The Sooners have to replace five linemen with starting experience with four off to the NFL and one to Missouri via the transfer portal. Troy Everett and Jacob Sexton are back as options with very limited starting reps, but outside of those two, OU’s offensive line will look almost entirely unfamiliar. Coach Brent Venables went hard in the portal to address the issue, securing the services of Spencer Brown (Michigan State), Michael Tarquin (USC), Febechi Nwaiwu (North Texas) and Geirean Hatchett (West Virginia). All will likely be called upon to serve in some capacity during their first year with the program. Bill Bedenbaugh is one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation, so it’s not hard to believe he can cobble together an effective unit. That being said, any offensive line issues will hamper Oklahoma’s ability to succeed in its first year as an SEC program. 

South Carolina 

Will anyone pull ahead at quarterback? South Carolina certainly doesn’t lack options when it comes to identifying Spencer Rattler’s successor. The Gamecocks welcomed Auburn’s Robby Ashford and Oklahoma’s Davis Beville, adding some competition for redshirt freshman LaNorris Sellers. Sellers’ three appearances as a true freshman make him South Carolina’s most experienced returning quarterback. Freshman Dante Reno is ostensibly in the mix as well since he enrolled in time for the spring, though he’s likely fourth in the pecking order. Chances are this will come down to Ashford and Sellers. On one hand, Ashford has plenty of SEC experience from his time at Auburn, giving him an inherent leg up. But South Carolina’s staff thinks the world of Sellers with his 6-foot-3 and 240-pound frame, excellent rushing ability and strong arm. 


Can a new-look secondary come together?: All eyes will be on first-year starting quarterback Nico Iamaleava this offseason, but equally important is Tennessee’s continued improvement on defense. The Volunteers had a fairly average, if sometimes inconsistent, veteran secondary last season. All five starters from that unit are gone, off to either the professional level or the transfer portal, and several key backups decided to take their talents elsewhere. To call Tennessee’s 2024 defensive backfield “new” would be an understatement. The Vols have some intriguing young pieces that can step up and they added the likes of Oregon State cornerback Jermod McCoy and MTSU safety Jakobe Thomas — players that, on paper, look like upgrades from their predecessors. Spring will be key for figuring out how these new pieces fit leading into summer workouts and the fall. 


Is Isaiah Bond ready for a full breakout? Few individual players had a more illustrious close to the 2023 season than Bond, who captured national attention with his heroics in Alabama’s last-second win against Auburn and parlayed that into nine catches for 126 yards in Alabama’s two postseason games. That put the cherry on top of a 668-yard, four-touchdown season for the former top-50 high school prospect. Bond entered the transfer portal following Nick Saban’s retirement and took his talents to Texas, where he’ll be tasked with elevating his game and becoming an alpha in a receiving corps that’s losing all three starters and well over 75% of its receiving production. Texas needs Bond to establish a nice rapport with quarterback Quinn Ewers during the spring practice period. 

Texas A&M 

Can Conner Weigman bounce back? Through his relatively brief playing time in his first two collegiate seasons, Weigman has looked like the answer at quarterback for a Texas A&M offense that largely failed to register above average under former coach Jimbo Fisher. He started in four games as a freshman in 2022 and threw for 896 yards and eight touchdowns, taking the offense by the reigns and winning the full-time starting job as a sophomore. He got off to a scorching start, with 979 yards and eight touchdowns, before a foot injury cut his year short after just four games. The ailment required surgery, and new coach Mike Elko is taking a cautious approach with Weigman during the spring. His health is of the utmost importance for the Aggies, who lack quality options outside of Weigman following Max Johnson’s transfer to North Carolina. Though he’s limited, Weigman could ride a strong spring into a 2024 campaign in which he has the potential to emerge as one of the best signal callers in America. 


Who emerges at the skill positions? Vanderbilt has a logjam at quarterback that it has to figure out, but whoever the coaching staff settles on needs players to throw the ball to. The Commodores were decimated by the transfer portal, losing all three of their leading receivers and second-leading rusher Patrick Smith during the winter window. Leading rusher Sedrick Alexander is back, though he only had 383 yards and four touchdowns last season. Vanderbilt added Texas Tech wide receiver Loic Fouonji and Ole Miss wide receiver Jeremiah Dillon from the transfer portal. But given what the Commodores lost, there’s a lot of work to be done in getting the skill talent positions up to speed this offseason. 

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