Spring football roundup: What is and is not known with games four months away

Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 9:29pm

With spring football practices concluding last week, here is a look at what we know and what is still unclear heading into fall camp for four area colleges.

2011 record — 2-10 (1-7 Sun Belt)

What we know

• The running game is balanced: William Pratcher and Benny Cunningham return after splitting the carries nearly equally and rushing for more than 500 yards each. Plus, Blue Raiders fans got their first look at LSU transfer Drayton Calhoun, who led all rushers in the spring game with 39 yards on six carries.

* Logan Kilgore is improved: In 2011, Kilgore made 10 starts at quarterback and helped MTSU surpass 3,000 yards passing for just the second time in school history. But he was inconsistent at times, throwing 12 interceptions and leaving the door open for backup Jeff Murphy, who played in nine games.

“He improved this spring,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “He was a first-year player last year as a sophomore. There is going to be growing pains that you go through. I think he got better. I think he’ll have a really good year this year.”

• Defensive line is a strength: All four starters return — Omar McLendon, Jiajuan Fennell, Kendall Dangerfield and Jimmy Staten — along with upstart defensive tackle Shubert Bastien, the only true freshman to play in 2011.

What we don’t know

• Jeff Murphy’s health status: The senior quarterback tore his ACL during spring drills and could be out until November if he undergoes surgery. Murphy, however, might elect to forego the surgery and rehab his knee over the next couple months.

“I think it is possible Jeff can play with a torn ACL, especially in this offense because you are in the shotgun all the time,” Stockstill said. “It’s going to be hard, realistically, to say he’s got a chance to compete for the starting job. But you don’t know that. June, July may get here and he feels like a million bucks.”

• The strength of the offensive line: Only two starters — Alex Stuart and Josh Walker — return to a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (10) in the Sun Belt Conference. Stuart, Judd Hunt, Lance Campbell and Isaiah Anderson all missed at least part of spring practices due to injuries.

• The resiliency of the Blue Raiders: An offseason program that started in January in the weight room and with mat drills, along with spring practices, strengthened mental and physical toughness, Stockstill said. The Blue Raiders were low on each last year and must prove early that those demons are gone. Their non-conference schedule features games at Georgia Tech and Mississippi State.

2011 record — 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

What we know

• Experience, at last: After playing a multitude of freshmen over the last two years, 20 starters returns for coach Derek Dooley’s third season. On offense, the Vols only lost running back Tauren Poole.  

• Justin Hunter is on the mend: After tearing his ACL in the third game last season, the junior slowly worked back from surgery. He wore a red injury jersey at times this spring but showed flashes including one scrimmage where he caught three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.

A healthy Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers give the Vols one of the most dangerous wide receiver combos in the SEC.

• Tyler Bray is better: The junior quarterback is still a work in progress but his spring game this year was much better than 2011 when he completed just five of 30 passes. This April, he was 14-of-26 for 157 yards and a touchdown. After narrowly missing 2,000 yards the past two seasons, Bray is one of the top returning QBs in the SEC.

What we don’t know

• If the running game has improved: The rushing attack was, well ... grounded last year. Despite Poole returning after a 1,000-yard season as a junior, the Vols averaged 90.1 yards in 2011 — the fifth-lowest among FBS schools. Marlin Lane Jr. rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game but will be joined in the backfield by Devrin Young and Rajion Neal.

• If Herman Lathers can make a full recovery: After a fractured ankle kept him out in 2011, the sight of the senior middle linebacker — and cancer survivor — at spring drills was encouraging for a defense that is thin at linebacker.

“I believe he came out of here with a lot of confidence that he is ready to go and he can be a real difference-maker for us in the front seven,” coach Derek Dooley said. “We need him to be. We need Herman to be healthy.”

• The effect of coaching turnover: Seven assistants left Dooley’s staff after the 2011 season — six leaving for BCS jobs. Former Alabama assistant Sal Sunseri is heading up the defense now and Dooley called it a “seamless transition” this spring. Of course, nothing is on the line yet.

2011 record — 5-6 (4-4 Ohio Valley)

What we know

• Mike German shows no signs of sophomore slump: After stepping in midway through the season, the redshirt-freshman quarterback sparked the Tigers, who averaged 30.5 points. He picked up league freshman of the year honors in the process and TSU coach Rod Reed sees German keeping his job.

“Mike is obviously our guy,” Reed said. “I think he takes it very seriously on the field. He is still has some leadership characteristics that I would like to see come out a little bit more.”

• Daniel Fitzpatrick emerged as a defensive leader: After posting 69 tackles as a freshman safety, he returns as the team’s top returning tackler. This spring he didn’t slow down, stepping into leadership shoes.

“Daniel is a very vocal guy out there,” Reed said. “He makes all the changes back there in the secondary for us. We’re excited about Daniel. I think he is going to be a pretty good player for us.”

• Plenty of targets in passing game: Though last year’s leader in receiving yards, NFL hopeful Calvin McNairl, is gone most of German’s weapons return. Devin Wilson, Travis James and Jeremy Pryor continued to develop a strong chemistry with German.

What we don’t know

• How a young defense will fare: Juniors and seniors on defense are rarity as most of TSU’s starters will be sophomores and their backups? Freshmen. The Tigers allowed 32.8 points last year — third worst in the OVC.

“There is a lot of teaching going on,” Reed said. “Hand placement, eyes, every technical aspect you have to work on. We spent a pretty good amount of time in individual drills every day in practice just to fine tune technique and execution. I like the kids we have over there. We get after them a little bit.”

• What depth lies behind starting running back Trabis Ward: Reed spent this spring observing Kaylen Pearson, Telvin Hooks, Martine Stevenson and Ryan Berry. Out of that quartet only Berry and Stevenson touched the ball last year — combining for 33 carries.

“In our system we better have two or three good running backs,” Reed said. “We put the ball on the ground a lot.”

• If tight end emerges as another offensive threat: Besides from bringing a blocking presence, Reed wants his tight ends to develop into pass catchers. Wesley Samuels, Je-Marc Sears and Joe Bowens all caught touchdowns in the spring game. If that carries over into the fall, another dimension could form to an already explosive offense.

2011 record — 6-7 (2-6 SEC)

What we know

• Quarterback is Jordan Rodgers’ job to lose: A good spring stretched his lead over Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels. If dual-threat Rodgers sustains production, he could be the first Vanderbilt QB to start every game since Chris Nickson in 2006.

• Offensive line is experienced but thin: Same old song, different verse. Depth remains to be an issue though they return four starters and have six linemen enrolling in the fall.

• Defensive stars emerging: Cornerback Trey Wilson and linebacker Archibald Barnes built off breakout seasons and had stellar springs — pleasant signs as they try to fill voids in their units left by Casey Hayward and Chris Marve.

What we don’t know

• How much of an impact Warren Norman will have: The junior running back participated in full pads the last two practices for the first time in more than a year. He looked sharp cutting off his surgically repaired knee. The two glaring questions are will he hold up and can he reproduce that burst of speed he displayed in 2009?

• Whether linebacker is a strength or weakness: Without Marve in the middle, soft-spoken Chase Garnham has to step up. Garnham and Barnes gained experience last year and Karl Butler and true freshman Darreon Herring impressed in the spring.

• The impact of position changes: Former quarterbacks and redshirt-freshmen Josh Grady (slot receiver) and Kris Kentera (H-back) stuck out in the spring and Grady dazzled out of wildcat formation in spring game, throwing and rushing for touchdowns. Much is expected of them but can they be effective in the SEC?

2 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 4/27/12 at 6:23

What I know is that Vanderbilt can play football with Ole Miss and Tennessee,Tulane, Rice and Princeton.

By: wiseguy1 on 4/27/12 at 8:37

Raspy, You do realize Tulane, Rice and Princeton are not on the schedule.

Actually the schedule looks pretty attractive this year. No Alabama, LSU or Arkansas. Mizzou is a flier at this point. Georgia and South Carolina are the only conference teams from last year that finished with a significantly better conference record than VU.

Could realistically be a 7, or more win season. The last 7 games on the schedule are certainly winnable with talent and experience Franklin & staff have available to put on the field.