Spring football practices tend to serve many purposes around college campuses this time of year, and it’s only partially the fans’ need to quench a thirst for anything pigskin related.
More important than serving the needs of millions of football-hungry fans, spring practices bring familiarity with the play book, offer coaches myriad opportunities to move actual pieces around on a field instead of a chalkboard, and push players to make their moves to solidify spots of fit.
Plenty of players use spring practices to show coaches they’re ready for a bigger role or are ready to move up the depth chart.
Here are four SEC players shining this spring, who could be poised for bigger roles in 2016.
O.J. Howard, TE – Alabama
Howard told the media on March 21 that his decision to stave off the NFL after his breakout College Football Playoff title-game performance (5 grabs, 208 receiving yards and 2 TDs) was a no-brainer.
“It was kind of a decision where I thought I had so much left on the table in college,” Howard said. “How I can mature on and off the field. It really wasn’t a hard decision at the end of the day. [My family and I] thought about it a lot.”
He passed up some serious coin, but did so to become a featured piece in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense that almost surely will pass more in 2016.
Coach Nick Saban has already whispered about Howard’s “very productive” practice sessions to Matt Zenitz of AL.com, and said Alabama was “looking forward to him being someone who’s very productive for us next year.”
Jamel Dean, CB – Auburn
In recent years, Auburn has been no stranger to benefiting from transfer help in the defensive backfield. Dean may be the latest in that long line.
Given the boot from Ohio State after team doctors felt concern over lingering knee issues from high school, Dean said he didn’t hold a grudge toward the Buckeyes.
But he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder this spring after sitting out last season.
“He has a lot of talent. He can run, he’s a physical guy,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said, via James Crepa of AL.com. “He really caught our attention in bowl practice when we did some scrimmaging and he’s carried it over to the spring. [Defensive backs coach Wesley] McGriff, I know is pleased with him right now. He’s a young guy – he’s still learning, but his attitude is good and he’s got a lot of talent.”
Caleb Brantley, DL – Florida
From Dante Fowler Jr. to Jon Bullard, the Gators have been flush with top-notch talent along the defensive line in recent years. Fowler entered the NFL in 2015 and Bullard will follow suit in a month. Who’s next to step up along Florida’s defensive front?
Brantley, said defensive line coach Chris Rumph to Graham Hall of The Gainesville Sun.
“He just made up his mind mentally that he wants to be a player,” Rumph said of Brantley on March 23. “He’s not giving in to some of the things from before. He’s conditioning, being in shape and pushing.”
With a combined 50 tackles, 10 ½ tackles for loss and three sacks in his first two seasons, Brantley must step up in a big way this season if he plans to live up to his self-proclaimed “best D-lineman in the country” moniker. If an endorsement from a friend is worth anything … Bullard thinks highly of Brantley’s chances to be the man.
Asked who will step up on #Gators D this year, Jon Bullard said, 'Caleb Brantley, no question.'
— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) March 22, 2016
Devin White, LB – LSU
Every once in a while an early enrollee enters a program and generates buzz during spring practice. That’s exactly the case with White.
Established LSU veterans told Jerit Roser of The Times-Picayune, White was fitting in like a glove early on, and looked fast for his large frame.
More important: Coach Les Miles has taken notice, too.
#LSU coach Les Miles: There’s enough speed to play at LB. Devin White ids looking really good, Duke Riley improving. Arden Key nice spring
— Jim Kleinpeter (@JimKleinpeter) March 17, 2016
White could have come to LSU to play running back, and maybe that was the expectation. But the move to defense has initially been seamless, and apparently the best thing for player and team.