SEC football spring games are underway, so it’s time to take our latest trip around the league.
1. Marlon Davidson is coming
When then-freshman Marlon Davidson beat out then-sophomore Byron Cowart to start at defensive end for Auburn last season, it was viewed as an indictment of the former Rivals No. 1 overall recruit. But that wasn’t entirely fair to Davidson, who is a more well-rounded player and superior edge rusher.
Davidson is blessed with a springiness that allows him to catch tackles off-guard. His movements appear effortless, whereas Cowart often looks as if he’s fighting his own limbs when he tries to dip and bend the edge. Davidson also brings serious power, delivering the kind of blows that knock blockers back and free up his arms to swat away the retreating opponent.
Davidson’s first season in the SEC was a developmental one. He made an impact, but mostly through sheer athleticism and effort. He brings maximum effort on every snap, whether it’s trying to penetrate the backfield or hustling on a pass play downfield when there’s little to no chance of making a play.
Davidson must be more than a fun wind-up toy in 2017. The Tigers are looking to replace all-everything star Carl Lawson, who averaged 0.69 sacks per game in 2016, which tied for sixth in the SEC. And they no longer have the enormous presence of Montravius Adams, a defensive tackle who gobbled up blockers and allowed Davidson to see 1-on-1 opportunities on the outside.
Now, Davidson must deal with being one of the first names on the opposing scouting report. That means more chipping backs, crack blocks, double-teams and a whole host of funky protections designed to eliminate his impact.
The best pass rushers rise above that, and Davidson has the talent and effort to replace Lawson and become the Tigers’ go-to sack producer. But his technique needs refining, and he also needs help from guys on the inside as he adjusts to life as the star pass rusher.
2. Missed opportunities for Auburn’s defense
Auburn’s defense had a successful 2016. It finished seventh in the nation in points per game and ninth in S&P+. But it could have been better. The Tigers blew a ton of opportunities and suffered from fundamental errors.
College football is largely now a bubble-screen world, where offenses push the ball to athletes in space and let them make plays.
This change in offensive philosophy puts a premium on defensive backs who can make plays in the open field. More multi-receiver sets mean more defensive backs on the field and fewer linebackers. Generally, that formula means there are fewer outstanding tacklers on the field; hence why spread offenses are designed to create 1-on-1 matchups.
That presented a problem for the Tigers in 2016. On the perimeter and at the second level, they missed 1-on-1 opportunities to bring down ballcarriers.
Missing open-field plays has little to do with effort — though willingness is a component. Technique and angles are the keys: breaking down in space, using correct form and being willing to hit a single rather than look for the home run shot.
The Tigers secondary projects to be smaller and thinner in 2017 — it was relatively big last season. But that lack of girth can be overcome if this unit has more consistent fundamentals.
Finding a way to replace the impacts of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams up front are near the top of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s to-do list. That means improving the fundamentals of the second and third levels.
3. Moving players across the defensive line
Little in life gets me more excited than edge defenders kicking inside as undersized 3-technique players. It’s sad, I know.
In fact, one of my favorite traditions of the year comes during spring practices, when we hear about big guys up front who are shedding or adding weight to kick from inside to outside or vice versa.
There’s a bunch of exciting moves this year.
Let’s stick with Auburn first. The previously mentioned Byron Cowart is moving from the edge to inside, where he is expected to line up as the starting 3-technique — if not a nickel rusher.
It’s a much better fit. Cowart lacks the natural fluid hip movement needed to play on the outside. He found barely any game time outside last year. And when he did, he was stonewalled. Instead, his quick-twitch ability and power should serve him much better as an interior rusher.
Cowart plays with heavy hands. That made him overly reliant on the bull rush when he lined up outside, but that is an excellent weapon when playing inside. With this new role, Cowart will be asked to hold the point of attack more.
But Steele will hope Cowart’s real value comes as a penetrator. No one will confuse Cowart for a big-time 2-gap run-defender. Sure, he’ll have those responsibilities — if he indeed turns out to be a 3-down player — but Steele is banking on Cowart knifing into the backfield to make tackles for loss, rather than being just a guy who clogs rushing lanes.
Cowart likely will never live up to the lofty expectations of being listed as the best college football prospect coming out of high school, but a move inside is the best chance for him to shake the “bust” label.
Tennessee is going the opposite way with one of its former top recruits. Jonathan Kongbo — the No. 1 junior college prospect a year ago — reportedly shed 20 pounds and is moving outside after a year doing the dirty work at defensive tackle.
Kongbo was brought to Knoxville to be a playmaker and game-plan wrecker. He had a solid 2016, with 3 tackles for loss and 7 QB hurries, but he didn’t deliver the off-the-charts production observers expected. He struggled to pick up defensive verbiage, leading to stints on the bench, and a cryptic tweet alluded to him leaving the program.
But Kongbo stuck around. Now much lighter, he’s ready to take off.
A year inside gave Kongbo a good understanding for the nuances of the defensive line and showcased his immense core strength.
Technically, he’s raw. He can be stiff out of his stance and is prone to wasted movements. He concedes his breast plate too easily, and, at times, can be too slow off the snap. But his talent is evident, as he can use his athletic ability to stymie opponents with his length and explosiveness.
Kongbo fits more naturally outside and should deliver the impact Tennessee expected last season.
The most interesting move comes in Gainesville. Well, I’m kind of cheating here, because Cece Jefferson moved right across the Gators front last season. He is expected to move even more in 2017.
Jefferson, a former top-10 recruit, had a good sophomore season while lining up inside and outside. He finished with 6.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and 5 QB hurries.
Jefferson added size last spring. He aligned inside for a good portion of 2016 — shading guards as a 3-technique and winning with quickness and power.
His versatile skill set makes him a natural weapon. He can line up outside and overpower tackles, or beat interior linemen with speed. When he’s feeling it, Jefferson enters destroyer-of-worlds mode. Much of his production a year ago came against the run. His short-area burst allowed him to get into the backfield, split combination blocks or squeeze through gaps against zone-blocking concepts.
The Gators’ plan this spring was to add speed to his arsenal. Jefferson shed 25 pounds, per 247Sports, with the goal of adding lean bulk rather than sheer mass.
Florida still needs Jefferson to take reps inside following the loss of Caleb Brantley to the NFL draft. Although interior linemen Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark received glowing reviews, neither has the quick release of Brantley.
Jefferson more closely fits the Brantley ilk: an explosive 3-technique who can win with speed or power. Whether he lines up inside in sub-packages or on base downs will be game-plan specific. Wherever an offensive line’s weakness is, Jefferson will be.
4. Jarrett Stidham no spring game creation
The consensus top takeaway from the first round of spring games appears to be this: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is good.
I know what you’re thinking: Haven’t we heard this before?
Gus Malzahn’s team made headlines a couple years ago when the Jeremy Johnson train got rolling. Hyperbole ensued, and Auburn quickly became a favorite to overtake Alabama at the top of the SEC West. Some observers even projected Johnson to get Heisman love.
Yeah, that didn’t go so well.
Stidham is different. He’s no spring game creation. We’ve seen him deliver in games before, not just receive staff hype for performances in practice.
I detailed how Stidham’s skill set fits what Auburn wants to do on offense when he announced he was transferring to the Plains in December.
Taking more shots downfield will be the biggest immediate difference. Stidham is a strong-armed, air raid-scheme guy. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is an air raid guy whose offense is built around vertical and clear-out concepts — with a nice splash of run-pass options and ever-present screen packages.
It’s tough to find a better player-scheme fit.
5. Jordan Scarlett the clear No. 1 for Florida
Florida’s quarterback quest once again dominated its spring game. Feleipe Franks had excellent moments and not great ones. Kadarius Toney showcased his darting speed, opening the door to potential regular-season packages.
But it was Jordan Scarlett who stole the show. The clear choice to be Florida’s feature back, Scarlett has an innate ability to get skinny in the hole, tap dance through traffic and then rev away.
The Gators running back room is stacked with talent — of all shapes and sizes. But none of them combines the pace and power of Scarlett. He’s a pounder between the tackles, always looks for contact, can push the pile and is constantly falling forward.
Coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier hope Scarlett can produce more big plays in 2017, but that’s not entirely on him. It’s tough for backs to make defenders miss in the hole and at the second level. Only aliens like Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice can pull that off on a consistent basis. Scarlett has enough wiggle to make first-level defenders miss, but his blockers must help him further down the field.
Explosive runs typically come from successful combination blocks. Two linemen seal the first-level double-team, and then one climbs to the second level, walls off a linebacker or safety, and gets the running back untouched into the secondary.
Florida’s offensive line is coming together after 2 dismal years. It showed signs of life down the stretch last year, and 4 of 5 starters return. The unit’s in-line power is more impressive than in recent years, but it remains to be seen whether this group has the talent to seal combinations, identify the second-level defender and use the correct leverage to spring backs for big runs.
Until he gets that help, Scarlett will continue working on his primary job: getting the offense to second-and-manageable or third-and-short.