KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Southeastern Conference Eastern Division’s new look was on display this spring.
Three of the division’s seven teams — Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina — have new head coaches. The changes create plenty of uncertainty but also quite a bit of excitement, as evidenced by the 93,000 fans who packed Sanford Stadium on Saturday for the first Georgia spring game under new coach Kirby Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator.
“It touches me in my heart and makes a special moment to know the fan base has got your back and got your program’s back,” Smart said.
Smart replaces Mark Richt, who was fired after going 145-51 in 15 seasons and has since taken over Miami’s program. The division’s other two new coaches are South Carolina’s Will Muschamp and Missouri’s Barry Odom.
Muschamp is no stranger to the East Division, as he coached Florida from 2011-14 before getting fired. Odom was promoted from defensive coordinator after Gary Pinkel stepped down at the end of last season.
“He is definitely a little bit louder than coach Pinkel was in practice, and he will get into your face when he needs to,” Missouri quarterback Drew Lock said. “We all appreciate that.”
The staff changes across the division aren’t limited to the head coaches.
Kentucky fired offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and hired Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw away from Cincinnati to run the offense, with Gran as coordinator and Hinshaw as co-coordinator. Tennessee made a change at defensive coordinator, with Bob Shoop coming over from Penn State to replace John Jancek
Here’s a some of the major issues facing each of the SEC East teams as they exit spring practice:
FLORIDA: The Gators seemingly found a quarterback (Luke Del Rio) and a kicker (junior-college transfer Eddy Pineiro) in spring practice, but Florida still has significant depth issues on both sides of the ball. Equally concerning is the status of big-play receiver Antonio Callaway, who caught 35 passes for 678 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman in 2015. Callaway and former starting quarterback Treon Harris were suspended indefinitely in January for violating the university’s student code of conduct policy. It’s unclear when, or if, they will be reinstated. Harris is expected to change positions if he returns.
GEORGIA: Coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney haven’t named a winner in the Bulldogs’ quarterback competition. Freshman Jacob Eason, an early enrollee, played behind returning starter Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey all spring before going 19 of 29 for 244 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in Saturday’s G-Day Game. Georgia also is monitoring running back Nick Chubb as he recovers from knee surgery. Chubb participated in limited portions of spring practice.
KENTUCKY: The Wildcats must adapt to a new offense, as new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran scrapped Kentucky’s “Air Raid” scheme in favor of more of a pro-style attack. Kentucky must retool a defense that lost experience at linebacker and in the secondary. The Wildcats also are seeking a pass rusher following the offseason dismissal of Jason Hatcher.
MISSOURI: Offense is the major issue for a team that averaged 13.6 points per game last season to rank second-to-last among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The only team to score fewer points per game last season was Kent State (13.1). Coach Barry Odom hasn’t officially named a starting quarterback, but Lock is the clear favorite. He threw for 134 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks must identify a starting quarterback. They will enter training camp with six candidates still competing for the job. South Carolina also must improve its defensive backfield. In the days leading up to the spring game, Coach Will Muschamp said, “We’re a long way from being good as a secondary.”
TENNESSEE: The Vols return Joshua Dobbs, who leads all active SEC quarterbacks with 22 career starts. But their receiving corps remains unsettled and was hindered by injuries this spring. The only three scholarship wideouts who played in Saturday’s spring game were Preston Williams, Cody Blanc and junior-college transfer Jeff George. Williams, a former five-star recruit, showed marked improvement this spring and had three catches for 77 yards in the Orange & White Game. He could help a group that also returns Josh Malone and Josh Smith, who combined for 54 catches last year.
VANDERBILT: The Commodores must boost their passing attack to keep opposing defenses from focusing on slowing down running back Ralph Webb. Kyle Shurmur completed 42.7 percent of his passes last season. Vanderbilt needs receivers to team up with Trent Sherfield, who had 51 catches for 659 yards and three touchdowns last season. The Commodores hope to get a boost from the return of C.J. Duncan, who missed the entire 2015 season with a leg injury.