Generally, there are not many the equal of the first team quarterback. That's the case with this team in regards to replacing fifth-year starter Brandon Allen. He's far and away the MVP of the offense. You can say the same thing about Brooks Ellis with the defense. So you have two Fayetteville products holding down the key roles on both sides of the ball, the respective MVPs of the two units.
I will start at quarterback, because everyone does. It's always the key position on any football team. However, that's a two-fold discussion, with some good in both areas.
Allen has improved with the arrival of Dan Enos, the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Allen is much better now than he was 12 months ago. So being the MVP is partly due to that solid bump in overall ability to play his position.
And, there is clearly more depth behind Brandon. Enos had a good spring in developing a backup. Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey exited spring as co-backups, with Ty Storey showing signs that he will be a good SEC quarterback in time. The Hogs are no longer void behind Brandon. If he goes down, it's not the death knell for the season as it could have been in another time.
If you exclude quarterback, and that is fun for the sake of this discussion, there are several other candidates to be the MVP. There are multiple candidates at two positions, a good sign for the overall progress of the offense, and several other candidates elsewhere. That's why I think this is going to be a vastly improved offense over last year and another reason the defense will do well. If the offense can play, the defense gets to watch more and that's good.
Of course, tight ends are a strength, too. An MVP could come from the combination of a Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle. If you focus on Henry -- and teams will -- that is going to spring Sprinkle in some lovely mismatches for Enos to exploit. I think there are other great possibilities in this offense for someone like Austin Cantrell, a bull with speed. He's as nasty as he is talented, too. I expect Will Gragg to blossom after a summer of reinforcing what he learned this spring.
There are MVP candidates in the offensive line, but the real MVP here is the overall versatility in the group. Both the tackles have played guard and been good there. There is depth at center, always a critical component to a successful offensive line. Some teams don't have one good center, much less two. If something happens to Mitch Smothers, Frank Ragnow has played the spot and freshman Zach Rogers was the best of the backups in the spring.
I'm wondering if the left side of the offensive like with Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola doesn't turn out to be the best guard-tackle combination in the SEC. Both are fantastic pro prospects. Kirkland is a valuable blind side protector and Tretola just keeps getting better.
Wide receiver is the position that needs to step up. There were signs that was happening in the spring. Keon Hatcher is the top hand here. And, with Jared Cornelius, Drew Morgan and Eric Hawkins, there was more depth here. Everyone is fascinated with Dominique Reed's potential as the vertical stretch man. Reed is a low 4.3 man in the 40. If he is what coaches think, perhaps he turns into the MVP of the wide receivers. JoJo Robinson has a wiggle that could prove valuable at this position, too.
So you can see that I think the stock is rising at most places with this offense. Fullback is a place that needs improvement, but Tyler Colquitt -- and possibly Cantrell -- make this a position that could be a surprise in the fall.
I can see the same type stuff on defense, but there is one clear MVP, just like offense. Fayetteville's Brooks Ellis took controls of the weakside linebacker spot that is clearly the key spot in the 4-3 scheme utilized by coordinator Robb Smith.
Martrell Spaight blossomed in the weakside spot last year. He led the SEC in tackles with 126. There were times when Ellis and Spaight swapped spots, with Spaight playing middle linebacker. That happened mostly in the Texas Tech and LSU games and Ellis proved to Smith that it was a perfect solution when Spaight finished his eligibility.
Ellis has more length, more speed and more weight than Spaight. He is great in coverages, covering space with long strides. He can get to the sideline to breakup the long routes that take time and are tough on safeties. He showed that range in the spring in several scrimmages.
One of the key aspects to naming Ellis the MVP of the defense has to do with the capabilities of his backups. Dwayne Eugene, next at weakside linebacker, does not have much experience, although his talent is solid. It could be that Khalia Hackett, penciled in as the starter at middle linebacker, could also step out to this spot. But in both cases, they are still learning the defense. Ellis has it down.
Hackett started the spring at strongside linebacker, but midway through swapped with Josh Williams to take the controls in the middle. Both are good players. Hackett might have been the breakthrough player for Smith in the spring as far as linebackers. He seems to be like Spaight, willing to study the details, as is Williams. Josh Harris, the walk-on hitting machine from Dumas, sparkled in the spring as another option at middle linebacker.
The defensive line was a bit of a surprise in the spring because of the multitude of options. After losing defensive end Trey Flowers and Darius Philon on that weakside triangle that Smith uses to torment quarterbacks, some thought this would be an area of concern. Not so much any more.
There are good players two deep everywhere, and that was even with Mitch Loewen out with shoulder surgery in the spring. He'll give line coach Rory Segrest one more option in the fall. As it is, there may be five good options at end and five more at tackle and some can swing to both places to provide a wonderful pass rush unit. There were times that Segrest used Deatrich Wise, Tevin Beanum, Taiwan Johnson and Jeremiah Ledbetter together. That's speed and quickness to toy with a quarterback's mind.
The depth of the defensive line got a big jump with the way Beanum blossomed at end. He was listed behind Wise to start the spring, but quickly took that number one spot. Wise rallied late in the spring and that battle will continue. Ledbetter, the juco transfer, proved he can play tackle or end and will be on the move as Smith hunts the best match-ups. Hjalte Froholdt, the massive Denmark freshman, was beast-like, especially as his technique improved late in the spring and he played with lower pad level.
I thought the cornerback was the strength of the defense with D.J. Dean, Jared Collins and Henre' Toliver all looking like starters. They will all be on the field in nickel coverages. Santos Ramirez can play corner, too, but seems to fit best at strong safety where he reminds of some of the great players in the UA secondary like Kenoy Kennedy, Ken Hamlin, Tony Bua and Steve Atwater. Ramirez will clean your clock if you come over the middle. Cornelius Floyd sat out spring with an injury, but will provide depth in the fall. He's a good player.
Josh Liddell is a field general at safety and may develop into an MVP type. He reads formations and has the communication skills as a former quarterback to get the defense lined up correctly. Rohan Gaines, De'Andre Coley and Ramirez are all solid.
The kicking game should have candidates to become MVPs and this team has possibilities. The competition here is the best news. Adam McFain, Lane Saling and Cole Hedlund were all good in the spring, but the battle will continue. Punter Toby Baker was good, too, but he's likely to get a push in the fall from incoming freshman Blake Johnson,
So there you have it, lots of MVPs on a solid football team. Start with Brandon Allen and Brooks Ellis if someone asks you to pick just one player on each side of the ball. But don't be afraid to make a long list. That's what I did.