SEC West Post-Spring Notebook

Spring football came to an end over the weekend for all SEC teams, and the West looks to be as strong as ever. The defending national champions are trying to rebuild quickly while their rivals in Tuscaloosa are finding some young players stepping up early in their careers. However, the best team in the West looks like it will come out of Baton Rouge.

Alabama: Head coach Nick Saban knows that the usual improvement for players comes in the spring. It mostly happens with the players heading into their second year on campus. Whether they played as freshmen or redshirted, the focus was mostly on putting in a game plan or studying the opponent's game plan to perform it for the scout team.

"We have a lot of young guys that played well," Saban said. "Typically, guys make a significant improvement from first to second year. It's their first opportunity to learn at a pace that doesn't include game plans. It gives them the opportunity to know what they're supposed to do."

Saban singled out DeAndrew White, Dee Hart, Eddie Lacy, Jarrick Williams, Trey DePriest as improving during the spring.

The quarterback battle is between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims, and the coaches haven't made a decision either way. They also expect to use Blake Sims in a wildcat quarterback role.

Arkansas: The quarterback battle for the Razorbacks is still heated between Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell. Whoever gets the nod under center will be helped by four returning wide receivers in Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright.

"They're all good players," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "That's a good surrounding cast and guys who can help us in the overall leadership of our offense."

Arkansas also received a boost when Dennis Johnson returned to the team this spring. He experienced a bowel injury on September 11 last season that forced him to miss the rest of the year.

"I was happy for him and how he finished spring ball," Petrino said. "The last week and a half, we saw the way he can run the ball and make plays. The first part was hard on him and he struggled. Everybody learns it's harder than you think coming off a major injury. He stuck in there and kept working hard.

"It helps us a lot. He's a great player that can run the ball and catch it. It's nice to have him as our kickoff guy because he's real special doing that."

Auburn: It was a spring full of transition for the Tigers after the won the national championship last season. It's a team with plenty of youth and open positions as the team heads into the fall.

"We've got a young football team, so everyday was crucial for these guys to buy in," Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. "There was an eagerness to learn. With so many position battles going on, the energy and focus was really good. We made strides as a football team, but we've got a long way to go to prepare for September."

The distractions of an NCAA investigation going on in the program could be tough for a team full of young players, but Chizik is making sure they are only focused on the field.

"We only worry about what we can control," Chizik said. "We know that we're doing everything the right way, and we feel good about the direction of the problem. We don't pay attention to the outside distractions."

LSU: The Tigers head into the fall with the highest expectations of any team in the West because of a good defense. The talented unit was the main thing that caught head coach Les Miles' eye throughout the spring.

"Our defense is really playing well," Miles said. "With the secondary, as young as they are, is playing really well and is a big advantage for us. Up front we have a number of guys that have improved. The linebacking group has improved as well. Defensively, we're going to be a very talented, capable group."

LSU will have a new look on special teams in the fall. Miles hired Thomas McGaughey served as the special teams coordinator for the New York Giants from 2007-2010 before becoming an assistant in Kansas City and Denver. Miles said he has made changes to the Tigers' punt formations and kickoffs.

The biggest hire for the Tigers came in offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe. He was serving as the wide receivers coach at Texas A&M, a job he took after being fired as the head coach at Louisville in 2009.

Miles remembered Kragthorpe when he was running the offense at Tulsa, and Miles was at Oklahoma State. Having a former head coach on staff will only benefit Miles.

"The former head coach part is a wonderful piece for me because he has knowledge of my position," Miles said. "It makes him a tremendous resource for me. He brings expertise in teaching the quarterback and how to throw the football. He's organized, and our offense has benefitted."

Mississippi State: Head coach Dan Mullen was forced to replace Manny Diaz as the defensive coordinator when he left to take the same position at Texas. Geoff Collins was brought in from FIU to combine with Chris Wilson as the co-defensive coordinators. Mullen said that Diaz and Wilson split coordinators duties last year in case a situation like this occurred.

"The defense doesn't change, and one of the reasons we do that is to develop coaches," Mullen said. "One of my jobs is to make sure I'm developing coaches and keep as much stability in the program."

Collins was the defensive coordinator at FIU, and Mullen likes that he brings an outside voice to the position.

"It's always good to have fresh ideas and try new things," Mullen said. "The stability of what we do on the defensive side of the ball will really not change that much."

Ole Miss: Head coach Houston Nutt went into the spring trying to get answers on his team's leadership on the defensive side of the ball. He is counting on his defensive line to provide that. Jason Jones, Justin Smith, Wayne Dorsey and Kentrell Lockett are the ones he is waiting on.

The interior of the defensive line will be filled with young players, and Nutt is trying to get them to grow up fast.

"We knew we were going to be young there," Nutt said. "They were really good and got more physical as it went. There are a lot of names that you're not familiar with, but the progress of these guys took a lot of strides."

The quarterback battle continues into the summer between Barry Brunetti, Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt. Mackey is a JUCO All-American and expected to win the job, but there is plenty of talent on the roster at quarterback.

"I feel real good about these three," Nutt said. "It's probably the best three we've had at one time on campus."

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