And with spring practice already up and running at a handful of schools, now seems about as good a time as any to take a stab at some early predictions as we look ahead to the 2015 season.
Let's hope I have more success than the West Division did in bowl games last season.
Missouri will win at least 10 games ... again: We've heard all the backhanded reasons about how and why Missouri has won 23 games over the last two seasons (tying Alabama for the most in the SEC). Chief among those reasons is that the East Division has been down. That doesn't change the fact that the Tigers are 14-2 in SEC games with a pair of championship game appearances and bowl wins during that span. Gary Pinkel and his staff are obviously doing a lot of things right, and that's not going to change in 2015. Being able to hold onto ace defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was huge. The Tigers just keep developing explosive difference-makers up front defensively, and that's where the game is won.
The SEC will crown a new champion: Alabama fans might want to sit down for this, but there won't be a repeat SEC champion. The Crimson Tide will almost certainly be picked to win the title. When are they not? They were the choice four of the last five years at the SEC media days. Of course, the only time the media got it right was last year. Repeating in this league is akin to winning the lottery in back-to-back years. The last time anybody did it was Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. To put how long it's been in perspective, the only current head coach who was a head coach in the league then was Steve Spurrier, and he was at Florida. Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze were coaching high school football. So, yes, it's been a while.
Carl Lawson will lead the conference in sacks: Some of the best news for Auburn is that Lawson is moving around just fine on his surgically repaired knee and will be ready this spring. Former teammate Gabe Wright called Lawson a “physical beast” last spring when it looked like he was poised to step right in for Dee Ford as the Tigers' finisher off the edge. But then came the ACL tear a month later, and Lawson was out for the season. He had four sacks as a freshman in 2013 but could triple that number this season. He will flourish in Will Muschamp's defense.
Malcolm Mitchell returns to prominence: Speaking of players returning from injury, isn't it about time Mitchell had some luck? When healthy, the guy is an absolute blur. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Some of it's been freakish. He tore his ACL two years ago in the opener against Clemson while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown run. He reinjured his knee prior to last season and missed the Bulldogs' first four games. This is the season it all goes right for Mitchell and he emerges as the top deep threat in the league. Come on, you gotta root for a guy who's in a book club.
Arkansas and Tennessee break out: The Hogs and Vols are both primed for breakout seasons in 2015. Are they ready to make that leap? We should find out on Oct. 3 when they meet in Knoxville in what will be a top-20 matchup. Brace yourselves for more “Woo Pig Sooie” calls and more renditions of “Rocky Top” than should ever be allowed.
Kentucky will go bowling: The Wildcats looked like they were on their way last season after starting out 5-1, but they lost their last six games and stayed home for the postseason. In Year No. 3 under Mark Stoops, Kentucky will get back to a bowl after a four-year hiatus. Even then, the Wildcats will lose more games in September than their basketball team does this entire season. That's good news for Cal's boys, right?
HailState shows staying power: Mississippi State won 10 games in the regular season a year ago for the first time in school history. The Bulldogs lost some key pieces on defense, and the general feeling around the league is that they won't be able to sustain that success. But with Dak Prescott back, they aren't going to just roll over and play dead. They'll find a way to go at least .500 in SEC play for the second straight season. The last time that happened was when Jackie Sherrill was running “bullish” in Starkville with four straight seasons of .500 SEC records or better from 1997-2000.
Nick Saban joins Twitter: Saban will follow Steve Spurrier's lead and take the Twittersphere plunge even though he vowed last season he was too old school to go down that road. I have it on good authority that Saban has at least kicked around the idea, although it's still a real long shot. Boy, if it were to happen, though, what's next? Saban rearranging practice this spring to play golf? OK, let's not get carried away.
Fans will complain about overpaid coaches: Fans of every SEC West team that doesn't win at least 10 games will gripe loudly and lengthily that their coach is overpaid. That sort of comes with the territory when all seven coaches in the division are making $4 million or more per year.
- John Chavis got the opportunity to address his pending legal issues on Thursday, not that Texas A&M’s new defensive coordinator went into much detail about the legal wrangling over whether he owes LSU a buyout after joining Kevin Sumlin’s coaching staff in January. The gruff veteran coach immediately shot down questions about the subject when asked about the issue following Thursday’s practice. (Here’s video of Chavis’ interview). The longtime SEC assistant was very complimentary of Texas A&M and the resources at the program’s disposal in his first media appearance. But he clearly didn’t want to discuss the lawsuit, which has been a bitter subject over the last week -- particularly in Baton Rouge. It’s an unusual story even by the always-dramatic SEC’s standards. If you haven’t been keeping up, here is an SB Nation recap of the issue.
- Ole Miss wrapped up this week’s batch of NFL pro days on Thursday by hosting scouts in Oxford. The big story was how All-America safety Cody Prewitt improved upon the disappointing 40-yard dash time he ran at the NFL combine, and he wasn’t the only Rebel who potentially made himself some money. According to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, cornerback Senquez Golson and little-known defensive end Carlos Thompson also helped their causes with impressive performances in Thursday’s workouts.
- Continuity was the key word as Butch Jones brought on Mike DeBord as his new offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
- SI.com’s Zac Ellis lists the big question facing each SEC program entering spring practice.
- With LSU preparing to open spring practice on Saturday, Geaux247’s Shea Dixon lists five Tigers freshmen -- including early enrollees Kevin Toliver II and David Ducre -- to watch this spring.
- Kentucky expects a jolt from 18 players who redshirted last season when it opens spring practice on Saturday.
- What are the positions of strength and positions of need for Missouri as the Tigers prepare to open spring pratice?
- Auburn opens spring practice next week. Here is a look at the Tigers’ crew of wide receivers.
- TideSports.com looks at the linebackers at Alabama, which must replace two starters at the position, ahead of spring practice.
Heard 'Bama's Nick Saban speak today at a seminar on leadership. Incredible. If he recruits me, I'm going. Doesn't matter where.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 5, 2015
While college football teams don't often resolve major competitions or issues during spring practices -- at least they tend to resist public proclamations -- that's not going to stop us from making predictions. There's just too much juicy goings-on for us to keep quiet. So here are 10 bold predictions, though you might quibble with what degree of boldness we have attained.
- Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
- Former South Carolina receiver Sidney Rice, who said he has suffered at least 10 concussions since age 8, announced plans to donate his brain to medical research after his death.
- Kentucky's quarterback competition took a hit when Reese Phillips ruptured an Achilles' tendon on Wednesday, leaving the Wildcats with just two healthy scholarship quarterbacks for the time being. UK officials said Phillips should be able to return this fall, however.
- Sean Patterson, formerly an offensive quality control assistant at LSU, is now associate director for recruiting operations at Ole Miss, where his younger brother Shea is committed to play quarterback next year.
- TideSports.com's Aaron Suttles examines who might pick up the slack at receiver for Alabama now that Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are out of the picture.
- According to Georgia coach Mark Richt, the Bulldogs will open spring practice with options 1A, 1B and 1C at quarterback in Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.
- The Columbia Daily Tribune's David Morrison looks at Missouri's 21 redshirt freshmen and early enrollees and projects which players have the best opportunity to help the Tigers in 2015.
Asked whether he would allow TB Nick Chubb to be tackled to the ground during spring drills, #UGA coach Mark Richt said, "if they can."— AJC UGA (@ChipTowersAJC) March 4, 2015
Redshirting is not a popular term among the nation's top football prospects, but a quick look at the recent Heisman Trophy winners shows the importance of that extra year of development. The list below may not include the next Jameis Winston or Johnny Manziel, but we feel these players, once prominent recruits in the 2014 class, are in position to make big debuts in the 2015 college football season.
1. Marlon Humphrey (Alabama) -- A youth movement is going to be underway on the perimeter for Alabama this fall and while 2014 classmate Tony Brown saw some time last year, Humphrey will be joining the fray in 2015. Humphrey fits the physical dimensions coach Nick Saban wants at corner. The former five-star is big, can run and is savvy when it comes to playing different schemes.
1. Georgia: Kicker Marshall Morgan wasn’t at his best last season, but everyone knows the talent is there for him to rebound in 2015 from his 16 of 21 (.762) performance kicking field goals last season. Punter Collin Barber is certainly serviceable, even if he didn’t have to punt too much last year. But return man Isaiah McKenzie might have been the league's best last season, registering two touchdowns on kickoff returns and one on a punt return.
2. LSU: Leonard Fournette is so dangerous as a return man, and capped his season with a 100-yard return for a touchdown. Tre’Davious White wasn’t so bad returning punts either, averaging 10.9 yards per return and taking one back for a touchdown. As for kicking, LSU has a solid duo in place-kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11 of 15) and Jamie Keehn, who averaged 44.9 yards per punt, downed 27 inside the 20-yard line, and blasted 17 kicks 50 yards or more.
3.Texas A&M: The Aggies have to replace incredibly reliable kicker Josh Lambo, but Taylor Bertolet tallied 106 points off kicks in 2012, as a freshman, before getting benched for Lambo in 2013. Drew Kaser proved to be one of the SEC’s best punters last year, downing 22 punts inside the 20 and booming 18 50 yards or more. Speedy Noil is a dynamic returner on both kickoffs and punts.
4. Tennessee: The Vols were excellent at defending returns and will bring back kicker Aaron Medley, who made 20 of 26 field goals last year, but went 1-of-6 from 40-plus. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown, while Evan Berry is a big-play threat on kickoffs after he averaged 29.3 yards per return last season. Matt Darr is gone so the Vols have to find a punter.
5. Vanderbilt: Tommy Openshaw connected on 8 of 11 field goals, but went 2-of-5 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.7 yards per punt and downed 19 kicks inside the 20. Darrius Sims, who can return kickoffs and punts, is one of the league's best returners and took two kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy has to do better than allowing two returns for touchdowns.
6. Alabama: One thing’s for sure: Alabama can punt. More specifically, JK Scott can punt. He brings back the SEC’s best leg, which knocked 31 punts inside the 20 launched 23 kicks 50 yards or more. He also led the nation in punt average (48.0) However, placekicking is still a concern, as Adam Griffith hit 12 of 19 field goals (.632) last season. Christion Jones is gone, but Cyrus Jones and others should pick up the slack in the return game.
7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs bring back Devon Bell, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Word out of Starkville is that both returner positions are up for grabs, but the Bulldogs have a litter to pick from. Juco transfer Donald Gray could be the favorite, but Will Redmond, Fred Ross and Brandon Holloway will also be involved. The Bulldogs were also one of the best at defending kicks last season.
8. Ole Miss: Jaylen Walton is still a mainstay at returning kickoffs, but the Rebels need to be more consistent returning punts, where Markell Pack, who averaged just 5.3 yards per return last year, will compete with two players coaches are excited to see return kicks: JUCO transfer Tony Bridges and freshman Jalen Julius. Will Gleesen was solid punting (24 downed inside the 20) alongside Gary Wunderlich, who also hit 6 of 8 field goals last season. Ole Miss also ranked in the top half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.
9. Auburn: Daniel Carson pulled double duty for the Tigers, hitting 18 of 24 field goals (.750) and averaging 42 yards per punt. The Tigers said goodbye to Quan Bray (two touchdowns) and Corey Grant so Ricardo Louis is the most experienced return man (eight returns last year). Roc Thomas and Stanton Truitt, who redshirted last year, could also get looks in the return game. Auburn ranked in the bottom half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.
10. Arkansas: Adam McFain was Arkansas’ top kicker last year, hitting 7 of 10 (.700) field goals, but punter Sam Irwin-Hill is gone so his spot will need to be filled in the coming months. Korliss Marshall is gone, but Keon Hatcher and D.J. Dean return. Hatcher averaged 23.2 yards per kick return (six) and Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards.
11. South Carolina: Elliott Fry is back after hitting 18 of 25 field goals (.720) last year. No punters return so the Gamecocks will have to figure that one out starting with spring practice. Pharoh Cooper was a decent punt returner for the Gamecocks, while Shon Carson should enter spring as the front-runner to head up kick returns after recording 633 return yards last year. Also, might want to cut down on the two kickoff touchdowns allowed.
12. Florida: Austin Hardin eventually took over placekicking duties later in the season and finished the year making 7 of 10 field goals, including the game-winner against Tennessee. Incredibly valuable punter Kyle Christy is gone, but Johnny Townsend is back and he actually forced Christy to the bench in 2013. Record-breaker Andre Debose is gone, meaning the Gators are holding tryouts for returners, and this team has to improve on allowing two returns for touchdowns last year.
13. Missouri: The Tigers must find someone to replace one of the league’s best returners in Marcus Murphy. Right now, that task is totally up in the air. Because Murphy was so good, no one on the roster really has much experience returning kicks. Andrew Baggett mad 18 of 25 field goals (.720) and might have to handle punting duties as well, but that isn't 100 percent yet.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats' kick coverage was just bad last year. They gave up four touchdowns on returns last season, which cannot happen again. Kicker Austin MacGinnis led the SEC with 21 made field goals on 27 attempts (.778) and punter Landon Foster brings back 27 punts downed inside the 20. Kentucky must replace Demarco Robinson at punt returner, but Stanley Williams is back after averaging 26.9 yards on kickoffs.
Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.
Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.
Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.
Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.
South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.
Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
1. LSU: The Tigers were the best in the SEC in 2014 against opposing pass defenses and there’s plenty of talent still in LSU’s defensive backfield to keep the good times going. Jamal Adams really came into his own late last season and is poised to be a star. Tre'Davious White is the only starting corner returning but he is a big-time player. Safety Jalen Mills returns, too. The Tigers need to find a corner opposite White but have plenty of talented players to compete for that spot.
2. Georgia: After LSU, this unit was the SEC’s best in limiting opponents through the air (170.3 passing yards allowed per game). The good news for Jeremy Pruitt is that not only does he have quite a few options in the secondary, most of them have experience. Dominick Sanders, who shined as a freshman, returns; so does fellow safeties Quincy Mauger, who started seven games. All the cornerbacks on the two-deep return. With Damian Swann’s departure, a new leader needs to be established, but overall, this is a good group.
3. Florida: The Gators still have the conference’s best cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, and that’s worth a lot. Fortunately for them, the rest of the young secondary is back -- cornerback Jalen Tabor, safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, nickel Brian Poole, and new secondary coach Kirk Callahan will try to help them take the next step this year, improving on last year’s finish (seventh in the SEC in pass defense). The talent is there.
4. Ole Miss: Replacing players such as Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt is a tall task but the Rebels have talent on the back end. Tony Conner was a second-team All-SEC pick last year and is back. So is Trae Elston, the starting “rover,” who is a three-year starter. Senior Mike Hilton, who led the team in tackles, returns and the team welcomes the No. 1 cornerback in the ESPN JC 50, Tony Bridges. Look for a bigger role for C.J. Hampton. There is some good depth in this group as well.
5. Arkansas: Razorbacks’ secondary coach Clay Jennings returns for his second year in Fayetteville and his unit showed significant growth in 2014. Elder statesmen Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel are gone, but the Hogs had a mostly young secondary last year and bring back plenty of experience, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver, all of whom saw starts at the position. Three of the four safeties on the end-of-season two-deep -- De'Andre Coley, Josh Liddell and Davyon McKinney, also return to a unit that was fifth in the league in pass defense in 2014.
6. Tennessee: The Vols have a player with All-SEC potential in cornerback Cameron Sutton and a tremendous amount of experience at the back in senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. The other cornerback will be the spot to watch where there will be a battle. Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Malik Foreman and highly-touted junior college signee Justin Martin are among the contenders.
7. Missouri: The Tigers are set at cornerback with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton returning. Losing the experience of a Braylon Webb at safety is tough but Ian Simon is a seasoned veteran himself and returns at the position. The unit finished sixth in SEC pass defense last season (212.7) but benefited from the league’s best pass rush. The experience in the secondary is helpful but more consistency is needed from this group.
8. Alabama: The Crimson Tide had a rough year on the back end in 2014, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (226). The group has a new secondary coach (Mel Tucker) but a lot of attrition, with Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams gone. Cyrus Jones, who led the team with 13 pass breakups, and Eddie Jackson, who started 11 games, are back at cornerback as are Tony Brown and Maurice Smith. Geno Smith, who started six games at the Star position, is also back. ESPN 300 safety Deionte Thompson and four-star safety Ronnie Harrison arrived in January so they’ll participate in spring practice.
9. Auburn: The Tigers yielded a lot to opposing passing games last year (230.08 yards per game; 12th in the SEC), but were also opportunistic, intercepting 22 passes. Returning Auburn defensive backs accounted for 12 of those interceptions -- Jonathan Jones (six), Johnathan Ford (three) and Trovon Reed (three). Auburn also welcomes a new secondary coach, Travaris Robinson, who was key in the Tigers’ landing four defensive back recruits from Florida on signing day. Numbers are there in terms of options to choose from, now it’s just a matter of making on-field progress.
10. South Carolina: This is a young group that played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last season but will be a year older and should show progress, especially with the addition of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who has a long history of coaching defensive backs in the NFL. Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams are penciled in as the starting cornerbacks. Brison Williams is gone but T.J. Gurley, who was second on the team with 80 tackles last season, returns. Corners Al Harris Jr. and D.J. Smith as well as safeties Chris Moody and Chaz Elder also return. Look for this group to make strides this season after finishing 10th in pass defense last season.
10. Mississippi State: There’s a lot of room for improvement for the Bulldogs, who allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC last season and allowed many big plays. They do have a nice talent in Taveze Calhoun at cornerback; who starts opposite him is to be determined. (Look for Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles, who missed all last season with an injury, to compete.) The Bulldogs will be young at safety but did bring in the nation’s No. 2 player at the position, ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Peters.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats return both starting cornerbacks from 2014, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. Starting safety A.J. Stamps, a standout junior college transfer, returns after leading the team with four interceptions and safety Marcus McWilson, who started the season finale against Louisville, also returns. Kentucky, which was eighth in the SEC in pass defense last year, secured a safety as its top-rated recruit in February, ESPN 300 prospect Marcus Walker.
13. Vanderbilt: The Commodores fielded a young, unproven secondary last season but finished just a hair behind the middle of the pack in the conference, allowing 218.3 passing yards per game. With virtually the entire group back, led by cornerbacks Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson and safeties Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Oren Burks, there’s some promise on the back end for Vandy, especially considering the fact that Derek Mason will be simplifying the defense.
14. Texas A&M: The Aggies were second-to-last in pass defense and last in interceptions a year ago. Gone are veterans Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews but senior cornerback De’Vante Harris remains. The group surrounding Harris is young, but has a potential star in safety Armani Watts. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs this spring but look for Nick Harvey to challenge for it. The safety next to Watts could be veteran Devonta Burns (last year’s nickel), Donovan Wilson, or possibly junior college transfer Justin Evans.
- Chad Kelly, formerly of Clemson and East Mississippi Community College, is apparently willing to go to Haiti and back to prove to Hugh Freeze that he should be Ole Miss' next quarterback. Freeze said Tuesday that he suggested to the troubled quarterback that he join him on a spring-break trip to Haiti -- where they will reportedly help provide villagers gain access to fresh water -- and Kelly agreed. He'll still have to beatDeVante Kincade andRyan Buchanan for the job, but the trip will provide Kelly with an opportunity to get to know his new coach better. Making Freeze more comfortable with him as a person is a smart move for Kelly, who left Clemson under unpleasant terms and who was arrested after a bar fight in his hometown, Buffalo, New York, shortly after signing with the Rebels last year.
- Three new assistant coaches -- John Chavis, Aaron Moorehead and Dave Christensen -- brought a new energy to Texas A&M's practices as the Aggies opened spring practice this week.
- Steve Spurrier's appearance on Twitter garnered plenty of attention on Monday, but it makes perfect sense. Social media provides a direct line of communication between coaches and recruits (among other folks).
- Marcus Murphy leaves big shoes to fill as a return man at Mizzou. Here's a look at the Tigers' special teams units entering spring practice.
- The Jackson Clarion Ledger's Michael Bonner gives us some things to watch during Mississippi State's pro day on Wednesday.
- Multiple reports in Alabama on Tuesday had Auburn linebacker Anthony Swain and punter Jimmy Hutchinson leaving the Tigers.
- TideSports.com's Aaron Suttles takes a look at Alabama's need to solidify the safety position and some candidates to help in that capacity.
- If you missed it, check out the letter that former Georgia receiverChris Conley wrote to Bulldogs fans this week.
A telltale sign of spring practice is a depth chart filled with ORs.
Coaches preach year-round competition, but it's a theme that resonates strongest during the 15 practices each spring. It's the first chapter of a team's story, and position battles often form subplots for the coming season.
Not every position will be settled by the end of the spring. Some of the nation's most intriguing spots, like the quarterback positions for national champion Ohio State and runner-up Oregon, likely won't be decided until preseason camp because of lingering injuries (Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett) or impending arrivals (Vernon Adams). But the spring provides clues about which players can take the OR away and cement themselves into key roles.
As teams continue to begin spring ball, here are 12 position competitions to track around the country (in alphabetical order). Not surprisingly, the list is quarterback heavy but features a few other spots of intrigue.
In the 2016 class, there are a trio of prospects who rank among the best in the area, state and country.
Fils-aime hot on the trail despite injury in 2014
Headed into the 2014 season, ESPNJr300 running back Carlin Fils-aime was a name known to college coaches, and had a handful of offers. After injuring his ankle in Game 4 caused him to miss the rest of the season, the quick and powerful back was unsure what would come of his recruitment.
That question was answered in February with offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, and Florida.
"After I got injured, I didn’t really expect to get any more offers," Said Fils-aime. "When those schools offered me I was pretty shocked because of my injury."
The Gators are one of several schools the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder plans to visit in the coming weeks.
"For now, we are trying to go up to Florida during spring break, but if not will get up there in the summer. We also want to visit Georgia, North Carolina, N.C. State if we can this summer. I’ll probably fly up to Ohio State, too. I was just at Miami, and had a great time. I was impressed with how they rotated their backs in practice, and the basketball game against North Carolina was fun."
If there is one program yet to offer that could be a game-changer in the physical back's recruitment, it would be Stanford.
"I’m a big Stanford fan. I have always liked them because they have a great law program, and if football doesn’t work out for me, I want to go into law. That is one of the schools that I do love."
Naples High head coach Bill Kramer has had some really good backs through the years, including former Ohio State star Carlos Hyde. In Fils-aime, Kramer has a talented athlete who brings a lunch-pail mentality.
"I love his competitive DNA," Said Kramer. "He works in the classroom, and is already qualified. He’s a guy that you can count on, and it matters to him every day. Our defensive players say hitting him is like hitting a light pole. He’s can make plays in really small spaces, understands leverage, and is really explosive."
Byrd one of the nation's best
The Miami Hurricanes' 2016 class is the best in the nation in the early going. One of the 10 ESPNJr 300 verbals is former Florida pledge Tyler Byrd. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound versatile prospect is blessed with rare talent according to Kramer.
"I think he’s a Top 50 wide receiver and Top 10 corner. He’s really strong physically, he’s almost 6-feet even, you are not going to outleap him, and if he gets his hands on you, you are negated. He’ll do something about every day that is just spectacular."
Though Byrd is solid with his commitment to the Hurricanes due to the love that Al Golden and staff showed throughout the entire process, programs such as Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and others remain under consideration. On Monday, Byrd said he planned to make all five of his official visits.
Riley the best on defense at Naples High
While Fils-aime and Byrd are names known both regionally and nationally on the recruiting radar, Naples High is home to one of the top sleepers in the Sunshine State in safety Chris Riley.
According to Kramer, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound talented all-around athlete is the team's best defensive player, which is saying something considering Byrd is on that same unit.
"Our best defensive player, and that’s saying something because we have some really good players. He was Southwest Florida Defensive Player of the Year for good reason. He has tremendous length, he’s physical, knows all of his run fits, and is a great tackler. We can’t count how many one-on-one tackles he’s made in space against really good players. He can also cover man, is terrific in zone, and understands how it all works and fits together."
Riley is receiving interest from North Carolina, Boston College, and a growing list of others.
"I’ve heard from North Carolina, Boston College, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Harvard and Yale," Said Riley. "North Carolina and Boston College are two I really want [offers]."
Riley had 103 tackles and two interceptions as a junior, taking home area Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as being an all-area punter. Riley’s father, Chris Riley, played quarterback at Connecticut.
Defensive tackle Colton Strickland and kicker Jerry Nunez are also expected to receive offers in the 2016 class.
Here are 10 situations in the SEC in which players need to send a message, loudly and clearly:
Quarterback Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: Kelly is a classic “something to prove” prospect this spring. Talent is not the question with Kelly, who transferred from East Mississippi Community College in January. The problem is volatility. Kelly left Clemson last year under horrible terms, and then was arrested in December in Buffalo, New York, and faced multiple charges including assault and resisting arrest. Ole Miss has a vacancy at quarterback after Bo Wallace’s departure, and Kelly will compete for the job with DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. Kelly passed for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions last fall. Now we’ll see whether he can keep his act together after Rebels coach Hugh Freeze gave him second and third chances.
Running back Keith Marshall, Georgia: Marshall was the more highly regarded prospect when he and Todd Gurley signed with the Bulldogs in 2012, and they formed a dangerous duo that fall. Marshall ran for 759 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman but has barely played since suffering a knee injury five games into the 2013 season. Gurley’s gone to the NFL, but Georgia has Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at the top of the running back depth chart now. Where does Marshall fit in? He’s been out of the picture for so long, it’s tough to say at this point.
Wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Aggies fans expected superstardom when Kevin Sumlin’s staff signed Seals-Jones in 2013, but he missed almost all of his freshman season with a knee injury. Seals-Jones played in all 13 games last season, finishing with 465 yards and four touchdowns on 49 receptions. Those are fine numbers but nothing close to what A&M fans envisioned when he signed two years ago. He has plenty of time to develop into a star, however. Maybe he’ll take a step toward that level of production this year.
Gerald Dixon and South Carolina’s entire defensive line: No sense singling out Dixon here. South Carolina’s defensive front was horrible in 2014. The line’s ineffective play was the key reason why the Gamecocks tumbled from a spot as one of the SEC’s best defenses to one of the worst. Dixon and his fellow starters are on notice as the Gamecocks open spring practice. If they don’t play better, South Carolina’s coaches will have to give somebody else a chance. Last season wasn’t nearly good enough.
WR Nate Brown, Missouri: Missouri has to replace its top three receivers from last year, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, all of whom were seniors. The Tigers will turn to a new collection of wideouts this year, led by Brown. The sophomore made just five catches for 45 yards a season ago, but his size/speed combination makes him the safest bet to make an impact this fall.
LSU’s quarterbacks: Last season was a mess at the quarterback position for LSU. Somebody -- either junior Anthony Jennings or sophomore Brandon Harris -- needs to take this job and run with it. Jennings completed just 48.9 percent of his passes while starting 12 of 13 games, but Harris’ lone start at Auburn was a complete dud. He’s a talented player, but Harris has to prove to Les Miles and his staff that he won’t make catastrophic errors if they put him on the field. He hasn’t convinced them yet.
Running back Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: Kamara was one of the nation’s most highly recruited running backs when he signed with Alabama in 2013, but he disappeared on the Crimson Tide’s depth chart and was twice suspended during his year in Tuscaloosa. Kamara transferred to Hutchinson Community College last season and rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games. Now he has a second chance to prove that he’s an SEC-caliber back, forming what could be a dangerous one-two punch with Jalen Hurd at Tennessee. If Kamara can keep his head on straight, he has an excellent opportunity to make an impact with the Volunteers.
Quarterback Maty Mauk, Missouri: Mauk wasn’t the quarterback in 2014 that many expected after an impressive freshman season. He was inconsistent and prone to poor decision making at times. He passed for 2,648 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, which is not horrible, and helped the Tigers claim their second straight SEC East title. But Mizzou desperately needs its quarterback to improve upon his 53.4 completion percentage and become a more consistent performer as a junior.
Texas A&M’s defense: Texas A&M hopes John Chavis is the key piece that was missing over the past two years, when the Aggies featured one of the SEC’s worst defenses. The former LSU and Tennessee defensive coordinator has gotten results wherever he’s been, but Chavis has his work cut out at A&M. The Aggies were 102nd nationally (450.8 ypg) in total defense and tied for 75th in scoring defense (28.1 ppg). Considering how effectively the Aggies typically score, trotting out a defense that is simply better than awful might help them become more competitive in the tough SEC West.
Freshman Quarterbacks A Growing Trend?
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