Alabama Crimson Tide: Demetruce McNeal

Teams looking to recover in 2013

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a mixture of old and new on the University of Alabama campus on Saturday. Coeds went one direction toward their future sorority houses on Bid Day while the school's silver-haired alumnus went another, walking toward Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Crimson Tide's second scrimmage of the preseason.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNick Saban brought Alabama from middling to powerhouse. Which SEC school will do that next?
Boosters came en masse to watch the practice, agonizing over a team picked by the Associated Press that morning to begin the season at No. 1. Quarterback AJ McCarron would throw for 152 yards and a touchdown in yet another sign pointing toward his contention for the Heisman Trophy, and pass-rush specialist Adrian Hubbard had three sacks to help add to the anticipation of the season.

Up and down University Boulevard, the buzz was obvious. With Nick Saban at the helm, Alabama is back contending for another national championship.

The scene in Tuscaloosa wouldn't have been familiar seven years ago, before Saban arrived and the football program had swung out of neutral. A fraction of the team's boosters went to scrimmages and the school's undergraduate enrollment was some 5,000 students fewer.

But for those on the outside looking in that day, it was a reminder not only of how far Alabama has come but of how far other teams can go in the blink of an eye.

Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson knows the history. He pointed out as much at SEC media days in July.

"Before Bama turned it around they were terrible … I mean, dead terrible," he said. "So why can't we be the next team that blows up?"

He's not the only one asking the question. Players at Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn and Missouri are wondering the same thing: Why can't they reverse their fortunes and bounce back in 2013? If you're looking for a sense of defeat from teams that have become familiar with losing, think again.

Jacques Smith is hoping his new coach, Butch Jones, can bring the Vols out of the doldrums and return them to competitiveness in the SEC. Tennessee has a lot to replace with quarterback Tyler Bray and his top three pass-catchers from a season ago gone, but there's something Rocky Top has now that it didn't have a year ago -- energy.

"He's brought the confidence," Smith said of Jones, "and now we have our swagger back."

At Auburn, where the Tigers went winless in league play last season, players are substituting "swagger" for "edge." As coach Gus Malzahn explained, when the Tigers play with the right "blue collar" attitude, history shows they can compete for championships.

"The No. 1 thing that our players have to do for us to be successful this year is get our edge back," he explained at media days. "That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn football that's made Auburn great. Worry about your teammate, not worry about yourself. Lose the entitlement issue."

On the field, Auburn took one step forward and one step back in that respect last week, losing safety Demetruce McNeal on the same day it announced that Nick Marshall had won the starting quarterback job. The good news: Malzahn had decent success with his last transfer quarterback, Cam Newton. The bad: Marshall will be the seventh different quarterback to start a season opener for the Tigers in the last seven years.

Kentucky, which had the fewest wins of any SEC team a year ago, doesn't know who its starting quarterback is. The Wildcats entered preseason camp with three players competing for the job: Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who ended spring practice in a dead heat. Determining who will handle snaps under center, whether it's one player or a mixture of all three, will be Step No. 1 in getting a team that is returning 13 starters back on track.

But what Mark Stoops has done off the field has already reinvigorated the Bluegrass State. Football may never trump basketball in Kentucky, but UK's new head coach is at least making the game more competitive, creating a buzz on the recruiting trail that's spread out to players and the fan base as a whole. If the saying is true that Jimmies and Joes do more than X's and O's, then Stoops is on the right track. Kentucky finished a respectable 36th in the ESPN Class Rankings in February and is off to a hot start for the 2014 class, coming in at No. 16, ahead of programs like Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State.

To the Southwest, Arkansas is taking the old-school approach under new head coach Bret Bielema, who insists that the Razorbacks return to "normal American football." John L. Smith might have been a disaster as head coach in 2012, losing four of eight games, but he didn't leave the cupboard completely bare. With All-American candidates on both the offensive and defensive line and a fullback that looks as though he could run through a brick wall, Bielema has the pieces to run the type of smashmouth system he wants.

The problem for Bielema is the schedule, which sets up dreadfully with Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in consecutive weeks. By the time Auburn and Ole Miss role around, there's no telling where the Razorbacks will stand, if they're standing at all.

Unlike the previously mentioned schools, Missouri is hoping for a significant rebound despite no significant overhaul on the coaching staff as Josh Henson was promoted from co-offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. Gary Pinkel is back for his second turn in the SEC and this time he hopes to bring senior quarterback James Franklin along with him for the ride.

Last year Franklin missed a significant portion of the season with a shoulder injury and Pinkel didn't do him any favors when he came back this spring, thrusting him into a quarterback competition that didn't end until last week. Now fully healthy, Franklin hopes to return to his form of 2011, when he finished fourth in the Big 12 in passing efficiency behind future pros Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones. And with some help from the running game and a boost from rising star Dorial Green-Beckham, those expectations might not be that far off.

Like so many programs hoping to bounce back in 2013, Missouri relies on more than the play of its quarterbacks. Winning the line of scrimmage and protecting the football will be vital to competing against traditional powers like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU. In this league, you can't give games away, which is exactly what Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas did last year, finishing among the bottom five schools in the SEC in turnover margin.

Luck will be important too.

Alabama didn't get to where it is without the stars aligning properly. Saban had to sign before the program took off, and even then he had some cleaning house to do. Without landing standouts like Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw and AJ McCarron, there's no telling where the Tide would be right now.

Instead of packing the stands for a scrimmage in mid-August, Alabama could be like much of the SEC, looking up at empty bleachers while it waits for its luck to turn.

Ranking the SEC safeties

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
3:19
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We've checked out the top cornerbacks in this league, now it's time to look at the top safeties:

1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jr., Alabama: He might be the nation's best safety prospect with his range, speed, athleticism and physical nature. Clinton-Dix has a great football mind when he's on the field and isn't afraid to play high or in the box. What makes him so good is that he's not only a ballhawk and a banger, but he's excellent in coverage, too. He had five interceptions and defended nine passes last season.

2. Craig Loston, Sr., LSU: It has taken some time for Loston to come into his own at LSU, but he is in position to be one of the nation's best. It's not like he ever lacked the talent, but his work ethic needed some improvement. Having more responsibility thrown his way helped turn his game up and he started to play like the top-flight athlete LSU's coaching staff had been waiting for. He's a ballhawk and can lay the lumber with ease.

[+] EnlargeKenny Ladler
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesKenny Ladler was a playmaker for the Commodores last season, notching 90 tackles and forcing three turnovers.
3. Kenny Ladler, Sr., Vanderbilt: He's another one of those safeties who likes to mix it up all over the field and doesn't run from contact. You'll see him in the box ready to pounce. He led Vandy with 90 tackles last year and tied for the team lead with 60 solo stops. He also registered 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions.

4. Nickoe Whitley, Sr., Mississippi State: He's basically the grandpa of Mississippi State's secondary, but he certainly doesn't play like an old man. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on Mississippi State's team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play threat at the safety spot and covers a lot of ground with his speed.

5. Byron Moore, Sr., Tennessee: His team-high five interceptions were probably overlooked because of how poorly Tennessee's defense played, but Moore was a heck of a player. Moore, who was second on the team with 86 tackles last year, is extremely versatile as well. He started the first three games of the season at strong safety before moving over to free safety after Brian Randolph got hurt. He started the final nine games there.

6. Jaylen Watkins, Sr., Florida: He's played in 36 games with 19 starts, but the majority of his work has come at cornerback. But Watkins is talented enough and knows Florida's defense well enough that moving to safety wasn't an issue. He played there at the end of last season and cross-trained there all year. He's a physical player, has good coverage skills and should be able to fly all over the field.

7. Demetruce McNeal, Sr., Auburn: There weren't many positive things to say about Auburn's defense last year, but McNeal was pretty impressive. Off-field issues this spring made his status for the fall uncertain, but now that he's cleared everything up, he should be good to go. He notched a team-high 53 solo tackles last year and was tied for first with seven tackles for loss. Anytime you have a safety who isn't afraid to get rough up front, that's a very good thing.

8. Trae Elston, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels expected him to play early last year and he didn't disappoint. He played in 12 games and made nine starts as the Rebels' Rover. Elston led the team with six pass breakups, had a sack and recovered a fumble last year. Elston is a big-hitting safety who can play all over. He'll get in the box and cover guys. He's a very dynamic athlete in the Rebels' defense.

9. T.J. Gurley, So., South Carolina: A knee injury cut his 2012 season short, but even with only eight games under his belt he was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team. South Carolina's coaches are extremely excited about his potential and think he could have been a tremendous player if he was able to finish last season. He didn't go through spring, but should be 100 percent this fall. Gurley has the skill to make plays all over the field and be a solid ballhawk.

10. Tray Matthews, Fr., Georgia: No, he hasn't played a down in college, but he could be one of the most physically gifted safeties in the SEC right now. He made an immediate impression on his coaches, especially defensive coordinator Todd Grantham this spring, and was an easy choice for the starting free safety spot. He's an excellent tackler, lays bone-crushing hits and has tremendous field range.

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