Alabama Crimson Tide: ryan timmons

We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Trey DePriest was asked Monday whether he and the Alabama defense were preparing for two quarterbacks or just one when it faces Kentucky on Saturday. But UA's starting inside linebacker shrugged and said he hadn't even considered it. He hadn't even watched the film yet, he explained.

"The only thing I know about them is the teams they've played -- the bigger schools -- they've played tough: Louisville, Florida, South Carolina," he said.

And thus ended the pregame analysis from DePriest. But to be fair, it's hard for anyone to determine what type of team Kentucky is five games into the season. Mark Stoops is just beginning to make an impact on a program that's floundered for the better part of the past decade. It took until last week for the first-year head coach to settle on a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJalen Whitlow
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Whitlow is a threat both running and passing, but Alabama says it will be ready for the Kentucky QB.
Jalen Whitlow, who led Prattville High (Ala.) to a state title game in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2011, has the job now after beating out Maxwell Smith. The dual-threat passer took every snap in last weekend's game against South Carolina, completing 14 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for another 69 yards and a score.

"He's a good runner," UA coach Nick Saban said, sizing up a player his staff once recruited. "He's really continued to improve as a passer and was effective last week in that regard."

Whitlow came on late last season, starting seven games. But he's one of only a few pieces on Kentucky's offense that isn't brand new. The Wildcats' top three receivers are first-year players: Javess Blue, who leads the team with 22 receptions for 275 yards, transferred from a junior college, and Ryan Timmons and Alec Montgomery are both true freshmen. Even Kentucky's leading rusher at tailback, Jojo Kemp, was playing high school football at this time last year.

Neal Brown was hired by Stoops to lead the offense in December. He helped orchestrate Texas Tech's "Air Raid" offense from 2010-12, helping the Red Raiders to top-10 finishes in passing offense each season. The high-powered air attack has translated to Kentucky with mixed results thus far. The Cats are 14th in the SEC in scoring offense despite averaging 388.8 yards per game. UK, though, already has more plays of 60 or more yards (6) than it did all of last season (4).

But the brightest spot on offense may have come this past weekend when Kentucky scored 21 fourth-quarter points against South Carolina.

"We need to come out and build," Brown told reporters in Lexington. "We had a good fourth quarter against South Carolina and we need to build off that."

Whitlow, who accounted for all three touchdowns in the failed comeback, is maturing every day, according to Brown. But Stoops recognizes that his young quarterback will face something of a brick wall on Saturday.

"They have no weakness in their defense," Stoops said. "They don't have any weakness on their team."

Saban, though, isn't taking Whitlow or any part of Kentucky lightly.

"We didn't play very well the last time we were on the road," he said, "so we certainly need to do a lot better job against a very different kind of offense in terms of what we've had to play against in the past, because it's such a good running quarterback and a good athlete at that position. It'll be a real challenge and test for us."

Alabama has faced its share of mobile quarterbacks already this season, first against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in Week 2 and then against Ole Miss and Bo Wallace a few weeks ago. Landon Collins, who will likely make his second career start at free safety this week in place of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, said the defense knows the drill.

"We played against a lot of dynamic quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel," Collins said. "Just playing sound and playing our defense, as a whole, we should be OK."

Said starting cornerback Deion Belue: "Well, you know, it’s just a scheme that we have to have for them. At the same time, the dual threat, Whitlow, you have to respect him because he can throw as well. He can throw as well as the dropback passer and then the other quarterback can also run, you really have to prepare for both of them the same. You can’t group the one as just passing and the other just running. You have to prepare for them the same."

Collins, who spoke with the media a day after DePriest, said he wasn't concerned with the idea of not knowing who Kentucky will put under center. Whether it's Whitlow or Smith, he feels the defense will be just fine.

"We just have to play sound defense," Collins said. "That’s what we’ve been playing the last few weeks. Once we do that, we’re playing against ourselves, really."

SEC recruiting primer

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
7:00
AM ET
ESPN RecruitingNation has signing day covered. Follow ESPNU’s coverage, chat with analysts and get breaking news on our Signing Day Live page beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET through 7 p.m. ET. For more on what to expect on signing day, check out the SEC conference breakdown Insider.

Bold Prediction for the SEC:

Ole Miss' class will eventually be ranked in the top five nationally with the addition of No. 1 overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche from Loganville (Ga.) Grayson and possibly ESPN 150 prospects Chris Jones from Houston (Miss.) High and Antonio Conner from Batesville (Miss.) South Panola.

SEC East

Florida
Biggest need: Florida wants immediate help at defensive tackle. Jarran Reed from Scooba (Miss.) East should be able to provide that if he decides to sign with the Gators on national signing day.
Biggest recruit: The Gators have two five-star commitments: cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III from Tampa (Fla.) Wharton and running back Kelvin Taylor from Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades. No other school in the country can say that.

Georgia
Biggest need: The Bulldogs would like to pick up another top offensive lineman. They looked destined to land Laremy Tunsil from Lake City (Fla.), but the competition has heated up for him lately.
Biggest recruit: With 12 ESPN 300 commitments, Georgia has plenty of star power. However, it's impossible to overvalue the commitment of Brice Ramsey from Kingsland (Ga.) Camden, a quarterback the Bulldogs can build around.

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