Alabama Crimson Tide: Ricky Seals-Jones

Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 9-4
2013 SEC record: 4-4, third in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 2-4
Last meeting: Lost 49-42 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 2

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill, or whomever takes over as the Aggies QB, will have plenty of weapons available.
Top returners
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, WR Malcome Kennedy, CB Deshazor Everett, S Floyd Raven

Key losses
QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, OT Jake Matthews, RB Ben Malena, WR Travis Labhart, NG Kirby Ennis, LB Nate Askew, CB Toney Hurd

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel (923 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel (4,114 yards, 37 TD, 12 INT)
Receiving: Mike Evans (1,394 yards)
Tackles: Steven Jenkins* (96)
Sacks: Shaan Washington*, Gavin Stansbury (3)
Interceptions: Howard Matthews*, Nate Askew (3)

What they're saying
"No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin

Three things to watch:

1. Johnny ain’t the problem: Forget Johnny Manziel for a moment. Believe me, we’ll have time for him later. Finding his successor at quarterback isn’t the biggest problem Sumlin faces in 2014. Instead, it’s the defense, the one that looked utterly lost against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and finished 109th in the country in total defense (behind four other Lone Star State schools: North Texas, Texas State, Texas and Texas Tech). There were injuries, sure, and there were a lot of young players on the field, but there’s no excuse for giving up 32 points per game. The secondary was porous, the tackling terrible and the pass-rush non-existent. But this year is supposed to be better, right? Well, maybe not. Offseason troubles have thrown a huge wrench into a defense that was supposed to be a year wiser and more matured. Two starters (Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden) were dismissed from the team, and a third starter, defensive end Gavin Stansbury, got himself arrested on assault charges.

2. Back to Johnny: We weren’t going to make you wait that long to discuss the loss of Manziel. A lot of Alabama fans should be relieved to know he’s gone. His theatrics won’t stress the Crimson Tide any longer. But even as his Heisman Trophy and 5,037 total yards of offense head to Cleveland, the offense he leaves behind in College Station shouldn’t be overlooked. Even with starting wideouts Mike Evans and Travis Labhart gone, there is more than enough talent on campus for Sumlin to cobble together a formidable offense, whether the starting QB is sophomore Kenny Hill or the freshman Kyle Allen. The Aggies are loaded at running back with three talented options there (Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams). And at receiver, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Veterans Malcome Kennedy and Edward Pope are just the tip of the iceberg. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are the real weapons. Seals-Jones is a clone of Evans, a 6-foot-5 giant who will tower over defensive backs. Noil, the No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300, looks like the SEC’s next Percy Harvin, a terror with the ball in his hands. Johnny is gone but with so many weapons and a strong offensive line (thanks to Cedric Ogbuehi’s return), the Aggies shouldn’t miss a beat.

3. How to break through: There’s an argument to be made that Texas A&M is the most overhyped program in the SEC. Yes, Manziel was a revelation. And, yes, the Aggies were competitive the minute they joined the league. But nonetheless, the wins simply haven’t been there. You’ve got to finish higher than third in your own division before you start becoming a power in the conference -- or nationally, for that matter. It’s Year 3 under Sumlin, which means it’s time to start capitalizing on potential and turn it into production. Sumlin realizes this. This spring he told ESPN, “It's kind of hard to have a target on your back when you finished third in your own division. I think the reason people would say that [we've got a target on us] is because we had unexpected success. But we're trying to go from third to first.” Sumlin knows, “We haven’t arrived in this league.” But they could soon. With the shadow of Johnny Football no longer looming, it will be interesting to see where the program goes next. The offense should be more balanced and run-oriented, a fact that should help the defense stay off the field. If Mark Snyder can turn things around on that side of the ball, then things could get really interesting. The West will still be an uphill battle for the Aggies, but it might be enough to bridge the difference between potential and production.

Ranking the SEC wide receivers

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
1:00
PM ET
Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Now it’s time to focus on the specifics and rank the best of the best in the SEC.

Top 10 wide receivers

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start, Amari Cooper reminded everyone just how talented he is by the end of the season
1. Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama: For much of last season, he wasn’t himself. His feet weren’t 100 percent and it showed. But the Cooper who flashed All-SEC ability as a freshman returned to form in his final two games as a sophomore, racking up 15 receptions for 309 yards and a touchdown. He’s a guy who demands -- and routinely beats -- double coverage. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become an even greater focal point of the passing game.

2. Laquon Treadwell, So., Ole Miss: Everyone had the feeling he’d be special in his first year at Ole Miss, but it came as a surprise just how ready he was to compete in the SEC. Playing slot, he was one of the best receivers in the league, finishing second only to Jordan Matthews in receptions (72). As a result, coaches voted him SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he has the frame to challenge smaller defensive backs. But it’s his hands and ability to create space that make him special. With Donte Moncrief now gone, he’ll transition to the outside and continue to be a favorite of quarterback Bo Wallace.

3. Sammie Coates, Jr., Auburn: His game has always been about speed. Running the deep post, he could simply sprint by defenders. But as a junior, Coates is trying to develop a more well-rounded game, focusing on his footwork and strength. It’s scary to think that at 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s just now learning how to control his body. If he can become more of an option in the short to intermediate passing game then we could see Coates’ game go to another level.

4. Jameon Lewis, Sr., Mississippi State: Consistency is the key for Lewis. Though he finished last season with significant numbers (1,040 total yards, 8 touchdowns), he also came up missing in a few big games (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, for example). At 5-9 and 195 pounds, he’s someone coach Dan Mullen will look to get the ball in space, whether that’s on screens or even running the Wildcat. With his burst and elusiveness, he’s a threat to find the end zone every time he touches the football.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Jr., Georgia: Every conversation involving Mitchell requires the caveat "if healthy." After putting up 40-plus receptions as a freshman and a sophomore, he was lost for all of last season with a torn ACL. Now, as Hutson Mason put it, "He's about as close to 100 percent as he'll be." If healthy, he's a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from anywhere on the field.

6. Christion Jones, Sr., Alabama: Like Lewis, Jones is another elusive sub-6 foot receiver coaches look to get the ball whenever possible. Because when he touches the football, he has the ability to make someone miss and score. With Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell no longer on campus, expect more looks for Jones.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North has the size, speed and hands to make a big impact for the Vols.
7. Marquez North, So., Tennessee: Do we have to remind you of his one-handed catch against South Carolina? Do we have to point out that he’s 6-4, 221 pounds and can run after the catch? If you saw him rack up 38 catches and 496 yards as a true freshman last year, you probably can’t forget it. It’s scary to think what he could do with consistent play at quarterback.

8. D’haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: There may not be a more hyped receiver in the SEC this year than Williams. And it’s with good reason. He wasn’t just the No. 1 receiver in ESPN’s Junior College 50, he was the No. 1 player overall. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, his athleticism is spectacular. While it remains to be seen how he grasps the offense and how he jells with quarterback Nick Marshall, all the ingredients are there for Williams to be one of the best receivers in the league.

9. Ricky Seals-Jones, RS Fr., Texas A&M: We could have put any one of three Aggies receivers on this list. Malcome Kennedy has a history of solid production, and Speedy Noil has the potential to be a star in this league. But in balancing potential and experience, Seals-Jones won out. After redshirting last season, he should have a good grasp of the offense. And at 6-5 and 225

10. Travin Dural, So., LSU: You'll have to forgive everyone for overlooking Dural last season. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham were that good. But their departures have created a vacuum at receiver, and Dural appears ready to step into that vortex. Lanky and explosive, he could become a favorite target of whoever starts under center for LSU.
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. -- There are questions aplenty regarding Alabama’s defense. Who will replace C.J. Mosley’s veteran presence? Can the pass rush improve? And what about the inexperience in the secondary?

With that said, here’s a look at the top five offensive players that could give the Crimson Tide fits in 2014:

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesAs a freshman in 2013, Ole Miss wideout Laquon Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns.
WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss -- Oct. 4

We’ll know just how far Alabama’s young secondary has come when the Crimson Tide travels to Oxford, Miss., to take on Ole Miss. Without an established leader at cornerback -- when’s the last time Alabama had that problem? -- Treadwell could expose Alabama. The 6-foot-2 sophomore is quickly becoming one of the best receivers in the SEC. As a freshman, he worked his way into the starting lineup early and led the Rebels with 72 catches for 608 yards and five touchdowns -- good enough to finish third in receptions per game in the conference. With standout freshman tight end Evan Engram back from injury and veteran Bo Wallace returning to orchestrate the offense at quarterback, it will be hard for any defense to contain Treadwell and Ole Miss.

RBs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, Arkansas -- Oct. 11

It’s easy to sleep on Arkansas. Bret Bielema’s rebuilding job in Fayetteville is in its early stages and there aren’t a ton of talented skill players on the roster. But if Brandon Allen can develop into a respectable passer, things could get interesting. Hunter Henry is already one of the best tight ends in the SEC, but Arkansas’ running backs are the real gem. Collins ran for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman last season. Williams, his backup, finished with 900 yards of his own. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, keep an eye on Korliss Marshall, who ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns in Arkansas’ spring game.

WRs Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M -- Oct. 18

Alabama’s secondary might still twitch at the mention of Mike Evans. When he left early for the NFL draft, there were surely a few cornerbacks in Tuscaloosa who breathed a sigh of relief. Well, don’t get too comfortable. Texas A&M’s tandem of freshmen receivers could develop into the a deadly one-two punch. Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, is the spitting image of Evans at 6-5 and 225 pounds. There’s no one on Alabama’s roster -- or in the SEC, really -- who can match up well with that. And then there’s Noil, the former No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300 who is expected to line up opposite him in the starting lineup. Think Percy Harvin; a fast, elusive home-run threat who can line up at receiver, running back or even quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney, Dak Prescott
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesMississippi State signal-caller Dak Prescott threw 10 touchdown passes and had seven interceptions last season.
QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State -- Nov. 15

His name isn’t being thrown around in the Heisman Trophy race for nothing. Prescott doesn’t have a ton of film to his name, but what he has put together is impressive, most notably his 361-yard, 5-touchdown performance against Rice. He has a strong arm, quick feet and a big body. And while there are fair questions to be asked about his accuracy and decision-making, there’s no doubt what kind of leader he is. (Go back and watch the end of the Egg Bowl, and then read about what he went through in the lead up to that game). With a number of intriguing weapons at receiver and running back to work with, he could be handful for any defense.

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn -- Nov. 29

It’s easy to forget that Marshall didn’t have the benefit of spring practice last year. Almost as soon as he transferred from junior college, fall camp began and he was suddenly knee deep in a quarterback competition. He didn’t have a ton of time to learn coach Gus Malzahn’s offense, and it showed in his play, as he grew steadily more confident as a passer as the weeks progressed. With the benefit of a full offseason to prepare this year, we could see Marshall become even more dynamic. Alabama didn’t contain him well in the Iron Bowl, as he ran for nearly as many yards (99) as he threw for (97). If he becomes a bigger threat to pass the football, watch out.
This season, it seems pretty much everything is wide open in the SEC. It should make for one of the most compelling seasons in years, and the receivers will be one of the most intriguing positions on the field.

Last year, we knew who our stars were when it came to pass catchers. You had a record breaker in Jordan Matthews, absolute freaks in Mike Evans and Donte Moncrief, the game-changer in Odell Beckham Jr. and one of the toughest players around in Jarvis Landry. And there were budding superstars in Amari Cooper and Dorial Green-Beckham.

As we look to the SEC's crop of receiving talent entering this fall, we still have a couple big names, but figuring out a consensus top five isn't easy.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the top playmakers in the SEC but still has work to do on his game.
The favorites

Clearly, Cooper is the headliner at wide receiver. He might not have generated the buzz and excitement last year that he did toward the end of his freshman season with Alabama, but he's a big-play threat and a deep-ball specialist. His numbers dipped in 2013, but with Green-Beckham no longer at Missouri, Cooper assumes the role as the biggest receiving threat in the SEC.

Where Cooper has to improve is his physical play and playing through injuries. If there's one complaint about him, it's that fighting through pain was an issue for him at times. Alabama still needs to find its starting quarterback, but Cooper had another great spring and shouldn't have a problem being the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting job this fall.

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cooper this spring. "He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.

"He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him."

Yeah, try putting two guys on him with receiving targets like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard returning for the Tide.

But Cooper has some competition. Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis and Auburn's Sammie Coates are the only two returning receivers who finished ranked in the top 10 of the league in receiving yards last year, but don't forget about rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who led Ole Miss with 72 receptions in 2013, or South Carolina junior Shaq Roland, who is so close to breaking out it's scary.

No one returns this fall with 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdown numbers from a year ago, but all of the above-mentioned players could have bigger seasons in 2014. Lewis is sneaky good, and if he can improve his route running, watch out in an offense that loves to get the ball to jittery guys like that in space. Treadwell can jump out of any gym and is moving outside, which should give him more chances to hit the deep ball this fall. Coates needs to be more consistent, but he's grown more and more since the start of last season.

Roland has shown flashes of star power, but he has to get the mental side down. He let the hype get to him his freshman year but followed that by catching 25 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He's better than that, and he has a chance to be the go-to receiver for Dylan Thompson in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar should thrive in Florida's new offense.
Keep an eye on

Don't you dare think those are the only contenders for the top receiving spots in the SEC. There are plenty of guys flying somewhat under the radar, and you don't want to sleep on any of them:

  • Chris Conley, Sr., Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell might be back from his ACL injury this fall, but Conley had a great spring and has everything you'd want in a go-to receiver.
  • Quinton Dunbar, Sr., Florida: He's caught a pass in 28 straight games and has 90 receptions for his career. Kurt Roper's new spread look should help him blow past 40 catches in his final season.
  • Speedy Noil, Fr., Texas A&M: No, he hasn't played a down of college football yet, but this kid is the definition of an athlete. He'll make a ton of plays this fall.
  • Marquez North, So., Tennessee: He's turning his raw talent into actual development, which is a very scary thought, and looks more the part with the muscle he's put on.
  • Demarcus Robinson, So., Florida: After all the hype he arrived with, Robinson had a very quiet freshman year. He has to stay focused off the field because following a good spring, a lot is expected from Florida's most talented receiver.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, RFr., Texas A&M: An ACL injury cut his freshman season short, but Seals-Jones should be one of the Aggies' top receiving threats this fall. He can play inside and out and could top the SEC in overall receiving athleticism.
  • D'haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: He has zero snaps at this level, but his coaches think he could make a major impact on the offense and should push Coates for catches.

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Now that we've taken a look at five potential breakout players this spring from the SEC Eastern Division, it's time to check out the West (again in alphabetical order):

  • Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn: With Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae gone, the Tigers are looking for help along the defensive line. Senior Gabe Wright could be a threat for them inside, and so could Adams, who is coming off a solid freshman season. He had 20 tackles and a sack last season and could be in for a solid spring on the Plains. Adams can clog the middle with his 6-foot-4, 304-pound frame, but he's also a good pass rusher from the middle. Adams has a chance to take a huge step this spring and appears to be on the right track already.
  • [+] EnlargeDural
    AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU receiver Travin Dural's touchdown catch against Arkansas last season could be a sign of things to come in 2014.
    Travin Dural, WR, LSU: The Tigers are trying to replace two future NFL receivers and are breaking in a new, young quarterback. That means they need a new go-to guy to feed this spring. Keep an eye on Dural, who caught that game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas last fall from Anthony Jennings. LSU is hoping Jennings and Dural have increased chemistry this spring. Dural is a speed demon on the field and should be an immediate deep threat for the Tigers. With the position so wide open, Dural has a shot to secure one of the starting jobs this spring.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: He showed flashes of greatness last year but should get an even bigger role in the offense this spring as his game matures. The thing about Howard is that he's a mismatch whenever he steps on the field. He's too fast for linebackers to cover one-on-one and too big for defensive backs to consistently stay with. He needs to get the playbook down and get more comfortable on the field, but having a year under his belt should help him in both areas. Howard has a chance to be a big-time player in the SEC, and this spring should go a long way toward that.
  • Derrick Jones, CB, Ole Miss: The sophomore-to-be played in nine games last year and made three starts. He's in a fight for one of the Rebels' cornerback spots this spring, but has a chance to be a special player for Ole Miss. Senquez Golson will likely get most of the attention at corner this spring, but Jones is a player the coaches really like and he has a lot of upside after playing as a true freshman. Making Jones into a legitimate cover corner in this league is the goal coming out of spring.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M: We thought he'd be a breakout player last year, but a knee injury cut his season short early on. Seals-Jones has all the athleticism, talent, speed and upside to be an All-SEC player this fall. Sure, the Aggies are throwing out a new quarterback this year, but their offense is very generous to receivers and Seals-Jones is the perfect weapon for A&M to have. He has the size to be a top-flight deep threat on the outside, but he's also very capable of playing inside, which just makes him that much more versatile for the Aggies.

SEC lunchtime links

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
12:00
PM ET
Clemson's win over NC State last night was only the appetizer. We're only 24 hours away from a full slate of college football games, including a few exciting inter-conference matchups in the SEC.

Bama game key for Texas A&M recruiting

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
3:30
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Like virtually every coach in major college football, Kevin Sumlin understands the importance of recruiting.

It's the lifeblood of a program. As players graduate or move on, new ones must come in to keep success going.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Brett Davis/US PresswireTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said the "move to the SEC has obviously been a boost" for the Aggies in recruiting.
Since taking over at Texas A&M, Sumlin and his staff have leveraged the power of playing in the SEC to their benefit, landing a top 10 recruiting class in the 2013 cycle while being on pace to do so again for the Class of 2014.

And this weekend could be the biggest yet when it comes hosting recruits.

While the college football world has long awaited the Alabama-Texas A&M rematch, the A&M staff has spent months preparing for the recruiting aspect of this weekend.

Roughly 75 recruits are expected to be in attendance for Saturday's highly-anticipated game between the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the No. 6 Aggies.

"I think [the game has] already had an impact," Sumlin said. "We have a large number of prospects that are going to be here. The move to the SEC has obviously been a boost for us. I think it wouldn't be as big of a boost if we didn't have some sort of success in the league last year. We didn't have all the success we wanted. We were extremely competitive and won a big game last year. But all that being said, I think the ability to compete and win in this league has really helped us too, in recruiting."

And that's the key. Without the 11-2 record, the Heisman Trophy run for Johnny Manziel or all the attention coming to the program as a result of that success in the SEC, widely considered the country's best conference, this weekend might not have been as big.

While the number of recruits who will be in attendance is impressive, so are the names. Topping that list are a host of highly-regarded 2014 ESPN 300 prospects: defensive end Myles Garrett, athlete Speedy Noil, safety Jamal Adams, defensive tackle Gerald Willis III, athlete Davion Hall, safety Edwin Freeman are among those expected. All of them are top 100 recruits.

“It’s going to be great, knowing A&M is in our top three," said Noil, who is making the trip with Willis, his high school teammate. "I want to see what they offer as an offense.”

Said Willis: “It’s going to be crazy. I’m very excited.”

A host of 2015 ESPN Junior 300 prospects are also expected in attendance. Receiver Tyron Johnson, outside linebacker Malik Jefferson, defensive end Anthony Wheeler and quarterback Kyler Murray are just a sampling of the impressive juniors that will make the trip.

If there's any doubt as to how important recruiting is to the Texas A&M staff, take this as evidence: Sumlin and defensive line coach Terry Price were out on the trail Thursday night via helicopter and trekked to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to see a prospect, fewer than 48 hours before one of the biggest games in program history.

The target? Garrett, the No. 7 player in the 2014 ESPN 300.

Sumlin and offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney also made a helicopter trip to Houston to see then-uncommitted 2013 ESPN 300 receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and 2013 Texas A&M quarterback commitment Kohl Stewart on a nationally-televised game between Sealy (Texas) High and Houston St. Pius X. Seals-Jones eventually committed and signed with the Aggies; Stewart signed but chose to play professional baseball after being chosen fourth overall in the MLB draft this summer.

While the Aggies continue to strengthen their position in recruiting statewide, their longtime rival, Texas, has a lot of question marks at the moment. After a decisive loss to BYU, the Longhorns fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. While the schools don't play each other anymore, they still battle for the same recruits. A win this weekend would further strengthen Texas A&M's position in the talent-rich Lone Star State.

This weekend has become something of a perfect storm for the Aggies. The chance to make a statement on a national level is there, with the eyes of fans across the country watching, not to mention dozens of recruits at Kyle Field to experience it all.

"You don't have a stage like this for this weekend if you're not a competitive program," Sumlin said. "And I think the high school coaches in this state do a fantastic job of coaching and regionally, recognizing that. And I think student-athletes are recognizing that, too, that we've got a great situation here from a stability standpoint, from a support standpoint, from a facilities standpoint and from a league standpoint.

"You don't have to go 700-800-900 miles away anymore to get all those things. That has been a big selling point for us since we've gotten here and I think that message has been driven home every week that we play in the SEC, not just play but play in meaningful games on big stages."

Revisiting Texas A&M-Alabama, part I

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
1:40
PM ET
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M shocked the college football world when it went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and upset the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide last November. It was a game for the ages, with the Aggies jumping out to a 20-0 lead, Alabama charging back to make it close and a nailbiter finish that included a turnover near the goal line.

With the Crimson Tide coming to Kyle Field for a rematch with the Aggies, anticipation has built throughout the offseason. The Tide are again No. 1, defending their BCS championship from a year ago and the Aggies still have their linchpin, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who made his most compelling case for the trophy that afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

As the heavily hyped clash approaches, let's look back at some of the keys to last year's game and how they might affect the rematch.

1. Credit to the Texas A&M defense

When dissecting Texas A&M's upset of Alabama last season, many cite the Aggies' offensive explosion en route to a 20-0 first-quarter lead as one of the most difficult things for Alabama to deal with. And while the Aggies used creative playcalling and personnel packages, their fast pace and precision execution to score three touchdowns on their first three drives, the Aggies' defensive effort had as much -- or more -- to do with their ability to take that kind of commanding lead.

A.J. McCarron
John David Mercer/US PresswireAJ McCarron threw his first interceptions of the season in Alabama's loss to Texas A&M last season.
The first play from scrimmage helped the Aggies set the tone as Alabama handed off to running back Eddie Lacy on an off-tackle play to the left side. Tight end Michael Williams motioned to that side of the formation to help open a hole for Lacy, but Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter eluded Williams and sliced into the gap between Williams and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and made a strong tackle to stop Lacy for no gain. Alabama went three-and-out on that drive and punted.

The Crimson Tide's next offensive drive started on a much better note for Alabama, with Lacy gaining 23 yards on his first two carries. But everything halted as the Aggies created a turnover when quarterback AJ McCarron tried to find Kenny Bell in the middle of the field. As a McCarron pass hit Bell in the chest, safety Howard Matthews delivered a hard, clean hit to Bell, who dropped the pass. Porter was there to intercept the pass, and that set up the A&M offense with great field position after a 16-yard return to the Alabama 41.

One of the key players throughout the day for the Aggies' defense was defensive tackle Spencer Nealy. A former defensive end who moved to defensive tackle at the start of the 2012 season despite lacking what would be considered "SEC size" for a tackle, Nealy played an integral role in the Aggies' run defense. Evidence of that was on display at the start of the Crimson Tide's third drive of the game.

On the first play of the drive, Alabama handed off to T.J. Yeldon on the left side and the 6-foot-5, 277-pound Nealy, who lined up at nose tackle on that play and for much of the day, used his quickness to beat center Barrett Jones and tackled Yeldon for a loss of 4 yards. The Crimson Tide went three-and-out on that drive as well as the Aggies forced McCarron's hand with a safety blitz and Matthews got into the backfield untouched, forcing an incomplete pass. The defensive effort by the Aggies forced McCarron to start the game 1-of-5 passing for 5 yards.

And even though the Tide were able to gather their bearings and make a strong comeback with some big plays on offense, the Aggies still found ways to make plays on defense. Matthews plugged a gap on third-and-2 when Yeldon tried to cut back for first-down yardage, holding the Crimson Tide to a third-quarter field goal. Safety Steven Terrell stripped Yeldon in the fourth quarter on the play after a 50-yard pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper. And of course, cornerback Deshazor Everett picked off McCarron on the Tide's final offensive play with 1:36 remaining.

The drawback for Texas A&M in the rematch is that many of the above names are gone. Nealy, Porter, Terrell and other key players -- such as defensive end Damontre Moore and linebacker Jonathan Stewart -- have graduated. They've been replaced by younger, more inexperienced players who have taken their lumps in the first two games. The Aggies also haven't had their full complement of defensive players because several served suspensions in the first two games. Saturday will be the first opportunity for all of their key guys to play together this season.

Lacy is gone for the Tide, as are several offensive linemen. The Tide struggled in that area in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. So there will be adjustments on both sides with the differences in personnel.

2. Finding the "Y"

Manziel went to receiver Ryan Swope, the "Y" receiver who lines up in the slot on the right side of the offensive formation, early and often against the Crimson Tide. Early in the game the passes were of the short, quick variety, hitch routes that gained incremental yardage, almost like running plays.

Ryan Swope
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRyan Swope, a senior last season, made 11 catches against Alabama.
As the game wore on, Manziel went downfield to Swope, who made some of the biggest catches of the season. One was in the middle of the field for 28 yards as he was nailed by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the third quarter. In the fourth, Manziel found Swope down the right sideline for 42 yards.

Swope graduated as well, but look for the guy who made the catch on the play after Swope's 42-yard reception -- Malcome Kennedy -- to be a factor. Kennedy caught a 24-yard touchdown pass on the next play and having experience in a game like that can only help him this Saturday. The question is, can Kennedy bring the kind of consistency that Swope did in catching 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown against Alabama?

And should he be healthy for the game, 6-foot-5 freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones could be a factor at that position as well. Seals-Jones missed the Sam Houston State game last Saturday with a knee injury.

3. McCarron can scramble, too

While Manziel is known for his scrambling, McCarron showed he has good mobility as well.

McCarron isn't nearly as fleet of foot, but he did show the ability to escape pressure and make quality throws. On two instances in the Crimson Tide's first scoring drive, he evaded the Aggies' pass rush and found Cooper for a first-down completion.

In the second half, McCarron scrambled and tried to find Cooper. He avoided an interception from Everett (who was ruled out of bounds on the catch), but nevertheless, scrambling is a tool McCarron can use if the Aggies dial up extra pressure Saturday.

4. Defending Manziel on the ground

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave MartinJohnny Manziel had great success running in the first half against Alabama, but the running lanes closed a bit in the second half.
In the first half last year, Manziel was electric with his feet. Then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was comfortable in calling designed quarterback draws. They were successful as Manziel piled up 82 yards on nine first-half carries.

But the Tide did a much better job containing Manziel in the final two quarters. In the second half, he finished with 10 rushing yards on nine attempts.

This season, Manziel is making an effort to improve as a pocket passer without taking away his playmaking ability. The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator and playcaller (Clarence McKinney) and a new quarterbacks coach (Jake Spavital). It will be interesting to see how much running Manziel does Saturday and how Alabama handles it.

5. Big plays in the Alabama passing game

Cooper, now a sophomore for the Tide, had a huge game in last year's matchup, catching six passes for 136 yards.

He had a catch of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown reception, both in the fourth quarter. The first came on an out-and-up, when he beat Everett one on one. The next one came when the Aggies sent Everett on a cornerback blitz and Cooper beat Matthews deep for a touchdown.

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.

(Read full post)

ESPN 150 DT decommits from Texas 

February, 3, 2013
2/03/13
4:02
PM ET
Texas' 2013 recruiting class had already suffered four decommitments. Just four days before signing day, the Longhorns suffered another one that was more stunning than the rest.

SAN ANTONIO -- Wednesday was a day off for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl teams. Instead of working out and participating in drills, the players took in visits around the city -- including a stop at the Alamodome for photo opportunities and to see their game apparel -- and used the day to recover from two days of practice.

The teams will return to the fields on Thursday in arguably the most important practice of the week. Here are five things to keep an eye on for Thursday’s practice:

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

U.S. Army Bowl: Monday notebook 

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
8:51
PM ET
SAN ANTONIO -- ESPN 150 outside linebacker Mike Mitchell (Plano, Texas/Prestonwood Christian) isn’t big on speaking publicly. He’d rather let his game do the talking -- and it speaks volumes.

On Monday, the 6-foot-5, 222-pound linebacker officially confirmed that he will announce his college plans during Saturday’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Oregon, Texas A&M and Ohio State are his three finalists.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Saturday's top plays in the SEC
VIDEO PLAYLIST video