Alabama Crimson Tide: Robert Nkemdiche

Ranking the SEC defensive tackles

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
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We ranked the top defensive line units in the SEC earlier on Monday.

We take it a step further now and rank the top 10 tackles or interior linemen in the league heading into the 2014 season. Notice a trend with the top four?

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillA'Shawn Robinson led Alabama in sacks in 2013 as a true freshman.
1. A'Shawn Robinson, So., Alabama: The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks last season as a true freshman and has barely scratched the surface of how good he can be. An end in the Tide's base 3-4 defense, he moves inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen. Those in and around the Alabama program will tell you that he's on track to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have had under Nick Saban.

2. Chris Jones, So., Mississippi State: A year ago as a true freshman, the 6-5, 300-pound Jones played on sheer talent and was still a disruptive force. He led the Bulldogs with 10 quarterback hurries to go along with three sacks. He's now more technically sound, and with his "freaky" talent is primed for a huge sophomore season. He says he's still an end at heart and might line up there in certain situations.

3. Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss: The consensus No. 1 high school prospect in the country last year, Nkemdiche started the season at end and then moved inside to tackle. He finished third on the team with eight tackles for loss despite missing two games with a strained hamstring. At 6-4 and 277 pounds, Nkemdiche is big enough and explosive enough to be a dynamic playmaker no matter where he lines up.

4. Montravius Adams, So., Auburn: Because of injuries, the 6-4, 305-pound Adams worked at end this spring and was hard to miss with all the big plays he made. He has exceptional speed and quickness for such a big guy and is exactly what you're looking for in a defensive lineman in this league. He's another one who could line up at a couple of different spots this fall and will give the Tigers a lot of options up front.

5. J.T. Surratt, R-Sr., South Carolina: Jadeveon Clowney received all the fanfare last season, and Kelcy Quarles put up the big numbers. But don't sleep on Surratt, who's extremely underrated and heads up a deep group of defensive tackles for the Gamecocks. The 6-2, 305-pound Surratt is eager to prove that he's one of the league's premier interior defensive linemen in his own right.

6. Gabe Wright, Sr., Auburn: One of three senior tackles returning for the Tigers, Wright shed 12 pounds this spring and worked some at end. He led all Auburn defensive tackles last season with 8.5 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries. Wright has the experience, athleticism and talent to have an All-SEC season and gives defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson some flexibility along the defensive front.

7. Darius Philon, R-So., Arkansas: Once committed to Alabama, the 6-3, 283-pound Philon emerged as the Hogs' most active defensive tackle last season as a redshirt freshman. He led all Arkansas interior linemen with 46 total tackles, including nine tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He admits that he needed that first year on campus to mature, but is now primed to achieve elite status in this league.

8. Issac Gross, Jr., Ole Miss: Size isn't everything at tackle. The 250-pound Gross proved that last season. He consistently went up against bigger guards and centers on the offensive line and used his quickness to lead the Rebels with 3.5 sacks and was second on the team with nice tackles for loss. Gross started four games at nose tackle last season.

9. Matt Hoch, R-Sr., Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy last season on the Tigers' defensive front, the 6-5, 295-pound Hoch quietly went about his business and had his best season, with a career-best 41 total tackles. He has 25 career starts to his credit and is one of those players who just finds a way to get to the ball. He has been equally superb in the classroom.

10. Leon Orr, R-Sr., Florida: The Gators are lacking depth in the middle of their defensive line and will lean heavily on the 6-5, 305-pound Orr, who had 4.5 tackles for loss a year ago in his first season as a starter. He has played in the shadows of a couple of NFL first-round draft choices (Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley), so this is his chance to anchor the interior of that unit.
Some around the SEC suggested that the defensive line talent in the league might have been down last season.

Only five SEC defensive linemen went in the top four rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, and only two of those were tackles.

But as we look ahead to the 2014 season, there’s a promising crop of young defensive linemen in the SEC, particularly the sophomore class.

Today, we kick off our defensive position rankings with the defensive line. We’ll come back later in the day and rank the top 10 tackles in the league and the top 10 ends.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The defensive line should be the strength of an Alabama defense that will again be rock-solid. The Crimson Tide are big, physical and deep with some talented players joining the mix. Sophomore A'Shawn Robinson is an absolute beast. Jonathan Allen played in every game last season as true freshman, and D.J. Pettway is back at end after a year at junior college. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake return at nose guard, and look for Dalvin Tomlinson and Dee Liner to make big impacts as well along with incoming five-star freshman end Da'Shawn Hand. There’s no such thing as being too deep in the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore defensive tackle Montravius Adams is one of several talented, young Auburn defensive linemen.
2. Auburn: There’s a bit of an asterisk associated with Auburn’s ranking. Sophomore Carl Lawson would have easily been one of the top defensive ends in the league, but he recently underwent knee surgery, and his status for the season is unclear. But even without Lawson, the Tigers are still extremely talented. Sophomore tackle Montravius Adams is ready to explode after having a big spring. Sophomore end Elijah Daniel also has gobs of talent, while seniors Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeff Whitaker are back at tackle.

3. Missouri: The Tigers just seem to keep reloading up front defensively despite losing Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson the last couple of years. That shouldn’t change in 2014. Markus Golden and Shane Ray form an imposing defensive end tandem. They combined for 11 sacks last season, and the Tigers also have experience in the middle of that line with Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley returning.

4. Ole Miss: As Hugh Freeze moves into his third season on the job, the hope in Oxford is that the Rebels can make some noise in the West race. They have the depth, talent and experience in the defensive line to make a move. Sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most talented of the bunch and primed for a huge season, but there’s also depth inside. If C.J. Johnson stays healthy at end, defensive line should be the Rebels’ strongest position in 2014.

5. Florida: The Gators breed athletic defensive linemen, and junior Dante Fowler Jr. is the next star in the making. He plays the hybrid “buck” position, but will wind up rushing from an end position much of the time. Fellow junior Jonathan Bullard started eight games at end last season and is another guy ready to take off in this defense. Senior Leon Orr is back at tackle, but there’s not much proven depth inside. True freshman Gerald Willis III has a chance to be special and will play immediately.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return three senior starters in their defensive line -- tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones and end Preston Smith. That’s not to mention sophomore Chris Jones, the kind of player who makes everybody around him better. The 6-5, 300-pound sophomore will line up both inside and outside and has star potential. Second-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has plenty of pieces to work with up front in what should be Dan Mullen’s best defense yet.

7. LSU: The Tigers are set at end with senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter, although Rasco missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Sophomore Tashawn Bower should also prosper as a pass rusher in John Chavis’ system. The big question is at tackle, where redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain will be counted on to step in and fill the void. Sophomore Christian LaCouture also returns at tackle and had a solid spring. LSU has recruited well up front defensively, and similar to previous years, new playmakers will emerge for the Tigers.

8. South Carolina: Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers last season, Jadeveon Clowney was the cog that made that defense go. Kelcy Quarles will also be a big loss inside, but senior tackle J.T. Surratt is underrated. The Dixon brothers -- tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. and end Gerald Dixon -- are also poised to make big moves this season. Junior college transfer Abu Lamin went through spring practice and will add muscle in the middle. Finding another pass-rusher will be critical. Third-year sophomore Darius English, who’s bulked up to 245 pounds, will be one to watch.

[+] EnlargeSterling Bailey
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesGeorgia needs big things from defensive end Sterling Bailey to help make up for the loss of Garrison Smith.
9. Georgia: The only loss up front for the Bulldogs was senior end Garrison Smith, which was a big one. First-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker looked at several different combinations this spring. Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew are both back at end, although Rocker demoted Drew this spring for a few practices. It looks like John Taylor and James DeLoach will avoid suspensions after their off-the-field trouble, and both are good enough to push for starting jobs. Chris Mayes, Mike Thornton and Toby Johnson are all nose guard types in the 3-4. Johnson was dominant this spring.

10. Kentucky: It all starts for the Wildcats defensively with their combo on the outside of Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. They combined for 13 sacks last season and complement each other well. Smith, in particular, should be even better in his second season after coming over from junior college. The issue is inside. The top three tackles from a year ago are gone. Junior college transfer Cory Johnson will be key, and it helps that he enrolled early and went through spring practice.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are shifting to a base 3-4 and have stocked up over the last few years with the kind of big, physical defensive linemen you’re accustomed to seeing in the SEC. Sophomore Adam Butler could be one of the breakout players in the league after moving over to defense from offense last season as a redshirt freshman and playing extremely well. Seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are both 300-pounders with experience, while redshirt freshman Jay Woods has a huge upside.

12. Arkansas: Senior defensive end Trey Flowers is the centerpiece and one of the more accomplished pass-rushers in the league. Third-year sophomore Darius Philon is the Hogs’ best interior lineman after leading all Arkansas tackles a year ago with 46 total tackles. The Hogs need big seasons out of third-year sophomore ends Deatrich Wise Jr., JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis. Wise had five sacks in the spring game.

13. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost one of their most promising defensive linemen when sophomore tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed from the team earlier this month. They were forced to play several younger players last season and took their lumps in what was a forgettable season on the defensive side of the ball. Still, some of those younger players such as sophomore end Daeshon Hall gained valuable experience. They need a big year out of senior end Gavin Stansbury and are hopeful prized freshman signee Myles Garrett can add some pop to the pass rush.

14. Tennessee: The Vols lost six seniors, including all four starters, on their defensive line, which means there will be a lot of new faces playing heavy minutes in 2014. That’s never a good thing in the SEC, especially when you’re particularly thin at tackle. Sophomore end Corey Vereen came on last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp, and Curt Maggitt could end up playing as much end as linebacker. The Vols like the defensive linemen they signed in this class, but having to play so many freshmen so soon up front has a way of catching up to you.
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: 8-5
2013 SEC record: 3-5, sixth in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 9-2-48
Last meeting: Lost 25-0 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Bo Wallace, WR Laquon Treadwell, LB Serderius Bryant, S Tony Conner, S Cody Prewitt

Key losses
WR Donte Moncrief, RB Jeff Scott, C Evan Swindall, OL Jared Duke, K Andrew Ritter

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: I’Tavius Mathers* (563 yards)
Passing: Bo Wallace* (3,346 yards, 18 TD, 10 INT)
Receiving: Laquon Treadwell* (608 yards)
Tackles: Serderius Bryant* (78)
Sacks: Isaac Gross* (3.5)
Interceptions: Cody Prewitt* (6)

What they're saying:
“They weren’t five-star players anymore; they were Ole Miss football players. That’s how we treated them, and they loved it,” said quarterback Bo Wallace of the Rebels' talented crop of freshmen who got their feet wet last season.

Three things to watch:

1. Signal change on offense: No, the offense isn’t changing. Head coach Hugh Freeze will still employ the same up-tempo, spread attack he’s used his entire career. But this fall he’s committed to changing the way he calls plays following the departure of Ryan Aplin to Auburn. Why is this so important? Well, if you recall the 25-0 shutout Alabama handed Ole Miss last season, you should also recall the allegations after the game that another former Rebels aid, Tyler Siskey, was spying calls on the sidelines. Tide coach Nick Saban denied the allegations, of course, but the video of Siskey, an off-the-field staffer, with a pair of binoculars trained at the Ole Miss coaching staff was pretty telling. This year, expect greater security from Freeze and his staff when they host Alabama in Oxford.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesLaquon Treadwell is one of the many young Ole Miss players looking to build on big first seasons.
2. Time to prove it: Potential is a tricky thing. Last season, Ole Miss had tons of it as its freshman class garnered many of the headlines. Every broadcast you watched of the Rebels included a mandatory rundown of all the young talent on Freeze’s squad: Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laquon Treadwell, Evan Engram and Laremy Tunsil. Every player was promising and productive, especially when judged by a rookie standard. “Just wait until they get experience,” was the usual refrain as Ole Miss lost three games by a touchdown or less. Well, now they have experience and the freshmen are no longer freshmen. Now Ole Miss must prove that it can translate talent into championships. With a senior at quarterback, a productive defense returning all but one starter and a roster loaded with big-time talent, there aren’t any more excuses.

3. Experience except where it counts: Go look at the “2013 statistical leaders” section of this post again. See all the asterisks denoting a returning starter? A lot of teams around the SEC would love to have that many stars returning. But there’s a problem. If you’re trying to compete in this league, you need experience in the trenches, and Ole Miss is currently trying to replace three such starters on its offensive line. Losing Austin Golson, who was expected to start at right tackle, only further exacerbates the problem. As offensive coordinator Dan Werner told ESPN, “We’re still shuffling guys around.” When you’re a program with hopes of making it to Atlanta, that’s not what you want to hear. Go look at the teams that have won the SEC title lately: They all had experience across the offensive line. With Laremy Tunsil a year wiser, Aaron Morris back from injury and Robert Conyers impressing the coaching staff, Ole Miss has the parts to build a solid line. The question, however, is how and when it will all come together.
The sophomore class of defensive lineman is loaded this coming season in the SEC.

There are future pros on a number of different teams, which has been what has historically set the SEC apart -- strength up front defensively.

SportsNation

Who will have the biggest sophomore season among the SEC's most promising young defensive linemen?

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    12%
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    24%
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    13%
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    30%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,301)

Who's primed for the biggest season? That's your job.

So go vote in our SportsNation poll on which of the sophomore defensive linemen will have the biggest season in 2014, and we'll review the results next week.

Of the five choices we've thrown out there, Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson could be a bit of a wild card with his recent knee surgery. It's wait-and-see as to how healthy he'll be to start the season. But in terms of pure talent, he's right up there with anybody in the league. If he's not 100 percent, he could potentially be a candidate for a redshirt season.

The other four are defensive tackles, although Mississippi State's Chris Jones may play some end and tackle. Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche and Arkansas' Darius Philon are also big, athletic guys who are playmakers in their own right.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With Jacob Coker ready to compete at quarterback, a freshman in line to start at left tackle, and a new coordinator calling plays, Alabama’s offense is in a state of transition.

With that said, here’s a look at the top five defensive players who could give the Crimson Tide offense trouble in 2014:

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt could be one of the top defenders in the conference.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida -- Sept. 6

There might not be a more talented cornerback in the SEC than Hargreaves, who burst on the scene as a freshman last season, starting for the Gators and hauling in three interceptions in his first four games. He was a bright spot amid Florida's tumultuous 4-8 campaign. A year wiser and more physically mature, he could present a real challenge for whoever starts under center for the Tide. His likely matchup with star wideout Amari Cooper will be worth setting your DVR.

S Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss -- Oct. 4

It isn’t just Hugh Freeze’s offense that’s loaded with talent. Ole Miss has a great nucleus on defense with Robert Nkemdiche at defensive tackle, Serderius Bryant at linebacker and Tony Conner at safety. But the man every quarterback must pay attention to is Prewitt, who wasn’t a high-profile recruit like many of his teammates, yet produces like an All-American. The 6-foot-2 junior led the SEC with six interceptions, finished fifth in passes defended (13) and ninth in fumbles forced (2).

DL Trey Flowers, Arkansas -- Oct. 11

Quietly, Flowers has developed into one of the top defensive ends in the SEC. It started with a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2011 and continued through last season, when he posted one of the best all-around stat lines you’ll ever see: 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and one interception. He could have skipped his senior season and entered the NFL draft but decided to stay, providing new defensive coordinator Robb Smith an important cornerstone to build around.

DL Chris Jones, Mississippi State -- Nov. 15

Everyone knows about Nkemdiche at Ole Miss. The former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300 came in with high expectations and flashed plenty of promise as a freshman last season. But another rookie defensive end in the same state showed just as much potential on the field. Jones, who is a tweener end/tackle for Mississippi State, is jam-packed with talent. Dan Mullen referred to him a “freaky athlete” this spring. Big, strong and nimble, Jones led the Bulldogs with 10 quarterback hurries and tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss.

DL Carl Lawson, Auburn -- Nov. 29

Cam Robinson is going to have his hands full if he winds up starting for Alabama as a freshman left tackle. We already mentioned Flowers, Nkemdiche and Jones in this post. Somehow, Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida didn’t make the cut. LSU will surely have a few impressive d-linemen crop up, too. And then there’s Lawson, who grew leaps and bounds as a freshman last season. The 6-foot-3 former five-star prospect showed himself to be a menacing pass-rusher, turning in four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. With Dee Ford now off to the NFL, Lawson will get even more reps.
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.

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:

SEC's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
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Half of the SEC teams have started officially-sanctioned football-related activities with Missouri and Vanderbilt opening spring practice on Tuesday. There's a lot going on.

SEC lunchtime links

February, 19, 2014
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Let's take a quick spin through the headlines from across the SEC:
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.
We couldn't finish our lists of SEC all-stars without talking about the youngsters who help make this league go round.

For our all-underclassmen team, we decided to use players who are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or true sophomores. That means Johnny Manziel, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't eligible. I mean he can't make every list!

The criteria for our other lists once again apply. We're basing things on the season they had in 2013, not who will be the better draft prospect in the future.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Jerald Hawkins, LSU
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
C: Evan Boehm, Missouri
AP: Mike Davis, South Carolina

DEFENSE

DL: Carl Lawson, Auburn
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
DL: Chris Jones, Miss. State
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Rashard Robinson, LSU
DB: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Georgia
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
RS: Trey Williams, Texas A&M

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
5:31
PM ET
Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

What to watch in the SEC: Week 11

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
10:30
AM ET
Another good weekend of SEC football is approaching. Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Tide-Tigers showdown: It doesn't quite have the heft that it had in 2011 ("Game of the Century") or maybe even last season (both teams were ranked in the top five), but Alabama-LSU is still a big deal and it will still be the center of attention Saturday night. It's the only game Saturday between two teams in the Top 25 and No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) will try to remain undefeated in pursuit of a third consecutive BCS title. The last time these teams played in Tuscaloosa was in 2011, and LSU won 9-6 in overtime. So Les Miles' crew won't be fearful of going into Bryant-Denny Stadium. Even if the No. 13 Tigers (7-2, 3-2) were to repeat that feat, they'd need the Crimson Tide to lose once more to have a chance to get into the SEC title game, but regardless, Saturday night should serve us some compelling theater.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/John BazemoreJames Franklin, who was injured Oct. 12 against Georgia, could return as soon as this week at Kentucky.
2. Franklin or Mauk? Missouri coach Gary Pinkel indicated that starting quarterback James Franklin is getting closer to being able to play after injuring his shoulder Oct. 12 versus Georgia, but to this point it's unclear whether he will get the start or play or if Pinkel will stick with freshman Maty Mauk. The Tigers are 2-1 in Mauk's three starts, and he had his best game so far last week in a 31-3 win over Tennessee, throwing for 163 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 114 yards. The No. 8 Tigers (8-1, 4-1) are at Kentucky, a team that struggles against the pass (the Wildcats allow 9.6 yards per pass play in SEC games, worst in the league), so it'll be interesting to see what Pinkel decides to do.

3. Is Texas A&M's defense really improved? The past two weeks have been good ones for the much-maligned Texas A&M defense, as the Aggies have held their past two opponents to a combined 31 points. They've held both opponents under 350 yards, under 130 rushing yards and have forced at least three turnovers in each of the past two weeks. The caveat? Both teams (Vanderbilt and UTEP) had freshman quarterbacks who were making their first start. Vanderbilt's Patton Robinette and UTEP's Blaire Sullivan don't exactly strike fear in the mind of a defensive coordinator, but Saturday when the No. 15 Aggies (7-2, 3-2) host Mississippi State, they could face a talented signal-caller in Dak Prescott, a dual threat who leads the Bulldogs in passing and rushing.

4. Will Prescott play? It has been an emotional week for Prescott, who lost his mother, Peggy, to cancer. Coach Dan Mullen and several Bulldogs joined Prescott for the funeral Wednesday, and Mullen has said that he won't rule out Prescott for Saturday's game but wishes to give his quarterback privacy to make the decision on his own. If he doesn't play, the Bulldogs will turn to Tyler Russell, who started the matchup between these teams last season but has suffered through myriad injuries this season. If Prescott does play, it could be quite the emotional boost for the Bulldogs (4-4, 1-3).

5. What's next for Tre Mason? The Auburn running back is coming into his own as of late. He's third in the SEC in rushing yards with 921 and had a huge day last week at Arkansas, compiling 168 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries. On Saturday, he faces a Tennessee rushing defense that is actually last in the SEC (201.67 yards allowed per game), behind even Texas A&M (200.89), the team that has spent most of the year in the bottom of the league in that category. Could be another big day for the junior running back.

6. Florida attrition: Injuries have been a curse for Florida all season long and this week the Gators lost another starter, offensive tackle Tyler Moore, for the rest of the season with a broken arm as the result of a scooter accident. He's the 10th player and sixth starter to suffer a season-ending injury and those players have made a combined 84 starts in their career. The Gators (4-4, 3-3), who host Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4), are now without their three most experienced offensive tackles: Moore, Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss freshman Robert Nkemdiche might be moving to defensive tackle for the long haul.
7. Nkemdiche inside: Ole Miss true freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country in the 2013 class, will move over to defensive tackle this week when the Rebels (5-3, 2-3) host Arkansas (3-6, 0-5). According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, defensive line coach Chris Kiffin suggested the move could be permanent, saying, "Maybe that's Rob's future, so that's where we're at right now." The 6-foot-5 Nkemdiche is 280 pounds.

8. Another strong finish for Vanderbilt? The Commodores (4-4, 1-4) haven't quite had the step up that some might have thought they would after going 9-4 last season, but coach James Franklin noted this week that right now, Vandy has the same record at this point in the season that it did last year. The Commodores proceeded to win five straight games, including their bowl game, to close out the year. Can they finish strong again? They'll have to start with a road win at Florida Saturday if they're going to repeat that feat.

9. How will Tennessee respond? The Volunteers have made significant strides this season, beating a ranked team (South Carolina) and coming close against another (Georgia), but the past two weeks have been rough with blowout losses at Alabama and Missouri. With the Volunteers returning home, can they find some more magic when they host No. 9 Auburn?

10. Tuneup for Georgia: The Bulldogs get an FCS foe this week in Appalachian State. It should be a short day for the starters and comes at a good time, because the Bulldogs will turn around and travel to Auburn the following week. Expect the Bulldogs to take care of business here against the Mountaineers, who are 2-7.

Planning for success: Alabama

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
8:00
AM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to turn the page, if you haven't done so already. No. 1 Alabama had its cupcake game against Colorado State last weekend, but now comes the main course with No. 21 Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide will win if …

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama knows they have to play better against Ole Miss on Saturday than they did against Colorado State last week.
After the way Alabama played against Colorado State, this team needed a talking to. The defense had too many missed assignments and the offensive line did a poor job of communicating. All around, it wasn't a pretty effort. And veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley recognized that, stepping up to talk to his teammates after the game in an effort to make sure the Tide's championship aspirations don't fall by the wayside. The little things that Alabama did so poorly against Colorado State, Mosley told his team, will get them beat, and beat badly by a team like Ole Miss.

Should Alabama play its game -- sound, fundamental football -- it should win. But there are serious questions about the play of the offensive line and the secondary. If either of those two areas do doesn't get turned around, Ole Miss could expose Alabama, whether it’s by forcing turnovers on defense or throwing the ball deep for big gains.

The Rebels will win if …

Meanwhile, Ole Miss comes into this game riding high, undefeated with something to prove. Year 2 of the Hugh Freeze experiment has been better than advertised with big wins over Vanderbilt and Texas. The Rebels have had immediate dividends on its spectacular 2013 signing class. True freshmen Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner are all contributing.

But this team has yet to face anyone like Alabama. Going on the road in a tough environment in Tuscaloosa could either make or break Freeze's young squad. That said, Ole Miss does have some veterans to rely on in quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jeff Scott and wideout Donte Moncrief. And that's just on the offensive side of the football. Much of the same nucleus that gave UA trouble at home a year ago returns to see if it can't learn its lesson and pull off the upset this time.

Ole Miss players to watch

QB Bo Wallace: Much of the talk about his offseason shoulder injury has been put to bed. Wallace, the orchestrator of Ole Miss' up-tempo attack, has looked good throwing the football, spreading it out to all of his receivers, especially his freshman tight end Evan Ingram, who is a nightmare matchup when he's split out.

S Tony Conner: Ole Miss has one glaring deficiency, and that's at cornerback where its starters come in at 5-foot-8 and 5-9, respectively. Alabama's wide receivers aren't giants, but they're bigger than that. Amari Cooper is much taller at 6-1 and true freshman Raheem Falkins would tower over them at 6-4. Instead, look for Ole Miss to pull down the 6-1 Conner from his safety position to get a better size matchup.

LB Denzel Nkemdiche: He says he'll play but his coach isn't committing to anything. Denzel Nkemdiche, older brother of Robert, injured his knee in the season opener and has been pushing to see the field against Alabama. Freeze, though, is taking it day by day. But you have believe Nkemdiche, who was the heart of Ole Miss' defense a year ago with a team-leading 82 tackles. He had a big game against the Tide a year ago, making 11 tackles, a sack and two stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Alabama players to watch

CB Deion Belue: It seems as if Alabama's best on-ball defender will be ready to go, but after sitting out last week's game with a nagging injury, you never know. Should he be sidelined, the secondary will be in big trouble. And even if he isn't, either John Fulton, Cyrus Jones or some other defensive back must step up to match Ole Miss' ability to spread the field, especially in the slot with Treadwell, who leads the Rebels in catches and receiving yards.

OLB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama's leading sack getter a season ago has been conspicuously quiet since skipping the NFL to return to school. Adrian Hubbard, the lanky pass rusher at Sam linebacker, has no sacks and just two tackles for loss this season. Against Ole Miss' spread, his ability to hold the edge and pressure the pocket will be huge.

O-line: Week 1 meant panic. Week 2 was relief. And Week 3 was a giant step back. It looked as if Alabama's offensive line has solved its problems against Texas A&M two weeks ago, moving the line of scrimmage almost at will, but against CSU this past weekend the sloppy play returned. Poor communication and bad technique are to blame, so say players, but however you define it 66 yards rushing, the number Alabama got against the lowly Rams, will not be enough against an SEC foe like Ole Miss.

Key Stats

3: Sometimes we go really in depth in the stats department, but we'll keep this number simple. Ole Miss shot itself in the foot last year with three turnovers, two from Wallace. The veteran quarterback led the league in interceptions last season (17) but he seems to have turned it around this year with zero picks through three games.

33.3: A year ago, Alabama had little trouble moving the football and converting on third downs. Not so this season as the Tide has slipped to 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage, moving the sticks one every three attempts, on average.

8: Alabama has owned the first half of games, outscoring teams 73-24. Those leads, though, have been harder to come by in the second half where that scoring differential slips to just eight points.

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.

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Alabama Pulls Away From Florida
Alabama used big days from Blake Sims and Amari Cooper to pull away from Florida in the second half for a 42-21 win.
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