Alabama Crimson Tide: Shaq Wiggins

Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
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Saturday was full of upsets, injuries and last-second finishes -- just another day in the SEC. Here are five things we learned from action in Week 8.

Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter dominating Florida, Missouri (yes, Missouri) is on a collision course with Alabama to face off in the SEC title game.
Collision course: The only two teams that didn't slip up Saturday were the two unbeatens in the SEC: Alabama and Missouri. Now, the Crimson Tide and Tigers are on a collision course headed for Atlanta and the SEC championship game. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the two-time defending national champions are in this position, but who would've guessed Missouri would still be perfect this late in the season? The Tigers dominated Florida on Saturday, putting up 500 yards of offense to the Gators' 151. Quarterback Maty Mauk didn't miss a beat in his first start in place of James Franklin. The redshirt freshman threw for 295 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 15 yards and a score.

Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.

Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.

Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.
ATHENS, Ga. -- The Georgia coaching staff is looking for another cornerback in the Class of 2014 to pair with ESPN 300 athlete commit Malkom Parrish (Quitman, Ga./Brooks County). Its chances improved over the weekend as another ESPN 300 standout Kendall Randolph (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln) named the Bulldogs as his leader, followed by Florida State and South Carolina.

Hackenberg, Olsen earn UA Game starts

January, 3, 2013
1/03/13
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Black Team offense

Quarterback: Christian Hackenberg (Penn State)

Running back: Alvin Kamara

Receiver: Alvin Bailey (Florida), Robert Foster (Alabama), Damore'ea Stringfellow (Washington)

Tight end: O.J. Howard (Alabama)

Offensive tackle: Darius James (Texas), Denver Kirkland

Offensive guard: Grant Hill (Alabama), Joas Aguilar (Texas A&M)

Center: Hunter Bivin (Notre Dame)

Captains: Kelvin Taylor, Hunter Bivin, Robert Nkemdiche, Ben Boulware

Black Team defense

Defensive end: Robert Nkemdiche, Elijah Daniel

Defensive tackle: Greg Gilgmore (LSU), Kennedy Tulimasealii (Hawaii)

Inside linebacker: Ben Boulware (Clemson)

Outside linebacker: Alex Anzalone (Notre Dame), Matthew Thomas

Safety: Keanu Neal (Florida), Leon McQuay III

Cornerback: Vernon Hargreaves III (Florida), Tarean Folston (Notre Dame)

Black Team special teams

Long snapper: Tyler Kluver (Iowa)

Kicker/punter: Sean Covington (UCLA)

(Read full post)

#UAGame practice: Day 2 notebook 

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There were several standouts at Tuesday's Day 2 practice for the Under Armour All-America Game (5 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN). Two players -- one for Team Nitro, the other for Team Highlight -- said they are closing in on their college decisions and will make their announcements Friday. Meanwhile, the nation's No. 1 player left the field at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports with an injury.

Folston closing in on decision

Four-star athlete Tarean Folston (Cocoa, Fla./Cocoa) is set to make his college decision Friday. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound ESPN 150 will chose between Notre Dame, Florida State and Oregon.

Folston has been a standout defensive back during the first two days of practice, but he's being recruited by all three of his final schools to play running back.

He said he likes the familiar feeling he gets from Notre Dame and Oregon.

"It's just a home feeling, the fans around there are great fans. The community is all involved in football. It's just a nice town and a home feeling environment. With Oregon, it's pretty much the same as Notre Dame. They are two different schools but I call it 'the village,' just everybody in that place comes together and helps support the team."

Florida State is the only school Folston is considering from his home state, but he insists distance won't be a factor in his decision.


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#UAGame practice: Day 1 notebook 

December, 31, 2012
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -– Team Nitro and Team Highlight took to the fields at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports on Monday for Day 1 of practice for Friday’s Under Armour All-America Game (5 p.m. ET, ESPN). Two powerhouse programs in the Southeastern Conference look to battle it out for one of the standout running backs, and one of the top uncommitted offensive linemen is out with an injury.

Tide and Dawgs at top for RB Kamara

The Under Armour All-America Game boasts a bevy of talented running backs, and after the first practice ESPN 150 prospect Alvin Kamara (Norcross, Ga./Norcross) drew comparisons to one of the best.

[+] EnlargeAlvin Kamara
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comESPN 150 RB Alvin Kamara says Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon have been key to his recruiting process.
“They say I play like Percy Harvin,” Kamara said.

The 5-foot-10, 192-pound tailback has made a name for himself as a home-run threat out of the backfield or lined up in the slot, which makes it no surprise that programs across the country are pining for his commitment. Two from the SEC are in the lead.

“Alabama and Georgia are the front-runners, but I am still looking at Oregon -- and Tennessee too, with Butch Jones being there now,” Kamara said.

The nation's No. 4 running back has yet to set any official visits, but plans to do so after he gets home from the UA Game. A decision will likely come after his visits.

“This is not going to be a busy month so much as it is just something I need to buckle down and do,” Kamara said. “I am going to take these visits and base my decision off of that.”

One factor in his decision will be the relationship he has with the coaches recruiting him. The Tide could have a slight advantage because they made first contact with Kamara.

“Kirby Smart and I are really close,” Kamara said. “He was the first coach to ever talk to me. He snuck me his card after practice and I could not believe it. For a coach of his stature to be the first coach to talk to me is great. We have been in contact ever since, and we have a great relationship.”

Georgia might counter that with their running backs coach being Kamara’s recruiter of record.

“Coach [Bryan] McClendon and I have a great relationship too,” Kamara said. “With him being my position coach, I could see myself playing for him. We are on a friend level and we do not even talk about football most of the time.”

The in-state Bulldogs also have a few people in Kamara’s ear this week, though he admits they have been putting the pressure on him for quite some time.

“Even when we are not in a big event like this, guys like Shaq Wiggins, Brice Ramsey, even Reuben [Foster], even though he is not committed, are always asking where I am going,” Kamara said. “They are joking, but they are on me pretty hard sometimes.”

Newsworthy: OL Crowder deals with injury, sets officials

ESPN 150 offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder (Rockingham, N.C./Richmond) will be unable to play in Friday's UA Game after aggravating a hand injury he sustained a few weeks ago at the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. While he is disappointed, Crowder said today he is looking forward to the home stretch of his recruitment and choosing from one of two programs.

“It is Clemson No. 1 and Georgia No. 2, and I will decide on signing day,” said Crowder, ranked the No. 2 OG in the country.

The Tigers have been after the 6-foot-1, 330-pound offensive lineman for more than three years now, and they have location and familiarity working in their favor.

“Clemson has been recruiting me since I was in ninth grade,” Crowder said. “I like what they have going on and I have built a strong relationship with them. It is close to home and I have some family close to Clemson. I will take my official there Jan. 11.”

Crowder has not been to Athens for six months, but he has fond memories of his visit.

“Georgia is a great powerhouse team in the SEC,” Crowder said. “When I went down there during the summer I really liked the campus and enjoyed meeting the coaches. I spoke to them two weeks ago and set an official visit Jan. 18.”

Trending

It was only the first day of practice, but Team Highlight (Black team) quarterbacks got off to an impressive start.


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ESPN 150 RB Tyren Jones dominating 

September, 3, 2012
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In the season opener, ESPN 150 running back Tyren Jones (Marietta, Ga./Walton) had what can be considered the top performance in the five-game Corky Kell Classic event, carrying the ball 30 times for 302 yards and five touchdowns. Only one other running back, Mike Boydston, had ever topped the 300-yard mark in school history. A week later, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound tailback did it yet again.

[+] EnlargeTyren Jones
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.com2013 RB Tyren Jones continues to run over and around his opponents.
Against McEachern, Jones had an astounding 47 carries for 334 yards and four touchdowns. He had 336 before his last carry, which appeared to be a two-yard loss. It was reported as a school record by the television station covering the game, but online reports have Boydston with 335 yards in a 2008 win over Alpharetta. Regardless, it was a monster performance by Jones, who now has 78 carries for 639 yards and nine touchdowns through two games. His coach, Rocky Hidalgo, praised his star running back.

"He is everything you wants as a player," Hidalgo said. "On top of that he is tough as nails, a competitor, and a great locker room presence. We have had a bunch of great kids come through here and have a bunch right now, but I have never been around anyone whose talent warranted all of those attributes as he does."

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The O-zone: July 11 

July, 11, 2012
7/11/12
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TideNation recruiting writer Greg Ostendorf brings you another edition of The O-zone, a confidential look inside Alabama recruiting. Get the latest updates from the gridiron and the hardwood as it pertains to the Crimson Tide.

In this week’s update:

  • Foster, Matthews plan visits
  • McNeil delays decision

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While participating at The Opening, ESPN 150 defensive back Shaq Wiggins (Tyrone, Ga./Sandy Creek) planned to hold a meeting with several prospects in hopes of getting all of them to go to the same program.

And while the meeting had a few hiccups overall, Wiggins was pleased by the progress.

"We probably didn't hang out for as long as we could have but Reuben [Foster] left early so we had to deal with that," Wiggins said. "Still it was a good meeting and I think everyone knows what's up."

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Four-star Safety Tray Matthews (Newnan, Ga./Newnan) and five-star linebacker Reuben Foster (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) have been best friends since middle school. But it was not until after Foster committed to Alabama and Matthews committed to Georgia last summer that the two ESPN 150 prospects began seriously discussing the possibility of playing together at the next level. The two have gone back and forth on the Tide and Bulldogs in the last year. Many wondered whether Matthews and Foster would actually go through with their December pledge to attend the same college. Following Foster’s latest visit to Athens, Matthews said an agreement has been made.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comAfter Bama commit Reuben Foster's visit to UGA last weekend, Bulldogs commit Tray Matthews (above) says the two have decided to commit to the same team. But which one?
“We are having fun, but we talked last night and we really know where we want to go,” Matthews said. “We both decided on a school and we are the only two that know. A couple of people are not going to like the decision, but we have to do what is best for us. “

Matthews says they will make their announcement together before the beginning of the season, and he feels two others could be joining them.

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Reuben Foster (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) has been committed to the University of Alabama for almost a year now. Yet Foster, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, continues to keep the door cracked open. On Saturday, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound linebacker decided he needed to take another trip up to Athens.

Reuben Foster
Tom Hauck/ESPNHSIt'd be easy to wonder about Reuben Foster's commitment to Bama after his weekend visit to UGA, where he says playing with his friends has major appeal.
“I had not visited UGA in a while, and I am still giving them a chance, so why not visit?” Foster said. “I missed being around the coaches. They are energetic, fun to be around and they speak the truth. My interest in Georgia is up there. I like Georgia; they were one of my first colleges that I visited, and they treat you like family.”

Foster was on campus for four hours during the Mark Richt Camp, and even though the Bulldogs head coach had more than 100 prospects competing in front of him, he still made sure to spend ample time with the five-star target.

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Four-star defensive lineman Antonio Riles (Lawrenceville, Ga./Archer) has had a busy week. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound prospect camped Monday at Alabama, Thursday at Georgia and Saturday at Florida, but he admits his journey got off to a surprising start.

“Getting an offer from the Tide really caught me off guard,” Riles said. “The Alabama offer changes things, and I am highly considering them.”

In May, Riles mentioned Florida and Georgia as co-leaders, but on Sunday he was not ready to name a particular school as No. 1.

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Rossville, Ga. -- Less than three miles from the Tennessee border, coaches from Auburn and Tennessee watch as defensive back Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland) makes it look easy against his teammates during the school’s spring scrimmage. Three carries result in three spectacular touchdown plays for the 6-foot, 185-pound ESPN 150 athlete, who would also make his presence known on defense with a couple bone-jarring hits before letting the backups take over.

For Bell, who is coming off an All-State season in which he made 180 tackles, five interceptions, three forced fumbles and three recoveries for touchdowns on defense, as well as 37 rushes for 280 yards and five touchdowns, 31 catches for 487 yards and six touchdowns on offense, it was just another day at the office.

More than 15 programs made the trip in the last month to Rossville to evaluate Bell, who has done his best to return the favor, making trips to Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Texas and Vanderbilt this year. It is all part of a process that Bell and his parents take seriously.

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UGA, Bama in DB Langley's top two 

March, 4, 2012
3/04/12
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The University of Georgia is hoping to lock down a stellar defensive back class in the 2013 recruiting cycle, and with only four cornerbacks and four safeties set to return after this year, whomever the Bulldogs sign will have to be ready to play immediately. That is exactly what the coaches told Brendan Langley (Marietta, Ga./Kell) during his time Saturday in Athens for Very Important Dawg Day.

"This visit to Georgia was definitely a lot more compelling than before, and they brought me in close and spent a lot of time breaking things down," Langley said. "I could tell the difference visiting with an offer. Coach [Will] Friend had offensive linemen trying to contact him all day and he was with me the entire time, so that meant a lot."

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