Auburn Tigers: Racean Thomas

Winning at Jordan-Hare Stadium has proven difficult over the years. For non-conference teams, it's proven to be almost impossible. Auburn has won 23 straight non-conference home games dating to 2007, which means San Jose State will have its hands full in the first meeting between the two teams.

Key player: WR Sammie Coates

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Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsLook for a rebound week from Auburn's Sammie Coates against San Jose State.
Remember him? The guy who led Auburn with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns just a season ago? Well, Coates caught just one pass Saturday for 13 yards. He was quickly forgotten with the debut of D'haquille Williams, the junior college transfer who caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas. Coates might not be as big or as gifted as Williams, but look for him to bounce back this week, especially considering Nick Marshall will be back under center for the Tigers.

Key question: How many true freshmen will play?

San Jose State isn't as much of a pushover as, say, Florida Atlantic or Western Carolina from last year, but the Tigers should still win this one with relative ease. Assuming that's the case, it's always fun to see which true freshmen get to play. In Week 1, Tre Williams, Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts were the only three to land on the participation report, and all three should see the field again Saturday. Others to watch include Racean ‘Roc' Thomas, Braden Smith, Stanton Truitt and Jakell Mitchell.

Key stat: Auburn averaged 8.5 yards per play against Arkansas last week, the most against a Power Five conference opponent since 2004. – ESPN Stats & Info

What happened to Auburn's offense taking a step backwards this season? The early departures at running back and left tackle, coupled with the loss of an All-SEC freshman at guard, were supposed to make the Tigers human again. That wasn't the case Saturday. And to think, they did it with the backup quarterback playing the entire first half. The arrival of Williams helped, along with the emergence of Cameron Artis-Payne, but as long as Gus Malzahn is running the show, Auburn will have one of the more prolific offenses in the SEC.
Who’s next? That’s the question asked by fan bases across the SEC. They all want to know which top recruit is most likely to come in and play right away. Who are the newcomers who are going to see the field early this fall?

In January, we broke down the top early enrollees once they arrived on campus. Now, as the late enrollees continue to trickle in around the conference, we take a look at a handful of four- and five-star guys who could impact the league in their first year.

Below are 10 late enrollees from the SEC West to keep an eye on. They're listed alphabetically. Check back later today for the top late enrollees from the SEC East.

Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU: Losing both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was a huge blow for LSU after last season, but some of that pain went away when Dupre signed with the Tigers. He’s not as experienced as fellow wide receiver Travin Dural, but he’s every bit as talented. Don’t be surprised if Dupre becomes the go-to guy for LSU this season.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: There’s not a more highly anticipated freshman in the country. As the nation’s No. 1 recruit, that comes with the territory, but the expectations for Fournette this season range from ridiculous to absurd. The scary part is that he has the talent and opportunity to make good on them and be one of the top running backs in the SEC.

Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: He’s not Jadeveon Clowney, but Garrett might be the closest thing since Clowney came out in 2011. At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, he’s a physical freak, and looks like he could step right on the field. The Aggies return all of their defensive ends, but that doesn’t mean Garrett won’t crack the rotation at some point.


Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: Finding pass rushers was a priority for Nick Saban and his staff in 2014, and they landed one of the nation’s best in Hand. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound prospect, ranked No. 6 overall, can play both with his hand down on the line or in space as a rush linebacker. Regardless of where he ends up, he’ll make an immediate impact.

Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama: Between Humphrey and five-star Tony Brown, Alabama should be set at cornerback for the foreseeable future. The question is which one is more likely to play early this season? Brown has a leg up after arriving early, but Humphrey has the size and technical ability to come in and contribute right away.

Bijhon Jackson, DT, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s goal is to build Arkansas from the inside out, and Jackson is the perfect piece to serve as the cornerstone of the defensive line for years to come. He’s already big enough (6-2, 330) and strong enough to play as a freshman and should make a good unit even better for the Hogs this fall.

Rod Taylor, OG, Ole Miss: Austin Golson’s transfer this spring left Ole Miss thin along the offensive line, but Taylor, the Rebels’ top-ranked signee in 2014, could be just the man to fill the void. Year-after-year, he drew rave reviews from SEC coaches at various camps, and now he has an opportunity to fulfill the potential that everybody saw in him.

Racean Thomas, RB, Auburn: The Tigers have three capable running backs already on campus, but the coaches still believe that Thomas will be a factor this season. They’re even giving him a chance to compete for the starting job in fall camp. Although it’s unlikely he wins the job, Thomas will play and play often for Auburn this fall.

Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State: Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi didn’t go to Taylor, the state’s top recruit. It didn’t go to Markell Pack or C.J. Hampton. It went to Williams, a four-star running back who had 2,821 all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior. He’s now expected to carry that over to his freshman year at Mississippi State.

Andrew Williams, DE, Auburn: With the loss of Dee Ford and the uncertainty surrounding the health of Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens, defensive end went from a position of strength to a position of need for Auburn. The good news is that Williams arrived last month and is plenty capable of filling in and contributing early if needed.

Other late enrollees to watch include S Jamal Adams (LSU), LB Rashaan Evans (Alabama), CB Nick Harvey (Texas A&M), CB Tee Shepard (Ole Miss) and LB Tre Williams (Auburn).
AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a busy weekend on the Plains as the rest of Auburn’s highly regarded 2014 recruiting class arrived on campus, and it’s a group that’s more than capable of coming in and making early contributions for the Tigers.

“We’ve got some signees that we feel like are very talented that could be in the mix, and they’ll hit the ground running,” head coach Gus Malzahn said after A-Day.

This week, we’ll take a look at the summer enrollees who have the best chance to play early this fall, beginning with the offense.

[+] EnlargeRacean Thomas
Tom Hauck for Student SportsRB Racean Thomas has the ability to come in and make an instant impact for the Tigers.
RB Racean "Roc" Thomas: Auburn already has a crowded backfield with three capable running backs, but the staff believes Thomas will make an immediate impact because well, he’s just that good. As a senior, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns, averaging an astounding 9.8 yards per carry. He was ranked No. 28 in the ESPN 300 and had his choice of where to go to school. Will he come in and take the starting job from day one? Probably not, but the opportunity is there. Either way, he’ll get his chances. He’s too good to keep off the field. They key this summer will be to learn the playbook, hit the weight room and get acclimated to the offense. If he wants to play early, he’ll need to gel with his fellow teammates.

TE-H Jakell Mitchell: If you don’t think the H-back position is an important piece to Malzahn’s offense, go back and look at what Jay Prosch provided for this team a year ago. He was vital to Auburn’s rushing game. Now he’s gone, and the Tigers are still searching for a replacement. That’s where Mitchell comes in. The 6-foot-3, 213-pound prospect might not be the highest ranked player in this class, but he’s an ideal fit at the H-back spot. From his scouting report: “A true TE-H who needs to add size, but plenty to like and a prospect a bit underrated in this TE class.” He missed his senior season with a torn ACL and his ability to contribute early will hinge on his health, but he says he’s 100 percent and ready to go.

OL Braden Smith: There’s not a stronger player in this class, and Smith might have the most impressive bench press on the whole team. He recently did two reps at 585 pounds. He played at or around 290 pounds as a senior, but his father says he was up to 305 when he arrived at Auburn over the weekend, which was a pleasant surprise to the coaches. The offensive line is one of the deeper positions on the team and it won’t be easy for Smith to crack the rotation, but his strength and versatility give him a chance. Auburn fans won’t like the comparison, but think Grant Hill at Alabama. The freshman offensive lineman never started, but he played all over for the Crimson Tide last year. Smith could have a similar impact in his first year.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn’s spring came and went without a No. 1 running back establishing himself. Is it because Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant performed so well that deciding between the two proved too difficult for the Auburn coaches?

It’s a possibility. Artis-Payne paced the offense with 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, while Grant provided a spark with five carries for 128 yards and a touchdown of his own.

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Tom Hauck for Student SportsRacean "Roc" Thomas, the No. 5 tailback in the 2014 class, was an Alabama fan before committing to play for Auburn.
A-Day capped off what had been an impressive month for both backs, though it did little to close the gap between the two.

But there might be more to it. What if the staff was waiting on a certain ESPN 300 prospect to arrive on campus before making a final decision?

It would seem crazy for a freshman to come in and take the job away from two seniors, but if you don’t think it’s possible then you haven’t seen Racean "Roc" Thomas play. As a senior at Oxford (Ala.) High School, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns. He says he’s been told by Auburn coaches that he’ll have every chance to start when he gets on campus.

“They’re just ready for me to get up there and really get me in the offense and see what I can do,” Thomas told ESPN.com.

Growing up, Thomas was an Alabama fan. He went to games at Bryant-Denny Stadium and attended camps on the UA campus. When he received an offer from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, it was expected that he would take his talents to Tuscaloosa. At one point, he was all set to commit there -- until the staff told him to hold on.

“I was like, ‘Well, no I’m not going to hold on. If y’all want my commitment, then y’all will let me commit right now,'" Thomas said.

Alabama didn’t take his commitment, so Thomas started taking visits to Auburn where first-year coach Gus Malzahn made him a top priority. A new bond was formed, and before Malzahn ever coached his first game, Thomas committed to Auburn in what he called a “business” decision.

Shortly after Lane Kiffin was hired as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide made one last push to sign Thomas, but it proved too little too late. Thomas stayed true to his word and signed with the Tigers in February.

“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Thomas said. “And [at the same time], I think a lot of them really kind of knew that’s where I was going to go. I guess it’s just stuff that happened over time.”

With the recruiting saga behind fully him, Thomas appears more confident and at ease than he ever did in the months leading up to signing day. There are no more phone calls from coaches or media. No more criticism from Alabama fans who were upset he signed with their bitter rival. He’s just living his life.

“[It’s] just working out, track, keeping in touch with the coaches,” Thomas said. “We’re probably going to start soon where they’ll start showing me some plays and trying to get me in the mix of how they do things up there play-wise.

“I’m just really trying to keep a solid schedule -- working out, eating right and just really trying to stay healthy.”

The plan is for Thomas to arrive at Auburn this summer and immediately begin working out with the team. The coaches have high expectations for the Mr. Football Award winner. When Thomas said he’ll be given every chance to start his first season, he wasn’t lying.

Even though Artis-Payne and Grant battled dutifully for the starting job this spring, it’s possible that Auburn’s No. 1 running back is still on his way.

“We're going to play the best player at every position,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said this spring. “I don't care if you're a senior, I don't care if you're a true freshman. Those guys are going to get opportunities.”

Lashlee was careful to peel back the layers on the pending competition, however.

“The difference for them, these guys (on campus now) are light years ahead,” he said. “Obviously Cam and Corey have played, Peyton [Barber] has had a year plus the spring, so it's just going to matter with Roc and Kam [Kamryn Pettway] in that situation, how quick do they pick things up, how fast can they grasp everything and have the game slow down for them.

“We've had it both ways. We've had guys like Peyton Barber who either because we had guys in front of him or he just needed a redshirt year -- we still think Peyton's going to be a great player. And then we've had other guys in the past that as a true freshman were ready, and we kind of eased them into it. Sometimes earlier in the year they got more or as the year went on they got more or their workload increased.

“We'll have to see how that goes when those two get here and see how they respond, but we're counting on them to come in and compete, want to play and want to play now.”

Video: Auburn RB Racean 'Roc' Thomas

April, 18, 2014
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Auburn running back signee Racean 'Roc' Thomas talks with ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf about the Tigers' running back battle and how he will factor in this summer.
This is Part V of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There are still five months until Auburn’s season opener, but with spring practice beginning Monday, football is officially back. Spring is an opportunity for coaches to see what they have, a time when position battles are won, and undoubtedly there will be a player or two, off the radar, who makes a name for himself.

Last year, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and linebacker Justin Garrett turned heads during spring practice.

Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer who arrived in January, earned offensive MVP honors at the spring game and carved out a role in the Tigers’ backfield. Garrett, meanwhile, found a home at the Star position. His performance, highlighted by a fumble return for a touchdown in the spring game, earned him a starting role before injuries derailed his season.

Now, as Auburn heads into Year 2 under coach Gus Malzahn, here are two candidates poised to break out this spring.

Peyton Barber, RB, freshman: When you’re high school teammates with Carl Lawson, the No. 2 player in the nation, it’s sometimes hard to create your own identity. It’s even harder when you commit to the same school. But that’s the route Barber took, and despite redshirting his first season, he’s out to prove that he’s more than Lawson’s high school teammate. The 5-foot-11, 217-pound back is built similar to Artis-Payne and earned rave reviews from the coaching staff throughout his freshman season. He didn’t ever play a down, but his talent was on display every day at practice. Former running back Tre Mason described Barber as ‘big, fast and quick on his feet.’ Now, with Mason gone, there’s an opportunity for the Georgia native. If he continues to play well and impresses the coaches this spring, he could earn himself some playing time next season. And, as if he needs it, there’s extra motivation for Barber knowing that ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas will arrive on campus this summer.

Elijah Daniel, DE, sophomore: The easy pick for the breakout player this spring would be Lawson. As mentioned above, he was a top recruit, and of the freshman defensive linemen who played last season, he showed the most promise. Most have already tabbed him as the replacement for Dee Ford at defensive end. But let’s not forget about Daniel. He finished the season with just nine tackles, but he was second on the team with 11 quarterback hurries and fourth with 2.5 sacks. The former ESPN 300 prospect seemed to play better as the season progressed, and his role increased because of it. He, too, will be in the mix to replace Ford this spring, and at the end of the day, the best player will play. It doesn’t matter how many stars you had from recruiting services -- though Daniel was pretty good in his own right -- the job will be won on the field. The best-case scenario for Auburn is that both Daniel and Lawson have breakout performances this spring, and the battle lingers on into the fall. The harder the choice, the better the team will be.

Other candidates: WR Ricardo Louis and S Derrick Moncrief
Editor’s note: This is part four in a week-long series looking at five positions battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- As Auburn searches this spring to find a replacement for running back Tre Mason, who better to ask about the competition than Mason himself? He led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing, and he knows a thing or two about the other players who will vie to take over his featured role in the backfield.

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Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
The two leading candidates are Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Both ran for more than 600 yards, and both finished among the top-20 rushers in the SEC.

“It’s going to be a good battle next year,” Mason said. “Cam has carried the load at times. He knows exactly what to expect. Corey’s a speedster, but Corey’s very versatile. He can run in between the tackles, too, because he’s tough.”

There will be others in the mix including incoming freshman Racean Thomas, the nation’s No. 5 running back, but Mason says to temper expectations on Thomas, who won’t arrive on campus until the summer.

“The only thing I can say about that is everybody was good coming out of high school,” Mason said. “You can’t come in with the mindset of you’re the best. You won’t know if you’re the best until you get here. You’ve got stuff to prove. That’s the reason why everyone is here -- they were good in high school. Now it’s time to prove it at the next level.”

Still, Thomas adds yet another playmaker to a backfield full of them. As coach Gus Malzahn said, you can never have enough depth at the running back position.

The contenders
Artis-Payne (senior): It was a season full of peaks and valleys for Artis-Payne in 2013. The junior college transfer rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown in his second game, but he became somewhat of an afterthought when conference play started and Mason took over. Still, Artis-Payne showed glimpses here and there, including a nifty 21-yard touchdown run in the SEC championship game. Now it’s his turn. He was a breakout star last spring, and he could be the favorite to carry the load if he shines again this spring.

Grant (senior): When opportunity knocked last year, Grant took full advantage of it. He wasn’t your traditional running back, but he finished third on the team with 647 yards rushing and led the SEC in yards per carry (9.8). He’s a home-run threat on every play, and he forced the coaches to find ways to get the ball in his hands. It would make sense to keep him in the same role next season, but with Mason gone, why not give him a shot as the featured back? He wants to be the guy, and he’s physical enough to do it.

Peyton Barber (freshman): For a player who redshirted, Barber’s name still seemed to come up a good bit last season. The coaches raved about his talent throughout the season, and Mason echoed their sentiments, saying he’s big, fast and quick on his feet. This spring will be his first with the team, and it’s his chance to prove that he belongs in the conversation. He might not be in line to be the starter just yet, but he wants carries just like everybody else.

Johnathan Ford (sophomore): The versatile Ford might be the only player who will be in multiple position battles this spring. The coaches haven’t confirmed whether he will stay at cornerback or move back to his natural position of running back. Last fall, he had six carries for 73 yards and a touchdown in limited action.

Spring forecast
When Auburn opens the regular season, there will likely be a running-back-by-committee approach, similar to what the Tigers used early on in 2013. Artis-Payne, Grant, Barber and even Thomas could all be in line to get carries. The spring is still important, though, because it gives Grant an opportunity to prove himself as a feature back. And don’t be surprised if Barber winds up being the breakout star of the group.

Room to improve: Running back

February, 18, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part two in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn led the nation in rushing this past season. Through 14 games, the Tigers averaged an astonishing 328 yards per game. Three different running backs finished among the SEC’s top-20 rushers, and Auburn had four of the top 20 if you count quarterback Nick Marshall -- who gained over 1,000 yards on the ground.

So how could the running back position possibly have any room left to improve?

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Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne (pictured) and Corey Grant will pick up much of the production lost when Tre Mason declared for the NFL draft.
It starts with the departure of Tre Mason. The junior star led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns, but he opted to leave early for the NFL draft. As good as Marshall and the offensive line were, it was Mason who carried this Auburn offense. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than just one player to fill that void.

The other major loss in the backfield won’t show up on the stat sheet, but that doesn’t mean Jay Prosch was any less important. The team’s H-back played a critical role as the lead blocker for the Tigers, and it will be difficult to find somebody who was as good as his job as he was.

With Marshall back and four of the five starters on the offensive line back, Auburn is still going to be among the SEC’s top rushing teams, but if it wants to duplicate last season's success, it has to find a way to replace both Mason and Prosch in the backfield.

Battling for No. 1: Marshall and Mason were both among the SEC’s rushing leaders last year, but people forget that junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and former Alabama transfer Corey Grant each had over 600 yards rushing in their own right. That’s more than some teams got from their leading rusher. Grant, who led the SEC with 9.8 yards per carry, provided a nice change of pace with his speed, but he also showed a physical side at times and could be in the mix as the team’s feature back this season. Artis-Payne is bigger and more physical, but he still has quick feet and a good burst that separates him from other players. The most likely scenario is that Artis-Payne and Grant will split carries, forming a dangerous duo on the Plains.

Strength in numbers: On signing day, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said one can never have enough depth at the running back position. It couldn’t be more true at Auburn, where Malzahn has been known to play two and sometimes even three running backs in a game at the same time. We’ll get to the incoming freshmen, but the Tigers have some capable backs already on campus who are just waiting their turn. The most intriguing player might be redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. His name isn’t one you’ve likely heard of yet, but the staff is very high on him and he should get plenty of carries this spring. It’s also worth watching to see if freshman cornerback Johnathan Ford moves back to running back, his natural position.

New on the scene: Want to find the next Mason? Look no further than ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas. He’s the top-ranked player in Auburn’s 2014 recruiting class, and he has that combination of speed and power that puts him in the same category as Mason. The expectations are high for a guy who hasn’t even enrolled yet, but Malzahn said he has the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact. Expect Thomas to be eased into the rotation early in the season, but his workload should gradually increase with every game. The Tigers might also find their replacement for Prosch from the 2014 class. Tight end Jakell Mitchell signed with every intention of playing the H-back, and fellow freshman Kamryn Pettway could also get a look there. Both players will arrive this summer.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There’s nothing quite like the passion in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, but sometimes it goes too far. That seems to be the case for ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans, who has been harassed by fans all week since he signed with Alabama. However, Evans isn’t the first in-state recruit to receive backlash, and he certainly won’t be the last.

It’s been nine months since fellow in-state linebacker Tre' Williams committed to Auburn, but he also received plenty of flak for his decision. He heard things like, ‘You’re never going to get a ring,’ or ‘Alabama has so and so (many) rings.’

“That really opened my eyes,” Williams said. “I don't want to be just another team getting a ring. I want to be that team that helps turn the program around.”

Williams wasn’t alone. At the end of last May, Auburn already had eight commitments, including five from the state of Alabama. It didn’t matter that the Tigers were coming off a 3-9 season and their cross-state rival had just won its second national championship. These recruits believed in first-year head coach Gus Malzahn and what he was building on the Plains.

Racean Thomas
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas was one of several prospects who committed to Auburn in good faith before the Tigers' run to the BCS title game.
“For me, really from the beginning when I committed May 25, I knew Auburn was going to be something special,” four-star tight end Jakell Mitchell said. “I knew that Gus was going to come in and turn the program around.”

Over the summer, Auburn added six more commitments, including one from running back Racean Thomas, the state’s No. 3 player. And yet, the Tigers had not played a single game under Malzahn. Who knew how long it would take for him to turn the program around? Who knew if he was going to turn it around at all?

“It was hard,” Williams said. “I'm not even going to lie; it was hard because what they were saying was true. 'Auburn sucked last year. Bama has all these rings.' It was true. I couldn't argue with that, but then again I was wanting for the season to come because I was like, 'Wait. Just wait and see what happens.'”

The Auburn coaches had promised recruits they were going to turn things around, and they stayed true to their word. It started with a victory over Washington State in the season opener. Then, a couple games later, the Tigers rallied to beat Mississippi State in their first SEC game. After a loss to LSU the next week, they went on to win nine consecutive games and earned an unexpected trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

The turnaround was complete, maybe a year or two ahead of schedule, but the 2014 recruiting class grew more and more confident with every victory.

“It felt like they really stuck to their word,” Williams said. “They weren't just saying that to bring me in. They were really determined to turn the place around, and they did.

“The other thing is it didn't just affect me, it affected everyone else. We had other commitments, and they said the same thing. Coach Malzahn and Coach [Dameyune] Craig were telling them they were going to change the program, and they did.”

The class expanded as Auburn kept winning, and the staff was able to flip Kalvaraz Bessent and Stephen Roberts, a pair of ESPN 300 cornerbacks who were committed to Alabama.

But more importantly, the early commitments -- the ones who made a verbal pledge to Auburn before the first game -- they stayed true to their word. They didn’t look around or take any visits to other schools. They didn’t question their decision; they remained loyal.

“I really appreciate the loyalty of our commitments,” Malzahn said on signing day. “In this day and time, that’s very rare. A lot of these guys committed when we came off winning three games. It was very tough. They really believed in what we were doing, and that's also tough to do. But they hung in there with us.

“Obviously, we won and all that, but there's a great appreciation for those guys who came on board before we started winning. And now that we've won, I really feel like that will help us in years to come even more than it did this year.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Not every great college football player was ranked in the ESPN 300 or labeled a five-star recruit. In every recruiting class, there is always a handful of players who exceed expectations and outperform their ranking.

Here are four players in Auburn’s 2014 class who could do just that:

S Markell Boston: Prior to his senior season, Boston had a handful of offers from smaller schools but nothing major. In fact, he originally committed to East Carolina last month because it was his best option at the time. However, he turned heads as a senior with 105 tackles and four interceptions and he received offers from Auburn, Indiana, Nebraska and UCF in the final week before signing day. Alabama also came close to offering, but in the end, he signed with Auburn, giving Gus Malzahn and the Tigers a player on the rise.
Malzahn’s take: “A very good tackler, a physical guy that we got on fairly late. He got better and better his senior year. We really feel like he’ll provide some depth for us.”

[+] EnlargeRaashed Kennion
Derek Tyson/ESPNRaashed Kennion flew below the radar until late, but his frame suggests that he has a lot of potential at defensive end.
DE Raashed Kennion: Similar to Boston, Kennion was a guy who didn’t receive much interest from the major schools during the recruiting process. He committed to Cincinnati back in May because just like Boston, it was his best option at the time. Then he visited Auburn over the summer and turned heads at their camp. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound defensive end showed flashes of brilliance, and that, combined with his size, was enough to convince Auburn’s Rodney Garner to offer him a scholarship. Kennion committed a month later.
Malzahn’s take: “A very, long athletic guy. Coach Garner had him in camp, offered him in camp. We recruited him hard, and we really think that he has a lot of potential moving forward.”

TE-H Jakell Mitchell: There was a time when Mitchell was ranked in the ESPN 300. He had offers from the likes of Alabama, Florida, Florida State and LSU and when he committed to Auburn, it was a huge coup for the Tigers. Then, shortly after his commitment in May, Mitchell tore his ACL during a 7-on-7 competition, and everything changed. He dropped out of the rankings and became just another member of Auburn’s class. Now he’s fighting his way back -- he says he's 100 percent -- and if all goes well, he could be in line to replace Jay Prosch in the Tigers’ offense next season.
Malzahn’s take: “He’s a guy we identified when he was a junior. He runs a very similar offense. He can block. He can catch the ball. He’s got running back skills -- he played a little bit of Wildcat when he was a junior. We really feel like the sky is the limit for this guy.”

RB Kamryn Pettway: It’s easy to forget about Pettway. He’s coming to Auburn alongside ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas, the top-ranked commitment in the Tigers’ 2014 class. However, Pettway rushed for 1,402 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Prattville (Ala.) High School against top competition. Because of his size and strength, Pettway is also a candidate, along with Mitchell, to replace Prosch at fullback, or "3-back" as Auburn calls it. He might not be as talented as Thomas, but he can still make an impact.
Malzahn’s take: “A big, physical, hard-nosed guy. We feel like he has great potential. He’s a big man. He can run. He’s got very good ball skills. He’s going to give us a lot of versatility.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Gus Malzahn returned to the Plains in December 2012, he assembled a top-15 recruiting class in less than two months. It was a class that was impressive given Auburn’s record the year before, but it also featured a number of impact players who contributed to the Tigers’ BCS title run this past season.

“That's the way we recruit,” Malzahn said recently. “Nowadays you're going to recruit guys you think can come in and make an impact right off the bat.”

It’s no surprise that Auburn’s 2014 class, which signed last week, was also full of instant-impact type players. The emphasis might have been on the defensive side, but there are plenty of playmakers who could help the offense early on.

WR D'haquille Williams
Laplace, La./Miss. Gulf Coast CC
Synopsis: There’s not a player in the class with higher expectations than Williams. He comes in as the No. 1 junior college player in the country. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he looks SEC ready, and he plays a position that should get him on the field early. Sammie Coates enjoyed a breakout year for Auburn this past season, but Coates is better suited as a deep threat. Williams, on the other hand, can be more of a possession wide receiver, and if all goes well, he could be the one who emerges as the go-to guy for Nick Marshall. It doesn’t hurt that he enrolled in January and will participate in spring practice. The expectations are high, but Williams is the type of player who could thrive in the right offense and with the right team.
Malzahn’s take: “He’s the No. 1 rated junior college player in the country. He’s got unbelievable skills. I got a chance to get to know him back in his high school days and really think he’ll have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat.”

Racean Thomas
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 RB Racean Thomas ought to fit well in Gus Malzahn's Auburn offense.
RB Racean Thomas
Oxford (Ala.) High School
Synopsis: There were rumblings that Alabama passed on Thomas as a part of its effort to land top recruit Leonard Fournette. If that’s the case, the Crimson Tide might be kicking themselves for years to come. Thomas was easily one of the top players in the state, and the No. 5 running back nationally. He comes to Auburn as a perfect fit for Malzahn’s offense and as a guy who should get a look this fall. When Tre Mason left early for the NFL, it created an opportunity at running back, and though there might be more experienced candidates ahead of him, Thomas has the talent and ability to move up quickly on the depth chart. He wants to play early, and he’ll do everything in his power to make it happen.
Malzahn’s take: “He was the top running back on our board. Our offensive staff identified him early. They recruited him extremely hard. He’s a kid in this class who was very loyal to us. He could’ve went anywhere and chose not to. He stayed with us. We really feel like he’s got the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact.”

OG Braden Smith
Olathe (Kan.) South High School
Synopsis: Auburn took a hit when starting left tackle Greg Robinson declared early for the NFL draft, but had he not done that, there’s a strong possibility Smith would have not been a part of the this class. Malzahn admitted that he and his staff started recruiting ESPN 300 offensive lineman late, but they did just enough to lure him to the Southeast. It won’t be easy for Smith to crack the starting rotation with four of the five starters returning for Auburn, but he has the versatility to make an impact somewhere this fall. He’s listed as a guard and could become the top backup at both guard spots, but he can also move over and play tackle, which automatically makes him a candidate to replace Robinson at left tackle.
Malzahn’s take: “I think he gives us some flexibility -- at tackle, or he can move to guard. He can really run, and he’s stronger than your average freshman coming in. He’s very serious. The way you all see him on TV, that’s the way he is. He doesn’t say a whole lot. He’s football. He’s working out. He’s our type of guy.”

SEC recruiting scorecard

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
12:00
PM ET
And just like that, national signing day is a day away.

The future is almost here, folks, so here's one last recruiting scorecard for the 2014 recruiting season.

As of Tuesday, seven SEC teams rank in the top 10 of ESPN's recruiting class rankings. Alabama and Texas A&M lead the charge for the league, ranking first and second, respectively. Alabama has 27 verbal commitments, with 18 in the ESPN 300. Four are five-star prospects. Texas A&M has 23 commitments, including 11 ESPN 300 members and two five-star prospects.

How's the rest of the SEC doing before signing day? Let's take a look:

ALABAMA

2014 verbal commitments: 27

Spotlight: Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va., is a huge addition for the Crimson Tide. He's the nation's No. 2-ranked defensive end and could provide an immediate spark to a front seven that wants to generate more pressure on opposing backfields.

ESPN 300 members: 18 (Hand; OT Cameron Robinson of West Monroe, La.; CB Tony Brown of Beaumont, Texas; RB Bo Scarbrough of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; CB Marlon Humphrey of Hoover, Ala.; S Laurence Jones of Monroe, La.; OLB Christian Miller of Columbia, S.C.; WR Cameron Sims of Monroe, La., QB David Cornwell of Norman, Okla.; Ross Pierschbacher of Cedar Falls, Iowa; ATH Ronnie Clark of Calera, Ala.; ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton of Montgomery, Ala.; DT Joshua Frazier of Springdale, Ark.; C Josh Casher of Mobile, Ala., C J.C. Hassenauer of Woodbury, Minn.; WR Derek Kief of Cincinnati; DT O.J. Smith of Bossier City, La.)

Key targets: After gaining Humphrey's recent commitment, No. 1-ranked wide receiver Malachi Dupre of River Ridge, La., remains the Tide's top target.

ARKANSAS

2014 verbal commitments: 23

Spotlight: Defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado, Ark., is the top player in the state and ranked as the nation's No. 6 defensive tackle. At 6-foot-2 and 334 pounds, Jackson can clog the middle for the run, but has the quickness off the line to be a threat against the pass as well.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Jackson; OT Brian Wallace of St. Louis)

Key targets: Offensive lineman Rashawn Shaw of Fort Pierce, Fla., was very much on Arkansas' radar, as the Hogs look to add much-needed depth up front, but he recently committed to Wake Forest. Florida State receiver commit JoJo Robison recently visited and could be one to watch with Arkansas, as could ESPN 300 linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla.

AUBURN

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Tre Mason might be gone, but Gus Malzahn hopes he has a solid replacement in running back Racean Thomas of Oxford, Ala. The nation's No. 5 running back runs hard and has the explosiveness to make some real noise in Auburn's offense. He's also elusive and strong enough to stretch plays.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Thomas; QB Sean White of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; CB Stephen Roberts of Opelika, Ala.; CB Kalvaraz Bessent of Kingsland, Ga., ILB Tre' Williams of Mobile, Ala.; ATH Nicholas Ruffin of Atlanta; DE Justin Thornton of Prichard, Ala.; DT Dontavius Russell of Carrollton, Ga.; ATH Stanton Truitt of Monroe, Ga.; RB Kamryn Pettway of Prattville, Ala.)

Key targets: Auburn is almost done with this class, but ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans of Auburn, Ala., and defensive end Andrew Williams of McDonough, Ga., are still in the mix. Florida State quarterback commit Treon Harris is also very much in the mix for the Tigers.

FLORIDA

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Quarterback Will Grier of Davidson, N.C., is already on campus and gives the Gators a real quality body to work with behind Jeff Driskel. Grier appears to be he future of the position, and he totaled 4,989 passing yards with a national-best 77 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,251 yards with 13 more scores in 2013.

ESPN 300 members: 12 (Grier, CB Jalen Tabor of Washington, D.C.; OT David Sharpe of Jacksonville, Fla.; DT Gerald Willis III of New Orleans; DT Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, N.Y.; ATH J.C. Jackson of Immokalee, Fla.; WR Moral Stephens of Perry, Fla.; CB Duke Dawson of Cross City, Fla.; ATH Brandon Powell of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; DE Justus Reed of Clearwater, Fla.; S Quincy Wilson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 members Lorenzo Carter (defensive end from Norcross, Ga.), Damian Prince (offensive tackle from Forestville, Md.) and Adoree' Jackson (athlete from Gardena, Calif.) remain the Gators' top targets, while Treon Harris from Miami and former Florida State receiver commit C.J. Worton from Homestead, Fla., are very much in the mix.

GEORGIA

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: The Bulldogs have had some recent success at the running back position and just added to it with Sony Michel of Plantation, Fla. The 5-11, 194-pound Michel is the nation's No. 2 RB and is an every-down back who can do it all. He has a chance to see the field early in his career at Georgia.

ESPN 300 members: 9 (Michel; DT Lamont Gaillard of Fayetteville, N.C.; RB Nick Chubb of Cedartown, Ga.; ATH Malkom Parrish of Quitman, Ga.; QB Jacob Park of Goose Creek, S.C.; TE Jeb Blazevich of Charlotte, N.C.; OG Isaiah Wynn of Saint Petersburg, Fla.; DE Keyon Brown of Wauchula, Fla.; WR Shakenneth Williams of Macon, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive end Lorenzo Carter of Norcross, Ga., is the top remaining target on the Bulldogs' board. Georgia appears to be in good shape for the five-star prospect. Georgia is also hoping to gain ground with Rashaan Evans and is still in the hunt for South Carolina linebacker commit Bryson Allen-Williams.

KENTUCKY

2014 verbal commitments: 28

Spotlight: After being committed to Florida State for a year, defensive end Denzel Ware of Crestview, Fla., committed to Kentucky, before decommitting, and then committing again. He appears solidly committed to the Wildcats and has tremendous upside to match his explosiveness off the line.

ESPN 300 members: 6 (Ware; QB Drew Barker of Hebron, Ky.; WR Thaddeus Snodgrass of Springfield, Ohio; RB Stanley Williams of Monroe, Ga.; CB Darius West of Lima, Ohio; CB Kendall Randolph of Tallahassee, Fla.)

Key targets: With Elam in hand, the Wildcats are looking to add to their defensive line with fellow ESPN 300 member Travonte Valentine of Hialeah, Fla.

LSU

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: Running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans was the recruit LSU had to have. Not only is he the nation's No. 1 overall player but he immediately fills the need at running back with Jeremy Hill's departure. His excellent combination of size, speed and strength will get him on the field early in Baton Rouge.

ESPN 300 members: 14 (Fournette; S Jamal Adams of Lewisville, Texas; ILB Clifton Garrett of Plainfield, Ill.; OG Garrett Brumfield of Baton Rouge, La.; TE Jacory Washington of Westlake, La.; S Devin Voorhies of Woodville, Miss.; WR Trey Quinn of Lake Charles, La.; QB Brandon Harris of Bossier City, La.; S Edward Paris Jr. from Arlington, Texas; DE Davon Godchaux of Plaquemine, La.; OLB Donnie Alexander of New Orleans; WR D.J. Chark of Alexandria, La.; DE Deondre Clark of Oklahoma City; WR Tony Upchurch of Pearland, Texas)

Key targets: Five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson is still on the board, as is Lorenzo Carter. ESPN 300 receiver Malachi Dupre from River Ridge, La., is in the mix and would be a major get for the Tigers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: ESPN 300 athlete Jamoral Graham of Decatur, Miss., has been committed for nearly a year and gives the Bulldogs their most versatile commitment. The 5-11, 180-pound Graham has 4.4 speed and can play on both sides of the ball. He will probably end up as a defensive back for the Bulldogs.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Graham; WR Jesse Jackson of Petal, Miss.)

Key targets: Committed ESPN 300 defensive tackle O.J. Smith (Alabama) of Bossier City, La., and three-star defensive tackle commit Cory Thomas (Tennessee) are still in the mix with the Bulldogs.

MISSOURI

2014 verbal commitments: 27

Spotlight: With the Tigers losing two starting linebackers from the 2013 team, the addition of outside linebacker Brandon Lee of Indianapolis could be big down the road. There will be a lot of competition for those open spots, and Lee has a chance to get some reps, especially with him already being on campus. He has good speed and should fit any scheme once he adds some weight.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Lee; OT Andy Bauer of St. Louis)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford of Hilton Head, S.C., is one of the Tigers' top remaining targets, as is four-star linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla. Tennessee defensive end commit Derek Barnett is also still on Mizzou's radar.

OLE MISS

2014 verbal commitments: 24

Spotlight: It won't be easy to replace Donte Moncrief, but adding wide receiver Markell Pack of Purvis, Miss., to the roster will help soften the blow early. He's a natural playmaker who can get to the next level quickly with his speed. He'll need to add some weight when he gets on campus, but he's a major get at a position of need.

ESPN 300 members: 4 (Pack; OG Rod Taylor of Jackson, Miss.; DT Garrald McDowell of Covington, La.; S C.J. Hampton of Meridian, Miss.)

Key targets: Yet again, Malachi Dupre is in the mix here, as are ESPN 300 members defensive end Andrew Williams, safety Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and running back Dacorius Law from Haines City, Fla.

SOUTH CAROLINA

2014 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Defensive end Dante Sawyer of Suwanee, Ga., might not be Jadeveon Clowney, but he could help ease the pain of losing that physical freak. One plus about Sawyer is that he's versatile enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, which should allow the Gamecocks to move him around and show different looks to opposing offenses.

ESPN 300 members: 7 (Sawyer; CB D.J. Smith of Marietta, Ga.; TE Kevin Crosby of Bamberg, S.C.; WR Shaquille Davidson of Gaffney, S.C.; OLB Bryson Allen-Williams of Ellenwood, Ga.; OG Donell Stanley of Latta, S.C.; ATH Terry Googer of College Park, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 cornerback Wesley Green of Lithonia, Ga., and former Florida cornerback commit Chris Lammons are top targets for the Gamecocks, as is Florida State defensive tackle commit Dexter Wideman.

TENNESSEE

2014 verbal commitments: 34

Spotlight: The Vols need to add more athleticism and playmaking ability to the wide receiver position, and Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., could step right in and get a healthy amount of reps this spring. Having him on campus now will help him as he continues to develop into a more sound receiver.

ESPN 300 members: 11 (Malone; S Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn.;RB Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville, Tenn.; OLB Dillon Bates Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.; RB Derrell Scott of Havelock, N.C.; DE Dewayne Hendrix of O'Fallon, Ill.; S Cortez McDowell of Locust Grove, Ga.; ILB Gavin Bryant of Jackson, Ala.; CB D'Andre Payne of Washington, D.C.; ATH Evan Berry of Fairburn, Ga.; DE Derek Barnett of Brentwood, Tenn.)

Key targets: Four-star defensive tackle Michael Sawyers from Nashville has become a very important target for the Vols, who need another interior linemen. Tennessee's staff is still going after Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough.

TEXAS A&M

2014 verbal commitments: 23

Spotlight: Defensive end Myles Garrett of Arlington, Texas, is a major addition to this Texas A&M class. The Aggies need more playmakers on defense, especially up front, and Garrett, the nation's No. 1-rated defensive end has a chance to compete for immediate playing time and should add more of a presence in the pass rush.

ESPN 300 members: 11 (Garrett; ATH Speedy Noil of New Orleans; QB Kyle Allen of Scottsdale, Ariz.; ATH Nick Harvey of Richmond, Texas; WR Frank Iheanacho of Houston; DT DeShawn Washington of Nederland, Texas; OLB Otaro Alaka of Houston, Texas; DE Qualen Cunningham of Chandler, Ariz.; RB Shaun Nixon of Austin, Texas; ATH Armani Watts of Forney, Texas; OLB Josh Walker of Gilmer, Texas)

Key targets: Safety has become a spot of need, so the Aggies are going after ESPN 300 safeties Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and Mattrell McGraw of River Ridge, La. ESPN 300 linebacker Kenny Young from River Ridge, La., is also still on the board.

VANDERBILT

2014 verbal commitments: 17

Spotlight: Running back Dallas Rivers of Stone Mountain, Ga., is the Commodores' top commitment and he's been solid with Vandy since committing last March. He's the type of playmaker Vandy needs going forward and will provide a grinder in the middle of the field, who can also stretch the field with his speed.

ESPN 300 members: 1 (Rivers)

Key targets: The Commodores are in the hunt for Tennessee ESPN 300 defensive end commit Derek Barnett.

SEC recruiting scorecard

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
3:30
PM ET
Believe it or not, national signing day is creeping closer and closer. Soon, we'll be introducing 2014 recruiting classes all over the country, before eventually stashing them in the past and salivating on the gems of 2015.

Recruiting, right?

But as fans all over -- especially in the Southeast -- continue their anxious countdown to Feb. 5, it only made sense that we take a quick look at how all 14 SEC teams are faring before college football's equivalent to Christmas Day.

As of Friday, seven SEC teams rank in the top 10 of ESPN's recruiting class rankings. Alabama and Texas A&M lead the charge for the league, ranking first and second , respectively. Alabama has 24 verbal commitments, with 17 in the ESPN 300. Four are five-star prospects. Texas A&M has 21 commitments, including 10 ESPN 300 members and two five-star prospects.

How's the rest of the SEC doing before signing day? Let's take a look:

ALABAMA

2014 verbal commitments: 24

Spotlight: Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va., is a huge addition for the Crimson Tide. He's the nation's No. 2-ranked defensive end and could provide an immediate spark to a front seven that wants to generate more pressure on opposing backfields.

ESPN 300 members: 17 (Hand, OT Cameron Robinson of West Monroe, La., CB Tony Brown of Beaumont, Texas, RB Bo Scarbrough of Tuscaloosa, Ala., S Laurence Jones of Monroe, La., OLB Christian Miller of Columbia, S.C., WR Cameron Sims of Monroe La., QB David Cornwell of Norman, Okla., Ross Pierschbacher of Cedar Falls, Iowa, ATH Ronnie Clark of Calera, Ala., ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton of Montgomery, Ala., DT Joshua Frazier of Springdale Ark., C Josh Casher of Mobile, Ala., C J.C. Hassenauer of Woodbury, Minn., WR Derek Kief of Cincinnati, DT O.J. Smith of Bossier City, La.)

Key targets: There isn't a ton of space left in this class, but Alabama is still going strong after five-star cornerback Marlon Humphrey of Hoover, Ala., and four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam of Elizabethtown, Ky.

ARKANSAS

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: Defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado, Ark., is the top player in the state and ranked as the nation's No. 6 defensive tackle. At 6-2, 334 pounds, Jackson can clog the middle for the run, but has the quickness off the line to be a threat against the pass as well.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Jackson, OT Brian Wallace of St, Louis)

Key targets: The Razorbacks would like to add a receiver and are looking at Vanderbilt commit Kameron Uter and three-star Kendrick Edwards of Miami. Offensive linemen Frank Ragnow and Rashawn Shaw are also on Arkansas' radar.

AUBURN

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Tre Mason might be gone, but Gus Malzahn hopes he has a solid replacement in running back Racean Thomas of Oxford, Ala. The nation's No. 5 running back runs hard and has the explosiveness to make some real noise in Auburn's offense. He's also elusive and strong enough to stretch plays.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Thomas, QB Sean White of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., CB Stephen Roberts of Opelika, Ala., CB Kalvaraz Bessent of Kingsland, Ga., ILB Tre' Williams of Mobile, Ala., ATH Nicholas Ruffin of Atlanta, DE Justin Thornton of Prichard, Ala., DT Dontavius Russell of Carrollton, Ga., ATH Stanton Truitt of Monre, Ga., RB Kamryn Pettway of Prettville, Ala.)

Key targets: Auburn is almost done with this class, but ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans and defensive end Andrew Williams are still in the mix. So is offensive guard Jordan Sims of Birmingham, Ala.

FLORIDA

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Quarterback Will Grier of Davidson, N.C., is already on campus and gives the Gators a real quality body to work with behind Jeff Driskel. Grier appears to be he future of the position and totaled 4,989 passing yards with a national-best 77 touchdowns, while rushing for another 1,251 yards with 13 more scores in 2013.

ESPN 300 members: 12 (Grier, CB Jalen Tabor of Washington, D.C., OT David Sharpe of Jacksonville, Fla., DT Gerald Willis III of New Orleans, DT Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, N.Y., ATH J.C. Jackson of Immokalee, Fla., WR Moral Stephens of Perry, Fla., CB Duke Dawson of Cross City, Fla., ATH Brandon Powell of Deerfield Beach, Fla., DE Justus Reed of Clearwater, Fla., S Quincy Wilson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Key targets: The loss of running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Ermon Lane left two big holes in this class, but the Gators are still in the running for ESPN 300 prospects Isaiah McKenzie, Derrell Scott and Florida State commit Treon Harris. Junior college WR Eric Lauderdale is still on the board, as are five-star defenders Lorenzo Carter and Adoree' Jackson.

GEORGIA

2014 verbal commitments: 17

Spotlight: The Bulldogs have had some recent success at the running back position and just added to it with Sony Michel of Plantation, Fla. The 5-11, 194-pound Michel is the nation's No. 2 RB and is an every-down back who can do it all. He has a chance to see the field early in his career at Georgia.

ESPN 300 members: 9 (Michel; DT Lamont Gaillard of Fayetteville, N.C.; RB Nick Chubb of Cedartown, Ga.; ATH Malkom Parrish of Quitman, Ga.; QB Jacob Park of Goose Creek, S.C.; TE Jeb Blazevich of Charlotte, N.C.; OG Isaiah Wynn of Saint Petersburg, Fla.; DE Keyon Brown of Wauchula, Fla.; WR Shakenneth Williams of Macon, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive end Lorenzo Carter of Norcross, Ga., is the top remaining target on the Bulldogs' board. Georgia appears to be in good shape for the five-star prospect. Georgia is also hoping to gain ground with Rashaan Evans.

KENTUCKY

2014 verbal commitments: 25

Spotlight: After being committed to Florida State for a year, defensive end Denzel Ware of Crestview, Fla., committed to Kentucky, before decommitting, and then committing again. He appears solidly committed to the Wildcats and has tremendous upside to match his explosiveness off the line.

ESPN 300 members: 6 (Ware; QB Drew Barker of Hebron Ky.; WR Thaddeus Snodgrass of Springfield, Ohio; RB Stanley Williams of Monroe, Ga.; CB Darius West of Lima, Ohio; CB Kendall Randolph of Tallahassee, Fla.)

Key targets: The Wildcats are still battling Alabama for ESPN 300 defensive tackle Matt Elam and are still in the hunt for fellow ESPN 300 member Travonte Valentine.

LSU

2014 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans was the recruit LSU had to have. Not only is he the nation's No. 1 overall player but he immediately fills the need at running back with Jeremy Hill's departure. His excellent combination of size, speed and strength will get him on the field early in Baton Rouge.

ESPN 300 members: 14 (Fournette; S Jamal Adams of Lewisville, Texas; OG Garrett Brumfield of Baton Rouge, La.; TE Jacory Washington of Westlake, La.; S Devin Voorhies of Woodville, Miss.; OLB Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla.; WR Trey Quinn of Lake Charles, La.; QB Brandon Harris of Bossier City, La.; S Edward Paris Jr. from Arlington, Texas; DE Davon Godchaux of Plaquemine, La.; OLB Donnie Alexander of New Orleans; WR D.J. Chark of Alexandria, La.; DE Deondre Clark of Oklahoma City; WR Tony Upchurch of Pearland, Texas)

Key targets: Five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson is still on the board, as is Lorenzo Carter. ESPN 300 receiver Malachi Dupre is also still in the mix.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: ESPN 300 athlete Jamoral Graham of Decatur, Miss., has been committed for nearly a year and gives the Bulldogs their most versatile commitment. The 5-11, 180-pound Graham has 4.4 speed and can play on both sides of the ball. He will probably end up as a defensive back for the Bulldogs.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Graham; WR Jesse Jackson of Petal, Miss.)

Key targets: Four-star running back Aeris Williams of West Point, Miss., is the top player remaining on the Bulldogs' recruiting board.

MISSOURI

2014 verbal commitments: 25

Spotlight: With the Tigers losing two starting linebackers from the 2013 team, the addition of outside linebacker Brandon Lee of Indianapolis could be big down the road. There will be a lot of competition for those open spots, and Lee has a chance to get some reps, especially with him already being on campus. He has good speed and should fit any scheme once he adds some weight.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Lee; OT Andy Bauer of St. Louis)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford of Hilton Head, S.C., is one of the Tigers' top remaining targets, as is four-star linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla.

OLE MISS

2014 verbal commitments: 26

Spotlight: It won't be easy to replace Donte Moncrief, but adding wide receiver Markell Pack of Purvis, Miss., to the roster will help soften the blow early. He's a natural playmaker who can get to the next level quickly with his speed. He'll need to add some weight when he gets on campus, but he's a major get at a position of need.

ESPN 300 members: 4 (Pack; OG Rod Taylor of Jackson, Miss.; DT Garrald McDowell of Covington, La.; S C.J. Hampton of Meridian, Miss.)

Key targets: There are three top targets remaining for the Rebels, and all of them are ESPN 300 members: defensive end Andrew Williams, safety Steven Parker II and running back Dacorius Law.

SOUTH CAROLINA

2014 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Defensive end Dante Sawyer of Suwanee, Ga., might not be Jadeveon Clowney, but he could help ease the pain of losing that physical freak. One plus about Sawyer is that he's versatile enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, which should allow the Gamecocks to move him around and show different looks to opposing offenses.

ESPN 300 members: 7 (Sawyer; CB D.J. Smith of Marietta, Ga.; TE Kevin Crosby of Bamberg, S.C.; WR Shaquille Davidson of Gaffney, S.C.; OLB Bryson Allen-Williams of Ellenwood, Ga.; OG Donell Stanley of Latta, S.C.; ATH Terry Googer of College Park, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 running back Derrell Scott is still a top target for the Gamecocks, as is cornerback Wesley Green of Lithonia, Ga. Former Florida cornerback commit Chris Lammons is also very much in the picture.

TENNESSEE

2014 verbal commitments: 34

Spotlight: The Vols need to add more athleticism and playmaking ability to the wide receiver position, and Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., could step right in and get a healthy amount of reps this spring. Having him on campus now will help him as he continues to develop into a more sound receiver.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Malone; S Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn.;RB Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville, Tenn.; OLB Dillon Bates Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.; DE Dewayne Hendrix of O'Fallon, Ill.; S Cortez McDowell of Locust Grove, Ga.; ILB Gavin Bryant of Jackson, Ala.; CB D'Andre Payne of Washington, D.C.; ATH Evan Berry of Fairburn, Ga.; DE Derek Barnett of Brentwood, Tenn.)

Key targets: Junior college defensive tackle prospects Calvin Heurtelou and Lance McDowell have become very important targets for the Vols, who need another interior linemen. Tennessee's staff is still going after Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough and Derrell Scott.

TEXAS A&M

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Defensive end Myles Garrett of Arlington, Texas, is a major addition to this Texas A&M class. The Aggies need more playmakers on defense, especially up front, and Garrett, the nation's No. 1-rated defensive end has a chance to compete for immediate playing time and should add more of a presence in the pass rush.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Garrett; ATH Speedy Noil of New Orleans; QB Kyle Allen of Scottsdale, Ariz.; ATH Nick Harvey of Richmond, Texas; WR Frank Iheanacho of Houston; DT DeShawn Washington of Nederland, Texas; DE Qualen Cunningham of Chandler, Ariz.; RB Shaun Nixon of Austin, Texas; ATH Armani Watts of Forney, Texas; OLB Josh Walker of Gilmer, Texas)

Key targets: Safety has become a spot of need, so the Aggies are going after ESPN 300 safeties Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and Mattrell McGraw of River Ridge, La. ESPN 300 linebackers Otaro Alaka and Kenny Young are also still on the board.

VANDERBILT

2014 verbal commitments: 10

Spotlight: Safety Kyle Gibson of Seffner, Fla. would be a major keep for the Commodores. Having to replace a stud like Kenny Ladler won't be easy, but the ESPN 300 member is long, rangy and can cover a ton of ground. He's the kind of player the Commodores need to keep building.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Gibson; RB Dallas Rivers of Stone Mountain, Ga.)

Key targets: What might be the most important thing for new coach Derek Mason is making sure most of the guys currently committed to Vandy stay committed with signing day so close. ESPN 300 wide receiver Trevon Lee of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is visiting this weekend and would be a big get for Mason's first class.

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
4:10
PM ET
Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Monday, 12/22
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