Auburn Tigers: Racean Thomas

Video: Auburn RB Racean 'Roc' Thomas

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
2:30
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video
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.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
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
Feb 18
10:00
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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?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
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
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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
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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
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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.

Auburn to-do list: Finish strong

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
3:30
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Editor's note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a season to remember for Auburn. The Tigers were left out of the postseason a year ago, but under the direction of first-year coach Gus Malzahn, they went 12-1 -- winning nine straight at one point -- and made it all the way to Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

That’s where the dream ended, though. In similar fashion to how Auburn had won so many of its games, No. 1 Florida State scored a touchdown with just 13 seconds left to knock off the Tigers and close the book on the "team of destiny."

As disappointing as the loss was, it didn’t deter Malzahn and his coaching staff.

“The next day, I got up the same time, got in the office the same time,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got recruiting. We’ve got to move on. We’ve got to keep this thing going -- not a lot of time to rest.”

The focus turned toward Auburn’s recruiting class, currently ranked No. 9 in ESPN’s class rankings. The Tigers have 21 commitments, including five prospects that have already signed and enrolled for the spring semester. But the Tigers want to use the momentum from their championship run to finish strong in the weeks leading up signing day.

So what’s the strategy?

“Just filling overall needs,” Malzahn said. “There’s not really one area that stands out. Just more of the big picture and getting the right people in here.”

Over the weekend, Auburn played host to a handful of official visitors including ESPN 300 offensive tackle Braden Smith (Olathe, Kan./Olathe South) and four-star defensive ends Andrew Williams (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian) and Davon Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine), an LSU commitment. Auburn is thought to be the favorite for Williams, who tweeted a photo with Malzahn on Saturday.



The current class was also well-represented this weekend with the majority of Auburn’s commitments making the trip to the Plains, including in-state running back Racean Thomas (Oxford, Ala./Oxford) and rising quarterback Sean White (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School of Nova South).

Next weekend will be more of the same as ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) is expected to be on campus. It won’t be much of a drive for the hometown prospect, but it could be a crucial visit if the Tigers want to fend off in-state rival Alabama for his services. Evans took his official visit to Tuscaloosa this past weekend.

At this time a year ago, Auburn closed as strong as anybody and finished with the No. 11 class despite coming off a tumultuous 3-9 season. Nick Marshall, Marcus Davis, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel were among those who committed to the Tigers in the final month before signing day. All four made significant contributions this season.

Before the coaches can begin searching for a replacement at left tackle or retool a defense that lost five starters, they must focus on recruiting and finishing strong. The solution might still be out there, waiting to be had.
video
As expected, Auburn junior running back Tre Mason declared for the 2014 NFL draft Thursday.

He's foregoing his final year at Auburn for a chance at millions, and no one would dare blame him for his decision.

Following a stellar season that ended with a dynamic performance in Monday's VIZIO BCS National Championship Game loss to Florida State, Mason had no choice but to leave Auburn early for a chance at the NFL.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAfter rushing for 1,816 yards and 23 TDs in 2013, Tre Mason had nothing left to prove at Auburn.
The truth of the matter is that Mason's stock will never be higher. That's certainly not a knock against Mason, but after leading the SEC with 1,816 yards (which broke Bo Jackson's school record) and 23 touchdowns, setting a school record for yards of total offense (2,374), and finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy race, there really wasn't anything else for Mason to prove.

He went from 161 yards as a reserve freshman to 1,002 last year and a national championship run this season. The chances of surpassing -- let alone duplicating -- what he did in 2013 are very slim. Not with SEC defenses looking to make a major rebound in 2014 and with defensive coordinators gunning for the Tigers' little wrecking ball.

Is Mason a first-round running back? He certainly has the vision, toughness, strength, speed and elusiveness to be in the conversation, but his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame could hold him back some. But another year of college ball won't help him grow.

Regardless of his size, Mason believes he's more than ready to take on the NFL.

"They’re getting somebody that’s a hard worker and willing to do whatever it takes to win," Mason said Thursday. "My mind is not just set on money. It’s set on championships. I have yet to win a championship, and my mindset is not going to change. God willing, I’ll win a championship at the next level."

We know about the short self life NFL running backs have, and another pounding in the SEC won't do much to help him. Sure, more coaching can always be a benefit, but what else does Mason really have to learn? He's eclipsed 1,000 yards in both a pro-style offense and a spread. He knows adversity all too well, considering he rushed for 1,002 yards in 2012 during a 3-9 season that saw his head coach get fired, only to turn around and creep up on 2,000 yards under new coach Gus Malzahn in 2013.

Does he have much more to prove against SEC defenses? Uh, no. Against Alabama's top-rated rush defense in that fateful final week of the regular season, Mason rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. The next week in the SEC championship against Missouri's rush defense, which ranked 14th nationally at the time, Mason rushed for a career-high and SEC championship game-record 304 yards with four touchdowns.

In SEC play in 2013, Mason averaged 123.1 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. He also had 13 touchdowns.

In Monday's 34-31 loss to the Seminoles, Mason looked like the best player on the field for most of the night, rushing for 195 yards and a 37-yard touchdown that appeared to be the game-winning score with 1:19 remaining. With the way he played on Monday, you have to think that he would have finished much higher in the Heisman race.

Mason has been great for the Tigers, and there's no doubt that he immediately would've made them a title contender again in 2014 if he had decided to stay. But he absolutely made the right decision.

For Auburn, it's time to look to its already-loaded stable of running backs, which includes Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, who each ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns this past season. Obviously, quarterback Nick Marshall (1,068 rushing yards) is a dangerous running threat. Auburn will take the redshirt off running back Peyton Barber and will have ESPN 300 back Racean Thomas coming in. Thomas could be a real stud for Auburn and could compete for solid playing time early.

The Tigers will certainly miss Mason, who was both a great player and person, but his family on the Plains had to know that it was his time to take the next step.
Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation senior analyst Tom Luginbill a question about your team? Tweet it to @TomLuginbill using the hashtag #AskLoogs.



This is always difficult to foresee because players develop at different rates and the physical talent isn’t what usually determines whether a prospect makes an impact right away. Some guys you have a great feel for. I remember last year when we had Carl Lawson as the No. 2 player in the country and people told us we were crazy, but he had the goods in the intangibles areas so we felt plenty confident with where we had him. This year, our confidence level is relatively high with the following players. First, RB Racean Thomas (Oxford, Ala./Oxford) is going to have a role there, no doubt. Now, how big of a role depends on his capacity for scheme pick-up, pass protection and ball security, but his talent is better than what Auburn has behind Tre Mason right now. From a playmaking standpoint, WR D'Haquille Williams (Laplace/La./Mississippi Gulf College) adds an entirely new dimension to this offense. We would be very surprised if he does not make his presence felt early and often. The Tigers have made strides in the juco ranks at linebacker and on the defensive front too, but most juco prospects are expected to play right away -- that’s why you pursue them. However, don’t dismiss ATH Stanton Truitt (Monroe, Ga./Monroe) as being a sleeper freshman for this team as a jet sweep/Onterio McCalebb type who can contribute in the passing game.

Recruit and return: Auburn 

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
12:50
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videoAuburn's magical season ended with a tough 34-31 loss to Florida State on Monday night. The top two teams in the country certainly played like it in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. On the recruiting front, both schools are in the top 10 of the recruiting rankings. With less than a month until national signing day here's a closer look where Auburn stands.

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UA Game notebook: First impressions

December, 29, 2013
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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 an overcast Sunday morning for Day 1 of practice for Thursday's Under Armour All-America Game (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET). There were several players who impressed, a top linebacker is feeling pressure to stay at home and the nation's No. 1-ranked player isn’t too concerned with his lack of touches on the first day.

ESPN 300 linebacker feeling the pressure


Four-star linebacker Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) was one of the most impressive-looking linebackers during individual drills. The No. 84-ranked player in the country continues to have four schools at the top of his list.

[+] EnlargeRashaan Evans
Miller Safrit/ESPNRashaan Evans is feeling the pressure from hometown fans off the field.
"I still have four schools -- Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and UCLA -- on top,” Evans said. “Those four schools, they are pretty even. I’m going to take this whole thing slow and pretty much I’m going to take it out to signing day.”

Evans already took an official visit to UCLA in September and is planning to take two other visits in January.

"I’ll take either Bama or Auburn on Jan. 17,” he said, "and then on the 24th maybe Georgia."

As a native of Auburn, Ala., Evans admits he feels constant pressure to stay at home.

"It’s pretty bad,” Evans said. "Most of the time my day consists of Auburn people telling me, ‘Hey, don’t go to Bama, go to Auburn.’ It’s pretty bad, because most of the people I’m around are Auburn alumni. So I hear about Auburn each and every day. So when I go on visits, everybody knows about it and they always shoot me messages about Auburn.

"I feel like I would disappoint people if I did go somewhere other than Auburn. I’m in Auburn, I love Auburn, I’ve lived in Auburn all my life. I have family at Auburn. Most of my family has graduated from Auburn. People would be curious as to why I would want to leave Auburn, but at the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for me."

Coaches impressed

Team Highlight quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke was impressed with his group of QBs during the first practice. LSU commit Brandon Harris (Bossier City, La./Parkway), Penn State commit Michael O’Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG) and Auburn commit Sean White (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School) all made nice throws during the course of the practice.

"I think the one thing is that is they have to understand, schematically, what they are doing right now,” Weinke said. "The first day always creates hesitation. I spent more time with Harris, White and O’Connor, but looking at all six guys, they all did a nice job on the first day.

"Brandon Harris spins the ball really well. The one thing with him is now he has to tie his feet in to what he’s doing. O’Connor did a nice job of being very accurate throwing the ball today. Sean White did a heck of a job making some throws in some tight spots.”



Defensively, Team Highlight linebackers coach LaVar Arrington already has a good feeling about his players, which he thinks are a special group.

“I know they’re good when I remember their names, and I remember all my guy’s names,” he said. “They have nicknames. They were balling so hard I nicknamed them. You have Jacob Pugh, so I call him J.P., Kain Daub is K.D. and Tre’ [Williams] is a nickname in itself.

“Then Rashaan [Evans], I grew up being called Shad, so he’s Shad.”

Fournette not worried about carries


Running back Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine), the nation’s top prospect, handled the football only a few times during nearly three hours of practice.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Miller Safrit/ESPNLeonard Fournette likely will have a much busier day Monday than he did on Sunday.
On one of the opportunities designed for him to get the ball, White kept the ball on an option play when Fournette clearly had an open lane. It resulted in one of the funnier moments of the day: One of the Team Highlight assistants pointed over to Fournette and asked White, "You see him? That's the No. 1 running back in the country. You are to get the ball to him and he's supposed to run around and over people. You can't do that."

For his part, Fournette said he’s not concerned. It's not the focus of his trip to Florida.

“It’s about the decisions we have to make,” said Fournette, one of seven players who will announce their commitments during Thursday's game. “We have to focus on the decisions at the end of the day.”

Fournette slimmed his options early in the season to LSU and Alabama. Recently, he added Texas to the list of finalists at the urging of Saint Augustine teammate Jermaine Roberts, a receiver committed to the Longhorns.

Texas is considered a significant darkhorse for Fournette, who did not take an official visit to the school but made it to Austin, Texas, for an unofficial trip last summer.

Still, Fournette said, he’s not penalizing UT for its lack of a head coach as Mack Brown steps aside after the Valero Alamo Bowl on Monday against Oregon.

“Doesn’t concern me at all,” Fournette said.

He also won’t be swayed by the advice of fellow prospects here.

“Everybody’s going to go on their own path, do their own thing,” Fournette said.

Fournette said he would settle on a school after speaking with his parents, who arrive in Orlando on Tuesday.

Top social media posts


There were some great one-on-one battles Sunday. Here are some highlights:

Miami-bound offensive lineman Trevor Darling (Miami/Central), who usually plays left tackle, lined up at left guard during the one-on-one portion and more than held his own. Here’s a look at Darling winning a matchup against Georgia-bound defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard (Fayetteville, N.C./Pine Forest).



Five-star defensive end Lorenzo Carter (Norcross, Ga./Norcross) also impressed on the first day of practices. Here’s Carter getting the better of Michigan commit Juwann Bushell-Beatty (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic).



Uncommitted Laurence Jones (Monroe, La./Neville), the No. 2-ranked safety in the country, had a tremendous pass breakup on the goal line during the team portion of practice.

Speedy Noil, the No. 8-ranked prospect in the country, put on a show the first day of practice. He hauled in pass after pass and did it all while wearing a gold watch on his wrist. The five-star receiver even had an impressive one-handed catch.



Michigan-bound defensive back Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic), the nation's No. 2-ranked prospect, took on Florida-bound receiver Ermon Lane (Homestead, Fla./Homestead Senior), the nation's No. 28-ranked recruit, in one-on-ones. Lane got the better of Peppers the first two reps, but the two will have plenty of time to battle it out leading up to the game.

Qualifiers for the American Family Insurance Skills Challenge


After practice concluded Sunday, several players competed for spots in the finals of the American Family Insurance Skills challenge. The finals will air on Jan. 1 (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET). Here’s a look at who has qualified for the finals so far:

Running backs/linebackers
RB Racean Thomas (Oxford, Ala./Oxford) -- Auburn commit
LB Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) -- uncommitted
LB Melvin Keihn (Baltimore, Md./Gilman School) -- Virginia Tech commit

Wide receiver/defensive backs
TE Jacory Washington (Westlake, La./Westlake) -- LSU commit
CB Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Serra) -- uncommitted
CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover) -- uncommitted

Jeremy Crabtree, Mitch Sherman and Tom VanHaaren contributed to this report.

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