That much was obvious after the team's best player, sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, was hurt during Thursday night's practice, the team's first session that was open to the public.
The news spread like wildfire through the stands and on social media, reminding everyone of the Gators' protracted run of bad luck that started about a year ago. When the 2013 schedule was finished, and Florida's seven-game losing streak culminated in a 4-8 record, an astounding 15 players (10 of them starters) had suffered season-ending injuries.
Before Hargreaves' injury, which head coach Will Muschamp later announced was just a bone bruise, the Gators had been basking in the glow of good health.
Players and coaches were quick to recall how bad the injury situation was in camp a year ago when Florida was without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, starting running back Matt Jones and starting guard Jon Halapio before its first practice.
Having just one player unavailable this year (true freshman offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher is out after back surgery) offers an extremely sharp contrast. Muschamp called it "drastically different," and players said they were grateful for each healthy day.
"It feels good after every practice that everybody made it through with no injuries," sophomore running back Kelvin Taylor said on Wednesday. "That's the great part.
"This year we've just got to practice smart, practice fast and take care of our players. We'll be OK. We'll be fine."
The mood took a sudden turn when Hargreaves was helped off the field on Thursday night, and the rest of the practice was far more subdued on the field and in the stands.
Players crowded around Hargreaves in the medical tent, showing concern and looking for a prognosis before the All-SEC performer was carted off the field.
"A lot of people were definitely surprised," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said on Friday. "I was surprised myself. I really didn't know what was going on.
"Coach Muschamp addressed the team at the end of practice and I was kind of shocked to hear that somebody actually got hurt. And then just to hear that it was Vernon kind of sent a shock through everybody because of just what kind of impact he has for our team. It threw a lot of us off."
Ironically, it was a scuffle in practice that knocked Hargreaves out of action. Ironic, because injuries were the biggest factor in Florida's 4-8 record last season, and the team that had been channeling so much of its anger and frustration from 2013 into some very intense practices.
"I feel like fights are definitely a part of it," Davis said. "As football players, we're all trying to be out there and be aggressive and show how dominant we are as a player.
"... But now that Coach Muschamp has addressed it, we've all got that in the back of our head. We've got to take care of our team, got to take care of each other, because we're all we got right now."
Tussles in practice are nothing new, but neither is the injury bug that bit Florida so hard last year. The sight of Hargreaves limping brought back all of the pain and fear.
The drama ended a couple of hours later when Muschamp announced the star cornerback was day-to-day. A shaken fan base heaved a sigh of relief, hoping Thursday night's episode was a sign that the Gators' luck might be changing.
Installing a new offense takes time, however, and there is only so much that can be accomplished in 15 practices during the spring. That is why there might not be a team that benefited from the NCAA's offseason rule change more than the Gators.
Whereas coaches used to hand off their players to the strength and conditioning staff, the new rule allows coaches to spend up to eight hours a week with players, including two hours for meetings and film study.
Senior right tackle Chaz Green said the interaction was especially helpful for Florida's offensive linemen.
"That helped," he said. "Coach [Mike] Summers did a good job of letting us know what drills he wanted us to work on, and I would go up there and talk with him, meet with him and he would show me a couple of things and then he would go through them, and we would all meet in the offseason. That was definitely a big help."
Green said he and three teammates were responsible for organizing all of the players.
"I was the mediator," he said. "I made sure everybody got to the places on time."
Offensive line developing chemistry: It's been well documented just how thin the Gators are on the line, which likely will play a critical role in the success of the offense.
Florida has just six linemen who have ever started a collegiate game and eight freshmen. Summers has insisted that each of his veterans work with one of the freshmen.
In the early going, Muschamp singled out redshirt freshmen Roderick Johnson and Antonio Riles along with true freshmen David Sharpe and Andrew Mike.
"David Sharpe has been looking real good," Green said. "Young guy has been working with some of the older groups, big body, 330 [pounds], real long. He's been coming along real well. So far he's stood out to me.
"[Johnson] is full-go. He's behind me [on the depth chart]. We're sharing reps. He's a guy that can play a lot of positions, too. He's definitely somebody that can help us, very athletic. It's good that he's finally healthy with the group. We're expecting big things this year. He's looking pretty good so far this camp."
Fast track for young corners: Star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III exemplifies Florida's situation in the secondary -- very young but very talented.
The Gators expect to start a true freshman opposite Hargreaves, who is still just a sophomore and a teen himself. The top candidates, Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, arrived on campus in January and have already distinguished themselves in Hargreaves' eyes.
"Jalen and Duke, they're vets in my book," he said. "They have a spring under their belts. They understand the defense and what's expected. In my book they're with me.
"They're playing well. They're still getting it. We've got to do better. We've got to perfect our craft."
Muschamp also was quick to praise Tabor and Dawson for carrying over what they learned earlier in the year.
"Jalen Tabor did some nice things," he said. "Duke did some nice things. Duke’s a guy we played at the nickel a little in the spring, can play a different position. He gives you a different skill set as far as a bigger guy that’s a good blitzer. He’s got good run instincts, could possibly get some looks at safety. Smart guy."
Extra points: Muschamp said true freshman tight end C'yontai Lewis suffered a thigh bruise in Thursday night's practice, and true freshman defensive tackle Thomas Holley is dealing with scar tissue buildup from a sports hernia surgery in high school. Both will be held out of Friday night's practice. ... Steve Shaw, the SEC's coordinator of officials, visited Florida on Friday morning to clarify rules and rule changes. "We talked a lot about pace of play," Muschamp said, "and the procedure that our officials -- which do a great job in our league -- of handling hurry-up situations."
If you need me I'll just be hanging out in Peyton Manning's mancave at the Tennessee athletic facility. pic.twitter.com/Arz24L4qTc— Travis Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) August 8, 2014
Now to the lunch links. Enjoy.
- NCAA autonomy for the big boys embraces a playing field already tilted in their favor.
- Alabama is typically known for its defense, but through the first week of fall camp, the Tide offense is ahead of the defense.
- Arkansas running back Korliss Marshall expects a breakout season despite sharing touches with Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins in a crowded Hogs’ backfield.
- Newcomer Devaroe Lawrence and projected starter Derrick Moncrief have both missed valuable practice time at Auburn’s preseason camp.
- Florida’s first open practice of the fall has Gator fans spilling over with optimism.
- Cornerback Damian Swann has already won over his new defensive coordinator, but he can’t do it by himself for Georgia’s secondary.
- Quarterback Brandon Harris shined at LSU’s practice Thursday, but the defense is ahead of the offense after four days.
- Maty Mauk is the next long-term Missouri quarterback, joining the likes of Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin before him.
- Inside the film room: Steve Spurrier gave media members a rare glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, inviting them to spend 15 minutes watching film with the team.
- Mike Matthews proving to be the glue at the center of Texas A&M’s offensive line.
- Derek Mason “pleasantly surprised” by Vanderbilt quarterbacks as the offense wins team’s first scrimmage on Thursday.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Vernon Hargreaves, Florida's All-SEC cornerback, injured his left knee at the Gators' first public practice Thursday night and then aggravated it during a large scuffle that broke out.
According to head coach Will Muschamp, Hargreaves was initially hurt when he "banged knee to knee" with a teammate. Later in practice, the 2013 third-team All-American was caught in a tussle between defensive back and wide receiver position groups that erupted during an intense round of "Oklahoma" drills.
When the players were separated, Hargreaves limped off the field and was assisted by trainers to the medical tent, where his knee was wrapped in ice. He was carted off the field a short time later.
Florida released a statement from coach Will Muschamp saying Hargreaves is day-to-day with a bone bruise.
Update from @CoachWMuschamp: "An MRI revealed that Vernon Hargreaves suffered a bone bruise and he is listed as day to day."
- GatorZone Football (@GatorZoneFB) August 8, 2014
Muschamp commented further on the incident Friday.
"Well, I don't want them fighting on the field," he said. "If you fight in the game, you get kicked out. I addressed it after practice. You had a young player, a freshman, who got a little excited. In those situations, you've got a bunch of guys trying to separate the situation. That's not something we tolerate."
Muschamp added: "We have a lot of competition at a lot of positions, so there's a side of it that's a good thing. You want your guys to be aggressive. You want your guys to play with toughness, but you also want your guys to play smart and disciplined. There's a side of it that you understand is part of the game. I've been in 20 or so training camps, and I don't think there's been one that didn't have at least a little skirmish."
Hargreaves' injury scare cast a pall over the rest of the practice, reminding everyone in attendance of the Gators' rash of injuries in 2013. Fifteen Florida players, including 10 starters, suffered season-ending injuries last season, as the Gators struggled to a 4-8 record.
"You don't ever want [injuries] to happen but it's football, things happen, you move forward," Muschamp said. "We're going to practice a certain way and do what's best to prepare this football team for the season."
Hargreaves, who started 10 games as a true freshman and was named a freshman All-American by the Sporting News, was second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game). He had 11 pass breakups, which tied Janoris Jenkins
Travis Haney's list of 50 breakout candidates has a strong SEC flavor with 18 players from the conference making the cut. Leading the way at No. 1 is new Alabama quarterback Jake Coker, followed at No. 2 by LSU freshman phenom RB Leonard Fournette. Beyond that, there are players from Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Ole Miss featured.
Click here for the full list.
For more news and notes around the conference, check out Thursday’s lunch links.
- Alabama is still tinkering as it seeks the “five best guys” to start on the offensive line.
- With Nick Marshall missing the start against Arkansas in the season opener, it’s time for Auburn to name the starter and give the ball to Jeremy Johnson.
- As he enters his sophomore season, Florida running back Kelvin Taylor has gained a step or two, improving his speed in the offseason.
- The typically transparent Mark Richt has taken a vow of silence this fall when it comes to Georgia’s injury report.
- Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was not pleased after practice on Wednesday. What he saw was “not good enough” as his team lacked the mentality he’s looking for.
- Speed and experience make linebackers Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones key parts of a revitalized LSU defense.
- Mississippi State wide receivers Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson are rooting for each other this season despite competing for targets.
- Despite the Toronto Blue Jays’ best efforts, Ole Miss safety Anthony Alford is not ready to give up football, his first love.
- Dylan Thompson is the starting quarterback for South Carolina, but who’s No. 2? Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is in the lead ... for now.
- New mantra has Tennessee wide receiver Josh Smith “starting strong” this fall after a knee injury derailed his freshman year.
The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.
Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:
Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.
Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.
A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.
Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.
Five who just missed the cut:
• Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn
• Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss
• Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas
• Marquez North, WR, Tennessee
• Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Florida Gators:
2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
Final grade for 2013 season: Pardon the pun, but there's just no way to give a passing grade to a team that could hardly complete a forward pass. An incomplete grade might be warranted by the Gators' ridiculous number of injuries, but the final judgement for these Gators is inescapable. The team that lost home games to FCS Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt, lost seven games in a row and broke its 22-year bowl streak gets a well-deserved F.
Key losses: DT Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, DB Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, QB Tyler Murphy, DB Cody Riggs
Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR/KR Andre Debose, RT Chaz Green, LT D.J. Humphries, C Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Instant impact newcomers: TE Jake McGee (senior transfer from Virginia), CB Jalen Tabor, CB Duke Dawson, DL Gerald Willis III, OT David Sharpe
Breakout player: Florida expects its offense to be improved, but the Gators, under coach Will Muschamp, are still all about defense. Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis has drawn raves from coaches and teammates for being a high-motor playmaker with a nose for the ball. One of the quickest learners on the team, Davis surprised everyone when he worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Big things are expected for his follow-up performance.
Most important game: For a head coach on a very hot seat and a team champing at the bit to erase the memory of a 4-8 season, every game will be important in 2014. Muschamp and Florida can't afford many losses, but one foe looms above the rest -- Georgia. The Gators dominated this series for years, but Muschamp has lost three in a row to his alma mater. These games are always closely contested, full of emotion and extremely important in the SEC East race. But this year Muschamp and his players ought to have a little something extra: desperation.
Biggest question mark: There are holes and concerns on defense, but addressing them should be a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of resurrecting Florida's offense, which ranked No. 113 out of 123 FBS teams last season. New coordinator Kurt Roper brought a no-huddle, shotgun, spread offense from Duke with the promise of a better fit for Driskel and several underutilized receivers. Will they find success right away?
Upset special: Florida visits Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a showcase game against the Crimson Tide in Week 4, but the Gators' best chance for an upset will be a couple of weeks later in the Swamp. LSU, ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches' poll, is Florida's permanent SEC West opponent. The teams have played every year since 1971, and the rivalry has become hotly contested with both winning seven times in the last 14 meetings. In that span, the road team has won six times, so anything goes when these talent-rich programs clash.
Key stat: When he was hired, Roper said, "Our whole philosophy on offense is points per game. It's not yards, it's not going up and down the field, it's how many points we can get." Last year, Roper's Duke Blue Devils ranked 41st in the FBS with 32.8 points per game. Florida, by contrast, ranked 112th with 18.8 PPG.
ESPN Stats & Info: 7.55 wins
Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins
Our take: Florida's schedule is as brutal as ever with visits to Florida State and Alabama, the top two teams in the preseason coaches' poll. The SEC East promises to be a minefield as well. But the Gators get to play nine out of 12 games in their home state. As tough as this slate looks, the bye weeks are positioned perfectly. Florida looks to be 3-0 heading into the game against Bama. Then the first bye week offers a chance to recover, reevaluate and prepare for a big test at Tennessee. The Gators return home for two critical games against LSU and Missouri before the second bye precedes the all-important Georgia game. If Florida can make the most of those byes, defeating the Vols and Dawgs might be the difference between seven and eight wins. Beat both East rivals, and the Gators could have a solid chance at nine.
In the case of Vernon Hargreaves III, his father’s occupation provided him the chance to witness greatness at an early age. And it had a lasting impact that influences him to this day, one contributing factor, among several, to Hargreaves' quick rise to elite status in college football.
"Just seeing those great players play -- Santana Moss, Ed Reed, Clinton Portis, Ken Dorsey -- seeing them work at practice, seeing how competitive they were [was great]," Hargreaves III said. "There were fights at practice, but they were like fights that, 'I'm going to be better than you.' I can just remember sitting there thinking, 'I want to be where they are.'"
Hargreaves III is well on his way to being there.
As a true freshman cornerback at Florida, Hargreaves quickly excelled. He has already established a reputation as the best player at his position in the SEC and could soon assume that title nationally, already being considered one of the nation’s best as a sophomore. In the ESPN.com ranking of 2014 players, Hargreaves ranked 13th overall, the highest-ranked true sophomore and one of only two in the top 15 (Myles Jack of UCLA being the other).
A first-team All-SEC selection last season, Hargreaves ranked second in the league in passes defended per game (1.17, with 11 total) and had three interceptions to go with 38 tackles. Ask his teammates and coaches about him, and glowing reviews follow.
"What makes Vernon Hargreaves so special is that he's just a well-polished football player," Florida defensive lineman Dante Fowler said. "He has the tools, he has the athletic ability and he's a great student on and off the field, with film. Also, just being a leader, being a coach, being able to teach guys, he's helping himself become a better player. He's in the right direction, and he's going to stay in the right direction. The sky is the limit for him."
Florida coach Will Muschamp joked that Hargreaves' parents don’t take any grief from him, intimating that the values they instilled in him have helped mold him into a player Muschamp said is quite coachable.
"He is a very quick learner," Muschamp said. "He is very coachable. He is very difficult on himself as a guy who really takes a lot of pride in his performance. But he's a guy you can coach hard. You can get after him and he handles it and he moves to the next play. He's got a lot of confidence, the type of confidence you're going to need with the way we play."
And while Hargreaves experienced much personal success last season, the Gators’ 4-8 record didn’t sit well with him.
"I like to win," he said. "And we didn't win, so it's not hard for me to push [the individual success] aside. But you can't focus on the future if you're so worried about the past. We have to let it go. It already happened. There's nothing we can do about it. We can talk about it as much as we want and nothing's going to change. We were still 4-8, and it's still unacceptable. As a team, we've moved on from it, and that's that."
Winning is what he saw those early-2000s Miami teams do. His father said the Hurricanes' practices in those days were intense.
"Every day was a war," Hargreaves Jr. said. "You can't go out there and not perform at a high level. That's just the way it was. When you think about the guys we had, it was a who's who of guys."
Hargreaves III took a liking to the late Sean Taylor, who was an All-American safety with the Hurricanes. Though Taylor was much bigger physically (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) in college than Hargreaves (5-11, 192), the way Taylor played was something Hargreaves admired, and he tries to adopt those qualities now.
"The way he played, you're going to feel him on the field," Hargreaves said. "Receivers didn't want to catch balls because he was on the middle of the field. I want to have an impact like that.
"Maybe not the same impact he had because, I'm not as big a hitter as he was, but when I'm on the field, I want people to say, 'We've got to watch out for Vernon on that side.'"
It appears he is already accomplishing that goal.
Fowler emerged as a sophomore in 2013 and rode a wave of offseason momentum into a dominating spring. Much of the credit, he says, goes to left tackle D.J. Humphries and right tackle Chaz Green, whom he calls two of the best linemen in the SEC.
"This spring, me, D.J. and Chaz, we really got each other better," he said. "We went at it. We just competed the whole spring. I feel like I’m a better player. I can feel it because of them helping me, and I know they can feel it the same way."
Three of the Gators' starters -- including both tackles -- missed significant time in 2013, and Fowler says it cost the team dearly.
"Chaz was having a great camp [in 2013]," Fowler said. "He just had that setback, and it was like a freakish accident, too.
"That happened, and then we had D.J. -- he’s kind of like the anchorman who leads everybody -- so when he went down, things kind of went down the drain from there."
Green missed the entire season with a torn labrum suffered in late August, while Humphries missed the final five games with a sprained MCL. Both positions were revolving doors, with Tyler Moore, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown and Kyle Koehne also seeing time at left or right tackle.
Florida tried seven starting combinations on the offensive line last season, and the effects were startling.
Never a great pass-blocking team in recent years, the Gators regressed in their bread-and-butter running game, too. After averaging 188 yards a game on the ground in 2012 to rank 39th in the nation, Florida fell to 87th last season with an average of 145.8 yards rushing.
Head coach Will Muschamp won't change his run-heavy philosophy on offense, so the return of his two best tackles is welcome news. During SEC media days, Muschamp noted that Humphries was maintaining his weight at 295 pounds after playing last season at 285.
With Green standing 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has a pair of upperclassmen bookend tackles to rely upon on the field and off. Green, in particular, stood out to Roper as a team leader in the offseason.
"He's every day," Roper said. "He's really impressive to me."
Despite missing all of the 2013 season, Green has shown improvement according to his teammates.
"He’s physical, he’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said. "It doesn’t seem like he had a year off because it doesn’t feel like he missed a step."
Green and Humphries were 100 percent for spring practice and proved to be among Florida's standout performers. Now Florida is hoping the two will carry over their improvement, confidence and good health into the fall.
"That’s a big deal, man," Humphries said. "Me and Chaz being back, that’s good. When we’re on the field together, it works well. We're going to try and keep it up. If both of us stay healthy, we can make some things happen."
Who’s the favorite to win the national championship?
Which is the strongest conference?
Who’s the Heisman Trophy front-runner?
Eleven of the 14 starting centers in the SEC were among the 66 players on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the top center in the country.
Talk about being the center of attention.
And while it’s true that we all get caught up in the skill players -- the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers -- it all starts right there in the middle of the offensive line.
If you’re good at center, everything else usually has a way of falling into place up front offensively.
“The thing I like best about it is that you’re in control of five guys, and really, the success of those five guys is sort of on your shoulders,” said Auburn senior center Reese Dismukes, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy a year ago.
“You hear a lot of people say the center is the quarterback of the offensive line. That appeals to me. I like being in control, making the calls and making sure everybody’s on the same page. If you’re not making the right calls, somebody’s going to be on the wrong page, and it only takes one person being on the wrong page for it all to go bad. I like having that pressure on me.”
Dismukes’ SEC cohorts on the Rimington Trophy watch list include Georgia’s David Andrews, Missouri’s Evan Boehm, Mississippi State’s Dillon Day, Florida’s Max Garcia, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Texas A&M’s Mike Matthews, LSU’s Elliott Porter, Kentucky’s Jon Toth, Vanderbilt’s Joe Townsend and South Carolina’s Cody Waldrop.
They’re all a little different, some more experienced than others, and some bigger than others. But they’ve all perfected the rarest of crafts, which is being able to successfully snap a football (usually a shotgun snap in this day and age) with a 300-pound plus defensive tackle itching to step on their throat as soon as the ball is snapped.
“You’re doing a lot of different things at once and processing a lot of information very quickly,” said Boehm, who started all 14 games last season at center after starting all 12 at left guard as a true freshman. “It’s a big responsibility as an offensive lineman to touch the ball every play. Everything starts with you, and you have to be vocal up there.”
Dismukes, a preseason All-American, is part of an Auburn offensive line that should again be one of the best in the SEC. The 6-3, 295-pound senior has been a fixture up front for the Tigers from the day he walked onto campus and has started in 37 of his 39 games.
Ask him how much he’s grown up during that time, and he offers a hearty chuckle.
“Light years,” he said. “This game makes you grow up fast, or it will shove you right out of it.”
Whereas Dismukes has been a center ever since he can remember, Boehm didn’t start playing the position until last season. He actually went to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and requested the move after playing left guard as a freshman.
“I felt like it was the best thing for the team and best thing for me, and I appreciate Coach Pinkel for having enough trust in me to make the move,” said Boehm, who was actually a fullback when he first started playing football in the seventh grade.
Boehm isn’t the only SEC center who’s relatively new to the position. Garcia is making the transition as a fifth-year senior at Florida after splitting his time last season between guard and tackle. He began his career at Maryland and started all 12 games at left tackle in 2011 before transferring to Florida.
But regardless of the path a player takes to the center position, there’s a fraternity of sorts, a pride thing that transcends size, speed, and even looks.
Boehm and Dismukes know each other from the recruiting process, as Dismukes was Boehm’s host when Boehm visited Auburn.
Dismukes and Georgia's Andrews also stay in touch and will occasionally share tips on upcoming opponents. Between them, they have 64 career starts. Mississippi State’s Day has 34 career starts. So if you throw Day into the mix, that’s a combined 98 starts among the SEC’s three most grizzled center veterans.
“We’re not the strongest or most athletic or any of that stuff,” Dismukes said of his center brethren. “Maybe we’re a little weird, but we just love the game.”
They love their hair, too.
Boehm and Day are running a tight race for the “locks” award. Both are known for their trademark hair as much as they are for locking down opposing defensive linemen. Boehm has the bushy look going -- beard and all -- while Day is sporting the long, blond-rocker look.
Of course, it’s not like either is overly concerned with style. Technique, maybe, but certainly not style, not with some of the monsters they have to block in the SEC.
“With the defensive line culture in the SEC, you better also create that same culture in the offensive line, and that starts in the middle,” Boehm said. “The great thing about this league is you’ve got guys like Reese and David and all the other guys, and you can study their moves and why they’ve been so successful and try to incorporate it into your game.
“It’s an honor to be among them.”
And even better to be front and center.
- LSU junior defensive tackle Quentin Thomas, who is expected to start this season, has overcome significant off-the-field obstacles from the time he was a teenager in order to reach this point in his football career.
- Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, who will miss the season opener because of a suspension, appears to be bouncing back after an eventful offseason, with coach Hugh Freeze saying he "couldn't be more pleased" with Nkemdiche.
- Georgia is discussing options for erecting an indoor practice facility on campus.
- Dan Mullen said he wants Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott to drive the Bulldogs' offense like a sports car.
- The Bulldogs secondary remains a work in progress, according to new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. He said, "I feel like right now I’ve got one guy who’s playing the way it’s supposed to be played in the secondary."
- Alabama coach Nick Saban said he has been pleased with the play of all his quarterbacks in training camp and that the Crimson Tide offense is showing a "little more maturity."
- Auburn sophomore Montravius Adams is working at defensive tackle in Tigers' training camp but could see some time at defensive end as well.
- Arkansas is eager to get on the field and get the bad taste out of its mouth after a 3-9 showing last year. Running back Jonathan Williams said, "You'll see Aug. 30 how bad we want to prove people wrong."
“You’ll see Aug. 30 how bad we want to prove people wrong,” - See more at: http://arkansasnews.com/sports/williams-hogs-will-earn-improvement#sthash.Yogoq8dw.dpuf“You’ll see Aug. 30 how bad we want to prove people wrong,” - See more at: http://arkansasnews.com/sports/williams-hogs-will-earn-improvement#sthash.Yogoq8dw.dpuf
- Florida had 17 players suffer season-ending injuries last season. Sixth-year senior receiver Andre Debose is one of them and like the rest of those who missed time, he is eager to return to the field.
- After Monday's practice, Mark Stoops seemed unhappy with his receivers' ability to catch the football. On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Neal Brown sung a slightly different tune.
- Missouri is looking for several receivers to step into new roles this season, returning just three who have a caught a pass in their collegiate careers.
- South Carolina is depending on freshman cornerbacks to be ready to play -- and possibly start -- their season opener against Texas A&M.
- Tennessee receiver Cody Blanc tore an Achilles' tendon in practice Tuesday and will miss the season, Butch Jones said.
- Texas A&M has a solid special teams group, but coordinator Jeff Banks is looking for improvement in the return game.
- Vanderbilt's quarterback competition between Patton Robinette and Steven Rivers is the focus, but there are other notable storylines coming out of Commodores camp.
As a final farewell to the BCS era, I used my opponent-adjusted FEI ratings to identify the five best individual team seasons in each of the Power Five conferences. The ratings reward dominant victories combined with strong competition, which are key elements that we expect the College Football Playoff committee to take into account as well.
(Note: Due to the lack of available play-by-play and drive data, FEI ratings have been calculated only since 2003. For the 1998-2002 seasons, we produced an alternate set of ratings based on opponent-adjusted final scores. The alternate ratings have a 0.95 correlation with FEI.)
Here are the five best SEC teams from the BCS era:
1. 2008 Florida Gators (13-1)
The SEC claimed nine of the 16 championships during the BCS era, including one each by undefeated Alabama and Auburn teams in 2009 and 2010, respectively. So what pushes this one-loss team to the top over all others? The Gators lost 31-30 in late September to Ole Miss, then ripped off a dominant run down the stretch -- eight victories by at least 28 points apiece and three straight wins to end the season over teams ranked among the FEI top-10 by an average score of 33-16. Four opponents were ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game -- Florida whipped them by an average margin of 23 points.
The Gators' defense and special teams contributed 149.5 points of field position value over the course of the year, more than 10 points per game. And the offense, led by Heisman finalist Tim Tebow (30 touchdowns, four interceptions), ranked third nationally in yards per play (7.1) and fourth in scoring.
Surprise Programs In 2015 Recruiting
6:00 PM ET 21 Texas A&M 9 South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State 18 Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET West Virginia 2 Alabama 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State 24 Missouri 4:00 PM ET Arkansas 6 Auburn 5:30 PM ET 16 Clemson 12 Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU