Georgia Bulldogs: SEC
WINTER PARK, Fla. -- Defensive end Trent Harris (Winter Park, Fla./Winter Park) originally was set to announce his college destination before his spring game on Thursday night, but an offer from Ohio State caused the talented pass-rusher to delay his decision.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound athlete said he just decided to enjoy the process and slow things down.
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Those are names of the present. What first caught Moton’s mind upon getting the offer was a Bulldog of the past -- a player some consider the greatest to put on a Georgia uniform.
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Here's what he's looked at so far:
Now, we're taking a look at Kiper's top quarterback and cornerback draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks and look at the corners later today.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAlabama's AJ McCarron falls in the top five of Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 2014 NFL draft QB prospects.
Manziel is getting all sorts of draft attention after his record-breaking, Heisman-winning season. He's the most talked about quarterback in the country and while he doesn't have an elite arm, he's extremely athletic and slippery. He's looking to develop more into a passer, but his ability to improv will continue to help him when his arm can't.
McCarron is someone who could have left for the NFL this year, but decided to stay in school. He makes great decisions with the ball (he threw 30 touchdowns to three interceptions last season) and certainly knows how to win. He has two national championship rings and is going for his third straight. He hasn't been asked to do a lot at Alabama, but he's put up some pretty good numbers and is easily the most talented quarterback Saban has had at Alabama.
Wallace has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but he had a lot of decision-making issues last year. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but threw 22 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Fixing his turnover issue is the biggest thing Wallace has to work on this fall. He has good arm strength and can get out of trouble situations with his feet.
Then you have Murray, who isn't getting a lot of draft love. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but also decided to stay in school. Murray's height (listed at 6-1) has hurt his draft status, but he has a solid arm, moves around well with his feet and has really improved his decision making. He had the stigma of not coming up in big games, but showed improvements in 2012 with his second-half effort in the Dawgs' win against Florida and with the way he played against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He'll probably end the 2013 season with a handful of SEC/Georgia records and should become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four straight seasons.
Other draft-eligible quarterbacks I'm keeping an eye on this fall:
- Jeff Driskel, Florida: He wasn't great last year, but there's no denying Driskel has talent. He's more comfortable with the playbook, and he has a lot more confidence. He must have more command and develop better chemistry with his receivers this fall.
- James Franklin, Missouri: He spent most of last season battling injuries, but finally isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain. His confidence was up this spring and that will go a long way this fall.
- Zach Mettenberger, LSU: He really came along in November and has all of his receiving targets back. People at LSU feel like he's much more comfortable with Cam Cameron's guidance.
- Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: He's had an up-and-down career with the Bulldogs, but when he was on last year he was extremely efficient. He lost all of his receivers from last year and can't press like he did late last season.
- Connor Shaw, South Carolina: It's hard to find a tougher quarterback out there. Shaw has dealt with a lot of injuries, but when he's been on the field, he's had a lot of success. Here's a chance for him to really improve his draft stock.
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley and Keith Marshall have found that working together off the field really pushes each other to be better on the field as individual players.
But it only got worse a month later when he watched that same Alabama team crush a completely overmatched Notre Dame team in the Discover BCS National Championship.
“That hurt; I’m not gonna lie,” Marshall said. “I feel like we could have done the same thing. Everybody obviously watched the SEC championship -- that was the national championship. (The BCS title game) wasn’t even competition.”
What really shook Marshall was how dominant Alabama’s running game was against the Irish. Led by the dynamic duo of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, the Tide pounded away with 265 rushing yards.
With how well Georgia’s own rushing tandem of Marshall and Todd Gurley did in 2012, the two could only sulk when watching how easy Alabama’s backs had it.
“I was just looking and thinking that could have been us,” Gurley said. “We could have done the same thing.
“That might have hurt worse than losing (to Alabama in the SEC championship game), just to see how bad they did them and how bad they were running on them.”
And he’s probably right.
Gurley topped all SEC running backs with 1,385 rushing yards, while Marshall added another 759 yards in 2012. The two also combined for 25 rushing touchdowns.
Gurley did the smashing, while Marshall did more dashing. They complemented each other so well and never once complained about sharing the spotlight.
It’s an almost foreign concept to think about two players who stood alone as the stars of their high school teams being OK with sharing the limelight. It’s not hard to be selfish in this sport, but both say they embraced the idea of working together well before they even got on campus.
With Isaiah Crowell still on the roster while they were being recruited, they figured they’d have to take a backseat to him from the jump. But after he was dismissed from the team last summer, the pair took on the responsibility of being the feature backs.
Fresh out of high school and they were now running the show, and it was their unselfish nature that fueled their fire.
“I don’t think anybody wanted the spotlight to themselves,” Gurley said. “You have to share with somebody.”
For Marshall, he’s glad he and Gurley split time. Marshall carried the ball an average of eight times a game, while Gurley hovered around 15 carries. Sharing actually helped combat wear and tear.
“I probably wouldn’t have been as productive if I was getting 25 carries a game,” he said. “I think it’s the same for [Gurley].”
Instead of pouting, they pushed each other and became best of friends away from the field -- only making them stronger on it.
Either one could stand alone in just about any SEC backfield, but they prefer to work together.
They still compete with each other, but they strive for improvement more than anything.
“Obviously, you want to be the best in everything that you do. That’s just the part of being a competitive athlete, but I just try to do the best to my ability every day,” Marshall said. “I’m striving to be the best, but you just have to work as hard as you can. I’m not really focused on (Gurley). We’re competing, but we’re trying to help each other at the same time.”
“He had a great spring,” Bobo said at the UGA Days event in Augusta, “one of our most improved receivers.”
Scott-Wesley entered the lineup in the Bulldogs’ Capital One Bowl win against Nebraska only after Malcolm Mitchell left the game with a concussion sustained while returning a kick.
To that point in his first season as an active college player, Scott-Wesley had caught passes only in mop-up duty against Florida Atlantic and Georgia Southern. But he hauled in three balls against the Cornhuskers -- including two long passes that pushed the ball into Nebraska territory, one of which was a 31-yard gain on Georgia’s go-ahead touchdown drive at the end of the third quarter -- and concluded a career-best performance with 67 yards.
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.comSpeedy receiver Justin Scott-Wesley had six catches for 135 yards and a TD as a redshirt freshman.
“I think the confidence level he gained from playing in the bowl game when Malcolm Mitchell went down with a concussion, he caught three passes -- two big third-down conversions -- and him making those plays in a game gave him confidence to carry over into spring ball and get better and make that next step,” Bobo said.
Blessed with sprinter’s speed -- in fact, the former Georgia high school record-setter will compete in the 100-meter dash for Georgia’s track team on Saturday evening at the SEC championships -- Scott-Wesley was a project for the Bulldogs’ coaching staff when he arrived on campus in 2011. Bobo credited receivers coach Tony Ball for molding an SEC-ready receiver out of a player who initially had much to learn about the finer points of his position.
“He can absolutely fly, but he was not a football player,” Bobo said. “He was very raw, and coach Tony Ball does an outstanding job with our receivers and coaching the little things and the details and has really refined this guy’s game to where I think he’s going to have a breakout year.”
Scott-Wesley made some noise last spring, as well, but barely dented the receiver rotation until the very end of the season. He concluded his redshirt freshman campaign with six catches for 135 yards and one touchdown, so it’s far too early to say that another strong spring means he has arrived.
However, Bobo points out that it was a sign of progress -- which is exactly what he wanted to see from a developing player in the spring.
“That’s what you’re looking for and really looking for in the whole offense is taking that next step,” Bobo said.
Alabama Crimson Tide
What they are selling: What's not to sell? Alabama is coming off back-to-back national championships, and the Crimson Tide had nine players taken in April's NFL draft, including three in the first round. For the critics who say you won't play early at UA, ask T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper how much they contributed as freshmen.
What they are missing: Although they won a national championship, the Tide didn't generate much pass rush last fall, and they had trouble containing freshman sensation Johnny Manziel. Also, they need to rebuild the offensive line, a unit that anchored the offense last year.
What they are selling: New head coach Bret Bielema runs a completely different offensive system than the previous two Arkansas coaches. The Razorbacks are selling an opportunity for freshmen to come in and earn playing time early in their careers.
What they are missing: The Razorbacks signed only one offensive lineman, Denver Kirkland, who was rated a four-star prospect or higher last year. In this run-heavy system, look for Arkansas to focus on landing talented players along the offensive line.
What they are selling: It's a new regime for Auburn, but there's a familiar face running the show. New head coach Gus Malzahn knows the program from his days as offensive coordinator. He's already shown the ability to recruit, stealing ESPN 150 linebacker Tre Williams away from the Tide. There's a sense of excitement on The Plains again.
What they are missing: Malzahn filled out his first recruiting class with playmakers, but Auburn needs to build up front on the offensive and defensive lines. No matter what offense you run, if you want to win in the SEC, you need to be able to compete up in the trenches.
What they are selling: With no proven wide receivers on the perimeter, Florida is attempting to sell early playing time at the position. A chance to play for one of the best defensive minds in college football in Will Muschamp is another selling point to defensive prospects.
What they are missing: Production on offense. After finishing 114th nationally in passing offense, it will be hard to sell playing time to wide receivers without an explosive passing game in place.
What they are selling: Freshmen, if they're good enough, play early at Georgia. From running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to offensive tackle John Theus to defensive end Jordan Jenkins, several freshmen Bulldogs made major contributions on a team that was a few yards away from making the national championship game.
What they are missing: Georgia has brought in four top-12 recruiting classes in the last four years. Depth might become an issue for some recruits, but Georgia has certainly shown a willingness to play younger players.
What they are selling: After finishing 2-10, Kentucky fired coach Joker Phillips. New head coach Mark Stoops is offering a fresh start and a chance to help build Kentucky in to a contender in the SEC East.
What they are missing: Plain and simple -- tradition. Sure, Kentucky is full of basketball tradition, but the success on the hardwood completely overshadows the football program. A record 50,831 fans attended the Wildcats' spring game, so the interest level is certainly headed in the right direction.
What they are selling: An unprecedented 10 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. LSU is selling the opportunity, not only for early playing time because of the departures, but a chance to make it to the NFL in three years.
What they are missing: Because of all the departures, there are some holes on both sides of the ball. Depth is now an issue at running back and LSU will need to replace Eric Reid, Kevin Minter, defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter.
Ole Miss Rebels
What they are selling: Ole Miss landed the No. 5-ranked class in the country, including No. 1 overall player Robert Nkemdiche and No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Look for Ole Miss to sell recruits on the opportunity to help build something special under head coach Hugh Freeze.
What they are missing: Freeze brought a creative and innovative offense to the SEC, but the defense is still a work in progress. Ole Miss finished 12th in the SEC in pass defense and will need to continue to build depth in order to compete for the SEC West championship.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
What they are selling: Only 11 of 22 starters return for a team that finished 8-5 last year. The Bulldogs offer recruits a chance to play early and play in the best division in college football.
What they are missing: Mississippi State returns its starting quarterback Tyler Russell, but who will he be throwing to? Last year's four leading receivers, including Chad Bumphis, are gone. Look for the Bulldogs to focus on offensive weapons in this recruiting class.
What they are selling: The Tigers return 14 of 22 starters on a team that went 5-7 in its first year in the SEC East. Missouri runs a fun and innovative offense that is sure to attract recruits, and there is certainly an opportunity to play early.
What they are missing: The defensive line is probably the most critical area on any defense in the SEC, and the Tigers lost their best lineman in Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou must find a viable replacement for Richardson and linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner.
South Carolina Gamecocks
What they are selling: The Gamecocks have been dominant on defense over the last few years, and a strong line is a big part of their success. South Carolina is selling an opportunity to be the next Jadeveon Clowney and be a part of one of the top defenses in the SEC.
What they are missing: Hard to believe, but head coach Steve Spurrier needs help at wide receiver. The Gamecocks signed only one wide receiver in their 2013 class. They have young bodies, but not much depth or production from the returning group.
What they are selling: A fresh start under new head coach Butch Jones. Since 2011, Tennessee has finished with the No. 13, 21 and 29 recruiting classes in the country. There plenty of holes to fill, and any incoming freshman will have plenty of opportunities to earn a starting spot.
What they are missing: Tennessee lost wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to the NFL draft and must replace their production on the outside. The Volunteers are also thin in the secondary and will look to recruiting to plug some key holes on defense.
Texas A&M Aggies
What they are selling: There is a lot to sell a recruit on at Texas A&M right now. An explosive offense which led the SEC in total offense by more than 100 yards a game, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and a team that went into Tuscaloosa and handed Alabama its only loss last season.
What they are missing: There are still some holes to fill on defense. The Aggies finished with the No. 8-ranked defense in the SEC and the No. 10-ranked pass defense in the league. They also need to replace talented defensive end Damontre Moore, who is now in the NFL.
What they are selling: Head coach James Franklin has taken Vanderbilt to a bowl in two consecutive years, and the Commodores are bringing in a solid recruiting class. Selling recruits on an opportunity to play at Vanderbilt during one of the best eras in the school's football history is enticing to high school recruits.
What they are missing: Vanderbilt is not yet on par with other SEC schools as far as facilities. The Commodores, though, are certainly headed in the right direction. A new indoor practice facility is being constructed, and stadium renovations are in the planning stages.
By that midseason game last fall, Georgia’s quarterback had already authored a series of subpar performances against ranked teams in his two-plus seasons as the Bulldogs’ starter. He was in the middle of another against the Gators, tossing interceptions on three straight first-half possessions as Georgia took a 7-6 lead into halftime.
Yet Murray was able to regroup, going 8-for-16 in the second half for 116 yards and hitting Malcolm Mitchell for a win-clinching 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that proved Murray is a tougher competitor than it might have once appeared.
AP Photo/John RaouxGeorgia quarterback Aaron Murray could set a few more league and school passing records in 2013.
In Georgia’s next game against ranked opposition, Murray was hit in the mouth again -- literally, by Alabama defensive end Quinton Dial in the SEC championship game -- but went on to prove that he’s anything but soft. In Georgia's games against ranked opponents following the Florida win -- against Alabama and against Nebraska and its top-ranked pass defense in the Capital One Bowl -- Murray flashed resiliency that he might have lacked earlier in his career.
He was a combined 36-for-66 for 692 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions against the Crimson Tide and Cornhuskers. And in the second halves of those two games, he was even more efficient, hitting 15 of 25 passes for 401 yards, three scores and no interceptions.
“Hopefully he won’t have to hear any of that big-game stuff anymore,” said tight end Arthur Lynch, one of Murray’s closest friends on the team.
Murray will have an opportunity to end that criticism for good when the Bulldogs return to the field this fall. He’ll have a national TV showcase to open the season against Clemson and its high-powered offense on Aug. 31. And he’ll face South Carolina and LSU -- two defenses that created the previous low points in his college career -- before the end of September.
“It’s going to be a huge start to the season,” Murray said. “It’s very similar to two years ago when we started off with Boise State and South Carolina [both losses]. Obviously that didn’t turn out too well. The season turned out well, but we definitely want in any season to start off strong.
“To get those first couple of wins is always tough, to get that train rolling, and we know we have a tough task ahead of us and we have to be ready. It’s not like we can walk in there and have a game or two to warm up. It’s right off the bat and we’ve got to be ready to go.”
Murray and Georgia’s offense set a new school record by scoring 529 points last season. If they can somehow score enough to run the table against one of the nation’s most difficult September schedules, the Bulldogs’ only true SEC road games come against Tennessee and Auburn, who combined to win eight games last season. Survive September and UGA will be in the thick of the national championship conversation -- and Murray could firmly be in the Heisman Trophy talks.
He is already the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons. By the end of this season, he could own league career records for passing yards, touchdowns, completions and passing attempts.
While setting those records isn’t his primary goal, Murray worked this spring to make himself an even more productive quarterback as a senior. He dropped some weight, down to 207 pounds, to help regain some of the scrambling ability he believed he lost between his freshman and junior seasons. And he visited with quarterback guru George Whitfield -- who previously helped No. 1 picks Andrew Luck and Cam Newton prepare for the NFL draft -- during spring break to refine his technique and add velocity to his throws.
“I think anytime you can go somewhere and get one thing or two things that might help you be more accurate or help you with footwork, it’s good,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo told reporters after Murray’s trip.
Statistically, Murray is going to finish his career as one of Georgia's and the SEC’s top quarterbacks so long as he remains healthy this fall. There is more to a legacy than stats, however, and Murray realizes that winning a championship would ensure he will go down as one of the elite quarterbacks in conference history.
He helped the Bulldogs recover from the first losing season in Richt’s tenure by leading them to SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012. They fell just short of a spot in the Discover BCS Championship Game when a last-minute drive against Alabama fizzled at the Tide’s 4-yard line -- motivating the Georgia quarterback to bypass an opportunity to enter the NFL draft in order to take one more shot at college football’s biggest prize.
“Obviously it would definitely be cool to have those records,” Murray said. “I’m a guy who has based my time here [on] I want to win championships. That’s my No. 1 goal. So to accomplish all of that in one year, I think that would be a great year. That would be a lot of fun.
“But like I said, my first goal and only goal, really, is to win an SEC championship and win a national championship next year.”
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The No. 2-ranked tackle and No. 12 player overall said his football success has come as a surprise.
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1. Wide receiver position is loaded
There will be a plethora of top wide receivers in Bradenton this weekend. Ermon Lane (Homestead, Fla./Homestead), the No. 1-ranked wide receiver in the country, will have a chance to showcase his abilities against some elite talent. Additionally, Travis Rudolph (West Palm Beach, Fla./Cardinal Newman), Artavis Scott (Tarpon Springs, Fla./East Lake), Moral Stephens (Perry, Fla./Taylor County), Kenric Young (Gainesville, Fla./Gainesville), Isaiah Ford (Jacksonville, Fla./Trinity Christian), Garrett Johnson (Winter Garden, Fla./West Orange) and 2015 wideout Da'Vante Phillips (Miami/Central) are scheduled to participate.
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