SEC morning links

March, 13, 2015
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The SEC has a new commissioner. On Thursday, the conference announced that Greg Sankey will replace Mike Slive beginning Aug. 1. Sankey has been Slive’s right-hand man for the past 12 years, so the decision didn’t come as a huge surprise, but for those who don’t know the new SEC commissioner, this article is for you.

More on Sankey
Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

SEC morning links

March, 12, 2015
Mar 12
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1. I think all of us assume the Alabama quarterback job will come down to Jake Coker versus the young trio of former ESPN 300 signal callers already on campus. But have we forgotten about Alec Morris, the one who’s been around the longest? Blake Sims was the veteran last year, and he wound up winning the job. And speaking of Sims, the former Crimson Tide star believes Morris is "going to factor big-time" in the much-anticipated position battle. We’ll all get our first look this Friday when Alabama opens spring practice, and though it will be front and center, the quarterback competition isn’t the only storyline headed into practice. There are plenty of other question marks facing the defending SEC champs this spring.

2. You probably don’t know every single athletic director in the SEC. I’m not even sure I do. But that doesn’t take away from how important they are to a football program. And that is why Missouri fans have to be ecstatic to hear Gary Pinkel’s endorsement for Mack Rhoades, the school’s new athletic director, especially considering Pinkel has had the same boss since he was hired in 2001. The two have already spoken, and you can bet the south end zone improvements at Faurot Field were brought up in conversation. For more on Rhoades and what he brings to Missouri, be sure to read this column from Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It sure sounds like they found the right man for the job in Columbia.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

One thing's for sure in the SEC: It is definitely not the Year of the Quarterback, but it will be the Year of Finding the Quarterback.

At least five teams -- Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina -- will be breaking in new quarterbacks, while three others -- Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt -- could potentially have new signal-callers under center thanks to intriguing quarterback battles. Then, you have Arkansas and Missouri, which must have better play at quarterback if those teams are going to make championship runs in 2015.

Ten SEC teams have some sort of serious quarterback question, but there's good news for most: There are quality running backs to help carry the load. Those backfield bulls are back to help push when quarterbacks can't. There are safety nets all around the league that could help quarterbacks needing a boost this fall.

For instance, look at Georgia. The Bulldogs return a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, but for the second straight year will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. The difference in 2015 is that the Dawgs are dealing with both youth and inexperience. But whichever quarterback makes the final cut will have the pleasure of handing the off to Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Chubb, who might have been the SEC's best running back last year, rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDerrick Henry should alleviate the pressure on whichever new quarterback Alabama has under center next fall.
And he has friends. Fellow sophomore Sony Michel is back with his 410 yards and five touchdowns, while the hope is that veteran Keith Marshall will bounce back from another tough knee injury.

Turn your attention a little southwest of Athens, and you'll find an Alabama team wondering if Jake Coker can finally take over this team or if some youngster will be thrown in the fire. The good thing about that fire is that rising junior Derrick Henry is there to fan the flames. Despite being second in carries last year (172) Henry led Alabama with 990 rushing yards and had 11 touchdowns. Like Chubb, Henry is a freight train with his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame and track star speed. Couple that with the eventual return of home-run threat Kenyan Drake (leg) and some talented youngsters, like freshman Bo Scarbrough, and Alabama's next quarterback has quite the stable to work with and relieve some of the pressure.

Auburn is an interesting case because Nick Marshall is gone, but the more pass-savvy Jeremy Johnson is the runaway favorite at quarterback. Still, he's a new starter, and the Tigers lost SEC-leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne (1,608 yards). Sophomore Roc Thomas has loads of potential, and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson could be a star in the making. Auburn has owned the SEC's top rusher in each of Gus Malzahn's first two years as the Tigers' head coach so don't be shocked by another dominant running game.

For Arkansas and Missouri, it's about making sure their returning starting quarterbacks are, well, better. Brandon Allen (Arkansas) and Maty Mauk (Missouri) struggled mightily at times last year and were wildly inconsistent, as neither completed better than 56 percent of his passes and both failed to average even 190 yards per game. That's not even close to good enough if either one of these teams is going to make a run in 2015.

Arkansas returns the SEC's best rushing duo in Jonathan Williams (1,190) and Alex Collins (1,100), which definitely has to have Allen smiling. Mizzou will have quite a few new faces around Mauk, but Russell Hansbrough was one of the SEC's best running backs, registering 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers should go up with Marcus Murphy gone and with the likelihood that the Tigers will probably be a more run-oriented team early this fall.

Two other teams to keep an eye on are LSU and South Carolina. The Tigers have a very intriguing QB battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, and while LSU has to be exceedingly better at quarterback, having an older, wiser Leonard Fournette handling the rock will certainly help. Fournette didn't exactly explode onto the scene as quickly as everyone envisioned last year, but he finished with 1,034 yards and will return as a Heisman favorite. There's isn't a lot of experience behind him, but Fournette is built to be both an every-down rusher and a slasher.

South Carolina lost starting quarterback Dylan Thompson and starting running back Mike Davis, but Brandon Wilds has 1,277 career rushing yards and should be Mr. Reliable for South Carolina's new starting quarterback, which will likely by redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch. Wilds isn't elite, but he's tough and a grinder.

Even Vanderblit, which has a log-jam battle at quarterback, has a solid running back in sophomore Ralph Webb, who ran for 907 yards last year, but has to improve on his four touchdowns and 4.3 yards per carry.

On paper, the SEC has enough wealth at running back to counter the newbies and uncertainty at quarterback. These guys aren't total cures, but their play will go a long way toward shoring up those uncertain passing games.

SEC morning links

March, 11, 2015
Mar 11
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It was 70 degrees in Atlanta on Tuesday. Happy days certainly are here again!
Not a tweet of the day, but colleague David Ching's Instagram video of LSU's receivers showing off their fancy footwork is impressive:

Roundtable: Most intriguing QB battles in SEC

March, 10, 2015
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Competition is the running theme in every spring practice, but it will be especially so for SEC quarterbacks over the next several weeks.

Today our SEC writers take a look at some of the most intriguing quarterback battles that will take place within the conference this spring and beyond.

Alex Scarborough: Georgia

Call me crazy, but who wins the job is irrelevant. What matters is that either Jacob Park or Brice Ramsey secures the position early and sets the tone for the rest of the season, because the last thing Georgia needs is a QB controversy. There’s so much going for the offense already. There’s Nick Chubb, the only running back in college football that could make you forget Todd Gurley. There’s Malcolm Mitchell, a top talent at receiver if he can stay healthy. And there’s the O-line, which could be the best in the SEC with four starters back. So whoever starts under center will have plenty to work with. Now it’s only a matter of settling on the best option.

Chris Low: Texas A&M

There's not much drama this spring in the Texas A&M quarterback camp. It's sophomore Kyle Allen and ... well, that's it. Kenny Hill transferred after being all the rage in Aggieland to start last season, but Allen was the one who finished the season at quarterback, going 3-2 as the starter. He's got a big arm and showed uncanny presence in the pocket for a true freshman. But it would be premature to pencil in the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Allen as Texas A&M's starter in 2015. Kyler Murray is slated to be on campus this summer, and he arrives as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country -- assuming he doesn't opt for pro baseball. There's some thought that Murray could be a first-round selection in June's baseball draft. If so, he's got another big decision to make after picking Texas A&M over Texas in a fierce recruiting battle. Stay tuned because the real drama surrounding the Aggies' quarterback job will heat up this summer.

David Ching: Ole Miss

Ole Miss is intriguing not so much because of the on-field competition, but because of Chad Kelly's presence in the position battle. I suppose it’s the tabloid element of the story that interests me. Prior to his arrest following a bar fight late last year, Kelly was already viewed as a wild card because of his unceremonious exit from Clemson. Hugh Freeze stood by the junior college transfer -- Kelly led East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA title last year, passing for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions -- saying Kelly deserves a second chance. But can Kelly keep his act together and also outperform Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade? It will be fascinating to watch it play out.

Edward Aschoff: LSU

The Tigers are in desperate need of competent play at quarterback, and just about everyone will be keeping a close eye on Anthony Jennings vs. Brandon Harris. No one has any clue which way this one will go. You have Jennings, who basically limped his way through 2014, and Harris, who arrived as a star recruit but couldn’t stay on the field. Both have shown flashes -- maybe Harris a bit more -- but both were wildly inconsistent and have a long way to go with their development. However, if one can stand out and transform into a legitimate passing threat, LSU’s offense -- and entire team -- could be dangerous in 2015.

Greg Ostendorf: Florida

Don’t underestimate this battle. This could be a career-defining decision for Jim McElwain in just his first year at Florida. Fans are tired of subpar quarterback play, and that’s part of the reason McElwain was hired in the first place. On one side, Treon Harris came in and gave the Gators a spark last season. He’s a true dual-threat guy who has more game experience. On the other side, there’s Will Grier, the former ESPN 300 signal-caller who better fits what McElwain wants to do on offense. Both will be given an equal shot at the job, and I don’t expect a starter to be named until the fall. But what makes it so intriguing and why I think it’s the most intriguing battle in the SEC is McElwain. He has a proven track record with quarterbacks, and both Harris and Grier will benefit from his arrival. Who will benefit the most?

Sam Khan Jr.: Alabama

Alabama’s quarterback battle fascinates me in large part because of how it played out a season ago. Jake Coker transferred into the program during the offseason and before he even stepped foot on campus, there seemed to be widespread speculation that he was the successor to AJ McCarron. Then an interesting thing happened -- the battle played out, Blake Sims eventually won the job and had an impressive season. Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin were methodical in that process, so I expect that to be the case again. Coker’s certainly the favorite again this year and has the experience edge, being a senior and the only one out of the group that includes himself, Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris to have thrown a collegiate pass. That said, he has thrown only 10 more passes against SEC competition than his competitors, so while he has an experience edge, it’s not an overwhelming one.

Roundtable: Who wins SEC QB battles?

March, 10, 2015
Mar 10
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There is a lot of uncertainty at the most important position in the SEC. At least half of the quarterback jobs are at least somewhat up for grabs heading into 2015, and how those battles are resolved will go a long way toward determining the success of the league.

We'll break down seven of those battles and predict who will come out on top.

Alabama

Edward Aschoff: This is Jake Coker's last chance to prove he’s up to playing at Bama, and with a year to sit and learn under his belt, he’ll be more prepared to tackle Lane Kiffin’s offense. He’ll go from unprepared to the man this spring. Honestly, we can’t take much from what he did in very limited duty last season, so we’re having to go off hype still -- which is true about all of Bama’s quarterbacks. However, he is the only QB with a collegiate pass attempt on the roster. We’ve heard about Coker’s arm talent, and he’ll finally show it off in 2015.

Alex Scarborough: There are no frontrunners. There are no favorites. Not this time, at least. Because if we learned anything from last year's QB battle, it's that nothing can be taken for granted. So rather than going all in on Jake Coker again, I'm taking the field. And it's not that Coker isn't talented enough, because he is. But I'm not sure he's got the "it" factor. I'm not sure he can read the field and sense the pressure well enough to thwart SEC defenses. Besides, there are a number of other contenders to choose from, three of whom were top QB prospects coming out of high school.

Florida

Edward Aschoff: This is one of the league’s most intriguing battles, and I’m going with Will Grier. The redshirt freshman had to get bigger and wiser than he was as a frosh but will be front and center this spring along with Treon Harris. All we know about Grier is he had a fantastic high school career, but there are some who think he’s more suited than Harris to run Jim McElwain’s offense. Grier has a big arm, is athletic enough to make plays with his feet, and will be the more polished passer and playmaker this spring.

Sam Khan Jr.: Having experience is beneficial. Treon Harris has that with nine games and six starts under his belt. Getting thrown into the fire midseason is tough for any backup quarterback, much less a true freshman in the SEC. The grit Harris showed while stepping in for Jeff Driskel was admirable. Yes, he was far from perfect, and the stat sheet wasn’t always pretty, but he showed promise. His dual-threat ability is useful for an offense trying to find its footing.

Georgia

Edward Aschoff: This one should be fun to watch for a team that could be a quarterback away from winning more than just the SEC East. Jacob Park was a big-time prospect last year, and with a year to sit and learn -- coupled with his athleticism -- I smell an upset. Brice Ramsey is talented and more experienced, but Park’s footwork and playmaking ability will give him a couple of advantages going forward. Park not only gives the Bulldogs another running option, but he has good poise both under center and in the shotgun and adds an impressive arm.

Chris Low: Mark Richt is on record as saying there will be an open competition at quarterback, and while the Bulldogs might not have their answer overnight, Brice Ramsey will separate himself as the clear No. 1. A redshirt sophomore, Ramsey has the edge in experience, having played in eight games last season. We've seen enough of Ramsey to know he has incredible arm strength and the confidence in that arm to use the entire field. He was up and down at times last season, but that's to be expected from a first-year backup. Ramsey fits the Dawgs' preferred mold of a pro-style passer and should be especially effective in the play-action game with defenses being so leery of Nick Chubb.

LSU

David Ching: Honestly, I have no idea who will win this competition. I was sure it would eventually be Brandon Harris last fall and was incorrect. Harris is the more intriguing player because we haven’t seen enough of him. Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games last season, so we have a better idea of his capabilities and shortcomings. He’s sharp, mature, and seems like the kind of guy you want in your huddle, but Jennings is not as talented as his competitor. LSU’s offense would be more dangerous with Harris under center -- assuming he proves he is mature enough for that responsibility.

Greg Ostendorf: LSU fans are hoping and praying Harris starts next season, but what has he proven? He had a couple good games early against Sam Houston State and New Mexico State last season, but when he got his chance to start an SEC game on the road, he was dreadful. Jennings isn’t spectacular. He probably never will be. But he’s played in big games, made big throws and knows this offense better than any other quarterback on the roster. Les Miles has a tendency to go with experience, and there's no reason that will change this fall.

Ole Miss

Greg Ostendorf: This is Chad Kelly’s job to lose. He followed a similar path as the recently departed Bo Wallace, coming over from East Mississippi Community College after running into trouble at his first stop. And just like Wallace, he has the talent to win the job from Day 1. The only thing standing in his way is him. If he can stay out of trouble, there’s no reason he won’t be starting come September. Kelly, the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, threw for 3,906 yards and 47 touchdowns last year.

Alex Scarborough: It's not that I don't trust Chad Kelly. I could bury that gut feeling if I had to. The problem is his coach seems to hold the same concern. Just take Hugh Freeze's comments on signing day: “I’m sure hoping and pray like heck that he doesn’t embarrass our team, our university and myself. But that is a possibility.” That, my friends, is the opposite of a ringing endorsement. Besides, I'm not sold on his ability. Sure, he lit up junior college, but that's not enough to make a career. He has a grand total of 17 career pass attempts at the FBS level. Give me DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. They might not have the hype, but they might have the substance.

South Carolina

David Ching: He’s hardly a lock, but Connor Mitch looks like the early favorite. The former ESPN 300 prospect was Dylan Thompson’s backup last season but threw just six passes. Steve Spurrier was adamant that Thompson had to stay healthy for the offense to be successful, so he was clearly not sold on his alternatives. That means Mitch will have to fight for this job, but he seems like the best option over competitors Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and freshman Lorenzo Nunez, who won’t arrive until the summer.

Chris Low: Spurrier has never been predictable when it choosing his trigger man. That's why incoming freshman Lorenzo Nunez has a real chance to be the starter in 2015. He won't be on campus until this summer and needs to develop as a passer, but Spurrier loves Nunez's athletic ability and believes a quarterback who can run and extend the play is a huge advantage. The Gamecocks sold Nunez on being the next Connor Shaw. If Nunez can come in and learn the playbook pretty quickly, he'll be front and center in the South Carolina quarterback battle.

Vanderbilt

Edward Aschoff: It’s anyone’s guess who will come win this race, but I’m going with Johnny McCrary. He started the final five games of the season. Vandy won two of its last six games with McCrary playing. He led the team with 985 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns, but also threw eight interceptions. He was far from perfect and has a long way to go, but if he can develop as a passer, his ability to make plays with his legs will help give him an advantage.

Alex Scarborough: Ah, a rare QB race with no true favorite. It's sort of refreshing. But at the same time, it's troubling. Because at the end of the day, six quarterbacks took snaps for Vanderbilt in 2014 and none of them had anything remotely described as success. So with such dire circumstances, I'll do what I'd advise against nine times out of 10: Take the newbie. Give me Kyle Shurmur, the No. 7 pocket passer in the 2015 class. He looks the part, too, with ideal size and a strong arm. There will be some growing pains, of course, but for a program that's building for the future, why not let him learn on the job?
Auburn enjoyed late January and national signing day success on the trail at a position of need: defensive line and pass-rusher. With that said, the future of the defensive line continues to be a very important key in the 2016 class. On Sunday, the Tigers took a second step in the class to adding both front-line talent and depth with the pledge of ESPN Jr 300 David Marshall, who follows in-state end Quinnen Williams. Marshall becomes the third ESPN Jr 300 pledge for Gus Malzahn and staff, joining No. 37 Nate Craig-Myers and safety/linebacker Stephen Davis Jr.

video

Ted Miller looks at how freshman quarterbacks have become more common in college football, and how these "rookie" college players could factor in at several College Football Playoff contenders.
When is it not football season in the SEC?

And with spring practice already up and running at a handful of schools, now seems about as good a time as any to take a stab at some early predictions as we look ahead to the 2015 season.

Let's hope I have more success than the West Division did in bowl games last season.

Here goes:

Missouri will win at least 10 games ... again: We've heard all the backhanded reasons about how and why Missouri has won 23 games over the last two seasons (tying Alabama for the most in the SEC). Chief among those reasons is that the East Division has been down. That doesn't change the fact that the Tigers are 14-2 in SEC games with a pair of championship game appearances and bowl wins during that span. Gary Pinkel and his staff are obviously doing a lot of things right, and that's not going to change in 2015. Being able to hold onto ace defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was huge. The Tigers just keep developing explosive difference-makers up front defensively, and that's where the game is won.

The SEC will crown a new champion: Alabama fans might want to sit down for this, but there won't be a repeat SEC champion. The Crimson Tide will almost certainly be picked to win the title. When are they not? They were the choice four of the last five years at the SEC media days. Of course, the only time the media got it right was last year. Repeating in this league is akin to winning the lottery in back-to-back years. The last time anybody did it was Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. To put how long it's been in perspective, the only current head coach who was a head coach in the league then was Steve Spurrier, and he was at Florida. Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze were coaching high school football. So, yes, it's been a while.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Mitchell
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsMalcolm Mitchell's past two seasons have been marred by injuries.
At least 13 teams will have two or more losses: When it was all said and done a year ago, everybody in the SEC had at least two losses, and 13 of the 14 teams had three or more. That's just where the league is right now. It eats its own. There's not a huge gap between the top two or three teams and the eighth, ninth and 10th teams. That might not be a good thing for the league in the playoff era, but look for more of the same in 2015. When the College Football Playoff selection committee picks its four teams, at least 13 of the 14 teams in the SEC will have two or more losses.

Carl Lawson will lead the conference in sacks: Some of the best news for Auburn is that Lawson is moving around just fine on his surgically repaired knee and will be ready this spring. Former teammate Gabe Wright called Lawson a “physical beast” last spring when it looked like he was poised to step right in for Dee Ford as the Tigers' finisher off the edge. But then came the ACL tear a month later, and Lawson was out for the season. He had four sacks as a freshman in 2013 but could triple that number this season. He will flourish in Will Muschamp's defense.

Malcolm Mitchell returns to prominence: Speaking of players returning from injury, isn't it about time Mitchell had some luck? When healthy, the guy is an absolute blur. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Some of it's been freakish. He tore his ACL two years ago in the opener against Clemson while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown run. He reinjured his knee prior to last season and missed the Bulldogs' first four games. This is the season it all goes right for Mitchell and he emerges as the top deep threat in the league. Come on, you gotta root for a guy who's in a book club.

Arkansas and Tennessee break out: The Hogs and Vols are both primed for breakout seasons in 2015. Are they ready to make that leap? We should find out on Oct. 3 when they meet in Knoxville in what will be a top-20 matchup. Brace yourselves for more “Woo Pig Sooie” calls and more renditions of “Rocky Top” than should ever be allowed.

Kentucky will go bowling: The Wildcats looked like they were on their way last season after starting out 5-1, but they lost their last six games and stayed home for the postseason. In Year No. 3 under Mark Stoops, Kentucky will get back to a bowl after a four-year hiatus. Even then, the Wildcats will lose more games in September than their basketball team does this entire season. That's good news for Cal's boys, right?

HailState shows staying power: Mississippi State won 10 games in the regular season a year ago for the first time in school history. The Bulldogs lost some key pieces on defense, and the general feeling around the league is that they won't be able to sustain that success. But with Dak Prescott back, they aren't going to just roll over and play dead. They'll find a way to go at least .500 in SEC play for the second straight season. The last time that happened was when Jackie Sherrill was running “bullish” in Starkville with four straight seasons of .500 SEC records or better from 1997-2000.

Nick Saban joins Twitter: Saban will follow Steve Spurrier's lead and take the Twittersphere plunge even though he vowed last season he was too old school to go down that road. I have it on good authority that Saban has at least kicked around the idea, although it's still a real long shot. Boy, if it were to happen, though, what's next? Saban rearranging practice this spring to play golf? OK, let's not get carried away.

Fans will complain about overpaid coaches: Fans of every SEC West team that doesn't win at least 10 games will gripe loudly and lengthily that their coach is overpaid. That sort of comes with the territory when all seven coaches in the division are making $4 million or more per year.
video

Paul Finebaum and Barrett Sallee preview SEC East teams that will bring home wins in 2015.

SEC morning links

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
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A day after Auburn's Corey Grant burned up the track at Auburn's pro day, another former SEC player who didn't attend the NFL combine also helped his cause. Mississippi State's Matt Wells ran a 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash, the best of any player at the Bulldogs' pro day on Wednesday. State was one of three SEC schools to hold a pro day on Wednesday, along with Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Aggies' pro day lacked the fanfare of a year ago when Johnny Manziel worked out for scouts -- particularly with star tackle Cedric Ogbuehi sidelined by a knee injury -- but a dozen former A&M players still took advantage of the opportunity to show what they could do. Likewise, 16 former Razorbacks -- including All-SEC honorees Martrell Spaight and Trey Flowers -- showed off for scouts at Arkansas' workout on Wednesday afternoon.
  • Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

We'll finally end our pre-spring position rankings in the SEC by taking a look at special teams. Kickers and punters rejoice!

1. Georgia: Kicker Marshall Morgan wasn’t at his best last season, but everyone knows the talent is there for him to rebound in 2015 from his 16 of 21 (.762) performance kicking field goals last season. Punter Collin Barber is certainly serviceable, even if he didn’t have to punt too much last year. But return man Isaiah McKenzie might have been the league's best last season, registering two touchdowns on kickoff returns and one on a punt return.

2. LSU: Leonard Fournette is so dangerous as a return man, and capped his season with a 100-yard return for a touchdown. Tre’Davious White wasn’t so bad returning punts either, averaging 10.9 yards per return and taking one back for a touchdown. As for kicking, LSU has a solid duo in place-kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11 of 15) and Jamie Keehn, who averaged 44.9 yards per punt, downed 27 inside the 20-yard line, and blasted 17 kicks 50 yards or more.

3.Texas A&M: The Aggies have to replace incredibly reliable kicker Josh Lambo, but Taylor Bertolet tallied 106 points off kicks in 2012, as a freshman, before getting benched for Lambo in 2013. Drew Kaser proved to be one of the SEC’s best punters last year, downing 22 punts inside the 20 and booming 18 50 yards or more. Speedy Noil is a dynamic returner on both kickoffs and punts.

4. Tennessee: The Vols were excellent at defending returns and will bring back kicker Aaron Medley, who made 20 of 26 field goals last year, but went 1-of-6 from 40-plus. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown, while Evan Berry is a big-play threat on kickoffs after he averaged 29.3 yards per return last season. Matt Darr is gone so the Vols have to find a punter.

5. Vanderbilt: Tommy Openshaw connected on 8 of 11 field goals, but went 2-of-5 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.7 yards per punt and downed 19 kicks inside the 20. Darrius Sims, who can return kickoffs and punts, is one of the league's best returners and took two kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy has to do better than allowing two returns for touchdowns.

6. Alabama: One thing’s for sure: Alabama can punt. More specifically, JK Scott can punt. He brings back the SEC’s best leg, which knocked 31 punts inside the 20 launched 23 kicks 50 yards or more. He also led the nation in punt average (48.0) However, placekicking is still a concern, as Adam Griffith hit 12 of 19 field goals (.632) last season. Christion Jones is gone, but Cyrus Jones and others should pick up the slack in the return game.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs bring back Devon Bell, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Word out of Starkville is that both returner positions are up for grabs, but the Bulldogs have a litter to pick from. Juco transfer Donald Gray could be the favorite, but Will Redmond, Fred Ross and Brandon Holloway will also be involved. The Bulldogs were also one of the best at defending kicks last season.

8. Ole Miss: Jaylen Walton is still a mainstay at returning kickoffs, but the Rebels need to be more consistent returning punts, where Markell Pack, who averaged just 5.3 yards per return last year, will compete with two players coaches are excited to see return kicks: JUCO transfer Tony Bridges and freshman Jalen Julius. Will Gleesen was solid punting (24 downed inside the 20) alongside Gary Wunderlich, who also hit 6 of 8 field goals last season. Ole Miss also ranked in the top half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.

9. Auburn: Daniel Carson pulled double duty for the Tigers, hitting 18 of 24 field goals (.750) and averaging 42 yards per punt. The Tigers said goodbye to Quan Bray (two touchdowns) and Corey Grant so Ricardo Louis is the most experienced return man (eight returns last year). Roc Thomas and Stanton Truitt, who redshirted last year, could also get looks in the return game. Auburn ranked in the bottom half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.

10. Arkansas: Adam McFain was Arkansas’ top kicker last year, hitting 7 of 10 (.700) field goals, but punter Sam Irwin-Hill is gone so his spot will need to be filled in the coming months. Korliss Marshall is gone, but Keon Hatcher and D.J. Dean return. Hatcher averaged 23.2 yards per kick return (six) and Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards.

11. South Carolina: Elliott Fry is back after hitting 18 of 25 field goals (.720) last year. No punters return so the Gamecocks will have to figure that one out starting with spring practice. Pharoh Cooper was a decent punt returner for the Gamecocks, while Shon Carson should enter spring as the front-runner to head up kick returns after recording 633 return yards last year. Also, might want to cut down on the two kickoff touchdowns allowed.

12. Florida: Austin Hardin eventually took over placekicking duties later in the season and finished the year making 7 of 10 field goals, including the game-winner against Tennessee. Incredibly valuable punter Kyle Christy is gone, but Johnny Townsend is back and he actually forced Christy to the bench in 2013. Record-breaker Andre Debose is gone, meaning the Gators are holding tryouts for returners, and this team has to improve on allowing two returns for touchdowns last year.

13. Missouri: The Tigers must find someone to replace one of the league’s best returners in Marcus Murphy. Right now, that task is totally up in the air. Because Murphy was so good, no one on the roster really has much experience returning kicks. Andrew Baggett mad 18 of 25 field goals (.720) and might have to handle punting duties as well, but that isn't 100 percent yet.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats' kick coverage was just bad last year. They gave up four touchdowns on returns last season, which cannot happen again. Kicker Austin MacGinnis led the SEC with 21 made field goals on 27 attempts (.778) and punter Landon Foster brings back 27 punts downed inside the 20. Kentucky must replace Demarco Robinson at punt returner, but Stanley Williams is back after averaging 26.9 yards on kickoffs.
Spring practice is always a good time for players to make their cases for a move up the depth chart and much can be gleaned from position battles that occur this time of year. Given that, we take a look at some of the top position battles worth watching this spring in the SEC:

Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Scott Donaldson/Icon SportswireThroughout spring practice, Treon Harris will be competing for Florida's starting QB job.
Auburn: Running back
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.

Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.

Georgia: Quarterback
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.

LSU: Quarterback
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.

Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.

Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.

South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.

Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.

Vanderbilt: Quarterback
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
We continue our series looking at the position groups around the SEC by looking at the defensive backs Wednesday.

1. LSU: The Tigers were the best in the SEC in 2014 against opposing pass defenses and there’s plenty of talent still in LSU’s defensive backfield to keep the good times going. Jamal Adams really came into his own late last season and is poised to be a star. Tre'Davious White is the only starting corner returning but he is a big-time player. Safety Jalen Mills returns, too. The Tigers need to find a corner opposite White but have plenty of talented players to compete for that spot.

2. Georgia: After LSU, this unit was the SEC’s best in limiting opponents through the air (170.3 passing yards allowed per game). The good news for Jeremy Pruitt is that not only does he have quite a few options in the secondary, most of them have experience. Dominick Sanders, who shined as a freshman, returns; so does fellow safeties Quincy Mauger, who started seven games. All the cornerbacks on the two-deep return. With Damian Swann’s departure, a new leader needs to be established, but overall, this is a good group.

3. Florida: The Gators still have the conference’s best cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, and that’s worth a lot. Fortunately for them, the rest of the young secondary is back -- cornerback Jalen Tabor, safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, nickel Brian Poole, and new secondary coach Kirk Callahan will try to help them take the next step this year, improving on last year’s finish (seventh in the SEC in pass defense). The talent is there.

4. Ole Miss: Replacing players such as Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt is a tall task but the Rebels have talent on the back end. Tony Conner was a second-team All-SEC pick last year and is back. So is Trae Elston, the starting “rover,” who is a three-year starter. Senior Mike Hilton, who led the team in tackles, returns and the team welcomes the No. 1 cornerback in the ESPN JC 50, Tony Bridges. Look for a bigger role for C.J. Hampton. There is some good depth in this group as well.

5. Arkansas: Razorbacks’ secondary coach Clay Jennings returns for his second year in Fayetteville and his unit showed significant growth in 2014. Elder statesmen Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel are gone, but the Hogs had a mostly young secondary last year and bring back plenty of experience, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver, all of whom saw starts at the position. Three of the four safeties on the end-of-season two-deep -- De'Andre Coley, Josh Liddell and Davyon McKinney, also return to a unit that was fifth in the league in pass defense in 2014.

6. Tennessee: The Vols have a player with All-SEC potential in cornerback Cameron Sutton and a tremendous amount of experience at the back in senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. The other cornerback will be the spot to watch where there will be a battle. Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Malik Foreman and highly-touted junior college signee Justin Martin are among the contenders.

7. Missouri: The Tigers are set at cornerback with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton returning. Losing the experience of a Braylon Webb at safety is tough but Ian Simon is a seasoned veteran himself and returns at the position. The unit finished sixth in SEC pass defense last season (212.7) but benefited from the league’s best pass rush. The experience in the secondary is helpful but more consistency is needed from this group.

8. Alabama: The Crimson Tide had a rough year on the back end in 2014, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (226). The group has a new secondary coach (Mel Tucker) but a lot of attrition, with Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams gone. Cyrus Jones, who led the team with 13 pass breakups, and Eddie Jackson, who started 11 games, are back at cornerback as are Tony Brown and Maurice Smith. Geno Smith, who started six games at the Star position, is also back. ESPN 300 safety Deionte Thompson and four-star safety Ronnie Harrison arrived in January so they’ll participate in spring practice.

9. Auburn: The Tigers yielded a lot to opposing passing games last year (230.08 yards per game; 12th in the SEC), but were also opportunistic, intercepting 22 passes. Returning Auburn defensive backs accounted for 12 of those interceptions -- Jonathan Jones (six), Johnathan Ford (three) and Trovon Reed (three). Auburn also welcomes a new secondary coach, Travaris Robinson, who was key in the Tigers’ landing four defensive back recruits from Florida on signing day. Numbers are there in terms of options to choose from, now it’s just a matter of making on-field progress.

10. South Carolina: This is a young group that played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last season but will be a year older and should show progress, especially with the addition of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who has a long history of coaching defensive backs in the NFL. Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams are penciled in as the starting cornerbacks. Brison Williams is gone but T.J. Gurley, who was second on the team with 80 tackles last season, returns. Corners Al Harris Jr. and D.J. Smith as well as safeties Chris Moody and Chaz Elder also return. Look for this group to make strides this season after finishing 10th in pass defense last season.

10. Mississippi State: There’s a lot of room for improvement for the Bulldogs, who allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC last season and allowed many big plays. They do have a nice talent in Taveze Calhoun at cornerback; who starts opposite him is to be determined. (Look for Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles, who missed all last season with an injury, to compete.) The Bulldogs will be young at safety but did bring in the nation’s No. 2 player at the position, ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Peters.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats return both starting cornerbacks from 2014, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. Starting safety A.J. Stamps, a standout junior college transfer, returns after leading the team with four interceptions and safety Marcus McWilson, who started the season finale against Louisville, also returns. Kentucky, which was eighth in the SEC in pass defense last year, secured a safety as its top-rated recruit in February, ESPN 300 prospect Marcus Walker.

13. Vanderbilt: The Commodores fielded a young, unproven secondary last season but finished just a hair behind the middle of the pack in the conference, allowing 218.3 passing yards per game. With virtually the entire group back, led by cornerbacks Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson and safeties Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Oren Burks, there’s some promise on the back end for Vandy, especially considering the fact that Derek Mason will be simplifying the defense.

14. Texas A&M: The Aggies were second-to-last in pass defense and last in interceptions a year ago. Gone are veterans Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews but senior cornerback De’Vante Harris remains. The group surrounding Harris is young, but has a potential star in safety Armani Watts. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs this spring but look for Nick Harvey to challenge for it. The safety next to Watts could be veteran Devonta Burns (last year’s nickel), Donovan Wilson, or possibly junior college transfer Justin Evans.

SEC morning links

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
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A couple of weeks ago, we listed several SEC players who were candidates to be drafted despite not being invited to the NFL combine. Add Auburn's Corey Grant to that list. On Tuesday, Grant ran times in the 40-yard dash that scouts attending Auburn's pro day clocked between 4.18 and 4.32 seconds. That would have been the best time by a running back at the combine, had Grant been in Indianapolis. Perhaps his absence was understandable since he was largely an afterthought in Auburn's running game in 2014 while Cameron Artis-Payne led the SEC in rushing. Nonetheless, there was buzz about how fast Grant would run on Tuesday, and he didn't let anybody down -- even if he said afterward that his goal was to run a 4.1. He wasn't the only Tiger who didn't go to the combine who was trying to turn scouts' heads on Tuesday. Here's a recap of the results that Auburn released once the workouts were complete.
  • Chad Kelly, formerly of Clemson and East Mississippi Community College, is apparently willing to go to Haiti and back to prove to Hugh Freeze that he should be Ole Miss' next quarterback. Freeze said Tuesday that he suggested to the troubled quarterback that he join him on a spring-break trip to Haiti -- where they will reportedly help provide villagers gain access to fresh water -- and Kelly agreed. He'll still have to beatDeVante Kincade andRyan Buchanan for the job, but the trip will provide Kelly with an opportunity to get to know his new coach better. Making Freeze more comfortable with him as a person is a smart move for Kelly, who left Clemson under unpleasant terms and who was arrested after a bar fight in his hometown, Buffalo, New York, shortly after signing with the Rebels last year.
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