Georgia Bulldogs: Aaron Murray
ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.
His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.
While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.
“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”
Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.
"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.
“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”
An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.
When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.
Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.
That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.
Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.
He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.
“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”
After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.
“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.
“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”
It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.
“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.
The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.
And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.
We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).
He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.
“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.
Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.
“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.
“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”
- After a frustrating 2013, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black is embracing his changing role under Lane Kiffin.
- Arkansas' secondary is moving on from last fall's struggles.
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wraps up the Tigers' final scrimmage and previews Saturday's A-Day.
- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. is searching for consistency in 2014.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was pleased with his pro day workout.
- Quarterback Jalen Whitlow decided to transfer from Kentucky after being asked if he had any interest in moving to wide receiver.
- Missouri's trip to the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season cost $1.83 million.
- Former South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton was arrested earlier this month for an alleged dispute with his sister.
- Athlon Sports wonders how many SEC games Texas A&M will win in 2014.
- Running backs and linebackers will be key to Vanderbilt's success this fall.
Although he didn’t attempt more than 100 throws like Mettenberger did at LSU’s pro day last week, Murray’s battery of agility drills and a wide range of drops, rollouts and throws showed that he should be physically ready to compete when his future team opens rookie camp.
Murray completed 48 of 54 throws with three drops in Wednesday’s passing session, which was directed by quarterback guru and former NFL assistant Terry Shea. Among Shea’s previous pre-draft clients are No. 1 overall picks Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford and No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III.
“I thought it went very well,” Shea said. “In four weeks that we’ve been together, I’ve never seen him favor that knee or anything. So I’m really excited that he’s healthy.”
In fact, Murray is apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery. Trevor Moawad, vice president at the EXOS/Athletes’ Performance facilities where Murray conducted his offseason workouts, said the training staff followed a similar rehab schedule as they did with Bradford, who was also coming off an injury when preparing for the 2010 draft.
“I think he’s ahead of probably where he should be at this time and I think come May 8 after the draft, I think he’s going to be able to show up at a team and be right where he needs to be,” Moawad said.
Murray was the featured attraction at Wednesday’s sparsely attended pro day, which represented a significant change from last year, when the Bulldogs had eight players drafted -- four in the first 85 picks -- and three more who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.
Murray (No. 129) is the only Bulldog listed among ESPN’s top 150 draft prospects, and only he and tight end Arthur Lynch received invitations to the NFL combine. Nonetheless, 15 former Bulldogs worked out Wednesday before the 23 NFL teams that had representatives on hand -- many of whom still harbor hopes of becoming late-round selections or undrafted free agents.
That group included offensive guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, both of whom snapped to the quarterbacks during passing drills, showing off what they hope teams will view as positional versatility.
“I feel like you get to the next level, they want to have a guy who’s a swingman, who can play multiple positions,” said Burnette, rated by ESPN as the draft’s No. 19 guard prospect. “I don’t want to limit myself to guard. I’ve had a little bit of experience playing center, so I tried to focus on my snaps and stuff like that during this time off. I think it was good for me to be able to do that.”
Another player hoping to catch an NFL club’s eye was defensive lineman Garrison Smith, who ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles and added six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Smith is hardly a flashy player, but said scouts who pay close attention to his performances on film will see an NFL-caliber player.
“I can do it all. I can look good in a T-shirt, I can look good in the birthday suit, it don’t matter. But I’m a football player,” joked Smith, rated by ESPN as the No. 34 defensive tackle prospect. “When them pads get on, it gets real serious. In them trenches, ask about me down there. I’ve got a lot of respect down there and I made a lot of plays.
“Look at game film, look at my stats. I had good games against good teams this year. I didn’t have no amazing games against teams that they say were less of opponents. I had good games against Florida, LSU, Tennessee. They’re supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Watch the film. That’s all I want people to see: I’m a good player.”
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt agreed with his former player’s assessment, noting that he would not be surprised to see Smith find a way to stick on an NFL roster like the three undrafted Bulldogs -- receiver Marlon Brown and defensive linemen Kwame Geathers and Abry Jones -- did a year ago.
“People will see his film. They’ll see his productivity,” Richt said. “From what I’m hearing, if he doesn’t get drafted, he’s going to get into a camp and get a chance to make it. We had Geathers last year didn’t get drafted and made a team. We had Abry Jones, I don’t think he was drafted [and] he made a team. I’m hoping he gets drafted, but if he doesn’t, he’ll get in camp and I think he’ll find a way to stick.”
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the dismissal of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was about more than football.
- Success runs in the family for Mizzou linebacker Michael Scherer.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray says he's "ready to go" as he prepares for Georgia's pro day.
- Auburn is having "ups and downs" at the H-back position this spring.
- Former LSU linebacker Tahj Jones' condition improves after he was shot in the abdomen last Friday.
- LSU quarterback Brandon Harris will head to California in May to train with former LSU quarterback Craig Nall and quarterback guru George Whitfield.
- Kentucky's defensive line gets some positive feedback.
- Florida safety Marcell Harris left his mark on the Gators this spring.
- Here are five young Texas A&M players who could make an impact for the Aggies in 2014.
- "Freaky talented" Tennessee wide receivers end spring on a high note.
- After early-spring criticism, Alabama coach Nick Saban assesses his defensive line entering the final week of spring practice.
Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.
This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.
“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”
Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.
“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."
Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.
With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.
Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.
Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.
Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.
Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.
Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.
LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.
Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.
Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.
Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.
Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.
Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.
Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
On Monday, Murray discussed his rehabilitation from an ACL tear in the Bulldogs' Nov. 23 win against Kentucky, his experiences at the Senior Bowl and NFL combine and his upcoming appearance on “Gruden's QB Camp” with former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.
Q: Your experience was different at the Senior Bowl and combine since you couldn't compete, but you still sat in on meetings and practices. Did you gain some insight by participating?
A: I definitely learned a lot. I love football, so it was fun to be in those meetings. The [Jacksonville] Jaguars were our team's coaches at the Senior Bowl and sitting in the meetings, I learned a couple new concepts here and there, and some concepts we did at Georgia, maybe they did a little different twist on them. So it's fun learning new things, watching film, seeing how they critique film and critique the quarterbacks in practices and things like that. So it was definitely a successful week.
Obviously the meetings with the teams, the interviews, sitting with them and getting to talk to them and letting them know me a little bit and what I did at Georgia and then figuring out if I fit in their system or not -- overall the Senior Bowl was a great success.
The combine was the same thing. Obviously I couldn't do the drills, but getting to meet the coaches, getting to watch the drills that the quarterbacks were doing, it was definitely helpful.
Q: From a preparation standpoint, what's your game plan between now and pro day?
A: We've got a long time. Just continue training and continue rehabbing. Right now I feel great. I'm already running pretty well -- probably 80 percent to 85 percent running sprints -- and doing side-to-side work. I've been doing drops and throwing for about three or four weeks now, jumping.
I'm pretty much doing everything. Like I said, I'm at about 80 percent now, so I think in another month-and-a-half, it'll be way, way better than we are now, so I'm looking to surprise a lot of people at pro day.
Q: What's that process been like? You often hear that ACL rehab is grueling.
A: It's actually been quite easy. You know me, I love to work, so every day I walk in there with a smile on my face and a lot of energy and ready to conquer the day. Really, you've just got to take no days off and really just get after it. We really haven't had any setbacks at all.
There hasn't been a day where I've shown up sore or hurting or needing to take a day off. Every day I feel like we've been progressing and getting better and better. It's exciting for me to get in there every day and to do stuff and continue to push the limits a little bit.
Q: Have you been in Pensacola [at the Athletes' Performance Institute facility in Gulf Breeze, Fla.] the whole time?
A: Yeah, I got here Jan. 1 right after the bowl game. Really, right when the game ended, I drove and got here that night and have been here ever since. … I've been here with [LSU's] Jarvis Landry, [L'Damian] Washington from Missouri, Eric Ebron from North Carolina. Obviously [South Carolina's Jadeveon] Clowney is here. We had about 40 guys here and it's been a great time. A couple of receivers from smaller schools, too, so it's been pretty good.
Q: You're doing the Gruden camp on TV. He's consistent about pointing out your positives and negatives. Have you thought about what he's going to throw at you?
A: Not really. I did a little mini one with him before the Outback Bowl and that was a lot of fun. But I think you've just got to relax and be honest and if he puts you on the spot, so be it. I'm not too worried about that. It should be fun.
Q: At the combine, you always hear about crazy questions that teams ask. Did you have a favorite question?
A: I actually didn't get any crazy questions at all. It was fine. The majority of my stuff was about the knee. They wanted to know how's the knee feeling, if I'm going to be back and ready to go. So nothing crazy at all.
It was mostly that and getting on the board and drawing up some plays and then installing some plays of their own and I have to memorize them and regurgitate what they said and rewrite them and describe what they said. So it was fun. It wasn't too difficult at all. I think I did extremely well with all of them, too.
Q: Obviously showing that your knee is stable will be Goal No. 1 for pro day. But aside from that, what do you want to show these teams at pro day?
A: First of all, I want to show that I'm healthy at pro day. I want them to say, 'Hey, we don't have to worry about this kid where if we draft him that he has to take a year off. He's ready to go and if we need him to play right now, he can.' That's the major thing that I want to prove when I get there. And then just show off -- show off my arm strength, my accuracy.
And then the more meetings I get, that's where I can really separate myself, just with my knowledge of the game. So the more meetings I get, the more time with these coaches to talk to them, I think that's where I can do well.
Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.
That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.
The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.
Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.
You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.
And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.
Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.
That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.
Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.
Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.
So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.
Today we begin with a junior college transfer who arrived to great acclaim last year, only to struggle to make much of an impact in the fall.
2013 review: When he transferred from Holmes (Miss.) Community College last January, he looked like a weapon that Aaron Murray would instantly utilize. He's 6-foot-5 and was the No. 1 receiver in ESPN's Junior College 100 last year. He added to the hype by catching four passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the G-Day game -- and then we didn't see him again until midway through the fall. A lingering hamstring ailment kept him off the field until the Florida game. He played in five of the last six games, including a 98-yard outing against Appalachian State, and finished the season with seven receptions for 121 yards.
Why spring is important: Despite his outstanding performance in the G-Day game, it was apparent that Rumph didn't impress his coaches last spring. Then the injury prevented him from ever truly settling into the receiver rotation. This season is his last shot to accomplish something that might help him land on an NFL roster -- but he has to get on the field at Georgia first. At this point, it's tough to predict whether he'll become a reliable performer, although proving to position coach Tony Ball that he is consistent and coachable during spring ball would be an enormous step in the right direction.
Best case/worst case: Georgia already has some impressive options at receiver. Seniors Chris Conley and Michael Bennett have proven themselves, as have juniors Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley -- both of whom will be returning from season-ending knee injuries. Rumph looks like someone who could join that group of regulars and add both a huge target and vertical threat to the passing game. We'd be a lot more comfortable predicting that he'll actually do that if word begins to spread this spring that he's making good things happen, not more of the mixed reviews that came out around this time last year. If he doesn't get on Ball's good side this spring and preseason, Rumph might have another season like 2013 where he occasionally gets on the field, but fails to make much of a dent on the stat sheet.
We’re counting down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, in no particular order of importance. First, how do you replace all the veteran quarterbacks the league enjoyed in 2013?
When spring camps open over the next few weeks -- the first being Texas A&M on Friday -- that question will begin to be answered. With each snap and each team meeting, leaders will emerge. Some staffs will look for a winner heading into the summer so they can avoid a quarterback controversy come fall, while others will have to sweat it out through the offseason.
Texas A&M: Surprises will undoubtedly occur, as we saw only a few years ago when a scrappy freshman from Kerrville, Texas, beat out the presumptive favorite to land the starting job at Texas A&M. The Aggies stumbled upon Manziel, and Jameill Showers was quickly forgotten. Kenny Hill and Matt Joeckel are this year’s frontrunners, but they’ll have competition in another freshman nipping at their heels in Kyle Allen. The Arizona native is more of a pure passer than a running quarterback, but he has the tools to sling the ball around in Kevin Sumlin’s offense.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier didn’t mince words when he saidDylan Thompson is “without question going to be our quarterback.” He even asked, “Why open it up when he’s the only one who’s played?” Thompson, a rising senior, doesn’t have the athleticism to break containment quite like Shaw, but Thompson can still move the chains with his feet when necessary. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound South Carolina native doesn’t lack for arm strength and might even have more pure throwing ability than Shaw. But where Thompson must match Shaw is intangibles. There wasn’t a more dynamic leader in the SEC than Shaw last year, and the Gamecocks will miss that kind of will power under center in 2014. While the starting job is Thompson’s to lose, don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Connor Mitch. The former four-star recruit could push Thompson this spring.
Missouri: The race to replace Franklin comes down to one quarterback and one quarterback alone: Maty Mauk. The rising redshirt sophomore showed last season that he can control the offense, starting four games in which he averaged 227.5 yards, 2.5 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game. More importantly, he won three of the four games with the only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. He’ll learn from that experience and take over a team that will be moving on from the loss of big-time playmakers Henry Josey, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Having the ultra-talented Dorial Green-Beckham back will help, but an arrest on drug charges in January has clouded his future.
Georgia: Despite what wasn’t a great performance to end last season -- 21-of-39 for 320 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Nebraska -- Hutson Mason is still the overwhelming favorite to replace Murray. Why? Because Mark Richt and the coaching staff have essentially been grooming Mason to take over for years now, redshirting him in 2012 so he would have a year left to play in 2014. Mason was once a three-star quarterback who put up huge numbers running the spread at Lassiter High School in nearby Marietta, and with Todd Gurley behind him, he won’t be asked to do too much his first year starting. While he might be a year away, don’t write off Faton Bauta just yet. The 6-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore has impressed the staff with his work ethic and could find his way into some playing time.
Alabama: Oddly enough, the quarterback many presume will take over for McCarron won’t actually arrive until the summer. Jacob Coker, the heralded transfer from Florida State, will be a little late finishing his degree in Tallahassee, which leaves a big opportunity for the rest of Alabama’s quarterbacks to make a first impression. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will instead have his focus on Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman this spring. Sims, who best fits the mold of a run-first quarterback, has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he can play from the pocket. Morris, meanwhile, didn’t get much time as a redshirt freshman last season and needs to improve his decision-making from the last time we saw him at A-Day. Bateman and McLeod are relative unknowns after redshirting last season, but Bateman, a four-star recruit, does come with a lofty pedigree. The wild card is David Cornwell, the four-star recruit who enrolled in January and will benefit from the fresh start all of the quarterbacks will get under Kiffin.
- As usual, Johnny Manziel is at the center of the football universe. His height and hand size were all the talk after Friday's measurements at the NFL scouting combine. Manziel reached out to Tom Brady last week for advice on handling the combine spotlight. Brett Favre weighed in and said Johnny Football reminds him of "a young Brett Favre." Count San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh among those in the NFL who are similarly impressed with Manziel.
- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is optimistic the the pace of play rule will pass. Many detractors, including Georgia coach Mark Richt, have demanded hard evidence that the rule is necessary. Bielema on Thursday cited the recent death of Cal's Ted Agu during a training run as such evidence. Of course, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier weighed in, calling it the "[Nick] Saban Rule." Spurrier said on Thursday that the rule "looks like it's dead now, hopefully."
- LSU quarterback Stephen Rivers plans to graduate, transfer and play for a new team this fall.
- Alabama has a school-record 12 players invited to the NFL scouting combine. Quarterback AJ McCarron is among those who will participate in full workouts.
- After having 11 players at the combine a year ago, Georgia will be represented by just one -- TE Arthur Lynch -- this weekend. QB Aaron Murray, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL less than three months ago, will be there just to chat.
- Florida's medical and strength staff is helping its many injured players making strides in their return to full health.
- Mississippi State and Ole Miss have a total of three prospects at the NFL combine.
- Relaxed, focused Missouri tailback Henry Josey is among the players at the NFL combine.
Today, we'll look at No. 1: the 2009 group that was built around a couple of stars and a larger group of key contributors on one of the best teams of the Mark Richt era (2012).
The contributors: The strength of this group is its depth. More than half of the signees became at least part-time starters at some point and a dozen were valuable members of the 2012 team that finished fifth in the national rankings. Guards Burnette and Dallas Lee started for most of the past three seasons, Williams was one of the emotional leaders of the 2012 club, linebacker Michael Gilliard was one of the team's leading tacklers in 2011, and Brown and Rantavious Wooten overcame injury-filled careers to enjoy solid senior seasons. Brown was one of the highest-rated players in the class, but his impressive 2012 helped him finally break through and become an undrafted free agent signee with the Baltimore Ravens -- and then one of the top rookie receivers of the 2013 season.
The letdowns: There were some notable departures in this group, starting with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who eventually became a two-year starter at LSU after getting dismissed before his second season at UGA. Washaun Ealey, who led the team in rushing for two seasons, also parted ways with the Bulldogs before the 2011 season. In addition, ESPN 150 signee Dexter Moody never enrolled and cornerback Jordan Love and defensive linemen Montez Robinson and Derrick Lott left Athens early in their careers. Offensive lineman Austin Long was a huge recruit, but struggled with numerous health issues before finally contributing as a reserve in 2012. He left the team over an academic issue before the 2013 season. The off-field issues that robbed UGA of Ealey, Moody and Mettenberger's services are perhaps the biggest disappointments in this class, although the Bulldogs did just fine with Todd Gurley and Murray instead.
The results: There was more star power in other classes, and perhaps one or two of them will still catch up to this bunch before their time at Georgia is over, but the 2009 group was full of blue-collar players who produced for at least two seasons in Athens. The program was at a low point early in the class' tenure, but the group helped Georgia bounce back with consecutive division titles and seasons with at least 10 wins. Their time at UGA ended in disappointing fashion as injuries crippled a 2013 team that started in the top five. Nonetheless, the program is once again on solid footing thanks in large part to this group's on-field production and leadership.
The SEC has dominated the recruiting world over the past several years. Since 2008, the SEC has had at least three schools finish in the top 10 of the ESPN recruiting class rankings each year. Last year, the conference had an impressive six schools ranked among the top 10 recruiting classes in the country. This year is much of the same, as seven SEC schools are ranked in the top 10.
Here’s a closer look at the five best recruiting SEC schools in the Ultimate ESPN 300.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Georgia fans expected this to be a rebuilding year on defense after losing 12 key contributors off the previous season's defense. But 2013 was a more painful transition than most expected. The Bulldogs gave up some huge point and yardage totals early in the season, and while they did improve a bit as the season progressed, they were still far too inconsistent. They finished the season ranked eighth in the SEC in total defense (375.5 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring (29 ppg) -- totals that simply weren't good enough for the Bulldogs to live up to their preseason billing once their high-powered offense began to slow down with the injuries. After the season, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and all three defensive assistants left the staff, with former Florida State coordinator Jeremy Pruitt taking over. Georgia returns almost everyone from its 2013 defense, so Pruitt could be set up to enjoy early success.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
If Marshall Morgan hadn't been one of the best kickers in the nation, this grade might have been even lower. However, Morgan was absurdly good, converting 22 of 24 field goals (including 7-for-8 from 40 yards or more) and all 47 PATs. Otherwise, Georgia's special teams play was a comedy of errors: blocked punts, fumbled snaps, kick returns allowed for touchdowns. Some Bulldogs fans have clamored for Mark Richt to dedicate an assistant coach specifically to improve in this area, but he has thus far resisted that idea. Nonetheless, there wasn't much to like on special teams aside from the kicker making huge strides as a sophomore.
Prior to the season, no Georgia fan would have been pleased to learn that the Bulldogs would finish the season with five losses. After nearly playing for a BCS title and returning most everyone on offense from 2012, this was a team expected to at least contend for the SEC East title. It's only fair to cut the Bulldogs a bit of slack (check out what happened at Florida after injuries hit the roster in a similar fashion) for remaining a competitive club despite the physical setbacks. But 8-5 is simply not very good for this program, and it could have been a much better season.
Aaron Murray's senior season didn't end like he envisioned -- neither with the five losses, nor the season-ending knee injury he suffered late in the fall -- but Murray still finished his time at Georgia as one of the most distinguished passers in SEC history.
No. 10: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
2013 summary: Although he missed the past two-and-a-half games because of a torn ACL suffered against Kentucky, Murray still broke a number of SEC career records: passing yards (13,166), touchdown passes (121), total offense (13,562) and completions (921). And by passing for 3,075 yards in 2013, he became the first SEC quarterback to pass for more than 3,000 yards in all four seasons.
Most recent ranking: Ranked No. 5 in the 2013 preseason countdown
Making the case for Murray: Murray wasn't going to win the Heisman Trophy while playing for a team that had already lost four times when he injured his knee. But he deserved more attention than he was getting just for keeping afloat an offense that lost several key pieces for the season and valuable tailback Todd Gurley for a chunk of the season. Murray led clutch, game-winning (or tying) drives against South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee, beat Florida for a third time and delivered a heroic 415-yard effort against Auburn only to see it go for naught when the Tigers completed a fourth-down touchdown bomb on their final possession. The record doesn't show it, but Murray should be enormously proud of what he gave his team as a senior.
No. 11: Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn, So.
No. 12: Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU, So.
No. 13: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn, Sr.
No. 14: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia, So.
No. 15: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.
No. 16: Odell Beckham, Jr., WR, LSU, Jr.
No. 17: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri, Jr.
No. 18: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama, So.
No. 19: Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU, Jr.
No. 20: Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss, Jr.
No. 21: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Jr.
No. 22: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.
No. 23: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.
No. 24: Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt, Sr.
No. 25: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Jr.
We’ve selected the best 12 seniors in the league, period, and not one senior on each team. These guys all rose above and beyond in terms of on-the-field production, leadership and overall impact on their teams.
There were a lot of tough calls, and this senior class ranks up there with any we've seen in this league. What that means is that several deserving players were left off. We looked hard at how players fared against league competition, their consistency and whether or not they were able to make it through the whole season.
Here’s introducing our 2013 SEC Super Seniors. They’re listed in alphabetical order:
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Much like Davis, Ford was one of the driving forces in the Tigers' rise from winless in the SEC in 2012 to playing for the national championship this season. Ford finished second in the league with 10.5 sacks, including two against Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and also tied for second in the league with 14.5 tackles for loss. He was the heartbeat of an Auburn defensive line that was clearly the strength of that defense.
E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri: Even though Gaines might have been overshadowed by some of the other marquee cornerbacks in the SEC to start the season, he demonstrated on the field that he didn't take a back seat to anybody. Gaines led SEC cornerbacks with 75 tackles and tied for second in the league with five interceptions. He was the essence of a shutdown cornerback, as evidenced by his work on Texas A&M star receiver Mike Evans, who had a season-low eight receiving yards, in the Tigers' 28-21 victory over the Aggies.
Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State: If you were to look up road-grader in the football dictionary, you'd almost certainly find a picture of the 6-4, 340-pound Jackson. One of the top interior offensive linemen in college football, Jackson was a rock in the middle of that Mississippi State offensive line. When the Bulldogs needed tough yards and/or key yards, they almost always ran behind big No. 61. Jackson started in all 52 games of his college career at left guard.
Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt: Go back over the last five or six years and count the quality defensive backs to come out of Vanderbilt's program. Ladler would be right up there near the top, and he saved the best for last with a tremendous senior season. He was the only player in the country (in the FBS ranks) with at least five interceptions and five forced fumbles and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 91 tackles.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: One of the best recruits the Aggies picked up last year was when Matthews decided to return for his senior season. He moved from right to left tackle and had an All-American senior season as Texas A&M led the SEC in scoring offense (44.2 points) and total offense (538.4 yards). Matthews excelled in pass protection, but was equally effective as a run-blocker.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron fell short this season of securing his third consecutive national championship ring as a starting QB, but he'll still go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in SEC history. The 2013 Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCarron was Mr. Clutch for the Crimson Tide and did some of his best work on the biggest stages. He was second in the SEC this season with 28 touchdown passes and third in passing efficiency.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Mosley blossomed into the ultimate do-it-all linebacker for the Crimson Tide and became the first player under Nick Saban at Alabama to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. But as good a tackler as Mosley was, he was just as good in coverage, blitzing the quarterback and chasing sideline to sideline. And as the "quarterback" of that defense, he was the guy who made the checks, got everybody lined up and helped clean up mistakes.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Sadly, Murray's senior season was cut short when he tore his ACL against Kentucky. He'd been a warrior all season for the Bulldogs despite losing just about all of the playmakers around him to injury. Murray was brilliant in some of Georgia's biggest games, including victories over LSU and South Carolina and even the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. He finished second in the SEC in total offense (296.5 yards per game) and leaves as the SEC's all-time leader in passing yards (13,155) and touchdown passes (121).
Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: Always a solid contributor for the Tigers, Sam emerged as a senior as one of the top big-play defenders in the SEC. He earned first-team All-American honors and led the league in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). His late sack and forced fumble in the AT&T Cotton Bowl resulted in a touchdown and was the decisive blow in Missouri's 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State.
Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Arguably the most underrated player in college football, Shaw engineered the third consecutive 11-win season for the Gamecocks and battled through an assortment of painful injuries to have his best season yet. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and only one interception and accounted for 31 total touchdowns. His gutsy performance off the bench in the comeback win over Missouri on the road was one of the performances of the year in the SEC.
Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin