Georgia Bulldogs: Damiere Byrd

We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.

Shaw will test UGA defensive discipline

September, 3, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps because of Georgia’s offensive ineptitude in its 35-7 loss last season to South Carolina, Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw’s impressive performance seemed to fly under the radar.

Look over Shaw’s run-pass line from that game -- 6-for-10 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, plus 78 rushing yards and another score -- and you won’t confuse him for dual-threat Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesGeorgia knows from painful experience just how dangerous Connor Shaw is running or passing.
But make no mistake, Shaw’s ability to make things happen with his arm and legs played a major role in South Carolina jumping to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Containing the shifty quarterback will be a major order of business for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s rematch.

“Most of the time when you have a quarterback like that, you might see an opening just to go inside on a tackle or something like that and he just slips outside and that’s when the big plays happen,” Georgia defensive end Josh Dawson said. “So staying to your keys and being fundamental, that’s going to be the biggest thing of containing a quarterback like that. Just try to apply as much pressure as you can. I feel like if we can do that, we can have a chance.”

A season ago, though, Georgia had difficulty with the fundamental aspects of defending him.

On the second play of the game, Shaw launched a jump ball that receiver Damiere Byrd snatched away from Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo for a 42-yard gain. Three plays later, Shaw hit a wide-open Bruce Ellington with a 20-yard touchdown pass, and the Gamecocks were up 7-0.

Shortly after Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was intercepted on the ensuing drive, South Carolina was on the move again, going 69 yards in 11 plays and scoring on a 14-yard pass from Shaw to Rory Anderson.

In just those two drives, Shaw went 5-for-6 for 100 yards and two scores, and he ran twice for 17 more yards. With a defense as good as South Carolina’s, Shaw’s early efficiency had a devastating impact on Georgia’s chances.

“Connor Shaw is a very difficult quarterback to manage in how he runs the football, and he threw the ball extremely well,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Although Georgia’s defense did not exactly hem in Clemson's Tajh Boyd last weekend, who totaled five touchdowns in a 38-35 victory, the Bulldogs believe there was some value in facing one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks before facing Shaw in their conference opener Saturday.

“You tend to figure out what running quarterbacks’ tendencies [are],” Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “Like if they don’t see something open, they’ll tuck it and run it just about every time. So it’s really like practice leading up to playing South Carolina’s quarterback.”

Their teams’ offensive philosophies -- South Carolina’s grinding offense is built around physicality, including the running style of its hard-nosed quarterback, while Clemson’s wide-open scheme attempts to get its large group of talented skill players into open space, with big plays a regular possibility -- are extremely different, and so are their quarterbacks.

That makes a comparison between Georgia’s strategy against Boyd versus its strategy against Shaw somewhat invalid, defensive lineman Mike Thornton said.

“I don’t think it’s worth comparing those two because they’re two totally different teams with I feel like two different philosophies as far as running the ball and having an outside passing attack,” Thornton said. “So I wouldn’t compare the two, but we definitely have to get after Connor Shaw.”

That much is certain. Georgia learned that lesson the hard way a season ago.

Their rocky 2013 debut reminded the Bulldogs of the importance of playing their assignments properly on defense, and they will be tested in that area again Saturday.

“[We have keep staying] to our keys and just knowing what can happen when you get out of your gaps and whatnot,” Dawson said. “Playing Boyd was an eye-opener and it was something we needed early in the season. Coming into the South Carolina game, you have Connor Shaw, who does the same thing, so it’s something that’s going to help us this week.”

SEC lunchtime links

August, 23, 2013
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Just think, the next time you click on the SEC lunchtime links post it will be Monday of the first game week of the college football season. Ready or not, it's that time again.
  • Tennessee lost two defensive ends over the course of the preseason and spent much of the past week or so looking for their replacements. In 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jordan Williams, the Vols may have found their man to start.
  • Damiere Byrd is already the fastest player on the South Carolina roster. Now the speedy wide receiver wants to make the biggest plays in the biggest situations.
  • Matt Elam was a playmaker and an All-American at safety for the Gators last year. Marcus Maye, his replacement, worked with Elam this offseason and has impressed coaches with his work ethic so far. With the season nearly underway, Maye hopes to be the same type of presence on defense as his predecessor.
  • Vanderbilt's seniors Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall have so much familiarity with one another that they rarely need to speak. The Commodores are hoping that experience and comfort level pays off as the two form what could be a stellar safety net for the secondary.
  • It won't be easy, but Missouri's defensive linemen must replace Sheldon Richardson's disruptive presence on the Tigers' defense.
  • Arkansas struggled to defend the pass last year, finishing dead last in the SEC in passing yards allowed. Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines are hoping to change that. The two safeties expect big years.
  • Keihl Frazier surprised many when he dropped out of the quarterback race to start over in the Auburn secondary at safety. That move happened less than two weeks ago. And ready or not, he'll need to be ready to play just over a week from now when the Tigers host Washington State in their season opener.
  • Arie Kouandjio was starting at guard for all spring and most of preseason camp before an abrupt move to tackle last week. Austin Shepherd experienced the same thing, switched from tackle to guard in a position experiment by the Alabama coaching staff. Now, it appears that those experiments are over and the Tide can get to the job of establishing chemistry.
  • The Egg Bowl is months away, but Mississippi State went ahead and released its new snazzy uniform combination for the rivalry game against Ole Miss.
  • D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis are expected to start, but how do the rest of LSU's inside linebackers stack up?

About Them Dawgs: Bacarri Rambo

December, 12, 2012
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Editor’s note: Each day between now and Georgia’s Capital One Bowl date with Nebraska, we will review the season for a key Bulldogs player and attempt to project what’s next. Today we’ll look at safety Bacarri Rambo.

No. 18 Bacarri Rambo
Senior/Safety
67 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 FF

Role in 2012: The 2011 first-team All-American returned to his playmaking ways in the secondary following a four-game suspension to open his senior season.

The good: Aside from Jarvis Jones, Rambo is the best turnover generator on the team, and that skill was in full effect during the Bulldogs’ second-half surge toward another SEC East title. He made huge takeaways in wins against Florida (an interception in the end zone) and Georgia Tech (a strip/fumble recovery at the Georgia 1 that he returned 49 yards to midfield). He finished fourth on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and trailed only Jones with three forced fumbles.

The bad: Perhaps two of the Bulldogs’ most memorable defensive miscues -- a jump ball for a 42-yard completion to Damiere Byrd on South Carolina’s opening drive and a similar jump ball that Alabama’s Amari Cooper caught for a 44-yard gain -- were plays where the ball slid through Rambo’s fingertips. Plus he missed four games this season and one in 2011 while serving suspensions. Rambo is one of the most effective defensive playmakers of the Mark Richt era, but he’s also had his share of costly off-the-field issues.

Crystal ball: With one game left in his college career, Rambo is tied with Jake Scott for Georgia’s career interception record (16). If nothing else, he has shown a nose for finding the football while it’s in the air -- and that should help him land somewhere in the NFL. ESPN Scouts Inc. rates Rambo as a top-100 draft prospect and the No. 8 player at his position. Last week, however, ESPN’s Mel Kiper rated Rambo as the No. 2 senior safety prospect and said an NFL team will draft him “knowing he can start right away.”

Game breakdown: Georgia at Kentucky

October, 19, 2012
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NO. 11 GEORGIA AT KENTUCKY
Saturday, 7 p.m.
Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
FSN SOUTH

Records: Georgia 5-1 (3-1 SEC), Kentucky 1-6 (0-4)

Last week: Georgia was idle, Kentucky lost 49-7 to Arkansas

Jeff Driskel
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMILinebacker Avery Williamson is a tackling machine for the Kentucky defense.
What’s the Story?: With a potentially huge game against No. 2 Florida on the horizon, Georgia needs to dust itself off after an embarrassing loss its last time out against South Carolina and put away a reeling Kentucky team that enters as a four-touchdown underdog.

Three Headlines:
1. Pressuring the quarterback: Georgia simply has not done a good enough job of rushing the passer, but that will be a primary objective on Saturday against the Wildcats’ freshman starter, Jalen Whitlow. He’ll be starting for just the third time, having gone 12-for-31 for 156 yards in his first two starts.

2. Returning to form on offense: Count on Georgia working hard to re-establish the running game that faltered against South Carolina when offensive coordinator Mike Bobo opted to lean on the passing game when the Bulldogs fell behind 21-0 early. Freshmen Todd Gurley (81-575, 9 TDs) and Keith Marshall (64-465, 5 TDs) should get a steady diet of touches against Kentucky.

3. Injuries a factor: Not only as Kentucky been devastated by injuries on offense -- Whitlow is the third quarterback to start a game and three different tailbacks have also started because of injuries -- and its defense has been just as bad. The Wildcats started three freshmen in the secondary last week and should start either two or three on the back end against Georgia depending whether previously injured players can return. The Bulldogs also have a major injury question in Jarvis Jones, who had not practiced as of Wednesday since suffering a sprained ankle against South Carolina on Oct. 6.

(Read full post)

Bacarri Rambo tries to shake rust

October, 18, 2012
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All-American safety Bacarri Rambo missed Georgia’s first four games of the season due to violating team rules. He suited up against Tennessee and South Carolina, playing with mixed results as he himself readily admits.

“I still left some plays out there on the field,” Rambo said. “I need to do better. I got a little rusty.”

That rust was most apparent in the second play of the game against the Gamecocks when he allowed what appeared to be a certain interception to be ripped from his arms by South Carolina’s Damiere Byrd.

“I still was [rusty] last week, but now I am over it,” Rambo said. “That is the thing about playing defensive back; you have to have amnesia. You have to forget about the goods and the bads.”

Rambo said he is looking forward to Kentucky and facing the Wildcats’ La’Rod King. His body just needs to catch up to his mind.

“I just feel like I am a little rusty, not mentally put physically,” Rambo said. “My timing is off but my mind is in the right place.”

Shaw picks apart UGA defense early

October, 7, 2012
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Planning to contain South Carolina’s dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw and actually doing it are two very different things.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQuarterback Connor Shaw was just elusive enough to keep the Gamecocks out of Georgia's reach.
Georgia learned that on Saturday night as Shaw’s running and throwing ability allowed the No. 6 Gamecocks to easily drive for touchdowns on their first two possessions en route to a crucial 35-7 win against the fifth-ranked Bulldogs.

“He played an outstanding game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We did nothing to make it tough on him as far as decision-making or to have to drop back and throw and make a bunch of plays that way. They threw when they wanted to throw.”

The Gamecocks came out wanting to throw, and Shaw got the job done, completing 5 of 7 passes for 100 yards in the first quarter, including a 42-yard bomb to Damiere Byrd where the receiver made an acrobatic catch by snatching the ball away from Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo. That set up a 20-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington moments later.

(Read full post)

Notebook: WRs move on without Bennett

October, 3, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Such is life in football that when a player is injured, his teammates can’t afford to dwell on his absence for too long and the next man in line must step in to take his place.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireDespite his productivity during the first five games, Georgia feels it can replace the production of injured wide receiver Michael Bennett.
For the first time this season, Georgia’s players dealt with such a scenario on Wednesday when they learned that Michael Bennett -- the team’s leading receiver with 24 catches for 345 yards and four touchdowns -- will miss the rest of the fall after tearing his right ACL at the end of Tuesday’s practice.

“Michael getting hurt was just a very sad thing,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose fifth-ranked Bulldogs face No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday. “We were having quite a good practice yesterday. It was the very last play and I was thinking what a good day it was, what a good practice it was and then that happened.”

Bennett was blocking cornerback Devin Bowman when his knee buckled and popped audibly. Although he was able to walk off the practice field as coaches and teammates gathered for the end of practice, a post-practice MRI confirmed the UGA training staff’s fears that Bennett would miss the rest of the season after already surpassing his 2011 production in the first five games of 2012.

“I saw him go down, but then he got up and started walking and everybody thought it was going to be all right,” senior receiver Marlon Brown said. “I told him to call me that night and he called me and told me what happened. It just [stinks] for him.”

Although Richt said Bennett’s absence will be costly because of the toughness and work ethic he helped instill in the team, he and the Bulldogs can take solace that receiver is one of the deeper positions on the roster. Brown (68) and Tavarres King (61.4) both rank in the top to in the SEC in receiving yards per game. And other wideouts like Malcolm Mitchell, Rantavious Wooten and Chris Conley have performed well in big games.

Richt said Mitchell -- who spent most of his time at cornerback this season prior to Saturday’s win against Tennessee after totaling 665 receiving yards last season -- will continue to be available on defense. And he is not ready to burn freshman Blake Tibbs’ redshirt yet, either.

“I think we’re still going to be fine,” Richt said.

(Read full post)

Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

(Read full post)

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