Georgia Bulldogs: Leonard Floyd

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Once again, Georgia took home the victory on G-Day.

The Bulldogs' annual spring game ended with the Red Team, comprised mostly of the first-team offense, defeating the Black Team, headed by most of the first-team defense, 27-24 in front of an announced crowd of 46,073 inside Sanford Stadium.

You can learn only so much from spring games, but there are always some nuggets here and there that you can take away from them.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsHutson Mason looked in full command of the offense in Georgia's spring game.
Here are five things we learned from Georgia's G-Day:

1. Mason looks pretty comfortable: It's easy when the quarterback isn't getting hit, but Hutson Mason looked very comfortable on Saturday. He was quick with his delivery, very accurate and very sharp. Again, he wasn't asked to do too much, but you can tell that he's more than comfortable running coordinator Mike Bobo's offense. I mean, he has been there for what feels like a decade now, so he better be. Even without some of his best targets in Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley (both were out this spring recovering from ACL injuries), he didn't skip a beat, as he passed for 241 yards and a touchdown on 18 of 27. "I felt good about my accuracy and my completions," Mason said. "Just wish I would have thrown the deep ball a little better."

2. Floyd and Johnson could be a solid combo: There's no question that Georgia's defense still needs a lot of work. The secondary had its issues and the defensive line is still looking for more playmakers. But one thing that really stood out on Saturday was the play of defensive lineman Toby Johnson and linebacker Leonard Floyd. Both required constant double teams on Saturday. We all knew Floyd had the potential to be a very, very special player, and he constantly harassed the Red Team's quarterbacks. He finished with six tackles and broke up two passes. Floyd can play with his hand down when the Dawgs are in a 4-3 formation or at outside linebacker in a 3-4. As for Johnson, he could be one to watch for the Dawgs this year. He made his way to the quarterback early and often in the game before the Black Team's line adjusted to put an extra body on him. Still, he was able to break through even with that extra set of arms to battle.

3. Gurley ran with purpose: There has been plenty of talk this spring about running back Todd Gurley's toughness, but he didn't look like he was holding back on Saturday. While he was limited to just six rushes (32 yards and a touchdown) and caught three passes (38 yards), Gurley was trying his hardest to bowl guys over. Coach Mark Richt sat Gurley down earlier in the spring to talk about his toughness and his practice habits, and it clearly paid off. Gurley didn't look hesitant, despite still not being 100 percent with nagging ankle issues. We don't know if Gurley will ever truly be healthy at Georgia, but it's a good sign that he doesn't have an issue playing through pain. He just wanted to deliver it Saturday.

4. Battle for No. 2 continues: Mason is clearly Georgia's starting quarterback, but the fight behind him should be a fun one for the months to come. It's down to redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey. On Saturday, Bauta was the more impressive of the two, passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Ramsey, who suited up for both teams, finished with 78 total yards and an interception on 2 of 13 passing. While Ramsey wasn't as accurate as he'd like to be, he has a cannon of an arm and might have the most arm talent on the team. He just has to get that thing under control before he can take another step in the process. "I obviously could have thrown it a lot better, but at the same time I feel good about my performance," Ramsey said. "I was picking up blitzes, making the right reads. I just need to put the ball on. I had a bad day throwing." As for Bauta, he shed the black non-contact jersey in order to take some contact and finish plays after defenders got their hands on him. He was certainly a lot more efficient than Ramsey, but he said he knows that he can't slow down when it comes to winning this job before the fall.

5. The secondary has a ways to go: New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will have his hands full with Georgia's secondary. A unit that surrendered 227 passing yards per game and 18 touchdowns last year showed some of the same issues it had last season during the spring game. Now, injuries to guys like Tray Matthews and J.J. Green, who was at running back last year, contributed to that, but the offenses were able to make too many big plays in the passing game. If not for a couple of overthrown deep balls, the offenses could have put up a few more points. It didn't help that the defenses were called for six pass interference penalties with half of the starting receivers out. Six players averaged 15 or more yards per reception against the secondary on Saturday. "We're getting better," cornerback Damian Swann said. "Everything that happened today can be fixed, and that's why you have games like this. ... I think we did pretty good as a secondary."

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia, which is trying to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 8-5 finish, is finishing up its second week of spring practice.

It’s the Bulldogs’ first spring under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who directed Florida State’s defense during the Seminoles’ national championship run last season. Pruitt replaces Todd Grantham, who left UGA for Louisville after a couple of underperforming seasons with the Bulldogs.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIOutside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who started eight games as a freshman, has been a "beast" during spring practices.
Here are a few early observations from Georgia’s spring:

• Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, a sophomore from Eastman, Ga., added more than 20 pounds during the offseason and now weighs about 248. Floyd started eight games as a freshman in 2013 and finished with 55 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and a team-high 6.5 sacks. Pruitt will be looking for even more production from Floyd this coming season, and one UGA assistant called him the “best player on the team -- period.”

“He’s always making plays and setting the tone,” linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “He stands out every play. He’s just a beast right now.”

• After running for 1,385 yards with 17 touchdowns as a freshman in 2012, tailback Todd Gurley was limited by a high ankle sprain during his sophomore campaign and finished with 989 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013.

The Bulldogs weren’t sure how much Gurley would be able to do during spring practice because of the lingering ankle injury, but he has participated in almost every aspect of practice so far. He’s also expected to play a lot in Saturday’s full-contact scrimmage, the first of the spring.

“He’s been practicing every day in full-contract drills,” Wilson said. “He’s getting us better as a defense. He’s the best running back in the country. He’s not taking any plays off.”

• One of the early surprises of the spring has been sophomore flanker Blake Tibbs, who played in only two games last season. Tibbs, from Martin Luther King Jr. High in Lithonia, Ga., was one of UGA’s best performers during the offseason “mat drills” conditioning program. He also has looked good in practice so far, according to UGA coaches and players.

“He’s doing really well,” Wilson said. “It looks like he’s added about 10 pounds and is blocking more physically. He’s trying to show the coaches that he can contribute. If he keeps doing the things he’s doing, he’ll get on the field.”

• UGA’s coaches are hoping left tackle John Theus has finally turned the corner after a couple of so-so seasons. Theus, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., started 22 games the past two seasons, including 14 as a freshman in 2012. He has moved from right tackle to left tackle this spring and will protect quarterback Hutson Mason's blind side.

Theus was bothered by a wrist injury the past two years but has been healthy during the offseason and excelled in the conditioning program, according to UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.

With Theus moving to left tackle, senior Mark Beard, who briefly left the team during the offseason, is lining up at left guard. Senior David Andrews is back at center, with sophomore Brandon Kublanow at right guard and senior Kolton Houston at right tackle on the No. 1 unit.

Opening spring camp: Georgia

March, 17, 2014
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Schedule: The Bulldogs will open spring practice on Tuesday at 4:25 p.m. ET. Their annual G-Day spring game is scheduled for April 12 at 1 p.m. in Sanford Stadium, followed by two more practices on April 15 and April 17 to wrap up the spring.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHutson Mason gets his chance to take over as Georgia's QB after being behind Aaron Murray for four seasons.
What’s new: Georgia enters the spring with an entirely new defensive staff. Jeremy Pruitt, after helping lead Florida State to a national championship last season, takes over for Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator. Grantham left to be the defensive coordinator at Louisville. Joining Pruitt, who will also coach the secondary, will be former Auburn All-American Tracy Rocker, who will coach the defensive line and weakside linebackers, while Kevin Sherrer will coach the strongside linebackers and star position/nickelbacks and Mike Ekeler inside linebackers and special teams.

On the move: Redshirt freshman Tramel Terry, who was injured and didn’t play last season, is moving from receiver to safety. Sophomore J.J. Green, who rushed for 384 yards last season as a freshman, is moving from running back to cornerback, and sophomore Quayvon Hicks is moving from fullback to tight end. A couple of outside linebackers, James DeLoach and Josh Dawson, are moving to defensive end.

On the mend: The Bulldogs will have several players who won’t participate in contact drills, and in some cases, will miss the entire spring while recovering from injuries/surgeries. Among them: running back Todd Gurley (ankle), running back Keith Marshall (knee), receiver Justin Scott-Wesley (knee), receiver Malcolm Mitchell (knee), tight end Jay Rome (foot) and cornerback Reggie Wilkerson (knee).

New faces: Quarterback Jacob Park, an ESPN 300 prospect from Goose Creek, S.C., was Georgia’s only early enrollee for the 2014 class and will go through spring practice.

Question marks: Solidifying the secondary is crucial, especially with safety Josh Harvey-Clemons being dismissed from the team. In Harvey-Clemons, the Bulldogs lost a starting safety and the "star" in their nickel package. They should be OK at cornerback, particularly if Green can make the transition. Damian Swann and Shaq Wiggins also return at corner, and heralded freshman Malkom Parrish will arrive this summer. But the Bulldogs need to be more consistent across the board on the back end of that defense next season. They also have to get better on special teams. Mistakes plagued them last season, and they were last in the SEC in punt return average and kickoff returns and next-to-last in kickoff coverage. Finding three new offensive line starters will be another priority this spring.

Key battle: Both of the safety positions are right there at the top of the list. Senior Corey Moore played better down the stretch last season, and sophomore Quincy Mauger was forced into action last season as a true freshman. Terry also could be a factor at one of the safety spots. The Bulldogs wouldn't have moved him if they didn't think he would be in the rotation. At the free safety spot, the Bulldogs need sophomore Tray Matthews on the field. He was injured for much of his freshman season and also battled some maturity issues. He's a terrific talent, and the Bulldogs need him to play that way.

Breaking out: Sophomore Reggie Carter gives the Bulldogs more speed and athleticism at inside linebacker. He didn't play a lot last season as a freshman, but could give veterans Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera a run for their money. Redshirt freshman Paris Bostick could be another player to watch at inside linebacker. Junior nose tackle Chris Mayes was one of the more underrated players on Georgia's team last season. He and senior Toby Johnson could both be primed for big seasons up front for the Dawgs defensively. Johnson wasn't completely healthy last season after coming over from junior college, but should be 100 percent in 2014.

Don’t forget about: Sophomore Leonard Floyd should be even better his second time through the league. He led Georgia with 6.5 sacks last season and is exactly what Pruitt is looking for as a pass-rusher in his 3-4 scheme. The good news for Floyd and all of the Georgia defenders is that they're not changing defenses. The system will be very similar to what they ran under Grantham, with Pruitt making a few tweaks.

All eyes on: Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, which means senior Hutson Mason finally gets his chance to be the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. Mason stepped in at the end of last season after Murray was injured, and there's no question that he has a big arm and can stand in the pocket and throw it. He also has plenty of playmakers around him. He will get a chance to show that he can lead this team over the course of an entire season.
We're closing in on the start of spring practice at Georgia, so this week we will take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

We've already covered the competitions at safety, defensive line and offensive tackle. Today let's move to the star position, which lost starter Josh Harvey-Clemons last month when Bulldogs coach Mark Richt kicked him off the team.

Returning starters: None

Departures: Harvey-Clemons started 11 games between playing the star -- essentially a nickelback -- and safety positions. He ranked third on the team with 66 tackles, added 5.5 tackles for a loss, an interception and tied for the SEC lead with three fumble recoveries.

[+] EnlargeDamian Swann
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWill Damian Swann be the one to take over the star position?
Returning reserves: Cornerback Damian Swann (57 tackles, team-high eight pass breakups) and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (55 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks) are among the players who have handled the star role in the past.

Newcomers: To be determined. With a new defensive coaching staff and a new coach (Kevin Sherrer) specifically handling the star and strongside linebackers, it's anybody's guess which newcomers might get a look playing the position.

What to watch: Because of his athleticism and the mismatches he could create, Harvey-Clemons seemed like a good fit for the star position. He was big enough to function like an outside linebacker and still quick enough to handle the coverage responsibilities that come while playing nickelback. He was a unique player, though. The question now facing Georgia's coaches is how they disperse the snaps at star. Will it be mostly a linebacker type in that slot defender position? Or will it be a third cornerback (someone like Swann, who played a lot of nickelback in 2012) when they are in a nickel package? It seems likely that defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and company will test several different players in that role this spring to see who best suits the new staff's philosophy. The Bulldogs will surely use both defensive backs and linebackers in the nickel role this fall depending on the situation -- Pruitt was known for mixing things up last season as Florida State's defensive coordinator -- but as for specific personnel, it's far too early to make a prediction with any confidence. Keep an eye on the position when the Bulldogs play a nickel defense during the G-Day game, as that will likely provide an early idea of which way the new coaches are leaning.
Continuing our run-up to Georgia's spring practice, this week we'll review the Bulldogs' five best recruiting classes of the last decade.

Today, we'll look at No. 4: The 2012 group that is still etching its legacy into Georgia history. We should revisit this ranking again in another couple years.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley became a star in the Bulldogs' backfield.
The stars: Keith Marshall was the initial class headliner, but Todd Gurley immediately shot to stardom when the star tailbacks arrived on campus. The duo combined for 2,144 rushing yards as freshmen and nearly helped the Bulldogs claim the 2012 SEC title. Both struggled with injuries last fall, but Gurley looks like he has the chance to become one of the greatest tailbacks in school history. Among the other headliners in the class, offensive tackle John Theus and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins also played early roles, although they have not yet reached their expected potential from recruiting. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons is also in that boat, with his 2013 season -- his first as a starter -- displaying potential and not much consistency yet. Kicker Marshall Morgan bounced back from a shaky freshman season to enjoy one of the best seasons in school history. And Leonard Floyd -- who initially signed with Georgia in 2012 and re-signed with the following year after a season in prep school -- looks like a star pass-rusher in the making after leading the team with 6.5 sacks last fall.

The contributors: With most of the class still having two or three years of eligibility left, the list of contributors should grow substantially. Quayvon Hicks has started to develop as a productive fullback, while offensive lineman Mark Beard and punter Collin Barber have played a larger role than many players who are still waiting to break through. Defensive lineman John Taylor and cornerback Sheldon Dawson have made minor contributions thus far, but could be names to watch for the future.

The letdowns: There has not been much attrition from the class yet, which is a good sign. Tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith was dismissed last summer and is the lone departure to this point. Otherwise, the disappointment for this class might be that some of the headliners haven't become consistent stars … yet. Jenkins, Theus and Harvey-Clemons have been good players so far, but they need to make further progress to live up to their billing as recruits.

The results: This will be a big year for this class' ultimate place in UGA history. Some members -- Gurley and Marshall in particular -- helped Georgia come within an eyelash of playing for the 2012 BCS crown. It was a disappointing 2013 for the class and program because of injuries and disciplinary issues, so they need to bounce back a bit in 2014. This might be Gurley's final season on campus, but most members of this group still have plenty of time to make sure Gurley won't be the only breakout performer to come from their class.

UGA position groups to improve: No. 3

February, 12, 2014
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Georgia doesn't open spring practice until March 18, so we'll use the next few weeks to look ahead to those all-important workouts and preview what to watch once the Bulldogs get started.

Today we continue a series where we examine five position groups with room to improve. After touching on the inside linebackers and offensive line, today we focus on the outside linebackers, who were inconsistent last season despite worlds of potential.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMILeonard Floyd emerged at outside linebacker last season for the Bulldogs, leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss.
3. Outside linebackers

Battling for No. 1: The starters here seem fairly easy to predict, as rising junior Jordan Jenkins and sophomore Leonard Floyd combined for 21 starts a season ago. Floyd made a big splash during preseason camp and was one of the pleasant surprises of the fall, leading the team with 6.5 sacks and adding 9.5 tackles for a loss. Jenkins had a fairly quiet season, posting five sacks and a team-high 12 TFLs. Both players need to do a better job of controlling the edge against the run, as last season's disappointing defensive results often proved. They have clear pro potential -- particularly as pass rushers -- but they must refine their positional skills in order for the defense to improve this fall.

Strength in numbers: James DeLoach was penciled in as a starter last year until Floyd came along and stole his thunder. Nonetheless, the versatile outside linebacker offers a bit more bulk at the position (he's listed at 265 pounds) than the two starters. Rising senior Brandon Burrows is the only other veteran at the position, but he has never played much of a role in the Bulldogs' defensive scheme.

New on the scene: Five-star defensive end/OLB Lorenzo Carter is the name to know here. ESPN's No. 14 overall prospect became the crown jewel in a strong recruiting class when he signed with the Bulldogs last week on national signing day. The Under Armour All-American is still raw, but he possesses size and freak athleticism that should help him make it on the field early in his career. In addition, ESPN 300 defensive end/OLB Keyon Brown looks like another versatile prospect who can contribute at either position depending on the situation. The Bulldogs will also have two redshirt freshmen enter the mix in Davin Bellamy and Shaun McGee.
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.

Ten SEC surprise players in 2013

December, 20, 2013
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Today, we're looking at 10 players who surprised us in the SEC.

These are players who didn't enter the season with a ton of hype, weren't big-time recruits in the 2013 recruiting class or made big splashes after pedestrian 2012 seasons.

There were a lot of names that could have made it onto this list, but we put our SEC brains together and came up with these 10:

1. Serderius Bryant, LB, Ole Miss: Heading into the season, Bryant was listed as a reserve behind Denzel Nkemdiche. But after Nkemdiche injured his knee in the season opener, Bryant went on a tear for the Rebels. He started nine games and is tied for the team lead with 70 tackles, leads the Rebels with 10.5 tackles for loss and is second with three sacks.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coates
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSammie Coates emerged as a playmaker in Auburn's high-scoring offense.
2. Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: Before the season, no one was quite sure who would be catching the brunt of passes in Auburn's offense. Well, Coates took the lead and went from six catches in 2012 to a team-high 38 with 841 yards and seven touchdowns. The Tigers didn't throw a lot, but when they did, Coates was usually the top target.

3. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Everyone knew he was going to be the guy to replace Marcus Lattimore, but Davis looked like a seasoned veteran on the field this season, rushing for 1,134 and 11 touchdowns. He was also very good in the passing game, catching 32 passes for 342 yards.

4. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: Fellow linebacker Jordan Jenkins was supposed to be the star on defense, but Floyd looked like the Bulldogs' best pass rusher at times. The former prep schooler led Georgia with 6.5 sacks and finished the year with 8.5 tackles for loss and 47 total tackles.

5. Markus Golden, DT, Missouri: After registering just 10 tackles last season, Golden was one of the Tigers' most active defensive players. He got tons of push up the middle and was second on the team with 13 tackles for loss and had 6.5 sacks. He also took an interception 70 yards for a touchdown.

6. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: The former Georgia defensive back was one of the nation's biggest surprises. He wasn't asked to do a lot with his arm, but made some big-time throws and got more comfortable with his arm as the season went on. Marshall passed for 1,759 yards and 12 touchdowns, but did most of his damage with that deadly read option, rushing for 1,023 yards and 11 more scores on his way to leading Auburn to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

[+] EnlargeSolomon Patton
AP Photo/John RaouxWR Solomon Patton was one of the few bright spots in a down year for the Florida offense.
7. Solomon Patton, WR, Florida: Like Auburn, no one knew who would be the top pass catcher in Gainesville. But after spending most of his career as a role player and more of a gimmick guy, Patton was Florida's most dangerous receiver and the go-to guy for whichever quarterback lined up under center. He was a big-play threat and finished the season leading the Gators with 44 catches, 556 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He also registered 642 yards and a touchdown on kick returns.

8. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: In a year in which the Bulldogs spent a lot of time rotating guys in at the quarterback spot, Prescott came up big when he was in. A reserve in 2012, Prescott led Mississippi State with 1,657 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Where Prescott really did his damage was on the ground, where he bullied his way to 751 yards and 11 touchdowns.

9. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: Last year, Robinson started in 11 games last year, but he exploded in 2013. Helping to protect the nation's best running game, he pushed his way to being an All-American, All-SEC member and someone who could be an early pick in the 2014 NFL draft if he decides to leave school.

10. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: He was easily the biggest surprise of the league for most of the season. A year after starting nine games and recording 3.5 sacks, Sam took the SEC by storm with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Both led the SEC. The consensus All-American was named the Associated Press' SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award.

UGA redshirt review: defense

December, 20, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia signed a massive 33-man recruiting class in February, and many of those signees -- like Leonard Floyd, Shaq Wiggins, J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas -- contributed immediately. Yesterday we reviewed the players who redshirted on offense. Today we move to the defense.

[+] EnlargeDavin Bellamy
Radi Nabulsi/ESPNDavin Bellamy, a former four-star prospect, could work his way into the DL rotation this spring.
John Atkins, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 119 overall in 2012, No. 11 defensive tackle
This season: The prep school transfer did not seize a role in the defensive line rotation, but impressed coaches and teammates with a promising skill set that could help him play multiple positions in the future.
Veteran's perspective: “John Atkins' footwork is crazy for a big guy. He's like 320 -- we're the same size – and he has amazing footwork and work ethic. He's going to be one of those guys popping off the scene next year.” -- sophomore defensive lineman Chris Mayes

Davin Bellamy, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 299 overall, No. 25 defensive end
This season: Underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, but could have played this season according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham were it not for the emergence of Floyd and Jordan Jenkins at his position.
Veteran's perspective: “Bellamy's a big-bodied kid. I know just from being around him, he has a giant attitude. And when I say that, it's a good thing. He believes in himself and what he can do. He thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, which is the attitude that you have to have when you're playing football because if you don't believe in yourself, nobody will.” -- junior defensive end Ray Drew

Paris Bostick, Fr., ILB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 55 safety
This season: Grantham compares Bostick's skills to those of another converted safety -- former UGA linebacker Alec Ogletree. Bostick suffered a toe injury during the summer and returned to practice during the season.
Veteran's perspective: “Bigger than what most people think -- real big dude now. He's just trying to learn the system and figure out where he's going to fit in at. … He's a real big dude, but he still runs like a safety. He's fast. He's going to be a real good addition to us.” -- junior linebacker Ramik Wilson

Shaquille Fluker, Jr., S
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 36 on Junior College 50, No. 2 safety
This season: Initially set back by an array of physical ailments, Fluker was designated as a redshirt candidate by midseason. He announced this week his plans to transfer in search of playing time.
Coach's perspective: “I can't comment on any medical situation, but everybody wants to play more, obviously, and I hope wherever he goes, he gets to play. I hope he finds a good home. I like him a lot. He's a good kid. I'm very confident we had his best interests at heart the entire time he was here at Georgia and we treated him well.” -- coach Mark Richt

DeAndre Johnson, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 84 defensive tackle
This season: The youngest defensive lineman on the roster, Johnson needs to have a productive offseason in order to crack a veteran-heavy rotation next season, defensive line coach Chris Wilson said.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a low-pad-level player, just a young guy that's got to build up and get more experience and get comfortable with the game. … I think he'll be able to play the 3-technique as he has to learn the game and progress. For his size, he's pretty shifty, so I think he'll be all right.” -- Mayes

Kennar Johnson, Jr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 4 safety
This season: Injuries slowed Johnson's development early in the season and the coaches opted to redshirt him instead of utilizing another inexperienced player in a youthful secondary.
Veteran's perspective: “KJ is an athlete. He's very fast. It just comes with being able to compete and learning the system. I think he was kind of put in a bad situation coming in playing behind Corey [Moore], playing behind Tray [Matthews], who was here in the spring, and playing behind Josh [Harvey-Clemons] who's been here for two years. … [Johnson and Fluker were] playing behind guys who had already been here that grasped the system very well. That kind of put them behind the 8-ball a little bit.” -- junior cornerback Damian Swann

Shaun McGee, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 43 defensive end
This season: Capable of playing inside or outside, McGee's development this offseason will establish which of the two spots he plays next fall according to Grantham.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a little bit shorter, but he's very strong. His legs are massive and he can run. He has great speed off the edge, so I see that being one of his best contributions to the team.” -- Drew

Reggie Wilkerson, Fr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 163 overall, No. 15 athlete
This season: Enrolled in January and was on track to contribute this season before suffering a season-ending knee injury during summer workouts.
Veteran's perspective: “Reggie had a pretty good spring and he had a freak injury during the summer doing [pass skeleton drills] and we lost him. But I think he can be a big key and big part of this secondary with what we already have with Sheldon [Dawson], with Shaq and with [Brendan] Langley.” -- Swann

UGA redshirt review: Offense

December, 19, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia signed a massive 33-man recruiting class in February, and many of those signees -- like Leonard Floyd, Shaq Wiggins, J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas -- contributed immediately. Over the next two days, we'll review the offensive and defensive signees who redshirted.

Aulden Bynum, Fr., OL
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 47 offensive tackle
This season: Enrolled in January and worked at multiple positions along the offensive line.
Veteran's perspective: “He's not as strong as he wants to be right now, probably has to put on a little more weight. I think that he's also very good naturally just with leverage and feet space and stuff like that.” -- senior offensive guard Chris Burnette

Josh Cardiello, Fr., OL
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 21 offensive guard
This season: Enrolled in January and practiced mostly at left guard and center .
Veteran's perspective: “Cardiello is a really explosive guy, which I like. I think that's really important as an offensive lineman is to be explosive. He has good leverage, knows how to bend his knees and is also deceptively athletic and I think that's going to be good for him in the future.” -- Burnette

Jordan Davis, Fr., TE
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 15 tight end-Y
This season: Wasn't needed with seniors Arthur Lynch and Hugh Williams and sophomore Jay Rome available.
Veteran's perspective: “I think a big thing for him will just be learning the playbook, understanding the playbook, understanding how we want it done here. He's got a body like Jermaine Gresham. He's 6-foot-5-plus. He's about 240-something now, but he could put on 20 pounds easy. And he can run. I think that's one thing that'll be a very big asset of his is he'll be able to run and create space from linebackers and even probably safeties.” -- Lynch

Uriah LeMay, Fr., WR
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 48 wide receiver
This season: Stuck behind a glut of established veteran receivers.
Veteran's perspective: “Redshirt's a really important year. I know it was for me. I wasn't ready to play at all. It was important going into my redshirt freshman year that I had a lot of experience under my belt and it was a lot easier. I've seen improvement throughout his redshirt year and hopefully this spring is going to be big for him to really learn the offense and hopefully contribute next year.” -- junior receiver Michael Bennett

Brice Ramsey, Fr., QB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 115 overall, No. 7 pocket passer
This season: Enrolled in January knowing that a redshirt was extremely likely with Aaron Murray and Hutson Mason sitting atop the depth chart.
Veteran's perspective: “A cannon. That's the first thing you see when you look at Brice: those long arms and that odd body type. He just brings his arm back and flicks his wrist and the ball just shoots off so fast that you want to get out of the way. But that's the first thing you notice with him. He's a young, fun-loving guy with a lot of God-given ability, and once he puts that together with his knowledge of the playbook, he'll be something dangerous.” -- junior receiver Chris Conley

Tramel Terry, Fr., WR?
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 89 overall, No. 9 athlete
This season: Perhaps the biggest question of bowl practice is how to qualify Terry these days. He practiced at receiver all season while returning from an ACL tear, but has been practicing at safety this week.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a guy who has to still get healthy, get strong and prepare to come in and execute at a high level and play fast. And I think he's going to be ready to do that. … When you take an injury like that, it can do some things to your confidence and I think he's gaining it back and he's building it. With the more plays that he makes, the more like the old Tramel Terry he'll be.” -- Conley

A.J. Turman, Fr., RB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 260 overall, No. 22 running back
This season: When Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were injured at midseason, Turman playing seemed like a possibility. But the coaches preserved his redshirt and he'll join a deep backfield in 2014.
Veteran's perspective: “Turman's the man. Just because even if he's on scout team, he's still like wanting to learn what to do and he's always full speed. He's never like, 'Ah, I'm on scout team. I'm not playing this year.' So he's always getting better from what I see. He always asks me questions like, 'What do I do on this? What do I do on that?' and he actually is really like a beast. Y'all will definitely see.” -- Gurley
We couldn't finish our lists of SEC all-stars without talking about the youngsters who help make this league go round.

For our all-underclassmen team, we decided to use players who are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or true sophomores. That means Johnny Manziel, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't eligible. I mean he can't make every list!

The criteria for our other lists once again apply. We're basing things on the season they had in 2013, not who will be the better draft prospect in the future.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Jerald Hawkins, LSU
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
C: Evan Boehm, Missouri
AP: Mike Davis, South Carolina

DEFENSE

DL: Carl Lawson, Auburn
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
DL: Chris Jones, Miss. State
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Rashard Robinson, LSU
DB: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Georgia
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
RS: Trey Williams, Texas A&M

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
ATHENS, Ga. -- Amarlo Herrera isn't ready to assess Georgia's 2014 defense yet. Not when the Bulldogs still have to play a bowl game before this season is complete.

“We're not talking about that yet,” the Georgia linebacker said after last Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech. “The season's not over yet. But when the season gets over, we'll start talking about those things and people will remember these [comebacks against Auburn and Georgia Tech].”

Step one in the evolution of a defense that loses only one senior starter -- defensive lineman Garrison Smith -- will be to put together complete games, not just decent halves. Against both Auburn and Georgia Tech, in particular, disastrous starts forced the Bulldogs to mount dramatic rallies in the game's waning possessions.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
AP Photo/John BazemoreTray Matthews is one of 10 starters that should return on Georgia's defense next fall.
“We've got to stop coming off slow in the first half,” inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We've got to finish, and that's what we've been doing in the second half.”

Wilson has a point. The starts were horrendous -- Auburn scored 27 points and Georgia Tech 20 before halftime -- but Georgia's defense was fairly solid in the second half of more than just those two dramatic comeback bids.

The Bulldogs were awful defensively for most of the first month of the season, with a 28-point second half by Tennessee in Game 5 perhaps ranking as the low point. But since then, Todd Grantham's defense has generally improved as the games progressed.

Since the Tennessee game, the Bulldogs allowed 10 second-half touchdowns in seven games -- half of those coming when opponent scoring started at the 50-yard line or closer because of errors by Georgia's offense or special teams. In the last month of the regular season, the Bulldogs allowed seven second-half points to both Georgia Tech and Kentucky, zero to Appalachian State and 16 to Auburn, although the final six came on a 73-yard Ricardo Louis touchdown catch for the game-winning score after Bulldogs safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews failed to bat down an off-target pass.

“We said it felt like it was like the Auburn game,” Herrera said of the Bulldogs' rally from a 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech. “We just had to step up and we had to make plays real quick before it got ugly.”

The Tech game was already bordering on ugly before the Bulldogs salvaged it with their second-half rally. They argued afterward that the comeback was an example of their season-long persistence, even against long odds.

“Everybody knows about the tipped pass at Auburn and people wanted to know how we would bounce back off that. Well, we're 2-0 off that loss,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who was victimized in coverage on several of Tech's biggest passes. “It's not about how you fall because you're going to fall in this game of football. You're going to fall many times. It's just you've got to get back up.

“Like for myself, to me I had a poor game, but how did I respond? I just tried to keep playing and show my teammates that I'm playing to get better on the next drive.”

The hope for Grantham and his staff is that the rocky moments that Dawson and many other youthful defenders experienced this season will become learning tools as they mature. The 2013 defense was simply not consistent enough, as its program-worst point (opponents averaged 29.4 ppg) and yardage (381.2 ypg) totals reflect, but there were occasional flashes of promise, as well.

He used the game-ending, fourth-down pass breakup to clinch the win against Georgia Tech as an example -- which easily could have been the third such key fourth-down stop by his defense had one of his safeties properly defended Auburn's last-gasp throw or had an official kept the flag in his pocket instead of incorrectly penalizing Wilson for targeting on a fourth-quarter pass breakup against Vanderbilt.

“That's the third fourth-down situation that we've had this year. We had one at Vandy, we had one at Auburn and we had one here,” Grantham said. “We've got a lot of young players on our team that will grow from it and they'll get confidence from it and we're going to develop them and move forward and win a bunch of games.”

The talent clearly exists for Grantham's projection to become reality. Harvey-Clemons, Matthews, outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, defensive end Ray Drew, Herrera and Wilson -- all of them should be back in 2014. If they and their defensive cohorts can perform with discipline that matches their physical capabilities, Georgia's defense could take a step forward next fall.

It's on Grantham and company to ensure that such progress occurs.

“Part of coaching and part of a program and part of being what we want to be, when it's going not the way you want it, you find a way to battle back,” Grantham said.

Reviewing a wild season of UGA football

December, 2, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's season is obviously not over, as we'll learn the 8-4 Bulldogs' postseason fate sometime within the next week. But Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech put an exclamation point on easily the craziest regular season in Mark Richt's 13 seasons as Georgia's coach.

Let's look back over the season and recap some of the highs and lows:

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray had a standout season until he joined the long list of Georgia injuries.
What might have been: There is not a single game this season where the Bulldogs did not play without at least one key player -- and by the Tech game, the injured list featured an all-star team of talent. Considering how receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin-Scott Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall suffered season-ending knee injuries before the midway point, quarterback Aaron Murray will miss the final two games with an ACL injury and that tailback Todd Gurley, receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett and tight end Jay Rome all dealt with multiple-game setbacks, it's a wonder that Georgia didn't go into a steeper tailspin than it did.

MVP: This has to go to Murray, who broke multiple SEC career passing records as a senior. The Kentucky game started out as a senior-night tribute to the four-year starter, only to see it end in heartbreak when he suffered the knee injury in the second quarter that ended his season. He returned for his senior season to win a championship, although injuries and a shaky defense prevented Murray from reaching that goal. Nonetheless, his leadership prevented what could have become a major mess when many of Georgia's best offensive skill players were missing in the middle of the season.

Wildest finish: There's no shortage of competition in this category, as Saturday's Tech game was only the most recent Georgia game that was decided in the closing moments. That's what happens when seven of your 12 games are decided by a touchdown or less. But the winner here has to be the Auburn game, when the Bulldogs rallied from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to take a 38-37 lead on Murray's fourth-down touchdown scramble with 1:49 remaining. Murray's heroics were for naught, however, as Nick Marshall hit Ricardo Louis on a deflected 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, after the pass somehow slipped through Georgia's Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews.

Surprise performer: Ramik Wilson. He was certainly not perfect -- particularly in pass coverage -- but Wilson became the SEC's tackles leader by playing nearly every important down and always hustling to the ball. He didn't make much of an impact in his first two seasons while rotating between inside and outside linebacker, but Wilson was a valuable contributor in leading the team with 128 tackles and tying with Jordan Jenkins for the team lead with 11 tackles for loss. He also made one of the Bulldogs' biggest defensive plays of the season when he deflected a Vad Lee pass in the second overtime against Georgia Tech, enabling Damian Swann to knock the ball away for the game-ending incompletion.

Worst defeat: The Auburn loss might have been more painful, but the 31-27 defeat at Vanderbilt was more avoidable. The Commodores outscored Georgia 17-0 in the fourth quarter -- a comeback expedited by a targeting flag on a fourth-quarter pass breakup by Wilson. The penalty was overturned upon review, but it still resulted in a first down and a 15-yard mark-off down to Georgia's 15-yard line, and eventually a Vandy touchdown. Georgia's ineptitude also contributed to the implosion -- including costly turnovers and an overall lack of aggression on offense -- which made it a particularly galling defeat.

Star in the making: Hutson Mason. Several players could figure in here -- Scott-Wesley, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and safety Harvey-Clemons immediately come to mind -- but this will almost certainly be Mason's team next season. He overcame a shaky start against Tech to lead the Bulldogs back to an overtime win by completing 22 of 36 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Let's keep in mind that it was the first start of his career, on the road, against arguably Georgia's biggest rival.

Biggest disappointment: We all knew the score when the season started. Georgia's defense lost almost every significant player from last season, minus defensive lineman Garrison Smith, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and cornerback Swann. A reasonable expectation was for the group to struggle against a challenging early schedule and make rapid improvements as the season progressed. Only that improvement never truly occurred with any consistency. Georgia's defense is better off now than it was when the season started, but there is too much talent on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs to keep making the bone-headed mistakes that plagued them for too much of the season.

Biggest relief: The overtime win against Tennessee kept the Bulldogs in the top 10 for another week, but the rally from an early 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech will likely be the one more Georgia fans remember. Richt has dominated the Yellow Jackets throughout his tenure, but things didn't look promising when Lee was picking apart Georgia's secondary and Mason and the offense were struggling. A second-quarter touchdown drive helped them to settle down, and they went on to deliver an emotional comeback victory.

Best performance: Gurley's four-touchdown performance against Tech (or his early touchdowns against Florida in his return from a month-long absence) would certainly qualify here. But let's go with one of two showings -- and you can't lose with either one -- by Murray against South Carolina or LSU. Murray faced consistent attacks that he shrunk in the spotlight during his early years, but he largely eliminated those criticisms this season. He was nearly perfect against South Carolina, ending the Gamecocks' three-game series winning streak by going 17-for-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. Two games later, he went 20-for-34 for four touchdowns and one interception, plus a rushing score, against LSU and hit Scott-Wesley with the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:47 remaining.

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