Georgia Bulldogs: Marcus Roberson

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
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1. Will Clowney play?: There have been a lot of rumors flying around about South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and his last-minute decision to sit out against Kentucky. It didn’t go over well with coach Steve Spurrier based on the postgame comments. However, Spurrier defended his star player this week. Once again, Clowney is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game at Arkansas with a muscle strain near his rib area. He returned to practice on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Getty ImagesJames Franklin and Missouri can prove they're legit SEC contenders with a win at Georgia on Saturday.
2. Health concerns at UGA: The Bulldogs survived a scare in Knoxville last weekend, but they didn’t come out unscathed. They lost both running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending injuries while fellow wide receiver Michael Bennett will miss an extended period of time with a knee injury. Georgia will have to bounce back quickly with No. 25 Missouri coming to town on Saturday.

3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.

5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?

6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.

7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.

8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.

9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.

10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

Q&A with GatorNation's Michael DiRocco 

October, 25, 2012
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With No. 10 Georgia’s showdown with No. 2 Florida only a couple of days away, we sought out perspective from the Sunshine State on what to expect from Saturday’s game in Jacksonville, Fla.

ESPN GatorNation beat writer Michael DiRocco was kind enough to answer five questions about the game that could very well determine this season’s SEC East champion:

Q: The most obvious factor in Florida’s turnaround is that it’s getting solid play from Jeff Driskel at quarterback instead of last season’s revolving door of uncertainty. Is that all it took? Why else is this Florida team so much better?

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
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We're heading into Week 3 in the SEC, so here's what to watch:

1. Quarterback health: The statuses of Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and South Carolina's Connor Shaw are still unknown. Wilson suffered a head injury against Louisiana-Monroe, while Shaw is still nursing a bruised shoulder from Week 1. For the Gamecocks, losing Shaw for the second straight week won't really hurt South Carolina's offense. It was just fine without him against East Carolina. However, Arkansas isn't in the same position. Brandon Allen completed just 6 of 20 passes against Louisiana-Monroe in place of Wilson. Not having Wilson will make Saturday's game against No. 1 Alabama that much tougher for the Razorbacks.

[+] EnlargeJohn L. Smith
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonCoach John L. Smith and his Razorbacks face a formidable foe in No. 1 Alabama this week.
2. Arkansas' defense: Speaking of the Razorbacks, what has happened to that defense? It was supposed to be more aggressive and more disciplined under Paul Haynes. We saw neither in the second half against Louisiana-Monroe, as the Razorbacks blew a 21-point lead. The defense was shredded against a lesser opponent and now has to play one of the most balanced attacks in the SEC. Last year, Alabama wore down this defense. If Arkansas is going to pick itself up, it has to play much tougher than it has in the first two games. Alabama has far more talent than Arkansas' first opponents and has the capability to really beat this unit down.

3. Tennessee’s passing game vs. Florida’s secondary: This game always comes down to the running game, but the difference this time will be Tennessee's passing game against Florida’s secondary. The Gators are loaded with talent back there and made tremendous strides during the second half of the Texas A&M game, while Tennessee might have the best passing game in the SEC, led by quarterback Tyler Bray. The matchups between Justin Hunter and Marcus Roberson and Cordarrelle Patterson and Loucheiz Purifoy should be great. Zach Rogers is another deep threat the Gators have to be careful about, but Matt Elam has the ability to take the deep ball away for Florida. Should be fun.

4. Must-wins: Both Auburn and Vanderbilt are 0-2 and are coming off tough losses. The Commodores blew a halftime lead at Northwestern, while Auburn was overmatched across the board at Mississippi State. The Tigers are struggling with or without the ball this season, and that's a major concern. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier has to get going, and he's facing the team that just knocked off Arkansas. Vandy just can't get anything going on offense. The explosion we expected to see has been mostly absent through two games and the Commodores have to generate some sort of offensive momentum this weekend against Presbyterian.

5. Mississippi State keeping its edge: Now that Dan Mullen and his Bulldogs have gotten over the hump of beating a West opponent not named Ole Miss, the Bulldogs can’t get complacent. That was just one win, and this team has far bigger goals than just beating Auburn. With the schedule Mississippi State has, it’s very possible the Bulldogs could be 6-1 or 7-0 heading into the Alabama game at the end of October. But this team has to focus on Troy and come out strong against a team that won’t be a pushover.

6. Showdown in the Grove: It’s been a long time since a game in Oxford got attention like Saturday’s showdown with Texas has been receiving. It’s eerily similar to the 2003 game with Eli Manning and LSU, although there isn’t hatred in the air. The Grove is gonna be poppin’ and Oxford is expected to double in size. There’s more confidence around that town because Ole Miss is 2-0 for the first time since 2009. The talent difference between Ole Miss and Texas is obvious, but the Rebels have some momentum and some conviction. Can the Rebels stop that burnt orange wave coming to town?

7. The newbie's returns: Missouri and Texas A&M got a nice taste of what life will be like in the SEC last weekend. Now, it's time for both teams to regroup. Both teams lost a lot of steam in the second half, which was expected. Missouri has the challenge of playing Arizona State and its high-flying offense. The Sun Devils have averaged 54 points through two games, averaging 532 offensive yards in the process. The Tigers got into a shootout with Arizona State last year, but can they handle another one after that physical loss to Georgia? The Aggies are taking on SMU in Dallas, and are also recovering from a tough loss to Florida. This is a game where Texas A&M should try to get more out of its running game, which has to generate more production up the middle.

8. Mettenberger’s arm: Through the first two games of the season, we’ve been anxiously waiting to see what Zach Mettenberger could really do in LSU’s offense. So far, he’s yet to eclipse the 200-yard passing mark in a game and has just two touchdowns -- pedestrian numbers compared to what everyone expected. But the Tigers have utilized their running game flawlessly and haven’t needed to send the ball downfield much. Saturday, that should change. It’s time to unleash Mettenberger and get him going more in the offense before LSU gets into conference play.

9. Lattimore’s workload: If Steve Spurrier wanted to push Marcus Lattimore anymore last week, he would have. But the Head Ball Coach gave his workhorse a bit of a rest against East Carolina, running him just 13 times. Maybe Spurrier just wanted to get his new quarterback, Dylan Thompson, a chance to show his stuff in place of Shaw. But as Lattimore continues to return from his knee injury, he’ll need to get more reps and get more comfortable on the field before league play revs up. UAB should provide him the opportunity to do that.

10. Florida’s winning streak: The Gators have had Tennessee’s number for seven straight years now. Not since Dallas Baker’s infamous slap in Knoxville have the Vols bested Florida. This might be Tennessee’s best shot since. There’s no question that this is the best and most complete Vols team Derek Dooley has had. The Vols have cruised through the first two weeks, while Florida’s offense stumbles in with a lot of uncertainty concerning the passing game. Florida might have the edge on defense, but Tennessee’s offense knows how to put up points. Is this the year Tennessee finally gets the Gator off its back?
Tyrann MathieuKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTyrann Mathieu tops the list of explosive and dynamic SEC cornerbacks.
Think back to some of the top cornerbacks who’ve come out of the SEC recently.

Just in the last three years, Morris Claiborne, Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden and Kareem Jackson have all gone in the first round of the NFL draft.

There could be a few more first-rounders on the way.

Here’s the way we would rank the SEC’s top 10 cornerbacks heading into the 2012 season:

(Read full post)

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