BATON ROUGE, La. -- We’re past the midway point of LSU’s spring practice with the Tigers’ spring game on April 5 less than two weeks away.

Before the Tigers return to the practice field on Tuesday, let’s recap some of the developments thus far this spring.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSophomore Anthony Jennings has experience on his side in the Tigers' quarterback competition.
The QB race is on: On national signing day, it looked like LSU might have five quarterbacks vying for playing time in the fall. With the announcements that Stephen Rivers will transfer and Rob Bolden will play receiver, the race was down to three before practice even started.

Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris appear to lead Hayden Rettig in one of the nation’s most-watched spring quarterback battles. With 2013 playing time under his belt -- including a start in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- Jennings appears to be the more composed, polished contender on the practice field. But Harris possesses special passing talent. It should continue to be an interesting race throughout the summer and into the season.

The young quarterbacks endured many sloppy moments early in camp, to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron’s displeasure, but Tigers coach Les Miles said both players threw the ball well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Perhaps they are starting to turn a corner toward being ready to face SEC competition.

Receivers are a mess: Between frequent dropped passes and a spate of injuries, it has not been a banner spring for LSU’s receivers. Early in the spring, they seemed to struggle to get on the same page with the quarterbacks. And by the end of last week, they only had a couple of healthy scholarship players available.

Redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears, Avery Peterson and John Diarse have all dealt with injuries, with those setbacks coming at a particularly inopportune time since the youngsters need to establish themselves before a talented group of signees arrives this summer. At last Thursday’s practice periods that were open to the media, the only scholarship wideouts catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie.

Miles said last week that he likes what Dural and Diarse have accomplished thus far this spring, and Dural caught a long touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage. But the others still have a lot to prove, which might be why Miles predicted that all four receiver signees will have the opportunity to win playing time in the fall.

Defensive line coming together: Miles seems pleased with the progress that several young defensive linemen have made this spring. In the last week, he has singled out redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore for getting stronger and improving their games since they arrived at LSU last year.

He also complimented sophomores Christian LaCouture and Tashawn Bower after Saturday’s scrimmage. LaCouture and Bain both had sacks in the scrimmage, and Bower had two quarterback pressures.

The defensive line competition won’t generate a fraction of the national interest that the quarterback battle will, but that group’s development might be just as important in gauging LSU’s chances to contend in the SEC West this fall. With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolting for the NFL, the Tigers desperately needed some players to fill their void -- and Miles makes it sound as if they are developing some good options.

OL battle rages: It’s no surprise that LSU’s coaching staff continues to weigh its options on the offensive line -- particularly at the right guard position.

Seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika have worked there, as has sophomore Ethan Pocic. It’s clear that the staff likes what Pocic can do, because he has practiced at guard, center and tackle this spring. Fanaika has been strictly at guard and Washington has worked at both guard and tackle.

With a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, coming on board this spring, it’s obvious that he’s experimenting with different player combinations to see what he likes best. That experimentation will probably continue beyond the spring game.

Linebacker shuffle: As with the offensive line, LSU’s linebackers are also trying some new combinations this spring. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, Lamar Louis went from middle linebacker to the strong side and Kendell Beckwith is now backing up D.J. Welter in the middle after playing mostly at defensive end last fall.

LSU’s linebackers were somewhat mediocre for portions of 2013, so defensive coordinator John Chavis shook things up a bit this spring. Miles said Saturday that Beckwith’s move to the middle appears to be a good one and that Welter has improved his play this spring with the talented sophomore now battling him for playing time.

The linebackers themselves seem excited about the speed and athleticism that their group possesses. It will be interesting to see whether the lineup shuffling affects the Tigers’ overall defensive performance.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: As the center of an intense recruiting battle between Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, Texas and Texas A&M, a four-star linebacker will lean on those close to him when it comes time to make a decision; and two future SEC opponents took turns testing each other at Sunday’s Atlanta Nike Training Camp.

Atlanta NFTC notebook 

March, 23, 2014
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ROSWELL, Ga. -- The Atlanta Nike Football Training Camp is generally one of the most impressive groups of high school football players you will find in the country. This year’s camp didn’t disappoint. Eight invites were handed out to The Opening, a prestigious invite-only camp held in Beaverton, Ore., in July.


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BATON ROUGE, La. – Les Miles has maintained for much of spring practice that LSU’s defense is ahead of its offense. And that’s still the case after Saturday’s first full scrimmage -- although it sounds as if the rebuilding offense is making up ground.

“I think the offense took a real nice stride today, but yeah, I would expect that the defense would be a little further ahead – and they are,” Miles said.

Miles didn’t offer many specifics, much less statistics, from the scrimmage at Tiger Stadium. Those are “top secret,” he joked, although he did say the quarterbacks connected on “two big passes [and we] probably threw it for, I don’t know, just under 300 yards passing today.”

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportIncoming freshman quarterback Brandon Harris was on target during LSU's scrimmage, coach Les Miles said.
With the quarterback competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris ranking as perhaps the team’s top spring storyline, Miles said he was pleased with the way both players threw the ball on Saturday.

Plus, they eliminated some of the sloppy ball handling that Jennings said was a problem in the Tigers’ partial scrimmage last Saturday.

“Both of them were sharp,” Miles said. “The passing was very sharp today. We dropped a couple balls, but the balls were right on the money and to be honest with you, we caught a lot of balls.”

Miles singled out receiver Travin Dural as having enjoyed an excellent scrimmage.

Miles said senior tailback Terrence Magee sprained an ankle in the scrimmage, but said there were no major injuries. Receiver John Diarse, whom Miles said underwent a minor medical procedure, should be back on the practice field next week, the Tigers' coach said.

Before spraining his ankle, Magee and fellow senior Kenny Hilliard both ran the ball well, Miles said.

“Both Magee and Kenny Hilliard had really nice running days today,” Miles said. “I think Magee is going to have a great fall and I think Kenny Hilliard’s going to have a great fall. It looks like to me Kenny Hilliard’s lost a little bit of weight and is just a little bit quicker than he’s been.”

In addition to the scrimmage downs, the Tigers also focused on special teams Saturday. Miles said Trent Domingue has been working as the team’s top punter over last season's starter, Jamie Keehn.

“Special teams made improvement at the punting game,” Miles said. “Jamie Keehn’s not getting a lot of snaps right now. Our punter Trent Domingue really has improved. I think we were perfect with 42 [yards] at field goals and really had a pretty good scrimmage. If you look at [it being scrimmage] No. 2, it’s really a pretty strong event.”

SEC's lunch links

March, 21, 2014
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How’s your bracket looking after the first day? If you’re like me, you’re probably hoping for a better Day 2. If it’s so bad that you’re giving up on basketball and ready for football, then take a look at the latest news and notes around the SEC in today’s lunch links.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU will commemorate the midway point of spring practice Saturday with its first full team scrimmage at Tiger Stadium.

The Tigers are nowhere near installing the more complex schemes that fans will see during the fall, but Saturday's competition should provide a good measuring stick for what the team has accomplished in the first two weeks of spring workouts.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles says the defense is ahead of the offense so far this spring.
“They scheme it up a little bit, but not a lot,” senior linebacker D.J. Welter said. “It's really just basic stuff, like the basic blitzes that we'll run every game. It won't be like a special thing or a special formation. It's basic.”

LSU held a partial scrimmage last Saturday and will return to Tiger Stadium again next Saturday for its final scrimmage before the April 5 spring game. For the most part, each of those outings emphasizes competition and fundamental techniques.

Coach Les Miles said the offense worked on first-and-10 situations last week and will practice third-and-short and third-and-medium scenarios -- to “put us in position where we have to be pass rushed and be able to execute the passing game under pressure” -- plus special teams Saturday.

But as Welter said, it will be mostly basic situational work where both sides run vanilla schemes and the coaches can evaluate how younger players, in particular, hold up against more seasoned competitors.

“I can say one of the main things is it's for the young guys -- for guys who haven't established themselves to establish themself as a playmaker and just show that they want to play, whether it's on special teams or whether it's on offense or defense, just standing out and leaving your mark,” linebacker Lamar Louis said.

“So I can say that first spring [scrimmage] has a lot to do with that because it's not much scheme, not much put in from the playbook or whatever. You're just showing the coaches you can execute small things that they've given you already.”

Many eyes, then, will be on players like quarterback Brandon Harris and cornerback Edward Paris Jr. -- early enrollees who are getting their first taste of college competition -- and a host of redshirt freshmen expected to play larger roles this season.

Harris’ development is one of the most intriguing storylines of LSU’s spring, although he and fellow quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig might face a competitive disadvantage Saturday. The receiving corps -- another group that has plenty to prove -- has been short-handed for a portion of the spring.

During the open media periods at Thursday’s practice, the only scholarship receivers catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie. Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Rob Bolden were absent and Avery Peterson was wearing pads but watching from the sideline. Spears and Peterson have dealt with hamstring injuries this spring and Miles said Diarse “was limited because of a small procedure that he had done,” adding that he could return to practice next week.

The limited numbers make the passing game look like even more of a work in progress.

“With John back, it’s really a pretty good group,” Miles said. “With John out, it takes some work -- plus you have new quarterbacks that are having to run the drill for the first time, so there’s a little inexperience that’s being served by practicing.”

On the other side of the ball, 2013 redshirts like Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron could all figure heavily into the defensive line plans this fall, and they’ve yet to play a college down. But there are multiple positions throughout the roster where the Tigers have holes to fill, and scrimmages will provide the coaches with some game-like insight.

“From a defensive perspective, you just want to see how people react to the calls, that they do their assignments, how they do their techniques,” Welter said. “Specifically at linebacker, getting your pads dropped or fitting in your gap and reading the flow of the ball, fitting right. So it's all about just fitting right in the defense that's called and going out there and playing and being loose and executing.”

Miles said last week that the defense was ahead of the offense this spring, and he repeated that opinion on Thursday. That’s understandable given the turnover that has taken place at LSU’s offensive skill positions, and it’s part of the developmental process as new players fill departed veterans’ roles.

Such a transition forces the offensive Tigers to take a longer view of what’s taking place on the practice field and in competitive scrimmages like Saturday’s rather than dwell on present-day shortcomings.

“The main thing that we want to do [in scrimmages] is we want to show that we got better. Because by the end of the spring, we want to be 15 practices better than when we started,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “So I just want to improve on something. That's my main thing.”

Ranking the 2014 SEC season openers

March, 21, 2014
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It’s full speed ahead to the 2014 season now that spring practice has begun for everybody in the SEC but Kentucky, which cranks it up next week.

Which SEC team has the toughest season opener next season?

We’ve ranked them 1 through 14 with the first being the toughest and the last being the easiest.

1. ARKANSAS
  • Arkansas at Auburn, Aug. 30: One of the Hogs’ three games away from home in their first five outings, and the opener, against the defending SEC champs, figures to be the toughest of the bunch. Not only that, but Arkansas will be trying to snap a nine-game losing streak.
2. TEXAS A&M
  • Texas A&M at South Carolina, Aug. 28: The Gamecocks haven't lost a game at home since the midway point of the 2011 season (18 in a row), and the Aggies will be playing their first game without Johnny Manziel and with a defense that still has a ton to prove after last season's struggles.
3. LSU
  • LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Houston, Aug. 30: The Tigers will have to deal with Melvin Gordon, who’s back after rushing for 1,609 yards last season. The Badgers are always physical across the board, although they're replacing a good bit on defense next season.
4. GEORGIA
  • Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30: The Tigers will be without four players who are suspended for the opener, including starting defensive end Corey Crawford and starting offensive guard David Beasley. Even so, this is an old-school Southern rivalry that has produced some epic games.
5. SOUTH CAROLINA
  • Texas A&M at South Carolina, Aug. 28: Even though Johnny Football won't be working his magic for the Aggies, Kevin Sumlin's track record says that they'll still be plenty potent offensively, meaning the debut on the SEC Network has a chance to be a thriller.
6. OLE MISS
  • Boise State vs. Ole Miss, in Atlanta, Aug. 28: Seeing a Boise State team without Chris Petersen on the sideline will be odd, and even though the Broncos dipped to eight wins last season, they'll still be a tough out for the Rebels in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
7. TENNESSEE
  • Utah State at Tennessee, Aug. 30: Second-year coach Matt Wells has the Utah State program on the move after a 9-5 season a year ago. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton is one of 15 starters returning for the Aggies, who won't be intimidated when they waltz into Neyland Stadium.
8. ALABAMA
  • Alabama vs. West Virginia, in Atlanta, Aug. 30: The Saturday version of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game will give us the first glimpse of Alabama's new quarterback now that AJ McCarron is gone. The Mountaineers are always fun to watch on offense, but have to get a lot better on defense if they're going to have a chance in this one.
9. AUBURN
  • Arkansas at Auburn, Aug. 30: Opening with an SEC game can always be a little dicey, and Arkansas should be improved in Year No. 2 under Bret Bielema. The Hogs, however, won't be improved enough to go into Jordan-Hare Stadium and pull off the upset, and that's even if the 10-second rule goes into effect for this game.
10. MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Southern Miss at Mississippi State, Aug. 30: The Golden Eagles snapped their 23-game losing streak by ending last season with a win over UAB. This has a chance to be Dan Mullen's best team at Mississippi State, and the whole novelty of this being the first meeting between these schools since 1990 shouldn't matter much once the game gets going.
11. VANDERBILT
  • Temple at Vanderbilt, Aug. 30: James Franklin made it clear before he left that the Commodores wouldn't be overextending themselves during the nonconference part of their schedule. The translation: They should have four built-in wins most seasons, and it all starts against Temple at home next season.
12. FLORIDA
  • Idaho at Florida, Aug. 30: Second-year Idaho coach Paul Petrino is no stranger to the SEC. He has his work cut out for him at Idaho and brought in 16 junior college players in this most recent signing class, many of whom will no doubt be on the field against the Gators.
13. MISSOURI
  • South Dakota State at Missouri, Aug. 30: Despite the loss of several key seniors, Missouri shouldn't have to break much of a sweat against the FCS Jackrabbits. The second week, though, could be tricky. The Tigers travel to Toledo.
14. KENTUCKY
  • Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, Aug. 30: It's the first of two straight nonconference games at home for the Wildcats, who then get a chance to end their 16-game SEC losing streak the next week against Florida on the road.
video Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

MIAMI -- South Florida has always been a recruiting hot bed and this year is no different. Out-of-state schools will flock to the talent-rich area to try and land some of the top prospects in the country. Prospects like ESPN Junior 300 defensive back Tarvarus McFadden and his teammate Torrance Gibson are two of the highly-ranked recruits that are getting that attention in this class.

McFadden, the No. 58-ranked player in the country, is considering the big in-state schools -- Florida, Florida State and Miami -- and handful of out-of-state schools like Ohio State, USC, LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee.


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SEC's lunch links

March, 20, 2014
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March Madness is here. A new Cinderella will emerge, and your bracket is bound to start falling apart. For those at work and for those who are taking off early, enjoy a full day of basketball, and for a little football, enjoy today’s lunch links.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson hasn’t been taking it easy on his players lately.

LSU’s running backs coach has been giving Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard a heavy workload in spring practice, which was partially out of necessity since the two seniors are the only scholarship tailbacks on the Tigers’ spring roster.

“It's getting pretty rough out there,” Magee said with a smile. “We're taking a lot of reps. We were rotating every play, but this week Coach Frank wants us to go a little bit longer so we've been going about every three now. So it's getting pretty taxing, but it's going to pay off in the long run.”

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsSenior Kenny Hilliard is one of two tailbacks that LSU returns from last season, joining Terrence Magee.
This is an unusual time for LSU’s tailbacks -- a position group known in the recent past for its impressive depth. In 2011, LSU had four players (Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Hilliard) rush for 300 or more yards and score at least seven touchdowns. It was more of the same last season, with Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards, 16 TDs), Magee (626-8), Blue (343-1) and Hilliard (310-7) all going for 300-plus and Hill, Magee and Hilliard all scoring at least seven times.

But with Hill and Blue both entering the NFL draft, the Tigers are now forced to work converted linebacker (now fullback) Melvin Jones at tailback a bit just to break up the practice reps.

“This is his first time carrying the ball, but he's getting better,” Hilliard said of Jones. “His pad level is a little high, but that's part of it. He's never really carried the ball before, so it's just a lot of teaching that he's got to learn, watch film and make sure that he stays in the film room and just look at us and let us lead by example. He can just pay attention to us and he'll be all right.”

Any LSU fan who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that this situation is only temporary. Leonard Fournette -- one of the most heavily hyped prospects ever to emerge from Louisiana, whom two recruiting services, including ESPN, picked as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit -- isn’t on campus yet. Neither is Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at Marrero (La.) John Ehret.

Both players seem likely to contribute as true freshmen. And in Fournette’s case, anything short of stardom would probably disappoint most Tigers fans -- a reality that is not lost on LSU’s returning tailbacks.

“I don't feel like we get overlooked and it doesn't bother us,” Magee said of the buzz surrounding Fournette. “All the credit that he gets, he fully deserves. He was the No. 1 player in the country and he's a great running back. I've watched film of him. So everything that he's getting, I feel that he's well deserving of it.”

Fournette will still need help adjusting to life on a college campus and within a big-time SEC program, which is where the two seniors can help.

“Those guys have just got to be mentally prepared when they come in, because the transition from high school to college, it's tough,” Hilliard said. “As they get here, I'm going to mentor them -- me and Terrence -- like Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue and those guys mentored us.”

Even if Fournette immediately emerges as LSU’s next superstar back, the Tigers have traditionally spread around the carries under Les Miles. Magee, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, and Hilliard, who has a touchdown for every 10 touches in his career, will almost certainly play key roles in the offense.

“One thing about [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s] offense: the best player's going to play and the hardest worker's going to play,” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “I'll tell you one thing, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are two of the hardest-working players on our team. So they are going to get their carries. You can see that they're talented guys. Terrence has one of the best agility moves, side-to-side quickness, all that. Kenny is one of the most powerful backs in the nation in my opinion.”

Once Hill returned from an early suspension last season, Magee found a niche as a third-down back. The former receiver would like to expand upon that role by adding some pass-catching responsibilities out of the backfield -- plus Miles said last week that Magee will rank among the Tigers’ top candidates as a kick return man.

He has never carried the ball more than 82 times in a season, but Hilliard has proven to be an especially effective goal-line runner, and that role seems likely to remain in place in the fall.

Obviously no roles for 2014 are established yet, and they won’t be until the freshmen arrive and responsibilities begin falling into place during August practices. The only duties Magee and Hilliard are certain to claim are those of mentors -- and they seem happy to help Fournette and Williams, just as their predecessors did when they were underclassmen.

“We've just got to keep the standards and just be able to come out and execute and play hard,” Hilliard said. “That's our motto: just come out and play hard and take care of the ball and everything will be all right. We know we have two young guys coming in and we're going to mentor them and make sure they get right and keep the legacy in the room.”
Say this for Jeremy Pruitt: He knows what a national championship defense looks like.

He'll try to bring that same dimension to Georgia as the Bulldogs' first-year defensive coordinator, and the fans voting in our SportsNation poll obviously think he has what it takes.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pruitt
Fred Kfoury III/Icon SMIAt Florida State, Jeremy Pruitt oversaw the No. 1 scoring defense in the country last year.
With nearly 10,000 votes cast, Pruitt was the runaway winner as the most significant assistant coaching addition in the SEC. He received 43 percent of the vote, while Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin finished second with 19 percent of the vote.

Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper was third with 16 percent of the vote, followed by LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes with 15 percent and Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith with 7 percent.

Pruitt, who will also coach the secondary at Georgia, has been a part of a national championship staff for three straight seasons. He was Florida State's defensive coordinator last season, and the Seminoles led the country in scoring defense (12.1 points per game). Before going to FSU, Pruitt was the defensive backs coach for three seasons at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide won BCS titles in both 2011 and 2012.

The good news for Pruitt is that he has just about everybody returning from last season's Georgia defense. On the flip side, the Bulldogs took their lumps a year ago defensively and finished 11th in the SEC in scoring defense against league foes. They gave up an average of 31.8 points per game and allowed 30 or more points in six of their eight league contests.

With safety Josh Harvey-Clemons booted from the team last month, Pruitt's job could get even tougher depending on what happens to sophomore safety Tray Matthews, one of four Georgia players arrested earlier this week on theft charges. The Bulldogs were already lean at safety.
Now that we've taken a look at five potential breakout players this spring from the SEC Eastern Division, it's time to check out the West (again in alphabetical order):

  • Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn: With Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae gone, the Tigers are looking for help along the defensive line. Senior Gabe Wright could be a threat for them inside, and so could Adams, who is coming off a solid freshman season. He had 20 tackles and a sack last season and could be in for a solid spring on the Plains. Adams can clog the middle with his 6-foot-4, 304-pound frame, but he's also a good pass rusher from the middle. Adams has a chance to take a huge step this spring and appears to be on the right track already.
  • [+] EnlargeDural
    AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU receiver Travin Dural's touchdown catch against Arkansas last season could be a sign of things to come in 2014.
    Travin Dural, WR, LSU: The Tigers are trying to replace two future NFL receivers and are breaking in a new, young quarterback. That means they need a new go-to guy to feed this spring. Keep an eye on Dural, who caught that game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas last fall from Anthony Jennings. LSU is hoping Jennings and Dural have increased chemistry this spring. Dural is a speed demon on the field and should be an immediate deep threat for the Tigers. With the position so wide open, Dural has a shot to secure one of the starting jobs this spring.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: He showed flashes of greatness last year but should get an even bigger role in the offense this spring as his game matures. The thing about Howard is that he's a mismatch whenever he steps on the field. He's too fast for linebackers to cover one-on-one and too big for defensive backs to consistently stay with. He needs to get the playbook down and get more comfortable on the field, but having a year under his belt should help him in both areas. Howard has a chance to be a big-time player in the SEC, and this spring should go a long way toward that.
  • Derrick Jones, CB, Ole Miss: The sophomore-to-be played in nine games last year and made three starts. He's in a fight for one of the Rebels' cornerback spots this spring, but has a chance to be a special player for Ole Miss. Senquez Golson will likely get most of the attention at corner this spring, but Jones is a player the coaches really like and he has a lot of upside after playing as a true freshman. Making Jones into a legitimate cover corner in this league is the goal coming out of spring.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M: We thought he'd be a breakout player last year, but a knee injury cut his season short early on. Seals-Jones has all the athleticism, talent, speed and upside to be an All-SEC player this fall. Sure, the Aggies are throwing out a new quarterback this year, but their offense is very generous to receivers and Seals-Jones is the perfect weapon for A&M to have. He has the size to be a top-flight deep threat on the outside, but he's also very capable of playing inside, which just makes him that much more versatile for the Aggies.

SEC's lunch links

March, 19, 2014
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Is basketball taking over the SEC? Auburn hired Bruce Pearl. Tennessee is about to open NCAA tournament play. Not so fast. The majority of the conference is still being consumed by spring football, and for further evidence of that, check out today’s lunch links.

Mills helps steady LSU's safeties

March, 19, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Mills doesn’t view himself as a safety. He doesn’t view himself as a cornerback, either.

He views himself as both -- which is coming in handy for LSU’s defense these days.

“When you come in, you call yourself a defensive back,” said Mills, a rising junior who started at safety for the first time in the Tigers’ Outback Bowl win against Iowa. “That means you can play corner to nickel to safety to dime. You want to be able to play all positions. You don’t want to be a single-position type of guy if you’re a defensive back.”

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills is helping out at safety this spring after playing the position in LSU's Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.
That’s an ideal attitude because Mills is several of those things -- particularly now, when the Tigers must replace starting safety Craig Loston and are without part-time starting safety Corey Thompson, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Mills is a starting safety in LSU’s base defense, remains as the starting nickelback and still finds time to practice in a traditional cornerback role at points.

The Tigers need him most at safety for the time being, which was the message that defensive backs coach Corey Raymond imparted prior to spring practice.

“Him and Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis], they kind of talked to me or whatever and they were like, ‘Right now we need help at safety. You played a pretty good job those last two games of the season. Can you play it for us?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ ” Mills said. “And he said, ‘But we’re still going to need you at corner and you’re still going to be our starting nickel when we go Mustang package.’ ”

With Thompson on the shelf and a group of talented safety signees -- led by ESPN’s No. 18 overall prospect and No. 2 safety Jamal Adams -- not yet on campus, the Tigers are primarily using Mills and Ronald Martin with the first-team defense.

Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are also working at safety, and thus far the foursome is pleased with what it has accomplished.

“Rickey, if he keeps coming along, he’s going to help us out a lot. Jalen Mills is doing a good job back there, also. And Dwayne Thomas, he’s doing a good job,” Martin said. “That’s the only other ones that we’ve got working in right now in the spring, just us four. Us guys, we’re doing a pretty good job so far, so we’re just trying to keep it going.”

Perhaps that’s a good sign, as safety was a problem area for much of 2013. Loston was the one constant when healthy, but the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door partially because of inconsistency. The Tigers used seven different starting combinations at safety, with Martin, Thompson, Mills and Jefferson all starting at least once.

Once Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer, Raymond will have even more safety options from which to choose. And Tigers coach Les Miles said the newcomers will indeed get a long look from the coaching staff.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said.

Thompson will also be back by then. The rising junior missed the final two games of 2013 after injuring his left knee against Texas A&M and undergoing surgery in December. He said after Tuesday’s practice that the knee is back to about 80 percent, but he will not attempt to test it during spring practice.

“I aim to be 100 by May,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to rush it, get back too early. But then I feel like May is a good time to be 100 and do everything to get in shape and be ready for the season.”

So for now, the Tigers will continue to function with the four available safeties -- a group attempting to prove that last season’s lapses were only a temporary hiccup for a program known for solid defensive back play. LSU’s pass defense totals actually improved slightly (from 206.0 ypg in 2012 to 197.5 last season), but the Tigers’ overall defensive slide continued, with Chavis’ group dropping from second nationally in total defense in its 2011 SEC championship run (261.5 ypg) to eighth in 2012 (307.6) to 15th last fall (340.7).

That’s an 80-yard increase in just a two-year span, and the safeties know they must perform more consistently in order to improve those numbers.

“We’ve just got to show that we can be leaders out there -- show that we can lead the defense just like those guys in the past like Eric [Reid], Brandon [Taylor], LaRon [Landry] and so on and keep the pedigree going,” Martin said.

Continued progress from Mills at the position would offer a big boost, just as he did in his first-ever attempt at playing safety when he intercepted a pass during a comeback win against Arkansas.

Mills still has nuances of the position to learn, such as how to make new reads that are different at safety from those at cornerback, but he believes he is making the transition smoothly.

“I really didn’t have a problem with [shifting positions],” Mills said. “Just coming from corner, you know where you want your safety to be sometimes in different types of checks. So just going from cornerback to safety, I know what the corner wants, so I just try to do it.”

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
11:45
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:

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