LSU Tigers: Johnny Manziel

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. predicts nine players from the SEC will go in the first round in his latest mock draft Insider.

That would be down from the 12 first-round picks the SEC produced a year ago, which tied the record for first-rounders set by the ACC in 2006.

Kiper's No. 1 pick overall is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney going to the Houston Texans. Six of the first 10 picks in the draft will be SEC players, according to Kiper. He has Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson going No. 2, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel going No. 4, Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans going No. 7, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews going No. 9 and Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix going No. 10.

If all three Texas A&M players end up going in the top 10, it would be the first time that's happened in the SEC since the 2005 draft when Auburn produced three top-10 picks -- running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams and cornerback Carlos Rogers.

Kiper has a total of 17 SEC players going in his first two rounds. He doesn't have Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron going in the top two rounds, but does have LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger going No. 42 overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Editor’s note: With LSU’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, this week we’ll empty our notebook from the spring and cover a few topics that we weren’t able to hit prior to the Tigers’ spring game. We begin with a story on a pair of rising stars in LSU’s secondary.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Shortly after LSU’s defense adopted the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” moniker, the Tigers tired of breaking huddles by using the nickname that Seattle’s feisty secondary gave itself.

But LSU’s secondary still has a perfectly good nickname of its own.

[+] EnlargeRashard Robinson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesCB Rashard Robinson had his best outing of 2013 in LSU's 34-10 rout of Texas A&M.
“We’ve still got the DBU saying, though,” cornerback Rashard Robinson said.

DBU as in “Defensive Back University,” which might seem boastful, but it suits a program whose secondary has produced seven All-Americans and four first-round NFL draft picks in the last decade.

“That’s a lot to live up to. We’ve got Patrick [Peterson] and them, there were some great players here, so we’ve got to live up to the hype,” said Robinson, who attended the same high school (Ely in Pompano Beach, Fla.) that produced Peterson, a former LSU All-American and current star with the Arizona Cardinals.

The Tigers can go a long way toward upholding that tradition if Robinson and fellow sophomore Tre’Davious White continue their upward climb this fall. The duo put a positive spin on what had been an up-and-down 2013 season for DBU by claiming starting jobs by the end of the fall.

The Tigers gave up some big yardage totals while trying to settle on the right personnel last fall -- including a season-high 349 yards to Ole Miss in Game 8 -- but after that point, they allowed just 168.8 passing yards per game in the final five games. Perhaps the highlight of that stretch was the 34-10 dismantling of Texas A&M when first-time starter Robinson locked down Aggies star Mike Evans, intercepted his first career pass, and the Tigers handed Johnny Manziel (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) the worst outing of his college career.

Now, instead of green freshmen, Robinson and White are established starters, and they might just be growing into the program’s next shutdown corners.

“I think they’re becoming more mature, understand the spot that they’re in,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think they’re getting better. They’re talented men, and they’re getting reps after reps.”

For both players, that means focusing on the little things. Robinson, who wasn’t cleared to enroll at LSU until two days before the first game last fall, understandably took time to develop the necessary level of confidence.

“I was always peeking towards the sideline, just making sure I wasn’t messing up or anything like that, because I always used to hear [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond yelling and it used to shake me up sometimes,” Robinson said. “But now I just relax and have that football swag with my technique and it’s been going good.”

White entered the starting lineup early last season and spent the spring working on basic elements of cornerback play that make a subtle difference.

“There’s some things I still need to work on. I take it as that, but there’s some things that I got better at as the spring went along,” said White, who led the team with nine passes defended and seven pass breakups last season. “[Things such as] being more physical at the line of scrimmage with the receiver and staying squared, not open as quick as I did last fall.”

As long as they stay out of trouble and in good academic standing, White and Robinson have the potential to lead a bounce-back year for LSU’s secondary -- and maybe even prove that the DBU nickname still has merit -- in 2014.

“To be honest, we’ve still got a couple things to work on, but we’re not too far away,” Robinson said. “We’re coming together.”
video
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Barely three months removed from surgery to repair the torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, Zach Mettenberger hardly took it easy in his first public throwing session before NFL talent evaluators.

The former LSU quarterback gave NFL eyeballs plenty to see -- and looked both frustrated and exhausted by the end -- when he completed 93 for 107 pass attempts at the Tigers’ pro day workouts on Wednesday.

“I’m three months out of surgery and not in playing shape and my legs are kind of tired. So yeah, that’s kind of something to expect,” said Mettenberger, who will visit the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday and said he will work out with the Detroit Lions on Saturday. “But I’m doing everything I can to work through that to be ready for rookie camp.”

Like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel at his pro day, Mettenberger threw passes while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads. LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said before the workout that they had been planning the move since well before Manziel did it, and Mettenberger added that the trend will likely continue.

“You play the game in pads,” Mettenberger said. “We talked about that probably three months ago and really started talking about it seriously two months ago. People can believe it or not, but I just think it’s going to be a new trend for quarterbacks to work out with pads on.”

Mettenberger, who wore a brace on the left knee, said he’s between 85 and 90 percent and predicted he’d be operating at full strength in time for a rookie camp in May. He showed the teams in attendance -- a group that was several hundred strong and included five head coaches and seven general managers -- a variety of drops and rollouts in order to indicate that his knee is stable.

LSU director of athletic training Jack Marucci, who helped coordinate Mettenberger’s rehab, said he placed no limitations on what Mettenberger would attempt in the workout.

“If he was practicing in spring ball, we would have let him do spring ball,” Marucci said.

Overall, it seemed to go well. Mettenberger has never had a problem zipping passes with authority, and although he wasn’t thrilled with the 14 incompletions -- about half of which came on dropped passes -- he understood that some rust was inevitable.

“Timing was a little off,” Mettenberger said. “It wasn’t the most disciplined route running that we’ve had here, something Coach Cam wouldn’t allow. But all things considered, with guys being gone and we haven’t been with Coach Cam every day for the last three months, it was a pretty good day.”

Mettenberger had a big collection of former LSU teammates to throw to on Wednesday. Among the 21 overall participants were receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright and running backs Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and J.C. Copeland.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanZach Mettenberger predicted he'd be operating at full strength in time for a rookie camp in May.
Not only were they looking to impress NFL execs with their pass-catching skills and positional abilities, some of them wanted to improve upon their workouts at the combine. Aside from Mettenberger’s throwing, perhaps the biggest storyline of the day would be whether Landry could complete the 40-yard dash faster than the 4.77 seconds he posted while nursing a hamstring injury in Indianapolis.

Problem solved. Landry’s two official times on Wednesday were 4.58 and 4.51, and he improved his production in all of the testing drills in which he participated at the combine.

“Even though it took a while [since the combine in late February], I feel like today was a positive day,” Landry said. “I got a lot out of today. I’m getting great feedback. I think now is just not letting up, just continue working and continuing to impress people.”

Landry has never been one to test particularly well, but his on-field production in 2013 was unquestioned. He ranked among the SEC’s top receivers with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns and flashed some of the most reliable hands of any receiver in the country -- reminding Cameron of a star wideout he once coached with the Baltimore Ravens.

“Guys know he can run,” Cameron said. “They’ve already told me, ‘We know this guy can run.’ They’re going to look at the tape when it comes to a guy like that. We had Anquan Boldin, and I don’t know that Anquan ever ran a 4.58, but all he does is catch the ball, compete and win world championships. So I guess he helped himself.”

Hill also improved upon his 40 time at the combine, going from a 4.66 in Indianapolis to a 4.52 and a 4.54 on Wednesday, helping reinforce Cameron’s prediction that he can be a valuable every-down back in the pros.

One player who didn’t need to run again, however, was Beckham. He posted a 4.43 40 time at the combine and joked that he felt so good on Wednesday that he thought about trying to beat that time at pro day.

“I was warming up and I was kind of telling my dad, ‘I want to run again.’ And they were all like, ‘There’s just no point,’ ” Beckham said. “So there was a part of me that wanted to run again, just to show that I do have that speed and it wasn’t just a one-time thing.”

He seems to be the highest-rated Tiger in this draft, with some projections placing him in the middle of the first round. Beckham -- who has workouts ahead with the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills -- said he has already accepted an invitation to attend next month’s draft and is proud to be considered one of the best prospects in a loaded class of receivers.

“Honestly I wouldn’t say that I didn’t expect it, but it’s a little surprising now to finally see that they’re saying that if not the best, you’re one of the best,” Beckham said. “So it’s a great feeling to me and it’s something that I worked for.”

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
12:00
PM ET
While college basketball teams are punching their tickets to the Elite Eight, the SEC's best quarterback of the last two seasons might have cemented his position as an elite talent in the NFL draft.

SEC's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
12:00
PM ET
The words "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are prominent in the aftermath of Wednesday's ruling by a federal agency that college athletes at Northwestern University are school employees and can form a union. The SEC had this to say:
"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," commissioner Mike Slive said in a written statement.

Former South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles came out against the idea of college football players unions.

Elsewhere in the South, spring practice and NFL scouting continued as if the earth had not spun off its axis.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
PM ET
Spring storylines abound this week around the SEC. Let's take a quick spin around the league to see what's happening.

SEC's lunch links

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
12:00
PM ET
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.

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:00
PM ET
Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
12:00
PM ET
Here we are at the end of another week, but thankfully a small taste of football is temporarily returning.

Let's take a look around the SEC as some schools have already opened spring practice and some are preparing for their first workout.

Opening spring camp: LSU

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
9:00
AM ET
Schedule: The Tigers open spring practice on Saturday. They will conclude with the spring game on April 5 at Tiger Stadium.

What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.

[+] EnlargeWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
Attrition: The Tigers once again suffered a big hit from early NFL entry. LSU receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and right guard Trai Turner all entered the draft despite having eligibility remaining.

On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.

New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.

Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?

Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.

Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.

All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to begin the season in the top 10.
For the first time since 2006, nobody in the SEC enters the spring as the reigning national champions.

Need a little perspective?

The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.

“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.

Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.

The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.

Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.

The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.

The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.

“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.

“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”

While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.

Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.

“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Dak Prescott has a chance to be one of the new QB stars of the SEC.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has the talent and experience to be the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, and the folks on the Plains are stoked to see what Nick Marshall can do with a spring practice under his belt and another year of experience in Malzahn’s system.

Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.

The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.

There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.

Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.

The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.

Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.

Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”

With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

No. 2 CB Sheffield Talks Recruiting
Fort Bend Marshall cornerback Kendall Sheffield landed at No. 12 in the new ESPN 300. That's good enough to earn him the top spot in Texas. Sheffield spoke about the ranking, a recent trip to LSU and his decision date with ESPN's Phil Murphy.Tags: Kendall Sheffield, Fort Bend Marshall, RecruitingNation, ESPN 300, high school football recruiting, Phil Murphy
VIDEO PLAYLIST video