SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
12:00
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Strange seeing legions of soccer fans cheering about losses and ties, but that's World Cup group play for you. Next up in the knockout rounds, they'll settle any ties with a penalty-kick shootout. Seems only slightly more fair. At least college football has the Kansas tiebreaker and not some kind of punt, pass and catch exhibition.

SEC lunch links

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
12:00
PM ET
So how many of you used Jurgen Klinsmann's letter to get out of work today?

Before we get to your daily links, a moment of appreciation for Vanderbilt, the smallest school in the SEC, having finally won its first men’s title in any sport. It wasn’t quite a capacity crowd on the gridiron at Vanderbilt Stadium on Wednesday night, but about 2,000 showed up to watch their Dores win the College World Series.

Another impressive SEC winning streak is therefore still alive. This is ninth straight year that an SEC school has won a national title in football, men’s basketball or baseball.
If the SEC has plenty of one thing, it's athletes.

Every year we see running backs and wide receivers that can make one move and go the distance. They're explosive in every sense of the word. They're quick, fast and utterly elusive.

In 2013, Henry Josey and Tre Mason were home run hitters at running back. Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews routinely burned defenses deep at receiver. Heck, who can forget Johnny Manziel's big-play antics at quarterback?

But all of those playmakers have moved on. Now it's time for a new group of explosive athletes to emerge on offense in the SEC.

Here's a rundown of each team's most dangerous weapons:
  • Alabama: A talented return man, Christion Jones knows how to operate in space and break free from the defense. Amari Cooper, meanwhile, has the feet of a ballerina and can dance away from coverage just as well -- or run right by it. After experiencing a down sophomore year due to injury, he should return to his freshman form where he had 19 receptions for 20 yards or more. And don’t lose sight of Kenyan Drake while you’re at it. Even on limited carries last season he had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards.
  • Auburn: Speed is in ample supply at Auburn, from quarterback to receiver to running back. Nick Marshall’s agility and big-play ability under center speaks for itself. Meanwhile, Sammie Coates has some of the best straight-line speed you’ll find in the country. And, finally, running back Corey Grant is one of the league’s all-time burners, having reportedly clocked a sub-4.2 second 40-yard dash. He had 29 rushes of 10 or more yards last season and averaged a whopping 9.8 yards per carry.
  • Arkansas: Bret Bielema needs some help at receiver. Sure, Keon Hatcher (12.8 yards per catch) showed some promise late and the return of Demetrius Wilson from injury is reason for hope. But ultimately the real big-play ability on offense comes from the running backs. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined for 56 rushes for 10 or more yards last season -- a number that would have tied for third nationally behind Jordan Lynch (64) and Taysom Hill (60).
  • Florida: Andre Debose, when healthy, is an athlete with world-class speed. After all, he was a state track champion in high school, running the 100-meter dash in 10.68 seconds. It’s part of why he already holds the school record of four kickoff returns for touchdowns -- a record tied for tops in SEC history with Willie Gault, Felix Jones and Brandon Boykin. How's that for good company? With two major injuries hopefully now in his past, Debose is a threat to score at both receiver and in the return game.
  • Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell will be a welcome return at receiver after missing all but one game last season with a torn ACL. When he was healthy, he was able to run in the neighborhood of a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. He and Chris Conley, who led the team in receiving yards last year, can stress any secondary. That’s not to mention Justin Scott-Wesley, who was a state champion in both the 100- and 200-meter dash in high school.
  • Kentucky: You should know Javess Blue's name, but chances are that many of you probably don’t. Unfortunately his work at receiver flew mostly under the radar at Kentucky in 2013. His five catches of 20-plus yards may not sound overwhelming, but you have to remember he did that without much help from his quarterbacks. Still, Blue is a burner to the tune of a 4.29 second 40-yard dash.
  • LSU: Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. will be missed. But coach Les Miles wasn’t left lacking for playmakers on offense when they went on to the NFL. Terrence Magee was quietly one of the most explosive backs in the league last season with 10 rushes for 20 or more yards. Even so, No. 1 overall recruit Leonard Fournette might overshadow him. Fournette is not just big and strong, he’s also fast. (Think of a young Adrian Peterson). And while we’re talking true freshmen, Malachi Dupre has the chance to make an immediate impact at receiver. The former five-star prospect runs in the 4.5-second 40-yard dash range, and has impressive size and a vertical to match.
  • Mississippi State: It’s a make or break year for Mississippi State’s offense. In the past coach Dan Mullen has struggled to find playmakers. Now he has three guys who can really spread out a defense. Jameon Lewis, who has the tools of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, is a great underneath receiver, and Brandon Holloway, who can play either running back or receiver, is lightning quick and deadly in space. With De’Runnya Wilson standing at 6-foot-5 with the leaping ability of a true basketball player (he's a forward for the Bulldogs, in case you didn't know), Mullen’s offense should be able to attack every level of the secondary.
  • Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel lost a lot of firepower on both sides of the ball this offseason. But even with Dorial Green-Beckham and LaDamian Washington no longer in Columbia, there are still plenty of dangerous weapons on offense. Russell Hansbrough is a talented back who had 20 rushes for 10 or more yards in 2013. Then factor in Bud Sasser (13.88 yards per play) and Marcus Murphy (17 career touchdowns four different ways: rushing, kickoff return, punt return and receiving), and the Tiger offense should be able to stretch the field just fine.
  • Ole Miss: By now you ought to know about Laquon Treadwell, who finished second only to Jordan Matthews in the SEC in total receptions last season (72). He became the first player in school history to be named SEC Freshman of the Year by the league coaches. Though he may lack elite top-end speed, he more than makes up for it with his elusiveness and ability to make yards after the catch. And don’t sleep on running back Jaylen Walton. In addition to being the team's primary kick returner, he also rushed for 523 yards last season. His 29 receptions were fourth on the team and he led all Rebs with eight total touchdowns.
  • South Carolina: Dylan Thompson may not have a lot of height at receiver, but he’s got plenty of speed. Shaq Roland is an All-SEC type of talent, if he can play with some consistency. His 18.2 yards per play last year ranked 15th nationally (minimum 25 touches). Opposite him at receiver is Damiere Byrd, who could be the fastest player in the league. His 17.3 yards per play ranked 20th nationally and an impressive 72.7 percent of his receptions went for either a first down or a touchdown.
  • Tennessee: Outside of a spectacular one-handed grab against South Carolina, Marquez North and his 13 yards per catch were somewhat lost in the shuffle last season. At 6-foot-4 and in the neighborhood of 220 pounds, he shouldn’t have the speed he does. With his size and athleticism (he won the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics 110-meter hurdles at the age of 12), he’s a threat to burn any defensive back in the SEC.
  • Texas A&M: All credit goes to Kevin Sumlin for pulling in some top-tier athletes on the recruiting trail the past two years. Trey Williams, who still has to adjust to the ins and outs of the running back position, has the speed and agility to be a breakout star this season. Meanwhile, there’s Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil to consider. They’ll wow you in different ways -- Noil is all moves and agility and speed, while Seals-Jones is pure height and jumping ability -- but both are threats to score from anywhere on the field.
  • Vanderbilt: The first sentence of Brian Kimbrow’s high school scouting report by ESPN says it all: “Kimbrow may be small but he's an electrifying running back prospect with excellent speed and quickness.” When you think of his running style, think of Warrick Dunn. Kimbrow came on strong as a freshman in 2012 with 413 yards on only 66 carries, but he saw his production taper off last year behind Jerron Seymour and Wesley Tate on the depth chart. Now he has a fresh start under new coach Derek Mason, who showed a major commitment to the running game while at Stanford.
Every four years, we all have soccer fever. I have it 24/7, 365, but the World Cup helps bring out the inner futboler in all of us.

The United States is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game, but fans have come out in full force this year to support arguably our most talented World Cup team. And I've even seen it from SEC football players this summer.

Tweets from football players concerning the World Cup have littered my news feed the past couple of weeks. It might be because of the enormous popularity of the "FIFA" video game series, but it's still great to see.

You know what else would be great to see? Athletes like the ones that amaze us every Saturday in the SEC playing some footy. Now, I realize that a lot of these guys might not be the agile athletes that glide all over the pitch with their size, but let's put that aside for a second. Let's expand our minds and have a little fun here. Let's imagine some of the SEC's best current athletes suiting up to make a squad of 11 to play the original football.

We're going with a 4-3-2-1 look, meaning we have four fullbacks and a striker up top. And remember: Please, no biting.

Note: Only one kicker made the cut because most of them played soccer growing up. We wanted to use our imaginations a little more here.

STRIKER
  • Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: He looks like a cannonball when he shoots through the line of scrimmage. He's incredibly agile and elusive and would give a healthy Jozy Altidore a run for his money. He makes the most of his opportunities and would be a ball specialist up top.
WINGERS
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Yes, he's the SEC's best cornerback, but imagine that speed and athleticism up front. He played soccer growing up, and he's just too agile and quick to keep in the back. Plus, it's a major advantage to have a legitimate ballhawk at forward talk about takeaways at midfield!
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He was my first choice for goalkeeper because of that wingspan and those hands. But the more I thought about it, I want that speed, strength and athleticism leading the charge up front. He also has tremendous control. Wherever Treadwell is, he's the best pure athlete around.
MIDFIELDERS
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Think Jermaine Jones: Big, fast and powerful. It's going to be tough to get past his intimidating frame, and he has the speed to track the long ball and create a lane for himself when he takes off. He'd be great on set pieces in both boxes with his size, and having him run up and down the field sounds frightening.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Just try to send the long ball over his head. He's the perfect player to have at center mid. He's your field general/ballhawk, who can take a lot of pressure off the defense. No one is getting behind him and he isn't afraid to challenge opponents. Just call him our enforcer.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another big body in the middle who has great explosion. I need my midfield well conditioned, but I also need guys who are going to be able to attack and defend. With Gurley's strength, he won't get out-muscled for balls, and once he gains possession, he's gone. He also has superb field vision to own midfield.
FULLBACKS
  • Corey Grant, RB, Auburn: Like fellow SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf told me, "Think Fabian Johnson." Grant has a ton of speed to carry the ball up and be a threat to score, but he's also incredibly strong, so sitting back and playing defense would be something he'd thrive in on the pitch.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: You want a captain and a brick wall heading up the middle of your defense? Well, just look at the thick, rock of a man that is McKinney. He definitely isn't afraid to get physical and with his drop back speed, getting behind him would be terribly tough. Challenge him!
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, DE, Alabama: Who? Yeah, you probably haven't heard of him, but we'll just call him the bowling ball in the back. Somehow, this big bruiser played varsity soccer in high school, so he'd bring good experience to the group. Plus, having an athletic 6-2, 287-pound presence in the middle is scary.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Like Grant, I love his speed on the back wing. He can carry the ball up and create plays for himself and his teammates, plus he can hustle back if a deep ball is sent. Oh, and that tank-like build will make him tough to beat outside the box.
GOALKEEPER
  • Josh Lambo, K, Texas A&M: As a keeper myself, this was the position I had to make sure was perfect. The only kicker on the team, Lambo started playing soccer at age four and eventually played for the U.S. men's under-20 team. He was also drafted eighth overall by the MLS' FC Dallas in 2008 before making it to A&M. No-brainer, really.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
12:00
PM ET
Is anyone else out there as consumed by the Luis Suarez coverage as I am? He bit someone ... during a World Cup match ... on national television ... and then tried to say it was no big deal. Some stories just write themselves.

If you want some context on Suarez the habitual biter, take a few minutes and read Wright Thompson's superb profile: Portrait of a Serial Winner.
Maryland and Rutgers are to officially join the Big Ten on July 1 and, until their first seasons are in the books, plenty of questions will swirl around just how they will perform.

So, we decided to take a look at how past teams did in similar situations. Did new conferences help or hinder the programs? How did those first seasons go? And just how quickly did the teams assimilate?

We looked at teams that moved into new BCS conferences (outside of the Big Ten) prior to the 2012 season. Obviously, there are plenty of variables at play, but here is a look at nine programs that transitioned -- and how they fared:




Boston College, Big East to ACC, 2005

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 9-3 (SOS – 74), won 2004 Big East title. Beat North Carolina in Continental Tire Bowl, 37-24

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 9-3 (SOS – 22), won 2005 ACC Atlantic Division. Beat Boise State in MPC Computers Bowl, 27-21

Synopsis: The Eagles didn’t skip a beat in the first season with the ACC, and they actually ended up winning three division titles in their first four years in the conference. The wheels only started to come off for Boston College once it fired Jeff Jagodzinski for interviewing with the New York Jets following the 2008 season. The 2009 season was the last time Boston College had a winning conference record.




Colorado, Big 12 to Pac-12, 2011

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 5-7 (SOS – 33), finished fifth in Big 12’s North Division. No bowl berth

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 3-10 (SOS – 21), tied for last in Pac-12’s South Division. No bowl berth

Synopsis: The Buffaloes haven’t had a winning season since Gary Barnett coached the team in 2005, so the move to the Pac-12 really only saw Colorado go from bad to slightly worse. In its first three seasons with the Pac-12, Colorado won three, one and four games, respectively.




Miami (Fla.), Big East to ACC, 2004

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 11-2 (SOS – 40), shared 2003 Big East title. Beat Florida State in Orange Bowl, 16-14

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 9-3 (SOS – 9), tied for third in ACC. Beat Florida in Peach Bowl, 27-10

Synopsis: The Hurricanes rolled into the ACC as a great team, but the conference has been relatively harsh on them. After making four straight BCS bowls in the Big East, Miami hasn’t made a single one in the 10 seasons since joining the ACC. On the plus side, they have had winning records in eight of those past 10 seasons -- but they have never had double-digit wins during that span.




Missouri, Big 12 to SEC, 2012

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 8-5 (SOS – 13), finished fifth in Big 12. Beat North Carolina in Independence Bowl, 41-24

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 5-7 (SOS – 1), finished fifth in SEC East Division. No bowl berth

Synopsis: Lingering injuries to quarterback James Franklin didn’t do Missouri any favors in that first season, as Missouri’s pass efficiency dropped from No. 30 in 2011 to No. 103 in 2012. The Tigers bounced back in their second year in the SEC, however, and finished first in the SEC East Division with a 12-2 record.




TCU, Mountain West to Big 12, 2012

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 11-2 (SOS – 86), won 2011 Mountain West title. Beat Louisiana Tech in Poinsettia Bowl, 31-24

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 7-6 (SOS – 16), tied for fifth in Big 12. Lost to Michigan State in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 17-16

Synopsis: In TCU’s seven seasons in the Mountain West, it finished with within the top 25 a total of six times -- and came away with four conference titles. In the Big 12, so far, it has underachieved by quite a bit. Part of the reason for the drop-off in Year 1 was that quarterback Casey Pachall withdrew in October to enter inpatient rehab. But even with Pachall back in 2013, TCU fared even worse at 4-8, the first time it didn’t make a bowl since 2004.




Texas A&M, Big 12 to SEC, 2012

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 7-6 (SOS – 4), tied for sixth in Big 12. Beat Northwestern in Meineke Car Care Bowl, 33-22

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 11-2, (SOS – 6), tied for second in SEC Western Division. Beat Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, 41-13

Synopsis: A new head coach like Kevin Sumlin and a freshman like Johnny Manziel are enough to ease any transition. The Aggies finished with 11 wins during their first season in the SEC, which also happened to be the first time they broke double-digit victories since 1998. With Mack Brown leaving Texas, A&M is a team whose stock is certainly on the rise now. A move to the SEC only helped.




Utah, Mountain West to Pac-12, 2011

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 10-3 (SOS – 50), finished second in Mountain West. Lost to Boise State in Maaco Bowl, 26-3

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 8-5 (SOS – 49), tied for third in Pac-12’s South Division. Beat Georgia Tech in Sun Bowl, 30-27 OT

Synopsis: Utah fared extremely well in the Mountain West -- finishing with double-digit wins in five of its last eight seasons there -- and did pretty well in its first season in the Pac-12. But, in the past two seasons, the Utes twice finished 5-7 in part because their passing game has been grounded. Still, if quarterback Travis Wilson is healthy this season, some are expecting Utah to return to the postseason.




Virginia Tech, Big East to ACC, 2004

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 8-5 (SOS – 60), finished fourth in Big East. Lost to Cal in the Insight Bowl, 52-49

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 10-3 (SOS – 42), won 2004 ACC title. Lost to Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, 16-13

Synopsis: The move appears to be a great one for the Hokies. From 1991 to 2003, Frank Beamer came away with just three Big East titles. From 2004 to the present, he has won four ACC championships. Although the past two seasons have been a step back, Virginia Tech finished with double-digit wins during its first eight seasons in the ACC.




West Virginia, Big East to Big 12, 2012

Record prior to move (Strength of schedule rank): 10-3 (SOS – 57), won share of Big East title. Beat Clemson in Orange Bowl, 70-33

Record in first year of move (Strength of schedule rank): 7-6 (SOS – 29), tied for fifth in Big 12. Lost to Syracuse in Pinstripe Bowl, 38-14

Synopsis: In WVU’s past 10 seasons in the Big East, it made 10 straight bowls and won at least eight games every year. But Year 1 in the Big 12 was a defensive disaster and a step backward. The Mountaineers allowed more than 45 points in six of their first seven conference games and, the next season, had to replace a lot of starters and finished No. 100 in the nation by allowing 33.3 points per game. West Virginia missed the postseason last season, the first time since 1999.
An early signing period can’t get here soon enough.

In fact, a number of SEC teams are recruiting as if it already exists.

On Tuesday, Auburn played catch-up with its league brethren by gaining its 16th and 17th total commitments of the 2015 class in four-star offensive lineman Tyler Carr and three-star tight end Jalen Harris. Still, Gus Malzahn’s group trails Alabama (19), South Carolina (19), Mississippi State (18), Tennessee (18) and Texas A&M (18) in terms of its total verbal pledges.

And to think, SEC rules permit only 25 signees per class, per year.

So what’s the rush then? It’s hard to say. In recent years we’ve seen the recruiting calendar steadily accelerated by both the coaches and the players. More and more prospects are committing early, in part to get the process over with but also to secure a spot at their desired school. If you’re a middle-of-the-pack recruit, Alabama offers you a scholarship and you see there are only six spots left in the class, you better act fast.

It’s important to note, however, that without an early signing period in effect, we’re still talking tentative numbers. A verbal commitment is still nonbinding -- on both ends. Players will continue to look elsewhere and other programs will keep trying to poach other schools’ recruits. Coaches will make the scholarship numbers fit, one way or another.

South Carolina’s 19 current commitments may not be the same 19 recruits in a few months time. Ole Miss, on the other hand, has only eight commitments to date and could see that number double by the start of the season. Just look at Auburn, which has gone on a tear since mid-April by nagging 11 total commitments.

Compared to the other big five conferences, the SEC is wasting no time recruiting. The ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 each have only one school in their respective conferences with 16 or more commitments. The Pac-12, meanwhile, has none and is led by Arizona’s 14 commitments.

Other conferences might be clinging to a recruiting era gone by, one where prospects waited until signing day to put pen to paper and decide. An early signing period might change that in the future, but for now the SEC is living in the present, getting while the getting is good.

By last count, 152 of ESPN’s top 300 prospects have already committed. There’s no time to waste.

Most important game: Texas A&M

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
3:30
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We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Texas A&M.

Most important game: Aug. 28 at South Carolina

Key players: Texas A&M fans will have their eyes on the signal-caller, whomever it may be -- sophomore Kenny Hill or true freshman Kyle Allen. Regardless of the winner, whoever starts at quarterback will be doing so for the first time in their college football careers and doing so on the road in the SEC should be quite the test. This game will also mark Cedric Ogbuehi's debut at left tackle. The projected future first-round NFL draft pick started at right tackle last season but makes the transition to the blind side this year. The Aggies are hopeful that a healthy Ricky Seals-Jones can have a significant impact on the receiving corps after missing most of last season with a knee injury, but veteran Malcome Kennedy is the returning statistical leader and should provide a steady presence. Defensively, the Aggies' secondary is led by senior cornerback Deshazor Everett and the coaches are excited about the potential of new middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni, who played as a true freshman last year but looks to develop into a leader this fall. Up front, defensive end Gavin Stansbury looks to build on a solid junior season. For the Gamecocks, the player to watch closely is running back Mike Davis. The Aggies were atrocious on run defense last season and Davis was one of the SEC's best rushers, finishing with 1,183 yards (fourth in the league). Like Texas A&M, South Carolina will be working in a new starting quarterback in Dylan Thompson, who steps in for the now-graduated all-time winningest quarterback in school history, Connor Shaw. On defense, the linebackers are expected to be the strength with several returnees, including Skai Moore, who had a strong freshman season. On special teams, the Gamecocks have a talented return specialist in Pharoh Cooper and a good kicker in Elliott Fry -- both of whom were All-SEC freshman team picks last year.

Why it matters: It will be far too early to put too much focus on the season opener when it comes to postseason implications, and the Aggies have several key games to choose from when it comes to pivotal matchups (their road trips to Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn come to mind, not to mention their season-ending Thanksgiving home clash against LSU). However, this game is important because of the caliber of opponent (South Carolina), the location (on the road) and what could potentially come afterward for the Aggies. If they're able to win, that could jumpstart serious momentum for the Aggies' 2014 season with non-conference dates against Lamar, Rice and SMU following. A win against the Gamecocks could set the stage for a potential 4-0 start heading into their second conference game against Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in late September. With outsider expectations probably lowered this season because of the departure of three first-round draft picks on offense and a young defense that was brutal last season, starting the season off with consecutive wins strung together could be a huge boost to the young Aggies and potentially raise some eyebrows nationally. When you also take into account that this will be the first game of the college football season, the SEC Network game debut and the Aggies' chance to show the nation what life will be like after Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews, it adds up to a game of high stakes. Even if the Aggies lose, how they play will say a lot about them, much like how their performance on Sept. 8, 2012 vs. Florida -- Texas A&M's SEC debut, a 20-17 loss -- set the tone for a thoroughly successful 2012 campaign. And hey, isn't the old coaches cliché, "The most important game is the next one?"
As if four commitments in a week and two in one day wasn't enough, Texas A&M made yet another recruiting splash on Friday. And it might turn out to be its biggest in recent weeks, both figuratively and literally.

The Aggies landed the commitment of one of the premier prospects in the 2016 class, Allen (Texas) High School offensive tackle Greg Little.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
12:00
PM ET
We have recruiting, transfers, injury updates, playbook kerfluffles and much more in Friday's edition of the lunch links. Hope you all have a great day and a great weekend.
If you follow Texas A&M recruiting via social media, you've probably seen the hashtag by now.

#WRTS

Four letters that have become the rallying cry of Aggie recruits, coaches and fans alike. Their meaning? "We run this state."

That's the way the Aggies feel right now when it comes to the state of Texas A&M recruiting, and considering the recruiting prowess they've shown during the Kevin Sumlin era, and particularly this recruiting cycle, it's difficult to debate that point.

A state once ruled in recruiting by Texas and coach Mack Brown in the mid-2000s has seen the balance of power shift roughly 100 miles eastward to College Station, Texas. In the Longhorns' heyday, it seemed as if they could land any in-state prospect they wished and right now, it almost seems as if the Aggies are enjoying that fortune themselves.

This week has illustrated that to a certain extent. Thursday was a big day for the Aggies as they landed two prospects out of Texas high school football power Cedar Hill High School: ESPN 300 receiver DaMarkus Lodge and outside linebacker Richard Moore.

Earlier this week, the Aggies also scored pledges from four-star offensive tackle Keaton Sutherland and three-star linebacker Landis Durham. That's not to mention that earlier this month, they landed four-star defensive tackle Kingsley Keke and last month received a commitment from ESPN 300 WR Kemah Siverand and perhaps their most impactful recruit of the cycle, five-star quarterback Kyler Murray.

Texas A&M is on quite the recruiting roll.

The Aggies' class, which is ranked No. 3 in the ESPN Recruiting Nation class rankings, holds 17 commitments, nine of whom are in the ESPN 300, and the class has 13 prospects with four-star-or-higher ratings. The Aggies hold commitments from the Lone Star State's No. 1 quarterback (Murray), receiver (Lodge), tight end (Jordan Davis) and defensive tackle (five-star prospect Daylon Mack).

Two of the state's top three players are committed to the Aggies and three of the top eight. And when it's all said and done, the Aggies could finish with four of the top five and five of the top 10 in Texas if their pursuit of cornerback Kendall Sheffield and linebacker Malik Jefferson falls their way. Neither has plans to announce his destination anytime soon, but the Aggies are strong players for both, and if that were to happen, the Aggies would lay claim to the state's top player at six different positions.


That would be a rough fate for the Aggies' chief recruiting rival (though no longer on-field rival) Texas and new coach Charlie Strong, who is already feeling the effects of A&M's success. But in reality, this isn't about Texas for the Aggies. It's about building a team and program that can compete and succeed long term in what many consider to be the country's toughest conference, the SEC.

With the Lone Star State being such fertile recruiting ground, the competition for talent will always be fierce. Whether it's Texas, a surging Baylor program that is reaching unprecedented success under Art Briles, a young, energetic, charismatic staff led by Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, TCU's presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex or staving off out-of-state schools such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and other national powers, it's impossible to get every prospect desired from the large pool of talent Texas provides. But snagging most of the desired prospects bodes well for the future.

Texas A&M must continue to produce on-field success this fall -- let's not forget, the Aggies' 20-6 run in their first two seasons as SEC members and the visibility provided by having a Heisman Trophy winner are significant factors why the Aggies are such an attractive option to recruits right now. And teenagers can be fickle, making recruiting an unpredictable roller coaster until pen meets paper on the first Wednesday in February.

But if the Aggies can hang on to the high-level prospects they've already gained pledges from and continue recruiting at their current pace, the effects could be felt well beyond the state's borders, throughout SEC country and across the nation in years to come.

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
10:00
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Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.

Ducks renew hunt for future QB 

June, 20, 2014
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Signing a top quarterback remains at the top of the list for the Oregon Ducks.

After first losing out to Texas A&M on five-star Kyler Murray, the top quarterback on the board, the Ducks went after former Notre Dame commit Blake Barnett. While it appeared as if Oregon had a very good chance to land the Under Armour All-America selection, Barnett committed to Alabama on Wednesday in what was another hit at the position for the Ducks.

The Ducks, however, wasted little time moving on to the next quarterback on the board.


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Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 9-4
2013 SEC record: 4-4, third in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 2-4
Last meeting: Lost 49-42 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 2

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill, or whomever takes over as the Aggies QB, will have plenty of weapons available.
Top returners
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, WR Malcome Kennedy, CB Deshazor Everett, S Floyd Raven

Key losses
QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, OT Jake Matthews, RB Ben Malena, WR Travis Labhart, NG Kirby Ennis, LB Nate Askew, CB Toney Hurd

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel (923 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel (4,114 yards, 37 TD, 12 INT)
Receiving: Mike Evans (1,394 yards)
Tackles: Steven Jenkins* (96)
Sacks: Shaan Washington*, Gavin Stansbury (3)
Interceptions: Howard Matthews*, Nate Askew (3)

What they're saying
"No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin

Three things to watch:

1. Johnny ain’t the problem: Forget Johnny Manziel for a moment. Believe me, we’ll have time for him later. Finding his successor at quarterback isn’t the biggest problem Sumlin faces in 2014. Instead, it’s the defense, the one that looked utterly lost against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and finished 109th in the country in total defense (behind four other Lone Star State schools: North Texas, Texas State, Texas and Texas Tech). There were injuries, sure, and there were a lot of young players on the field, but there’s no excuse for giving up 32 points per game. The secondary was porous, the tackling terrible and the pass-rush non-existent. But this year is supposed to be better, right? Well, maybe not. Offseason troubles have thrown a huge wrench into a defense that was supposed to be a year wiser and more matured. Two starters (Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden) were dismissed from the team, and a third starter, defensive end Gavin Stansbury, got himself arrested on assault charges.

2. Back to Johnny: We weren’t going to make you wait that long to discuss the loss of Manziel. A lot of Alabama fans should be relieved to know he’s gone. His theatrics won’t stress the Crimson Tide any longer. But even as his Heisman Trophy and 5,037 total yards of offense head to Cleveland, the offense he leaves behind in College Station shouldn’t be overlooked. Even with starting wideouts Mike Evans and Travis Labhart gone, there is more than enough talent on campus for Sumlin to cobble together a formidable offense, whether the starting QB is sophomore Kenny Hill or the freshman Kyle Allen. The Aggies are loaded at running back with three talented options there (Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams). And at receiver, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Veterans Malcome Kennedy and Edward Pope are just the tip of the iceberg. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are the real weapons. Seals-Jones is a clone of Evans, a 6-foot-5 giant who will tower over defensive backs. Noil, the No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300, looks like the SEC’s next Percy Harvin, a terror with the ball in his hands. Johnny is gone but with so many weapons and a strong offensive line (thanks to Cedric Ogbuehi’s return), the Aggies shouldn’t miss a beat.

3. How to break through: There’s an argument to be made that Texas A&M is the most overhyped program in the SEC. Yes, Manziel was a revelation. And, yes, the Aggies were competitive the minute they joined the league. But nonetheless, the wins simply haven’t been there. You’ve got to finish higher than third in your own division before you start becoming a power in the conference -- or nationally, for that matter. It’s Year 3 under Sumlin, which means it’s time to start capitalizing on potential and turn it into production. Sumlin realizes this. This spring he told ESPN, “It's kind of hard to have a target on your back when you finished third in your own division. I think the reason people would say that [we've got a target on us] is because we had unexpected success. But we're trying to go from third to first.” Sumlin knows, “We haven’t arrived in this league.” But they could soon. With the shadow of Johnny Football no longer looming, it will be interesting to see where the program goes next. The offense should be more balanced and run-oriented, a fact that should help the defense stay off the field. If Mark Snyder can turn things around on that side of the ball, then things could get really interesting. The West will still be an uphill battle for the Aggies, but it might be enough to bridge the difference between potential and production.
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).

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Aggies' Speedy Noil Out For SMU Game
Heather Dinich discusses why Texas A&M's offense should be able to overcome the absence of WR Speedy Noil due to an unspecified injury, which will prevent him from playing against SMU this weekend.
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