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The commits just keep on coming for Texas A&M.

After receiving big news earlier Thursday that they landed ESPN 300 receiver DaMarkus Lodge, the Aggies capped the afternoon with a second commitment as Lodge's teammate at Cedar Hill (Texas) High, outside linebacker Richard Moore, will join him in Aggieland.

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Charlie Strong has a Texas-sized problem on his hands.

When a new coach is hired, especially at a place like The University of Texas, it usually creates excitement with prospects and high school coaches on the recruiting trail. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, that buzz isn’t there. With the addition of ESPN 300 receiver DaMarkus Lodge on Thursday, Texas A&M further tightened its grip on the top talent in the Lone Star State.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Eric GayCharlie Strong still has nearly eight months to bolster his 2015 recruiting class.
Lodge’s pledge gives A&M three of the top eight players in Texas and positions the Aggies for a run that could include four of the top five and five of the top 10.

On the other hand, the Longhorns, whose 2015 class is ranked No. 11 in ESPN's rankings, are struggling within their home state. Texas has yet to gain a commit from a top-10 in-state player. To make matters worse, Strong’s staff is losing commits to conference rivals and SEC powers in Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, LSU and Oklahoma.

“In the state of Texas, A&M has taken over,” Cedar Hill (Texas) High School coach Joey McGuire said. “Through what coach [Kevin] Sumlin has done and then what Johnny Manziel did to help put that school in such a great position, it's helped them move to whole different level. They're the hot thing going right now. It's hard to beat, even for a program like Texas.”

As any Texas fan will tell you, there’s nothing worse than losing to the hated Aggies. The recruiting beatdown could continue as A&M is in good position with cornerback Kendall Sheffield, linebacker Malik Jefferson, defensive end James Lockhart and cornerback Kris Boyd -- all ESPN 300 prospects strongly considering playing in College Station.

A Big 12 assistant who recruits in the Lone Star State said he could see that Texas would have problems on the recruiting trail the minute Strong announced his staff. The assistant praised Strong for luring Joe Wickline away from Oklahoma State and believes his addition will help the Longhorns find some hidden gems along the offensive line. But after that, the assistant said it was hardly the all-star cast many thought Strong could assemble, given the school’s resources.

“I thought [Strong] needed to bring in guys that can stand toe-to-toe against A&M, LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma and all the other top teams that recruit in Texas,” the coach said. “He needed guys that had deep ties with the high school coaches in Texas. Instead, he got a lot of coaches that can win recruiting battles against Cincinnati, UCF and teams like that. This is the Big 12, not the AAC.”

In defense of the Longhorns, Strong did retain Bruce Chambers, who is entering his 17th season in Austin and has connections with high school football in the state. He also hired Les Koenning, a 1981 Texas graduate who is entering his 34th year of coaching after previous stops at Mississippi State, South Alabama, Texas A&M, Alabama, TCU, Houston, Duke, Rice and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Replacing Mack Brown wasn’t going to be easy. Replacing the relationships he so tirelessly built with Texas high school coaches will take some time.

All of this has made Strong’s job of recruiting local talent more difficult than most assumed it would be when he was first hired six months ago. But all is not lost. There has been no shortage of effort from the Longhorns’ staff, and Strong can sway some recruits with a simple formula this fall: winning.

“If Charlie Strong comes out and wins, there might be another flip,” McGuire said. “If they can come out and surprise some people this year and win games, then they’re going to be the hot team with recruits. Winning and losing is going to make a big part of those schools' recruiting classes.”
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Top wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge has joined Texas A&M's impressive 2015 class. Here’s what the Under Armour All-American adds to coach Kevin Sumlin's squad:


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SEC's lunch links

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
12:00
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Plenty of news or nuggets to digest today around the SEC. Have at it:

Ranking the SEC cornerbacks

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
11:00
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Picking the top cornerback in the SEC was an easy call. But after that, it gets tricky.

Here's how we would rank the top-10 cornerbacks in the league for the 2014 season:

1. Vernon Hargreaves III, So., Florida: Much of the spotlight heading into last season was on Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up being the Gators' best cornerback. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves was a third-team Associated Press All-American as a true freshman and can do it all. He's the next great cornerback to come out of this league.

[+] EnlargeTre'Davious White
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesAfter a stellar freshman season, Tre'Davious White is only going to get better for LSU.
2. Taveze Calhoun, RJr., Mississippi State: Another guy who can do a little bit of everything from his cornerback position, the 6-1, 184-pound Calhoun had 45 total tackles last season and tied for second on the team with three interceptions. Calhoun is long and rangy and cut from the same mold as former Mississippi State Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks.

3. Tre'Davious White, So., LSU: One of two true freshman cornerbacks for the Tigers last season, the 5-11, 177-pound White certainly didn't play like a freshman. He had 55 total tackles and led the team with nine passes defended. His best football is yet to come, and he has the skills, confidence and smarts to be the kind of shut-down corner we're used to seeing on the Bayou.

4. Deshazor Everett, Sr., Texas A&M: The Aggies' defensive numbers a year ago were ugly, and it's no secret that they struggled mightily in the secondary. Even so, the 6-foot, 188-pound Everett returns as one of the top defensive backs in the league. He rotated between corner and safety last season and racked up a career-high 68 tackles. The Aggies will lean heavily on his experience in 2014.

5. Rashard Robinson, So., LSU: The hard part is figuring out which of LSU's two rising sophomores has the brightest future. The 6-1, 170-pound Robinson has more length than White, but didn't put up quite the numbers a year ago after getting off to a late start. He wasn't cleared academically until the week of the opener. He blossomed toward the end of the season and was terrific in helping to shut down Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies.

6. Cam Sutton, So., Tennessee: There weren't a ton of bright spots on defense last season for Tennessee, but the 6-1, 180-pound Sutton was one of them. He started all 12 games as a true freshman and seemed to have a nose for the ball. He led the team with nine passes defended, had four tackles for loss, returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered two fumbles.

7. Jamerson Love, RSr., Mississippi State: The 5-10, 175-pound Love hits as well as he covers and teams with Calhoun to give the Bulldogs one of the better cornerback tandems in the league. Love led the team with 10 passes defended last season and tied for second with three interceptions. He has exceptional quickness.

8. Damian Swann, Sr., Georgia: The Bulldogs are hoping that the sophomore version of Swann shows up this season. He led the team with four interceptions in 2012 and was one of the Dawgs' most improved players. But last season, he battled consistency problems. With so much attrition at cornerback, the Dawgs need a big senior season out of the 5-11, 178-pound Swann.

9. Jonathon Mincy, RSr. Auburn: A starter for parts of the past three seasons, the 5-10, 196-pound Mincy is set to move to the boundary cornerback position in 2014, which was manned last season by Chris Davis. Mincy broke up 14 passes last season at field cornerback. He has 26 career starts under his belt, and the Tigers need him to be a rock back there this season.

10. Tony Brown, Fr., Alabama: The Tide had their ups and downs at cornerback last season, which is why they went out and got a five-star player like Brown they felt like could come in and play right away. He looked the part this spring after enrolling early and has the size (6-0, 190 pounds), cover skills and awareness to be a difference-maker as a freshman.
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National recruiting reporter Jeremy Crabtree explains why three assistant coaches are among the best recruiters in college football.
Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.

Second-year stars: Texas A&M

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
2:30
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Texas A&M is a young team, so there are plenty of freshmen and sophomores who will be counted on to play key roles in 2014. With three offensive standouts chosen in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, there are big shoes to fill.

So as we continue our second-year star installment, there is no shortage of candidates to choose from when looking for sophomores or redshirt freshmen poised for a breakout seasons.

[+] EnlargeRicky Seals-Jones
AP Photo/Eric GayWideout Ricky Seals-Jones could have a big season for the Aggies in 2014.
Class recap: In Kevin Sumlin’s first full year of recruiting in Aggieland, Texas A&M turned in the nation’s eighth-ranked 2013 class. It was a group that was heavy on numbers (32 players signed) and the class has had a mix of contributors and attrition. Several players are expected to play prominent roles this season, such as linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni, receivers LaQuvionte Gonzalez and Ricky Seals-Jones, defensive end Daeshon Hall and possibly quarterback Kenny Hill and transfer linebacker A.J. Hilliard. On the flip side, some potential stars from the class were recently dismissed from the team (linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden) and four others have either transferred or are no longer with the program.

Second-year star: WR Ricky Seals-Jones (6-foot-5, 225 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Seals-Jones was the highest-ranked prospect the Aggies signed in the 2013 class. A four-star prospect, Seals-Jones was the nation’s No. 8 receiver, the sixth overall prospect in the state of Texas and the No. 61 player in the ESPN 300. He played myriad positions at Sealy (Texas) High, including quarterback, receiver, safety and return specialist. A former Texas commitment, the Aggies eventually won his signature over SEC foe LSU, which pursued Seals-Jones throughout the fall of 2012. Landing his verbal commitment in December 2012 was a significant coup for Texas A&M recruiting at that point, given Seals-Jones’ profile.

2013 in review: A knee injury suffered on his first college touchdown led to a premature ending to Seals-Jones’ 2013 season. He caught three passes for 84 yards, one of which was a 71-yard touchdown, in the season-opening win over Rice. He tried to give it a go two weeks later against Alabama, but had limited playing time and soon thereafter opted for season-ending surgery on his knee. The Aggies applied for a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility so he can be classified as a redshirt freshman this fall.

2014 potential: Barring injuries, Seals-Jones has star potential. It was clear to see last August what kind of ability he brings. After a season of rehabilitation and a good spring, he looks poised to start and play a major role in the Aggies offense. With three starting receivers from 2013 pursuing pro careers now, there will be plenty of catches to go around (Malcome Kennedy is the only returning starting receiver for Texas A&M). Seals-Jones is big, fast and is versatile enough to line up at inside receiver or outside receiver.

Also watch for: If Hill wins the competition for the starting job over freshman Kyle Allen, it stands to reason that Hill, a sophomore, will be poised for a breakout season in the Aggies’ up-tempo offense. Mastrogiovanni will step in as the starter at middle linebacker and coaches raved about him during the spring. Sumlin pointed out the kind of leader Mastrogiovanni is becoming and the Aggies’ defense sorely needs it. Keep an eye on defensive ends Hall and Jay Arnold. Both played as freshmen and received increased playing time late last season. Both sat out spring recovering from offseason surgeries, but should be good to go for the fall. Defensive tackle Hardreck Walker, a sophomore, is likely to have a prominent role on the defensive interior now that projected starter Golden is no longer around. Cornerback Noel Ellis received valuable experience late last season and will compete for a spot on the field, likely at nickel cornerback. And watch for another young receiver, Gonzalez, who is very quick and a good fit for the Aggies’ offense. He is likely to get more touches this fall.
Texas and Texas A&M might not be playing one another anytime soon.

But other schools around the league are interested in the prospects of rekindling rivalries that were destroyed by two rounds of conference realignment.

While the Longhorns and Aggies remain at odds, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told ESPN.com this week he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to get Texas A&M on the Red Raiders’ schedule down the line again. Hocutt said there has been interest from Texas A&M’s side, as well.

“Hopefully that’s a series that at some point in time that could start again,” Hocutt said. “Is that a game that won’t happen again? No. We’ve had discussions about it. Hopefully we can reengage that in the coming years.”

Oklahoma and Nebraska already have an agreement in place to play a home-and-home in 2021-22. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has reportedly said he thinks his school will play Kansas again someday.

And West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who has already added Penn State and Virginia Tech to future schedules, told ESPN.com he's hopeful he'll be able to revive the “Backyard Brawl” with Pitt at some point, as well.

“At some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule,” Luck said. “What I’m trying to do with our nonconference games is stay as regional as possible and rekindle some of our historical rivalries. Penn State is back on the schedule. Virginia Tech is back on the schedule. That game meant a lot to southern West Virginians. The Pitt game meant a lot to northern West Virginians. We’ve continued to play Pitt in many of the sports.

“We’ve both gone through transitions, so it’s tough schedule-wise for both of us. But I think at some point we’ll get Pitt back on the schedule. I see [Pitt athletic director] Steve Pederson every now and then at various conventions. And we’ve had some discussions about that. We just haven’t been able to really eyeball the proper time to get it going again.”
The linebackers are up next in our SEC position rankings.

These are the guys who put up the big numbers and have the versatility to chase sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage, and rush the passer.

Here’s what we came up with as a group. Check back later today and we’ll rank the top 10 linebackers in the league.

[+] EnlargeTrey DePriest
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTrey DePriest will fill the big shoes vacated by C.J. Mosley.
1. Alabama: It’s unfair to expect anybody to replace all of the things that C.J. Mosley provided for the Crimson Tide, but senior Trey DePriest is ready to step up as the leader of that defense after starting 12 games at middle linebacker last season. The Tide are never hurting for talent, so look for some new stars to emerge. Among them: Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster, and look for heralded true freshmen Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand to play early at outside linebacker and in pass-rushing situations. Both should help the Tide immensely in that area.

2. LSU: Even with the loss of leading tackler Lamin Barrow, LSU is still brimming with talent at the linebacker. Senior D.J. Welter returns in the middle, but will be pushed by sophomore Kendell Beckwith. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is always going to give up size for speed at linebacker, and Kwon Alexander and Deion “Debo” Jones can fly. Alexander is moving from the strong side to the weak side to take Barrow’s spot. Look for him to make more plays there. Juniors Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist also return and will be in the rotation. The Tigers won’t lack for depth.

3. Georgia: First-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a Georgia defense that returns everybody at linebacker. The Bulldogs might not be as talented as some around the league at linebacker, but are long on experience. Seniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both return inside after each collecting more than 100 total tackles last season. The difference-maker of the group is sophomore outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman. On the other side, junior Jordan Jenkins is back after racking up 12 tackles for loss a year ago. Nobody in the league returns more production at linebacker, but the Dawgs did finish tied for 10th in the league a year ago in scoring defense and were eighth in total defense.

4. Mississippi State: There’s a lot to be excited about in Starkville this fall, especially with nine starters returning on defense. Redshirt junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney thought about turning pro, but returns as one of the top defenders in the league. Senior Matthew Wells is one of the most versatile linebackers in the SEC, while sophomores Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown will both see their roles expand. This should be as good a linebacker corps as Dan Mullen has had at Mississippi State, and he’s had some good ones.

5. Florida: With so many players injured this spring, getting a read on Florida at linebacker was difficult. The key contributors from last season return, and there’s no shortage of talent. Antonio Morrison was up and down at middle linebacker before getting hurt. The Florida coaches expect him to come back strong. Michael Taylor is also back in the middle after leading the team in tackles last season. Jarrad Davis was forced into action last season as a freshman and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. If Alex Anzalone, Neiron Ball and Matt Rolin can all stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the better linebacker groups in the league.

6. South Carolina: One of the reasons the Gamecocks are thinking about tinkering with a 3-4 is that they like this group of linebackers and want to get their best players on the field. Sophomore Skai Moore was outstanding as a freshman last season and is only going to get better. The best news for South Carolina is that there’s competition at all of the linebacker spots among players with experience. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman are both back in the middle, and sophomore Jonathan Walton could be a dark horse. Sharrod Golightly was one of the team’s most improved players last season and is back at the hybrid “spur” position.

[+] EnlargeCurt Maggitt
Skip Williams/Icon SMICurt Maggitt will return for Tennessee after missing the 2013 season with a knee injury.
7. Tennessee: Senior A.J. Johnson has been a tackling machine for the Volunteers, but the challenge for him is to make more big plays. Redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is back at outside linebacker after missing all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. Butch Jones says Maggitt will be the key for the Vols defensively. They want to use him in several different spots and turn him loose on the opposing quarterback, meaning he could spend more time at end than outside linebacker. Several younger players also could factor into the mix. But if the Vols are going to improve defensively from last season, Johnson and Maggitt both need to have big years.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels will be without junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the opener against Boise State following his offseason arrest. But once Nkemdiche returns, he and senior Serderius Bryant form one of the best one-two punches in the league at linebacker. Ole Miss should also be faster across the board at linebacker with the addition of junior college newcomer Christian Russell in the middle. Don’t forget about sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford, who’s weathered injuries and looked a lot faster this spring after two knee surgeries.

9. Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson would like to see more consistency from his linebackers this season. Juniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are both back, and McKinzy is moving to middle linebacker. The Tigers would love to see junior Justin Garrett stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He could help at weakside linebacker or the hybrid “star” position. True freshman Tre Williams, ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect, has the size and speed to play right away.

10. Vanderbilt: With the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 scheme, that means Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann will shift from end to outside linebacker. Both are outstanding and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Darreon Herring had a breakout season in 2013 and finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He will move from outside to inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden also has a big upside and is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season.

11. Missouri: The Tigers have to replace two starters, including middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Michael Scherer’s development will be key. He started the spring at strongside linebacker but moved to middle linebacker after redshirt junior Kentrell Brothers underwent surgery for a torn labrum. The Tigers will need a healthy Brothers come fall.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks weren’t very healthy or productive a year ago at linebacker, but they’ve got just about everybody back. Sophomore Brooks Ellis has a chance to be really good in the middle, and junior Otha Peters looks like he’s finally healthy. A year after coming over from junior college, Martrell Spaight should be a much bigger factor his second time through the league. Seniors Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr also are back.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats have had a stream of quality linebackers to come through Lexington the last few years. The latest was middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Heading into this season, it’s difficult to pinpoint who will follow in Williamson’s footsteps. Junior Khalid Henderson has a chance, and it’s likely that junior college newcomer Ryan Flannigan will have to step in and play immediately. Early enrollee true freshman Dorian Hendrix had a big spring.

14. Texas A&M: Sophomore Darian Claiborne was one of the few proven playmakers returning on Texas A&M’s defense, and now he’s gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs are the only returnees with any experience. The Aggies are hopeful that TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard can provide immediate help. Either way, there are a lot more questions than answers at a position that didn’t need any casualties.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
12:00
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Let's take a quick spin around the SEC and check out what's happening in today's lunchtime links:

• Tommy Tuberville once snapped off six consecutive wins against Alabama when he was the coach at Auburn. Tuberville will have a considerably more difficult beating the Crimson Tide again if a plan comes together for his Cincinnati club to host Alabama in 2015.

• Mike Slive of the SEC and Jim Delany of the Big Ten discussed with USA Today's George Schroeder on Tuesday how they remained committed to the notion of legislative autonomy for the NCAA's biggest conferences to develop their own set of operating guidelines.

• With all the departures from Georgia's secondary this offseason, junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng could be an important player for the Bulldogs. He told the Athens Bannner-Herald's Marc Weiszer this week that he hopes to grab a starting job in the fall.

• Missouri athletic director Mike Alden addressed college football scheduling with the Columbia Daily Tribune's Steve Walentik on Monday night.

• Georgia (versus Clemson), Alabama (versus West Virginia), LSU (versus Wisconsin) and Ole Miss (versus Boise State) are all comfortable favorites in marquee nonconference games to open the season. Phil Steele takes a look at the Vegas lines for a ton of big games throughout the 2014 season.

• Speaking of which, the Charleston Post and Courier is already starting to take a look at that first week's matchups for South Carolina (Texas A&M) and Clemson (Georgia).

• Everyone has an opinion about Johnny Manziel, it seems. Here's former Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn sharing his. Spoiler alert: he doesn't speak in glowing terms about Johnny Football's off-the-field behavior.

• How about a sweet story involving a former SEC quarterback? Little George Gring got to practice this week with his favorite player, Cam Newton, after the Carolina Panthers selected him with the first pick in the “NFL Make-A-Wish Draft.

• Now that the athletic year at Florida has ended, the Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley takes a look at the top 10 stories of the year from Gators athletics.
video

The 2015 edition of the ESPN 300 debuts today. Uncommitted defensive tackle Trenton Thompson tops the first batch of rankings. Here are 10 things to know about the initial 2015 ESPN 300:

[+] EnlargeTrenton Thompson
Gerry Hamilton/ESPNTrenton Thompson is the top-ranked player in the ESPN 300.
1. Top spot still up for grabs: While Thompson remains atop the rankings, there is no guarantee he stays there. The Opening, where linemen will compete in pads against each other, is right around the corner, and prospects like Martez Ivey, Josh Sweat and Byron Cowart have the opportunity make a push for the top spot. Defensive linemen have been ranked No. 1 by ESPN three of the past four years, and the 2015 group is trying to make it four out of five.

2. Defensive line dominates: Six of the top 10 2015 prospects and eight of the 16 five-star prospects are defensive linemen. There are 22 defensive linemen in the top 100 and 48 in the top 300. When looking for the states to find the top DL prospects, Georgia tops the list with eight, followed by Virginia with five and South Carolina and North Carolina with four each.

3. O Canada: Jumping into the ESPN 300 at No. 186 is Canadian defensive tackle prospect Neville Gallimore. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound stand-up defensive end projects as a defensive tackle and has offers from Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan State, Ohio State and others. He is the first prospect who is playing high school football in Canada at the time of his ranking to be listed in the ESPN 300. Michael O’Connor, No. 132 in the 2014 rankings, is from Canada but played his final two years of high school in the U.S.

4. Players off the board quickly: To date, 152 prospects in the ESPN 300 have committed. As expected, the SEC leads the way with 65 ESPN 300 prospects, led by Alabama’s 15. The SEC West has 40 of the pledges.

5. Sunshine statement: The state of Florida leads the way with 52 prospects in the ESPN 300, including six five-star prospects. Dade and Broward counties combine to claim 16 of the 52 players. This number further illustrates the continuing importance of the state to recruiting, as does the fact that 44 former Florida high school players were taken in the 2014 NFL draft.

6. Tidal wave: With 15 ESPN 300 prospects committed, Alabama currently has 52 ESPN 300-ranked players in the past three classes, following 19 in 2014 and 18 in 2013. Including ESPN 150 players in 2011 and 2012, the Crimson Tide have 76 prospects in the 300 and 150 combined in the past five years.

7. Peach State trending: There are 34 prospects from Georgia in the 2015 ESPN 300. That number is up from 27 in the final 2014 rankings and 30 in 2013. Only Florida and Texas (42 ESPN 300 players) have more prospects in the 2015 300. The strength of the state is on the lines, with 18 of the 34 being offensive and defensive linemen.

8. Familiar last names: Vanderbilt quarterback commit Kyle Shurmur is the son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. No. 1 quarterback and five-star QB Kyler Murray is the son of former Texas A&M quarterback Kevin Murray. No. 22 Shy Tuttle is the nephew of former Clemson standout and first-round NFL draft pick Perry Tuttle. No. 95 Kahlil McKenzie is the son of former Tennessee standout and current Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie.

9. California QBs: The state’s nine ranked signal-callers are by far the most from one state in the three years since the rankings were expanded to 300. In the 2013 class, the state of California had six QBs in the 300.

10. Remember the name: Quarterback Sam Darnold is the highest-ranked newcomer to the 300 at No. 89. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Darnold missed the majority of his junior season with a fractured foot and just began popping onto the national recruiting radar during the spring evaluation period. He has offers from Northwestern, Utah, Wake Forest and Duke, among others.

Position U: Quarterbacks

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
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Who really deserves to claim the title of "Quarterback U" for the 2000s?

That's what we set out to determine by ranking every program in the five biggest conferences (plus independents Notre Dame and BYU) with a point system based on accomplishments between the 2000-01 season and 2013-14.

We awarded points for the following: winning one of 20 major college football awards, consensus All-Americans, NFL draft picks and coaches' first-team all-conference selections -- or in the case of the ACC, the media's first-team picks that the conference recognized until its coaches began picking their own team in 2012.


1. Oklahoma (142 points)


Winning major awards is the most effective way to place your team near the top of these rankings, so Oklahoma's eight awards since 2000 -- including a pair of Heisman Trophies (by Jason White and Sam Bradford) -- helped the Sooners claim the "Quarterback U" label. Other schools might have a better record of placing quarterbacks in the pros, but the Sooners have been one of the nation's most consistent programs in the 2000s thanks in part to solid quarterback play from the likes of White, Bradford, Josh Heupel and Landry Jones.

Award winners: Josh Heupel, Camp (2000); Jason White, Heisman (2003), Maxwell (2004), O'Brien (2003, 2004), Unitas (2004); Sam Bradford, Heisman (2008), O'Brien (2008).
Consensus All-Americans: Heupel (2000), White (2003), Bradford (2008).
First-team all-conference: Heupel (2000), White (2003, 2004), Bradford (2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Bradford (2009).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Landry Jones (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Heupel (Round 6, 2001).


2. USC (134 points)


USC didn't win as many national awards as Oklahoma -- the Trojans had five compared to the Sooners' eight -- but the program's three first-round draft picks (Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, plus Mark Sanchez in 2009) helped make up some ground. Leinart was a points-earning machine in our standings thanks to his three national award wins, a consensus All-America season and winning all-conference honors three times prior to becoming a first-round pick in 2006.

Award winners: Palmer, Heisman (2002), Unitas (2002); Leinart, Heisman (2004), Camp (2004), Unitas (2005).
Consensus All-Americans: Palmer (2002), Leinart (2004).
First-team all-conference: Palmer (2002), Leinart (2003, 2004, 2005), John David Booty (2006), Sanchez (2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Palmer (2003), Leinart (2006), Sanchez (2009).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Matt Barkley (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Booty (Round 5, 2008), Matt Cassel (Round 7, 2005).


3. Texas (122 points)


Texas' standing is built almost exclusively on the backs of Vince Young and Colt McCoy, who combined to win seven national award wins in their distinguished careers. McCoy accounted for five awards, two All-America nods and an all-conference selection before becoming a third-round NFL pick in 2010. The only other Texas quarterback to earn a point in those 14 seasons was Chris Simms for his becoming a third-round NFL draft pick in 2003.

Award winners: Young, Maxwell (2005), O'Brien (2005); McCoy, Camp (2008, 2009), Maxwell (2009), Unitas (2009), O'Brien (2009).
Consensus All-Americans: Young (2005), McCoy (2008, 2009).
First-team all-conference: Young (2005), McCoy (2009).
NFL first-round draft picks: Young (2006).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: McCoy (Round 3, 2010), Simms (Round 3, 2003).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


4. Florida State (102 points)

Jameis Winston didn't just help put Florida State's program back on top of the national rankings, he helped return the Seminoles to their place among the nation's top quarterback factories. Sure, EJ Manuel and Christian Ponder had both become NFL first-round picks within the past few years, but a Seminoles quarterback hadn't won a national award since 2000 until Winston took home three last season. Winston also became the first FSU quarterback since fellow Heisman winner Chris Weinke in 2000 to win first-team all-conference honors.

Award winners: Weinke, Heisman (2000), Unitas (2000), O'Brien (2000); Winston, Heisman (2013), Camp (2013), O'Brien (2013).
Consensus All-Americans: Winston (2013).
First-team all-conference: Weinke (2000), Winston (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Ponder (2011), Manuel (2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Weinke (Round 4, 2001).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Adrian McPherson (Round 5, 2005).


5. Florida (100 points)

Tim Tebow is one of the best examples of how one spectacular player can impact on our rankings. Not only did he play a part in Florida winning a pair of BCS crowns, Tebow also cleaned up on the awards circuit by claiming all four of the Gators' national awards in the 2000s. There are some other names worth mentioning -- let's start with Rex Grossman -- but Florida ranks so high on this list largely because of Tebow's lengthy list of accomplishments.

Award winners: Tebow, Heisman (2007), Maxwell (2007, 2008), O'Brien (2007).
Consensus All-Americans: Grossman (2001), Tebow (2007).
First-team all-conference: Grossman (2001), Tebow (2007, 2008, 2009).
NFL first-round draft picks: Grossman (2003), Tebow (2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Jesse Palmer (Round 4, 2001).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


6. Auburn (76 points)


Auburn has experienced some lean times at quarterback since 2000, but when the Tigers have been good at the position, they've often been REALLY good. The greatest example, of course, was in 2010 when Cam Newton turned college football on its ear. He led Auburn to the BCS championship and claimed four national awards -- the Heisman, Camp, Maxwell and O'Brien -- before becoming the top overall pick in the 2011 draft. Jason Campbell, who also led the Tigers to an undefeated season in 2004, deserves a nod here as well for winning all-conference honors and becoming a first-round draft pick.

Award winners: Newton, Heisman (2010), Camp (2010), Maxwell (2010), O'Brien (2010).
Consensus All-Americans: Newton (2010).
First-team all-conference: Campbell (2004), Newton (2010).
NFL first-round draft picks: Campbell (2005), Newton (2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


7. Ohio State (70 points)

Troy Smith's standout 2006 season produced more than two-thirds of the points that helped the Buckeyes claim seventh place in the quarterback rankings. He claimed three major awards, including the Heisman, and won All-America and all-conference honors that season. Braxton Miller has already been named to the All-Big Ten first team twice and has a good chance to make it a three-peat this fall.

Award winners: Smith, Heisman (2006), Camp (2006), O'Brien (2006).
Consensus All-Americans: Smith (2006).
First-team all-conference: Smith (2006), Todd Boeckman (2007), Miller (2012, 2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Terrelle Pryor (Supplemental draft, Round 3, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Craig Krenzel (Round 5, 2004), Smith (Round 5, 2007).


8. Louisville (62 points)


Major-conference loyalists might gripe over this one, and they'd have a valid point since new ACC member Louisville racked up most of its points while competing in Conference USA. Cardinals quarterbacks won first-team all-conference honors each season between 2000 and 2005 (Louisville was a member of Conference USA through 2004 and joined the Big East in 2005), but Teddy Bridgewater's first-team all-conference designation in 2012 was the first for a Louisville quarterback since that streak ended with Brian Brohm in 2005.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Dave Ragone (2000, 2001, 2002), Stefan LeFors (2003, 2004), Brohm (2005), Bridgewater (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Bridgewater (2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Ragone (Round 3, 2003), LeFors (Round 4, 2005), Brohm (Round 2, 2008).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


9. Texas A&M (60 points)

Johnny Manziel was a one-man wrecking crew in college, running circles around hapless defenders as Texas A&M generated huge offensive totals over the past two seasons. Johnny Football accounted for 48 of Texas A&M's 60 points in our quarterback standings, and he's one of two Aggies first-round picks along with Ryan Tannehill.

Award winners: Manziel, Heisman (2012), O'Brien (2012).
Consensus All-Americans: Manziel (2012).
First-team all-conference: Manziel (2012, 2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Tannehill (2012), Manziel (2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Stephen McGee (Round 4, 2009).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


10. Stanford (56 points)


Former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck racked up 50 points on his own, including three national awards in 2011 and a pair of all-conference selections before he jumped to the pros. Kevin Hogan might add to the Cardinal's point total this season, but it was almost entirely the Andrew Luck Show that helped Stanford crack the top 10.

Award winners: Luck, Camp (2011), Maxwell (2011), Unitas (2011).
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Luck (2010, 2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: Luck (2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Trent Edwards (Round 3, 2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Randy Fasani (Round 5, 2002).

REST OF "QUARTERBACK U" RANKINGS

52 -- Nebraska; 48 -- Baylor; 40 -- Oregon; 38 -- West Virginia; 34 -- Ole Miss; 32 -- Boston College, LSU, Notre Dame, Purdue, Virginia Tech; 30 -- BYU, Miami; 28 -- Alabama, Michigan; 26 -- Georgia; 24 -- Clemson, Iowa, Kansas State, NC State, Wisconsin; 22 -- Arkansas, California; 20 -- Texas Tech, Utah, Washington; 18 -- Missouri; 16 -- Northwestern, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, TCU; 14 -- Vanderbilt; 12 -- Indiana, Penn State; 10 -- Michigan State, Oregon State, Virginia; 8 -- Arizona State, Iowa State, Washington State; 6 -- Georgia Tech; 4 -- Arizona, North Carolina, Rutgers, Syracuse, Tennessee; 2 -- Duke, Illinois, Kentucky; 0 -- Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi State, South Carolina, UCLA, Wake Forest
Can you believe it? We’ve already reached the halfway point in our journey through the SEC regular-season schedule.

So far we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma, to name a few. With seven weeks down and seven more to go, there’s no more time to waste. We have to get to the best games before it’s too late.

If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 8:

Oct. 18
Texas A&M at Alabama
Georgia at Arkansas (Little Rock)
Missouri at Florida
Kentucky at LSU
Tennessee at Ole Miss
Furman at South Carolina

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Tennessee at Ole Miss

Sam can have the clear Game of the Week in Texas A&M-Alabama. He’s never been to Bryant-Denny Stadium, so I wouldn’t want to deprive him of that experience.

Instead, I’m going outside of the box and inside The Grove. It’s time to get to Ole Miss. And if you’re like me and watched a certain TexAgs video that went viral last year, the chords of “Mississippi Queen” should come racing to mind right about now.

If you haven’t been to Oxford, you need to go. The game is great and all, but the real fun is in the game-day festivities. The tailgating there might be the best in college football. As they’re oft to say, “Ole Miss never lost a party.” They get there early, they stay late and they even dress up for the occasion. Sure, some commercial aspects of the pregame experience have creeped in over the years, but tailgating in The Grove is as quintessential a Southern football experience as you’ll find.

On a more analytical note, the actual game itself should favor the home team. Ole Miss is better on both sides of the ball with a veteran quarterback, a talented group of skill players on offense and a defense packed with playmakers. Nonetheless, I’m interested in seeing Tennessee at the midway point of the season. Year 2 won’t be easy for Butch Jones, but if he can develop a quarterback or the future and get the defense going in the right direction, it should be a good sign for the hopes of the program in Year 3 of his tenure and beyond.

Sam Khan’s pick: Texas A&M at Alabama

No doubt this is the choice. The Grove is fun, and Mizzou-Florida looks like it might have potential, but the Aggies and Crimson Tide have provided us with highly entertaining games the last two times they met. In 2012, Texas A&M went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and pulled off a stunning upset and last season, Alabama’s offense put on a clinic, running all over the A&M defense and outlasting Johnny Manziel & Co. to exact a little revenge at Kyle Field.

Now, the Aggies make their first trip to Bryant-Denny since that fateful November night in 2012 and there’s no Johnny Football this time around. The Aggies probably will have their quarterback situation established firmly at this point (whether it’s Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen) and the Aggies' offense should still be humming. The question is, will the defense be improved enough to put up a fight against the Crimson Tide?

It had better be, because while Alabama will be working in a first-year starting quarterback of its own, the Crimson Tide have plenty of running backs to throw at the Aggies again, led by T.J. Yeldon, junior Kenyan Drake, the bruising, cruising sophomore Derrick Henry and bowling ball Jalston Fowler. The Crimson Tide should be strong defensively again, so it will be a stiff test for what is still a young Aggies squad. It stands to reason that, at least at this point, Alabama will be favored going into this one.

So far, the first two times Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin have squared off, it’s turned out to be pretty fun. Here’s betting it is again when they square off in Week 8.
Some around the SEC suggested that the defensive line talent in the league might have been down last season.

Only five SEC defensive linemen went in the top four rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, and only two of those were tackles.

But as we look ahead to the 2014 season, there’s a promising crop of young defensive linemen in the SEC, particularly the sophomore class.

Today, we kick off our defensive position rankings with the defensive line. We’ll come back later in the day and rank the top 10 tackles in the league and the top 10 ends.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The defensive line should be the strength of an Alabama defense that will again be rock-solid. The Crimson Tide are big, physical and deep with some talented players joining the mix. Sophomore A'Shawn Robinson is an absolute beast. Jonathan Allen played in every game last season as true freshman, and D.J. Pettway is back at end after a year at junior college. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake return at nose guard, and look for Dalvin Tomlinson and Dee Liner to make big impacts as well along with incoming five-star freshman end Da'Shawn Hand. There’s no such thing as being too deep in the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore defensive tackle Montravius Adams is one of several talented, young Auburn defensive linemen.
2. Auburn: There’s a bit of an asterisk associated with Auburn’s ranking. Sophomore Carl Lawson would have easily been one of the top defensive ends in the league, but he recently underwent knee surgery, and his status for the season is unclear. But even without Lawson, the Tigers are still extremely talented. Sophomore tackle Montravius Adams is ready to explode after having a big spring. Sophomore end Elijah Daniel also has gobs of talent, while seniors Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeff Whitaker are back at tackle.

3. Missouri: The Tigers just seem to keep reloading up front defensively despite losing Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson the last couple of years. That shouldn’t change in 2014. Markus Golden and Shane Ray form an imposing defensive end tandem. They combined for 11 sacks last season, and the Tigers also have experience in the middle of that line with Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley returning.

4. Ole Miss: As Hugh Freeze moves into his third season on the job, the hope in Oxford is that the Rebels can make some noise in the West race. They have the depth, talent and experience in the defensive line to make a move. Sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most talented of the bunch and primed for a huge season, but there’s also depth inside. If C.J. Johnson stays healthy at end, defensive line should be the Rebels’ strongest position in 2014.

5. Florida: The Gators breed athletic defensive linemen, and junior Dante Fowler Jr. is the next star in the making. He plays the hybrid “buck” position, but will wind up rushing from an end position much of the time. Fellow junior Jonathan Bullard started eight games at end last season and is another guy ready to take off in this defense. Senior Leon Orr is back at tackle, but there’s not much proven depth inside. True freshman Gerald Willis III has a chance to be special and will play immediately.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return three senior starters in their defensive line -- tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones and end Preston Smith. That’s not to mention sophomore Chris Jones, the kind of player who makes everybody around him better. The 6-5, 300-pound sophomore will line up both inside and outside and has star potential. Second-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has plenty of pieces to work with up front in what should be Dan Mullen’s best defense yet.

7. LSU: The Tigers are set at end with senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter, although Rasco missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Sophomore Tashawn Bower should also prosper as a pass rusher in John Chavis’ system. The big question is at tackle, where redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain will be counted on to step in and fill the void. Sophomore Christian LaCouture also returns at tackle and had a solid spring. LSU has recruited well up front defensively, and similar to previous years, new playmakers will emerge for the Tigers.

8. South Carolina: Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers last season, Jadeveon Clowney was the cog that made that defense go. Kelcy Quarles will also be a big loss inside, but senior tackle J.T. Surratt is underrated. The Dixon brothers -- tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. and end Gerald Dixon -- are also poised to make big moves this season. Junior college transfer Abu Lamin went through spring practice and will add muscle in the middle. Finding another pass-rusher will be critical. Third-year sophomore Darius English, who’s bulked up to 245 pounds, will be one to watch.

[+] EnlargeSterling Bailey
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesGeorgia needs big things from defensive end Sterling Bailey to help make up for the loss of Garrison Smith.
9. Georgia: The only loss up front for the Bulldogs was senior end Garrison Smith, which was a big one. First-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker looked at several different combinations this spring. Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew are both back at end, although Rocker demoted Drew this spring for a few practices. It looks like John Taylor and James DeLoach will avoid suspensions after their off-the-field trouble, and both are good enough to push for starting jobs. Chris Mayes, Mike Thornton and Toby Johnson are all nose guard types in the 3-4. Johnson was dominant this spring.

10. Kentucky: It all starts for the Wildcats defensively with their combo on the outside of Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. They combined for 13 sacks last season and complement each other well. Smith, in particular, should be even better in his second season after coming over from junior college. The issue is inside. The top three tackles from a year ago are gone. Junior college transfer Cory Johnson will be key, and it helps that he enrolled early and went through spring practice.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are shifting to a base 3-4 and have stocked up over the last few years with the kind of big, physical defensive linemen you’re accustomed to seeing in the SEC. Sophomore Adam Butler could be one of the breakout players in the league after moving over to defense from offense last season as a redshirt freshman and playing extremely well. Seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are both 300-pounders with experience, while redshirt freshman Jay Woods has a huge upside.

12. Arkansas: Senior defensive end Trey Flowers is the centerpiece and one of the more accomplished pass-rushers in the league. Third-year sophomore Darius Philon is the Hogs’ best interior lineman after leading all Arkansas tackles a year ago with 46 total tackles. The Hogs need big seasons out of third-year sophomore ends Deatrich Wise Jr., JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis. Wise had five sacks in the spring game.

13. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost one of their most promising defensive linemen when sophomore tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed from the team earlier this month. They were forced to play several younger players last season and took their lumps in what was a forgettable season on the defensive side of the ball. Still, some of those younger players such as sophomore end Daeshon Hall gained valuable experience. They need a big year out of senior end Gavin Stansbury and are hopeful prized freshman signee Myles Garrett can add some pop to the pass rush.

14. Tennessee: The Vols lost six seniors, including all four starters, on their defensive line, which means there will be a lot of new faces playing heavy minutes in 2014. That’s never a good thing in the SEC, especially when you’re particularly thin at tackle. Sophomore end Corey Vereen came on last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp, and Curt Maggitt could end up playing as much end as linebacker. The Vols like the defensive linemen they signed in this class, but having to play so many freshmen so soon up front has a way of catching up to you.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/18
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