Texas A&M Aggies: Christion Jones

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.
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).

Ranking the SEC wide receivers

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
1:00
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Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Now it’s time to focus on the specifics and rank the best of the best in the SEC.

Top 10 wide receivers

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a slow start, Amari Cooper reminded everyone just how talented he is by the end of the season
1. Amari Cooper, Jr., Alabama: For much of last season, he wasn’t himself. His feet weren’t 100 percent and it showed. But the Cooper who flashed All-SEC ability as a freshman returned to form in his final two games as a sophomore, racking up 15 receptions for 309 yards and a touchdown. He’s a guy who demands -- and routinely beats -- double coverage. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become an even greater focal point of the passing game.

2. Laquon Treadwell, So., Ole Miss: Everyone had the feeling he’d be special in his first year at Ole Miss, but it came as a surprise just how ready he was to compete in the SEC. Playing slot, he was one of the best receivers in the league, finishing second only to Jordan Matthews in receptions (72). As a result, coaches voted him SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he has the frame to challenge smaller defensive backs. But it’s his hands and ability to create space that make him special. With Donte Moncrief now gone, he’ll transition to the outside and continue to be a favorite of quarterback Bo Wallace.

3. Sammie Coates, Jr., Auburn: His game has always been about speed. Running the deep post, he could simply sprint by defenders. But as a junior, Coates is trying to develop a more well-rounded game, focusing on his footwork and strength. It’s scary to think that at 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s just now learning how to control his body. If he can become more of an option in the short to intermediate passing game then we could see Coates’ game go to another level.

4. Jameon Lewis, Sr., Mississippi State: Consistency is the key for Lewis. Though he finished last season with significant numbers (1,040 total yards, 8 touchdowns), he also came up missing in a few big games (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, for example). At 5-9 and 195 pounds, he’s someone coach Dan Mullen will look to get the ball in space, whether that’s on screens or even running the Wildcat. With his burst and elusiveness, he’s a threat to find the end zone every time he touches the football.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Jr., Georgia: Every conversation involving Mitchell requires the caveat "if healthy." After putting up 40-plus receptions as a freshman and a sophomore, he was lost for all of last season with a torn ACL. Now, as Hutson Mason put it, "He's about as close to 100 percent as he'll be." If healthy, he's a matchup nightmare with the ability to score from anywhere on the field.

6. Christion Jones, Sr., Alabama: Like Lewis, Jones is another elusive sub-6 foot receiver coaches look to get the ball whenever possible. Because when he touches the football, he has the ability to make someone miss and score. With Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell no longer on campus, expect more looks for Jones.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North has the size, speed and hands to make a big impact for the Vols.
7. Marquez North, So., Tennessee: Do we have to remind you of his one-handed catch against South Carolina? Do we have to point out that he’s 6-4, 221 pounds and can run after the catch? If you saw him rack up 38 catches and 496 yards as a true freshman last year, you probably can’t forget it. It’s scary to think what he could do with consistent play at quarterback.

8. D’haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: There may not be a more hyped receiver in the SEC this year than Williams. And it’s with good reason. He wasn’t just the No. 1 receiver in ESPN’s Junior College 50, he was the No. 1 player overall. At 6-2 and 216 pounds, his athleticism is spectacular. While it remains to be seen how he grasps the offense and how he jells with quarterback Nick Marshall, all the ingredients are there for Williams to be one of the best receivers in the league.

9. Ricky Seals-Jones, RS Fr., Texas A&M: We could have put any one of three Aggies receivers on this list. Malcome Kennedy has a history of solid production, and Speedy Noil has the potential to be a star in this league. But in balancing potential and experience, Seals-Jones won out. After redshirting last season, he should have a good grasp of the offense. And at 6-5 and 225

10. Travin Dural, So., LSU: You'll have to forgive everyone for overlooking Dural last season. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham were that good. But their departures have created a vacuum at receiver, and Dural appears ready to step into that vortex. Lanky and explosive, he could become a favorite target of whoever starts under center for LSU.
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
Running? Receiving? Fielding kicks? Those are all fine qualities to have. But what about the guys that do it all?

More and more offenses are moving away from the typical pro-style schemes and formations of generations past. A tight end isn’t just a tight end anymore. A running back isn’t just a running back. A wide receiver isn't … well, you get the point. Alabama’s O.J. Howard can put his hand on the ground at tight end or H-back, or he can split out at wide receiver. South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper is listed as a wide receiver, but he’s just as valuable a running back or return specialist for the Gamecocks. Jameon Lewis can line up at receiver, running back or quarterback for Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeJameson Lewis
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisVersatile and dangerous weapons like Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis make plays no matter where they line up or how they get the ball.
Up and down the SEC, there are athletes who do it all on offense -- and sometimes special teams, too.

Often on the SEC Blog we rank the top players by each position for the coming year. But it’s time we give Mr. Versatile his due. With that said, here’s a look at the league’s top all-purpose offensive athletes in 2014.

Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Bruce Ellington will be missed, but don’t weep for the Gamecocks. It’s Pharoh Cooper to the rescue. Coach Steve Spurrier called Cooper a “natural talent.” His numbers as a true freshman were promising -- 655 all-purpose yards -- and enough to land him on the Freshman All-SEC team. But he could do even more as a sophomore. He’ll continue to factor into the return game, play wide receiver and even take some direct snaps at quarterback.

Christion Jones, Alabama

Alabama may not run the most inventive offense in the SEC, but it finds a way to get Jones the football. The lightning-quick senior has started at wide receiver and in the return game each of the past two seasons. He carried the ball 13 times for an average of 17 yards in 2013 and finished 14th in the SEC with in all-purpose yards per game (102.7). Additionally, he returned two punts and one kickoff for a touchdown last season.

Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State

Had Damian Williams been unable to play against Ole Miss, Dan Mullen would have turned to Lewis as his starting quarterback. Seriously. With Tyler Russell sidelined and Dak Prescott injured, the 5-foot-9 junior would have been forced under center. Thankfully that never happened, but it’s just a taste of Lewis’ versatility. The speedy Mississippi native is someone Mullen looks to get the ball in space, whether that’s at receiver, running back or quarterback. He not only led the team with 923 yards receiving, he finished fifth in rushing with 117 yards. All told, he had five receiving touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns. He even threw three passes, completing all three attempts for touchdowns.

Ricardo Louis, Auburn

Last season’s Georgia game might have been a glimpse of the future for Louis. The former No. 5 athlete in the ESPN 300 broke out in a big way against the Bulldogs, rushing for 66 yards on five carries while catching four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Even before his memorable game-winning Hail Mary, he was a difference in the game. His ability to play both receiver and running back makes for a tough matchup for any defense. And with Tre Mason and Chris Davis gone from the return game, Louis could become a factor there as well.

[+] EnlargeSpeedy Noil
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comTexas A&M signee Speedy Noil, who was ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, could make an immediate impact.
Speedy Noil, Texas A&M

Too soon? Not after all we’ve heard coming out of College Station, Texas, about the talented true freshman. Noil may not be that No. 2 this fall, but he could conjure up memories of Johnny Football with his ability to make plays in space. The former five-star prospect and No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300 drew rave reviews from coaches and teammates this spring. He’s already said to be the presumptive starter opposite Ricky Seals-Jones. Good luck covering those two as Seals-Jones is a monster at 6-5 and Noil is an elusive burner at 5-11. In addition to spending time at receiver, look for coach Kevin Sumlin to get Noil the ball in space wherever possible, whether that’s in the return game, at running back or even taking direct snaps at quarterback.

Five more to watch:

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
2:00
PM ET
On Monday, we gave you guys our All-SEC first team. Today, we thought we'd unveil our second team for 2013. There are so many guys in this league who deserve recognition that we just wouldn't feel good about not having another team to give props to during the holiday season:

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia

DEFENSE

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama

Tre Mason named SEC Offensive POY

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
4:30
PM ET
The SEC awards for 2013 were announced on Wednesday, and Auburn running back Tre Mason was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year.

The awards were voted on by the league's 14 head coaches, and they weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

In a league that houses Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray, Mason stood above the rest after his record-setting, MVP performance in Auburn's SEC title game win over Missouri. Mason, a junior, ran for a title game-record 304 yards and four touchdowns in Auburn's 59-42 victory over Mizzou.

But that wasn't all Mason did this season. He led the SEC with 1,621 yards and a league-high 22 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and rushed for 100-plus yards eight times.

Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam were named Co-Defensive Players of the Year. Mosley leads Alabama and is tied for fourth in the SEC with 102 total tackles, including 56 solo stops. He averaged 8.5 total tackles per game and had a team-high nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Sam leads the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He also leads the SEC in sacks per game (0.81) and tackles for loss per game (1.38).

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn also won Coach of the Year after going 12-1 (7-1 SEC) in his first season as the Tigers' head coach. Auburn bounced back from a 3-9 season to beat rival Alabama, claim the SEC and a spot in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game against No. 1 Florida State.

Here are all the awards given out:

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Tre Mason, Auburn

CO-DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Michael Sam, Missouri

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Christion Jones, Alabama

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Aaron Murray, Georgia

JACOBS BLOCKING TROPHY
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M

COACH OF THE YEAR
Gus Malzahn, Auburn

Alabama leads coaches All-SEC team

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
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The SEC coaches have spoken, and Alabama has once again taken over their end-of-the-year All-SEC team.

The Crimson Tide led the rest of the league with nine representatives on the coaches' teams, including an SEC-leading five first-team selections. LSU followed with eight total representatives. Texas A&M had four first-team members, while Auburn and Georgia both had three each.

Twelve of the league's 14 teams had at least one player on the first team, while every team was represented on at least one team. Coaches weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

Here are the coaches' first- and second-team selections:

First team

OFFENSE
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

DEFENSE
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Christion Jones, Alabama *
RS: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU *

Second team

OFFENSE
QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
TE: Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: Anthony Steen, Alabama
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
AP: Marcus Murphy, Missouri

DEFENSE
DL: Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ed Stinson, Alabama
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
P: Cody Mandell, Alabama
RS: Solomon Patton, Florida

-- (*-ties)

SEC assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
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We’re a quarter of the way into the college football season, and two-time defending national champion Alabama is right where it started -- No. 1 in the polls.

In fact, Alabama is the only one of the five SEC teams that opened the season in the top 10 that hasn’t lost a game. So everybody’s still chasing the Crimson Tide, but it’s a race that could still go any number of ways, especially with some of the offensive numbers being generated. If the first four weeks taught us anything, you better be ready to score some points if you’re going to win a title this season.

Here’s a quick recap:

Best game: Take your pick. There have been some dandies to this point. The very first SEC game between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt on a Thursday night produced a thrilling ending in Nashville with the Rebels pulling out a 39-35 win. Both of Georgia’s first two games were incredibly entertaining, their 38-35 loss at Clemson and then their 41-30 win over South Carolina the next week. But nothing tops Alabama’s wild 49-42 win at Texas A&M in Week 3. The two teams combined for 1,196 total yards and 62 first downs. The Aggies jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but the Crimson Tide answered with 35 unanswered points only to have the Aggies come roaring back with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was so much fun that maybe we’ll see them go at it again in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game if everything falls right. Wouldn’t the rest of college football just love that?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAs good as Johnny Manziel was last season when he won the Heisman Trophy, he's even better this year.
Best player: Even though he caused an uproar with some of his antics and a 15-yard taunting penalty in the opener against Rice, the real news surrounding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is that he’s even better than he was a year ago. All he did a year ago was win the Heisman Trophy and set the SEC record for total offense. Manziel’s arm strength has improved. He’s spreading the ball around, and he’s still carving defenses apart with his ability to make something out of nothing. Manziel is averaging 370.8 yards of total offense per game, completing 70 percent of his passes and has already accounted for 15 touchdowns. Honorable mention goes to Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews and LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Best performance: Once again, Johnny Football takes top honors. Yes, it came in a loss, but he was brilliant in passing for five touchdowns and rolling up 562 yards of total offense (the most ever in an SEC game) in the 49-42 setback to Alabama. The guy Manziel was throwing to that day, sophomore receiver Mike Evans, comes in a close second with his seven catches for 279 yards. And let’s also not forget about how good Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was in that game. He finished 20-of-29 for 334 yards and four touchdowns, completing passes to 10 different players. Sticking with Alabama, Christion Jones returned a kickoff for a touchdown, returned a punt for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass in the season-opening win over Virginia Tech. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray deserves a shout-out for his four-touchdown outing in the win over South Carolina, and the same goes for Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott and his 243 all-purpose yards in the win at Texas. Scott rushed for a career-high 164 yards and a touchdown and also scored on a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Best surprise: It has to be LSU’s passing game and how balanced the Tigers have been offensively through four games. In the offseason, Les Miles talked about the need to throw the ball better, and that’s exactly what the Tigers have done under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron. The days of loading up against LSU's running game and not worrying about the passing game are over. Mettenberger has 10 touchdown passes and only one interception. The receiving duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham has been dynamite with 11 combined touchdowns, and then there’s also Jeremy Hill trucking everything in sight in the running game. This has the makings of Miles’ best and most explosive offense since he has been in Baton Rouge.

Biggest disappointment: Granted, the expectations were through the roof, but South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been a mere mortal in the Gamecocks’ first three games. He has been solid, but hasn’t been that consistent of a disruptive force so many people were anticipating to start his junior season. To be fair, he’s dealing with a foot injury that sounds like it will plague him for the rest of the season, and teams have done their best to run away from him and make him chase. Clowney still has two sacks, and at this point a year ago, he had only three and finished the season with 13. The Heisman Trophy chatter may have quieted, but you can bet that No. 7 won’t stay this quiet on the field all season.

Planning for success: Texas A&M

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The most anticipated game of Texas A&M's young season is just two days away as the reigning BCS champion and No. 1 team in the country, Alabama, comes to Kyle Field.


The No. 6 Aggies (2-0), who upset Alabama last season, hope to repeat that feat, this time in front of their home crowd. Here are a few keys for the Aggies:

1. Stop the run: Texas A&M's depleted defense struggled to stop Rice and Sam Houston State from running the ball effectively in the first two games of the season, allowing an average of 273 yards per game. That puts them near the bottom nationally, ranking 115th in the country. Alabama has bigger offensive linemen, better running backs and more overall talent than the Aggies' first two opponents, so the task of shutting down the Crimson Tide on the ground is a tall one. However, there are a few things to keep in mind: Alabama's offensive line struggled in its season-opening win over Virginia Tech. The Crimson Tide are more of a traditional power-running team, while Rice (read-option) and Sam Houston State (traditional option) forced the Aggies to play more assignment football. And Texas A&M has yet to have its full complement of defensive players available due to suspensions. On Saturday, the Aggies will have most of their starters available, with injuries being the only hindering factor.

2. Take care of the football: Last season when the Aggies went into Bryant-Denny Stadium and upset the Crimson Tide, they won the turnover battle, big time. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron threw two interceptions and the Aggies stripped the ball away from running back T.J. Yeldon. Meanwhile, the Aggies had no turnovers. The final one they forced, an interception by Deshazor Everett, essentially clinched the win.

3. Control tempo: Alabama coach Nick Saban stressed earlier this week that the pace of Texas A&M's offense is not as much of an issue, but rather how well the Aggies execute. Well, one of the primary factors that makes the Aggies offense successful is that they execute at a high level and they do it in a hurry. When the Aggies were able to push the tempo to a high level in the first quarter of last year's match, they jumped out to a 20-0 lead. But don't forget the defense, which stopped the Crimson Tide on its first three drives to help the Aggies jump out to that lead.

4. Win special teams: One thing that stood out about Alabama's season-opening win over Virginia Tech was the play of its special teams. Alabama receiver/return specialist Christion Jones finished with 209 combined return yards and two touchdowns: a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. So the Aggies' coverage teams must be in top form to keep Jones in check. Also, the Aggies' kicking game must improve. Placekicker Taylor Bertolet missed a 31-yard field goal and punter/holder Drew Kaser bobbled a snap on a point-after-touchdown kick. Bertolet missed a field goal and extra point in last year's Alabama game. Leaving points on the board can't happen if the Aggies expect to repeat victory.

5. Beware Amari Cooper: In last year's meeting, Cooper exploded for six catches, 136 yards and a touchdown. That included receptions of 50 yards and a 54-yard touchdown, both of which came in the fourth quarter while the Tide were attempting their comeback. At 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, Cooper is an explosive talent with the ability to make big plays. Aggies cornerback Deshazor Everett matched up with Cooper a lot last season, expect more of the same on Saturday.

6. Let Johnny be Johnny: The Aggies have a lot of talent on offense -- three returning offensive linemen, led by tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi; four talented running backs: Ben Malena, Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams; and Mike Evans is big, physical weapon in the passing game. But Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy for a reason, and his performance against Alabama was the primary reason last year. If he can repeat that type of performance or even improve on it, the Aggies will be in great shape.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
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The first week of the season is in the books in the SEC, and it’s time to pass out some helmet stickers:

Arkansas’ offensive line: There were several candidates on Arkansas’ offense in the Hogs' 34-14 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins each rushed for more than 100 yards. Quarterback Brandon Allen passed for 230 yards and three touchdowns and was sacked only once. When you’re putting up those kinds of numbers on offense and creating that kind of balance, then you’re obviously getting it done on the offensive line. The Hogs finished with 292 rushing yards, their most since churning out 326 yards against UTEP in 2010. First-year coach Bret Bielema is all about a physical running game and was especially complimentary of center Travis Swanson and the way he was able to pull on some plays.

James Franklin, QB, Missouri: Looking healthy and very much in command, Franklin rolled up 362 yards of total offense in leading Missouri to a 58-14 rout of Murray State. Franklin, who struggled through an injury-plagued junior season, finished 26-of-38 for 318 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed six times for 44 yards. It was the most yards he’s accounted for in a game since racking up 392 yards against Baylor in 2011. The best news for Mizzou fans is that Franklin looked a lot more like the 2011 version of himself than he did the 2012 version.

Christion Jones, WR/RS, Alabama: Jones became the first Alabama player in history to score two special teams touchdowns in one game. The junior receiver returned a kickoff 94 yards and a punt 72 yards for touchdowns. He also got into the act on offense by catching a 38-yard touchdown pass. Jones became the first major college football player to score a touchdown on a punt return, kickoff return and pass reception in the same game since Kentucky’s Derek Abney in 2002.

Jeff Scott, RB, Ole Miss: He might be small in stature (5-foot-7 and 167 pounds), but Scott delivered a mammoth play Thursday in the Rebels' 39-35 win over Vanderbilt. The senior running back left everybody in his wake on an electrifying 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 to play, answering a Vanderbilt touchdown only seconds earlier. Scott finished with 138 rushing yards on 12 carries and averaged 11.5 yards per rush. He also caught four passes for 25 yards.

Robenson Therezie, S, Auburn: Starting in place of the injured Justin Garrett at the hybrid “star” position in the Tigers’ 4-2-5 defense, Therezie intercepted two passes and had seven total tackles in Auburn’s 31-24 win over Washington State. Therezie’s final interception was a leaping grab in the end zone with Washington State driving for the potential game-tying score in the final five minutes. He returned his first interception 24 yards to the Washington State 28 to set up Auburn’s first touchdown. Therezie’s two interceptions in the opener matched Auburn’s total from all of last season.

SEC Friday mailbag

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
5:30
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The season is here. Finally, there's real football to talk about! Here's this week's SEC mailbag:

Daniel, via Twitter (@badger_daniel): After seeing what (LaQuon) Treadwell can do in last night's game, does Ole Miss have the best SEC receiving duo?

Sam Khan Jr.: First of all, allow me to say this: Laquon Treadwell looks like he's going to be a star, and really quickly. His size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and hands are terrific -- the one-handed catch he made was wonderful. After catching nine passes for 82 yards last night, I suspect Hugh Freeze and Co. will try to continue to get the ball in his hands. Most of his damage was done on two third-quarter drives, but those were both crucial drives because it helped Ole Miss narrow a 21-10 deficit to 28-25, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.

To answer your question, I think it's too early to definitively call Treadwell and junior Donte Moncrief the best receiving duo in the conference, because I want to see Treadwell play more and show that he can bring good production consistently, something Moncrief did last season. I think it's safe to say they'll be one of the best and if Treadwell continues to progress, they could take that title. Alabama's going to have an argument with Amari Cooper and a number of others you could fill-in-the-blank with (it could be Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White or even a newcomer). Vanderbilt has Jordan Matthews and we'll see if senior Jonathan Krause can develop into a reliable No. 2 -- the Commodores are without normal No. 2 receiver Chris Boyd, who is suspended after being indicted earlier this month in connection with the rape case that involved four other Vanderbilt players. Keep an eye on Georgia (Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett) and Texas A&M (Mike Evans, Malcome Kennedy or perhaps Ricky Seals-Jones if they break out) too. But you might be on to something, because Moncrief is already a star. If Treadwell becomes one too, look out SEC West.

Carlos, via Twitter (@catorano): Which new coach will have the most success in his first year in the SEC?

Sam Khan Jr: Personally, I think it will be Gus Malzahn at Auburn. One advantage he has is familiarity with the program, since he was with the Tigers for three seasons and helped them to a BCS title. He was only gone for a year, so he's certainly familiar with much of the personnel too. His offense is effective and the cupboard isn't bare in terms of talent; Auburn has recruited well, turning in top 20 classes each of the last four years. There's a lot of buzz about the arm strength starting quarterback Nick Marshall has and if he can get the Tigers tempo moving fast early on, I think Auburn might be able to make a little bit of noise.

Matthew, via Twitter (@MVPenergy): % likelihood we will see ALL 3 TAMU QBs when #JohnnyFootball is sat down 1/2 (way through the) 4th QTR

Sam Khan Jr.: I'm docking you points for not first asking "Who's going to start?" because that's what everyone wants to know. But you're forgiven. I think there's a decent chance we see all three of Texas A&M's scholarship quarterbacks in the Aggies' season opener against Rice. Coach Kevin Sumlin has been tight-lipped about who will get the nod and I know the coaching staff has been discussing different plans, but my hunch is that junior Matt Joeckel gets the start because he already has some game experience. True freshman Kenny Hill is the current "quarterback of the future" for the Aggies, however. I've never known Sumlin to be a two-quarterback guy or rotate them, but this could be a special case because of the circumstances. And I would not be surprised at all if it was Hill who trotted out first. Either way, once the third quarter arrives, we all know who comes in: Johnny Manziel. And I think, even if it's a blowout, Manziel will play at least a quarter.

Josh, via Twitter (@JoshAgof11): Realistic chance of (Aggies) running the table? Like what I've heard for both sides of the ball.

Sam Khan Jr.: I think it's going to be difficult, but not impossible. Of course, Texas A&M must first get through the showdown on Sept. 14 with Alabama. If they get through that, the toughest obstacles left in the regular season, in my opinion, are road games at Ole Miss and LSU. I'm sure many remember what it took for the Aggies to escape Oxford, Miss., with a win after turning the ball over six times and Death Valley is nothing to mess with, particularly for a night game (which, I suspect it would be if the Aggies were to roll into the LSU game undefeated). Then if you get through all that, you have to beat an SEC East team in the SEC title game, probably Georgia, South Carolina or Florida. It's really difficult to do. Alabama has won three of the last four national titles and two of those seasons they lost a regular season game. I won't count it out because Manziel is that special and that offense is powerful. But with a lot of youth and newcomers seeing the field on defense and whether there's improvement in the kicking game are the wild cards.

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