Texas A&M Aggies: Devonta Burns

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M begins preseason training camp today. In about four weeks, they'll take the field at South Carolina to open the 2014 season. Here are some things to watch throughout camp:

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesFormer three-star recruit Kenny Hill, a sophomore, played in five games last season. Could he be the successor to Johnny Manziel?
1. The quarterback battle: Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen? That's the question that has been asked and will continue to be until coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital make a decision on who the starting quarterback will be on Aug. 28 at South Carolina. Hill, a sophomore, has slightly more experience after seeing some playing time in a backup role last season. Allen, the true freshman, enrolled early in January to catch up. Allen had a solid spring, as did Hill until an arrest for public intoxication caused him to miss the final two scrimmages and the final week of spring practice. But both players were told they were on even footing entering summer 7-on-7 workouts. How much each has progressed in the past three months will be displayed early on in training camp. Expect a decision midway through August.

2. Defensive line depth: The Aggies lost two starting defensive linemen for off-the-field reasons: defensive end Gavin Stansbury (left team for personal reasons) and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden (dismissed after two arrests). For a team that struggled to stop the run last season, that doesn't help as the unit tries to find the quality depth necessary to succeed in the SEC. Fortunately for the Aggies, they get two players who missed spring football because of injuries back for training camp -- sophomore defensive ends Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall, both of whom saw playing time last season. There are also several veterans (Julien Obioha, Alonzo Williams, Tyrell Taylor) and youngsters (Hardreck Walker, Justin Manning, Zaycoven Henderson) not to mention a few incoming recruits to help the unit, but the Aggies have to find answers quick to improve on a disastrous 2013.

3. Safety play: Sumlin hasn't been shy about saying it and it's true: the Aggies have to get better play from their safeties. They return three players who started last season -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt. Matthews got positive reviews from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder in the spring. Keep an eye on Devonta Burns, who saw time in the spring at safety and nickel cornerback, as someone who could be in the mix. And an influx of 2014 recruits could help here as well.

4. Fabulous freshmen: The Aggies' 2014 class was a top-five haul for a reason. They brought in some big-time talent, so don't be surprised if some of those freshmen make waves quickly in camp. Receiver Speedy Noil already impressed in the spring and will look to build on that this month. Five-star defensive end Myles Garrett is the highest-ranked player nationally the Aggies have signed since Reggie McNeal in the 2002 class. With depth concerns on the defensive line and Garrett's college-ready physique, it's safe to say he'll find a way on the field in short order. Henderson, who was an early enrollee, likely figures into the rotation at defensive tackle. And of course, all eyes are on Allen at quarterback to see if he can win the starting job.

5. Right side of the O-line: Sophomore Germain Ifedi, who started all of 2013 at right guard, saw much time at right tackle during spring drills and is listed as the starter there heading into camp. If that holds, the battle on the offensive line -- a unit that returns four of five starters -- will likely be at right guard where Joseph Cheek saw first-team action and junior college transfer Jermaine Eluemunor saw second-team work in spring. Veteran guard and starter Jarvis Harrison, who missed spring because of shoulder surgery, should be ready to go at left guard. He has a capable backup behind him in Garrett Gramling, who started two games last season and saw virtually all the first-team work at left guard this spring. Left tackle (Cedric Ogbuehi) and center (Mike Matthews) is set in stone.

A few other notes:

" Redshirt freshman cornerback Victor Davis, who was arrested on a shoplifting charge in his hometown of Rosenberg, Texas, last month, is still serving an indefinite suspension. Sumlin said on Wednesday that Davis still has some things to do internally in order to get back in the team's good graces.

" Sumlin noted that every one of the class of 2014 recruits is qualified academically and on campus. Kealvin "Tank" Davis, the Aggies' offensive tackle recruit from Garland (Texas) Lakeview Centennial, was the last player Texas A&M was waiting on in that regard and he arrived on campus Wednesday and will be ready to go. This is the second consecutive year the Aggies have not lost a signee to qualification issues (the 2013 class only had one player who didn't make it to campus, Kohl Stewart, who was a first-round pick in the MLB draft).

" The Aggies will practice in helmets only Friday and Saturday, have meetings only on Sunday (no practice), helmets and shoulder pads on Monday and Tuesday and they'll have their first full-padded practice on Wednesday. Thursday will be their first two-a-day practice followed by a single practice on Aug. 8, then a scrimmage on Aug. 9.
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.
There are still more than three months until Texas A&M plays its season opener at South Carolina, but it's never too soon to look at which players could be playing an increased role this season. Players who haven't seen much field time -- or newcomers who just arrived on campus -- received a chance to show how much progress they've made during spring football. Here are five players on the Aggies' defense who gained some momentum and could carve out roles for themselves this fall:

DB Devonta Burns: Depth in the secondary -- particularly at safety -- was among the most significant concerns for Texas A&M coming into the spring, but Burns' consistent play and versatility during spring football provided secondary coach Terry Joseph with another option. Burns, a junior, has been seldom used in his time in Aggieland but began to find a role on special teams last fall. Head coach Kevin Sumlin noted multiple times this spring how much Burns has progressed. He's probably not a candidate to earn a starting spot in the fall but after seeing practice time both at safety and as a nickel cornerback in the spring, he is a player who has begun to earn the trust of the coaching staff when needed to contribute and could see a regular role in the defensive backfield in 2014.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Hilliard
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAfter transferring from TCU, A.J. Hilliard should contribute to Texas A&M's linebackers unit this fall.
DT Zaycoven Henderson: It's interesting that Henderson -- someone the Aggies didn't initially offer in the recruiting process -- emerged as someone who could contribute quickly. After taking Texas' top defensive tackle in the 2014 class (DeShawn Washington), the Aggies held off on heavily pursuing Henderson until he decommitted from Texas in January and became available. The Aggies' quick courtship paid off, and Henderson enrolled early and quickly found himself excelling on the defensive line during spring football. The 6-foot-1, 310-pound true freshman will have to work on getting into better shape during the summer, but if he can, he has the kind of quickness and explosiveness to play a contributing role -- perhaps a significant one -- on the Aggies' defensive interior come August.

LB A.J. Hilliard: Someone who Sumlin long pursued (the head coach recruited Hilliard when he was at Houston and also immediately upon landing the Texas A&M job in late 2011 and early 2012, but Hilliard signed with TCU in 2012). He transferred to Aggieland in 2013, and after sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules, he showed signs this spring that he could be a contributor at linebacker. The Aggies used Hilliard in several linebacker spots in the spring, and he proved versatile enough to handle those responsibilities. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, Hilliard has good speed and showed consistent improvement. Look for him to find his way on the field this season.

LB Jordan Mastrogiovanni: After having a glassy-eyed freshman season, Mastrogiovanni showed significant progress in spring football. Both Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder praised the performance of the 6-3, 235-pound middle linebacker, and Sumlin went as far to say that Mastrogiovanni emerged as the leader of the defense. Considering how important the position is that he plays, that's meaningful for Texas A&M. He's the projected starter at middle linebacker after playing a part-time role last season, and the staff has high hopes for him in 2014.

LB Shaan Washington: Like Mastrogiovanni, Washington received some playing time as a true freshman last fall. He played at both linebacker and on special teams and brings versatility to the table. He was a safety at Alexandria (La.) High School and has the ability to drop into coverage or rush the passer off the edge. He'll be among several outside linebackers battling for a starting spot, and his role figures to increase on the field this season.
Editor's note: This week we'll take a brief look at Texas A&M players who surprised us with their performances during spring practice, which wrapped up for the Aggies earlier this month.

Safety has been a position where depth has been fleeting for Texas A&M.

The Aggies had their fair share of struggles there in 2013, both in performance and depth. Coach Kevin Sumlin acknowledged during spring football that the Aggies have to get better, and one name that hasn't been prominent in recent seasons began to emerge this spring as a potential contributor this fall: Devonta Burns.

The junior didn't play his first two seasons on campus, redshirting in 2011 and not seeing the field in 2012, but last season he began to find a role as a contributor on special teams and appeared in eight games.

But this spring, Burns emerged as an option in the secondary, both at safety and as a nickel cornerback.

"Devonta Burns has continued to come on and is trying to earn his way on the field, whether it's safety or nickel ... because he's making plays," Sumlin said in the final week of spring football.

The Aggies return three safeties that started last season (Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven) but entered the spring with little depth beyond those three, especially after they dismissed Kameron Miles, who redshirted last fall but could have been a potential contributor this fall. Burns' emergence, not just at safety but as a versatile secondary option, should be helpful.

Senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, who Sumlin said will remain at corner this season rather than shifting back and forth, noticed Burns' progress at both safety and nickel throughout the spring.

"He's done a pretty good job with that," Everett said. "He's understanding both positions. ... That's going to be a big help to us and give us more depth."

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