Texas A&M Aggies: I'Tavius Mathers
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.
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.
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.
SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.
This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:
2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.
3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.
4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.
5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.
6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.
7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.
8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.
10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.
11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.
13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.
14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.
- As LSU opened spring camp over the weekend, the biggest spotlight was on finding Zach Mettenberger's successor at quarterback. Miles admitted that last year's backup, Anthony Jennings, has the early edge but said the competition is wide open. There are plenty of position changes already. Miles announced that kicker James Hairston plans to transfer after he graduates in May. Oh, and Miles came out against the recently tabled slow-down rule.
- Tennessee had its first spring practice on Friday, and coach Butch Jones was pleased with what he saw. Incumbent QB Justin Worley plans to keep the starting job. And the Vols' defense is getting a lift in more ways than one with the return of big-play linebacker Curt Maggitt.
- This spring, South Carolina is focused on developing cornerbacks, a position that is expected to be thin and young. The Gamecocks opened practice last week but are off for spring break this week and will return to the field on March 18.
- Vanderbilt opens practice on Tuesday, and new coach Derek Mason said this spring is all about finding playmakers.
- Ole Miss has a lot to look forward to in the running game with junior tailbacks I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton battling this spring.
- Could new Texas coach Charlie Strong break through the Texas-Texas A&M standoff? Strong says he's optimistic the longtime rivals will sort out their differences and get back to playing for state bragging rights.
- Alabama's quarterback competition will take top billing this spring. But the Tide also have a couple of starting jobs open on the offensive line.
- After a disappointing 2013 season, coach Mark Richt says he's excited about all the changes at Georgia.
- One of Auburn's biggest spring goals will be improving a defense that ranked No. 79 in the FBS in total defense last season.
- Dan Mullen is in preliminary talks for a one-year contract extension at Mississippi State, sources told The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. It would be for 2017-18.
- Florida's move to an uptempo offense is part of an SEC trend.
- Arkansas' Bret Bielema is hoping two new defensive coaches -- coordinator Robb Smith and cornerbacks coach Clay Jennings -- will bring much-needed improvement in the secondary.
College football prognosticator Phil Steele continues his look at the top depth charts around the country. Today, we're looking at his top running back depth charts .
Steele has three SEC teams on his list, with Georgia taking his top spot. Alabama is No. 2, while Texas A&M is 14th.
It's hard to argue against having Georgia No. 1. The Bulldogs bring back the top one-two rushing punch in Todd Gurley, who led SEC running backs with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, and slasher Keith Marshall. The duo combined for 2,144 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. There isn't much behind these two, but they did just fine with the majority of the carries last year.
As for the Aggies, they're also very deep at running back. Leading rusher Ben Malena (808 yards) is back, and he'll be working with some younger but very talented teammates. Brandon Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma, has the potential to be very special. Then you have Oregon transfer Tra Carson and sophomore Trey Williams. There is a lot of speed and athleticism in Texas A&M's running back stable.
I'd also keep an eye on Florida, LSU and Ole Miss this fall. The Gators will be led by sophomore Matt Jones, who had a very good spring and should pick up right where Mike Gillislee left off. He'll also get help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who left spring as the No. 2 back, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane. Taylor had a good spring and Lane should come in and help right away.
LSU might have made Steele's list if Jeremy Hill wasn't suspended from the team. Hill's recent arrest has his future at LSU in doubt, but if he plays this fall he'll be one of the league's best. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue are nothing to sneeze at. Both have shown flashes in the past and Blue should be healed from a knee injury that cost him most of his 2012 season. Losing Hill will really hurt, but the Tigers have a solid duo in Hilliard and Blue to work with.
Ole Miss returns rushing leader Jeff Scott and a talented bunch of youngsters. Scott is a solid all-purpose-type back, while sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton came on strong late last year and this spring. True freshman Mark Dodson will get his chance to see the field as well after a strong spring.
Remember, we’re picking only true freshmen.
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: One of the key questions for Alabama heading into the season was who would emerge as the big-play threat in the Crimson Tide’s passing game. Enter Cooper, who’s drawn rave reviews from coach Nick Saban and several of Cooper’s veteran teammates. Even though a foot injury has hampered the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Cooper in recent days, he’s given the defending national champions confidence that they won’t be lacking when they decide to throw the football in 2012.
De’Vante Harris, CB, Texas A&M: The Aggies were able to pry Harris away from Oklahoma during the recruiting process, and it’s a good thing. He might very well be starting in the Texas A&M defensive backfield from Day 1. In fact, one of the first players Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin mentioned following last weekend’s scrimmage was Harris, who’s been hard to miss this preseason. He’s played like a veteran, challenges the receivers and has kept his mistakes to a minimum.
I'Tavius Mathers, RB, Ole Miss: Nagging injuries have limited junior running back Jeff Scott this preseason, which has provided a big opportunity for Mathers. Needless to say, he’s taken that opportunity and run with it. So has fellow freshman running back Jaylen Walton. Mathers, who’s right around 200 pounds, has shown the power and strength to get the tough yards, but he also has breakaway speed. He ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run in last weekend’s scrimmage.
Jalen Mills, CB, LSU: He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest guy, but Mills is a fierce competitor and an excellent tackler. Sound familiar? OK, it’s way too premature to compare him to Tyrann Mathieu, but Mills has been mighty impressive during preseason camp with his instincts and nose for the ball. With Mathieu gone, Mills worked with the first-team defense last Saturday during the scrimmage and is pushing to be a fixture in the Tigers’ secondary rotation this season.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: After enrolling early, Yeldon burst onto the scene this spring and had 91 yards receiving and 88 yards rushing in the A-Day spring game. He had the play of the game on a 50-yard touchdown reception and has picked up where he left off this preseason. The Crimson Tide aren’t short on talent at running back, but Yeldon is the kind of playmaker that demands touches. He’s explosive as a runner and also makes things happen after the catch. Saban will see to it that Yeldon is a big part of the offense.
Drive Through: Can Aggies Win The SEC?
12:00 PM ET Troy 13 Georgia 3:30 PM ET 6 Texas A&M SMU 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 7:00 PM ET Northern Illinois Arkansas 7:00 PM ET Mississippi State 8 LSU 7:30 PM ET 14 South Carolina Vanderbilt