Texas A&M Aggies: Nate Askew
"Up and down," Snyder said when asked to assess Jenkins' season. "I think he's coming on a little bit [lately]."
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jenkins has started the last eight games for the Aggies (he missed the first two, the result of a suspension for violations of Texas A&M athletic department rules and regulations) and is second on the team in tackles with 69, while also tied for second in tackles for loss (five). He has been productive, though not necessarily always consistent. When he's at his best, he might be the best defensive player the Aggies have.
Jenkins has kept a positive outlook and consistent approach throughout this season.
"You have to keep trying to get better every week," Jenkins said. "Everyone has their highs and lows, a good day and a bad day. You just have to keep a positive attitude moving forward and try to get better each week."
Knowing there were a lot of young players and newcomers among the A&M linebackers, Jenkins wanted to step into more of a leadership role. Teammates have noticed his effort in that area.
"He wasn’t a very vocal guy at the beginning of the year, but he’s really opened up and he’s been a great leader for us in the linebacker unit," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "On the backend, everybody talks and everybody communicates, and that’s the most important thing. We need to communicate."
Snyder said he has noticed Jenkins getting tired toward the ends of games recently and he might start working in true freshman Jordan Mastrogiovanni into the lineup more at middle linebacker while sliding starting middle linebacker Darian Claiborne back to his natural position of weakside linebacker, which is usually manned by Jenkins. That would enable Jenkins to get a breather and be fresher for the fourth quarter of games.
Now in his third year in Aggieland after transferring from Coffeyville Community College, Jenkins is continuing to work and trying to improve. He’s also making an impact. Jenkins had an interception return for a touchdown in Texas A&M's thrilling win at Ole Miss in 2012 and has had a plethora of big-time hits or tackles for loss accumulated over the last two seasons.
When it comes to his setback that kept him on the sideline to start the season, Jenkins said he "definitely took some life lessons and learned from it." If the Aggies are going to finish the way they hope to, winning their final two games later this month at LSU and at Missouri, Jenkins and the linebackers probably have to play a key role in that.
The senior simply wants to push forward, play well and have fun while doing so.
"I'm just trying to lead by example for the younger guys, trying to bring energy to the field so we can have some Aggie swag," Jenkins said with a smile. "Just have fun on the field. We do make mistakes but move on from it. ... Just have fun and go out there and try to win."
On the field, it has been the statistically the worst in the SEC in total defense, yards per play, rushing defense and near the bottom in several other categories. The national rankings in many areas have been in the 100s. As a result, the unit has taken a heap of criticism, especially when compared with the team's high-powered offense which puts up points in bunches.
For once, the defense was a source of positive discussion.
"I feel like we finally put together a complete game," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "There weren’t a lot of blown coverages or assignments gap-wise. That was the biggest thing and having fun out there."
The sack totals were particularly eye-opening because Texas A&M had been one of the country's worst in generating a pass rush before Saturday. The Aggies had seven sacks total entering Saturday's game, but matched the season tally in one day.
The reason? More blitz calls from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who said he finally felt comfortable dialing up more pressure. As the defense continued to see players go in and out of the lineup all season for various reasons (suspensions, injuries, inept play), it was a challenge to get a group of 11 players that Snyder felt he could trust to be in the right place in the right time, especially considering how much youth is on that side of the ball (11 freshmen exist in the two-deep depth chart).
But as players begin to settle into their roles and get more comfortable, especially in the secondary, Snyder is beginning to feel more comfortable taking risks. The group back there on Saturday – cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris along with safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven – were the projected four starters at the beginning of the year but have rarely been on the field together for one reason or another.
"We need to stay healthy and keep the young DBs coming along and learning," Snyder said. "There is a degree of difficulty for the back end to do some of the things we do and to have those guys all in place helped a lot."
It also helped that Vanderbilt's starting quarterback on Saturday, Patton Robinette, was a freshman making his first career start, though Snyder said the game plan appeared to be the same as the previous week when the Commodores beat Georgia. Considering that Texas A&M struggled to stop virtually everybody this season, including FCS team Sam Houston State and Rice, whom it gave up 306 rushing yards to in the season opener, any positive sign is a good one for the Aggies.
So is Saturday's performance reason for optimism with the A&M defense or will they simply revert back to previous ways moving forward? It might be hard to tell this week, because the No. 12 Aggies host a struggling nonconference opponent in UTEP (1-6). Should the Aggies repeat what they did on Saturday for a second straight week, however, they could build some momentum to take into the home stretch of their conference slate as they finish up the year against Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri.
If the Aggies can stay healthy and keep the personnel consistent on that side of the ball, Snyder can continue to be aggressive in his calls. That aggressiveness was one trait of the 2012 A&M defense, which was surprisingly good despite question marks on the defensive line, about depth in general and was a key part to Texas A&M's inaugural 11-2 campaign in the SEC.
With an open date following the Aggies final two home games before they have to hit the road for battles at LSU and Missouri to close out the year, the defense will need to continue to improve if the Aggies have hopes of winning the remainder of their games.
"I think at this point what happens is for them to have some success Saturday I thought was important and hopefully we were better," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We were not great by any means and hopefully because of some success, particularly by the young guys and some success as a defense, we'll continue to get better and gain some confidence from that because that's going to be important moving forward."
The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.
Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).
For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.
The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.
But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.
In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.
One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.
So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
- In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
- The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
- The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.
The outside linebacker, who spent his first three seasons playing receiver, is still working to improve and master his new position, which he switched to during the offseason.
"He's catching the ball better on defense and he's already scored more touchdowns [on defense than he did on offense] since I've been here," Sumlin said with a laugh. "I give him a hard time about that, but he doesn't think that's funny, by the way."
Jokes aside, Sumlin is right. Askew spent limited time as a receiver in 2012, Sumlin's first as head coach at Texas A&M. He finished the season with just three catches for 10 yards, appearing in 10 games. His only career offensive touchdown came as a sophomore in 2011 under former head coach Mike Sherman.
Having a 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete who possesses speed and a vertical jump better than 40 inches standing on the sidelines didn't make sense to Sumlin, and for whatever reason, receiver wasn't working out for Askew. So Sumlin approached Askew this offseason with the idea of moving him to linebacker for his senior season.
"I didn't know what to think, honestly," Askew recalled thinking. "Linebacker? I don't know about this. I've never played defense before. I don't know how this is going to go."
Sumlin's message was that Askew could help on defense.
"He just told me I was an athlete and for whatever reason, things weren't working out at receiver position but he wanted to get his best guys on the field," Askew said. "He said he believed that I can contribute somewhere and he tried to figure out that place and he thought maybe linebacker would be the best position for me."
What sold Askew on the idea was spending practice time at outside linebacker and having some success as a pass rusher during spring football.
"I just went into it with an open mind. I was like, 'OK, I can't knock anything until I try it,'" Askew said. "So I thought I'd give it a try and see how it goes. I got out there the first practice and I actually liked it. ...[In the first practice] they had me pass rushing. I was able to use my speed off the edge and get around [Cedric Ogubehi] and Jake [Matthews] a few times and after that, I guess you could say it's like golfing. Hitting that first great ball draws you back into the game. That's what it did. I made that first pass rush and I thought, 'I can do this.'"
In the first five games, Askew has shown flashes of playmaking ability. Of his 14 tackles, three are tackles for loss, including a sack. In addition to his interception against Sam Houston State, he also has a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
On Sept. 28, he made his first career defensive start against Arkansas and he's listed as the starter on the Aggies' depth chart in advance of their road game at Ole Miss on Saturday.
"I think he's embraced it; he's playing with confidence," Sumlin said. "Has he made some mistakes? Sure. But he's moving along that way and I think the biggest positive is that he is helping us as a team [at linebacker] more than he was helping us at wide receiver."
The fact that Askew has contributed as much as he has is a testament to his athleticism and ability to adapt but also is a sign of the ever-shifting personnel on the Aggies' defense, which has struggled throughout the season and is 112th in yards allowed per game. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder & Co. are trying to find the best combination of players as youth and inexperience permeates the depth chart.
Askew is continuing to work at his craft. Former all-conference Aggies linebacker Sean Porter has been a significant resource for him. They used to be roommates and Porter also played strongside linebacker, which is what Askew is playing. Askew's desire for improvement is much like the Aggies' defense as a whole right now.
"Me and Sean had conversations for two hours on the phone just talking about the linebacker position, different things that came up at practice and how do you approach this and approach that," Askew said. "Since he perfected his craft so well at the 'Sam' position and I play the same position, I thought maybe I could pick his brain and do that."
- Alabama looks to fix a running game that has struggled to find consistency in the first four weeks of the season and ranks last in the SEC in rushing yards per game.
- Success is a family matter for LSU running back Odell Beckham Jr., whose father, Odell Sr, was an LSU running back and whose mother, Heather, was a track star.
- Georgia players who got to know LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger when he was a Bulldog are happy he has found success, but obviously, want to beat him and the Tigers.
- Texas A&M senior Nate Askew made the transition from receiver to linebacker a successful one, even though it's a position he never played before this season.
- South Carolina cornerback Jimmy Legree leads by example, both on and off the field.
- After recording his first 100-yard receiving game of his career against LSU, Auburn receiver Sammie Coates appears to be emerging as one of the top deep threats in the SEC.
- Kentucky true freshman running back JoJo Kemp will see his role increased on a week when the Wildcats face the No. 1 run defense in the country in Florida.
- Mississippi State junior right guard Ben Beckwith has worked his way from a walk-on to starting on Saturdays.
- Missouri quarterback James Franklin has learned to let go of the negativity, both on and off the field.
- Florida suffered a tough blow when it got the news that defensive tackle Dominique Easley is out for the season with a torn ACL.
- Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott has shifted his attitude, including "lifestyle" choices off the field to help ensure he has a stellar 2013 season.
- Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews is chasing some SEC receiving records this season.
- Keeping the ball away from Texas A&M's high-powered offense might be the best course of action for Arkansas this weekend.
The unit performed well in its first year in the rugged conference, exceeding outsider expectations and becoming a key reason why Texas A&M was able to go 11-2.
This preseason brings -- in some ways -- feelings familiar to those at this time last year. The challenges for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff are, as he put it on the first day of preseason training camp earlier this month, "Exactly the same."
"We've got a lot of unknowns on defense," Snyder said.
Senior linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart provided production and leadership from their respective positions. Others, like defensive tackle Spencer Nealy and then-true freshman Julien Obioha produced beyond what was expected from them prior to the season. Defensive back Deshazor Everett proved versatile and valuable in the secondary, as did nickel cornerback Toney Hurd Jr.
This season, the Aggies are looking for more players to step up and answer questions like "Who is going to replace the production of Damontre Moore?" or "Where will the on-field leadership come from?"
The answer to the former question begins with Obioha.
A sophomore from Brother Martin High in New Orleans, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end started all 12 regular season games last season before missing the AT&T Cotton Bowl with a back injury. He sat out spring and spent the offseason getting healthy, but he's ready to go for what the coaches hope is a strong second season, improving on his 2012 totals (25 tackles, a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, six pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble).
"When he first got here, nobody knew who he was," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He would be the last freshman that anybody thought would have started every game for us last year. I didn't see anybody last year say 'What about Julien Obioha? How's he coming?' All he did was start the Florida game and start every game during the regular season. He's a smart guy, a hard worker, a tough guy. He's played as much football in the SEC as anybody we have. That's amazing for a true freshman."
Matching what Moore did won't be easy. He was a force last year, posting 12.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Sumlin said replacing that type of production could be done in different ways.
"Either by personnel, with just moving Julien over there and trying some new guys or by scheme," Sumlin said. "Creating a different blitzer or a guy like [converted linebacker and former receiver] Nate Askew or somebody else. Right now we're evaluating the personnel and the scheme to create that kind of stuff."
Last year, the Aggies were solid in several key areas. In scoring defense, they were 26th in the country, allowing 21.8 points per game. Their third-down defense was among the best nationally. They were 16th overall and fourth in the SEC on third-down conversions, allowing a conversion just 32.4 percent of the time.
On third-and-short situations, the Aggies ranked even higher. They were No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 nationally on 3rd-and-5 or fewer yards, allowing conversions 44.6 percent of the time. Florida State, North Carolina State, TCU and Oregon State were the only teams better than Texas A&M in those scenarios. You don't achieve those numbers without getting solid work from your defensive line. Combine those numbers with one of the nation's best offenses and it's easy to see why the Aggies were so successful.
If you listen to defensive line coach Terry Price, though, it doesn't sound like he's preaching those statistics. Instead, he's pointing on the opposite end of the spectrum to motivate his group.
"When you look at all the ESPNs and all the magazines and they have us ranked as the worst D-line in the SEC, I mean, everywhere you read it," Price said. "Two or three different places I've read that we're the worst D-line in the SEC. You have to form an identity. That means we're going to have to outplay folks and we're going to have to be the hardest working group and we're going to get some things done."
Obioha, Price said, embodies the kind of work ethic that will help the front exceed outsider expectations.
"To me, he is what we live by and our motto as a D-line is," Price said. "Our identity has to be the hardest playing D-line in this league. One thing that he does every single day in practice and every single game, he lays it on the line and plays hard every snap."
As for leadership, coaches and teammates have often pointed to Hurd and middle linebacker Donnie Baggs as players who have taken that role. Baggs was a reserve linebacker a year ago but appeared in 12 games and started one; Hurd is a senior who played every game, started seven and was productive throughout the 2012 season.
In addition to two new starting linebackers, the status of Everett and safety Floyd Raven for the start of the season is still uncertain after offseason arrests. Both were suspended during the summer after their arrests but returned to practice for preseason training camp. Sumlin said on Tuesday that a decision on whether they'll miss any games hasn't been made yet. Senior defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, a returning starter who also had an offseason arrest, is suspended for the Aug. 31 season opener against Rice.
Those situations combined with the natural attrition through graduation and the draft means plenty of new faces will be on the two-deep depth chart and see the field. The presence of newcomers can be seen during camp, where true freshmen have accounted for more than half of the second-team defense at times during 11-on-11 drills in recent weeks.
"We've got a bunch of new guys," Sumlin said. "Good news is that they're talented, but they just haven't played. They're learning on the run. The new guys, we're throwing it all at them. There's a lot of defense in, but the challenge is just like there is every year. We've got some new guys but I think the good news is that they're talented and they're working hard and they're understanding."
No. 9 Nate Askew
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Who could be candidates to have their names called at this time next year, when the 2014 NFL draft arrives? Here are some names to know, both seniors and non-seniors:
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But he might have the biggest load to carry this spring and fall for the Aggies. And it's a critical role, one that demands success if Texas A&M is to consider the 2013 season a success on defense.
Turn your eyes to that group on the Coolidge Grass Practice Fields this spring and what you see -- at least in terms of personnel -- is significantly different than what you would have seen at this time last year. A unit that was considered a strength coming into the 2012 season, with two experienced seniors (Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart) leading the way is now a group in transition, with two new starters and several players who weren't even on the Texas A&M campus prior to January. And that includes the position coach, Mark Hagen, who is in his first year with the Aggies.
Earlier this spring, head coach Kevin Sumlin joked that he doesn't talk to Hagen much because Hagen's too busy melding all the new players together.
"I don't talk to him much because he's busy," Sumlin said with a laugh. "His plate's full, he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."
But the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Baggs is at the center of it all -- literally and figuratively. Not only is he responsible for getting acclimated to a new role, he's also the point man for getting the rest of the front seven lined up properly before the offense snaps the football. That task is easier for someone like Stewart, who was an experienced senior with plenty of football under his belt, than it is for Baggs, who has never been a regular starter.
The same can be said for new coaches.
Texas A&M has three new position coaches this spring -- special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff Banks, linebackers coach Mark Hagen and quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
Banks, who filled the void left by new Nevada head coach Brian Polian, brings plenty of experience to the table, especially since Banks was an all-conference punter himself at Washington State.
"We talked about replacing Brian with a guy who's just as capable, and Jeff is that," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's got a wealth of experience, he's a former kicker/punter. He can be a technician and can help our guys. I think he's brought a different kind of scheme in all four phases. He's had the ability to keep their interests. Sometimes, change is good."
Sumlin said through the first nine practices, he is seeing some improvement from kicker Taylor Bertolet, who showed inconsistency during his redshirt freshman season in 2012. Bertolet was 13-of-22 on field goals (59.1 percent) and 67-of-74 on point-after-touchdown kicks last year.
"Just like quarterbacks and receivers, they have the opportunity to continue their craft all summer," Sumlin said. "So that will be an ongoing work. But definitely there's been some improvement, particularly with Taylor."
"He's got a bunch of young guys," Sumlin said. "He's got Donnie Baggs, who has not played a whole lot of football around here at Texas A&M. He's got two guys who should be going to the prom next month at linebacker in Brett Wade and Reggie [Chevis]. And then he's got a junior college transfer [Tommy Sanders], who just got here. I don't talk to him much because he's busy. His plate's full; he's running around, he's meeting, he's chasing guys all over the place."
"You throw Shaun Ward in there and guys who haven't played a bunch. With Jenkins out, that's given all those guys a lot of turns, [including] Nate Askew, who we moved from wide receiver."
Sumlin said he's seen some positive signs from Hagen and his young linebackers.
"It's really good for a new coach because those guys aren't used to doing a lot of things," Sumlin said. "He has a lot of energy and obviously those guys have made really good strides during the course of spring."
Askew making progress: One of the many new faces at linebacker is one that was on offense last year: Nate Askew.
Before the spring, Askew moved to linebacker from receiver. Sumlin said he's seen Askew make improvement during the spring.
"It's going good," Sumlin said. "Some good, some bad. He's been over there nine practices in pads and the great thing about it has been his attitude and how he's approached the position, how he wants to get better, how he hasn't shied away from contact."
At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Askew brings size and athleticism to the position.
"He's one of the top athletes on this whole team," Sumlin said. "He can really, really help us if he continues to get better the way he's gotten better the last couple of weeks."
Reggie Chevis: Size-wise, the true freshman looks like he was built to be an inside linebacker (the 6-2 Houston product is likely hovering around 250 pounds) and Saturday he saw time with both the first team and second team at middle linebacker. Though junior Donnie Baggs is the likely favorite to start this fall at the position, Chevis certainly is showing why he was heavily recruited.
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Many of those changes could be seen on the initial 2013 depth chart released by head coach Kevin Sumlin. There are some absent names because of injuries and there's a long way to go before definitive statements can be made, but it certainly gives us some players and things to keep an eye on moving forward. Among them:
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Starters: Mike Evans, Michael Lamothe, Kenric McNeal, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Ryan Swope
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On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:
1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.
2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.
3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.
4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.
5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.
7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.
8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.
9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.
10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.
11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.
12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.
13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.
14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.