Texas A&M Aggies: Pharoh Cooper

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
10:00
AM ET
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.
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:
We know a good idea when we see it. And with all apologies to our good friends at the Big Ten Blog, we’re going to steal one of theirs.

It’s time to plan your road trips.

Get your calendars out and your travel agents on the telephone. The football season is a few months away and you need to know where you’re going in the SEC from week to week.

This series, beginning today and then running every Monday for the next 13 weeks, will give you a rundown of the league’s action and we'll make our pick for the top one or two matchups.

So without further ado, let’s begin with Week 1 and a look at the schedule.

Saturday, Aug. 30
Ole Miss vs. Boise State (in Atlanta), Thursday, Aug. 28
Texas A&M at South Carolina -- Aug. 28
Temple at Vanderbilt -- Aug. 28
Alabama vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta)
Arkansas at Auburn
Idaho at Florida
Clemson at Georgia
UT Martin at Kentucky
LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston)
Southern Miss at Mississippi State
South Dakota State at Missouri
Utah State at Tennessee -- Sunday, Aug. 31

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Texas A&M at South Carolina

Welcome to the new SEC Network. And what a game it gets to kick things off.

Not only do we get to see the Head Ball Coach stalking the sideline for the Gamecocks once again, we get our first glimpse at Johnny Manziel’s heir apparent at quarterback -- whoever that may be. It might be unclear now who starts under center for the Aggies, but I’m giving coach Kevin Sumlin the benefit of the doubt. With promising receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil, a stable of tailbacks led by Tra Carson and Trey Williams and a solid line that returns tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, the offense should be fine. The defense ... I’m not so sure. I was in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it wasn’t pretty.

South Carolina, on the other hand, will be without Jadeveon Clowney. But the defense under Lorenzo Ward should be fine. And, besides, the offense should be plenty of fun to watch. Dylan Thompson looks to be a capable replacement for Connor Shaw at quarterback, and he’ll have plenty of weapons to work with. Not only is Mike Davis back to 100 percent, he’s joined by an enviable group of running backs that include Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and David Williams. Receivers Pharoh Cooper and Shaq Roland weren’t household names last season, but watch out, because their stars are on the rise.

So while it’s tempting to skirt the rules, double-dip and spend a few days in Atlanta for Ole Miss-Boise State and Alabama-West Virginia, I’ll stick to the script and hope to land in Columbia for the SEC’s season opening game.

Edward Aschoff's pick: LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston)

While I like your decision to go with the SEC opener, I have to shift gears and look at one of the three neutral-site games that features an SEC team taking on another member of the Power 5. The two games in Atlanta should be very fun to watch, but I’m going with LSU vs. Wisconsin down in Houston. These are the kinds of games I hope we will see more of starting in 2016, and this one has a lot of intrigue in the Lone Star State.

For starters, we really don’t know a ton about this LSU team. Are the Tigers rebuilding or reloading after another mass exodus from Baton Rouge? Who is going to be the starting quarterback? Will Terrence Magee hold things down at running back, or will we see more of newcomer Leonard Fournette? And what will be the identity of this new-look LSU defense?

The possibilities really are endless for the Tigers, but there are also plenty of questions for the Badgers as well. There’s yet another quarterback battle in Madison, but running back Melvin Gordon is still around, so you know the Tigers defense will be keying on him. Watching him go toe-to-toe with LSU’s fast and athletic defense should make plenty of people go, “Wow!”

I will say that while we are still unsure what this LSU team will look like this fall, we all know that Les Miles always has his guys ready to play in Week 1 in these kinds of games. Miles is 3-0 at LSU in season-opening, neutral-site games against power-conference opponents. The atmosphere won’t unnerve them, and neither will be the sight of Wisconsin’s jerseys.

With all the uncertainty surrounding both teams, I think we are in for a great punch-you-in-the-mouth opener to the 2014 season.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
5:31
PM ET
Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

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