Texas A&M Aggies: Speedy Noil

Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season-opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 9-4
2013 SEC record: 4-4, third in the Western Division
Record all time against Alabama: 2-4
Last meeting: Lost 49-42 in 2013

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 10; Kicker/punter: 2

[+] EnlargeHill
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKenny Hill, or whomever takes over as the Aggies QB, will have plenty of weapons available.
Top returners
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews, WR Malcome Kennedy, CB Deshazor Everett, S Floyd Raven

Key losses
QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, OT Jake Matthews, RB Ben Malena, WR Travis Labhart, NG Kirby Ennis, LB Nate Askew, CB Toney Hurd

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Johnny Manziel (923 yards)
Passing: Johnny Manziel (4,114 yards, 37 TD, 12 INT)
Receiving: Mike Evans (1,394 yards)
Tackles: Steven Jenkins* (96)
Sacks: Shaan Washington*, Gavin Stansbury (3)
Interceptions: Howard Matthews*, Nate Askew (3)

What they're saying
"No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin

Three things to watch:

1. Johnny ain’t the problem: Forget Johnny Manziel for a moment. Believe me, we’ll have time for him later. Finding his successor at quarterback isn’t the biggest problem Sumlin faces in 2014. Instead, it’s the defense, the one that looked utterly lost against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and finished 109th in the country in total defense (behind four other Lone Star State schools: North Texas, Texas State, Texas and Texas Tech). There were injuries, sure, and there were a lot of young players on the field, but there’s no excuse for giving up 32 points per game. The secondary was porous, the tackling terrible and the pass-rush non-existent. But this year is supposed to be better, right? Well, maybe not. Offseason troubles have thrown a huge wrench into a defense that was supposed to be a year wiser and more matured. Two starters (Darian Claiborne and Isaiah Golden) were dismissed from the team, and a third starter, defensive end Gavin Stansbury, got himself arrested on assault charges.

2. Back to Johnny: We weren’t going to make you wait that long to discuss the loss of Manziel. A lot of Alabama fans should be relieved to know he’s gone. His theatrics won’t stress the Crimson Tide any longer. But even as his Heisman Trophy and 5,037 total yards of offense head to Cleveland, the offense he leaves behind in College Station shouldn’t be overlooked. Even with starting wideouts Mike Evans and Travis Labhart gone, there is more than enough talent on campus for Sumlin to cobble together a formidable offense, whether the starting QB is sophomore Kenny Hill or the freshman Kyle Allen. The Aggies are loaded at running back with three talented options there (Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams). And at receiver, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Veterans Malcome Kennedy and Edward Pope are just the tip of the iceberg. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are the real weapons. Seals-Jones is a clone of Evans, a 6-foot-5 giant who will tower over defensive backs. Noil, the No. 1-rated athlete in the ESPN 300, looks like the SEC’s next Percy Harvin, a terror with the ball in his hands. Johnny is gone but with so many weapons and a strong offensive line (thanks to Cedric Ogbuehi’s return), the Aggies shouldn’t miss a beat.

3. How to break through: There’s an argument to be made that Texas A&M is the most overhyped program in the SEC. Yes, Manziel was a revelation. And, yes, the Aggies were competitive the minute they joined the league. But nonetheless, the wins simply haven’t been there. You’ve got to finish higher than third in your own division before you start becoming a power in the conference -- or nationally, for that matter. It’s Year 3 under Sumlin, which means it’s time to start capitalizing on potential and turn it into production. Sumlin realizes this. This spring he told ESPN, “It's kind of hard to have a target on your back when you finished third in your own division. I think the reason people would say that [we've got a target on us] is because we had unexpected success. But we're trying to go from third to first.” Sumlin knows, “We haven’t arrived in this league.” But they could soon. With the shadow of Johnny Football no longer looming, it will be interesting to see where the program goes next. The offense should be more balanced and run-oriented, a fact that should help the defense stay off the field. If Mark Snyder can turn things around on that side of the ball, then things could get really interesting. The West will still be an uphill battle for the Aggies, but it might be enough to bridge the difference between potential and production.
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.
Now the real fun begins.

Mid-October is a time when teams start to separate themselves. Heading into Week 7 last season, Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida were all in the top 20 of the AP poll. Then Georgia and Florida lost, starting a downward trend that neither could reverse. Meanwhile, Auburn improved to 5-1 and didn’t lose another game until the BCS National Championship.

What will happen on Oct. 11 of this year? Where should fans go to see the season-defining games?

If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting our top destinations for each week of the season. So far, we’ve been to Athens, Auburn, Starkville, Tuscaloosa, Houston, Nashville and Norman, Okla. We’ve got six weeks down and eight to go.

Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 7:

Oct. 11
Alabama at Arkansas
Auburn at Mississippi State
LSU at Florida
Georgia at Missouri
Louisiana-Monroe at Kentucky
Ole Miss at Texas A&M
Chattanooga at Tennessee
Charleston Southern at Vanderbilt

Alex Scarborough’s pick: Ole Miss at Texas A&M

This week’s pick comes with purely selfish reasons. I missed out on experiencing the old Kyle Field, so I figure I need to visit the new one. Hopefully the press box will still sway along with the Aggie War Hymn. Whatever happens during the actual game is a bonus, pure and simple.

And what a bonus it should be. This game should be an offensive connoisseur’s dream. The officials can shut off the play clock. No defense required here.

Even with Johnny Manziel gone, I expect Texas A&M’s offense to be quite potent. People forget that Kevin Sumlin was a highly regarded offensive mind before Johnny Football. Nick Saban tried to hire him at LSU. Plus, Sumlin has plenty to work with this season, starting with the young wide receiver tandem of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. With Josh Reynolds and Kyrion Parker also in the mix, the Aggies have quite the formidable group of pass catchers. Throw in a running back group that goes three deep with Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams, and whoever starts under center should be in a good position to move the chains.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, has the same potential on offense, with a seasoned quarterback to lean on. Bo Wallace is the most experienced passer in the SEC today, and with Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram to throw to, he is primed for a big senior season. An offensive line minus three starters from a season ago is cause for concern, but by Week 7, there should be some chemistry there.

Therefore, even though I like Ole Miss’ defense with the Nkemdiche brothers, Cody Prewitt and Serderius Bryant, I’m looking for an offensive shootout come Oct. 11. If I’m going to the Lone Star State, I expect no less.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: LSU at Florida

Alex, you can have your shootout. I’d rather see a knock-down, drag-out fight in which the final score is 9-6. Call me old school. I love defense, and this year’s LSU-Florida game features two of the better defenses in the conference and a handful of potential first-round draft picks, including Dante Fowler Jr., Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Mills.

The two permanent cross-division rivals have not scored more than 23 points combined in their last two meetings, and this one should be no different.

The Gators will be battle-tested after back-to-back road games at Alabama and at Tennessee, but if they can get out of that with a split and start the season 4-1, you'd better believe that Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will be rocking. And why have it any other way in our first trip to the Swamp?

Can you imagine if Brandon Harris wins the job at LSU? That means the Tigers could have a true freshman quarterback and a true freshman running back, Leonard Fournette, starting in their backfield. Those two alone could be worth the price of admission, especially to see how they react to the raucous atmosphere. I guess that’s why you sign up to play in the SEC.

And if she’s not in Fayetteville, Ark., we might even see April Justin at the game. She’s the mother of Alabama star Landon Collins and Florida freshman Gerald Willis III, but deep down, she’s a die-hard LSU fan. Remember how happy she was when Willis picked the Gators on national TV? Exactly.

But let’s get back to the game. I expect both offenses to struggle. I expect there to be plenty of turnovers, and I expect it to come down to a last-minute field goal or a fake field goal, depending on how Les Miles is feeling that day. What more could you ask for?
On Thursday we took a look at five players on the Texas A&M defense who could see increased roles this fall. Today, we'll look at the offense. With three former A&M offensive stars as well as a few rookie free agents pursuing NFL careers, there should be plenty of new faces on the field in the fall. Some have seen the field before, but others are newcomers who arrived in January. Here are five to watch as we chug along the offseason toward the beginning of preseason training camp in August:

[+] EnlargeKyle Allen
AP Photo/Eric GayKyle Allen, a high school All-American, hardly looks like a true freshman and is challenging for the starting QB spot at A&M.
QB Kyle Allen: As one of the most talked about recruits in the Texas A&M's 2014 recruiting class, Allen is someone that Aggies are watching closely. Allen, a true freshman, is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting quarterback job and though Hill has the edge in experience, Allen showed progress in the spring. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital tested Allen by giving him a large menu of offensive options and though there were some natural growing pains early, the nation's No. 1-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 class showed maturity beyond his years and progressed well as spring football drew to a close. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Allen also gained extra practice time when Hill had to sit out the final week-plus of spring football while serving a suspension (Hill has since been reinstated). The quarterback battle will play out into August and Allen looks like a worthy challenger to Hill, who got playing time last season in mop-up duty.

RB Tra Carson: Among the players on this list, Carson has played the most, but because the backfield was crowded with options (Ben Malena, Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and quarterback Johnny Manziel also received carries), Carson didn't get too many carries last season. He wound up with 62 totes and averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns, and showed flashes in late-season games against Missouri and Duke that he has plenty of ability. He had a strong spring, is good carrying the football as well as in pass protection, which is important in the Aggies' offense. With Manziel and Malena gone and a lot of carries to go around, Carson looks like a prime candidate to emerge from his third-and-short and goal-line role into something much bigger this season.

OG Garrett Gramling: A fifth-year senior, Gramling proved this spring that he'll be a serious candidate for a starting spot somewhere along the line this fall. He was a reserve last year who started in two games (Vanderbilt and UTEP) and filled in for an injured Jarvis Harrison midway through the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and performed well. With Harrison sitting out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Gramling stepped back into that left guard spot and played well all spring. With four of five starters returning on the offensive line, there's only one spot to fight for but how the position battle plays out at right tackle will dictate whether a guard spot is available. If there is one, Gramling should challenge for it. If not, he's a valuable reserve to have.

WR Speedy Noil: The five-star recruit arrived in College Station, Texas, with plenty of hype and didn't disappoint. His nickname gives off a pretty good hint at what he brings to the table -- he's an explosive player. He seems to be a natural fit for the Aggies' offense and looks like someone who will contribute right away as a true freshman.

WR Joshua Reynolds: Perhaps the least ballyhooed of the 2014 crop of receiver recruits for the Aggies, Reynolds quickly proved worth some attention. Though slender in frame (6-4, 190 pounds), he has a large catch radius and uses his height well. He has a year of college football experience under his belt (he spent last season at Tyler Junior College) and found himself getting time with the first-team offense as spring football progressed. Regardless of whether he challenges for a starting job, he has the look of someone who could find himself in the receiver rotation, especially if he's able to add some weight this summer.

This season, it seems pretty much everything is wide open in the SEC. It should make for one of the most compelling seasons in years, and the receivers will be one of the most intriguing positions on the field.

Last year, we knew who our stars were when it came to pass catchers. You had a record breaker in Jordan Matthews, absolute freaks in Mike Evans and Donte Moncrief, the game-changer in Odell Beckham Jr. and one of the toughest players around in Jarvis Landry. And there were budding superstars in Amari Cooper and Dorial Green-Beckham.

As we look to the SEC's crop of receiving talent entering this fall, we still have a couple big names, but figuring out a consensus top five isn't easy.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the top playmakers in the SEC but still has work to do on his game.
The favorites

Clearly, Cooper is the headliner at wide receiver. He might not have generated the buzz and excitement last year that he did toward the end of his freshman season with Alabama, but he's a big-play threat and a deep-ball specialist. His numbers dipped in 2013, but with Green-Beckham no longer at Missouri, Cooper assumes the role as the biggest receiving threat in the SEC.

Where Cooper has to improve is his physical play and playing through injuries. If there's one complaint about him, it's that fighting through pain was an issue for him at times. Alabama still needs to find its starting quarterback, but Cooper had another great spring and shouldn't have a problem being the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting job this fall.

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cooper this spring. "He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.

"He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him."

Yeah, try putting two guys on him with receiving targets like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard returning for the Tide.

But Cooper has some competition. Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis and Auburn's Sammie Coates are the only two returning receivers who finished ranked in the top 10 of the league in receiving yards last year, but don't forget about rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who led Ole Miss with 72 receptions in 2013, or South Carolina junior Shaq Roland, who is so close to breaking out it's scary.

No one returns this fall with 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdown numbers from a year ago, but all of the above-mentioned players could have bigger seasons in 2014. Lewis is sneaky good, and if he can improve his route running, watch out in an offense that loves to get the ball to jittery guys like that in space. Treadwell can jump out of any gym and is moving outside, which should give him more chances to hit the deep ball this fall. Coates needs to be more consistent, but he's grown more and more since the start of last season.

Roland has shown flashes of star power, but he has to get the mental side down. He let the hype get to him his freshman year but followed that by catching 25 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He's better than that, and he has a chance to be the go-to receiver for Dylan Thompson in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar should thrive in Florida's new offense.
Keep an eye on

Don't you dare think those are the only contenders for the top receiving spots in the SEC. There are plenty of guys flying somewhat under the radar, and you don't want to sleep on any of them:

  • Chris Conley, Sr., Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell might be back from his ACL injury this fall, but Conley had a great spring and has everything you'd want in a go-to receiver.
  • Quinton Dunbar, Sr., Florida: He's caught a pass in 28 straight games and has 90 receptions for his career. Kurt Roper's new spread look should help him blow past 40 catches in his final season.
  • Speedy Noil, Fr., Texas A&M: No, he hasn't played a down of college football yet, but this kid is the definition of an athlete. He'll make a ton of plays this fall.
  • Marquez North, So., Tennessee: He's turning his raw talent into actual development, which is a very scary thought, and looks more the part with the muscle he's put on.
  • Demarcus Robinson, So., Florida: After all the hype he arrived with, Robinson had a very quiet freshman year. He has to stay focused off the field because following a good spring, a lot is expected from Florida's most talented receiver.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, RFr., Texas A&M: An ACL injury cut his freshman season short, but Seals-Jones should be one of the Aggies' top receiving threats this fall. He can play inside and out and could top the SEC in overall receiving athleticism.
  • D'haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: He has zero snaps at this level, but his coaches think he could make a major impact on the offense and should push Coates for catches.
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.
Earlier today, we examined those newcomers in the SEC East who made big splashes this spring.

Again, these are players on campus and practicing for the first time, junior college transfers or true freshmen who enrolled early. We didn’t include redshirt freshmen.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brandon Harris is giving Anthony Jennings all he can handle in LSU's quarterback competition.
We’ll turn our attention now to the West and some of the new faces who look like they’re going to be able to help their teams in the fall.

Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M: With Matt Joeckel transferring to TCU, the Texas A&M quarterback race is down to Kenny Hill, a sophomore, and Allen, a true freshman. Hill got himself suspended toward the end of spring, opening the door even wider for Allen, who has a big arm and can really sling it.

Tony Brown, CB, Alabama: The Crimson Tide dipped some at cornerback last season and took their lumps in a few games. Brown, a true freshman, has the skill set and confidence to be the kind of corner Alabama has become accustomed to under Nick Saban and will factor in somewhere in the rotation next season.

C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss: The Rebels were determined to get even faster on defense. Enter Hampton, who showed great speed and instincts this spring. Even though he's a true freshman, Hampton was good enough that Ole Miss could move All-American Cody Prewitt from safety to linebacker.

Brandon Harris, QB, LSU: Turn on the tape from LSU's spring game, and it's easy to see why the Tigers are having a hard time settling on their starting quarterback. Harris certainly didn't look like a true freshman and is giving sophomore Anthony Jennings everything he wants in the battle for the starting job.

Jocquell Johnson, OT, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost their right tackle from a year ago, Charles Siddoway, who came to Mississippi State from the junior college ranks. Johnson, a freakish athlete for such a big man, could end up following that same path if he picks up where he left off in the spring.

Derrick Moncrief, S, Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was pleasantly surprised with how quickly Moncrief picked up the scheme this spring after coming over from junior college. The 6-2, 218-pound junior has a great chance to be the Tigers' starter at the boundary safety position, meaning Josh Holsey could move to cornerback.

Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M: It doesn't take long to figure out how Noil got his nickname. He's electric with the ball in his hands and a blur in the open field. The Aggies will be looking for more playmakers on offense now that Mike Evans is gone, and even though Noil is a true freshman, he was one of Texas A&M's best this spring.

Jarran Reed, DE, Alabama: If Saban goes out and gets a junior college player on defense, you can bet Saban's convinced that player can be a factor right away. The 6-4, 310-pound Reed was just that this spring and will line up at end in the Tide's base 3-4 look and at tackle when they go to a four-man front.

Cameron Robinson, OT, Alabama: It wouldn't be the first time Alabama has started a true freshman at left tackle, but it's still rare. Robinson, a 6-6, 325-pound specimen, started with the first team in the spring game and looks to have a firm hold on the position heading into preseason camp.

D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: The 6-2, 216-pound Williams should be a perfect complement to Sammie Coates. One of the top junior college prospects in the country, Williams is physical enough to catch the ball in traffic and also hold up well when he's blocking. What's more, he has the speed to catch the deep ball.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For two seasons, the man donning No. 2 in maroon and white made history. Texas A&M was forever changed and a lasting imprint was left on college football.

[+] EnlargeSpeedy Noil
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comSpeedy Noil is already making a name for himself at Texas A&M's spring practice.
Life after the exit of a player of Johnny Manziel's caliber is certainly different, but when the Aggies began spring practice almost three weeks ago, No. 2 was still running around the practice field.

"Actually, I did see No. 2, he was Speedy Noil," coach Kevin Sumlin said with a hearty laugh. "And he looked pretty good today."

Yes, a new No. 2 is in Aggieland, and fans are hoping he can be as exciting as his predecessor. That's a ton of expectation to place on a high school recruit who should be getting ready for the prom, but Noil is not your typical recruit.

The five-star prospect, ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the country and the No. 7 overall player in the ESPN 300, represents the upward direction Texas A&M's football program has moved since joining the SEC. Five years ago, it would have been hard to picture the Aggies going into LSU's backyard and snagging a recruit that the Tigers wanted. But that's what they did with Noil, a product of New Orleans' Edna Karr High.

If his lofty status, success at the high school level (he led Edna Karr to a state championship in his junior season) or pure ability (the nickname "Speedy" is appropriate, given his 4.45-second electronically timed 40-yard dash) wasn't enough to excite Texas A&M fans, his confidence, represented by the fact that he's donning Manziel's jersey number, should.

Through a week's worth of spring practices (Texas A&M took last week off for spring break), the reviews of Noil have been positive.

"Man, he's good," senior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "For him to be a high school receiver ... he already possesses a lot of skills that college receivers have. Just as far as getting in and out of breaks, fundamental stuff and technique, Speedy is far along. He's pretty much a beast, man."

It doesn't surprise receivers coach David Beaty. The veteran assistant called Noil the "best receiver in the country" in his recruiting class and said the 5-foot-11, 190-pound receiver is "explosive as anybody I've ever seen."

"Combination of strength, speed and explosiveness," Beaty said. "Really smart guy. Played the quarterback position a lot [in high school] so he has a little bit more of an understanding than some of my guys that come in. ... He'll look at it and sees the entire picture, which it takes some kids two-to-three years to do that. That's advancement for him and for us."

There is certainly a learning curve, especially adjusting to being a full-time receiver and acclimating to the pace of Texas A&M's up-tempo offense. That, along with learning the proper spacing for receivers in the offense, might be Noil's biggest challenge. But once he masters that, the Aggies are expecting great things.

"He's adjusting to it, but I see potential in him because he's athletic, he runs good routes, he has good speed, and he has good hands also," senior cornerback Deshazor Everett said. "That surprised me. He'll go up and get the ball. Once he gets the offense down, you'll see some things from him that'll be spectacular."

Kennedy, who is the lone returning starter among the Aggies receivers, said he wouldn't be surprised to see Noil make a quick on-field impact this fall.

"He takes [to] coaching well," Kennedy said. "For him to be a five-star recruit, he's very level-headed, he takes coaching well, he loves his teammates, he's always competing. He's not shy, he's up for contact, and he's just a great receiver all- around right now."

There's a long way to go for the new No. 2. But the hopes are high that he will be something special like the last person to wear the number was.

"I look at him every now and then and say 'I can't believe he is here,'" Beaty said. "He was so unattainable but with Kevin [Sumlin], I've learned that there's nothing unattainable. It's just one of those deals where you don't ever know if you'll get a player of that magnitude and who knows what he'll do? But I know what his potential is."

SEC's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
12:00
PM ET
Half of the SEC teams have started officially-sanctioned football-related activities with Missouri and Vanderbilt opening spring practice on Tuesday. There's a lot going on.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — While many eyes in Aggieland are fixed on the quarterback competition and who Johnny Manziel's successor will be, another task that carries significant weight at Texas A&M is finding the next big-time receiver.

With Mike Evans gone, the Aggies are looking for their next star at the position, one that has seen records broken several times in the last few years.

There is a lot of talent among the Texas A&M receivers, but it is mostly unproven and inexperienced talent. With spring football underway, the Aggies coaches have a chance to discuss and dissect the multitude of openings they have at wide receiver.

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsMalcome Kennedy is the Aggies' most experienced returning receiver after catching 60 passes for 658 yards and seven scores in 2013.
"One thing that we have now that we didn't have at this position when we got here is that we have an enormous amount of depth," Texas A&M receivers coach David Beaty said. "We have real SEC receivers here. That's something that we've developed over a two-and-a-half, three-year period."

The most productive returning receiver is veteran Malcome Kennedy. He is the lone returning starter, having hauled in 60 passes for 658 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Beaty has praised Kennedy's work ethic and leadership before, and Kennedy emerged as a reliable target for Manziel last season.

Now it's about figuring out who the starters will be, which eight receivers will occupy the two-deep and who will separate themselves from the pack. One player most people seem excited to have back in the fold is redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones, who sat out most of last season with a knee injury he suffered in the season-opening win over Rice.

"Getting him back healthy is a blessing for us," Beaty said. "The guy’s got unlimited potential. We really needed him back. I look for him to make huge waves for us."

Through two practices so far, coaches say the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Seals-Jones doesn't appear to show any ill effects from knee surgery.

"He looks good to me out there," offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. "He's a big target and he's obviously going to bring a whole other element to what we're trying to do. He can stretch the field vertically, and he's very big and physical on the perimeter."

Perhaps the most exciting name to Aggies fans among the receiver group is one of the newest: five-star recruit Speedy Noil. Ranked as the nation's No. 1 athlete prospect in the 2014 ESPN 300, he is already drawing positive reviews from teammates and coaches in his short time on campus.

Beaty called Noil “the best receiver in the country” in the 2014 recruiting class.

“As explosive as anybody I've ever seen,” Beaty said. “Combination of strength, speed and explosiveness. Really smart guy.”

One player who could emerge as an option at outside receiver is redshirt freshman Kyrion Parker. At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Parker has several physical gifts.

"This guy is as talented as any receiver I've ever had," Beaty said. "He's got to grow up and mature, and I've watched him do that before my eyes. He's starting to grow into his own. I look for great things from him in the future. He does things that other people can't do. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's got great hand-eye coordination. He can go get the ball deep. He's a better route runner than Mike [Evans] probably was at this point in his career."

There is also an assortment of receivers who received modest playing time last season at varying levels: LaQuvionte Gonzalez (21 catches, 240 yards), Edward Pope (nine catches, 65 yards) and JaQuay Williams (four catches, 71 yards). Any of the three could be factors this fall.

“LaQuvionte Gonzalez grew up a ton this year,” Beaty said. “You'd like to redshirt a guy like that, but we weren't able to. He was a guy that benefited from it. ... I think you're going to see him do some great things.

“JaQuay Williams, another really good talent that can do a lot of great things and has come a long way from the time he got here at this time last year. Ed Pope, another guy that I'm looking for to step up and compete. He's got to do a better job of putting on weight and getting really serious about this because there are some real guys here now.”

With so many inexperienced receivers and only one real seasoned veteran in Kennedy, head coach Kevin Sumlin said getting all of these players as much work as possible is the most important part of spring for the receiver group.

“Reps, reps, reps,” Sumlin said. “Reps right now are as important as anything.”

When it comes to figuring out which of the above names are going to emerge as prominent players, Beaty said it’s simple to figure out.

“Here's what's going to happen: The serious, committed guys, those guys will rise to the top,” Beaty said. “The ones that are here just kind of messing around, those guys will drop to the bottom. There are just too many good players here now.”

Opening spring camp: Texas A&M

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
10:30
AM ET
Schedule: The Aggies begin spring practice on Friday and will go through the first week of April, while taking off spring break week in between. Because of the redevelopment project of Kyle Field, the Aggies will not have their annual maroon-and-white spring game.

What’s new: The Aggies have a new offensive coordinator (Jake Spavital, previously A&M's quarterbacks coach) and a new secondary coach (Terry Joseph, previously at Nebraska and replacing departed secondary coach Marcel Yates, who is now at Boise State). Aside from that, the coaching staff stayed stable and most of the newness will come on the field, as the Aggies face life post-Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherWhoever Texas A&M names at quarterback will have Cedric Ogbuehi protecting him at left tackle.
On the move: Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to left tackle to fill the void left by Jake Matthews. On defense, linebacker Darian Claiborne -- who started nine games at middle linebacker -- moves to his natural position of weakside linebacker.

New faces: Texas A&M had seven recruits who enrolled in January and who will be available for spring football: quarterback Kyle Allen, junior college offensive linemen Jermaine Eluemunor and Avery Gennesy, offensive lineman J.J. Gustafson, defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, receiver Speedy Noil and junior college receiver Joshua Reynolds.

Also, outside linebacker A.J. Hilliard -- a transfer from TCU -- will go through his second spring in Aggieland, but 2014 will be the first year he is eligible to play for A&M after sitting out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Question marks: Some of the biggest question marks going into spring practice are related to off-the-field issues. Head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't publicly commented on defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and Claiborne, both of whom were arrested over the weekend on separate charges. Athletics department policy calls for them to be suspended immediately and indefinitely while things are sorted out, but how much time will they miss this spring? As for on the field, most of the questions exist on a defense that was last in the SEC in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing and red zone efficiency last season. Will the young defensive line show improvement? Will the secondary play, specifically from the safeties, get better? Can two new faces at linebacker help the cause?

Key battle: The main one everyone will watch is at quarterback, where senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and Allen will square off. At right tackle, expect the junior college transfers, Eluemunor and Gennesy, to compete for the starting job initially. There are receiver positions up for grabs and a host of candidates. There's a spot at strongside linebacker up for grabs as well.

Breaking out: With Mike Evans gone, there are a lot of catches and yards to be had. Only one starter returns at receiver (Malcome Kennedy), but look for one of the young up-and-comers to break out. That guy could be Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of last season with a knee injury that he suffered in the season opener against Rice. Seals-Jones is big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), fast and can be a matchup problem wherever the Aggies put him. Also keep an eye at running back for potential breakout players. The team's two leading rushers the last two seasons -- Manziel and running back Ben Malena -- are gone, so someone has to get those carries. Tra Carson, Trey Williams and Brandon Williams will get the chance to prove their worth, and someone will emerge as the No. 1 back on the depth chart.

Don’t forget about: Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris. For much of last season, you could say Everett was the Aggies' best and most versatile defensive player, flip-flopping from cornerback to safety and vice versa. His versatility gives the Aggies options in the secondary. Harris showed significant improvement last season as a sophomore over his true freshman season in 2012, when he started right out of the gate. If those two remain at corner, their veteran presence will provide some stability in the defensive backfield, and both have shown the ability to be playmakers.

All eyes on: The coordinators. Mark Snyder had a strong first season as the Aggies' defensive coordinator in 2012, but last season's defensive performance had Aggies frustrated. Everyone, including Snyder and his staff, is looking for significant improvement from a group that will be a year older after having a dozen freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart at times last season. On offense, Spavital takes over as the play-caller, a duty he assumed before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He'll call the plays straight from the sideline and, as the quarterbacks coach, should have a symbiotic relationship with Manziel's successor. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles are added to the offense and what it transforms to under the 28-year-old's watch.

Top position classes: Athletes 

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
9:00
AM ET

With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.

Nationally (and Big Ten)
Ohio State continues to add speed and versatility, and the 2014 class was more of the same. The Buckeyes signed five athletes, and versatility was the name of the game. The Buckeyes' haul included potential corners to big wide receivers to safeties to speedy playmaking receivers and return men. The uber-impressive list includes future cornerback and ESPN 300 No. 45 Marshon Lattimore (Cleveland/Glenville), No. 153 Curtis Samuel (Brooklyn, N.Y./Erasmus Hall), No. 178 Parris Campbell Jr. (Akron, Ohio/St. Vincent-St. Mary), and four-star prospects Noah Brown (Sparta, N.J./Pope John XXIII) and Malik Hooker (New Castle, Pa./New Castle).

The Buckeyes had the nation’s best athlete class; these programs had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:

Position battles to watch: Receiver

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
9:00
AM ET
Editor's note: This is the first part of a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch in spring practice, which begins Feb. 28 for Texas A&M.

In each of the last three seasons, one of Texas A&M's receivers exited after rewriting the record books.

In 2011, Jeff Fuller put his name atop the list several A&M receiving categories: single-season receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, and he established career records in all three.

In 2012, it was Ryan Swope. He left Aggieland as the school's career leader in catches and receiving yards and was its single-season leader in both categories.

After 2013, Mike Evans declared for early entry into the NFL draft and left the Aggies having broken Swope's single-season mark in both single-season receiving yards and single-game receiving yards, and he tied Fuller for the single-season record for touchdown receptions.

As 2014 approaches, the Aggies will be looking for their next great receiver. When spring practice begins later this month, competition begins for the right to be the go-to guy in the wide-open Aggies offense.

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWith 60 receptions for 658 yards and seven touchdowns, Malcome Kennedy is Texas A&M's leading returning receiver by far.
The simple question: Who is replacing Evans? The answer is not as easy to discover.

There will be fierce competiton this spring at the outside receiver positions. Sophomores Edward Pope and JaQuay Williams each return after playing a backup role at outside receiver last season. There is also a redshirt freshman, Kyrion Parker, who could quickly become a factor.

Pope had nine catches for 65 yards last season -- including the memorable reception at the end of Johnny Manziel's Houdini act to escape a sack attempt by Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan on Sept. 14 -- and appeared in nine games last season. Williams had four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown while playing in 10 games last season.

A key figure to watch will be Ricky Seals-Jones. The Aggies had high hopes for his freshman season, but those were derailed by a knee injury that cut his season short. He showed a brief glimpse of his ability with a 71-yard touchdown catch in the season-opening win against Rice and did enough in preseason training camp to earn practice time with the first team. If not for the injury, Seals-Jones appeared poised to be a contributor last season.

Much of his practice time was spent as an inside receiver last fall, though he did get some experience lining up outside, too. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he has size similar to that of Evans, so he would make sense as the potential option at Evans' old position should the Aggies choose to go that way. But he appears versatile enough to line up anywhere. If the Aggies like the matchup problems he gives defenses, he could be again seeing time as an inside receiver. Where he lines up and how often will be worth watching in the spring.

Most of the other Aggies' young receivers on campus, including LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Jeremy Tabuyo, freshman Speedy Noil and junior Sabian Holmes, all appear to be inside receiver types, so it's unlikely any of them will take Evans' place on the field.

When it comes to production, Malcome Kennedy, a veteran who spent his time as an inside receiver last season, is the returning statistical leader among the Aggies' receivers. After a 60-catch, 658-yard season in which he caught seven touchdowns, it stands to reason he could see an increase in production, but does that also mean he'll become the go-to guy in the offense next season while remaining an inside receiver?

In addition to Noil, an incoming freshman already on campus, junior college transfer Joshua Reynolds (also a mid-term enrollee), 6-foot-7 receiver Frank Iheanacho and 5-foot-8 prospect Jamal Jeffery will also join the fray in 2014. Iheanacho and Jeffery won't be on campus until the summer, but Reynolds will get a chance to prove if he's worthy of early playing time when the Aggies begin spring practice.

In this offense, it's sometimes difficult to know who will emerge. Nobody had Travis Labhart on their radar at this time last year -- especially after he broke his collarbone in spring practice -- yet the former walk-on wound up being a key member of the receiving corps with 51 receptions for 626 yards and eight touchdowns while filling in at all four receiver spots in the offense.

The position battles at all four receiver spots -- not just Evans' outside receiver spot -- will be among the intriguing things to watch when the Aggies begin spring drills at the end of the month.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Sumlin Interested To See New QBs
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin breaks down his team's quarterback competition and some of the other young prospects the Aggies have heading into this season.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31