2. One of the most compelling quarterback situations to watch this offseason and heading into next season is at LSU. Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games this season while Brandon Harris started just one while appearing in eight games. Harris was a highly touted recruit who arrived in Baton Rouge with much anticipation but it was Jennings who maintained a grip on the starting job after Harris' lone start in a loss to Auburn. Harris' high school coach at Parkway High in Bossier City, Louisiana, said he tried to talk Harris into transferring to a junior college for a season but that Harris is "all in" for staying and wants to "compete." It'll be interesting to see what results.
Around the SEC
- Plenty of fresh faces are likely to emerge as starting quarterbacks in the SEC in 2015. AL.com ranks the projected starters.
- A look at Georgia's recruiting class heading into the final week before national signing day.
- South Carolina running back Mike Davis, one of the top backs in the SEC in the last two seasons, received an invitation to the NFL scouting combine.
- Another combine invitee is Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, who will have a chance to prove whether he has a future as an NFL quarterback.
Another characteristic -- confidence -- was a bit more abstract. Coaches said a proper playcaller has to take control of a game rather than allowing a defensive coordinator to get the upper hand.
It’s a chess game in the gladiator arena, and one coach said “bravado” is required.
“Always be on the attack,” he said, “regardless of down, distance, score or time of the game.”
Here are 10 playcallers -- coordinators and head coaches -- who most embody those elements.
1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach
Even though the Auburn offense is built on the same few basic run plays, Malzahn continues to frustrate defensive coordinators.
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The only catch? The quartet from Hoover High School will be choosing four different colleges.
“It was kind of a dream that we’d play together,” ESPN 300 linebacker Darrell Williams said. “I still think that would be cool if we could all four go to the same school, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go where’s best for you.”
In four years at Hoover, they won three state championships and finished with a record of 42-3. But now Williams (Auburn), Christian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin) and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) are on to the next chapter, and each is paving his own way.
Off the field, that’s what teammates call Williams -- he’s always fixing his hair, he’s the last to leave the locker room after the game, you get the idea -- but on the field, it’s a different story. He still likes to look good, but he likes to look good making plays.
At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, Williams has a rare combination of size and speed, and the scary part is he’s not done filling out his frame.
“He can cover a lot of grass,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said. “He’s a great blitzer, but he’s a great dropper. He can play inside or outside. But he brings something to the table with length and athleticism that you don’t normally see out of a lot of kids.”
Williams grew up an Alabama fan. He always wanted to play for the Crimson Tide. But when it came time to make his college decision, Alabama wasn’t ready to accept his commitment. The coaches wanted to see him in camp first. That didn’t sit well with Williams, especially after seeing one of his teammates commit in April, around the same time he was ready to make a decision.
Two weeks later, Williams gave his verbal pledge to Auburn.
He developed a bond with the Auburn coaches that got stronger with every visit. Though the last two months have been a whirlwind with all the coaching changes, he remains firm to Gus Malzahn and the Tigers.
Finally, he can say he’s 100 percent committed.
“It feels good,” Williams said recently after his official visit to Auburn. “It’s kind of a relief because this whole process has been kind of stressful.”
Bell is the type of player quarterbacks have nightmares about. He’s 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, has a quick first step and when he gets around the edge, look out.
He’s also the teammate who committed to Alabama in April when the staff told Williams to hold off. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bell is more talented, but maybe he’s a better fit for Nick Saban’s defense. Or maybe the coaches saw a certain edge about him, an attitude that leads to his intense and aggressive demeanor on the field.
His teammates, who have been with him since middle school, still have trouble describing him.
“Christian is Christian,” one said.
“I don’t know what word can describe Christian,” another said.
Shaw probably said it best.
“He’s the freak,” Shaw said. “In practice, he’ll give the offensive lineman a move and just do whatever he wants. He manhandles people.”
Surprisingly, Alabama wasn’t always the choice for Bell. He, too, weighed his options before making his commitment and admits that Mississippi State and UCLA were very much in the mix at that time. Both schools offered a better chance at early playing time.
But that’s not what Bell was interested in. He understands he’s just another name in Alabama’s star-studded recruiting class, and that’s the way he likes it.
“We haven’t really talked about playing time because if they say I’m going to start, I don’t really want to know that,” Bell said. “I want to just go in there and work.”
The quiet one
“They’re in state, but I guess they got the players who they wanted,” Shaw said. “I can’t do anything about it.”
Instead, his choice came down to Vanderbilt and Wisconsin. Many predicted that he would sign with the Commodores given the proximity to home and the opportunity to play in the SEC. But it wasn’t meant to be. Shaw chose the road less traveled.
“I’m OK to go out of the SEC,” he said. “The Big Ten is nice, too. They produce great running backs every year. Of course, Ohio State won this year. It’s elite talent just competing. SEC is one of the best conferences, but the Big Ten is pretty nice, too.”
It fits his personality. Go to a school where nobody knows you, keep your head down, work hard, and maybe become the next Melvin Gordon.
It’s the same attitude that helped Shaw get on the field at Hoover as a freshman. It’s what made him better every season and what ultimately turned him into a star. But you would never hear that from him.
“I’m not quiet,” Shaw said. “But I’m kind of like the most normal guy. All the other guys are crazy.”
There was a time when Johnson didn’t know if he’d be part of the group. He didn’t know if he’d have the same opportunity as the others. They all had received Division I scholarship offers by the beginning of last year, but he was still waiting on his.
“It was pretty tough,” Johnson said. “Thinking about it really does upset me sometimes, but you get over it. You don’t realize it, but it makes you go harder.”
“Of course everybody wants to be ranked high and stuff like that. That’s every kid’s dream. Sometimes things just don’t work out as you expect they would. I’m not upset about it or anything. It’s just one of those things that sticks in the back of your head and drives you.”
Eventually, the offers came. The three-star wide receiver was offered by Kentucky, Mississippi State, and a handful of smaller schools.
When it was time to make a decision, the choice was easy. Johnson committed to Mississippi State because it’s a program that reflects his attitude. Since Dan Mullen arrived, they have exceeded expectations just like he has done throughout his career at Hoover and just like he plans to do when he arrives in Starkville.
“I see that underdog mentality,” he said. “You never know what to expect.”
Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit and Josh Robinson a two-star prospect who both became stars with the Bulldogs. Johnson is hoping to become the latest in that line of under-the-radar stars.
2. On a different note, we are officially one week from national signing day. Who’s ready? ESPNU will have wall-to-wall coverage next Wednesday with more than 15 live commitments and reporters on different college campuses across the country. There’s plenty of intrigue with six of the top 10 players in the ESPN 300 still uncommitted, and some believe Auburn, Florida and USC will make the most noise on signing day. The biggest name to watch will be five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, who is in the middle of a Lone Star recruiting battle for the ages. Will he stick with his current Texas A&M commitment or will he flip to the Longhorns and go play for head coach Charlie Strong? We’ll have to wait and see.
Around the SEC
- A look at why the Tosh Lupoi hire makes sense on multiple levels for Alabama.
- Film study: Auburn needs running mates for defensive tackle Montravius Adams inside.
- Can ACL injuries be prevented? Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is skeptical.
- Two South Carolina wide receivers have decided to leave the football team.
I love recruiting FLORIDA! 8 more days! #HottyToddy— Chris Kiffin (@Chris_Kiffin) January 27, 2015
Here is a look at some highlights from Tuesday.
@HamiltonESPN: ESPN300 five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson headed to Florida on Tuesday afternoon for an unofficial following a trip to Ole Miss and Alabama over the weekend. In a recruitment that could go a number of different directions, the Rebels and Gators are the best bets to be standing on national signing day unless Auburn can pull the upset. Jefferson is scheduled to visit LSU this weekend, followed by a national signing day announcement live on ESPN.
Gainesville waddup?— January 29th (@cecejeferson7) January 27, 2015
Trayvon Mullen, who has an Alabama offer.
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So I won’t go that far, but with the first College Football Playoff in our rear-view mirror, I will say that I have a hard time seeing two teams from the same conference ever getting in, at least as long as it remains a four-team format.
And that’s bad news for the SEC.
When it became obvious that a playoff was coming, the initial thought in SEC locales was that the league would be strong enough to merit two teams in a lot of years.
But the College Football Playoff is a different animal, and those of us who thought the SEC might get two seats at the table every couple of years were dead wrong.
The most iron-clad unwritten rule going is that conference champions will get first dibs every time, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing.
Ohio State was the fourth team in this season and earned its spot by destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. I’d say the Buckeyes were a worthy participant with the way they mowed down Alabama and Oregon in a span of 12 days.
Once given the stage, they proved they were the best team in the country and did so with a team that many thought was a year away.
Now, could they have navigated their way through the SEC with just one loss and even been in position to make the playoff?
That’s a story for a different day, but it brings into perspective the dilemma the SEC faces in the playoff era.
The grind of the league is what makes it so treacherous. As we saw this bowl season, particularly with regard to the Western Division teams, all bets are off in a one-game season. The West went a very humbling 2-5 and lost every one of its high-profile bowl games.
The SEC West had been hailed all season as the deepest division in the country, and some in the league speculated that it might have been the toughest division in college football history.
At the end of the day, the SEC didn’t have any dominant teams this season. It did have a handful of teams capable of winning a national championship, but most of those teams beat up on each other.
Let’s not forget that Alabama had to survive by one point at Arkansas, pulled out an improbable overtime win at LSU and beat Auburn at home in the regular-season finale despite giving up 630 total yards.
What you saw this season in the SEC is going to be much more indicative of what you’re going to see in the league going forward. That doesn’t mean Alabama is going anywhere, and it also doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is going to win 10 games every year.
What it does mean is that the SEC is going to continue to cannibalize itself, and that’s not good for business in a four-team playoff system.
The East is going to bounce back at some point, and maybe its 5-0 record in bowl games this season is a sign that it may occur sooner rather than later. When it does, the pathway to a national championship will become an even steeper mountain to climb for the SEC.
With that kind of balance on both sides, simply making it through the regular season in the SEC will be harrowing enough. Then comes the SEC championship game and two playoff games.
I remember vividly coaches in the league grumbling when the SEC championship game was created in 1992. A lot of them said then that having to win an extra game would severely hurt their chances of winning a national championship.
They were proved wrong. From 1992 to 2013, the SEC won 11 of the 22 national titles.
Maybe this will be a similar deal, and if (or when) the playoff moves to eight teams in the coming years, the landscape is sure to change again.
The mere fact that a national championship game was played this year without an SEC representative was surreal. And yes, refreshing, too, for all those coaches, players and fans who grew weary over the last decade of hearing about the SEC’s perceived dominance.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might as well have been speaking for everybody outside the SEC’s footprint when he chortled, “At least we don’t have to hear about the SEC for a while,” following the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Nobody’s suggesting that the SEC’s party is over. It’s still the best conference in college football, and privately, those who’ve coached in the SEC in the past and moved elsewhere will confirm as much.
But now that we’ve had a taste of the playoff, seen how it works and processed it all, it’s not necessarily a party the SEC is going to host every year.
And in some years, the SEC (gasp) might not even get an invite.
This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.
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2. Speaking of coaching changes, Alabama announced two new hires to the defensive staff on Monday. First, Tosh Lupoi was promoted from within to become the new outside linebackers coach, filling the void left by Lance Thompson. The former Pac-12 assistant coach spent last season as an analyst for the Crimson Tide. Then, maybe two hours later, multiple reports indicated that former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker would join Alabama’s staff as the defensive backs coach. The addition of Tucker, who has spent the last 10 seasons in the NFL, means that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will go back to coaching the inside linebackers. Both new coaches should provide a boost on the recruiting trail.
3. The other big coaching news in the SEC on Monday wasn’t who was leaving, but rather who was staying. Late Sunday night, it looked like Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was leaving for Illinois. On Monday, he had a change of heart. That’s significant news for the Tigers considering the success of their defensive line in recent years. The players like to call it “D-Line Zou,” but with names like Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Sam and this year’s stars Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the more appropriate name is “D-Line U.” The news of Kuligowski staying should also help Missouri’s chances with five-star defensive end Terry Beckner Jr., who is scheduled to visit Columbia this weekend.
Around the SEC
- Jeremy Johnson leading receivers as Auburn prepares to emphasize passing game.
- LSU to make nearly $9 million on neutral site games against BYU, Miami.
- New commitment Van Jefferson continues trend of Ole Miss loading up at receiver.
- “This place is unbelievable.” South Carolina wraps up big recruiting weekend.
But where they struggled was defending the pass. Opposing receivers made a habit of getting behind Alabama’s defensive backs and racking up far more big plays in the passing game than Nick Saban’s defenses have given up in the past. The Crimson Tide finished 11th in the SEC in passing defense. They allowed an average of 226 passing yards per game, the most they've surrendered in the Saban era, and their 19 touchdown passes allowed were the most since Saban's first season in 2007.
Position to improve: Cornerback
Why it was a problem: Alabama was vulnerable to the deep ball, whether it was opposing receivers simply running past the Tide cornerbacks or outmaneuvering them to make big plays down the field. Go back to the Auburn game. The Tigers had receivers getting behind Alabama’s coverage all game and finished with 456 passing yards. In their final three games alone, the Crimson Tide gave up 15 completions of 20 yards or longer, including seven of 40 yards or longer. Opposing teams knew they could attack the Tide down the field.
How it can be fixed: It all works together on defense, and giving up big plays in the passing game is usually a two-way street of not getting enough pressure up front and not getting tight enough coverage on the back end. Alabama dialed up its pass rush this past season and finished fifth in the league with 31 sacks. It could still help itself, though, with even more edge pressure. Ultimately, it comes down to covering better at the cornerback positions, playing the ball better in the air and keeping the busted assignments to a minimum. This is not a new problem for the Tide, who've battled inexperience and inconsistency at cornerback each of the past two seasons. The good news is that everybody is back for 2015 and should be a year better. You can bet there will be some serious competition at the cornerback spot all spring and preseason. On all three of Alabama's national championship teams under Saban, the Tide had elite cornerbacks. That wasn't the case either of the past two seasons, and the jury's still out for this coming season.
Early 2015 outlook: The development of true sophomore Tony Brown and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey will be key for the Tide. Both were highly rated players and have the skills to be the kind of cornerbacks Alabama is accustomed to having with some added experience. Rising senior Cyrus Jones was the most consistent of the bunch last season, and there’s some new blood coming in the 2015 class. Commitments Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick are two of the top four cornerback prospects in the country, according to ESPN. Cornerback needs to be one of the most improved positions on the team next season, particularly with the Tide losing their top three safeties.
Which SEC football player will star in 2015?
TBD San JosÚ St Auburn TBD Ole Miss Florida TBD Alabama Georgia TBD Eastern Kentucky Kentucky TBD Eastern Michigan LSU TBD Vanderbilt Middle Tennessee TBD South Carolina Missouri TBD Arkansas Tennessee TBD Mississippi State Texas A&M