NCF Nation: Auburn Tigers

We haven't exactly come to the end of spring football for the SEC -- and a few schools have barely even touched their pads -- but we've already seen and heard some interesting things coming out of many spring camps.

Plenty of questions remain at key positions, and there have been a few surprises here and there. As we prepare for the final couple of weeks of spring ball in the SEC, here are five intriguing developments we've seen so far:

Not much separation in QB races

A handful of quarterback contests got underway this spring, but we don't have many answers in terms of leaders at this point. Vanderbilt ended the spring by watching its four-man race drop to three after Patton Robinette decided to end his playing career, citing health concerns and a desire to go to medical school. Jake Coker is improving at Alabama, but he hasn't exactly distanced himself from the pack. Will Grier and Treon Harris are neck-and-neck at Florida, while Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings continue to flip-flop for the top position at LSU. Brice Ramsey looked like the leader on paper at Georgia, but Jacob Park is turning heads with his arm strength and athleticism. Connor Mitch got off to a fast start at South Carolina this spring, but still has a long way to go. Chad Kelly may have arrived at Ole Miss this spring as the favorite to take the starting job, but coach Hugh Freeze has made it clear that the three-man competition will bleed into the fall. It sounds like most of these are headed for Round 2 after the summer.

Arkansas' offensive line shake-up

Denver Kirkland
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsThe Razorbacks are moving Denver Kirkland (55), arguably the team's best lineman, to left tackle.

Last season, the Razorbacks' front five dominated the SEC's rushing defenses, with their runners averaging 218 yards per game. They also allowed the fewest sacks in the conference (14). So it's safe to say coach Bret Bielema got the improvement wanted from his offensive line last year. But there's always room to tweak things in this league and that's exactly what Bielema has done. With starting right tackle Brey Cook gone, the staff moved Dan Skipper from left tackle, where he started 13 games last year, to right tackle. Denver Kirkland, viewed as the team's most talented lineman, moved from right guard to left tackle. Frank Ragnow, who saw time at center in nine games last year, moved to right guard. From all indications, Bielema has found the exact combination he wants up front.

Austin Golson's new position

When Auburn secured Golson's services from Ole Miss, it appeared the Tigers were going to get a valuable guard who could even play some tackle if needed. But this spring, Golson has been working out at center for Auburn. That doesn't sound like too much of a big deal until you consider that Golson, a top-notch high school prospect at one time, is trying to replace All-American Reese Dismukes, one of the most successful centers in the history of the school. Golson hasn't played center before and he's been splitting reps with Xavier Dampeer, who played center in high school and junior college and saw time at the position in five games last season.

D.J. Chark's impressive spring

It's not like LSU needs more speed, but that's what the Tigers appear to be getting in Chark, a sophomore wide receiver. While he didn't record any stats at receiver last year, Chark has been turning plenty of heads this spring. The initial focus this spring fell on fellow receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre, but Chark has been stealing the spotlight of late, registering at least one touchdown catch in every scrimmage thus far. Coach Les Miles said Chark caught three passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's scrimmage. The emergence of Chark is big for a passing game looking for some sort of consistency this year, and the two quarterbacks vying for the starting spot have to be excited about Chark's progress.

Brandon Powell's emergence at Florida

The Gators had plenty of questions concerning its offense coming into this spring. Finding a quarterback topped the list of crucial needs, but getting some consistency at receiver was also a high priority. Most thought Demarcus Robinson, who led Florida in catches (53), receiving yards (810) and receiving touchdowns (seven) would reclaim his spot as Florida's top playmaker. However, this spring has given Powell new life. The former running back has moved to receiver, and the word out of Gainesville is that he's been the team's most dynamic playmaker. Powell played both running back and receiver in 11 games last year, registering 217 yards of offense. Before a foot flare-up sidelined him last week, the 5-foot-9, 181-pound Powell was lighting up Florida's practices. Powell, not Robinson, had been the Gators' most explosive and most consistent offensive threat this spring. Florida's offense still lags behind its defense, so it's critical to get Powell back on the field.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- There were several ESPN Junior 300 members on hand at the IMG7v7 Southeast Regional Championship this weekend on the campus of IMG Academy. The event was headlined by prospects such as quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Jack Allison, wide receivers Sam Bruce, T.J. Chase, Trevon Diggs, Demetris Robertson, Eli Stove and Dionte Mullins, and defensive backs Jamel Cook, K.J. Sails and Tyreke Johnson. The talent didn't disappoint as there were several spectacular plays throughout the event. Here are some of the best social media posts from the weekend.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- There were several ESPN Junior 300 members on hand at the IMG7v7 Southeast Regional Championship this weekend on the campus of IMG Academy. The event was headlined by prospects such as quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Jack Allison, wide receivers Sam Bruce, Trevon Diggs, Demetris Robertson, Eli Stove and Dionte Mullins, and defensive backs Jamel Cook, K.J. Sails and Tyreke Johnson. Bruce was one of several Miami commits in attendance and has been committed to the Hurricanes since last July. The 5-foot-8, 178-pound playmaker from Fort Lauderdale (Florida) St. Thomas Aquinas said his commitment to the Canes isn’t very solid.

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NEW ORLEANS -- At 6-foot-7 and 314 pounds, Alabama defensive tackle commitment Raekwon Davis towered over the competition at Saturday's Opening Regional at Joe Brown Park in New Orleans. He also loomed large over his peers with his play. Davis, who is from Meridian (Mississippi) High School and ranks as the nation's No. 243 player, earned an invitation to The Opening finals, which will be held from July 5-10 at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Davis took a little while to get going during drills, but by the time the one-on-ones arrived, he performed admirably, winning repetitions at defensive tackle, defensive end and even offensive tackle.

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NEW ORLEANS -- Many said the absolutely loaded 2014 recruiting class in Louisiana would never be matched. Somebody forgot to tell that to the players in 2016 class. The Bayou State is again stacked, and many of those national recruits will be on display at Saturday’s Nike Opening regional at Joe Brown Park. More than 20 players ranked in the ESPN Junior 300 will be in attendance, including nine of the top 20 players in Louisiana.

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BUFORD, Ga. - Despite the cold and rainy weather conditions, more than 400 prospects from all over the Southeast made the trip to Buford High School for the Nike The Opening Regional Camp on Sunday.
[+] EnlargeMalik Henry
Miller Safrit/ESPNFlorida State quarterback pledge Malik Henry was among the prospects earning invitations to The Opening.
With less than ideal conditions for throwing the ball, several quarterbacks and wide receivers -- including Malik Henry, David Moore, Josh Imatorbhebehe, Freddie Swain, Tre Nixon and several other players -- had standout performances at the camp. Swain, the No. 214 prospect in the ESPN Junior 300, was one of the most impressive receivers and took home the wide receiver MVP as well as an invitation to The Opening. The 6-foot, 170-pound athlete from Citra (Florida) North Marion High School took advantage of his trip to Atlanta by visiting the University of Georgia on Saturday before attending the Nike camp. The visit turned out to be a success for the talented receiver. “I just got offered by Georgia yesterday on my visit,” Swain said. "It was a lot of fun and I got to meet with coach Richt. He just said to keep working hard and he’ll see me in the spring.”

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Despite being only a sophomore in high school, Jack Anderson has already developed into one of the top offensive linemen in Texas and could easily become the top line target in the nation for the 2017 class.

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Jeremy JohnsonMike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesJeremy Johnson is focused on becoming Auburn's starting quarterback.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Jeremy Johnson has waited his turn. The Auburn quarterback could’ve started for a number of SEC teams last season, but he spent the majority of his time on the sideline, clipboard in hand, and watched as Nick Marshall gashed opposing defenses.

It didn’t matter that he went 12-of-16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas when Marshall was suspended for the first half of the season opener. After halftime, Marshall reclaimed his spot and never looked back. He started all 12 remaining games while Johnson attempted just 21 passes the rest of the season.

It was less than an ideal situation for Johnson, a former ESPN 300 recruit who was eager to showcase his own abilities.

“It was tough, but I look at it as a humbling experience and it made me grow and mature over the past two years,” Johnson said. “I supported Nick and I enjoyed watching him play every snap here. God has a plan for everybody and that was his plan -- for me to sit out. Now that my time is here, I’m looking to win the starting job and be the man.”

Marshall has since moved on to bigger and better things. He’s hoping to get drafted. But his departure doesn’t mean the coaches are just going to hand Johnson the starting job this season. He still has to earn it.

“This is his third go-around, his third year with us, so the expectations for him are extremely high,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters Tuesday.

Through the first week of spring practice, Johnson is splitting first-team reps with redshirt freshman Sean White. Though most assume Johnson will win the job, Malzahn and the coaches have been reluctant to officially name him the starter. They’re giving White every opportunity to compete this spring.

However, it was telling when the staff made Johnson available to the media after the first practice. It was clear that they want him to be the face of this team and he’s already started to embrace that role.

“My specific goal this spring is to win the starting job first and then become a leader and build team chemistry,” Johnson said. “This is a new team, new players, new coaching staff. I'm looking forward to bringing everybody in to where if I say we're going to move right, the whole team moves right. That's the type of leader I'm trying to become for this team."

“Being a leader is not just being the quarterback,” said offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. “You’ve got to earn your teammates’ respect. They’ve got to see you put in the work and they’ve got to see you working hard, sacrificing and doing all the things that you’re wanting them to do.

“He’s been watching a lot more film, studying hard. He’s really committed right now to trying to be as good as he can be, and as good as he can be is pretty good.”

How good remains to be seen, but two of the last three quarterbacks to play at Auburn under Malzahn had pretty memorable first seasons. Marshall led the Tigers to an SEC championship and a spot in the BCS title game, and Cam Newton went undefeated his first year at Auburn, bringing a national championship back to the Plains.

Johnson hopes he can follow in their footsteps, assuming he wins the job.

“Like I said, I'm just trying to become a leader first to where my team can follow me, but mainly my goal is to win a national championship,” he said.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Everything is bigger in Texas, especially high school football. That lesson was taught to us once again at Sunday's The Opening regional at Lamar High School.


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AUBURN, Ala. -- There was a different vibe around this Auburn team when the Tigers opened spring practice Tuesday. There were new faces at quarterback, running back and wide receiver; shuffling along the offensive line; and a new man in charge of the defense.

This team looked very little like the team that finished 8-5 a season ago, and head coach Gus Malzahn is OK with that.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesJeremy Johnson, the favorite to be Auburn's starting quarterback, knows the offense well.
 “Hey, last year, that's behind,” Malzahn said. “Now it's time to move forward. Our coaches are extremely excited to get out there. I think our players are excited, too. We've got a lot of young guys out there that are ready, and they're hungry. And we're ready to see what they can do.”

The most significant change this offseason came when Auburn hired Will Muschamp to replace Ellis Johnson as the defensive coordinator. On Tuesday, the former Florida coach looked strange wearing his orange pullover. It wasn’t the first Auburn practice he had attended since taking the job, but it was the first one he could coach.

“It was different,” cornerback Jonathan Jones said. “He was actually in charge today. He was definitely intense. He knows what he's talking about, so he expects high expectations of us, and we've got to meet his high expectations. He's not going to lower them.”

Jones is one of six returning starters on the defense, but even the veteran players are having to learn a new playbook this spring. There’s new terminology, new schemes and formations, new blitzes and coverage assignments. Despite the return of familiar faces like Jones, Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy, this will look like a brand new defense come fall.

And it was a welcome sight for coaches, teammates and fans to see defensive end Carl Lawson back at practice and 100 percent.

“He showed what he can do when he's healthy,” Jones said. “It helps as a secondary to know you have a guy like him rushing.”

The defense isn’t the only unit creating a new identity. The offense is going through the same process this spring. The assistant coaches are all back, but the personnel looks vastly different. Gone are Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Sammie Coates, a trio that accounted for 78 percent of the offense last season. Also gone is Reese Dismukes, a four-year starter at center who had not missed a game since 2012.

“Last year we had a lot of guys coming back,” Malzahn said. “We had a lot of good information about what we had. This year there are a lot of areas that are wide open, so we're going to be very basic starting out. Obviously we're installing a new defense, too, so this is really going to be back to the basics as far as the way we install.”

The good news for Auburn is that Jeremy Johnson, the clear favorite to win the quarterback job, is no stranger to this offense. He played the majority of two games as a freshman and started the season opener last fall against Arkansas.

He also has a connection with wide receiver D’haquille Williams. It was evident when the two hooked up for 138 yards and a touchdown in that first game against the Razorbacks last season, and it was evident Tuesday as his eyes lit up when asked about Williams’ decision to return.

“I smile because he's incredible,” Johnson said. “Today we've been working on his timing routes. We completed every pass. I can trust him because I know he's going to catch it.”

The offensive line will miss Dismukes, but the coaches are hoping Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson can fill the void at center. The former offensive tackle has moved inside and will compete against Xavier Dampeer for the starting job this spring. Johnson says Golson has already become one of the leaders of the offense.

With so many changes, people coming and going, it’s no surprise that the theme for Auburn this spring is “Count on Me.”

“It’s going to be that each player can count on each other and count on us from a coaches standpoint,” Malzahn said.

The Tigers go back to work Thursday, looking to build on the first practice.
The 2014 season marked only the third time since 2000 that the SEC champion didn't have at least one defensive lineman who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.

It's a reminder that you better have difference-makers up front defensively if you're going to win a championship in this league.

The game has changed, for sure. Teams are scoring more points, and offenses are playing faster than ever before. The defensive numbers have suffered as a result, even in the SEC where defense was once king.

That doesn't diminish the importance of having dominant defensive linemen and dynamic finishers off the edge who can rush the quarterback. The SEC has had more of those players historically than any other conference, and it's the chief reason the SEC has won eight of the past 12 national championships.

So if you're looking for a position that will define the SEC in 2015, look no further than defensive line and pass-rusher.

[+] EnlargeMyles Garrett
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezTexas A&M freshman Myles Garrett finished second in the SEC with 11.5 sacks.
Alabama's Nick Saban has been a head coach in both the SEC and Big Ten and scouted players from all conferences while coaching the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

In his mind, one of the things that separates the SEC from other leagues is the "quality of the pass-rushers and the athleticism of the up-front people on defense."

In the past three drafts, 13 defensive linemen/pass-rushers from the SEC have been selected in the top two rounds. Florida's Dante Fowler and Missouri's Shane Ray are projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. to go in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft.

More are on the way, too, especially when you look at the collection of defensive line talent that has already proven itself in the SEC and some of the young guns set to arrive this summer.

Two of the returning sack leaders in the SEC were both true freshmen a year ago.

Texas A&M's Myles Garrett was second in the league to Ray with 11.5 sacks as a freshman, and freshman Tennessee's Derek Barnett was just a few spots behind with 10 sacks. The amazing thing is that neither player was an early enrollee last year. They both reported in the summer without the benefit of spring practice and immediately started putting up huge numbers.

Already, first-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis is a believer, and he has been around his share of big-time defensive linemen.

"In our system, we want to be good at defensive end, and it didn't take us long to figure out that we have some pretty good talent there," Chavis said.

The Vols were thrilled to get Barnett a year ago and knew he was an excellent prospect, but coach Butch Jones had no idea the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett would have the impact he did as a freshman. His 18 tackles for loss in SEC games led all players, and nobody else in the league had more than 12.

"He just took off and kept getting better," Jones said. "The best thing about him is that he's nowhere near as good as he's going to be."

Barnett is recovering from shoulder surgery and won't participate in spring drills. The same goes for senior Curt Maggitt, who finished with 11 sacks last season and gives the Vols the best returning sack tandem in the league. The 6-3, 251-pound Maggitt splits his time between outside linebacker and defensive end, but is at his best as an edge rusher.

Speaking of pass-rushers, Auburn's Carl Lawson appears to be fully recovered after missing last season with a torn ACL. He was a Freshman All-American two years ago and is the kind of disrupter up front that first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp needs if he's going to retool a defense that produced just 10 sacks in eight SEC games last season.

If you're looking for the SEC team with the deepest defensive line, that would be Alabama. A'Shawn Robinson can play nose or end in the Tide's 3-4 set and played his best football down the stretch a year ago. His junior season should be his best yet.

Junior end Jonathan Allen is another one on that Alabama defensive front with star potential. He had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, including 5.5 sacks, and may be ready to explode in 2015.

The same goes for Ole Miss tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who didn't have great numbers a year ago. But he's such a physical and athletic presence inside that his numbers don't begin to tell you what kind of player he is. Just turn on the tape and watch him collapse the pocket.

Prior to last season, an NFL scout suggested that no defensive lineman in the SEC had a better combination of size and talent than Mississippi State tackle Chris Jones, who says he's still an end at heart. The 6-5, 308-pound Jones might want to take a cue from Nkemdiche and fully embrace the move to tackle, because if he does, it's scary how good he can be.

Is it possible to assess the Year of the Defensive Lineman in the SEC without mentioning LSU? The Tigers have had eight defensive linemen drafted over the past four years, and that number will grow when Danielle Hunter hears his name called two months from now.

Next up in that pipeline is sophomore tackle Davon Godchaux, who led all LSU interior linemen with 42 total tackles last season as a true freshman. Godchaux didn't play his senior season of high school after injuring his knee. He has already grabbed first-year coordinator Kevin Steele's attention.

Georgia, which runs a 3-4 system under Jeremy Pruitt, is loaded with talent at outside linebacker. Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are the veterans, but don't be surprised if sophomore Lorenzo Carter develops into the most feared pass-rusher on the team. He had 4.5 sacks as a true freshman.

And speaking of young guys, several incoming true freshmen are poised to make immediate impacts in 2015.

Among them: Byron Cowart at Auburn, Terry Beckner Jr. at Missouri, Trenton Thompson at Georgia, Daylon Mack at Texas A&M, CeCe Jefferson at Florida and Kahlil McKenzie at Tennessee.

There are sure to be more, too.

This is still a line-of-scrimmage league, and the talent on the defensive front in 2015 will be hard to miss.
Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze fear they have lost the battle to keep the rule from changing on the illegal man downfield penalty.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal from the NCAA Rules Committee that would reduce the number of yards offensive linemen can move downfield on a pass play from 3 to 1 yard.

"It’s going to change the way we do things, those of us who are run-pass offenses, and when you look around college football right now, that’s a lot of us," Malzahn said. "You’re always looking for ways to be creative, and I don’t think you should ever change the rules to take creativity out of the game unless it’s a safety issue. This is not a safety issue.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn on the illegal man downfield penalty: "... don't penalize those of us who are doing it right and coaching it right by changing the rule."
"This is two years in a row now that something like this has happened, and it looks like this one will get through."

Last year, a 10-second rule designed to slow the pace of play offensively was proposed by the NCAA Rules Committee, but it was tabled before it ever got to the oversight panel.

Malzahn and Freeze are among a group of coaches nationally who have asked Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, the rules committee chairman, to also table this proposal and make it a point of emphasis this season among officials.

"I understand those coaches who are upset when a lineman is 5 or 6 yards downfield and the quarterback pulls up and throws a pass," Freeze said. "That’s a penalty and should be called. Throw the flag, but don’t penalize those of us who are doing it right and coaching it right by changing the rule."

Malzahn and Freeze are among several coaches nationally who use the “pop pass,” which is a play-action pass that many of the spread teams use to make it look like a run, particularly on a zone-read play, and then throw it. One of the most obvious examples of a “pop pass” was Nick Marshall’s touchdown pass to Sammie Coates to tie the Alabama game two years ago, which was then won by the Tigers on Chris Davis’ Kick-Six.

Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of officials, said the new rule would stipulate that an offensive lineman could still be 3 yards downfield as long as he was engaged with a defender, but that offensive linemen would no longer be able to free release beyond 1 yard and a team legally throw a pass.

"This will hurt the high school coaches, too, because a lot of those guys are running the same stuff," Malzahn said. "Those of us coaching in college who came from high school understand how important this is and how much it will change the game.

"Scoring will be down. You’re not going to see teams scoring as many points, and when it’s getting harder all the time to get fans to come to games, is that something that college football wants?"

Rogers Redding, the NCAA’s coordinator of officials, maintains that the proposal has support from both offensive and defensive coaches and that one offensive-minded coach even commented to him, "We have to play defense, too."

Redding added that the changes the committee are sending to the oversight panel are good for the game and that he supports them.

The split among FBS coaches on whether to change the rule, according to Redding, was about 50-50. The rules committee gathered input from coaches via a survey, but Malzahn said only a small sampling of coaches ever send those back.

"Part of the problem is that they do those surveys in January, right in the middle of recruiting, and a lot of us don’t have time to think,” Malzahn said. “Whatever happens, we need to come up with a better system on how to go about doing this."
Spring practice is always a good time for players to make their cases for a move up the depth chart and much can be gleaned from position battles that occur this time of year. Given that, we take a look at some of the top position battles worth watching this spring in the SEC:

Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Scott Donaldson/Icon SportswireThroughout spring practice, Treon Harris will be competing for Florida's starting QB job.
Auburn: Running back
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.

Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.

Georgia: Quarterback
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.

LSU: Quarterback
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.

Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.

Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.

South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.

Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.

Vanderbilt: Quarterback
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
As we get closer and closer to spring practices popping up all around the country, it's time to dive a little deeper into the substance of the 2015 season. That substance talk really starts right after the season, grows after national signing day and then starts to snowball during spring practice.

We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:

1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:
  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt

So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.

2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will look to running back Nick Chubb to carry the offensive load in 2015.
3. Will Auburn, South Carolina and Texas A&M see significant defensive improvements?
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.

4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.

5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.

6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.

7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.

8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.

9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.

10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
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PLANTATION, Fla. -- The Nike football camp in Miami is generally regarded as one of the top camps, talent-wise, in the country every year and this year’s camp held at American Heritage School didn’t disappoint.


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