Many expected Auburn's D'haquille Williams to join fellow wide receiver Sammie Coates and declare early for the NFL draft after last season. The junior college transfer finished among the SEC leaders in receptions (45) and yards (730) in his first season on the Plains.
But Williams returned to school for one simple reason -- he wants to win a championship.
"He would not have come back if he didn't have his mind on being great," Auburn receivers coach Dameyune Craig said in January. "One of things he talked about in private is we have unfinished business, and what he meant by that is he wanted to come back to Auburn and win a championship. And he wants to graduate."
It's an Auburn offense that will feature a new quarterback, new running back, new faces on the offensive line, but Williams is the one constant. When healthy, he's considered one of the SEC's top wide receivers.
You can read more about Williams and his spring thus far at AL.com.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The greatest lesson Jermauria Rasco has learned over the past few months has been one in humility.
The former LSU defensive end has started to realize that starting 26 straight games for one of the SEC's best defenses doesn't necessarily mean that an NFL future is a certainty.
As a senior, Rasco led the Tigers in sacks and quarterback hurries for the second straight season -- he had four sacks and eight hurries both seasons -- and yet he was not one of the 300-plus prospects invited to the NFL scouting combine.
"Not getting invited, it humbled the hell out of me and made me want to work even harder," Rasco said last Friday after completing his workout at LSU's pro day. "I feel like that's what I did today."
The combine snub came on the heels of a practice week at the East-West Shrine Game where he got off to a slow start. Rasco admittedly struggled early on at defensive end and in linebacker drills, but recovered to have what NFL Network analyst Charles Davis described as a "very nice week" during the game telecast.
"The first day, I got my [rear end] tore up, but other than that ... the first day I didn't do like I wanted to, but after that first day, I was back in a groove and by the end of the week, I was feeling more confident," Rasco said. "I was back to myself and doing what I normally do."
But will that be enough to get him drafted? That's the question that will plague Rasco for the next month until the draft, which runs from April 30-May 2.
He doesn't possess the physical measurables or raw tools that have helped former teammate Danielle Hunter turn scouts' heads despite lackluster sack totals. And he is not necessarily a dynamic playmaker off the edge. But Rasco does possess a combination of football IQ and on-field consistency that might help him find a home on some NFL roster.
That's the goal -- even if it means he must sign with a club as an undrafted free agent instead of getting selected somewhere in the draft's seven rounds. That's the route that former LSU players Craig Loston (Jacksonville) and Anthony Johnson (Miami) took last season, and both players remain on those teams' rosters.
"You just never know what's going to happen," Rasco said. "That's what I was kind of thinking, if you go undrafted, you do get to hand pick which team you want to go to, but at the same time you've got to be real careful that you pick the right situation."
Overall, Rasco seemed to believe he helped himself at LSU's pro day. He ran a 4.73-second time in the 40-yard dash and did fine in the other drills, except for the bench press, where he said a mishap -- not the shoulders he had surgically repaired after the 2012 and 2013 seasons -- allowed him to complete only 12 reps.
"On the bench press, the bar slipped out of my hand," Rasco said. "I'm real discouraged about that because I had a lot more in me, but when that happened, it just messed up the whole momentum."
It's unlikely to be a deal breaker for an NFL club, though. As Rasco mentioned, his best chance of making it is to find the right situation.
He's something of a 'tweener. Maybe a late-round pick, maybe an undrafted free agent. Maybe a 4-3 defensive end, maybe an outside linebacker in a scheme that could use a smart player who can function in a few different roles.
Even if he didn't get to show what he could do at the combine, Rasco said he will try to stay optimistic over the next month in hopes of getting a chance in some team's camp and battling his way onto a roster.
"I feel pretty good about it. Everybody knows the draft is really tricky, so you never know where you get picked up, or even if you get picked up," Rasco said. "So I'm not even worried about it. If it's for me, it's for me, but at the end of the day, I'm just playing the waiting game right now."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles shares your anxiousness, Tigers fans. He wants to know who LSU's starting quarterback is right now, too.
The same two candidates, junior Anthony Jennings and sophomore Brandon Harris, are competing for the second consecutive spring, but 10 practices and two scrimmages haven't produced clarity. Asked Monday whether the starting job is still up for grabs, Miles replied, "Very much." LSU practices twice this week before spring break, then twice more before the April 18 spring game.
"I would like to have already made the decision because that would mean I’ve got Brett Favre or Tim Tebow or somebody like that," Miles told ESPN.com, "but it takes some time for those guys to grow up. We’re going to allow that to happen.
"I'm not necessarily pleased with the progress thus far, but I do recognize that there’s some real progress being made."
The wait can be frustrating, but it also might be necessary. LSU has to get the quarterback piece right after finishing 114th in passing average (162.9 ypg), 109th in QBR (35.4) and 119th in completion percentage (50) last season, when Jennings started all but one game.
"The worst thing that could happen to us is one guy winning the job over a guy who's playing average," LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said Tuesday morning. "Who knows what that means? All we've got to do is look to last year.
"My thought to our QBs this spring is, 'Get as good as you can get and put us in a position where we don't know who the best player is because everybody is playing so well.'"
What Cameron can conclude confidently is that LSU's quarterback story, while including the same central characters, will have a different ending (he adds that freshman Justin McMillan has performed well this spring). The quarterbacks "got over a hurdle" in Saturday's scrimmage by combining for six touchdown passes, many through extremely tight windows.
It was the best scrimmage showing since former Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger fired five consecutive touchdowns in a 2012 workout.
"They are ascending at a rapid level," Cameron said. "I'm watching both of these guys and I know all the things they should have learned, and I'm confident that both guys are moving beyond some of the struggles they've had."
Cameron has seen improved footwork and more confident decision-making from Jennings, who completed 50 percent or less of his attempts in all but two SEC games and eclipsed 60 percent completions just once. Perhaps most important, Jennings is driving his throws better, a must in a league in which few secondaries play off-man or zone coverage. Jennings appeared to have the edge in Saturday's scrimmage, passing for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
"He has responded well," Miles said.
Harris is "a little bit more explosive" than Jennings, Miles acknowledged, but the sophomore has had to sync up his footwork with his strong arm. According to Cameron, there's a bad habit among bionic-armed quarterbacks: throwing the ball later than they should simply because they can against high school defenses.
"You're not going to get away with that in this conference consistently," Cameron said. "He's never had to be a rhythm passer. This sounds crazy, but for the first time in his life, he's having to learn how to anticipate. That's why a lot of guys with big arms fail. They never learn how to anticipate.
"Brandon's anticipation has improved dramatically."
LSU will shape its offense around running back Leonard Fournette and the rushing game, but its focus this spring has been volume passing. Cameron wants his quarterbacks making easier throws while maintaining a downfield focus because of LSU's receiver speed.
Given the coaches' confidence in the rest of the team -- Miles thinks the linebackers and defensive backs could be the best of his tenure; Fournette has earned excellent reviews; there's speed and length at receiver; tight end could be a strength -- LSU could be a quarterback away from being a CFP-caliber team.
"You saw two years ago we did something that's never been done in the history of the SEC with Zach," Cameron said. "We have similar running backs, similar receivers, our tight ends are even better. So are we going to surpass what that group did two years ago? I don't know.
"This group has unlimited potential when it comes to running and throwing the football."
That's why patience in deciding the starter is so vital.
"You want to stack bricks, keep stacking performances," Cameron said. "What does that mean? Each performance you keep getting better. This week will be very telling. If one guy levels off and one of these guys keeps stacking performances, [the starter] will be obvious to everybody."
Between spring practice, recruiting and all of the various speaking engagements, coaches don’t have a lot of extra time in the offseason. But when Hugh Freeze was given the opportunity to be the honorary pace car driver for the upcoming Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the Ole Miss coach couldn’t resist.
“I am so jacked about that,” Freeze said. “You have no idea, man. I love golf, fishing and NASCAR outside my job and family. That’s the three things I spend time doing.”
Freeze is good friends with NASCAR couple Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick. In fact, Stenhouse spoke to the Ole Miss team prior to the Rebels’ 31-17 win over Mississippi State in this past season’s Egg Bowl. Maybe now it’s Stenhouse’s turn to give Freeze some pointers before the big race on May 3.
If not Stenhouse, Freeze can reach out to friend and fellow SEC coach Gus Malzahn, who drove the honorary pace car at last year’s race.
You can read more about Freeze and the upcoming race at the Sun Herald.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a positive moment overshadowed by a negative one.
Shortly after Alabama coach Nick Saban addressed the dismissal of defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor, running back Kenyan Drake met with the media. It was the first time Drake had spoken publicly since the injury that robbed him of the final nine games of his junior season. It should have been a chance to gladly tell of his ongoing comeback from a broken leg, but when Drake came into the media room on Monday, he was stoic, somber even.
"But at the end of the day you can't condone the behaviors they exhibited," he said. "We came together as a team and realized that at the end of the day you have to be leaders on and off the field and accountable for your actions."
Eventually the attention will turn back to the field, of course. Taylor is gone and Smith is working his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff. And on offense, Drake's return is a bright spot for the Crimson Tide.
In four full games last season, he accounted for 271 all-purpose yards. His six total touchdowns through Oct. 1 tied for second in the conference.
Being patient since his gruesome injury against Ole Miss has been the hardest part, though. Drake said that even now that he's not 100 percent, but he is happy with the way his leg has responded in practice. The first time he made a cut, he said he didn't even think about it.
"It seemed that once I put on those pads and helmet, I was back to normal," he explained. "Sometimes I'm reminded of it. As with anything you have to work through it."
A normal Kenyan Drake is an explosive weapon for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who continues to experiment with the speedy senior at both running back and wide receiver, something Drake said he is fond of. With Amari Cooper off to the NFL, he could be one of a handful of players to provide his missing down-field threat.
Having both Drake and projected starting tailback Derrick Henry on the field at the same time could mean headaches for opposing defenses. Because where Drake is lightning in a bottle, Henry is all gas and no brakes, a 240-pound wrecking ball who finished 10 rushing yards shy of 1,000 last season.
"We look forward to whatever Coach Kiffin has up his sleeve," Drake said.
"Me in the backfield and him at receiver, you really wouldn't know what's coming or who's getting the ball," Henry told reporters earlier this spring. "Kenyan has great hands, and I try to do a little bit out of the backfield, too. But I just think that's great to have us both out there trying to make a play for the team."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jim McElwain’s quest to revitalize Florida’s now-slumping program begins and ends with repairing a middling offense.
No offensive position is immune to renovation in Gainesville, and a lot of what happens going forward will depend on who can step up and create some excitement with the ball. Florida hasn’t had enough of that over the last five years, but McElwain and his staff believe they might have found at least one answer to this lingering problem in pint-sized form.
That answer is 5-foot-9, 181-pound wide receiver Brandon Powell, who moved from running back when McElwain and Florida’s new staff arrived a few months ago. After a freshman season that brought flashes but never enough consistent attention, Powell is out to really make a name for himself as he attempts to restore some respect to Florida’s receiving corps.
“The whole spring [the new coaches] were trying to figure out who their playmakers were, and I guess I was making plays so they started to put me in the rotation a lot more and I started picking things up a lot more,” said Powell, who registered 217 total yards of offense last season at both running back and receiver.
Powell, who is lining up in the slot, outside and even in the backfield, is no stranger to making changes for the greater good of the team. Primarily a running back at Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High, Powell saw time at receiver and corner and returned kicks. Last season, Powell made somewhat of a transition to receiver late in the year.
Receiver film from McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s pasts at Alabama thrilled Powell, and Rashard Higgins' 1,700-yard breakout season at Colorado State last season had Powell anxious to play in a more wide-open, pass-friendly offense.
But even getting to this point was an ordeal for Powell.
Powell was committed to Miami for all of his senior high school season after a nose blow of a Tennessee commitment the previous summer. Powell was all set to enroll on a Wednesday in early January -- bags packed and ready for class -- but a Miami coach called to inform him the school had to push his signing/enrolling date back because of a paperwork issue that Powell said none of the other early enrollees had. Powell believes the snag occurred because the coaches were waiting to see where current Georgia running back Sony Michel was going to sign.
No longer feeling like a priority, Powell decommitted.
“I was like, I’m not going to Miami,” he said.
Powell considered reconnecting with Tennessee, but a random call from former Florida coach Will Muschamp changed everything. Almost immediately, Powell had an offer from Florida, a school he hadn’t visited or been in contact with since his sophomore year of high school, and within hours he was committed to the Gators. His previous relationship with former Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper during his recruitment by Duke coupled with his father and coach’s insistence on taking an opportunity in the SEC in his home state swayed Powell.
Because Powell was an early enrollee, Florida had to rush to get his paperwork together and get it to him before the end of the day, which happened to be the final day for early entrants to enroll at Florida.
Less than 24 hours later, Powell was sitting in a UF classroom with only a few pairs of clothes and a toothbrush to carry to his new dorm.
Fast forward to now, and Powell’s gut reaction could pay off in a big way for the Gators.
“He’s a natural route runner and he’s got some initial in-and-out-of-break quickness,” McElwain said of Powell. “He gives you that ability to be your jet-sweep guy. You can get into empty, bring him back and still hand him the ball. You can create through motions and shifts and get him matched up on the inside.
“You can’t just say, ‘There he is. Let’s take him out of the game now.’ Brandon has done a great job of understanding that part of it.”
Powell’s emergence has come at a price, however. Last week, Powell re-aggravated a foot injury that has lingered since high school. Powell said he unknowingly played his entire senior season with a tiny fracture in his foot, thinking it was only soreness. Florida’s medical staff X-rayed his foot and found the fracture last year. Surgery was performed and screws were put in. Powell’s recent flare-up, though not thought to be serious, has sidelined him for the rest of spring, leaving him to take only frustrating mental notes until fall.
“It’s hard for me right to watch and learn what to do,” Powell said.
Any talk of Powell’s early work comes with adjectives like “smooth,” “fast” and “elusive.” His size doesn’t hinder him, he says. In fact, it’s an advantage in his eyes because his small figure and quick at-the-line speed have frustrated defensive backs unable to wrangle him early in his breaks.
Line him up in the slot and Powell is quick to smirk at the sight of a linebacker or safety lining up opposite him.
“I don’t think any of them can guard me,” Powell said with a smile.
The soft-spoken yet incredibly confident Powell has learned to be more physical, especially with his hands at the line of scrimmage. He’s gained four pounds but wants to pack on four more before the season. He has a new look, shredding his signature dreadlocks and changing his number to 4.
Despite an annoying injury, Powell is reinventing himself this spring. The hard-nosed jitterbug wants to be the spark in an offense looking for a pulse.
“The first two weeks of [spring] practice," he said, "I showed the coaches that once I catch the ball I can make something happen."
Georgia held its first scrimmage of the spring this past weekend, and head coach Mark Richt had to be somewhat pleased with what he saw because he read off the stats to open his press conference. Thate was not part of the plan initially. Lucky for us, it gives us a somewhat better look at the ongoing quarterback competition.
- Brice Ramsey: 16 of 32 for 232 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
- Faton Bauta: 17 of 30 for 247 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception
- Jacob Park: 4 of 7 for 187 yards, 1 touchdown
Now let’s be honest. The stats from Saturday’s scrimmage won’t be the deciding factor when it comes to choosing a quarterback. But it gives us a small peek before we get to see all three signal-callers compete in Georgia’s spring game April 11.
You can see full stats from the scrimmage and video from Richt at the Athens Banner-Herald.
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Saban, athletic director Bill Battle and the Alabama administration gave Taylor what they called a "second chance" in January, a year after he was dismissed by Georgia following an arrest for felony aggravated assault and family violence. On Saturday night, the 6-foot-4, 335-pound defensive lineman was arrested again on a domestic violence charge. He was dismissed the following day.
"I'm not sorry for giving him an opportunity. I'm sorry for the way things worked out," Saban told reporters in Tuscaloosa. "I'm not apologizing for the opportunity that we gave him. I wanted to try to help the guy make it work. It didn't work. So we're sorry that it didn't work and we're sorry there was an incident and we're sorry for the people that were involved in the incident. But we're not apologizing for what we did and we're going to continue to create opportunities for people in the future and we'll very, very closely evaluate anyone's character that we allow in the program."
To read the rest of Alex Scarborough's story, click here.
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Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Alvin Kamara was supposed to be at Alabama this spring, battling Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake for carries. But that didn’t work out. Instead, he’s competing for a spot at Tennessee, one of the Crimson Tide’s biggest rivals. And by the looks of it, he’s a name that Alabama and the other SEC schools should know well by next fall.
Kamara has drawn rave reviews from his coaches and teammates alike this spring, especially when it comes to his speed.
“He’s fast, man,” Vols linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “He had a couple of plays [at practice] where I know I couldn’t get to him. He’s fast, and he works at it, and he’s dedicated. I feel like he’s gonna help the offense out a lot.”
Tennessee still has its No. 1 running back Jalen Hurd on campus, but a one-two punch of Hurd and Kamara could prove dangerous in the SEC next season.
You can read more about Kamara in Wes Rucker’s story for the Knoxville News Sentinel.
The SEC is full of intriguing position battles this spring, but one that might not be getting as much attention is taking place at Auburn where three, soon to be four, players are competing to become the next 1,000-yard rusher in Gus Malzahn’s offense.
Is it too early to predict 1,000 yards for Auburn’s running back when the job is still up for grabs? Not when you consider that Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, dating to 2006. And if recent history is any indication, we won’t know who the featured back is until the first week of the season or later.
Two years ago, Tre Mason split carries the first three games before emerging as the go-to back. He then went on to lead the SEC in rushing, earning himself an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
There is no Tre Mason this spring. There is no Cameron Artis-Payne, who led the SEC in rushing this past season. The most experienced back on Auburn’s roster is a sophomore-to-be who has a grand total of 43 carries in his career. But the coaching staff isn’t worried. The coaches are excited about the potential of this year’s backfield.
"Minus experience, we’ve got some guys that we are really excited about," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "They’re young, they’re hungry, they’re talented, they’re working hard, they’re unselfish guys, and I think they’re guys that if someone emerges great but if it’s a by-committee deal, then we feel like we’ve got a bunch of talented guys we can count on."
"It’s going to be exciting to watch how those guys progress and develop."
Roc Thomas: The most "experienced" player in Auburn’s backfield, Thomas had 43 carries for 214 yards and two touchdowns in his first season with the Tigers. The former ESPN 300 star had high expectations when he arrived on campus, and they are even higher now with the starting gig at stake. From a talent standpoint, he has the potential to be in the same conversation as fellow SEC sophomores Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette and Jalen Hurd. But it’s also about opportunity and taking advantage of that opportunity.
Peyton Barber: It’s starting to feel like Barber will also be the dark-horse candidate at Auburn. After redshirting as a freshman in 2012, he turned heads last spring with an impressive month of practice. But just when it looked like he was primed for a breakout at A-Day, he injured his ankle on the first carry and missed the remainder of the spring game. It set him back, and now, after seeing just 10 carries last season, he’s facing an uphill battle in the competition. The coaches like Barber, but will he ever get a shot as the featured back at Auburn?
Jovon Robinson: Can a junior college transfer really come in and win the starting job his first season on campus? Just ask D'haquille Williams. He started opposite Sammie Coates from Day 1 and became one of the SEC’s top wide receivers. Like Williams, Robinson was the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC50, and the expectations are just as high. He already scored a touchdown in his first practice this spring, and many believe he’s the early favorite to start. Listed at 6-feet, 235 pounds, Robinson will have no problem shouldering the load.
Kerryon Johnson: As the only running back not yet on campus, Johnson is already at a slight disadvantage. He’ll be busy finding a prom date while the others go through spring practice. But don’t underestimate the five-star recruit. He has the talent and versatility to make an early impact, and the coaches would be wise to find ways to get him on the field and get the ball in his hands. If you’re not convinced, just know that Lashlee already mentioned Johnson’s name when asked about the running back position.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Everyone has their candidates to become breakout performers in 2015 -- even LSU's players themselves.
The Tigers are now two-thirds of the way through spring practice, so we asked a handful of LSU players to consider what they've witnessed so far this spring and answer the following question:
"Who is a player that the average fan might not know well yet, but who they'll be talking about this fall?"
The most popular answer? Sophomore receiver D.J. Chark.
"For sure right now, off spring football, it's D.J. Chark," senior safety Jalen Mills said. "He's been playing at a very high level for us. I think he's moved into a starting role. That's what I've been seeing in practice, and he's been playing off the charts right now. Hopefully he keeps it up and makes the team better."
LSU coach Les Miles has credited Chark with at least one touchdown catch after each of the Tigers' three spring scrimmages, which would be a huge step forward from a freshman season where he appeared in six games, but did not record a reception.
Miles said the speedy wideout is playing with improved confidence, and Chark's teammates seem to agree.
"You hear about Travin Dural and Trey Quinn and John Diarse and myself at receiver because we got the bulk of the plays last year," sophomore receiver Malachi Dupre said. "But I feel like D.J. Chark is making full strides and working towards playing time for himself. I feel like he's done a great job this spring. His biggest thing was confidence. It wasn't his physical abilities at all."
Sophomore running back Leonard Fournette said of Chark: "He's a sophomore now with us and stepping up, making big plays. I always knew he had it in him, but you didn't want to put him out there too early. But he's coming along big time."
Here are some other Tigers' picks for 2015 breakout players:
Alexander offered up several names, including tight end DeSean Smith and the interior linemen -- he named Garrett Brumfield, Josh Boutte, Will Clapp, Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone -- who are competing for starting jobs. His first pick was Jones, though, who is taking over for Kwon Alexander at linebacker.
"He plays extremely fast," Alexander said. "He's really learning how to take on blocks now, because in the SEC you can't run around everybody. You've got to take on people and he's doing a really good job of that. He's the fastest linebacker I've faced since I've been at LSU. He's really talented, sees things fast and he's improving. He's probably had the best spring out of all the linebackers."
"He had his moments last year with interceptions and things, but I feel like people might not respect him enough or see him as that type of player yet," Beckwith said. "I feel like he's going to have a breakout-type, a real good year for us. [He can] come up, hit, cover. He's been doing it all. I feel like he's kind of under the radar, but once the season gets started, people will see."
"He's making so many plays -- intercepting the ball, breaking the ball up, bringing energy," White said. "He's going to be a great player. He didn't play last year, just trying to adjust to everything and I feel like this year, he's going to be a guy that makes a lot of plays once he gets on the field."
Tight end DeSean Smith's pick: Defensive tackle Greg Gilmore
"Every time I watch Greg, he's busting his butt," Smith said. "He's out there, he's doing real good and I feel like he'll blow up for sure. That's the first name that came to my mind."
"He's had to switch positions, but he's learning and he's still getting better at what he does," Neal said of Bain, who played defensive tackle last season. "Obviously he didn't play a lot last year. We both were in the same boat. But it's that time to come, to step up. So that's a name that nobody knows. That's one person I can name off the defensive line that you will hear."
Neal offered that compliment to his teammate, but he was also quick to note that it's still on Bain and the other players mentioned to truly earn that praise.
The breakout candidates have apparently made strides this spring, but they still have plenty to prove.
"You really can't make a suggestion about whose name will be heard because it's all about that person," Neal said. "I can say that, but what if it comes back to haunt me because they didn't follow through? It's all about your drive and your effort to get there. That's huge credibility if you put that on yourself. … If that person has that drive, they can be all that they want to be."
On Friday, the first-year Gators coach wasn't shy when asked about some of the depth issues facing his team this spring, especially those on the offensive side of the ball.
“You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt,” McElwain told reporters. “And right now, quite honestly, the hand we’re dealt is really insufficient at some of the areas.”
The main area of concern is on the offensive line, where Florida has just eight scholarship players and seven healthy enough to practice this spring, but it doesn’t stop there. Running back and linebacker also are dangerously thin heading into McElwain’s first season.
You can read more about McElwain’s comments and his team’s depth issues at GatorBait.net.