SEC: Arkansas Razorbacks
2. Over in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the starting quarterback job is not yet situated. After a scrimmage Saturday, Alabama coach Nick Saban said that Blake Sims is "playing a little faster right now" than transfer Jacob Coker. As a fifth-year senior who has been in the Crimson Tide's system compared to Coker, who just arrived this summer, that's understandable. But with the season opener approaching, eyes begin to zero in on every twist and turn of the race. Saban declined to disclose his two quarterbacks' statistics from the scrimmage and made it clear that the coaching staff is not going to make a decision until "someone clearly wins the job." That's the right approach. It's beneficial to establish some kind of deadline so that when game week arrives, your starter is taking the first-team snaps and you're not splitting reps and allow your starter to develop a rhythm, but if it's still pretty close taking more time makes sense.
3. Arkansas held an open-to-the-public scrimmage on Saturday and there was plenty to take away, from the performance of quarterback Brandon Allen, the establishment of a backup (Austin Allen), a big day for Korliss Marshall and a glimpse of freshman receiver Jojo Robinson's ability. But perhaps the most entertaining bit came before the scrimmage, when Bielema grabbed the microphone and reminded the crowd not to video record the practice. "If you see someone videotaping, tell them that ain't right," Bielema said. "Especially if they're wearing an Auburn shirt, knock the s--- out of them." Of course, the Razorbacks open the season against Auburn and Bielema and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn have some differing opinions, but there's nothing wrong with a little good fun in the form of a joke to get your home crowd fired up.
More from around the SEC:
- Florida State is No. 1, but eight SEC teams make the preseason Top 25, released on Sunday. Here are the full rankings.
- LSU's quarterback battle is still too close to call between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings.
- A strong defensive effort and a shaky offensive one for Missouri in its scrimmage on Saturday.
Some people dream of playing in front of 40,000 fans, at Tennessee we practice in front of 40,000 fans! #Unbelievable— Butch Jones (@UTCoachJones) August 17, 2014
People rip UT fans. 1 winning season in 6 & this crowd shows up for Sat night practice pic.twitter.com/di7PtMDd3i— Tony Basilio (@TonyBasilio) August 16, 2014
Today, we're talking sacks and who could reach double digits in that category in 2014.
Last year, the SEC only had two players reach that mark -- Missouri's Michael Sam (11.5 sacks) and Auburn's Dee Ford (10.5) -- after three did in 2012 and 2011.
This season, the SEC has a lot of talent and potential within its various front sevens. So how many players do I see reaching 10 or more sacks? I'm going to go with three.
Here's my list of potential double-digit sack artists for 2014:
2. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Golden had 6.5 sacks last year. Even as a backup, Golden could have left for the NFL after last season. He's back, and he won't be fun to deal with off the edge.
3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky: Get used to this name because he's gotten better each year he's been on campus. After moving to defensive end last year, Dupree had a team-high seven sacks, but feels his game is even better this time around. He has All-SEC written all over him.
4. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida: He can play with his hand in the ground or upright. Fowler can absolutely fly and has tremendous strength to bully his way through opposing lines. Expect him to vastly improve on the 3.5 sacks he had last year.
5. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: He might not have a very recognizable name right now, but you should hear a lot about Ray in the coming months. He's incredibly fast and athletic. Add his strength, and he'll have no problem zipping past his 4.5 sacks from 2013.
6. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: He'd be higher on the list if there weren't questions about the guys around him. Flowers is a monster, but he had the benefit of working with stud Chris Smith on the other side. He'll have to work even harder this year. Still, Flowers is too good not to at least approach the five sacks he had last season.
7. C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: A devastating leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, but he's back and says he feels better than ever. He changes Ole Miss' defense so much when he's on the field and is the Rebels' best pass-rusher. With people keying in on Robert Nkemdiche inside, Johnson should be a menace off the edge.
8. Curt Maggitt, DE/LB, Tennessee: He might not have played last year, but Maggitt is arguably one of the best at his position. He'll play more defensive end this year, but his goal every time he's on the field is to hit the quarterback. If he can stay healthy, he'll do that a lot.
9. Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU: He only had three sacks last year, but Hunter could be a breakout star for the Tigers. Pictures of him from this summer tell me that he's loaded up on the lean protein and hopes to dine on quarterbacks this fall.
10. Caleb Azubike, LB, Vanderbilt: One of Vandy's most athletic defenders, Azubike seems to really be taking to his new position at outside linebacker. With his speed, he could be a terror outside in the Commodores' new 3-4 scheme. He had four sacks in 2013.
Yes, after waaaaay too many years of being stubborn and different, this beloved sport is finally getting a playoff system to determine its national champion at the end of the year.
Better late than never.
What do the players think of it? Are four teams enough? Should it expand? What effect will it have on players' bodies and academics? What about travel for their families and friends? Do they want the playoff at all?
Over the past month, we asked players around the conference to weigh in on the playoff and give us their thoughts on the playoff.
You were hard-pressed to find a player who didn't agree with FBS football adopting a playoff system. So with that out of the way, we asked players whether they thought four games was enough. The majority were happy with that number.
- “I think it’s perfect -- a four-team playoff. You get right to the point. If you lose, you go home and there’s two more teams [left]. There it is, it’s simple.” -- LSU OT La'el Collins. (However, when asked about his thoughts on expanding it, Collins said it "would be cool, too.")
- “I don’t know if there’s a perfect way to do it, but I think that’s a good amount of games. You don’t want to be playing too many in the playoff because then guys’ bodies would be shot and coaches after the season wouldn’t have time to go out and recruit [as much]. They would lose out on a lot of recruiting opportunities.” -- Florida QB Jeff Driskel
- “Four is plenty right now. ... Right now, four is what it is and I’m happy that that’s what it is. If they end up changing it, then I’ll be happy also." -- Tennessee C Mack Crowder
- “It’ll be just like high school again, I guess. It’s just one more game. I think everybody will be fine.” -- Georgia RB Todd Gurley
- “Four teams is better than two, so it’s a good start.” -- Texas A&M OT Cedric Ogbuehi
What if the playoff were to expand to eight or 16 teams?
- “That might be too much because it’s a hard game already. Playing all those games, there would definitely be more injuries. Four is fine, eight could be cool too, but I don’t think 16 would be smart.” -- Ogbuehi
- "That would probably be a little too much.” -- Gurley
- “As players, we don’t think about it like that. We think of it as some players are going to go on and play in the NFL where there are 16 games on top of a playoff and a Super Bowl -- mind you that some of those guys play in a wild-card game. By the time they finish, it’s like 20-something games.” -- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.
What about your life away from football? Wouldn't an expanded playoff eat into your family time during the holidays and conflict with finals?
- “Fans don’t think about that. Fans don’t think about us spending time with our families or finishing out our classes with good grades. That’s something that they have to take into consideration.” -- Driskel
A playoff, whether it has four teams or 16, means more travel for players, fans and family members. That means more money out of people's pockets when it comes to transportation -- which is more than likely going to be by plane -- food, lodging, and miscellaneous. And that's just for one game.
Let's face it, some people are going to have to decide between going to the semifinal game or the national championship.
- “Not every family can make that trip. The fact that there are more games and both are immensely huge games could make it difficult on a lot of families [to plan travel]. I could see that happening. ... It’s not necessarily something that we thought about. But when we look at the schedule and we know how that’s going to play out, then some people have to start thinking about that, and some more than others.” -- Georgia WR Chris Conley
- “It’s definitely a concern. It’s something that guys’ families are going to have to start preparing themselves now.” -- Collins
- “You can watch us on TV. As long as we win, that’s all that matters.” -- Fowler
Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier thinks players and families should be helped out with travel.
- “They have to do that now because most of them don’t have enough money to make all those trips. That’s why I think we should give the players and the parents expense money -- $200 to the player, $200 to the parents. Every time we play, here’s $400 of expense money.”
More games mean more chances for injuries. That's just science. So are players concerned about wearing down?
- “I just see it as more games, and I love playing games. You can get hurt literally at any point in the season. At the end of the season, some guys are going to be completely healthy, some guys are gonna be beat up." -- Crowder
- “That’s the sacrifice you make, but it all pays off in the end.” -- Collins
- “It’s a lot of games, but it’s something that you have to prep yourself up for and prepare yourself to just go. You’re going to have aches and injuries, and things like that, but if you want to win it takes hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears.” -- Fowler
For now, players will go through the motions of the season before they sniff what life in the playoff will be like. It's worked at all other levels of sport, and now Division 1 football is getting in on the act. All these questions and concerns will be approached head-on in the months to come, and we'll see how players' opinions on the playoff change.
2. Speaking of SEC coaches, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was the latest to take the ice bucket challenge. He and his entire team had ice water dumped on their heads Wednesday to help raise awareness for ALS, a disease that took the life of Adam Deacon's mother. Deacon is a junior offensive lineman at Arkansas. Afterward, Bielema and his team challenged athletic director Jeff Long, ESPN personalities Paul Finebaum and Joe Tessitore, and college football teams across the nation to complete the challenge and donate to the ALS association. Earlier this week, NHL player Paul Bissonnette took the ice bucket challenge to new heights, literally.
3. We're nearly two weeks into fall camp, and it's about that time when coaches start making decisions on key position battles. At Tennessee, it sounds like Butch Jones might be on the verge of naming his starting quarterback. The candidates include senior Justin Worley and sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. All three started at least one game last year, and all three have shown progress through the early stages of fall camp. Across the state, Derek Mason is in no hurry to name his starting quarterback at Vanderbilt, but the competition was cut in half this week. Only three signal callers remain.
Tweet of the day
More around the SEC
- At LSU: Freshman wide receiver Malachi Dupre starts fast
- At Ole Miss: No good news on CB transfer Tee Shepard and his toe
- At South Carolina: Spurrier not wowed by Texas A&M scheduling
Each conference has its own pitch as to why it's the best conference in the country or has the toughest path to the title. Consider it an early dose of lobbying to the selection committee.
Do the math and at least one of the five conferences is going to be left out. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach has broken down each of the five leagues and done his best to separate the facts from the propaganda, the latter a word Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops used heading into last season to describe the SEC's so-called dominance from top to bottom.
Stoops took some heat from SEC diehards, but ended up getting last laugh: Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31.
As Schlabach points out in his piece, the SEC obviously won more national titles than anybody during the BCS era, including seven straight before having that streak snapped by Florida State last season, but it wasn't like the SEC was ripping everybody else to shreds. From the start of the BCS era in 1998 to its end in 2013, SEC teams went .500 against Pac-12 teams during the regular season (13-13), were only slightly better than the Big Ten in bowl games (23-21) and had a losing record against Big 12 teams during the regular season (8-12).
I've long contended that the grind of the SEC is what makes the league so difficult, and it's a grind I think will once again ensure that everybody finishes with at least one conference loss this season. Still, there's no denying that Tennessee's struggles the last several years and Florida losing 21 games over the last four seasons has watered down the East. But, then, look at what South Carolina and Vanderbilt have done the last three seasons, and Missouri went to the SEC championship game in just its second year in the league.
Ultimately, it's hard to argue with Schlabach's assessment, that the SEC's best teams might be great every season, but its overall record against the other Power Five conferences suggests it might not be as dominant as we believed.
Can't wait to see how all this "propaganda" plays out in the playoff era.
Next up, we're looking at the folks who like running the ball. This is where the SEC could really strike gold this fall. There are a plethora of talented running backs returning in 2014 who could really wear down some of those stout defensive fronts around the league.
Last year, eight players (including a quarterback) rushed for at least 1,000 yards:
- Tre Mason (Auburn) -- 1,816
- Jeremy Hill (LSU) -- 1,401
- T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) -- 1,235
- Mike Davis (South Carolina)-- 1,183
- Henry Josey (Missouri) -- 1,166
- Rajion Neal (Tennessee) -- 1,124
- Nick Marshall (QB, Auburn) -- 1,068
- Alex Collins (Arkansas) -- 1,026
The league lost four of those players, but it shouldn't have a problem replacing them. As for how many players will hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2014, I'm going with nine. Here are the 14 who I think could reach 1,000 yards:
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: Even with the nagging injuries he's dealt with in his past, Gurley enters the 2014 as arguably the nation's best running back. After sitting out a month last season, Gurley still rushed for 989 yards and 6 yards per carry. He has that rare combination of size, strength and explosion.
3. Derrick Henry, Alabama: Yeldon might be the starter, but Henry will get plenty of carries this fall. Alabama is no stranger to having multiple 1,000-yard rushers, and with a new quarterback coming in, expect Nick Saban to give his backs the ball as much as possible. This freak, tank-like athlete should blow past last year's 382 yards.
4. Davis: He's one of the toughest, most explosive backs around. Somehow, Davis' legs never seem to stop moving when he gets going. He finished with 1,183 yards and had seven games in which he rushed for more 100 yards or more in 2013.
5. Tra Carson, Texas A&M: He only rushed for 329 yards last year, but now that he's the lead back for the Aggies, he'll be asked to do more than just be a short-yardage guy. Carson has home-run speed, a ton of strength and is tough to bring down in space.
6. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: You might not have noticed the fact that he barely missed the 1,000-yard mark last year by 100 yards because of Arkansas' forgettable season, but Williams is the real deal. He's strong, fast and tough. Arkansas will use more than one back, but that won't stop Williams from reaching 1,000 yards.
7. Leonard Fournette, LSU: The freshman version of Michael Jordan, Fournette will have every opportunity to hit 1,000 yards. He wasn't the nation's No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class for nothing. Fournette has everything you'd want in a feature back, and he'll immediately make an impact for the Tigers.
8. Collins: He'll continue to battle Williams for carries this fall, but that won't be a problem. He dropped off a little after a fast start last season, but he still became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004.
9. Marshall: Yes, he's working to throw more and become more confident in the passing game, but Marshall knows that his legs are his bread and butter. As long as Gus Malzahn is running the zone-read, Marshall will continue to pile up rushing yards.
10. Cameron Artis-Payne/Corey Grant, Auburn: The Tigers aren't afraid to use multiple backs. Both of these guys ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns last fall behind Tre Mason. One of these guys could be the lead back, or they'll work together. Either way, Auburn will be deadly on the ground.
11. Kelvin Taylor, Florida: The sophomore is faster, leaner and more agile this year after rushing for 508 yards last fall. He's still a handful to bring down and the hope in Gainesville is that Kurt Roper's offense opens up the running game even more.
12. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: He's an incredibly explosive back, who could be primed for a breakout season this fall. With his strength and speed, he should have no problem surpassing the 685 yards he had last year.
13. Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: A wrecking ball in a smaller package, Robinson is finally taking over as the Bulldogs' lead back. Behind LaDarius Perkins last fall, Robinson rushed for 459 yards and 5.9 yards per carry.
14. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He led the Bulldogs with 829 rushing yards last season, but his coaches would like him to throw the ball a little bit more this fall. You just can't take the runner out of the player, so Prescott could still push for 1,000 yards.
“SEC lunchtime links” is no more. But don’t cue the funeral procession music. We wanted to give you more to read earlier in the day, so we’ve shifted the post to the morning. And rather than focusing solely on providing you with links from every team around the SEC, we’re instead going to make the post more multi-faceted with fewer quotes, more analysis and, hopefully, more fun.
With that said, let’s get on with our maiden voyage.
Saban gets defensive
Don’t call it a tirade, because it wasn’t. But when Nick Saban was asked on Saturday how he and the staff were preparing for hurry-up, no-huddle offenses, he didn’t exactly answer in kind.
“You know, in all honesty, guys, you all make way too much of this,” he said.
Oh, do tell.
“I mean, [Auburn] had 21 points against us with 30 seconds to go in the game, and I don’t think anybody held them to 21 points all year long,” Saban said. “I saw them score 60 in the SEC Championship Game, or whatever. We shut Ole Miss out here. We had four turnovers against Oklahoma that led to 28 points; two [touchdowns] the defense never even got back on the field.”
You know what that sounds like? Excuses.
Before you go ballistic, think about it. Did Alabama play all that poorly against HUNH offenses last season? Maybe not, compared to the rest of the country. But since when does Alabama compare itself to anyone? As Kirby Smart said prior to last season, “A lot of people think our standard is to be first in the SEC, be first in the country. ... We really don't go by that motto. We go by: Be the best Alabama defense there's been.”
From 2009-11, it seemed like no one could score on the Tide. Now, uptempo offenses are having some success poking holes in Alabama’s aura of invincibility. Are they big holes? Maybe not, but they are there nonetheless. Nearly 300 yards rushing by Auburn says so. Oklahoma throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns says so. Texas A&M racking up 628 yards -- the most ever allowed by an Alabama defense -- says so, too.
When Saban said, “We make it out like we’re horrible when we play a (no-huddle) team,” his argument was essentially that the scheme is sound, the preparation is good, but that the tempo makes it difficult to implement because of the trouble communicating from the sideline. But that sounds like a distinction without a difference. If you study all week for an exam, bring the sharpest No. 2 pencils and then answer most of the questions incorrectly, you still fail.
“We need to improve on it,” Saban said of defending the HUNH. “But I think we need to improve on defense, period.”
Both are true. But what good is one without the other?
From now until the season begins, you’ll hear a lot of talk about scrimmages. At Georgia, Hutson Mason called the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage a “draw.” At Alabama, Saban said both quarterbacks “did a lot of good things." And at Tennessee, Butch Jones said he saw "marked improvement."
That’s cause for celebration, right? Well, maybe.
Talk is great, but seeing is believing. And with many scrimmages these days, no one in the media or the general public is allowed to see anything.
So practice caution with the post-scrimmage news conferences, and beware of the stat sheet you’ll see shortly thereafter. The picture they paint is often a little too rosy.
Just look at Georgia, where somehow 51 passes were attempted without a single interception or touchdown. Alabama provided some rushing and receiving stats, but nothing from the QBs. Tennessee, meanwhile, didn’t provide any statistics whatsoever.
South Carolina, on the other hand, had a scrimmage open to the media in which Pharoh Cooper continued to impress and Dylan Thompson connected on 9 of 15 passes for 114 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Around the SEC
- At LSU: Budding star Tre'Davious White has a solid mentor.
- At Arkansas: Notes, stats and observations from the Razorbacks' scrimmage.
- At Vanderbilt: The Commodores defense compared to Greg Maddux.
Having that big, powerful tight end who can knock defenders around and stretch the field is turning into more of a necessity for NFL offenses, and college coaches are taking notice.
“I definitely think it's a trend going on right now,” Vanderbilt tight end Steven Scheu said. “Tight ends are starting to become just a larger receiver, quite honestly, especially when you have guys who are tight ends in the NFL trying to get their contracts signed as a wide receiver because they're taking most of their snaps out wide."
In the SEC, most coaches are on board with having that lovely mismatch of size and athleticism lining up inside. Finding multifaceted players who create advantageous mismatches is the name of the game.
In 2011, 14 tight ends ranked inside the top 50 in the NFL in receiving. Those tight ends were targeted 1,526 times and caught 1,006 passes for 12,422 yards and 91 touchdowns. Last year, the NFL saw nine tight ends rank in the top 50 in receiving, catching 723 passes for 8,686 yards and 85 touchdowns. Those tight ends were targeted 1,088 times.
For the SEC, eight tight ends ranked among the top 50 in the league in receiving in 2011. Those eight tight ends caught 233 passes for 2,771 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, as only three tight ends ranked inside the top 50 of the SEC in receiving yards last season, after five ranked in the top 50 in 2012.
But coaches see those numbers increasing in the coming years, as the tight end becomes more valued. There's a reason Florida coach Will Muschamp jumped at the chance to sign former Virginia tight end Jake McGee, who can play inside and outside and caught 71 passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two years at Virginia.
To Muschamp, that kind of player changes blocking schemes for defenses, creating more holes and space for the offense, and can take bigger linebackers and safeties out of plays.
“That changes run gaps, that creates an extra gap,” Muschamp said. “It also creates an extra gap away from the quarterback. From a protection standpoint and a run-game standpoint, it does some good things to be able to utilize a tight end in the game.
“To be able to match up on a linebacker -- to have a guy who athletically is superior to a safety -- and to be able to find those matchups is huge.”
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin didn't use much of a flex tight end at Houston, but emphasized them more as an offensive coordinator at A&M and Oklahoma. He could do it again this year with the 277-pound Cameron Clear and deep threat Ricky Seals-Jones playing inside.
Mississippi State owns one of the leagues most consistent players in Malcolm Johnson (768 career yards), and rival Ole Miss has the perfect safety net in flex Evan Engram.
Arkansas' best receiving threat might be sophomore Hunter Henry, who averaged 14.6 yards per catch last year.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has had a ton of success with tight ends and hopes to make up for his losses at receiver by using his tight ends and bigger receivers inside.
South Carolina has thrived by using Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams to stretch the field the last couple of years. Anderson has averaged 17.8 yards per catch on 39 receptions, while Adams has averaged 16.3 on 17 catches.
Alabama's Nick Saban is even getting in onthe fun with freak sophomore athlete O.J. Howard lining up at tight end.
“Having a guy like that, really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense to have to adjust to him,” Saban said.
More and more, coaches are seeking tight ends with receiver skills, but who like to block. Some players are noticing that that quality makes them even more dangerous.
“It definitely intrigues not only me but people around me, my colleagues I guess, my fellow tight ends,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. “It's a lot more fun to be integrated in an offense and be moved around a lot. I think it definitely throws defenses off, not knowing where exactly you're going to line up a linebacker or a safety on them or what the offense is going to do. I'm definitely noticing that a little bit more.”
If you need me I'll just be hanging out in Peyton Manning's mancave at the Tennessee athletic facility. pic.twitter.com/Arz24L4qTc— Travis Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) August 8, 2014
Now to the lunch links. Enjoy.
- NCAA autonomy for the big boys embraces a playing field already tilted in their favor.
- Alabama is typically known for its defense, but through the first week of fall camp, the Tide offense is ahead of the defense.
- Arkansas running back Korliss Marshall expects a breakout season despite sharing touches with Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins in a crowded Hogs’ backfield.
- Newcomer Devaroe Lawrence and projected starter Derrick Moncrief have both missed valuable practice time at Auburn’s preseason camp.
- Florida’s first open practice of the fall has Gator fans spilling over with optimism.
- Cornerback Damian Swann has already won over his new defensive coordinator, but he can’t do it by himself for Georgia’s secondary.
- Quarterback Brandon Harris shined at LSU’s practice Thursday, but the defense is ahead of the offense after four days.
- Maty Mauk is the next long-term Missouri quarterback, joining the likes of Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin before him.
- Inside the film room: Steve Spurrier gave media members a rare glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, inviting them to spend 15 minutes watching film with the team.
- Mike Matthews proving to be the glue at the center of Texas A&M’s offensive line.
- Derek Mason “pleasantly surprised” by Vanderbilt quarterbacks as the offense wins team’s first scrimmage on Thursday.
The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.
Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:
Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.
Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.
A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.
Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.
Five who just missed the cut:
• Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn
• Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss
• Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas
• Marquez North, WR, Tennessee
• Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
- LSU junior defensive tackle Quentin Thomas, who is expected to start this season, has overcome significant off-the-field obstacles from the time he was a teenager in order to reach this point in his football career.
- Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, who will miss the season opener because of a suspension, appears to be bouncing back after an eventful offseason, with coach Hugh Freeze saying he "couldn't be more pleased" with Nkemdiche.
- Georgia is discussing options for erecting an indoor practice facility on campus.
- Dan Mullen said he wants Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott to drive the Bulldogs' offense like a sports car.
- The Bulldogs secondary remains a work in progress, according to new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. He said, "I feel like right now I’ve got one guy who’s playing the way it’s supposed to be played in the secondary."
- Alabama coach Nick Saban said he has been pleased with the play of all his quarterbacks in training camp and that the Crimson Tide offense is showing a "little more maturity."
- Auburn sophomore Montravius Adams is working at defensive tackle in Tigers' training camp but could see some time at defensive end as well.
- Arkansas is eager to get on the field and get the bad taste out of its mouth after a 3-9 showing last year. Running back Jonathan Williams said, "You'll see Aug. 30 how bad we want to prove people wrong."
“You’ll see Aug. 30 how bad we want to prove people wrong,” - See more at: http://arkansasnews.com/sports/williams-hogs-will-earn-improvement#sthash.Yogoq8dw.dpuf“You’ll see Aug. 30 how bad we want to prove people wrong,” - See more at: http://arkansasnews.com/sports/williams-hogs-will-earn-improvement#sthash.Yogoq8dw.dpuf
- Florida had 17 players suffer season-ending injuries last season. Sixth-year senior receiver Andre Debose is one of them and like the rest of those who missed time, he is eager to return to the field.
- After Monday's practice, Mark Stoops seemed unhappy with his receivers' ability to catch the football. On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Neal Brown sung a slightly different tune.
- Missouri is looking for several receivers to step into new roles this season, returning just three who have a caught a pass in their collegiate careers.
- South Carolina is depending on freshman cornerbacks to be ready to play -- and possibly start -- their season opener against Texas A&M.
- Tennessee receiver Cody Blanc tore an Achilles' tendon in practice Tuesday and will miss the season, Butch Jones said.
- Texas A&M has a solid special teams group, but coordinator Jeff Banks is looking for improvement in the return game.
- Vanderbilt's quarterback competition between Patton Robinette and Steven Rivers is the focus, but there are other notable storylines coming out of Commodores camp.
Now, as they embark on Year 2, they’re all at different places in their respective programs, and their messages reflect that.
Better in Year 2
Gus Malzahn had an advantage when he arrived at Auburn -- he had been there before. Malzahn spent three years as offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2011, so he was familiar with some of the players, the administrators and even the fans.
It showed because the transition from coordinator to head coach was seamless. Malzahn helped orchestrate one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, taking a 3-9 team the year before and winning 12 games plus an SEC championship. The Tigers came within 13 seconds of winning their second national championship in four years.
Despite how successful his first year was on the field, Malzahn learned that off the field there were a lot of things that go into being a head coach in the SEC -- things that have nothing to do with football in some cases.
The returning Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year believes he’s better prepared for Year 2 and his goal is improve on Year 1, both on and off the field.
“It definitely helps that you’ve been through it a year and you understand it better,” Malzahn said. “And like anything else, you do something once you know the challenge is being better at it the second time.”
The power of one
Butch Jones didn’t have the same success as Malzahn in his first year at Tennessee, but when asked about the biggest difference between Year 1 and Year 2, he too talked about the familiarity that he now has with the league and his team.
“I know exactly where we’re at in our football program,” Jones said. “Our improvements that need to be made, understanding the league even that much more -- the dynamics of it, the daily grind of going through an SEC season.
“I know much more about the lay of the land and where we’re at in terms of the hierarchy in the conference, in recruiting, on the field, off the field, so much more in just one year.”
Similar to Malzahn, Jones has a new challenge ahead of him albeit a much bigger one. Tennessee lost its entire offensive and defensive lines, and nearly 50 percent of this year’s players will be going through their first college football season.
The goal last year was to play in a bowl game, and at 5-7, the Volunteers came up just short. This year, the goal is simply “the power of one.”
“With us being as youthful as we are, we have to focus on each moment, one practice, one day at a time, one snap at a time,” Jones said. “We can never get ahead of ourselves. That’s going to be the challenge.”
Bret Bielema is a Big Ten guy. He was born and raised in Illinois, he played at Iowa, and he spent seven seasons as Wisconsin’s head coach. That’s what made it so surprising when he left the Badgers for a job in the SEC at Arkansas.
Nevertheless, Bielema wanted to bring that power, smash-mouth style to the SEC. The only problem is that the SEC wasn’t having it. The Razorbacks lost nine consecutive games to finish the season and failed to win a conference game for the first time since joining the league in 1992. It didn’t help that his counterpart Malzahn, an Arkansas native who butted heads with Bielema at times, enjoyed the success that he did on the Plains.
Don’t look for Bielema to start implementing his own hurry-up, no-huddle offense this season, though.
“I think the biggest thing I took away, especially after the season, is you have to be true to who you are, what you've been,” Bielema said. “Don't flinch. There's a lot of times there's some teams that go through some adversity, you know, for sure a team that doesn't win a game in their conference, they're going to change out philosophy, got a new idea, new this, new that. I believe you have to do what you do better.”
Never look back
Before Mark Stoops arrived, Kentucky went 2-10 and lost every SEC game by an average of 25 points. The cupboard was essentially bare. The fans were too busy waiting on basketball season to show up for the football games. It wasn’t a good situation.
In Stoops’ first year, the results on the field were no different as the Wildcats finished 2-10 for the second straight season and failed to win a conference game for the second straight season. However, the players’ attitude was different -- they showed fight -- and the second-year coach believes you’ll see more of that this coming season.
“We showed signs of it last year, and I know everybody at Kentucky appreciates that -- being scrappy, being tough, playing with that great passion, playing with that great energy,” Stoops told Kentucky Sports Radio last week. “This year’s team is going to have that, and we’re going to never look back.”
Stoops doesn’t want his team looking back at last season. He certainly doesn’t want them looking back at what happened two years ago. He wants them focused on the present, and it starts Aug. 30 with a home game against UT-Martin.
- Florida opened practice Monday and coach Will Muschamp said he couldn't sleep the night before the first practice because of the anticipation of the new season. Understandable after the Gators' brutal 2013 campaign.
- Nick Marshall will not start Auburn's season opener against Arkansas, so that means Jeremy Johnson likely gets the nod, right? Not so fast, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said; he wants to see Johnson take the next step in the "maturation process."
- After a felony charge of second-degree battery was reduced to misdemeanor simple battery, LSU safety Jalen Mills had his suspension lifted and returned to the practice field for the Tigers on Monday. Les Miles said, "We're moving forward."
- Junior college transfer linebacker Ryan Flannigan just arrived at Kentucky and he's eager to learn quickly in hopes of being an instant-impact player for the Wildcats.
- LSU running back Terrence Magee will wear No. 18 this season. It's a tradition passed down from season to season, and here's why.
- Alabama offensive coordinator and former Tennessee and USC head coach Lane Kiffin still has head coaching aspirations, naturally. "I think that's always in your blood when you're competitive," Kiffin said.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel clarified the status of receiver Levi Copelin, who is suspended for the 2014 season because of a failed drug test. Pinkel said Copelin can practice, but not play in games or travel.
- Speaking of Missouri receivers, Pinkel is giving running back Marcus Murphy a look at the position in training camp in hopes of getting him on the field more.
- In case you missed it, Arkansas four-star quarterback recruit Ty Storey signed a financial aid agreement with the school. Storey, the 18th-ranked pocket passer in the nation, committed to the Razorbacks more than a year ago.
- Georgia inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera is receiving high praise from his teammates, who say he is underrated.
- There is no shortage of running backs in Ole Miss' backfield. There is also no clear favorite among the group at the moment.
- Mike Davis returned to practice Monday for South Carolina and showed no ill effects from the hamstring injury that kept him out recently.
- Texas A&M has much better depth at linebacker this season and linebacker coach Mark Hagen said the group is operating much smoother this year than last.
- Tennessee coach Butch Jones was quite unhappy with the Volunteers' showing at practice on Monday. "We have to stop using youth as a crutch, or as an excuse," Jones said.
- Vanderbilt junior quarterback Josh Grady will make a position change to wide receiver.
- It's often a challenge to get coaches to speak candidly about topics, particularly their opponents, but give them some anonymity and things change. Here's a look at SEC coaches had to say about all 14 teams in the league.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Arkansas Razorbacks:
2013 record: 3-9
Final grade for 2013 season: Finishing last usually calls for a failing grade but we'll give the Razorbacks the benefit of the doubt somewhat, with it being a transition year under a new head coach. Not only was it a regime change, but a scheme change in a new direction under Bret Bielema. These things take time. D-minus for the Hogs.
Key losses: C Travis Swanson, DE Chris Smith, FB Kiero Small, DT Robert Thomas, DT Byran Jones, OT David Hurd, WR Javontee Herndon, K Zach Hocker.
Key returnees: DE Trey Flowers, RB Alex Collins, RB Jonathan Williams, TE Hunter Henry, S Alan Turner, P Sam Irwin-Hill, KR Korliss Marshall, G Denver Kirkland, DT Darius Philon, QB Brandon Allen.
Instant-impact newcomers: OL Cameron Jefferson, DT Bijhon Jackson, WR Cody Hollister, WR Jojo Robinson, LB Josh Williams, OL Sebastian Tretola.
Breakout player: Arkansas is not hurting for running backs, with Collins and Williams around, but Marshall has ability that should get him on the field more often. In eight games last year, he carried the ball only 17 times but averaged 8.6 yards per carry, which was best among the running backs. He also served on kickoff return duty and showed flashes there, averaging 22.2 yards per return including a career-long 87-yard return. He possesses great speed and is a nice change-of-pace option to Collins and Williams. Look for him to get the ball in his hands more.
Most important game: Take your pick. When you are coming off a three-win season, just about every game is big, especially the season opener against Auburn. Think of Texas Tech as a possibility because of the way the schedule sets up afterward, with Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia serving as three of the following four opponents. Arkansas could use some positive momentum heading into that stretch and a road upset against a good team would be huge. The Red Raiders had a strong showing in the Holiday Bowl against Arizona State and they will provide a tough test, but look at the way Arkansas competed with Texas A&M last season -- an explosive team that runs a similar offense -- and the Razorbacks competed down the stretch against Mississippi State and LSU. If they can continue to improve, being competitive against the Red Raiders shouldn't be out of the question.
Biggest question mark: Despite Bielema's public votes of confidence in him, starting quarterback Brandon Allen still has plenty to prove. In 11 games last season, he completed just 49.6 percent of his passes for 1,552 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. If Arkansas' offense is to improve, Allen has to do better. Bielema made it clear that Allen is the starter going into the season so Razorbacks fans better hope that Allen is on the rise.
Upset special: Last year, Arkansas went toe-to-toe with a Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M team, trailing by only four points at halftime and five heading into the fourth quarter. A pick-six thrown by Allen early in the third quarter proved to be pivotal as the Aggies never relinquished the lead in the second-half, but the Razorbacks were able to move the ball effectively against a struggling Texas A&M defense. This year, the Aggies don't have Manziel (or Mike Evans) and the defense still must prove it isn't as bad as it was a season ago. This game is at a neutral site (AT&T Stadium), so there's no “home-field advantage,” though it is in the Aggies' home state. Still, keep an eye on this one as a possibility.
Key stat: Arkansas returns virtually all of its production on offense. Players returning accounted for 95 percent of the Razorbacks' total offense in 2013, 91 percent of their rushing yards, 99 percent of their passing yards, 80 percent of their all-purpose yards, 60 percent of their receiving yards and 63 percent of their touchdowns.
They said it: “The reason I hired Robb Smith wasn't because we shared an apartment together for three months, not because I knew his wife, set him up, he still owes me money on that, it's because everywhere he went he got promoted. He went to Maine. The next year he was coordinator, assistant head coach. He goes to Rutgers, he's a corners coach, then a linebackers coach, then a defensive coordinator. Then they take him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he gets promoted. You don't promote people that you don't know are good.” -- Bret Bielema on hiring new defensive coordinator Robb Smith
ESPN Stats & Information: 4.9 wins
Bovada over-under: 4.5
Our take: It's an uphill battle for Arkansas but that's news to nobody. The SEC West is tough to get through and the schedule-makers did the Razorbacks no favors by giving them Auburn out of the gate. That being said, showing evidence of improvement is key for this group. They should be able to exceed their win total from last season. Improvement from quarterback Brandon Allen will be key, but there should be a comfort level with all the returning talent on offense. If the aggressive, attacking mentality instilled from new defensive coordinator Robb Smith can yield quick results, the Razorbacks have reason for optimism. The fight they showed late last season against quality SEC West teams is something to build on. However, while improvement is likely, bowl-eligibility is probably still a season away for this group.