SEC: Kentucky Wildcats

Recruiting changing in up-tempo era 

August, 25, 2014
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The SEC, a league that is known for its hard-nose, physical style of play is slowly transforming into a spread-offense, up-tempo league. It's a change that hasn't happened overnight and teams like Alabama, LSU, Georgia, with their pro-style offenses, will always have their imprint on the toughest league in all of college football.

With fast-paced offenses such as Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M having much success over the last few years, it's forcing defenses to change their philosophy on who they recruit to defend against these spread attacks.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pound middle linebackers are dwindling and replacing them are hybrid linebackers that can rush the passer and run sideline-to-sideline. There are 23 outside linebackers committed to SEC schools currently, all but one, Darrell Williams, weigh less than 220 pounds. There are only four inside linebackers committed to SEC schools.

SEC morning links

August, 25, 2014
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1. Game week is here. We are just three days away from South Carolina and Texas A&M. Steve Spurrier is ready. But there are still some question marks around the SEC, specifically at quarterback. Who does LSU go with against Wisconsin? Will Alabama ever name a starter before its first game? And how much will Nick Marshall play in Auburn’s season opener? The latter is yet to be determined, but Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday that both Marshall and backup Jeremy Johnson know what to expect as the Arkansas game approaches. If you’re like me, you’re just ready for all three schools to name a starter so we can stop talking about it.

2. For those hoping to see the SEC’s next Jared Lorenzen, it might be awhile. There was talk that Jeremy Liggins, who stands at 6-foot-3, 296 pounds, would take some reps as the Wildcat quarterback for Ole Miss this season, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, it will be Anthony Alford, a Southern Miss transfer who also plays baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Alford was taken in the third round of the 2012 MLB draft. Don’t sleep on Liggins, though. Rebels' coach Hugh Freeze says there are multiple packages where the former high school quarterback will line up at tight end. And since we brought up Lorenzen, I encourage you read this piece on the former Kentucky gunslinger and his lifelong battle with weight.

3. We at the SEC blog looked at the most important game for every SEC team in 2014. Along those same lines, David Climer of The Tennessean put out his 14 for ’14 – the defining game of 2014 for every SEC team. Some are more obvious like Georgia going to South Carolina early in the season or Alabama making the trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. But I was surprised to see that Tennessee’s “defining game” is the season opener against Utah State. Don’t get me wrong. Utah State has one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks in Chuckie Keeton, and the Vols can’t afford to lose that game. But the defining game? I’d make a case for the Florida game or maybe Vanderbilt at the end of the season. The Commodores have taken the last two in the rivalry. What do UT fans think?

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The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.
A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."

SEC morning links

August, 21, 2014
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1. Talk to any SEC athletic director about priorities during football season and fans’ in-game experience inevitably arises in the conversation. With so many games available now on TV – which you can watch for free, from the comfort of home, in high definition – SEC schools researched the areas of greatest concern to fans. They found that availability of concessions and restroom conditions were the top issues, and other concerns include cell service and video production. The SEC reported that 12 schools have upgraded their concessions before this season and at least eight are working on improving restroom and/or cell service. Those changes won’t necessarily be the deciding factor in whether most fans attend a game, but in this day and age, schools recognize that they must provide as many fan amenities as possible because there are so many entertainment options available.

2. This might be too much for even the most even-tempered Auburn fan to turn down. Deranged Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, who poisoned the famous Toomer’s Oaks in downtown Auburn, has agreed to appear at a Sept. 29 charity event in Mobile, Alabama, where fans can dunk him in a dunking booth or throw pies at his face. The event will help raise funds for “Roses From Linda,” which helps family members visit terminally ill patients before they die. Updyke’s wife, Elva, said he told charity organizers “they can do whatever they want to him if it will raise money for kids.” So get your pitching arms warmed up, Auburn fans. You’ve got about a month.

3. Speaking of the Iron Bowl, hey, whaddya know? The Auburn-Alabama game is college football’s hottest ticket on the secondary market, according to this story from Forbes. The median price is only $535 a pop. No big deal. Also included in the top 10 are six other games that feature SEC teams (Alabama-LSU, Florida-Alabama, Clemson-Georgia, LSU-Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia). None of those games hold a candle to the top single-game ticket price from last preseason, however. At this time last year, Alabama-Texas A&M tickets were going for an average of $744 on the secondary market.

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SEC morning links

August, 19, 2014
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1. Kentucky settled its quarterback race on Monday when coach Mark Stoops announced that sophomore Patrick Towles will be the Wildcats' starter. It's a nice story, because Towles redshirted last season and competed for the starting job twice before and lost. Instead of transferring, Towles continued to work and battled his way to the top of the depth chart. Not an easy thing to do in the winner-starts-loser-transfers trend that seems to be increasing among college football quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound Towles was even able to fend off highly-regarded true freshman Drew Barker, a prize recruit in the Wildcats' 2014 class. No word yet from Stoops whether Barker will redshirt this season, but regardless, former Wildcat great Tim Couch has sage advice for the young Barker: "It’s how you handle that year that is really going to determine the rest of your career."

2. Vanderbilt's quarterbacks are wearing knee braces in hopes of preventing injuries. It's not common to see healthy quarterbacks who haven't had knee injuries wear them and Vanderbilt's signal-callers did not engage in this practice in the 16 years that head trainer Tom Bossung has been there. After losing two quarterbacks to knee injuries last season, though, the Commodores decided to make the move. They're different from the offensive linemen's knee braces, but thumbs up to the Commodores training staff on the move. While it may not prevent all knee injuries, the decision to do it moving forward should help. It has become so common among offensive linemen, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend among quarterbacks across the nation.

3. Alabama brought in its fourth motivational speaker of fall camp, welcoming former Fresno State basketball star Chris Herren to campus on Monday. Herren got a positive response from the Crimson Tide players. Preceding Herren in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during training camp was former NFL player and current league executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, former NBA star Antoine Walker and well-renowned motivational speaker Eric Thomas. This is certainly not uncommon; plenty of programs bring in guest speakers or motivational speakers to get messages across to players. Still, it's beneficial because when you recruit at the level Alabama does, you bring in dozens of highly-regarded players who have been told often how good they are. Getting messages from people who have been through ups and downs like Herren or Walker or someone like Vincent who has played at the highest level of football as these players undoubtedly hope to, they can impart valuable wisdom and provide a different voice other than the coaches who are barking at them every day. Sometimes that different voice can have an effect.

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As we count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the official start of the 2014 college football season, we're also gearing up for our first trip through the College Football Playoff.

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.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Patrick Green/Icon SMIThere's strong support among SEC players such as La'el Collins for the new College Football Playoff, but they have different ideas on how big it should get.
There's a 13-member playoff committee, revolving playoff sites and newfound excitement attached to the playoff. Fans, coaches, media members and school administrators have all weighed in on the pros and cons of the College Football Playoff, but we haven't really heard a lot from the players who will actually be partaking in the playoff and throwing their bodies around a couple of more times each season.

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.

Enough teams?

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
Travel

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.”
Injury concern?

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.
More than ever, the Power Five conferences are jockeying for the pole position as we get set for the first season of the College Football Playoff.

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.

SEC morning links

August, 13, 2014
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1. On Tuesday, ESPN unveiled campaign posters for the top four contenders in the College Football Playoff hunt. Each came with a clever tagline, such as Alabama’s “Process of elimination” and Oregon’s “Look good, play better.” Florida State’s “Dallas to Dallas” was a nod, of course, to the Seminoles opening the season in Big D against Oklahoma State and, hopefully, closing the season there in the CFB Playoff title match. But it got me thinking: What taglines would other SEC programs employ in their bid to make the Playoff? Auburn’s is easy: #AuburnFast. Florida’s could read: No Georgia Southern, no problem. LSU’s might go: The young and the relentless. And South Carolina’s could nod to the Head Ball Coach: Keeping the SEC spicy. There’s a comments section, so go ahead and have fun with the concept.

2. Laquon Treadwell is not a man to be trifled with. Even in practice, he does things that make your jaw hit the floor. Just look at this catch the other day. His Go-Go-Gadget fingertips are just ridiculous. How he corralled that pass is mesmerizing. To me, he seems like a young Joe Horn (without the cell-phone celebrations). He not physically imposing or particularly fast, yet he’s explosive. If he can’t get by a DB, he’ll simply jump around or over them. He's got that knack for getting his hands on the football. Though there are definite questions about the quarterbacks in the SEC, I’m excited to see the crop of receivers. Treadwell and Amari Cooper are clearly at the top of the list. But look out for young studs such as Ricky Seals-Jones (Mike Evans 2.0), Speedy Noil (the SEC West’s long-awaited answer to Percy Harvin) and Malachi Dupre (think of a young A.J. Green).

3. A few weeks ago, ESPNU replayed the South Carolina-Missouri game from last season. You remember it, I’m sure: Connor Shaw comes off the bench to lead the Gamecocks to a furious come-from-behind win in double overtime. It was a doozy. But watching it again, I paid closer attention to the offense under Dylan Thompson. It was a best case-worst case scenario. At times, Thompson was sharp. It wasn’t his fault Mike Davis fumbled twice in the first half. But there were other times where Thompson left you wanting more. I had to rewind and replay his interception at least a dozen times. His footwork and fundamentals were unspeakably bad. It was what you teach a QB not to do. Turns out, he has a little gunslinger in him. Now he’s trying to tone some of that down. That’s good news if you’re a Gamecocks fan. You don’t need Thompson to be Brett Favre. With a stellar group of tailbacks, a strong offensive line and an underrated receiving corps, Thompson needs to simply manage the game. If he limits his mistakes and keeps his defense out of short-field situations, South Carolina has a chance to separate itself in the East.

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You can sign all the four- and five-star recruits in the world, but none of that matters if you're not able to fill your needs. RecruitingNation takes a look at 2015 recruits who most fill the needs of each of the SEC schools.


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“Change the game.” That’s the slogan that can be found on multiple billboards throughout the state of Kentucky -- the same billboards that made a 6-foot-6, 263-pound man cry.

The billboards, located in Lexington, Louisville and even Cincinnati, Ohio, feature the face of Kentucky defensive end Za'Darius Smith, yelling as he grips a football. Last month, the athletic department sent Smith to see the billboards in person, and he broke down when he saw his giant face plastered on a wall for the world to see.

 
“How would you feel if you were on one?” Smith asked a group of ESPN writers at SEC media days last month. “If you see your face on a billboard, that just gives you that roller-coaster ride, like your heart drops. Look where I came from, look where I’ve been in my life. I never thought I’d be on the side of the highway on a billboard.”

That’s where “change the game” has an even deeper meaning for Smith. If Smith hadn't changed his game back in high school, he would never have made it to Kentucky and certainly never made it on a billboard.

Smith grew up in Greenville, Alabama, population 8,000. He had always been bigger than his peers, but he never played football. His mother wouldn’t let him. Instead, he was a basketball player, and a good one at that. At 6-5, he was a force at the high school level, consistently dunking over his opponents, but he wasn't quite tall enough for the next level.

Ironically, it was his basketball coach, Earnest Hill, who encouraged Smith to try football.

“I told him, ‘You don’t realize it now, but football will be your meal ticket,’" Hill said.

Hill, who also served as Greenville’s defensive coordinator, convinced Smith to go out for football as a freshman, but after suffering a stinger in fall camp, Smith had had enough. It wasn’t until his senior year that he tried it again and played his first game. By that time, it was too late to teach him any technique. He was just told to chase down the quarterback.

“That year he played, he really didn’t know what he was doing,” Hill said. “He was just out there having fun. He was just like a kid in a candy store out there running around.”

Smith finished his lone high school season with 31 tackles and eight sacks. It wasn’t enough to garner interest from big schools, but he caught somebody’s eye at East Mississippi Community College, which took a chance on him.

“I had to grow up coming out of high school,” Smith said of his time at EMCC. “I only had one year (of experience), so I had to get down to it, learn technique, learn the scheme and learn how to play the game for real.”

He proved to be a quick learner. Smith totaled 47 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss his sophomore season, and just like that, he had offers from top programs like Auburn, Florida State, Miami and Texas A&M.

He signed with Kentucky, however, despite never taking an official visit to Lexington because of the relationship he had with first-year coach Mark Stoops. The decision paid off. He started every game last season and finished among the team leaders in tackles and sacks.

“Z put a lot of faith and confidence in us and what we were doing, so I’m very proud of the fact that he’s come a long way,” Stoops said. “He’s doing everything right. He’s going to graduate. He’s doing well in school, and he’s becoming a great player.

“We always knew he was very talented. He did some very good things a year ago, but I think you’re going to see some very big things from him this year.”

At media days, Smith wore his white suit like he had known for years he would attend. But make no mistake about it: Even he couldn’t believe how far he’d come.

Four years ago, he was a high school basketball player who had never played a down of football in his life. Now he’s a potential All-SEC candidate with the NFL a real possibility. On top of that, he’s quickly becoming the face of Kentucky football. He represented his school at media days, and his billboard is hard to miss when you’re driving through the area.

“I want to thank God for this situation,” Smith said. “He put me in the right position to be a great human being and a great person, and just by coming in and being a leader, being on the billboard means a lot to me.”

Smith has changed the game.

Kentucky Wildcats season preview

August, 11, 2014
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Kentucky Wildcats:

2013 record: 2-10

Final grade for 2013 season: Can you blame Kentucky for the season it had? The Wildcats never found a quarterback, lacked playmakers on offense, and the secondary had to replace three starters from a team that finished 2-10 the previous season. Still, an SEC win would’ve been nice. It’s now been three years since Kentucky last won a conference game. But the 2013 team showed more fight under Mark Stoops, so for that we give them a D-plus, rather than a D.

Key losses: QB Jalen Whitlow, RB Raymond Sanders, OG Kevin Mitchell, DT Donte Rumph, DT Tristian Thompson, LB Avery Williamson

Key returnees: RB Jojo Kemp; WR Javess Blue; OT Darrian Miller; OT Jordan Swindle; DE Alvin 'Bud" Dupree; DE Za’Darius Smith; LB Khalid Henderson; Nickel Blake McClain

[+] EnlargeZa'Darius Smith
Jeff Moreland/Icon SMIZa'Darius Smith and Kentucky are aiming to win their first SEC game since 2011.
Projected 2014 starters: QB Patrick Towles; RB Jojo Kemp; FB D.J. Warren; WR Javess Blue; WR Ryan Timmons; TE Steven Borden; LT Darrian Miller; LG Zach West; C Jon Toth; RG Ramsey Meyers; RT Jordan Swindle; DE Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree; DT Mike Douglas; DT Melvin Lewis; DE Za’Darius Smith; MLB Josh Forrest; WLB Khalid Henderson; Nickel Blake McClain; CB Fred Tiller; S A.J. Stamps; S Ashely Lowery; CB Cody Quinn

Instant-impact newcomers: QB Drew Barker, RB Braylon Heard, WR Garrett Johnson, DT Cory Johnson, DT Matt Elam, LB Ryan Flannigan, S A.J. Stamps

Breakout player: Forget the Air Raid attack. The strength of this Kentucky team is at running back, and the Wildcats have a handful of good ones. Kemp might start the season opener because of his experience from last year and his performance in the spring game, but don’t be surprised if Heard tallies more carries by the end of the season and has a bigger impact on this team. He transferred from Nebraska in search of carries, and he’ll get them in Lexington. As a Cornhusker, he rushed for 462 yards in two seasons, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Most important game: Vanderbilt isn’t going to move the needle like a South Carolina, a Georgia or even a Louisville, but Kentucky’s date with the Commodores on Sept. 27 is huge. It’s the Wildcats’ best chance to win an SEC game. The more the conference losses keep piling up, the more pressure there is to win one. Why not get it out of the way early? Not to mention, Vandy has won three straight in the series.

Biggest question mark: Who’s going to be the quarterback? The coaching staff was hoping for a quick resolution, but we’re a week into fall camp and still no word. Maxwell Smith has the most experience, starting four games each of the past two seasons, but Kentucky might be looking to go in a different direction with either Towles or Barker, a pair of former four-star recruits from the Bluegrass State. Towles has been on campus longer, but Barker is the future. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips is also in the mix ... for now, but don’t expect Stoops to wait much longer before he makes a decision.

Upset special: The players have already circled the SEC opener at Florida, but there’s a better chance Kentucky takes down South Carolina at home three weeks later. If you recall, the Wildcats went to Columbia last year and played maybe their best game of the season, losing 35-28. The Gamecocks will be playing their fourth conference game in as many weeks, leaving them vulnerable to a potential upset, and if Kentucky knocks off Vanderbilt the week before, the pressure will be off and momentum will be on its side.

Key stat: Kentucky had just three interceptions in 2013. The Wildcats were not only last in the SEC, they were tied with Temple and Utah for last among all 125 FBS teams.

They said it: “A lot of people are sleeping on us. They have reason to -- we won four games the last two years. How can somebody win four games and play in the SEC? We had a lot of chances to put guys on their deathbed, but we really didn’t step on their throat like we should have and then twist the knife. We had a lot of chances, but we didn’t [do it]. Hopefully this year we will capitalize on everything and the chances we have to win games, we will twist the knife and step on their throat.” -- defensive end Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 5.5 wins

Bovada over-under: 3.5 wins

Our take: The schedule actually sets up nicely for Kentucky. Assuming wins over UT-Martin, Ohio and Louisiana-Monroe, the Wildcats could have four, maybe even five wins by the middle of October. That would be a major improvement for a team that has a total of four wins the past two seasons. The only problem is the second half of the schedule is much more rigorous, so it’s important Kentucky gets off to a fast start. Best-case scenario is probably six wins and a bowl game, but more realistically this team is looking at five wins in 2014. The program is moving in the right direction under Stoops, but it’s still a year away.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
12:15
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It’s still the first week of fall camp, and we’re still getting a look at the fresh faces in the SEC. How is Jacob Coker spinning it? Where is Leonard Fournette on the depth chart? ESPN’s Travis Haney has Coker and Fournette as his top two breakout players for 2014, a list that includes 18 players total from the SEC.

For more news and notes around the conference, check out Thursday’s lunch links.
  • Alabama is still tinkering as it seeks the “five best guys” to start on the offensive line.
  • With Nick Marshall missing the start against Arkansas in the season opener, it’s time for Auburn to name the starter and give the ball to Jeremy Johnson.
  • As he enters his sophomore season, Florida running back Kelvin Taylor has gained a step or two, improving his speed in the offseason.
  • The typically transparent Mark Richt has taken a vow of silence this fall when it comes to Georgia’s injury report.
  • Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was not pleased after practice on Wednesday. What he saw was “not good enough” as his team lacked the mentality he’s looking for.
  • Speed and experience make linebackers Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones key parts of a revitalized LSU defense.
  • Mississippi State wide receivers Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson are rooting for each other this season despite competing for targets.
  • Despite the Toronto Blue Jays’ best efforts, Ole Miss safety Anthony Alford is not ready to give up football, his first love.
  • Dylan Thompson is the starting quarterback for South Carolina, but who’s No. 2? Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is in the lead ... for now.
  • New mantra has Tennessee wide receiver Josh Smith “starting strong” this fall after a knee injury derailed his freshman year.

Center(s) of attention in the SEC

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
1:00
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There are always debates this time of year as we anticipate the start of another college football season.

Who’s the favorite to win the national championship?

Which is the strongest conference?

Who’s the Heisman Trophy front-runner?

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIReese Dismukes was a finalist for the Rimington Award last season and is joined by 10 other SEC centers in this year's Rimington watch list.
What’s not up for debate, at least with regard to the SEC, is that the league has never been this talented or this deep at the center position entering a season.

Eleven of the 14 starting centers in the SEC were among the 66 players on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the top center in the country.

Talk about being the center of attention.

And while it’s true that we all get caught up in the skill players -- the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers -- it all starts right there in the middle of the offensive line.

If you’re good at center, everything else usually has a way of falling into place up front offensively.

“The thing I like best about it is that you’re in control of five guys, and really, the success of those five guys is sort of on your shoulders,” said Auburn senior center Reese Dismukes, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy a year ago.

“You hear a lot of people say the center is the quarterback of the offensive line. That appeals to me. I like being in control, making the calls and making sure everybody’s on the same page. If you’re not making the right calls, somebody’s going to be on the wrong page, and it only takes one person being on the wrong page for it all to go bad. I like having that pressure on me.”

Dismukes’ SEC cohorts on the Rimington Trophy watch list include Georgia’s David Andrews, Missouri’s Evan Boehm, Mississippi State’s Dillon Day, Florida’s Max Garcia, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Texas A&M’s Mike Matthews, LSU’s Elliott Porter, Kentucky’s Jon Toth, Vanderbilt’s Joe Townsend and South Carolina’s Cody Waldrop.

They’re all a little different, some more experienced than others, and some bigger than others. But they’ve all perfected the rarest of crafts, which is being able to successfully snap a football (usually a shotgun snap in this day and age) with a 300-pound plus defensive tackle itching to step on their throat as soon as the ball is snapped.

“You’re doing a lot of different things at once and processing a lot of information very quickly,” said Boehm, who started all 14 games last season at center after starting all 12 at left guard as a true freshman. “It’s a big responsibility as an offensive lineman to touch the ball every play. Everything starts with you, and you have to be vocal up there.”

Dismukes, a preseason All-American, is part of an Auburn offensive line that should again be one of the best in the SEC. The 6-3, 295-pound senior has been a fixture up front for the Tigers from the day he walked onto campus and has started in 37 of his 39 games.

Ask him how much he’s grown up during that time, and he offers a hearty chuckle.

“Light years,” he said. “This game makes you grow up fast, or it will shove you right out of it.”

Whereas Dismukes has been a center ever since he can remember, Boehm didn’t start playing the position until last season. He actually went to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and requested the move after playing left guard as a freshman.

“I felt like it was the best thing for the team and best thing for me, and I appreciate Coach Pinkel for having enough trust in me to make the move,” said Boehm, who was actually a fullback when he first started playing football in the seventh grade.

Boehm isn’t the only SEC center who’s relatively new to the position. Garcia is making the transition as a fifth-year senior at Florida after splitting his time last season between guard and tackle. He began his career at Maryland and started all 12 games at left tackle in 2011 before transferring to Florida.

But regardless of the path a player takes to the center position, there’s a fraternity of sorts, a pride thing that transcends size, speed, and even looks.

Boehm and Dismukes know each other from the recruiting process, as Dismukes was Boehm’s host when Boehm visited Auburn.

Dismukes and Georgia's Andrews also stay in touch and will occasionally share tips on upcoming opponents. Between them, they have 64 career starts. Mississippi State’s Day has 34 career starts. So if you throw Day into the mix, that’s a combined 98 starts among the SEC’s three most grizzled center veterans.

“We’re not the strongest or most athletic or any of that stuff,” Dismukes said of his center brethren. “Maybe we’re a little weird, but we just love the game.”

They love their hair, too.

Boehm and Day are running a tight race for the “locks” award. Both are known for their trademark hair as much as they are for locking down opposing defensive linemen. Boehm has the bushy look going -- beard and all -- while Day is sporting the long, blond-rocker look.

Of course, it’s not like either is overly concerned with style. Technique, maybe, but certainly not style, not with some of the monsters they have to block in the SEC.

“With the defensive line culture in the SEC, you better also create that same culture in the offensive line, and that starts in the middle,” Boehm said. “The great thing about this league is you’ve got guys like Reese and David and all the other guys, and you can study their moves and why they’ve been so successful and try to incorporate it into your game.

“It’s an honor to be among them.”

And even better to be front and center.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
12:00
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With training camps in full swing now across the conference, there are plenty of interesting stories around the SEC. From talk about quarterbacks to injuries and more, here's a sampling via Wednesday's lunch links:

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