SEC: LSU Tigers

NEW ORLEANS -- Many of the best players from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas were at the New Orleans Opening regional camp and several trending topics emerged from the event. But the biggest is that it looks like Alabama and LSU are set to do battle again for the top 2016 prospects in Louisiana and bordering states.
NEW ORLEANS -- March has been kind to 2017 running back Cordarrian Richardson of Memphis Trezevant. The sophomore is quickly becoming a household name on the national recruiting trail.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Everyone has their candidates to become breakout performers in 2015 -- even LSU's players themselves.

The Tigers are now two-thirds of the way through spring practice, so we asked a handful of LSU players to consider what they've witnessed so far this spring and answer the following question:

"Who is a player that the average fan might not know well yet, but who they'll be talking about this fall?"

The most popular answer? Sophomore receiver D.J. Chark.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Chark
Kim Klement/USA TODAYSophomore D.J. Chark has impressed his teammates this spring.

"For sure right now, off spring football, it's D.J. Chark," senior safety Jalen Mills said. "He's been playing at a very high level for us. I think he's moved into a starting role. That's what I've been seeing in practice, and he's been playing off the charts right now. Hopefully he keeps it up and makes the team better."

LSU coach Les Miles has credited Chark with at least one touchdown catch after each of the Tigers' three spring scrimmages, which would be a huge step forward from a freshman season where he appeared in six games, but did not record a reception.

Miles said the speedy wideout is playing with improved confidence, and Chark's teammates seem to agree.

"You hear about Travin Dural and Trey Quinn and John Diarse and myself at receiver because we got the bulk of the plays last year," sophomore receiver Malachi Dupre said. "But I feel like D.J. Chark is making full strides and working towards playing time for himself. I feel like he's done a great job this spring. His biggest thing was confidence. It wasn't his physical abilities at all."

Sophomore running back Leonard Fournette said of Chark: "He's a sophomore now with us and stepping up, making big plays. I always knew he had it in him, but you didn't want to put him out there too early. But he's coming along big time."

Here are some other Tigers' picks for 2015 breakout players:

Offensive lineman Vadal Alexander's pick: Weakside linebacker Deion Jones

Alexander offered up several names, including tight end DeSean Smith and the interior linemen -- he named Garrett Brumfield, Josh Boutte, Will Clapp, Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone -- who are competing for starting jobs. His first pick was Jones, though, who is taking over for Kwon Alexander at linebacker.

"He plays extremely fast," Alexander said. "He's really learning how to take on blocks now, because in the SEC you can't run around everybody. You've got to take on people and he's doing a really good job of that. He's the fastest linebacker I've faced since I've been at LSU. He's really talented, sees things fast and he's improving. He's probably had the best spring out of all the linebackers."

Middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith's pick: Safety Rickey Jefferson

"He had his moments last year with interceptions and things, but I feel like people might not respect him enough or see him as that type of player yet," Beckwith said. "I feel like he's going to have a breakout-type, a real good year for us. [He can] come up, hit, cover. He's been doing it all. I feel like he's kind of under the radar, but once the season gets started, people will see."

Cornerback Tre'Davious White's pick: Cornerback Russell Gage

"He's making so many plays -- intercepting the ball, breaking the ball up, bringing energy," White said. "He's going to be a great player. He didn't play last year, just trying to adjust to everything and I feel like this year, he's going to be a guy that makes a lot of plays once he gets on the field."

Tight end DeSean Smith's pick: Defensive tackle Greg Gilmore

"Every time I watch Greg, he's busting his butt," Smith said. "He's out there, he's doing real good and I feel like he'll blow up for sure. That's the first name that came to my mind."

Defensive end Lewis Neal's pick: Defensive end Maquedius Bain

"He's had to switch positions, but he's learning and he's still getting better at what he does," Neal said of Bain, who played defensive tackle last season. "Obviously he didn't play a lot last year. We both were in the same boat. But it's that time to come, to step up. So that's a name that nobody knows. That's one person I can name off the defensive line that you will hear."

Neal offered that compliment to his teammate, but he was also quick to note that it's still on Bain and the other players mentioned to truly earn that praise.

The breakout candidates have apparently made strides this spring, but they still have plenty to prove.

"You really can't make a suggestion about whose name will be heard because it's all about that person," Neal said. "I can say that, but what if it comes back to haunt me because they didn't follow through? It's all about your drive and your effort to get there. That's huge credibility if you put that on yourself. … If that person has that drive, they can be all that they want to be."

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

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

Not much separation in QB races

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

Arkansas' offensive line shake-up

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

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

Austin Golson's new position

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

D.J. Chark's impressive spring

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

Brandon Powell's emergence at Florida

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

video BRADENTON, Fla. -- There were several ESPN Junior 300 members on hand at the IMG7v7 Southeast Regional Championship this weekend on the campus of IMG Academy. The event was headlined by prospects such as quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Jack Allison, wide receivers Sam Bruce, T.J. Chase, Trevon Diggs, Demetris Robertson, Eli Stove and Dionte Mullins, and defensive backs Jamel Cook, K.J. Sails and Tyreke Johnson. The talent didn't disappoint as there were several spectacular plays throughout the event. Here are some of the best social media posts from the weekend.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Collins was shocked to learn at the NFL scouting combine that he had a fractured right foot.

For his sake, thankfully the combine medical staff still allowed Collins to participate, and he delivered one of the most impressive performances of any cornerback at the event despite the injury.

The former LSU cornerback, whom some draft analysts project as a first-round pick, recently underwent surgery to repair an incomplete Jones fracture in his foot. It prevented him from participating in LSU’s pro day on Friday, but should only sideline him for about three more weeks.

[+] EnlargeJalen Collins
David J. PhillipJalen Collins didn't let a broken foot prevent him from impressing at the NFL scouting combine.

“When I first found out, I was kind of disappointed because I didn’t think I was going to be able to work out at the combine,” Collins said. “When my name wasn’t on the list of people that had to sit out, I was excited to hear that.

“Just after the combine workouts I just went into it [thinking] this is something that I have to get done -- a little speed bump, but it shouldn’t be too hard to come back from.”

The foot surgery is about the only disappointing aspect of the three months since Collins declared for the draft. He started seven games last season as a junior and just 10 in his entire college career, but Collins’ combination of ideal size (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) and raw tools helped him vault up the list of prospects at his position.

Not bad for a guy who was advised to stay in college when he submitted his name to the NFL underclassman advisory board to be evaluated as a possible draft entrant. Undaunted, Collins had faith in his own abilities. Those abilities have him sitting 24th on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board and ranking as Kiper’s No. 3 cornerback.

“I was honestly just hoping for the best,” Collins said of his decision to enter the draft. “Everybody wants to be in the first round, obviously, but coming in, I really didn’t have any prior expectations. I was just going to do what I could do and hope for the best.”

Following his combine performance, where he ran a 4.48-second time in the 40-yard dash and finished among the top cornerbacks in several other drills while performing well during positional exercises, Collins has reason for optimism.

Collins said he already has interviews lined up with nine or 10 NFL clubs, starting with the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars next week. Once his foot heals, he will surely have several more individual workouts with interested suitors ahead of the April 30 draft.

“It really has [been a whirlwind],” Collins said. “Leading up to the combine and just kind of working out, not really having any idea what would happen, just, ‘I’m going to work hard, do what I can.’ And then after the combine, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ ”

While Collins was unable to participate on Friday, 22 former LSU players were able to compete in front of approximately 100 scouts and coaches representing every NFL club.

Offensive tackle La'el Collins -- another possible first-round pick -- was among them, although he stood on the numbers he posted at the combine and participated only in positional drills alongside former teammates Elliott Porter, Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander, whose 4.55 time in the 40 was among the fastest for linebackers at the combine, participated only in the shuttle run and positional drills. Defensive end Danielle Hunter did all of the events and drills on Friday except the 40 -- he ran the fastest time of any defensive lineman at the combine at 4.57 -- and the bench press after completing 25 reps at the combine.

“I felt great [at the combine],” said Hunter, who injured himself at the combine while running his second 40. “I had a little hamstring injury and I didn’t want to do all the drills, so I just waited until pro day to do most of the drills.”

But Hunter was pleased with his showing on Friday, when he posted the best numbers out of all of the day’s participants in the 20-yard shuttle run (4.31 seconds), three-cone drill (6.95 seconds), broad jump (10 feet, 10.5 inches) and vertical jump (36.5 inches). ESPN Scouts Inc.’s No. 77 overall prospect and Kiper’s No. 9 defensive end, Hunter participated in positional drills at both end and linebacker.

“I got the times I needed,” Hunter said. “I showed what I can show in my drills. My hips, they could be a little better.”

The aforementioned foursome -- Jalen Collins, La'el Collins, Alexander and Hunter -- has already solidified positions as LSU’s top draft prospects, but several other Tigers needed strong performances on Friday in order to help themselves.

Two such players were running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. Magee did not run the 40 at the combine after injuring his hamstring at a postseason all-star game, and Hilliard probably wished he hadn’t run in Indianapolis after posting a 4.83. He fared much better on Friday, posting a 4.6, while Magee ran a 4.56.

“I heard a couple different things. I heard 4.6 and I heard 4.5, but I’m glad with either one,” Hilliard said. “I just wanted to improve here from the combine and that’s what I came out here and did.”

Receiver Quantavius Leslie posted the fastest 40 time of the day (4.45), while Porter completed the most bench press reps (34). For a full list of results, see the pro day page on LSU’s official athletics site here.

On defense, the front seven needs a good secondary just like the secondary needs a good front seven. It’s a team effort. Earlier today, we broke down the SEC’s best front-seven defenders, and there were some good ones. But now it’s time to take a look at the back end.

Whether it’s pulling down interceptions, breaking up passes or wreaking havoc in the backfield, this group can do it all. One look at this list and SEC quarterbacks should be concerned heading into the 2015 season. Good luck trying to throw against some of these guys.

So without further ado, here are the league’s top defensive backs, listed in alphabetical order:

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss, Jr.: With Cody Prewitt moving on, it might have made sense to move Conner back to a more natural safety role, but the coaches love him at the nickelback or “Husky” position, where he was named second-team All-SEC by the AP last year. Conner is more physical than most defensive backs, which makes him great in run support. He led the Rebels last year with nine tackles for loss. But he still has the ability to cover, too. Most forget that on his first college play, he came down with an interception.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsVernon Hargreaves III became one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC from the moment he walked on the Florida campus.

Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida, Jr.: There’s not a better cornerback in the SEC and there might not be a better one in the country. Hargreaves has finished among the conference leaders in passes broken up the last two seasons, and that’s with most quarterbacks opting not to throw in his direction. The All-SEC first-team selection will likely get more of that same treatment this fall, but it won’t be easy with Jalen Tabor emerging at the other cornerback spot and Brian Poole (see below) manning the nickelback position.

Jonathan Jones, CB, Auburn, Jr.: Auburn’s secondary took a lot of heat for its awful play late last season and rightfully so, but without Jones, it could’ve been much worse. The junior finished with 12 pass break-ups, one shy of the SEC lead, and was second in the conference with six interceptions. Given the lack of a pass rush, those numbers are remarkable. This season, it should be easier for Jones with Will Muschamp as the new defensive coordinator and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson returning from injury.

Jalen Mills, S, LSU, Sr.: It shouldn’t come as a shock that LSU has arguably the league’s best safety, but it was a mild surprise when Mills opted to return for his senior year. Sure, 2014 was a down year for Mills, who finished with just one interception and no sacks, but the talent was still there. Some have already tabbed him as a first-round pick in 2016. For now, the former cornerback-turned-safety will be asked to take on a bigger role in the LSU secondary with the departures of Jalen Collins and Ronald Martin.

Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee, Jr.: Sutton emerged on the scene as a freshman, doing a little bit of everything for the Volunteers’ defense, and he followed that up with a sensational sophomore campaign. The former three-star recruit started all 13 games, finished tied for the SEC lead with 13 pass break-ups and returned a punt for a touchdown in the victory over in-state rival Vanderbilt. If Sutton continues on the path he’s on now, it won’t be long before he’s considered one of the best defensive backs in college football.

Five more to watch

LSU pro day preview

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Dozens of NFL scouts and coaches will descend on LSU’s football facility Friday to watch more than 20 former Tigers participate in the program’s annual pro day.

Here's a breakdown:

Watch it live: The SEC Network will televise the workouts from 1-3 p.m. ET. It will also be available on the WatchESPN app and on SEC Network+. SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy will provide live reports and interviews, while Dari Nowkhah, former LSU star Marcus Spears and NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl will offer in-studio analysis.

LSU’s official site will provide updates from the players’ performances at lsusports.net/proday.

[+] EnlargeMike Hilton
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsTerrence Magee would boost his draft stock with a good 40 time.

Headliners: Offensive tackle La'el Collins and cornerback Jalen Collins are the Tigers’ top two draft prospects. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks La’El Collins 28th and Jalen Collins 29th on its list of the top 32 prospects in the upcoming draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. lists them 17th and 24th, respectively, on his Big Board and had both players getting selected in the first 20 picks in his most recent mock draft.

Jalen Collins is not expected to participate in pro day after undergoing recent foot surgery. However, he seemed to solidify his spot among the top cornerbacks with his buzzworthy performance at the NFL scouting combine last month. He ran a stellar 4.48-second time in the 40-yard dash, finished among the top handful of cornerbacks in several other drills and performed exceptionally in the positional drills. At 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, his size is also a great asset considering how many NFL clubs like big corners.

La’el Collins also helped his cause in Indianapolis. He performed well in the workouts and showed out in the positional drills, which could help him become LSU’s first offensive lineman picked in the first round since Alan Faneca in 1998.

Other top Tigers: Defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Kwon Alexander are LSU’s other candidates to become early-round selections.

At the combine, Hunter posted the fastest time among defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash, 4.57 seconds. Alexander was second among linebackers with a 4.55 time in the 40. Their speed and athleticism help both players rank among the better prospects at their positions.

This week, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranked Hunter eighth among defensive ends and Alexander 10th among outside linebackers. ESPN Scouts Inc. lists Alexander as its No. 53 overall prospect and Hunter at No. 77.

Friday’s storylines: The 40 times of LSU running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will be among the big storylines at pro day. Both players participated in the combine, but Magee didn’t run the 40 and Hilliard posted a disappointing official time of 4.83 seconds.

Scouts Inc. lists Magee as the No. 13 running back and No. 147 overall prospect, so he seems likely to be selected somewhere in a draft with 256 total picks -- and he can help by showcasing his versatility and posting a respectable 40 time at pro day. Hilliard is listed as the No. 29 running back and No. 286 overall prospect. He could use a productive pro day in order to solidify a shot as a free agent, even if he doesn’t become a late-round draft pick.

Multiple pro day participants will be in Hilliard’s position Friday. Only five of them seem to be surefire draft picks, but several could become undrafted free agents. Among the Tigers who didn’t earn combine invites but should have a chance to sign as undrafted free agents – if they don’t become late-round picks – are fullback Connor Neighbors (Scouts Inc.’s No. 2 prospect at his position), All-SEC safety Ronald Martin and defensive end Jermauria Rasco.

Participants: Eighteen members of LSU’s 2014 team are scheduled to participate: Alexander, receiver Luke Boyd, La’el Collins, offensive lineman Fehoko Fanaika, tight end Jake Franklin, Hilliard, Hunter, receiver Chris LaBorde, receiver Jeff Lang, receiver Quantavius Leslie, Magee, Martin, Neighbors, center Elliott Porter, Rasco, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive lineman Evan Washington and linebacker D.J. Welter.

In addition, four former Tigers -- fullback J.C. Copeland, offensive lineman Chris Faulk, linebacker Karnell Hatcher and linebacker Tahj Jones -- are schedule to participate.

Schedule: Pro day begins at 11:30 a.m. ET in LSU’s weight room. The players will first participate in vertical jump, broad jump and bench press then. At 1 p.m., they will move into the indoor practice facility to complete the 40-yard dash and shuttle runs. At about 2:15 p.m. they will begin individual workouts with NFL coaches by position (passing session at 2:15, running backs at 2:40, tight ends at 3, offensive line at 3:15, defensive backs at 3:35, linebackers at 3:55 and defensive line at 4:10).

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron apparently didn't take it easy on LSU's defensive players at the start of spring practice while that group adjusted to new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's adjustments.

But as the Tigers passed the midway point of the spring -- today's afternoon practice will be their ninth out of 15 on the schedule -- Steele's new terminology and checks were no longer so confusing.

"Everything is starting to finally click in and everything's moving faster," linebacker Duke Riley said last week. "At first it was slow for the first couple days. But now everything just started to move fast and it's going real good."

That's a far cry from the first week or so, which senior safety Jalen Mills called "frustrating" because Cameron, LSU's offensive coordinator, was throwing the kitchen sink at the defenders and forcing them to adjust.

"I hate not knowing, because now we have Coach Cam, knowing that we have a new defense, he's throwing all type of formations at us and all different types of motions and we have to make all types of checks," Mills said shortly after the start of spring practice. "I just want to be the guy, since I am a vet, to know everything, so I kind of put that pressure on myself."

Of course it's Cameron's job to test the defensive players, especially during spring practice after a coordinator change. The best way to prepare them for the high-pressure scenarios that will arrive in the fall is to put them through the ringer now.

It's apparently helping accelerate their progress.

"Cam, he's bringing all he can at us," Riley said. "We're adjusting to him and doing what we can. Everything's going good. Everything's clicking."

Not that Steele completely remade the defensive scheme from what predecessor John Chavis ran over the previous six seasons. LSU's players said things haven't changed considerably, but any new coordinator will bring a handful of new wrinkles.

"The real big thing with that was just the terminology: the new terms and stuff like that," sophomore linebacker C.J. Garrett said. "But for the most part, a lot of the scheme is based off of the same thing. It's definitely some new stuff in there, but it was really the terminology that I had to get down."

Unlike Mills, who is entering his fourth season as a starter, Garrett didn't have many old habits to break from the previous defensive scheme. He said he struggled throughout his freshman season to grasp his role in Chavis' defense, which is not unusual for a freshman who was accustomed to playing a relatively simple role in high school.

"When I was in high school, the plays I had, I had a little packet that big and I learned it in one day and I was done. Didn't look at it the rest of the year," Garrett said. "So that was something new that I had to learn -- learn how to watch film, learn how to go over my plays and actually understand it."

Understanding it is the goal this spring as they adjust to what Steele will ask of them this fall. And they seem to be progressing nicely, as LSU coach Les Miles said after last Saturday's scrimmage that, "I thought [the defense] had the better of the day."

Steele's defense has more than five months before it has to be game-ready, so there is still plenty of time to get things exactly right. But the Tigers seem to feel confident about the direction they are heading.

"Everybody's just got to get together and study," linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. "We've got to study together and then study individually and we'll get it."

What LSU doesn't need any more of is speed, but that's exactly what the Tigers are getting from sophomore D.J. Chark. The young, very speedy receiver played in six games last year, but didn't record any catches for the Tigers. However, that should change this fall, as he's really started progressing this spring. He caught a couple of touchdown passes in LSU's last scrimmage and is really starting to click with LSU's quarterbacks.

"I'm gaining chemistry with my teammates, the quarterbacks and receivers," Chark said. "The receivers are helping me. I feel like everybody pushing each other, we're getting better and better and its showing in practice and scrimmages."

You can read more about Chark's progress at The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The pretty boys got their turn on Wednesday as Georgia running back Nick Chubb headlined the SEC's top skill-position players heading into the 2015 season.

But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Todd Bennett/Getty ImagesMissouri center Evan Boehm has been providing a lift to the Tigers for years.

You don't see their faces unless something is wrong and their stats aren't kept in any public file, but the big uglies doing battle in the trenches are really the driving force to national championships.

With that said, here’s our early look at the SEC’s top offensive linemen heading into the 2015 season. They’re listed alphabetically:

Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU, Sr.: He thought about leaving and said it was "back and forth for a while" where one day he was going to declare for the NFL draft and another day he was coming back to LSU. And much to Les Miles' joy, it ended up being the latter. Now the Tigers have the Coaches All-SEC first-team selection to build around, although this year he'll slide from guard to tackle.

Evan Boehm, C, Missouri, Sr.: Tired of Boehm yet? It would be hard to blame you seeing as he already has started 40 consecutive games in his career. Surely there are a few flustered defensive linemen in the SEC who are ready to see him go by now. But Missouri's coaching staff is on the other end of that spectrum, lucky to have a center with so much experience to lean on.

Denver Kirkland, OT, Arkansas, Jr.: Shifting the junior from guard to tackle this spring could pay huge dividends for him and the Razorbacks. It not only gets him in better position for the NFL draft, but it provides quarterback Brandon Allen a 6-foot-5, 337-pound upperclassman to protect his blind side. Alongside Sebastian Tretola at left guard, look for coach Bret Bielema to play a lot of left-handed football this season.

Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Soph.: Some freshmen take time to get acclimated to the college game. But Robinson is not some freshmen. The former five-star prospect played from Day 1 at Alabama, starting all 14 games last year. And even more impressively, he was one of the Crimson Tide's most consistent linemen, leading the team in knockdown blocks while allowing just three sacks all season.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, Jr.: Think of Tunsil as Robinson, only a year older and a year closer to making a boatload of money in the NFL draft. He, too, saw the field as a true freshman, starting nine games while earning All-SEC Second Team honors. As a sophomore, he did more of the same, starting 11 games and earning a spot on the Coaches All-SEC squad. A broken leg he suffered in the Peach Bowl soured the season, but he's expected to be back in the starting lineup come Week 1.

Five more to watch:

One day, Brandon Harris will look back at 2015 and either smile or wonder what could have been. This is the year that will potentially make or break his LSU career.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLSU needs Brandon Harris to win the starting job in 2015.

 If the Tigers are going to take a stab at the SEC Western Division, Harris has to be the starting quarterback. The sophomore is too talented as a passer and too gifted an athlete, and LSU is in desperate need of a spark under center.

With all due respect to Anthony Jennings, who went 8-4 as a starter last year with 1,611 passing yards, Harris is the present and the future for LSU at quarterback. He just has to be. Yes, most of this has to be based on potential and his schooling of high school kids, but we saw glimpses of brilliance from Harris at times last year. There was the valiant comeback attempt against Mississippi State in which he threw for 140 yards on 6 of 9 passing and had two touchdowns. A week later he overwhelmingly out-dueled Jennings in a win over New Mexico State with his 178 yards and three touchdowns on 11 of 14 passing.

But there was also a dark side, like his dreadful 3 of 14 performance a game later against Auburn, which was his first -- and only -- start of the year. After that, Harris threw just one more pass during the Tigers' final seven games.

Harris not seeing time in other games is on him, and he knows it. His preparation wasn't good enough to beat out Jennings during practice, and it certainly wasn't good enough for him to try and best him in games.

That has to change because there's just no getting around the fact that he's more physically gifted than Jennings. He might not have had the mental part down last year, but Harris' throwing and running ability can't be wasted this season. For as admirably as Jennings played at times this season, he's held back in ways that Harris isn't when it comes to arm talent, and he isn't a consistent passing threat for defenses to fear. Jennings' 47. 1 percent completion percentage on third downs is a problem, especially when he's completing just 40 percent on third downs between 7 and 9 yards. Completing less than 48 percent of your passes in the second and third quarters of games just won't cut it either.

There's no reason Jennings can't grow and evolve too, but Harris has all the physical tools needed to be a bigger threat for LSU. The decision-making part is yet to be seen, but Harris appears to be progressing this spring.

"I’m going into my second spring. Obviously I know everything I need to know now," Harris said earlier this spring. "I feel more comfortable with everything we’re going to run. Obviously it’s a wide-open quarterback position, quarterback job, so everything is still even reps-wise. Again, going into my second spring, so I’m more comfortable. I don’t have to have someone telling me what to do or this and that. I’ll get everybody on the same page ... I expect to help this team win. I just expect to play more this year. I think with the ability God’s blessed me with, with Cam [Cameron] and them teaching me, I think I’ll play a big role this upcoming season."

Last year, the younger, more immature Harris was both wide-eyed and a little carefree during his first year at LSU. The supposed next big thing at quarterback for the Tigers was everything but that, as he watched his hype sink into the bayou from the sidelines for most of the year.

The No. 2 dual-threat quarterback by ESPN's RecruitingNation arrived with a mountain of hype strapped to his back, but started just one game and saw time sparingly during a season of passing ineptitude that left the Tigers at the bottom of the league when it came to throwing the football.

 When a highly-touted prospect can't do better than a starter who completed just 48.9 percent of his passes and averaged a paltry 123.9 passing yards per game, something's wrong. Harris clearly wasn't ready to be the guy.

Say what you will about how LSU's coaching staff used its quarterbacks last year, but even Harris knows he wasn't fit to be LSU's starting quarterback in 2014.

"Looking back, I would say I wasn’t ready," Harris said.

And that's fine. For every freshman phenom, there are hundreds who just aren't ready or don't even see playing time. But for LSU to advance in 2015, Harris has to be the guy.

There's a reason Harris was one of the most sought-after quarterbacks back in high school, and everyone picked him to come out of last spring as the starter. Harris now has the chance to take the huge steps needed from Year 1 to Year 2, which are crucial for both he and LSU.

So far, Harris' play has been met with mixed reviews this spring, but improvement is there, and so is a drive he hopes propels him this spring and beyond.

"I’ve always carried a chip on my shoulder, and I carry a chip on my shoulder now," he said. "People are going to talk about you until the day you die. I’ve always carried a chip.

"My thing is not letting me be my downfall, improving, overutilizing our coaches and looking for every way to improve."

Dominating Florida is always critical for Florida State, but another secret to the Seminoles' success is doing well in Virginia, and highly-coveted corner Levonta Taylor could be the Noles' next big get from the state.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Replacing starters is typically an imperfect process. But if Jeff Grimes has to replace two starters on LSU’s offensive line, he has the line set up to make the transition as painless as possible.

Should Grimes stick with his current setup, with returning starters Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander at the tackle spots and Ethan Pocic at center, the line’s newcomers at guard will have a veteran on both his right and his left.

“We all try to come together and really stay on the same page,” said Garrett Brumfield, a contender to take over one of the guard spots. “So it is good having veterans on both sides of you -- and even without it, whether it be the center, left tackle, right tackle, everybody’s always communicating, so it’s really good that way.”

[+] EnlargeVadal Alexander
Mark Humphrey/Associated PressVadal Alexander and the LSU offensive lineman are experimenting in playing different positions this spring.

Brumfield -- last season’s No. 1 guard in ESPN’s prospect rankings -- and William Clapp both redshirted last season but worked with the starters at right and left guard, respectively, when LSU opened spring practice earlier this month. They will face competition for the starting jobs from a number of candidates, including K.J. Malone and a handful of signees who LSU coach Les Miles said could “vie for some playing time.”

Not that their competition for playing time is restricted to one specific position.

For instance, Clapp said after last Tuesday’s practice that he had worked exclusively at center that day. Malone said he has worked at right tackle and left guard after backing up La'el Collins at left tackle last fall. Alexander and Pocic have started games at multiple positions, as well.

Detect a theme yet? The group’s versatility gives Grimes plenty of options.

“[Grimes is] doing a first-team A group and a first-team B group just to see how we look at each position,” Malone said. “So one time in A group, I’ll play right tackle and in B group I’ll play left guard. So he’s just seeing where he likes us."

That will likely continue throughout the spring, at least if Miles' comments following Saturday’s scrimmage were any indication.

“Right now it’s still early in the spring where you still want to look at a number of guys and see who’s who. No decisions really have been made at this point,” Miles said. “What we’re doing is it really allows us to have some time at other positions. So it gives us the opportunity to put guys, should injury occur in a game, in another spot. That’s really going to benefit us long term.”

It seems to be benefiting the linemen as well. Clapp practiced at both guard spots and at center during his redshirt season -- mostly while practicing with the varsity squad, not on the scout team -- and said he now feels comfortable at all of those spots. Those reps were particularly important at center, since that is the position typically responsible for making pre-snap calls and setting protections.

“When I first started playing center, it was a little overwhelming,” Clapp said, “but Ethan and Elliott [Porter] both helped me out a lot, and Coach Grimes is real understanding and was patient with me getting the snaps right and really making all the calls on the line.”

As Miles mentioned, Grimes’ theme of the spring is experimentation, so the young linemen realize that they probably can’t lock down a starting spot until August. LSU’s star-studded class of freshman linemen will be on campus by then, and it will obviously become more important for Grimes to make lineup decisions with kickoff approaching.

“He’s trying to see who can do what and who is talented at what to kind of feel out and see which five will be the five that he wants to play or rotate -- whether it’s six [players rotating] or seven,” Brumfield said. “But I think it’s good right now having guys who are versatile. We have a lot of different combinations that could possibly happen, so we’ll see how it plays out.”

The main thing right now, Clapp said, is realizing that a goal is within reach, even if the contenders must wait several months to achieve it.

“I knew that the starting five won’t be determined until camp’s over in August, so it’s a constant battle,” Clapp said. “We all know that it’s a competition every day. We all love knowing that the spot is there for us. We just need to go out there and take it.”

It's no secret that the most popular narrative when describing what makes the SEC tick in recent years has revolved around defense. It wins championships and it's something the SEC has been really, really good at for a number of years, especially during the conference's string of seven straight BCS national championships.

But like most things in this universe, football is evolving. Defense is great, but offense is greater, and slowly, the SEC is having to adapt and become a more offensive-friendly league. In the last two years, the league has had at least eight teams average more than 400 yards per game. From 2008 to 2012, the SEC never had more than six teams reach 400 yards per game in a single season.

This year, the league has a pretty impressive list of skill-position players to keep an eye on. We're taking a look at the top players a few positions around the league, and Wednesday we're starting with offensive skill players, listing the top players at running back, wide receiver/tight end, and we're looking at the top all-purpose player heading into the thee 2015 season.

Here's our list of the top skill players in the SEC:

Running back

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb didn't just fill in when Todd Gurley couldn't go he emerged as a first-team All-SEC pick after rushing for 1,547 yards.

Nick Chubb, So., Georgia

Chubb was outstanding as a true freshman last year, as he had to fill in for star running back Todd Gurley during Gurley's midseason suspension and his eventual season-ending knee injury. All Chubb, who stands a chiseled 5-foot-10, 228 pounds and renders arm tackles futile, did was rank second in the SEC with 1,547 rushing yards and tie for first with 14 rushing touchdowns. What's more impressive is that Chubb started just eight games -- all 100-yard performances -- and the All-SEC first-teamer saved the best for last. He registered a career-high, school bowl-record and SEC bowl-record 266 yards on 33 carries vs. Louisville in the Belk Bowl, the second-best total in a game in school history.

Leonard Fournette, So., LSU

Fournette was supposed to make an immediate, Michael Jordan-like impact for the Tigers last season, but needed some time to feel out the college game. In a why-haven't-you-won-the-Heisman-Trophy-now college football society, Fournette was viewed by some as a bust, despite being fresh out of high school. Still, a late-season surge and his menacing physique put Fournette firmly in this position. After shedding some weight and increasing his speed this offseason, there's no doubt the sophomore-to-be will shoot past his 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns from last year. Fournette averaged 98 yards in his final five games and blossomed into a fine player who should really take off in 2015.

Wide Receiver/Tight end

Pharoh Cooper, Jr., South Carolina

The Gamecocks didn't have a lot to smile about last season, but the offense set a handful of records last season. One reason for that was because of the play of Cooper, who finished the 2014 season third in the SEC in receptions (69), second in receiving yards (1,136) and receiving yards per game (87.4), fourth in receptions per game (5.3), and ninth in all-purpose yards per game (108.5). He also led the team in all receiving categories and was fourth with 200 yards rushing. He's the SEC's top returning statistical receiver, and while he registered only three 100-yard games, Cooper will be the go-to receiving threat for the Gamecocks yet again this fall.

D'haquille "Duke" Williams, Sr., Auburn

It's hard to find a more physically gifted receiver in the SEC. Williams had every chance to leave Auburn early for he NFL, but he decided to come back and really enhance his skill. Williams led the team with 45 receptions and had 730 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers don't impress you? Well, consider the fact he missed two games because of a knee injury and was suspended for the bowl game. Yes, we're dealing in hypotheticals, but hypothetically speaking, Williams likely would have come close to or topped the 1,000-yard mark.

Evan Engram, Jr., Ole Miss

If you're looking for a Jimmy Graham-type tight end, look no further than Engram. He wasn't just the SEC's best tight end last year, he returns in 2015 as arguably the nation's best tight end. He wasn't overly praised when that historic 2013 class made it to Oxford, but plenty of eyes are all over him after a breakout sophomore year in which he led all SEC tight ends with 38 catches and 662 yards. Engram is a total mismatch because he's too big for most corners to handle and too fast for linebackers and safeties to consistently contain.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)Laquon Treadwell is being held out of contact in the spring but is expected to be ready to go in the fall.

Laquon Treadwell, Jr., Ole Miss

He's another player who should have had better numbers in 2014 but had his season was cut short. The physically imposing specimen was a star as a freshman and was on his way to first-team All-SEC honors before suffering a horrific leg injury on Nov. 1. Treadwell's season ended with him catching 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns. Despite playing in four less games than he did in 2013, Treadwell registered more yards on nearly 30 fewer catches. Treadwell isn't going through contact this spring, but he should be healthy come the fall. Oh, and then there's this from last month: Yikes!

All-purpose

Speedy Noil, So., Texas A&M

Noil arrived in College Station with a ton of hype attached to his name, and he did a good job of living up to it. Noil led all SEC true freshmen in receptions (46), receiving yards (583) and receiving touchdowns (five). Noil led the Aggies in all-purpose yards (1,418), punt return yards (180) and kickoff return yards (645) despite missing the SMU game due to injury.

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