SEC: Mississippi State Bulldogs

SEC morning links

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
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A day after Auburn's Corey Grant burned up the track at Auburn's pro day, another former SEC player who didn't attend the NFL combine also helped his cause. Mississippi State's Matt Wells ran a 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash, the best of any player at the Bulldogs' pro day on Wednesday. State was one of three SEC schools to hold a pro day on Wednesday, along with Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Aggies' pro day lacked the fanfare of a year ago when Johnny Manziel worked out for scouts -- particularly with star tackle Cedric Ogbuehi sidelined by a knee injury -- but a dozen former A&M players still took advantage of the opportunity to show what they could do. Likewise, 16 former Razorbacks -- including All-SEC honorees Martrell Spaight and Trey Flowers -- showed off for scouts at Arkansas' workout on Wednesday afternoon.
  • Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
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We'll finally end our pre-spring position rankings in the SEC by taking a look at special teams. Kickers and punters rejoice!

1. Georgia: Kicker Marshall Morgan wasn’t at his best last season, but everyone knows the talent is there for him to rebound in 2015 from his 16 of 21 (.762) performance kicking field goals last season. Punter Collin Barber is certainly serviceable, even if he didn’t have to punt too much last year. But return man Isaiah McKenzie might have been the league's best last season, registering two touchdowns on kickoff returns and one on a punt return.

2. LSU: Leonard Fournette is so dangerous as a return man, and capped his season with a 100-yard return for a touchdown. Tre’Davious White wasn’t so bad returning punts either, averaging 10.9 yards per return and taking one back for a touchdown. As for kicking, LSU has a solid duo in place-kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11 of 15) and Jamie Keehn, who averaged 44.9 yards per punt, downed 27 inside the 20-yard line, and blasted 17 kicks 50 yards or more.

3.Texas A&M: The Aggies have to replace incredibly reliable kicker Josh Lambo, but Taylor Bertolet tallied 106 points off kicks in 2012, as a freshman, before getting benched for Lambo in 2013. Drew Kaser proved to be one of the SEC’s best punters last year, downing 22 punts inside the 20 and booming 18 50 yards or more. Speedy Noil is a dynamic returner on both kickoffs and punts.

4. Tennessee: The Vols were excellent at defending returns and will bring back kicker Aaron Medley, who made 20 of 26 field goals last year, but went 1-of-6 from 40-plus. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown, while Evan Berry is a big-play threat on kickoffs after he averaged 29.3 yards per return last season. Matt Darr is gone so the Vols have to find a punter.

5. Vanderbilt: Tommy Openshaw connected on 8 of 11 field goals, but went 2-of-5 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.7 yards per punt and downed 19 kicks inside the 20. Darrius Sims, who can return kickoffs and punts, is one of the league's best returners and took two kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy has to do better than allowing two returns for touchdowns.

6. Alabama: One thing’s for sure: Alabama can punt. More specifically, JK Scott can punt. He brings back the SEC’s best leg, which knocked 31 punts inside the 20 launched 23 kicks 50 yards or more. He also led the nation in punt average (48.0) However, placekicking is still a concern, as Adam Griffith hit 12 of 19 field goals (.632) last season. Christion Jones is gone, but Cyrus Jones and others should pick up the slack in the return game.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs bring back Devon Bell, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Word out of Starkville is that both returner positions are up for grabs, but the Bulldogs have a litter to pick from. Juco transfer Donald Gray could be the favorite, but Will Redmond, Fred Ross and Brandon Holloway will also be involved. The Bulldogs were also one of the best at defending kicks last season.

8. Ole Miss: Jaylen Walton is still a mainstay at returning kickoffs, but the Rebels need to be more consistent returning punts, where Markell Pack, who averaged just 5.3 yards per return last year, will compete with two players coaches are excited to see return kicks: JUCO transfer Tony Bridges and freshman Jalen Julius. Will Gleesen was solid punting (24 downed inside the 20) alongside Gary Wunderlich, who also hit 6 of 8 field goals last season. Ole Miss also ranked in the top half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.

9. Auburn: Daniel Carson pulled double duty for the Tigers, hitting 18 of 24 field goals (.750) and averaging 42 yards per punt. The Tigers said goodbye to Quan Bray (two touchdowns) and Corey Grant so Ricardo Louis is the most experienced return man (eight returns last year). Roc Thomas and Stanton Truitt, who redshirted last year, could also get looks in the return game. Auburn ranked in the bottom half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.

10. Arkansas: Adam McFain was Arkansas’ top kicker last year, hitting 7 of 10 (.700) field goals, but punter Sam Irwin-Hill is gone so his spot will need to be filled in the coming months. Korliss Marshall is gone, but Keon Hatcher and D.J. Dean return. Hatcher averaged 23.2 yards per kick return (six) and Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards.

11. South Carolina: Elliott Fry is back after hitting 18 of 25 field goals (.720) last year. No punters return so the Gamecocks will have to figure that one out starting with spring practice. Pharoh Cooper was a decent punt returner for the Gamecocks, while Shon Carson should enter spring as the front-runner to head up kick returns after recording 633 return yards last year. Also, might want to cut down on the two kickoff touchdowns allowed.

12. Florida: Austin Hardin eventually took over placekicking duties later in the season and finished the year making 7 of 10 field goals, including the game-winner against Tennessee. Incredibly valuable punter Kyle Christy is gone, but Johnny Townsend is back and he actually forced Christy to the bench in 2013. Record-breaker Andre Debose is gone, meaning the Gators are holding tryouts for returners, and this team has to improve on allowing two returns for touchdowns last year.

13. Missouri: The Tigers must find someone to replace one of the league’s best returners in Marcus Murphy. Right now, that task is totally up in the air. Because Murphy was so good, no one on the roster really has much experience returning kicks. Andrew Baggett mad 18 of 25 field goals (.720) and might have to handle punting duties as well, but that isn't 100 percent yet.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats' kick coverage was just bad last year. They gave up four touchdowns on returns last season, which cannot happen again. Kicker Austin MacGinnis led the SEC with 21 made field goals on 27 attempts (.778) and punter Landon Foster brings back 27 punts downed inside the 20. Kentucky must replace Demarco Robinson at punt returner, but Stanley Williams is back after averaging 26.9 yards on kickoffs.
We continue our series looking at the position groups around the SEC by looking at the defensive backs Wednesday.

1. LSU: The Tigers were the best in the SEC in 2014 against opposing pass defenses and there’s plenty of talent still in LSU’s defensive backfield to keep the good times going. Jamal Adams really came into his own late last season and is poised to be a star. Tre'Davious White is the only starting corner returning but he is a big-time player. Safety Jalen Mills returns, too. The Tigers need to find a corner opposite White but have plenty of talented players to compete for that spot.

2. Georgia: After LSU, this unit was the SEC’s best in limiting opponents through the air (170.3 passing yards allowed per game). The good news for Jeremy Pruitt is that not only does he have quite a few options in the secondary, most of them have experience. Dominick Sanders, who shined as a freshman, returns; so does fellow safeties Quincy Mauger, who started seven games. All the cornerbacks on the two-deep return. With Damian Swann’s departure, a new leader needs to be established, but overall, this is a good group.

3. Florida: The Gators still have the conference’s best cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, and that’s worth a lot. Fortunately for them, the rest of the young secondary is back -- cornerback Jalen Tabor, safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, nickel Brian Poole, and new secondary coach Kirk Callahan will try to help them take the next step this year, improving on last year’s finish (seventh in the SEC in pass defense). The talent is there.

4. Ole Miss: Replacing players such as Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt is a tall task but the Rebels have talent on the back end. Tony Conner was a second-team All-SEC pick last year and is back. So is Trae Elston, the starting “rover,” who is a three-year starter. Senior Mike Hilton, who led the team in tackles, returns and the team welcomes the No. 1 cornerback in the ESPN JC 50, Tony Bridges. Look for a bigger role for C.J. Hampton. There is some good depth in this group as well.

5. Arkansas: Razorbacks’ secondary coach Clay Jennings returns for his second year in Fayetteville and his unit showed significant growth in 2014. Elder statesmen Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel are gone, but the Hogs had a mostly young secondary last year and bring back plenty of experience, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver, all of whom saw starts at the position. Three of the four safeties on the end-of-season two-deep -- De'Andre Coley, Josh Liddell and Davyon McKinney, also return to a unit that was fifth in the league in pass defense in 2014.

6. Tennessee: The Vols have a player with All-SEC potential in cornerback Cameron Sutton and a tremendous amount of experience at the back in senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. The other cornerback will be the spot to watch where there will be a battle. Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Malik Foreman and highly-touted junior college signee Justin Martin are among the contenders.

7. Missouri: The Tigers are set at cornerback with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton returning. Losing the experience of a Braylon Webb at safety is tough but Ian Simon is a seasoned veteran himself and returns at the position. The unit finished sixth in SEC pass defense last season (212.7) but benefited from the league’s best pass rush. The experience in the secondary is helpful but more consistency is needed from this group.

8. Alabama: The Crimson Tide had a rough year on the back end in 2014, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (226). The group has a new secondary coach (Mel Tucker) but a lot of attrition, with Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams gone. Cyrus Jones, who led the team with 13 pass breakups, and Eddie Jackson, who started 11 games, are back at cornerback as are Tony Brown and Maurice Smith. Geno Smith, who started six games at the Star position, is also back. ESPN 300 safety Deionte Thompson and four-star safety Ronnie Harrison arrived in January so they’ll participate in spring practice.

9. Auburn: The Tigers yielded a lot to opposing passing games last year (230.08 yards per game; 12th in the SEC), but were also opportunistic, intercepting 22 passes. Returning Auburn defensive backs accounted for 12 of those interceptions -- Jonathan Jones (six), Johnathan Ford (three) and Trovon Reed (three). Auburn also welcomes a new secondary coach, Travaris Robinson, who was key in the Tigers’ landing four defensive back recruits from Florida on signing day. Numbers are there in terms of options to choose from, now it’s just a matter of making on-field progress.

10. South Carolina: This is a young group that played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last season but will be a year older and should show progress, especially with the addition of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who has a long history of coaching defensive backs in the NFL. Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams are penciled in as the starting cornerbacks. Brison Williams is gone but T.J. Gurley, who was second on the team with 80 tackles last season, returns. Corners Al Harris Jr. and D.J. Smith as well as safeties Chris Moody and Chaz Elder also return. Look for this group to make strides this season after finishing 10th in pass defense last season.

10. Mississippi State: There’s a lot of room for improvement for the Bulldogs, who allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC last season and allowed many big plays. They do have a nice talent in Taveze Calhoun at cornerback; who starts opposite him is to be determined. (Look for Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles, who missed all last season with an injury, to compete.) The Bulldogs will be young at safety but did bring in the nation’s No. 2 player at the position, ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Peters.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats return both starting cornerbacks from 2014, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. Starting safety A.J. Stamps, a standout junior college transfer, returns after leading the team with four interceptions and safety Marcus McWilson, who started the season finale against Louisville, also returns. Kentucky, which was eighth in the SEC in pass defense last year, secured a safety as its top-rated recruit in February, ESPN 300 prospect Marcus Walker.

13. Vanderbilt: The Commodores fielded a young, unproven secondary last season but finished just a hair behind the middle of the pack in the conference, allowing 218.3 passing yards per game. With virtually the entire group back, led by cornerbacks Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson and safeties Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Oren Burks, there’s some promise on the back end for Vandy, especially considering the fact that Derek Mason will be simplifying the defense.

14. Texas A&M: The Aggies were second-to-last in pass defense and last in interceptions a year ago. Gone are veterans Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews but senior cornerback De’Vante Harris remains. The group surrounding Harris is young, but has a potential star in safety Armani Watts. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs this spring but look for Nick Harvey to challenge for it. The safety next to Watts could be veteran Devonta Burns (last year’s nickel), Donovan Wilson, or possibly junior college transfer Justin Evans.

SEC morning links

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
9:00
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A couple of weeks ago, we listed several SEC players who were candidates to be drafted despite not being invited to the NFL combine. Add Auburn's Corey Grant to that list. On Tuesday, Grant ran times in the 40-yard dash that scouts attending Auburn's pro day clocked between 4.18 and 4.32 seconds. That would have been the best time by a running back at the combine, had Grant been in Indianapolis. Perhaps his absence was understandable since he was largely an afterthought in Auburn's running game in 2014 while Cameron Artis-Payne led the SEC in rushing. Nonetheless, there was buzz about how fast Grant would run on Tuesday, and he didn't let anybody down -- even if he said afterward that his goal was to run a 4.1. He wasn't the only Tiger who didn't go to the combine who was trying to turn scouts' heads on Tuesday. Here's a recap of the results that Auburn released once the workouts were complete.
  • Chad Kelly, formerly of Clemson and East Mississippi Community College, is apparently willing to go to Haiti and back to prove to Hugh Freeze that he should be Ole Miss' next quarterback. Freeze said Tuesday that he suggested to the troubled quarterback that he join him on a spring-break trip to Haiti -- where they will reportedly help provide villagers gain access to fresh water -- and Kelly agreed. He'll still have to beatDeVante Kincade andRyan Buchanan for the job, but the trip will provide Kelly with an opportunity to get to know his new coach better. Making Freeze more comfortable with him as a person is a smart move for Kelly, who left Clemson under unpleasant terms and who was arrested after a bar fight in his hometown, Buffalo, New York, shortly after signing with the Rebels last year.
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e SEC lost some playmakers at linebacker this past year, but the position still looks strong heading into 2015 thanks to a handful of players that turned down the NFL to return to school. The league also signed five of the top 10 linebackers in the 2015 recruiting class.

It's only March and spring practice has yet to begin for the majority of the SEC, but here's an early look at how the teams stacks up at linebacker as part of our pre-spring rankings:

1. Georgia: Despite losing their two leading tacklers, the Bulldogs still take the top spot heading into 2015. That's because they return Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter, three dynamic pass-rushers on the outside who all have a future in the NFL. In the middle, Tim Kimbrough should emerge given more opportunity, and Jake Ganus comes over from UAB where he led the Blazers with 70 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss.

2. Alabama: The Crimson Tide also lost a couple key names from last year, but there's still plenty of talent to go around. The star is Reggie Ragland, an All-SEC selection who flirted with the NFL before opting to come back for his senior year. He heads a group that lacks in experience but not in talent. Denzel Devall should be healthy; Ryan Anderson is primed for a breakout season; and Reuben Foster might finally become more than just a special teams ace.

3. Missouri: We might need to change the name from “D-Line Zou” to “Linebacker Zou” in 2015. That's not to take anything away from Missouri's defensive line. It's simply a testament to the linebackers. The Tigers return two of the SEC's leading tacklers from a year ago in Kentrell Brothers (122) and Michael Scherer (114), and when you throw in the likes of Donavin Newsom, Eric Beisel and Clarence Green, it's also one of the deeper groups in the conference.

4. Auburn: The defense was bad last year, but let's not blame the linebackers. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost actually played well for most of the season and both are returning this fall. They should benefit from the arrival of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp whose new scheme will also provide more opportunities for sophomore-to-be Tre Williams and the quartet of ESPN 300 linebackers that signed in February.

5. Tennessee: Losing A.J. Johnson hurts, but the Volunteers played without him the final three games last year and didn't miss a beat. They return leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin, as well as Curt Maggitt, an All-SEC selection who bounced back after missing all of 2013 due to injury. Sophomore-to-be Jakob Johnson filled in admirably for A.J. Johnson down the stretch, but he's no lock to win the job. Incoming freshman Darren Kirkland Jr. will be in the mix once healthy.

6. LSU: This could've been a top-3 group had Kwon Alexander not left early, but don't be fooled by the lack of household names. It's still a solid unit. Kendell Beckwith is back. He was second on the team in tackles (77) and tackles for loss (7.5). Lamar Louis and Deion Jones both have game experience. And look for Clifton Garrett to play an expanded role as a sophomore.

7. Vanderbilt: Too high considering Vanderbilt's record last year? If anything, it's too low. Derek Mason is building his defense around the linebackers, and it shows. Between Stephen Weatherly, Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham, this has the potential to be one of the better units in the SEC. The addition of junior college transfer Nehemiah Mitchell only makes it better.

8. South Carolina: Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton form one of the better linebacker tandems in the SEC. They finished among the team leaders in tackles a year ago, and are primed to take another step in 2015. Moore and Walton highlight a deep group that got even deeper in January when the Gamecocks added three early enrollees at the linebacker spot.

9. Mississippi State: Richie Brown became best known for his beard last year, but he quietly put together a solid season on the field. And to think, he's not even the best Brown in the group. That title goes to Beniquez Brown, the team's second-leading tackler. The Bulldogs will miss Benardrick McKinney, but the addition of ESPN 300 star Leo Lewis will help ease the pain.

10. Florida: The Gators are one of the SEC's bigger unknowns when it comes to linebackers. We don't know how healthy Antonio Morrison will be after his injury in the bowl game. When healthy, he's one of the league's best. We don't know who the new coaching staff will favor, but Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillian are both candidates for increased playing time.

11. Kentucky: Alvin “Bud” Dupree was the star of this defense a year ago, but linebacker Josh Forrest quietly shined with 110 tackles, fifth most in the SEC. He's back along with Ryan Flannigan, a junior college transfer who eventually took over the job at weakside linebacker. The Wildcats are hoping Nebraska transfer Courtney Love is eligible to play right away.

12. Arkansas: Gone is Martrell Spaight, a first-team All-SEC player who led the conference with 128 tackles last year. Who is going to step up and replace that production for the Razorbacks this fall? The most likely candidate is Brooks Ellis. The junior-to-be finished second on the team in tackles and will be asked to take on more of a leadership role this coming season.

13. Ole Miss: The only linebacker with any experience returning is Denzel Nkemdiche, and he's still not 100 percent after breaking his leg in the fall, though the videos of him running recently bode well for the Rebels going forward. Christian Russell, who got his feet wet last year, is the early favorite to take over in the middle.

14. Texas A&M: This was the Achilles' heel for a defense that struggled mightily last year. Will the unit improve? It can't get much worse, but don't expect a huge turnaround overnight. There's still work to be done. The key will be rising sophomore Otaro Alaka who has the potential to become a star in the SEC.
As we get closer and closer to spring practices popping up all around the country, it's time to dive a little deeper into the substance of the 2015 season. That substance talk really starts right after the season, grows after national signing day and then starts to snowball during spring practice.

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

1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.

SEC morning links

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
9:00
AM ET
1. Coaching salaries continue to go up. Last week Dan Mullen got a raise to a $4 million salary and more than half of the SEC head coaches are making that much. Here's a look at what each SEC coach is making. How does that compare to the past? AL.com broke down what each SEC school is paying their coach now compared to 2006. The current number, in many cases, doubled the '06 number, or more.

2. As recruiting evolves, coaching staffs across the country look for new and unique ways to appeal to prospects in hopes of gaining pledges from them and social media is at the heart of that effort. Texas A&M took it a step further recently, dispatching mobile billboards around the state of Texas touting their recent signing class and posing the question, "Who's next?" The Aggies also use a social hub dubbed "AggieFBLife" which gives prospects a look at what it's like to be a player in the program.

Around the SEC
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KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Despite being overcast and rainy, the Orlando Nike regional camp had an incredible turnout of some of the top prospects in the ESPN Junior 300.

The impressive list of prospects in attendance was led by the 30th-ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, No. 30 Isaac Nauta, No. 32 Feliepe Franks, No. 42 Demetris Robertson, No. 66 Rahshaun Smith and No. 92 Shaq Quarterman. The 10th-ranked player in the country, Nate Craig-Myers, was also in attendance but did not participate due to an injury.

While Saturday’s camp in Miami showcased many defensive top defensive back prospects, the offensive line was dominant on Sunday in Orlando.
It all starts up front. So if you’re looking ahead to project which teams will have the best defenses in the SEC next season, look no further than the defensive line. Because if they’re on, the linebackers and secondary will be better off for it.

It’s early, granted, and things could change drastically between now and the start of the season, but in the meantime here are our pre-spring rankings at the position:

1. Alabama: The knock on Nick Saban’s defense has long been that its linemen don't get to the quarterback enough, but last season that changed as they had 10 more sacks than the year before. Though they may lack a true star, the line is strong across the board with future NFL tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, along with talented edge-rushers in Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson.

2. Ole Miss: You could really have the Rebs as co-No. 1, but the issue of depth separated these two units. Nonetheless, coach Hugh Freeze has an embarrassment of riches at the position with future first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche as the centerpiece. Mix in ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes, and you’re looking at a defense that could live in opponents’ backfields.

3. Tennessee: In Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, you’re looking at two of the league’s top five pass-rushers last season. So it’s safe to say that the Vols are pretty well set up front. If the 2015 signing class pays off and Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle make an impact, even better for coach Butch Jones.

4. Florida: Losing Dante Fowler Jr. hurts, but getting Jon Bullard to return to school eased that pain, somewhat. Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie and Alex McCalister are all back as well. If CeCe Jefferson can make an impact as a true freshman and Thomas Holley is indeed 100 percent after redshirting last season, they could push the line over the top.

5. Auburn: The Tigers’ D-line struggled last season, but it wasn’t helped any by the season-long absence of Carl Lawson. Now that Lawson is back and Will Muschamp is leading the defense, things are poised to change. With Montravius Adams anchoring the line at tackle, DaVonte Lambert opposite Lawson at end and No. 1 prospect Byron Cowart entering into the fold, the pieces are there to make a significant improvement.

6. Missouri: Markus Golden and Shane Ray are gone, but after so many years producing top D-line prospects, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they return a nice nucleus in tackles Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta. Charles Harris is poised to come into his own at end and it’s only a matter of time until five-star freshman Terry Beckner Jr. starts making plays.

7. Mississippi State: Three starters are gone (P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Preston Smith), but experience isn’t a huge concern for Mississippi State because of the way it rotated in so many players at the position last year. New coordinator Manny Diaz will have to develop some talent this offseason, to be sure, but he’ll have the luxury of building around Chris Jones, who is one of the league’s most talented linemen, as well as Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson.

8. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ linebackers get most of the love, and rightfully so when you’re talking about Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. But the linemen shouldn’t be neglected considering the mix of experience and depth at the position. Seniors Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes will provide stability, with five-star freshman Trent Thompson potentially working his way into the rotation early.

9. LSU: Ed Orgeron will have his hands full with this group, but what it lacks in depth it has in potential. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are back at tackle, but with Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter gone, that leaves seldom-used Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema as the lone incumbents at defensive end.

10. Texas A&M: With John Chavis now leading the Aggie defense, it’s time to see what all that talent is really made of. Sack master Myles Garrett should only get better with experience and incoming five-star freshman Daylon Mack could provide a disruptive force in the middle of the line.

11. Arkansas: With guys like Taiwan Johnson and JaMichael Winston, the talent is there to rebuild on the line. But with Trey Flowers and Darius Philon off to the NFL, there are more questions than answers entering spring practice.

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ D-line was a huge letdown last season with the fewest sacks in the SEC, and there’s not a lot returning to campus that says that will change anytime soon. So, coach Steve Spurrier is betting heavily on some new blood in the form of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and a handful of mature recruits. The headliner is defensive tackle Dexter Wideman, who spent last year at a military academy getting his grades in order, and ESPN’s No. 2 and No. 3 juco defensive ends, Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer.

13. Kentucky: The Bud Dupree-Za’Darius Smith era is officially over, and now we get to see what Mark Stoops and his staff accomplished on the recruiting trail these past few years. Coveted tackle Matt Elam is now a sophomore, as is four-star end Denzel Ware. If they live up to their high billing and veterans like Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson step up, the Wildcats will be in good shape.

14. Vanderbilt: Outside of nose guard Vince Taylor, the Commodores don’t lose much from last year’s defensive line. But outside of Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler, there’s not a lot of production coming back.

SEC morning links

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
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1. Dan Mullen is finally getting paid. After leading Mississippi State to its first 10-win season in school history and a New Year’s Six bowl game, Mullen received an extension Thursday that runs through the 2018 season and comes with a nice pay raise. The new deal will start out at $4 million in 2015 and escalate in the years to come. That puts him along the same pay grade as fellow SEC coaches Mark Richt (Georgia), Les Miles (LSU) and Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss). Who could’ve ever guessed that both Mississippi State and Ole Miss would be willing to pay over $4 million to keep their coaches around? Let’s not forget that it’s been less than a decade since Nick Saban became the first college football coach to make $4 million annually when he signed with Alabama in 2007. Now all seven coaches in the SEC West make at least that much.

2. The financial aid agreements signed by recruits before signing day seem like a good idea in principle. But there’s always a catch, and it looks as if LSU found that out the hard way. The Tigers are getting slapped with recruiting sanctions all because a recruit backed out of his commitment. No big deal, right? In this case it is. That recruit, offensive lineman Matt Womack, signed a financial agreement with LSU which gave the school unlimited contact with him. The only problem is he didn’t sign his letter of intent with LSU. He signed it with Alabama. That made the unlimited contact with the recruit illegal, and the NCAA is making them pay. So who’s at fault here? LSU couldn’t have seen this coming. But can you blame the kid for changing his mind? That happens. Ultimately, I think the rule has to change.

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Tweet of the day

A year ago this March, Manny Diaz was facing a crossroads. The husband and father of three was turning 40. His family was settling into a new town. He was getting used to a new job. And in the midst of it all, he was asking himself a daunting question: “Who am I?”

Facing a life over the hill, he wasn’t sure what lay on the other side.

In secluded Ruston, Louisiana, he was starting over. Far from the bright lights of his former home at the University of Texas, he was getting used to being defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech, a program that had gone 4-8 the previous season under new coach Skip Holtz.

It was a curious move, dropping down into Conference USA. According to reports, Diaz had bypassed several Power 5 programs who wanted him as a position coach. But Diaz wanted to remain a defensive coordinator. He needed to so he could figure out what had gone wrong.

“When you get knocked back like that, you have to look at yourself and say, ‘OK, who am I?’ and not, ‘What am I trying to be?’” Diaz told ESPN.com. “You had to find the ability to say who are you and what do you believe in. And if you ever get the opportunity again, you have to stay true to that.

[+] EnlargeManny Diaz
John Albright/Icon SportswireAfter struggling at Texas, Manny Diaz bounced back with Louisiana Tech in 2014, leading a defense which led the country in turnovers.
“Because when all of the sudden that changed, you know it didn’t work. ... You sort of went and became this thing. It looked one way at every stop and then differently at this place. OK, why?”

It went back to fundamentals, he explained.

“One of the greatest things about college football is there’s a million ways to do it,” he said. “You watch every Saturday and there are so many stylistic ways that teams choose to win football games: power running, four-wide, the possibilities are endless. But you have to be one thing. You have to be committed to one thing. Teams that are committed to a plan generally play for shiny things at the end of the season.

“If you don’t have that, if you don’t have the trust, if you don’t have a staff that’s committed to each other, those teams always tend to scratch their head and wonder why they’re not winning more.

“Everyone would understand that intellectually, but when you’ve been through it, it changes you. It changes what you’re willing to compromise yourself on.”

Back to being part of what Diaz described as a staff of common ideals, he thrived. Louisiana Tech won nine games and led the country in turnovers gained (40).

Shortly after winning the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Diaz got a phone call. An old friend was on the line: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. In what had to conjure flashbacks of 2010, Mullen asked if he wanted to return to his former post as defensive coordinator. Diaz said yes.

“It’s not a fun lesson to learn,” Diaz said of his fall from Texas and subsequent revival at Louisiana Tech. “But it reinforces who you are and what you believe in.”

He added: “It’s always easy this time of year to write the article, Hey, here’s this coach who has this great scheme. There’s no great scheme. If there was a great scheme, we’d all do it. What it was [at Louisiana Tech] was we were all bought in and all committed. We all pointed the same direction.

“That’s what I wanted more than anything.”



When Diaz returned to Starkville, he was blown away. It had only been a few years since he left, but it was as if everything had changed.

“The first thing is walking in, there’s no building here the last time I was here,” he said. “The stadium isn’t the same as it was the last time. This program is not the same program it was in 2010, and there’s no doubt you sense a different expectation from the players.”

But at the same time, it was as if nothing was different. The principles Diaz holds so dear were still intact.

“The message has remained consistent as far as how we’re going to win, who we’re going to win with and what our plan is to get it done,” he said. “What’s further appealing to me is that it’s based on something sustainable and not a flash in the pan.

“We’re trying to build to a level that we’re a main contender in the SEC West.”

That will take some work given that a large chunk of the defense is gone from last season, including linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive linemen Kaleb Eulls and Preston Smith. But even so, the cupboard isn’t bare.

Hoping that 2014’s “Pippens” become 2015’s “Jordans,” Diaz’s plan isn’t to overhaul the defense. As he said, “I’m just the conductor of the orchestra.”

But nonetheless, the expectations for both he and Mullen are ambitious. Because even after a record-breaking season in 2014, they want the bar set even higher.

“We’ve got to demand that we do better than we did,” Diaz said. “The reason is quite simple, because if you don’t then you’re really settling for being worse.

“Our players expect to show that our success here is expandable.”

It’s a tough task for a program that’s never won at a high level consistently, but at the same time there’s not a sense that success has changed Mullen’s beliefs. If it had, Diaz might not have come back.

He’s been through instability and he’s had enough of a lack of common direction. At 40 years old, he’s learned that you can’t waver on certain things.

“As you go through this, you get hardened,” Diaz said of his career. “You understand the things you can’t compromise on. You understand the importance of accountability. You understand the importance of toughness. But more than anything you have to understand the idea of trust. To me, a defense can’t be a defense without trust.”

SEC pre-spring position rankings: OL

February, 26, 2015
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The SEC is still won in the trenches so the teams with good offensive line play will likely do well for themselves. As we look ahead to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest up front? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season arrives, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.

2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.

3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.

4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.

6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.

7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.

11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.

12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.

SEC morning links

February, 26, 2015
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1. Snow continued to hit the Southeast on Wednesday and with it came a flurry of coaching hires in the SEC. The most notable was at Arkansas where the Razorbacks hired Jemal Singleton as the new running backs' coach. Singleton, formerly at Oklahoma State, will replace Joel Thomas, who left for the same job with the New Orleans Saints. It's not a bad gig for Singleton who walks into what many consider the best backfield in the conference with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Elsewhere, Alabama brought back a familiar name in Freddie Roach. The former Crimson Tide linebacker left his job at South Alabama to take on an unspecified role at Alabama. And LSU made a pair of moves, hiring Ryan Pugh as a graduate assistant and Blaine Gautier as an offensive assistant. Pugh made 45 starts at center for Auburn from 2007-2010.

2. Speaking of new hires, Barry Odom will have the difficult challenge of trying to replace former Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel this season. Odom, a Mizzou graduate, spoke to the local media before Tuesday's basketball game. The big takeaway? He's not looking to “reinvent” the defense. Odom ran a 3-4 scheme at Memphis last year, but he says the Tigers will still run a base 4-3 with variations of a 3-4. That's common these days in college football. He was also asked about his contract, which hasn't been released yet, but evidently it's still being worked out with the school. “I'm working happily every day,” Odom said when asked about it.

3. Earlier in the week, we saw where Vanderbilt is trying out a new technology this spring where the players will have a GPS device inserted into their shoulder pads. Pretty cool, right? Well, Tennessee has come up with a pretty good idea of their own. No, the Vols aren't going all high-tech this spring. Instead, they are introducing “Fourth-and-1 Wednesday,” a weekly class designed to arm players with the knowledge of right from wrong. It will be taught by head coach Butch Jones, Vol for Life coordinator Antone Davis and assistant strength coach Ike Brown. Where's the name come from? Jones wants his players to treat situations off the field with the same focus and attention to detail as they'd treat fourth-and-1 in a game.

Around the SEC
Tweets of the day

Ranking the SEC coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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The last decade of SEC football has put the conference at the top of the college football world.

While the last two seasons have ended without an SEC team being crowned the national champion after seven straight title runs, you can't discount the past success of this league and how tough it is to survive in it.

Coaching in the SEC can be both a blessing and a curse. The risk and reward can almost be on the same playing field, but the chance to coach in the SEC is something high-profile coaches dream of. But tread lightly, because there's always a ferocious arms race going on, and getting behind can be bad for your health.

Today, we're ranking all 14 coaching jobs in the SEC. We put our brains together, considering location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.

Here's what we came up with:

1. Florida: Location, location, location. It's the flagship university in the fertile football state of Florida. There's enough talent to share with rivals Florida State and Miami, and Georgia is basically in Gainesville's backyard. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer helped make Florida a true national brand with all those SEC titles and three national championships. Significant facility upgrades are coming, the fan base is tremendous, game days are great and the Swamp is one of the best stadiums around. The last five years haven't been great, but with rich recruiting grounds and endless resources, the right coach can quickly turn things around.

2. Alabama: If not for UF's location, Alabama would be No. 1. There's tremendous history with, like, 100 football national championships claimed by the fans. This is a job anyone would want. The facilities are some of the best, and coaches are able to recruit all over the Southeast and beyond with an extraordinary national brand. While expectations are gaudy, there's tremendous support inside and outside of the program, and there's no shortage of money for any coach out there.

3. LSU: It has the luxury of being one of the few schools across the country that is the team in its state. Prospects across Louisiana, which also has a tremendous amount of elite talent, grow up wanting to play for the Tigers. The facilities are top-notch, the fan base is incredible and chaotic, and that immense, intimidating stadium just got bigger. Nick Saban helped LSU become a premier program, but Les Miles has done a great job continuing that since his arrival in 2005.

4. Georgia: There's a great deal of talent in the state and Atlanta is essentially in its backyard. The Bulldogs are the top school in the state, rarely going to battle for recruits with rival Georgia Tech, and Georgia has a national brand that can push recruiting well outside the state's borders. The facilities are solid and an indoor practice facility is in the works. There's excellent tradition, a tremendous fan base and one of the league's best game-day atmospheres in Athens.

5. Texas A&M: You could argue that Texas A&M should be higher on this list for the simple fact that it's in Texas. I mean, isn't that where real football was invented? There's a ton of money in College Station to keep any coach happy (just ask Kevin Sumlin) and the facilities, which keep getting bigger and prettier, are exquisite. Texas A&M is rich in tradition and has one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country. However, regardless of recent success, this school is still in the Texas Longhorns' shadow.

6. Auburn: It isn't hard to recruit to Auburn and that beautiful campus. Yes, Auburn has to deal with playing second fiddle to Alabama, but getting elite talent on the Plains hasn't been difficult during Alabama's reign of terror. Auburn has a lot of tradition, one of the league's best stadiums and quality facilities. Even with that school in Tuscaloosa, a coach can win championships at Auburn.

7. Tennessee: It's been a long time since Tennessee was a nationally relevant program, but longtime tradition and a re-emergence on the recruiting trail are pushing Tennessee's stock up. Neyland Stadium has been tidied up in recent years and nearly $50 million was spent on a new football complex. The state might not have an abundance of top-tier talent, but it's not like coaches have to travel very far to pluck guys from neighboring states.

8. Arkansas: Arkansas has a lot going for it, even if it isn't in the heart of the Southeast's most fertile recruiting territory. It's essentially the only team in the state -- something LSU and Georgia can't even say -- and the school has unloaded some funds on improving facilities. However, since the state doesn't typically have a lot of top-notch prospects, coaches must heavily recruit other states such as Texas and Oklahoma.

9. South Carolina: Spurrier has proved during his 10 years in Columbia that you can win at South Carolina. He's been able to tap the state's underrated talent pool while having to compete with Clemson and those other pesky schools trying to steal guys away. An indoor practice facility is under construction, and South Carolina has one of the most faithful fan bases, which stuck with the program during some very rough years.

10. Ole Miss: In three years under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has grown its brand a little more. Just check out that historic 2013 recruiting class. The campus is beautiful, facilities are impressive and the game-day environment in the Grove is envied by just about everyone. However, consistently recruiting elite talent to Oxford has never been easy, and the program has won nine or more games just six times since 1971 and has had 11 head coaches in that span.

11. Missouri: With two SEC East titles in three years, Missouri's move to the SEC hasn't been as daunting as a lot of us expected. Gary Pinkel made this a quality program after his 2001 arrival, and the school charged right into the SEC arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium as part of a $200 million facilities project. Location can be an issue, but Mizzou has made it a point to have more of a Southeastern presence in recruiting.

12. Mississippi State: Consistently getting elite talent to Starkville, which can be a little out of the way for people, is an uphill battle. But the program has been on the uptick since Dan Mullen's arrival in 2009. Mississippi State's brand is growing, the fan base is incredibly loyal and the school hasn't been afraid to spend money after pumping $75 million into a stadium expansion a couple of years ago.

13. Kentucky: Let's face it: This is a basketball school. The Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, following five straight trips. It's hard to sustain real success at Kentucky when coaches constantly have to go outside of the state for recruiting. Mark Stoops has done well on the recruiting trail recently, and that $45 million football facility will be a major upgrade, but to see a true title contender emerge from Lexington will be a rarity.

14. Vanderbilt: James Franklin showed that you can win at Vandy with three straight bowl trips, but as soon as he was gone, Derek Mason's Commodores fell flat. High academic standards restrict coaches from recruiting some of the top players in the country, but a recent facilities upgrade shows some care for the program. Vandy must go way outside the box and a take a lot of risks in recruiting.

SEC pre-spring position rankings: WR/TE

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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The SEC has been a breeding ground for big-time receivers over the last few years. Alabama’s Amari Cooper is projected as a top-10 pick in May’s NFL draft, and look at the seasons Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews all had as rookies.

As we turn the page to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest at the wide receiver/tight end position? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season gets here, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Texas A&M: Even with the departure of Malcome Kennedy, the Aggies are loaded. Eight different wide receivers return who caught touchdown passes last season. Josh Reynolds was one of the league's top breakout players a year ago with 13 touchdown catches and earned second-team All-SEC honors from the AP. Edward Pope, like Reynolds, is a big target at 6-foot-4. Ricky Seals-Jones is even bigger at 6-5 and will be two years removed from his ACL tear, and Speedy Noil is the most explosive of the bunch.

2. Tennessee: The Vols have depth, experience and versatility. Marquez North is the most physically imposing of the group, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury. Teams won’t be able to concentrate on him, though, because Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Jason Croom are all back along with Josh Smith, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Sophomore Ethan Wolf has all the tools to be Tennessee’s next All-SEC tight end.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren't the same offensively last season after Laquon Treadwell broke his leg in the Auburn game. He’s working his way back, and if healthy, will be one of the top receivers in the league. Veterans Cody Core and Quincy Adeboyejo are back, while redshirt freshman Sammie Epps and transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow, who played at Washington in 2013, should be nice additions. Markell Pack was mostly a punt returner last season and is a candidate to take Vince Sanders’ spot. Don't forget about Evan Engram, either. He led all SEC tight ends with 662 receiving yards last season.

4. Mississippi State: This will be the most talented group of receivers Dan Mullen has had in Starkville, which is great news for returning senior quarterback Dak Prescott. It all starts with the 6-5, 225-pound De’Runnya Wilson, who has developed into one of the SEC’s most difficult matchups after making the switch from hoops to football. Fred Brown, Fred Ross and Joe Morrow are also back, and they combined to catch 11 touchdown passes last season. Speedy junior college signee Donald Gray is already on campus and looks like a natural in the slot. Darrion Hutcherson (6-7, 260) steps in at tight end after coming over from junior college a year ago.

5. LSU: The Tigers have the guys who can catch it and go get it. Finding somebody who can get the ball to them will be the trick. Junior Travin Dural was sensational at times a year ago and has averaged 20.5 yards per catch during his two seasons at LSU. Malachi Dupre has major star potential after catching five touchdown passes as a true freshman. John Diarse (redshirt freshman) and Trey Quinn (true freshman) were two other first-year players who contributed last season and round out a rotation capable of doing some real damage down the field. The Tigers did lose two senior tight ends.

6. Auburn: Sammie Coates might be gone, but that doesn’t mean Auburn will be hurting at receiver. Duke Williams’ decision to return for his senior season was a nice surprise, and he gives the Tigers one of the top go-to threats in the league. Ricardo Louis and Tony Stevens are also back, and both have the kind of speed to stretch the field. The Tigers will be inexperienced at the tight end/H-back position with C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse gone. No returning scholarship player has played a snap at tight end.

7. Georgia: The X-factor of all X-factors is Malcolm Mitchell. Can he stay healthy? If he can avoid injuries, he has a chance to be one of the best deep threats in the league. It’s a similar story with Justin Scott-Wesley, who played in only six games last season. Look for dynamic return specialist Isaiah McKenzie to be more involved in the passing game, and holding onto prized freshman signee Terry Godwin was huge. He’ll play early. The Bulldogs’ tight end combo of Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome is the one of the best in the SEC.

8. South Carolina: The only reason the Gamecocks are this high is Pharoh Cooper. With Amari Cooper leaving early for the NFL, Pharoh Cooper returns as the best receiver in the SEC. He earned first-team All-SEC honors last season after catching 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns. After Cooper, there are a bunch of unknowns. Four of the top five wide receivers from last year are gone. The Gamecocks think redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel could develop into a nice complement to Cooper, and tight end Jerell Adams is more talented than he has played and could be in store for a breakout senior season.

9. Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s top three pass-catchers from 2014 are gone, including record-setting Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper, who carried Alabama at times. With Cooper no longer around, look for tight end O.J. Howard to become a much more consistent threat in the passing game. Junior Chris Black will get his chance to shine. The same goes for third-year sophomore Robert Foster. The up-and-comer to watch is 6-4, 208-pound Cam Sims, who played some last season as a true freshman.

10. Arkansas: Just about all of Arkansas’ key figures in the passing game are back, but the Hogs need to find a way to be more explosive in 2015. Junior college signee Dominique Reed has the speed to fill that role. Hunter Henry returns as one of the best tight ends in the league. Senior Keon Hatcher is back after leading the Hogs in catches (43), yards (558) and touchdowns (six). Jared Cornelius showed flashes as a true freshman, and the two wild cards are sophomore Kendrick Edwards and redshirt freshman Jojo Robinson, a pair of South Florida products.

11. Florida: The Gators haven’t had a receiver sniff first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the coaches since Percy Harvin in 2008. So it has been a while since they’ve had a true difference-maker at receiver. Demarcus Robinson has a chance to blossom in Jim McElwain’s offense after catching seven touchdown passes a year ago. Tight end Jake McGee returns for his sixth season after getting a waiver from the NCAA. He’s a transfer from Virginia and led the Cavaliers with 43 catches in 2013. He broke his leg in the Gators' first game last season.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two of their most productive receivers from a year ago, Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue. Ryan Timmons is back and is the most dynamic offensive threat on the team. He just needs to catch the ball more consistently. Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson both played as true freshmen last season, and each started multiple games and combined for 41 catches. Blake Bone also played as a true freshman. Early enrollee C.J. Conrad could be the answer at tight end. The Wildcats got very little production from that position last season.

13. Missouri: Ranking the Tigers this low probably isn't very wise when you consider the way they've continued to reload at receiver and the job receivers coach Pat Washington has done. He'll have his work cut out in 2015. Mizzou lost its top three wide receivers from a year ago. Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White combined to catch 23 of the team’s 25 touchdown passes. The Tigers will be looking for Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore to grow up in a hurry as sophomores. It helps that starting tight end Sean Culkin is back.

14. Vanderbilt: It’s a big offseason for C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford as the Commodores search for a true No. 1 threat. Trent Sherfield has a chance to be the team’s best deep threat after playing some as a true freshman. In fairness, it was difficult to evaluate the Commodores at receiver last season because they played so many different quarterbacks. Ronald Monroe is a redshirt freshman to watch, and senior tight end Steven Scheu returns after tying for the team lead with four touchdown catches a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors.

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