SEC: Vanderbilt Commodores

SEC morning links

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
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1. Tennessee's search for an offensive coordinator continues. Head coach Butch Jones said the search is going "exceptionally well." Jones is looking for a replacement for Mike Bajakian, who left to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterbacks coach. Jones said a hire could be expected soon after national signing day. Whoever gets the job will have some nice talent to work with, like quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. Michigan's Mike DeBord is among those who have been reportedly linked to the job.

2. One of the most compelling quarterback situations to watch this offseason and heading into next season is at LSU. Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games this season while Brandon Harris started just one while appearing in eight games. Harris was a highly touted recruit who arrived in Baton Rouge with much anticipation but it was Jennings who maintained a grip on the starting job after Harris' lone start in a loss to Auburn. Harris' high school coach at Parkway High in Bossier City, Louisiana, said he tried to talk Harris into transferring to a junior college for a season but that Harris is "all in" for staying and wants to "compete." It'll be interesting to see what results.

Around the SEC

SEC morning links

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
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1. I hate to start the day off with this, but it needs to be addressed. Two ex-Vanderbilt football players were convicted of rape Wednesday, and two more are still awaiting trial. It’s a black eye for the school, for the conference and for college football. The verdict likely gave some closure to the victim, but this is not going away anytime soon for the Commodores football program. Is it fair for head coach Derek Mason who took over after the incident occurred? No, but he’s the one who will have to deal with the consequences. One can only hope that the culture has changed under Mason's watch. And maybe all this will send a message to other student-athletes. Here’s to not having to address these types of issues as often in college football.

2. On a different note, we are officially one week from national signing day. Who’s ready? ESPNU will have wall-to-wall coverage next Wednesday with more than 15 live commitments and reporters on different college campuses across the country. There’s plenty of intrigue with six of the top 10 players in the ESPN 300 still uncommitted, and some believe Auburn, Florida and USC will make the most noise on signing day. The biggest name to watch will be five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, who is in the middle of a Lone Star recruiting battle for the ages. Will he stick with his current Texas A&M commitment or will he flip to the Longhorns and go play for head coach Charlie Strong? We’ll have to wait and see.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

You learn pretty quickly in the realm of college football to never say never.

So I won’t go that far, but with the first College Football Playoff in our rear-view mirror, I will say that I have a hard time seeing two teams from the same conference ever getting in, at least as long as it remains a four-team format.

And that’s bad news for the SEC.

When it became obvious that a playoff was coming, the initial thought in SEC locales was that the league would be strong enough to merit two teams in a lot of years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and Alabama had to survive a challenging SEC schedule to earn a playoff berth.
After all, this was the big, bad SEC, which had won seven straight BCS national championships (with four different teams) and had played in eight straight BCS title games.

But the College Football Playoff is a different animal, and those of us who thought the SEC might get two seats at the table every couple of years were dead wrong.

The most iron-clad unwritten rule going is that conference champions will get first dibs every time, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing.

Ohio State was the fourth team in this season and earned its spot by destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. I’d say the Buckeyes were a worthy participant with the way they mowed down Alabama and Oregon in a span of 12 days.

Once given the stage, they proved they were the best team in the country and did so with a team that many thought was a year away.

Now, could they have navigated their way through the SEC with just one loss and even been in position to make the playoff?

That’s a story for a different day, but it brings into perspective the dilemma the SEC faces in the playoff era.

The grind of the league is what makes it so treacherous. As we saw this bowl season, particularly with regard to the Western Division teams, all bets are off in a one-game season. The West went a very humbling 2-5 and lost every one of its high-profile bowl games.

The SEC West had been hailed all season as the deepest division in the country, and some in the league speculated that it might have been the toughest division in college football history.

At the end of the day, the SEC didn’t have any dominant teams this season. It did have a handful of teams capable of winning a national championship, but most of those teams beat up on each other.

Let’s not forget that Alabama had to survive by one point at Arkansas, pulled out an improbable overtime win at LSU and beat Auburn at home in the regular-season finale despite giving up 630 total yards.

What you saw this season in the SEC is going to be much more indicative of what you’re going to see in the league going forward. That doesn’t mean Alabama is going anywhere, and it also doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is going to win 10 games every year.

What it does mean is that the SEC is going to continue to cannibalize itself, and that’s not good for business in a four-team playoff system.

The East is going to bounce back at some point, and maybe its 5-0 record in bowl games this season is a sign that it may occur sooner rather than later. When it does, the pathway to a national championship will become an even steeper mountain to climb for the SEC.

With that kind of balance on both sides, simply making it through the regular season in the SEC will be harrowing enough. Then comes the SEC championship game and two playoff games.

I remember vividly coaches in the league grumbling when the SEC championship game was created in 1992. A lot of them said then that having to win an extra game would severely hurt their chances of winning a national championship.

They were proved wrong. From 1992 to 2013, the SEC won 11 of the 22 national titles.

Maybe this will be a similar deal, and if (or when) the playoff moves to eight teams in the coming years, the landscape is sure to change again.

The mere fact that a national championship game was played this year without an SEC representative was surreal. And yes, refreshing, too, for all those coaches, players and fans who grew weary over the last decade of hearing about the SEC’s perceived dominance.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might as well have been speaking for everybody outside the SEC’s footprint when he chortled, “At least we don’t have to hear about the SEC for a while,” following the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

Nobody’s suggesting that the SEC’s party is over. It’s still the best conference in college football, and privately, those who’ve coached in the SEC in the past and moved elsewhere will confirm as much.

But now that we’ve had a taste of the playoff, seen how it works and processed it all, it’s not necessarily a party the SEC is going to host every year.

And in some years, the SEC (gasp) might not even get an invite.
It's time to take one last look at the 2014 season for all 14 SEC teams. Today, we're handing out our grades for each team, starting with the Vanderbilt Commodores. First-year coach Derek Mason had a rough start to the SEC, as the Commodores went 3-9 a year removed from James Franklin's improbable three-year run in Nashville, Tennessee.

Offense: It was not a very flattering offensive year for the Commodores. Vanderbilt ranked last in the SEC in total offense (288.3 yards per game), rushing (109.3) and scoring (17.2 points per game). The Commodores were slightly better throwing the ball -- ranking 13th (179.1). Vandy spent most of the year rotating four quarterbacks, only to lack any sort of continuity and throw a league-high 19 interceptions. The bright spot was freshman running back Ralph Webb, who ran for 912 yards and four touchdowns. Grade: F

Defense: While the Dores gave up a league-high 33.2 points per game, they were a little more productive on this side of the ball than on offense. Vandy still ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in the top defensive categories, but ranked sixth in the conference in pass defense versus league opponents. Redshirt freshman linebacker Nigel Bowden proved to be one of the league’s top young players, leading Vandy and all first-year players in total tackles (78). Grade: D

Special teams: The Dores were actually pretty successful when it came to returning kicks in 2014. Vandy had one of the league’s top kickoff returners in Darrius Sims, who tied for first in the SEC with two touchdowns and also averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy also registered a punt return for a touchdown, but surrendered two as well. Kicker Tommy Openshaw hit 8 of 11 field goal attempts, while punter Colby Cooke averaged 42.4 yards per punt and downed 19 inside the 20-yard line. Grade: C+

Coaching: The fact that Mason had to make so many coaching changes during the offseason tells you all you need to know about the difficulties this staff had in 2014. Mason, himself, would probably tell you that he and his assistants underachieved in their first year in Nashville. Mason even admitted that the handling of the quarterback situation stunted the offense's growth. Going winless in SEC play after the last staff went to three straight bowl games stings, but for a first-year coach, you have to expect some bumps along the way. Grade: D-

Overall: This was a season to forget for the program. From the carousel at quarterback to the embarrassing blowout loss to Temple to open the season, the Dores looked nothing like the teams Franklin guided. Vandy led the league in turnovers (29) and crossed the 20-point mark in SEC play just once. It was a trying year for Mason and his team, but the fact that Mason made the moves he did after the season shows that he understands 2014 wasn’t good enough. Grade: D-
The SEC took some flak in 2014 for not having enough elite quarterback play.

Expect some of that flak to return this season, as the SEC once again deals with a handful of young and relatively inexperienced quarterbacks running amok through the league. Seven of the top 14 SEC passers from 2014 won't be returning in 2015, giving some offensive coordinators extra work to do this year.

But fear not OCs and QBs, the league is still stocked with running back talent that should be able to carry some of those offenses still looking for stability at quarterback.

It sounds redundant, but 2015 really could be the "Year of the Running Back." And this group of running backs is on the younger side, but that shouldn't matter. Freshmen running backs took the league by storm last season, and unfortunately for SEC defenses, those kids are only going to get better.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 TDs last season, despite making just eight starts.
Six of the top-10 statistical running backs return in 2015, and all of them have the capability of making up for some quarterback deficiencies their teams might have.

The four schools that immediately come to mind are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and LSU. T.J. Yeldon might be gone at Alabama, but the Crimson Tide will be in very good hands with rising junior Derrick Henry taking over as the lead back. Henry and Yeldon shared the carries in 2014, with Henry leading the way with 990 rushing yards. The return of Kenyan Drake will add another dimension to Alabama's running game, but Henry is a special talent, and with Alabama breaking in a new quarterback, a restructured offensive line and a young group of receivers, Henry will have plenty of opportunities to shine.

Leading the charge of the running back revolution is rising sophomore Nick Chubb, who will be the center of attention in Georgia's offense while the Bulldogs look for a quarterback. You think that's an issue for Chubb? All he did was rank second in the SEC in rushing (1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns) after making just eight starts last season. He was thrust into the starting role after star running back Todd Gurley was suspended by the NCAA for four games and then tore his ACL in his late-season return.

That led to Chubb running over, around and through so many unfortunate defenders. In those eight starts, he never dipped below 100 rushing yards and averaged 165.4 per game. Like Gurley, Chubb just runs on another level and appears to either be from another planet or constructed in a lab hidden in the Mojave Desert. The Bulldogs bring back solid talent around Chubb, but let's face it, if new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer isn't routinely handing the rock to Chubb, something just isn't right.

About 600 miles southwest of Chubb is his position rival for the next two years: LSU's Leonard Fournette. Another manchild who roughed up plenty of defenders this past season (so, so sorry Aggies), Fournette will have to carry the load for the Tigers in 2015, because we just don't know what to expect from the quarterback position. He needed some time to feel comfortable, but when he did, he made his opponents suffer, finishing the season with 1,034 and 10 touchdowns.

Then, there is Arkansas, which has the SEC's best running back duo in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Both rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, and with Brandon Allen still needing to find his way at quarterback, those two will be relied upon again in 2015. And why not? Coach Bret Bielema wants to pound his opponents into submission anyway, and those two have done it well for the past two seasons.

And just for the heck of it, Tennessee's Jalen Hurd will rush for 1,000 yards, even with talented quarterback Joshua Dobbs under center.

Here are some other running backs who might have to push their quarterbacks:

Kelvin Taylor/Adam Lane Jr., Florida: With new coach Jim McElwain installing yet another offense in Gainesville, the Gators have yet another quarterback battle on their hands. The good news is that Taylor and Lane have the potential to be a solid duo. Taylor rushed for 565 and six touchdowns as a backup last season, and Lane broke out in Florida's bowl game, rushing for 109 yards and touchdown.

Brandon Wilds, South Carolina: The Gamecocks lose Dylan Thompson at quarterback, and there is a bit of a battle brewing for his replacement. Wilds, who has 1,277 career rushing yards, has been very solid, and should have no trouble taking over as the starter for Mike Davis.

Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt: Another freshman standout in 2014, Webb will have to continue to be Vandy's top offensive weapon in 2015. The quarterback situation was up-and-down last season, and who knows what it will look like this year. Webb rushed for 907 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: But the Tigers have veteran Maty Mauk at quarterback! Well, he wasn't exactly consistent last season, and proved to be a liability at times for Mizzou's offense. Hansbrough, on the other hand, rushed for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns in a breakout year. With Marcus Murphy gone, Hansbrough should grab the majority of carries and improve on a very solid first year as a starter.
DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Nick Saban once led a crusade against up-tempo offenses, but employed a little of it himself this past season.
Exactly.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDan Mullen has turned Mississippi State into a league power with a personnel-based spread offense he helped develop with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 20, 2015
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video
National signing day is less than three weeks away and it’s coming down to crunch time. This past weekend was one of three remaining weekends for recruits to take official visits before signing day and some of the top prospects took full advantage of the available weekend. Auburn had a monster recruiting weekend and, though not to the same extent, so did Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and others. Here’s a closer look at the top news from this past weekend.

It wasn’t the kind of debut season that Derek Mason or anybody at Vanderbilt was hoping for, but Mason already feels better about his second go-round as head coach because of the way he’s been able to restructure his coaching staff.

Mason announced on Monday that former Dartmouth assistant and NFL player Cortez Hankton would coach the Vanderbilt receivers, the final piece of the puzzle this offseason to the Commodores’ staff.

Coming off a 3-9 season in his first year as Vanderbilt’s coach, Mason fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators and also replaced his strength and conditioning coach. Of course, the move he made that attracted the most attention was naming himself as defensive coordinator. Mason said he was able to do that, in large part, because of the trust he has in the people around him and the way this staff fits.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Images/Mark HumphreyWhy the numerous staff changes for Derek Mason? "It didn't look like good football last season," he said.
“All these guys have one thing in common. They embody my vision for Vanderbilt football,” Mason told ESPN.com on Monday. “I can already see the changes paying dividends. It’s never easy when you make changes, but what you have to look at is the program and what it looks like moving forward. It didn’t look like good football last season.”

One of the most important hires any coach can make is his strength coach, and Mason jumped at the chance to get James Dobson from Nebraska. Dobson had headed up the Huskers’ strength program under Bo Pelini for the past seven years.

“The strength coach spends more time with the players than I do, so I needed to make sure that guy was truly reflective of me and had a personality similar to mine in terms of core philosophy and beliefs,” Mason said. “That’s what I found in James Dobson, a master strength coach who’s been in championship games and understands what that looks like.”

Hankton is among three new on-field assistants that Mason is bringing aboard as he looks to get the Commodores back to playing winning football. They went winless in the SEC during his first season and were held to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 12 games. Andy Ludwig will be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks, while Todd Lyght will coach the cornerbacks.

Ludwig spent the past two years at Wisconsin under Gary Andersen. The Badgers were 21st nationally this past season in total offense (468.9 yards per game) and rode Melvin Gordon much of the way. Their quarterback play was inconsistent, but Ludwig was still able to keep opposing defenses honest. The Badgers averaged 34.6 points per game and finished 27th nationally in scoring offense. Ludwig has also been an offensive coordinator at Cal, Oregon, San Diego State, Fresno State and Utah.

“I needed a guy who could utilize the talent and develop the quarterback position the way I wanted it developed,” Mason said. “I talked to everybody I could about Andy. He’s smart, articulate and been in a lot of different programs and has been able to adapt and make it work wherever he’s been.”

Lyght, who played 12 years in the NFL, coached the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive backs the past two years under Chip Kelly. Mason had tried to get Lyght when he was the defensive coordinator at Stanford and then again when he got the Vanderbilt head coaching job.

A big part of the restructuring is splitting up the secondary duties. Brett Maxie will stay on to coach the safeties, and Lyght will handle the cornerbacks. Mason said his decision to call his own defensive plays and coordinate the Commodores’ defense next season was really made for him after talking to several people about the job. He also said that having associate head coach Kenwick Thompson as his right-hand man on defense would make the transition even smoother.

“He’s a guy I strongly believe in, and he knows our system,” Mason said of Thompson, who will coach the outside linebackers. “I was already in those defensive meeting rooms. But for us to get to where we want to go defensively, I need to do more than just walk into those meeting rooms.”

Mason took on a much more active role in game-planning for the Tennessee game last season, and the Commodores had one of their better defensive performances in a 24-17 loss. It was after that game that Mason began to think that it could definitely work, his wearing both hats as head coach and defensive coordinator.

“We probably had too much defense in last season,” Mason said. “It’s not about how much defense you have, but how well you can execute the defense you have. As I talked to different guys about the coordinator’s job, they kept talking about playing a different style of defense. I didn’t want a different style of defense. I wanted our defense, and I wanted it to be what I planned for it to be when I first got here.”
In two weeks, we will officially say goodbye to football season.

College football left us last week, and with the Super Bowl scheduled for Feb. 1, we'll soon have to shift some of our sporting attention to ... baseball. Thank goodness for March Madness.

But before we settle, let's take advantage of the next two weeks of football coverage before the biggest game of them all.

The SEC will have 24 player representatives in this year's Super Bowl featuring the Seattle Seahawks (again) and the New England Patriots (pretty much again). There are 14 SEC players on the Seahawks and 10 on the Patriots. Alabama leads all SEC teams (shocker) with four players on Super Bowl rosters, while Mississippi State and Texas A&M both have three. Auburn is the only SEC team not represented.

Here's a complete list of the 24 SEC players on the two Super Bowl rosters:

SEAHAWKS

Alvin Bailey, OT, Arkansas
Michael Bennett, DE, Texas A&M
Justin Britt, OT, Missouri
James Carpenter, OG, Alabama
Demarcus Dobbs, DE, Georgia
Lemuel Jeanpierre, OL, South Carolina
Patrick Lewis, C, Texas A&M
Chris Matthews, WR, Kentucky
Tony McDaniel, DT, Tennessee
Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama
Tharold Simon, CB, LSU
Steven Terrell, S, Texas A&M
K.J. Wright, LB, Mississippi State

Reserve/injured

Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama

Coaches

Pete Carroll, head coach: He spent a season as a graduate assistant working with the secondary at Arkansas (1977) under Lou Holtz.
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator: Florida's defensive coordinator from 2010-11.
Kippy Brown, wide receivers: Coached receivers at Tennessee from 1983-89 and served two seasons as the assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at Tennessee from 1993-94. He also spent one month at Tennessee in 2009-10 as its wide receivers/passing game coordinator for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, before serving as interim head coach after the departure of Lane Kiffin.
Pat Ruel, assistant offensive line: He served as Arkansas' assistant offensive line coach in 1977 and later became the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Texas A&M from 1982-84.
Will Harriger, offensive assistant: He served as an assistant at Auburn in 2007 and an assistant at Florida from 2012-13.
Travis Jones, defensive line coach: The former Georgia defensive lineman (1990-92, 94) served as a graduate assistant/defensive line assistant at his alma mater in 1997. He later became the defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator at LSU from 2002-2004.
Marquand Manuel, defensive assistant: The former Florida defensive back was also a coaching intern at Florida in 2011.
Chris Carlisle, head strength and conditioning coach: Served as a strength and conditioning graduate assistant at Arkansas for two years (1992-93) before getting his master’s degree in history from Arkansas in 1997. He then became the associate head strength and conditioning coach at Tennessee for three years (1998-2000).

PATRIOTS

Brandon Bolden, RB, Ole Miss
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama
Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU
Chris White, LB, Mississippi State

Reserve/Injured

Dominique Easley, DL, Florida
Jerod Mayo, LB, Tennessee
Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU

Practice squad

Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas
Jonathan Krause, WR, Vanderbilt
Deontae Skinner, LB, Mississippi State

Coaches

Dave DeGuglielmo, offensive line: Tutored South Carolina's offensive line in 1999 and 2003 and the offensive tackles and tight ends from 2000-02.
Joe Judge, assistant special teams coach: He played multiple positions at Mississippi State from 2000-04. He then served as a graduate assistant at Mississippi State from 2005-07. He later spent three years at Alabama as a football analyst under Nick Saban (2009-11).

SEC morning links

January, 19, 2015
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1. For recruiting maniacs, Prince Tega Wanogho Jr.’s story is not new. But for those who follow recruiting only as national signing day nears, this is one of the more unique prospects you’ll come across. Recruiters across the country are beating down the door of the recruiting prospect who hails from Alabama by way of Nigeria. The 6-foot-7 defensive end has already lined up visits to LSU, Auburn and Tennessee, but he’ll have no shortage of options on national signing day. Check out the brand-new football player’s “Coming to America” story from AL.com’s Jeff Sentell.

2. It’s that time of year. Between bowl games and signing day, college headlines frequently involve players leaving their programs because of playing time or disciplinary or academic reasons. It happened at LSU on Sunday when the school confirmed that sophomores Rashard Robinson and Melvin Jones are no longer members of the team because of academic issues. It’s apparently happening at Alabama, where Altee Tenpenny and Malcolm Faciane are not expected to return. And similar stories will continue to pop up all over the country as classes resume for spring semester. Keep your eyes peeled, it will probably happen at your school, too.

3. This is a big week for 25 former SEC players who started arriving in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday for this weekend’s Senior Bowl. For instance, former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was invited to show that he can play the position in the pros – some draft analysts believe he should switch to defensive back to make it in the NFL – while plenty of other players from the conference hope to solidify their draft stock by performing well in this week’s all-important practices against other top-notch prospects. Here is a link to the rosters for the North and South squads for this week’s all-star game.

Around the SEC

Is it time to stop calling Kentucky’s offensive scheme the “Air Raid?” Maybe so.

Stephen Rivers, who transferred from LSU to Vanderbilt prior to the 2014 season, announced on Twitter that he will transfer from Vandy and use his final season of eligibility elsewhere.

Georgia early enrollees Michael Barnett and Natrez Patrick both underwent recent surgeries, but Patrick is still expected to participate in spring practice and Barnett should be available for the fall.

Multiple players who competed on NFL championship Sunday had ties to Mississippi State and 2010 defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

Tweet of the day

Best of the visits: SEC

January, 18, 2015
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Auburn hosted an incredible seven five-star prospects over the weekend, while Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Texas A&M and other SEC schools also had big recruiting weekends. Here’s a closer look at some of the top sights and sounds from the weekend visitors.

Three-star linebacker Dwaine Thomas flipped his commitment from Louisiana-Lafayette to Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon. Thomas tweeted out a photo of himself wearing an Aggies jersey and helmet.


Auburn had a huge recruiting weekend. Here are several photos prospects tweeted out over the course of the weekend:

Georgia commit Terry Godwin posing with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.


Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson posing with a young fan after Auburn’s basketball game Saturday night.

Byron Cowart posted an Instagram photo of himself along with Jefferson and four-star linebacker Jeffery Holland on Auburn’s field.

#wareagle @holland_jeff @cecejeferson7

A photo posted by Byron Cowart (@byroncowart99) on


Auburn commit Jordan Colbert posted several pictures of other targets wearing Auburn jerseys in the Tigers locker room.


ESPN 300 defensive end Arden Key took an official visit to LSU with his family. Here are a few photos of his time in Baton Rouge.


Alabama also had a big recruiting weekend. Here is a photo of Arkansas wide receiver commit K.J. Hill, Miami receiver commit Lawrence Cager and Alabama safety commit Rico McGraw.


Here's Alabama commit Adonis Thomas in a Crimson Tide uniform.


Tennessee commit Kyle Phillips tweeted a photo of several Tennessee commits goofing around.


Mississippi State wide receiver commit Farrod Green tweeted a photo of himself in a Bulldogs uniform.


Virginia Tech commit Houshun Gaines poses for a picture with Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason.


Kentucky commit Jeremiah Dinson poses with uncommitted cornerback Rashad Fenton at the University of Florida.


Florida commit Tyler Jordan and South Carolina commit Christian Pellage pose for a picture while at Florida.


Another Florida commit, Mike Horton, tweeted out a photo of him in a Gators jersey.

College football is getting younger and younger. Gone are the days of just relying on upperclassmen to guide your football programs. Really, gone are the days of waiting for freshmen to develop.

Getting guys on the field earlier and earlier is more than just the norm, it's a necessity. Just look at all the young skill players tearing it up around the country.

The SEC has a treasure trove of young stars, so today we're going to look at rising sophomores and redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on in 2015.

Now, we aren't going to talk about the obvious guys. No All-SEC members from the coaches or the Associated Press. That's just too easy. We're diving into guys who just slid under the title of star in 2014 and could jump right in to the limelight this fall.

Here are the obvious guys who either made All-SEC teams, were honorable mentions or already are well known:
There are a ton of youngsters to choose from, so this certainly wasn't easy, but here are 10 rising sophomores and redshirt freshman from the SEC to keep an eye on in 2015:

EAST

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsJosh Malone didn't live up to the hype as a freshman, but expectations for him remain high.
Will Grier, QB, Florida: He redshirted last year but will be in an all-out battle with Harris for the starting job. Some feel he might be more suited to run new coach Jim McElwain's more pro-style offense.

Jacob Park, QB, Georgia: Another quarterback who redshirted in 2014, Park will challenge for the starting spot in Athens, and he might be the most physically gifted of the three guys competing for that job this spring.

Lorenzo Carter, LB, Georgia: He really came on at the end of last season, proving to be one of the Bulldogs' best pass-rushers. He finished the year with 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.

Isaiah McKenzie, WR/RS, Georgia: Running back Sony Michel should be fun to watch too, but McKenzie has a chance to really take a big step forward in the receiving, rushing and return game. He registered 684 all-purpose yards in 2014.

Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia: Sanders started all 13 games for the Bulldogs last season and finished the year on a very high note with a two-interception performance in Georgia's bowl win over Louisville.

Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky: He started seven games last season and finished the year with 10 tackles. He has to become a more disruptive player up front, but he really has a chance to help this defense in 2015.

Chris Lammons, CB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' defense will be a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser in 2015, and Lammons could be a big part of the improvements in the secondary.

Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee: The Vols return a pretty deep receiving corps, but Malone could have a bright future in Knoxville and should improve on his 23 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown from 2014.

Ethan Wolf, TE, Tennessee: Another talented, young weapon in the Vols' offense, Wolf made an instant impact as a freshman and should continue to be a key part of the Vols' aerial attack in 2015.

Nigel Bowden, LB, Vanderbilt: Not much went right for the Commodores in 2014, but Bowden could be a budding star. He led Vandy with 78 tackles and added two tackles for loss and a sack.

WEST

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Marquis Haynes led Ole Miss in sacks.
Da'Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama: He registered only seven tackles with two sacks in 2014, but Hand, a former five-star prospect, is a monster talent for the Tide who should see plenty of time this fall.

Marlon Humphrey/Tony Brown, CBs, Alabama: Brown played in 13 games, making two starts, while Humphrey redshirted. Alabama had issues at corner all year and these two youngsters, who might be the most talented corners on the team, will have every opportunity to take both starting spots.

Cam Sims, WR, Alabama: With Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones all departing, Alabama will be rebuilding at receiver. Sims, a former top high school prospect, could jump right into a key role at receiver for the Tide.

Jojo Robinson, WR, Arkansas: Coaches knew that he was really talented when he arrived last year, but he wasn't ready. There are high hopes for the former four-star prospect, who has a chance to make a strong impact in Arkansas' passing game.

Roc Thomas, RB, Auburn: In a crowded backfield, Thomas played in 12 games and registered 214 rushing yards with two touchdowns. With both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant gone, Thomas will take over as Auburn's lead back so of course he'll be productive.

Travonte Valentine, DT, LSU: Eligibility issues cut into Valentine's chances of playing in 2014, but he has the potential to be a major player up front for the Tigers. He was probably physically ready to play last year.

Clifton Garrett, LB, LSU: Garrett didn’t really play much last season but was one of LSU's top prospects in its 2014 recruiting class. Garrett just wasn’t ready last season, but that will all change this year.

Gerri Green, LB, Mississippi State: While he sat out the 2014 season, the good news is that he's built like Benardrick McKinney, who just left Starkville for the NFL. He's a big, fast, strong, long, athletic linebacker, who the coaches are very excited about.

C.J. Hampton, S, Ole Miss: With Cody Prewitt gone, Hampton should step right in at that safety spot. There was even talk before the 2014 season that he could have replaced Prewitt and moved him to linebacker. He already has had good field experience, playing in 13 games.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: The Rebels are loaded with defensive line talent, but Haynes was Ole Miss' best pass-rusher in 2014. He started four of the 13 games he played in and led the team with 7.5 sacks while tying for the team lead with nine tackles for loss.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

January, 16, 2015
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With national signing day less than three weeks away, it is officially crunch time. There are only three recruiting weekends left for visits, and most schools plan to take full advantage of those available weekends. Here are a closer look at some of the top visits around the SEC this weekend.

Auburn


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» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

SEC morning links

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1. On Wednesday, Mississippi State introduced Manny Diaz as its new defensive coordinator. On Thursday, Florida followed suit, showing off its new D-coordinator, Geoff Collins. Coincidence? Who knows. But it was interesting to read some of Collins' comments. Him pointing out that Florida has "legitimate SEC talent" was a bit of an understatement, however. There are a lot of coordinators in new jobs today, but it's hard to imagine many in a better position than Collins, who inherits the likes of Vernon Hargreaves III and Antonio Morrison. What Will Muschamp built doesn't need to be undone by Collins. Instead, as Collins said, it's a matter of keeping up what has been a steadily productive defense.



2. As part of the Gators' news conference Thursday, new assistant Randy Shannon spoke. While we won't replay his comments for you here, it is interesting to think about the other side of the coin in his move to Florida. Arkansas, which made enormous inroads into South Florida thanks to Shannon's connections there, is now left without a presence in that fertile recruiting ground. But don't fear, says coach Bret Bielema. He still plans to find the best talent in Florida. "The driving force for us being in Florida is me," he said. Which is good for the Razorbacks because their turnaround has come in large part by way of contributions from Florida natives Alex Collins, Denver Kirkland and Cornelius Floyd.

Around the SEC
  • At Vanderbilt: New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig wants passers, not managers at QB
  • At Auburn: Linebacker Kris Frost plans to return for his senior season
  • At Kentucky: Assistant coach Vince Marrow was tempted by Michigan, but couldn't leave the Cats

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