SEC: Robert Nkemdiche

When asked by reporters about his freshman season, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche said he could’ve done better. Auburn's Carl Lawson echoed the same tune this spring, telling the media he was “a little disappointed” with his performance last fall. Both players played the majority of the season and both made an impact, but that wasn’t enough in their eyes.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn DE Carl Lawson said it took some time to adjust to the college game last fall.
The two premier defensive end prospects were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 coming out of high school. Nkemdiche followed his brother to Ole Miss, and Lawson stuck to his original commitment to Auburn despite a coaching change after the season. The expectations were high before either one ever stepped foot on campus.

Once they did, it didn’t take long for them to realize they weren’t in high school anymore.

“There were times I got double-teamed, triple-teamed,” Nkemdiche said. “[Teams] tried to come at me with different things, get me out of the game. It was more than I expected.”

“[I was disappointed] in how long it took me to adjust to the college game,” Lawson added.

In 11 games, Nkemdiche made 34 tackles, including eight for a loss, and had two sacks. Lawson played in all 14 games and finished with 20 tackles, 7.5 for loss and was second on the team with four sacks. Those would be impressive numbers by most first-year player standards, but not these two. They strive to be great.

Regardless of any stats, the experience gained from playing last season was invaluable.

“I don't think you can measure it,” Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. “The experience coaches talk about it all the time -- game experience -- especially for [Nkemdiche] in the SEC, to come in and really play a whole season in front of those crowds, in the bowl game and doing everything that he did, I just think that he's going to be that much better this year.”

That experience has shown this spring. Physically, both Nkemdiche and Lawson were ready, but it took time to understand the defense and its various schemes and assignments and know what to do in certain situations. Now, as they go through their first spring, they’re beginning to adapt to the intricacies of the college game.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche expects more from himself heading into his second season at Ole Miss.
“Having knowledge of the offense and defense allows you not to waste as much energy,” Lawson said. “If you’re all over the place, you’re wasting energy and you’re putting your time and effort in the wrong direction. Once I have a better understanding of what I’m doing, the game [will] come easier to me.”

The game must be coming to easier to Lawson because he has been one of the stars for Auburn through the first three weeks of spring practice.

“We have high expectations for Carl, coming off the season he had,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “You can just tell he's a lot more confident out there and trying to be a leader by example.”

The same can be said for Nkemdiche, who wrapped up the spring on Saturday with the Rebels’ annual Grove Bowl.

Kiffin believes both Nkemdiche and Lawson, as well as Mississippi State sophomore-to-be Chris Jones, are primed for breakout seasons in 2014. Jones posted similar numbers to the other two, as he finished with with 32 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks last fall.

“I think your biggest improvement comes in your second year from your first year,” Kiffin said. “For all three of those guys, they're all physically mature. When you watched all three of them play last year, they all struggled a little bit with technique here and there, but they're all clearly very, very good football players.

“I think this year you'll see all three of them playing with great technique and making plays all over the field.”

That’s good news for Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans, but not so much for the new, inexperienced quarterbacks in the SEC.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
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OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze reaches up and brushes his hair back with his right hand as he slides back into his office chair inside his oversized office in the heart of Ole Miss’ newly renovated football facility.

He’s reaching for a thought, as he tries to remember a laundry list of young names he doesn’t want to forget while he rattles off players he’s excited about.

After mentioning a handful, he runs out of names and sports a faint smile which slowly covers his face after a reporter points out that this is the first time he’s seen him smile about his team without provocation.

Ole Miss’ head coach, who is entering what many in Oxford hope is a very exciting and accomplished third year with the Rebels, has too many names to remember and is genuinely excited about the team he has in front of him. Following his second straight winning season and bowl win, Freeze is manning a team that returns 16 starters and 60 lettermen.

Freeze admits that he thought the only real serious bowl talk he’d have with his team would come in Year 3. He also thought it would take three full recruiting classes in order to have adequate SEC depth. But as he relaxes in his chair and talks about his team, you can feel the ease in his voice. With 15 wins (two bowl victories) in two years after the incredible rut this program was in when Freeze took over, Ole Miss is ahead of schedule. Freeze says players are buying in, depth is improving, leaders are emerging and the talent pool is much deeper now than it has been in years.

Freeze doesn’t know if his excess smiling or a more gratifying start to spring will result in more wins in 2014, but he knows the product he has now is better than what he had during his two prior springs.

“I just know today when we step on that practice field, we’re better than we were [last year],” Freeze told ESPN.com last week. “I know that today.”

Today, no games will be played, but the wheels are in motion in Oxford. With depth improving after two solid recruiting classes, including that monster of a 2013 haul, Freeze decided to up the intensity this spring. He wanted a more physical practice because he felt his team could finally take it.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche is a key part of Ole Miss' outstanding recruiting class from 2013.
There’s always the risk of injury when you ramp up the contact, but extra quality bodies sprinkled around eases those worries. Players embraced a more rugged spring, Freeze said. Last season was another step forward for the Rebels, but Freeze knows neither he nor his players were satisfied with winning just eight games.

“I’m really pleased with where we are in attitude and effort,” Freeze said.

“There’s no possible way that I could do what we’ve done this spring and expect to finish [the spring] feeling good, but we’re a lot deeper than we have been. The good teams have physical springs, and I know that it helps you get better if you can survive it.”

One reason for the increased depth, intensity and confidence is that 2013 class. Headlined by ESPN 300 studs Robert Nkemdiche (the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect), Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Tony Conner, Ole Miss’ 2013 class landed in Oxford with historic hype and crazy expectations. Even with enough golden stars attached to their names to light the night sky, these freshmen didn’t boast about their high-profiled prep careers, Freeze said. They were humble when they arrived, and that only increased after strength coach Paul Jackson got ahold of them before fall camp.

“They weren’t five-star players anymore,” quarterback Bo Wallace said with a smile, “they were Ole Miss football players. That’s how we treated them and they loved it.”

For Nkemdiche, whose hype dwarfed that of his classmates, living up to lofty expectations was be tough, but he said he and his classmates got together to discuss drowning out the talk and focusing on football. They wanted wins and wanted to change the program.

Slowly, it’s happening, and the freshmen are making sure the process continues under their watch.

“They want it to be a high level of competitive juices flowing every day and that’s the next step for us to win the day, so to speak,” Freeze said. “We have to have people like that who bring it every day, and those are the ones that naturally will help our team follow a lot quicker.”

After winning eight in 2013, the Rebels face much higher expectations this fall, and while depth is still an issue at receiver and along the offensive line, players and coaches feel confident that this year could be special.

With questions piling up around the SEC in 2014, the Rebels hope they have plenty of answers this fall.

“The expectations for us are just growing and growing and I feel like some of the other teams around the conference lost some of their key players,” Nkemdiche said. “I feel like it’s our turn to take over and do big things.”

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:
The Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry is one drenched in tradition and hatred. Neither side likes the other, and they'd compete over sweetest ice cream flavor if they could.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche could be poised for a big season in 2014.
Get ready for another competition between these two programs that won't necessarily deal with wins and losses.

Both of these schools, who will enter the 2014 season with higher expectations than last season, will have two über-talented defensive linemen who could become household names in the SEC before their times are done in the Magnolia State.

For Ole Miss, it's former No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche. At Mississippi State, it's relative under-the-radar stud Chris Jones. Both are looking for super sophomore years in the SEC.

At season's end, Jones had three sacks and seven tackles for loss, while Nkemdiche recorded two sacks and eight tackles for loss. Both collected more than 30 tackles, too. Neither had earth-shattering debuts, but their respective freshman seasons give both players something they can build on going into 2014.

And both have shown that they can be truly special. Jones might not have received the hype that Nkemdiche did before he made his home in Starkville, but he's a freak. Teams started to respect him as the season went on, bringing more double-teams his way. He's quick off the line, powerful and extremely athletic. Jones can line up inside or outside for the Bulldogs and probably lined up around 60 percent end and 40 percent tackle.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsMississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones, a former top-50 recruit, had three sacks as a freshman.
Versatility, my friends. It's essential in this sport, especially when you're playing the SEC. Jones doesn't have Nkemdiche's name, but he has the talent to be a real monster in this league. He's an excellent pass rusher when he's on the edge and can clog the middle with his 6-foot-5, 305-pound frame.

Like Jones, Nkemdiche is extremely versatile. Heck, the 6-4, 277-pounder lined up at running back at times last season. He likely won't be doing as much damage in his own backfield this fall, but he could be more of a pain for opposing backfields with him moving around on the line for the Rebels. Nkemdiche is working exclusively at tackle this spring, but he will likely see time at both positions this fall.

Despite the off-field distractions he's dealing with, the hope is that Nkemdiche can immerse himself even more in the Rebels' defense and start working more off knowledge, as opposed to just his instincts.

Nkemdiche and Jones have what it takes to be total packages for their teams. Both are rangy and have high football intelligence. They are extremely powerful and have barely tapped their potential.

It's going to be fun watching them, and you better believe they're both watching each other. Why wouldn't they be?

SEC's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
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Half of the SEC teams have started officially-sanctioned football-related activities with Missouri and Vanderbilt opening spring practice on Tuesday. There's a lot going on.

Video: SEC West top returning players

March, 4, 2014
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Toni Collins and SEC reporter Edward Aschoff take a look at some of the top returning players and storylines in the SEC West.
As the NFL combine winds down and we watch another class of SEC players move on to professional careers, it’s important to keep an eye on the future and the next wave of stars.

Spring practice begins at Texas A&M on Friday and will open throughout the SEC in the weeks to come. And while it’s a tad premature to be asking the question, we’re doing it anyways: Who will be the top defensive linemen in the league next season?

Chris Low, my colleague on the SEC blog, gave his pick for the best offensive linemen last week, and we figured it best not to leave out their combatants in the trenches.

With that said, here's our early take on the SEC's top-four defensive linemen going into the 2014 season. They're listed alphabetically:

Trey Flowers, Arkansas

He’s been doing his thing for a while now so you should know his name. Flowers hasn’t won many games in his career at Arkansas, but that’s not his fault. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end has quietly become a premier lineman in the league, beginning with a rookie campaign that landed him on the SEC All-freshman team in 2011. Last season, he was second-team All-SEC after recording five sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss. He also forced three fumbles, hauled in an interception and had two pass breakups. Bret Bielema didn’t have a lot of wins his first season at Arkansas, but convincing Flowers to return for his senior season was one of them.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDante Fowler Jr. led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss in 2013.
Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

To be fair, he does play some standing up at linebacker. But Fowler, at 6-foot-3 and 277 pounds, is all pass-rusher in coach Will Muschamp’s defense. The All-SEC second team selection led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and finished with 3.5 sacks. He’ll be asked to do more in 2014, and the former four-star prospect has the tools to pull it off. The lightning-quick rising sophomore will need some help, though. If a second pass-rusher emerges to take away double-teams, look for Fowler to take off.

Chris Jones, Mississippi State

You might not have known his name as a recruit, but Jones has worked his way into the conversation as one of the most talented young defensive players in the SEC. Dan Mullen and his coaching staff found themselves a gem at Mississippi State. Jones was a late bloomer in high school but came on quickly in college, developing into an SEC All-freshman team selection with the size (6-5, 305 pounds) to play on the interior of the line and the speed and burst to play outside at end. His seven tackles-for-loss and three sacks only serve to underscore his team-leading 10 quarterback hurries. For perspectives sake, the former No. 1 recruit in the country at the “School Up North” had just three quarterback hurries.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

Yes, that player was Nkemdiche, the former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300. And while his numbers weren’t quite as impressive as his counterpart at Mississippi State (isn’t that rivalry going to be fun?) Nkemdiche did nothing to disappoint in his first season at Ole Miss. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound athlete showed why he was so highly thought of coming out of high school. He not only played both end and tackle for the Rebels, he also carried the ball at running back a few times. Eight tackles-for-loss and two sacks should just be the tip of the iceberg in his career under coach Hugh Freeze.

Four more to watch

SEC lunchtime links

February, 19, 2014
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Let's take a quick spin through the headlines from across the SEC:
A week that hasn't exactly been pretty for Ole Miss got worse and a little stranger on Tuesday when news broke that Denzel Nkemdiche and Robert Nkemdiche are being sued for $2 million after allegedly beating a man at a fraternity party last year.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche and his brother Denzel are being sued for $2 million.
According to a complaint, which was filed in Lafayette County Circuit Court last Friday, plaintiff Matthew Baird claims Denzel Nkemdiche punched him from behind unprovoked and knocked him unconscious. It also states that Robert Nkemdiche and five other unnamed people started kicking and stomping Baird while he was on the ground.

Here's the statement released by Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork, which indicates that he and the administration are standing by the Nkemdiche brothers:
"When this alleged incident occurred, the proper authorities investigated the matter and could find no evidence of wrong-doing related to Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche or any other members of our football program. This is a personal matter for them and we will support Denzel and Robert while they defend themselves in this civil case."

Not all of the facts are out on this one, but this isn't something the Nkemdiches or Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze want to deal with. It's another distraction in an offseason that is piling up with them in Oxford for this football program. It sounds like this matter was dealt with in the past, and that Ole Miss stands by the investigation, but the fact that it's now out in the open will draw plenty of unwanted attention to this team.

And if the Nkemdiches did in fact engage in such a horrific incident, there's no question Freeze will then have to deal with their futures with the football program. Forget how valuable both are to the Rebels, jumping someone at a party deserves severe punishment and Freeze has to know that. But he also first has to know all the facts.

For now, Freeze and the Nkemdiches have to wait for the legal process to unfold. Denzel Nkemdiche is already serving a suspension after being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace over the weekend. No punishment was ever given to Robert Nkemdiche for any role in the alleged fight at the fraternity house last year.

The investigation is ongoing, as is the drama surrounding this football team.

Offseason spotlight: Ole Miss

February, 14, 2014
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Another player who missed most of the 2013 season, Ole Miss' spotlight subject could provide immediate help when it comes to wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage:

Spotlight: Defensive end C.J. Johnson, 6-3, 230 pounds, senior

2013 summary: Johnson played in just four games before having season-ending surgery on his right ankle. During those four games, Johnson recorded 12 tackles, including four for loss.

The skinny: While the Rebels improved to 8-5 during Hugh Freeze's second year in Oxford, what they really could have used throughout the season was a more disruptive pass rush. That was lacking after Johnson went down, and Ole Miss finished the season tied for 12th in the SEC with just 19 sacks -- a year removed from ranking second with 38. Johnson was never truly healthy in 2013 after breaking his right fibula in spring practice, but the hope is that with extra time to rest and surgery, Johnson will be able to enhance the Rebels' play up front. In 2012, he led Ole Miss with 6.5 sacks and could be even better this fall with Robert Nkemdiche requiring a double-team wherever he lines up. As the Rebels continue to improve on defense, they know that to take the next step in their progression, they have to get more aggressive up front. That's where Johnson could really lift this team. He can make the plays behind the line of scrimmage that weren't there in 2013 and free up others to make plays because teams will have to monitor him in pass-rush situations. The Rebels do have players coming back at defensive end, but Johnson is the key. He's the one who could really cause havoc when teams get into passing situations, which would take pressure off of Ole Miss' secondary.

Past spotlights:
A year removed from a historic recruiting haul, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze understands why some people aren't as caught up in his 2014 recruiting efforts. After all, the Rebels signed 10 ESPN 300 players, two five-star prospects and the No. 1 player/defensive end, offensive tackle and wide receiver in 2013.

What Freeze did in his first complete class at Ole Miss was nothing short of miraculous -- with three players ranked No. 1 at their positions in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell -- when you consider the shape that program was in before he arrived in Oxford, Miss., in December 2011.

However, in a recruiting world obsessed with the glitz and glimmer from golden stars, some don't look at this year's Ole Miss class with the same excitement. That's fine with Freeze, because he sees a class (ranked No. 17 by ESPN's Recruiting Nation) that stands as a major building block for the Rebels.

[+] EnlargeMarkell Pack
Derek Tyson/ESPNOle Miss signee Markell Pack is the No. 12 wide receiver in the ESPN 300.
"While it may not have those three- or four-stars that we had the natural tie-ins with or we were fortunate enough to get in Laremy's case, I do think from top to bottom it is quality," Freeze told ESPN.com earlier this week. "It definitely adds a lot of depth everywhere."

And when you're trying to find adequate balance across the board with your roster, quantity can sometimes outweigh quality. Not to say that this class doesn't have quality, considering the Rebels signed four ESPN 300 members, 15 four-stars by ESPN's Recruiting Nation and five ESPN Junior College 50 players. Freeze and his staff also kept the Rebels' 22 commits heading into signing day, brought in a few solid mid-year players and addressed major needs at receiver, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker.

And don't think that there aren't stars lurking in this class. Freeze said he expects to get early use out of second-ranked offensive guard Rod Taylor, No. 5 juco offensive tackle Fahn Cooper, ESPN 300 wide receiver Markell Pack and ESPN 300 safety C.J. Hampton, who is already on campus and could push for playing time at free safety.

While Freeze would have loved to have signed a star-heavy class, he didn't need to. He needed to plug holes on his roster with solid prospects, and for the most part he did. Freeze still believes he's lacking a big, physical tight end, and after losing six offensive linemen from last year's team, he says he'll will need one more recruiting cycle to get things together up front. But he got "quality depth" with "quality people" in this class.

"I do think that this added class gives us the ability to focus even harder on doing the little things right because we're creating competition at those positions now," Freeze said. "If a guy is winning off the field, you gotta good chance of him helping you on the field, if he's talented and you were right in your evaluation of him."

Now that signing day has passed, Freeze looks to the future, where he sees a team that returns a handful of the contributors he had from last season's eight-win crew. He has a host of youngsters, including Tunsil and Treadwell, who immediately stepped up as leaders and are guys who people intently listen to in the locker room.

For a class headlined by top overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche, it took a humble approach early, as Freeze said there was no sense of entitlement from guys or a "give-me" attitude that could have poisoned the program. They naturally became leaders because they knew the little things and listening would propel them, Freeze said.

"They worked for it," Freeze said. "No one could ever doubt that they [worked] hard to earn the spots that they got. As long as they keep that mentality, these expectations won't bother them because they have the talent to do that. Hopefully we can keep them grounded and continue to proceed just like we did when they first got here."

When Freeze thinks about blending this year's class with the 2013 group and the veterans already around, he sees a team that "should be competitive in every game and have a chance to win every game" this fall. He isn't proclaiming the Rebels as SEC champs, but he believes this team can challenge for it, more now than it could before.

However, Freeze knows that life in the SEC West means that having elite talent still might not be enough.

"The sad thing is that you can have a good class, and you're still fifth in the SEC West," he said. "It's not like the other guys are going away."

And it's not like Ole Miss is, either.
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.

Future is bright for SEC in 2014

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
5:50
PM ET
Carrying the baton of seven straight BCS national championships is a heavy burden, as the Auburn Tigers can surely attest. They were just seconds away from making it eight in a row.

For all its flaws, the BCS was very good to the SEC. But the new year brings a new postseason format -- the four-team playoff. It, too, should be very good to the SEC, which is still the dominant conference in college football by a good margin.

Let's take a look at what's to come in 2014:

1. Top storylines

Ted Miller explains the new playoff format as part of his forecast for the season. Will the SEC be on top once again?
The preseason question in 2013 was whether college football would head into the four-team playoff with the SEC riding a streak of eight consecutive national titles. The preseason question in 2014 will be whether the four-team playoff quickly returns the dominant conference to the top of the college football.

Heck, even before that question is answered, folks will be curious to see how many SEC teams end up in the playoff. One seems a certainly. Two almost likely. And three is now possible as there is no representational limit per conference, as there was with BCS bowl games. The way things are going in the SEC, we could see a replay of the Iron Bowl as a semifinal or even the national title game.
2. Players to watch

The SEC will have a huge void to fill with the departures of mainstays like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw.

Adam Rittenberg takes a look at some players to watch in 2014, including Georgia's Todd Gurley, who might be the best running back in a league full of great ones, and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who made first-team All-SEC as a true freshman. A couple of fast-rising SEC stars made the list of sleepers, too -- Alabama RB Derrick Henry, who had a coming-out party at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and Ole Miss DL Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall prospect from the Class of 2013.

One thing is certain in the SEC -- every year talented players leave for the bright lights of the NFL, and every year talented players emerge to take their places.

3. Bold predictions

Mark Schlabach is back with more sooth-saying. Let's give the man credit for saying Auburn would be the most improved team in the nation in 2013.

Among his predictions for 2014: An SEC team will not win the national championship, Henry will be college football's next superstar, James Franklin will leave Vanderbilt to coach Penn State, and Florida will go to a bowl game after a 9-3 season that saves Will Muschamp's job.

It wasn’t pretty, but Ole Miss did just enough to knock off Georgia Tech and win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl 25-17. With the win, the Rebels have now won 10 of their past 11 bowl games.

Here’s how it went down:

It was over when: Mike Hilton sealed the victory with an interception in the final minute, but the key play came the drive before when Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace connected with Laquon Treadwell for 27 yards on third-and-13. It allowed the Rebels to run an extra two minutes off the clock and made a Georgia Tech comeback nearly impossible. The freshman wide receiver finished with five catches for 51 yards, but none bigger than that third-down grab.

Game ball goes to: Wallace. The Ole Miss signal-caller played maybe his worst game as a Rebel in an overtime loss to Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, but he redeemed himself with an impressive performance against Georgia Tech on Monday. The junior went 22-of-32 for 256 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed 13 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns. It was a successful homecoming for the Tennessee native, who finished the season on a high note.

Unsung hero: Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford. The senior, who missed the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to ACL tears, might not have gotten the credit he deserved this season, but he was all over the field for the Rebels on Monday. Down the stretch, he blew up the Yellow Jackets' reverse pass attempt that ultimately led to a safety, and he was the one to apply pressure on the quarterback which forced the game-clinching interception.

Stat of the game: Georgia Tech rushed for 92 yards in the first quarter, including 64 yards on the opening drive. Ole Miss held the Yellow Jackets to just 59 yards on 33 carries the rest of the way. The return of freshman star Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt in the second quarter was huge (both were suspended for the first quarter; Prewitt later left due to injury), but the whole defense stepped up, stopped the triple-option attack and carried the Rebels to victory.

What we learned: Ole Miss fell short of its goals this season, but with a victory in the bowl game, the Rebels can take some momentum with them into the offseason. This is clearly a team on the rise, and it’s not far from competing in the SEC West with the likes of Alabama and Auburn. As for Georgia Tech, it’s time to start wondering if the Yellow Jackets have reached their ceiling under coach Paul Johnson. They will lose 11 senior starters on both sides of the ball, and all they have to show for it is a 7-6 season with a loss in the bowl game.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Music City Bowl, click here.

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