SEC: Robert Nkemdiche

Top SEC players: Nos. 20-16

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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Edward kicked off our countdown of the SEC's best 25 players with selections 25-21 on Monday.

Keep in mind there's always some projection in these lists after reaching out to coaches, scouts and other media members for their input. The goal is to pinpoint who we think will be the 25 best players for the 2014 season, meaning it's not merely a list of the 25 returning players who've been the best players in the league to this point.

Today, we look at selections 20-16:

20. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches and earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors from the coaches. He's added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, and at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, will be even tougher to defend with his physicality, sure hands and run-after-the-catch ability. With Donte Moncrief leaving early for the NFL, Treadwell is moving from slot receiver to the Rebels' outside receiver spot and will get plenty of chances for big plays.

19: Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: The Michael Sam-Kony Ealy tandem at defensive end last season was ultra-productive, but go back and look at the havoc the 6-3, 260-pound Golden caused despite playing only 40 percent of the snaps. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks, and steps up this season as a senior as the Tigers' top finisher off the edge. Missouri has produced its share of talented defensive linemen under Gary Pinkel, and Golden is poised to join that fraternity.

18. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said Nkemdiche is a tackle all the way for the Rebels, although he's certainly athletic enough to play outside in certain situations. He plans to play at 285 pounds this season after playing closer to 300 as a freshman. He's also healthy after racking up eight tackles for loss last season and eager to prove that he can be as dominant as any interior defensive lineman in this league and maybe the country.

17. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Some of the best news for the 5-9, 223-pound Davis is that the Gamecocks are deep at running back, so they'll be able to keep him fresh. He was a dynamo last season in his first full season as a starter and finished with 1,183 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and caught 34 passes a year ago. He turns missed tackles into touchdowns and had two scoring runs of more than 50 yards last season.

16. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: Even though Derrick Henry has generated plenty of buzz over the way he played in the bowl game last season, the 6-2, 218-pound Yeldon is still the Crimson Tide's feature back. He'll be gunning for his third straight 1,000-yard season in 2014 and has averaged at least 6 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons. Yeldon led the SEC in rushing in league games last season with an average of 123.5 yards per game. He's as adept at running over you as he is at running by you.
Now that you've seen the media's preseason All-SEC team, and Chris' ballot, it's time to see what I cooked up after a week of fun in Hoover, Ala.:

OFFENSE
QB: Nick Marshall, Auburn
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
RB: Derrick Henry, Alabama
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
TE: O.J. Howard, Alabama
OL: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Corey Robinson, South Carolina
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn

DEFENSE
DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Curt Maggitt, Tennessee
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama

SPECIALISTS
PK: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Andre Debose, Florida
AP: Christion Jones, Alabama

East
1. South Carolina
2. Florida
3. Georgia
4. Missouri
5. Tennessee
6. Vanderbilt
7. Kentucky

West
1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. Ole Miss
4. Mississippi State
5. LSU
6. Texas A&M
7. Arkansas

SEC Champion
Alabama
HOOVER, Ala. -- The fourth and final day of SEC media days will likely be a circus with Alabama coming through, but there will be no shortage of storylines on all four teams in attendance Thursday. Let's take a look.

Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.

Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.

Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.

Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.
The opening of SEC media days isn't the only news of the day. Two more college football award watch lists debuted Monday, and the SEC is a major player on both.

Thirteen of the 123 watch list honorees for the Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the top lineman or linebacker, are from the conference. Likewise, nine of the 51 nominees for the Butkus Award, which goes to the top linebacker, are SEC players.

Here are the full lists of SEC nominees:

Lombardi
G A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OT La'el Collins, LSU
C Reese Dismukes, Auburn
DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
OG Arie Kouandjio, Alabama
LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
DE A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Butkus
Trey DePriest, Alabama
Leonard Floyd, Georgia
Kris Frost
Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Braylon Mitchell, Arkansas
Reggie Ragland, Alabama
Ramik Wilson, Georgia
Another day, another college football watch list.

The 2014 Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list debuted Thursday, along with the 2014 Outland Trophy watch list.

The SEC made its presence known again by ranking second out of all the major conferences with 16 players on the Nagurski watch list. The Nagurski Trophy is given out annually to college football's top defensive player.

The SEC led the nation with 19 players on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is given annually to the nation's top interior lineman. Eighty-one players make up the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, and 64 are on the Outland Trophy's watch list.

The SEC players who made each list:

Nagurski
Outland

Potential 2014 SEC villains

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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It’s over now, so you can admit it.

AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel are gone, so it’s time to come clean.

Chances are you hated one or both. How much they won, how they won -- you hated it all. There might have been some respect for their play, but above all, most of you couldn’t stand them.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsSEC fans don't have Johnny Manziel to kick around anymore.
It’s OK. AJ and Johnny were the SEC’s necessary villains last season. And for that they will be sorely missed.

This year won’t be the same without them. Who will you boo? Who will you tune in to watch in hopes of seeing them fail?

It’s totally unreasonable, but it’s also unavoidable: SEC fans are haters.

Who will fill their unceremonious shoes in 2014? Who will be the ones SEC fans love to hate?

Note: Before we get to the candidates, let us apologize to them. We’re sorry, fellas. It’s not fun being disliked, but look at it this way: The more people boo you, the more you’re probably doing something right. So take this as a badge of honor. After all, villains make the SEC a more entertaining place.

Subjects are listed is in alphabetical order, as there is no scientifically known way to measure levels of dislike.

Jacob Coker, Alabama: He’s no McCarron. Let’s get that out of the way first. Unlike his predecessor, Coker is about as unassuming as a major talent can get. He started out as a humble three-star recruit, and his disposition has remained the same. But with the runaway hype machine that’s surrounded his landing at Alabama -- not to mention that he transferred to Alabama in the first place -- you’ve got the perfect recipe for blind dislike.

Jeff Driskel, Florida: Is anyone else tired of hearing about how Driskel is going to get better? Before you start, that was a rhetorical question. The answer, for everyone outside of Gainesville, is a resounding yes. You can hear the chants of “O-VER-RATED” now, can’t you? Because he’s Florida’s starting quarterback, Driskel has to be discussed. Because he has a cannon for an arm and good mobility, his potential is a constant source of discussion. And because he’s so discussed, he’s so disliked. If Driskel does progress into an All-SEC quarterback, he’ll have plenty of detractors. They’ll boo him because he plays for Florida and they’ll boo him because they’ll all want to know what took so long to get there.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has said some things that caused a stir in SEC country.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Coordinators are rarely the subject of such scorn, but the hate for Kiffin burns more intensely than for any head coach in the SEC. And the naysayers need only focus on his tumultuous time at Tennessee. There, he “turned in” Urban Meyer for a recruiting violation only to find that no violation was committed and that he, in fact, was the one violating an SEC rule by mentioning a recruit by name. He also made the Alshon Jeffery “pumping gas” comment, which didn’t exactly ingratiate himself to the rest of the league. Then, after one season, he left the Vols to return to USC. And now, after flunking out of Southern Cal, he’s back as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: He’s as quiet as a church mouse, but Marshall has baggage. His unflattering dismissal from Georgia ruined whatever reputation he had long before he found his way to Auburn. Then he led the Tigers to the BCS title game and invoked the ghosts of Cam Newton. Marshall might not have invited the limelight a fraction of the way Newton did, but hate is unreasonable like that. They’ll obsess over his supposed shortcomings as a passer and neglect his utter effectiveness as a runner and orchestrator of Gus Malzahn’s offense. Marshall’s quiet nature ultimately will be mistaken for cockiness and fans will hate him just the same.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He’s been a rock star since he was 16 years old, and that alone is enough to do him in. It’s a matter of overexposure and jealousy. By simply choosing to commit to Ole Miss in the first place, he offended every other fan base that was actively pursuing him. In many ways, Nkemdiche is the face of Hugh Freeze’s out-of-the-blue 2013 signing class. Fans cried foul when the Rebels finished in the top five of the recruiting rankings that year, and Nkemdiche was the primary target. The fact he plays with so much fire will be wrongly taken as showboating, and if he dominates on the defensive line the way he should, he’ll accumulate haters quickly.
We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today, we take a look at Ole Miss.

Most important game: Nov. 1 vs Auburn

Key players: Every time you think about this Ole Miss team, you usually always come back to quarterback Bo Wallace. He's had his issues with injury and inconsistency since he arrived in Oxford. But he and Ole Miss' staff are hoping this season is different. For the first time in years, Wallace's shoulder isn't bothering him, which should help with the velocity and accuracy of his passes. Against a very athletic Auburn front, Wallace will have to be at his best when it comes to managing plays out of the backfield.

What will help him is the fact that he has one of the SEC's freakiest athletes at wide receiver in sophomore Laquon Treadwell. With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell will have even more on his plate. The good news is that the's more than capable of dealing with all that responsibility and attention. After all, he led Ole Miss with 72 receptions last year. Treadwell won't be on his own, though.

Keep an eye on receivers Vince Sanders and Quincy Adeboyejo; Hugh Freeze believes they could have breakout seasons this fall. Add in tight end Evan Engram, and the Rebels should have a formidable passing attack against a more seasoned secondary.

One way to make sure that passing game goes well is for left tackle Laremy Tunsil to protect Wallace. Whether Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson is healthy or not might not matter with the talent the Tigers have up front, so Tunsil will be pretty busy. So will defensive end C.J. Johnson, who brings back the pass-rushing dynamic the Rebels lost when he left last season with a season-ending leg injury. If you want to stop Auburn's offense, you have to get to the quarterback and disrupt the zone-read. That will be Johnson's job.

Containing Auburn's running backs will be very important, too, meaning defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche will have to clog things up front, and safety Cody Prewitt will have to play more in the box, while also watching quarterback Nick Marshall's arm. He should get help from fellow safeties Trae Elston and Tony Conner in that department, along with linebacker Serderius Bryant, who can act like a spy against Marshall.

Why it matters: Freeze said this spring that he didn't think he'd be prepared to talk about bowl games until his third year with the Rebels. Well, that went out the window when he took Ole Miss bowling in his first year. He did it again last year, and now has even higher expectations in Year 3. Ole Miss has some depth issues along its offensive line and at receiver, but there is enough overall talent for the Rebels to make a legitimate run at the SEC West title. That's why getting a victory over reigning SEC champ Auburn is so important. If the Rebels are going to take that next step as a program, they need a win like this. Take down one of the big boys and you'll get real respect in this league. A win such as could unload momentum for the Rebels and it will be crucial for their race in the West.

Ranking the SEC defensive tackles

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
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We ranked the top defensive line units in the SEC earlier on Monday.

We take it a step further now and rank the top 10 tackles or interior linemen in the league heading into the 2014 season. Notice a trend with the top four?

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
AP Photo/Butch DillA'Shawn Robinson led Alabama in sacks in 2013 as a true freshman.
1. A'Shawn Robinson, So., Alabama: The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks last season as a true freshman and has barely scratched the surface of how good he can be. An end in the Tide's base 3-4 defense, he moves inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen. Those in and around the Alabama program will tell you that he's on track to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have had under Nick Saban.

2. Chris Jones, So., Mississippi State: A year ago as a true freshman, the 6-5, 300-pound Jones played on sheer talent and was still a disruptive force. He led the Bulldogs with 10 quarterback hurries to go along with three sacks. He's now more technically sound, and with his "freaky" talent is primed for a huge sophomore season. He says he's still an end at heart and might line up there in certain situations.

3. Robert Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss: The consensus No. 1 high school prospect in the country last year, Nkemdiche started the season at end and then moved inside to tackle. He finished third on the team with eight tackles for loss despite missing two games with a strained hamstring. At 6-4 and 277 pounds, Nkemdiche is big enough and explosive enough to be a dynamic playmaker no matter where he lines up.

4. Montravius Adams, So., Auburn: Because of injuries, the 6-4, 305-pound Adams worked at end this spring and was hard to miss with all the big plays he made. He has exceptional speed and quickness for such a big guy and is exactly what you're looking for in a defensive lineman in this league. He's another one who could line up at a couple of different spots this fall and will give the Tigers a lot of options up front.

5. J.T. Surratt, R-Sr., South Carolina: Jadeveon Clowney received all the fanfare last season, and Kelcy Quarles put up the big numbers. But don't sleep on Surratt, who's extremely underrated and heads up a deep group of defensive tackles for the Gamecocks. The 6-2, 305-pound Surratt is eager to prove that he's one of the league's premier interior defensive linemen in his own right.

6. Gabe Wright, Sr., Auburn: One of three senior tackles returning for the Tigers, Wright shed 12 pounds this spring and worked some at end. He led all Auburn defensive tackles last season with 8.5 tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries. Wright has the experience, athleticism and talent to have an All-SEC season and gives defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson some flexibility along the defensive front.

7. Darius Philon, R-So., Arkansas: Once committed to Alabama, the 6-3, 283-pound Philon emerged as the Hogs' most active defensive tackle last season as a redshirt freshman. He led all Arkansas interior linemen with 46 total tackles, including nine tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. He admits that he needed that first year on campus to mature, but is now primed to achieve elite status in this league.

8. Issac Gross, Jr., Ole Miss: Size isn't everything at tackle. The 250-pound Gross proved that last season. He consistently went up against bigger guards and centers on the offensive line and used his quickness to lead the Rebels with 3.5 sacks and was second on the team with nice tackles for loss. Gross started four games at nose tackle last season.

9. Matt Hoch, R-Sr., Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy last season on the Tigers' defensive front, the 6-5, 295-pound Hoch quietly went about his business and had his best season, with a career-best 41 total tackles. He has 25 career starts to his credit and is one of those players who just finds a way to get to the ball. He has been equally superb in the classroom.

10. Leon Orr, R-Sr., Florida: The Gators are lacking depth in the middle of their defensive line and will lean heavily on the 6-5, 305-pound Orr, who had 4.5 tackles for loss a year ago in his first season as a starter. He has played in the shadows of a couple of NFL first-round draft choices (Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley), so this is his chance to anchor the interior of that unit.
Some around the SEC suggested that the defensive line talent in the league might have been down last season.

Only five SEC defensive linemen went in the top four rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, and only two of those were tackles.

But as we look ahead to the 2014 season, there’s a promising crop of young defensive linemen in the SEC, particularly the sophomore class.

Today, we kick off our defensive position rankings with the defensive line. We’ll come back later in the day and rank the top 10 tackles in the league and the top 10 ends.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The defensive line should be the strength of an Alabama defense that will again be rock-solid. The Crimson Tide are big, physical and deep with some talented players joining the mix. Sophomore A'Shawn Robinson is an absolute beast. Jonathan Allen played in every game last season as true freshman, and D.J. Pettway is back at end after a year at junior college. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake return at nose guard, and look for Dalvin Tomlinson and Dee Liner to make big impacts as well along with incoming five-star freshman end Da'Shawn Hand. There’s no such thing as being too deep in the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore defensive tackle Montravius Adams is one of several talented, young Auburn defensive linemen.
2. Auburn: There’s a bit of an asterisk associated with Auburn’s ranking. Sophomore Carl Lawson would have easily been one of the top defensive ends in the league, but he recently underwent knee surgery, and his status for the season is unclear. But even without Lawson, the Tigers are still extremely talented. Sophomore tackle Montravius Adams is ready to explode after having a big spring. Sophomore end Elijah Daniel also has gobs of talent, while seniors Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeff Whitaker are back at tackle.

3. Missouri: The Tigers just seem to keep reloading up front defensively despite losing Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson the last couple of years. That shouldn’t change in 2014. Markus Golden and Shane Ray form an imposing defensive end tandem. They combined for 11 sacks last season, and the Tigers also have experience in the middle of that line with Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley returning.

4. Ole Miss: As Hugh Freeze moves into his third season on the job, the hope in Oxford is that the Rebels can make some noise in the West race. They have the depth, talent and experience in the defensive line to make a move. Sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most talented of the bunch and primed for a huge season, but there’s also depth inside. If C.J. Johnson stays healthy at end, defensive line should be the Rebels’ strongest position in 2014.

5. Florida: The Gators breed athletic defensive linemen, and junior Dante Fowler Jr. is the next star in the making. He plays the hybrid “buck” position, but will wind up rushing from an end position much of the time. Fellow junior Jonathan Bullard started eight games at end last season and is another guy ready to take off in this defense. Senior Leon Orr is back at tackle, but there’s not much proven depth inside. True freshman Gerald Willis III has a chance to be special and will play immediately.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return three senior starters in their defensive line -- tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones and end Preston Smith. That’s not to mention sophomore Chris Jones, the kind of player who makes everybody around him better. The 6-5, 300-pound sophomore will line up both inside and outside and has star potential. Second-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has plenty of pieces to work with up front in what should be Dan Mullen’s best defense yet.

7. LSU: The Tigers are set at end with senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter, although Rasco missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Sophomore Tashawn Bower should also prosper as a pass rusher in John Chavis’ system. The big question is at tackle, where redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain will be counted on to step in and fill the void. Sophomore Christian LaCouture also returns at tackle and had a solid spring. LSU has recruited well up front defensively, and similar to previous years, new playmakers will emerge for the Tigers.

8. South Carolina: Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers last season, Jadeveon Clowney was the cog that made that defense go. Kelcy Quarles will also be a big loss inside, but senior tackle J.T. Surratt is underrated. The Dixon brothers -- tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. and end Gerald Dixon -- are also poised to make big moves this season. Junior college transfer Abu Lamin went through spring practice and will add muscle in the middle. Finding another pass-rusher will be critical. Third-year sophomore Darius English, who’s bulked up to 245 pounds, will be one to watch.

[+] EnlargeSterling Bailey
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesGeorgia needs big things from defensive end Sterling Bailey to help make up for the loss of Garrison Smith.
9. Georgia: The only loss up front for the Bulldogs was senior end Garrison Smith, which was a big one. First-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker looked at several different combinations this spring. Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew are both back at end, although Rocker demoted Drew this spring for a few practices. It looks like John Taylor and James DeLoach will avoid suspensions after their off-the-field trouble, and both are good enough to push for starting jobs. Chris Mayes, Mike Thornton and Toby Johnson are all nose guard types in the 3-4. Johnson was dominant this spring.

10. Kentucky: It all starts for the Wildcats defensively with their combo on the outside of Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. They combined for 13 sacks last season and complement each other well. Smith, in particular, should be even better in his second season after coming over from junior college. The issue is inside. The top three tackles from a year ago are gone. Junior college transfer Cory Johnson will be key, and it helps that he enrolled early and went through spring practice.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are shifting to a base 3-4 and have stocked up over the last few years with the kind of big, physical defensive linemen you’re accustomed to seeing in the SEC. Sophomore Adam Butler could be one of the breakout players in the league after moving over to defense from offense last season as a redshirt freshman and playing extremely well. Seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are both 300-pounders with experience, while redshirt freshman Jay Woods has a huge upside.

12. Arkansas: Senior defensive end Trey Flowers is the centerpiece and one of the more accomplished pass-rushers in the league. Third-year sophomore Darius Philon is the Hogs’ best interior lineman after leading all Arkansas tackles a year ago with 46 total tackles. The Hogs need big seasons out of third-year sophomore ends Deatrich Wise Jr., JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis. Wise had five sacks in the spring game.

13. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost one of their most promising defensive linemen when sophomore tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed from the team earlier this month. They were forced to play several younger players last season and took their lumps in what was a forgettable season on the defensive side of the ball. Still, some of those younger players such as sophomore end Daeshon Hall gained valuable experience. They need a big year out of senior end Gavin Stansbury and are hopeful prized freshman signee Myles Garrett can add some pop to the pass rush.

14. Tennessee: The Vols lost six seniors, including all four starters, on their defensive line, which means there will be a lot of new faces playing heavy minutes in 2014. That’s never a good thing in the SEC, especially when you’re particularly thin at tackle. Sophomore end Corey Vereen came on last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp, and Curt Maggitt could end up playing as much end as linebacker. The Vols like the defensive linemen they signed in this class, but having to play so many freshmen so soon up front has a way of catching up to you.

Second-year stars: Ole Miss

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
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Ole Miss has no shortage of standouts who are entering their sophomore seasons. After landing one of the nation’s best recruiting classes in 2013, the Rebels were able to see the fruits of their recruiting trail labor early with several players contributing right away last season.

There are several worthy candidates to choose from for today’s second-year stars installment, even as we look for someone who might not be right at the forefront of our brains, like freshman All-Americans Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell.

[+] EnlargeEvan Engram
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsDespite missing five games due to injury, Evan Engram had 21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns last fall.
Class recap: Ole Miss had the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class in 2013, and so far it seems like the high ranking was warranted. The Rebels' top four recruits in the class -- Tunsil, Treadwell, Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner -- all were named freshman All-Americans and were picked for the SEC coaches All-Freshman team. Even more players from that class are poised for increased roles this fall.

Second-year star: TE Evan Engram (6-foot-3, 217 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Engram was an under-the-radar prospect out of Georgia in the 2013 class, holding offers from the likes of Wake Forest, Ohio and South Alabama prior to earning an offer and eventually committing to Ole Miss. A three-star prospect, Engram was ranked 27th nationally among tight ends and 132nd overall in Georgia.

2013 in review: If not for a high-ankle sprain that caused him to miss five games late in the season, Engram could have been headed for a freshman All-American spot himself (he still received honorable mention and was a second-team All-SEC freshman pick by the Associated Press). He finished with 21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns. The three scores are a school record for an Ole Miss freshman.

2014 potential: If he can stay healthy this season, the breakout potential is there. His size and ability is a nice fit for the Rebels’ offense, and with receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan -- two of Ole Miss’ three leading receivers last season -- now in the NFL, there are more catches to go around. Engram is among a group of other young pass catchers like Vince Sanders, Quincy Adeboyejo, Cody Core and Collins Moore who will be looked upon to take on bigger roles. If Engram’s early-season success last fall is any indication, he’ll find success sooner rather than later.

Also watch for: Obviously, Tunsil, Treadwell, Conner and Nkemdiche are all looking to build on strong freshman seasons, so expect each of the four to improve as sophomores and continue playing prominent roles for the Rebels. As for some other less-heralded possibilities, Adeboyejo is one to watch. A three-star prospect out of Texas high school power Cedar Hill, Adeboyejo (7 catches, 81 yards, 1 TD) did get some playing time last season as a true freshman and has nice size (6-3, 189). Another three-star prospect from the 2013 class, Derrick Jones (27 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 pass breakups), played in nine games and made four starts as a cornerback last season and is certainly one to watch as a potential breakout player.
The sophomore class of defensive lineman is loaded this coming season in the SEC.

There are future pros on a number of different teams, which has been what has historically set the SEC apart -- strength up front defensively.

SportsNation

Who will have the biggest sophomore season among the SEC's most promising young defensive linemen?

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    12%
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    24%
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    13%
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    30%
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    21%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,301)

Who's primed for the biggest season? That's your job.

So go vote in our SportsNation poll on which of the sophomore defensive linemen will have the biggest season in 2014, and we'll review the results next week.

Of the five choices we've thrown out there, Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson could be a bit of a wild card with his recent knee surgery. It's wait-and-see as to how healthy he'll be to start the season. But in terms of pure talent, he's right up there with anybody in the league. If he's not 100 percent, he could potentially be a candidate for a redshirt season.

The other four are defensive tackles, although Mississippi State's Chris Jones may play some end and tackle. Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche and Arkansas' Darius Philon are also big, athletic guys who are playmakers in their own right.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With Jacob Coker ready to compete at quarterback, a freshman in line to start at left tackle, and a new coordinator calling plays, Alabama’s offense is in a state of transition.

With that said, here’s a look at the top five defensive players who could give the Crimson Tide offense trouble in 2014:

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt could be one of the top defenders in the conference.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida -- Sept. 6

There might not be a more talented cornerback in the SEC than Hargreaves, who burst on the scene as a freshman last season, starting for the Gators and hauling in three interceptions in his first four games. He was a bright spot amid Florida's tumultuous 4-8 campaign. A year wiser and more physically mature, he could present a real challenge for whoever starts under center for the Tide. His likely matchup with star wideout Amari Cooper will be worth setting your DVR.

S Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss -- Oct. 4

It isn’t just Hugh Freeze’s offense that’s loaded with talent. Ole Miss has a great nucleus on defense with Robert Nkemdiche at defensive tackle, Serderius Bryant at linebacker and Tony Conner at safety. But the man every quarterback must pay attention to is Prewitt, who wasn’t a high-profile recruit like many of his teammates, yet produces like an All-American. The 6-foot-2 junior led the SEC with six interceptions, finished fifth in passes defended (13) and ninth in fumbles forced (2).

DL Trey Flowers, Arkansas -- Oct. 11

Quietly, Flowers has developed into one of the top defensive ends in the SEC. It started with a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2011 and continued through last season, when he posted one of the best all-around stat lines you’ll ever see: 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and one interception. He could have skipped his senior season and entered the NFL draft but decided to stay, providing new defensive coordinator Robb Smith an important cornerstone to build around.

DL Chris Jones, Mississippi State -- Nov. 15

Everyone knows about Nkemdiche at Ole Miss. The former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300 came in with high expectations and flashed plenty of promise as a freshman last season. But another rookie defensive end in the same state showed just as much potential on the field. Jones, who is a tweener end/tackle for Mississippi State, is jam-packed with talent. Dan Mullen referred to him a “freaky athlete” this spring. Big, strong and nimble, Jones led the Bulldogs with 10 quarterback hurries and tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss.

DL Carl Lawson, Auburn -- Nov. 29

Cam Robinson is going to have his hands full if he winds up starting for Alabama as a freshman left tackle. We already mentioned Flowers, Nkemdiche and Jones in this post. Somehow, Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida didn’t make the cut. LSU will surely have a few impressive d-linemen crop up, too. And then there’s Lawson, who grew leaps and bounds as a freshman last season. The 6-foot-3 former five-star prospect showed himself to be a menacing pass-rusher, turning in four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. With Dee Ford now off to the NFL, Lawson will get even more reps.

Ole Miss spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
6:30
AM ET
Three things we learned in the spring about the Ole Miss Rebels:

1. Expectations are a good thing: Coach Hugh Freeze thought it would take three years before he even talked seriously about bowls. Now, he’s won two and fans expect him to be bowl eligible before November arrives. Expectations haven’t been this high in Oxford in a while, but with the talent returning, confidence is high and the Rebels are ready to make a run.

2. Wallace is healthy: For all the criticism Bo Wallace has endured, the senior quarterback has played just a couple of games at full strength with his throwing shoulder. After another surgery, Wallace says he feels just at 100 percent. He was limited at times this spring, but his arm is stronger and there’s more zip on this throws.

3. The defensive line has muscle: Last season, the Rebels didn’t have the adequate pass rush that gave their defense juice a year prior. Now, with the return of defensive end C.J. Johnson that elite rusher is back. Robert Nkemdiche is moving inside, where he could be better suited, and ends Fadol Brown, Bryan Bennett and Marquis Haynes could be special players.

Three questions for the fall:

1. How will the offensive line look? Ole Miss has to replace three starters and doesn't have a ton of depth. Outside of left tackle Laremy Tunsil, nothing is really settled up front, and not having Aaron Morris or Christian Morris at full strength this spring didn’t help. Also, the versatile Austin Golson is thinking of transferring. Expect Ole Miss to move a lot of guys around before anything is set.

2. Who will back up Wallace? While Ole Miss has its starting quarterback, the backup is a real unknown. And with Wallace’s injury history, that isn’t a good sign. With Barry Brunetti gone, redshirt freshmen DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan competed with junior college transfer Jeremy Liggins and early enrollee Kendrick Doss, but no one separated himself this spring.

3. Not so special teams? Ole Miss has to replace kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell with players with very little, if any, experience. Only kicker Andrew Fletcher has any experience (two extra points). He mainly competed with redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos this spring, but freshman Gary Wunderlich will be involved this fall. Will Gleeson led at punter this spring but has no experience.

One way-too-early prediction:

Some people think the jury is still out on this Ole Miss team, but enough talent returns to make the Rebels a real contender in the West. Even with an early test again Boise State (in Atlanta), Ole Miss will be 4-0 entering a brutal October slate. Still, the Rebels will find a way to win at least nine games for the first time since 2009.
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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