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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five more to watch

There's only one way to get over last season: reps, reps and more reps.

And thankfully for Alabama's defensive backs, there are plenty to go around this spring with top cornerback Cyrus Jones out with a hip injury and reserve corner Anthony Averett now experimenting at wide receiver. Meanwhile, both starting safeties from last year's squad, Landon Collins and Nick Perry, are off preparing for the NFL draft.

 What coach Nick Saban says he wants is competition, and that's exactly what he'll get as he prepares to restructure a secondary that allowed 16 passes of 20-plus yards against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State to end last season, more than double its previous average of 2.45 such plays per game.

"I want guys to compete to be the best," Saban told reporters in Tuscaloosa this week. "I don’t want them to feel like ‘Oh it’s my turn to play now because I’ve been sitting behind these guys for a while' and I want to see a lot of energy and enthusiasm and intensity in the way they compete. Those are the kind of guys we want to play with."

That current cast of characters includes veterans Eddie Jackson, Bradley Sylve, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey at cornerback. Geno Smith, Maurice Smith, Hootie Jones and Ronnie Harrison are the top candidates at safety.

Saban said, "If you're going to be a starter, you have to act like a starter and you have to play like one." But one such former starter, Jackson, has seen his share of ups and downs. The rising junior started as a freshman, tore his ACL the following spring and somehow made it back to the starting lineup by Game 2 of last season. But in that three-game stretch where Alabama allowed big play after big play, it was Jackson who was often the victim of getting beat over the top.

"Eddie's got to improve, in my opinion, as all players do," Saban said. "[We] probably gave up too many big plays last year, and that's something we've got to improve on. You've got to believe, trust in the technique that you're being taught and go out there and try and execute ... and I don't think we did that last year enough in the secondary. That's something that I think we need to make a big improvement on for next year."

Helping that cause is new assistant Mel Tucker, who went from running the Chicago Bears' defense as its coordinator last year to coaching Alabama's defensive backs this spring.

Saban, who has plenty of familiarity with Tucker having employed him as a grad assistant at Michigan State and then as DB coach at LSU, said, "Mel's a really good coach."

"He knows the system, he knows a lot of the adjustments," Saban said. "Obviously, his experience in the NFL with some of the things that he’s done since that time are things that may be good additions and adjustments for what might help us systematically. I think he’s done a really, really good job with the players, and I think the players have responded very well to him."

Best of the SEC: Front seven

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27
11:10
AM ET

OK, so we've gone over the fun and flashy offensive skill guys who put folks in the seats, and we've talked about the big uglies who protect those valuable commodities. Now, it's time to talk about the guys up front on the other side who want to make their offensive counterparts miserable.

As we continue to look at the best players in the SEC at different positions, we're checking out the SEC's best front-seven members. This league has always hung its hat on great defensive line play, and this season shouldn't be any different. And those linebackers ain't so bad either.

Here are the top players in the front seven in alphabetical order:

Defensive line

Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee, So.

Tennessee had no problem playing a lot of freshmen last season, and it's a good thing the coaches decided to put Barnett on the field. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound punishing pass-rusher dominated up front for most of the 2014 season, finishing the year tied for fourth in the SEC in sacks (11) and second in tackles for loss (20.5). He set record-breaking numbers for a freshman at Tennessee, and the scary thing is he'll be older and wiser in 2015.

[+] EnlargeGarrett
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M's Myles Garrett posted 11.5 sacks as a freshman, but only three of them came in SEC play.

Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M, So.

Another fabulous freshman, Garrett led the Aggies in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (14). He also had 53 tackles and 10 quarterback hurries. However, there is a bit of a knock on Garrett and that's the fact he only had three sacks in conference play. That's a legitimate gripe, but if you go back and watch tape, Garrett missed a handful of sacks in SEC play. It's not like he took plays off. He was still a valuable force off the edge for A&M, but he didn't always finish what he started. Expect that to change from the physical freak.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, Jr.

Defensive tackle isn't a glamorous position, but it is very important for any defense to be successful. Nkemdiche didn't have flashy stats last season (he only had two sacks and four tackles for loss), but it was tough to find a more disruptive interior lineman in 2014. The ultra athletic Nkemdiche flew around opposing backfields and directed a lot of plays to others. That's what makes him so special. He might not make the play, but he'll make sure someone does by forcing the offense to change direction, and he collapses the pocket with ease.

A'Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama, Jr.

The future NFL defensive lineman can play both nose guard and defensive end in Alabama's 3-4 defensive scheme. He's another guy who didn't wow you with his stats last season, but he was incredibly disruptive up front. He only had 6.5 tackles for loss last season, but had 49 tackles and really started to kick things into gear during the final stretch of the season. Robinson's ability to play multiple positions up front makes him that much more valuable for Alabama.

Linebacker

Kentrell Brothers, Missouri, RSr.

Brothers led Missouri and ranked second in the SEC in total tackles (122) last season, averaging 8.7 tackles per game. He also tied for second in the league with 64 solo stops. The Will linebacker was even better in conference play, averaging 9.8 tackles per game. Brothers also had eight or more tackles in eight games last year and hit double-digit tackle numbers in six of those games. Brothers makes sure he's in or around every play, as he's totaled nearly 200 tackles in the past two seasons combined.

Carl Lawson, LB/DE, Auburn, RSo.

He might have missed all of the 2014 season with an ACL injury, but Lawson has a chance to be a very special player in Auburn's new Will Muschamp-coached defense. Especially when you think about him playing that hybrid linebacker/defensive end position that Muschamp covets. As a freshman, Lawson registered 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Lawson, who was the nation's No. 2 defensive end coming out of high school in 2013, has to be excited after watching film of Muschamp's last hybrid star Dante Fowler Jr., who had 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss at Florida last season.

Reggie Ragland, Alabama, Sr.

The All-SEC selection could have dipped out early for the NFL, but decided to come back to Tuscaloosa, which is great news for the Crimson Tide. Ragland made a ton of plays all over the field for the Tide last season, ranking second on the team with 95 tackles. Forty-five of his tackles were solo, and he also had 10.5 tackles for loss. Ragland is the kind of linebacker who really challenges the offense to direct plays away from him, and he can cover so much ground with his speed and athleticism.

More to watch

NEW ORLEANS -- Many said the absolutely loaded 2014 recruiting class in Louisiana would never be matched. Somebody forgot to tell that to the players in 2016 class. The Bayou State is again stacked, and many of those national recruits will be on display at Saturday’s Nike Opening regional at Joe Brown Park. More than 20 players ranked in the ESPN Junior 300 will be in attendance, including nine of the top 20 players in Louisiana.

Unique perks of being a coach

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
1:33
PM ET
[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSouth Carolina's Steve Spurrier has seen incredible growth in college coaches' contracts since his Duke days.

Before the Head Ball Coach moniker had taken hold and before his Hall of Fame coaching career had taken flight, Steve Spurrier once left a $30,000 raise sitting on the table.

That was more than 25 years ago when he was at Duke, where Spurrier was making around $75,000 in base salary when he was hired as head coach in 1987.

At the time, Spurrier's head-coaching counterpart at North Carolina was Mack Brown, who was making substantially more money than Spurrier was. So after the Blue Devils won seven games in 1988, and Spurrier won the first of two straight ACC Coach of the Year awards, he asked then-Duke athletic director Tom Butters if a bump might be in order. Butters knew what a commodity he had in Spurrier and offered to give him another $30,000, but only if Spurrier would agree to stay at Duke for an extended period of time.

"I never signed it and ended up going to Florida the next year," recalled Spurrier, whose 1989 Duke team won the ACC championship. "That was a lot of money in those days, too."

Fast-forward to the present, and Spurrier could pocket an extra $100,000 as South Carolina's coach for simply making the Capital One Bowl or even the Outback Bowl. A 10-win season would mean $100,000, and that total goes up to $200,000 for an 11-win season and $300,000 for a 12-win season.


(Read full post)


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s a terrible cliche, but we’re going to have to let this thing play out.

Alabama’s quarterback competition, despite our incessant need for more information and more insight, is, for the most part, unknowable. That is, unless your name is Nick Saban or Lane Kiffin. And even then, their patience far exceeds the general public’s.

[+] EnlargeJake Coker
Brynn Anderson/AP PhotoJake Coker is more confident in his second spring at Alabama, but don't expect the Crimson Tide QB job to be decided any time soon.

Former Florida State transfer Jake Coker seems to be more confident, Saban has said.

Stud freshman Blake Barnett seems to have great leadership qualities, Saban said as well.

But are they frontrunners to replace Blake Sims, who threw for the most yards in a single season in school history last year? If not, where do they rank in relation to the other candidates at the position: Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris?

Maybe we’ll get a clearer picture come A-Day when the final scrimmage of spring will be open to everyone, but for now it’s hard to tell.

The only thing we do know is that the staff has changed the way it looks at the position this year.

“We’ve tried to make it a little easier with what we’re doing at that position so that they don’t have the burden as some of the guys in the past have had so that the inexperienced players can develop a little more quickly,” Saban said.

While it’s unclear whether that means a trimmed-down playbook or fewer calls made at the line of scrimmage, it does add an extra layer of intrigue to the competition, seemingly opening the door for youngsters like Barnett and Cornwell, a redshirt freshman.

But at the same time it might be a relief to someone like Coker, too, considering his struggles a year ago learning a new offense. He was the more prototypical fit with a stronger arm and more ideal size than Sims, but Sims ultimately showed more comfort running the offense and won the job early on in the season.

When Coker spoke to the media prior to the Allstate Sugar Bowl in January, he said he had made strides in practice and during spot duty late in games.

“I’ve gotten better I feel like in all areas of playing quarterback, but especially as far as learning this offense and getting more fluid and on time,” Coker said.

Center Ryan Kelly, who spoke at the start of spring practice, said he’s seen a difference in Coker, too.

“He’s obviously more mature, obviously, being a fifth-year guy,” Kelly said. “You’ve seen the in and outs of college football, and I think he’s done a great job stepping into a bigger leadership role. Last year, being his first year, it’s just hard to step into a role like that when you don’t really know a lot of guys. Now that he’s had a little bit of time to meet everybody and kind of hang out and build people’s trust up, I think he’s going to have a good year.”

Of course, that’s only one player’s opinion, and we likely won’t hear from Coker or any of the other quarterbacks at all this spring. They’ll fight to win the job first, and then they’ll live to tell us about it.

For now, though, we’re left to read the tea leaves. Pretty soon we’ll have scrimmages, which may or may not include passing statistics.

If you’re looking for a starter to be named this spring, don’t hold your breath. It’s a competition, but another cliche you hear often in sports -- a sense of urgency -- isn’t part of the equation.

You'll find very few people who will doubt Kenyan Drake's natural athleticism. He's fast, agile and elusive. He's everything you'd want in a playmaker on the field, and Alabama now has him working all over this spring. Drake continues to take snaps at receiver during practice, which is nothing new, but it is a cause for concern for defenses around the SEC.

Remember what he did to Florida last year on one play? Yeah, he went 87 yards for a touchdown by torching a defensive back on a go route. The kid can fly, and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin appears to be trying to find every advantage Drake has in his offense.

You can read more about Alabama's Wednesday practice and watch Nick Saban's news conference at AL.com.

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

But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five more to watch:

CommitCast: No. 54 Rahshaun Smith replay

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
8:30
AM ET

OLB Rahshaun Smith, No. 54 in the ESPN Junior 300, announced his commitment to Clemson. Watch the replay and hear why he chose the Tigers.

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


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video
Carver High in Montgomery, Alabama, will be home to one of the top recruiting battles in the Southeast in the 2016 cycle. Problem is, only Alabama and Auburn fans may be tuned in on a daily basis to see which program is the favorite for ESPN Junior 300 No. 7 Lyndell Wilson.

That’s because the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker known as “Mack” is going to be tough to pull out of state, as has been the case in Alabama in the last three classes with arguably only one of 24 prospects coveted highly by the Crimson Tide and Tigers having inked with an out of state program.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Who's the one player that each SEC team will miss the most from last season? That's the question we asked this week. On Tuesday, we looked at every team from the East. Now, it's time to set our sights on the West.

Alabama: WR Amari Cooper

How valuable was Cooper? The Heisman finalist accounted for over 40 percent of the team's receptions and receiving yards last season. He took the term "go-to target" to another level. Now it's up to a group of talented but inexperienced youngsters to replace him. Chris Black might be the most proven at this point, but there's a trio of sophomores-to-be -- ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims and Robert Foster -- that should all earn more minutes this fall. The talent is there, but it's going to take a team effort to fill the void left by Cooper. One guy can't do it alone.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Butch DillAmari Cooper leaves behind a group of talented, but young, receivers at Alabama to take his place.

Arkansas: DE Trey Flowers

The defense won't be the same without players such as Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight, but Flowers will be especially missed because of the leadership he provided. Brandon Lewis backed up Flowers last season and therefore should be considered the front-runner to win the job, but he's had to sit out this spring due to injury. That's opened the door for Deatrich Wise to take over the defensive end spot opposite JaMichael Winston, and both Wise and Winston have made it a point to take on more of a leadership role with Flowers gone.

Auburn: C Reese Dismukes

As good as Nick Marshall and Sammie Coates played the past two seasons, Dismukes was the real MVP for this Auburn team. Fifty career starts, and every play started in his hands. The position itself might be overlooked by some, but it's a critical element to Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense. That's why the coaches have moved former right tackle Austin Golson, arguably the best lineman on the roster, to center in hopes that he can pick up where Dismukes left off. He and Xavier Dampeer are battling for the starting job this spring.

LSU: OT La'el Collins

Fans are going to miss Collins and Vadal Alexander on the same side, mauling opponents in the run game. There wasn't a more formidable tackle-guard combination in the SEC last season. But Collins has moved on, and Alexander is moving from left guard to right tackle. Meanwhile, LSU's former right tackle, Jerald Hawkins, will be moving to the left side to replace Collins. At 6-foot-9, 309 pounds, he certainly looks the part. And he's already come out and said that left tackle feels like a natural position. But replacing Collins will be no easy task.

Mississippi State: LB Benardrick McKinney

You can't blame McKinney for leaving school early, not after the season he had. But it leaves a gaping hole on that defense. McKinney was not only the team's most productive linebacker, but he also served as the leader for the entire unit. However, the Mississippi State coaches are confident Richie Brown can be that guy. He finished sixth on the team in tackles last season and who can forget his memorable three-interception performance against Texas A&M? The Bulldogs will also get a boost this summer with the addition of freshman Leo Lewis.

Ole Miss: S Cody Prewitt

Senquez Golson put up the numbers last season, but Prewitt's play and leadership on the back end will be missed even more. He defined that Landsharks defense. To replace him, the Rebels are having to make some changes in the secondary. Senior-to-be Trae Elston is moving from strong safety to free safety where he'll take over for Prewitt, and cornerback Mike Hilton is moving to the now vacant strong safety position. C.J. Hampton is another guy who can play both safety spots and should have a bigger role as a sophomore next fall.

Texas A&M: WR Malcome Kennedy

The Aggies are loaded at wide receiver. Even with Kennedy graduating, they still have Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones and Edward Pope all coming back. But Kennedy provided the intangibles for this team last season. He was reliable. When the team needed a first down, he was there. When he sat out against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, the team struggled with drops and lost both games. There are some things you just can't teach. The hope is that Kennedy set an example for the younger receivers heading into the 2015 season.

SEC morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
9:00
AM ET

It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!

Tweet of the day

video

National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss top performers from the Nike's The Opening regional camp in Atlanta.

SEC morning links

March, 24, 2015
Mar 24
9:00
AM ET

Alabama returned from a 10-day break from practice on Monday, and one of the Crimson Tide’s most intriguing players this spring worked at two different positions. Kenyan Drake, who broke his leg during a game last season, worked at both running back and at wide receiver during the media viewing periods on Monday. Drake flashed impressive rushing and receiving skills last season before suffering the devastating leg injury, so it’s not exactly a surprise that he took some practice reps at both spots. What might be a bit surprising is how quickly he’s already back on the field, roughly five months after the injury. If he returns to previous form by the time the season starts -- and those at Alabama seem optimistic that he will be -- his unique set of skills will make Lane Kiffin’s offense much more dangerous this fall.

Add another chapter to the John Chavis-LSU squabble. LSU’s legal team lobbed some grenades at Chavis -- the school’s former defensive coordinator -- and his new employer, Texas A&M, in response to his lawsuit claiming that he does not owe LSU a buyout. According to a story in the Baton Rouge Advocate, LSU’s response said that “Chavis happened to defect to Texas A&M to begin working for A&M before his service to LSU was complete. Notwithstanding the Aggies’ dire need for defensive help, Chavis could have defected to a college or professional team in any state, or even a foreign country.” Dang. “Dire need for defensive help?” Not that such a statement is false. A&M’s defense has been atrocious for the last couple of years. But this situation has officially gotten ugly, with Chavis claiming that LSU owes him back pay and LSU insisting that he violated terms of his contract by refusing to pay a $400,000 buyout when he bolted for A&M after last season. It’s going to make for an interesting subplot when these two programs meet in November.

Around the SEC

Tweet of the day

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Scout's Take: Atlanta Opening Regional
National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss top performers from the Nike's The Opening regional camp in Atlanta.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video