Geoff Collins isn't a "swag stealer," he says. When he left Mississippi State to become Florida's defensive coordinator, he left the so-called Psycho Defense behind. That was their brand, he said, and in Gainesville under new head coach Jim McElwain, he's out to create a new identity with the help of creatures that may or may not live in a black lagoon.
One such example: The Cryptid, an award Collins and his staff hand out from time to time.
If there's one thing Florida fans need to know about Collins, who turns 44 in a few weeks, it's that he's not afraid to think outside the box. In order to connect with a younger generation, he hands out daily awards following each practice such as the "Apex Predator Award" for the most enthusiastic player or the "Swamp Beast Award" for the player who showed relentless effort. Unlike a lot of buttoned-up programs, he wants players to "play wild and fly around like crazy." He even encourages celebrating after big plays -- as long as it's not a me-first display.
At Mississippi State, that confident, aggressive attitude translated to the football field last season, when the Bulldogs finished second in the SEC in sacks (37) and tied for third in interceptions (13). Playing a bend-but-don't-break style, they finished third in the conference in third-down percentage (35.0) and red-zone touchdown efficiency (43.2 percent).
During Collins' first conversation with the entire Florida defense, he said players already knew of his reputation.
"They knew I had been a part of the great run that we had at Mississippi State, probably the best season in school history, a top-10 scoring defense and all those other things," he said. "So they knew what we’d done on defense at places I’d been before, and one of the big things I stressed to them was that even though they had played really good defense in the past, there was room for improvement.
"We talked about that 10 percent and working together to find that 10 percent improvement, whether it be tackling, situational football, improvements in the red-zone defense, improvements in third-down defense, points after turnovers, things that I thought we’d done really well at Mississippi State and bringing that and adding to how well they’d played in years past."
Eyeing a roster he says is deeper than any he's ever coached, Collins isn't out to make wholesale changes to the defensive schemes developed by former coach Will Muschamp. It's a lesson he learned years earlier when he left Georgia Tech to become defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Western Carolina.
Returning to his old stomping grounds a bit overzealous back in 2002, he attempted to install an entirely new defense without once looking at the previous defense or the terminology players had become accustomed to. Like a lot of young coaches, he had to come to grips with that "four- and three-deep is four- and three-deep regardless of where you go." Only the buzzwords are different.
So rather than dumping a new playbook on everyone's locker at Florida, he took the studying upon himself.
"I spent a lot of time during December and January learning what they called everything," he said. "I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s easier for one person to learn a lot of words than for 33 18-to-22-year-olds to learn a lot of new words. I try to put the hard stuff on me."
Outside of acclimating himself to a new environment, though, there's not a lot of hard stuff Collins has had to encounter with a solid system and a solid roster already in place. He inherited one of the most promising secondaries in the country, whether it's starters Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole or a reserve such as redshirt freshman J.C. Jackson, whom Collins says is "one of the most athletic kids I've ever been fortunate to be around." And where there's maybe not a lot of depth, Collins said there's certainly talent, whether it's Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone at linebacker or Alex McAlister on the defensive line.
It's a good situation all the way around, Collins says.
"I'm excited. We've got a lot of really good players. They're hungry. They're excited. They're competitive kids. Everything that Coach McElwain and the rest of the staff they've thrown at them, they're run with."
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.
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
Here are five things to watch headed into the weekend.
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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.
Will Be Making My College Choice April 3rd! @ Ocean Lakes High School 6pm... Anyone Can Come, No Charge Decision, Decisions, & Decisions.=— Levonta Taylor (@iamlevonta) March 24, 2015
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It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!
- Florida's offense isn't exactly moving at the most appropriate speed this spring, but while that side of the ball continues to fall behind the defense, Geoff Collins' group is just out there fired up and having fun.
- At South Carolina, there's no more delegating ball plays by the Head Ball Coach.
- Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell says he "feels great" nearly five months after his gruesome leg injury he suffered in the Rebels' home loss to Auburn.
- Former Alabama tight end Brian Vogler hopes to see more pass-catching opportunities for tight end O.J. Howard with the Crimson Tide this season.
- New Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn't plan to change the Bulldogs' offensive philosophy this year, but he is changing the terminology.
- Fast riser Dontavius Russell is in position to start on Auburn's defensive line this season.
- LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings says he feels his confidence and ability growing this spring.
- Texas A&M returned to practice on Tuesday. Here are some notes and here's a little of what coach Kevin Sumlin had to say about the day.
- Former coaches believe in new Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades.
- Head coach Butch Jones said the host of injuries is the biggest setback for Tennessee's football team this spring.
Tweet of the day
— Christina Long (@christinalong99) March 24, 2015
Attrition hit the SEC hard this offseason, for some more than others, but every school has a player moving on that left a mark, a player that can't easily be replaced. So we asked the question, which player will be missed most on every SEC team? And more importantly, how does that team plan to fill the void left behind?
First up in the two-part series is a look at the SEC East.
Florida: DE Dante Fowler Jr.
New defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will have his hands full trying to replace Fowler. The All-SEC star led the Gators last year in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (8.5), and it's going to take more than one player to replace that type of production. As Florida moves to a more traditional 4-3 scheme under Collins, defensive ends Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. will be responsible for getting to the quarterback. The two combined for 10 sacks last season. Five-star CeCe Jefferson is another name to watch, but he won't arrive on campus until the summer.
Georgia: C David Andrews
Don't get me wrong. Running back Todd Gurley will be missed. But Georgia has Nick Chubb, one of the nation's top rushers, coming back and that should help ease the pain of losing Gurley. But losing Andrews hurts. He played in 50 games during his UGA career and started every game the past three seasons. It will look a little different with somebody else snapping the ball, but Mark Richt has already tabbed Hunter Long and Isaiah Wynn as the two main contenders to win the job this spring. Long has the experience, but Wynn has more upside. Take your pick.
Kentucky: DE/LB Alvin "Bud" Dupree
There wasn't a better ambassador for Kentucky football over the past couple years than Dupree. And to think, he never even got to play in a bowl game. Now he's taking his game to the next level, and it's up to former ESPN 300 recruit Jason Hatcher to fill the void. Hatcher played some last season, finishing fourth on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss, but how will he fare as an every-down player? The Wildcats need him to be the elite pass-rusher they recruited out of high school if they want to take that next step and reach a bowl game.
Missouri: DE Shane Ray
Really, this could go to Ray or teammate Markus Golden. They formed the top defensive end duo in the SEC last season and played a major role in getting Missouri back to the SEC title game. With both moving on, who's next in line at D-Line Zou? Redshirt freshmen Marcus Loud and Charles Harris are the two most viable candidates, as the coaches are high on both, but junior-to-be Rickey Hatley will also be in the mix as will five-star recruit Terry Beckner Jr. when he enrolls this summer. Though at 6-foot-4, 298 pounds, Beckner is better suited to play inside.
South Carolina: QB Dylan Thompson
It was a disappointing season for South Carolina, but Thompson, in his first full year as the starter, led the SEC in passing with 3,564 yards. Coach Steve Spurrier probably wishes Thompson had one more year of eligibility. But instead the Head Ball Coach has to find a new quarterback this spring. Connor Mitch served as the primary backup last season and looks to be the early favorite to win the job, but he's no lock. Perry Orth and Michael Scarnecchia are competing this spring, and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez will have a say when he arrives this summer.
Tennessee: CB Justin Coleman
With more and more teams going to spread offenses, the nickel cornerback has become a valuable asset to SEC defenses. Coleman was a perfect example. As a senior, he led the team with four interceptions. Now Tennessee, who could have one of the top secondaries in the conference, has to find a new nickel corner. Rashaan Gaulden impressed as a freshman on special teams and could be a perfect fit with his size and instincts, but juniors Devaun Swafford and Malik Foreman will also get a look. Swafford played there in 2013.
Vanderbilt: LB Kyle Woestmann
Learning a new defense is not easy, let alone a new position. Just ask Woestmann, who moved from defensive end to linebacker last spring. But he was a gamer. He did it, no questions asked. The only problem now is that Woestmann has moved on. That means it's up to the likes of Stephen Weatherly and Jonathan Wynn to fill the void at outside linebacker. The good news is that both Weatherly and Wynn are already familiar with the position. In fact, Weatherly led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss while Wynn finished with 13 tackles and a sack.
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
- With his team set to open spring practice today, Tennessee coach Butch Jones addressed the media on Monday to set the stage. Find the official transcript and video from the presser here.
- Sometimes 6-foot-7, 325-pound recruits don’t know their own strength. UGA offensive line commit Ben Cleveland accidentally crushed a glass bottle in his hand last week during science class, forcing him to get stitches that caused him to miss two prospect camps and time with his high school baseball team.
- Bryson Allen-Williams started at linebacker and moved to defensive end as a South Carolina freshman, but he’s back at linebacker for the Gamecocks this spring.
- Jonathan Jones says he won’t become complacent after earning All-SEC honors at cornerback for Auburn last season.
- Athlon’s Braden Gall delivers a spring breakdown for Florida.
Tweet of the day
When Peyton met Hulk... pic.twitter.com/Lufop5S7kF
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) March 23, 2015
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It didn't turn out how I thought it would. Then again, it never does when it comes to NCAA tournament time, so why should my fictional SEC football bracket be any different?
In what's become an annual tradition on the blog, Edward Aschoff and I seeded all 14 SEC teams to play out our very own spring tournament. Aschoff published his bracket earlier today, so now it's time for me to get in on the action.
It was a painstaking process -- filling out my 64-team bracket for the actual NCAA tournament was easier -- but I eventually got the seeding down and let the matchups dictate the rest.
I had upsets by NC State, UAB and Georgia State on my mind, so it's no coincidence that the underdog came out on top a few times.
Note: Since this tournament is based on the spring, injuries are taken into account.
- Georgia Bulldogs
- Auburn Tigers
- Alabama Crimson Tide
- Tennessee Volunteers
- Mississippi State Bulldogs
- Arkansas Razorbacks
- Ole Miss Rebels
- Missouri Tigers
- LSU Tigers
- Texas A&M Aggies
- Florida Gators
- South Carolina Gamecocks
- Kentucky Wildcats
- Vanderbilt Commodores
In Memphis, Tennessee
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: Who's Nick Saban's quarterback? Who cares? With one of the best D-lines in college football and an O-line that should come together nicely, Alabama has the right ingredients to control games where it counts most: in the trenches. The Commodores are better than in 2014 and they're benefitted by Alabama being without starting cornerback Cyrus Jones and starting linebacker Denzel Devall, but in the end they don't stand a chance. Winner: Alabama
No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Florida: Losing Alex Collins for the first round due to an appendectomy hurts, but Jonathan Williams is more than capable of carrying Arkansas' offense. And with an even bigger and better offensive line, the Hogs impose their will on the Gators, who are still learning the ropes under new coach Jim McElwain. Winner: Arkansas
In Kansas City, Missouri
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Butch Jones' Vols might be a year away from competing for a national title, but the SEC East is another story. With a slew of talented pass-catchers (Marquez North, Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf) and a running back that's a safe bet to reach 1,000 yards (Jalen Hurd), quarterback Josh Dobbs orchestrates an offense that leaves Kentucky feeling dizzy. Winner: Tennessee
No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier crumpled up his 2014 defense and threw it in the trash, bringing in a new co-coordinator and a number of junior college transfers. But it won't be enough to stop the SEC's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott, who wills the Bulldogs to a first-round win. Winner: Mississippi State
In Jacksonville, Florida
No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense doesn't need to be the best in the conference to win games. It takes some time, but John Chavis coaxes marginal improvement out of that side of the ball, enough that Kyle Allen and the high-flying offense earn the upset over the Rebs. Winner: Texas A&M
No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 LSU: This is a bad matchup for Missouri, which should find itself in the thick of the SEC East race yet again in 2015. But it hits a buzzsaw as Leonard Fournette negates its pass-rush by running right at it and its QB struggles by throwing too many risky passes into LSU's opportunistic secondary. Winner: LSU
In Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU: All the wins and all the NFL-level talent don't mean much when put up against Georgia's nine-year drought of failing to win an SEC title game. Losing the big game has become all too familiar, whether you look at a loss to Georgia Tech last season or go further back to a four-point loss to Alabama in 2012. And in this matchup, it will be more of the same as Nick Chubb's 200 yards isn't enough. Fournette breaks the century mark rushing, Travin Dural hits a few long-balls over the top of the defense and a field goal in overtime sends LSU to the semifinals. Winner: LSU
In Orlando, Florida
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Mississippi State: You can't give a team like Tennessee an inch, because when they start believing and gaining confidence in themselves, they're scary. Mississippi State will learn that lesson the hard way as its defense struggles and its quarterback is dinged up early, putting it in a hole it can never quite come out of. Winner: Tennessee
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Change out the light bulbs in the scoreboard before we get this one started. It's going to be a barn-burner. Neither team plays much defense and in the end, it's Auburn's balance on offense that tips the scales in the Tigers' favor as Jeremy Johnson throws for 300 yards and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas team up for 200 yards on the ground. Winner: Auburn
In New Orleans
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Remember what I said about who the QB is, not mattering for Alabama? Scratch that. In a close game it will. Arkansas runs the ball to control the tempo, keeps it a low-scoring affair and gets a late interception to sub out last season's one-point loss for this year's one-point win. Winner: Arkansas
In Arlington, Texas
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: This is the game where Will Muschamp earns his paycheck, stacking the Auburn defense against the run and forcing LSU to be one-dimensional. Brandon Harris is pulled in favor of Anthony Jennings early, but it makes no difference. Auburn's offense struggles to less than 300 yards, but wins the turnover battle to advance. Winner: Auburn
In Nashville, Tennessee
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Ground-and-pound works, but only if you have the defense to back it up. And as it turns out, Arkansas doesn't against Tennessee. The Vols jump out to a two-touchdown lead in their home state and the Razorbacks don't have the firepower in the passing game to claw their way back, falling just short of a Cinderella season. Winner: Tennessee
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The Tigers have been on the big stage before and the Vols have not, and that's no small matter. So while Tennessee is able to score quickly against Auburn and jump out to another double-digit lead, it's not enough. Jones' offense goes stale in the second half while Gus Malzahn's uptempo attack gets hot, demoralizing the young Vols with a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to win. Winner: Auburn
McElwain discusses new Florida football
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