1. Georgia: Kicker Marshall Morgan wasn’t at his best last season, but everyone knows the talent is there for him to rebound in 2015 from his 16 of 21 (.762) performance kicking field goals last season. Punter Collin Barber is certainly serviceable, even if he didn’t have to punt too much last year. But return man Isaiah McKenzie might have been the league's best last season, registering two touchdowns on kickoff returns and one on a punt return.
2. LSU: Leonard Fournette is so dangerous as a return man, and capped his season with a 100-yard return for a touchdown. Tre’Davious White wasn’t so bad returning punts either, averaging 10.9 yards per return and taking one back for a touchdown. As for kicking, LSU has a solid duo in place-kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11 of 15) and Jamie Keehn, who averaged 44.9 yards per punt, downed 27 inside the 20-yard line, and blasted 17 kicks 50 yards or more.
3.Texas A&M: The Aggies have to replace incredibly reliable kicker Josh Lambo, but Taylor Bertolet tallied 106 points off kicks in 2012, as a freshman, before getting benched for Lambo in 2013. Drew Kaser proved to be one of the SEC’s best punters last year, downing 22 punts inside the 20 and booming 18 50 yards or more. Speedy Noil is a dynamic returner on both kickoffs and punts.
4. Tennessee: The Vols were excellent at defending returns and will bring back kicker Aaron Medley, who made 20 of 26 field goals last year, but went 1-of-6 from 40-plus. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown, while Evan Berry is a big-play threat on kickoffs after he averaged 29.3 yards per return last season. Matt Darr is gone so the Vols have to find a punter.
5. Vanderbilt: Tommy Openshaw connected on 8 of 11 field goals, but went 2-of-5 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.7 yards per punt and downed 19 kicks inside the 20. Darrius Sims, who can return kickoffs and punts, is one of the league's best returners and took two kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy has to do better than allowing two returns for touchdowns.
6. Alabama: One thing’s for sure: Alabama can punt. More specifically, JK Scott can punt. He brings back the SEC’s best leg, which knocked 31 punts inside the 20 launched 23 kicks 50 yards or more. He also led the nation in punt average (48.0) However, placekicking is still a concern, as Adam Griffith hit 12 of 19 field goals (.632) last season. Christion Jones is gone, but Cyrus Jones and others should pick up the slack in the return game.
7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs bring back Devon Bell, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Word out of Starkville is that both returner positions are up for grabs, but the Bulldogs have a litter to pick from. Juco transfer Donald Gray could be the favorite, but Will Redmond, Fred Ross and Brandon Holloway will also be involved. The Bulldogs were also one of the best at defending kicks last season.
8. Ole Miss: Jaylen Walton is still a mainstay at returning kickoffs, but the Rebels need to be more consistent returning punts, where Markell Pack, who averaged just 5.3 yards per return last year, will compete with two players coaches are excited to see return kicks: JUCO transfer Tony Bridges and freshman Jalen Julius. Will Gleesen was solid punting (24 downed inside the 20) alongside Gary Wunderlich, who also hit 6 of 8 field goals last season. Ole Miss also ranked in the top half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.
9. Auburn: Daniel Carson pulled double duty for the Tigers, hitting 18 of 24 field goals (.750) and averaging 42 yards per punt. The Tigers said goodbye to Quan Bray (two touchdowns) and Corey Grant so Ricardo Louis is the most experienced return man (eight returns last year). Roc Thomas and Stanton Truitt, who redshirted last year, could also get looks in the return game. Auburn ranked in the bottom half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.
10. Arkansas: Adam McFain was Arkansas’ top kicker last year, hitting 7 of 10 (.700) field goals, but punter Sam Irwin-Hill is gone so his spot will need to be filled in the coming months. Korliss Marshall is gone, but Keon Hatcher and D.J. Dean return. Hatcher averaged 23.2 yards per kick return (six) and Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards.
11. South Carolina: Elliott Fry is back after hitting 18 of 25 field goals (.720) last year. No punters return so the Gamecocks will have to figure that one out starting with spring practice. Pharoh Cooper was a decent punt returner for the Gamecocks, while Shon Carson should enter spring as the front-runner to head up kick returns after recording 633 return yards last year. Also, might want to cut down on the two kickoff touchdowns allowed.
12. Florida: Austin Hardin eventually took over placekicking duties later in the season and finished the year making 7 of 10 field goals, including the game-winner against Tennessee. Incredibly valuable punter Kyle Christy is gone, but Johnny Townsend is back and he actually forced Christy to the bench in 2013. Record-breaker Andre Debose is gone, meaning the Gators are holding tryouts for returners, and this team has to improve on allowing two returns for touchdowns last year.
13. Missouri: The Tigers must find someone to replace one of the league’s best returners in Marcus Murphy. Right now, that task is totally up in the air. Because Murphy was so good, no one on the roster really has much experience returning kicks. Andrew Baggett mad 18 of 25 field goals (.720) and might have to handle punting duties as well, but that isn't 100 percent yet.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats' kick coverage was just bad last year. They gave up four touchdowns on returns last season, which cannot happen again. Kicker Austin MacGinnis led the SEC with 21 made field goals on 27 attempts (.778) and punter Landon Foster brings back 27 punts downed inside the 20. Kentucky must replace Demarco Robinson at punt returner, but Stanley Williams is back after averaging 26.9 yards on kickoffs.
Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.
Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.
Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.
Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.
South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.
Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
1. LSU: The Tigers were the best in the SEC in 2014 against opposing pass defenses and there’s plenty of talent still in LSU’s defensive backfield to keep the good times going. Jamal Adams really came into his own late last season and is poised to be a star. Tre'Davious White is the only starting corner returning but he is a big-time player. Safety Jalen Mills returns, too. The Tigers need to find a corner opposite White but have plenty of talented players to compete for that spot.
2. Georgia: After LSU, this unit was the SEC’s best in limiting opponents through the air (170.3 passing yards allowed per game). The good news for Jeremy Pruitt is that not only does he have quite a few options in the secondary, most of them have experience. Dominick Sanders, who shined as a freshman, returns; so do fellow safeties Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore, who started seven games and six games, respectively. All the cornerbacks on the two-deep return. With Damian Swann’s departure, a new leader needs to be established, but overall, this is a good group.
3. Florida: The Gators still have the conference’s best cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, and that’s worth a lot. Fortunately for them, the rest of the young secondary is back -- cornerback Jalen Tabor, safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, nickel Brian Poole, and new secondary coach Kirk Callahan will try to help them take the next step this year, improving on last year’s finish (seventh in the SEC in pass defense). The talent is there.
4. Ole Miss: Replacing players such as Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt is a tall task but the Rebels have talent on the back end. Tony Conner was a second-team All-SEC pick last year and is back. So is Trae Elston, the starting “rover,” who is a three-year starter. Senior Mike Hilton, who led the team in tackles, returns and the team welcomes the No. 1 cornerback in the ESPN JC 50, Tony Bridges. Look for a bigger role for C.J. Hampton. There is some good depth in this group as well.
5. Arkansas: Razorbacks’ secondary coach Clay Jennings returns for his second year in Fayetteville and his unit showed significant growth in 2014. Elder statesmen Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel are gone, but the Hogs had a mostly young secondary last year and bring back plenty of experience, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver, all of whom saw starts at the position. Three of the four safeties on the end-of-season two-deep -- De'Andre Coley, Josh Liddell and Davyon McKinney, also return to a unit that was fifth in the league in pass defense in 2014.
6. Tennessee: The Vols have a player with All-SEC potential in cornerback Cameron Sutton and a tremendous amount of experience at the back in senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. The other cornerback will be the spot to watch where there will be a battle. Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Malik Foreman and highly-touted junior college signee Justin Martin are among the contenders.
7. Missouri: The Tigers are set at cornerback with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton returning. Losing the experience of a Braylon Webb at safety is tough but Ian Simon is a seasoned veteran himself and returns at the position. The unit finished sixth in SEC pass defense last season (212.7) but benefited from the league’s best pass rush. The experience in the secondary is helpful but more consistency is needed from this group.
8. Alabama: The Crimson Tide had a rough year on the back end in 2014, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (226). The group has a new secondary coach (Mel Tucker) but a lot of attrition, with Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams gone. Cyrus Jones, who led the team with 13 pass breakups, and Eddie Jackson, who started 11 games, are back at cornerback as are Tony Brown and Maurice Smith. Geno Smith, who started six games at the Star position, is also back. ESPN 300 safety Deionte Thompson and four-star safety Ronnie Harrison arrived in January so they’ll participate in spring practice.
9. Auburn: The Tigers yielded a lot to opposing passing games last year (230.08 yards per game; 12th in the SEC), but were also opportunistic, intercepting 22 passes. Returning Auburn defensive backs accounted for 12 of those interceptions -- Jonathan Jones (six), Johnathan Ford (three) and Trovon Reed (three). Auburn also welcomes a new secondary coach, Travaris Robinson, who was key in the Tigers’ landing four defensive back recruits from Florida on signing day. Numbers are there in terms of options to choose from, now it’s just a matter of making on-field progress.
10. South Carolina: This is a young group that played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last season but will be a year older and should show progress, especially with the addition of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who has a long history of coaching defensive backs in the NFL. Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams are penciled in as the starting cornerbacks. Brison Williams is gone but T.J. Gurley, who was second on the team with 80 tackles last season, returns. Corners Al Harris Jr. and D.J. Smith as well as safeties Chris Moody and Chaz Elder also return. Look for this group to make strides this season after finishing 10th in pass defense last season.
10. Mississippi State: There’s a lot of room for improvement for the Bulldogs, who allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC last season and allowed many big plays. They do have a nice talent in Taveze Calhoun at cornerback; who starts opposite him is to be determined. (Look for Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles, who missed all last season with an injury, to compete.) The Bulldogs will be young at safety but did bring in the nation’s No. 2 player at the position, ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Peters.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats return both starting cornerbacks from 2014, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. Starting safety A.J. Stamps, a standout junior college transfer, returns after leading the team with four interceptions and safety Marcus McWilson, who started the season finale against Louisville, also returns. Kentucky, which was eighth in the SEC in pass defense last year, secured a safety as its top-rated recruit in February, ESPN 300 prospect Marcus Walker.
13. Vanderbilt: The Commodores fielded a young, unproven secondary last season but finished just a hair behind the middle of the pack in the conference, allowing 218.3 passing yards per game. With virtually the entire group back, led by cornerbacks Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson and safeties Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Oren Burks, there’s some promise on the back end for Vandy, especially considering the fact that Derek Mason will be simplifying the defense.
14. Texas A&M: The Aggies were second-to-last in pass defense and last in interceptions a year ago. Gone are veterans Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews but senior cornerback De’Vante Harris remains. The group surrounding Harris is young, but has a potential star in safety Armani Watts. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs this spring but look for Nick Harvey to challenge for it. The safety next to Watts could be veteran Devonta Burns (last year’s nickel), Donovan Wilson, or possibly junior college transfer Justin Evans.
In the 2016 class, there are a trio of prospects who rank among the best in the area, state and country.
Fils-aime hot on the trail despite injury in 2014
Headed into the 2014 season, ESPNJr300 running back Carlin Fils-aime was a name known to college coaches, and had a handful of offers. After injuring his ankle in Game 4 caused him to miss the rest of the season, the quick and powerful back was unsure what would come of his recruitment.
That question was answered in February with offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, and Florida.
"After I got injured, I didn’t really expect to get any more offers," Said Fils-aime. "When those schools offered me I was pretty shocked because of my injury."
The Gators are one of several schools the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder plans to visit in the coming weeks.
"For now, we are trying to go up to Florida during spring break, but if not will get up there in the summer. We also want to visit Georgia, North Carolina, N.C. State if we can this summer. I’ll probably fly up to Ohio State, too. I was just at Miami, and had a great time. I was impressed with how they rotated their backs in practice, and the basketball game against North Carolina was fun."
If there is one program yet to offer that could be a game-changer in the physical back's recruitment, it would be Stanford.
"I’m a big Stanford fan. I have always liked them because they have a great law program, and if football doesn’t work out for me, I want to go into law. That is one of the schools that I do love."
Naples High head coach Bill Kramer has had some really good backs through the years, including former Ohio State star Carlos Hyde. In Fils-aime, Kramer has a talented athlete who brings a lunch-pail mentality.
"I love his competitive DNA," Said Kramer. "He works in the classroom, and is already qualified. He’s a guy that you can count on, and it matters to him every day. Our defensive players say hitting him is like hitting a light pole. He’s can make plays in really small spaces, understands leverage, and is really explosive."
Byrd one of the nation's best
The Miami Hurricanes' 2016 class is the best in the nation in the early going. One of the 10 ESPNJr 300 verbals is former Florida pledge Tyler Byrd. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound versatile prospect is blessed with rare talent according to Kramer.
"I think he’s a Top 50 wide receiver and Top 10 corner. He’s really strong physically, he’s almost 6-feet even, you are not going to outleap him, and if he gets his hands on you, you are negated. He’ll do something about every day that is just spectacular."
Though Byrd is solid with his commitment to the Hurricanes due to the love that Al Golden and staff showed throughout the entire process, programs such as Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and others remain under consideration. On Monday, Byrd said he planned to make all five of his official visits.
Riley the best on defense at Naples High
While Fils-aime and Byrd are names known both regionally and nationally on the recruiting radar, Naples High is home to one of the top sleepers in the Sunshine State in safety Chris Riley.
According to Kramer, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound talented all-around athlete is the team's best defensive player, which is saying something considering Byrd is on that same unit.
"Our best defensive player, and that’s saying something because we have some really good players. He was Southwest Florida Defensive Player of the Year for good reason. He has tremendous length, he’s physical, knows all of his run fits, and is a great tackler. We can’t count how many one-on-one tackles he’s made in space against really good players. He can also cover man, is terrific in zone, and understands how it all works and fits together."
Riley is receiving interest from North Carolina, Boston College, and a growing list of others.
"I’ve heard from North Carolina, Boston College, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Harvard and Yale," Said Riley. "North Carolina and Boston College are two I really want [offers]."
Riley had 103 tackles and two interceptions as a junior, taking home area Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as being an all-area punter. Riley’s father, Chris Riley, played quarterback at Connecticut.
Defensive tackle Colton Strickland and kicker Jerry Nunez are also expected to receive offers in the 2016 class.
Craig-Myers, the 10th-ranked player overall in the ESPN Junior 300, has been committed to Auburn since last July, but it is no secret that he continues to look at other programs. The talented pass-catcher took a visit to FSU on Saturday and came away impressed with his time in Tallahassee.
It's only March and spring practice has yet to begin for the majority of the SEC, but here's an early look at how the teams stacks up at linebacker as part of our pre-spring rankings:
1. Georgia: Despite losing their two leading tacklers, the Bulldogs still take the top spot heading into 2015. That's because they return Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter, three dynamic pass-rushers on the outside who all have a future in the NFL. In the middle, Tim Kimbrough should emerge given more opportunity, and Jake Ganus comes over from UAB where he led the Blazers with 70 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss.
2. Alabama: The Crimson Tide also lost a couple key names from last year, but there's still plenty of talent to go around. The star is Reggie Ragland, an All-SEC selection who flirted with the NFL before opting to come back for his senior year. He heads a group that lacks in experience but not in talent. Denzel Devall should be healthy; Ryan Anderson is primed for a breakout season; and Reuben Foster might finally become more than just a special teams ace.
3. Missouri: We might need to change the name from “D-Line Zou” to “Linebacker Zou” in 2015. That's not to take anything away from Missouri's defensive line. It's simply a testament to the linebackers. The Tigers return two of the SEC's leading tacklers from a year ago in Kentrell Brothers (122) and Michael Scherer (114), and when you throw in the likes of Donavin Newsom, Eric Beisel and Clarence Green, it's also one of the deeper groups in the conference.
4. Auburn: The defense was bad last year, but let's not blame the linebackers. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost actually played well for most of the season and both are returning this fall. They should benefit from the arrival of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp whose new scheme will also provide more opportunities for sophomore-to-be Tre Williams and the quartet of ESPN 300 linebackers that signed in February.
5. Tennessee: Losing A.J. Johnson hurts, but the Volunteers played without him the final three games last year and didn't miss a beat. They return leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin, as well as Curt Maggitt, an All-SEC selection who bounced back after missing all of 2013 due to injury. Sophomore-to-be Jakob Johnson filled in admirably for A.J. Johnson down the stretch, but he's no lock to win the job. Incoming freshman Darren Kirkland Jr. will be in the mix once healthy.
6. LSU: This could've been a top-3 group had Kwon Alexander not left early, but don't be fooled by the lack of household names. It's still a solid unit. Kendell Beckwith is back. He was second on the team in tackles (77) and tackles for loss (7.5). Lamar Louis and Deion Jones both have game experience. And look for Clifton Garrett to play an expanded role as a sophomore.
7. Vanderbilt: Too high considering Vanderbilt's record last year? If anything, it's too low. Derek Mason is building his defense around the linebackers, and it shows. Between Stephen Weatherly, Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham, this has the potential to be one of the better units in the SEC. The addition of junior college transfer Nehemiah Mitchell only makes it better.
8. South Carolina: Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton form one of the better linebacker tandems in the SEC. They finished among the team leaders in tackles a year ago, and are primed to take another step in 2015. Moore and Walton highlight a deep group that got even deeper in January when the Gamecocks added three early enrollees at the linebacker spot.
9. Mississippi State: Richie Brown became best known for his beard last year, but he quietly put together a solid season on the field. And to think, he's not even the best Brown in the group. That title goes to Beniquez Brown, the team's second-leading tackler. The Bulldogs will miss Benardrick McKinney, but the addition of ESPN 300 star Leo Lewis will help ease the pain.
10. Florida: The Gators are one of the SEC's bigger unknowns when it comes to linebackers. We don't know how healthy Antonio Morrison will be after his injury in the bowl game. When healthy, he's one of the league's best. We don't know who the new coaching staff will favor, but Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillian are both candidates for increased playing time.
11. Kentucky: Alvin “Bud” Dupree was the star of this defense a year ago, but linebacker Josh Forrest quietly shined with 110 tackles, fifth most in the SEC. He's back along with Ryan Flannigan, a junior college transfer who eventually took over the job at weakside linebacker. The Wildcats are hoping Nebraska transfer Courtney Love is eligible to play right away.
12. Arkansas: Gone is Martrell Spaight, a first-team All-SEC player who led the conference with 128 tackles last year. Who is going to step up and replace that production for the Razorbacks this fall? The most likely candidate is Brooks Ellis. The junior-to-be finished second on the team in tackles and will be asked to take on more of a leadership role this coming season.
13. Ole Miss: The only linebacker with any experience returning is Denzel Nkemdiche, and he's still not 100 percent after breaking his leg in the fall, though the videos of him running recently bode well for the Rebels going forward. Christian Russell, who got his feet wet last year, is the early favorite to take over in the middle.
14. Texas A&M: This was the Achilles' heel for a defense that struggled mightily last year. Will the unit improve? It can't get much worse, but don't expect a huge turnaround overnight. There's still work to be done. The key will be rising sophomore Otaro Alaka who has the potential to become a star in the SEC.
We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:
1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.
2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.
4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.
5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.
6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.
7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.
8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.
9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.
10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
Defending national champion Ohio State might have too many quarterbacks.
As spring football practice opens around the country, many of the sport's best teams will start to sort out quarterback questions. Six of the teams that finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press top 25 poll in 2014 -- Oregon, Alabama, Florida State, Baylor, Georgia and UCLA -- will have new quarterbacks this coming season.
The impressive list of prospects in attendance was led by the 30th-ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, No. 30 Isaac Nauta, No. 32 Feliepe Franks, No. 42 Demetris Robertson, No. 66 Rahshaun Smith and No. 92 Shaq Quarterman. The 10th-ranked player in the country, Nate Craig-Myers, was also in attendance but did not participate due to an injury.
While Saturday’s camp in Miami showcased many defensive top defensive back prospects, the offensive line was dominant on Sunday in Orlando.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Here are some of the best sights and sounds from the talent-laden Miami Regional.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
It’s early, granted, and things could change drastically between now and the start of the season, but in the meantime here are our pre-spring rankings at the position:
1. Alabama: The knock on Nick Saban’s defense has long been that its linemen don't get to the quarterback enough, but last season that changed as they had 10 more sacks than the year before. Though they may lack a true star, the line is strong across the board with future NFL tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed in the middle, along with talented edge-rushers in Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson.
2. Ole Miss: You could really have the Rebs as co-No. 1, but the issue of depth separated these two units. Nonetheless, coach Hugh Freeze has an embarrassment of riches at the position with future first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche as the centerpiece. Mix in ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes, and you’re looking at a defense that could live in opponents’ backfields.
3. Tennessee: In Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, you’re looking at two of the league’s top five pass-rushers last season. So it’s safe to say that the Vols are pretty well set up front. If the 2015 signing class pays off and Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle make an impact, even better for coach Butch Jones.
4. Florida: Losing Dante Fowler Jr. hurts, but getting Jon Bullard to return to school eased that pain, somewhat. Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie and Alex McCalister are all back as well. If CeCe Jefferson can make an impact as a true freshman and Thomas Holley is indeed 100 percent after redshirting last season, they could push the line over the top.
5. Auburn: The Tigers’ D-line struggled last season, but it wasn’t helped any by the season-long absence of Carl Lawson. Now that Lawson is back and Will Muschamp is leading the defense, things are poised to change. With Montravius Adams anchoring the line at tackle, DaVonte Lambert opposite Lawson at end and No. 1 prospect Byron Cowart entering into the fold, the pieces are there to make a significant improvement.
6. Missouri: Markus Golden and Shane Ray are gone, but after so many years producing top D-line prospects, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they return a nice nucleus in tackles Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta. Charles Harris is poised to come into his own at end and it’s only a matter of time until five-star freshman Terry Beckner Jr. starts making plays.
7. Mississippi State: Three starters are gone (P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls, Preston Smith), but experience isn’t a huge concern for Mississippi State because of the way it rotated in so many players at the position last year. New coordinator Manny Diaz will have to develop some talent this offseason, to be sure, but he’ll have the luxury of building around Chris Jones, who is one of the league’s most talented linemen, as well as Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ linebackers get most of the love, and rightfully so when you’re talking about Lorenzo Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. But the linemen shouldn’t be neglected considering the mix of experience and depth at the position. Seniors Sterling Bailey and Chris Mayes will provide stability, with five-star freshman Trent Thompson potentially working his way into the rotation early.
9. LSU: Ed Orgeron will have his hands full with this group, but what it lacks in depth it has in potential. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are back at tackle, but with Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter gone, that leaves seldom-used Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema as the lone incumbents at defensive end.
10. Texas A&M: With John Chavis now leading the Aggie defense, it’s time to see what all that talent is really made of. Sack master Myles Garrett should only get better with experience and incoming five-star freshman Daylon Mack could provide a disruptive force in the middle of the line.
11. Arkansas: With guys like Taiwan Johnson and JaMichael Winston, the talent is there to rebuild on the line. But with Trey Flowers and Darius Philon off to the NFL, there are more questions than answers entering spring practice.
12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ D-line was a huge letdown last season with the fewest sacks in the SEC, and there’s not a lot returning to campus that says that will change anytime soon. So, coach Steve Spurrier is betting heavily on some new blood in the form of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and a handful of mature recruits. The headliner is defensive tackle Dexter Wideman, who spent last year at a military academy getting his grades in order, and ESPN’s No. 2 and No. 3 juco defensive ends, Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer.
13. Kentucky: The Bud Dupree-Za’Darius Smith era is officially over, and now we get to see what Mark Stoops and his staff accomplished on the recruiting trail these past few years. Coveted tackle Matt Elam is now a sophomore, as is four-star end Denzel Ware. If they live up to their high billing and veterans like Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson step up, the Wildcats will be in good shape.
14. Vanderbilt: Outside of nose guard Vince Taylor, the Commodores don’t lose much from last year’s defensive line. But outside of Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler, there’s not a lot of production coming back.
1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.
2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.
3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.
4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.
5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.
6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.
7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.
8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.
9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.
10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.
11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.
12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.
14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.
SEC players featured on Kiper's Big Board
TBD Bowling Green Tennessee TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD UTEP Arkansas TBD Louisville Auburn TBD New Mexico State Florida TBD Louisiana-Monroe Georgia TBD Louisiana-Lafayette Kentucky TBD McNeese State LSU TBD Southeast Missouri State Missouri TBD Tennessee-Martin Ole Miss TBD Mississippi State Southern Miss TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Western Kentucky Vanderbilt