LSU's Defensive Back, Jalen Collins speaks with ESPN's Greg McElroy about recovery and road to NFL.

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

Best of the SEC: Front seven

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27

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.


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

IMG Academy will play host to the loaded Southeast Regional 7-on-7 this weekend. Top 7-on-7 teams such as the South Florida Express, Florida Fire and Pro Impact will field teams that feature some of the top prospects in the region, including more than two dozen ESPN Junior 300 prospects.

Here are five things to watch headed into the weekend.

LSU pro day preview

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Dozens of NFL scouts and coaches will descend on LSU’s football facility Friday to watch more than 20 former Tigers participate in the program’s annual pro day.

Here's a breakdown:

Watch it live: The SEC Network will televise the workouts from 1-3 p.m. ET. It will also be available on the WatchESPN app and on SEC Network+. SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy will provide live reports and interviews, while Dari Nowkhah, former LSU star Marcus Spears and NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl will offer in-studio analysis.

LSU’s official site will provide updates from the players’ performances at

[+] EnlargeMike Hilton
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsTerrence Magee would boost his draft stock with a good 40 time.

Headliners: Offensive tackle La'el Collins and cornerback Jalen Collins are the Tigers’ top two draft prospects. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks La’El Collins 28th and Jalen Collins 29th on its list of the top 32 prospects in the upcoming draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. lists them 17th and 24th, respectively, on his Big Board and had both players getting selected in the first 20 picks in his most recent mock draft.

Jalen Collins is not expected to participate in pro day after undergoing recent foot surgery. However, he seemed to solidify his spot among the top cornerbacks with his buzzworthy performance at the NFL scouting combine last month. He ran a stellar 4.48-second time in the 40-yard dash, finished among the top handful of cornerbacks in several other drills and performed exceptionally in the positional drills. At 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, his size is also a great asset considering how many NFL clubs like big corners.

La’el Collins also helped his cause in Indianapolis. He performed well in the workouts and showed out in the positional drills, which could help him become LSU’s first offensive lineman picked in the first round since Alan Faneca in 1998.

Other top Tigers: Defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Kwon Alexander are LSU’s other candidates to become early-round selections.

At the combine, Hunter posted the fastest time among defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash, 4.57 seconds. Alexander was second among linebackers with a 4.55 time in the 40. Their speed and athleticism help both players rank among the better prospects at their positions.

This week, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranked Hunter eighth among defensive ends and Alexander 10th among outside linebackers. ESPN Scouts Inc. lists Alexander as its No. 53 overall prospect and Hunter at No. 77.

Friday’s storylines: The 40 times of LSU running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will be among the big storylines at pro day. Both players participated in the combine, but Magee didn’t run the 40 and Hilliard posted a disappointing official time of 4.83 seconds.

Scouts Inc. lists Magee as the No. 13 running back and No. 147 overall prospect, so he seems likely to be selected somewhere in a draft with 256 total picks -- and he can help by showcasing his versatility and posting a respectable 40 time at pro day. Hilliard is listed as the No. 29 running back and No. 286 overall prospect. He could use a productive pro day in order to solidify a shot as a free agent, even if he doesn’t become a late-round draft pick.

Multiple pro day participants will be in Hilliard’s position Friday. Only five of them seem to be surefire draft picks, but several could become undrafted free agents. Among the Tigers who didn’t earn combine invites but should have a chance to sign as undrafted free agents – if they don’t become late-round picks – are fullback Connor Neighbors (Scouts Inc.’s No. 2 prospect at his position), All-SEC safety Ronald Martin and defensive end Jermauria Rasco.

Participants: Eighteen members of LSU’s 2014 team are scheduled to participate: Alexander, receiver Luke Boyd, La’el Collins, offensive lineman Fehoko Fanaika, tight end Jake Franklin, Hilliard, Hunter, receiver Chris LaBorde, receiver Jeff Lang, receiver Quantavius Leslie, Magee, Martin, Neighbors, center Elliott Porter, Rasco, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive lineman Evan Washington and linebacker D.J. Welter.

In addition, four former Tigers -- fullback J.C. Copeland, offensive lineman Chris Faulk, linebacker Karnell Hatcher and linebacker Tahj Jones -- are schedule to participate.

Schedule: Pro day begins at 11:30 a.m. ET in LSU’s weight room. The players will first participate in vertical jump, broad jump and bench press then. At 1 p.m., they will move into the indoor practice facility to complete the 40-yard dash and shuttle runs. At about 2:15 p.m. they will begin individual workouts with NFL coaches by position (passing session at 2:15, running backs at 2:40, tight ends at 3, offensive line at 3:15, defensive backs at 3:35, linebackers at 3:55 and defensive line at 4:10).

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.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron apparently didn't take it easy on LSU's defensive players at the start of spring practice while that group adjusted to new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's adjustments.

But as the Tigers passed the midway point of the spring -- today's afternoon practice will be their ninth out of 15 on the schedule -- Steele's new terminology and checks were no longer so confusing.

"Everything is starting to finally click in and everything's moving faster," linebacker Duke Riley said last week. "At first it was slow for the first couple days. But now everything just started to move fast and it's going real good."

That's a far cry from the first week or so, which senior safety Jalen Mills called "frustrating" because Cameron, LSU's offensive coordinator, was throwing the kitchen sink at the defenders and forcing them to adjust.

"I hate not knowing, because now we have Coach Cam, knowing that we have a new defense, he's throwing all type of formations at us and all different types of motions and we have to make all types of checks," Mills said shortly after the start of spring practice. "I just want to be the guy, since I am a vet, to know everything, so I kind of put that pressure on myself."

Of course it's Cameron's job to test the defensive players, especially during spring practice after a coordinator change. The best way to prepare them for the high-pressure scenarios that will arrive in the fall is to put them through the ringer now.

It's apparently helping accelerate their progress.

"Cam, he's bringing all he can at us," Riley said. "We're adjusting to him and doing what we can. Everything's going good. Everything's clicking."

Not that Steele completely remade the defensive scheme from what predecessor John Chavis ran over the previous six seasons. LSU's players said things haven't changed considerably, but any new coordinator will bring a handful of new wrinkles.

"The real big thing with that was just the terminology: the new terms and stuff like that," sophomore linebacker C.J. Garrett said. "But for the most part, a lot of the scheme is based off of the same thing. It's definitely some new stuff in there, but it was really the terminology that I had to get down."

Unlike Mills, who is entering his fourth season as a starter, Garrett didn't have many old habits to break from the previous defensive scheme. He said he struggled throughout his freshman season to grasp his role in Chavis' defense, which is not unusual for a freshman who was accustomed to playing a relatively simple role in high school.

"When I was in high school, the plays I had, I had a little packet that big and I learned it in one day and I was done. Didn't look at it the rest of the year," Garrett said. "So that was something new that I had to learn -- learn how to watch film, learn how to go over my plays and actually understand it."

Understanding it is the goal this spring as they adjust to what Steele will ask of them this fall. And they seem to be progressing nicely, as LSU coach Les Miles said after last Saturday's scrimmage that, "I thought [the defense] had the better of the day."

Steele's defense has more than five months before it has to be game-ready, so there is still plenty of time to get things exactly right. But the Tigers seem to feel confident about the direction they are heading.

"Everybody's just got to get together and study," linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. "We've got to study together and then study individually and we'll get it."

What LSU doesn't need any more of is speed, but that's exactly what the Tigers are getting from sophomore D.J. Chark. The young, very speedy receiver played in six games last year, but didn't record any catches for the Tigers. However, that should change this fall, as he's really started progressing this spring. He caught a couple of touchdown passes in LSU's last scrimmage and is really starting to click with LSU's quarterbacks.

"I'm gaining chemistry with my teammates, the quarterbacks and receivers," Chark said. "The receivers are helping me. I feel like everybody pushing each other, we're getting better and better and its showing in practice and scrimmages."

You can read more about Chark's progress at The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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:

One day, Brandon Harris will look back at 2015 and either smile or wonder what could have been. This is the year that will potentially make or break his LSU career.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLSU needs Brandon Harris to win the starting job in 2015.

 If the Tigers are going to take a stab at the SEC Western Division, Harris has to be the starting quarterback. The sophomore is too talented as a passer and too gifted an athlete, and LSU is in desperate need of a spark under center.

With all due respect to Anthony Jennings, who went 8-4 as a starter last year with 1,611 passing yards, Harris is the present and the future for LSU at quarterback. He just has to be. Yes, most of this has to be based on potential and his schooling of high school kids, but we saw glimpses of brilliance from Harris at times last year. There was the valiant comeback attempt against Mississippi State in which he threw for 140 yards on 6 of 9 passing and had two touchdowns. A week later he overwhelmingly out-dueled Jennings in a win over New Mexico State with his 178 yards and three touchdowns on 11 of 14 passing.

But there was also a dark side, like his dreadful 3 of 14 performance a game later against Auburn, which was his first -- and only -- start of the year. After that, Harris threw just one more pass during the Tigers' final seven games.

Harris not seeing time in other games is on him, and he knows it. His preparation wasn't good enough to beat out Jennings during practice, and it certainly wasn't good enough for him to try and best him in games.

That has to change because there's just no getting around the fact that he's more physically gifted than Jennings. He might not have had the mental part down last year, but Harris' throwing and running ability can't be wasted this season. For as admirably as Jennings played at times this season, he's held back in ways that Harris isn't when it comes to arm talent, and he isn't a consistent passing threat for defenses to fear. Jennings' 47. 1 percent completion percentage on third downs is a problem, especially when he's completing just 40 percent on third downs between 7 and 9 yards. Completing less than 48 percent of your passes in the second and third quarters of games just won't cut it either.

There's no reason Jennings can't grow and evolve too, but Harris has all the physical tools needed to be a bigger threat for LSU. The decision-making part is yet to be seen, but Harris appears to be progressing this spring.

"I’m going into my second spring. Obviously I know everything I need to know now," Harris said earlier this spring. "I feel more comfortable with everything we’re going to run. Obviously it’s a wide-open quarterback position, quarterback job, so everything is still even reps-wise. Again, going into my second spring, so I’m more comfortable. I don’t have to have someone telling me what to do or this and that. I’ll get everybody on the same page ... I expect to help this team win. I just expect to play more this year. I think with the ability God’s blessed me with, with Cam [Cameron] and them teaching me, I think I’ll play a big role this upcoming season."

Last year, the younger, more immature Harris was both wide-eyed and a little carefree during his first year at LSU. The supposed next big thing at quarterback for the Tigers was everything but that, as he watched his hype sink into the bayou from the sidelines for most of the year.

The No. 2 dual-threat quarterback by ESPN's RecruitingNation arrived with a mountain of hype strapped to his back, but started just one game and saw time sparingly during a season of passing ineptitude that left the Tigers at the bottom of the league when it came to throwing the football.

 When a highly-touted prospect can't do better than a starter who completed just 48.9 percent of his passes and averaged a paltry 123.9 passing yards per game, something's wrong. Harris clearly wasn't ready to be the guy.

Say what you will about how LSU's coaching staff used its quarterbacks last year, but even Harris knows he wasn't fit to be LSU's starting quarterback in 2014.

"Looking back, I would say I wasn’t ready," Harris said.

And that's fine. For every freshman phenom, there are hundreds who just aren't ready or don't even see playing time. But for LSU to advance in 2015, Harris has to be the guy.

There's a reason Harris was one of the most sought-after quarterbacks back in high school, and everyone picked him to come out of last spring as the starter. Harris now has the chance to take the huge steps needed from Year 1 to Year 2, which are crucial for both he and LSU.

So far, Harris' play has been met with mixed reviews this spring, but improvement is there, and so is a drive he hopes propels him this spring and beyond.

"I’ve always carried a chip on my shoulder, and I carry a chip on my shoulder now," he said. "People are going to talk about you until the day you die. I’ve always carried a chip.

"My thing is not letting me be my downfall, improving, overutilizing our coaches and looking for every way to improve."

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.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Replacing starters is typically an imperfect process. But if Jeff Grimes has to replace two starters on LSU’s offensive line, he has the line set up to make the transition as painless as possible.

Should Grimes stick with his current setup, with returning starters Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander at the tackle spots and Ethan Pocic at center, the line’s newcomers at guard will have a veteran on both his right and his left.

“We all try to come together and really stay on the same page,” said Garrett Brumfield, a contender to take over one of the guard spots. “So it is good having veterans on both sides of you -- and even without it, whether it be the center, left tackle, right tackle, everybody’s always communicating, so it’s really good that way.”

[+] EnlargeVadal Alexander
Mark Humphrey/Associated PressVadal Alexander and the LSU offensive lineman are experimenting in playing different positions this spring.

Brumfield -- last season’s No. 1 guard in ESPN’s prospect rankings -- and William Clapp both redshirted last season but worked with the starters at right and left guard, respectively, when LSU opened spring practice earlier this month. They will face competition for the starting jobs from a number of candidates, including K.J. Malone and a handful of signees who LSU coach Les Miles said could “vie for some playing time.”

Not that their competition for playing time is restricted to one specific position.

For instance, Clapp said after last Tuesday’s practice that he had worked exclusively at center that day. Malone said he has worked at right tackle and left guard after backing up La'el Collins at left tackle last fall. Alexander and Pocic have started games at multiple positions, as well.

Detect a theme yet? The group’s versatility gives Grimes plenty of options.

“[Grimes is] doing a first-team A group and a first-team B group just to see how we look at each position,” Malone said. “So one time in A group, I’ll play right tackle and in B group I’ll play left guard. So he’s just seeing where he likes us."

That will likely continue throughout the spring, at least if Miles' comments following Saturday’s scrimmage were any indication.

“Right now it’s still early in the spring where you still want to look at a number of guys and see who’s who. No decisions really have been made at this point,” Miles said. “What we’re doing is it really allows us to have some time at other positions. So it gives us the opportunity to put guys, should injury occur in a game, in another spot. That’s really going to benefit us long term.”

It seems to be benefiting the linemen as well. Clapp practiced at both guard spots and at center during his redshirt season -- mostly while practicing with the varsity squad, not on the scout team -- and said he now feels comfortable at all of those spots. Those reps were particularly important at center, since that is the position typically responsible for making pre-snap calls and setting protections.

“When I first started playing center, it was a little overwhelming,” Clapp said, “but Ethan and Elliott [Porter] both helped me out a lot, and Coach Grimes is real understanding and was patient with me getting the snaps right and really making all the calls on the line.”

As Miles mentioned, Grimes’ theme of the spring is experimentation, so the young linemen realize that they probably can’t lock down a starting spot until August. LSU’s star-studded class of freshman linemen will be on campus by then, and it will obviously become more important for Grimes to make lineup decisions with kickoff approaching.

“He’s trying to see who can do what and who is talented at what to kind of feel out and see which five will be the five that he wants to play or rotate -- whether it’s six [players rotating] or seven,” Brumfield said. “But I think it’s good right now having guys who are versatile. We have a lot of different combinations that could possibly happen, so we’ll see how it plays out.”

The main thing right now, Clapp said, is realizing that a goal is within reach, even if the contenders must wait several months to achieve it.

“I knew that the starting five won’t be determined until camp’s over in August, so it’s a constant battle,” Clapp said. “We all know that it’s a competition every day. We all love knowing that the spot is there for us. We just need to go out there and take it.”

It's no secret that the most popular narrative when describing what makes the SEC tick in recent years has revolved around defense. It wins championships and it's something the SEC has been really, really good at for a number of years, especially during the conference's string of seven straight BCS national championships.

But like most things in this universe, football is evolving. Defense is great, but offense is greater, and slowly, the SEC is having to adapt and become a more offensive-friendly league. In the last two years, the league has had at least eight teams average more than 400 yards per game. From 2008 to 2012, the SEC never had more than six teams reach 400 yards per game in a single season.

This year, the league has a pretty impressive list of skill-position players to keep an eye on. We're taking a look at the top players a few positions around the league, and Wednesday we're starting with offensive skill players, listing the top players at running back, wide receiver/tight end, and we're looking at the top all-purpose player heading into the thee 2015 season.

Here's our list of the top skill players in the SEC:

Running back

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsNick Chubb didn't just fill in when Todd Gurley couldn't go he emerged as a first-team All-SEC pick after rushing for 1,547 yards.

Nick Chubb, So., Georgia

Chubb was outstanding as a true freshman last year, as he had to fill in for star running back Todd Gurley during Gurley's midseason suspension and his eventual season-ending knee injury. All Chubb, who stands a chiseled 5-foot-10, 228 pounds and renders arm tackles futile, did was rank second in the SEC with 1,547 rushing yards and tie for first with 14 rushing touchdowns. What's more impressive is that Chubb started just eight games -- all 100-yard performances -- and the All-SEC first-teamer saved the best for last. He registered a career-high, school bowl-record and SEC bowl-record 266 yards on 33 carries vs. Louisville in the Belk Bowl, the second-best total in a game in school history.

Leonard Fournette, So., LSU

Fournette was supposed to make an immediate, Michael Jordan-like impact for the Tigers last season, but needed some time to feel out the college game. In a why-haven't-you-won-the-Heisman-Trophy-now college football society, Fournette was viewed by some as a bust, despite being fresh out of high school. Still, a late-season surge and his menacing physique put Fournette firmly in this position. After shedding some weight and increasing his speed this offseason, there's no doubt the sophomore-to-be will shoot past his 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns from last year. Fournette averaged 98 yards in his final five games and blossomed into a fine player who should really take off in 2015.

Wide Receiver/Tight end

Pharoh Cooper, Jr., South Carolina

The Gamecocks didn't have a lot to smile about last season, but the offense set a handful of records last season. One reason for that was because of the play of Cooper, who finished the 2014 season third in the SEC in receptions (69), second in receiving yards (1,136) and receiving yards per game (87.4), fourth in receptions per game (5.3), and ninth in all-purpose yards per game (108.5). He also led the team in all receiving categories and was fourth with 200 yards rushing. He's the SEC's top returning statistical receiver, and while he registered only three 100-yard games, Cooper will be the go-to receiving threat for the Gamecocks yet again this fall.

D'haquille "Duke" Williams, Sr., Auburn

It's hard to find a more physically gifted receiver in the SEC. Williams had every chance to leave Auburn early for he NFL, but he decided to come back and really enhance his skill. Williams led the team with 45 receptions and had 730 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers don't impress you? Well, consider the fact he missed two games because of a knee injury and was suspended for the bowl game. Yes, we're dealing in hypotheticals, but hypothetically speaking, Williams likely would have come close to or topped the 1,000-yard mark.

Evan Engram, Jr., Ole Miss

If you're looking for a Jimmy Graham-type tight end, look no further than Engram. He wasn't just the SEC's best tight end last year, he returns in 2015 as arguably the nation's best tight end. He wasn't overly praised when that historic 2013 class made it to Oxford, but plenty of eyes are all over him after a breakout sophomore year in which he led all SEC tight ends with 38 catches and 662 yards. Engram is a total mismatch because he's too big for most corners to handle and too fast for linebackers and safeties to consistently contain.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)Laquon Treadwell is being held out of contact in the spring but is expected to be ready to go in the fall.

Laquon Treadwell, Jr., Ole Miss

He's another player who should have had better numbers in 2014 but had his season was cut short. The physically imposing specimen was a star as a freshman and was on his way to first-team All-SEC honors before suffering a horrific leg injury on Nov. 1. Treadwell's season ended with him catching 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns. Despite playing in four less games than he did in 2013, Treadwell registered more yards on nearly 30 fewer catches. Treadwell isn't going through contact this spring, but he should be healthy come the fall. Oh, and then there's this from last month: Yikes!


Speedy Noil, So., Texas A&M

Noil arrived in College Station with a ton of hype attached to his name, and he did a good job of living up to it. Noil led all SEC true freshmen in receptions (46), receiving yards (583) and receiving touchdowns (five). Noil led the Aggies in all-purpose yards (1,418), punt return yards (180) and kickoff return yards (645) despite missing the SMU game due to injury.

More to watch:

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

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

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