- Sam Khan, Texas A&M/SEC reporter
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We continue our series looking at the position groups around the SEC by looking at the defensive backs Wednesday.
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.
The Tigers were the best in the SEC in 2014 against opposing pass defenses and there's plenty of talent coming back to keep the good times going.