NCF Nation: 2011 SEC summer position rankings

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 23, 2011
6/23/11
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There are some out there looking to put an end to the kickoff, but we at the blog don't agree. It's one of the most exciting plays in football and the SEC is full of game-changers in the kicking game.

We've put our final list together and we've lumped kickoff returners and punt returners together.

Here are our top 10 kick returners in the SEC:

1. Joe Adams, Arkansas, Sr.: Adams is already one of the most exciting wide receivers to watch, especially in the open field. Now, put that into the Razorbacks’ punt return game and you have a highlight waiting to happen. He only returned 16 punts last year, but one went for a touchdown and he ranked second in the SEC with a 15.6 average per return.

[+] EnlargeAndre Debose
Kim Klement/US PresswireAndre Debose ranked No. 2 among UF's receivers in 2011 with 16 catches for 432 yards and four touchdowns.
2. Andre Debose, Florida, So.: He is yet to step up at receiver, but he was exciting to watch in the return game. He took two kicks back for touchdowns last season and was named the nation’s top kick returner by the College Football Performance Awards in 2010. Debose did have consistency issues at times, but if there’s one hole, he’s gone.

3. Brandon Boykin, Georgia, Sr.: Boykin is the school’s all-time leader in kick return yards (1,813) and has game-changing speed and ability in the return game. Last season, he averaged 24.3 yards per return and had a touchdown.

4. Trent Richardson, Alabama, Jr.: Despite being the lead running back in Alabama’s offense this season, Richardson still fielded kicks this spring and in the spring game. As long as he’s out there, he’s one of the best. Last season he averaged 26.4 yards per return and had one go for a touchdown.

5. Dennis Johnson, Arkansas, Jr.: In 2009, he became Arkansas’ all-time career and single-season leader in kickoff return yardage and broke the SEC kickoff return record in 2008. He missed most of last season due to injury, but he’s healthy and will be a tremendous weapon in the Hogs’ return game. For his career, he has 1,936 kick-return yards.

6. Warren Norman, Vanderbilt, Jr.: As a freshman, Norman was the top kick returner in the league after he took three kicks back for scores. Before injury last season, Norman averaged 25.4 yards per return on 22 kicks. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the toughest players to stop.

7. Branden Smith, Georgia, Jr.: He only had 10 punt returns last season, but he showed this spring that he can be very dangerous in space. He averaged 14.3 yards per return last season, and the coaches expect that number to rise this fall.

8. Chris Rainey, Florida, Sr.: Rainey is arguably the most elusive player in the SEC and putting him in space on special teams isn’t a good thing for opponents. He impressed the coaches fielding punts this spring and finally has the position to himself. He returned nine punts with Janoris Jenkins starting at punt returner last fall.

9. Philander Moore, Ole Miss, Jr.: The junior college transfer was brought in this spring specifically to return kicks. At Blinn (Texas) College last year, Moore had more than 800 combined return yards and scored six touchdowns.

10. Da’Rick Rogers, Tennessee, So.: Rogers didn’t have the most impressive numbers at kick returner in 2010, but he got nearly 300 yards on 12 returns. There are some questions in the return game, but Rogers brings the Vols that big-play ability needed to put the offense in good position.
We're pulling double-duty with the kickers today. Instead of ranking 10 place-kickers and 10 punters, we're doing the top five for each position.

These aren't the workout warriors that grab all of the headlines, but try to find a team that would go through a season without using them. Last season, 15 games involving SEC teams were determined by three points or fewer.

Here are our top five place-kickers:

[+] EnlargeBlair Walsh
Dale Zanine/US PresswireBlair Walsh already has missed five field goals this season, the same amount he missed across his sophomore and junior seasons combined.
1. Blair Walsh, Georgia, Sr.: Walsh was very reliable for the Bulldogs last season, making 20 of 23 (87 percent) field goals. For his career, he’s hit 55 of 68 kicks in his career, including 22-of-29 from 40 yards and beyond. He has missed just two kicks within 30 yards in his career.

2. Zach Hocker, Arkansas, So.: He was only a freshman last season, but Hocker nailed 16 of 19 field goals, with seven from 40 yards or better. With the high-powered offense the Razorbacks have, Hocker will get plenty of opportunities again. Now that he’s gone through a year of learning in the SEC, he should be even better, which is scary.

3. Bryson Rose, Ole Miss, Jr.: Rose returns with the highest kicking percent in the league after connecting on 16 of 18 (89 percent) field goals in 2010. He only attempted two kicks from 40 or more yards last year, but he hit both and might see more long attempts this season if the offense is slow out of the gate.

4. Derek DePasquale, Mississippi State, Sr.: He shared time with Sean Brauchle last season, but was still 10-of-12 kicking with a long of 43 yards. The Bulldogs’ offense should get him more attempts this season and the coaches were pleased with his range this spring.

5. Jeremy Shelley, Alabama, Jr.: Shelley was used for kicks within 40 yards, while Cade Foster dealt with the long ball. The two should be utilized the same way this fall, but Shelley will again get more attempts to score points. He was 12-of-16 in 2010.

Here are our top five punters:

1. Tyler Campbell, Ole Miss, Jr.: Campbell led the nation with a punting average of 46.4 yards per kick in 2010. He had 19 punts of more than 50 yards and five were launched 60 or more yards. Campbell is the ultimate field-position changer.

2. Drew Butler, Georgia, Sr.: Butler completes the dynamic kicking duo in Athens. He ranked fourth in the league, averaging 44.5 yards per punt last season. Nineteen of his 50 punts landed inside the 20-yard line.

3. Dylan Breeding, Arkansas, Jr.: Breeding will help out Arkansas’ defense with his extremely strong leg. He pinned 18 punts inside the 20 a year ago and averaged 42.5 yards per kick, which the coaches expect to increase after a solid spring.

4. Ryan Tydlacka, Kentucky, Sr.: He’s been a kicker of all trades during his time at Kentucky. He started as a pooch punter, kicked a few field goals and has now been a two-year starter at punter. He averaged 43.8 yards per punt in 2010 with a net average of 35.3 yards.

5. Richard Kent, Vanderbilt, Jr.: It’s hard to believe he still has a leg after the year he had in 2010. Kent kicked a nation-leading 84 punts last season and had 27 downed inside the 20. He only had a 41.8 yard-per-kick average, but that’s to be expected with all those kicks.
We’re finally at the end of our position rankings and we’ll finish up with special teams. This group does a lot more than people think and teams are starting to put their best athletes out here.

Kickers and punters don’t get a lot of respect in the athletic department, but they are crucial assets to teams.

Let’s see how the SEC special-teams units stack up:

1. Georgia: It would be hard to find another special-teams unit better than the one in Athens. The Bulldogs return the dependable Blair Walsh at kicker, who kicked a league-high 20 field goals on 23 attempts (87 percent). Punter Drew Butler averaged 44.5 yards on 50 punts, with 19 landing inside the 20-yard line. Georgia also has a talented returning duo in Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith. Boykin is the school’s all-time leader in kick return yards and averaged 24.3 yards per return with a touchdown in 2010. Smith only returned 10 punts last year, but is dynamic in space.

[+] EnlargeJoe Adams
Paul Abell/US PresswireJoe Adams was fifth in the nation in punt returns last season, averaging 15.6 yards per return.
2. Arkansas: Joe Adams might be one of the most fun guys to watch in the return game. He was fifth in the nation, averaging 15.6 yards per return last year, and is one of the shiftiest returners out there. He also had a touchdown. Dennis Johnson is back from injury and when he was healthy, he was one of the best kicker returners in the league. In the kicking game, sophomore Zach Hocker had an impressive freshman year where he connected on 16 of 19 field goals, with seven from 40 or better. Punter Dylan Breeding averaged 42.5 yards per kick and pinned 18 inside the 20.

3. Alabama: Trent Richardson not only heads the Tide’s offense, but he’s extremely dangerous as a kick returner. He averaged 26.4 yards per return and had a touchdown last year. Marquis Maze, who grabbed 21 punt returns last year, has great speed to break one at any time. Alabama actually returns two kickers in Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster. Shelley handled kicks with the 40-yard range, while Foster had long distance duty. The job at punter hasn’t been settled, with Cody Mandell and Jay Williams battling it out.

4. Florida: Caleb Sturgis is finally healthy after suffering a back injury last season. He was solid from farther out as a freshman, but struggled to stay consistent closer to the end zone. Ray Guy winner Chas Henry is gone, but freshman Kyle Christy enrolled early and immediately took over punting duties, launching a punt 55 yards in the spring game. Andre Debose was named the nation’s top kick returner by the College Football Performance Awards in 2010 after returning two kicks for touchdowns and Chris Rainey could be the slipperiest punt returner in the SEC. Florida also has been the best punt/kick blocking team around the last few years.

5. Ole Miss: Place-kicker Bryson Rose made 16 of 18 kicks last year and should be just as solid and might have to come up with even more kicks this fall. His kicking partner, punter Tyler Campbell, had a nation-leading 46.4 yards per punt average in 2010. He launched 19 punts over 50 yards and five of 60 or more yards. Jeff Scott was solid on kick returns, but Ole Miss’ staff will look to junior college transfer Philander Moore for kick and punt returns. Last season at Blinn (Texas) College, Moore had 811 total return yards and six touchdowns.

6. Vanderbilt: Kicker Ryan Fowler and punter Richard Kent return in 2011. Fowler was solid as a freshman, but took a few steps backward in 2010 kicking 8-of-13 and missing all of his kicks from beyond 35 yards. Carey Spear, who handled kickoffs last season, could push Fowler. Kent had one of the strongest and most durable legs in the country last season, leading the nation with 84 punts and averaged 41.8 yards per kick. Twenty-seven of them were downed inside the 20. Vanderbilt did, however, have four punts blocked. When healthy, Warren Norman is one of the most dynamic returners in the league. As a freshman, he took three kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 25.4 yards per return before his injury last season.

7. LSU: The Tigers had one of the most exciting place-kickers to watch in Josh Jasper because he not only kicked but he was the master of the trick play. LSU will now look to Drew Alleman, who has had issues with consistency. Jasper also punted here and there, but regular punter Derek Helton is gone, leaving redshirt freshman Brad Wing in charge. The Australian-born athlete has a lot to learn about the SEC. Now that Patrick Peterson is gone, LSU is starting over in the return game. No one on the roster is as dynamic, but the Tigers will look at Rueben Randle, Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks to carry the load by committee.

8. Mississippi State: Kicker shouldn’t be an issue for the Bulldogs. Derek Depasquale has hit 20-of-24 field goals in his two seasons in Starkville and nailed a 54-yarder in the spring game. Mississippi State must replace punter Heath Hutchins, but Baker Swedenburg should fill in nicely. The Bulldogs have a lot of athletes to throw out into the kicking game this year. LaDarius Perkins, who is Mississippi State’s talented backup to running back Vick Ballard, will be used on kicks, along with receiver Brandon Heavens. Chad Bumphis returned punts last season, but Heavens could take over that role.

9. Kentucky: Returners Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke are gone, but there are some athletes ready to fill in. Randall Burden, Winston Guy and Martavius Neloms got looks at punt returner this spring and there are a few options at kick returner. Both Raymond Sanders and Jerrell Priester fielded a few last season. Both kickers are back. Walk-on Craig McIntosh made 11 of 15 field goals last season, with a long of 50, while punter Ryan Tydlacka averaged 43.8 yards per kick.

10.Tennessee: Kicker Michael Palardy only attempted seven kicks last year while backing up Daniel Lincoln. His only three misses were from beyond 40 yards. Tennessee will also be breaking in new punter Matt Darr this fall. The Volunteers were in the middle of the SEC pack in kick returns last year, but were 11th in the league in punt returns, totaling just 73 punt returns. Da’Rick Rogers will return punts and showed improvements there, while the Vols have yet to find their punt returner.

11. Auburn: Record-setting kicker Wes Byrum is finally gone, so the Tigers’ new kicker literally has big shoes to fill. That person should be Cody Parkey, who primarily kicked off last year. Auburn also lost punter Ryan Shoemaker. His replacement, Steven Clark had nine punts in 2010, with two dropping inside the 20. Onterio McCalebb should return more kicks this season and dynamic redshirt freshman Trovon Reed could be used on punt returns, where the Tigers averaged just 6.2 yards per return a year ago.

12. South Carolina: Gone is dual-threat kicker Spencer Lanning, who kicked field goals and punts. Jay Wooten impressed at times this spring and can place-kick and punt. There’s a chance the Gamecocks might end up having two kickers as Patrick Fish competed for the punting spot this spring. The Gamecocks were last in the SEC with a 3.4-yard average on punt returns, while the tiny Bryce Sherman averaged 20.4 yards on kicks, with a long of 37. The shifty Ace Sanders and newcomer Damiere Byrd could compete for time at punt returner.

Ranking the SEC safeties

June, 22, 2011
6/22/11
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Safeties seem to have more responsibility on the field these days and there are a ton of players in this league that love to mix it up close to the line of scrimmage.

The range of some of these players is amazing to watch. Some are known more for their hitting, while others can get involved in the cover game as well.

Here’s the list we came up with at the safety position:

1. Mark Barron, Alabama, Sr.: It would have been easy for Barron to have turned pro this year, but he opted to stay another year with the Tide. He might be the top safety prospect for next year’s NFL draft and even though he went through spring in a non-contact jersey, the coaches expect him to be back to his old self this fall. Passers beware.

[+] EnlargeTramain Thomas
Paul Abell/US PresswireRazorbacks safety Tramain Thomas has seven career interceptions, including four in 2010.
2. Tramain Thomas, Arkansas, Sr.: Thomas was tremendous last season and showed that he could make plays all over the field. He registered 83 tackles and grabbed four interceptions. This spring was one of his best, as he made tons of plays and could be the league’s ultimate ball hawk this season.

3. Robert Lester, Alabama, Jr.: Lester has already heard his name associated with next year’s draft and plenty of mock drafts have him going in the first round with Barron. He led the Tide with eight interceptions a year ago and was second in the league with 12 pass breakups. He makes Alabama’s safety tandem arguably the best in the country.

4. Brandon Taylor, LSU, Sr.: He’s the leader of the defensive backfield and should be healed from his foot injury he suffered at the end of last season. Before his injury, he started the first nine games, collecting 44 tackles, including four for loss and had five pass breakups. He has great cover skills and should fly around the field if that foot is fine.

5. Janzen Jackson, Tennessee, Jr.: He would be right near the top if we knew for sure that he’d be playing this fall. He withdrew from school this spring to take care of some personal issues, but Tennessee’s staff is hopeful he returns. If he does, he shouldn’t miss a beat with his ability to take away the deep ball. He grabbed five interceptions last season and has some of the best range at the postion.

6. Sean Richardson, Vanderbilt, Sr.: He’s another member of Vanderbilt’s stout defensive backfield. He’s not an interception machine, but he roams all over the field and registered a team-high 98 tackles and had a sack in 2010. Richardson has the talent to compete at the highest level in the SEC.

7. Winston Guy, Kentucky, Sr.: For a while, Guy didn’t get much praise from his coaches, but that has changed this spring after he was more consistent during spring practice. He plays in the box a lot and will be the team’s nickel linebacker as another one of those versatile hybrids.

8. Bacarri Rambo, Georgia, Jr.: As a freshman, Rambo looked like he was going to be a major hit in the SEC safety world. He had 82 tackles and three interceptions last year, but lacked consistency at times. If he regains the form he had when he first arrived, he could easily move up on this list.

9. Charles Mitchell, Mississippi State, Sr.: He’s another safety that makes his way all around the field. He was third on the team with 93 tackles and is praised by his coaches for having relentless work ethic and is considered the team’s best tackler.

10. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina, Jr.: The Gamecocks coaches have been very impressed with the progress Swearinger has made. Now in his third year, Swearinger has the talent to be the X factor in the Gamecocks’ secondary. He’s a hard hitter and can move down from his free safety spot to play in the box.
AlabamaUS PresswireCourtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley are part of what could be the best linebacker corps in the conference.
Today we take a look at the SEC linebackers. The front sevens in this league are always good and 2011 shouldn't be any different.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. Alabama: There are a lot of strengths on this Alabama team, but the linebackers should be very fun to watch this fall. Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are back to full speed and are considered top players at their positions. With them back, the Tide should have a much more aggressive pass rush. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley improved even more this spring and will get time in the middle when Hightower is outside at the "Jack" position. Mosely blossomed as a freshman and could be a star in the making. Jarrell Harris seems to finally be coming around and Chris Jordan gives them another body in the front seven.

2. Florida: This group struggled to stay consistent at times last fall, but the new coaching staff was pleased with the progress it made this spring. There is a lot talent out there and now there are two distinct leaders in Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, who should occupy the middle when the Gators go to the 3-4. Both are tremendous athletes and should be a solid duo this fall. Florida also has former No. 1 high school prospect Ronald Powell playing that linebacker/defensive end hybrid spot called the Buck. He’ll stand up a lot this season and should elevate himself near the top of the SEC pass-rushing list. Cal transfer Chris Martin earned a ton of praise last year on the practice squad and will be a hybrid as well. Converted safety Dee Finley will play outside and there is some good, but young, depth in the wings.

3. Arkansas: This area of the team improved a lot during the season and this spring. It’s headlined by Jerry Franklin, who has led the Razorbacks in tackles the last three seasons. He has 271, including 21.5 for loss in his career. Strongside hybrid Jerico Nelson was second on the team in tackles and has the speed to get all over the field. Nelson will occasional drop back and play safety as well. This linebacker tandem will be one of the best out there this fall. The major plus for the Razorbacks is that there is finally some really good depth at the position. Bret Harris, Jarrett Lake and Terrell Williams came on strong on the outside this spring, while Ross Rasner was making strides until he was arrested and suspended indefinitely this spring.

4. Georgia: There is no shortage of athleticism in Georgia’s linebacker corps. Alec Ogletree moved down from safety and while he’s bulked up, he’s still got tremendous closing speed and will make a ton of plays at middle linebacker. Next to him is defensive leader Christian Robinson, who left spring as one of Georgia’s most consistent linebackers. On the outside, USC transfer Jarvis Jones will occupy the weak side and the coaches feel he might be more of a complete player than Justin Houston. On the other end, Cornelius Washington might not be getting a ton of publicity, but he’s no slouch and can run with the best of them.

5. LSU: Like most of the Tigers’ positions, this one might not have a ton of in-game experience, but the athleticism is too good not to praise. LSU lost leading tackler and monster in the middle Kelvin Sheppard, but there should be enough able bodies to make this unit one of the tops in the league this fall. Ryan Baker is now the leader out there and can keep up with some of the best offensive weapons out there. He’ll play on the weak side, while converted safety Karnell Hatcher moved down from safety and took reps at middle linebacker, but could find his home outside. Sophomore Kevin Minter spent his spring trying to fill Sheppard’s void and has made vast improvements. Senior Stefoin Francois provides veteran depth for the Tigers on the outside, while there are a few young, able bodies ready to contribute as well.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Mark Zerof/US PresswireKentucky's Danny Trevathan, left, led the league with 144 total tackles.
6. Kentucky: Things start with one of the nation’s best in Danny Trevathan. He led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and the word out of Lexington is that he’s looking to be even better this fall and wants to move around the field a lot more. Ronnie Sneed returns as the starter in the middle, after grabbing 61 tackles a year ago. He made some nice improvements this spring. Ridge Wilson will be another hybrid on the outside, and will occasionally lineup as a rush end for the Wildcats. The talented Winston Guy, who has played just about everywhere on Kentucky’s defense has finally settled into his home at linebacker and should play closer to the line of scrimmage and be a nickel linebacker.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks got an immediate upgrade to this position with the return of Shaq Wilson, after he missed last year with a hamstring injury. Wilson is known as the quarterback of the defense and led South Carolina in tackles in 2009. The player that could really make noise in this unit is DeVonte Holloman, who is moving from safety to the hybrid Spur position. He’ll drop back into coverage and rush from the outside to give the Gamecocks another weapon in the pass rush. Upperclassmen Reggie Bowens and Rodney Paulk will get some reps in the middle this fall, while Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will compete for time outside.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers are still trying to find out what this group is made of. Junior Herman Lathers is back and he’s the most experienced player at the position. He had 75 tackles last season and will man the weak side for the Vols. Senior Daryl Vereen should get time at strong side, but he still has some developing to do. Senior Austin Johnson, a converted fullback, will get time in the middle with All-SEC freshman pick John Propst. The jury is still out on this unit and youngsters like A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Christian Harris will have to develop quickly.

9. Auburn: The Tigers are almost back to the drawing board at linebacker. Both Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are gone, leaving Daren Bates as the lone returning starter. Bates is a converted safety, but settled nicely into the linebacker position well last fall. Inexperience looms after that as sophomore Jake Holland is a projected starter in the middle and junior Jonathan Evans will get time at weakside. Former junior college standout Eltoro Freeman, has the potential to be a menace, but has yet to truly step up for the Tigers. They’ll need that light bulb to go on this year.

10. Mississippi State: First thing’s first -- the Bulldogs must replace three starting linebackers this season. That won’t be easy or fun in Starkville. But help could be on the way in Clemson transfer Brandon Maye, who was a three-year starter with the Tigers. Coach Dan Mullen said he’s a player they expect to come in and take one of those openings at linebacker. Mississippi State still has senior leader Brandon Wilson, who players fed off of this spring. Chris Hughes and Cam Lawrence also made strides, but expect a lot of rotation from new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson.

11. Vanderbilt: Chris Marve is one of the top linebackers in the nation. He’s got great field instincts and matches his skill with the best of them. Just having him on the field makes this group better. But after him, the Commodores have a lot of questions. Vanderbilt must replace outside linebackers John Stokes and Nate Campbell, and though there are six candidates, they have just start among them. Coming out of spring, juniors Tristan Strong and Archibald Barnes and sophomore Chase Garnham are the leading candidates to see valuable playing time.

12. Ole Miss: Losing D.T. Shackelford was an enormous blow to the Rebels. Not only was he Ole Miss’ best defensive player but he was the emotional leader of the team. He was going to carry this team as far as he could go. Now, the Rebels have a wealth of inexperience to deal with. Things got even worse when sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was dismissed following his arrest for public drunkenness. The pressure is now on incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top prospect coming out of the state of Mississippi. He could jump right into Shackelford’s spot. Mike Marry and Ralph Wilson worked in Shackelford’s spot this spring and Joel Knight returns as a starter outside.

Ranking the SEC linebackers

June, 21, 2011
6/21/11
10:30
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We thought ranking the running backs was hard -- then the linebackers came along.

It shouldn't come as much of a shock that we had trouble getting our rankings in order with all of the talent out there in the SEC, but it's pretty hard to go wrong with this list.

Here's what we came up with:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDont'a Hightower edged out teammate Courtney Upshaw for the top spot in the SEC linebacker rankings.
1. Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, Jr.: He was never truly 100 percent last season after that devastating knee injury in 2009. However, the pain is finally gone and Hightower is looking to really take off in 2011. When he’s healthy, he’s as exciting to watch as any linebacker out there. He'll start in the middle, but moves outside the "Jack" position and plays in different spots on passing downs. Even though he was hobbled last year, he was second on the team with 69 tackles.

2. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, Sr.: Upshaw is back to full health after dealing with a nagging ankle injury in 2010. This spring, he was flying around practice and should be one of the top pass-rushers on the outside. He's another one of those Jacks who might start on the outside, but Upshaw will make plays all over the field this fall. He ended last season with some mighty playing momentum, registering five sacks in the final two games.

3. Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, Sr.: Franklin has been an absolute beast for the Razorbacks. He’s lead Arkansas in tackles the last three seasons, and there’s no reason for us not to think he won’t do it again. Franklin is also pretty quick on his feet and has a nose for the ball. He has five career interceptions and five forced fumbles.

4. Danny Trevathan, Kentucky, Sr.: Talk about being the hardest working man on the field. Trevathan led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and was third with 16 of them behind the line of scrimmage. He’s Kentucky’s most trusted defender and was the first Kentucky linebacker to ever earn any sort of All-America first-team honors.

5. Chris Marve, Vanderbilt, Sr.: Marve is arguably Vanderbilt’s best overall player. If not for a knee injury that cost him one game in 2011, Marve might have made it three straight years with 100 or more tackles. He played the entire last season in some sort of pain and was still able to cover a lot of ground over the middle of the field.

6. Ryan Baker, LSU, Sr.: One thing that makes Baker so imposing against offenses is his speed. He has tremendous closing speed and his play could be the key to the functionality of LSU’s young but very athletic defense. Kelvin Sheppard is gone, so the defense will be leaning on Baker for not only his play but his leadership skills. Baker had 87 tackles last year and led the team with seven sacks.

7. Jelani Jenkins, Florida, So.: Jenkins developed as last season went on, but he was inconsistent at times. He showed he’s got wheels and somehow found the ball a ton, finishing second on the team with 76 tackles. Jenkins really took to Dan Quinn’s multiple defense this spring and will be called on to be one of the voices on defense. He’ll line up outside in the 4-3 and will be inside when Florida is in the 3-4.

8. Ronald Powell, Florida, So.: Powell could have made this list as a defensive end, but with him playing the hybrid Buck and primarily playing linebacker last year, we stuck him here. After struggling through his first year, Powell was a changed man this spring and from all accounts finally looked like what the No. 1 high school prospect should look like. The defensive staff has complete trust in Powell and with his freakish athleticism and ability, he immediately becomes Florida’s top pass-rusher.

9. DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina, Jr.: Holloman made the switch form safety and will now be the Gamecocks’ hybrid linebacker known as the Spur. With defensive back speed and weighing 230 pounds, he should be just fine at his new position. The question is whether the staff will keep him there. The strong safety spot was never filled this spring, so Holloman could move back. As long as he’s here, he’s going to add a quality roving weapon to the Gamecocks' defense.

10. Jarvis Jones, Georgia, So.: He finally gets on the field after sitting out a year because of his transfer from USC. He’ll line up on the weak side, so he’s not exactly Justin Houston, but the coaches at Georgia think he might be a more complete player at linebacker. He can rush the passer and stop the run. Jones should have a big year in his new conference.

Ranking the SEC defensive ends

June, 20, 2011
6/20/11
10:30
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We’ve divided the defensive line into two categories -- ends and tackles. The more rankings the merrier, right?

First, we'll start with the defensive ends. The pass-rushers in the SEC are scary. You have to feel for the league quarterbacks when you look at the enormous talent flying off the edge in this conference.

It wasn't easy ranking these backfield harassers, but here goes:

1. Devin Taylor, South Carolina, Jr.: Taylor was a first-team All-SEC performer last season after leading the Gamecocks’ defensive linemen with 46 tackles and 12 for loss. He was fourth in the league with 7.5 sacks. Taylor is one of the more athletic ends in the league and his pass-rushing ability is just plain scary.

[+] EnlargeArkansas' Jake Bequette
Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIREJake Bequette finished with 7.0 sacks for Arkansas last season.
2. Jake Bequette, Arkansas, Sr.: He returns as Arkansas’ sack leader, after registering seven in 2010. Bequette harassed quarterbacks all last year, totaling five quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. He’s the heart of Arkansas’ defense and was one of the more unheralded defensive ends in 2010. Most in Fayetteville think he could be even better this fall.

3. Kentrell Lockett, Ole Miss, Sr.: Ole Miss got great news this spring when the NCAA granted Lockett a sixth year of eligibility for the fall. Even though he missed spring while recovering from his knee injury, he is already the Rebels’ best pass-rusher and will be leaned on to be Ole Miss’ emotional leader since D.T. Shackelford is out for the season.

4. Sam Montgomery, LSU, So.: He hasn’t played a ton at LSU, but the feeling coming out of Baton Rouge is that he has the talent to be one of the top ends in the SEC. A knee injury shortened his first year, but he regains his starting spot and is on a mission to show just how disruptive he can be this fall.

5. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, Sr.: Ingram is someone who will frustrate opposing linemen with not only his tremendous skill but because he moves all over the place. He’s the inside man on passing downs, but he primarily plays outside. Still, he was third in the league and first for the Gamecocks with nine sacks last season.

6. Tenarius Wright, Arkansas, Jr.: Wright was Bequette’s partner in crime a year ago. He had 36 tackles, including eight for loss and six sacks in 2010. Oh, and he did all that without starting a game last season. Wright entered spring as the starter opposite Bequette and should make the Hogs’ pass rush one of the most intimidating in the league.

7. Corey Lemonier, Auburn, So.: Lemonier isn’t even a returning starter, but there is a ton of buzz surrounding him this offseason. He was one of the top end prospects coming out of high school a year ago and saw action in every game last fall, earning SEC All-Freshman honors. He’ll become more unpopular among SEC quarterbacks this fall.

8. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, Fr.: Clowney makes our list as a true freshman because he’s got all the tools to be an immediate star in this league. Some feel he can start right away in Columbia and with his freakish ability, he could make an instant impact on the league. The No. 1 high school player in the country has everything needed to be a pain for tackles, but handling the hype is his first hurdle.

9. Damion Square, Alabama, Jr.: Square is two years removed from a severe knee injury, but he came back strong in 2010. The athletic lineman played in 13 games, making six starts and accumulating 27 tackles and three sacks. In Alabama’s 3-4, he’ll line up as an end and could have the makings for a breakout year.

10. DeAngelo Tyson, Georgia, Sr.: He’s moving from noseguard back to his natural position at end and should do fine in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. He was a little too small to be in the middle, but has nice quickness to be a nuisance for offensive linemen in his new home.
Today we look at the big uglies that cause all the mayhem in the trenches. The SEC consistently spits out nasty defensive linemen and this year has more of an athletic feel.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a defensive line that would make any offensive line shutter. Plus, incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney comes in as the top high school player in the country and could be one of the best ends in the league this fall. Devin Taylor leads the group at end and was second on the team with 7.5 sacks as a sophomore. Helping on the outside is Melvin Ingram, who plays inside on passing downs, and led South Carolina with nine sacks a year ago. Senior Travian Robertson, who came off injury to get four sacks last year, is solid in the middle as well.

[+] EnlargeDevin Taylor
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDevin Taylor made a habit of harassing quarterbacks last season.
2. Arkansas: The Razorbacks might have the best pass-rushing group Arkansas has seen in a while. Things revolve around defensive end Jake Bequette, who was one of the more unheralded players in the league last year, despite having seven sacks. On the other side of the line is Tenarius Wright, who will make up the second part of a formidable outside duo in Fayetteville with his speed and athleticism. In the middle, there are plenty of options. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones missed spring due to injury, but will be back this fall and there’s a wealth of depth behind them. Junior college transfer Robert Thomas might be the best and most athletic option in the middle is primed to break out.

3. LSU: There are some questions about the experience the Tigers bring back, but no one will question the talent and athleticism in Baton Rouge. Sam Montgomery is back at defensive end, after suffering a serious knee injury. He hasn’t played much, but the coaches believe he’s got what it takes to be a top end in this league. Kendrick Adams started 11 games last year at end, while Lavar Edwards filled in for Montgomery. Ego Ferguson redshirted last year, but should get a ton of playing time in the middle this fall. He is already one of the most athletic tackles in the SEC. Don’t forget about five-star early enrollee Anthony Johnson, who made very strong impressions on his coaches this spring and will be in the rotation inside.

4. Florida: This unit was criticized for lacking toughness last season, but will be full of that and even more athleticism in 2011. Jaye Howard is returning from spring ankle surgery and is already considered a top defensive tackle prospect in next year’s NFL draft. Alongside him are youngsters Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley. Floyd was the most consistent of the much-ballyhooed freshman class last fall, while Easley struggled with attitude problems. Easley has rebounded and both excelled this spring. Omar Hunter is finally healthy and will share time with Floyd at noseguard and senior William Green will occupy an end spot. This group is even better when Ronald Powell lines up at end in the 4-3.

5. Alabama: On paper, there are a few questions with this group, but it’s hard to drop Alabama very far on this list. The 3-4 scheme will have senior Josh Chapman at noseguard. Chapman started 12 games in the middle last fall, totaling 31 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Damion Square will compete for time on the outside, and since returning from his ACL injury, he’s gained a lot more playing confidence and could be a budding star in the league. Junior college transfers Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams will compete for time on the line as well, while sophomore Ed Stinson will stay at end after starting last season at Jack linebacker.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have arguably the top returning tackle tandem in the SEC. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are the behemoths in the middle who combined for 53 tackles, 13 for loss and five sacks last year. Finding any sort of inside running game against Mississippi State will be extremely tough. Developing a pass-rusher is the next step for the Bulldogs’ staff. Sean Ferguson occupies one side, but the other is still up for grabs. Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell battled for the spot this spring, but neither has really pushed ahead.

7. Georgia: There is a lot of talent in Athens, but there could be a lot of movement on the line. JUCO transfer John Jenkins is the big -- and we mean big -- name up front and he’s yet to play a down in the SEC. He arrives with a ton of hype, but is perfect at noseguard in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. DeAngelo Tyson moves to his natural position outside after playing noseguard last year. Kwame Geathers played in the middle this spring, but could be usurped for Jenkins this fall and move outside. Abry Jones is still maturing after moving to end and recording 34 tackles including 3.5 for loss last season and had a 16-tackle performance against Georgia Tech.

8. Auburn: The Tigers must replace three starters this season. Inside, Auburn is talented but inexperienced with Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker having 13 combined tackles from a year ago. There’s less concern on the outside with lone returning starter Nosa Eguae on one side and sophomore Corey Lemonier on the other. Eguae might have more experience with 11 starts, but Lemonier appears to be more athletic and should be near the top of the defensive end pool this year. After that, the Tigers are young across the board.

9. Tennessee: The Volunteers’ line will grow with senior Malik Jackson running things in the middle. He had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago and some think he’ll be even better this fall. A lot will also be expected from incoming JUCO transfer Maurice Couch. He’s pretty athletic at 6-foot-4, 327 pounds and he’ll be greatly needed, considering the dismissal of Montori Hughes. Jacques Smith has All-SEC potential and will hold one of the end spots. After that, Tennessee has some young, but encouragingly talented bodies at each position.

10. Ole Miss: Some of the best news of the spring coming out of Oxford was the return of Kentrell Lockett at defensive end. Lockett was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will not only be the Rebels’ top lineman but possibly their best defensive player. After that, the questions roll in with four tackles gone and youth coming in. Tackle Justin Smith has yet to really emerge as the All-SEC talent he was expected to be and Ole Miss is smaller up front. JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena could add some size in the middle. Gerald Rivers returns to get time at end, but has played in just 15 career games in two years.

11. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a strength for the Commodores last year until injuries hit. Still, Vanderbilt returns three starters. Experience is there, but this unit has to continue to improve, especially in the pass-rushing department where the Commodores had just 20 sacks in 2010. Rob Lohr led Vanderbilt with four sacks a year ago and had 35 tackles. T.J. Greenstone is coming off of injury and will line up inside. Tim Fugger was one of the Commodores' most consistent players at end, playing in every game and registering three sacks and four forced fumbles.

12. Kentucky: End Collins Ukwu and tackle Luke McDermott return with the most experience on Kentucky’s line. Ukwu improved not only on the field but in the weight room this spring and is expected to be a more consistent pass-rusher. McDermott is a walk-on currently ahead of Donte Rumph, who has the talent to be one of Kentucky’s top defenders, but has yet to fully buy in to the program. The coaches are also waiting for tackle Mister Cobble to finally break out of his funk and be a regular contributor. The rest of Kentucky’s linemen have some developing to do and are inexperienced.
The big uglies up front on the offensive side are our focus today. There are some quality veterans out there, but teams all across the league are looking to replace some quality linemen in the trenches.

Here's how we see the league stacking up:

[+] EnlargeBarrett Jones
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireBarrett Jones has been one of the mainstays of Alabama's offensive line the past two seasons.
1. Alabama: Four of Alabama’s five linemen from a year ago return, making this one of the team’s strongest units. The returners have combined for more than 70 starts at Alabama. Barrett Jones is the star of the show. The junior has been the Tide’s starting right guard each of the past two seasons, but took reps at left tackle and could be asked to move. William Vlachos is back at center and could be the best at his position in the league. Fellow starters D.J. Flucker and Chance Warmack are back and took reps at left tackle this spring.

2. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ offense isn’t getting much respect this offseason, but its offensive line returns All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie. Seven of Ole Miss’ linemen started two or more games each on the offensive line in 2010. Last season, the Rebels were first in the league in sacks allowed, giving up just 14. Alex Washington should stay at left guard after starting eight games there and A.J. Hawkins will likely get the nod at center after playing eight games there as well. Arkansas transfer Matt Hall will compete for time at center.

3. LSU: Joseph Barksdale might be gone, but the Tigers have a very talented group of linemen returning. Tackle Alex Hurst seems primed to be a star in the league and senior Josh Dworaczky is arguably the Tigers’ top lineman with 25 career starts. Patrick Lonergan is solid at center, while T-Bob Hebert is valuable at both center and guard. Sophomore Chris Faulk has the tough assignment of replacing Barksdale, but made quite the impression on his coaches this spring.

4. Kentucky: The Wildcats return four starters on their line. Right guard Larry Warford headlines the group after gaining second-team All-SEC honors a year ago. Kentucky also returns two-year starter Stuart Hines at left guard and Matt Smith at center, who was solid in his first year there. Left tackle Chandler Burden missed spring practice, but is expected back by fall practice. Finding a suitable right tackle is the next step for Kentucky.

5. Tennessee: This group could be one of the most impressive units for the Volunteers this season. It’s deeper and more experienced in Derek Dooley’s second year and he was very pleased with its performance this spring. Junior Dallas Thomas is solid at left tackle, and sophomore Ja’Wuan James really came on strong in his first year and is one of the top linemen in the SEC. James Stone also returns at center. The surprise of the group was true freshman Marcus Jackson, who held down the left guard spot for most of the spring.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs must replace All-American left tackle Derek Sherrod, but most of the line is somewhat on point. Center Quentin Saulsberry will anchor the line and is versatile enough to play just about every position on the line. Left guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Addison Lawrence return and the Bulldogs will have junior Tobias Smith lining up at right guard. Blaine Clausell and James Carmon, who moved from defensive tackle, will compete at left tackle.

7. Georgia: This was supposed to be one of the strongest offensive line units in the league, but the Bulldogs lost tackle Trinton Sturdivant to a season-ending knee injury this spring and fellow tackle A.J. Harmon transferred. Georgia’s most-reliable options are Cordy Glenn, who moved from guard to left tackle and Ben Jones at center. Kenarious Gates is at left guard, but he’s athletic enough to play tackle if needed. Former defensive lineman Justin Anderson will start off at right tackle. Right guard is the next area of business and the depth all around is a problem.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have questions here, but there is talent across the line. Rokevious Watkins is one of the most talented guards in the league and he’ll be assisted by returning starter at center T.J. Johnson. Senior Kyle Nunn has made strides at left tackle and redshirt freshman A.J. Cann took over duties at left guard this spring. Still, the younger linemen will be counted on to contribute this fall.

9. Arkansas: The Razorbacks must replace three starters on the offensive line. Center Travis Swanson and left guard Alvin Bailey are the only returning starters. Just a sophomore, Bailey impressed his coaches last season and will be one of the top linemen in the league this fall. After that, the Hogs will have to turn to youth for help. True freshman Brey Cook could be thrust into the starting role at right tackle, while sophomore Anthony Oden could get the job at left tackle.

10. Florida: Florida’s offensive line struggled throughout the 2010 season -- and that was with a senior-laden group. This fall, the Gators will start over with a ton of inexperience. Right guard Jon Halapio and right tackle Xavier Nixon are the only returning starters. Halapio struggled at times last season and Nixon battled injuries. Florida’s line spent most of the spring in the infirmary, so little is known about the overall talent. Freshman Chaz Green left spring as the starter at left tackle, Jonotthan Harrison will battle former Notre Dame lineman Dan Wenger at center. He transferred in after spring, but has health concerns.

11. Auburn: The Tigers will go from having one of the top offensive line groups in the country to having a major work in progress in 2011. Senior Brandon Mosley is the lone returning starter, and while he was solid on Auburn’s line last season, he came from junior college as a defensive end/tight end. The good news is that tackle A.J. Greene should be fine this fall after sustaining a season-ending leg injury last year. The rest of Auburn’s linemen are very young and inexperienced. Don’t expect many redshirts from this group.

12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores might return all five starters, but this unit had trouble keeping things together last year. The offense needs this group to improve mightily. Wesley Johnson is Vanderbilt’s best option, despite only being a sophomore at left tackle. There will be size on the right side, with 300-plus pounders Kyle Fischer and Ryan Seymour over there. Simply put, this unit has the experience, but it requires a lot of improvement.

Ranking the SEC wide receivers

June, 16, 2011
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Marquis Maze/Alshon Jeffery/Greg ChildsIcon SMI/Getty ImagesMarquis Maze, Alshon Jeffery and Greg Childs top the list of the SEC's best wideouts.
The SEC is stockpiled with receiving talent, but that should come to no one's surprise.

Unlike the team rankings, we decided to split up the wide receivers and tight ends. Remember, these rankings are based on season projections, skill level and body of work.

We sparked a lot of debate with the running backs Wednesday, so I image the receivers will get similar attention as well.

Here's what we came up with:

1. Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina, Jr.: It would be hard to find a better receiver than Jeffery in the league. He might not be the fastest or most explosive player out there, but his 6-foot-4, 233-pound frame makes him tough for any defender to cover. He was nearly impossible to contain in one-on-one situations last year, and he led the SEC with 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns.

2. Greg Childs, Arkansas, Sr.: Assuming he’s back to full health after his knee injury in 2010, Childs is the Razorbacks’ best option at receiver. He’s big, fast and tremendous after the catch. Before his season-ending injury during the eighth game of the season, Childs registered 46 catches for 659 yards and six touchdowns.

3. Marquis Maze, Alabama, Sr.: Maze is no Julio Jones, but he’s no slouch either. He’ll be the Crimson Tide’s top option at receiver this fall and caught 38 passes for 557 yards and three touchdowns last season. Maze has the speed to elude defenders and proved last year that he’s got the strength to shed tackles as well.

[+] EnlargeJoe Adams
Paul Abell/US PresswireReceiver Joe Adams led the Bulldogs with 813 yards receiving in 2010.
4. Joe Adams, Arkansas, Sr.: Adams made solid gains last year and was the Razorbacks’ leading receiver. He’s another physical wideout who is most dangerous after he catches the ball. Adams will man the slot and won’t be intimidated by making plays over the middle of the field.

5. Jarius Wright, Arkansas, Sr.: Another Arkansas receiver makes the list because this team thrives on the deep ball. Wright is the fastest of the Hogs’ wideouts. He proved as much when he ran a sub-4.3 40 during the offseason. Wright has the potential to move up on this list if he can continue to show he can regularly shake tackles.

6. Chad Bumphis, Mississippi State, Jr.: Bumphis should be higher on this list with the skill he possesses, but he’s yet to put it all together. Bumphis is extremely athletic and will lineup all over the field, but he’s got to be more consistent. Quarterback Chris Relf has improved his passing skills, so Bumphis will have plenty of opportunities to take his game to the next level.

7. Rueben Randle, LSU, Jr.: The Tigers have a lot of talent at the position and Randle could be the one who takes over as LSU’s top receiver. Last year, he caught 33 passes for 544 yards and three touchdowns and showed throughout the season that he can be a reliable playmaker in the offense. He’s talented enough to go across the middle and be a deep threat.

8. Justin Hunter, Tennessee, So.: Hunter only caught 16 passes in 2010, but seven of them went for touchdowns and he racked up more than 400 receiving yards. He’s certainly got a nose for the end zone and should be quarterback Tyler Bray’s top receiving option.

9. Tavarres King, Georgia, Jr.: He’s not A.J. Green, but he did a good job filling in for him at the flanker spot this spring. King not only had a solid spring, he is also no stranger to the offense, catching 27 passes for 504 yards last fall. He’s got some burning ability as well.

10. Emory Blake, Auburn, Jr.: If Auburn can find the right quarterback, Blake could move up this list. As a sophomore, he caught 33 passes for 554 yards and eight touchdowns. Blake also has the size to frustrate smaller corners around the league and should win more one-on-one battles.

SEC position rankings: WRs/TEs

June, 16, 2011
6/16/11
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Today we take a look at the wide receiver/tight end positions in the SEC. This one gets tricky since we’re basing rankings on two different positions.

Let’s take a look at what we came up with:

[+] EnlargeJoe Adams, Jarius Wright, and Greg Childs
AP Photo/April L. BrownJoe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs combined for 2,260 yards last season.
1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks could have the best wide receiver corps in the country. Making things even better for Arkansas is that each member of its tremendous trio is a senior. First, there’s Greg Childs, who would have taken part in the NFL draft this year had he not suffered a knee injury late in the season. Childs is Arkansas’ best receiver when he’s healthy. Joe Adams really came on strong last year, especially after Childs went down. He’s the best when he gets the ball in open space and will command the slot. Then there’s Jarius Wright, who is the fastest of the three and got even stronger this spring as well. The three have 324 combined career receptions for 5,404 yards and 41 touchdowns.

2. LSU: The Tigers might have lost Terrence Toliver, but they’ll still have weapons at receiver. Junior Rueben Randle is expected to be the go-to guy in LSU’s offense and is coming off a season where he caught 33 passes for 544 yards and three touchdowns. Russell Shepard was right behind him last season, catching the same amount of balls, but only totaled 254 yards and one touchdown. He looked sharper this spring and is looking to break out this fall. Tight end Deangelo Peterson should also get more attention this fall. He only caught 16 passes, but that number should increase.

3. South Carolina: For starters, the Gamecocks have the league’s best receiver in Alshon Jeffery. The 6-foot-4, 233-pound freak snatched just about everything that came his way last fall and registered 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s nearly impossible to stop in one-on-one situations. Senior Jason Barnes didn't make a major impact in 2010, but he does have 60 career receptions under his belt. The smaller Ace Sanders should be even better after bursting onto the scene with 25 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns. D.L. Moore, who caught 17 passes in 2010, should have a more expanded role as well.

[+] EnlargeTavarres King
Dale Zanine/US PresswireWith A.J. Green in the NFL, Tavarres King should become the Bulldogs' main receiving threat.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs are still looking for a few playmakers at receiver, but there is definitely talent in Athens. Junior Tavarres King has moved into A.J. Green’s flanker spot and while he’s not Green, he proved this spring that he’s ready to be the Bulldogs' main receiving threat. Tight end Orson Charles is the best at his position and can flex out to receiver if needed. His 26 catches for 422 yards should increase this upcoming season. Marlon Brown also made strides this spring and should be the No. 2 receiver.

5. Tennessee: Neither Justin Hunter nor Da'Rick Rogers had a ton of catches last fall, but that will change with a strong passing game in 2011. Hunter caught 16 passes, but registered 415 yards and seven touchdowns in the process. He’s a solid deep threat and playmaker. Rogers also only caught 16 passes, and while he didn’t have the yardage Hunter had, he made tremendous strides this spring. Tight end Mychal Rivera caught 11 passes in 2010 and with Luke Stocker gone he takes over as the Vols’ weapon at tight end.

6. Alabama: There aren’t a lot of questions surrounding the Crimson Tide, but receiver isn’t Alabama’s best area. Seniors Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks should get the brunt of the catches. They combined for 70 catches for 1,013 yards and six touchdowns last season. There is a long list of other inexperienced players who should grab some catches as well and former Ohio State receiver Duron Carter, who just transferred in, could be a factor this fall.

7. Florida: The Gators have talent at wide receiver, and Florida should have a more pass-friendly offense, but the group is very unproven. Frankie Hammond Jr. could be Florida’s best weapon at receiver with his speed and athleticism. Omarius Hines has the size and speed to be a major mismatch for defenders in the slot and on the outside. Freshman Quinton Dunbar was Florida’s top deep threat this spring and should get ample playing time. At tight end, Jordan Reed was called Florida’s best athlete and could end up being the Gators’ top playmaker. Trey Burton should catch a few more passes as well.

[+] EnlargeChad Bumphis
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireMississippi State's Chad Bumphis caught 44 passes for 634 yards and five touchdowns last season.
8. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have a ton of depth at receiver, starting with Chad Bumphis. The junior has yet to really break out, but this could be the year he finally puts it together. Alongside him, Mississippi State has Chris Smith, Brandon Heavens and Arceto Clark, who all had solid springs. Those four combined for 115 catches last fall. The Bulldogs also have a host of young receivers who appear ready to compete.

9. Auburn: There is still some talent left on the Plains at receiver. Sure, Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery are gone, but the Tigers will look to Emory Blake and Trovon Reed to make up for their departures. Blake is the leading returning receiver, while Reed will be used all over the field by Auburn’s coaches. He can be a threat in the slot and on the outside. Philip Lutzenkirchen will be more of a staple in the offense as the Tigers’ trusted H-back.

10. Ole Miss: Athletically, the Rebels are fine. However, this group is very inexperienced and was inconsistent this spring. The incoming freshmen will have every opportunity to take a starting spot and Tobias Singleton could be the best option of Ole Miss’ youngsters. Of the returners, Melvin Harris did the most in 2010, catching 30 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders will also get a chance to heavily contribute after making strong strides this spring.

11. Vanderbilt: Four of Vanderbilt’s five receiving leaders return, but the group wasn’t tremendously productive last fall. The Commodores didn’t have a receiver go over 320 yards last season and tight end Brandon Barden caught a team-high 34 passes for 425 yards. Vanderbilt's top two wideouts -- John Cole and Jonathan Krause -- are back, but the Commodores might have to turn to their youngsters for help.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost a lot when do-everything Randall Cobb left early for the NFL and things didn’t get any better by losing No. 2 wideout Chris Matthews. Now, it’s back to the drawing board in Lexington. La'Rod King should be the top target for quarterback Morgan Newton, but he disappointed at times this spring. Matt Roark and E.J. Fields will compete for time, but both need vast improvement. The top athlete could be Brian Adams, but he spent spring playing for Kentucky’s baseball team.

SEC position rankings: Running backs

June, 15, 2011
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Mike Dyer & Onterio McCalebbUS PresswireMike Dyer (5) and Onterio McCalebb (23) give Auburn a powerful punch in the backfield.
We turn our attention today to the running back position in the SEC, which is always loaded.

The 2011 season will be no different:

1. Auburn: Who do you put No. 1? How about the team with the best tandem in the league. Sophomore Mike Dyer can do it all -- run with power, run with speed and break tackles. He’s coming off a 1,093-yard rushing season as a true freshman. The Tigers can also throw their version of “Lightning” at you in junior Onterio McCalebb, who’s one of the SEC’s best breakaway threats. He rushed for 810 yards last season, averaging 8.5 yards a pop, and his 70-yard touchdown run against LSU was the difference in that game.

2. Alabama: Trent Richardson alone gets the Crimson Tide into the No. 2 spot. He’s that good and that dynamic, and he’s going to make up for all those carries he didn’t get the past two seasons while playing in the shadow of Mark Ingram. Simply, he’s the kind of running back who can carry an offense. Sophomore Eddie Lacy would be a starter at a lot of places, and true freshman Dee Hart turned a lot of heads in the spring with his ability to make plays a number of different ways.

3. Arkansas: The Hogs’ depth is outstanding and would have been even better had the bruiser of the group, Broderick Green, not suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Junior Knile Davis demonstrated just how special he was a year ago with 1,322 rushing yards. Bobby Petrino also thinks this might be the year that junior Ronnie Wingo Jr. truly blossoms after showing flashes the past two years, and do-it-all junior Dennis Johnson is back after missing all of last season with an injury.

4. South Carolina: Sophomore Marcus Lattimore is right up there with Richardson when it comes to game-changing running backs who can carry a football team. Willing to tote it 35 and 40 times a game, Lattimore is an entire running back corps unto himself. But he will need some help, and that’s where junior Kenny Miles comes in. Miles had an excellent spring, and it looks like junior Eric Baker is healthy again.

5. Florida: From a pure speed standpoint, nobody can top Florida’s backfield. The Chris Rainey-Jeff Demps combo figures to be a blur in 2011, and new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is going to see to it that both players get plenty of work. Don’t forget about junior Mike Gillislee, either, and sophomore Mack Brown was one of the highest-rated backs in the country when Florida signed him. The reason the Gators aren’t ranked a little higher is that it remains to be seen if they have that power back who can get the tough yards in this league.

6. Mississippi State: It’s a crime to put the Bulldogs this low, but it goes to show you just how deep and talented the running position is in the SEC. Senior Vick Ballard just missed 1,000 yards last season and scored 20 touchdowns. Sophomore LaDarius Perkins has great speed and is also versatile. He had three receiving touchdowns in 2010. Senior Robert Elliott also returns, and coach Dan Mullen said freshman Nick Griffin might be the best of the bunch once he gets healthy.

7. LSU: Losing a 1,000-yard rusher the caliber of Stevan Ridley is never ideal, but there’s no shortage of returning talent in the LSU backfield. It starts with sophomore Spencer Ware, who’s poised for a huge season. He was one of the best players on the field in last season’s Cotton Bowl. Les Miles likes to use multiple backs, and sophomores Michael Ford and Alfred Blue will also be a big part of the rotation.

8. Ole Miss: There’s not a more versatile (or underrated) running back in the SEC than senior Brandon Bolden. The NFL scouts have had him in their sights for some time. He just missed 1,000 yards rushing a year ago and led the Rebels with 32 receptions. At 221 pounds, he also has a nose for the end zone and scored 17 touchdowns last season. The Rebels have a perfect complement to go with him, too, in speedy sophomore Jeff Scott, while senior Enrique Davis also returns.

9. Georgia: Take Washaun Ealey out of the equation. He’s decided to transfer. It’s now or never for senior Caleb King, who’s a more talented runner than he’s shown to this point. Junior Carlton Thomas is still hanging around, and redshirt freshman Ken Malcome is one to keep an eye, too. But the running back everybody wants to see in Athens is incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell, who has all the tools to be a great one. He’s going to get a chance to show what he can do right away and may get 15 to 20 carries in the opener.

10. Tennessee: Despite Tauren Poole rushing for 1,034 yards last season, coach Derek Dooley came away saying the Vols left too many yards on the field. They finished last in the league in rushing. Nonetheless, Poole is a tough runner who’s proved he can be productive in this league. Sophomore Rajion Neal came on in the spring, and the Vols hope incoming freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith can help provide a few more explosive plays in the running game. Also, don’t sleep on sophomore Channing Fugate, who’s one of the better fullbacks in the league.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores have the talent and the depth to really move up this list during the season. Of course, so much of what they do in their running game will hinge on how well the guys develop up front along the offensive line. Injuries derailed Warren Norman and Zac Stacy last season. Neither player topped the 500-yard mark. Both should be healthy in 2011, though, and first-year coach James Franklin was really impressed with sophomore Wesley Tate’s blend of size, power and speed in the spring.

12. Kentucky: Derrick Locke had been the heart and soul of the Wildcats’ running game the past couple of seasons, and now he’s gone. The good news is that sophomore Raymond Sanders was one of the Wildcats’ most-improved players in the spring and looks like he’s more than capable of being their go-to back. Several other younger guys are also waiting for their chance, including redshirt freshman Brandon Gainer, and the Kentucky coaches are extremely high on incoming freshmen Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons.

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