NCF Nation: A.J. Cann

SEC helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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So many great performances, too many to name here, in Week 3. We take our best shot here:

A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The fifth-year senior was a beast. Cann, who is one of the best interior offensive linemen in the country, played a tremendous game at guard, helping pave the way for 176 rushing yards in the Gamecocks' 38-35 win over No. 6 Georgia.

John Chavis, LSU: After a rough start to the year against Wisconsin, The Chief's defense posted back-to-back shutouts (capped by this week's 31-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe), the first time LSU has done that since 1985. The Tigers haven't allowed a point in 31 possessions and outscored opponents 108-0 in that stretch. They allowed only 93 offensive yards on Saturday. Yes, the two opponents (Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe) aren't exactly juggernauts, but those are still impressive performances directed by the LSU defensive coordinator.

Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: The Razorbacks got a significant win, going on the road to dismantle Texas Tech 49-28. Collins (212 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Williams (145 yards, four touchdowns) were a huge part of the effort, leading the Hogs to a staggering 438 yards on the ground. Hat tip to the Arkansas offensive line also, which turned in an outstanding effort and has been great overall so far this season.

Demarcus Robinson, Florida: The Gators fought tooth-and-nail for their 36-0 triple-overtime win over Kentucky and Robinson came up huge. The sophomore receiver hauled in 15 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns and the Gators needed every bit of the performance in the victory.

Dylan Thompson, South Carolina: The senior quarterback had his best performance as a Gamecock in a huge victory. Thompson was 21-of-30 passing for 271 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Patrick Towles, Kentucky: The Wildcats weren't able to pull out the win, but Towles, who is in his first season as Kentucky's full-time starting quarterback, played a heck of a game. He was 24-of-45 passing for 369 yards and three touchdowns. He did have three interceptions, but one of those was not his fault and his performance was gritty in a tough environment (The Swamp). Also, honorable mention to true freshman receiver Garrett Johnson, who hauled in six of Towles' passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns, including this great catch.

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the South Carolina Gamecocks:

2013 record: 11-2, beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl

Final grade for the 2013 season: South Carolina carved out a third straight top-10 finish and was the only team nationally to beat three teams that finished the season ranked in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. A bad loss to Tennessee kept the Gamecocks out of the SEC championship game, making this an A- instead of an A.

Key losses: QB Connor Shaw, WR Bruce Ellington, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DT Kelcy Quarles, CB Victor Hampton

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesRunning back Mike Davis could be in line for another big season for South Carolina.
Key returnees: QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, OG A.J. Cann, OT Corey Robinson, DT J.T. Surratt, LB Skai Moore, CB Brison Williams

Instant impact newcomers: RB David Williams, DT Abu Lamin, LB Bryson Allen-Williams, CB Al Harris Jr., CB Chris Lammons

Breakout player: Thompson said last week that junior tight end Jerell Adams has had as good a preseason camp as anybody on the team. The 6-6, 242-pound Adams caught 13 passes last season and has three career touchdown catches. Look for him to blow those numbers out of the water this season. He has the size and speed to be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses and is playing with a renewed sense of focus and confidence. Adams will be an integral part of the offense in 2014 and could make a run for All-SEC honors.

Most important game: The Georgia game has typically set the tone in the East race, and this year it could very well be an elimination game. The good news for the Gamecocks is that the Sept. 13 game is in Columbia, South Carolina, where they've won 18 in a row.

Biggest question mark: There's some experience returning at safety, but as many as three true freshmen could end up playing at cornerback this season. In fact, the Gamecocks are moving their most experienced safety, Brison Williams, to cornerback to fill that void. All three of the first-year cornerbacks are talented and have shown promise in camp. But it's never ideal to be in a position where you have to play so many newcomers in the secondary right away.

Upset special: The Gamecocks came dangerously close to losing to Florida at home last season. But with the game shifting to the Swamp this season, that Nov. 15 road trip has danger written all over it as Steve Spurrier returns to his alma mater, where he has won only once (2010) as South Carolina's coach.

Key stat: South Carolina is one of only two teams in the SEC, along with Alabama, to hold teams below an average of 21 points per game each of the past three seasons.

They said it: "We don't have any superstars, but we have a lot of guys who know how to win." -- Spurrier

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Info: 8.9 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5

Our take: It's SEC championship or bust for the Gamecocks. OK, maybe not, but they've done just about everything but win an SEC title each of the past three seasons. To win an SEC title, they first have to get to the game. Their one and only trip to Atlanta came in 2010. The Head Ball Coach has a veteran offensive line, marquee running back and depth in the defensive line and at linebacker. While we're not ready to pick the Gamecocks to win the SEC championship game, we are picking them to get there and win 10 or more games for the fourth straight season.

Top SEC players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
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As we get set to open fall camps around the SEC, we're counting down the conference's Top 25 players -- five per day all this week.

15. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
It’s unusual for a true freshman offensive tackle to start in the SEC. And it’s highly irregular for him to dominate. That is what Tunsil did for a good portion of last season, surrendering just one sack all fall while making nine starts. As if his second-team All-SEC designation in 2013 didn’t make this clear, Tunsil is a special talent -- and his rise will only continue now that he has a full season under his belt.

14. A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina
NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Cann second among senior offensive guard prospects to watch in next year’s draft Insider [Insider], noting that Cann’s pairing with left tackle Corey Robinson should give the Gamecocks one of the best left sides in college football. South Carolina hasn’t produced many NFL-caliber offensive linemen in recent years, but this Gamecocks line will be an exception, and Cann’s veteran presence will be one of the leading reasons for that change.

13. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
Speaking of Kiper’s 2015 prospect rankings, he has the 6-foot-5, 245-pound McKinney first among underclassman inside linebackers to watch this season Insider [Insider]. The redshirt junior ranks among the SEC’s top breakout candidates after racking up 173 tackles and 11.5 tackles for a loss in his first two seasons. The Bulldogs are a popular dark-horse pick in the SEC West thanks in part to what could be a feisty defense with McKinney as one of its top playmakers.

12. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss
After becoming the first Rebels safety in 40 years to be named a first-team All-American, Prewitt will accomplish something truly historic if he’s able to go back-to-back. He clearly has the skill set to do it after leading the SEC and ranking seventh nationally with six interceptions in 2013. Prewitt possesses not only the ball skills that produced all those picks but also a hard-hitting style that makes him one of the SEC’s top all-around defensive backs.

11. La'el Collins, OT, LSU
The versatile Collins returned for his senior season to prove himself as a left tackle -- he shifted there last season after starting every game at left guard as a sophomore -- and Tigers coach Les Miles predicted that he will do just that. Collins will combine with mammoth left guard Vadal Alexander to give LSU a dominant run-blocking combination on the left side -- an advantage that freshman Leonard Fournette and his backfield mates probably can’t wait to exploit.
The opening of SEC media days isn't the only news of the day. Two more college football award watch lists debuted Monday, and the SEC is a major player on both.

Thirteen of the 123 watch list honorees for the Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the top lineman or linebacker, are from the conference. Likewise, nine of the 51 nominees for the Butkus Award, which goes to the top linebacker, are SEC players.

Here are the full lists of SEC nominees:

Lombardi
G A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OT La'el Collins, LSU
C Reese Dismukes, Auburn
DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
OG Arie Kouandjio, Alabama
LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
DE A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Butkus
Trey DePriest, Alabama
Leonard Floyd, Georgia
Kris Frost
Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Braylon Mitchell, Arkansas
Reggie Ragland, Alabama
Ramik Wilson, Georgia

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Already a Hall of Fame lock when he returned to the college coaching ranks nearly a decade ago, Steve Spurrier has found his second wind at South Carolina.

He’s also found a home.

The Head Ball Coach will always be a Florida Gator, and he’ll proudly tell you as much in his familiar, high-pitched twang. But South Carolina has grown on him in more ways than one.

So much so that he and his wife, Jerri, plan on staying in the Columbia area even when he’s done coaching.

“People always ask where I’m going to live when my coaching days are over,” said Spurrier, who owns a vacation home in Crescent Beach, Fla. “Usually, your last stop is where you end up, if your last stop is successful. Bobby Stoops wants to be in Norman.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/John RaouxIt's been mostly thumbs-up for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, as "The Old Ball Coach" has led the Gamecocks to three straight top-10 finishes.
“Our plan is to live here, at least between here and Crescent Beach. Every time I go through Gainesville, I don’t know anybody anymore. I’ve got a few pals there, but not that many. This is a good place to live. It really is.”

And for the record, Spurrier plans on resigning and not retiring. In his mind, there’s a big difference.

“I like resign a lot better,” Spurrier said. “Retiring sounds too much like you’re going to sit around and not do a whole lot. I’m not a sit-around kind of guy.”

Now, for those South Carolina fans who get sweaty palms when Spurrier even broaches the subject of his retirement (oops, his resignation), relax.

He’s having way too much fun -- and success -- to even think about walking away right now, and he feels and looks a lot closer to 49 than his actual age of 69. He misses a day of working out about as often as he concedes a 3-foot putt, which is never.

A devout family guy, Spurrier’s two sons, Steve Jr., and Scott, are both working under him on the South Carolina coaching staff, and the Gamecocks are enjoying the kind of unprecedented run that few others in college football have been able to rival the past three years.

But even with three straight top-10 finishes, three straight 11-win seasons, five straight wins over rival Clemson and the longest current home winning streak in the country, don’t tell Spurrier he’s exceeded expectations.

“No, we’ll exceed them when we win the SEC,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, to push for that. We’ve made some really good progress, on the field and financially. When I got here, we’d had one person to give a million dollars to athletics, and her name is on the stadium, Mrs. [Martha] Williams-Brice, and that was in 1972.

“Since then, we’ve found 10 or 11 wealthy people who’ve given over a million dollars. We were way behind financially to most of the schools in the SEC and are still trying to catch up. But we’ve been able to get the facilities upgraded, and once we did that, we were able to sign our top in-state kids. That’s been huge.”

Spurrier’s renowned feel for calling a game and exploiting opposing defenses’ weaknesses ranks up there with any coach who’s ever roamed the sideline in the SEC, or any conference, for that matter.

But it’s his unwavering confidence and presence that have permeated the South Carolina program and been the difference in a ton of close wins over the years. The Gamecocks are 11-3 the past three seasons in games decided by a touchdown or less.

“People are always going to love him here because he’s changed the culture, but he’s not satisfied,” South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson said. “That says something about him and where this program is right now.

“We’re always pushing to take it to new heights.”

In some ways, Spurrier is about as old-fashioned as it gets. Both his wife and longtime football operations director, Jamie Speronis, aren’t sure that Spurrier has ever turned on a computer. If he wants to read something on the Internet, Speronis is generally the one who prints it out for him.

In the corner of Spurrier’s office, he has a stack of old play-by-play sheets from games going back who knows how many years, and he can get to the one he wants in a matter of seconds.

Even though he owns an iPhone, nobody is really sure if he knows how to use it. He’s still rocking the old flip phone.

So while technology might not be Spurrier’s thing, don’t think for a minute that he has any trouble relating to today’s athlete. His wit is as sharp as ever, and nobody is spared.

“As an offensive lineman, you probably don’t want him saying much of anything to you,” senior guard A.J. Cann quipped. “I try to stay on his good side. He might be pushing 70, but he’s still coaching as hard as he ever has, and man, does he know how to push your buttons.”

Thompson added: “I love playing for him. He has his way of doing it and isn’t going to stop until you do it that way. When you get there, he’ll be happy. But until then, he’s going to keep grinding on you.”

And doing so in vintage Spurrier fashion.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier, Connor Shaw
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsDespite being 69 years old, Steve Spurrier is still coaching as hard as ever.
Toward the end of spring practice this year, sophomore receiver Pharoh Cooper looked back too early on a pass route, prompting Spurrier, the son of a Presbyterian minister, to pipe up, ‘Pharoh, you know what happens when you look back?’ ”

In the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom and became a pillar of salt.

“He does a really good job of relating to whoever you are,” Thompson said. “I’m a Christian, and any time he can relate a Bible story to something we’re doing, he’ll do it. He’ll call Kane Whitehurst ‘Abel’ sometimes, off-the-wall stuff, and you think he’s crazy.

“But you always listen.”

For some SEC purists, it’s hard to fathom that Spurrier is just three seasons away from equaling the 12 seasons he spent as Florida’s head coach.

He’s not sure he’s ever had more fun coaching than he has these past few years, especially given the fact that South Carolina has accomplished so many firsts on his watch. As part of his new contract, Spurrier has the option to stay on as a special adviser to the president and athletic director when he does hang up his coaching visor for good.

But as Spurrier himself says, he can’t imagine not coaching football.

“What else are you going to do?” he said. “Every time I go to the beach now, after about three days, I say, ‘Jerri, let’s go.’ I’m not going to play golf every day. I’ve got my enthusiasm up, too. I got two epidural shots in my back [recently] and am feeling pretty good. I still have some arthritis, but it doesn’t hurt to work out.

“We’ve got a lot to look forward to here and a lot more we want to do.”

Plus, it’s home.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina’s Mike Davis just concluded a quiet spring.

But come fall, in his words, it’s on.

“I’m going to run angry next season, and everybody’s going to know about it,” said Davis, who received only minimal contact this spring after rushing for 1,183 yards a year ago in his first season as the Gamecocks’ starting running back.

A second-team All-SEC selection as a sophomore, Davis was one of the breakthrough players of the year in the league. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and rushed for 100 yards in seven of his first nine games.

But when November arrived, Davis was running on fumes. He injured his shoulder and ribs against Mississippi State, but it was a bum right ankle that he couldn’t shake.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
AP Photo/John RaouxThe grind of the SEC schedule got to South Carolina running back Mike Davis in 2013.
“Every game, it felt like people started falling on it just because,” Davis lamented.

Davis finished with 203 carries. The only two backs in the SEC (playing in 12 or fewer games) who carried it more were Tennessee’s Rajion Neal (215) and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (207). By the time Davis got to Florida, Clemson and Wisconsin, all three with stout run defenses, he didn’t look like the same player.

He was still running as hard, but the wear and tear from the season had obviously taken a huge toll.

“I was hurting, but I was still playing,” Davis said. “That’s the time of year a lot of guys are hurting. But you keep going. You’re playing for the guys around you.”

Some of the best news for Davis is that he will have more guys around him at running back in 2014. He won’t have to carry it as much during the early part of the season, meaning he should be fresh for the stretch drive.

Junior Brandon Wilds is healthy again, and the Gamecocks also like junior Shon Carson’s versatility. One of the most physically impressive backs on campus is redshirt freshman David Williams, who has explosive speed.

“When one person is beat up, another can come in and our offense is still going to run the same,” Davis said. “We will be the same offense. We have four guys who can play for anybody.

“Brandon Wilds has done a great job. Shon Carson is killing it this offseason, and David Williams is a freak athlete. He has everything you want in a running back -- size and power -- and his speed will wow you with how big he is.”

The centerpiece of that deep running back stable, though, will remain the same -- No. 28.

And despite his 1,000-yard season last season, Davis still carries a big chip on his shoulder. It goes back to his recruitment.

The Lithonia, Ga., native was committed to Florida for several months, but he soured on the Gators when he found out they were also trying to recruit Keith Marshall late in the process.

“I talked to Keith Marshall, and he told me they sent the whole coaching staff to his house, and they told me that they didn’t,” said Davis, whose other brother, James Davis, played at Clemson.

“I knew Florida was going to take two running backs, and I knew Matt Jones wasn’t going to change his mind. I had asked if they were recruiting other running backs beside us, and they told me no. But when I found out they sent all their coaches to [Marshall’s] house for an in-home visit and only the tight ends coach to my house, I felt very disrespected.”

Davis decommitted from Florida soon after and told South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward privately that he would sign with the Gamecocks. Ward had stuck with Davis through the whole recruiting process and they shared a strong bond.

We will be the same offense. We have four guys who can play for anybody.

-- South Carolina running back Mike Davis, on the running backs who will be his backups in 2014
Of course, that didn’t mean the recruiting drama was completely over.

“Georgia came -- all the teams did toward the end -- but it was too late,” Davis said. “I looked at it like, ‘I’m in Georgia. I’m one of the top running backs. How come I’m just getting an offer from UGA?’ With, Clemson, my brother went there. So I was like, ‘Why are you just now hopping on?’

“They were all too late to the game. I think they looked at me as a backup plan, that they’d go recruit other guys and if they didn’t get them, they’d go get me. That’s how I looked at it.

“But I’m nobody’s backup plan.”

Davis bulked up to more than 220 pounds this spring but wants to play at around 215. He said he was between 205 and 210 last season.

“You’re going to see a totally different person. I’m not going to lie,” Davis said. “I did a lot to help myself and better myself this offseason, trying to stay healthy. I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been, and being around our guys has helped me be a better teammate.”

Davis will be running behind one of the better offensive lines in the SEC. The Gamecocks return four starters, and senior guard A.J. Cann said blocking for a guy like Davis makes their jobs easier.

“That first hit, he’s not coming down,” Cann said. “Unless you clip him by his ankles, he might fall. But if you go at him up high, I don’t think he’s coming down. He runs angry, and he runs mean.”

The meanest version may be yet to come, although Davis will measure himself by how many games the Gamecocks win next season, and more specifically, whether they can break through and win a first SEC championship.

“If you want to be great, then you’re going to do whatever it takes to help your team win,” Davis said. “It’s not about wowing people, but you do want them to come away saying, ‘Why is he running so hard? He has that extra oomph.’

“That’s how I want to run on every carry.”

Gamecocks get good news on Shaw

November, 8, 2011
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It looks like South Carolina will have sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw this weekend.

Shaw has been cleared medically after suffering a concussion last week in the Arkansas game and will be back in the lineup Saturday against Florida as long as there are no additional setbacks.

The Gamecocks will be careful with Shaw this week. He won't practice in pads on Tuesday, but should be ready by game time.

He was leveled by Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette toward the end of the game last week and lay motionless on the field for a few minutes. He eventually walked off the field under his own power, but it's the kind of crushing hit that would put a lot of quarterbacks out for several weeks.

Even with Shaw back, the Gamecocks have to shore up some issues in the offensive line. They moved redshirt freshman guard A.J. Cann out to right tackle during the Arkansas game to replace redshirt freshman Cody Gibson, who was having trouble protecting. But it was Cann who gave up the sack that led to Shaw's concussion.

It really hasn't been the same for South Carolina up front offensively ever since losing senior left tackle Kyle Nunn for the season. The Gamecocks were playing well with that first unit, but had to shake things up when Nunn hurt his back and then developed a blood clot in his leg. Senior Rokevious Watkins moved from right tackle to left tackle, and South Carolina has been looking for consistency on that right side ever since.
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.
South Carolina has released a post-spring practice depth chart, and suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia remains bracketed No. 1 along with sophomore Connor Shaw.

Garcia missed the last part of spring ball, his second suspension of the spring, but South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said last week that Garcia would "hopefully" be back if he meets certain guidelines.

Junior DeVonte Holloman, who started at safety last season, is listed co-No. 1 at the Spur hybrid position along with senior Antonio Allen.

Sophomore Jimmy Legree is listed as the starter at free safety and junior D.J. Swearinger as the starter at strong safety.

On offense, redshirt freshman A.J. Cann exited the spring as the starter at left guard.
With spring officially over in the SEC world, it’s time to take another look at some of the guys who surprised this spring.

After the first weekend of spring games, guys like LSU wide receiver Kadron Boone and South Carolina offensive lineman A.J. Cann drew high praise from their respective coaches.

Here’s a look at the players from the past two weeks of spring games who helped get their names out there:

Alabama

RB Eddie Lacy -- Last season, Lacy’s production was hindered because of a problem with fumbling. Lacy helped shake that stigma with a strong spring and appears to have secured the No. 2 running back spot. He finished the spring game with 74 yards (44 rushing, 30 receiving).

WR Brandon Gibson -- The fifth-year senior had a productive spring not only at wideout, but he’s becoming more of a leader for the Tide. He's always been a special-teams workhorse, but he's looking to make a name at receiver. He recorded five catches for 53 yards, including a long of 27, in Alabama’s spring game.

Arkansas

S Eric Bennett -- The sophomore from Tulsa, Okla., made it a battle this spring at the strong safety position with senior Elton Ford. Bennett was a quarterback in high school and has an edge to him that all coaches like. Whether he wins the starting job or not, he’s proved that he can help the Hogs in the secondary in 2011.

RB Ronnie Wingo, Jr. -- With the season Knile Davis had a year ago, a lot of people forgot about Wingo. But he came back this spring and showed his big-play capability both as a ball carrier and pass-catcher. He rushed for 62 yards on 11 carries in the spring game.

Auburn

DE Joel Bonomolo – The junior college transfer was injured all of 2010, and while he’s still a bit raw, he led the defense during the spring game with six tackles, three for a loss, including two sacks. He still has some things to learn, but he finished the spring on the right track heading into the offseason.

RB Anthony Morgan -- Morgan has moved all over the field during his Auburn career, but seemed to make a statement at running back this spring. He finished the spring game with a team-high 57 yards on six carries, and if he continues to improve, coach Gene Chizik said he could earn playing time this fall.

Georgia

DT Kwame Geathers -- The sophomore noseguard was one of the biggest surprises of the spring for the Bulldogs. He was named the defensive MVP for spring practice by Georgia’s coaches and had four tackles, including two for loss, in the spring game.

RB Ken Malcome -- Injured for part of the spring and seemingly buried on the depth chart, Malcome showed some of his bulldozing ability in the spring game. He's the kind of downhill runner the Bulldogs want in their offense, and if he's healthy he could contribute. He scored the game-winning, 12-yard touchdown and finished with 39 yards on the ground.

Kentucky

DE Collins Ukwu -- A starter a year ago, Ukwu only had one sack all season and none in SEC games. Look for that to change in 2011. He’s gotten bigger and stronger, adding to his great speed, and was a force this spring. He had two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the spring game.

WR Brian Adams -- The Wildcats were looking for dependable playmakers at receiver following the loss of Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews, and even though Adams split his time between football and baseball, he was as consistent as anybody. He was the star of the spring game with seven catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

Ole Miss

WR Vincent Sanders -- The redshirt freshman looked like the playmaker the Rebels had desperately searched for at times this spring. Like most of the other receivers, he was inconsistent at times, but finished the spring game with a game-high 96 receiving yards and a touchdown on four catches.

S Brishen Mathews -- Mathews worked his way into the No. 1 strong safety spot exiting spring. He was a pleasant surprise for the Rebels’ secondary and finished the spring game tying for a game-high eight tackles.

Tennessee

DT Daniel Hood -- After spending last season on the offensive line, Hood moved to defense and exited the spring as one of the starters at tackle. The Vols are extremely thin inside on the defensive line, and Hood gives them another big, athletic body in there.

RB Rajion Neal -- After carrying the ball just 46 times last season, Neal emerged this spring as a nice complement to Tauren Poole. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is looking for two No. 1' at running back, and Neal showed some big-play ability the Vols were missing a year ago.

Vanderbilt

DT Colt Nichter -- With the injuries the Commodores were forced to weather up front last season, Nichter stepped in and played very well. But this spring, he showed signs of becoming a star and was a disruptive presence in every scrimmage. He had two sacks and two pass breakups in the spring game.

RB Wesley Tate -- The two big names in the Commodores’ backfield last season were Warren Norman and Zac Stacy, but get ready to add a third name to that equation. The 225-pound Tate showcased power and speed this spring and will add a different dimension to the Vanderbilt running game now that he’s healthy.

Exiting the spring: South Carolina

April, 8, 2011
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Spring game: 1 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN3.com

Questions answered: Marcus Lattimore was a workhorse last season as a true freshman for the Gamecocks, but it looks like he may get some help in 2011. Kenny Miles and Eric Baker both showed some burst this spring at running back. The Gamecocks will ride Lattimore next season, but they also don’t want to wear him out by the time they get to November. Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, thinks he’s found a few linebackers. Damario Jeffery moved from the hybrid Spur position to weakside linebacker. Quin Smith has also looked good at the weakside spot. Shaq Wilson returns at middle linebacker after missing all but one game last season. Reggie Bowens, who’s been beset with injuries, also got some work in the middle. If Bowens can stay healthy, he really helps the Gamecocks’ depth, especially when you consider that Rodney Paulk will be back in the fall.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesConnor Shaw has attempted only 33 passes heading into the 2011 season.
Questions unanswered: With senior quarterback Stephen Garcia indefinitely suspended (yes, for a fifth time), it’s hard to say the Gamecocks are set at quarterback. Garcia could be gone for good, which puts a ton of pressure on sophomore Connor Shaw. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier likes Shaw, but asking him to go the distance next season when he’s never started an SEC game is a tough way to break in a new quarterback in this league. On defense, nobody stepped up and won the strong safety job, which makes you wonder if the Gamecocks might have to move DeVonte Holloman back there in the fall. Johnson wants to keep the 230-pound Holloman at the Spur position. But with Corey Addison hurt all spring, nobody else staked claim to the strong safety spot. Perhaps true freshman Sheldon Royster will be able to help once he arrives this summer.

Spring stars: Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said entering the spring that one of the keys up front would be how well redshirt freshman A.J. Cann played at left guard. Well, Cann exits the spring as the starter, which allowed Elliott to experiment a little bit with different players. Free safety D.J. Swearinger stole the show on defense. He’s an All-SEC player in the making and was always around the ball and pitching in with big plays. Jason Barnes and Ace Sanders both showcased big-play potential at the slot receiver position. Finding other playmakers at receiver to help take the pressure off of Alshon Jeffery will be important. Redshirt freshman receiver Nick Jones is another guy who had his moments this spring.

Of note: Kenny Davis moved from defensive tackle to offensive guard, while Corey Robinson moved from offensive tackle to defensive tackle. … True freshman Martay Mattox shifted from cornerback to free safety and looks like he could be a fixture on special teams. Mattox played quarterback in high school. … Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard on South Carolina’s basketball team, plans to join the football team in June. He was a star football player in high school and could factor in at a number of positions, including receiver, kick returner and quarterback in the Wildcat formation. … Lattimore has beefed up to a rock-solid 231 pounds and has been a beast in the weight room. … Senior Rokevious Watkins has been working with the first unit at right tackle this spring, but could still slide back inside to guard if junior college newcomer Kaleb Broome or redshirt freshman Cody Gibson comes on at tackle. ... Offensive guard Ronald Patrick had his spring cut short after undergoing surgery for an abscess behind his right eye.

Clowney's impact should be immediate

March, 18, 2011
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, isn’t necessarily trying to temper expectations for Jadeveon Clowney when he arrives this summer.

After all, Johnson recruited him and knows the caliber of athlete the Gamecocks are getting in the country’s top-rated overall prospect.

But what are realistic expectations for the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Clowney in his first season?

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
David Allio/Icon SMIExpectations are already through the roof for incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney.
“I think it’s realistic for him to come in and be a starter, but I think it’s also realistic not to assume that,” Johnson said. “But once a kid gets the kind of attention and hype he did in the national media and all the recruiting services, he can never do as much as everybody expects him to. So I won’t even go there.

“But, physically, he could have put on a football uniform for the Carolina Panthers last year and played three games, and nobody would have known that he shouldn’t have been in there. That kid is physically ready to go, but there’s a difference in this league and high school. There are going to be some things he doesn’t do well.”

Other than his freakish athletic ability, the other thing about Clowney that jumped out to Johnson was how hard he played.

“There are a lot of big, tall, physical and fast kids in high school, and they don’t play like he did because they don’t have to,” Johnson said. “Jadeveon played like a reckless train.”

Big spring for Cann: It’s been a rarity under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina to see the same offensive line coach back for a second year in a row, but Shawn Elliott is going through his second spring.

The Gamecocks played much more consistently up front under Elliott last season and proved that they could run the ball in big games -- Florida and Georgia.

Elliott has a couple of holes to fill this spring and feels like redshirt freshman A.J. Cann may be the key to how everything comes together.

“If he can come in and we can insert him at one of those guard positions, then I think we’ve got something going,” Elliott said. “If he can’t step it up a notch, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board, but I think he’s going to do a good job this spring. He’s as physical looking a character as you ever want to see up front. He’s 6-3 and 310 pounds. I’m going to put the pressure on him to be that guy.”

The other thing Elliott plans to do this spring is see if senior Rokevious Watkins can move over from guard and be the Gamecocks’ starting right tackle.

“Watkins has changed his attitude,” Elliott said. “He wasn’t out of shape a year ago, but was a heavier guy. He’s leaned up and starting to do the right things. He’s in the weight room when he’s not supposed to be in there. He’s starting to do a little more than what’s expected of him. We’re going to experiment with him at right tackle because he’s so fluid. He could really be a strong right tackle and solidify us.”

Senior Kyle Nunn returns at left tackle and junior T.J. Johnson at center. Senior Terrence Campbell is the favorite to win the other guard spot.

“Terrence is a big, strong guy who filled in at guard in the bowl game,” Elliott said. “I’ve got to see if he can play in a full-time role.”

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