NCF Nation: Ahmad Black

Recent SEC signing class steals

January, 27, 2012
1/27/12
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Everyone wants the five-stars. No recruiting collection would be complete without them.

But as we've seen over the years, not all of them really pan out, leaving fans and coaches pouting along the way. However, when one of those five-stars busts, there's always an unheralded recruit that finds a way to steal the scene.

Today, we'll look at some of the best signing class steals from the past few years. We'll use ESPN's player rankings and since the ESPN rankings go back to 2006, we'll only go back that far.

These are players who might not have been so highly recruited coming out of high school, but were stars at the college level. We could have gone on for days with this list, but it had to be shortened.

Here they are:

  • [+] EnlargeNick Fairley
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Fairley was unheralded but broke out during in 2010 and was the nation's best lineman that season.
    Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: He was unranked in the 2007 class and was actually a tight end prospect. He received a grade of 40, but finished his Arkansas career as a top pass rusher, with 24 career sacks, 31 tackles for loss and forced eight fumbles.
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He was a junior college transfer who wasn't highly sought after at all. But it didn't take Ballard long to make a name for himself as he quickly became a star for the Bulldogs in his two seasons, rushing for 2,157 yards and 28 touchdowns.
  • Ahmad Black, S, Florida: He came out of high school as the No. 49 safety and wasn't ranked in his region. He started off as a cornerback for Florida, but moved to safety and became quite the player. Black finished his career with 244 tackles and 13 interceptions. He also returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: He was rated the No. 41 corner and No. 267 in his region in 2008. At Georgia, he was a dangerous return man, ranking second all-time in the SEC in kickoff return yards (2,593) and is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind. He was also a tremendous corner, recording nine interceptions, 18 pass breakups and 152 tackles. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2011.
  • Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: Cobb was ranked as the No. 86 athlete back in 2008 and was overlooked by just about everyone. He played just about everywhere in college and finished his Kentucky career with 1,661 receiving yards, 1,313 rushing yards, 689 passing yards and 1,700 return yards. He also had 42 total touchdowns.
  • Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: The JUCO transfer signed with Auburn in 2007, but didn't qualify and finally made it to the Plains in 2009. He wasn't a highly rated JUCO prospect and was actually the No. 32-rated OT in 2007. He was an absolute star in 2010, setting the Auburn single-season record with 24.0 tackles for loss and had 11.5 sacks. He also earned the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman.
  • Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas: He was a relative nobody coming out of high school as an unranked wide receiver. All he did in his four years was lead the Razorbacks in tackles each year and finished second all-time at Arkansas with 376 total tackles in his career.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He was unranked and received a grade of 40 as a safety prospect in 2008. He turned into one of the SEC's best cover corners with the Commodores and left Vanderbilt tied for first in school history with 15 interceptions.
  • Brandon James, RB/KR, Florida: He was ranked as the 111th running back back in 2006 and ranked 345th in his region. James made his mark as a return man, as he finished his Florida career with four SEC and 11 Florida records for kickoff and punt returns. He is still the SEC career leader in return yards (4,089) and had five touchdowns on returns.
  • Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: He was ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle back in 2008, but enters his senior year with the Crimson Tide as arguably the nation's best offensive lineman. His versatility really showed in 2011 when he played just about every position on Alabama's offensive line and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman.
  • Tyrann Matheiu, CB, LSU: He was the No. 36 cornerback in 2010 and was unranked in his region with a grade of 77. LSU was his only major offer, but he's been one of the most exciting -- and dangerous -- players to watch on defense and in the return game the last two seasons. He was a Heisman finalist in 2011, led LSU in tackles (71), has forced 11 fumbles in two seasons and has 10 career takeaways.
  • Dexter McCluster, RB, Ole Miss: He was ranked the No. 71 running back back in 2006 and was No. 189 in his region. McCluster became an all-purpose star in the SEC during his four years, totaling 1,703 receiving yards, 1,955 rushing yards and 23 offensive touchdowns.
  • Eric Norwood, LB, South Carolina: He was ranked the No. 99 defensive end back in 2006 and was No. 387 in his region, but he had quite the career at South Carolina, leaving with the all-time record in tackles for loss (54.5) and sacks (29). He finished his career with 255 tackles as well.
  • Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: He was an unranked linebacker with a grade of 40 coming out of high school in 2008. He became one of the league's top linebackers in his final two seasons, leading the SEC in tackles both seasons. He finished his career with 372 tackles.
  • Prentiss Waggner, DB, Tennessee: He was the No. 50 corner in 2008 and was 305th in his region. Waggner has really been one of Tennessee's best defenders the past two seasons, playing both safety and corner. He has defended 11 passes, recording seven interceptions. He can be a shutdown corner and a ball-hawking safety.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: He came out of high school as the No. 44 wide receiver in 2008 and was ranked 115th in his region. His 2011 season, in which he led the SEC in receiving, gave him the single-season records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He is also the Arkansas leader in career catches (168) and receiving yards (2,934).
Well, it wasn't even close. Former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was the runaway winner in our poll on which SEC player will be the hardest to replace this upcoming season.

It's no shocker, really. Newton had one of the most productive seasons of any quarterback in college football history in 2010. He not only captured the Heisman Trophy but led Auburn to an undefeated season and a national championship.

He was the best player whenever he stepped on the field and was the heart of Auburn's team last year.

So, I would have gone with Newton as well.

At last count, Newton grabbed 65 percent of the vote with more than 21,500 people voting.

When you look at Auburn's quarterback situation now, there is a bit of concern. The Tigers worked sophomore Clint Moseley and freshman Barrett Trotter out this spring. Both suffered some growing pains, but steadily improved down the stretch. Auburn will welcome true freshman Kiehl Frazier into the mix this summer. Frazier could have the most athletic ability of all the receivers, and coach Gene Chizik made it known this spring that he will play the best player this fall, regardless of experience.

In a distant second was Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green. Arguably the best receiver to enter this year's NFL draft, Green had 16 percent of the vote. As a junior, Green ended the season leading the Bulldogs in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, despite missing the first four games because of suspension.

Green's departure leaves the Bulldogs with a handful of unproven receivers. The next star in line seems to be Tavarres King. King assumed Green's flanker position this spring, and while he certainly wasn't Green, he cemented himself as Georgia's go-to receiver.

There is a lot of uncertainty behind King, but having a quarterback like Aaron Murray should keep the offense going.

Next was LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson was one of the most exciting defensive players to watch, and he had the ability to take an entire side of the field away when he lined up. Peterson held 10 percent of the vote.

In single digits were Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and Florida safety Ahmad Black. Mallett has the biggest arm to replace in the SEC. He led the conference in passing a year ago, but he'll have redshirt junior Tyler Wilson taking his place this season. Wilson will have a slew of targets to throw to with Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright out there, so replacing Mallett might not be too hard in Hog country.

As for Black, he finished his career first in the SEC and tied for sixth nationally among active players with 13 career interceptions. While small in stature, he came up big for the Gators on defense and was the emotional leader at Florida last season. Black's replacement, sophomore Matt Elam, might have more athleticism, but no one is sure if he'll have the intangibles Black possessed.
Coming off an impressive showing at the NFL combine, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson has jumped up to No. 1 on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper's latest Big Board of the top NFL draft prospects.

Peterson, weighing 219 pounds, ran a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash to go from a sure-fire top 10 pick to possibly one of the top two or three picks in the draft. Kiper thinks there's a chance that Peterson could go No. 1 overall.

Three of the top four guys on Kiper's latest Big Board, which reflects combine performances, are SEC players. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley is No. 2, and Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus No. 4.

In fact, seven of the top 13 players are from the SEC.

Georgia receiver A.J. Green is No. 6, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton No. 10, Alabama running back Mark Ingram No. 12 and Alabama receiver Julio Jones No. 13.

Peterson was among those players who gained ground at the combine, according to Kiper.

Among those who lost ground, according to Kiper, were Florida safety Ahmad Black and Newton. Black's best time in the 40 was a 4.74, and with him weighing in the 180-to-190-pound range, Kiper doesn't see that combination cutting it at safety in the NFL.

Best and worst of the SEC bowl season

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
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Let’s review some of the highs and lows of the SEC bowl season:

Best performance: Without defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s dominance up front, Auburn doesn’t win the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. It’s that simple. Oregon coach Chip Kelly conceded after the game that the Ducks simply couldn’t block Fairley, who disrupted just about everything Oregon tried to do with three tackles for loss, including a sack, and a forced fumble.

[+] EnlargeChris Relf
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBulldogs QB Chris Relf won MVP honors for his performance in the Gator Bowl.
Best out-of-nowhere performance: It wasn’t completely out of nowhere because Mississippi State’s Chris Relf improved as a passer this season. But he put on a clinic in the Bulldogs’ 52-14 rout of Michigan in the Progressive Gator Bowl. Relf finished 18-of-23 for 281 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 30 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown, earning Gator Bowl MVP honors.

Best team defensive performance: Led by linebacker Courtney Upshaw’s three tackles for loss, Alabama held Michigan State to minus-48 yards rushing in the Crimson Tide’s 49-7 blistering of the Spartans in the Capital One Bowl. It was the second lowest opponent rushing total in school history for the Tide.

Worst luck: South Carolina’s freshman sensation, Marcus Lattimore, was knocked out of the game on the Gamecocks’ first possession when he was blasted by Florida State’s Greg Reid. Lattimore was taken to the hospital with a cut to his mouth and a concussion. He never returned and the Gamecocks never recovered, losing 26-17 to the Seminoles in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Worst officiating: Go back and count the officiating blunders and/or questionable calls at the chaotic end of Tennessee’s 30-27 overtime loss to North Carolina. At the very least, the Tar Heels should have been penalized 15 yards (not 5 yards) there at the end of regulation before the game-tying field goal.

Best defensive game plan: Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof had more than a month to come up with a plan to at least slow down an Oregon offense that was supposedly unstoppable. Well, Roof went one better than slowing down the Ducks. His defense held them to 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Raise your hand if you saw that coming.

Worst field: How can the field that the national championship game is played on be so slick? It was like an ice rink out there with all the players slipping on the turf at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

Best freshmen: LSU had three interceptions in its 41-24 win over Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and all three were by freshmen -- Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.

Worst catch: Any of the six drops by Arkansas players in the 31-26 loss to Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Best throw: Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett dropped one in beautifully to Jarius Wright for a 22-yard touchdown to pull the Hogs within 31-21 in the third quarter.

Worst throw: Mallett's interception off his back foot, ending the Hogs' comeback bid.

Best run: Auburn freshman running back Mike Dyer simply wouldn’t go down (even if most everybody else thought he was down) on a 37-yard run to set up the Tigers’ game-winning field goal. Dyer actually landed on an Oregon defender, but no part of his body ever touched the ground. He jumped up and kept running and wasn’t tackled until he got to the Oregon 23-yard line.

Best no-show: Georgia was there in body alone, as the Bulldogs went through the motions and dropped an embarrassing 10-6 decision to UCF in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best interception: Florida senior safety Ahmad Black went out in style and sent his coach, Urban Meyer, out in style with an 80-yard interception return to seal the Gators’ 37-24 victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

Best special teams: John L. Smith’s special-teams units were on top of their game in the Sugar Bowl. Zach Hocker made all three of his field goal attempts, including a 46-yarder and 47-yarder. Punter Dylan Breeding dropped four punts inside the 20, including three inside the 10, and Colton Miles-Nash blocked a punt in the final minutes to give the Hogs a chance to win the game.

Worst decision: Georgia coach Mark Richt opting to kick a field goal down near the goal line on the Bulldogs’ first possession told you all you needed to know about the Bulldogs' state of mind for that game.
Missed opportunities and major mistakes hurt Penn State in a winnable Outback Bowl matchup against Florida. The Big Ten went 0-for-4 in the early bowls as the Lions fell to the Gators.

Here's a look back at Penn State's 37-24 defeat to Florida.

How the game was won: Florida made enough plays on defense and special teams early and bought enough time for its offense to show some life in the second half. Penn State sophomore quarterback Matt McGloin had a very rough day, completing 16 of 38 passes with a touchdown and five interceptions, including a pick-six when Penn State was driving for the potential game-winning touchdown. The Lions controlled the clock and ran the ball decently, but they made too many major mistakes to beat a talented Florida team.

Player of the game: Florida's Ahmad Black recorded two interceptions against McGloin, returning the second pick 80 yards for a touchdown. The Gators also received a nice lift from reserve quarterback Jordan Reed, who completed 8 of 13 passes and added 68 yards on the ground.

Stat of the game: McGloin had four interceptions in the final six regular-season games, leading Penn State to wins in four of those contests. He had five picks against Florida on Saturday, several of which led to Gators scores.

Unsung hero of the game: Penn State running back Evan Royster turned in a nice performance in his final collegiate game, racking up 98 rushing yards on 20 carries and adding four catches for 51 yards. He was Penn State's top offensive weapon for most of the day.

Second-guessing: Penn State kept McGloin in the game despite his continued struggles and the availability of former starter Rob Bolden. Most quarterbacks can't survive three or four interceptions -- much less five -- but Penn State stuck with McGloin rather than using the true freshman Bolden.

What it means: The Lions showed their youth at times and couldn't overcome the inconsistent play that plagued them for most of the season. Although Penn State should be a much better team in 2011, it needs to figure out the quarterback situation and make upgrades in several areas. Special-teams gaffes simply can't happen for a Joe Paterno-coached team, and the blocked punt returned for a touchdown gave Florida a real boost. Paterno has given every indication he'll be back to help a young team improve in the 2011 season.
Florida defeated Penn State 37-24 on Saturday in the Outback Bowl.

Here’s an instant analysis from the game:

How the game was won: With Penn State driving for the potential game-winning touchdown, Florida senior safety Ahmad Black intercepted a third-and-3 pass from Penn State’s Matthew McGloin and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown, sending Urban Meyer out a winner in his final game as the Gators’ coach.

Turning point: Penn State was leading 24-20 late in the third quarter when Florida linebacker Brandon Hicks intercepted a McGloin pass and returned it 14 yards to the Penn State 25, setting up Florida’s go-ahead touchdown.

Player of the game: Black had two of the Gators’ five interceptions, including the 80-yard touchdown return to seal the win in the final minute.

Stat of the game: Florida won despite going just 4-of-15 on third down and being outgained in total offense by 70 yards.

Best call: Following the Hicks interception early in the fourth quarter, the Gators had it fourth-and-2 at the Penn State 17. But Meyer passed on kicking the field goal and went for it. Jordan Reed hit Trey Burton with a 3-yard pass to get the first down, and the Gators went on to score the go-ahead touchdown.

What it means: After all the success Meyer has enjoyed in his six seasons at Florida, he deserved to go out a winner, especially given everything that went wrong this season. The Gators (8-5) overcame a lot of distractions to win this game and made several clutch plays when they had to, which should generate some positive energy in the program heading into the offseason as Will Muschamp takes over for Meyer.

SEC's Super Seniors

December, 10, 2010
12/10/10
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As we wind down the season and point toward the bowl games, I wanted to pay homage to the seniors in this league.

Yes, there are a ton of talented underclassmen in the SEC, many of whom are destined to leave early for the NFL.

But seniors are important in every program, and senior leadership is critical.

Here’s my tribute to the 12 seniors on each team in the league who rose above and beyond this season in terms of on-the-field performance, leadership and sacrificing for the good of the team.

We’ll call it our SEC’s Super Seniors, and it’s something we hope to do every season:

[+] EnlargeFlorida safety Ahmad Black
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida safety Ahmad Black led all defensive backs for most tackles in the SEC.
Ahmad Black, S, Florida: Not even Urban Meyer was sure Black was going to make it at Florida when he first arrived. He wasn’t very big, nor exceptionally fast. But he’s proven to be a staple in the Gators’ secondary for the last three seasons. Black led Florida with 102 tackles this season, leading all SEC defensive backs. He was third on the team with 10 tackles for loss and also had three interceptions and three forced fumbles.

Josh Bynes, LB, Auburn: You talk about instant energy. Bynes was Mr. Pick Me Up all season for the Tigers, who fed off his intensity and his passion. He was the guy who rallied the defense all those times when Auburn fell behind by big margins, and he was an invaluable presence in the locker room. A three-year starter, Bynes led Auburn this season with 71 total tackles and also had three interceptions, including two big ones in the Arkansas game.

Jonathan Cornell, LB, Ole Miss: He’s not real loud. In fact, he’s pretty quiet. But Cornell did his talking with his play this season, putting up All-SEC numbers and winning the respect of everybody on his team by the way he went about his business each day. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt called him the “backbone,” and Cornell was indeed a steadying presence in what was a tough season for the Rebels. He led the team with 80 total tackles and was fifth in the league with 14 tackles for loss.

Akeem Dent, LB, Georgia: Without a doubt, Dent was one of the more underrated players in the SEC this season. He was second in the league with 122 total tackles. First-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will tell you that Dent was invaluable to that defense this season from his middle linebacker position. He called all the signals, made the checks and made one key stop after another for the Bulldogs.

Mike Hartline, QB, Kentucky: Despite his arrest early Friday morning, Hartline came through with the most productive season of his career and was a rock for the Wildcats both on and off the field. The first part of his career had been marred by injuries and inconsistency, but Hartline stayed the course and put up huge numbers this season. He was second only to Ryan Mallett in the SEC with 3,178 passing yards and also threw 23 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

Spencer Lanning, PK/P, South Carolina: Lanning was more than just a kicker for the Gamecocks. He was a strong voice in the locker room and demonstrated the kind of work ethic that was infectious. As a kicker, he was one of the best dual-threats in the country. He was 16-of-23 on field goals, ranking him fourth in the league, and was fifth in punting with a 44.2-yard average. Not bad for a guy who started his career without a scholarship and wound up becoming a captain.

Greg McElroy
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAlabama quarterback Greg McElroy had the most productive season of his career.
Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama: One of the smartest guys you’re ever going to meet on a football field, McElroy had his most productive season of his career. His 19 passing touchdowns broke Alabama’s single-season record, and with 2,767 passing yards, he has a chance in the bowl game to break the single-season record for passing yards. McElroy has been a leader ever since he stepped into the starting quarterback role last season, compiling a 23-3 record as a starter.

Nick Reveiz, LB, Tennessee: Here’s another guy who started his career without a scholarship. But he quickly went from playing on the scout team to leading the Vols in tackles. A true inspiration with how he fought back from a serious knee injury last season, Reveiz piled up 94 total tackles this season and was the defensive quarterback on the field. He made big plays, got teammates in position to make plays and made a profound impact on everyone around him with the way he competed on every down.

Kelvin Sheppard, LB, LSU: The Tigers had a few veteran players to build around on defense, but they were also very young in a lot of spots. Sheppard was the centerpiece of the defense in every way. A fiery leader, he brought out the best in all of his teammates and wasn’t afraid to get in guys’ faces when it was warranted. His 108 total tackles ranked him third in the SEC. Included were 11 tackles for loss.

Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: The names have changed in Mississippi State’s backfield the last two seasons, but the Bulldogs’ productivity in the running game just keeps churning along. Sherrod has been a big reason why. One of the best left tackles in college football, he was a multiple winner of SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors this season and is one of those guys everybody on the team looks up to for guidance.

John Stokes, LB, Vanderbilt: Headed to medical school, Stokes has been the quintessential student-athlete during his career at Vanderbilt. He also had the best season of his career on the football field. Injuries had plagued him in previous seasons, but he came fighting back to finish third on the team with 78 total tackles. With Vanderbilt being such a young team, Stokes was there every step of the way providing his senior leadership.

D.J. Williams, TE, Arkansas: The recipient of the Disney Spirit Award as college football’s most inspirational player, Williams had a dream senior season. The Hogs are going to the Sugar Bowl, and he also won the Mackey Award as the top tight end in the country. He leads the team with 49 catches and has become a much more complete tight end over the last couple of seasons. Moreover, he’s been the consummate team guy and is a big reason Arkansas’ team chemistry has been so good.

SEC superlative tracker

October, 13, 2010
10/13/10
10:33
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We take our weekly look at the offensive and defensive player of the year races in the SEC and also take our first look at the coach of the year race.

Offensive Player of the Year

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Cam Newton leads the SEC in rushing with 672 yards through six games.
1. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: He’s going to be hard to beat if he keeps this up. The 6-6, 250-pound Newton has accounted for 21 touchdowns and is leading the SEC in rushing with 672 yards through six games.

2. Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: In reality, he doesn’t have a position, which is part of what makes him so good. Cobb has accounted for 13 touchdowns -- four receiving, three rushing, three passing and one on a punt return.

3. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery: Nobody’s been able to cover him yet. The 6-4, 230-pound sophomore is averaging 125 receiving yards per game, which is nearly 45 yards more than the No. 2 guy listed among the SEC leaders.

4. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett: He’s improved his completion percentage from a year ago (.693) and leads the SEC with 1,748 passing yards and 13 touchdown passes. He’s on track to throw 30 touchdowns for the second straight year.

5. Alabama running back Mark Ingram: Even though he missed the first two games while recovering from knee surgery, Ingram has come back strong to average 99 rushing yards and score six touchdowns. He’s been relatively quiet the last two games.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis: Coming off a dominant performance against Florida in which he had 4.5 tackles for loss, Nevis has been a nightmare to block all season. He leads all SEC interior linemen with 33 total tackles and is tied for second among all players in tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (5).

2. Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He’s running a close race with Nevis for that top spot and may eventually get it. Easily one of the most improved players in the league, Fairley leads the SEC in tackles for loss (12.5) and is tied with Nevis for second in sacks (5).

3. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston: One of the best pass-rushers in the league, Houston leads the SEC with six sacks and has 10 solo tackles for loss, which is second only to Fairley.

4. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson: His greatest value is that he takes one whole side of the field away and can match up with anybody. Peterson has two interceptions. He’s also blocked a field goal and returned two punts for touchdowns.

5. Florida safety Ahmad Black: In a talented Florida secondary, Black has been the top playmaker. His 33 solo tackles rank him second in the SEC, and he also has three interceptions.

Coach of the Year

1. Auburn’s Gene Chizik: He has the Tigers 6-0, ranked in the Top 10, and they’re winning the close games, always a sign of good coaching.

2. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: His play-calling against Alabama was circa 1996. He was a step ahead the entire game and kept the Crimson Tide’s attacking defense off balance.

3. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen: The Bulldogs are the most improved team at the midway point, and give Mullen props for hiring defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

4. Alabama’s Nick Saban: Prior to last weekend, the Crimson Tide were being hailed as the best team in the country and the most physical team. That’s despite missing nine defensive starters from a year ago.

5. LSU’s Les Miles: Yes, clock management nearly cost the Tigers against Tennessee. Again. And, yes, his own fans were ready to run him out of town. But the guy is fearless when it comes to making calls. His team plays hard, and the Tigers also happen to be unbeaten.

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The SEC lost a bevy of great defensive backs from a year ago.

In fact, 12 were taken in the NFL draft, and seven went in the first three rounds. Gone are Eric Berry, Joe Haden, Kareem Jackson, Major Wright, Javier Arenas, Chad Jones, Myron Lewis, Walt McFadden, Marquis Johnson, Kendrick Lewis, Reshad Jones and Trevard Lindley.

What’s that leave in the way of the top defensive backfields in the SEC for 2010?

Here’s a look:

[+] EnlargeJanori Jenkins
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Janoris Jenkins is one of the mainstays in the Florida defensive backfield.
1. Florida: It’s a testament to how well the Gators have recruited that they own the top secondary in the SEC even after losing Haden and Wright early to the NFL. Janoris Jenkins is one of the top cornerbacks in the league, and good luck in finding a better safety tandem than Will Hill and Ahmad Black. Talented freshmen are waiting in the wings, too, like Matt Elam and Joshua Shaw.

2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were second in the league last season in pass defense and should be even harder to throw the ball on in 2010. Sophomore Stephon Gilmore is one of the best young cornerbacks in college football, and his former high school teammate, safety DeVonte Holloman, may be one of the breakout players in the league. Senior Chris Culliver, a second-team All-SEC selection last season, also returns and is switching from safety to cornerback.

3. LSU: If you’re looking for the fastest secondary in the SEC, look no further than the unit the Tigers will put on the field this season. Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the country -- period -- and his running mate on the other side, Morris Claiborne, has been turning heads since the spring. They may end up being the best cornerback tandem in the league. Jai Eugene has moved from cornerback to safety, while Brandon Taylor returns at the other safety. He, too, is a former cornerback.

4. Auburn: There’s nothing like adding three veteran leaders back to the mix, and that’s what Auburn will do with senior safeties Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil. All are returning from serious injuries. One of the priorities this season is to get junior cornerback Neiko Thorpe more help. He played too many snaps a year ago. Demond Washington is returning to his cornerback position after filling in at safety last season.

5. Vanderbilt: Don’t blink. Vanderbilt has consistently played some of the best pass defense in the SEC under Jamie Bryant, who oversees the Commodores’ secondary. Safety Sean Richardson and cornerback Casey Hayward are returning starters, and both have what it takes to be All-SEC players. Junior Jamie Graham has settled in at the other cornerback after playing receiver earlier in his career. Nickelback Eddie Foster also returns, and the Commodores liked what they saw this spring from freshman safeties Jay Fullam and Kenny Ladler.

6. Alabama: The only guy who won’t be new for the Crimson Tide this season in the secondary is junior safety Mark Barron, who led the SEC with seven interceptions a year ago. Everybody else who was in the rotation is gone. Alabama still has plenty of young talent in its defensive backfield, but there could be some growing pains early. Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has unlimited potential. There’s also a chance that junior college cornerback DeQuan Menzie could be back after tearing his Achilles tendon in the spring.

7. Georgia: The Bulldogs gave up far too many big plays in the secondary last season and allowed a league-high 25 touchdown passes. They should be better in 2010, particularly with the addition of junior college safety Jakar Hamilton, who was one of the stars of the spring. Junior cornerback Brandon Boykin has the skills to be one of the league’s top cover guys, but the Bulldogs are still thin at the cornerback position. They can’t afford any injuries.

8. Tennessee: The dismissal of starting safety Darren Myles Jr. following his arrest and involvement in a bar brawl drops the Vols down a spot or two. They don’t have a lot of depth behind him. The leader of the unit is sophomore free safety Janzen Jackson, who can be one of the best defensive backs in the league if he stays out of trouble off the field. Junior cornerback Art Evans is underrated and will be the Vols’ top cover guy.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got big performances from freshmen last season in their secondary, which means their pass defense should improve considerably from their No. 11 showing in the SEC a year ago. Sophomore cornerback Corey Broomfield had six interceptions, and sophomore Johnthan Banks had four interceptions. Banks is moving to free safety this season. Also look for a big junior season from strong safety Charles Mitchell, who is Mississippi State’s enforcer back there.

10. Kentucky: With Lindley missing four full games last season with a high ankle sprain, the rest of the Wildcats’ defensive backs were forced to step up their games. Three starters return, including budding star Winston Guy at free safety. Cornerbacks Paul Warford and Randall Burden are also back, as Kentucky started five defensive backs in most games. Finding another safety will be key this preseason.

11. Ole Miss: The lone returning starter is senior safety Johnny Brown, who’s coming off his best season. The Rebels’ other safety a year ago, Kendrick Lewis, was one of their mainstays on defense, and replacing him won’t be easy. Junior college newcomer Damien Jackson will draw that job, and he was extremely impressive in the spring. Ole Miss will be both inexperienced and thin at the cornerback positions.

12. Arkansas: The Hogs gladly welcome back junior cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Their pass defense suffered with Madison out of the lineup, and they finished last in the league, allowing 401.2 yards per game. They also gave up 22 touchdown passes. To get more speed on the field, Arkansas moved Rudell Crim to safety during the spring. Ramon Broadway returns at the other cornerback and Elton Ford at the other safety.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

You don't have to look very hard or very long in the SEC to find some teams loaded in certain areas.

Here's a closer look at where the depth and talent will be bursting at the seams in 2009:

Florida secondary -- It's not out of the realm to think that the Gators' second-team secondary would be one of the better ones in the SEC next season. Safety Dorian Munroe is back after tearing up his knee during the preseason a year ago. He was probably going to start had he not gotten hurt. Will Hill is another terrific safety prospect itching to get a shot. All four starters from last season return, including lock-down cornerbacks Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins. Junior safety Ahmad Black tied for the league lead with seven interceptions, while the Gators' other starting safety, Major Wright, is one of the fiercest hitters in the league. Senior cornerbacks Markihe Anderson and Wondy Pierre-Louis and redshirt freshman cornerback Adrian Bushell are also lurking, providing the kind of depth most teams can only dream about.

Ole Miss defensive line -- Former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron obviously knew a thing or two about recruiting and developing defensive linemen. The Rebels will go about eight deep across the defensive front in 2009, and that's after losing first-round draft pick Peria Jerry. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt says pass-rushing extraordinaire Greg Hardy is dialed in mentally like he hasn't seen him, and tackle Jerrell Powe lost weight and is coming off a stellar spring. Ends Marcus Tillman and Kentrell Lockett combined for 17.5 tackles for loss last season, and both are dynamic leaders. Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott and Justin Smith make for an imposing trio on the inside.

Alabama defensive line -- Senior nose guard Terrence Cody was a first-team All-American last season, but sit back and watch other guys on the Alabama defensive line become household names in 2009. Sophomore Marcell Dareus is a star in the making, and the same goes for freshman Kerry Murphy. Senior end Brandon Deaderick returns after racking up four sacks a year ago, and sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower will be used like a defensive end in the jack linebacker/pass-rushing role. Senior Lorenzo Washington and sophomore Josh Chapman have also played a lot of quality minutes for the Crimson Tide.

LSU secondary -- The Tigers were deep enough in the secondary that first-year defensive coordinator John Chavis was able to move Harry Coleman from safety to outside linebacker this spring. One of the reasons Chavis could do that was Ron Brooks' development at safety. The former cornerback was everywhere the ball was this spring. Chavis is anxious to see his safety tandem of Chad Jones and Brooks in action. Sophomore cornerback Patrick Peterson appears poised to take that step toward All-SEC status, and Chris Hawkins and Jai Eugene are two more cornerbacks who could start for a lot of teams.

Georgia offensive line -- The misery that the Bulldogs went through last season should pay dividends in 2009. The glut of injuries up front forced them to shuffle the deck and move people around. A year later, they're as deep and versatile in the offensive line as anybody in the league. Junior Clint Boling can play both guard and tackle. He ended last season at left tackle, but Trinton Sturdivant will be back after tearing up his knee in the preseason a year ago. Cordy Glenn was a Freshman All-American at guard last season, while Justin Anderson earned Freshman All-America honors at tackle and Ben Jones Freshman All-America honors at center. When you throw in junior tackles Vince Vance and Josh Davis, it all adds up to what should be one of the strongest offensive lines in the SEC.

Arkansas receivers -- Bobby Petrino found some wideouts in the spring who can make it happen after the catch, namely Joe Adams and Jarius Wright. Greg Childs is another sophomore who put up big numbers. Senior London Crawford is a seasoned receiver who complements those three guys well, and the Hogs are also hopeful that senior Lucas Miller can return to full strength after tearing a ligament in his knee against LSU in the season finale a year ago. And while he's listed as a tight end, junior D.J. Williams is a force in the passing game and the kind of matchup that causes nightmares for opposing defenses. Ryan Mallett is going to have fun throwing to this bunch in the fall.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Remember the old line from Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas' character in the 1987 film Wall Street?

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.

That infamous line might as well be Florida's mantra on the football field next season. The Gators have won two of the last three BCS national championships, but they want another one.

"I got my championship ring last year, but some people on this team have two. Why stop there?" Florida junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "I guess we're greedy. We want more, and we've got the team to do it. So why not?"

The defending national champion Gators open spring practice on Wednesday, and they insist complacency is not a part of their vocabulary.

"Everybody knows that we're the defending national champion, and we want to hold that standard up," junior center Maurkice Pouncey said. "The only way to do that is go out here and work for it. We've got to take it back, because nobody's going to give us anything."

If anything, Pouncey said this offseason has been even more strenuous than the one a year ago.

With so many starters back from last season's national championship team, he said the way guys have pushed each other has been unlike anything he's ever seen.

But, then, that comes with the territory when you've got strong-willed leaders like Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes and both the Pouncey twins returning.

"Leadership is going to be a big thing for this team," Maurkice Pouncey said. "The main thing we've got to do is get past last year. Yeah, it was nice winning last year. But we need to forget about it by the time we start spring practice. I think we've got enough veteran guys and guys who've played that we'll be able to do that. We've got to prove ourselves all over again."

Defensively, the Gators return 21 of the 22 players from their two-deep in last season's BCS National Championship Game. The only one not coming back is tackle Torrey Davis, who made a critical goal-line stop in the 24-14 win over Oklahoma. Davis has left the program.

Junior safety Ahmad Black said wanting to win another title is one thing, but what matters is the Gators playing and practicing like they want to win one.

If the last few months are any indication, he feels good about where this team is headed.

"Last offseason, it was like we were drowning after we lost to Michigan (in the Capital One Bowl)," Black said. "We were fighting to get back on top of the water. Now, we're on top of the water, but you've got to fight to stay there."

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Florida coach Urban Meyer has said very little publicly about some of the comments directed at him by first-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin.

But inside the Gators' lair? That's a different story.

Several Florida players say that pictures of Kiffin are pasted throughout their locker room, and they're still fuming over what they say was a blatant show of disrespect for their coach.

"I couldn't believe what he said," Florida junior safety Ahmad Black said. "Not trying to be cocky or anything, but we've beaten them four years in a row ... by a lot, too. But taking shots at our coach is like taking shots at us. We're family. It's definitely personal now."

To recap, as if it needs to be recapped, Kiffin accused Meyer of cheating in the recruitment of receiver Nu'Keese Richardson, who changed his commitment from the Gators at the last minute and signed with the Vols. Kiffin, speaking to a pro-Tennessee crowd at a recruiting celebration the day after signing day, boasted that Meyer was unable to get Richardson despite committing an NCAA violation and calling Richardson while he was on a visit to Tennessee.

The only problem is that calling recruits while they're on visits to other schools is not against NCAA rules. Kiffin was reprimanded by the SEC and ordered to apologize.

Also, the day Kiffin was introduced as the Vols' coach, he said during the news conference that he looked forward to embracing Tennessee's traditions and "singing 'Rocky Top' all night long after we beat Florida next year."

Florida center Maurkice Pouncey's response?

"That's OK, because they've got something coming," Pouncey said. "[Kiffin] went public with all his stuff, but we'll do all our talking on the field. That's when we'll have something to say about it."

Florida cornerback Joe Haden said when word started to spread about Kiffin accusing Meyer of cheating that Meyer and the players all started texting each other.

"I guess [Kiffin] was doing that for his team, but he could have done that behind closed doors," Haden said. "To put our coach out there like that for something he didn't do was crazy. Coach Meyer is one of the best coaches in college football, and he's like a father to a lot of the players on this team.

"When we heard about it, the players were sending Coach Meyer text messages telling him, 'We've got your back.' We've got a family bond here, and when somebody attacks somebody in your family like that, it's on then."

Black said Meyer made it clear that he didn't take anything Kiffin said lightly.

"Coach was texting us, and we were texting him back," Black said. "We're there with him all day long. He's our coach."

Haden said Kiffin won't be the one who pays the ultimate price.

"I guess I know why he said what he said, but he's the one that put his players in a bad situation because we're going to try and dominate them," Haden said.

Of course, the folks on Rocky Top are probably wondering how much worse it could be. The Gators have won the last two games by a combined 63 points.

Stay tuned. The two teams meet on Sept. 19 in the Swamp, and something tells me the buildup to that game will be pure, unadulterated entertainment.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

MIAMI -- They were laughing at Florida's secondary this time a year ago.

Literally.

Michigan's Chad Henne had just torched Florida for 373 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Wolverines' 41-35 Capital One Bowl victory. And even though the Gators' secondary was starting two freshmen, nobody was cutting them much slack

"All we heard about was how sorry we were," sophomore safety Major Wright recounted.

 
  Donald Miralle/Getty Images
  Ahmad Black's fourth-quarter interception halted an Oklahoma scoring threat.

Well, they were laughing again Thursday night in Dolphin Stadium, but for much different reasons.

The Gators had just polished off Oklahoma and its high-powered offense to win their second BCS national championship in three years, and the secondary was a big reason why.

"We grew up a lot, matured and made up our minds that what happened last year to us wasn't going to happen again," Wright said. "Our whole offseason was about that Michigan game. I don't think a day went by that somebody didn't bring up that game."

It was Wright who set the tone for the Gators' secondary on Thursday.

On the third play of the game, Wright came over on a floater down the left sideline and absolutely leveled Oklahoma receiver Manuel Johnson. The Florida sideline went crazy, and Johnson wobbled to his feet.

The tone had been set.

"We talked about this, that we had to be more physical than them, and that hit proved that we were going to play physical the whole game," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said.

Florida 24, Oklahoma 14
Wojciechowski: Who should be No. 1?
Forde: Tebow takes over
Maisel: Gators own fourth
Schlabach: OU's missed opportunities
Low: SEC blog
Griffin: Big 12 blog

The Gators intercepted Oklahoma's Heisman Trophy quarterback, Sam Bradford, twice in the game. One of those came right before half with the Sooners at the Florida 6. Cornerback Joe Haden broke-up the pass. It was tipped three times, and Wright was there to pick it off.

The second interception came in the fourth quarter when sophomore safety Ahmad Black made a textbook play and slid underneath the receiver to pick the ball off at the Florida 24.

It's a route he says he knew the Sooners were going to run in that situation.

"We were ready for what they were going to do. That's experience," Black said. "This isn't the same secondary you saw last year."

Nope, and Black isn't the same player. He finished the season with seven interceptions and played as consistently as anybody back there.

Not bad for a guy who Florida coach Urban Meyer didn't think was fast enough, big enough or good enough at one point.

"I'm glad I proved to my coaches and to everybody that I could play at this level," Black said. "I don't think there are any more questions."

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

MIAMI -- One of Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong's stated goals every game is to hold the opponent under 16 points.

With the way Oklahoma had been lighting up scoreboards, nobody would have blamed him if he had modified that goal.

 
  AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
  Major Wright and the Florida defense held Oklahoma to a season-low 14 points.

Maybe 16 points per half?

"They moved the ball on us, but we only let them in our end zone twice," said Florida safety Ahmad Black, who had a key interception with the Sooners driving in the fourth quarter. "Against these guys, with what they've done to people this year, we'll take that every time."

While Black's leaping interception at the Florida 24-yard line with 9:59 left might have been one of the final blows for the Sooners on Thursday, the Gators made sure they lived to see the second half by making one clutch defensive stop after another in the first half.

Oklahoma could have easily been up by two touchdowns at halftime, but the Gators would have none of it.

A quick recap:

Defensive tackle Torrey Davis slammed Oklahoma running back Chris Brown to the turf for a 2-yard loss when the Sooners decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter.

Linebacker Brandon Hicks sacked Sam Bradford for a 14-yard loss in the first quarter after the Sooners had driven to the Gators' 38 and had a first-and-10.

And to end the first half, cornerback Joe Haden broke up a Bradford pass at the goal line that was tipped three times, finally landing in Major Wright's hands.

"We're always on each other; who's going to make a play?" Wright said. "If you don't make plays on this defense, then you're not going to be playing."

The Florida defense also came up clutch in the third quarter when linebacker Ryan Stamper flew in to smother Brown for a 4-yard loss on a third-and-1 play at the Gators' 27. The Sooners had to try a field goal that was blocked on the next play by linebacker Dustin Doe.

"We challenged our guys, and they answered that challenge," Strong said. "The thing I said about this defense was that they didn't know how good they were. All year long, we played consistently."

Consistent? How about dominant?

The Gators closed the season with a 10-game winning streak. In those 10 games, they never allowed more than 21 points and held opponents to 14 points or less six times.

"We ain't got any punks on this team," said Davis, who was suspended for part of the season and only had five tackles entering the game. "We've got a bunch of men. When times are the toughest, that's when we play our best."

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Oklahoma running back Chris Brown might never been confused with DeMarco Murray as an elusive breakaway threat.

 
 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
 Chris Brown leads the Sooners in rushing with 1,110 yards .

But the steadiness of the underrated Oklahoma rushing leader is the main reason why Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson expects the Sooners to overcome playing without Murray in the FedEx Bowl Championship Series National Championship without many troubles.

"The one guy [Murray] has flash and the other guy [Brown] is just a pit bulldog," Wilson said. "He's just a grinder who comes to work every single day. What you see is what you get, and from him it's pretty good."

Brown led the Sooners in rushing with 1,110 yards and ranked sixth nationally with 20 touchdowns. He will be counted on, along with backup Mossis Madu, to replace the loss of Murray, who ruptured a tendon in his left hamstring on the opening kickoff of the Big 12 championship game and will miss Thursday's game.

The loss of Murray, who rushed for 1,002 yards during the regular season, might be expected to cripple the Sooners with the loss of their top long-distance threat.

Instead, it has only inspired Brown of the opportunity he has playing against the Gators.

Brown compares his running style and Murray's with the vaunted USC rushing game of the 2004 national championship team.

"I don't really like to compare me and DeMarco because we're good friends," Brown said. "But we're two different players. You see him making flashy cuts a little bit like Reggie Bush. I'll take that I'm like LenDale White. DeMarco can make something small into a big play. But I feel I'm more patient and willing to waiting on things to develop. You could call me the conservative runner on our team. "

The ability of Brown and Madu was best shown in the Big 12 title game after Murray went down. Brown rushed for 122 yards on 27 carries and scored three touchdowns and Madu chipped with a career-best 114 yards on 15 carries and three more scores to spark a 62-21 blowout over Missouri.

 
 Jesse Beals/Icon SMI
 Mossis Madu (17) will be needed to step up after the loss of DeMarco Murray to an injury.

Center Jon Cooper said that both remaining backs have the ability to be prime producers against the Gators, who ranked 16th nationally against the rush.

"DeMarco was a little flashier and he would try to make people miss where Chris just runs through them," Cooper said. "And Mossis is a combination of both. He hits the hole about as hard as anybody we've got. I don't know how fast he is, but he's pretty fast. And he's got the balance of Chris and the flashiness of DeMarco."

Florida players have noticed the strength and depth of the Sooners' running game. It makes them concerned about stopping Oklahoma's potent attack even with Murray out of the lineup.

"I don't think not having Murray will slow them down at all," Florida safety Ahmad Black said. "They have another one who comes off the bench who's almost as good. They rotate all of them out there. I don't think they'll take a step back at all. It will be a challenge to stop them."

Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Sam Bradford knows that balance will be important for his team's hopes to claim its first national championship since the 2001 Orange Bowl. Along with Tulsa, Oklahoma is the only team to rank in the top 20 nationally in rushing, passing, total offense and scoring.

And Bradford is convinced the Sooners still can consistently move the ball against Florida with their remaining players -- even without Murray.

"Obviously, DeMarco is a big part of our offense and we're going to miss him," Bradford said. "But I think that Mossis and Chris both are very good running backs and we're not going to lose much with them being in there.

"Running the ball like we did in the Big 12 championship game gives us a lot of confidence in what they can do. We see it from Mossis every day in practice and the Big 12 championship was just the first opportunity for him to show everybody else how good he is. It didn't surprise us how he played. And we expect him and Chris to come out and play well again."

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