NCF Nation: Anthony Leon

The SEC's most improved players in 2010

January, 27, 2011
We’re not going to completely turn the page on the 2010 season.

I’ve spent much of this week compiling the 10 players that I thought were the most improved players in the SEC this past season.

We’ll name it the All-Nick Fairley Team, which ought to tell you who the captain of the team is.

Here goes:

1. Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He went from two starts and 3.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore to the Lombardi Award winner and most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football as a junior. He led the SEC with 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks and could end up being the No. 1 pick overall in April’s NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonKnile Davis scored 14 touchdowns last season.
2. Arkansas sophomore running back Knile Davis: He had trouble overcoming injuries and a crowded Arkansas running back stable earlier in his career. But after rushing for only 163 yards as a freshman, Davis exploded this season to lead all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards.

3. Mississippi State junior quarterback Chris Relf: He got better all season, but saved his best game for the Gator Bowl when he passed for three touchdowns and ran for one in the 52-14 rout of Michigan. Relf finished with 13 touchdown passes and only six interceptions and was second on the team in rushing with 713 yards to go along with five more touchdowns.

4. Alabama sophomore safety Robert Lester: After playing mostly on special teams as a redshirt freshman, Lester was presented with a huge opportunity this season with the Crimson Tide losing just about everybody from their secondary on the 2009 national championship team. He responded by tying for second nationally with eight interceptions.

5. Ole Miss junior offensive tackle Bradley Sowell: Remember Sowell trying to block South Carolina’s Eric Norwood early during the 2009 season? It was a mismatch, but Sowell came back strong later that season and even stronger this season, settling into his left tackle spot and earning second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press.

6. LSU junior running back Stevan Ridley: What Ridley really needed was a chance, and he got one this season. He finished with 1,147 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns and was the heart and soul of the LSU offense. That’s after combining for 57 carries and 272 yards in his first two seasons. Ridley entered his name in the NFL draft following the season.

7. Kentucky senior quarterback Mike Hartline: The suspension for the bowl game was unfortunate, but it doesn’t diminish what was a brilliant senior season for Hartline. He’d been plagued by inconsistency throughout much of his career and had the knee injury as a junior, but passed for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 66.2 percent of his passes this season.

8. Kentucky senior receiver Chris Matthews: In his first season at Kentucky after coming over from junior college, Matthews showed flashes. But this season, he emerged as one of the most productive receivers in the league. He was second only to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery with six touchdown catches against SEC competition.

9. Tennessee sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner: He moved from safety to cornerback midway through the season, developing into one of the best ball hawks in the league. Waggner intercepted five passes, returning three for touchdowns, on his way to second-team, All-SEC honors by the Associated Press. That’s after finishing with six total tackles and no interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

10. Arkansas senior linebacker Anthony Leon: A position change made a world of difference for Leon, who seemed a step slow at safety, but was a disruptive force at outside linebacker. He was one of the chief reasons the Hogs improved so much this season on defense and finished second on the team with 12.5 tackles for loss.

The 2010 All-SEC bowl team

January, 14, 2011
Having had a few days to digest the 2010 bowl season, here’s a look at the All-SEC bowl team:


QB Chris Relf, Mississippi State

One of the most improved players in the SEC, Relf was on top of his game in the Bulldogs’ 52-14 rout of Michigan. He was 18-of-23 for 281 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, and he also rushed for a touchdown.

RB Mike Dyer, Auburn

He said before the game he had fresh legs, and the true freshman delivered for the Tigers in their 22-19 win over Oregon in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. Dyer rushed for 143 yards on 22 carries, including 57 of their 73 yards on their game-winning drive.

RB Spencer Ware, LSU

Where was this guy all season? The true freshman rushed for 102 yards on 10 carries in LSU’s AT&T Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M and served notice that he’ll be somebody to reckon with in 2011.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Terrence Toliver
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezLSU's Terrence Tolliver had a career day, catching five passes for 112 yards and three scores.
WR Terrence Toliver, LSU

Toliver saved his best game of the season for the last game. He had five catches for 112 yards and three touchdowns, including a 42-yarder and 41-yarder. The three touchdown catches tied a Cotton Bowl record.

WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina

It was another disappointing bowl trip for the Gamecocks, but Jeffery capped a brilliant season with nine catches for 130 yards.

TE D.J. Williams, Arkansas

He finished with five catches for 38 yards in the Hogs’ Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State and also caught a two-point conversion pass on what was a terrific effort play, where he extended the ball over the goal line with his right hand after appearing to be stopped on the play.

OL Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State

One of those guys who won’t be easily replaced, Sherrod ended his Mississippi State career with another dominant performance up front from his left tackle spot in the Bulldogs’ 52-14 walloping of Michigan.

OL Lee Ziemba, Auburn

His 52nd consecutive start at Auburn will be his most memorable. The Tigers, rolling up 519 yards of total offense, defeated Oregon 22-19 for the national championship.

OL Barrett Jones, Alabama

The Crimson Tide really missed Jones in their loss to Auburn to end the regular season. But he was back at his right guard spot in the bowl game, and Alabama rolled up 546 yards of total offense.

OL Will Blackwell, LSU

He made his first start at right guard since his injury in the season opener, and LSU had a field day running to the right side against Texas A&M in piling up 288 yards rushing.

C Ryan Pugh, Auburn

One of the rocks of Auburn’s veteran offensive line all season long, Pugh saved one of his best games for the Tigers’ most important game.


DL Marcell Dareus, Alabama

Alabama’s defensive front-seven was too much for Michigan State, and Dareus was a big reason why. He had two tackles for loss, including a sack, and also led the Crimson Tide with three quarterback hurries.

DL Antoine Carter, Auburn

Another key cog in Auburn’s defensive masterpiece against Oregon, Carter had a tackle for loss and also broke up a pass in his final game in an Auburn uniform.

DL Nick Fairley, Auburn

Oregon coach Chip Kelly said after the game the Ducks simply couldn’t block Fairley. Then again, nobody else did this season, either. He finished with three tackles for loss, including a sack, and also forced a fumble in spearheading Auburn’s most impressive defensive performance of the season.

DE/OLB Justin Houston, Georgia

Georgia's defense wasn't the culprit in the 10-6 loss to UCF in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and Houston led the Bulldogs with 10 tackles and two quarterback hurries.

LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama

One of the mainstays in holding Michigan State to minus-48 yards rushing, Upshaw was dominant in the Crimson Tide’s 49-7 romp in the Capital One Bowl. He finished with three tackles for loss, including two sacks and forced a fumble.

LB Anthony Leon, Arkansas

The former safety was all over the field for the Hogs in the Sugar Bowl. He finished with two tackles for loss and also broke up a pass. One of his biggest plays was the initial hit in the end zone that led to a safety.

LB Nick Reveiz, Tennessee

An inspiration to his teammates with the way he fought back from a serious knee injury the year before, Reveiz led the Vols with 14 tackles in their Music City Bowl loss. He also had two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.

DB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

One of the most promising freshman defensive backs in the league, Mathieu had seven tackles, including a sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and one pass breakup in the Tigers’ Cotton Bowl win.

DB Ahmad Black, Florida

His 80-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed Florida’s 37-24 victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl, sending Urban Meyer out a winner. Black, a senior safety, also went out in style with two interceptions, while tying for the team lead in tackles.

DB Tramain Thomas, Arkansas

Thomas led the Hogs with 12 total tackles. He also forced two fumbles and broke up a pass. One of his forced fumbles came on fourth-and-1 from Ohio State’s own 38 when he knocked the ball loose on what would have been a first down.

DB Mike McNeil, Auburn

The Tigers’ senior safety, who came back this season from a broken leg, led all players in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game with 14 total tackles, including a couple of key stops in the open field.


K Wes Byrum, Auburn

With the pressure on, Byrum’s 19-yard field goal as time expired lifted Auburn to its first national championship since 1957. It was his third game-winning field goal of the season.

P Dylan Breeding, Arkansas

He dropped four punts inside the 20-yard line, including three inside the 10 -- and two of those came in the fourth quarter. He averaged 43.7 yards a kick for the Hogs.

KR Randall Cobb, Kentucky

In what was his final game in a Kentucky uniform, Cobb had a combined 119 yards on kickoff/punt returns in the Wildcats’ 27-10 BBVA Compass Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. His long was a 40-yard kickoff return.
Arkansas has one of the most balanced offenses in the nation and is riding a six-game winning streak.

Ohio State is ranked near the top of the nation in just about all of the defensive categories, but is plenty potent offensively, too. Ohio State has won five in a row, averaging 39.2 points during that stretch.

They meet up on Tuesday night in New Orleans in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a Big Ten-SEC matchup that’s sure to reverberate throughout both conferences.

SEC blogger Chris Low and Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg take a closer look at this battle of the Hogs and the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonArkansas running back Knile Davis has rushed for 889 yards in his last six games.
Chris Low: Adam, I’ll start with a concession. The Eastern Division this season in the SEC was brutal. Unless Kentucky can defeat Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, four of the six teams will finish with losing records. The division champion, South Carolina, finished with five losses. So don’t judge Arkansas based on the way the bowl season started for the SEC with Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina all going down in flames. The Hogs were the second-best team in the league when the regular season ended. They can score with anybody in the country. They run it as well as they pass it, and they’re much improved defensively. The SEC came back strong on New Year’s Day. How did the Big Ten do? Better yet, how have the Buckeyes fared lately in bowl games against the SEC?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, you know how much I'd love to make a witty comeback, a Cam Newton money reference or talk about the academic standards in the SEC, but I've got nothing. The Big Ten was embarrassed Saturday, especially in two of the three losses to the SEC. Michigan State's performance was the most shocking, while Michigan didn't show up again and Penn State let a mediocre Florida team hang around. I caught up with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany on Sunday, and he pretty much conceded defeat to the SEC, saying, "They have the strongest football-playing conference. We've had some competitive success, but they have the edge. Until we beat them, they deserve the edge." That pretty much sums up my thoughts. We all know Ohio State is 0-9 against the SEC in bowl games, a shocking stat. But Arkansas is a newcomer to a BCS bowl, while Ohio State has been there in each of the previous five seasons. How do you think the Hogs will handle the spotlight?

CL: Granted, Arkansas is new to the BCS, but the Hogs aren’t new to the spotlight. They faced Alabama when the Crimson Tide were No. 1 earlier this season and Auburn when the Tigers were a top-10 team. The Hogs know all about playing in big games. They beat four teams this season that finished in the Top 25 of the final BCS standings. To me, the most impressive thing about the Hogs’ season is the way they picked themselves up off the ground after that September home loss to Alabama, didn’t feel sorry for themselves and played their way back into BCS bowl contention. What about the Buckeyes? Any more “back to the future” suspensions coming?

AR: Yeah, how about that? Nothing like a little deferred punishment to add flavor to this game. I'm really interested to see how the suspended players and the rest of the Buckeyes respond after such a major distraction. It could bring them together for a critical game or you could see some fracturing, although I doubt it. Ohio State boasts a large and decorated senior class that will do all it can to make sure the players' heads are in the right place Tuesday night. People knock the Buckeyes for their national title game losses, but they know how to handle the BCS spotlight and showed it last year in Pasadena. The Buckeyes will need their seniors in a big way in this game, especially guys on the defensive side like Cameron Heyward, Brian Rolle, Ross Homan, Chimdi Chekwa and Jermale Hines. What's the biggest key for Arkansas' offense against one of the nation's top defenses?

CL: As long as those two Big Ten officiating crews that worked the New Era Pinstripe and Franklin American Mortgage Music City bowls don’t show up, the Hogs should be all right. Nah, seriously, the Hogs haven’t had any weaknesses offensively the second half of the season. They struggled to run the ball and protect leads earlier in the season, which cost them in the Alabama game. But the emergence of Knile Davis has been huge for Arkansas. He rushed for 1,183 yards, and 889 of those yards came in the last six games. At 220 pounds, he has breakaway speed, and can also grind out the tough yards. Ryan Mallett will spread the ball around, too. The Hogs have five different players with at least 500 receiving yards, including one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the country in D.J. Williams. My question is this: If this game is close in the fourth quarter, do the Ohio State players start thinking, “Here we go again?”

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Ross Homan, (51), Brian Rolle (36)
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteOhio State linebackers Ross Homan (51) and Brian Rolle (36) will be counted on to limit a fast start from the Arkansas passing game.
AR: Gotta love the Big Ten officials. I'm sure they'll be receiving a few letters from the state of Tennessee, or is all the hate mail directed at the Low household? SEC fans are, well, a little extreme. Ohio State has been better in the fourth quarter the last two seasons, and its recent struggles against the SEC have come earlier, in the second quarter. So it's important for Ohio State to prevent a fast start from the Hogs. The Buckeyes have been a slow-starting team this year, but they've been very good in the second half of games. Williams has to be a major concern, and Ohio State needs linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan to perform well. Let's talk about the Ohio State offense and the Arkansas defense. What must the Hogs do to slow down Terrelle Pryor and Dan Herron? Any tattoo artists on the Razorbacks' sideline?

CL: One of the first things the Hogs did this season was make sure they got more speed on the field defensively, and moving Anthony Leon from safety to linebacker helped them do that. Arkansas is good up front and will play several different players. Linebacker Jerry Franklin has quietly had an excellent season. The Hogs were much better at not giving up the big plays this season, which will be key in this game. They want to make the Buckeyes drive the ball and not give up anything easy. If they can hold Ohio State below 28 points, I think Arkansas wins this game. The Hogs don’t mind playing in shootout-type games. In fact, that’s their comfort level. And let’s face it: There’s nothing comfortable about facing an SEC team in a bowl game for Ohio State. The drought grows to 10 games and counting. Final: Arkansas 34, Ohio State 24.

AR: C-Low, I agree that the higher the score gets, the better Arkansas' chances are of winning the Sugar Bowl. But I think you're underestimating Ohio State's defense in this game. A lot of teams move the ball against the Buckeyes, but it's extremely tough to score touchdowns against them. This is the ultimate bend-but-don't-break defense. I see Mallett and the Hogs moving the ball between the 20s, but they'll have a tough time in the red zone. Dan Herron has a big game against a mediocre Arkansas rushing defense, and Ohio State ends The Streak. Final: Ohio State 24, Arkansas 21.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 12

November, 21, 2010
We’re down to the final week of the regular season, which means there’s a certain showdown in Tuscaloosa looming on Friday that will draw some considerable interest.

Before we go there, let’s take a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 12:

1. Eye of the Tiger: With the game hanging in the balance, few teams in college football have been better this season than LSU. The Tigers love close games. They love living on the edge, and they love finding a way to pull it out at the end. It’s almost become an art form for Les Miles and his Tigers. They’re 5-0 in games decided by six points or fewer this season as they rallied to beat Ole Miss 43-36 on Saturday thanks to a Stevan Ridley 7-yard touchdown run with 44 seconds remaining. Fittingly, Patrick Peterson sealed it with a leaping interception near the goal line of a last-second Jeremiah Masoli heave in what was almost certainly Peterson’s final game in Tiger Stadium.

[+] EnlargeKnile Davis
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisKnile Davis rushed for a career-high 187 yards in the Saturday's 38-31 win over Mississippi State.
2. Road Warriors: Arkansas could have faded into oblivion this season following that heartbreaking home loss to Alabama in September. Getting shredded in the fourth quarter by Auburn last month was equally disappointing. But the Hogs have kept up the fight, and here they are riding a five-game winning streak with a chance to win 10 games in the regular season if they can knock off LSU Saturday in Little Rock. They survived 38-31 in double overtime against Mississippi State and did so in a raucous environment at Scott Field. The Hogs are now 4-1 away from home this season, and two of their victories have come over nationally ranked teams. That Texas A&M win in Arlington, Texas, is also looking better and better.

3. Logjam for No. 2: To this point, Auburn has established itself as the best team in this league. But who’s No. 2? This coming week should provide more answers with a handful of teams jockeying for position. LSU has a chance to finish 11-1 and has already beaten four nationally ranked teams. Arkansas has won five straight games, and two of those have been on the road against nationally ranked teams. The Tigers and Hogs meet on Saturday in Little Rock, so we get some answers there. South Carolina is certainly playing some of its best football. If the Gamecocks can win at Clemson this coming Saturday and then upset Auburn in the SEC championship game, they would get the conference’s automatic berth in the BCS and play in the Sugar Bowl. Don’t forget about Alabama, either. If the Crimson Tide can take down Auburn at home on Friday, they would stake their claim as one of the premier teams in this league. In short, the SEC has been as strong and as balanced as ever at the top this season.

4. Finishing the job: Maybe this really is a different South Carolina team like the Head Ball Coach promised back in the preseason. The old South Carolina would have stumbled and bumbled its way past Troy. But not these Gamecocks. They’re intent on finishing this season out the right way, which was obvious by the way they took apart Troy in a 69-24 blowout on Saturday. They also know that finishing it out the right way entails winning next week at Clemson. It always means something to beat Clemson in the realm of South Carolina football. And to do it twice in a row? That hasn’t happened in 40 years when the Gamecocks won three in a row from 1968-70. Already with eight wins, South Carolina could become only the third team in school history to win nine or more by taking care of its business at Clemson.

5. Dose of stupidity: Some of the senseless penalties we’ve seen around the league came to a head Saturday. You had Markeith Summers’ unnecessary dive into the end zone that cost his Ole Miss team dearly on the ensuing kickoff, allowing LSU to start near midfield on its game-winning drive. Florida receiver Carl Moore, playing his final game at the Swamp, managed to get kicked out of the game for fighting on Senior Day, and Arkansas linebacker Anthony Leon was also ejected for throwing a punch against Mississippi State, which means he will have to miss the first half of the LSU game next week. That’s at least four SEC players ejected for fighting or throwing punches in the past two weeks. Come on: There's dumb and then there's just plain ... well, you get the idea.

Hogs' Leon ejected for throwing punch

November, 20, 2010
What's with all the ejections recently in the SEC with guys fighting and throwing punches?

Arkansas linebacker Anthony Leon was the latest. He was penalized in the third quarter against Mississippi State on Saturday night for throwing a punch and was ejected, which means he won't be able to play in the first half next week against LSU.

That's a big loss for the Hogs, not only for the rest of this game, but for the first half next week. Leon has been one of the keys to the Hogs' defensive improvement after making the move from safety to linebacker.

SEC Week 2: Did you know?

September, 10, 2010
A little bit of this and a little bit of that as we gear up for Week 2 in the SEC:
  • In the past 15 years, the No. 1 team in the AP poll is 26-0 at home against nationally ranked opponents, with an average victory margin of nearly 22 points. The last AP No. 1-ranked team to lose at home to a ranked opponent was Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, who dropped a 36-33 decision to No. 6 Auburn in 1994.
  • Alabama is 8-4 against Penn State under Joe Paterno, including a 14-7 win in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, which decided the 1978 national championship. Penn State entered the game ranked No. 1 and Alabama No. 2. This is the first meeting since 1990.
  • Penn State is 7-2 in its past nine games against SEC teams, dating back to a 9-0 victory against Alabama in 1990 in Tuscaloosa. Seven of the nine SEC teams were ranked in the Top 20.
  • Even though this will be the first time Florida’s Urban Meyer and South Florida’s Skip Holtz have been on opposing sidelines as coaches, they were scheduled to meet in 2001. Meyer was then the head coach at Bowling Green, and Holtz was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina. The game was canceled because of the 911 terrorist attacks.
  • Alabama won the national championship last season, but it was a struggle for the Crimson Tide when they reached the red zone. Alabama scored a touchdown on just 47.5 percent of its red-zone trips, ranking 108th out of 120 FBS teams. Quarterback Greg McElroy finished last season with a 35 percent red zone completion rate, the third worst completion percentage among FBS quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts.
  • Since the start of the 2008 season, Alabama and Florida lead the nation with 27 wins each. Boise State and Texas are tied for third with 26.
  • Alabama has gone 42 quarters (10-and-a-half games) without being penalized for offensive holding.
  • Under first-year coordinator Todd Grantham, Georgia's defense forced three turnovers in the opener (three interceptions). That’s after the Bulldogs forced a total of 12 turnovers in 13 games all last season.
  • Of the past nine meetings between Georgia and South Carolina, seven have been decided by a touchdown or less. And in five of those games, the winning team didn’t score more than 17 points.
  • Georgia coach Mark Richt is 33-6 (.846) in true road games and actually has a better record on the road than he does at home or at neutral sites. He’s 47-11 (.810) at home and 10-11 (.476) at neutral sites.
  • Knocking off nationally ranked teams has been a struggle for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. He was 2-1 against ranked foes during his first season in Columbia in 2005, but has gone just 5-14 since.
  • Oregon’s trip to Knoxville marks the fifth straight year that Tennessee has a played a Pac-10 team in September. The Vols, though, are just 1-3 in those games and have lost the past three – one to California and two to UCLA. Prior to that, Tennessee hadn’t played a Pac-10 team since 1997.
  • Tennessee is just 1-7 against nationally ranked teams the past two seasons. The lone win came last season against No. 21 South Carolina. In four games against nationally ranked teams a year ago, the Vols gave up an average of 233 yards per game on the ground to go along with 12 touchdowns.
  • Arkansas linebacker Anthony Leon had a team-leading eight tackles, including four for loss, in the Hogs’ opener. Included were two sacks. Not bad for a guy who was playing safety a month ago and spent all of last season at safety.
  • Vanderbilt has scored a total of 28 points in its past five games against LSU. The Commodores didn’t score more than 16 points in any of their eight SEC games last season.