NCF Nation: Antonio Richardson

For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
There are always a couple of players on each football team that you just can't replace. Most of the time they are quarterbacks, but every so often someone else emerges as that indispensable player teams just can't live without.

Today, we're looking at those players. It's easy to talk quarterbacks being the most important people on a team, so we decided to look at the most indispensable players on each SEC school who aren't lining up under center.

Here's our list for the 2013 season:

ALABAMA

C.J. Mosley, LB, Sr.

Nothing about C.J. Mosley's game fits the typical Alabama mold. He's rarely the biggest or the strongest player on the field. Next to Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, he looked like a safety. But Mosley's sideline-to-sideline speed is outstanding, and in a league that continues to feature mobile quarterbacks that trait is invaluable. Last season Mosley became the first Alabama defender to break the 100-tackle mark since Rolando McClain, and he did it while splitting time. Now that the job is all his, it's up to Mosley to do even more in terms of production and leadership. -- Alex Scarborough, TideNation

ARKANSAS

Travis Swanson, C, Sr.

The 6-foot-5, 314-pound Swanson has started all 38 games of his career and was a second-team All-SEC selection last year. He has blocked for three 3,000-yard passers and will be an integral part of the Razorbacks this year as well, as they move to a more run-oriented attack under new coach Bret Bielema. The new head coach has been quoted as saying Swanson is the "best center in college football." That's high praise from a coach who has seen plenty of talented offensive linemen over the years. -- Sam Khan, GigEmNation

AUBURN

Reese Dismukes, C, Jr.

All eyes will be on first-year starting quarterback Nick Marshall, and although Auburn has plenty of skill players for him to utilize, the most important player will be the one who is snapping him the football. In his first two seasons on The Plains, Dismukes has started all but two games at center. He’s become a mainstay on the offensive line and was a constant even through all of the turmoil a year ago. He’ll be counted on again this year to serve as the rock for Marshall and the entire offense. -- Greg Ostendorf, TideNation

FLORIDA

Matt Jones, RB, So.

This is bad news for the Gators because they may very well be without Jones for the season opener against Toledo -- and possibly beyond -- because he has not yet been cleared to return to the field (viral infection). The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones is a bruising runner who was a perfect fit for the Gators’ between-the-tackles running game. He is UF’s best offensive player and his top backup is Mack Brown, who has just 40 carries in three seasons. -- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA

Damian Swann, CB, Jr.

The first name that comes to mind is Todd Gurley, who will surely rank among the nation’s top tailbacks. But Georgia’s ship probably wouldn’t sink if it relied on Keith Marshall to carry the running game. Perhaps Georgia’s most indispensable player is on defense. Cornerback Damian Swann -- who led the team with four interceptions last year -- is the only returning starter in the secondary and is one of the young defense’s clear leaders. -- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY

Alivn "Bud" Dupree, DE, Jr.

It will be interesting to see how Dupree transitions from linebacker to end this fall, but regardless of position, he’s the best player on this UK defense. And there’s no doubt it will be a defense that new head coach Mark Stoops will count on to keep them in games. As a sophomore, Dupree emerged as one of the SEC’s top pass-rushers, finishing with 91 tackles and seven sacks. This fall, he’ll also serve as a mentor to newcomers Za'Darius Smith, a junior college transfer, and Jason Hatcher. -- Greg Ostendorf, TideNation

LSU

Anthony Johnson, DT, Jr.

With a rebuilt defensive line, Johnson has become arguably the Tigers' most important player outside of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. He's strong, big, athletic, fast and ready to live up to his full potential as "The Freak." He'll anchor LSU's defensive line. Without him, the Tigers have a gaping hole in their relatively younger defense. Johnson is the team's best run stopper, but also has the ability to rush the passer and make plays outside of the box. -- Edward Aschoff

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG, Sr.

The Bulldogs have a lot to replace in the receiving game, but if the offensive line doesn't come together, the offense will be in trouble. Jackson is the heart and soul of Mississippi State's offensive line and without him, the Bulldogs could have big problems up front this fall. He's an NFL prospect and is great pushing the run and protecting the pass. Losing him would greatly set this unit back. -- Edward Aschoff

MISSOURI

Evan Boehm, C, So.

The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Boehm is the Tigers’ best offensive lineman despite being only a sophomore. He moved from guard in the spring and struggled a bit with the transition, but is settling into the position. Boehm was the only lineman who didn’t miss a game last season and those injuries played havoc with the offense. Missouri has the offensive weapons to score points, but the line has to be better and stay healthy. That begins with Boehm. -- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR, Jr.

The Rebels have some depth at receiver, even with Vince Sanders going down this preseason with a broken collarbone. But they don’t have anybody quite like Moncrief, who caught 10 touchdown passes last season and opens up the field for everybody else. He takes plays that should go for minimal gains and turns them into touchdowns, and he wins one-on-one battles with cornerbacks even when the ball isn’t thrown perfectly. Defenses have to play the Rebels differently when Moncrief’s on the field. -- Chris Low

SOUTH CAROLINA

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Jr.

Clowney is easily the best defensive player in the country and he might be the nation's best overall player, regardless of position. He has incredible measurables, elite speed and athleticism, and is stronger than an ox. Without him, South Carolina's new-look defense would take a major hit in 2013. He's the motor that makes that defense run and is the main reason why the Gamecocks have the SEC's best defensive line. His mere presence on the field makes teams change their game plans. -- Edward Aschoff

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT, Jr.

Call him "Tiny" at your own peril. Tennessee's Antonio Richardson is anything but small. The 6-foot-6, 327-pound offensive tackle is a mountain of a man, and the Vols will need every bit of protection they can get when they find their quarterback of the future. If Richardson can help relieve the pressure on the passing game and help open up holes in the running game it would go a long way in helping an offense in transition under new coach Butch Jones. -- Alex Scarborough, TideNation

TEXAS A&M

Jake Matthews, OT, Sr.

When looking at non-quarterbacks, the guy who protects the quarterback's blind side is of utmost importance. Last season, Luke Joeckel had a stellar season in that role while Matthews was anchoring the right side of the line. This year, Matthews, son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, slides to left tackle. There's no reason to believe Matthews will miss a beat and he has the look of a high first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Kevin Sumlin calls Matthews a classic "low maintenance, great player." -- Sam Khan, GigEmNation

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR, Sr.

Coming off the best season by a Vanderbilt receiver (94 catches, 1,323 yards, 8 TDs), Jordan Matthews is the clear pick. Chris Boyd will also produce big numbers, but it’s unusual for a Commodore to claim the SEC’s career lead in a top statistical category. Matthews can do that in receptions (he has 150, needs 86 to tie Vandy’s Earl Bennett’s record) and receiving yards (has 2,290, needs 803 to tie Georgia’s Terrence Edwards) if he duplicates last season’s numbers. -- David Ching, DawgNation

Teams looking to recover in 2013

August, 19, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a mixture of old and new on the University of Alabama campus on Saturday. Coeds went one direction toward their future sorority houses on Bid Day while the school's silver-haired alumnus went another, walking toward Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Crimson Tide's second scrimmage of the preseason.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNick Saban brought Alabama from middling to powerhouse. Which SEC school will do that next?
Boosters came en masse to watch the practice, agonizing over a team picked by the Associated Press that morning to begin the season at No. 1. Quarterback AJ McCarron would throw for 152 yards and a touchdown in yet another sign pointing toward his contention for the Heisman Trophy, and pass-rush specialist Adrian Hubbard had three sacks to help add to the anticipation of the season.

Up and down University Boulevard, the buzz was obvious. With Nick Saban at the helm, Alabama is back contending for another national championship.

The scene in Tuscaloosa wouldn't have been familiar seven years ago, before Saban arrived and the football program had swung out of neutral. A fraction of the team's boosters went to scrimmages and the school's undergraduate enrollment was some 5,000 students fewer.

But for those on the outside looking in that day, it was a reminder not only of how far Alabama has come but of how far other teams can go in the blink of an eye.

Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson knows the history. He pointed out as much at SEC media days in July.

"Before Bama turned it around they were terrible … I mean, dead terrible," he said. "So why can't we be the next team that blows up?"

He's not the only one asking the question. Players at Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn and Missouri are wondering the same thing: Why can't they reverse their fortunes and bounce back in 2013? If you're looking for a sense of defeat from teams that have become familiar with losing, think again.

Jacques Smith is hoping his new coach, Butch Jones, can bring the Vols out of the doldrums and return them to competitiveness in the SEC. Tennessee has a lot to replace with quarterback Tyler Bray and his top three pass-catchers from a season ago gone, but there's something Rocky Top has now that it didn't have a year ago -- energy.

"He's brought the confidence," Smith said of Jones, "and now we have our swagger back."

At Auburn, where the Tigers went winless in league play last season, players are substituting "swagger" for "edge." As coach Gus Malzahn explained, when the Tigers play with the right "blue collar" attitude, history shows they can compete for championships.

"The No. 1 thing that our players have to do for us to be successful this year is get our edge back," he explained at media days. "That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn football that's made Auburn great. Worry about your teammate, not worry about yourself. Lose the entitlement issue."

On the field, Auburn took one step forward and one step back in that respect last week, losing safety Demetruce McNeal on the same day it announced that Nick Marshall had won the starting quarterback job. The good news: Malzahn had decent success with his last transfer quarterback, Cam Newton. The bad: Marshall will be the seventh different quarterback to start a season opener for the Tigers in the last seven years.

Kentucky, which had the fewest wins of any SEC team a year ago, doesn't know who its starting quarterback is. The Wildcats entered preseason camp with three players competing for the job: Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who ended spring practice in a dead heat. Determining who will handle snaps under center, whether it's one player or a mixture of all three, will be Step No. 1 in getting a team that is returning 13 starters back on track.

But what Mark Stoops has done off the field has already reinvigorated the Bluegrass State. Football may never trump basketball in Kentucky, but UK's new head coach is at least making the game more competitive, creating a buzz on the recruiting trail that's spread out to players and the fan base as a whole. If the saying is true that Jimmies and Joes do more than X's and O's, then Stoops is on the right track. Kentucky finished a respectable 36th in the ESPN Class Rankings in February and is off to a hot start for the 2014 class, coming in at No. 16, ahead of programs like Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State.

To the Southwest, Arkansas is taking the old-school approach under new head coach Bret Bielema, who insists that the Razorbacks return to "normal American football." John L. Smith might have been a disaster as head coach in 2012, losing four of eight games, but he didn't leave the cupboard completely bare. With All-American candidates on both the offensive and defensive line and a fullback that looks as though he could run through a brick wall, Bielema has the pieces to run the type of smashmouth system he wants.

The problem for Bielema is the schedule, which sets up dreadfully with Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in consecutive weeks. By the time Auburn and Ole Miss role around, there's no telling where the Razorbacks will stand, if they're standing at all.

Unlike the previously mentioned schools, Missouri is hoping for a significant rebound despite no significant overhaul on the coaching staff as Josh Henson was promoted from co-offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. Gary Pinkel is back for his second turn in the SEC and this time he hopes to bring senior quarterback James Franklin along with him for the ride.

Last year Franklin missed a significant portion of the season with a shoulder injury and Pinkel didn't do him any favors when he came back this spring, thrusting him into a quarterback competition that didn't end until last week. Now fully healthy, Franklin hopes to return to his form of 2011, when he finished fourth in the Big 12 in passing efficiency behind future pros Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones. And with some help from the running game and a boost from rising star Dorial Green-Beckham, those expectations might not be that far off.

Like so many programs hoping to bounce back in 2013, Missouri relies on more than the play of its quarterbacks. Winning the line of scrimmage and protecting the football will be vital to competing against traditional powers like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU. In this league, you can't give games away, which is exactly what Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas did last year, finishing among the bottom five schools in the SEC in turnover margin.

Luck will be important too.

Alabama didn't get to where it is without the stars aligning properly. Saban had to sign before the program took off, and even then he had some cleaning house to do. Without landing standouts like Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw and AJ McCarron, there's no telling where the Tide would be right now.

Instead of packing the stands for a scrimmage in mid-August, Alabama could be like much of the SEC, looking up at empty bleachers while it waits for its luck to turn.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 21 days

August, 8, 2013
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There's no substitute for talent, experience and depth on the offensive line. Great offensive lines have a way of making ordinary skill players look a lot better than they are.

The jury is still out on what kind of firepower Tennessee will have on offense this season after losing their top four pass-catchers from a year ago and their starting quarterback, but the Vols should be plenty stout up front. That's always a good place to start in this league, which leads us to our latest number as we count down the days to kickoff: 123.
Butch Jones takes over a Tennessee program that has suffered through three straight losing seasons, and while there are glaring question marks at several different positions, the offensive line isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s hard to find a more experienced offensive line anywhere in college football entering the 2013 season. Four full-time starters return up front for the Vols, and all four are likely to play in the NFL. Counting everybody, Tennessee returns 123 career starts on its offensive line. Only Texas returns more. Senior right tackle Ja’Wuan James is the “old man” of the group. He’s started in every game of his college career (37) since his true freshman season in 2010. Senior right guard Zach Fulton is right behind him with 28 starts, while senior center James Stone has 27 starts. Senior Alex Bullard, who started his career at Notre Dame, slides in for Dallas Thomas this season as the starter at left guard. Bullard has 14 career starts. Junior Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is the most talented of the bunch and returns at left tackle after starting in all 12 games last season. Richardson is a future first-rounder and will likely come out after this season. The Vols are still trying to build depth, although junior Marcus Jackson started in five games at left guard in 2011. Third-year sophomore Kyler Kerbyson would probably be the seventh man in the rotation. Tennessee led the SEC with only eight sacks allowed last season, which was 10 fewer than the next closest team. The challenge was becoming more physical in the running game, and the Vols are eager to prove that they can knock people off the ball as well as they can protect the passer. It’s not going to be easy in Jones’ first season. Simply making it to a bowl game would be a coup. If the Vols are going to get there, they’ll do so with their big, talented (and experienced) offensive line clearing the way.
 Ja'Wuan James/Antonio RichardsonIcon SMI Ja'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson are arguably the best set of offensive tackles in college.
Lost in the fallout from Tennessee’s third straight losing season a year ago was an offensive line that jelled and had few peers when the season ended.

It’s an offensive line that pretty much returns intact in 2013 and will be flanked by a pair of tackles oozing with talent and poised to play for a long time in the NFL.

Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson are the Vols’ “Pillars of Protection,” and they form what is arguably the best returning tackle tandem in college football.

The 6-foot-6, 325-pound Richardson, who’s known as “Tiny” around Rocky Top, doesn’t think there’s much argument to it -- and he’s felt that way for a while.

“Even last year, I felt like we were the best tackle combo,” Richardson said. “I know Texas A&M had the hype (with Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews), but I really feel like me and Ja’Wuan can be two of the best tackles in the country. I just have that much confidence in us. And not just us, but I have a lot of confidence in my whole O-line as well.”

Senior Zach Fulton returns at one of the guard spots and senior James Stone at center. Both figure to be in NFL training camps next year. The only starter lost was guard Dallas Thomas. Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson are fighting for that spot this spring.

Richardson, who will be a junior, is a virtual lock to go in the first round of the NFL draft if he chooses to come out next year. James, a rising senior, looked into leaving early this year, but decided to stay. He might not be a lock to go in the first round, but it’s difficult to see him lasting past the second or third round.

“Last year, I thought all the work we put in showed,” said the 6-foot-6, 323-pound James. “We played a lot better, but there’s definitely another level. This year, we want to put it all together, because when you don’t win, it’s sort of hollow.

“That’s the legacy we want to leave, getting this program back to winning games.”

James has been a starter at right tackle since the day he walked onto campus. He’s started in 37 consecutive games. Richardson moved into the starting lineup last season at left tackle and more than held his own against some of the top pass-rushers in the league, namely Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney.

As a unit, the Vols finished fifth nationally last season with only eight sacks allowed in 12 games. They also improved their rushing totals by an average of 70 yards per game.

But it was the one sack that Richardson gave up last season that has festered.

Tennessee was driving for the potential game-winning touchdown in the final minutes against South Carolina on the road. It was just the kind of win over a nationally ranked team that Tennessee desperately needed after losing their first four SEC games.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney and Antonio Richardson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAntonio Richardson, right, is looking forward to his next opportunity to square off with Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney had been quiet all day. But with a little more than a minute to play, Clowney shot past Richardson on the outside and blasted Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray from behind, forcing a fumble that the Gamecocks recovered to seal their 38-35 win.

Richardson has rewound that one play over and over again in his mind, and every time he does, it only drives him harder.

“The thing is, Jadeveon Clowney is a great player, and I have the utmost respect for him,”Richardson said. “He’s the best defensive player in the country, maybe even the Heisman winner. But that last play has stayed in my head. It was everything I did, a technique flaw by me, and he took advantage.

“ESPN and all the media are going to magnify it. That’s all they see. They don’t see everything else that was done in that game. I’m just working on being 100 percent so I can show everybody that I am the elite left tackle in this conference.”

He has Clowney’s vote.

“He’s one of the best I’ve faced, him and (Michigan’s Taylor Lewan),” Clowney said. “What makes him so good is that he never quits and has an attitude about himself that he wants to be great. He came out the first play of the game and said, ‘I don’t want nobody but Clowney.’ I told him that I liked that about him.”

Richardson has been limited this spring after having his knee scoped during the offseason. He’s down to 325 pounds and wants to play a little lighter next season, especially with the Vols going to a faster-paced offense under first-year coach Butch Jones.

“We’re going to be moving pretty fast,” said Richardson, who only has 16 percent body fat. “The other thing for me is knowing what I’m seeing out there on the field on every play, being more of a student of the game. Not only for myself, but so I can help the younger guys out there.”

With a new quarterback and a new group of receivers, the burden next season will fall on Tennessee’s offensive line more than ever.

James, who’s playing for his third different offensive line coach at Tennessee, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Everybody says we got questions at receiver and questions at quarterback,” James said. “As an offensive line, we put it on our shoulders to lead the team and help bring everybody else up. It always starts up front. That’s never going to change.

“If we play the way we’re capable of, there’s no telling how far we can go.”

Don Mahoney, who came with Jones from Cincinnati to coach Tennessee’s offensive line, loves the talent he inherited. But there are a few intangibles about this group that he loves just as much.

“Without a doubt, they’re blessed with some physical talent, but when they make a mistake, they know what that mistake was,” Mahoney said. “We’re blessed with guys who have talent and are smart, and they also have an edge to them. In their minds, they haven’t proven anything because they haven’t won enough.”

Richardson is careful not to get too ahead of himself, but he doesn’t need a calendar to know when he gets another shot at Clowney.

“It’s one game at a time,” Richardson said, his voice trailing off. “But believe me. When it’s time to go up against Jadeveon Clowney, I’ll be mentally and physically ready.”
Tennessee’s offensive linemen don’t need any refresher courses. They know the numbers by heart.

A year ago, there were only four FBS teams that were worse at running the football than the Vols, who finished 116th nationally in rushing offense with an average of 90.1 yards per game.

Even worse, they managed just 2.76 yards per carry, which was good enough to finish ahead of only Memphis and Miami (Ohio) nationally.

Part of the problem was that Tennessee never fully committed to running the football. When quarterback Tyler Bray was healthy, the Vols were content with throwing the ball all over the place.

[+] EnlargeDallas Thomas
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDallas Thomas, 71, and the Tennessee offensive linemen plan to be much more physical this season.
There were also limitations at running back. The thumb injury to Bray in the fifth game was another factor and made the Vols much easier to defend, but much of the blame for their ineptitude on the ground was placed squarely on the offensive line.

“The tough times are over, but we learned from those tough times,” said senior Dallas Thomas, who’s sliding inside to left guard this season to make room for promising 6-foot-6, 328-pound sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle.

“This is something everybody on the offensive line has been talking about, coming out and showing everybody what we’re really about. We want to be the type of line that can run the ball on anybody. Like I said, we got those growing pains out of the way, and it’s time to roll.”

For most of the past two seasons, the Vols were simply trying to survive up front. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James, right guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone were all thrown into the fire as true freshmen. Thomas has also been starting since he was a sophomore.

Nobody ever doubted this group’s talent. Out of high school, they were all big-time recruits, and they’re all on the radar of NFL scouts. They all weigh 300-plus pounds and are equally athletic. Richardson said he, James, Fulton and Thomas can all dunk a basketball, although Richardson proudly takes credit for being the most explosive dunker of the bunch.

“We know we’ve got everything it takes to be a dominant offensive line,” said Richardson, who’s known as “Tiny” to his teammates. “You can’t be dominant unless you’re physical, and that’s an element of our game that we’ve been working on since the spring.

“There’s just a different swagger with us, and you can see it in the way guys are walking around and see it in guys’ eyes. The offensive line put that chip on our shoulder this spring, and we haven’t let up. I believe it’s going to pay big dividends this fall in running the ball, and it starts Friday night.”

The Vols open the season Friday against NC State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome.

Saying it’s a pivotal game for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and the program is akin to saying that knowing how to play “Rocky Top” is important for the Pride of the Southland Band.

On the heels of back-to-back losing seasons, this is a game that could send Dooley on his way to a breakthrough season in his third year on the job, but it’s also a game that could go a long way toward sending him packing if the Vols stumble in Atlanta.

So much of Tennessee’s fortunes in 2012 will ride on its offensive line and whether or not the Vols can generate a running game, which is exactly the way the guys up front want it.

After all, they were excellent in pass protection last season and allowed just 18 sacks in 12 games, tying for second in the SEC. But when you can’t make third-and-short and can’t get the tough yards, nobody remembers how few sacks you allowed.

“We want the team to depend on us. We want to be the ones who get the wheels on this bus rolling,” said Thomas, part of a Tennessee offensive line that now has 106 combined career starts.

It’s no coincidence that the six straight national champions from the SEC have all averaged at least 160 rushing yards per game. In fact, the past five national champions have averaged 214 or more yards per game on the ground.

The Vols’ offensive linemen aren’t predicting they’ll go from 90 yards to 200 yards per game, but they are predicting a more consistent running game and a more explosive running game to go along with a passing game that should be plenty potent even without dismissed All-SEC receiver Da’Rick Rogers.

Junior running back Rajion Neal has looked like the complete package during preseason camp, and another big change has been first-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman. His personality and approach to the game have seemed to be a better fit for this group.

“The guys just feel like they can relate to him,” Richardson said. “You can walk up to his office and talk to him about anything outside of football, and he also has a way of getting onto you and making you better, but he doesn’t put too much pressure on you.”

Pittman, who was with Butch Davis for five seasons at North Carolina, said he’s simply been himself.

“When you’re honest with them and don’t lie to them and let them know you care about them, I think anybody can get the most out of the players,” Pittman said. “That’s all I’ve done, and it seems to have worked out well.”

Pittman is as eager as anyone to see how it all shakes out Friday in Atlanta.

“I’d be lying to you if I said it hasn’t gone well this preseason,” Pittman said. “That being said, we haven’t played anybody yet. But they’re willing, and they’re athletic. If you’re physical and athletic, then you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.

“We’re athletic, and we’ll see Friday if we’re willing to play physical or not. I think we will, but we have 12 regular-season games to test that.”
We're all looking for the next great thing. Whether it's in life or in football, new and better is what's popular.

As we get closer and closer to the 2012 college football season, we'll continue to poke and prod every team out there in order to figure out which teams should be front-runners and which teams will be in the rearview mirror for most of the season.

ESPN's KC Joyner points out that one way we can judge teams is by the amount of returning starts they have. But he also points out that sometimes new can be better in his look at four breakout first-time starters for 2012 .

Joyner's lone SEC member is LSU rising junior cornerback Tharold Simon. It's a good pick by Joyner. While I don't think he'll be the game-changer that Morris Claiborne was, he might be a better cover corner in one-on-one situations. Joyner points out some interesting facts concerning the two that might suggest that Simon does have better coverage skills, but isn't the ball hawk that Claiborne was.

We'll find out this season.

We'll find out if other new starters can get the job done and maybe make their positions better this fall as well, so why not take a look at a few more SEC players who will be stepping into new starting roles this fall?

Don't expect to see the obvious candidates, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter and Alabama running back Eddie Lacy aren't on here either because we know what those players bring to the table. Also, no junior college transfers. Sorry Denico Autry.

[+] EnlargeMike Gillislee
Phil Sears/US PresswireMike Gillislee (left) made a case during the spring to be Florida's top running back.
Here are 10 first-time starters to keep an eye on in the SEC:

  • Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defensive line will get a lot of attention this fall, as it makes the transition to playing against SEC offensive lines. Ealy is a player who could make much more of an impact this fall. He left spring as a starter on the outside and the coaches think he has a good bit of upside to him. He started just one game last year, registering three tackles for loss, but seemed to be much more comfortable this spring.
  • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Ford made one start in 2010, but missed most of last season because of back issues. That didn't stop him from being one of Auburn's best players this spring and catapulting him to the top of the depth chart opposite Corey Lemonier. The rising junior was extremely disruptive this spring and looks poised to have a big year in 2012.
  • Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: The Gators haven't had a power back since Tim Tebow and have struggled to generate any sort of consistent production between the tackles since. In steps Gillislee, who has appeared in 36 games with no starts. He's a bigger body who the coaches think will have much more of an impact up the middle, especially with what the coaches think is an improved offensive line. During his career, Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
  • Steven Jenkins, OLB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started during the second half of last season and had a very solid spring in College Station this year. With the Aggies moving to a 3-4 scheme, the coaches expect to get a lot more out of him in 2012. Jenkins has tremendous speed and athleticism and could be a real spark for a defense undergoing changes in a new league like the SEC.
  • Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: Kouandjio was one of the top prospects coming out of high school and played in eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. While his conditioning suffered a little as he rehabbed, the hope is that he takes complete hold of the left tackle spot this fall, with Barrett Jones moving to center. Kouandjio has a ton of talent, but he'll have to get back healthy in order to show all his worth.
  • Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU: With Rueben Randle gone, the Tigers are looking for a new deep threat in their offense. While Odell Beckham Jr. had a bit of a breakout freshman year, keep an eye on Landry. The rising sophomore might be LSU's most athletic receiver and has a chance to take over as the Tigers' new big-play threat. He has solid speed and his bigger frame could frustrate opposing cornerbacks. Landry and Mettenberger seemed to generate good chemistry this spring, and LSU's staff hopes it carries over to the fall.
  • Marcus Lucas, WR, Missouri: Most of the focus when it has come to the Tigers' passing game has revolved around incoming freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. But don't forget about Lucas. He only started three games last year, but the coaches tried to get him on the field as much as possible because of the speed and deep-threat ability he possess. Lucas caught 23 passes in 2011, averaging 18 yards per reception, and registered five touchdowns.
  • Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: The Vols were looking to enhance the play of their offensive line, and seeing Richardson's development this spring was a major plus for Tennessee's staff. After spending 2011 on special teams as a freshman, Richardson emerged this spring as the starter at left tackle. Richardson's move to left tackle shifts vet Dallas Thomas to left guard, giving what Tennessee's staff thinks is the best combination on the line.
  • Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: The youngster redshirted last year, but could end up as the Tigers' starting left tackle this fall. Robinson said this spring that redshirting was probably the best thing he could have done. It gave him the chance to get much more comfortable with things on the field.
  • Avery Williamson, MLB, Kentucky: The Wildcats are looking to replace four starting linebackers from last year and Williamson stood out plenty of times this spring. He registered 49 tackles as Ronnie Sneed's backup at middle linebacker last year and was one of the better defensive players for the Wildcats this spring.

SEC spring breakout players

May, 17, 2012
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We're taking a look at some of the breakout SEC players from this spring:
  • Marcus Caffey, CB, Kentucky: Caffey spent his first year on Kentucky's campus looking up at the rest of the running backs on the roster. But the coaches didn't want to waste his talent, so he moved to cornerback, a position in desperate need of bodies. The Caffey experiment worked, as he immediately adapted to his new position and left spring with one of the starting corner spots. The youngster is a bigger body at corner, which will help him when taking on some of the league's bigger receivers.
  • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: After missing most of last season with back issues, Ford came back very strong this spring. The rising junior caused plenty of issues for Auburn's offense all spring with his play off the edge. The rust that was supposed to come with missing most of the previous season wasn't there, and he left with the starting defensive end spot opposite Corey Lemonier. Ford was named the defensive MVP of Auburn's spring game and registered four tackles, including two for loss and one sack.
  • Joe Morrow, WR, Mississippi State: Morrow showed that he can be that receiver who really stretches the field in Mississippi State's offense. He was a big-play machine in Starkville this spring with some tough catches and the ability to fly by defenders. The redshirt freshman wasn't ready to play last season and still has some maturing to do, but the staff expects him to expand the Bulldogs' passing game this fall. He caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
  • Latroy Pittman, WR, Florida: Coach Will Muschamp said Pittman was one of the most consistent players this spring and had a knack for making the tough catches. Muschamp also said that he had a tremendous work ethic this spring, but must stay grounded. The early enrollee isn't the fastest player out there, but he's big, physical and will immediately help a very unproven receiving corps. He caught two passes for 51 yards in the spring game.
  • Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: Richardson spent last year on special teams, but the coaching staff always had an eye on him. The hope was that he'd make a big impact this spring, considering the issues Tennessee had up front last season. The 6-foot-6, 329-pound rising sophomore impressed all spring and left with the starting job at left tackle. He's not only big but he's extremely athletic and tough, making him a solid option at the line's most important position.
  • Demarco Robinson, WR, Kentucky: On a team that was in desperate need of more offensive firepower, Robinson was one of the most impressive players at Kentucky's camp and if spring is any indication, he'll have a lot of passes thrown his way. Coach Joker Phillips said Robinson made play after play in practice this spring and should help take some pressure off of rising senior La'Rod King in the passing game. He caught nine passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in Kentucky's spring game.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: Yeldon enrolled early at Alabama this spring and did more than just go through the motions. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder continuously showed off an array of moves and wasn't afraid to take a little contact. Yeldon put everything together in Alabama's spring game, where he totaled 179 yards rushing and receiving and scored on a 50-yard pass. He also earned the Dixie Howell Award, which goes to the game's most valuable player. With Trent Richardson gone, Alabama will look to draw more from its stable of running backs this fall. Eddie Lacy might be listed as the starter, but Yeldon showed this spring that he's capable of getting some carries here and there.
  • Adrian Hubbard, LB, Alabama: Hubbard had a monster spring for the Crimson Tide. He takes over for Courtney Upshaw at the Jack position and the people at Alabama think he might be the Tide's top pass-rusher this fall. The rising sophomore earned the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game Award given to the spring game's most valuable lineman after registering seven tackles, including four tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
  • Steven Jenkins, LB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started six games last year, but was still fifth on the team in tackles. The former juco college transfer was all over the field for the Aggies this spring and made a lot of plays at the Will linebacker position. He's very fast and athletic and should really excel in his second year in Mark Snyder's 4-3 defense.

Sophomores poised to make a big move

March, 28, 2012
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Now that spring practice is under way for everybody in the SEC but Texas A&M, let’s take a look at a few sophomores worth keeping an eye on next season.

These aren’t necessarily the most promising freshmen from a year ago, but rather, a group of players poised to make the biggest jump in Year 2:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Crowell
AP Photo/David GoldmanIsaiah Crowell will look to build on a successful freshman campaign in his second season as Georgia's lead rusher.
Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell: Even though he rushed for 850 yards last season as a freshman, Crowell wasn’t very durable, and he was lacking in the mental toughness department. By all accounts, Crowell has grown up considerably in the offseason, and he also knows he has a deep running back stable nipping at his heels, led by heralded freshman Keith Marshall.

Mississippi State running back Nick Griffin: A knee injury has held the talented Griffin back. But even at less than 100 percent, he’s shown enough speed and power that the Mississippi State coaches can’t wait to see what a healthy Griffin can do with the ball in his hands this fall.

Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard: He’s got the height, length and athleticism to be a marquee pass-rusher in this league. The 6-6, 237-pound Hubbard backed up last season at three linebacker positions, but appears to be best suited to replace Courtney Upshaw at Jack linebacker.

Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: A knee injury cut short Kouandjio’s freshman season, but everybody who saw him play agreed that it was just a matter of time before he was one of the SEC’s most dominant offensive linemen. He’ll step in at left tackle this fall with 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones moving to center.

LSU receiver Jarvis Landry: Last season, Landry made his presence felt on special teams and delivered some crushing hits on kickoff returns. Look for him to make a similar impact catching the ball and making big plays in the passing game in 2012.

Auburn running back Tre Mason: As the Tigers search for a starting tailback to replace Michael Dyer, Mason is making a strong bid this spring to be the guy. He’s gotten stronger and is weighing right around 200 pounds. He hasn’t lost any speed, either, and the coaches love his toughness.

Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel: After making seven starts last season as a true freshman and earning SEC All-Freshman honors, the 6-1, 185-pound Mitchel has everything it takes to be one of the premier cornerbacks in the league next season. He’ll also have experience on his side.

South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles: He was overshadowed by another freshman on the Gamecocks’ defensive line last season (Jadeveon Clowney), but Quarles was playing his best football by season’s end. He’s extremely active for an interior lineman and ticketed for a big sophomore season.

Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson: One of the Vols’ top signees a year ago, Richardson picked up some much-needed experience as a freshman. He didn’t start any games, but played in all 12. The 6-6, 325-pounder is now working as the first-team left tackle and has been good enough that the Vols moved senior Dallas Thomas from left tackle to left guard.

Auburn cornerback Jermaine Whitehead: As first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder puts in his defense this spring, one of the things that has jumped out to him is Whitehead’s versatility. He can play cornerback and safety and is also working as the Tigers’ nickel cornerback when they go to five defensive backs.
Spring doesn't just bring pretty flowers and more favorable weather, it brings new and fresh opportunities for college football players.

Somewhere, a surprise or two are lurking.

So, we've come up with five potential spring surprises in the SEC, and we want you to vote on them. These players could earn themselves starting jobs, more playing time for the fall, more praise from coaches and teammates, or just do things that make us look at them twice.

Can LSU junior safety Craig Loston be that guy? He played in 10 games last year, with no starts, and was considered one of LSU's top reserves at safety. He did most of his work on special teams, but with Brandon Taylor gone, maybe this is Loston's time to break through and finally start. His potential has been raved about since he arrived, but he just hasn't taken the next step in his game. Maybe he'll do that this spring.

Then there's Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard, who has a chance to come in and play at the Jack position -- the same position held by Courtney Upshaw. No big deal, or anything. He played in eight games during his redshirt freshman year, recording nine tackles. And while he isn't Upshaw, he could really make noise off the edge this spring with his speed. The coaches have been pretty excited about his potential in this defense.

Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy at Florida is another youngster to keep an eye on. He played mostly on special teams last season, and while he's pretty raw, Florida coach Will Muschamp has said that he thinks Purifoy, a rising sophomore, could be a solid corner in this league with his size and athleticism. With Marcus Roberson coming off of an injury and Jeremy Brown's status for the spring unknown, this could be Purifoy's chance to step away from special teams and make a real impact in Florida's secondary.

Wide receiver Joe Morrow at Mississippi State redshirted in 2011, but that doesn't mean the coaches weren't impressed with what they saw from the freshman in practices. He wasn't physically ready to compete at the beginning of last season, but by the end of the season he was making all kinds of plays in practice. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder has the speed to be a real downfield threat for the Bulldogs, something they've lacked in their offense for the past few years. He'll get his shot to take reps away from veterans and could help evolve Mississippi State's offense.

Finally, there's Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson. During his freshman season, Richardson lined up for field goals and extra points, but he's a talented, athletic lineman who could break through on an offensive line that has a lot of returnees, but struggled at times last fall. Richardson was a top lineman recruit coming out of high school and has pretty good measurables (6-6, 325), so he will get his shot at a spot this spring.

Vols continue roll with Richardson

February, 2, 2011
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It's been a successful close to the recruiting period for Tennessee, which continued its roll Wednesday and kept ESPNU 150 selection Antonio Richardson at home.

Richardson, ranked by ESPN as the No. 8 offensive tackle in the country, is the fourth straight highly rated prospect the Vols have landed in less than 48 hours. He's a Nashville, Tenn., product, so keeping those top-rated guys at home is critical. The Vols also got a commitment from tight end Cameron Clear of Memphis on Tuesday.

The Vols have moved up to No. 18 nationally in the class rankings. The Vols were No. 23 coming into national signing day. They're still waiting on the signature from ESPNU 150 linebacker Curt Maggitt, who said Tuesday night he would sign with the Vols.

Auburn has also moved up two spots to No. 6 nationally in the updated rankings.

SEC recruiting scorecard

February, 2, 2011
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National signing day is here, so let’s take a look at where each team in the SEC stands heading into today’s festivities.

The following information comes from ESPN.com’s recruiting page:

ALABAMA


Commitments: 21. Four-star and above players: 13. ESPNU 150 players: 8.

Waiting on: OT Cyrus Kouandjio, DE Jadeveon Clowney, RB Isaiah Crowell, WR Nick Brassell, DE Jeoffrey Pagan, LB Brent Calloway.

The buzz: Alabama has three ESPNU 150 receivers committed, hoping to fill the void left by the early departure of Julio Jones to the NFL. Kouandjio would go nicely with junior college signee Aaron Douglas on the offensive line, and the Crimson Tide are trying to get Brassell away from Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Calloway will also be one to watch, to see if he switches back to the Tide.

ARKANSAS

Commitments: 31. Four-star and above players: 8. ESPNU 150 players: 3.

Waiting on: TE Chris Barnett, TE Andrew Peterson, LB Cedrick Cooper.

The buzz: The Hogs needed some reinforcements in the offensive line and landed two highly rated in-state prospects – tackle Brey Cook and guard Mitch Smothers. Barnett, after earlier committing to Arkansas, is now looking hard at Michigan. Four-star receivers Keante Minor and Quinta Funderburk are both impressive looking prospects.

AUBURN

Commitments: 22. Four-star and above players: 14. ESPNU 150 players: 7.

Waiting on: S Erique Florence, OT Cyrus Kouandjio, DT Gabe Wright, CB Jermaine Whitehead, OT Antonio Richardson.

The buzz: Kiehl Frazier of Springdale, Ark., is rated as the No. 2 quarterback in the country. The Tigers’ defensive back class is deep and talented and could get even better with Florence, the No. 4 safety in the country. Whitehead has also taken a liking to the Tigers. Stealing offensive tackle Christian Westerman away from Texas was a real coup, although holding onto Brent Calloway could get dicey.

FLORIDA

Commitments: 17. Four-star and above players: 10. ESPNU 150 players: 6.

Waiting on: LB Curtis Grant, DE Jermauria Rasco, DT Elkino Watson, S Marcus Roberson, QB Jacoby Brissett, OT Jacob Fisher, TE Junior Pomee.

The buzz: The country’s No. 1 quarterback prospect, Jeff Driskel, is already in school and ready to battle for the starting job in the spring. It’s been eerily quiet for the Gators on the recruiting front ever since Will Muschamp was named as Urban Meyer’s replacement. It’s still a strong class, but the finish isn’t shaping up as one to remember. Getting Grant will be a key.

GEORGIA

Commitments: 23. Four-star and above players: 15. ESPNU 150 players: 5.

Waiting on: RB Isaiah Crowell, NG John Jenkins, LB Kent Turene, DE Jeoffrey Pagan, OT Antonio Richardson, DT Tre Jackson.

The buzz: With A.J. Green on his way to the NFL, the Bulldogs are bringing in three four-star receivers. Their highest-rated commitment to this point, defensive end Ray Drew of Thomasville, Ga., is an ordained minister. Closing with Crowell and Jenkins could potentially make this a top 5 class nationally and one of Mark Richt's most talented ever.

KENTUCKY

Commitments: 21. Four-star and above players: 2. ESPNU 150 players: 1.

Waiting on: LB Lamar Dawson, WR Daryl Collins, ATH Bubba Tandy.

The buzz: The Wildcats are fighting to hold onto their only ESPNU 150 player, tight end Jon Davis. Louisville and Illinois have entered the picture, and Davis will announce his decision Wednesday afternoon. Keeping Dawson from leaving the state would also be a huge boost to this class. The Wildcats have seven players from the state of Georgia committed.

LSU

Commitments: 22. Four-star and above players: 6. ESPNU 150 players: 5.

Waiting on: DT Tim Jernigan, DE Jermauria Rasco.

The buzz: The Tigers’ defensive line class will be scary good if they land both Jernigan and Rasco, especially with Anthony Johnson already enrolled in school. The 6-3, 300-pound Johnson is rated by ESPN as the No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the country. LSU didn’t have to travel far this recruiting period, as 16 of its commitments are from the state of Louisiana.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Commitments: 24. Four-star and above players: 1. ESPNU 150 players: 0.

Waiting on: CB Jermaine Whitehead, WR Nick Brassell.

The buzz: The Bulldogs have seen one player after another de-commit, including top linebacker prospect C.J. Johnson, who now plans to sign with Ole Miss after being committed to Mississippi State for more than a year. Whitehead and Brassell were also one-time Mississippi State commitments, but the Bulldogs are in danger of losing both on Wednesday.

OLE MISS

Commitments: 27. Four-star and above players: 3. ESPNU 150 players: 1.

Waiting on: CB Jermaine Whitehead, WR Nick Brassell.

The buzz: The Rebels are on the threshold of putting together a top 25 class nationally. If they can land Whitehead and Brassell on Wednesday, that would give them six of the top seven players in the state. Prying Johnson away from Mississippi State provided some key momentum down the stretch.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Commitments: 32. Four-star and above players: 6. ESPNU 150 players: 0.

Waiting on: DE Jadeveon Clowney, LB Cedrick Cooper.

The buzz: The Gamecocks may have to wait a while longer on Clowney, but the wait figures to be worth it. He’s probably not going to make his decision until Valentine’s Day, which just happens to be his birthday. As the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, Clowney could take this from a very good class to a great class.

TENNESSEE

Commitments: 26. Four-star and above players: 8. ESPNU 150 players: 5.

Waiting on: OT Antonio Richardson, DT Gabe Wright, LB Lamar Dawson, DT Tim Jernigan, DE Leon Mackey.

The buzz: The Vols are closing with a flurry, reeling in tight end Cameron Clear and linebacker Curt Maggitt on Tuesday and coveted junior college cornerback Byron Moore on Monday. Quarterback Justin Worley is already enrolled in school, and there’s a chance to add three more four-star prospects when Richardson, Wright and Jernigan announce their decisions on Wednesday.

VANDERBILT

Commitments: 16. Four-star and above players: 0. ESPNU 150 players: 0.

Waiting on: QB Josh Grady, RB Jerron Seymour, WR Kameron Jackson, TE Darien Bryant, S Adrian Amos.

The buzz: First-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin and his staff have been plenty busy. Defensive lineman Barron Dixon of Alpharetta, Ga., backed out of his commitment with Mississippi State and now plans to sign with Vanderbilt. Grady says Vanderbilt has promised him a chance to play quarterback, and the Commodores are also trying to turn Tennessee commitment and defensive tackle prospect Allan Carson at the last minute.

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