NCF Nation: Cameron Lawrence

SEC recruiting needs: Western Division

January, 25, 2012
1/25/12
10:19
AM ET
With national signing day a week away, we’ll take a look today at the recruiting needs of each SEC team, starting with the Western Division. These needs are based on current rosters and voids that will be created with upperclassmen leaving in the next year or two. We realize that a lot of these needs have already been filled by players who’ve committed (or signed) in this class.

Here we go:

ALABAMA

Defensive back: It’s not quite the exodus Alabama faced following the 2009 season in the secondary, but the Crimson Tide lose three starters back there, including both cornerbacks. And safety Mark Barron was the guy who got everybody in the right spots. Alabama signed two junior college cornerbacks, and they’re already on campus.

Receiver: The top four pass-catchers from the 2011 season, including tight end Brad Smelley, are gone. In particular, Alabama could use a big, physical receiver capable of creating mismatches and making big plays down the field.

Linebacker: The Crimson Tide have never been hurting for linebackers, but they lose three good ones in Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Jerrell Harris. Plus, Nico Johnson will be a senior next season and C.J. Mosley will be a junior. There are some young ones waiting in the wings, but Alabama needs to add to its stable.

ARKANSAS

Receiver: When you lose a pair of record-setting playmakers at receiver like Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, that’s always a good place to start. Greg Childs is also gone, so the Hogs are looking for people to fill their spots.

Offensive line: Finding some reinforcements up front on offense is also a big need for the Hogs. The most pressing need is at tackle. One starter in 2011, Grant Freeman, was a senior, and the other, Jason Peacock, will be a senior next season.

Defensive back: The Hogs like the young defensive backs on their roster, but losing Tramain Thomas at safety will be a blow. Eric Bennett also played well at the other safety, but he will be a junior next season. Another cornerback or two would also be nice.

AUBURN

Receiver: The Tigers need some game-breaking receivers. Emory Blake is back, but he’s going to be a senior, and Trovon Reed hasn’t been able to avoid injuries. The vertical passing game was non-existent this past season, and finding some guys who can get down the field and make some plays is a must for the Tigers.

Offensive line: More than anything else, Auburn needs guards and is very thin there. Christian Westerman is a talented, young guy who’s coming, but the Tigers are going to have to replenish the interior of their offensive line.

Defensive back: The truth is that the Tigers need help on defense, period. But the secondary has really taken it on the chin, especially this past season. Cornerback Chris Davis, a rising junior, has a chance to be special, but he needs some help around him.

LSU

Linebacker: The Tigers are still loaded on defense, but linebacker was the one area they wanted to address with both Ryan Baker and Karnell Hatcher departing, and they did with six commitments from players projected to play linebacker in college. All six are from the state of Louisiana, too.

Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger will step in as the starter next season, but he will be a junior. There’s nobody behind him who’s ever taken a snap in a college game. The Tigers thought they had highly rated Gunner Kiel in the fold, but lost him to Notre Dame. They need another quarterback.

Receiver: Rueben Randle emerged as one of the best big-play threats in the league this past season, but he’s turning pro early. Russell Shepard is set to return for his senior season, and Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry both have a ton of potential. Even so, LSU could use a few more playmakers at receiver.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Defensive line: Losing All-SEC tackle Fletcher Cox early to the pros hurt. The Bulldogs are suddenly behind in their depth. The numbers up front defensively aren’t where they need to be, which makes this a big class for the Bulldogs in the defensive line. Getting a dynamic pass-rusher is a must.

Offensive line: Finding a couple of guys who can help quickly was a priority, and that’s what the Bulldogs hope they’ve done with junior college additions Dylan Holley at center and Charles Siddoway at tackle.

Linebacker: The Bulldogs lost three senior starters following the 2010 season, and Brandon Wilson won’t return next season. What’s more, Cameron Lawrence will be a senior. The most pressing need is a middle linebacker, and preferably one who could step in and play early.

OLE MISS

Running back: One of the first things new head coach Hugh Freeze will look to do is put some pop in the Rebels’ running game. That starts with bringing in some prototypical SEC running backs in terms of size and speed. Jeff Scott led Ole Miss in rushing last season with 529 yards, but at 5-7 and 175 pounds, he’s more of a speed guy or change-up in this league.

Defensive back: The Rebels will take all the help they can get in the secondary. Safety Damien Jackson is gone. Cornerback Wesley Pendleton will be a senior, while cornerback/safety Charles Sawyer will be a junior.

Quarterback: There are several guys on campus who have played, but the Rebels are still searching for somebody who can come in and give them some consistency at the quarterback position. And with Freeze’s new spread offense, finding the right fit will also be important.

TEXAS A&M

Defensive back: The Aggies will jump into SEC play needing to replace three of four starters in their secondary. Both of their starting cornerbacks are gone, in addition to their best safety. So finding guys who can cover will be at the top of their list.

Defensive line: In keeping with the defensive theme, which is a must if you’re going to survive in the SEC, Texas A&M will be looking to replenish its defensive line. Gone are Ben Bass, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Eddie Brown. Building up a deeper defensive line rotation will be critical for the Aggies.

Running back: Depth at running back is another concern. Cyrus Gray, who rushed for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, is gone. Christine Michael returns for his senior season, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. It typically takes three backs to make it through an SEC season.
Now that Edward has unveiled his five most improved players from the SEC this season, I’ll take my shot.

In some cases, guys went from being a very good player to a great player. In other cases, guys went from being a reserve to a key starter. There were also some guys who bounced back from injury-plagued seasons.

Here’s what I came up with. The players are listed in alphabetical order:

[+] EnlargeJarius Wright
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJarius Wright led the Razorbacks in yards, receptions and touchdowns last season.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama: Flip on the game tape, and it’s obvious that Hightower was a different player this season. He was back to his explosive, instinctive self after conceding that mentally and physically he wasn’t all the way back a year ago from reconstructive knee surgery, which cut short his second season in 2009. As the Crimson Tide’s middle linebacker in their base defense and edge pass-rusher on third down, Hightower led the team with 85 total tackles, including 11 for loss. He also had eight quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and blocked a kick. In short, he made a lot more things happen in 2011 than he did the year before and saved one of his best efforts for the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said Hightower was one of the guys who made the Crimson Tide’s No. 1-ranked defense go, and with his knee back to full strength, the 6-4, 260-pound junior went from a good player in 2010 to one of the best linebackers in college football in 2011.

Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: When Lawrence came to Mississippi State, he was more of a utility man. In fact, he played quarterback, receiver, safety and linebacker during his first season. But he settled in at one of the outside linebacker spots and had a monster junior season, finishing second in the SEC with 123 total tackles, including six for loss. The 6-2, 230-pound Lawrence also forced two fumbles and helped fill a huge void at linebacker after the Bulldogs lost all three starters the year before. Lawrence’s chief role prior to this season was on special teams, and he’d recorded just 31 tackles in his first two seasons combined. He passed that total by the fourth game of the season this year on a defense that finished 16th nationally in points allowed.

Eric Reid, S, LSU: Tyrann Mathieu had the catchy “Honey Badger” nickname and collected a ton of highlight-reel plays, but Reid was one of the most improved and consistent players on LSU’s team in what was a breakout sophomore season for him. He tied with Mathieu for the team lead with 76 total tackles and also had two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His interception at the 1-yard line in the first game against Alabama was the play of the year in the SEC. Reid was as good in coverage as he was against the run and wound up earning second-team All-SEC honors. He showed flashes as a true freshman when he wound up starting the last three games of the regular season, but put it all together this season to become one of the better all-around safeties in the league.

Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: Part of the credit goes to an improved Vanderbilt offensive line, but no player in the SEC improved more from last season to this season than Stacy. The 5-9, 208-pound junior set school records with 1,193 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, and he also caught 20 passes. Stacy averaged 5.9 yards per carry, and more than once, demonstrated that he could break the big one. He had three runs of 50 yards or longer. Stacy’s rushing total this season was nearly 400 yards more than he had in his first two seasons combined. Stacy rushed for 331 yards a year ago, but missed the last three games after suffering a blow to the head against Florida. He also shared the carries with Warren Norman the first two seasons, and Norman redshirted this season after undergoing knee surgery. Stacy worked hard on his strength and explosiveness last offseason, and seeing the opportunity to be the Commodores’ go-to back this season, he ran with it all the way to a record-setting season and All-SEC honors.

Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Even before his senior season, Wright had been a key member of the Hogs’ receiving corps and one of their strongest leaders. But in 2011, he blossomed into the most productive receiver in the SEC and set several school records along the way. Wright had always possessed great speed, but he became a better player after the catch this season, which made him even more difficult to defend. He finished with 66 catches for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging 16.9 yards per catch. Wright was a consensus first-team All-SEC selection and leaves Arkansas as the single-season record-holder in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The 12 touchdown catches match the number of touchdowns Wright caught in his first three seasons combined, and he had 24 more catches this season than he did a year ago as a junior.

Here are 10 more players that just missed the cut:

Top surprises in the Western Division

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
2:21
PM ET
No college football season ever turns out exactly the way you thought it would.

There are always surprises -- good and bad.

I’ll tackle my biggest surprises in the SEC’s Western Division this season, and Edward will unveil his biggest surprises in the Eastern Division later today.

We’ll do it by teams:

ALABAMA

Struggles in the kicking game: It wasn’t all bad. Marquis Maze was one of the top kickoff and punt returners in the SEC, but Alabama was ninth in the SEC in net punting and 11th in kickoff coverage. What’s more, the Crimson Tide missed 11 field goals this season. And while nobody in Tuscaloosa needs to be reminded, four of those misses came in the LSU game.

Anthony Steen: The 6-foot-3, 303-pound sophomore was one of the Crimson Tide’s most pleasant surprises in the preseason, and he wound up starting nine games at right guard. He was a big part of Alabama’s bruising running game, which topped the SEC with an average of 219.8 yards per game.

ARKANSAS

Defensive turnover: This was supposed to be Arkansas’ best defense under Bobby Petrino. The Hogs had depth and experience, but wound up ninth in the SEC in total defense and gave up 28 or more points in six games. Petrino fired defensive coordinator Willy Robinson and brought in Paul Haynes from Ohio State as the Hogs’ new defensive coordinator.

Greg Childs: After tearing the patella tendon in his right knee during the 2010 season, Childs never returned to his All-SEC form. He just wasn’t the same physically this season and finished with 16 catches in 10 games and no touchdowns.

AUBURN

Defensive decline: Everybody on the Plains expected some drop-off on defense after losing so many veteran players from the national championship team. But the Tigers were torched for more than 1,600 total yards in their first three games in a sign of things to come. They wound up giving up 29.3 points per game and 405.8 yards per game, and defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for the UCF defensive coordinator’s job when the regular season ended.

Gus Malzahn leaving for Arkansas State: Most in and around the Auburn program had a feeling that Malzahn was poised to leave for a head job. After all, he turned down $3 million per year at Vanderbilt last year. But nobody would have guessed that he would leave for the Arkansas State head job.

LSU

No quarterback controversy: With the way LSU’s quarterback situation has played out, it’s a minor miracle there hasn’t been a quarterback controversy. But, then, it’s been that kind of season for the Tigers. Still, you can’t help but wonder what Jarrett Lee’s true thoughts are right now.

The Honey Badger: It was obvious from Tyrann Mathieu’s freshman season that he was a very good football player. But who knew he would blossom into one of the best all-around players in the country this season? He scored four touchdowns and didn’t play a snap on offense.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

No signature wins: After the Bulldogs racked up nine wins in 2010, the expectations in Starkville were off the charts. In retrospect, maybe too much was expected. Either way, Mississippi State lost all five of its games to nationally ranked foes and only beat one Western Division opponent (Ole Miss).

Cameron Lawrence: In his first season as a starter, Lawrence collected 114 total tackles to rank third in the SEC. Everybody was wondering coming into the season what the Bulldogs were going to do at linebacker after losing all three starters. Lawrence, who played quarterback in high school, stepped right in and anchored a unit that was solid all season.

OLE MISS

Houston Nutt’s ouster: Nutt had been the ultimate survivor in the SEC, and when his back was to the wall, he usually produced some of his best results. It wasn’t to be this season, though, as the Rebels saw their SEC losing streak reach 14 straight games. Following the loss to Kentucky on Nov. 5, the university announced that Nutt wouldn’t be back next season.

Quick trigger for Brunetti: One of the more puzzling things about the season for Ole Miss was how Barry Brunetti could win the starting quarterback job during the preseason, then get benched in the opener and never really be heard from again until the very end of the season.
You have to admire Brandon Wilson’s patience.

Ever since Mississippi State said goodbye to three starting linebackers -- Emmanuel Gatling, Chris White and K.J. Wright -- from 2010, he, his teammates and coaches have had to field questions about replacing the trio.

It was old the second time he was asked, and it was even older when he lost count of the linebacker queries.

But even when the question was raised again just a week before the Bulldogs’ season-opener Thursday against Memphis, Wilson was cool and collected. There was no anger or annoyance in his voice. He expected the questions and was quick to say he and his teammates can’t worry about the past because they are the present.

[+] EnlargeCameron Lawrence
Shelby Daniel/Icon SMICameron Lawrence is one player Mississippi State is counting on to fill the void at linebacker.
“Now is our time to shine and I definitely think we’ll do that,” Wilson said.

According to the Bulldogs’ opening depth chart, Wilson, a senior, will man the middle, while junior Cameron Lawrence and redshirt freshman Matthew Wells will hold down the outside spots.

While the talk has centered around what Mississippi State lost, this group isn’t completely new to things. Lawrence, who Wilson said has the potential to be one of the fastest, most athletic linebackers in the conference, played in 10 games last season before suffering an injury. He registered 31 tackles, while Wilson played in all 13 games last season, recording 17 tackles.

This group hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers, like the 253 combined tackles and nine sacks last year’s starters produced, but Wilson assures this group has the talent to pull its weight. Though he’s tired of hearing about who isn’t around, he understands that this year’s linebacker unit has a lot to live up to and a lot of responsibility.

Wilson claims the Bulldogs have “the best defensive backfield in the SEC, hands down,” and a disruptive interior line combo in Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, but it’s the linebackers who have to do most of the communicating. It’s the linebackers who run the defense. And it’s the linebackers who have to make sure they’ve got their jobs covered.

“If you go hard, everything will be all right,” Wilson said.

The Bulldogs got a veteran dose of help this offseason when former Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye transferred in. The fifth-year senior is battling Wilson in the middle, but has brought needed competition and leadership to the group.

Maye said his transition to Starkville was easy for the most part, but learning the playbook was the toughest obstacle. He has most of it down, but admits he’s still learning.

What didn’t take him time to realize was the determination he saw out of his new teammates. He knew about the inexperience coming in, but Maye said guys have been flying around nonstop since he arrived.

“You see a young group. You see a young group that’s hungry and eager to prove people wrong,“ Maye said. “We’ve been working and training all summer for this opportunity to go out and prove all these doubters wrong.

“These guys are very hungry. They’re young, but talent overrides experience sometimes.”

There will be growing pains, for sure. Wilson sees those issues in practice when the linebackers aren't on the same page or are confused. He knows this group has to read offenses better and know the defense like they know their last names.

But Wilson isn’t worried about being perfect just yet. It's going to take some time for this group to really mesh. Experience will help, but Wilson said this group needs to concentrate on playing its way, and its way only.

“As long as I know we get in that film room, we workout hard, we practice hard and we’re going to hit hard, everything else will fall into place,” he said. “We have to go out and play our game. We can’t play like Chris White and K.J. played last year. We’re going to play our young, fast, more athletic style of play.”

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