NCF Nation: Casey Hayward

SEC postseason position rankings: DB

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
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Just like there was no shortage of defenses in the SEC this season, there was no shortage of defensive backfields.

Here’s the way we would rank them.

1. LSU: Where do you start? The Tigers had a Heisman Trophy finalist in their secondary (Tyrann Mathieu). They also had the Thorpe Award winner as the best defensive back in college football (Morris Claiborne) and a pair of safeties (Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor) who were both outstanding. They were as deep as they were talented in the secondary and allowed just four touchdown passes and intercepted 13 passes in 10 games against SEC foes.

2. Alabama: In any other league, Alabama would be at the top, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk that LSU would get the No. 1 spot. Mark Barron was the best safety in America. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is poised to be a first-round draft choice, while the Tide’s other cornerback, DeQuan Menzie, was one of the more underrated players in the country. Alabama’s defense was menacing this season, and a big reason why goes back to how much they improved from 2010 to 2011 in the secondary.

[+] EnlargeBacarri Rambo
Dale Zanine/US PresswireGeorgia safety Bacarri Rambo led the SEC in interceptions last season with eight.
3. Georgia: Imagine being as good as Georgia was in the secondary this season, but only third in your conference. Welcome to the SEC. Safety Bacarri Rambo led the league with eight interceptions, while cornerback Brandon Boykin did a little bit of everything for the Bulldogs and was named the winner of the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. In league play, Georgia finished second in pass efficiency defense and tied for second with 12 interceptions.

4. South Carolina: Nobody in the league made more improvement than South Carolina from last season to this season when it came to defending the pass. A big part of that was the Gamecocks’ pass rush, but they also intercepted an SEC-high 15 passes in league games and ranked atop the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore led the team with four interceptions. Safety D.J. Swearinger was second on the team with 80 tackles, and linebacker/safety Antonio Allen, who played the hybrid Spur position for the Gamecocks, turned in an All-SEC season.

5. Vanderbilt: It seems like Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson have been playing for six seasons in the Vanderbilt secondary. It always seems that way when two players step in and play the way Hayward and Richardson have since their freshman seasons. Hayward had seven interceptions this season and led the SEC with 17 passes defended. The emergence of Trey Wilson at the other cornerback spot was also a big factor in the way Vanderbilt played defense this season.

6. Mississippi State: Johnthan Banks developed into one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks and had a big year with five interceptions and 14 passes defended. Safety Nickoe Whitley also was a big part of the Bulldogs’ secondary. He was one of the enforcers back there with his customary big hits and four picks, but missed the final four games with a ruptured Achilles tendon. It’s a secondary that’s been together for a while, but the Bulldogs were still ninth in the league in passing defense against SEC competition.

7. Arkansas: There were a lot of bright spots in the Hogs' secondary despite disappointing overall defensive numbers. Freshman cornerback Tevin Mitchel wound up starting and showing a lot of promise. Sophomore Eric Bennett moved from cornerback to safety and wound up fourth on the team with 74 tackles. He also had three interceptions. Senior safety Tramain Thomas was the anchor back there with five interceptions and 91 total tackles, ranking him among the leading tacklers in the league.

8. Florida: Will Muschamp is excited about the young talent in his secondary. Freshman cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy both have a chance to be stars, although both endured their share of growing pains this season. Safety Matt Elam was one of the veterans of the unit, and he was only a sophomore. He played beyond his years with 11.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. This biggest thing working against the Gators this season was youth, and that cost them in some games.

9. Tennessee: Losing safety Janzen Jackson prior to the season was a big blow for the Vols. They finished next to last in the league in interceptions with nine and struggled all season at the cornerback position. The good news for them is that it looks like freshman safety Brian Randolph is a keeper. He was fifth on the team with 55 tackles, and junior college newcomer Izauea Lanier was the Vols’ top cornerback. Tennessee finished the season by giving up 11 touchdown passes and intercepting just six passes in SEC play.

10. Kentucky: The Wildcats didn’t have a lot of depth in the secondary, and it didn’t help any when safety Martavius Neloms hurt his ankle late in the season. Neloms still wound up third on the team with 71 total tackles. Winston Guy played a linebacker/safety hybrid role and had a huge season with 120 total tackles, including 14 for loss. He was a second-team All-SEC selection. Big plays hurt the Wildcats. They gave up 19 touchdown passes, which was next to last in the league.

11. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ defense spent the entire 2011 season on the field, which meant the secondary gave up its share of big plays. In SEC play, Ole Miss finished last in pass defense efficiency. The Rebels gave up 12 touchdown passes and intercepted only three passes. Freshman Nickolas Brassell wound up playing both offense and defense and has a bright future, and sophomore Charles Sawyer led the team with four interceptions and was second on the team with 70 total tackles. It simply wasn’t a season to remember all the way around for the Rebels.

12. Auburn: There wasn’t a lot that went right for Auburn on defense this season, but the Tigers’ struggles in the secondary were particularly glaring. They gave up an SEC-high 21 touchdown passes and finished last in the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Chris Davis has a ton of potential, but was limited early in the season by injuries. Safety Neiko Thorpe finished with 102 total tackles and three interceptions, but the bottom line is that it’s hard to see past nearly 3,000 passing yards allowed.

Recent SEC signing class steals

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

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

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

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

Here they are:

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

The 2011 SEC All-Bowl team

January, 13, 2012
1/13/12
11:18
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We're taking one last look at the SEC's postseason by putting together our All-SEC bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Connor Shaw, South Carolina: Shaw didn't seem to feel the pressure of a bowl game, completing 11 of 17 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 42 yards and another score in the Gamecocks' win against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. He even gave South Carolina the momentum going into the second half with a touchdown on a Hail Mary to end the first half.

[+] EnlargeVick Ballard
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Vick Ballard rushed for 180 yards against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl.
RB: Vick Ballard, Mississippi State: Ballard ended his career with the Bulldogs with one of his best performances, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries in Mississippi State's win against Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl. His touchdowns went for 72 and 60 yards.

RB: Onterio McCalebb, Auburn: As the Tigers' lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60. He also recorded a three-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in Auburn's win against Virginia.

WR: Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina: Jeffery's day would have been even better if he hadn't been ejected. However, he still caught four passes for a game-high 148 yards and snagged Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half. He also had a 78-yard reception.

WR: Tavarres King, Georgia: King tried his best to get Georgia a victory in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State. He was Aaron Murray's best friend, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass that at one point stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

TE: Brad Smelley, Alabama: The Crimson Tide got its passing game going with Smelley in Monday's Allstate BCS National Championship win against LSU. He was AJ McCarron's safety net when plays broke down, and the young quarterback also used Smelley on rollouts. Smelley finished the game with seven catches for 39 yards.

OL: Barrett Jones, Alabama: Behind one of the most versatile linemen in the entire country, Alabama's line held back LSU's defensive front for most of Monday night's game. Alabama ran for 150 yards against LSU's vaunted defense. He also kept McCarron safe, as the youngster was sacked only twice while throwing for 234 yards.

OL: Alvin Bailey, Arkansas: He just keeps looking better and better for the Razorbacks. In Arkansas' AT&T Cotton Bowl victory against Kansas State, he helped Arkansas churn out 129 rushing yards on 4.3 yards per carry and helped give quarterback Tyler Wilson enough time to pass for 216 yards and two touchdowns.

OL: Kyle Nunn, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' offensive line gave up four sacks to Nebraska, but Shaw was still able to throw for 230 yards and two touchdowns. With Nunn's help, the Gamecocks also rushed for 121 yards against the Cornhuskers.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: Ballard's outstanding performance for the Bulldogs wouldn't have been possible if not for some solid line play. Jackson had one of his best outings, as he helped Mississippi State rush for 253 yards and pass for another 129. Mississippi State gave up just one sack to Wake Forest.

C: William Vlachos, Alabama: Vlachos had his hands full with the interior of LSU's defensive line, but he more than held his own. He battled all night with LSU's Michael Brockers and allowed him to assist on just one tackle for loss. He provided a ton of protection in the passing game and helped Alabama rush for 150 yards on LSU's defense.

DEFENSE

DE: Jake Bequette, Arkansas: Bequette said before Arkansas' bowl game that the Hogs' defense needed to make a statement. Bequette certainly made a few in his final game with the Razorbacks, registering two sacks, forcing a fumble and totaling three tackles.

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina: The freshman put a nice bow on his first season with the Gamecocks. He put a ton of pressure on Nebraska's backfield with two sacks for a loss of 13 yards and finished the game with four tackles.

DT: Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State: Cox wanted to make a lasting impression in his final game with the Bulldogs, and he certainly did by disrupting Wake Forest's offensive line in the Music City Bowl. He finished the game with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and blocked his fifth career kick, which is a Mississippi State record.

DT: Michael Brockers, LSU: Brockers had a tough time with Vlachos in the middle, but that didn't stop him from making plays. He did a tremendous job of clogging holes in the middle for the Tigers and finished the game with seven tackles, assisting on one for loss, and blocked a field goal attempt.

LB: Courtney Upshaw, Alabama: It came as no surprise that Upshaw was named the Defensive Most Valuable Player in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. He was nearly unblockable for LSU on Monday night. He put immense pressure on LSU's backfield and finished the game with six tackles, including a sack.

LB: Archibald Barnes, Vanderbilt: Barnes was a true rover for Vanderbilt against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. He had a game-high 10 tackles, assisting on one for a loss, and blocked a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.

LB: Alec Ogletree, Georgia: Georgia might not have come up with the win in the Outback Bowl, but it wasn't because of how Ogletree played. He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, grabbing a game-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, breaking up two passes and getting a sack.

CB: Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt: Yet again, Hayward was tremendous in coverage for the Commodores. He grabbed two interceptions and broke up another pass. He was also second on the team with eight tackles, including one for loss. Cincinnati threw for just 80 yards against the Commodores.

CB: Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: Gilmore ended his South Carolina career on a high note. He recorded five tackles, including one for loss, and an interception. He also returned a blocked extra point for South Carolina's first points of the game. Nebraska threw for just 116 yards on the Gamecocks' secondary.

S: Mark Barron, Alabama: Barron recorded just two tackles, including a sack, but he was outstanding in coverage. He roamed the back part of the field for the Crimson Tide and didn't allow LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson to stretch the field at all because of his positioning. Jefferson threw for just 53 yards on Alabama.

S: Matt Elam, Florida: Elam was Florida's most consistent player during the regular season, and he was all over the field for the Gators in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl against Ohio State. He finished the game with six tackles, two for loss and a sack.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Jeremy Shelley, Alabama: Talk about redeeming the position that spoiled Alabama's first game against LSU. Shelley hit five of his seven field goal attempts against the Tigers and even rebounded to hit four of his final five after having his second attempt blocked in the second quarter.

P: Dylan Breeding, Arkansas: He punted four times for an average of 46.8 yards per kick. He had a long of 63 yards and dropped two inside the 20-yard line against Kansas State.

RS: Joe Adams, Arkansas: Surprise, surprise, Adams made another special teams unit look silly. Against Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, Adams got things started for the Hogs with a nifty 51-yard punt return for a touchdown. His return sparked a 16-point second quarter for the Hogs.

AP: Brandon Boykin, Georgia: Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. He forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play, returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.

Early 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
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We officially said goodbye to the 2011 season Monday night and crowned the Alabama Crimson Tide as college football's new champions. Now, it's time to shift our focus to 2012. Here's to hoping the Mayans were wrong:

1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.

2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.

4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.

5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.

6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.

7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.

8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.

9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.

11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.

13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.

14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
1/03/12
2:30
PM ET
The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.

Cincinnati dropped the SEC to 1-1 in bowl play with a 31-24 win against Vanderbilt, in what was a pretty exciting AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

After a bit of a sluggish first half from both offenses, each team found more ways to find the end zone in the last two quarters, combining for 34 points. The Bearcats put more of an emphasis on the running game, pounding Vandy's defense with Isaiah Pead, and another costly turnover doomed the Commodores.

How the game was won: Defenses led the way in the first half, as the offenses combined for 292 yards and 21 points. But things were very back-and-forth in the fourth quarter. There were three lead changes before two minutes passed in the quarter. Cincinnati took the lead for good when Ralph Abernathy took a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown immediately after Vanderbilt took a 21-17 lead on a 68-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd. Pead sealed the Bearcats' win with his 12-yard touchdown run, three plays after a costly interception thrown by Vandy quarterback Larry Smith.

Best call: With Vanderbilt's offense stumbling through the first two quarters, coach James Franklin made the decision early in the third to permanently sit starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers after Rodgers suffered an injury. Smith replaced him, and the Commodores compiled 183 yards and 17 points with Smith under center. Rodgers appeared to be healthy enough to return, but Franklin stuck with Smith.

Turning point: Vanderbilt's offense was much more efficient with Smith at quarterback, but he made a fatal mistake with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth when he threw behind receiver Jordan Mathews and into the hands of Cincinnati's Nick Temple, who returned the ball 12 yards to Vandy's 31-yard line. Three plays later, Pead's touchdown run made it 31-21 Cincinnati.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 15 punts for an average of 42.5 yards per kick. Four punts went for 50-plus yards and three were down inside the 20-yard line.

Player of the game: Pead was an absolute workhorse for the Bearcats. He carried the ball 28 times for 149 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Unsung hero: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros returned from his broken ankle and showed good game management late. He was far from great and was shaky early, but he limited his mistakes for the most part. He did have just 80 passing yards and two interceptions, but for as rusty as he looked early, he could have been a lot worse.



Second guessing: With the score tied 7-7 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, Franklin decided to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Cincinnati 44-yard line. On the play, running back Zac Stacy took the handoff, but then tried a jump pass to tight end Brandon Barden. The pass was way off and Cincinnati took over. The Bearcats then drove 56 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 halftime lead.

What it means: Cincinnati, which might have been in a BCS bowl game if not for Collaros' injury, heads into the offseason with a ton of momentum following a 10-win season. Vanderbilt will have to deal with losing another big game because of costly mistakes. Still, things feel different at Vandy, and even with the loss, the Commodores have to feel good about Franklin's first year.

Record performance: With his two interceptions Saturday night, Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward tied Leonard Coleman for first all-time in Vanderbilt history with 15 career interceptions.

Liberty Bowl: Keys for Vanderbilt

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
2:30
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A look at the three keys to the game for Vanderbilt in its AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup with Cincinnati on Saturday:

1. Pressure the passer: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros hasn’t played in a while. This will be his first game since Nov. 12 when he broke his ankle against West Virginia. The Commodores will look to bring pressure from different places, keep him guessing and not allow him to get into any kind of rhythm throwing the ball.

2. Win the turnover battle: Vanderbilt finished the regular season plus-2 in turnover ratio, and the Commodores forced 27 turnovers, which was fourth in the SEC. But their last four losses were by a total of 19 points, and one of those was an overtime loss. In those four losses, Vanderbilt turned the ball over 11 times and forced just six turnovers. They need to reverse that trend against the Bearcats.

3. Ride Zac Stacy: In addition to pressuring Collaros, the other way Vanderbilt can clamp down on Cincinnati’s offense is by keeping the Bearcats’ offense off the field. That’s where Stacy comes in. He rushed for a school-record 1,136 yards this season and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. The Commodores would love to get him 20-plus carries in this game and keep those sticks moving.

Alabama has four on Walter Camp team

December, 9, 2011
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Alabama led the nation by placing four players on the 2011 Walter Camp Football Foundation All-America team.

Running back Trent Richardson, left tackle Barrett Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Mark Barron were all first-team selections.

LSU cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne were also first-team selections.

The SEC had eight players make Walter Camp first team. Here they are:

OFFENSE
  • RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
  • OL Barrett Jones, Alabama
DEFENSE
  • DL Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
  • LB Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
  • LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia
  • DB Morris Claiborne, LSU
  • DB Mark Barron, Alabama
  • DB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

The SEC also had seven players on the second team:

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
  • LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
  • DB Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
  • DB Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt Sr. Elko, GA 6-0 188
SPECIAL TEAMS
  • PK Caleb Sturgis, Florida
  • KR Joe Adams, Arkansas

Halftime: Vanderbilt 21, Arkansas 14

October, 29, 2011
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Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said during the week that his team wouldn't come out sluggish against a tough Vanderbilt team.

Well, his players obviously didn't get the message, as the Razorbacks trail Vanderbilt 21-14 at the half.

The Hogs were were given the ball to open the game and did nothing with it. So, Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers took full advantage of his time on the field, leading the Commodores to touchdown drives on their first two possessions.

Rodgers hurt Arkansas' defense with his arm and his legs in the first half to help the Commodores sprint out to a 21-7 lead. At the half, Rodgers had 110 yards passing with a touchdown and 49 rushing yards with two more scores.

But things might have been worse in the first half for Arkansas if Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward didn't drop three interceptions -- one of which would have been returned for a touchdown.

While Vanderbilt should be proud of its first-half performance, this one is far from over. Arkansas has been prone to slow starts (see Ole Miss last week), but knows how to get it done in the second half. Quarterback Tyler Wilson took some nasty hits in the first half, but led a great 94-second drive to close the first half. He drove the Hogs 62 yards and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jarius Wright with five seconds left.

Wilson might have to take an ice bath before coming back out, but you can be sure that Arkansas will come out of the locker room with confidence. This one should be fun in the second half.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It has been an ugly first half of football inside of Williams-Brice Stadium, but South Carolina leads 14-3.

Stat of the half: You could go with the 174 combined offensive yards by both teams or the 10 combined penalties for 100 yards. There are almost more penalty yards than yards of offense. Vanderbilt hasn't done much and is only on the scoreboard because of an interception by Casey Hayward that was returned to South Carolina's 22-yard line. South Carolina had nothing going on offense until a screen pass to Marcus Lattimore went 52 yards for a score before the half, but a couple of big plays have been negated by holding penalties.

Best player of the half: Hayward's two interceptions were nice, but the player(s) of the half is South Carolina's defensive line. Vanderbilt has -4 yards rushing on 16 attempts and South Carolina has five sacks. Vanderbilt quarterback hasn't had much time to breathe in the pocket with all of the pressure he's faced. Vanderbilt's line has been demolished by the Gamecocks. End Melvin Ingram has two of the five sacks. One sack by Jadeveon Clowney resulted in a defensive touchdown for the Gamecocks as well.

Play of the half: South Carolina's offense was doing absolutely nothing until a perfectly called screen play from Stephen Garcia to Lattimore that went for a 52-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left in the half, putting the Gamecocks up 14-3. That was the longest pass play for the Gamecocks this season. With the way this game has gone, that could be enough for the Gamecocks.

Quarterback mistakes becoming a trend

September, 24, 2011
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Those weren't roosters you heard inside Williams-Brice Stadium, those were boo birds. Lots of them.

That's because embattled quarterback Stephen Garcia just threw his third interception of the game. And again he threw it directly to a defender. Casey Hayward grabbed the first two, but Andre Hal was the beneficiary of Garcia's latest mistake. That was the first of Hal's career.

Fans let Garcia know how they felt, but coach Steve Spurrier probably let him know even more.

However, Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith wouldn't let Garcia be outdone in the mistakes department. Three plays after Garcia's blunder at Vandy's 36-yard line, Smith was pressured by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who forced Smith to fumble the ball. Spur Antonio Allen then picked it up, raced toward the end zone, fumbled and Melvin Ingram recovered the ball in the end zone to put South Carolina up 7-3.

After South Carolina's score, Vanderbilt had minus-9 yards of offense (25 passing, -34 rushing) and South Carolina was working with three Garcia interceptions.

U-G-L-Y.

Vanderbilt finally breaks through

September, 24, 2011
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It hasn't been a pretty one so far.

South Carolina has watched as two Stephen Garcia passes have found Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward and the Commodores have run just nine plays for 16 yards.

But that last interception, which Hayward saw coming before Garcia even released the ball, was returned 23 yards to South Carolina's 22-yard line. The Commodores didn't do much, but they kicked a field goal and lead 3-0 as the first quarter winds down.

The Commodores have done a good job of containing South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. He has just four carries for 8 yards. The Gamecocks have actually come out passing, testing this secondary. So far, that hasn't been wise.

Franklin, Commodores living in the moment

September, 16, 2011
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Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin is fully aware what the skeptics are saying about him.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Jim Brown/US PresswireCoach James Franklin has Vanderbilt players believing they can turn the program around.
“Probably the most criticism I’ve gotten since I’ve arrived here is that I’ve done a lot of talking,” Franklin said. “My point is that all I’ve really done is sold our kids and sold our program and sold what this university has to offer.

“If there’s something wrong with that, then they’re just going to have to keep on criticizing me.”

It’s a massive sales job, indeed.

Vanderbilt has had just one winning season in the past 28 years and finished with three wins or fewer 11 times in the past 16 seasons.

The Commodores’ reputation as the SEC’s perennial doormat has almost become ingrained throughout the conference.

That would be a tough history for any coach to overcome.

But a big part of what Franklin is selling is that he doesn’t care about history. All he cares about is what’s right in front of him, and on the heels of a 2-0 start, the Commodores like what they see heading into Saturday’s home game with Ole Miss.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence. Coach Franklin and his staff are confident guys, and that’s rubbed off on all the players,” said Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward, who returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown to turn last week’s Connecticut game in the Commodores’ favor.

“We like it that coach Franklin is out there selling us and not afraid to tell people that he wants to compete for championships. This is not the same old Vanderbilt, and we plan on going out there and backing up coach Franklin with our play. The way you do that is to win one game at a time.”

The atmosphere around campus for Saturday’s game against Ole Miss might not rise to the fever pitch it did back in 2008 when the Commodores were 4-0 and hosting No. 13-ranked Auburn with the ESPN GameDay crew on hand.

Still, there’s a real buzz on the West End about football, and it’s a buzz that will only grow louder if Vanderbilt can take down Ole Miss for the third time in the past four seasons and go to 3-0.

We’re back on that history thing again, which isn’t one of Franklin’s favorite topics, but it’s worth noting that the Commodores have started a season 3-0 only four times in the past 60 years.

Don’t look for that tidbit to be a part of Franklin’s pregame speech to his players Saturday.

Rather, his message will be that there’s nothing different about this game than the previous two.

“We’re not at a point in our program where we start thinking about the significance of this game compared to another,” Franklin said. “I want our kids staying in the moment and focusing on six seconds. I don’t ask them to play great for three hours. I want them to give me their entire focus, effort, attitude and passion for six seconds at a time and then let’s do it again and again and again.

“Let’s focus on this game this week. I don’t care what the future holds, and I don’t care what we have or haven’t accomplished here in the past.”

The Commodores have hardly been dominant through two games. But what they have been is resourceful, and they’ve shown a penchant for doing something they’ve rarely done in the past.

Finishing games.

Vanderbilt led Elon 21-14 in the third quarter of the season opener, but scored 24 unanswered points to pull away and win easily.

Last week, the Commodores led 14-3 early, then fell behind 21-14 when Connecticut returned a fumble for a touchdown, but had the presence to regain the lead thanks to Hayward’s pick-six and some key defensive stops in the fourth quarter.

It’s a veteran defense with just about everybody back from last season, and the Commodores are playing that way right now.

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has also done a nice job of mixing things up and bringing pressure at key times. Vanderbilt leads the SEC in turnover margin at plus-4, which includes seven forced turnovers.

“When you look on the defensive side of the ball, we have more senior leadership and more seniors that have played and been productive,” Franklin said.

The Commodores are still searching for some consistency on offense, although their issues in the offensive line aren’t likely to go away any time soon. They lost starting left guard Jabo Burrow last week after he gave up football because of concussion concerns, moving redshirt freshman Chase White into the starting lineup.

Connecticut sacked Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith seven times last week.

“We knew the offensive line was going to be a challenge coming into this year,” Franklin said. “Then we lose a starting guard and had to move guys around. Until we’re able to get that group working for a couple of weeks together and build up some rapport between them and cohesion, that’s going to be an issue.”

In the meantime, this is a team that’s going to have to win with defense.

“We’ve got each other’s backs,” Hayward said. “That’s the way it is with this team and the way it’s going to be all season.”

Commodores off to a 2-0 start

September, 11, 2011
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Vanderbilt coach James Franklin insisted when he took the job that he didn't care what the Commodores hadn't been able to do in football.

All he cared about was what they were going to do.

Well, two games into the 2011 season, they're unbeaten after rallying past Connecticut 24-21 on Saturday.

There's a lot to be excited about right now if you're a Vanderbilt fan. But right at the top of the list is the fact that this team knows how to finish games.

That was the case in the opener when Vanderbilt pulled away and dominated the second half against Elon, and the Commmodores did it again Saturday by scoring 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

No play was any bigger than Casey Hayward's 50-yard interception return for a touchdown to tie the game at 21-21 with 6:45 to play.

And speaking of defense, Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop kept the pressure on the entire game. Not only did the Commodores keep the Huskies' offense from scoring a touchdown, but they scored a defensive touchdown of their own thanks to Hayward's pick-6.

Vanderbilt finished the game with five sacks and also forced four turnovers.

It's the first two-game winning streak for the Commodores since 2008 and sets up what will be a huge game for them next week at home against Ole Miss.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 8, 2011
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LSU made the SEC’s biggest splash in Week 1, while Georgia hardly splashed at all in a disappointing 35-21 loss to Boise State in the Georgia Dome.

Now, it’s on to Week 2, which is highlighted by a couple of key conference clashes, one of those involving Georgia.

Here’s a look at what to watch this weekend:

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/David TulisQB Aaron Murray, center, and Georgia face a huge game Saturday against SEC rival South Carolina.
1. Georgia’s shot at redemption: As disappointing as the Boise State loss was last week, a win against South Carolina would go a long way toward giving the Bulldogs a new lease on life. In fact, when you survey Georgia’s remaining SEC schedule, you could make the case that the Bulldogs would emerge as the favorite to win the East if they can take down the Gamecocks on Saturday at Sanford Stadium. That’s how quickly it can change in this league. Georgia, which would own the head-to-head tiebreaker against South Carolina, doesn’t play Alabama, Arkansas or LSU from the Western Division this season. It’s just one game, but it’s a game that could completely change the complexion of the Bulldogs’ season.

2. Lassoing Lattimore: South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore introduced himself to the SEC, and in particular Georgia, last season with 182 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries. The Bulldogs simply couldn’t tackle him, which has been a recurring problem for just about everybody who’s faced Lattimore. The Bulldogs get another shot at him on Saturday, but will be shorthanded. Starting inside linebacker Alec Ogletree fractured his foot in the opener and will miss the next four to six weeks. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Lattimore gains yards after contact as well as anybody Richt has seen in a long time.

3. Garcia to the rescue: This week, it’s Stephen Garcia’s show, at least until he takes a sack or throws it somewhere he’s not supposed to. Steve Spurrier almost seems to revel in playing two quarterbacks. He’s quick to remind you that he’s played two quarterbacks on four of the eight conference championship teams he’s coached. And while sophomore Connor Shaw started the opener last week against East Carolina, South Carolina had more success on offense once Garcia entered the game in the second quarter. So it’s Garcia’s turn to start this week at Georgia. Tune in Saturday to see if he finishes the game.

4. Going on the road: There’s still no definitive answer on which quarterback gives Alabama the best chance to win. Nick Saban is content, for now anyway, to keep playing AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims, which means they will get their road indoctrination this weekend at Penn State. Going against the Nittany Lions’ defense in a hostile environment should provide a much clearer picture of who’s best equipped to lead the Tide’s offense right now. McCarron looked comfortable throwing from the pocket in the opener and finished with 224 passing yards, but he also threw two interceptions. So did Sims. Four more interceptions this weekend could make for some long faces at the Capstone, where they’d almost forgotten what an offensive interception looked like. Greg McElroy threw just five interceptions in 313 attempts a year ago.

5. Maroon-faced crowd: There’s no such thing as a welcome mat being laid out for any visiting team in the SEC, but Mississippi State’s sure to get an extra nasty reception Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Remember, it was Mississippi State that went to the NCAA about Cecil Newton’s solicitation of money from Mississippi State boosters in order for his son, Cam, to sign with the Bulldogs. What ensued was a firestorm of controversy with Newton being declared ineligible for a day and then having his eligibility reinstated by the NCAA in time for the Tigers’ stretch run to a national championship. Newton won’t be around this weekend, but you can bet some bad blood still remains … on both sides.

6. Tennessee air show: By now, it’s safe to say that sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray has established that he can throw the football. Dating to last season, he’s thrown 18 touchdown passes in his past six games. He’s yet to go against any juggernaut defenses as a starter and won’t again this Saturday against Cincinnati, but the Vols are going to need him to continue stretching the field to help get their running game going. They were just OK running the ball against Montana in the opener, and as talented as Bray is, they don’t want to get into the kind of rut where they’re having to throw the ball 40-plus times to have a chance against the better teams.

7. Two-way Hayward: One of Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin’s priorities was to find more playmakers on offense. He might have found one … on defense. Casey Hayward, the Commodores’ All-SEC senior cornerback, had a 23-yard run on offense in the opener. It’s a package that Franklin would like to see expand. Hayward, who had six interceptions last season, also had a 22-yard interception return in the opener. One of the best all-around athletes on the team, Hayward could help fill the void on offense with junior running back Warren Norman slowed by a sore knee. Norman didn’t play in the opener, but is expected to return against Connecticut.

8. More touches for Clemons: Watching Kentucky’s listless performance on offense last week was one thing. But listen to coach Joker Phillips, and the disappointment in his voice drives home just how bad the Wildcats were in the opener on the offensive side of the ball. Help might be on the way. Phillips wants to get true freshman running back Josh Clemons more touches after Clemons was one of the few offensive players to show a spark last week. He had a 14-yard touchdown run and had four of Kentucky’s seven runs that were 5 yards or longer. Phillips felt before the season that Clemons had a chance to be special, and the Kentucky coach has seen enough one game into the season to know that the 5-10, 200-pound freshman needs to be a bigger part of the Wildcats’ offense.

9. Quarterbacking the Rebels: The Ole Miss quarterback situation remains murky. Barry Brunetti started the opener and wasn’t very effective, although he threw the ball just three times. Zack Stoudt entered the game late in the second quarter and went the rest of the way. He’s the Rebels’ best pocket passer and gave them a lift, but also fumbled the ball away when he was sacked late in the game. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said Stoudt would open the game as the starter Saturday against Southern Illinois, but there’s also a chance that Randall Mackey could see his first action. Mackey gives the Rebels a run-pass dimension and was impressive in the preseason. He was arrested, though, in August and charged with disorderly conduct, and Nutt suspended him for the opener.

10. Touchdowns to go around: Four different players scored touchdowns for Arkansas in the opener, including Joe Adams on a pair of punt returns. That number is only going to go up, which is one of the reasons the Hogs are so explosive on offense. Defenses have to make tough choices on who to shadow. Jarius Wright had two touchdown catches last week, and you know it’s just a matter of time before Greg Childs and Cobi Hamilton get into the act. The Arkansas staff also has big plans for freshman receiver Marquel Wade. The Hogs’ longest run in the opener was 14 yards by De’Anthony Curtis, so you can bet that they’ll be looking for a few more explosive plays in the running game Saturday against New Mexico.

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