NCF Nation: Chris White

Maybe Jordan Canzeri thought AIRBHG was asleep. Iowa's spring game, after all, is just two days away.

Or maybe Canzeri is bold enough to defy Iowa's dastardly deity.

Canzeri, who can include himself among the countless victims of AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God), thinks the fortunes of Iowa's running back group are about to change in 2013.

"The experience level is really high, so that's great," Canzeri told this week. "The previous years, we had young backs fill up the position. Now we all know what we're getting into. We're all ready for it.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Jordan Canzeri
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa running back Jordan Canzeri suffered a torn ACL last spring and missed the season, but he's back competing for the Hawkeyes.
"So no bad luck next year."

Iowa fans hope those aren't infamous words, and they've witnessed first-hand the damage AIRBHG does to the Hawkeye running back room. The attrition at the position has been unlike anything we've seen in the Big Ten in recent memory, but what few point out is the fact Iowa continues to produce quality ball-carriers.

The Hawkeyes have three of them this spring in Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Canzeri. All three have started games, and all three are receiving a good amount of reps in practice.

If AIRBHG just stays away, Iowa's running backs could be the strength of an offense that needs a boost after finishing 114th nationally in 2012.

"I definitely think so," Canzeri said. "The starting position, that's something me, Mark and Damon are looking to get, but whoever doesn't get that position, the rotation itself will be strong. Mark, he's running so much better, and Damon and I both became better. For us three backs, we're all different in many ways.

"For us to be able to rotate, if that happens, it'll be trouble for the defenses to go against."

Canzeri entered last spring as the potential starter but suffered a torn ACL. Bullock ended up starting the season opener and rushing for 150 yards in a win against eventual Orange Bowl participant Northern Illinois.

Yet he, too, fell victim to AIRBHG, suffering a concussion against Northern Iowa. That cleared the way for Weisman, a little-known fullback who had transferred from Air Force. Weisman plowed his way to a brilliant four-game stretch -- 623 rush yards, eight touchdowns -- before being sidelined with an ankle injury.

Weisman is back to full strength this spring and has been working with new running backs coach Chris White to refine his game.

"I'm trying to get two hands off the ball," he said. "I used to carry the ball with two hands, but you want to be able to get through traffic, so you get that extra hand off for balance and you try to get those extra defenders off of you. And then just making one cut instead of trying to run over everyone.

"It's second nature to do that, but you remind yourself every time you get the ball to switch it real quick and try to make those moves."

White said earlier this spring that the 225-pound Weisman is even making some jump cuts in practice.

"I want Mark to break arm tackles," White said. "I want Mark to really stick his foot in the ground and run through a guy or run around a guy or stiffarm a guy or break a tackle. That's the thing that I'm challenging Mark to be -- a complete back."

Weisman is willing to play running back or fullback, and Iowa is practicing more with multiple backs on the field, as both Bullock and Canzeri have played some at slot receiver.

"We're committed to running the football," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "It's been nice to have two backs the whole spring. Mark and Damon have both made every practice. That gives you an opportunity to wear down the defense. It also gives you an opportunity, because of their abilities, to put the two of them in the game."

It's a luxury Iowa hasn't had, and one the Hawkeyes likely will need as they work in a new starting quarterback -- Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol or C.J. Beathard -- who will take his first snap in an FBS game this fall.

"Last season, none of us want to go through anything like that again," Canzeri said. "It's made us stronger as a group. We're a lot more focused and we work a lot harder."
Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball. caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.


Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.


Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation


Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.


Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.


Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.


Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.
There was no shortage of momentum swings in the Belk Bowl for both NC State and Louisville, two teams that finished the season on hot streaks and scraped their way into the postseason. Special-teams snafus were a highlight (or lowlight, depending on your seat), and both teams combined for five turnovers. Here’s a look back at NC State’s 31-24 win over Louisville:

How the game was won: NC State scored 14 points off turnovers, and came up with the big defensive stops when needed, including two on fourth downs. Louisville gave up too many big plays and made too many mistakes in the first half and couldn’t overcome them in the second, despite a better defensive job on quarterback Mike Glennon. Glennon set the tone in the first half with a strong passing game and three first-half touchdowns.

Turning point: On fourth-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter, Louisville tight end Chris White missed a block, freeing NC State linebacker Terrell Manning to push Vic Anderson back for a loss of a yard. The play negated an earlier turnover by NC State in which offensive lineman Rob Crisp grabbed a deflected ball, rumbled and fumbled, giving the Cardinals a great shot at making a comeback.

Player of the game: NC State cornerback David Amerson. He had two interceptions, including one he returned 65 yards for a touchdown. His second sealed the win and ended Louisville's chances at a comeback.

Player of the game II: NC State quarterback Glennon. He threw three touchdown passes and one interception in a hot first half and the impressive connection with receiver T.J. Graham was the difference early.

Unsung hero of the game: Terrell Manning. His fourth-down stop of Anderson in the fourth quarter prevented another big momentum swing by Louisville and stifled a potential scoring drive, and he also intercepted Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater on the Cardinals’ first drive of the game. The turnover led to NC State’s first points of the game, a 7-0 lead on a clock-eating 14-play drive. Manning also came up with a big hit on Bridgewater in the waning minute of the game that helped stop Louisville's final attempt at a comeback.

Second-guessing: Why kick the onside kick? With four minutes left in the game and two timeouts remaining, Louisville coach Charlie Strong elected for an onside kick. With 10 players ready to guard against it, there was no surprise element this time around. NC State recovered the ball on the 41-yard line. Let the defense make a stop and give the offense a chance to do its job.

Record performance: Amerson ended the game with his 13th interception of the season. He became the ACC's leader for interceptions in a season with two against Louisville. His interception return for a touchdown gave NC State a 31-10 lead.
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.”

SEC combine recap

March, 1, 2011
Some numbers and observations from the NFL combine workouts concerning former SEC defensive linemen and linebackers:
  • It sounds like Alabama's Marcell Dareus might have passed Auburn's Nick Fairley in the eyes of NFL scouts as the top interior defensive lineman in the draft. Dareus (6-foot-3 and 319 pounds) ran a 4.94 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.69 10-yard split. The Scouts Inc. guys (Todd McShay, Kevin Weidl and Steve Muench) said the combine couldn't have gone better for Dareus, who showcased a blend of quickness, power and strength during the drills.
  • Fairley (6-3 7/8 and 291 pounds) was lighter than most had expected, but still had a strong showing. He ran a 4.89 in the 40 with a 1.76 10-yard split and also had a 31-inch vertical jump. Like Dareus, Fairley also moved well in drills. Still, the feeling coming out of the combine was that Dareus would be picked higher than Fairley on draft day.
  • Georgia's Justin Houston (6-3 and 270 pounds) worked out with the linebackers, but projects as a right end in the NFL. The Scouts Inc. crew think Houston helped his chances of being a first-round pick with his performance at the combine. He ran a 4.68 in the 40 and posted a 10-5 broad jump and 36.5-inch vertical jump. He also has huge hands (10.^ inches), long arms (34) and a wide wingspan (81]).
  • The Scouts Inc. crew reported that LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis didn't look as explosive or agile as expected and had to re-start two different drills.
  • Also, Baylor's Phil Taylor (6-3 and 344) continued to separate himself from Ole Miss' Jerrell Powe (6-1 and 335) at the nose guard position, according to the Scouts Inc. guys. Taylor had the better frame, was in better shape and didn't appear to wear down as quickly as Powe.
  • Mississippi State's Chris White posted a 4.68 in the 40, which was tied for seventh fastest among the linebackers.
  • Georgia's Akeem Dent had a 10-3 broad jump, which was fourth among the linebackers.

The 2010 'Recruiting Nobody Dream Team'

February, 1, 2011
It’s time for our annual “Recruiting Nobody Dream Team” in the SEC.

These are guys who weren’t prep All-Americans, and in most cases, weren't very highly recruited all, but wound up being outstanding players this season. Several of them earned All-SEC and even All-America honors.

It’s a reminder to all the recruiting junkies out there not to dismiss those two- and three-star prospects your school signs on Wednesday.

Once you get on the practice field, stars don’t mean anything.

Here’s a look at our 2010 team, consisting of 15 players:

Auburn receiver Darvin Adams: The Tigers’ leading receiver the past two seasons, pulling in a combined 16 touchdown catches. Coming out of high school, Adams was ranked as the No. 90 wide receiver prospect in the country by ESPN. His only official visit was to Auburn.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Fairley
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIRENick Fairley was ranked as the No. 32 offensive tackle coming out of high school. Last season he won the Lombardi Award and was one of the most dominant defensive players in college football.
Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard: He had 19 rushing touchdowns and led the Bulldogs in rushing with 968 yards. He was unranked at his position coming out of high school by ESPN. He had an offer from Houston pulled late and signed with Jackson State. He ended up going to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before transferring to Mississippi State.

Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette: The Hogs’ sack leader with seven this season and a second-team All-SEC selection. Bequette was unranked at his position by ESPN coming out of high school. Kansas State was his only other scholarship offer.

Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden: He just missed 1,000 yards rushing this season and also led the Rebels with 32 catches. Bolden was unranked at his position by ESPN coming out of high school, and even though he was from Baton Rouge, La., LSU’s only interest in him was as a defensive player.

South Carolina offensive guard Garrett Chisolm: A former walk-on who emerged this season as the Gamecocks’ best offensive lineman and a second-team All-SEC selection by the coaches. Chisolm attended South Carolina in 2008, but didn’t play football.

Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb: A star quarterback in high school who lived about 15 minutes from Neyland Stadium. Tennessee didn’t seriously recruit him until the very end. Cobb set an SEC record this season with 2,396 all-purpose yards and was second in the SEC with 84 receptions. He earned several first-team All-America honors.

LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu: One of the best freshmen in the SEC this season, Mathieu was ranked as the No. 36 cornerback prospect nationally in the 2010 class. LSU picked up on him at one of its camps. The other schools recruiting him at the time were Tulane, SMU, Miami (Ohio), Southern Miss, Louisiana-Monroe and Florida International.

Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley: The Lombardi Award winner this season and most dominant defensive tackle in college football. Fairley was ranked as an offensive tackle coming out of high school in 2007, No. 32 nationally. He didn’t qualify academically and went to junior college for two years before returning to Auburn.

Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward: Tied for second this season in the SEC with six interceptions, Hayward will be one of the top returning cornerbacks in the league next season. He was unranked at his position by ESPN coming out of high school. His other offers were Southern Miss, Troy and Middle Tennessee.

Alabama safety Robert Lester: In his first season as a starter, Lester tied for second nationally with eight interceptions. He was ranked as the No. 39 safety in the 2008 class, and a lot of people thought he might have been more of a throw-in to help get his high school teammate, Julio Jones.

Arkansas offensive tackle DeMarcus Love: A first-team All-SEC selection, Love was the anchor of the Hogs’ offensive line at left tackle. Coming out of high school in Dallas, he was ranked as the No. 78 offensive guard prospect in the 2006 class and chose Arkansas over Kansas.

Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz: A former walk-on who earned a scholarship at Tennessee, Reveiz was a team captain each of the past two years and tied for fifth in the SEC this season with 108 tackles.

South Carolina defensive end Devin Taylor: A first-team All-SEC selection, Taylor led the Gamecocks with 13 tackles for loss. He was ranked as the No. 72 defensive end prospect coming out of high school and chose South Carolina over Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Duke and Kentucky.

Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan: The SEC’s tackles leader this season with 144. Trevathan was also a first-team All-SEC selection. But coming out of high school, he was unranked at his position by ESPN. His other official visits were Purdue and Central Florida.

Mississippi State linebacker Chris White: A first-team All-SEC selection, White led the Bulldogs this season with 15.5 tackles for loss. He was unranked at his position coming out of high school and attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. South Florida and South Alabama were his only other offers.
Mississippi State makes its first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since the 1998 season on Saturday when it faces Michigan at 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Here’s a quick preview of the Progressive Gator Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Middle linebacker Chris White had an All-SEC senior season after moving over from an outside linebacker spot as a junior. He was fourth in the SEC with 15.5 tackles for loss and led the Bulldogs with 105 total tackles. White and fellow senior linebacker K.J. Wright combined for 198 tackles and were the backbone of a Mississippi State defense that was 27th nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.3 points per game. White, who's always around the football, will no doubt keep close tabs on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

WHAT TO WATCH: When the Bulldogs were at their best this season, they leaned heavily on the running game and played keep-away from teams. That will be especially important in this game in terms of trying to keep Robinson and that Michigan offense on the sideline. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 215.8 yards per game. They’d like to get Vick Ballard going early and keep him going. Ballard is one of those move-the-chains kind of backs who has 16 rushing touchdowns, and he’s complemented by LaDarius Perkins, who’s more of a speed guy. The Bulldogs would love nothing more than to turn this game into a smash-mouth affair and shorten the game with long, sustained drives.

WHY TO WATCH: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen just received a new contract that will pay him $2.65 million per year, and he has the Bulldogs on the move in his second season in Starkville. The Mississippi State fans are genuinely stoked for the future. For Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, there’s no guarantee of a future, at least not in Ann Arbor. Whether or not he returns for a fourth season remains to be seen, but a loss to Mississippi State certainly wouldn’t help his cause.

PREDICTION: Mississippi State 28, Michigan 24. Robinson is as healthy as he’s been since early in the season, which means he’s probably going to get his yards. The key is keeping him out of the end zone, and the Bulldogs have been stingy all season when it comes to giving up points. They also thrive on pounding teams in the running game, and the Wolverines haven’t been able to stop the run all season. What makes anybody think that's going to change now?

SEC helmet stickers: Week 7

October, 17, 2010
After another topsy-turvy weekend in the SEC, the choices for helmet stickers were tough ones.

We could easily hand out 10 or more, but here are the five we came up with in what was a wild Week 7:

Mississippi State linebacker Chris White: The Bulldogs’ defense was just one of the stories Saturday in the 10-7 win over Florida, the first time Mississippi State has won in Gainesville since 1965. Setting the tone for that defense was White, who was everywhere. The Bulldogs’ senior middle linebacker finished with 11 total tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Manny Diaz’s Mississippi State defense has held five of its seven opponents to 17 points or less this season.

Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline: Making a strong bid as the SEC’s most improved player this season, Hartline was also long on courage Saturday night. He stood in there repeatedly against a fierce South Carolina rush and completed 32 of 42 passes for 349 yards, for four touchdowns and no interceptions. His 24-yard scoring pass to Randall Cobb on a fourth-and-7 play was the game-winner for the Wildcats in their 31-28 victory over the Gamecocks. Hartline, who’s been through the ringer during his career at Kentucky, threw three of his touchdowns in the second half to rally the Wildcats from a 28-10 halftime deficit.

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: Another week, another helmet sticker for Newton. He accounted for four touchdowns in Auburn’s 65-43 win over Arkansas and had 328 yards of total offense. The 6-6, 250-pound Newton rushed for 188 yards on 25 carries and scored three touchdowns on the ground. He also had a 15-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake. Newton has accounted for 25 touchdowns on the season -- 13 passing and 12 rushing. He also has 860 rushing yards in seven games. Only one quarterback in SEC history has ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. Auburn’s Jimmy Sidle had 1,006 yards in 1963.

Alabama running back Trent Richardson: The Crimson Tide’s sophomore running back broke the game open with an 85-yard screen pass for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Alabama’s 23-10 win over Ole Miss. Richardson finished with 220 all-purpose yards. He leads the SEC in all-purpose yardage, averaging 183.1 yards per game.

Kentucky coach Joker Phillips: A lot of teams would have folded their tents after getting down 28-10, especially coming off three straight losses. But there’s a toughness and a resilience about the Wildcats that reflects their head coach. Their 31-28 comeback win over South Carolina was Kentucky’s first ever over a Steve Spurrier-coached team, and props go out to Phillips for keeping his team in tune mentally and emotionally during a very difficult stretch.