NCF Nation: Christine Michael

The first round of the 2013 NFL draft tonight figures to reinforce how talented the league has been over the past few years.

As many as 13 SEC players could go in the first round.

But what about those guys not projected to go in the first round? Who are those players from the SEC expected to go later in the draft who will end up having successful NFL careers?

Keep in mind that Houston Texans All-Pro running back Arian Foster wasn’t even drafted.

Edward Aschoff has come up with five SEC players not on everybody’s first-round radar that he thinks he will go on to have successful NFL careers, and I’ve come up with five of my own.

The ATL Kid gets to go first:

1. D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: He's long, rangy and saw his stock rise after a solid senior season. Swearinger, who has very good bulk for either safety spot, can be a ballhawk/quarterback of the defense and make plays close to the line inside the box.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIMarcus Lattimore has struggled with injuries, but when healthy he's the type of playmaker teams covet.
2. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina: He might have had two major knee injuries, but Lattimore will be an absolute steal for any team that drafts him. It might take him a while to get back up to speed, but we all know that a healthy Lattimore is a tremendous every-down back and is exactly what NFL teams want.

3. Cornelius Washington, DE, Georgia: Washington didn't get a ton of publicity with all the other big names on Georgia's defense, but pro scouts are excited about his potential because of all that athleticism and speed. He'll move to outside linebacker in the NFL and has all the pass-rushing tools to be a stud at the pro level.

4. Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: It's not every day that a former high school cornerback/safety prepares for playing middle linebacker in the NFL, but that's exactly what Bostic is doing. He has good speed in coverage, can blitz and play the run. He also has great field instincts.

5. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Last season wasn't great for Wilson, but he was still able to pass for more than 3,300 yards. He has great mechanics and a real NFL arm. He might start off as a backup, but has the potential to be a solid starter down the road.

Now, it’s my turn:

1. D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: We agree on the top guy. Swearinger might have been the most underrated player in the SEC last season. He can play strong or free safety and has a knack for making plays whether he’s in run support or in coverage.

2. Dallas Thomas, OG, Tennessee: Thomas unselfishly moved inside to guard as a senior after starting 25 straight games at left tackle. He’s versatile, tough and has more than held his own against some of the best defensive linemen in the country.

3. Barrett Jones, C, Alabama: He’s certainly not the strongest offensive lineman in the draft and is also coming off foot surgery after gutting it out in the BCS National Championship Game. But you win with people like Jones, who’s proved he can play anywhere you put him on the offensive line.

4. Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky: Yes, another offensive lineman and one who probably didn’t get his due the last couple of years because of the Wildcats’ struggles. But he’s a big, powerful guy who will fight you on every down and will play for a long time in the NFL.

5. Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M: This may be a bit of a gamble because Michael has had injury issues and some off-the-field problems. But he has the blend of size, speed and power that all NFL teams are looking for. If he gets in the right situation, look out.
We checked on the SEC's 3,000-yard passers from 2012 on Thursday, so we're taking a look at the running backs who hit the coveted 1,000-yard mark last fall.

Last summer, we looked at 10 running backs we thought could eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark. The SEC had four players reach 1,000 yards on the ground in 2011, and had nine, including Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, in 2012. I thought it was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback?

Here's how the 10 running backs we looked at last year did in 2012:

1. Isaiah Crowell, Georgia: Well, maybe if he actually played a down for the Bulldogs this year he might have had a chance to reach 1,000 yards. Instead, Crowell was dismissed before the season and spent 2012 rushing for 842 yards and 15 touchdowns at Alabama State.

2. Knile Davis, Arkansas: Davis said he was 100 percent after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury, but he never displayed the explosiveness and strength that made him a star in 2010. Davis was still hesitant at times and carried the ball only 112 times for 377 yards and two touchdowns.

3. James Franklin, Missouri: His laundry list of injuries and a banged-up offensive line didn't really help the dual-threat quarterback when it came to running the ball. A year removed from almost getting to 1,000 yards, Franklin rushed for just 122 yards and averaged 1.4 yards per carry in the process.

4. Eddie Lacy, Alabama: Real shocker that an Alabama running back bulldozed his way past 1,000 yards. Lacy overpowered defenders and left plenty looking silly with his patented spin move all year, finishing the season ranking third in the SEC with 1,322 yards and tying for second with 17 touchdowns. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry.

5. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina: For the second straight year, Lattimore's pursuit of 1,000 yards was cut short by a devastating knee injury. He rushed for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns on 143 attempts before dislocating his right knee and tearing multiple ligaments against Tennessee on Oct. 27.

6. Christine Michael, Texas A&M: Like Lattimore, Michael was coming off of an ACL injury this fall, but he never seemed to really fit in the Aggies' new spread scheme. Eventually, he really wasn't Texas A&M's first option at running back and he finished the season with 417 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games of action.

7. LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State: Perkins spent most of the year near the top of the SEC in all-purpose yards and was one of the toughest runners in the league. He averaged a stout 5 yards per carry and finished the year with 1,024 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.

8. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt: For the second straight year, Stacy finished the season with more than 1,000 yards for the Commodores. Even with a few more weapons to use on the offensive side, Stacy rushed for 1,141 yards and 10 touchdowns on 207 carries.

9. Spencer Ware, LSU: Ware wasn't the same workhorse that he was for the Tigers in 2011. He played in 12 games, but only started four and carried the ball just 94 times for 367 yards (that's just 3.9 yards per carry). He finished fourth on the team in rushing and scored just one touchdown in 2012.

10. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Pretty good assumption last summer. Yeldon made sure he and Lacy were a migraine for defenses, as he pounded and darted his way to 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry and 74.1 yards in SEC games. Lacy packed the punch, while Yeldon showcased the moves last fall.

Who was overlooked:
  • Mike Gillislee, Florida: He proclaimed before the season that he'd rush for 1,500 yards and more than 20 touchdowns. He didn't get there, but he did become the first Gator to rush for 1,000 yards (1,152) since 2004. He basically was Florida's offense and added 10 touchdowns on the ground.
  • Todd Gurley, Georgia: We looked at the wrong Bulldog last summer. Gurley made more of an impact for Georgia as a freshman than Crowell did in 2011, finishing second in the SEC in rushing (first among running backs) with 1,385 yards and added 17 touchdowns to his 6.2 yards per carry.
  • Kendial Lawrence, Missouri: He was almost forgotten because of the year Henry Josey had for most of the 2011 season, but Lawrence was Mizzou's most consistent offensive weapon last fall, rushing for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
  • Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: The Heisman winner was arguably the nation's most elusive player in the country when he took off running. He shredded defenses all season and led the SEC with 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 7 yards per carry.
  • Tre Mason, Auburn: There wasn't a lot to smile about on the Plains this past fall, but Mason was the best weapon the Tigers had, as he rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging an impressive 5.9 yards per carry.

Manziel and Aggies run over Bulldogs

November, 3, 2012
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Heading into Saturday, Texas A&M had mopped the floor with most of the defenses it faced. But it just couldn't get by quality defenses in the second half.

The 16th-ranked Aggies had a lot to prove against No. 15 Mississippi State and its defense, and they didn't disappoint. Behind flashy freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Aggies rolled up 693 yards in their 38-13 win against the Bulldogs.

Mississippi State's defense was looking to rebound after getting pounded by No. 1 Alabama the week before, but regressed mightily in front of its home crowd. Johnny Football gashed the Bulldogs for 129 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and also threw for 311 yards. The only positive for the Bulldogs' defense was that it didn't allow a passing touchdown from Manziel.

And when Manziel wasn't gutting the Bulldogs' defense, running back Ben Malena and Christine Michael did a pretty good job of helping their quarterback out, as they combined for 162 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries.

Receivers Mike Evans and Ryan Swope also combined for 18 catches for 218 yards.

Texas A&M (7-2, 4-2 SEC) took a big step forward, as it continues to grow in its first year in the SEC, while the Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2) took a major step back. It's becoming painfully obvious that Mississippi State's soft early schedule masked a lot of issues this team has on both offense and defense.

Quarterback Tyler Russell looked efficient during the first part of the season, but in the past two games, he's thrown for 381 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions on 34-of-60 passing. The offense has been overmatched and the defense has been gutted by the two best teams the Bulldogs have played this season. A lot of credit has to go to Texas A&M, which held the Bulldogs to 310 yards and just 98 rushing yards, but Mississippi State hasn't had any sort of offensive rhythm in the past two games.

The really troubling issue is how poorly the defense has played. It's given up 30-plus points in three of its past four games (two losses), and more than 1,000 combined yards in the past two weeks.

For a team that looked like it could win nine or even 10 this season, those numbers just got a lot harder with a tough schedule still remaining in the month of November.

Aggies quickly pick up new offense

September, 27, 2012
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With the way Texas A&M’s offense has performed this season, you hardly notice that this team is working under a new staff and a new philosophy.

Kevin Sumlin and his crew have been in College Station for less than a year, but through three games, their up-tempo offense has looked like it’s been an A&M staple.

The Aggies (2-1) are fourth in the SEC in total offense (462.3 yards per game) and second in scoring (45). Now, the majority of Texas A&M’s production has come in the last two weeks against two much weaker opponents in SMU and South Carolina State, after getting shut out in the second half against Florida to open the year. But you can’t ignore the recent numbers from a team that is working with so much that is brand new.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe maturation of freshman QB Johnny Manziel has been key to the success of A&M's offense.
“They expected to be good and they’ve really embraced this offense,” offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. “They’ve played hard so far.”

As the Aggies head into their matchup with Arkansas (1-3) on Saturday, Sumlin still wants to see more. He’s pleased with back-to-back blowouts that saw his team average 526.5 yards and score 118 combined points, but the second-half collapse against Florida still stings.

“We’re capable of more,” Sumlin said.

And more could be scary for defenses, especially with the Aggies adapting to the rushed pace that made Houston so deadly when Sumlin and Kingsbury were there. You don’t see the same passing game, but you see a lot of explosion, and the hope is that the Aggies see a lot of tired bodies across the line of scrimmage.

Making sure players adjusted to the speed of the offense was the top priority this spring. Formations and routes were important, but making sure that players weren’t too gassed to execute properly in the hustle and bustle of the offense were concerns.

“We didn’t want them to play slow,” Kingsbury said.

That’s where strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson came in. With Sumlin pushing spring practice back two weeks, Jackson got eight weeks to get players in tip-top shape to run the offense.

Senior wide receiver Ryan Swope said the rigorous conditioning has paid off. Players went from exhausted this spring to coasting this fall with play after play coming faster and faster.

There were awkward moments with the tempo this spring, but as practices continued and players’ stamina increased, Swope said things clicked on the fly.

“It takes a little bit of time to get the hang of the offense,” he said, “but once you really start getting into the playbook and learning it, it really becomes natural. It becomes real fun.”

Sumlin said he’s seen little change in the offense since spring because players picked up on things so well. It helps to have a veteran offensive line and a talented receiving corps, headlined by Swope and fellow senior Uzoma Nwachukwu.

It also helps that A&M has a stud in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel taking snaps at quarterback. The play and maturation of Manziel, aka “Johnny Football,” has been key to the Aggies’ offensive comfort because of his grit and his ability to extend plays with his legs.

“There’s no telling what he’s going to do, so you always have to be on your toes,” Swope said.

Arkansas coach John L. Smith hasn’t been able to take his eyes off Manziel.

“Their quarterback is a special kid,” Smith said.

“As I look at all of the film and it just jumps out at you is that kid pulling the trigger for them.”

Manziel has combined for 903 offensive yards and 12 touchdowns. For as wild as he can be, Manziel has yet to throw an interception, which pleases a coaching staff that sometimes stresses over what he might do.

“A lot of the plays he’s making all over the field aren’t exactly how they’re drawn up,” Kingsbury said with a laugh.

It’s a learning process for Manziel, and this entire offense. The next step is establishing more of a downhill running game. Manziel does his part, but Kingsbury wants more out of his backs, especially bruiser Christine Michael.

Michael has just 59 yards and two touchdowns this season, and was suspended for the SMU game. Michael has the talent to rush for more than 1,000 yards, but he’s trudged around in this offense. That has to change if A&M’s offense is going to continue to make strides.

And expect a few other changes from the offense with the meat of SEC play coming. Kingsbury knows that in this league, more modification is inevitable.

“With these defenses you see week in and week out, you’re going to have to change things on a weekly basis because they’re so good, they’re so fast and they’re so athletic,” he said. “If you show up and do what you’ve been doing, they’re going to lock it down.”
Texas A&M will be without two senior starters when it attempts to win its first game of the season against SMU on Saturday.

The Aggies announced the suspensions of running back Christine Michael and safety Steven Campbell on Saturday afternoon, just hours before their kickoff in Dallas against the Mustangs.

Campbell notched five total tackles in Texas A&M's 20-17 loss to No. 18 Florida last weekend. Michael pounded out 33 yards on 13 carries with a touchdown.

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin announced the suspensions and gave the reasoning as violation of team rules.

Aggies' Michael taking aim at SEC defenses

September, 5, 2012
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The only thing harder than Christine Michael's luck during his Texas A&M career has been trying to tackle him.

He’s a 5-foot-11, 220-pound bruiser who enjoys running over defenders as much as he does running by them.

If not for injuries, Michael would be universally mentioned among the premier running backs in college football. Talent-wise, he’s already there.

[+] EnlargeChristine Michael
AP Photo/Brandon WadeHealthy again, Christine Michael is ready for his SEC debut.
But now comes the hard part -- staying healthy for an entire season.

“You’ve gotta go out there and do it every game and every season no matter what’s happened to you in the past, but I feel like I’ll be up there with any running back in the country when it’s all over,” said Michael, who’s had his last two seasons cut short by injuries.

“I’m just ready to go show it. You can’t do it by talking about it.”

Michael had 899 yards last season and was on his way to leading the Big 12 in rushing until he tore his ACL in the ninth game against Oklahoma.

The year before, he had 631 rushing yards before breaking his leg in the eighth game against Texas Tech.

The senior from Beaumont, Texas, has missed nine games the past two seasons because of injuries. He still has 2,374 career rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He also has nine career 100-yard rushing games.

“You can’t dwell on it,” Michael said. “I mean, you can, but it’s just going to hold you back. All I know is that I’m healthy and feel as strong as I ever have. I’m ready. This team is ready.”

It’s no secret that first-year Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin likes to throw the ball, but he’s also not going to forget about a weapon like Michael.

And even though Michael has never carried the ball more than 166 times in a season, the Aggies have enough depth at running back to keep him fresh. Junior Ben Malena and prized true freshman Trey Williams will also factor into the rotation at running back.

“We have a great offensive line and a quick tempo,” Michael said. “We’re going to get defenses tired and take advantage of that in the second half. It’s a great offense, and we have a great coaching staff. We’ve been training hard, and it’s time to go.”

In particular, Michael is eager to see what all the fuss has been about SEC defenses. He and the rest of his Texas A&M teammates get their first taste Saturday when Florida visits College Station for the Aggies’ SEC debut.

“It seems like years since I’ve played in any football game,” said Michael, who missed the Aggies’ final four games a year ago. “I’m just hungry to get out there against these SEC guys and put all the struggles I’ve had and all my motivation out there on the field.

“I know there’s a lot of people who don’t believe in us and don’t think we’re ready for this. We want to go out and show not only them, but show ourselves that we’re one of the best teams out there.”

Michael, who was once described by former Texas A&M teammate Von Miller as a “hybrid, mutant running back” with the “speed of a cheetah,” has only one individual goal this season.

While others may talk about 1,000-yard seasons and joining the likes of Marcus Lattimore and Knile Davis as an All-SEC performer, Michael said his goal is be the “strongest man on the field and the most aggressive guy on the field in every game.”

He added, “I just want to put it all out there, and we’ll see how everything turns out.”

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
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It's here.

After hundreds of days of having to watch and follow inferior sports, take up new hobbies and do extra cute things with your better half just to pass the time, we are finally here.

It's college football season, again! The helmets are perfectly shined. The jerseys are hung so neatly and ironed so sweetly. You've gone to the store in advance to prep for the artery-bursting feast that awaits this weekend. Some are even lucky enough to be tailgating as we speak!

Cue up the bands, the grills and the fryers and the big-screen TVs. It's football season, and here's what to watch in the SEC this week:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
C. Michael Bergen/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesSouth Carolina's Marcus Lattimore is one of three star running backs to keep an eye on this weekend.
1. Running backs return: If not for Texas A&M’s game getting postponed, we’d get to see three elite running backs returning to the field after injuries cut their 2011 seasons short. Christine Michael's debut will have to wait, but we’ll still get to see how South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas’ Knile Davis do with the ball in their hands. When they’re 100 percent, it’s hard to find two better running backs out there.

2. Quarterback battles: Florida and Ole Miss still don’t know who their starting quarterbacks will be. Florida coach Will Muschamp said Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will alternate quarters to start Saturday’s game, while Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze anticipates playing both Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti in the opener. This could be the final round of competition at both schools.

3. Questionable offensive lines: So many offensive lines have questions entering the fall. Keep an eye on Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Auburn and Georgia are working in a few new parts, while Florida is hoping most of the parts from last year’s line have improved. Mizzou has all sorts of injury issues and Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vandy are just hoping to stay healthy because depth is an issue for all three.

4. More passing yards: Last year, SEC quarterbacks were laughed at. It seems like that won’t be the case in 2012. Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Tyler Bray and Tyler Wilson could all throw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Missouri’s James Franklin has arguably the best pass-run ability in the league. Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers is a year older and wiser, while Zach Mettenberger is a major upgrade for LSU. If Connor Shaw learns to be more of a pass-first player, he could have a big year.

5. Athletic multitasking: Two players to keep both eyes on this weekend are Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell and Ole Miss’ Randall Mackey. Mitchell will start at cornerback, but Mark Richt would like to play him at wide receiver and possibly have him return punts and kickoffs. He certainly is talented enough to do it, but I hope he gets a lot of sleep and loads up on 5-hour Energy. Mackey will start at running back, but since he’s played both quarterback and receiver for the Rebels, his coaches would like to move him around some. Expect him to line up out wide and as a Wildcat quarterback against Central Arkansas.

6. First days on the job: There will be a lot of debuts this weekend. Freeze will coach his first game at Ole Miss, Mettenberger takes over as LSU’s quarterback and Kiehl Frazier makes his first start at quarterback for Auburn. Freeze isn’t sure what he’ll see, but he’s looking to bring the Rebels’ fan base some much-needed excitement. Mettenberger has bided his time at both Georgia and LSU, but is finally the man. And Frazier can now call Auburn his team. He gets a very suspect defense in Clemson to start.

7. Alabama’s defense: There’s no question that Alabama lost a lot of talent from last year’s historic defense, but the thought is that the Tide will do more reloading than rebuilding. It will get a good first test against Michigan’s high-flying spread offense led by potential Heisman candidate in quarterback Denard Robinson. Nick Saban is still looking for key leaders to emerge, and he thinks he’ll finally find them come Saturday’s game. The key for this defense is getting out faster than it did when it was in a similar situation in 2010.

8. Tennessee’s passing game vs. NC State’s pass defense: Derek Dooley entered the season with a potent passing game, but the loss of Da’Rick Rogers suddenly makes that receiving depth not so attractive. Justin Hunter might be a little rusty and he’ll have a matchup with another potential first-rounder in corner David Amerson. We don’t know what Cordarrelle Patterson will do and he’ll battle Dontae Johnson, who beat out the talented C.J. Johnson before he was ruled ineligible. Dooley said he’s “very concerned” about his receivers, and this battle could determine Friday’s outcome.

9. Vanderbilt’s swagger: Thursday night is a chance for Vandy to make a strong statement to the rest of the SEC. Some are questioning if Vandy will build off of last year’s rebound or revert back to its old ways. The Dores don’t have to beat South Carolina, but they do have to show that same confidence they had last year and that they won’t back down.

10. Possible suspensions: It wouldn’t be opening day without some sort of controversy. Georgia starters Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree both reportedly failed drug tests this spring, and suspensions were expected. But Richt has been very quiet about it and has told everyone to wait until Saturday. Can’t wait …

SEC power rankings: Week 1

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
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Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

We are just days away from the college football season, so it's time to unveil our first batch of power rankings for the regular season.

A lot goes into our power rankings. It isn't just about how strong teams are right now. We look into our crystal ball as well to get a good read on how each team will finish the season -- before it has even started.

For each school, we look at talent coming back, coaching, roster changes, how teams have looked in practice now compared to the spring and uniform style. Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the point.

Here are our season-opening SEC power rankings for 2012:

1. LSU: The gap between the Tigers and Alabama got a lot smaller after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, so this could be viewed as 1A and 1B. Mathieu is a big loss for LSU on defense and special teams, but there is just way too much talent for this team not to make another title run. LSU's offense still has one of the best/deepest running games around and gets an upgrade with quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU also might have the best offensive line/defensive line combo in the nation.

2. Alabama: The defending champs lost a lot of star power on defense, but that unit should still be pretty darn good this fall. There could be some growing pains at times, but the Tide should still have one of the league's best defensive units this fall. The offense might be better and more balanced this fall, even without Trent Richardson. There is a good stable of backs, the nation's top offensive line and quarterback AJ McCarron has a little more explosiveness and athleticism to work with at receiver.

3. Arkansas: Bobby Petrino is gone, and that could be tough for the Razorbacks to overcome in the long run, but the team has bought in to what interim coach John L. Smith is saying. We still need to see how this team -- and Smith -- acts when adversity enters the picture. The offense has two of the league's best in quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, who is back from a serious ankle injury. Wilson lost three NFL receivers, but his receiving corps doesn't lack talent. Questions still surround the defense, which lacked depth last season.

4. Georgia: A load of talent returns on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Aaron Murray could be a Heisman candidate, while linebacker Jarvis Jones might be one the country's best players, regardless of position. Isaiah Crowell is gone, but the Bulldogs seem happy with their stable of running backs and were probably going to run by committee again this season anyway. The defense will take a hit with a couple of key stars suspended to start the year, but this group has elite status. The schedule is set up again for a run to Atlanta.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a filthy defense headlined by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive line should be one of the best in the league with Clowney and Devin Taylor on the ends and Kelcy Quarles coming back in the middle. The secondary has issues, especially with Akeem Auguste going down, but safety D.J. Swearinger and hybrid safety/linebacker DeVonte Holloman are studs. Marcus Lattimore is one of the nation's best, and he appears to be 100 percent after his ACL injury. The hope is that quarterback Connor Shaw will help take some pressure off of him.

6. Florida: The Gators return a fierce defense that should be strong across the board. End/tackle Dominique Easley is coming off an ACL injury, but has the ability to be one of the top linemen in this league. But for Will Muschamp, his second-year success will be determined by what the offense can do. Questions are everywhere, starting with a quarterback battle that isn't close to being settled. There are unproven pieces at receiver and the offensive line, which returns most of last year's parts, struggled mightily in 2011.

7. Tennessee: The Vols have a chance to challenge Arkansas for the league's best passing game. Tyler Bray can throw it all around a bit and has two potential stars in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to throw to. However, Da'Rick Rogers is gone, which means the pressure is on Hunter, who is coming off an ACL injury, and Patterson, who is in from the juco ranks. The defense has a lot of experience and talent, but four new coaches are on board, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville, and it's no secret that Derek Dooley's seat is very hot there.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of confidence in quarterback Tyler Russell, who can finally call this team his. He'll have quite a bit of experienced weapons to throw to, including seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith, who have combined to catch 221 passes for 2,782 yards and 22 touchdowns in their careers. The running game should be strong with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, while the offensive line is just hoping to stay healthy this year. The defense should be solid with a talented front seven and a very gifted secondary, starring potential All-American Johnthan Banks. The schedule is also very favorable in September and October.

9. Missouri: The newbies don't lack confidence, but on paper they lack size up front -- on both sides. The staff and players say it's not a problem, but let's see come mid-October. Quarterback James Franklin appears to be 100 percent after undergoing shoulder surgery and might be the league's best dual-threat QB. He's the key to a spread offense that returns a lot of speed. The defense is experienced and has a strong linebacker group. Ends Brad Madison and Kony Ealy could form a pretty good tandem this fall.

10. Auburn: The Tigers are still a young team and there are two new coordinators in town. Now that Kiehl Frazier has been named the starting quarterback, the offense can start molding around him. He'll have a solid group of running backs to work with, but the line is young and he needs more reliable receiving targets alongside Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen. The defense is loaded up front, headlined by end Corey Lemonier. But the defense as a whole still has a lot of questionable parts for new coordinator Brian VanGorder to work with.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a new coaching staff, have to replace some key starters from last year and will be working with a very green quarterback in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. The good news for him is that the offensive line is very strong, starting with tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Helping Manziel will be senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and stud running back Christine Michael, who is coming back from an ACL injury. The defense is moving to a 4-3, but is stacked at linebacker. The secondary is dangerously young and thin.

12. Vanderbilt: This team surprised a lot of people last year, but opponents won't be caught off guard by the Commodores in 2012. There is good offensive firepower coming back, with quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Plus, there is some good, young offensive talent. But the offensive line has depth issues and will have to use a lot of young guys this fall. The defense is also replacing some key components from last year's team.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats saw their five-year postseason run end after having the SEC's worst statistical offense in 2011. Joker Phillips thinks he has more potential playmakers this fall and is excited about quarterback Maxwell Smith's potential. The offensive line is younger and can't afford an injury to either Matt Smith or Larry Warford. The defense will be strong up front, but is replacing all four linebackers and two starters in the secondary.

14. Ole Miss: New coach Hugh Freeze isn't working with a lot of numbers, as attrition from the past few years is catching up. The offense was one of the league's worst last year, and still has a quarterback battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti going on. The offensive line struggled mightily to grasp Freeze's spread this spring and has to improve quickly. Receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan have a lot of upside, while the defense should be better, especially in the secondary. Still, depth is an issue overall.
It was a simple play that should have produced ordinary results. It was just an inside zone play that Knile Davis was running to the left.

But when Arkansas’ star running back took off, he lost balance and fell. Shortly after, another player came crashing down onto his awkwardly planted left leg. Within seconds, excruciating pain shot through his ankle and panic set in.

“I was shocked,” Davis said. “I couldn’t believe it happened. It was just bad luck, man.”

[+] EnlargeKnile Davis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireArkansas' Knile Davis is looking to return to form after missing all of the 2011 season.
Davis, who had injured his right ankle twice before, then found out just how bad his luck was.

He didn’t think his injury was too serious at first, but refused to put weight on his leg. Once he stripped the tape away from his ankle and saw his foot lifelessly dangling, he knew his ankle was broken.

Davis missed the entire 2011 season only months after ending his 2010 campaign as the SEC’s hottest back, rushing for 1,119 yards and 12 touchdowns in the Razorbacks’ last eight games. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark in six of those games.

Nearly a year removed from his devastating injury, Davis says he’s one step away from being completely ready for the fall. He’s gone through extensive rehab, both mentally and physically, dealt with frustration and pity, but there’s one more stage that he’s yet to complete: contact.

Even though Davis said he was 100 percent this spring, Arkansas’ coaches kept him away from contact as a precaution. The frustrated Davis was left to only go through the motions, but he’ll go through much more in the coming weeks, and he can’t wait.

“Once I get through that,” he said, “I’ll be ready to go.”

It’s been a long road back for the preseason Doak Walker Award watch list member. He went from being a certified beast to crippled in a matter of seconds. He went from punishing defenses to limping around sidelines in street clothes.

The hardest part, Davis said, was the feeling of not being able to help.

“It was tough watching him because you knew he wanted to be out there,” quarterback Tyler Wilson said.

During his time away from the football field, Davis didn’t develop any new habits and he rarely enjoyed himself. He completely immersed himself in watching/dissecting film to raise his football IQ and rehabbing -- lots of rehabbing.

“I didn’t have any fun until I could run and cut,” he said.

Used to sprinting past and sometimes over defenders, Davis began rehab struggling to hop over a line drawn on the ground by head trainer Matt Summers, who practically became a brother during Davis’ rehab. By late October, he was jumping onto a mini trampoline and was jumping on top of exercise boxes by the LSU game.

By late November, Davis “really” could do both. That’s when speculation began that he might play, but Davis knew he wasn’t truly ready and never asked for the chance because he didn’t want to be a distraction.

Once the season was over, Davis seriously considered leaving for the NFL after his draft feedback had him going in the late second or early third round. But after extensive conversations with his mother and Arkansas’ staff, he decided to stay and finish his Arkansas career “the right way.”

And he thinks he’ll be even better and will make Arkansas’ offense even more lethal.

“We’ve always been able to throw it,” interim coach John L. Smith said. “We can throw it with the best of people, but we’ve got to be able to step up and run it to win.

“His coming back this year should provide that piece of the puzzle that we really, really need.”

And Davis has no problem stating that he’ll have a profound impact on Arkansas’ offense. He might have missed all of last season, but he still believes he’s the best at his position -- even with Marcus Lattimore returning and Christine Michael entering the league.

"Still the best," Davis said with a smile. "I'm still the best running back in the SEC. I think they're good, but I feel like I'm the best because of the things I put into it. I bring everything to the game. I don't want to say I don't have a flaw, like I'm perfect, but I don't think you can find a better running back."

With Lattimore and Michael also returning from season-ending injuries, Davis said all three are on equal footing, making the race to the top that much more exciting.

“It’s fair game for all of us,” he said. “It’s all about who’s the closest to 100 percent.

“I hope they’re ready.”
HOOVER, Ala. -- Knile Davis might have lost a year of his football life, but he never lost his confidence.

During last year's SEC media days, Davis proudly proclaimed that he was the league's best running back. This time around, nothing was different. Even after the ankle injury that took his 2011 season away, Davis still believes he's at the top of the running back list in the SEC.

"Still the best," Davis told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I'm still the best running back in the SEC. I think they're good, but I feel like I'm the best because of the things I put into it. I bring everything to the game. I don't want to say I don't have a flaw, like I'm perfect, but I don't think you can find a better running back."

Davis started sprinting and cutting late last fall but didn't go through contact this spring. He insists he could have taken some hits this spring but understood the coaches' orders of holding him out and not risking injury.

Now he's ready to get back to his ways of carving up defenses, like he did during the second half of the 2010 season, when he rushed for 1,028 yards and 12 touchdowns in the Hogs' final seven games.

Davis says he's the best, and he'll have a chance to prove it this fall against two other top backs who are also coming off of season-ending injuries in South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Texas A&M's Christine Michael.

Davis knows and respects both, but he's looking to sprint by them in the rushing race this season.

"We'll see [who's the best rusher]," he said. "It'll be exciting."
HOOVER, Ala. -- Christine Michael might not have done much this spring, but that didn't mean he wasn't ready.

Texas A&M's dynamic running back tore his ACL during the Oklahoma game late in the season but went through spring drills for a couple of weeks before new coach Kevin Sumlin pulled him off the field because he just didn't want to risk anything with his star running back.

"Christine is a guy who was really ready to go in the spring," Sumlin said at SEC media days Tuesday. "About Week 2 or 3, I pulled him off the field. He was doing too much, I thought, early. Anybody who watched him play last year knows that he's a big, physical guy. He doesn't have to explain or try to show me how tough he is. I get that."

Sumlin said he rested Michael to make sure that he got through the spring as healthy as possible before summer workouts started. The next step for Michael is to see whether he can take a real hit, which will come during preseason camp.

For now, Sumlin is confident that Michael, who rushed for 899 yards and averaged 6 yards a carry before his injury last fall, will be ready to go when the season starts. Sumlin said he's at a good weight of 223 pounds and there hasn't been much swelling in his knee.

"To me, he's 100 percent," Sumlin said. "I was looking at him [Monday], he came through the office, he looks great."

It's almost time for hundreds of media folk to pile into a swanky ballroom and kick off another year of SEC media days.

The festivities begin Tuesday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., and last until Thursday afternoon. The event serves as the unofficial kickoff to SEC football season.

So what should we be on the lookout for this year?

Well, the biggest news is all the star power that won't be making the trip. Two of the league's top rushers -- Marcus Lattimore and Christine Michael -- won't be in town. Yes, they are both coming off season-ending injuries, but so is Arkansas' Knile Davis, and he'll be in attendance.

One of the league's best, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray won't be in Hoover, either. Nor will Bulldogs wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.

Some other big names not on the list include Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Missouri quarterback James Franklin.

There are a lot of interesting storylines revolving around all those players, who serve as faces for their respective programs, and it's disappointing that they won't be around this week.

However, some quality names are on this year's roster, including Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones, Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray and South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw.

I'm sure they'll all have plenty to say and should keep us all entertained.

Here are some other things to keep an eye on this week:
  • If you're coming into town, make sure you bring your protective gear for Thursday. That's when Alabama's up, and you'd better believe the lobby will be jam-packed with Tide fans. They come out in full force and expect things to be even tighter this year after that championship.
  • Arkansas players will have to answer a lot of questions surrounding their former coach, Bobby Petrino. How much of a distraction will his exit be this fall?
  • Also, what will new Arkansas coach John L. Smith say? He sure knows how to make a news conference exciting, so don't expect anything to be different in front of all those SEC scribes.
  • One coach not afraid to put on a show while at the podium is South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. The Head Ball Coach has been chirping this year, and he probably won't stop in Hoover.
  • Last year, there were a lot of questions about the quarterback talent in this league. This year, that isn't the case, as the league is as plentiful at the position as it has been in years.
  • Although only Davis will be in town, expect a lot of talk about three of the league's best running backs all coming off major, season-ending injuries.
  • Georgia has had an eventful offseason away from the field, and it's time to see how players and coach Mark Richt are feeling about all of the silly distractions. Also, what's in store for the Bulldogs' running game now that Isaiah Crowell is gone?
  • I wonder how many times Nick Saban and his players will be asked questions about comparisons to the 2010 team. You know how much Saban loves comparison talk. ...
  • Tennessee coach Derek Dooley should field a lot of questions about his job security this week. Regardless of how you feel about the time he's had and all the issues he's had to deal with, his seat is hotter than ever.
  • Texas A&M and Missouri are now officially members of the SEC. How will their players and coaches react to being surrounded by all those SEC writers? And how many more questions will they get about adjusting to their new conference?
  • LSU was on top of the college football world until last year's national championship. The Tigers bring back a boatload of talent, but can they finish things this year?
  • The good news for Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee is their coaches won't have to deal with NCAA questions, unlike last year.
We’ve already examined the quarterbacks in the SEC most likely to pass for 3,000 yards this season.

The guess here is that there will be at least four of them.

Now, it’s on to what the SEC does best: running the football.

Last season, there were four 1,000-yard rushers in the league. In 2010, there were six, and Auburn quarterback Cam Newton led all rushers that season with 1,473 yards.

How many 1,000-yard rushers will there be in 2012?

Here’s the way we would rank them in order of most likely to accomplish that feat:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireMarcus Lattimore headlines a stable of SEC running backs who could top 1,000 yards this season.
1. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina: The only concern is that Lattimore is coming off a knee injury that cut short his sophomore season. But he’s a tackle-breaking machine who will get a ton of carries. The Gamecocks will ride him, although maybe not quite as much as they did last season. In 20 career games, he’s carried the ball 412 times.

2. Knile Davis, Arkansas: Similar to Lattimore, Davis is also coming off an injury. He missed all of last season with a fractured ankle, but churned out 1,322 rushing yards in 2010, which led all SEC running backs. The thing that makes Davis so special is that he can get the tough yards and also has breakaway speed. He averaged 6.48 yards per rush in 2010, which led all NCAA running backs that carried the ball at least 200 times.

3. Isaiah Crowell, Georgia: Talent’s not the issue with Crowell. It’s more mental toughness and durability. But here’s betting that he’s matured and will better be able to grind it out in the fourth quarters of games. He rushed for 850 yards as a true freshman and that’s despite missing large chunks of games. The Bulldogs will have some depth at running back, but Crowell’s too talented not to eclipse 1,000 yards his second time through the league.

4. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt: He’s the only player returning in the SEC that rushed for 1,000 yards last season. Stacy was outstanding for the Commodores, setting a school-record with 1,193 yards. He’ll again be the centerpiece of the Vanderbilt offense, and the offense as a whole should be better. The Commodores made huge strides on that side of the ball last season, and Stacy is as driven as ever to prove that he’s one of the league’s premier runners.

5. Eddie Lacy, Alabama: The Crimson Tide have had a 1,000-yard rusher three of the five seasons Nick Saban has been in Tuscaloosa. And even though Saban likes to use multiple backs, Lacy is the kind of bruiser that will pile up the carries and the yards. He rushed for 674 yards on just 95 carries while backing up Trent Richardson last season. Now, it’s time for Lacy to be the feature back, and he’ll be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the country.

6. Christine Michael, Texas A&M: Michael has had his last two seasons shortened by injuries, and the one last season was an ACL tear. He was on his way to a terrific season a year ago before he was injured and finished with 899 yards in nine games. The Aggies will be looking for something to cling to on offense this season, and Michael is their most proven weapon. If he’s able to finish this season, look for him to do so with 1,000 yards.

7. Spencer Ware, LSU: Take your pick of LSU’s deep stable of running backs. Ware was the workhorse last season until his suspension, and talk about a violent runner. He absolutely punishes people. Watch Michael Ford, too. He actually led the Tigers in rushing with 756 yards last season. Then there’s also Kenny Hilliard, Alfred Blue and the newbie of the group, freshman Jeremy Hill. The best part is they’re all running behind a talented, veteran offensive line.

8. James Franklin, Missouri: Running around and making plays is a big part of Franklin’s game, and you’re talking about a 6-foot-2, 225-pound guy who rushed for 981 yards last season. But coming off shoulder surgery, Franklin may be a little more judicious in determining when he takes off and runs in 2012. The Tigers will need him to stay in one piece.

9. LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State: There’s a lot to like about Mississippi State’s running back quartet. There’s speed, power and a couple of talented redshirt freshmen eager to get onto the field. Keep in mind that the Bulldogs have had a 1,000-yard rusher two of the three years Dan Mullen’s been there, and Vick Ballard just missed it by 32 yards two years ago. Perkins has great speed, but keep an eye on Nick Griffin, too.

10. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: After seeing Yeldon this spring, he’s the real deal. It may be a long shot for him to get to 1,000 yards as a freshman, but he’s going to get his touches. And if something happens to Lacy or if Yeldon simply emerges as the Tide’s most explosive threat the second half of the season, look out. He’s one of those backs who can do it all.

SEC post-spring power rankings

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
11:09
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We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:

1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.

2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.

3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.

5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.

6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.

7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.

8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.

10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.

12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.

13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.

14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.


With two new teams added to the mix, let’s take a look at what we learned in the SEC this spring:

1. Quarterback Central: The SEC gets a bad rap for not piling up Xbox-like passing yards, and granted, it wasn’t a great year for quarterbacks in the league last season. But did you know that an SEC quarterback has been taken in the first round of the NFL draft eight of the last 10 years? And that includes four quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall. The 2012 season has a chance to be one of the best in recent memory for SEC quarterbacks, especially if Missouri’s James Franklin returns to form after undergoing surgery in the spring to repair a torn labrum. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson and Georgia’s Aaron Murray are the two most established quarterbacks. Wilson likely would have gone in the first round had he come out this year. Murray has thrown 59 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, and he also has one of the more talented backups in the league in sophomore Hutson Mason, who shared Offensive MVP honors with Murray in the spring. Some early mock drafts have Tennessee’s Tyler Bray going in the first round, and Bray has one of the strongest arms in the league. Alabama’s AJ McCarron demonstrated in the BCS National Championship Game what he’s capable of and is poised to have a big junior season. South Carolina’s Connor Shaw is one of the more improved quarterbacks in the league, and the new guy on the block to watch is LSU’s Zach Mettenberger.

2. Lining up at LSU: How many defenses out there could lose a pair of first-rounders and come back the next season and potentially be even better? LSU’s defense certainly had that look to it this spring despite the loss of cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers, both of whom declared early for the NFL draft and were taken in the first round. It starts up front for the Tigers, who have the best pair of bookend defensive ends in the country in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Both are potential top 10 picks in the 2013 NFL draft. In the middle of that LSU defensive line is tackle Bennie Logan, who also has a chance to be a first-rounder. And from a pure talent standpoint, sophomore tackle Anthony “Freak” Johnson is exactly what his nickname suggests. Kevin Minter was one of the Tigers’ most improved players this spring at middle linebacker, and in the secondary, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon are all future pros. It’s obviously a defense that’s oozing with talent, but it’s also a defense that still has a chip on its shoulder with the way last season ended.

3. Fighting back: A long list of marquee players in this league missed the spring with injuries and still have to prove they’re all the way back in the fall. Franklin’s surgically repaired shoulder will be a huge key for Missouri in its first season in the SEC, and a lot of eyes will be on the two best running backs in the league. South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore missed the second half of last season after tearing knee ligaments, while Arkansas’ Knile Davis missed the entire season after fracturing his ankle in the preseason. At Ole Miss, they’re keeping their fingers crossed that linebacker D.T. Shackelford can return after he underwent a second knee surgery in March. He missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in the spring. Texas A&M running back Christine Michael is also coming back from an ACL tear. Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter went down in the third game last season with a torn ACL, and Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley is trying to work his way back from a torn ACL suffered in the regular-season finale against Florida State last season.

4. Hogs hanging tough: Sure, the whole Bobby Petrino scandal was embarrassing to the entire state of Arkansas. But the players and coaches on the team didn’t lose focus this spring, and the leadership really came to the forefront. Quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis and linebacker Tenarius Wright picked the team up and made sure that nobody was feeling sorry for themselves, and in the process, reminded everyone that all of their goals were still intact. Credit also goes to the Arkansas coaching staff for handing a very difficult matter about as well as it could be handled. There are more tests to come, but now that John L. Smith is in place as the interim head coach, the program has a clear leader for these next eight months. Nothing is more valuable than strong player leadership, though, and the Hogs proved during that turbulent month of April that they’re made of the right stuff.

5. Getting physical: It was obvious that Florida coach Will Muschamp never felt good about his team’s ability to line up and be physical last season in his first year on the job. There were times that the Gators were downright soft on their way to going 0-6 against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record. So this spring, just about everything they did was directed at being a more physical football team, a football team committed to running the ball and a football team determined to finish games. Muschamp has repeated several times since the end of spring practice that the Gators are a better team right now than at any point last season, and a lot of that goes back to this team adopting the kind of blue-collar, hit-you-in-the-mouth approach that has defined Muschamp’s coaching career. Clearly, he’s excited about where the program is headed, and he’s equally excited that he’ll be better equipped to play the way he wants to during the 2012 season.

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