NCF Nation: Denico Autry
1. It's still Alabama's world: The Crimson Tide went right down to the wire with fifth-ranked LSU. Alabama was outplayed for most of the game, but when it needed a game-winning drive, AJ McCarron delivered, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 72 yards and the decisive 28-yard touchdown on a screen pass. Now the rest of the nation has to continue looking up at the Tide. If LSU had won, the SEC's BCS world might have been turned upside-down, but now Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame are all jockeying for position to play Alabama (if the Tide can continue their winning ways). Alabama controls its own destiny not only on the path to the SEC title game but also the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
2. Mississippi State isn't who we thought it was: The Bulldogs might have started 7-0, but it's clear that the soft early schedule helped mask some of the offensive and defensive issues this team has. The Bulldogs were pummeled by Alabama and then routed by Texas A&M, showing glaring weaknesses in their game. The defensive line is the biggest problem -- the Bulldogs just can't get any pressure on opposing backfields. That defensive line has been pushed around, and junior college transfer defensive end Denico Autry and veteran defensive tackle Josh Boyd haven't lived up to their preseason hype. The Bulldogs are losing the battle up front, and it's hurting the rest of the defense. There's no creativity, and the aggression is minimal. The offense hasn't found any consistency or rhythm in the past two weeks, and with a tough slate remaining in November, the 10 wins we thought Mississippi State could get might not happen anymore.
4. Johnny Manziel poses a real threat to Alabama: With the way Zach Mettenberger threw the ball around Saturday, the coming weekend's Alabama-Texas A&M game just got a lot more interesting. Mettenberger registered a career-high 298 passing yards and a touchdown. Manziel has walked all over defenses this fall and he should be able to make some plays through the air on Alabama's secondary. He should be able to run around a little bit as well. Manziel struggled against Florida and LSU, but ran through Mississippi State over the weekend. He's growing each week and the Aggies offense is getting better and better. There are some holes in Alabama's defense that weren't there last season and Manziel has the ability to exploit them. Alabama should adjust through the week, but keeping up with Manziel will be a tall task for the Tide.
5. Georgia has the talent to take the SEC: When the Bulldogs can play a complete game on the field, they are very hard to stop. We've known that both sides of the ball are loaded with talent, but neither side has been able to live up to its potential at the same time in a game. Saturday, the Dawgs did that in their 37-10 victory over Ole Miss. The offense churned out 533 yards, while the defense held the Rebels' high-flying offense to just 234 yards and forced three turnovers. If Georgia can get past Auburn and play a complete game in Atlanta, the Dawgs could take the SEC title. Could this team beat Alabama? That's yet to be seen, but the team that we saw Saturday would have a chance with an offense that could test Alabama's secondary. Mettenberger picked on the Crimson Tide defensive backs all night, and Aaron Murray has the ability and the weapons to do the same thing. When that defense is clicking it could give Alabama's offense fits.
On one hand, the Bulldogs' defense has a chance to redeem itself after Alabama rolled right over this unit last week. The problem is that Mississippi State is taking on the SEC's best offense.
Texas A&M has the fifth-best offense nationally, averaging 542.9 yards per game, and is third in scoring (45.5). Thanks to a group of talented skill players, a veteran offensive line and the human highlight reel at quarterback, the Aggies' offense has been one of the most fun ones to watch this season.
Mike Evans and Ryan Swope have been outstanding at wide receiver this season for the Aggies, combining for 83 catches for 1,225 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben Malena has been a pleasant surprise at running back (525 yards and five touchdowns).
But we know what really makes this A&M offense tick: Johnny Manziel.
The redshirt freshman has received Heisman love, and he has killed teams with his arm and his legs. He's averaging 277 yards passing and 99 rushing each game. He also has combined to score 29 touchdowns in his first season on the field.
"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw, he'll throw and beat you with his arm. If you give him open spaces, he's going to take off and beat you with his legs," Mullen said. "You have to do everything to contain him."
And good defenses have done so in the second half of games. Florida and LSU clamped down on Johnny Football in their wins against the Aggies, and the Bulldogs are looking to take some of what the Gators and Tigers did and expand on it Saturday.
Mullen knows he has to put pressure on Manziel, but he can't be too aggressive because running lanes could open up. And you obviously can't give him time to stand in the pocket.
Only two defenses have calmed Manziel's storm, and the Bulldogs certainly have the talent to do it, as well, especially with such a talented secondary.
This is the same unit that gave up some big plays against Alabama, but it's also the same unit that has arguably the nation's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for 10 of Mississippi State's 12 interceptions.
Communication issues hurt this group against Alabama, but don't expect these players to have the same sort of issues Saturday. And with the way Manziel likes to improvise, things could get tricky for him if he doesn't settle down under duress.
"Your concern is that this is a really, really good secondary," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Not only is it a good secondary, it's an experienced secondary."
To take some of the pressure off that secondary, all eyes will be on Mississippi State's defensive line. What was expected to be a strong part of this defense hasn't really lived up to expectations.
The line has combined for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through eight games. The core was supposed to be junior college transfer Denico Autry and veteran Josh Boyd. They've combined for just three sacks and seven tackles for loss.
"I want pressure every play," Mullen said. "I guess if every time a team tries to throw the ball and it ends in a sack, that's what I want."
In a perfect world, Mullen would get that. For now, he'll have to hope for flat-out improvement up front. And he'll need it if this defense is going to rebound Saturday.
We’ll now turn our attention to the Western Division and the key newcomers to look for on each team:
- Deion Belue, CB, Jr.: Following in the footsteps of former junior college transfer DeQuan Menzie, Belue has staked his claim to the starting cornerback job opposite Dee Milliner.
- Amari Cooper, WR, Fr.: He’s been one of the Crimson Tide’s most impressive receivers during preseason camp, although he’s been slowed recently by a foot injury.
- T.J. Yeldon, RB, Fr.: Eddie Lacy is the starter at running back, but he’s a bit banged up. Yeldon is an explosive threat who can make things happen both running it and catching it.
- Austin Flynn, DE, Jr.: Having had the benefit of going through spring practice, Flynn has worked his way into the rotation at end and will play a lot of snaps this fall.
- Mekale McKay, WR, Fr.: Also a standout basketball player in high school, the 6-foot-6 McKay was a late signee who has repeatedly turned heads in preseason camp with his ability to go up and get the football.
- Otha Peters, LB, Fr.: A big-time hitter, Peters has worked some with the first team while Tenarius Wright has been out with an injury. The Hogs are thin at linebacker, meaning Peters will play early and often.
- Kris Frost, LB, RFr.: He would have played some last season as a true freshman had it not been for a shoulder injury. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Frost is a freakish athlete who will find his way onto the field at outside linebacker.
- Jay Prosch, FB, Jr.: The transfer from Illinois should not only help open up some holes for the Tigers’ running game, but his arrival also frees up Philip Lutzenkirchen to be a true tight end and more involved in the passing game.
- Greg Robinson, OT, RFr.: Now that he’s had a redshirt season to mature both physically and mentally, Robinson takes over at left tackle for the Tigers and has a huge upside.
- Jalen Collins, CB, RFr.: There’s obviously a big opportunity in the LSU secondary with Tyrann Mathieu gone. Collins will open the season as one of the starting cornerbacks outside when the Tigers go to their nickel package.
- Deion Jones, LB, Fr.: LSU needed reinforcements at linebacker and went out and signed some serious talent in the 2012 class. Jones has been as impressive as anybody to this point and will also be a beast on special teams.
- Jalen Mills, CB, Fr.: How much confidence do the LSU coaches have in the true freshman? He’s poised to be a starter at cornerback in the base defense and has also been working at nickel when the Tigers go to five defensive backs.
- Denico Autry, DE, Jr.: The Bulldogs are banking on Autry being that finisher off the edge that they lacked at times last season. His specialty is rushing the passer.
- Benardrick McKinney, LB, RFr.: The redshirt year was good for McKinney, who appears to have edged out sophomore Ferlando Bohanna for the starting middle linebacker job.
- Charles Siddoway, OT, Jr.: The Bulldogs were looking for some junior college help on the offensive line, and Siddoway looks like he could be the opening-day starter at right tackle.
- Pierce Burton, OT, Jr.: One of several newcomers who will see the field early for the Rebels, Burton has been the starter at right tackle almost from the time he arrived in Oxford from junior college.
- Dehendret Collins, CB, Jr.: Another junior college transfer who will start, Collins will line up inside at the “Husky” position and be the third corner in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme.
- I’Tavius Mathers, RB, Fr.: Mathers has been the talk of the Rebels’ preseason scrimmages with his ability to accelerate and generate big plays. He’ll get plenty of carries this fall.
- De’Vante Harris, CB, Fr.: It’s not every day in the SEC that a true freshman starts at cornerback in his very first game. Harris has played with confidence and great instincts this preseason, which is why he’s earned a starting job.
- Johnny Manziel, QB, RFr.: A fan favorite a year ago, “Johnny Football” will open the season as the Aggies’ starter at quarterback and won’t be hesitant about taking his shots in Kevin Sumlin’s fast-break offense.
- Trey Williams, RB, Fr.: Now that Brandon Williams has not been cleared to play this season by the NCAA, Trey Williams becomes even more valuable in sharing the backfield duties with Christine Michael.
As we get closer and closer to the 2012 college football season, we'll continue to poke and prod every team out there in order to figure out which teams should be front-runners and which teams will be in the rearview mirror for most of the season.
ESPN's KC Joyner points out that one way we can judge teams is by the amount of returning starts they have. But he also points out that sometimes new can be better in his look at four breakout first-time starters for 2012 .
Joyner's lone SEC member is LSU rising junior cornerback Tharold Simon. It's a good pick by Joyner. While I don't think he'll be the game-changer that Morris Claiborne was, he might be a better cover corner in one-on-one situations. Joyner points out some interesting facts concerning the two that might suggest that Simon does have better coverage skills, but isn't the ball hawk that Claiborne was.
We'll find out this season.
We'll find out if other new starters can get the job done and maybe make their positions better this fall as well, so why not take a look at a few more SEC players who will be stepping into new starting roles this fall?
Don't expect to see the obvious candidates, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter and Alabama running back Eddie Lacy aren't on here either because we know what those players bring to the table. Also, no junior college transfers. Sorry Denico Autry.
- Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defensive line will get a lot of attention this fall, as it makes the transition to playing against SEC offensive lines. Ealy is a player who could make much more of an impact this fall. He left spring as a starter on the outside and the coaches think he has a good bit of upside to him. He started just one game last year, registering three tackles for loss, but seemed to be much more comfortable this spring.
- Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Ford made one start in 2010, but missed most of last season because of back issues. That didn't stop him from being one of Auburn's best players this spring and catapulting him to the top of the depth chart opposite Corey Lemonier. The rising junior was extremely disruptive this spring and looks poised to have a big year in 2012.
- Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: The Gators haven't had a power back since Tim Tebow and have struggled to generate any sort of consistent production between the tackles since. In steps Gillislee, who has appeared in 36 games with no starts. He's a bigger body who the coaches think will have much more of an impact up the middle, especially with what the coaches think is an improved offensive line. During his career, Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
- Steven Jenkins, OLB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started during the second half of last season and had a very solid spring in College Station this year. With the Aggies moving to a 3-4 scheme, the coaches expect to get a lot more out of him in 2012. Jenkins has tremendous speed and athleticism and could be a real spark for a defense undergoing changes in a new league like the SEC.
- Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: Kouandjio was one of the top prospects coming out of high school and played in eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. While his conditioning suffered a little as he rehabbed, the hope is that he takes complete hold of the left tackle spot this fall, with Barrett Jones moving to center. Kouandjio has a ton of talent, but he'll have to get back healthy in order to show all his worth.
- Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU: With Rueben Randle gone, the Tigers are looking for a new deep threat in their offense. While Odell Beckham Jr. had a bit of a breakout freshman year, keep an eye on Landry. The rising sophomore might be LSU's most athletic receiver and has a chance to take over as the Tigers' new big-play threat. He has solid speed and his bigger frame could frustrate opposing cornerbacks. Landry and Mettenberger seemed to generate good chemistry this spring, and LSU's staff hopes it carries over to the fall.
- Marcus Lucas, WR, Missouri: Most of the focus when it has come to the Tigers' passing game has revolved around incoming freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. But don't forget about Lucas. He only started three games last year, but the coaches tried to get him on the field as much as possible because of the speed and deep-threat ability he possess. Lucas caught 23 passes in 2011, averaging 18 yards per reception, and registered five touchdowns.
- Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: The Vols were looking to enhance the play of their offensive line, and seeing Richardson's development this spring was a major plus for Tennessee's staff. After spending 2011 on special teams as a freshman, Richardson emerged this spring as the starter at left tackle. Richardson's move to left tackle shifts vet Dallas Thomas to left guard, giving what Tennessee's staff thinks is the best combination on the line.
- Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: The youngster redshirted last year, but could end up as the Tigers' starting left tackle this fall. Robinson said this spring that redshirting was probably the best thing he could have done. It gave him the chance to get much more comfortable with things on the field.
- Avery Williamson, MLB, Kentucky: The Wildcats are looking to replace four starting linebackers from last year and Williamson stood out plenty of times this spring. He registered 49 tackles as Ronnie Sneed's backup at middle linebacker last year and was one of the better defensive players for the Wildcats this spring.
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.
“I didn’t have the grades, and my plans changed,” said Autry, who’s from Albemarle, N.C., a small town about 40 miles east of Charlotte.
It’s a good thing for Mississippi State those plans did change, because Autry has been a force this spring for the Bulldogs after going the junior college route the past two years. He’s given them the kind of edge pressure from his defensive end position that they didn’t possess a year ago.
“That’s what I do best, get to the quarterback,” said Autry, who had three sacks in Thursday’s scrimmage. “I know I can rush the passer, but you can always get better. I think I’ve gotten better this spring. The big thing is that I have to get better in all parts of my game. They’re not going to be passing on every down. You’ve got to be able to play the run, too.”
Ironically, the 6-5, 255-pound Autry found his way to East Mississippi Community College with the help of another SEC assistant.
Auburn linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen was coaching at North Carolina when Autry was in high school and had a connection with East Mississippi Community College defensive coordinator William Jones.
“Coach Thigpen hooked me up with coach Jones at East Mississippi, and that’s how I got to (the state of) Mississippi,” Autry said.
It didn’t take him long to start wreaking havoc on opposing junior college quarterbacks. Autry earned All-America honors last season in leading East Mississippi to the junior college national championship. He collected 11 sacks and 41 quarterback hurries and was rated by most analysts as the top junior college defensive prospect in the country.
The offers came pouring in. Miami offered. So did USC, Oregon, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and North Carolina.
But Autry remembers watching Mississippi State play Alabama and LSU last season and thinking to himself that he could help the Bulldogs get over the top against those teams.
“I watched them against LSU and Alabama,” Autry recalled. “LSU didn’t offer me. Alabama was recruiting me, but they really didn’t offer me when it got down to it. I saw how Mississippi State played both of those teams and wanted to be a part of that.”
Autry was a must-get for the Bulldogs, who desperately needed to add a finisher to their defensive line. Tackle Fletcher Cox gave up his senior season to enter the NFL draft, and of the Bulldogs’ 27 sacks last season, only six came from defensive ends.
“I want to be that third-down guy, somebody that helps get us off the field on third down and takes the other team out of their game,” Autry said.
With the Bulldogs set to conclude their spring on Saturday with their annual Maroon-White spring game, Autry is a big reason there’s a renewed sense of optimism on defense in Starkville. The Bulldogs were fourth in the SEC in scoring defense last season, but eighth in total defense.
"He is who we thought he was," Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson told The Mobile Press-Register. "When he's not out there thinking (too much), he makes us different. I don't always like to say better. I think it's an overused term, but he really makes us different."
Autry said he loves Wilson's attacking style of defense, which he said will be the Bulldogs' calling card in 2012.
"We're a hard-nosed defense that’s going to keep coming after you, and you’re not going to get anything easy against us," he said.
Autry also knows that he's not the first junior college player to come into the league surrounded by a lot of hype. Some of those guys pan out. Others don't.
Pernell McPhee earned All-SEC honors a couple of years back at Mississippi State after starting his career at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College. Jones has said that he thinks Autry is better than McPhee, who's now with the Baltimore Ravens.
Autry would prefer to do his talking on the field ... this fall.
"The only thing that matters is what you do in the games," he said. "That's where you have to prove it."
There are freshmen newcomers, junior college transfers and regular transfers. Regardless, they all come in with the expectations of playing immediately. JUCO standouts and transfers maybe more so than rookies, but the days of automatically redshirting true freshmen are over. Like, dead.
Last year, the SEC saw a few newcomers make immediate impacts. A great example is Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, who transferred from USC back in 2010, but didn't play until last fall. All he did was lead the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss. There was Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, who came from the JUCO ranks to be one of the Hogs' most productive linebackers.
Freshman Isaiah Crowell had an up-and-down season, but was sixth in the SEC rushing, and was named the SEC's freshman of the year. His classmate, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, wasn't too bad, either. You also can't forget about South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was seventh in the SEC with eight sacks.
So, as spring practice begins to wind down around the conference, we're taking a look at five newcomers to keep an eye on in 2012. Some are on campuses, some aren't. Some are obvious choices, and you could be surprised by a couple. Top newcomers can be top league players, or players who will make big impacts on their teams at a position of need.
We're going in alphabetical order, so here's our list:
- Denico Autry, DE, JUCO, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are looking to replace Sean Ferguson at one of the defensive line spots, and Autry was brought in to do just that. The coaches have been extremely impressed with how the former East Mississippi Community College standout has looked in spring practice. People around the program have simply described Autry as a "beast," and the thought is that he'll enter the fall starting at one of the end spots.
- Travell Dixon, CB, JUCO, Alabama: Dixon has had a pretty successful spring, and has had the honor of playing at Alabama's "star" (nickel) cornerback spot. That shows you just how much coach Nick Saban respects Dixon's game. Saban usually puts his most complete defensive backs at the star. That's where Javier Arenas played, and DeQuan Menzie after him. With Alabama losing Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick at cornerback, Dixon has a chance to come in and start immediately.
- Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Fr., Missouri: It was hard to find another 2012 recruit who received the attention that Green-Beckham did. He has drawn comparisons to A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Calvin Johnson. That's pretty good company, and Missouri is expecting DGB to contribute immediately. DGB stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 220 pounds, making him a huge, physical target for quarterback James Franklin. DGB might arrive this summer as Missouri's most talented receiver. It also helps that he has top speed, and could be the deep threat that Missouri's offense needs.
- Latroy Pittman, WR, Fr., Florida: Haven't heard of him? Don't worry, not many have. Pittman committed to Florida so long before national signing day, his recruitment wasn't too exciting or noticeable. However, Pittman, who was ranked the No. 24 wide receiver by ESPN recruiting services, has been very productive in spring practice. He isn't the fastest receiver, but with Florida struggling to find a true go-to receiving target, Pittman has really shined by being one of the Gators' most consistent receivers this spring. Word around Florida's program is that Pittman will definitely see playing time this fall. Receiver is wide open in Gainesville, so Pittman could play his way into quality time.
- Shaq Roland, WR, Fr., South Carolina: With Alshon Jeffery gone, South Carolina is searching for a wide receiver to step up and become a primary target for quarterback Connor Shaw. Right now, Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington will get the first shots, but a lot of players at the position are pretty unproven. Roland was one of the top high school receiving targets last year, and has the playmaking ability that could really spark the Gamecocks' passing game. Roland could be a deep threat or make plays over the middle. He wasn't afraid of contact in high school, and that mentality should carry over to the college level. Adding some weight will be key, but coach Steve Spurrier should have fun working him into the offense.
That’s going to happen when you play in the same league as Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie, Casey Hayward, Stephon Gilmore and Brandon Boykin.
“I felt like I was right up there with those guys, and this year, I know I’m going to be up there,” said Banks, who decided to return for his senior season after weighing his NFL draft options. “But, really, it doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is how I play and how much I help my team get back to being where we think we should be.”
He was the only cornerback in the SEC last season with at least 70 tackles and five interceptions.
“Maybe I can do more this year, if that’s what it takes,” said Banks, who was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2011. “But we have a defense coming back that I think can be even better than we were last year. We’ve got just about our whole secondary back, and it hurts to lose Fletcher (Cox). But I’m excited to see what some of these new guys are going to do on the field. From what I’ve seen, I think Quay Evans and Denico Autry are going to live up to the hype.”
Evans, a 6-3, 305-pound tackle, was an ESPNU 150 member and rated as the No. 13 tackle prospect in the country. He enrolled early and will go through spring practice, which was scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon but has been postponed due to weather concerns. The 6-5, 260-pound Autry was rated as one of the top junior college defensive ends in the country.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play football, and that’s one of the reasons I came back,” Banks said. “Some of the redshirt freshmen like (linebacker) Bernardrick McKinney and (cornerback) Taveze Calhoun are going to make an impact on this defense.”
Banks grew up in Maben, Miss., a tiny town about 20 miles west of Starkville. It’s where he learned to ride horses, one of his many interests. He also aspires to be a state highway patrolman once his football career is over, which is appropriate given the way he locks down on receivers.
“Football’s not going to be there forever,” Banks said.
Mississippi State was the only major school to offer him a scholarship. Ole Miss sent him several letters, but Banks is quick to note that the Rebels never offered him a scholarship.
“Mississippi State was the only one, and that means something,” Banks said. “It still does. I want to make sure I give as much back as possible before I leave this place.”
He jokes that the reason no other schools outside the state of Mississippi offered him a scholarship is because nobody could find him. The population of Maben isn’t even 1,000, and Banks played at Class A East Webster High School.
“If you put Maben on a GPS, you still wouldn’t find it,” Banks said. “I didn’t go to a lot of camps, either, so a lot of people just didn’t know about me.”
He was also rail-thin when he came out of high school and looked more like a basketball player than an SEC football player.
But having spent three years now in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, Banks has added weight and strength to his 6-2 frame. His height, not to mention his long arms, comes in handy when he’s shadowing receivers.
Banks also has excellent closing speed and knows what to do with the ball once he gets it in his hands. He’s returned three of his 12 career interceptions for touchdowns. He’s also pretty crafty when it comes to baiting quarterbacks to throw his way.
“I’ve worked hard this offseason to get better at some of the things I wasn’t as good at,” said Banks, who needs five interceptions to pass Walt Harris as Mississippi State’s all-time leader in interceptions. “I still need to be more physical, and I still need to get better at studying tape. I’m going to be a better student of the game.”
Banks also plans on going out the right way.
Even though the Bulldogs won their second straight bowl game a year ago, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, he was far from satisfied with the 7-6 record. The Bulldogs were 9-4 the year before, sending expectations sky-high.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Banks said. “Last year was pretty much a disappointment for us and our fans. We just didn’t have that edge for every game.
“We’ve got that dog back in us now, and I think it’s going to show on the field.”