NCF Nation: Denzel Nkemdiche

The Ole Miss Rebels know exactly what's at stake on Saturday.

Big, bad Bama is headed to the Grove -- along with ESPN's "College GameDay" for the very first time -- and it's been years since expectations were this lofty in Oxford, Mississippi.

On Saturday, the college football world will have its eye on the state of Mississippi with No. 6 Texas A&M playing at No. 12 Mississippi State about 95 miles south of 11th-ranked Ole Miss' clash with No. 3 Alabama.

That means the Rebels have a lot to prove in front of a whole lot of people.

Two weeks ago, Mississippi State made a statement with its first win against LSU since 1999 with an impressive 34-29 win inside Tiger Stadium. Now, it's the Rebels' turn.

[+] EnlargeOle Miss' Bo Wallace
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images"It's daylight (and) dark from our sophomore year when going down to Baton Rouge and just playing with LSU was a moral victory," quarterback Bo Wallace said. "Now it's 'We have to win these games.'"
"We've been building toward this, not just this game, but this season," linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. "We're all brothers in arms who play for each other and we believe in each other and we're ready for this."

That No. 11 ranking shows how far the program has come under third-year coach Hugh Freeze, but it also stands as a status symbol that many people just aren't sure the Rebels currently deserve.

If the Rebels want to be taken seriously, they need to be competitive, yes, but they probably have to win, too, because it's very easy to throw shade at the preseason hype machine.

"In this room, we expect to compete Saturday," said Freeze, who is 19-11 at Ole Miss. "We expect to have a chance to win it. I know our kids feel that way. I know our coaches feel that way. I don't know that we will -- I have no idea what the scoreboard will say at the end -- but I expect our kids to go and compete and have a shot."

But we've seen this story before. Ole Miss has some ruthless demons it's looking to exorcise this weekend, including stopping a 10-game losing streak to Alabama and erasing last year's 25-0 loss to the Tide after a 3-0 start. The recent history at Ole Miss hasn't exactly been nice when the expectations have been high.

Remember Sept. 24, 2009? Rebels fans sure do. That's when No. 4 Ole Miss, fresh off that remarkable 2008 season that featured an upset of eventual national champion Florida and hearing all sorts of BCS chatter, imploded on national television with an ugly 16-10 loss to an unranked South Carolina team that finished the year 7-6.

Looking for more painful memories Rebels fans? How about Nov. 22 2003, when the 15th-ranked Rebels lost a heartbreaker to No. 3 LSU at home? A win away from their first trip to the SEC championship game in Atlanta, the Rebels watched automatic kicker Jonathan Nichols miss two field goals and star quarterback Eli Manning trip over a lineman while pulling away from his center to end the game.

LSU won 17-14.

A year prior, a 21st-ranked Ole Miss squad was blown out 42-7 by No. 24 Alabama. And in 1999, on the cusp of a potential nine-win season for the first time since 1992, the Rebels (No. 23) walked out of Starkville, Mississippi, with a 23-20 loss to the 18th-ranked Bulldogs.

Over the past three seasons, the Rebels have gone a miserable 2-15 (.118) against teams that have finished the season nationally ranked in one of the final polls, including 0-9 against top-10 teams.

The jury is very much out on Ole Miss. This is a program that's history of national relevancy doesn't even register on the college football Richter scale anymore, recently had a shameful 16-game SEC losing streak and is still waiting to play in Atlanta for an SEC title.

However, the arrival of Freeze and the emergence of a historic 2013 recruiting class have brought hope -- and confidence -- to Oxford. A win on Saturday would move the Rebels from dark horse to legitimate contender.

"I tell the people that want us to win the SEC West every year, I don't know if that will ever happen, but I do know that we can be good enough to compete every year and I think that's where we are right now," Freeze said.

The season certainly won't be over with a loss to Alabama, but the buzz around the Rebels would dissipate, especially with the rest of a fearsome group of SEC West opponents still lurking on the schedule.

The Rebels don't care about the buzz, but they care about their own momentum. They care about living up to their own expectations and winning the games they expect to be in.

"It's daylight (and) dark from our sophomore year when going down to Baton Rouge and just playing with LSU was a moral victory," quarterback Bo Wallace said. "Now it's ‘We have to win these games, we have to win these big games to take our program to the next level.'"
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:


Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

Victory at Texas shows Rebels' growth

September, 17, 2013
Hours after running Bevo out of the Lone Star State, the Ole Miss football team received an early-morning surprise.

As the team bus pulled up to the football complex around 4 a.m., the Rebels were welcomed home from their 44-23 win over Texas by a few fans reveling in their arrival. For players who have seen some truly dark days in Ole Miss' program, Sunday's reception was an odd, yet comforting sight.

"It was pretty cool. It felt good," senior running back Jeff Scott said.

"They showed how dedicated they are to this program."

Jeff Scott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyOle Miss has come a long way since Jeff Scott arrived on campus.
During Scott's four years with the program, that dedication has been on and off. Ole Miss won a combined six games in his first two years, with just one of those games an SEC victory. The Rebels lost 16 SEC games in a row from 2010-2012.

Scott watched Houston Nutt get fired and was there when the school brought Hugh Freeze back. The former Ole Miss assistant arrived with more questions than excitement. But after a return to the postseason, seven victories and a monster recruiting class in his first season, Freeze brought some hope.

That hope turned into inflated expectations entering the 2013 season, but after a 3-0 start and a Texas-sized victory heading into a bye week, the Rebels have gone from forgotten to formidable.

"It's huge," quarterback Bo Wallace said of the win at Texas. "You have to look at how far we've come. Last year at this time, we were really soul-searching this weekend after the Texas game, trying to find ourselves.

"Anytime you can win a game that people say you aren't supposed to win, you can turn some heads. That's what we have to do: Turn some heads and get people excited about our program and keep climbing in the polls and keep winning games."

Considering the depth issues the Rebels had last year, a victory like this didn't seem possible. On Saturday, Ole Miss was down key players such Aaron Morris, Denzel Nkemdiche and Vince Sanders, yet blew out the Longhorns on the road. Thanks to a stacked freshman class, the Rebels' depth has promise.

"The sky is the limit for this team when we have all hands on deck," Scott said. "It's crazy what this team can do because the potential is there."

Last year, the Rebels were hurting after a 66-31 thumping served up by the Longhorns inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The same place they were greeted by a devoted group of fans early Sunday morning was the same place Texas nearly laid them to rest a year earlier.

It's a different time at Ole Miss. The Rebels are ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press poll. They own the SEC's No. 4 offense (490 yards per game) and defense (332.7). Next weekend, this team will travel to Tuscaloosa to play No. 1 Alabama in a game that will bring major attention and could have major SEC West implications.

All these positive vibes have the Rebels beaming, but they also understand that they have to move on from Saturday's win. As Freeze says, they have to "throw it in the trash" and prepare for what's next. This team is far from perfect and feeling too good about this victory could cause the Rebels to lose sight of a season that is still very long.

"We definitely have some confidence, but at the same time we can't let ourselves be too overconfident," Wallace said. "But we have a mature team, and I don't think we'll have any problems with that."

For Freeze, Saturday's victory was special because of where he saw the program upon his arrival. Academic and discipline issues rocked a team full of potential. Now, the distractions have dissipated, the discipline has increased and players are producing.

"It' definitely a big step in the right direction," Freeze said. "If you were to tell me on my first day on the job that we would have gone to a place like Texas and pull off a win at their place, it probably would have been difficult for me to believe at that point. So I do think that it is a sign that we're moving in the right direction."

What to watch in the SEC: Week 2

September, 5, 2013

The second week of the college football season is upon us.

Some exceeded expectations in Week 1, others fell short. In the SEC, a few coaches made debuts at new programs, a few key players suffered injuries that will affect their teams and there is buzz, both good and bad, surrounding some of the league’s most visible stars.

Here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the SEC in Week 2:

[+] EnlargeClowney
Gerry Melendez/Getty ImagesAfter his lackluster showing in the season opener, all eyes will be on Jadeveon Clowney when South Carolina faces Georgia.
1. What will Clowney do? South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has endured much criticism after a pedestrian performance in the Gamecocks' season-opening win against North Carolina. After a three-tackle, no-sack performance, some observers questioned Clowney's conditioning and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Clowney was definitely affected by the heat. This week, the No. 6 Gamecocks meet No. 11 Georgia and you can bet people will watch Clowney even more closely as the stakes are raised as each team opens SEC play.

2. What's next for Manziel? Johnny Manziel's return to the field for Texas A&M yielded terrific on-field results (6-of-8 passing, 94 yards, three touchdown passes) as well as a firestorm of media criticism as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed and a few celebrations. Whether he likes it or not, all eyes are on him and as Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said, "people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now." Will there be more non-football conversation circulating Manziel after the Aggies play Sam Houston State on Saturday?

3. Jones returns for UF: Sophomore running back Matt Jones returns to the Florida lineup this weekend as the Gators travel to Miami. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones missed three weeks of practice while recovering from a viral infection and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Jones will see plenty of touches in his return, perhaps as many as 25 carries.

4. Familiar foe for Malzahn: Auburn and new coach Gus Malzahn are hosting a team that he's quite familiar with -- Arkansas State. Malzahn spent last year as the Red Wolves' head coach, leading them to a 9-3 record and a conference championship before departing for Auburn prior to the Bowl. Arkansas State's new coach is former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in his debut. Meanwhile, Malzahn's new team escaped with a 31-24 win over Washington State behind new starting quarterback Nick Marshall.

5. Prescott likely to start for Mississippi State: Starting quarterback Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the Bulldogs' loss Saturday to Oklahoma State and is doubtful to play this weekend against Alcorn State. That means coach Dan Mullen will likely turn to backup Dak Prescott, a 6-2, 230-pound sophomore, to fill in. The dual-threat quarterback brings an ability to run the football to the Bulldogs' offense, recording 131 yards on 32 carries in spot duty last season. Mullen said he's confident in Prescott.

6. Adjustments to be made for Georgia: A season-opening 38-35 loss to talented ACC foe Clemson yielded an injured receiver (Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after an ACL injury suffered while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown) and displayed a struggling offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Murray rarely had time to throw against Clemson and the Bulldogs are facing a talented South Carolina defensive front. But the Clemson loss can be easily forgotten if the Bulldogs open SEC play with a win over a top-10 team and fellow SEC East squad.

7. Can Stoops and Kentucky bounce back? There was a lot of buzz surrounding the debut of new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops but it was killed by a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky. The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) and are double-digit favorites. It's imperative to erase the taste of last week's loss with a win this week for UK.

8. Intriguing matchup in Knoxville: Tennessee cruised to a win over FCS foe Austin Peay in the opening week but now get a little bit of a tougher test in Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky squad, which is fresh off its upset of Kentucky. The Volunteers are favored and rightfully so, and they're a higher caliber opponent than Kentucky. It would be a tough task for the Hilltoppers to pull off in Neyland Stadium, but it's worth at least keeping an eye on as Petrino tries to start 2-0 against SEC foes while Tennessee's Butch Jones looks to keep positive momentum going.

9. Ole Miss looking for others to emerge: The Rebels lost guard Aaron Morris to a season-ending knee injury and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for 4-6 weeks because of a meniscus tear. Though they have an FCS foe in Southeast Missouri State, the Rebels will need others to step up in their absences.

10. Mettenberger looking to build on Week 1: In his first game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger did enough to guide the Tigers to a 37-27 win over TCU. This week against UAB, he told reporters he has to be a little more accurate than his 16-for-32 showing, which was otherwise solid, yielding 251 yards and a touchdown pass.

Video: Ole Miss LB Denzel Nkemdiche

April, 11, 2013

Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche talks about his breakout freshman year and making a move in Year 2.

OXFORD, Miss. -- Hunched over his desktop computer while in his black, leather rolling chair inside an office full of boxes ready to be moved to a new headquarters on a satisfyingly warm day in late March, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze talks on the phone with an assistant about a player’s grades.

The news isn’t great, but after a few minutes sliding around in his chair, a hint of relief hits Freeze’s voice when he realizes the semester isn’t quite over yet. There’s still time.

Seconds later, he’s back over the computer, this time listening to a link of a pastor rapping her sermon. Her verse barely takes minutes, leaving Freeze jokingly (or not) wondering what could be if he was a part of her congregation.

“A sermon in a minute, 40 [seconds]?” Freeze says with his classic southern drawl and pleasant boyish laughter. “I’d love that.”

For a second, Freeze is relaxed as he reclines, props his Ole Miss-flavored Nikes on his desk and greets the day with an ear-to-ear grin.

He’s only a couple of hours removed from the spring’s first scrimmage, surrounded by boxed chaos, working with grade issues and dealing with a mammoth hype machine parked in the Grove after a surprisingly successful first season and a historic national signing day. But while his mind moves a mile a minute, he’s finally stationary.

Soon, his body will follow his mind, as he analyzes his inadequate team depth, searches for more SEC-caliber athletes and attempts to handle the newfound attention his players are receiving.

“Obviously, they’ve got a lot of people telling them how great we did last year, even though it was just seven wins,” Freeze said. “It was a good first year and then follow it up with the recruiting class, so they’re hearing from a lot of places how well things are going and how we should do very, very well next year, but they better not lose sight of how we won those games.

“We have to temper our expectations some. Yeah, we had a good recruiting class, but so did everybody else in our conference. And some of them have had five, six classes like that in a row. We’ve got one.”

(Read full post)

Handing out some SEC freshman awards

December, 12, 2012
We already took a look at our All-SEC Freshman Team, so it's time to hand out some awards for all those talented youngsters.

But we have to make a major adjustment to our awards. We won't be handing out any to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The only reason for his omission is because we know that he was not only the top freshman but the top player in the SEC -- and the country -- this season.

He IS our top offensive freshman and made the biggest impact, so we are respectfully leaving him off in order to give praise to other deserving freshmen:

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Deion Belue
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley became the first Georgia true freshman to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season since Herschel Walker did it in 1980.
Best non-Johnny Manziel offensive performance: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. He made an immediate impact from Day 1 after rushing for 100 yards on eight carries and returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown in the opener. He eventually became the primary back and finished the year leading the SEC in rushing (1,260 yards) and was tied for second in rushing touchdowns (16). He also recorded eight 100-yard rushing outings and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

Best defensive performance: Denzel Nkemdiche, LB, Ole Miss. Nkemdiche was all over the field for the Rebels this fall. He led his team and all SEC freshmen with 78 total tackles, including 12 tackles for loss. He also forced four fumbles and grabbed three interceptions during the season. His little brother, who is the No. 1 high school prospect in the country, might garner most of the family attention, but Nkemdiche made a real name for himself this season.

Biggest non-Manziel impact(s): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M and Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State. Johnny Football might have taken all of the headlines in College Station, but he probably doesn't have the year he did without help from Evans. He wasn't just the most productive receiver on his team but he was fourth in the SEC with 75 catches and receiving yards (1,022). McKinney was one of the most productive defenders in the SEC. He became the Bulldogs' middle linebacker and started the last nine games, finishing fourth in the nation among freshmen and seventh overall in the SEC with 97 tackles. He also registered 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, four pass breakups and recovered a fumble.

Biggest upside: Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida. There's a reason why Florida State coaches were so upset and why Florida coaches were giddy when Fowler flipped from the Seminoles to the Gators on national signing day. He was exactly what the Gators needed up front with the loss of Ronald Powell. He started out as a third-down pass-rusher, but saw his time increase as the season went on. He finished the season with 27 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. He has the ability to be a top pass-rusher and will definitely push Powell for playing time when he returns from his ACL injury.

Best lineman: Evan Boehm, OG, Missouri. There were some solid offensive and defensive linemen in this year's freshmen class, but Boehm was thrown in the fire earlier than anyone expected and he performed well enough to keep his job at left guard all season. He was also the first-ever true freshman to start under Gary Pinkel on the offensive line and was the only Mizzou lineman to start every game. Injuries forced him into a starting role from the start of the season and he only got better and tougher as the season continued.

Most likely to make you look silly: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama. A lot of people want to compare Yeldon to former Bama stud Trent Richardson. And you can see why when he runs over people and juts past them with his quick moves. Or you can just ask LSU safety Craig Loston, who was embarrassed by Yeldon and the slick move he put on him for the game-winning touchdown in Alabama's comeback win over LSU in Baton Rouge. But Loston wasn't Yeldon's only victim when it came to his elusive moves. A few Georgia defenders needed their ankles wrapped after Yeldon's performance in the SEC championship game.

Biggest high-flyer: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. Cooper became AJ McCarron's top weapon all season. He also became one of the best deep threats in the league during the second half of the season. He averaged 16.9 yards per catch, but showed real top-flight speed on more than a handful of plays this year, especially that 45-yard, game-winning touchdown catch in the SEC championship game. Barrett Jones describes him as a player who has gear that normal people don't have.

Hardest hitter(s): Trae Elston, S, Ole Miss and Antonio Morrison, LB, Florida. Suspension aside, Elston laid the legal lumber more than a few times this season against opposing offensive players. He's probably best known for his hit on UTEP WR Jordan Leslie that resulted in a suspension, but throughout the year he was a player who delivered a lot of big-time hits. Morrison laid some big hits all year, but his hit on Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel resulted in a fumble and led to the Gators' go-ahead touchdown in their win over the Noles. Morrison developed into one of Florida's toughest defenders and smashed into a lot of opponents.

The SEC's top impact newcomers

November, 28, 2012
Predicting in the preseason which newcomers are going to have the biggest impact is always a crapshoot.

Case in point: How many of you out there had Johnny Manziel on your Heisman Trophy lists back in August?

We didn’t even include him among the five choices in a SportsNation poll, which asked you to pick the SEC Newcomer of the Year. The winner, by the way, was Missouri freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.

It’s a little easier now that the regular season is behind us, so we’ve ranked the top 10 newcomers in the SEC this season. True freshmen, redshirt freshmen and any transfers playing their first season in the SEC were eligible.

Here goes:

1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: An easy call for the top spot. Manziel, a redshirt freshman, is the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy. He’s accounted for 43 touchdowns and broke Cam Newton’s SEC record for total offense in a season with 4,600 yards. “Johnny Football” carved apart SEC defenses this season, and that’s not supposed to happen.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireFreshman Todd Gurley led all running backs in the SEC with 1,138 yards.
2. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: One half of Georgia’s famed “Gurshall” duo, Gurley showcased the kind of size, speed and power rarely seen from a true freshman in this league. He’s rushed for 1,138 yards to lead all SEC running backs and has scored 15 touchdowns, which includes a 100-yard kickoff return. He’s averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

3. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR/KR, Tennessee: Transferring in from junior college, Patterson is still raw and not the most polished route runner, but he emerged as one of the most electrifying players in the SEC. He leads the league in all-purpose yardage (154.8 yards per game) and scored touchdowns four different ways -- rushing, receiving, kickoff return and punt return.

4. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: One of those guys who can do a little bit of everything, Yeldon has 847 rushing yards and has scored 11 touchdowns. He’s already surpassed the freshman rushing totals of both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and still has two games to play.

5. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M: While most eyes have been on Manziel in Aggieland, Evans has also had a monster freshman season. The 6-foot-5, 218-pound redshirt freshman is fourth in the SEC with 75 catches and one of four players in the league to surpass 1,000 receiving yards (1,022).

6. Denzel Nkemdiche, LB, Ole Miss: The older Nkemdiche can play a little football, too. His younger brother, Robert Nkemdiche, is the No. 1 high school prospect in the country. But all Denzel Nkemdiche did this season was lead all SEC freshmen with 78 total tackles, including 12 tackles for loss. A redshirt freshman, Nkemdiche also has four forced fumbles and three interceptions.

7. Evan Boehm, OG, Missouri: He came to Missouri as one of the most coveted guard prospects in the country and didn’t disappoint. Boehm became the first-ever true freshman to start under Gary Pinkel on the offensive line and was the only player on the Tigers’ injury-ravaged line to start every game at the same position this season, left guard.

8. Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia: The other half of “Gurshall” was plenty explosive in his own right. Marshall, also a true freshman, has 720 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He has four touchdown runs of 52 yards or longer.

9. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU: The Tigers waited until later in the season to unleash the powerful true freshman, and he enters the bowl game with a team-leading 631 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s only started in four games, but had a pair of long touchdown runs in the fourth quarter to help salt away wins over South Carolina and Texas A&M.

10. Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss: Even though he turned the ball over too much in his first season after transferring in from junior college, Wallace made a ton of plays to help steer the Rebels to a bowl game. He’s fourth in the SEC in total offense with 3,206 yards and has accounted for 28 touchdowns.

A few newcomers that just missed the cut were Florida defensive end Dante Fowler (true freshman), Alabama receiver Amari Cooper (true freshman), Tennessee noseguard Daniel McCullers (junior college transfer), Mississippi State middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney (redshirt freshman), Mississippi State defensive end Denico Autry (junior college transfer) and LSU cornerback Jalen Mills (true freshman).
The nation's top prospect in the 2013 recruiting class is off the board -- for now.

On Thursday, Loganville, Ga./Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche threw a wrench in a handful of SEC schools' recruiting plans when he verbally committed to Clemson.

Nkemdiche, who tops this year's ESPN 150 list and has been this year's most coveted recruiting prize, spurned Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss for Clemson after developing a solid relationship with new Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the rest of the Tigers' staff.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comRobert Nkemdiche committed to Clemson, but that doesn't mean teams won't continue pursuing him.
It also helped Clemson that Grayson teammates Wayne Gallman and David Kamara were already committed to the Tigers. All three visited Clemson Wednesday, with Kamara making his decision during the first night on campus.

Under the watch of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers' staff has made it a habit of frustrating SEC schools in recruiting with recent gets like wide receiver Sammy Watkins, running back Mike Bellamy and linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. No one should be shocked by Clemson's ability to gain a pledge from the nation's top recruit. It surely surprised most Thursday, but Swinney and his staff have showed that they can hang with the big SEC dogs when it comes to recruiting.

But that doesn't mean this one is over. In fact, it's probably far from it. Nkemdiche the top player in the recruiting world and SEC schools still want him pretty badly. SEC coaches have a hard time backing off in recruiting.

LSU received some interest from Nkemdiche, and he went as far as to leave his Atlanta comfort zone to visit those other Tigers down in Baton Rouge. David Helman of's GeauxTigerNation writes that LSU will likely now turn specifically to ends Tim Williams (Baton Rouge, La./LSU Laboratory) and Kendell Beckwith (Jackson, La./East Feliciana), but don't expect Les Miles and his crew to totally back off when it comes to Nkemdiche.

Alabama was certainly in the running and some thought Nick Saban was going to grab the nation's top two prospects with Auburn, Ala., linebacker Reuben Foster already in hand. But the Tide staff will have to turn elsewhere for the moment. Keep an eye on Hope Mills, N.C., ESPN 150 defensive lineman Greg Gilmore, who is expected to visit Alabama on Saturday and plans to compete in the Tide’s OL/DL camp. But as Greg Ostendorf of's TideNation writes, Alabama won't stop pursuing Nkemdiche.

Georgia let this year's top recruiting prize leave its own backyard, but Kipp Adams of's DawgNation writes that this might actually be a good thing for the Bulldogs' staff. Georgia can now focus on other top defensive ends and also doesn't have to worry (for now) about playing in the regular season against Nkemdiche, who is coming off of back-to-back 18-sack seasons, Adams wrote.

Then there's Ole Miss. Despite Ole Miss' glaring struggles the past two years, the Rebels' staff had felt pretty good about its chances with the nation's top recruit. Nkemdiche's brother, Denzel, is a redshirt freshman linebacker at Ole Miss and new coach Hugh Freeze had worked tirelessly in his recruitment of Nkemdiche. Ole Miss is the obvious underdog, but you can't count the Rebels out in this race.

Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin tweeted as much just before Nkemdiche's announcement went public.

"It's a marathon not a sprint! A long way to go till signing day! #wintheday," Kiffin tweeted.

Clemson and its supporters should feel ecstatic about Nkemdiche's commitment, but they should also expect some drama out of this one with SEC schools still lurking.