NCF Nation: DeVonte Holloman

When a football coaching staff signs one of the top few recruits at any position, it's cause for celebration. Therefore, grabbing two of the top three prospects at that position might warrant an Animal House-style party.

Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.

This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).

Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.

In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.

Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.

2006

Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez

Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.

2007

Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey

Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler

McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.

2008

Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat

Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.

Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan

Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.

Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts

Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.

Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley

Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.

2009

Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman

Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.

2010

Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam

Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.

Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd

Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White

Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.

2011

Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon

The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.

2012

Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher

Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.

2013

Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler

Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.

Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson

Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.

Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III

A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.
This marks the final year of the BCS, and you better believe the SEC would love to close the BCS era with eight straight titles. It would also ensure that the league has even more momentum going into the playoff, which starts during the 2014 season.

Colleague Travis Haney took a look at which conference has the best playoff path starting next year. He makes a pretty good case for the SEC, which should be able to get its conference champion in every year.

But who can wait for 2014 title talk? Yeah, me either, so why not take a look at SEC teams with the best BCS title paths in 2013? Spring practice begins this month, so we might as well throw out some very, very early thoughts on teams' championship hopes.

Let's take a look at which SEC teams have real BCS title shots in 2013:

ALABAMA

Pros: The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban. That should be reason enough to make Alabama the odds on favorite to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. But there are many other reasons why Alabama tops our list. The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but Alabama returns the nation's most efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron, who could have easily opted for the NFL after his junior year, a beast at running back in rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon, a host of talent -- and explosiveness -- at wide receiver, and most of the pieces to last year's top-ranked defense. Some big names have to be replaced on both sides, but this team really is reloading in 2013. Also, if the Tide can escape Virginia Tech (in Atlanta) and Texas A&M (in College Station) early, Alabama could go through the year unscathed, with road games coming against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn.

Cons: Forget the pressure. Saban doesn't allow pressure to eat at his players. What Alabama has to do is replace three studs on that offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are all gone. Winning the battle in the trenches is essential to competing in the SEC, so Alabama's less experienced linemen have to grow up in a hurry. Also, no team can do it three times in a row, right?

TEXAS A&M

Pros: Johnny Manziel is back and last year proved that the Aggies are tough enough to compete in the big, bad SEC. Kliff Kingsbury might not be calling the plays anymore, but there is a lot of young talent on offense, including wide receiver Mike Evans and running backs Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, that should still give SEC defenses fits. A&M gets Alabama at home in Week 3 and trade Florida for Vanderbilt.

Cons: The Aggies lost a lot from their 2012 team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is gone, along with receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches for 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns. The front seven has a lot to replace, including All-American defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Kingsbury's sideline work with Manziel will be missed, and the Aggies have to play LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road.

GEORGIA

Pros: Georgia will be down wide receiver Tavarres King on offense, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone to help make up for the loss of his production with all those talented receivers. "Gurshall" returns and so does quarterback Aaron Murray, who could become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in each of his four years on campus. Bringing back the entire starting five on offense will also keep this offense trending upward.

Cons: The Bulldogs lost 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo are just a few of the big names that are gone. There certainly is talent remaining, but replacing all those players would be tough for anyone. Also, look at that schedule. The Dawgs start the year with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before September even arrives. Losing more than one game during that stretch could all but end Georgia's title hopes.

FLORIDA

Pros: The Gators lost some key players on defense, but coach Will Muschamp is bringing back a host of defensive talent that should do just fine in 2013. Marcus Roberson could be an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the talent to start opposite him immediately. Ronald Powell returns to help out a young but very talented front seven that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Also, the Gators should be very deep at running back and have a more complete offensive line in 2013.

Cons: No one is quite sure what to make of that offense. Sure, the Gators should be able to run the ball, even without workhorse Mike Gillislee, but what about throwing it? Jeff Driskel really struggled last year, and the Gators lost their best receiving option in tight end Jordan Reed. Florida will have to rely on five true freshmen to help at receiver, but Driskel has to increase his confidence and become a better presense in the huddle for this offense to improve at all. Florida also takes on Miami, LSU and South Carolina on the road.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Pros: The Gamecocks might be without Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, but they should be very balanced on offense in 2013. South Carolina has two very capable quarterbacks to work with in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, a talented group of running backs returning, led by rising sophomore Mike Davis, and more experience at receiver. One-man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney is back, and could be a legit Heisman candidate. South Carolina also spends the final month of the season at home.

Cons: Replacing Sanders will be tough because he did so much on offense and special teams. Clowney will have help up front, but South Carolina must replace its two-deep at linebacker. That's going to be quite the chore. Also, stud safety D.J. Swearinger, Spur DeVonte Holloman and cornerback Akeem Auguste all have to be replaced. Right now, this staff will have to rely on a handful of youngsters to help out this spring. The Gamecocks must also go to Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas.

LSU

Pros: The offense has to be more well-rounded in 2013. Cam Cameron is in at offensive coordinator, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger made major strides during the last month of the season. All of his receiving weapons are back, the offensive line should be better and there is a wealth of talent still at running back. The Tigers also get Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home.

Cons: The defense was gutted after the 2012 season. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, someone has to step in for Kevin Minter at middle linebacker and the secondary must fill in the holes left by Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There is a lot of young talent on defense, but guys have to grow up quickly in Baton Rouge this year. Playing Alabama and Georgia on the road will be very tough as well.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
10:18
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We're taking a look at key storylines for all seven teams in the SEC Eastern Division.

Chris will take a look at the main issues in the Western Division on Tuesday.

FLORIDA GATORS

Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding at linebacker: The Gators have to start figuring out the linebacker situation. Do they go with redshirt junior Michael Taylor in the middle, who’s a run-stuffer but has to come off the field in passing downs? Or do they try sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside at 218 pounds as a freshman and has hopefully bulked up a bit? The most likely scenario is Morrison, which means UF has to find a weakside linebacker. That could be freshmen early enrollee Daniel McMillian or Alex Anzalone. The strongside starter should be, at least entering the spring, redshirt junior Neiron Ball.

2. Robinson's growth: One of the most scrutinized players this spring will be receiver Demarcus Robinson. He was the only one of UF’s five receiver signees to enroll early and he’ll be given every chance to win a starting spot. UF’s receivers have been below average for the past three seasons and the Gators desperately need someone to become a consistent playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Robinson, who caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.

3. Driskel's confidence: Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as a starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves on his decision-making, release and accuracy. He’s sure to benefit from not splitting reps 50-50 any longer. But just as important as Driskel’s development is what happens behind him with redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. Neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Why is that important? Because Driskel has not been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He missed starts as a freshman and sophomore because of ankle injuries. UF was lucky in 2012 to have Jacoby Brissett, who had played significantly as John Brantley’s backup in 2011. With Brissett transferring to NC State, the Gators no longer have that luxury.

-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding the defense: Georgia begins its transition to a completely new collection of defensive talent this spring. No longer are Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins on the roster. In fact, the Bulldogs must replace a total of 12 defensive players who were either full-time starters or key contributors, and at some positions, the possible replacements have little to no college experience. That makes this a pivotal time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to begin identifying which players will fill those roles, as the Bulldogs will have little margin for error when they open the season against Clemson’s explosive offense Aug. 31. Some names to watch this spring: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.

2. Developing the youngsters: The good news for Grantham and the other defensive coaches is that they brought in a number of January enrollees who should be able to help immediately. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and John Atkins hope to fill the void left by Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at noseguard. Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter will immediately enter the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can help address Georgia’s depth shortage in a secondary that lost four key players. Georgia’s 13 early enrollees -- more than twice as many January enrollees as Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever brought in before -- will help fill needs on both sides of the ball, but the defense is where the newcomers were most necessary.

3. Offensive line reps: For the most part, Georgia used the same starting lineup along its offensive line throughout the 2012 season and each of those starters should return this fall. But two of those starters -- right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus -- underwent surgeries during the offseason and will miss all or part of spring practice. There was a good chance that offensive line coach Will Friend was going to deploy more players in his line rotation this fall anyway, but the valuable practice reps that will be available with Burnette and Theus sidelined might make a deeper rotation even more likely. Someone still has to take advantage of the opportunity, however.

-- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Getting used to new coaches: New coaches are roaming Kentucky’s football facility this spring. Mark Stoops brings a more defense-minded philosophy to Lexington, but his coaches will have to get things going on offense if the Wildcats are going to improve in 2013. There are always awkward moments when transitioning to a new staff, but now’s the time to create valuable trust on both sides.

2. Finding offensive playmakers: Stoops might have a strong defensive background, but the Wildcats have to find answers on offense. Injuries were an issue last year, but for two straight years the Wildcats had real problems finding consistent playmakers on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith returns, but he needs more than just wide receiver La’Rod King to help him. Getting running back Josh Clemons back would be big, but expect the coaches to turn to a young group of receivers and running backs.

3. Tougher team: One thing Stoops wants from his players is a tougher identity. Stoops wants to build a stronger team from the ground up. He’s taking a page from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when it comes to preparing his new team. This spring, we’ll see just how much of an emphasis the coaches put on the weight room and conditioning before hitting the football side of things.

MISSOURI TIGERS

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. Josey's rehab: The Tigers will be keeping tabs on running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after suffering a devastating knee injury midway through the 2011 season. He was the Big 12’s best running back before his injury and Mizzou needs him back. The staff has had to be patient, but this could be a crucial time in his rehab, as he looks to get his football legs back.

2. Rebuilding the front seven: Mizzou must replace a lot in its front seven. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s absence leaves a gaping hole up front, while linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden must be replaced. Lucas Vincent will be first in line to take Richardson’s spot, while Darvin Ruise, Donovan Bonner and Michael Scherer are three players to watch at linebacker.

3. Toughening up: Injuries ravaged Mizzou’s offense last year, but it’s clear that Mizzou wasn’t in the playing shape that it would have liked to be in during its first year in the SEC. Injuries are part of the game, but gaining that toughness factor this spring will go a long way for the Tigers in 2013. The SEC is more than just a grind, and the Tigers found out the hard way that conditioning in this league is a little different than in the Big 12.

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. New backfield options: Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles are gone, so the Gamecocks will have to turn to their younger backs. Brandon Wilds missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury but should return this spring. Rising sophomore Mike Davis has all the tools to be a big-time player for the Gamecocks and could be the top option in the Gamecocks’ backfield. Shifty Shon Carson also returns from a knee injury, so South Carolina will have a solid group to work with this spring.

2. QB controversy: Quarterback Connor Shaw might be tabbed as the starter, but with him out for the spring, Dylan Thompson will take the first-team reps. Thompson proved to be very valuable last year, and both will play this fall. Thompson has become one of the most vocal players on the team and is a strong leader. A good spring could bring some real controversy to the position.

3. Holes at linebacker: South Carolina will be without its two-deep at linebacker and “Spur” DeVonte Holloman is gone. That means there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to finding viable replacements. Sharrod Golightly will get the early crack at the Spur, and keep an eye on Kaiwan Lews, who was a true freshman last year and has a lot of potential to work with.

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. New coaches on the block: With Butch Jones in town, the Vols have to get used to their third head coach in five springs. Jones and his staff have helped bring some much-needed energy to the program since arriving, but now it’s time to develop vital on-field chemistry between the coaches and players.

2. Receiving help: The Vols’ offense took at major hit at receiver. Juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson made the leap to the NFL, while deep threat Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera graduated. Tennessee will now turn to a host of inexperienced receiving targets, including rising sophomore Alton Howard and early enrollee Paul Harris.

3. Quarterback battle: With Tyler Bray leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will work with rising junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley has the edge when it comes to game experience, but with a new staff, this battle will be wide-open. They will also need to make strides before freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson get on campus this summer.

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Replacing Rodgers: Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is gone. The good news is Austyn Carta-Samuels has good experience after starting two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is someone the coaches also are excited about, especially with his dual-threat ability, and should really push Carta-Samuels the whole spring.

2. Running back battles: The Commodores lost star running back Zac Stacy, so veteran Wesley Tate, who has bounced around positions, and rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who has the do-everything look to him at running back, will share reps. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour also return, making for quite the talented backfield.

3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.

SEC power rankings: Week 1

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
11:00
AM ET
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.
We all know that defense wins championships and the SEC is very much a testament to that. Alabama possessed the nation's No. 1 defense last season and now possesses another national championship. Runner-up LSU ranked second nationally.

Alabama ran away with the crown as the nation's and the SEC's best defense, but that title is for the taking in 2012. Alabama is down key players from last year's squad, like linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive tackle Josh Chapman, and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and DeQuan Menzie.

SportsNation

Who will have the best defense in 2012?

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Discuss (Total votes: 12,039)

Alabama's defense isn't as green as the 2010 group, but it's still drawing some comparisons to it. That's exactly what the Tide wants to hear. Nico Johnson seems primed to be a true leader at linebacker, while Adrian Hubbard could be a budding star at Upshaw's old position. Defensive backs Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are back and will be joined by a couple of JUCO standouts and talented sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Jesse Williams could be a real force at defensive tackle along with end Damion Square.

Then you have LSU. The Tigers lost All-World cornerback Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and two starting linebackers. Michael Brockers is gone at defensive tackle as well. But LSU is still loaded. The Tigers return Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, who should be fine with an expanded role at cornerback. Junior Kevin Minter really stepped up at linebacker last year and should pick up right where he left off. Even without Brockers, the line is solid with future first-rounder Sam Montgomery at one end position and the underrated Barkevious Mingo at the other. The two combined for 17 sacks last season.

Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson should provide some meat nastiness in the interior, while the very talented Eric Reid is back at free safety.

Georgia and South Carolina both finished the 2011 season ranked in the top five nationally in total defense. South Carolina was third, while Georgia was fifth, respectively. The Gamecocks lost first-round defensive end Melvin Ingram, but return freshman standout Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who many thought would be better than Ingram last season. Kelcy Quarles is back at defensive tackle and the coaches think he'll be even better in his second year.

Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last year, will grab time at linebacker again, while the very athletic DeVonte Holloman returns to the Spur for his senior year. There are questions in the secondary, but seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) return.

Georgia returns nine defensive starters. Brandon Boykin is gone at corner, and the Bulldogs will enter the fall with a lot questions in the secondary, especially with starters Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo suspended to start the season. Star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner this spring and fits right in, but there are depth issues at the position.

Other than that, the Bulldogs are still pretty stacked. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will serve a suspension to start the year, but Georgia will fill his spot by committee. Mike Gilliard, Cornelius Washington, Christian Robinson, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson provide Georgia with a very solid linebacking unit alongside star Jarvis Jones, who racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Georgia's defensive line should also be pretty stout with the massive John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers battling in the middle. Abry Jones really progressed at end as well this spring.

Or maybe someone else will step up and take the crown ...
Devin Taylor is noticing all the attention surrounding South Carolina’s program, and he likes it.

It means people are expecting big things from the Gamecocks, and some might even be a little fearful of them.

“It’s almost like a target on our backs,” South Carolina’s senior defensive end said.

But that target didn’t just appear in Columbia, S.C. It started to form after South Carolina’s first trip to the SEC championship game in 2010, and Taylor said he could sense it every week last season. He could tell that the perception of South Carolina’s team had changed around the league and more respect was thrown the Gamecocks’ way.

“You could just feel it,” he said.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina's Devin Taylor
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireDefensive end Devin Taylor says South Carolina's defense isn't rebuilding, it's reloading.
It’s not hard to believe that the team that once struggled to make upward moves in the SEC's Eastern Division is now linked to divisional favorite talk. In coach Steve Spurrier’s seven seasons at South Carolina, he has compiled 55 wins (leaving him nine away from tying Rex Enright’s school record for career wins), took South Carolina to Atlanta, and led the Gamecocks to their first 11-win season in 2011.

The next step? An SEC championship.

It’s a goal that Spurrier said he expects, and so do his players. Taylor said winning the East is no longer the No. 1 goal. They want to be showered with celebratory confetti inside the Georgia Dome in December.

And South Carolina has the parts in place to make such a run. The offense loses star receiver Alshon Jeffery and returns a cluster of unproven receivers, but the plus is that there is a ton of depth there. Also, much-ballyhooed incoming freshman WR Shaq Roland will be in town this summer, and a lot is expected of him.

On the offensive line, Rokevious Watkins and Terrence Campbell are gone (both were seniors in 2011). But South Carolina returns three starters, and the coaches expect redshirt freshman Brandon Shell to step right in at left tackle for Watkins. Get him going and South Carolina’s line should be fine.

Quarterback Connor Shaw returns after really starting to come into his own as more of a passer at the end of last season. He’ll always run the ball, but he showed he can be disciplined and lead with his arm.

Running back Marcus Lattimore (knee) won’t practice in the spring, but he certainly hasn’t been ruled out for the regular season. A healthy Lattimore, who has racked up 2,015 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in 20 career games, is an obvious Heisman Trophy candidate.

Defensively, Taylor can’t help but get excited. While South Carolina enters spring camp down in numbers in the secondary -- especially with injuries to Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger -- Taylor said he’s seen younger players (such as cornerback Victor Hampton) make improvements during offseason workouts. And Taylor has really been impressed with DeVonte Holloman, who is transitioning back to the spur position from safety.

When it comes to the front seven, Taylor knows the key names are Jadeveon Clowney -- who was seventh in the SEC in sacks (eight) and 11th in tackles for loss (12) -- along with Kelcy Quarles, Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens. But you can’t sleep on defensive tackle Byron Jerideau or linebacker Damario Jeffery, who moves to middle linebacker from the spur.

Taylor said South Carolina isn’t rebuilding on defense, it’s reloading, which is a scary thought. South Carolina was third nationally in total defense in 2011, and Taylor thinks the Gamecocks are equipped with just as much talent to have a similar year in 2012.

Even with the skill that returns on both sides for South Carolina, Taylor still expects the Gamecocks to be overlooked at times -- maybe not by opposing teams, but by those on the periphery.

And he’s fine with that.

“We can do the underdog thing and then come back and bite them in the butt,” he said.

Taylor hopes that “underdog thing” will take South Carolina to the top of the SEC in 2012. From where this program has been to where it is now, a win in Atlanta in early December would show just how big a turnover the Gamecocks have made, Taylor said.

“That would mean a lot, and it would let this entire program shine [and show] how much it’s grown and how much it’s willing to grow for future players coming here,” he said.

“I’ve worked hard over all these summers, and all this work actually paid off to do something great.”
Now that you've seen the recruiting needs for the SEC Western Division teams, it's time to check what teams in the East needed to focus on when it came to recruiting for the 2012 class:

FLORIDA

Offensive line: There's no getting around how much Florida's offensive line struggled in 2011. Florida doesn't lose a lot from its line, but the Gators need more talent. There are a lot of questions surrounding this position and getting qualities bodies is a must.

Running back: Florida loses seniors Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, and will enter the fall with unproven players in Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown. As Florida continues to move closer to a more traditional/pro-style offense, the Gators also need to add size to the position.

Wide receiver: Again, this is a position in which the Gators need to improve in the talent category. Florida lost just one senior from last year's squad, but unproven players lurk. What Florida needs to get in this class is a true playmaker at receiver. There is hope that Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose and Frankie Hammond can step up, but some solid competition won't hurt.

GEORGIA

Offensive line: Georgia loses three starters in Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson. The Bulldogs would like to add a few more big bodies up front in this class to help with all that unproven depth.

Linebacker: In Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense, linebackers are extremely important. The Bulldogs will likely lose a couple bodies at outside linebacker next year, including star Jarvis Jones, and would like to add a couple of true playmakers at that position in this class.

Wide receiver: Come 2013, Georgia will have taken some hits at its wide receiver depth. There is young talent in Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, but veterans like Tavarres King, Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten will be gone. Adding a couple standouts at wide receiver in this class would be nice.

KENTUCKY

Offensive playmakers: Whether it comes at quarterback, wide receiver, running back or tight end, the Wildcats need to find players who can make plays when they get the ball in their hands. Kentucky's offense was hard to watch all season because there was no one who could consistently move the ball.

Offensive line: Kentucky loses three starters -- Chandler Burden, Stuart Hines and Billy Joe Murphy -- from its offensive line and needs to load up here in this class. There is a handful of young players at each offensive line position, but the Wildcats need to think about adding more for the future.

Defensive back: Veterans are leaving the Wildcats' secondary, so it's time to stock up. Winston Guy, Taiedo Smith, Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley will all be gone, meaning the Wildcats are in need of adding some depth to both the cornerback and safety positions.

MISSOURI

Running back: Leading rusher Henry Josey suffered a severe knee injury toward the end of the 2011 season and the Tigers have some veterans jam packed at the top of the depth chart at the position. Getting help to add to future rosters would really help this offense as it moves to the SEC.

Defensive line: The Tigers are losing three starters along the defensive line and 10 players from 2011 will be gone by the end of next season. There are some youngsters there, but it's time to getting into restocking mode along the defensive line. Also, this is where games are won and lost in the SEC. Finding more athleticism here is crucial.

Offensive line: Like the defensive line, Missouri will lose three starters here. There are some bodies to fill in for now, but you can never have too many offensive linemen and now that the Tigers are headed to the SEC, getting some bigger, more athletic linemen will be key to survival in this jungle.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Defensive line: The Gamecocks have gotten a ton of production from here lately, but South Carolina will lose two starters in Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson. South Carolina might want to add to defensive end the most, with Ingram leaving and Devin Taylor getting ready to depart in a year.

Linebacker: Over the next two years, the Gamecocks will lose some quality players at linebacker and even the spur position. A handful of veterans occupy the depth chart at linebacker, so that means South Carolina needs to add a few quality bodies for the future.

Defensive back: South Carolina's depth in its defensive backfield could be considered thin. The Gamecocks are down two starters at cornerback and will lose solid players in D.J. Swearinger and DeVonte Holloman in 2013.

TENNESSEE

Running back: The Vols never figured out how to run the ball last year and will now turn to a group of unproven running backs. Marlin Lane has the talent to excel, but he needs to be more consistent. Finding a couple talented backs in this class would help this position tremendously.

Defensive tackle: The Vols need some help inside, and now that they are moving to the 3-4, getting quality nose guards is a must for Tennessee. Adding some girth inside will be very important in order to improving this position.

Defensive back: Tennessee will say goodbye to quite a bit of their defensive backs in the next couple of years, so getting a head start on adding to players to both safety and corner would be a plus.

VANDERBILT

Offensive line: The Commodores return the bulk of their offensive line next year, but after that, Vanderbilt will be pretty thin and very young up front. Adding four or five bodies to the offensive line would go a long way for Vanderbilt.

Linebacker: Vanderbilt loses one starter, in Chris Marve, here for next season, but the year after will see a lot of turnover at the position, with four rising seniors on the roster.

Defensive end: Two starters — Tim Fugger and T.J. Greenstone — are gone and Vanderbilt will lose a handful more after the 2012 season. Getting some help at this position is another must for coach James Franklin.

Arkansas settling for field goals

November, 5, 2011
11/05/11
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas beat all over the end zone door in the third quarter, but just couldn't get in.

After scoring 24 points in the first half, the Razorbacks got just 6 on two field goals in the third quarter, while South Carolina managed a touchdown on a Connor Shaw draw.

It's still a two-score game, with Arkansas leading 30-21, but South Carolina's offense has played better in the third quarter. The Gamecocks were putting together a pretty nice second drive of the half before a Brandon Wilds fumble gave the Razorbacks the ball on South Carolina's side of the field.

South Carolina's running attack has improved as the game as gone on, so if the Gamecocks get on a roll on the ground, they could be sniffing the end zone soon.

What Arkansas has to get cleaned up are all the drops. At last count there have been at least five critical drops by Arkansas players in this game. If not for all the drops, this game might be over in Arkansas' favor.

Holloman out
South Carolina announced that safety DeVonte Holloman is out for the rest of the game after suffering a concussion in the third quarter.

Gamecocks' secondary getting a boost

September, 6, 2011
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When the South Carolina Gamecocks take the field against the Georgia Bulldogs for their all-important conference opener, it should receive a boost to a secondary that was tortured against East Carolina last Saturday.

Junior DeVonte Holloman returns to the lineup after serving a one-game suspension for his June arrest on a DUI charge. Holloman is currently listed second on the depth chart at the Spur (a hybrid safety/linebacker position) behind Antonio Allen, who had a breakout game against ECU. Allen recorded 16 total tackles, forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and broke up two passes in the Gamecocks' win.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he'd like to keep Allen at the Spur because of the performance he turned in and has considered moving Holloman out of the Spur. Holloman practiced at the Spur Monday and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said Holloman will stay there Saturday.

“He’ll play Spur and the 'dime' linebacker spot in the dime package,” Ward said . “If you play as many plays as we did this past Saturday we’re going to need more than Antonio. DeVonte will have a chance to play.”

Ward also said that cornerback Akeem Auguste didn't practice Monday, but is expected to practice Tuesday. Auguste didn't travel with the team for the opener because of a foot injury.

The Gamecocks certainly could have used a healthy Auguste Saturday. Senior C.C. Whitlock started in Auguste's place, but it was fellow senior Stephon Gilmore who gave up a few big plays through the air, especially on a few jump balls. Gilmore struggled some last season, but vowed change this spring. He and his coaches saw noticeable improvements in his game this spring, prompting some to consider him the top corner in the SEC because of his skill and potential.

I'm sure they'll catch some grief for that after the opening game ...

But South Carolina hasn't lost any confidence in Gilmore. It was a rough first game, but Ward said he expects Gilmore to rebound quickly.

“It was not up to par as far as his standards,” Ward said of Gilmore's play. “I fully expect Stephon to bounce back and have a great ball game this week. It came down to technique. He knows he made a mistake. He knows what he has to do. Stephon’s got to be a positive for this team if we’re going to be good."

In other Gamecocks news, South Carolina's depth chart was released for Week 2 and Stephen Garcia is listed as the No. 1 quarterback. Sophomore Connor Shaw started over Garcia against ECU, but struggled against the Pirates, completing 3 of 9 passes for 21 yards. Garcia replaced Shaw and finally got the offense rolling, as Garcia finished the game completing 7 of 15 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. He also had 56 yards rushing, including touchdowns of 32 and 10 yards.

Maybe we can finally put the quarterback rotation in Columbia, S.C., to bed. Hopefully ...
AlabamaUS PresswireCourtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley are part of what could be the best linebacker corps in the conference.
Today we take a look at the SEC linebackers. The front sevens in this league are always good and 2011 shouldn't be any different.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. Alabama: There are a lot of strengths on this Alabama team, but the linebackers should be very fun to watch this fall. Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are back to full speed and are considered top players at their positions. With them back, the Tide should have a much more aggressive pass rush. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley improved even more this spring and will get time in the middle when Hightower is outside at the "Jack" position. Mosely blossomed as a freshman and could be a star in the making. Jarrell Harris seems to finally be coming around and Chris Jordan gives them another body in the front seven.

2. Florida: This group struggled to stay consistent at times last fall, but the new coaching staff was pleased with the progress it made this spring. There is a lot talent out there and now there are two distinct leaders in Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, who should occupy the middle when the Gators go to the 3-4. Both are tremendous athletes and should be a solid duo this fall. Florida also has former No. 1 high school prospect Ronald Powell playing that linebacker/defensive end hybrid spot called the Buck. He’ll stand up a lot this season and should elevate himself near the top of the SEC pass-rushing list. Cal transfer Chris Martin earned a ton of praise last year on the practice squad and will be a hybrid as well. Converted safety Dee Finley will play outside and there is some good, but young, depth in the wings.

3. Arkansas: This area of the team improved a lot during the season and this spring. It’s headlined by Jerry Franklin, who has led the Razorbacks in tackles the last three seasons. He has 271, including 21.5 for loss in his career. Strongside hybrid Jerico Nelson was second on the team in tackles and has the speed to get all over the field. Nelson will occasional drop back and play safety as well. This linebacker tandem will be one of the best out there this fall. The major plus for the Razorbacks is that there is finally some really good depth at the position. Bret Harris, Jarrett Lake and Terrell Williams came on strong on the outside this spring, while Ross Rasner was making strides until he was arrested and suspended indefinitely this spring.

4. Georgia: There is no shortage of athleticism in Georgia’s linebacker corps. Alec Ogletree moved down from safety and while he’s bulked up, he’s still got tremendous closing speed and will make a ton of plays at middle linebacker. Next to him is defensive leader Christian Robinson, who left spring as one of Georgia’s most consistent linebackers. On the outside, USC transfer Jarvis Jones will occupy the weak side and the coaches feel he might be more of a complete player than Justin Houston. On the other end, Cornelius Washington might not be getting a ton of publicity, but he’s no slouch and can run with the best of them.

5. LSU: Like most of the Tigers’ positions, this one might not have a ton of in-game experience, but the athleticism is too good not to praise. LSU lost leading tackler and monster in the middle Kelvin Sheppard, but there should be enough able bodies to make this unit one of the tops in the league this fall. Ryan Baker is now the leader out there and can keep up with some of the best offensive weapons out there. He’ll play on the weak side, while converted safety Karnell Hatcher moved down from safety and took reps at middle linebacker, but could find his home outside. Sophomore Kevin Minter spent his spring trying to fill Sheppard’s void and has made vast improvements. Senior Stefoin Francois provides veteran depth for the Tigers on the outside, while there are a few young, able bodies ready to contribute as well.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Mark Zerof/US PresswireKentucky's Danny Trevathan, left, led the league with 144 total tackles.
6. Kentucky: Things start with one of the nation’s best in Danny Trevathan. He led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and the word out of Lexington is that he’s looking to be even better this fall and wants to move around the field a lot more. Ronnie Sneed returns as the starter in the middle, after grabbing 61 tackles a year ago. He made some nice improvements this spring. Ridge Wilson will be another hybrid on the outside, and will occasionally lineup as a rush end for the Wildcats. The talented Winston Guy, who has played just about everywhere on Kentucky’s defense has finally settled into his home at linebacker and should play closer to the line of scrimmage and be a nickel linebacker.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks got an immediate upgrade to this position with the return of Shaq Wilson, after he missed last year with a hamstring injury. Wilson is known as the quarterback of the defense and led South Carolina in tackles in 2009. The player that could really make noise in this unit is DeVonte Holloman, who is moving from safety to the hybrid Spur position. He’ll drop back into coverage and rush from the outside to give the Gamecocks another weapon in the pass rush. Upperclassmen Reggie Bowens and Rodney Paulk will get some reps in the middle this fall, while Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will compete for time outside.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers are still trying to find out what this group is made of. Junior Herman Lathers is back and he’s the most experienced player at the position. He had 75 tackles last season and will man the weak side for the Vols. Senior Daryl Vereen should get time at strong side, but he still has some developing to do. Senior Austin Johnson, a converted fullback, will get time in the middle with All-SEC freshman pick John Propst. The jury is still out on this unit and youngsters like A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Christian Harris will have to develop quickly.

9. Auburn: The Tigers are almost back to the drawing board at linebacker. Both Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are gone, leaving Daren Bates as the lone returning starter. Bates is a converted safety, but settled nicely into the linebacker position well last fall. Inexperience looms after that as sophomore Jake Holland is a projected starter in the middle and junior Jonathan Evans will get time at weakside. Former junior college standout Eltoro Freeman, has the potential to be a menace, but has yet to truly step up for the Tigers. They’ll need that light bulb to go on this year.

10. Mississippi State: First thing’s first -- the Bulldogs must replace three starting linebackers this season. That won’t be easy or fun in Starkville. But help could be on the way in Clemson transfer Brandon Maye, who was a three-year starter with the Tigers. Coach Dan Mullen said he’s a player they expect to come in and take one of those openings at linebacker. Mississippi State still has senior leader Brandon Wilson, who players fed off of this spring. Chris Hughes and Cam Lawrence also made strides, but expect a lot of rotation from new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson.

11. Vanderbilt: Chris Marve is one of the top linebackers in the nation. He’s got great field instincts and matches his skill with the best of them. Just having him on the field makes this group better. But after him, the Commodores have a lot of questions. Vanderbilt must replace outside linebackers John Stokes and Nate Campbell, and though there are six candidates, they have just start among them. Coming out of spring, juniors Tristan Strong and Archibald Barnes and sophomore Chase Garnham are the leading candidates to see valuable playing time.

12. Ole Miss: Losing D.T. Shackelford was an enormous blow to the Rebels. Not only was he Ole Miss’ best defensive player but he was the emotional leader of the team. He was going to carry this team as far as he could go. Now, the Rebels have a wealth of inexperience to deal with. Things got even worse when sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was dismissed following his arrest for public drunkenness. The pressure is now on incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top prospect coming out of the state of Mississippi. He could jump right into Shackelford’s spot. Mike Marry and Ralph Wilson worked in Shackelford’s spot this spring and Joel Knight returns as a starter outside.

Ranking the SEC linebackers

June, 21, 2011
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We thought ranking the running backs was hard -- then the linebackers came along.

It shouldn't come as much of a shock that we had trouble getting our rankings in order with all of the talent out there in the SEC, but it's pretty hard to go wrong with this list.

Here's what we came up with:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDont'a Hightower edged out teammate Courtney Upshaw for the top spot in the SEC linebacker rankings.
1. Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, Jr.: He was never truly 100 percent last season after that devastating knee injury in 2009. However, the pain is finally gone and Hightower is looking to really take off in 2011. When he’s healthy, he’s as exciting to watch as any linebacker out there. He'll start in the middle, but moves outside the "Jack" position and plays in different spots on passing downs. Even though he was hobbled last year, he was second on the team with 69 tackles.

2. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, Sr.: Upshaw is back to full health after dealing with a nagging ankle injury in 2010. This spring, he was flying around practice and should be one of the top pass-rushers on the outside. He's another one of those Jacks who might start on the outside, but Upshaw will make plays all over the field this fall. He ended last season with some mighty playing momentum, registering five sacks in the final two games.

3. Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, Sr.: Franklin has been an absolute beast for the Razorbacks. He’s lead Arkansas in tackles the last three seasons, and there’s no reason for us not to think he won’t do it again. Franklin is also pretty quick on his feet and has a nose for the ball. He has five career interceptions and five forced fumbles.

4. Danny Trevathan, Kentucky, Sr.: Talk about being the hardest working man on the field. Trevathan led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and was third with 16 of them behind the line of scrimmage. He’s Kentucky’s most trusted defender and was the first Kentucky linebacker to ever earn any sort of All-America first-team honors.

5. Chris Marve, Vanderbilt, Sr.: Marve is arguably Vanderbilt’s best overall player. If not for a knee injury that cost him one game in 2011, Marve might have made it three straight years with 100 or more tackles. He played the entire last season in some sort of pain and was still able to cover a lot of ground over the middle of the field.

6. Ryan Baker, LSU, Sr.: One thing that makes Baker so imposing against offenses is his speed. He has tremendous closing speed and his play could be the key to the functionality of LSU’s young but very athletic defense. Kelvin Sheppard is gone, so the defense will be leaning on Baker for not only his play but his leadership skills. Baker had 87 tackles last year and led the team with seven sacks.

7. Jelani Jenkins, Florida, So.: Jenkins developed as last season went on, but he was inconsistent at times. He showed he’s got wheels and somehow found the ball a ton, finishing second on the team with 76 tackles. Jenkins really took to Dan Quinn’s multiple defense this spring and will be called on to be one of the voices on defense. He’ll line up outside in the 4-3 and will be inside when Florida is in the 3-4.

8. Ronald Powell, Florida, So.: Powell could have made this list as a defensive end, but with him playing the hybrid Buck and primarily playing linebacker last year, we stuck him here. After struggling through his first year, Powell was a changed man this spring and from all accounts finally looked like what the No. 1 high school prospect should look like. The defensive staff has complete trust in Powell and with his freakish athleticism and ability, he immediately becomes Florida’s top pass-rusher.

9. DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina, Jr.: Holloman made the switch form safety and will now be the Gamecocks’ hybrid linebacker known as the Spur. With defensive back speed and weighing 230 pounds, he should be just fine at his new position. The question is whether the staff will keep him there. The strong safety spot was never filled this spring, so Holloman could move back. As long as he’s here, he’s going to add a quality roving weapon to the Gamecocks' defense.

10. Jarvis Jones, Georgia, So.: He finally gets on the field after sitting out a year because of his transfer from USC. He’ll line up on the weak side, so he’s not exactly Justin Houston, but the coaches at Georgia think he might be a more complete player at linebacker. He can rush the passer and stop the run. Jones should have a big year in his new conference.

Exiting the spring: South Carolina

April, 8, 2011
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Spring game: 1 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN3.com

Questions answered: Marcus Lattimore was a workhorse last season as a true freshman for the Gamecocks, but it looks like he may get some help in 2011. Kenny Miles and Eric Baker both showed some burst this spring at running back. The Gamecocks will ride Lattimore next season, but they also don’t want to wear him out by the time they get to November. Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, thinks he’s found a few linebackers. Damario Jeffery moved from the hybrid Spur position to weakside linebacker. Quin Smith has also looked good at the weakside spot. Shaq Wilson returns at middle linebacker after missing all but one game last season. Reggie Bowens, who’s been beset with injuries, also got some work in the middle. If Bowens can stay healthy, he really helps the Gamecocks’ depth, especially when you consider that Rodney Paulk will be back in the fall.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesConnor Shaw has attempted only 33 passes heading into the 2011 season.
Questions unanswered: With senior quarterback Stephen Garcia indefinitely suspended (yes, for a fifth time), it’s hard to say the Gamecocks are set at quarterback. Garcia could be gone for good, which puts a ton of pressure on sophomore Connor Shaw. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier likes Shaw, but asking him to go the distance next season when he’s never started an SEC game is a tough way to break in a new quarterback in this league. On defense, nobody stepped up and won the strong safety job, which makes you wonder if the Gamecocks might have to move DeVonte Holloman back there in the fall. Johnson wants to keep the 230-pound Holloman at the Spur position. But with Corey Addison hurt all spring, nobody else staked claim to the strong safety spot. Perhaps true freshman Sheldon Royster will be able to help once he arrives this summer.

Spring stars: Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said entering the spring that one of the keys up front would be how well redshirt freshman A.J. Cann played at left guard. Well, Cann exits the spring as the starter, which allowed Elliott to experiment a little bit with different players. Free safety D.J. Swearinger stole the show on defense. He’s an All-SEC player in the making and was always around the ball and pitching in with big plays. Jason Barnes and Ace Sanders both showcased big-play potential at the slot receiver position. Finding other playmakers at receiver to help take the pressure off of Alshon Jeffery will be important. Redshirt freshman receiver Nick Jones is another guy who had his moments this spring.

Of note: Kenny Davis moved from defensive tackle to offensive guard, while Corey Robinson moved from offensive tackle to defensive tackle. … True freshman Martay Mattox shifted from cornerback to free safety and looks like he could be a fixture on special teams. Mattox played quarterback in high school. … Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard on South Carolina’s basketball team, plans to join the football team in June. He was a star football player in high school and could factor in at a number of positions, including receiver, kick returner and quarterback in the Wildcat formation. … Lattimore has beefed up to a rock-solid 231 pounds and has been a beast in the weight room. … Senior Rokevious Watkins has been working with the first unit at right tackle this spring, but could still slide back inside to guard if junior college newcomer Kaleb Broome or redshirt freshman Cody Gibson comes on at tackle. ... Offensive guard Ronald Patrick had his spring cut short after undergoing surgery for an abscess behind his right eye.

Which fumble was worse?

September, 11, 2010
9/11/10
2:35
PM ET
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- I'm not sure which fumble was more costly.

The Gamecocks looked like they might be ready to put the Bulldogs away when Stephen Garcia was sacked by Justin Houston and coughed it up at the Georgia 24.

Steve Spurrier was in Garcia's ear on the sideline afterward, too.

The Bulldogs, though, gave it right back after driving down inside the South Carolina 10 when Washaun Ealey fumbled at the 3. The Gamecocks' Stephon Gilmore recovered at the 1.

The killer for the Bulldogs was that they moved the ball extremely well in the third quarter and really seemed to be finding a rhythm -- but only have three points to show for it.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- One of the more underrated jobs in the SEC the past two seasons has been the one done by South Carolina assistant head coach for the defense Ellis Johnson and his staff.

The Gamecocks finished 15th nationally in total defense last season and 13th nationally in 2008. Alabama and Florida were the only other two SEC teams to finish in the top-15 each of the past two years.

[+] EnlargeEllis Johnson
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainSouth Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson got a contract extension and a raise this offseason.
Without question, one of the best moves South Carolina made this offseason was holding onto Johnson, who was offered a lucrative deal by Tennessee coach Derek Dooley to be the Vols’ defensive coordinator.

The Gamecocks acted quickly and extended Johnson’s contract to a four-year deal and increased his annual salary to $700,000.

“We got all that done in a day, and we needed to,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Coach Dooley was coming after him hard.”

Johnson, 58, is one of the straightest shooters in the college game. He’s got that old-school aura about him and doesn’t sugarcoat it for anybody, including his players.

So when he says he doesn’t really have a feel for his defense this spring, he means it.

For one, the Gamecocks have been a MASH unit. Defensive linemen Cliff Matthews and Travian Robertson have been sidelined while recovering from injuries, and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye has been limited.

Linebackers Rodney Paulk and Reggie Bowens have also been sidelined along with cornerback Chris Culliver.

“It’s good in that we’ve gotten a chance to see a lot of young kids, and that’s what the spring is about,” Johnson said. “But it’s hard to say where we are as a defensive unit right now. That might not be something that comes together until the second week of preseason practice.”

The Gamecocks return seven of 11 starters from last season, but one of the more disappointing things this spring for Johnson is that one of those younger defensive linemen hasn’t jumped out there and been more of a presence.

“With Matthews not being out there, we haven’t gotten any one-on-one pressure on the quarterback,” said Johnson, adding that sophomore end Devin Taylor and redshirt freshman Chaz Sutton still had a ways to go in that department.

Matthews was a second-team All-SEC performer last season and tied the departed Eric Norwood for the team lead in sacks with seven. He's one of the top three or four defensive ends in the league.

“You’ve got to have two of those guys at end, and we haven’t found that other light-the-match guy this spring,” Johnson said.

Johnson said junior Shaq Wilson is the most likely candidate to replace Norwood at outside linebacker, particularly if Paulk returns at full strength at middle linebacker. Paulk has suffered season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons.

The Gamecocks should be outstanding in the secondary, led by sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who started every game as a true freshman last season. He’s a future pro.

His high school teammate, DeVonte Holloman, is having a super spring at safety. But Holloman is a bit too heavy, and Johnson would like to see him lighter in the fall.

“I just don’t think you can play back there at 229 pounds,” Johnson said.

Junior Akeem Auguste has moved from cornerback to safety, but is being pushed by sophomore D.J. Swearinger, who’s been one of the Gamecocks’ breakthrough players this spring. Junior cornerback C.C. Whitlock has also had his moments this spring, although Johnson still wants to see him be more consistent.

“We’ve still got to prove it, but I think we’ll be better on defense than we were last year,” Gilmore said. “There were a lot of us feeling our way along last year because we hadn’t played. Everybody’s played now, and there are a lot of guys on this defense ready to leave their mark.”

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