NCF Nation: Dont'a Hightower
What Saban hopes to see more of from his defense when the players and coaches get back together shortly before fall camp is leadership. This defense can be as hungry as it wants, but Saban knows it won't go very far without a few chiefs stepping up.
He saw progress this spring, but it wasn't enough.
"I'm never satisfied," Saban said at the 2012 SEC spring meetings. "That's an area of our team that we need to continue to develop and mature."
Gone are upperclassmen leaders like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Josh Chapman. In are seniors Nico Johnson (linebacker) and Jesse Williams (defensive tackle) and linebackers C.J. Mosley (junior) and Adrian Hubbard (sophomore). All seemed to make strides this spring, but there's still a lot of room for them and others to grow, Saban said.
This defense isn't on the same level as the historic one in 2011, but it's still pretty talented. But so was the 2010 defense and its slow start hurt Alabama's chance to repeat as SEC champs. Though this unit is older than the 2010 defense, Saban made it clear that leadership and maturity can take a team further than talent and experience.
There's still plenty of time for all the leadership kinks to be worked out and there's no doubt that Saban will take a different approach in helping that growth after what transpired in 2010.
"I've been pleased with the leadership on this team so far," he said," but it's a work in progress and it's developing. It's going to have to continue to develop for them to be what we need them to be successful on a consistent basis."
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
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.
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 ...
As many as 12 players from the SEC are being projected to go in the first round, which will be carried live tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. ET. Rounds 2 and 3 will be on Friday, also on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. Rounds 4-7 will be on Saturday with ESPN coverage beginning at noon.
The most first-round selections the SEC has produced in one draft was 11 in 2007.
So if 12 go tonight, that would break the record.
Here's a look at the 12 SEC players being pegged to go in the first round. They're listed in order of their rank on Mel Kiper's Big Board :
- RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
- CB Morris Claiborne, LSU
- DE Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
- S Mark Barron, Alabama
- CB Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
- OT Cordy Glenn, Georgia
- DT Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State
- OT Bobby Massie, Ole Miss
- DT Michael Brockers, LSU
- CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama
- LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
- LB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama
Today's Take Two topic: Other than obvious stars such as Barrett Jones and AJ McCarron, who's the player that needs to come through for Alabama next season if the Crimson Tide are going to become the first team since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to win outright national championships in back-to-back seasons?
Take 1: Edward Aschoff
Jesse Williams is a guy who I think has to have a big season in 2012 in order for Alabama to repeat this fall. Now that Josh Chapman is gone at nose guard, Williams is moving over from defensive end to follow in Chapman's big footsteps. It won't be easy when you consider how effective Chapman was last season, even while basically playing on one knee. He absolutely clogged the middle of the line and was a key cog in the Crimson Tide's suffocating run defense.
Remember, Williams played tackle when Alabama went to a four-man front last year, so playing inside isn't unfamiliar territory for him. He's likely to get time on the edge again as well, so his versatility will really help Alabama. Getting pressure on opposing backfields will be key for this Tide defense, so the coaches are expecting a lot from Williams. Everything starts up front in the SEC, and Williams' performance could determine a lot for Alabama's defense this fall.
Take 2: Chris Low
The interior of the defensive line is always a good place to start when you’re retooling a defense, and there’s no doubt that Josh Chapman will be sorely missed. The guy was a rock in the middle and played more than half the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. So I understand, Edward, how you could go with Jesse Williams, especially with Williams sliding over from end to nose guard this spring in the Crimson Tide’s 3-4 scheme. But I’m picking sophomore Adrian Hubbard as that under-the-radar guy who needs to come through because I think he has everything it takes to become a premier playmaker on defense next season.
Let’s face it. When you’re losing the likes of Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Chapman on defense, new playmakers don’t just magically appear -- even for a team that has recruited as well as Alabama has. The 6-6 Hubbard, who looked more like a basketball player when he arrived at Alabama, is now pushing 250 pounds. He was listed at 237 last season. Upshaw was that finisher for the Tide from his Jack linebacker position. He was the guy who made most of the game-changing plays on Alabama’s defense. Hubbard is poised to be that guy in 2012, and the Crimson Tide could be relying on him to harass the opposing quarterback more than ever before.
Much like 2010, Alabama will be inexperienced in the secondary next season with three of the four starters departing. It remains to be seen if the Crimson Tide can match up at cornerback the way they did a year ago. Moreover, when you’re plugging new players into the defensive backfield, there are always going to be growing pains. Remember the mental errors that plagued the Tide in the secondary in 2010? The best way to cover up those errors and help a secondary find its way while players learn on the job is to keep the opposing quarterback running for his life. That’s where Hubbard comes in. He’s had an excellent spring and will be counted on to fill Upshaw’s role next season. According to Upshaw, Hubbard will do more than just fill it. Upshaw as much as guaranteed last season that Hubbard would be a dominant player before his time was up at Alabama. That time is now.
Anytime you do this sort of thing you always second-guess yourself. There are always players you wish you had put higher, slid down lower, left off or put on the list. The only thing that's for sure is that you'll never be perfect and you'll never please everyone, but that's the way it goes.
Alabama running back Trent Richardson was the obvious choice to be first on our list. He was named the nation's top running back and was a unanimous first team All-American and All-SEC member. He accounted for more than 36 percent of Alabama's offense last year and became just the third player in SEC history to rush for 20 or more touchdowns.
Richardson is a track star built like a tank.
While Richardson was spot on, there was another player who we felt should have been higher. At second glance, Chris and I felt that Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones was too low. He ended up sixth, but we now feel like we should have had him above both Melvin Ingram and Courtney Upshaw.
When you finish the year with an SEC-best 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks after a a year away from the field you deserve to be higher.
We took some heat from the College GameDay crew during the season for having only one LSU player — cornerback Morris Claiborne — on our preseason list. (We didn't even have Tyrann Mathieu on the preseason list! We sure look boneheaded now.) Well, we certainly deserved that and had four Tigers on the postseason list, including No. 2 (Claiborne) and No. 3 (Mathieu). Defensive end Sam Montgomery and guard Will Blackwell just missed the cut, too.
We've also received word from some readers that we missed on Tennessee wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who was passed by LSU's Rueben Randle and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery.
When we created this list we took into consideration stats and total impact on a team — good and bad. Yes, Rogers led the SEC in receiving, but his impact wasn't as positive as the others. Randle was LSU's top receiving target all season, was a true leader and finished the year third in the SEC in receiving. Jeffery was South Carolina's only real dependable receiver all season and of his eight touchdowns, five came in conference games. Jeffery also spent the first eight games on a team that didn't have much of a passing game and was still sixth in the league in receiving.
Also, Jeffery had a monster outing in South Carolina's bowl win, while when Tennessee needed a win over Kentucky to become bowl eligible, Rogers caught just two passes in the loss and was openly complaining and being divisive on the sideline.
Rogers had a solid season, but more was taken into consideration than just his play.
Five players — Richardson, Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower, Barrett Jones and Mark Barron — from our preseason top 10 remained there in our postseason countdown, so that made us look good.
We missed on two South Carolina players in the preseason in Devin Taylor (No. 6) and Stephon Gilmore (No. 12) and didn't see Ingram (postseason No. 5) coming. But we did have 14 of 25 from our preseason list back on our postseason list. It probably would have been more if not for injuries to South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Arkansas running back Knile Davis and defensive end Jake Bequette, or the dismissal of former Tennessee safety Janzen Jackson.
Here's a breakdown of the list by team, position, side of the field, year and division:
- Alabama (7)
- Georgia (5)
- LSU (4)
- Arkansas (3)
- South Carolina (2)
- Auburn (1)
- Kentucky (1)
- Mississippi State (1)
- Vanderbilt (1)
- DB (7)
- LB (4)
- WR/TE (4)
- DL (3)
- QB (2)
- RB (2)
- OL (3)
- Defense (14)
- Offense (11)
- Senior (11)
- Junior (9)
- Sophomore (5)
- West (16)
- East (9)
Check in tomorrow to see players who just missed the cut for the postseason top 25.
Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram all helped themselves.
And with the defensive backs working out Tuesday, already LSU cornerback Ron Brooks has turned heads with a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, which unofficially is the fastest 40 time this year at the combine.
Some of the other unofficial 40 times from Tuesday included South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore (4.44), LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne (4.47), Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward (4.53) and South Carolina safety Antonio Allen (4.62).
Hightower, weighing 265 pounds, ran a 4.68 in the 40-yard dash on Monday, and also recorded a 32-inch vertical leap.
The ESPN Scouts Inc. guys said Hightower showed impressive mobility for his size.
Todd McShay of ESPN Scouts Inc. said Ingram had the best workout of the perimeter defensive linemen. Ingram turned in the second-best three-cone (6.83) and third-best short shuttle (4.18), and also finished in the top 10 among linemen in the 40 (4.79) and vertical jump (34½).
McShay said of Ingram: "Ingram's lack of size could mean a move to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but for now he has the most explosive, violent hands in the defensive end class and he could end up being a top-10 pick. The Miami Dolphins (No. 8 pick) and Buffalo Bills (No. 10) could both have interest."
Cox's 4.79 in the 40 topped all defensive tackles. He posted a 7.07-second three-cone drill, which is more than a half-second faster than the four-year average. He turned in a 4.53 in the short shuttle.
McShay said of Cox: "Cox came into the combine as the second-rated defensive tackle on the Scouts Inc. board, and he did nothing to change our opinion. He shows the versatility to play the 3-technique (DT) or even left end at times in a 4-3 alignment or the 5-technique in a 3-4."
LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers didn't test well. He ran a 5.36 in the 40 and did only 19 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. Even so, it sounds like Brockers will still be a high draft pick.
McShay said: "Brockers didn't look as quick or explosive as some of the other top prospects in drills, but he did move well in space for a 6-5 322-pounder. It's important to keep things in perspective, though, because Brockers' game tape is strong enough that his combine workout won't affect his stock nearly as much as it would a prospect who is less consistent on tape."
For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.
“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.
That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.
Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.
And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.
As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.
Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.
Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.
But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.
At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.
Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.
“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.
“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”
But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …
LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.
LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.
Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.
“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”
South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.
South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.
The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.
The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.
“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”
Occasionally, it’s stunning how few of the All-SEC players were hot-shot recruits. For instance, of the 11 defensive players who earned first-team, All-SEC honors in 2010 by the Associated Press, only two were ESPNU 150 recruits (ranked among the top 150 players nationally).
It’s a reminder that recruiting rankings are anything but foolproof.
However, the recruiting folks at ESPN batted a much higher percentage with the players on the 2011 All-SEC team.
Using the coaches’ selections this time, 10 of the 22 position players on offense and defense were ESPNU 150 selections coming out of high school.
In fact, both of the running backs -- Trent Richardson and Michael Dyer -- were rated as the No. 1 running back prospects in the country the years they graduated high school.
LSU’s Rueben Randle was the No. 1-rated receiver in 2009, while Arkansas receiver/return specialist Joe Adams was the No. 2-rated athlete in 2008.
So the evaluations by the ESPN recruiting team on the top skill players from this past season in the SEC were dead-on when they were coming out of high school.
It’s a little trickier with the guys up front.
Of the 10 offensive/defensive linemen named to the 2011 All-SEC team by the coaches, counting the tight end, only three were ESPNU 150 selections coming out of high school – Alabama center William Vlachos, Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier and LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery.
LSU offensive tackle Alex Hurst and Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette weren’t ranked nationally or regionally as high school prospects.
Using ESPN’s recruiting rankings and the 2011 coaches’ All-SEC team, here’s a look back:
- QB: Tyler Wilson, Arkansas – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2008. Ranked as the No. 8 quarterback in the class and the No. 82 prospect overall. A grade of 82. Ranked one spot below Andrew Luck that year among quarterbacks. Terrelle Pryor was No. 1. Wilson was the top-rated quarterback to sign with an SEC school in 2008. No. 2 on the list was Jordan Jefferson, and No. 3 was Star Jackson.
- RB: Trent Richardson, Alabama – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2009. The No. 1 running back in the class and the No. 6 prospect overall. A grade of 91. Only two players were rated higher than Richardson that signed with SEC schools in 2009 – No. 3 Russell Shepard to LSU and No. 4 Dre Kirkpatrick to Alabama.
- RB: Michael Dyer, Auburn – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2010. The No. 1 running back in the class and the No. 5 prospect overall. A grade of 87. The No. 1 player that year was Ronald Powell, and No. 3 was Dominique Easley, both defensive linemen who went to Florida.
- WR: Jarius Wright, Arkansas – Ranked as the No. 44 receiver nationally in 2008 and the No. 115 prospect in the Southeast. A grade of 79. Twelve receivers who signed with SEC schools were rated ahead of Wright, including Julio Jones and A.J. Green. Some of the others rated ahead of Wright included Rod Wilks, Aaron Boyd, T.J. Lawrence, Chris Tolliver, Destin Hood and Frankie Hammond Jr.
- WR: Rueben Randle, LSU – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2009. The No. 1 receiver in the class and the No. 10 overall prospect overall. A grade of 86. Six players that year rated in from of him signed with SEC schools – Russell Shepard, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, Craig Loston, Bryce Brown and Jelani Jenkins.
- TE: Orson Charles, Georgia – Ranked as the No. 15 tight end prospect nationally, the No. 150 prospect in the Southeast and the No. 59 prospect in the state of Florida in 2009. A grade of 79. Arthur Lynch, who also signed with Georgia, was rated ahead of Charles that year at tight end. The top-rated tight end to sign with an SEC school that year was Zaccheus Mason, who went to Ole Miss.
- AP: Joe Adams, Arkansas – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2008. The No. 2 athlete in the class and the No. 41 prospect overall. A grade of 83. The player ranked No. 1 nationally that year as an athlete was Burton Scott, who went to Alabama and later transferred to South Alabama. For what it’s worth, No. 86 on that list was Randall Cobb.
- OL: Barrett Jones, Alabama – Ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle nationally and the No. 157 prospect in the Southeast in 2008. A grade of 78. The No. 1 offensive tackle that year nationally was Jones’ Alabama teammate, Tyler Love. Another teammate, John Michael Boswell, was also rated ahead of Jones at No. 19.
- OL: Will Blackwell, LSU – Ranked as the No. 15 defensive tackle nationally in the 2007 class and unranked regionally or overall. A grade of 79. The top-rated defensive tackle that year to sign with an SEC school was D.J. Stafford, who went to Kentucky and was No. 2 nationally. John Brown was No. 3 and went to Florida. For what it’s worth, Josh Chapman was the No. 74 defensive tackle, and 18 tackles that year who signed with SEC schools were rated ahead of Chapman.
- OL: Cordy Glenn, Georgia – Ranked as the No. 74 offensive tackle nationally in 2008 and the No. 390 prospect in the Southeast. A grade of 74. Ten offensive tackles who signed with SEC schools that year were rated ahead of Glenn.
- OL: Alex Hurst, LSU – Unranked regionally or nationally with a grade of 40 coming out of Bartlett, Tenn., in 2008. Hurst was able to attract Les Miles’ attention at an LSU football camp.
- C: William Vlachos, Alabama – An ESPNU 150 selection. Ranked as the No. 3 offensive guard nationally and the No. 80 prospect overall in 2007. A grade of 80. The No. 1 offensive guard that year was James Wilson, who went to Florida.
In some cases, guys went from being a very good player to a great player. In other cases, guys went from being a reserve to a key starter. There were also some guys who bounced back from injury-plagued seasons.
Here’s what I came up with. The players are listed in alphabetical order:
Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: When Lawrence came to Mississippi State, he was more of a utility man. In fact, he played quarterback, receiver, safety and linebacker during his first season. But he settled in at one of the outside linebacker spots and had a monster junior season, finishing second in the SEC with 123 total tackles, including six for loss. The 6-2, 230-pound Lawrence also forced two fumbles and helped fill a huge void at linebacker after the Bulldogs lost all three starters the year before. Lawrence’s chief role prior to this season was on special teams, and he’d recorded just 31 tackles in his first two seasons combined. He passed that total by the fourth game of the season this year on a defense that finished 16th nationally in points allowed.
Eric Reid, S, LSU: Tyrann Mathieu had the catchy “Honey Badger” nickname and collected a ton of highlight-reel plays, but Reid was one of the most improved and consistent players on LSU’s team in what was a breakout sophomore season for him. He tied with Mathieu for the team lead with 76 total tackles and also had two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His interception at the 1-yard line in the first game against Alabama was the play of the year in the SEC. Reid was as good in coverage as he was against the run and wound up earning second-team All-SEC honors. He showed flashes as a true freshman when he wound up starting the last three games of the regular season, but put it all together this season to become one of the better all-around safeties in the league.
Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: Part of the credit goes to an improved Vanderbilt offensive line, but no player in the SEC improved more from last season to this season than Stacy. The 5-9, 208-pound junior set school records with 1,193 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, and he also caught 20 passes. Stacy averaged 5.9 yards per carry, and more than once, demonstrated that he could break the big one. He had three runs of 50 yards or longer. Stacy’s rushing total this season was nearly 400 yards more than he had in his first two seasons combined. Stacy rushed for 331 yards a year ago, but missed the last three games after suffering a blow to the head against Florida. He also shared the carries with Warren Norman the first two seasons, and Norman redshirted this season after undergoing knee surgery. Stacy worked hard on his strength and explosiveness last offseason, and seeing the opportunity to be the Commodores’ go-to back this season, he ran with it all the way to a record-setting season and All-SEC honors.
Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Even before his senior season, Wright had been a key member of the Hogs’ receiving corps and one of their strongest leaders. But in 2011, he blossomed into the most productive receiver in the SEC and set several school records along the way. Wright had always possessed great speed, but he became a better player after the catch this season, which made him even more difficult to defend. He finished with 66 catches for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging 16.9 yards per catch. Wright was a consensus first-team All-SEC selection and leaves Arkansas as the single-season record-holder in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The 12 touchdown catches match the number of touchdowns Wright caught in his first three seasons combined, and he had 24 more catches this season than he did a year ago as a junior.
Here are 10 more players that just missed the cut:
Today, we'll look at players who either improved their play, rose from the ranks of reserve to really impress or returned from injury. I'll go first with my five players who I thought made the most improvement from 2010 to 2011. Chris will follow up with his top five later today. We haven't communicated about our choices, so we could have some that overlap or we could have five completely different picks.
Regardless, this should create some pretty fun debate for readers.
Here's a look at my five most improved players in the SEC:
- Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: As a sophomore, Cox started 11 games and accumulated 29 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. But last year, he proved to be one of the top defensive tackles in the SEC. He had 56 total tackles, including 14.5 for loss and five sacks. He also blocked two kicks, recovered a fumble and forced a fumble. He's expected to be a first-round pick in April's NFL draft.
- Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU: As a reserve, Mathieu had a productive year in 2010, when he ranked first in the SEC and fifth nationally with five forced fumbles and tied for first in the league with three fumble recoveries. He also led LSU with seven pass breakups. He became a national star and a Heisman finalist in 2011, as he tied for the team lead with 76 tackles, tied for first nationally with five fumble recoveries, and tied for fourth with six forced fumbles. He was also fifth nationally with a 15.6 average on punt returns and took two back for touchdowns.
- Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: Montgomery missed most of 2010 with a knee injury, but still managed two sacks. Last season, you would have never guessed that he was coming off an injury. Montgomery was one of the league's most productive players off the edge, ranking sixth in the SEC with nine sacks and had 13.5 tackles for loss.
- Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt: He finished the 2010 season as Vanderbilt's second leading rusher with 331 yards and had three touchdowns. He looked like a completely different player in 2011, becoming one of the top running backs in the SEC. He was third in the SEC with 1,193 rushing yards and was second with 14 rushing touchdowns. He also averaged 5.7 yards per carry in conference play.
- Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: Wright left Arkansas as one of the best receivers to ever step foot in Fayetteville, but he saved his best season for last. After catching 42 passes for 788 yards and five touchdowns in 2010, Wright was the SEC's top receiver last season with 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also led the league with 93.1 yards per game.
Here are 10 more that just missed the cut:
The feeling around the program all along was that running back Trent Richardson, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Dont'a Hightower would all enter their names into the NFL draft, and that's what happened.
Meanwhile, safety Robert Lester announced that he was returning to school for his senior season.
It's the second year in a row that Alabama has lost three juniors to the draft. A year ago, Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones and Mark Ingram all went in the first round.
Richardson's a potential top 5 pick. Kirkpatrick is projected by most analysts to go somewhere in the first round, while Hightower may end up going in the second round.
Here's an updated list of the SEC underclassmen declaring early for the NFL draft:
- LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers
- Georgia tight end Orson Charles
- LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne
- Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox
- South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore
- Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower
- Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick
- South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery
NEW ORLEANS -- When Alabama senior linebacker Courtney Upshaw addressed his teammates earlier this week, he kept coming back to one word.
“What I told them was, ‘Let’s be legendary,’ ” Upshaw recounted. “And that’s all they heard from me over and over again during the game.”
Upshaw had a feeling what was coming. He said he even dreamed about it.
So it’s no coincidence that he was one of the catalysts for what will go down as a legendary defensive performance by Alabama in a 21-0 strangulation of LSU on Monday night in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
Not only was it a legendary performance, but it’s a defense that will invariably evoke comparisons to the most revered defense in school history.
That would be the 1992 defense, which paved the way for Alabama to win a national championship with a dismantling of Miami on this same Superdome turf nearly two decades ago.
History will ultimately be the judge of how good this Alabama defense was, but some of the Crimson Tide’s players think they already know.
“We’re a group of guys who wanted it … with the best group of coaches in the world, and we wanted to finish,” Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “That was our main thing. We didn’t finish anything we did the first time we played these guys. We were going to finish this time.”
Kirkpatrick didn’t blink when asked how this Alabama defense would be remembered 15 years from now.
“The greatest defense in the world … the greatest defense to ever touch the field,” Kirkpatrick beamed.
Granted, he was still basking in Alabama’s second national championship in the past three years, and that’s a dizzying label to put on any defense.
But in the realm of the best college defenses in modern times, it’s going to be hard to top this bunch.
In shutting out LSU, Alabama’s defense went all 13 games this season without allowing more than 14 points in any game (Georgia Southern scored seven of its 21 on a kickoff return). The Crimson Tide also became just the second team in history to finish the season ranked No. 1 statistically in all four major defensive categories -- total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Oklahoma was the only other team to do it, in 1986.
“I don’t know where our place is in history, but this should answer a lot of questions about this season,” Alabama safety Mark Barron said. “We got tired of hearing about how we shouldn’t be here and that somebody else should.
“We didn’t want to leave any questions.”
LSU came into the game unbeaten and leading the SEC in scoring at 38.5 points per game. The Tigers played eight quarters and an overtime period against the Crimson Tide this season and never scored a touchdown.
In Monday’s title game, LSU crossed midfield just one time, and that came in the fourth quarter. The Tigers were held to 92 total yards, and the reality is that the two teams could have played 10 more quarters and LSU still wouldn’t have scored a touchdown.
“We had the Saban factor on our side,” Alabama junior linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “You can’t give coach (Nick) Saban 45 days off and not expect him to come up with something. We were ready for everything they threw at us tonight.”
As it was, LSU didn’t have much to throw at Alabama, at least anything that worked.
The Tigers wouldn’t (or couldn’t) go downfield in the vertical passing game. They didn’t pound the middle with the running game like Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was expecting, and they persisted in trying to get outside with the option, to no avail.
Smart said LSU hardly did anything Alabama was expecting and almost sounded perplexed that the Tigers didn’t take any shots down the field.
“They got in different personnel groupings and in different formations,” Smart said. “They tried to change everything, at least everything they’d done in every other game, and our guys responded.”
Upshaw, named the game’s Defensive MVP, said the Crimson Tide were determined not to let Jefferson hurt them running the ball. He had some success on the ground back on Nov. 5.
“Watching film on those guys, we saw where we ran upfield and got ourselves blocked and let Jefferson break out,” Upshaw said. “We wanted to come in with another game plan, to close the pocket, let the DBs lock down on their man, get some pressure on Jefferson and try and make him a passer.”
Jefferson finished 11-of-17 with an interception, but mustered just 53 passing yards. He was sacked four times.
“If they tried it, we were on it,” said Hightower, who had 1.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble in one of his better all-around games of the season. “I don’t know any feeling in the world that could top this one.”
But topping this defense?
Saban hates comparisons, and he was asked Monday if this was the best defense he’s ever coached.
The closest he would come to answering that question was this: “I can’t tell you what defense was the best. I can just tell you this was one of the most enjoyable teams to coach.”
And going back to that iconic 1992 Alabama defense, it’s worth noting that the Crimson Tide surrendered an average of 9.2 points per game that season. This Alabama defense, bolstered by Monday night’s shutout, gave up just 8.2 points per game.
The Tide Nation will make the final call.
But there’s no denying one thing: Two different times this season, Alabama’s defense ran up against the No. 1-ranked team in the country, and the Crimson Tide didn’t give up their end zone on either occasion.
That’s truly the stuff of legends.
Here’s a look at the five plays that got Alabama to Monday night’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game:
1. Maze’s punt return: One of the most electrifying plays of the year in the SEC, Marquis Maze weaved his way 83 yards through Arkansas defenders early in the third quarter to break the game wide open and send the Crimson Tide on their way to a 38-14 beatdown of the Hogs. Maze showed his speed, open-field running ability and knack for breaking tackles all on one dazzling return.
2. Upshaw’s interception return: With the game tied at 10 early in the second quarter, Alabama’s Nick Gentry came free up the middle and hurried Florida quarterback John Brantley, whose dump pass over the middle was intercepted by Courtney Upshaw and returned 45 yards for a touchdown. The Gators were never the same, and the Crimson Tide won easily, 38-10 at the Swamp.
3. The fourth-down stop: Tennessee had played Alabama to a 6-6 tie at the half, and the Crimson Tide looked sluggish. They answered with a long touchdown drive coming out of the break to go up 13-6 and then sent the Vols packing for good after Tennessee elected to go for it on fourth-and-inches at their own 39. Josh Chapman and Dont’a Hightower stuffed Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms for no gain. The Vols challenged the spot, but the call on the field was upheld, and Alabama scored a touchdown on its next play en route to a 37-6 romp.
4. McCarron’s lazor: It wasn’t AJ McCarron’s longest pass of the season, but it was one of his most impressive and came at a time in the Penn State game when Beaver Stadium was rocking. McCarron threw a bullet between two defenders on a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams to silence the crowd and give the Crimson Tide a first-quarter lead they would never relinquish in a 27-11 victory over the Nittany Lions.
5. Going for a ride: Alabama running back Trent Richardson had so many spectacular runs this season that it’s impossible to pick just one. But a 16-yard run he had against Auburn says everything you need to know about him as a competitor. Auburn had just pulled within 24-14 on a kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half, and Alabama needed to answer. Richardson exploded up the middle on a third-and-4 play and was met by a cluster of Auburn defenders at the 20. He dragged four of them with him for 7 more yards before they finally got him on the ground, setting up a Jeremy Shelley 28-yard field goal. The Crimson Tide never looked back in cruising to a 42-14 win.
But in the Big Easy, it’s strictly an SEC world.
The SEC will make it six straight national championships when Alabama and LSU clash in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in what will be the first matchup of two teams from the same league in the BCS National Championship Game.
The players on both sides said they don’t see the SEC onslaught ending any time soon. Already, several early preseason polls for 2012 include four and five SEC teams in the top 10.
Everybody wants to know what the common denominator is in the SEC’s success.
In short, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower said it’s a combination of size, strength and speed mixed in with superior coaching.
“There are a lot of guys who are fast, or they’re big and strong,” Hightower said. “But in the SEC, you’ve got both. You’ve got guys who are 260 and run a 4.5 or 4.6 [in the 40-yard dash], and you see guys who are 200 and 210 pounds that can bench-press 500 pounds. You don’t see that in a lot of conferences.
“It’s that, and I think the coaches here have more of an edge than other conferences.”
LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said there’s a level of defense played in the SEC with a level of athlete, particularly in the defensive line, that other conferences can’t match.
“Look at the front sevens in the SEC,” Brockers said. “Where else do you see that kind of size, speed and depth? There are great players all over college football, but every team has them in the SEC, and I’m talking about big guys who can run and make plays.”
Alabama center William Vlachos said LSU’s depth in the defensive line is a perfect example.
“They run three or four off and bring in three or four just as good,” Vlachos said. “There’s no drop-off … in size, speed or strength.”
Depth, period, is something that sets both Alabama and LSU apart.
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smarts points to LSU’s backfield on offense. Spencer Ware was the go-to guy to begin the season, but Michael Ford goes into the national title game as the Tigers’ leading rusher. Alfred Blue isn’t too far behind, and 240-pound true freshman Kenny Hilliard has emerged as their most powerful back toward the end of the season.
“By the fourth quarter, your linebackers are tackling them 30 times, and they’re getting tackled for the fourth time and fifth time because they’re sharing all the carries,” Smart said. “They’ve got four really good backs, and that’s what you better have in this league to be good.”
Even when the SEC’s streak hits six in a row on Monday, Hightower realizes there will be some people out there who simply won’t give the league its due.
Never mind that four SEC teams are poised to finish in the top 8 of the final polls for the first time ever or that five SEC teams finished among the top 16 in the final BCS standings.
“I feel like there’s always going to be a debate,” Hightower said. “But if you look at the six straight years of winning the national championship and all the bowl games, the SEC has always been the best overall.”