NCF Nation: Eric Bennett

Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

SEC recruiting needs: Western Division

January, 25, 2012
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With national signing day a week away, we’ll take a look today at the recruiting needs of each SEC team, starting with the Western Division. These needs are based on current rosters and voids that will be created with upperclassmen leaving in the next year or two. We realize that a lot of these needs have already been filled by players who’ve committed (or signed) in this class.

Here we go:

ALABAMA

Defensive back: It’s not quite the exodus Alabama faced following the 2009 season in the secondary, but the Crimson Tide lose three starters back there, including both cornerbacks. And safety Mark Barron was the guy who got everybody in the right spots. Alabama signed two junior college cornerbacks, and they’re already on campus.

Receiver: The top four pass-catchers from the 2011 season, including tight end Brad Smelley, are gone. In particular, Alabama could use a big, physical receiver capable of creating mismatches and making big plays down the field.

Linebacker: The Crimson Tide have never been hurting for linebackers, but they lose three good ones in Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Jerrell Harris. Plus, Nico Johnson will be a senior next season and C.J. Mosley will be a junior. There are some young ones waiting in the wings, but Alabama needs to add to its stable.

ARKANSAS

Receiver: When you lose a pair of record-setting playmakers at receiver like Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, that’s always a good place to start. Greg Childs is also gone, so the Hogs are looking for people to fill their spots.

Offensive line: Finding some reinforcements up front on offense is also a big need for the Hogs. The most pressing need is at tackle. One starter in 2011, Grant Freeman, was a senior, and the other, Jason Peacock, will be a senior next season.

Defensive back: The Hogs like the young defensive backs on their roster, but losing Tramain Thomas at safety will be a blow. Eric Bennett also played well at the other safety, but he will be a junior next season. Another cornerback or two would also be nice.

AUBURN

Receiver: The Tigers need some game-breaking receivers. Emory Blake is back, but he’s going to be a senior, and Trovon Reed hasn’t been able to avoid injuries. The vertical passing game was non-existent this past season, and finding some guys who can get down the field and make some plays is a must for the Tigers.

Offensive line: More than anything else, Auburn needs guards and is very thin there. Christian Westerman is a talented, young guy who’s coming, but the Tigers are going to have to replenish the interior of their offensive line.

Defensive back: The truth is that the Tigers need help on defense, period. But the secondary has really taken it on the chin, especially this past season. Cornerback Chris Davis, a rising junior, has a chance to be special, but he needs some help around him.

LSU

Linebacker: The Tigers are still loaded on defense, but linebacker was the one area they wanted to address with both Ryan Baker and Karnell Hatcher departing, and they did with six commitments from players projected to play linebacker in college. All six are from the state of Louisiana, too.

Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger will step in as the starter next season, but he will be a junior. There’s nobody behind him who’s ever taken a snap in a college game. The Tigers thought they had highly rated Gunner Kiel in the fold, but lost him to Notre Dame. They need another quarterback.

Receiver: Rueben Randle emerged as one of the best big-play threats in the league this past season, but he’s turning pro early. Russell Shepard is set to return for his senior season, and Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry both have a ton of potential. Even so, LSU could use a few more playmakers at receiver.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Defensive line: Losing All-SEC tackle Fletcher Cox early to the pros hurt. The Bulldogs are suddenly behind in their depth. The numbers up front defensively aren’t where they need to be, which makes this a big class for the Bulldogs in the defensive line. Getting a dynamic pass-rusher is a must.

Offensive line: Finding a couple of guys who can help quickly was a priority, and that’s what the Bulldogs hope they’ve done with junior college additions Dylan Holley at center and Charles Siddoway at tackle.

Linebacker: The Bulldogs lost three senior starters following the 2010 season, and Brandon Wilson won’t return next season. What’s more, Cameron Lawrence will be a senior. The most pressing need is a middle linebacker, and preferably one who could step in and play early.

OLE MISS

Running back: One of the first things new head coach Hugh Freeze will look to do is put some pop in the Rebels’ running game. That starts with bringing in some prototypical SEC running backs in terms of size and speed. Jeff Scott led Ole Miss in rushing last season with 529 yards, but at 5-7 and 175 pounds, he’s more of a speed guy or change-up in this league.

Defensive back: The Rebels will take all the help they can get in the secondary. Safety Damien Jackson is gone. Cornerback Wesley Pendleton will be a senior, while cornerback/safety Charles Sawyer will be a junior.

Quarterback: There are several guys on campus who have played, but the Rebels are still searching for somebody who can come in and give them some consistency at the quarterback position. And with Freeze’s new spread offense, finding the right fit will also be important.

TEXAS A&M

Defensive back: The Aggies will jump into SEC play needing to replace three of four starters in their secondary. Both of their starting cornerbacks are gone, in addition to their best safety. So finding guys who can cover will be at the top of their list.

Defensive line: In keeping with the defensive theme, which is a must if you’re going to survive in the SEC, Texas A&M will be looking to replenish its defensive line. Gone are Ben Bass, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Eddie Brown. Building up a deeper defensive line rotation will be critical for the Aggies.

Running back: Depth at running back is another concern. Cyrus Gray, who rushed for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, is gone. Christine Michael returns for his senior season, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. It typically takes three backs to make it through an SEC season.

The SEC's best true sophomores

November, 11, 2011
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The second time around is always pretty telling.

In keeping with that theme, we take a look at the 10 best true sophomores in the SEC this season.

These are guys who played as true freshmen last season in the league and are now in their second seasons, which eliminates transfers and third-year sophomores who had the benefit of a redshirt season.

[+] EnlargeDyer
John Reed/US PresswireThe second-leading rusher in the SEC, Michael Dyer is the centerpiece to Auburn's offense.
Keep in mind that several of the top second-year players in this league suffered injuries earlier this season, forcing them to miss significant playing time and keeping them off this list. Among them: Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore and Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Here’s what we came up with. The players are listed alphabetically:

Arkansas safety Eric Bennett: After playing cornerback as a true freshman, Bennett has settled in at safety this season for the Hogs. He’s fourth on the team with 53 tackles and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. As Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said, Bennett has played big in big games.

Auburn running back Michael Dyer: He’s been the centerpiece of the Tigers’ offense all season and is 11 yards away from his second straight 1,000-yard season. Dyer ranks second in the SEC in rushing with 989 yards and leads the league with 186 carries. If he stays healthy, he's going to break a ton of records.

Florida safety Matt Elam: The Gators were frighteningly young in their secondary coming into the season, but Elam has been a stabilizing presence. He’s always been a big hitter and has gotten better in coverage. He’s second on the team with 53 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, and also has two interceptions.

Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham: He’s missed the last two games with an abdominal strain, or his numbers would be even more impressive. Garnham is tied for second on the team with 44 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, and has also forced a fumble. He’s a three-down linebacker who covers in space as well as he plays the run.

Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier: He showed flashes a year ago, but has emerged this season as one of the SEC’s premier big-play defenders. Lemonier is second in the league with 6.5 sacks and also ranks among the league leaders with 10.5 tackles for loss.

Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry: The Rebels have been decimated by injuries on defense, and even though Marry’s only a sophomore, he’s had to step up and be a leader. He’s also been plenty productive with 69 total tackles, tying him for seventh in the SEC. His 40 solo stops rank him third in the league.

LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu: The Honey Badger has slowed down a little bit since his red-hot start, and there was also the one-game suspension a few weeks ago. But there’s no denying his ability to make plays. He’s tied for the SEC lead with four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, two of which he’s turned into touchdowns.

LSU safety Eric Reid: The No.1 Tigers are loaded with talented young players, and Reid is yet another. He’s second on the team with 49 total tackles. His interception last week where he took the ball away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams was the play of the year so far in the SEC.

Tennessee receiver Da’Rick Rogers: It’s hurt him to lose both Bray at quarterback and Hunter on the other side at receiver, but Rogers still leads the league in catches (50) and is tied with two other players for second in the SEC with seven touchdown receptions. He's averaging 15.6 yards per catch.

LSU running back Spencer Ware: The Tigers have a deep backfield stable, but Ware has been the workhorse. His suspension against Auburn may end up costing him a chance at 1,000 yards, but he’s a perfect fit for LSU’s offense with the way he runs with power and the way he punishes defenders.
With spring officially over in the SEC world, it’s time to take another look at some of the guys who surprised this spring.

After the first weekend of spring games, guys like LSU wide receiver Kadron Boone and South Carolina offensive lineman A.J. Cann drew high praise from their respective coaches.

Here’s a look at the players from the past two weeks of spring games who helped get their names out there:

Alabama

RB Eddie Lacy -- Last season, Lacy’s production was hindered because of a problem with fumbling. Lacy helped shake that stigma with a strong spring and appears to have secured the No. 2 running back spot. He finished the spring game with 74 yards (44 rushing, 30 receiving).

WR Brandon Gibson -- The fifth-year senior had a productive spring not only at wideout, but he’s becoming more of a leader for the Tide. He's always been a special-teams workhorse, but he's looking to make a name at receiver. He recorded five catches for 53 yards, including a long of 27, in Alabama’s spring game.

Arkansas

S Eric Bennett -- The sophomore from Tulsa, Okla., made it a battle this spring at the strong safety position with senior Elton Ford. Bennett was a quarterback in high school and has an edge to him that all coaches like. Whether he wins the starting job or not, he’s proved that he can help the Hogs in the secondary in 2011.

RB Ronnie Wingo, Jr. -- With the season Knile Davis had a year ago, a lot of people forgot about Wingo. But he came back this spring and showed his big-play capability both as a ball carrier and pass-catcher. He rushed for 62 yards on 11 carries in the spring game.

Auburn

DE Joel Bonomolo – The junior college transfer was injured all of 2010, and while he’s still a bit raw, he led the defense during the spring game with six tackles, three for a loss, including two sacks. He still has some things to learn, but he finished the spring on the right track heading into the offseason.

RB Anthony Morgan -- Morgan has moved all over the field during his Auburn career, but seemed to make a statement at running back this spring. He finished the spring game with a team-high 57 yards on six carries, and if he continues to improve, coach Gene Chizik said he could earn playing time this fall.

Georgia

DT Kwame Geathers -- The sophomore noseguard was one of the biggest surprises of the spring for the Bulldogs. He was named the defensive MVP for spring practice by Georgia’s coaches and had four tackles, including two for loss, in the spring game.

RB Ken Malcome -- Injured for part of the spring and seemingly buried on the depth chart, Malcome showed some of his bulldozing ability in the spring game. He's the kind of downhill runner the Bulldogs want in their offense, and if he's healthy he could contribute. He scored the game-winning, 12-yard touchdown and finished with 39 yards on the ground.

Kentucky

DE Collins Ukwu -- A starter a year ago, Ukwu only had one sack all season and none in SEC games. Look for that to change in 2011. He’s gotten bigger and stronger, adding to his great speed, and was a force this spring. He had two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the spring game.

WR Brian Adams -- The Wildcats were looking for dependable playmakers at receiver following the loss of Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews, and even though Adams split his time between football and baseball, he was as consistent as anybody. He was the star of the spring game with seven catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

Ole Miss

WR Vincent Sanders -- The redshirt freshman looked like the playmaker the Rebels had desperately searched for at times this spring. Like most of the other receivers, he was inconsistent at times, but finished the spring game with a game-high 96 receiving yards and a touchdown on four catches.

S Brishen Mathews -- Mathews worked his way into the No. 1 strong safety spot exiting spring. He was a pleasant surprise for the Rebels’ secondary and finished the spring game tying for a game-high eight tackles.

Tennessee

DT Daniel Hood -- After spending last season on the offensive line, Hood moved to defense and exited the spring as one of the starters at tackle. The Vols are extremely thin inside on the defensive line, and Hood gives them another big, athletic body in there.

RB Rajion Neal -- After carrying the ball just 46 times last season, Neal emerged this spring as a nice complement to Tauren Poole. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is looking for two No. 1' at running back, and Neal showed some big-play ability the Vols were missing a year ago.

Vanderbilt

DT Colt Nichter -- With the injuries the Commodores were forced to weather up front last season, Nichter stepped in and played very well. But this spring, he showed signs of becoming a star and was a disruptive presence in every scrimmage. He had two sacks and two pass breakups in the spring game.

RB Wesley Tate -- The two big names in the Commodores’ backfield last season were Warren Norman and Zac Stacy, but get ready to add a third name to that equation. The 225-pound Tate showcased power and speed this spring and will add a different dimension to the Vanderbilt running game now that he’s healthy.

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