NCF Nation: Jelani Jenkins
We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:
2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.
3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.
4. The replacements:
- LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
- With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
- Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
- Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
- Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.
UF announced on Monday that Jenkins was not going to return for his redshirt senior season. He joins tight end Jordan Reed, safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd as early entrants. The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is Jan. 15 and players have until Jan. 18 to withdraw.
Read more from GatorNation's Michael DiRocco.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No. 4 Florida had to overcome injuries, double-digit penalties, and giving up its first fourth-quarter points of the season to extend its winning streak over Vanderbilt.
How the game was won: After Vanderbilt closed Florida's lead to 24-17 late in the fourth quarter, the Gators took over on their own 30-yard line after a Commodores squib kick. UF needed just one play to seal its 22nd consecutive victory over Vanderbilt. QB Jeff Driskel kept the ball on the option to the right and went 70 yards for a touchdown.
Turning point: Florida turned the game permanently in its favor with two special-teams plays in the third quarter. DE Earl Okine blocked Richard Kent's 44-yard field-goal attempt, which gave the Gators the ball on their own 38-yard line with 6:17 remaining. Four plays later, the Gators lined up to punt on their own 43, but instead ran a fake. Up back Trey Burton took a direct snap and handed the ball off to WR Solomon Patton, who was streaking across the formation. Patton went 54 yards down the left sideline before getting pushed out of bounds at the Vandy 3. That set up Driskel's touchdown run with 4:31 remaining to put the Gators ahead 18-7. Vandy also gave up a 61-yard kickoff return to Andre Debose that set up Caleb Sturgis' 26-yard field goal with 5:22 remaining.
Stat of the game: Florida won the game despite going 2-for-11 on third down. The Gators didn't convert a third down in the second half (0-for-4).
Player of the game: Driskel rushed for 177 yards, which is a UF record for rushing yards by a quarterback. He ran the ball only 11 times, but two of those carries went for touchdowns. One was a 37-yarder and the other was a 70-yarder that clinched the victory. Driskel also went 11-for-20 for 77 yards.
Second guessing: Vanderbilt hit a big play to quickly get down to Florida's 22-yard line with a little less than five minutes remaining and the Gators leading 24-14. But instead of going hurry-up, the Commodores huddled and ran four consecutive plays and wasted about 90 seconds of clock time. Vandy also had all three timeouts remaining but coach James Franklin chose to keep them for defense. Turns out the Commodores didn't need them because Driskel went 70 yards for a touchdown on the Gators' ensuing possession to seal the victory.
What Florida learned: All the talk about the Gators being a deeper team in 2012 was proven true on Saturday, as they were able to overcome a slew of injuries. Florida was without three starters (G James Wilson, DT Dominique Easley and LB Jelani Jenkins) and lost two more on the offensive line (LT Xavier Nixon, C Jonotthan Harrison) and starting TE Jordan Reed in the first half. Reed eventually returned in the second half, but the Gators had several other players leave the game for periods of time before returning. UF would not have been able to overcome those losses last season.
What Vanderbilt learned: Franklin may have found something effective with a hurry-up offense late in the second half, but the Commodores still only managed to throw a scare into one of the SEC's traditional powers. Vanderbilt is still searching for that breakthrough victory.
What it means: Florida (6-0, 5-0 SEC) already has as many regular-season victories this season as it did in 2011. The Gators will play host to South Carolina in a key Eastern Division game next Saturday and then plays against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. UF could make that game in Jacksonville the division championship game if it beats South Carolina.
8:00 a.m.: I arrive at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with a Starbucks Doubleshot and a Snickers Marathon energy bar to start the day. The sun is up and there's a breeze in the air. It's almost the perfect setting to start a long day of running around Florida's football facility.
8:30: We meet with coach Will Muschamp in his spacious office inside the stadium for a casual 15 minutes to talk shop. There are some laughs and some talk about the team, and he warns us that a poor performance by one of the two teams -- Orange or Blue -- will be followed by having the blame placed on the two media members coaching that side. Ackerman and I are placed on the Blue Team, while Dooley and Staples are assigned to the Orange Team.
9:05: A true breakfast of champions. We walk over to one of the dinning halls across from the stadium. The first thing you notice is that the dining area couldn't be big enough to house all these football players, but somehow, it is. The Gators pile in and begin the feast. The basics are there: pancakes, bacon, eggs and grits. And at the end of the buffet line, steaks and grilled chicken breasts sat there ready to be devoured ... and they were. After sipping on some fine, freshly squeezed orange juice, we media members tried to blend in and snag some grub before the carnivores went back for seconds. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins stacked steaks on chicken, while fullback Hunter Joyer went with pretty much everything he could lay eyes on and added some pasta. The fruit was barely touched. I tried to mimic the players, throwing protein and starch together for a yummy, relatively healthy cornucopia of deliciousness. Grilled chicken and pancakes really do work.
9:37: Running backs coach Brian White, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive line coach Tim Davis gig us about coaching. We're asked what our game plan is, and we basically say not getting in the way. Dooley tells Quinn to blitz every down and I tell Davis that he should be glad I'm on his team because my PlayStation skills are unmatched. He laughs, realizing I'd be in over my head if this were real.
10:05: After walking back and forth for a good 10 minutes, rising senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter embraces Quinn and yells "Last time, baby," signaling that his Gators career is coming to an end.
10:20: We leave the locker room to go on the Gator Walk. Last year, the team bussed. This year, it walked, so we walked. The team is dressed in orange shirts and blue shorts -- nothing too flashy. Wide receiver Quinton Dunbar awkwardly raps the words to some song, while the freshmen converse about doing this for the first time.
10:26: I finally hit the official start of the Gator Walk. It's spring break for Alachua County school districts, so the crowd is a little thin, but it's lively. Still, with the smaller crowd there to greet the Gators, kicker Caleb Sturgis utters this gem: "This is what happens when you go 7-6." Defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd looks at me and says that the Gator Walk never gets old, then counts the number of hugs he gave with the exact number of "a lot."
10:40: As the team piles into the locker room, the offense stays on the field for a mini walk-through. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease goes over Xs and Os and formations ... lots of formations. He's pulling, pushing and quizzing guys along the way and even puts on player on the spot with a heap of questions about a certain play and formation. Luckily for the player, he passed Pease's test.
10:49: The offense huddles up, with rising sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel pushing to the middle, before breaking and heading to the locker room.
11:55: After a lot of waiting and people watching, we finally head into the locker room with the players an hour before kickoff. Led by new strength coach Jeff Dillman, the players are going through dynamic stretching, with Dillman leading like a drill instructor with short, loud commands. Players isolate their cores, thoroughly stretch their legs and their backs; Dillman is very technical and very loud. "We're gonna have a great day today!" he yells. "Build that rage! One minute till we prime that engine!"
1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.
2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.
3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.
4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.
5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.
6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.
7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.
8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.
9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.
11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.
12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.
13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.
14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.
Judging by the way the Gators played most of the day, the last place they wanted to be was the Swamp.
Despite giving up 446 yards in total offense, Florida had enough offense of its own to win 54-32 over Furman. The Swamp was nowhere close to being full when the game started and emptied even more by the fourth quarter.
The Gators (6-5) did qualify for a bowl, but it's difficult to imagine that they got a whole lot else out of this game. They trailed 15-0 and then 22-7 early. Even heading into the fourth quarter, Florida was clinging to a 37-32 lead. At that point, the Gators' defense made a few amends to put the game away.
De'Ante Saunders and Jelani Jenkins each returned interceptions for touchdowns.
Florida quarterback John Brantley threw for 329 yards and four touchdowns for the Gators, who face Florida State at home next week.
Sure, you could tell it was game day, but there wasn’t much buzz. You weren’t consumed by the anticipation of the start of the season.
It was even more evident when only 88,708 showed up inside the stadium, ending Florida’s streak of 137 consecutive sellouts.
Will Muschamp made his head-coaching debut inside The Swamp and his team generated all the buzz he needed in a 41-3 win over the Owls.
Muschamp, who grew up going to Gator games with his family, was the man in charge of his childhood team and while he was asked about his feelings concerning his move from coordinator to head coach, Muschamp made it all about his team.
“It’s about players to me,” Muschamp said. “It’s really about seeing those guys fulfilling a lot of their work and see their work come to a conclusion as far as going through the game time and playing the game.”
What also thrilled Muschamp about Saturday was the fast start his team had. Unlike last season, the Gators marched down the field and scored on their opening drive. It wasn’t a touchdown, but it was points. In fact, it was a pretty impressive three points as Caleb Sturgis connected on a 51-yard field goal. This is the same Caleb Sturgis who missed most of last season with a back injury.
The game almost got off to an even faster start when Jeff Demps returned the opening kick for a touchdown. However, the play was called back because of holding.
And the penalty didn’t slow the Gators. After their initial scoring drive, quarterback John Brantley, who had an awful 2010 season, stood tall in the pocket, and led Florida on a 12-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Chris Rainey.
A 35-yard run by Jeff Demps and a 14-yarder by Rainey on consecutive possessions in the second quarter and the Gators had 24 points at halftime. Florida’s offense also had 264 total yards, 52 more than the Gators had total in last year’s opener.
“We were so ready for this game so we could erase the memories from last year, but at the same time, we keep it fresh in our heads because it’s motivation to get better,” junior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said.
This was a coming out party for Muschamp and reinvention for his team. Gators fans had yet to truly embrace Muschamp, but you could see them warm to him when he went off on a ref in the third quarter. It was the “Coach Boom” moment fans had waited for it and it signaled Muschamp’s true arrival.
Muschamp praised his team for its attitude and work ethic. He lauded its improvement from spring, and while there were still plenty of hiccups and procedural issues all around, he was happy with the 1-0 start.
And his players felt relived by the one-sided affair.
“It was exciting and it was very important because we had a lot to prove and I think we showed a lot of people around the world what we had to prove,” said linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who was a part of a defense that surrendered just 137 offensive yards, totaled two sacks and stopped 11-of-13 third down.
The Gators are rejoicing in their opening win, but they understand there is work to be done. The buzz is starting to generate, but this team still has a long way to go.
“We need to be realistic here. We’ll face better opponents through the season,” Muschamp said. “But for the first ball game, we need to make some improvements, we need to make some adjustments from a personnel standpoint.
“As we roll through this season, we’re going to get to know our team a lot better.
“We’ve got to continue to improve and get better because we’ve got a long way to go. We have a long season ahead of us.”
The Gators brought in a signing class that some of the analysts hailed as the most talented in college football history.
There was enough hype to fill the Swamp, not to mention a sense of entitlement that nearly drained the Swamp.
The mix of some of the new guys and some of the veterans had that oil-and-water feel, dealing a serious blow to the Gators’ chemistry.
What ensued was an utterly forgettable 2010 season by Florida standards, one that saw the Gators go belly-up offensively and lose five football games, including an unheard of three at home.
“I know I never want to go through anything like that again,” Florida sophomore linebacker Jelani Jenkins said.
When the smoke had cleared, Urban Meyer was no longer the Gators’ coach, stepping aside for good this time to address his health concerns.
And after a pair of national championships and three BCS bowl appearances in a dizzying four-year span, Florida’s program all of sudden looked mortal.
“I think we kind of relaxed, thinking teams were just going to give us the game because we were Florida,” senior running back Jeff Demps said.
The Gators weren’t necessarily in need of a talent makeover.
But an attitude makeover? The more you hear the players talk, the more it sounds like that was Will Muschamp’s most pressing order of business in taking over for Meyer.
“Last year, you could definitely tell that there was an older guy and younger guy thing going on in this football team,” sophomore guard Jon Halapio said. “This year, you don’t see that separation in classes anymore. We’re becoming one.”
The “older guys” agree, and they say Muschamp’s in-your-face approach and the way he pushes everybody has had a galvanizing effect on the team.
“The young guys had their issues, and the old guys had theirs,” Demps said. “That’s behind us now. We need everybody. It’s not a one-man show. In order for us to win, we’ve got to have everybody.
“That’s the only way with Coach Muschamp.”
As much as anything, some of the immaturity issues that plagued the freshmen a year ago have dissipated.
Muschamp also saw to it that the players spent more time with each other off the field this offseason. An old locker room at the stadium was turned into a state-of-the-art players lounge with a pool table, flat-screen television sets, Xbox game systems, computer access and comfy couches.
“You can see the outcome now,” Demps said. “It’s turned around like night and day. Everybody’s so much closer now, and guys are playing for each other.”
Sophomore defensive end/outside linebacker Ronald Powell, the top prize in that freshman class a year ago, concedes that he’s made more of an effort to get to know all of his teammates.
“A lot of times, to be honest, I was the type of guy who stayed to myself,” Powell said. “If a guy didn’t talk to me, I wouldn’t talk to him. Now, it’s like, “I’ve got to step in and be a leader and still be me.’ I’ve tried harder to get to know guys and what they go through, stuff like that.”
Muschamp has been around enough championship teams to know what they look like from a chemistry standpoint.
He said the true test is yet to come.
“I think we’ve made some tremendous strides, but I think we’ll truly test that in practice 17, 18 and 19 of training camp and when we face some adversity during the season,” Muschamp said. “I’ve had a lot of players come to me and say, ‘We’re a lot closer football team that we were at this time a year ago.’ I think that’s great, but actions are louder than words.”
Senior defensive tackle Jay Howard said several players have cashed in on the clean slate provided by Muschamp and the new staff, and it’s made the competition on the practice field that much more intense.
“You’re going out and having to prove yourself every day,” Howard said. “The coaches are going to play the best players. There aren’t going to be any politics involved, and I can tell you that there’s not anybody out here anymore feeling like they deserve to be with the 1’s.
“That’s got to be earned. These coaches have pretty much humbled all of us. You don’t take anything for granted and better work hard every day.”
It’s what Muschamp calls being a “blue-collar football team,” which has been his calling card everywhere he’s been.
“That’s what I am, and I think players are a reflection of their coach,” Muschamp said. “We’ve recruited good enough talent. We’re going to continue to recruit good players, and if we’ll get them to buy into that work ethic and lunch-pale attitude, then we’ll achieve some special things.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
Here’s a rundown:
2. Georgia: With the Bulldogs going to a 3-4 scheme this season, that means junior pass-rushing specialist Justin Houston now falls into the linebacker category. Houston had 7.5 sacks last season from his end position. Sophomore Cornelius Washington also shifts from end to outside linebacker after collecting four sacks a year ago. The Bulldogs have moved senior starter Darryl Gamble from inside to outside linebacker, while senior Akeem Dent and junior Marcus Dowtin are also back. Dent and Dowtin were part-time starters last season.
3. Ole Miss: Two of the more underrated linebackers in the SEC are Ole Miss seniors Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Cornell started all 13 games in the middle last season and was third on the team with 79 tackles, including eight for loss. Walker started 11 games last season at strongside linebacker. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix also likes his younger talent, including D.T. Shackelford, Joel Kight and Mike Marry. Shackelford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout season. This is a productive and versatile group.
4. Auburn: The Tigers will line up with a pair of senior All-SEC candidates in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens. They both finished among the top 10 tacklers in the league last season, combining for 199 total tackles. The only problem was that they had to play just about every meaningful snap. The Tigers hope to have more depth this season. They didn’t have any last season and are moving Daren Bates from safety to a hybrid outside linebacker position. Bates led all SEC freshmen a year ago with 70 tackles. He wasn’t able to go through spring, though, because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.
5. Florida: Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper were major cogs in the Gators’ linebacker corps a year ago and made a ton of plays. Life without them will be different, but not impossible. That’s what happens when you recruit talented players like Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, both of whom had big springs. There’s also some experience returning. Senior A.J. Jones has 30 career starts and started the first 11 games a year ago at outside linebacker before injuring his knee. Senior Brandon Hicks has also been a part-time starter each of the past two seasons. There’s a lot of speed in this group.
6. South Carolina: The Gamecocks might have a little more depth than they had a year ago at linebacker, but what they don’t have is that proven playmaker on the outside. Eric Norwood filled that role as well as anybody the past two seasons, but now he’s gone. Junior Shaq Wilson was the team’s leading tackler last season, and he’s moving to one of the outside spots from middle linebacker. Senior Rodney Paulk returns in the middle after suffering through season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons. Senior Josh Dickerson is another guy who can move around and play different spots.
7. Tennessee: One of the most experienced positions on Tennessee’s team is at linebacker. The Vols had several players playing at a high level there last season only to be injured. They’re all back, including senior Nick Reveiz in the middle. Tennessee’s defense was never the same after he left the lineup with a knee injury. Senior LaMarcus Thompson is also back after battling through injuries a year ago, and the same goes for senior Savion Frazier. Sophomore linebacker Greg King is currently suspended, but he also showed promise last season as a freshman.
8. LSU: Senior Kelvin Sheppard returns as one of the top middle linebackers in the SEC. He’s a tackling machine who was fourth in the league in tackles a year ago with 110. He’s one of those defenders who’s a factor on every play. The key for the Tigers will be how quickly the players around him grow up now that veterans Jacob Cutrera, Harry Coleman and Perry Riley have all moved on. Sheppard thinks junior Ryan Baker is ready to shine at weakside linebacker after being a force on special teams the past two seasons. Junior Stefoin Francois is the top candidate to step in on the strong side after starting his career as a safety.
9. Vanderbilt: Linebacker has been one of the Commodores’ strong suits for several years now, and that shouldn’t change this season with junior Chris Marve manning the middle. A first-team preseason All-SEC selection, Marve has racked up more than 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons. Senior John Stokes, who’s already been accepted into Vanderbilt’s medical school, returns at one of the outside linebacker spots. The Commodores could use a healthy Tristan Strong, who tore his ACL last season as a redshirt freshman.
10. Mississippi State: Gone is hard-hitting Jamar Chaney, who came back from an injury last season and helped anchor the Bulldogs’ defense. Senior Chris White will move over to play in the middle after starting all 12 games and recording 75 tackles last season. Senior K.J. Wright returns as one of the best big-play defenders on the team after finishing with 6.5 tackles for loss and forcing two fumbles last season. After White and Wright, the Bulldogs will be counting on several younger players at linebacker.
11. Arkansas: The Hogs need to improve across the board on defense, and linebacker is no exception. Junior Jerry Franklin has started since he was a freshman and finished with 94 tackles last season. He’s capable of playing in the middle, but Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino wants to leave him at weakside linebacker and give him a chance to make more plays against both the run and pass. The Hogs still need to settle on a middle linebacker. Senior Jermaine Love and sophomore Terrell Williams were battling it out in the spring.
12. Kentucky: Junior Danny Trevathan returns at weakside linebacker. He’s the Wildcats’ leading returning tackler. But after Trevathan, there’s not much game experience at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie made a big impression on the coaches last preseason before hurting his shoulder. Sophomore Ridge Wilson is another younger player who needs to come through for the Wildcats at linebacker.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Lots to link after national signing day, so we'll go in alphabetical order.
- Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State top the Chicago Tribune's Big Ten recruiting rankings.
- It was a mixed bag for Illinois on signing day, as the Illini lost Kraig Appleton to Wisconsin, retained Terry Hawthorne and added Justin Green, Terry Bannon writes in the Chicago Tribune.
- Indiana piled up in-state recruits in a class that isn't highly rated but should fill several needs, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star.
- Iowa also won't win any recruiting awards this year, but head coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't mind flying under the radar, Marc Morehouse writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Ferentz also talked about the Kansas City Chiefs, the new FieldTurf at Kinnick Stadium and Ed Podolak, Andy Hamilton writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
- Rich Rodriguez deserves credit for not letting Michigan's on-field struggles hurt the program's momentum in recruiting, Mark Snyder writes in the Detroit Free Press.
"Rodriguez proved once again that challenges only fuel him. There were those at West Virginia who said he couldn't win with two- and three-star recruits. Opposing recruiters said the 3-9 record would be his death, that it would run him out of Ann Arbor, leaving his offense there and a new coach who didn't care. Through it all, the opportunity for playing time and the vision Rodriguez presented to players and parents, resonated. Others said at Michigan he couldn't recruit and keep the warm-weather players he loved, yet this class features eight from Florida and a few from Arizona."
- Running back Edwin Baker stiff-arms injury concerns and expects to compete right away at Michigan State, Eric Lacy writes in The Detroit News. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio and his hoops counterpart Tom Izzo tag-teamed to draw Dion Sims to campus, Andrew Mouranie writes in the Lansing State Journal.
- The late addition of cornerback Michael Carter enhanced a Minnesota recruiting class heavy on in-state products, Kent Youngblood writes in the Star Tribune.
- Once again, a recruit named Patrick from Chicago's south suburbs has energized the Northwestern football program, Jim O'Donnell writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Ohio State always recruits top skill players, but the team has missed the mark in recruiting offensive linemen, Rob Oller writes in The Columbus Dispatch. Head coach Jim Tressel had no complaints with his 25-man class, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
- Penn State didn't win the Jelani Jenkins sweepstakes but added wide receiver Justin Brown in a 27-man class, Jeff McLane writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Danny Hope expects half of his first recruiting class at Purdue to contribute right away, Mike Carmin writes in The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.
"I believe every one of the skilled kids have a chance to get on the field because that's where we have the biggest need," Hope said.
- Given Wisconsin's recent struggles under center, quarterback Jon Budmayr is by far the most critical component to the Badgers' 2009 class, Tom Oates writes in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It's been a big day for Florida so far and just got even bigger with Jelani Jenkins' announcement that he was signing with the Gators.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Jenkins is the kind of explosive difference-maker that dotted the Florida defense a year ago. He's rated by Scouts Inc. as the No. 2 outside linebacker prospect in the country and will only add bulk to his frame when he gets into a college strength and conditioning program.
Jenkins, who's from Wheaton, Md., picked Florida over Penn State.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Gators landed safety Joshua Evans of Irvington, N.J., receiver Andre Debose of Sanford, Fla., and defensive tackle Gary Brown of Quincy, Fla. All three players are rated among the top handful of prospects at their position.
The Gators are still waiting on several prospects, including linebacker Jarvis Jones of Columbus, Ga., receiver Nu'Keese Richardson of Pahokee, Fla., and running back Marsalis Teague of Paris, Tenn.
Richardson and Teague have both been committed to Florida for some time, but there are rumblings that both players may change it up at the last minute and sign with Tennessee.