NCF Nation: Joe Morrow

Spring blooms in the SEC

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
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One of the most rewarding parts of spring practice for coaches is finding those pleasant surprises, whether it’s players who fly in under the radar and step up at positions of need or players little-used to this point who look like they’re going to be key contributors in the fall.

Several of those guys have emerged this spring in the SEC.

Here’s a look:

Sterling Bailey, DE, Georgia, RSo.: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained his defensive linemen at all three positions this spring, and Bailey stood out at both end and nose guard. He’s poised to be a valuable run-stopper for the Bulldogs after playing in only three games last season as a redshirt freshman.

Kentrell Brothers, LB, Missouri, RSo.: Brothers appears to be all the way back from the broken leg he suffered in preseason camp two years ago. He’s pushing Darvin Ruise hard for the starting weakside linebacker job and has been impressive this spring. Brothers had 14 tackles last season and didn’t make any starts.

Justin Garrett, LB/S, Auburn, Jr.: Stuck behind Daren Bates the past two seasons and playing only sparingly, Garrett has gone from an undersized linebacker to the “Star” in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme. He’ll be part-linebacker and part-safety and has shown the kind of speed and tackling ability this spring that Johnson is looking for at that hybrid position.

Joe Morrow, WR, Mississippi State, RSo.: Morrow has been a spring sensation for the Bulldogs in the past, but it’s yet to translate during the season. He caught just five passes last season as a redshirt freshman and was plagued by a bum knee. But this spring, Morrow has been much more consistent and has given his teammates and coaches confidence that he can be a go-to receiver. He’s an inviting target at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and a tough matchup for smaller cornerbacks.

Floyd Raven, S, Texas A&M, Jr.: A backup cornerback a year ago, Raven has moved to free safety and is currently sitting atop the depth chart. His athleticism and playmaking skills make him a natural back there. He’s intercepted Johnny Manziel a couple of different times in scrimmages. The key will be fully understanding his role at safety and what all that entails. If he gets that down, look out.

Dontavis Sapp, LB, Tennessee, Sr.: First-year coach Butch Jones said following Saturday’s second scrimmage that Sapp has been “amazing” this spring. Some pretty lofty praise for a guy who made just 17 tackles last season. But with a new staff and a new defensive scheme, Sapp has prospered. The former safety can play any of the three linebacker positions and is a fixture on special teams.

Austin Shepherd, OT, Alabama, RJr.: The Crimson Tide lost three starters from an offensive line that most people considered the best in the country a year ago. Shepherd, entering his fourth year in the program, has waited his turn and has the edge right now over junior-college newcomer Leon Brown in the battle for the starting right-tackle job.

Mitch Smothers, OG, Arkansas, RSo.: Smothers has found a new lease on his football life under first-year offensive-line coach Sam Pittman. After redshirting last season, Smothers has played his way back into the starting lineup at left guard. He was a starter at tackle to open his true freshman season in 2011, but was benched after the first four games and spent the rest of the season watching from the sideline.

Carlos Thompson, DE, Ole Miss, RJr.: A big get for the Rebels out of high school, Thompson has played in just 11 games during his first three years on campus. He redshirted last season to get stronger, and the Ole Miss coaches have been impressed with the results. He’s been more physical and has held up better at the point of attack. With C.J. Johnson out for the rest of the spring with a broken fibula, Thompson has made the most of his opportunities. He could be a breakout player in the fall for the Rebels.

D.J. Welter, LB, LSU, RJr.: Academics derailed Welter last season after he played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The feeling coming into the spring was that Lamin Barrow would move from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker to replace Kevin Minter. But so far, Welter has played well enough in the middle that the Tigers haven’t felt like they needed to move anybody.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.

SEC spring breakout players

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
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We're taking a look at some of the breakout SEC players from this spring:
  • Marcus Caffey, CB, Kentucky: Caffey spent his first year on Kentucky's campus looking up at the rest of the running backs on the roster. But the coaches didn't want to waste his talent, so he moved to cornerback, a position in desperate need of bodies. The Caffey experiment worked, as he immediately adapted to his new position and left spring with one of the starting corner spots. The youngster is a bigger body at corner, which will help him when taking on some of the league's bigger receivers.
  • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: After missing most of last season with back issues, Ford came back very strong this spring. The rising junior caused plenty of issues for Auburn's offense all spring with his play off the edge. The rust that was supposed to come with missing most of the previous season wasn't there, and he left with the starting defensive end spot opposite Corey Lemonier. Ford was named the defensive MVP of Auburn's spring game and registered four tackles, including two for loss and one sack.
  • Joe Morrow, WR, Mississippi State: Morrow showed that he can be that receiver who really stretches the field in Mississippi State's offense. He was a big-play machine in Starkville this spring with some tough catches and the ability to fly by defenders. The redshirt freshman wasn't ready to play last season and still has some maturing to do, but the staff expects him to expand the Bulldogs' passing game this fall. He caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
  • Latroy Pittman, WR, Florida: Coach Will Muschamp said Pittman was one of the most consistent players this spring and had a knack for making the tough catches. Muschamp also said that he had a tremendous work ethic this spring, but must stay grounded. The early enrollee isn't the fastest player out there, but he's big, physical and will immediately help a very unproven receiving corps. He caught two passes for 51 yards in the spring game.
  • Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: Richardson spent last year on special teams, but the coaching staff always had an eye on him. The hope was that he'd make a big impact this spring, considering the issues Tennessee had up front last season. The 6-foot-6, 329-pound rising sophomore impressed all spring and left with the starting job at left tackle. He's not only big but he's extremely athletic and tough, making him a solid option at the line's most important position.
  • Demarco Robinson, WR, Kentucky: On a team that was in desperate need of more offensive firepower, Robinson was one of the most impressive players at Kentucky's camp and if spring is any indication, he'll have a lot of passes thrown his way. Coach Joker Phillips said Robinson made play after play in practice this spring and should help take some pressure off of rising senior La'Rod King in the passing game. He caught nine passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in Kentucky's spring game.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: Yeldon enrolled early at Alabama this spring and did more than just go through the motions. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder continuously showed off an array of moves and wasn't afraid to take a little contact. Yeldon put everything together in Alabama's spring game, where he totaled 179 yards rushing and receiving and scored on a 50-yard pass. He also earned the Dixie Howell Award, which goes to the game's most valuable player. With Trent Richardson gone, Alabama will look to draw more from its stable of running backs this fall. Eddie Lacy might be listed as the starter, but Yeldon showed this spring that he's capable of getting some carries here and there.
  • Adrian Hubbard, LB, Alabama: Hubbard had a monster spring for the Crimson Tide. He takes over for Courtney Upshaw at the Jack position and the people at Alabama think he might be the Tide's top pass-rusher this fall. The rising sophomore earned the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game Award given to the spring game's most valuable lineman after registering seven tackles, including four tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
  • Steven Jenkins, LB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started six games last year, but was still fifth on the team in tackles. The former juco college transfer was all over the field for the Aggies this spring and made a lot of plays at the Will linebacker position. He's very fast and athletic and should really excel in his second year in Mark Snyder's 4-3 defense.
Spring doesn't just bring pretty flowers and more favorable weather, it brings new and fresh opportunities for college football players.

Somewhere, a surprise or two are lurking.

So, we've come up with five potential spring surprises in the SEC, and we want you to vote on them. These players could earn themselves starting jobs, more playing time for the fall, more praise from coaches and teammates, or just do things that make us look at them twice.

Can LSU junior safety Craig Loston be that guy? He played in 10 games last year, with no starts, and was considered one of LSU's top reserves at safety. He did most of his work on special teams, but with Brandon Taylor gone, maybe this is Loston's time to break through and finally start. His potential has been raved about since he arrived, but he just hasn't taken the next step in his game. Maybe he'll do that this spring.

Then there's Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard, who has a chance to come in and play at the Jack position -- the same position held by Courtney Upshaw. No big deal, or anything. He played in eight games during his redshirt freshman year, recording nine tackles. And while he isn't Upshaw, he could really make noise off the edge this spring with his speed. The coaches have been pretty excited about his potential in this defense.

Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy at Florida is another youngster to keep an eye on. He played mostly on special teams last season, and while he's pretty raw, Florida coach Will Muschamp has said that he thinks Purifoy, a rising sophomore, could be a solid corner in this league with his size and athleticism. With Marcus Roberson coming off of an injury and Jeremy Brown's status for the spring unknown, this could be Purifoy's chance to step away from special teams and make a real impact in Florida's secondary.

Wide receiver Joe Morrow at Mississippi State redshirted in 2011, but that doesn't mean the coaches weren't impressed with what they saw from the freshman in practices. He wasn't physically ready to compete at the beginning of last season, but by the end of the season he was making all kinds of plays in practice. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder has the speed to be a real downfield threat for the Bulldogs, something they've lacked in their offense for the past few years. He'll get his shot to take reps away from veterans and could help evolve Mississippi State's offense.

Finally, there's Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson. During his freshman season, Richardson lined up for field goals and extra points, but he's a talented, athletic lineman who could break through on an offensive line that has a lot of returnees, but struggled at times last fall. Richardson was a top lineman recruit coming out of high school and has pretty good measurables (6-6, 325), so he will get his shot at a spot this spring.
True freshmen have been rolling onto SEC campuses this month to get a jump on summer school, and more are on the way for the second session of summer school.

Every year about this time, it’s the same question: Who among the true freshmen will make the biggest impact?

We’ll take our stab at it, breaking it down by division.

We’ll start with the West. One thing to keep in mind is that we’re only including true freshmen who weren’t on campus early and didn’t go through spring practice, so you’re not going to see guys like LSU’s Anthony Johnson, Arkansas’ Brey Cook, Auburn’s Reese Dismukes and Florida’s Jeff Driskel on this list.

We’ll do our impact newcomers (freshman early enrollees, junior college players, transfers, everybody) at a later date.

For now, here’s a look at who among the incoming true freshmen in the West might contribute right away. Edward will do the same with the East later today:

ALABAMA

Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, S: Alabama boasts one of the best safety tandems in the league in Mark Barron and Robert Lester, but the 6-foot-1, 203-pound Clinton-Dix has the size and skill set to come in and make the Crimson Tide even stronger on the back end of their defense.

Cyrus Kouandjio, OT: One of the top offensive tackle prospects in the country last year, Kouandjio could provide some immediate depth. The Tide were already looking at moving All-SEC guard Barrett Jones to left tackle.

ARKANSAS

Tevin Mitchel, CB: The Hogs ended the spring a cornerback short in their secondary, which is where Mitchel comes in. He’ll get a chance to show what he can do this fall both as a lock-down cover guy and potentially as a return specialist. It was a real coup for Arkansas to get him away from Nebraska.

AUBURN

Erique Florence, S: The Tigers were hit hard in the secondary by personnel losses, and Florence was one of the most coveted safety prospects in the country last year. He’s a big-time talent with the size (6-2, 190 pounds) to come in and contribute right away.

Kiehl Frazier, QB: It’s never easy for a quarterback to go straight from high school to the SEC without the benefit of enrolling early and going through spring practice. But the Tigers haven’t settled on a quarterback, and Frazier is the type of run-pass threat Gus Malzahn is looking for in his offense.

Jermaine Whitehead, CB: There should be some fierce competition at cornerback this fall on the Plains, and Whitehead will be one to watch. Auburn was able to sway him late in the recruiting process, and he’s expected to vie for a starting spot from the time he walks onto the practice field.

LSU

Jarvis Landry, WR: If the Tigers are going to make a run at a national championship in 2011, they’re going to need a lot more production from their passing game than they got a year ago. Landry is dynamic in the open field and should complement Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard nicely.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Joe Morrow, WR: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has been outspoken about the Bulldogs’ need for more receivers. The 6-4, 200-pound Morrow gives them a different dimension with his size and ability to make plays over the middle.

OLE MISS

C.J. Johnson, LB: As long as Johnson stays away from Twitter, he’s poised to play a major role at linebacker for the Rebels in 2011. Losing D.T. Shackelford to a knee injury threw the door wide open for Johnson, who could play in the middle or outside.

Tobias Singleton, WR: A lot of the attention in Oxford has been concentrated on who’s going to be throwing passes for Ole Miss this coming season. Singleton, who says he qualified academically, is one of those sure-handed, athletic receivers who could help spruce up any passing game.

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