NCF Nation: Jon Bostic

DESTIN, Fla. -- There's more than just schedules and permanent opponents on the docket at the SEC spring meetings here in Destin.

Coaches and athletic directors have spent time discussing the new rule that would allow officials to eject players who target and hit defenseless players above the shoulders. The goal is to get rid of head-to-head hits that seriously endanger players.

The rule, passed by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel in March, calls for immediate ejection for a player whom the head field official deems "targeted" a defenseless player above the shoulders. The official's call is final unless the replay official decides the call was incorrect.

As with the fighting rule, if the foul occurs in the first half of a game, the player will be suspended for the rest of that contest. If it happens in the second half, the player will be suspended for the remainder of the game and the first half of the next one.

"I'm all for it," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.

[+] EnlargeJon Bostic, Teddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Bill HaberJon Bostic's hit on Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater might have earned the Florida linebacker an ejection under new NCAA rules.
"We have to protect this great game and to act like we should just keep on going and let things go as they go is not the right thing to do," Pinkel added. "We gotta protect kids, and it's a such a great football game -- it's our calling to make sure we make the rule changes to make it safer. I don't think it's going to hurt the quality of the game in any way."

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said the idea of creating a new rule has been on his mind for some time now. Last year, he suspended two players for controversial above-the-shoulder hits. Controversy also swirled around Alabama defensive end Quinton Dial's nasty hit on a defenseless Aaron Murray in last year's SEC championship game. The hit appeared to be helmet-to-helmet, but no flag was thrown and Dial wasn't suspended for the BCS title game.

An example that likely would have earned an ejection was Florida linebacker Jon Bostic's hit on Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the first quarter of last season's Sugar Bowl.

Florida coach Will Muschamp said he is happy about the rule, but wants more.

"I want to even take it further, to blocking below the waist," Muschamp said. "You want to talk about player safety, let's talk about ACLs and the injuries that occur with blocking below the waist if you want to continue to talk about player safety."

Slive said league coaches met with the rules committee and Rogers Redding, the national coordinator for college football officials, earlier this year to discuss punishment for blocking below the waist.

"They would like it done right now for the coming season, so we will communicate with Rogers about it," Slive said.

While it's obvious the SEC is looking out for player safety, some coaches are cautious about the new rule.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops believes officials will lean toward protecting players and that the new directive will have a "dramatic impact on the game" whether it's called or not.

"It's gonna be a tough rule for a lot of people," Stoops said. "It's going to affect a lot of people. It's going to affect a lot of defensive players. We all understand the commitment to protect players. It's going to have a dramatic affect on a lot of people.

"We see it and we understand it, but it's going to hurt some teams at times."

Added LSU's Les Miles, "I hope that it's done in a very moderate fashion. Change has to be incremental and not wildly applied. I think it's a great rule. Protecting our players is a great rule, but it's going to be very difficult to administer because if I go to tackle you and I lower myself and you go to defend yourself from being tackled and you lower yourself and we collision at the chest and I come up and hit the head, oh my gosh. Suddenly, I'm targeting."

It'll be interesting to see how coaches approach the rule change, but making sure player safety is more of a priority is a good thing for the sport.
The first round of the 2013 NFL draft tonight figures to reinforce how talented the league has been over the past few years.

As many as 13 SEC players could go in the first round.

But what about those guys not projected to go in the first round? Who are those players from the SEC expected to go later in the draft who will end up having successful NFL careers?

Keep in mind that Houston Texans All-Pro running back Arian Foster wasn’t even drafted.

Edward Aschoff has come up with five SEC players not on everybody’s first-round radar that he thinks he will go on to have successful NFL careers, and I’ve come up with five of my own.

The ATL Kid gets to go first:

1. D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: He's long, rangy and saw his stock rise after a solid senior season. Swearinger, who has very good bulk for either safety spot, can be a ballhawk/quarterback of the defense and make plays close to the line inside the box.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIMarcus Lattimore has struggled with injuries, but when healthy he's the type of playmaker teams covet.
2. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina: He might have had two major knee injuries, but Lattimore will be an absolute steal for any team that drafts him. It might take him a while to get back up to speed, but we all know that a healthy Lattimore is a tremendous every-down back and is exactly what NFL teams want.

3. Cornelius Washington, DE, Georgia: Washington didn't get a ton of publicity with all the other big names on Georgia's defense, but pro scouts are excited about his potential because of all that athleticism and speed. He'll move to outside linebacker in the NFL and has all the pass-rushing tools to be a stud at the pro level.

4. Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: It's not every day that a former high school cornerback/safety prepares for playing middle linebacker in the NFL, but that's exactly what Bostic is doing. He has good speed in coverage, can blitz and play the run. He also has great field instincts.

5. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: Last season wasn't great for Wilson, but he was still able to pass for more than 3,300 yards. He has great mechanics and a real NFL arm. He might start off as a backup, but has the potential to be a solid starter down the road.

Now, it’s my turn:

1. D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: We agree on the top guy. Swearinger might have been the most underrated player in the SEC last season. He can play strong or free safety and has a knack for making plays whether he’s in run support or in coverage.

2. Dallas Thomas, OG, Tennessee: Thomas unselfishly moved inside to guard as a senior after starting 25 straight games at left tackle. He’s versatile, tough and has more than held his own against some of the best defensive linemen in the country.

3. Barrett Jones, C, Alabama: He’s certainly not the strongest offensive lineman in the draft and is also coming off foot surgery after gutting it out in the BCS National Championship Game. But you win with people like Jones, who’s proved he can play anywhere you put him on the offensive line.

4. Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky: Yes, another offensive lineman and one who probably didn’t get his due the last couple of years because of the Wildcats’ struggles. But he’s a big, powerful guy who will fight you on every down and will play for a long time in the NFL.

5. Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M: This may be a bit of a gamble because Michael has had injury issues and some off-the-field problems. But he has the blend of size, speed and power that all NFL teams are looking for. If he gets in the right situation, look out.
SEC players received a lot of attention during Monday's workout sessions with linebackers and defensive linemen at the NFL combine.

Speed is the first thing that comes to mind with this group of SEC studs. Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden registered the fastest time of the day in the 40-yard dash with his mark of 4.47 seconds. Right behind him was Georgia's Cornelius Washington, who moved to defensive end last fall but is listed as a linebacker at the combine. Washington ran a 4.55 in the 40.

Gooden and Washington also impressed in the weight room. Washington led all linebackers with 36 reps of the 225-pound bench press. Gooden finished with 27 reps. Washington was also second overall in the vertical jump, with a height of 39 inches, while Gooden grabbed 34 inches. Both impressed in the broad jump as well, with Gooden getting a distance of 131 inches and Washington jumping 128 inches.

[+] EnlargeZaviar Gooden
AP Photo/Dave MartinLinebacker Zaviar Gooden likely wowed scouts with his speed during drills at the NFL combine.
Gooden crushed all the speed drills, taking first in the three-cone drill (6.71 seconds), the 20-yard shuttle (4.18) and the 60-yard shuttle (11.28). Gooden showed off a ton of athleticism, and Monday should help him out considerably when it comes to April's NFL draft. The same can be said for Washington, who really showed out in Indy.

LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo turned a lot of heads with his 4.58 time in the 40, which was the second-fastest among defensive linemen. He also had a 37-inch vertical and posted a 128-inch broad jump, which tied for first among defensive linemen with South Carolina's Devin Taylor. Mingo was projected to be a first-round draft pick heading into the combine, and he pretty much made sure it stayed that way Monday.

Texas A&M defensive Damontre Moore didn't exactly have the day many expected him to have. For starters, his 40 was on the slow side for a rush end, as he was clocked running a 4.95. It was the lowest time of the 37 defensive linemen at the combine, but Moore did tweak his hamstring during his run. But what really created a not-so-flattering buzz around Moore was his bench press. He sported a very unimpressive 12 reps of 225, which struck a nerve with NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock.

"I wasn't high on Damontre Moore," Mayock said. "I hear top five, I don't believe it. And by the way, he did (12) reps at (225 pounds). That is totally unacceptable. I don't know how you convert speed to power if at 250 pounds you can only bench press 225 (12) times. So I'm kind of poking holes in all these supposed top-10 guys because I'm not seeing it."

Moore will have to get his 40 time down and his bench reps up at Texas A&M's pro day on March 8 if he wants to stay near the top of this year's draft.

Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier and Florida linebacker Jon Bostic both impressed with their 40 times. Lemonier ran a 4.6 flat, while Bostic was timed at 4.61.

Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd continues to hear his name creep into the top 10 of the draft. He ran a 4.92 in the 40, had a 30-inch vertical and a 106-inch broad jump.

You can read more about how all the SEC defensive linemen and linebackers did during Monday's portion of the combine at NFL. com.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 2, 2012
Louisville Cardinals (10-2) vs. Florida Gators (11-1)

Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET, New Orleans (ESPN)

Louisville take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: The Cardinals were the overwhelming preseason choice to win the Big East because they returned just about everybody off a team that won a share of the league title last season. The star among the bunch lived up to his top billing, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knocked just about everybody’s socks off with his performance in 2012. He is the biggest reason why Louisville is headed to the BCS and not a second-tier bowl game.

But this team had major adversity to overcome. Louisville survived one close call after another en route to a school-record 9-0 start. Then came loss No. 1 on the season, a stunning 45-26 blowout on the road to Syracuse in which the Orange outplayed the Cardinals in every single phase of the game. Then came loss No. 2, an inexplicable triple-overtime home defeat to UConn -- a team with one of the worst offenses in the nation. In that game, Bridgewater broke his wrist and sprained his ankle, yet nearly led a comeback win.

Louisville went into its regular-season finale at Rutgers without many people giving the Cards much of a shot to win. Rutgers jumped out to a 14-3 lead. But Bridgewater refused to be denied. Playing through his injuries, he led Louisville to a 20-17 comeback win to clinch the BCS spot. Bridgewater ended up throwing for 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season and was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the entire nation. He may have been an unknown outside the Big East before the season began; that is no longer the case.

Bridgewater allowed his team to survive the loss of leading rusher Senorise Perry, who tore his ACL against Syracuse and is out for the season. He allowed his team to win games it struggled in for a large chunk of time. And he allowed his team to survive some pretty shaky play on defense. It’s safe to say that many expected Louisville to be better than it was defensively this season, particularly up front. But for a majority of the season, the Cardinals had a hard time consistently stopping the run or consistently getting a pass rush going.

And yet, Louisville found a way to win 10 games and get back to a BCS game. In Teddy, Louisville trusts.

Florida take from GatorNation's Michael DiRocco: The Gators were one of the nation’s biggest surprises this season.

They followed up a 7-6 mark in coach Will Muschamp’s debut season with an 11-1 record in 2012, highlighted by victories over Texas A&M, South Carolina, LSU and Florida State. And if USC had upset Notre Dame, Florida could possibly be playing for the national title.

Florida’s turnaround was led by a smothering defense, which isn’t surprising considering Muschamp’s background. The Gators rank in the top six nationally in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense and have allowed opponents to throw just five touchdown passes. Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Jon Bostic have had career years.

But the biggest change is how good the Gators have been at forcing turnovers this season. UF forced just 14 in 2011, which was the lowest single-season total in school history since the school began compiling fumble stats in 1950. This year, UF has forced 29, which includes 19 interceptions (four by Elam), and the Gators have a plus-17 turnover margin.

UF’s offense hasn’t been pretty, but coordinator Brent Pease did a good job of compensating for a lack of playmakers at receiver and injuries along the offensive line. Running back Mike Gillislee finally got his chance to be the feature back, and he responded with 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF player to surpass 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.

After finally settling on Jeff Driskel as the starter, Pease put together game plans that took advantage of Driskel’s mobility and didn’t ask the sophomore to do too much. Manage the game and stay away from mistakes were the goals, and Driskel did that this season with one exception (Georgia). He ended up throwing for 1,471 yards and 11 TDs -- many of those yards to tight end Jordan Reed (44 catches for 552 yards) -- with only three interceptions while running for 409 yards and four touchdowns.

The Gators could play conservatively on offense because of their outstanding defense, but also because of punter Kyle Christy and kicker Caleb Sturgis. Christy, a Ray Guy Award finalist, was a field-position weapon with a 46.1-yard average (fifth nationally) and 25 punts of 50 or more yards. Sturgis, a Lou Groza Award finalist, made 23 of 27 field goal attempts and is the school’s all-time leader in field goals (69) and field goals of 50 or more yards (eight).

Instant analysis: Florida 23, JSU 0

November, 17, 2012

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sixth-ranked Florida finished the season unbeaten at Florida Field with a harder-than-it-should-have-been victory over Football Championship Subdivision foe Jacksonville State. The Gators led only 10-0 at halftime before pulling away and winning 23-0, thanks to a defensive score.

It was over when: Linebacker Jon Bostic intercepted Marques Ivory's pass and returned it 7 yards for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead early in the third quarter.

Gameball goes to: Running back Mike Gillislee, who had his best game in more than a month. Gillislee ran for 122 yards and one touchdown. It's the first time he had gained more than 100 yards and the first time he had scored a touchdown since he ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns against LSU.

Stat of the game: Florida's 23 points were the second-fewest Jacksonville State has allowed this season. Southeast Missouri scored 16. Tennessee-Martin scored 49 against the Gamecocks two weeks ago.

Unsung hero of the game: Florida's punt returners have struggled fielding punts all season. The biggest issue has been letting them bounce instead of coming up to field them, resulting in a lot of lost yardage. But Cornerback Marcus Roberson did a good job of fair-catching three punts in traffic. He also had a 31-yard return.

Best call: Jacksonville State called a reverse pass that went for a first down and jump-started what should have been a scoring drive (kicker Griffin Thomas missed from 36 yards). Ivory handed the ball to receiver Alan Bonner, who hit receiver Trey Smith for a 20-yard gain.

Second guessing: Jacksonville State stunned the crowd with a 76-yard gain on the first offensive snap -- receiver Kevyn Cooper stayed on his feet after being hit and took off down the sideline -- and had a first-and-goal at the UF 7-yard line. Three plays later they were at the 8, and coach Jack Crowe opted to kick a field goal. Why not try for the TD, especially when you have a kicker who entered the game 9-for-16? You've got nothing to lose when you're playing in a game like this.

Second guessing II: The Gators like to use the wildcat formation with Trey Burton taking the snap. That means quarterback Jacoby Brissett has to line up wide, which normally just takes him out of the play. However, the Gators ran a jet sweep toward Brissett's side, which meant Brissett had to block a cornerback. It's a surprising move because quarterbacks usually don't block well and it also exposes him to a greater chance of injury. Considering starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is already out with a sprained ankle, why take the risk?
Watching film of last year's LSU game must be traumatizing for Florida's defense.

All the Gators will notice is the constant pounding LSU's run game put on it. All those defenders were good for was getting pushed around and making each of LSU’s running backs look like a Heisman candidate.

That film is probably burning in a trash heap this very moment. And that's perfectly acceptable when you consider the Gators surrendered 238 rushing yards to the Tigers last season.

For as much push as Florida tried to give LSU up front, the Tigers doubled that intensity, constantly knocking the Gators back as they cruised to a 41-14 win at Tiger Stadium.

[+] EnlargeRonald Powell
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Tigers gashed the Gators defense for 238 yards on the ground in last year's meeting.
If the Gators are going to pull off the upset in the Swamp this weekend, the rush defense has to be infinitely better, and it's tangling with basically the same backfield that wore it out last year. LSU's multiback system is alive and pounding, as the Tigers are second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 229.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.

"They're a team that really likes to run the ball and grind down a team and win the game in the third and fourth quarter,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said.

"We have to come out and make plays, too. We can't just let them come out and run the ball down our throats."

And that's exactly what happened to the Gators last year in October. In back-to-back weeks against the league's strongest running teams in Alabama and LSU, the Gators gave up a combined 464 yards and allowed both teams to run for more than 4 yards per carry.

It's obvious that toughness in the trenches was lacking. As the Gators enter the first weekend in October, they are light-years ahead of last year's squad in the toughness department. The blue-collar approach Will Muschamp wants from his defense is finally starting to come together, and that will go a long way against LSU.

"Toughness is everything," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said of stopping the run. "You have to have toughness, smartness and discipline. We're working on all of it. Toughness is a big factor when the run game is involved."

Florida is allowing a little less than 120 rushing yards a game and just 3.8 yards per carry, but the Gators have yet to play a team as physical and as deep in the run game.

LSU can throw four backs out on any given drive. There's the quick bruiser in Kenny Hilliard, the speedy Michael Ford, the pounding Spencer Ware and the dynamic Jeremy Hill, who has yet to really be unleashed this year. Also, the Tigers have a certified battering ram in 272-pound fullback J.C. Copeland.

All five are averaging more than 4 yards per carry, with Hilliard leading the group with 6.9 yards per rush.

"We have guys who can run fast and run hard. It's hard for defenses to prepare for," said Ford, who has 224 yards, but is averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

"Even our defense, it's kind of hard because they always get a different look."

Fresh legs against huffing, puffing defenders is never a fair fight, and that's why the Gators found themselves on defense for the majority of the second half in last season’s game. Florida's defense couldn't get off the field on third downs, and you can’t win games like that.

"That's just an important storyline in this game -- winning on third down -- because this is a team that knows how to run it, and if they can possess the ball and continue to convert on third downs, it's a hard day," Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said.

The good news for Florida is that opponents have converted on third downs just 29 percent of the time this fall.

Part of Muschamp’s plan against the rush is to add defensive backs to the box and control the perimeter. He’s also harping on gap control.

But to Bostic, positioning isn’t everything. The mental side will be just as important and he wants players to have more composure and be more restrained this time. Overzealous play in pursuit could be detrimental against this running game, so patience is key.

"A lot of guys will get antsy and want to go make a play," he said. "You've got to let the big plays come to you."

LSU will go right at them ... again and again.
Florida and Georgia are in for an interesting next couple of weeks.

Although their seasons begin Saturday, things get a bit more challenging and exciting in Week 2 with two historic road games.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Bostic
Kim Klement/US Presswire"We weren't happy with the outcome of last year, and we have to do the little things right before we can start looking ahead," Jonathan Bostic said.
After the traditional opening cupcakes, the Gators and Bulldogs will be the first SEC opponents for league newbies Texas A&M and Missouri, respectively. Hype for both of those games is through the roof and the game-day atmospheres should be nothing short of epic.

New teams mean new surroundings, new faces, new challenges and new excitement. That excitement can bring a change in focus.

While coaches and players try to steer away from looking ahead, it can be nearly impossible to stop.

“It’s a new team and we’ve heard a lot of about them,” Florida senior linebacker Jon Bostic said of playing at Texas A&M in Week 2. “We’ve heard a lot about their stadium and we’re excited about going to play there and get their best game early.”

And Kyle Field should be rocking for the Gators.

Bostic said Florida, which opens at home against a Bowling Green team that went 5-7 last season, has taken baby steps when it comes to preparing for the Aggies and new coach Kevin Sumlin’s schemes. They have looked over some Houston film here and there, and players have become a little more familiar with A&M’s personnel. Still, the real preparation begins Sunday.

Bostic can see the excitement his teammates have about College Station, Texas, but he insists their attention is on Bowling Green. This team struggled too much last year and has too much to fix before it can think about the second week of the season.

“Everybody is excited to get things back on track,” he said. “We didn’t come here to accept where we’re at. The standard was set above us before we got here and that’s one of the reasons we came here. It’s our job to get it back to where it was.”

For Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, he and the rest of the Bulldogs’ veterans have made it a point to block out all of the Mizzou talk. Some of the woofing by Missouri at SEC media days hasn’t fazed the Dawgs, Murray said, and they’re too pumped about hitting guys dressed in Buffalo attire to worry about next week’s trip to Columbia, Mo.

“We just want to go out there and play,” Murray said. “It’s been a long offseason, but it’s been a very productive and great offseason. Guys have worked hard and they just want to go out there and play football.”

It was an offseason that took a few detours away from the football field because of some embarrassing off-field incidents, but Murray said practice and focus never suffered. He said the team's focus hasn't been better during his four years at Georgia.

Because of that he doesn’t fear a sluggish start against a Buffalo team that won just three games last season.

“It’s definitely been the most successful summer that I’ve been a part of because of the amount of work everyone put in and the amount of time [players put in],” he said. “Everyone was extremely focused and understood the goals that we had and were ready to do what was needed to accomplish those.

“We have such great leadership that we aren’t going to let our guys look ahead. I don’t see how you can look ahead when you have your first game. We’ve been waiting to play a game for seven, eight months now.”

The Gators also stayed focused this summer. The team wasn't plagued by off-field incidents and Bostic said players have bought more and more into second-year coach Will Muschamp and his staff.

This team is thrilled to play Texas A&M, but that enthusiasm can wait, Bostic said. There is too much to get done Saturday to worry about what the second week will be like.

“We weren’t happy with the outcome of last year, and we have to do the little things right before we can start looking ahead,” he said.
Lerentee McCray has been through and seen a lot during his long Florida career.

The fifth-year senior linebacker/defensive end has seen the highs of winning a national championship and the lows of the school’s first losing record in conference play since the 1980s.

As he prepares to suit up for his final season in Gainesville, McCray wants to be a major component in what he hopes is a revival for the program in 2012.

“Whatever it takes to win, I’m ready to do it,” McCray said.

He’ll certainly get his chance, as he fills in for the injured and ever-popular Ronald Powell at the Buck position. Powell, who was the nation’s top recruit two years ago, had his best spring as a Gator this year before suffering an ACL injury during the spring game that should keep him out for most of the fall. While McCray missed all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Florida’s coaches didn’t hesitate to name him as Powell’s replacement.

[+] EnlargeLerentee McCray
Kim Klement/US PresswireFifth-year senior Lerentee McCray is in line for more playing time this fall.
And why would they? McCray is basically a bona fide hybrid. He began his career as an outside linebacker, but has since moved back and forth between linebacker and defensive end. He even got some action at Buck last year when Powell went down with an injury against Auburn.

He doesn’t have the name or hype Powell does, but McCray might have a little more fire and hunger, considering the up-and-down career he’s had in his four-plus years at Florida.

The former U.S. Army All-American participant and ESPN 150 member made the 50-plus-mile journey from Dunnellon, Fla., to Gainesville with lofty expectations. Along with just about everyone in his hometown, McCray expected to immediately compete for a starting spot and certainly expected a healthy amount of playing time as a freshman. But things didn’t exactly work out, as the 202-pound frosh played in just eight games, mostly on special teams, during the Gators’ national championship run. He played in just three games in 2009, receiving a medical redshirt.

Even with frustration mounting, McCray took time to learn from veteran playmakers such as Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper and Jermaine Cunningham. Sitting and watching motivated him and created a fierier attitude when it came to working out and practice.

But to make the kind of impact he wanted, McCray had to get bigger, so he was placed in Florida’s famed “Breakfast Club” where he turned into a real eater, inhaling as much steak, lobster and shrimp as he could during team feeding hours.

“I wasn’t a big eater before I got here, but they made me eat,” said McCray, who is at a comfortable 253 pounds that he hopes to maintain this fall.

Now that McCray has the will and the size, he’s looking to make a statement. He’s enjoyed a national championship and has seen Florida defenses rack up accolades, but he feels empty knowing he hasn’t been a tremendous help to his team yet.

“It’s been a high and low experience,” McCray said. “That’s life.”

That could change this fall, as McCray, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list, sees his role increase. He’s only appeared in 30 career games with just five starts, but had his best season yet in 2011, recording 24 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, giving coach Will Muschamp the impression that McCray could shine in 2012.

“I’m expecting a big year out of him,” Muschamp said. “I really am.”

Senior linebacker Jon Bostic feels the same way, but he’s always expected McCray to be a star. The first sign was during his freshman year, when Bostic recalls watching a scrawny McCray consistently put offensive linemen on their backs in practice.

“Regardless of what weight he was, he wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Bostic said. “He’s one of those hard-nosed guys that’s going to run right down the middle at people.

“He makes somebody feel the pain before he does.”

McCray hopes to inflict even more pain this fall. And he isn’t concerned about any added pressure that will come with replacing Powell, who led Florida in sacks last year. He embraces the test and plans to finally make a name for himself.

“I’m a person who likes to take on challenges,” he said. “I came from the bottom. I’d like to get to the top. That’s what I’m looking to achieve, so I really don’t feel any pressure because I’m already the underdog.”
Jon Bostic has made the short walk from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium over to Florida’s practice fields hundreds of times. But, as the rising senior linebacker takes his final spring hikes back and forth, he can’t help but feel as if those first steps out there happened yesterday.

The old man on Florida’s defense isn’t looking to get nostalgic, but, as he enters his fourth season in Gainesville, he admits that his Gators career has flown by.

He went from immediately moving from safety to linebacker his first spring to becoming one of the captains and leaders of Florida’s defense. From wide-eyed to highly regarded, Bostic will enter the 2012 season as one of the SEC’s top middle linebackers.

[+] EnlargeJon Bostic
Courtesy of UF CommunicationsSenior Jon Bostic led the Gators in tackles with 94 last season.
But he wouldn’t be where he is without help from one of the best to line up for Florida.

From the beginning, Bostic’s first defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, made sure Bostic clung to former star Brandon Spikes. Bostic was to be a sponge when around him.

One of the toughest activities with Spikes was watching film because of how meticulous he was.

“If there’s one thing about him, he sits in the film room and, when I say he finds the little things, he finds the little things,” Bostic said about Spikes’ scrupulous film time.

Spikes was hard on Bostic at times when it came to dissecting film or just learning how to be the defense’s quarterback, but it was something Bostic needed. The thing Spikes wanted to get across to his understudy was that he had to be the leader in his actions and his words, meaning laziness wasn’t an option. Spikes didn’t want his position to take a dip after he left.

So, for three years, Bostic has tried to emulate Spikes while trying to come into his own. He has gone through three defensive coordinators, taking little things from each to enhance his game. He has learned to gain weight the right way, and he enters his final spring wanting to get Florida’s defense back to its ferocious ways.

Bostic knows he can’t play every position at once, so he has taken it upon himself to monitor everyone. Bostic has grown from a shy, 225-pound hybrid player three years ago to a 245-pound outspoken superior. He is reaching out to younger players, getting onto older players and communicating his ideas more to coaches.

Florida returns 10 of 11 starters from the nation’s eighth-ranked defense, but, Bostic said, if Florida’s defense wants to progress in 2012, depth has to be stronger. Immediate help arrived in the form of three early enrollees -- juco defensive tackle Damien Jacobs and freshmen Antonio Morrison (linebacker) and Willie Bailey (defensive back) -- but Bostic said those who sat last year have to be more prepared this time.

“We’re going to need all the depth we can get this year,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t have as much depth at any position like we would have liked it.”

That led to a lot of bending in Florida’s defense and even some breaking against tougher running teams such as Alabama and LSU. If the Gators want to dig themselves out of their two-year rut, Bostic said, the defense has to continue to improve. The lack of discipline from a year ago has to be changed. Consistency has to take hold. No longer can players get away with deciding when they’ll go full speed, Bostic said; it has to be every day.

Bostic started to see an attitude change almost immediately after Florida’s bowl win over Ohio State, as the seven-win season didn’t sit well with players. In postseason drills, Bostic saw more fire and desire from players. The competition was intense as players looked to separate themselves before spring started.

A couple of days into spring practice, and Bostic said he still sees that tenacity from youngsters and vets.

“They figure it’s either now or never, and that’s a good thing,” Bostic said.

“It’s creating competition all over the place and making everybody better.”

It’s not just the defense that has impressed Bostic. The offense, which yet again is searching for its identity, has made strides. With help from a defense that refuses to let it get very comfortable, the offense has generated more confidence.

But it won’t be an overnight transformation, Bostic said. There has been a gradual push in the right direction, but there’s plenty of work to be done.

He knows the perception of Florida football isn’t exactly flattering right now, but, if everyone comes together this time, Bostic expects the Gators to turn a head or two this fall.

“We’ve had a lot of things happen, but the talent is still there,” he said. “The talent hasn’t gone anywhere.”

Early 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
We officially said goodbye to the 2011 season Monday night and crowned the Alabama Crimson Tide as college football's new champions. Now, it's time to shift our focus to 2012. Here's to hoping the Mayans were wrong:

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.

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 12

November, 20, 2011
As it turns out, the weekend was a productive one for the SEC, even if there were more than a few shaky performances around the league against lesser opponents.

Here’s a look at what we learned in Week 12:

1. BCS takes on SEC flavor: Brad Edwards, ESPN’s BCS standings guru, is projecting that the top three teams in the newest BCS standings that come out Sunday night will be No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Arkansas. In other words, it might as well be an SEC world. The losses over the weekend by Oklahoma State, Oregon and Oklahoma cleared the path more than ever for two SEC teams to meet in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game and extend the league’s streak to six straight national titles. And at this point, it’s just about impossible to come up with a scenario that doesn’t include at least one SEC team in the national title game when you look at the entire BCS picture after this weekend. LSU obviously controls its own destiny. But, really, so does Alabama. In fact, if the Crimson Tide can win comfortably over Auburn next Saturday, they might be in the best shape of anybody, especially if LSU wins Friday over Arkansas. That’s because Alabama would just about be a lock at that point for one of the top two spots in the final BCS standings and wouldn’t have to risk anything in the SEC championship game. Yes, it sounds crazy, but that’s the way it looks right now. As for Arkansas, the Hogs are going to have a difficult time making it to the SEC championship game unless Alabama loses to Auburn or looks shaky in winning over Auburn and drops in the polls. Even so, Arkansas could also settle into that No. 2 spot in the final BCS standings just by winning at LSU next Friday and not going to the SEC championship game. The only team really lurking at this point that could possibly break up the SEC stranglehold is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are strong in the computers, but they also still have to play Oklahoma on Dec. 3. It was a wild weekend, for sure, but the jockeying these last two weeks could be even wilder.

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonTyler Wilson continues to spread the ball around as eight different players caught passes on Saturday.
2. Arkansas is on top of its game: For the third straight week, Arkansas blew out an opponent, which suggests that the Hogs are as ready as they’ll ever be to go into Baton Rouge next week and take down No. 1 LSU. Junior quarterback Tyler Wilson is spreading the football around, and Jarius Wright and Joe Adams are the kind of game-breakers who can soften up any defense. The Hogs have been outstanding in special teams and are playing more consistently on defense. This is also a different team than the one that was battered 38-14 at Alabama back in September. For one, the Hogs are healthier. Senior defensive end Jake Bequette is back in the lineup and playing great. He didn’t play at all against Alabama with a hamstring injury. Senior defensive end Tenarius Wright is also back after breaking his arm in the Alabama game, while junior running back Dennis Johnson has added a different dimension to the running game after being slowed by hamstring problems to open the season. What the Hogs still have to prove is that they can win a big game on the road. Take a look at their home performances this season, and take a look at their performances away from home. There’s been a noticeable difference.

3. Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt: There’s no need to take offense, Vanderbilt fans. We’re not talking about the way the Commodores play, because they’ve come miles under first-year coach James Franklin. We’re talking about all the screwy calls that have seemed to go against Vanderbilt over the years. There’s another one to add to the vault after Saturday’s 27-21 loss to Tennessee in overtime, although Vanderbilt was its own worst enemy in a lot of ways. The Commodores threw three costly interceptions and committed a horrid clipping penalty that nullified a pass play down to the Tennessee 1-yard line. But the officials’ gaffe in overtime was the clincher. An official blew Eric Gordon’s interception return for a touchdown dead because he incorrectly thought that Gordon’s knee had touched the ground. By rule, the play is not reviewable, according to SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw, because a whistle was blown. The Vols should have been given the ball at the 25 for their possession in overtime. But Gordon continued running for a 90-yard touchdown on the play. The officials did allow it to go to the booth for a review, and the call on the field was overturned, giving the Vols the winning touchdown and adding to the Commodores’ misery of late calls that haven’t gone their way.

4. Ole Miss has shut it down: Actually, the Rebels shut it down a while back. It’s rarely a pretty sight when a lame-duck coach finishes out the season, and it’s only gotten worse ever since Ole Miss announced that Houston Nutt wouldn’t be back next season. No. 1 LSU obliterated Ole Miss 52-3 on Saturday night in Nutt’s final game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and it could have been 72-3 had the Tigers wanted it to be. The Rebels have now lost 13 straight SEC games dating back to last season, and their loss Saturday came a week after losing 27-7 at home to Louisiana Tech. The end can’t get here soon enough for the Rebels, who also had to deal with some off-the-field stuff this week when quarterback Randall Mackey, running back Jeff Scott and receiver Korvic Neat were suspended for the game for violating team rules. Ole Miss (2-9, 0-7) tries to avoid its first 10-loss season in school history next week at arch-rival Mississippi State.

5. Oozing with linebackers: Who’s the best linebacker in the SEC? Better yet, how do you pick just three linebackers for first-team, All-SEC honors in 2011? Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are both great players, while Georgia’s Jarvis Jones will receive a lot of support for defensive player of the year honors. Kentucky’s Danny Trevathan isn’t just a stats machine. He had 17 more tackles Saturday in the loss to Georgia and just gets better every week. And that’s not even mentioning Arkansas’ Jerry Franklin, Florida’s Jon Bostic, Vanderbilt’s Chris Marve, Mississippi State’s Cameron Lawrence and Auburn’s Eltoro Freeman.
Will Muschamp assures Florida hasn’t held anything back.

No matter how many times the question arises about how vanilla his team has been through the first two weeks, the normal responses have centered on taking what opponents give them.

Whether what is coming out of Florida’s camp is totally true is up for debate, but Florida’s first-year coach vows he isn’t saving anything for Saturday’s showdown with East rival Tennessee -- a game that could go a long way in determining the divisional race at the end of the season.

“We don’t go into a game holding stuff for another opponent,” Muschamp said. “I guess some people do that. I don’t. We prepare to win the game and we prepare to take the things we’ve got to do to win the game. Now, whether or not we call them in the game depends on the situation of the game.”

[+] EnlargeTyler Bray
Jim Brown/US PresswireTennessee QB Tyler Bray ranks seventh nationally in passer rating and passing yards per game.
So the Gators aren’t purposely shrouding their schemes in mystery; they just haven’t needed to show off the entire playbook, because they haven’t been forced to.

Fair enough, but you have to wonder what the Gators might bring out Saturday.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, a longtime friend of Muschamp’s since their days as assistants under Nick Saban at LSU, said he expected to see a vanilla Florida team in the first two weeks, but thinks his team hasn’t “seen near what we might see on Saturday.”

Mentally, Florida might have some of the edge, with six straight wins over the Vols under their belts, but less is known about these Gators.

We know Tennessee’s offense can fly behind Tyler Bray’s arm and his league-high 349 passing yards a game and SEC-leading seven touchdowns. Making things easier for Bray have been receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who have combined for 31 receptions for 502 yards and five touchdowns.

We also know that while Tennessee’s defense is young, it has exceeded early expectations, especially after holding Cincinnati’s high-powered offense to 396 yards.

As for Florida, its defense has been much more aggressive, but hasn’t met much competition. Offensively, quarterback John Brantley looks more comfortable, but his numbers are pedestrian (he’s averaging 212 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions).

Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said Brantley’s numbers aren’t so much a result of a vanilla offense; it has had to do more with -- you guessed it -- taking what the defenses have given him. Dump-offs to running backs and the lack of a vertical passing game have come because the opportunities to stretch the field have been limited.

“All quarterbacks want to throw the ball down the field,” Weis said. “But to have the patience to not throw it down the field when the defense is saying, 'Go ahead, we’ll give you this, but we won’t give you that,' that’s a very strong positive.”

Where the Gators have been explosive is in the running game. Florida ranks second in the SEC, churning out 248.5 rushing yards per game. Those impressive rushing numbers are a result of better perimeter blocking, more emphasis on a power running game and the evasive moves of Chris Rainey.

The fifth-year senior, who spent the better part of last season mired in controversy, has been the Gators’ best offensive player, rushing for 198 yards, posting 110 receiving yards and scoring four total touchdowns.

After that, Florida’s offense is still a mystery. Given the chance, will Florida air it out? And if so, to whom? Can Rainey carry the load against SEC talent? Will speedster Jeff Demps be healthy? Will this young offensive line hold up?

Who knows?

Defensively, the Gators have crushed their lesser opponents. Florida has allowed just a field goal and 349 total yards. But faced with a passing game like Tennessee’s, how will the Gators react, especially with top cornerback Jeremy Brown questionable with a knee injury and youngsters roaming around the secondary?

Florida will have to generate a stronger pass rush, and the return of defensive end Sharrif Floyd, who was ruled ineligible for the first two games, should help.

When Dooley looks at Florida’s defensive line, he can’t help but feel a little apprehensive.

“The first thing you notice on defense is probably the most talented defensive line in the country -- extremely big and athletic and disruptive and almost impossible to block,” he said. “If your five can’t block their four, it doesn’t matter what plays you have, it’s going to be a long day.”

Junior linebacker Jon Bostic said he doesn’t expect much to change in the Gators’ approach. As much as people harp on it, he assures Florida doesn’t have a bag of tricks ready for the Vols.

“We’ve opened up a lot of things. We really haven’t tried to hide anything,” Bostic said. “The offense may have some wrinkles, I don’t know. We already know the defensive game plan and we have different adjustments every week.”

What is known is that this weekend’s game is big -- huge, even. Making the offense prettier or adding more blitz packages won’t change that.

“It’s a great rivalry. It’s in the SEC East, and it’s a game we need to play well in, and win,” Muschamp said. “It’s a very important game; we don’t need to tell our players that. They come to play at a place like Florida to play in a game like this.”
AlabamaUS PresswireCourtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley are part of what could be the best linebacker corps in the conference.
Today we take a look at the SEC linebackers. The front sevens in this league are always good and 2011 shouldn't be any different.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the half: Florida 7, Tennessee 3

September, 18, 2010
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- With both offenses struggling mightily, Florida took a 7-3 lead over Tennessee into halftime Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Here’s a quick halftime analysis:

Turning point: Tennessee was threatening to take the lead midway through the second quarter after Florida’s Janoris Jenkins mishandled a punt and gave the Vols great field position. With it third-and-goal at the 3, Matt Simms tossed a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Florida linebacker Jon Bostic.

Player of the half: Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz was everywhere in the first half for the Vols, almost single-handedly keeping them in the game. He had seven tackles a few plays into the second quarter and also recovered a fumbled punt.

Stat of the half: The two teams were a combined 4-of-13 on third down in the first half.