- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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Position battles are usually a focal point of spring practice, and especially in preseason training camp, when starting spots are still up for grabs. There are quarterback battles undecided across the SEC, but instead, let's focus on the other position battles. Here are a few of the key ones that are undecided coming out of spring football:
Cyrus Jones, the Crimson Tide's top returning cornerback, started 14 games last season and figures to be back in that role. He was out this spring following offseason hip surgery in January; his absence created opportunities for others, and the competition for time opposite Jones is plentiful. Brown, a sophomore who played 13 games last season, received consistent time with the first team in the spring and performed well. Humphrey and Averett received time at the other cornerback spot in the spring and also played well. Jackson spent some time getting reps at safety. Sylve is also among the contenders trying to earn playing time. He started the season opener last season and saw action in 14 games.
The past two seasons, Auburn had the luxury of players who surpassed the 1,600-yard mark: Tre Mason in 2013, Cameron Artis-Payne in 2014. The Tigers have had a 1,000-yard back for seven straight years. Who's up next in 2015? That remains to be seen. After spring practices concluded, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said: "No one has really separated themselves." Thomas had the best A-Day performance (seven carries, 69 yards and an impressive 36-yard scoring run) but each has strengths and had his moments this spring. Some might believe Robinson, the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC 50, is the favorite, but he's the newcomer, and Thomas and Barber have playing time under their belts.
LSU DE: Take your pick
The Tigers are looking to replace departed starters Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, and there are numerous candidates. Among them: Lewis Neal, Maquedius Bain, Tashawn Bower, Sione Teuhema, Deondre Clark and one player who isn't on campus, ESPN 300 prospect Arden Key, who will arrive in the summer. Neal, Bain and Clark received work at left defensive end, and Bower and Teuhema worked on the right side. Key, the No. 24 prospect in the country and the No. 6 defensive end, could be an instant-impact player if he's ready. Neal played all 13 games and saw time at special teams, defensive tackle and defensive end. Bower also played in every game as Rasco's backup and had 16 tackles. Clark appeared in 12 games, Bain in 10 and Teuhema in nine. Still plenty to be sorted out here.
Shumpert has the benefit of carries from last season (47 for 282 yards) while Lee and Williams redshirted. Lee had the best spring game of the bunch (53 yards and a touchdown, four catches for 18 yards). Shumpert had a nice showing in last year's Egg Bowl vs. Ole Miss (68 yards on 10 carries), is the most experienced and seems like the leader, but Lee and Williams did a solid job of pushing him. The Bulldogs also have a nice change-of-pace back with speedster Brandon Holloway, who had 45 carries for 294 yards last season and he'll certainly figure into the rotation again this fall as the Bulldogs try to replace the departed Josh Robinson.
A week before Tennessee's spring game, coach Butch Jones placed Crowder and Thomas in the circle drill and asked, "Who's going to be our starting center?" in front of thousands of students at the Volunteers' student-appreciation practice. Crowder, a senior, started 11 games at center last season, but Jones wanted to make it clear that starting spots have to be earned every year at every position. Crowder is 6-foot-2, 295 pounds and has the edge to start at the position. Thomas is 6-6, 325 and has five starts at right tackle under his belt and played 11 games as a true freshman. Jashon Robertson (6-3, 304), a sophomore, started all 13 games last season at right guard and is also being considered. He figures to start somewhere on the line.
The Vols have numerous candidates here, but not all of them were healthy this spring. Bynum, Bates and Bryant did get plenty of reps at the position in spring drills, but a couple of other possibilities -- sophomore Jakob Johnson and freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. -- both were sidelined by injuries. Bynum played in seven games last season, starting one, Bates played in four and Bryant redshirted. Johnson has the most experience, with 12 games and two starts under his belt. The Vols liked what they saw from Bynum in the spring, and he might have the edge at the moment.
This has been an elite spot annually for Texas A&M, producing three consecutive first-round NFL draft picks (Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi). Who's next? Gennesy and Ifedi received practice time this spring at left tackle (and they both received time at right tackle). Ifedi started all last season as the right tackle and Gennesy redshirted. The Aggies didn't publicly declare a winner, so there still could be wiggle room here. The safe bet is probably Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee who stands 6-5, 305. Ifedi is a little bigger (6-5, 325), and given his comfort level on the right side, it would make sense for the Aggies to keep him there unless they believe his athletic ability is significantly superior to Gennesy's.