NCF Nation: Kentrell Lockett

Hugh Freeze enters his first spring at Ole Miss with a lot of questions surrounding his new football team.

The same team that won just two games last year, watched its head coach get shown the door and has lost 14 straight SEC games.

Talk about a project.

For starters, Ole Miss is breaking in a totally new spread offense for a team that isn't exactly built for it. Plus there are four scholarship quarterbacks competing this spring and the ones who played last year had a host of issues.

Don't be surprised if junior college transfer Bo Wallace turns some heads this spring at QB because he's more familiar with Freeze's offense. He spent 2010 with Freeze at Arkansas State before going the JUCO route. While he had a record-setting season at East Mississippi Community College in 2011, Wallace has zero experience at this level. He redshirted in 2010, so he has yet to take a snap at the FBS level.

The defense will also see quite a few changes, as defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has said he plans to move the Rebels all around the field. Ole Miss ran a 4-2-5 defense last year under Tyrone Nix, but will come out in multiple sets this time around. It's going to take some time for players to adjust. It also means the Rebels might have to rely more on its secondary again. The good thing for Ole Miss is that just about everyone from the secondary is back, including standouts Charles Sawyer and Wesley Pendleton.

Sawyer might have been Ole Miss' best defensive player last year, while Pendleton has a chance to be a very solid corner in the SEC next fall. Also, keep an eye on Aaron Garbutt, who transferred from the JUCO ranks last year and was sixth on the team in tackles. Getting more out of them this spring will go a long way to helping this defense adjust.

At linebacker, the Rebels return all four starters, but adjusting to the new defensive formations could be more of a chore for them. But having Mike Marry back will be big for the Rebels this spring, considering D.T. Shackelford won't go through the spring as he recovers from another surgery on his knee. Marry filled in nicely for Shackelford last season, leading the Rebels in tackles as just a sophomore.

Marry will be accompanied by rising sophomores Serderius Bryant and C.J. Johnson. Bryant was the better of the two former freshmen last season and was fourth on the team in tackles. For Johnson, the spring will be crucial for his maturation. He started to come on strong toward the end of the season, but he still needs to make strides in his game before the end of the summer. Johnson could also line up at defense end, a position that must replace former star Kentrell Lockett.

The defense has more positives, but there are still questions surrounding where guys will lineup and how they'll take to all the changes. Plus, this is practically the same group that ranked last in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense in the SEC last year.

On offense, finding a quarterback is priority No. 1, with improving an offensive line that took more than a few steps back in 2011 as a close second. Two starters are gone from the line and Freeze has said that the linemen he has weren't recruited for a "more power-type offense."

Freeze has a lot on his plate, but he knew that coming in. He understands that there were locker room issues in the past and the field issues are well documented. This won't be a quick fix by any means, but this spring will be really interesting for Freeze because even he'll have a lot of questions of his own to sort through when the Rebels start digging deep into spring practice.
When discussing his most memorable games against LSU as a head coach, Ole Miss’ Houston Nutt relayed the sad reality of life as an SEC coach.

Naturally, Nutt talked about his 2-0 start against the Tigers, but he also mentioned the thoughts of the fans back then. He reminisced about the emails he received praising him for winning the close games that had always gotten away from Ole Miss.

Life was good after back-to-back wins over LSU, back-to-back nine-win seasons and back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories.

“There were also some emails that I got that said I was going to be here as long as John Vaught during that time,” Nutt said. “That shows you how quickly our game changes. Those games are in the rear-view mirror.”

[+] EnlargeHouston Nutt
Don McPeak/US PresswireHouston Nutt on Saturday will coach his final home game at Ole Miss.
And so are Nutt’s successes at Ole Miss. After a promising start, Nutt is on his way out after back-to-back disastrous seasons.

Saturday, Nutt will coach his last game inside Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium as Ole Miss’ coach, just like the Rebels’ senior class will play its last game there. Those who came in with him will leave with him, but in a very unflattering manner.

Senior running back Brandon Bolden, who said Nutt was the final factor in his decision to pick Ole Miss over Alabama, said Saturday would be very bittersweet. He’s excited for senior day, but he’s sad to part ways with his team and his coach.

He described his first two years as great, but the last two as “a blow to the stomach,” and more specifically, this year, which currently has Ole Miss 2-8 and riding a 12-game conference losing streak dating back to last year, as a “slap in the face.”

“We just had bad on bad after we had two good years when he started with the program,” Bolden said. “It’s how the ball rolls sometimes. We came out real hot and then we got real cold.”

It’s time to find some fire again, Bolden said.

After Saturday’s dreadful homecoming loss to Louisiana Tech, Bolden said Ole Miss’ locker room was mostly silent with shocked stitched on the Rebels’ faces.

But it’s time for Ole Miss to get over the misery of Saturday -- and the season -- and step up against No. 1 LSU (10-0, 6-0), a team Nutt is 2-1 against as Ole Miss’ coach.

This isn’t just an SEC game. It’s a rivalry game that Bolden said the freshmen have been asking about since the summer and means more sometimes than a winning season.

“The older guys know what this game means, the freshmen know what this game means and it’s been reiterated over and over,” Bolden said. “Everybody will be mentally ready.”

Sixth-year senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, who went through two rough Ed Orgeron years, said players have no excuse not to be ready. Mourning is over and Lockett said true competitors relish in the opportunity to rebound after crushing losses.

“It’s football, man. If you don’t get excited to play football, then you’re playing the wrong sport,” Lockett said. “You’re supposed to be doing it because you love it and you’re supposed to be competitive about it, but that loss is supposed to take something from you because you’re a competitor.”

Lockett said keeping the Rebels’ locker room hasn’t been an issue and that the team hasn’t quit.

He’s also a realist when it comes to Nutt’s situation. He said he and his teammates “love” Nutt, but Lockett understands that wins define coaches.

“This is the world we live in. People want W’s and want you to be productive,” he said. “The first two years were great years, but you knew it had to come to an end. Those guys had to graduate, the next guys had to graduate and you have to build and get younger guys. That’s where we are now. Because he wasn’t producing enough W’s, changes had to be made.

“It was unfortunate, but that’s the way life is.”

When Lockett thinks about going out with his head coach, you can hear dejection in his otherwise cheery voice. He knows this isn’t all on Nutt, and for that, it’s tough for the senior to come to grips with the fact that better play might have kept the Nutt honeymoon going.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “It’s your last year and you want to go out with a bang. You want to be known for something good, not known for something bad. You want to give the fans some wins, you want to do it for the community, knowing that they’ve watched you for four or five years growing up and growing into the player you are now.”

Ole Miss' Superman lives

September, 9, 2011
Tyrone Nix waited patiently for his fifth-year senior defensive end to regain his football legs.

[+] EnlargeKentrell Lockett
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireMississippi coordinator Tyrone Nix is happy to have defensive end Kentrell Lockett healthy.
Ole Miss’ defensive coordinator didn’t want to push him because he was less than a year removed from a major ACL injury. Nix expected a long recovery, so baby steps didn’t bother him.

However, that veteran was Kentrell Lockett, the self-proclaimed “Superman,” and his baby steps are sprints.

And he literally sprinted his way through Ole Miss’ first major scrimmage this preseason. Nix watched as the offense made play after play. His frustration was starting to build, until Lockett showed up.

With the offense feeling good about itself, Lockett jumped, batted down a pass, snatched the ball out of the air and then took it in for a touchdown. Nix could see Lockett’s confidence was back. His instincts were back at work, as he knew how to play the block, knew the situation and he didn’t panic.

“That’s what you expect from a leadership position. That’s what you expect from a guy that’s been through many battles,” Nix said.

“A guy like Kentrell, who’s been in many huddles, things like that don’t shake him up.”

Lockett, who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, spent the spring rehabbing, though he assures he was fine once he dropped his crutches late last year and returned for preseason practice.

Lockett said this summer that he was excited to get back around his teammates and practice, but getting back into a game actually left the verbose Lockett speechless. Lockett finished Ole Miss’ opener with just two tackles and admitted that it took him some time to adjust to BYU’s tackles after facing his own guys in camp, but being out there was more than refreshing.

“It felt good to hit someone and actually hit them how you want to hit them instead of having to hold back and have the coaches say to stay up,” Lockett said. “I could actually play football.”

When Locket couldn’t play football, he met his own personal kryptonite. He couldn’t practice, couldn’t play and couldn’t celebrate with his teammates. So, why be around it? He distanced himself, only watching games from home, where he hid his pain.

“The days I did do that, I went home and cried to my wife about it -- just cried,” Lockett said. “Then, she was like, ‘Man, you gotta stop.’ It took her to get me out of that rut.”

Not having Lockett around also hurt the team. The mental edge was gone and the locker room’s most trusted leader wasn’t there for encouragement.

“Guys of that type of character help you pull through times and forms of adversity,” Nix said of Lockett.

It wasn’t until Lockett finally threw the crutches down and could walk up the stairs to the practice field under his own power that he felt comfortable around the team.

Now, he has a new outlook on his football life, as he’s no longer taking anything for granted.

“I’ve grown so much mentally since last year, since the injury occurred,” he said.

“This one play could be your last. I’m having fun. I’m giving it 110 percent no matter what because it might be one play away. I don’t know what might happen, just like what happened last time.”

Lockett might look at football differently, but the same goofy, loud, talkative, happy Lockett who was beloved by his teammates is still there. He hasn’t changed his personality and he thinks that’s added some juice to this defense.

His encouragement has gone a long way so far and his message to his team is still the same even after a heartbreaking opening loss: play your game and things will fall into place.

“All we have to do is come out, execute, play ball and have fun,” he said. “If you said you had fun and you gave it 110 percent, you’re all right. You’re OK.”
Ole Miss’ defense is getting back to the roots of it all.

Fundamentals, attitude, a blue-collar work ethic and trying to outwork others will be the foundation of a defense that was a disaster in 2010.

Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said his players took their talents and what those before them did for granted last season. Players strutted around thinking the red carpet was going to roll out for them each game.

It didn’t come close to working that way as the Rebels ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense (35.2 points per game) and 11th in total defense (399.2) and passing defense (246.3). Ole Miss also allowed opponents to score a league-high 95 percent of the time when they ventured into the red zone (27 touchdowns and eight field goals in 37 attempts).

[+] EnlargeJoel Kight
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJoel Kight is part of an Ole Miss defense that expects to be improved this season.
That’s a far cry from the defenses Nix led at Ole Miss in the previous two seasons. Those defenses commanded respect and delivered results. Last year’s defense just struggled to keep its head above water.

This season, Ole Miss is dealing with a slew of younger players on defense. It has been both exciting and tiresome for Nix and his defensive staff, but with days until the Rebels’ tough season-opener against BYU, Nix says he’s happy with where his defense is.

“These kids have really worked hard and are trying to restore some of the respect that was lost last year,” Nix said. “We built this thing up in the first couple of years and earned a lot of respect defensively and we’re going to continue to work toward that.”

In order to do that, this group has had to shovel away its pride and start over. Nix said he’s seen players getting to meetings on time or earlier this time around. Players are holding each other accountable instead of assuming they’ll get it right on the next play.

There is fire and determination in practice, Nix said, and he sees that in his coaching staff as well. Nix said the addition of Keith Burns as the secondary coach has been a major boost for the defense and added that the coaches have become better teachers. They too took past talents for granted.

Senior linebacker Joel Kight agrees: This team thought the past would push it in 2010. He was also wrong, but he also sees a change.

Kight sees more togetherness and trust among players. Youngsters are being vocal, but they are also willing to listen to veterans. Kight is being looked at as a leader, but he’s made sure he hasn’t fallen off in practice or his words will mean zilch to players, especially the young ones -- and there are a lot who will see the field early.

Top-rated linebackers C.J. Johnson and Serderius Bryant are expected make major impacts. So are defensive backs Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.

While Nix admits no true freshmen are ready to be regular starters, he thinks they’ll contribute a lot, starting with the opener.

Seasoned players will also guide this team. Senior end Kentrell Lockett is back after blowing out his knee last season, providing a tremendous presence in the pass rush. Wayne Dorsey will be assisting opposite, while Marcus Temple will lead a more athletic defensive backfield.

The hope, Kight said, is that everyone doesn't hold back this year.

“They say we have a lot of potential. I don’t really like the word potential,” he said. “I want to see us use that potential. We’re very talented and it’s up to us to be a good overall, all-around defense.”

But there will be plenty of hiccups. It’s hard for a unit to perform an instant 360, and Nix is fine with that. What he won’t tolerate is complacency. For the defense to shake last season’s setback, it will have to rediscover itself and get back to the foundation of football.

“You’re either at the top or at the bottom because everybody sitting in between is just a juggling act,” he said. “Right now, we’re at the bottom of it and we want to finish on top and all we can do is control the present and that’s play the best we can, play as a team and play fundamentally sound. If we do those things I think we’ll be happy with our season this year.”
SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will periodically give their takes on burning questions affecting the league. Sometimes, we’ll agree. Other times, we won’t. We’ll let you decide who’s right … or whether we’re both wrong:

Today’s topic: Which SEC team will most likely exceed its expectations this season?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff

There is one team that I’ve considered a sleeper. It doesn’t have many stars and it’s young enough to field a high school team. I’m talking about Ole Miss. I’ll pause for the homer calls and wise cracks. … Good? Great. The Rebels aren’t getting much respect and rightfully so. Last year, offenses salivated over facing Ole Miss’ defense. The Rebels gave up a league worst 35.2 points per game and allowed their opponents to score 95 percent of the time inside the red zone. The offense was a little better, ranking sixth in the SEC in total offense, but the Rebels managed just four wins. But when Ole Miss is overlooked, the Rebels seem to step up in the right way (just look at 2008). The Rebels are breaking in a new, young quarterback in West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti, but he’s proving to be a true leader for this team and is both a strong runner and has a very accurate arm. Ole Miss’ veteran offensive line and a backfield featuring bruiser Brandon Bolden and home run threat Jeff Scott should take some pressure off Brunetti during his first go in the SEC. The defense is rebuilding, which could be a good thing. Tenacious defensive end Kentrell Lockett is back after missing 2010 with a knee injury and the secondary has a fresh, more athletic look, starting with juco transfer Wesley Pendleton, who has been a pleasant surprise and is primed to start. Linebacker Joel Kight is taking on more of a leadership role with D.T. Shackelford out, and he recently told me he’s seen a hungrier defense at practice. This group understands it significantly underperformed last year and took last year’s talent for granted. The team is ready to rebound. The schedule isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible for the Rebels to win seven games and go bowling. A win over BYU would provide great momentum and if Ole Miss is 4-1 heading into the Alabama game (that means winning across the country at Fresno State), I think the Rebels can get to seven wins.

Take 2: Chris Low

Not a bad choice, Edward. I also think the Rebels can surprise some people if they can beat BYU in the opener and get off to a good start. But the team I’m going with is Tennessee. Matter of fact, let’s just call it homer day. You grew up in Oxford and picked the Rebels. I live in Knoxville, graduated from Tennessee and am picking the Vols. Seriously, though, Tennessee will be a lot more equipped physically and mentally to win some of those games they couldn’t finish in the fourth quarter last season. I still want to see how Tyler Bray is going to play against some of the better defenses in the league, but the Vols should be able to run the ball better. They’re deeper at running back, and that young (and talented) offensive line is a year older. Losing junior safety Janzen Jackson was a blow, no doubt, and the Vols are dangerously thin at defensive tackle. But watch sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith take off this season, and true freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt is another star in the making. Ultimately, I think the Vols are going to have to outscore a lot of teams, which is never easy in this league. But their nonconference schedule is easier than it was a year ago with Cincinnati replacing Oregon, and Tennessee plays five of its first six games at home. Eight regular-season wins isn’t out of the question if the Vols can protect their home turf that first half of the season. They didn’t beat anybody that counts in Derek Dooley’s first season and won the games they were supposed to win. Look for that to change in Year 2. The Vols will find a way to win at least one of their games against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The middle finger and the Iron Bowl

August, 4, 2011

Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae is poised to have a breakout season in 2011 on the field.

Off the field, he's already running a close race with Ole Miss defensive end Kentrell Lockett as being the best interview in the SEC.

Eguae, a third-year sophomore, is extremely intelligent and equally witty. Ask him about anything, and he always has something interesting to say. He doesn't hold back, either, which is why nobody should have been surprised by his response earlier this week when asked what he remembered most about the bus ride through Alabama's campus to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Iron Bowl last year.

Wearing a large grin, Eguae cracked, "Just some fingers that weren't supposed to be used by some very little kids and some old women."

It's a rivalry that never sleeps.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Superman lives.

Ole Miss senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, or "Superman" to his fans, is back and ready to exact his revenge on skittish quarterbacks around the SEC.

[+] EnlargeMississippi's Kentrell Lockett
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesKentrell Lockett suffered a knee injury last season, but coach Houston Nutt expects "him to be full go the first game."
Lockett, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering an ACL injury early last season, says he's fully healthy and ready for his last romp through the SEC.

Lockett skipped spring practice to recover more, but insists that he hasn't lost any quickness or mobility.

"It's a knee. A knee heals. Nothing happened to anything else," he said. "I still can tackle, still can run, still can jump, so I'm going to play ball."

Getting Lockett, who was a first-team All-SEC selection by the media, not only improves Ole Miss' defense, especially in the pass rush, but adds a crucial element in the leadership category -- an area that suffered a major blow this spring with the season-ending injury to linebacker D.T. Shackelford. Lockett's outgoing and charismatic personality instantly lifts his teammates up and having him on the field this fall will be even more beneficial for the Rebels.

"Means so much to get it back," coach Houston Nutt said. "He is a tremendous leader for us. He does so much with his teammates. He's a winner. I think he's just about there. According to our doctors, he's just about 100 percent, so we expect him to be full go the first game."

Lockett said he felt game-ready late last season when he shed this crutches, and with the season just around the corner, Lockett said his knee is better than it was before he suffered his injury.

"I've made tremendous strides," he said.

"I feel like I'm myself again. I feel like I can do anything now."

Ranking the SEC defensive ends

June, 20, 2011
We’ve divided the defensive line into two categories -- ends and tackles. The more rankings the merrier, right?

First, we'll start with the defensive ends. The pass-rushers in the SEC are scary. You have to feel for the league quarterbacks when you look at the enormous talent flying off the edge in this conference.

It wasn't easy ranking these backfield harassers, but here goes:

1. Devin Taylor, South Carolina, Jr.: Taylor was a first-team All-SEC performer last season after leading the Gamecocks’ defensive linemen with 46 tackles and 12 for loss. He was fourth in the league with 7.5 sacks. Taylor is one of the more athletic ends in the league and his pass-rushing ability is just plain scary.

[+] EnlargeArkansas' Jake Bequette
Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIREJake Bequette finished with 7.0 sacks for Arkansas last season.
2. Jake Bequette, Arkansas, Sr.: He returns as Arkansas’ sack leader, after registering seven in 2010. Bequette harassed quarterbacks all last year, totaling five quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. He’s the heart of Arkansas’ defense and was one of the more unheralded defensive ends in 2010. Most in Fayetteville think he could be even better this fall.

3. Kentrell Lockett, Ole Miss, Sr.: Ole Miss got great news this spring when the NCAA granted Lockett a sixth year of eligibility for the fall. Even though he missed spring while recovering from his knee injury, he is already the Rebels’ best pass-rusher and will be leaned on to be Ole Miss’ emotional leader since D.T. Shackelford is out for the season.

4. Sam Montgomery, LSU, So.: He hasn’t played a ton at LSU, but the feeling coming out of Baton Rouge is that he has the talent to be one of the top ends in the SEC. A knee injury shortened his first year, but he regains his starting spot and is on a mission to show just how disruptive he can be this fall.

5. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, Sr.: Ingram is someone who will frustrate opposing linemen with not only his tremendous skill but because he moves all over the place. He’s the inside man on passing downs, but he primarily plays outside. Still, he was third in the league and first for the Gamecocks with nine sacks last season.

6. Tenarius Wright, Arkansas, Jr.: Wright was Bequette’s partner in crime a year ago. He had 36 tackles, including eight for loss and six sacks in 2010. Oh, and he did all that without starting a game last season. Wright entered spring as the starter opposite Bequette and should make the Hogs’ pass rush one of the most intimidating in the league.

7. Corey Lemonier, Auburn, So.: Lemonier isn’t even a returning starter, but there is a ton of buzz surrounding him this offseason. He was one of the top end prospects coming out of high school a year ago and saw action in every game last fall, earning SEC All-Freshman honors. He’ll become more unpopular among SEC quarterbacks this fall.

8. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, Fr.: Clowney makes our list as a true freshman because he’s got all the tools to be an immediate star in this league. Some feel he can start right away in Columbia and with his freakish ability, he could make an instant impact on the league. The No. 1 high school player in the country has everything needed to be a pain for tackles, but handling the hype is his first hurdle.

9. Damion Square, Alabama, Jr.: Square is two years removed from a severe knee injury, but he came back strong in 2010. The athletic lineman played in 13 games, making six starts and accumulating 27 tackles and three sacks. In Alabama’s 3-4, he’ll line up as an end and could have the makings for a breakout year.

10. DeAngelo Tyson, Georgia, Sr.: He’s moving from noseguard back to his natural position at end and should do fine in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. He was a little too small to be in the middle, but has nice quickness to be a nuisance for offensive linemen in his new home.
Today we look at the big uglies that cause all the mayhem in the trenches. The SEC consistently spits out nasty defensive linemen and this year has more of an athletic feel.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a defensive line that would make any offensive line shutter. Plus, incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney comes in as the top high school player in the country and could be one of the best ends in the league this fall. Devin Taylor leads the group at end and was second on the team with 7.5 sacks as a sophomore. Helping on the outside is Melvin Ingram, who plays inside on passing downs, and led South Carolina with nine sacks a year ago. Senior Travian Robertson, who came off injury to get four sacks last year, is solid in the middle as well.

[+] EnlargeDevin Taylor
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDevin Taylor made a habit of harassing quarterbacks last season.
2. Arkansas: The Razorbacks might have the best pass-rushing group Arkansas has seen in a while. Things revolve around defensive end Jake Bequette, who was one of the more unheralded players in the league last year, despite having seven sacks. On the other side of the line is Tenarius Wright, who will make up the second part of a formidable outside duo in Fayetteville with his speed and athleticism. In the middle, there are plenty of options. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones missed spring due to injury, but will be back this fall and there’s a wealth of depth behind them. Junior college transfer Robert Thomas might be the best and most athletic option in the middle is primed to break out.

3. LSU: There are some questions about the experience the Tigers bring back, but no one will question the talent and athleticism in Baton Rouge. Sam Montgomery is back at defensive end, after suffering a serious knee injury. He hasn’t played much, but the coaches believe he’s got what it takes to be a top end in this league. Kendrick Adams started 11 games last year at end, while Lavar Edwards filled in for Montgomery. Ego Ferguson redshirted last year, but should get a ton of playing time in the middle this fall. He is already one of the most athletic tackles in the SEC. Don’t forget about five-star early enrollee Anthony Johnson, who made very strong impressions on his coaches this spring and will be in the rotation inside.

4. Florida: This unit was criticized for lacking toughness last season, but will be full of that and even more athleticism in 2011. Jaye Howard is returning from spring ankle surgery and is already considered a top defensive tackle prospect in next year’s NFL draft. Alongside him are youngsters Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley. Floyd was the most consistent of the much-ballyhooed freshman class last fall, while Easley struggled with attitude problems. Easley has rebounded and both excelled this spring. Omar Hunter is finally healthy and will share time with Floyd at noseguard and senior William Green will occupy an end spot. This group is even better when Ronald Powell lines up at end in the 4-3.

5. Alabama: On paper, there are a few questions with this group, but it’s hard to drop Alabama very far on this list. The 3-4 scheme will have senior Josh Chapman at noseguard. Chapman started 12 games in the middle last fall, totaling 31 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Damion Square will compete for time on the outside, and since returning from his ACL injury, he’s gained a lot more playing confidence and could be a budding star in the league. Junior college transfers Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams will compete for time on the line as well, while sophomore Ed Stinson will stay at end after starting last season at Jack linebacker.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have arguably the top returning tackle tandem in the SEC. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are the behemoths in the middle who combined for 53 tackles, 13 for loss and five sacks last year. Finding any sort of inside running game against Mississippi State will be extremely tough. Developing a pass-rusher is the next step for the Bulldogs’ staff. Sean Ferguson occupies one side, but the other is still up for grabs. Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell battled for the spot this spring, but neither has really pushed ahead.

7. Georgia: There is a lot of talent in Athens, but there could be a lot of movement on the line. JUCO transfer John Jenkins is the big -- and we mean big -- name up front and he’s yet to play a down in the SEC. He arrives with a ton of hype, but is perfect at noseguard in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. DeAngelo Tyson moves to his natural position outside after playing noseguard last year. Kwame Geathers played in the middle this spring, but could be usurped for Jenkins this fall and move outside. Abry Jones is still maturing after moving to end and recording 34 tackles including 3.5 for loss last season and had a 16-tackle performance against Georgia Tech.

8. Auburn: The Tigers must replace three starters this season. Inside, Auburn is talented but inexperienced with Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker having 13 combined tackles from a year ago. There’s less concern on the outside with lone returning starter Nosa Eguae on one side and sophomore Corey Lemonier on the other. Eguae might have more experience with 11 starts, but Lemonier appears to be more athletic and should be near the top of the defensive end pool this year. After that, the Tigers are young across the board.

9. Tennessee: The Volunteers’ line will grow with senior Malik Jackson running things in the middle. He had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago and some think he’ll be even better this fall. A lot will also be expected from incoming JUCO transfer Maurice Couch. He’s pretty athletic at 6-foot-4, 327 pounds and he’ll be greatly needed, considering the dismissal of Montori Hughes. Jacques Smith has All-SEC potential and will hold one of the end spots. After that, Tennessee has some young, but encouragingly talented bodies at each position.

10. Ole Miss: Some of the best news of the spring coming out of Oxford was the return of Kentrell Lockett at defensive end. Lockett was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will not only be the Rebels’ top lineman but possibly their best defensive player. After that, the questions roll in with four tackles gone and youth coming in. Tackle Justin Smith has yet to really emerge as the All-SEC talent he was expected to be and Ole Miss is smaller up front. JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena could add some size in the middle. Gerald Rivers returns to get time at end, but has played in just 15 career games in two years.

11. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a strength for the Commodores last year until injuries hit. Still, Vanderbilt returns three starters. Experience is there, but this unit has to continue to improve, especially in the pass-rushing department where the Commodores had just 20 sacks in 2010. Rob Lohr led Vanderbilt with four sacks a year ago and had 35 tackles. T.J. Greenstone is coming off of injury and will line up inside. Tim Fugger was one of the Commodores' most consistent players at end, playing in every game and registering three sacks and four forced fumbles.

12. Kentucky: End Collins Ukwu and tackle Luke McDermott return with the most experience on Kentucky’s line. Ukwu improved not only on the field but in the weight room this spring and is expected to be a more consistent pass-rusher. McDermott is a walk-on currently ahead of Donte Rumph, who has the talent to be one of Kentucky’s top defenders, but has yet to fully buy in to the program. The coaches are also waiting for tackle Mister Cobble to finally break out of his funk and be a regular contributor. The rest of Kentucky’s linemen have some developing to do and are inexperienced.
Fellow SEC blogger Chris Low started things off by discussing the players in the SEC’s Eastern division with the most to prove, so it’s time to put some pressure on some guys out in the West.

Here are my five players who have to show us more this fall:

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Tyler Kaufman/Icon SMISolid play from Jordan Jefferson could be all LSU needs to make a national title run.
QB Jordan Jefferson, LSU: Sure, Jefferson led the Tigers to an 11-win season, but did you see the numbers he (didn't) put up? Jefferson passed for 1,411 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010 and ended the year with a passing efficiency of 114.7. This spring, new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe made it his goal to transform the senior's passing technique and presence in the pocket. Things worked out well, with coach Less Miles calling this the best spring Jefferson has had. The next step is for him to show what he learned this spring when it counts this fall. This is Jefferson's last go-round with the Tigers and this team has the talent to compete for a national title. The Tigers go the way Jefferson goes and if he should falter, Miles might not hesitate to put in junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger in, who probably has the most skill of any of LSU's quarterbacks.

RB Trent Richardson, Alabama: Yes, one of the country's most complete backs still has to show us something. He has the power and speed to be a stud now that this is his backfield, but is he truly ready to be the guy in Tuscaloosa? On paper, it would appear so, but things change when the lights go on and the pressure mounts. Not to mention, he's replacing a Heisman Trophy winner. Alabama will be breaking in a new, young quarterback this fall -- whether it's AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims -- so the Tide's offense will be leaning heavily on Richardson. Alabama has one of the top teams in the nation and Richardson will be a key component in the Tide's run to multiple championships.

WR Russell Shepard, LSU: Shepard has all the ability to be quite the playmaker for the Tigers. He was second on the team with 33 receptions a year ago, but only managed 254 yards and a touchdown. He's better than that. With Terrance Toliver gone, the junior-to-be will be called upon to really step up alongside Rueben Randle. We've been waiting to see Russell’s true athleticism and he’s confident people will this fall. It’s time for him to take his game to another level.

DE Kentrell Lockett, Ole Miss: Lockett missed most of last season after suffering an ACL injury in the third game. Fortunately for he and the Rebels, he was granted a sixth year of eligibility and should be back to full health this fall. But with linebacker and team leader D.T. Shackelford suffering a season-ending ACL injury this spring, Lockett enters the fall with new responsibilities. Not only does Lockett have to provide a much-needed presence on an unproven defensive line but he has to become the emotional leader this team desperately needs. This defense has a ton of questions and having a guy like Lockett step up on the field and in the locker room will provide some juice for the unit.

WR Chad Bumphis, Mississippi State: Bumphis has led the Bulldogs in receiving the past two seasons and is arguably the team's best playmaker at receiver. However, Bumphis has the ability to play all over the field, kind of like Percy Harvin did at Florida, but hasn’t reached his potential. As the go-to guy, he has just 1,009 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in two seasons and has rushed for 204 yards and one score. Bumphis is a player that should be getting the ball as much as possible and in as many different situations as possible. He's got the speed and athleticism to really frustrate defenses, but we've yet to see him really turn the corner. He can be an elite weapon in this offense and could be the difference in making this one of the more potent offenses in the SEC.
The moment outside linebacker D.T. Shackelford’s injury proved to be season-threatening, distress signals circulated throughout Ole Miss’s football team.

Offensive coordinator David Lee said the severity of Shackelford’s knee injury, which is expected to sideline him for his senior season, felt like a shot to the figurative heart of the football program.

Not only was he an outstanding linebacker -- and arguably the Rebels’ best player -- he was a tremendous leader. On a team lacking a ton of seniors, losing an emotional leader like Shackelford is devastating.

However, in the weeks since Shackelford’s freak ACL tear, coach Houston Nutt has found some potential candidates who could step into Shackelford’s leadership role.

Right now, Nutt is relying on veteran defensive ends Wayne Dorsey and Jason Jones. Dorsey, a senior, enrolled at Ole Miss last January and played in nine games in 2010, starting four.

Jones, a junior, played in 12 games last season, starting four.

[+] EnlargeKentrell Lockett
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireSenior defensive end Kentrell Lockett is a strong candidate to fill the leadership void left after D.T. Shackelford's injury.
Neither is a household name for the Rebels, but Nutt said he saw both step up in place of Shackelford shortly after he went down.

“They showed real signs [of becoming team leaders],” Nutt said.

Sophomore Mike Marry, who worked some in Shackelford’s spot after he went down this spring, also took on a leadership role for the team during that latter parts of spring practice, Nutt said.

One guy who could provide that leadership spark this fall is senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett. Lockett, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after tearing his ACL last fall, missed all of spring practice, but is someone Nutt said he’s really hoping steps up soon.

It shouldn’t be hard for Lockett to grab the attention of his teammates. He’s the most experienced guy on Ole Miss’ roster and has great locker-room presence.

While each of these players could become dynamic leaders for this team, finding someone with the same electricity Shackelford possessed seems like a long shot.

“D.T. just took complete ownership,” Nutt said. “It was just unbelievable the way he went about things.”

That won’t easy to replace.

As for finding someone to fill his playing shoes, besides a little work from Marry, the Rebels also rotated sophomore Clarence Jackson and redshirt freshman Ralph Wilson in at Shackelford’s position this spring.

The player to keep an eye on this fall will be incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top recruit out of the state of Mississippi in 2010. He accumulated 149 tackles and two interceptions as a high school senior and despite playing inside linebacker he should be able to move outside.

Johnson has the skill to come in and immediately contribute, but developing his leadership qualities will be the next step in his maturation process.

Exiting the spring: Ole Miss

April, 15, 2011
Spring game

Questions answered: The Rebels’ running game should be solid this fall. Work horse Brandon Bolden didn’t miss a beat before suffering an ankle injury during one of the scrimmages. The injury doesn’t seem to be serious, which is a good sign. He’s gotten some help from speedster Jeff Scott and Enrique Davis. Davis appears to be having his best spring. The offensive line will also be one of Ole Miss’ strengths. With All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, the Rebels return seven players that started two or more games each on the offensive line last year.

Questions unanswered: Ole Miss entered spring with a massive quarterback battle and will end it that way. With senior Nathan Stanley abruptly leaving the program, Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti will look to put on a show in Saturday’s spring game. Mackey made the most progress, taking the lead at the position, but word out of Oxford is that Brunetti might have the best set of tools, but has yet to be granted a waiver by the NCAA to be eligible to play this fall after transferring from West Virginia in January. Stoudt might not have the speed, but he could have the best arm. The wide receiver position still seems to be very inconsistent. Playmakers haven’t been found, which doesn’t help the inexperience at quarterback. Junior Melvin Harris has the most experience, but even he has been shaky at times. The secondary is still a concern for the Rebels as well. Only three cornerbacks entered spring with experience, but Marcus Temple missed all of spring after hernia surgery.

Spring stars: Mackey really impressed this spring. The former junior college standout has great wheels for a quarterback, but has also shown tremendous arm strength. He’s overcoming a speech impediment to become a real leader for the Rebels. Corner Wesley Pendleton also came from the JUCO ranks and while he’s still pretty raw, he’s had a solid spring. He’s got great speed and athleticism, which helps him overcome some of his coverage mistakes. Fellow corner Charles Sawyer has also made strong improvements after being benched earlier in the spring. Linebacker Mike Marry had a pretty successful spring for the Rebels.

Of note: The most crushing news of the spring came when linebacker -- and defensive leader -- D.T. Shackelford suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee this spring. He’s likely done for the year, leaving a gigantic hole on Ole Miss’ team. … Defensive end Kentrell Lockett (knee) was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and while he didn’t practice this spring he will be back this fall. … Junior linebacker Joel Kight underwent surgery to repair a meniscus tear, but should be fine for the fall. ... Cornerback Julian Whitehead left the team before spring for personal issues. … Offensive lineman Michael Brown missed spring with a disc issue in his back. … Defensive end Gerald Rivers is out with a knee injury.

Another tough blow for Ole Miss

April, 12, 2011
A little more than a week ago, they were rejoicing at Ole Miss after receiving the news that senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett had been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

[+] EnlargeD.T. Shackelford
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMississippi will have a difficult time replacing linebacker D.T. Shackelford, who suffered a knee injury in practice.
Much more somber news arrived Tuesday when MRI results revealed that junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Monday's practice. He will have surgery in the next two weeks, and Ole Miss officials are saying his recovery time will last anywhere from six to eight months.

In other words, the Rebels will likely be without Shackelford for all of next season.

That's a blow in so many different ways for the Rebels. From a production standpoint, he was easily Ole Miss' best linebacker, a guy they could move around and get production out of no matter where he lined up. He was also one of the better pass-rushers on the team and started five games at defensive end last season.

Having Shackelford and Lockett on the field together would have opened up a lot of possibilities for Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Both are big-time pass-rushers, and both have a knack for making big plays.

What's more, having them both on field together was exactly the kind of leadership the Rebels needed on defense after going through the struggles they did a year ago on that side of the ball.

Shackelford was the heartbeat of Ole Miss' team in a lot of ways. He set the tone with his work ethic, was also a vocal leader and saw to it that everybody was on the same page.

Had you asked Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt entering the spring who was the guy he could least afford to lose on this team to injury, I guarantee you that Shackelford would have been one of the first or second names to come out of his mouth.

Plus, the Rebels were already losing two senior starters at linebacker in Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker.

Sophomore middle linebacker Mike Marry and junior strong side linebacker Joel Kight have both had good springs. But the weakside spot is wide open, meaning incoming freshman C.J. Johnson will get every opportunity to show what he can do. Johnson was one of the Rebels' most prized signees in this class.
It’s difficult to imagine anybody in the SEC having a better spring this year than Ole Miss’ Kentrell Lockett.

And get this: Lockett isn’t even practicing. He’s rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee that cost him most of what he feared might be his final season at Ole Miss.

But that all changed last Thursday when Ole Miss officials received word that Lockett had been awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

“I don’t know what to compare it to when they told me,” said Lockett, one of the more complete defensive ends in the SEC and one of the Rebels’ strongest leaders.

[+] EnlargeKentrell Lockett
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireKentrell Lockett plans to make the most of his final season at Ole Miss.
“I’d been waiting all that time just to hear a couple of words. The uncertainty was killing me. And just to finally hear that I was going to get a chance to play at Ole Miss again was one of those feelings you can’t explain.

“I just started crying, and I’m man enough to admit it. The big thing is that I can finally go to sleep now.”

Lockett injured his knee in the Rebels’ fourth game last season. He’d already used up his redshirt year as a freshman in 2006 when a shoulder issue kept him from getting onto the field.

Ole Miss officials immediately told him that they would file a waiver with the NCAA to get the sixth year, but they also made it clear that there weren’t any guarantees.

Complicating matters for Lockett was that he was coming off a torn ACL and in no shape physically to work out for NFL clubs and take his shot at pro football.

So he took his chances with the NCAA and spent the past several months in what he says was football purgatory.

“You just start to wonder about all kinds of things,” Lockett said. “At that point, any news is better than no news. I started to wonder what my next move was going to be if the ruling didn’t go my way. You go back and forth, and it’s every day, man.

“I know I wasn’t myself, and I apologize to all the people around me for that. I know they wondered if they were ever going to get the old Kentrell back. Well, now that that burden has been lifted, he’s back.”

The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Lockett isn’t sure if he would have put his name into the NFL supplemental draft this summer or just worked out all season and taken his chances in next year’s regular draft.

“The good thing is that I don’t have to think about that now,” he said. “It’s all about getting this knee back to 100 percent and then getting back onto that field and doing whatever I can to get our defense back to where it needs to be.”

The Rebels needed Lockett back in the worst way. They were already losing four senior defensive tackles and didn’t have any proven pass-rushers returning at the end position. Lockett had five sacks during the 2009 season.

“It’s hard when you feel like your life’s on pause, and that’s what it felt like,” Lockett said. “Everything had come to a standstill.

“But, now, it’s almost like I have a new football life, and I’m going to make the best of it.”
In a lot of cases, the defensive line is what has set the SEC apart over the years. When you’re strong up front defensively, you’ve always got a chance.

Who’s the strongest in the SEC this season? Here goes:

[+] EnlargePowe
Icon SMIJerrell Powe is arguably the best interior D-lineman in the SEC.
1. Ole Miss: For the second season in a row, the Rebels will be as formidable as anybody up front defensively. Senior tackle Jerrell Powe is perhaps the best interior defensive lineman in the league, and senior end Kentrell Lockett is one of the better pass-rushers. Between them, Powe and Lockett had 22 tackles for loss last season. It’s also a deep and experienced defensive line, especially at tackle, and the Rebels added a newcomer at end, junior college transfer Wayne Dorsey, who should be a factor right away.

2. Alabama: Players leave to go to the NFL, and Alabama slides in another great one right behind them. Welcome to Nick Saban’s recruiting machine. Junior end Marcell Dareus was the star of the BCS National Championship Game last season and is one of the top NFL draft prospects in the league. He’ll have to wait and see if anything comes of his trip to Miami that’s being investigated by the NCAA, but there’s no shortage of talent. Kerry Murphy may be the next star in the making and could potentially play nose or end in the Tide's scheme.

3. South Carolina: Assistant head coach for the defense Ellis Johnson would like to have a little more depth, but if everybody holds up health-wise, the Gamecocks will be plenty imposing up front defensively. It starts with senior end Cliff Matthews, who’s one of the most complete defensive linemen in the SEC. He had 10 tackles for loss, including seven sacks last season. Senior Ladi Ajiboye and junior Travian Robertson anchor the middle of the line, and both are explosive and powerful.

4. Mississippi State: As the Bulldogs attempt to make their move in Season No. 2 under Dan Mullen, the strength of their football team will be their defensive line. Senior Pernell McPhee is an All-SEC performer at end and should be even better his second time around in the league. Sophomore tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox have both bulked up to the 300-pound range after solid freshman seasons, and the Bulldogs brought in massive junior college tackle James Carmon (6-7, 345 pounds) this spring.

5. Florida: The Florida defensive linemen themselves will tell you that there aren’t any superstars in this group, but there are five seniors returning, not to mention the most talented freshman defensive line class in the country. Senior captain Justin Trattou returns full time to end after playing inside on passing situations last season. He’s healthy, too, after tearing the biceps tendon in his left arm last season. Sophomore tackle Omar Hunter is just waiting to break out, and freshmen Ronald Powell at end and Sharrif Floyd at tackle won’t have to wait long to make an impact.

6. LSU: Some new faces will be counted on to play key roles for the Tigers up front this season, but a veteran remains the centerpiece of this defensive line. Senior tackle Drake Nevis rates up there with Jerrell Powe as one of the top interior linemen in this league. The Tigers are also eager to see what redshirt freshman end Sam Montgomery and redshirt freshman tackle Michael Brockers can do after big springs. Senior Pep Levingston is moving inside to tackle after starting 10 games last season at end. One thing the Tigers would like to generate more of is sacks. They only had 21 last season, which was tied for eighth in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeWalker
AP Photo/John RaouxChris Walker led the Vols with six sacks last season.
7. Tennessee: The Vols have excellent depth at the end positions, starting with senior Chris Walker, who led the team with six sacks last season. Seniors Ben Martin and Gerald Williams also return at end, while former Southern California end Malik Jackson will be eligible to play this season after transferring from the Trojans. Tennessee doesn’t have much depth inside, but Montori Hughes and Marlon Walls both had solid freshman seasons. The Vols can’t afford for either, though, to go down with an injury.

8. Georgia: With the Bulldogs switching to a 3-4 defense under first-year coordinator Todd Grantham, some guys will be playing new positions. One of the keys will be junior DeAngelo Tyson at the nose and establishing some depth behind him. Grantham wants to get to a point where he has a steady rotation up front, but that may take another recruiting class or so. Senior Demarcus Dobbs is the starter at one end, while sophomore Abry Jones impressed Grantham in the spring at the other end spot.

9. Auburn: The Tigers lost their top playmaker up front last season in Antonio Coleman and are hopeful senior Antoine Carter can step in and be that guy this season at end. The first thing Auburn has to do if it’s going be a better defense this season is be stingier against the run. Senior Mike Blanc returns at one tackle, and the Tigers are also counting on a big season from junior tackle Nick Fairley, who showed flashes a year ago. Another guy to watch is redshirt freshman end Nosa Eguae, who would have played last season had it not been for a stress fracture in his left foot.

10. Arkansas: The Hogs will be better on defense this season. So says Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, and they’ll need to be better if they’re going to make a run in the Western Division race. The depth should be better, although losing Malcolm Sheppard in the middle is a killer. Junior end Jake Bequette had 5.5 sacks last season and is one of those guys who could really blossom this season. Junior Zach Stadther returns at one tackle. Sophomore Tenarius Wright missed the spring with a foot injury, but will also be a key at the other end position.

11. Kentucky: The big blow for the Wildcats was losing tackle Corey Peters, who was dominant a year ago and made everybody around him that much better. Replacing him will be a chore, but Kentucky hopes Mark Crawford can have a breakout season inside after coming over from junior college last year. Speaking of breakout seasons, senior end DeQuin Evans emerged as one of the most productive pass-rushers in the league last season, his first in the SEC after coming over from junior college. He finished with 12.5 tackles for loss, including six sacks.

12. Vanderbilt: The bad news is that senior tackle Adam Smotherman tore his ACL early in spring practice. The good news is that he’s recovering quicker than anybody could have imagined and has a chance to be back for at least part of the season. The Commodores need Smotherman and T.J. Greenstone there in the middle, especially after losing three key senior defensive linemen to graduation. It was a struggle for Vanderbilt up front defensively in the fourth quarter last season. That will again be the challenge in 2010.