NCF Nation: Laquon Treadwell

ATLANTA -- It was by no means a pretty win, but it was a win nonetheless for No. 18 Ole Miss. In a game that featured eight Ole Miss false starts and seven total interceptions (a record for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game), the Rebels trudged their way to a sloppy 35-13 win over Boise State inside the Georgia Dome. It most be noted that 28 of those Ole Miss points came in the fourth quarter.

Momentum awkwardly traveled back and forth between the teams before Ole Miss sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell put the Rebels ahead by eight with a beastly 14-yard touchdown grab with 12:26 remaining in the fourth quarter.

1. Finding that menacing Megaquon

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Quarterback Bo Wallace, who was having one of his more forgettable performances to this point, saw the obvious mismatch with the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Treadwell facing Boise State cornerback Cleshawn Page (5-9, 178) to his left. Without hesitation, Wallace looked to his left and zipped a pass to where only a leaping Treadwell could get it. The sophomore caught the pass at the 2 and tumbled into the end zone to give the Rebels a 14-6 lead.

Offensive coordinator Dan Werner: "We felt like if we could get him singled up, which they weren't letting that happen very often, but if we did, we were going to audible and run the fade. Bo did a nice job; he saw that they were bringing the free safety, so we had one-on-one coverage and he just threw it up high and let Laquon make a play."

Treadwell: "Man-to-man, throw it up. That's really all I saw. I knew he was pressing. He tried to jump jam, but he kinda jumped offside. After he did that, I knew he was beat, and I was just waiting for Bo to throw the ball, really."

2. Bouncing Adeboyejo

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Not to be outdone a couple minutes later was fellow sophomore receiver Quincy Adeboyejo, who officially put the game away with a springy 31-yard touchdown catch. Adeboyejo, whose touchdown was set up by a fantastic interception by safety Tony Conner two plays earlier, caught a bullet of a pass from Wallace at Boise's 10-yard line before bouncing off two defenders and into the end zone to make it 21-6.

Treadwell: "I think that broke Quincy out of his shell. Quincy's a great player and we know he can play. It's just that he's inconsistent, but now I think that broke him out of his shell, really, and he should have a great season. I think that really helped the offense."

3. Can't catch Cody Core

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So this is what Ole Miss' offense was supposed to look like, huh? An offensive line that struggled all night (did I mention those eight false starts?) held its ground for the second Wallace needed to find Core sprinting through the middle of the field. Core caught the ball in space and was gone.

Wallace: "It was just a vertical route. We swung the backs so maybe the husky would jump out and give us leverage, and they did, so we got it. It's something that we ran in camp that when we first put it in, it was tough on our defense. We felt like that would be a good play for us."

Core: "I saw the field open and I trusted my teammates and just cut loose. I actually didn't [see the linebacker jump out], but I knew the cornerback was behind me so if I cut over to the other side, it would be for the field."

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
Now that we've checked out the quarterbacks I think could reach 3,000 passing yards and the guys who could hit 1,000 yards rushing, it's time to see what this season's crop of receivers is all about.

Who can reach the 1,000-yard club?

Last season, four receivers made it to the 1,000-yard club -- Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews (1,477 yards), Texas A&M's Mike Evans (1,394 yards) and LSU's Jarvis Landry (1,193 yards) and Odell Beckham Jr. (1,152 yards). All four of those guys are gone. Actually, the SEC lost eight of its top 10 receivers from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsLaquon Treadwell scored five receiving touchdowns in his freshman season at Ole Miss.
There are still some talented pass-catchers lurking in the league, so I'm going to go with three 1,000-yard receivers. Here are the guys I think have the best chance of getting to that number (in order):

1. Amari Cooper, Alabama: One of the nation's best receivers, Cooper wasn't at his best and wasn't 100 percent healthy last season, but he still managed 736 receiving yards. He's playing at a faster level now and is tougher, which means he'll have no trouble crossing the 1,000-yard mark this fall.

2. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: He learned a ton from Donte Moncrief and still caught more passes than him in 2013. Treadwell is a physical specimen and is already the most athletic person when he steps out on the field. As the No. 1 guy in Oxford, he'll easily surpass the 608 yards he had last season.

3. Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: He was so close to 1,000 yards and probably would have made it into triple digits if he didn't have to work with multiple quarterbacks all season. Lewis is still developing his game, but he's the perfect playmaker for Mississippi State's spread offense.

4. Sammie Coates, Auburn: Talk about coming out of nowhere. Coates was a real unknown before last season and somehow wound up with 902 yards. He's a deep threat and someone who isn't afraid to make plays over the middle. Getting pushed more by other players might cut into his numbers, though.

5. Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia: If Mitchell is healthy, he's one of the most athletic and talented receivers that this league has to offer. A knee injury cost him just about all of his 2013 season, and he's already have complications with his knee this fall. But if he's out there and ready to go, he'll be fun to watch.

6. Marquez North, Tennessee: In a struggling passing game, North finished the 2013 season with 496 yards. He's so much better than that, and he's playing like it this fall. He's added some needed weight and is understanding his role more and running his routes better.

7. Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Another player who basically saw the 2013 season from the sideline, don't sleep on Seals-Jones. He was one of the nation's best recruits a couple of years ago and when he's at full speed, Seals-Jones can really fly. He'll make tons of plays inside and out.

8. D'haquille Williams, Auburn: The junior college transfer could be really special. He has all the talent to make a ton of plays in such a wide open offense. Williams will push Coates all season for the role as the Tigers' No. 1 target.

9. Shaq Roland, South Carolina: Dealing with the hype that came with him out of high school hasn't been easy, but the thought out of Columbia is that this could be a big season for Roland. He can stretch the field and is great in space.

SEC's Super Sophomores in 2014

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
11:45
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Everybody’s talking about the top players, top quarterbacks, even the top newcomers as we count down the days to the start of the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsAfter rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman, what does Arkansas' Alex Collins have in store for his sophomore season?
 What about the top true sophomores?

The SEC is absolutely loaded in the department. Below, we list the 10 best. We’ll call them the Super Sophomores, and these are true second-year players out of high school, meaning junior college transfers, sophomores who redshirted their first season or sophomores who went to prep school for a year after leaving high school aren’t eligible.

Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:

Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record for producing marquee running backs speaks for itself, and the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Collins has the tools to be the next great one. He became the 10th true freshman in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards last season (1,026) and was named SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. Even as a freshman, Collins proved to be a pounder and did some of his best work in the fourth quarter.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: If there’s a better all-around cornerback in college football, good luck finding him. The 5-11, 194-pound Hargreaves started the final 10 games last season for the Gators and earned third-team All-American honors by The Associated Press. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions as a freshman. Beware if you throw the ball in his direction.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: When have the Crimson Tide not had two premier running backs under Nick Saban? This season, it will be T.J. Yeldon and Henry sharing most of the carries. And as good as Yeldon is, the 6-3, 241-pound Henry is the more physically imposing of the two. He has a better feel now for everything a back is responsible for in Alabama’s offense, and as we saw in the Sugar Bowl last season, he is a lightning-fast locomotive with the ball in his hands.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Saban hasn’t had a tight end at Alabama as talented as the 6-6, 240-pound Howard, who showed only flashes of how good he could be a year ago. But this season, it’s on. He has improved as a blocker, and with so many talented skill players around him, he will be a prime target in Alabama’s offense. He has the speed to get down the middle and make plays and will be a real weapon in both the play-action game and in the red zone.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner/Icon SMIExpect Chris Jones to be a force in the middle of Mississippi State's defense this season.
 Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: There are talented young defensive linemen just about everywhere you look in the SEC, and the 6-5, 308-pound Jones doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. He says he’s still an end at heart, and the scary thing is that he’s athletic enough to still move out there and be effective. But where he’ll wreak the most havoc is from a tackle position. He’s slimmed down from the 315 pounds he played at last season and will be an absolute beast in the middle of that Mississippi State defense.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: The No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with the Rebels, Nkemdiche started in 10 games last season, six at end and four at tackle. He’s now settled in at tackle and is down to 285 pounds after arriving closer to 300. He’s powerful enough to overwhelm blockers and has the explosiveness to blow by them. He finished with eight tackles for loss a year ago, and his big-play numbers are only going to go up as a sophomore.

A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s most disruptive defensive lineman last season, and one of the SEC’s most disruptive defensive linemen, was just a freshman. The 6-4, 320-pound Robinson is poised for a huge sophomore season after leading Alabama with 5.5 sacks a year ago. He started in only two games last season, but can play end or nose in the Tide’s base 3-4 set and move inside to tackle when they go to four down linemen.

Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Even with a late start, Robinson developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the SEC last season. He didn’t become eligible until the week of the opener, but it was obvious to everybody that the 6-3, 177-pound Pompano Beach, Florida, product had the range, wingspan and instincts to be a lockdown corner. He shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the win over the Aggies, and his best football is yet to come.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: Now pushing 230 pounds, the 6-2 Treadwell is even more physically imposing for his second tour through the SEC, and all he did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches, the second most in school history. He’ll move from the slot to the outside receiver position this season, and his combination of size, hands and speed makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the league.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze says very matter of factly that the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil was as gifted an offensive tackle as he’s ever seen coming out of high school, and Tunsil has certainly lived up to that billing. He returns as the Rebels’ left tackle after starting nine games there a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. He allowed just one sack all last season.

Five who just missed the cut:

Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas

Marquez North, WR, Tennessee

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
HOOVER, Ala. -- Evan Engram might have been one the most underrated true freshman in the SEC last season. Of course it didn’t help that he rolled his ankle and missed five games, and when he did return for the Music City Bowl he simply wasn’t 100 percent. But when he was on the field and healthy, he was the type of pass-catching threat that makes defenses cringe. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he had the build of a tight end and the athleticism of a receiver. On a team with Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell, he had 20 receptions and three touchdowns in seven games before being sidelined.

[+] EnlargeEvan Engram
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsTight end Evan Engram had 20 receptions and three TDs in seven games for Ole Miss last season.
Coach Hugh Freeze’s eyes lit up when asked about Engram at SEC media days this month. The guru of the Rebels’ offense couldn’t hide his enthusiasm; he couldn’t wait to see his promising tight end back on the football field this season. When Engram went out last season, Freeze had to turn to two walk-ons at the position. Though he “loved having them” and praised their effort, they were no replacement for Engram. It got to the point that from Week 8 on, Ole Miss released its pregame depth chart with three receivers, two running backs and no tight ends.

“I cannot overstate it,” Freeze said of Engram’s absence. “We changed last year when he went out. We were not the same.”

Early on against Vanderbilt, Texas, Auburn and Texas A&M, Ole Miss averaged 466 yards and 35.75 points per game. Week 7 against LSU -- the same game Engram rolled his ankle in the second half -- the Rebels racked up 525 yards and 27 points in a dramatic upset victory. But down the stretch in losses against Missouri and Mississippi State, the offense faltered, failing to score more than 10 points in either game. Without Engram, there was no one to work the middle of the field and keep the safeties honest. Quarterback Bo Wallace began forcing the ball and threw six interceptions in November alone as the Rebs limped to an 8-5 finish.

A healthy Engram should mean greater consistency for Ole Miss in 2014. He and fellow freshman Treadwell are a year wiser, and Wallace’s arm is finally back to 100 percent after never fully rehabilitating from shoulder surgery prior to last season. Moncrief might be off to the NFL now, but there is plenty to like about the depth of the receiving corps, especially 6-foot-3 sophomore Quincy Abedoyejio, whom Wallace said is the best route-runner and the fastest receiver of the bunch.

Even though the receivers deserve their fair share of acclaim, don’t sleep on Engram. He might not be a household name yet, but to the people who matter most he’s held in high esteem. As junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said, “I think it will be key to keep him healthy.”

“Evan is a little faster than people give him credit for, I think,” Johnson added. “He’s tough, really long, really athletic, has good hands. He can really cause some problems in the slot.

“Having Evan and the skill set he has is pretty special.”

Asked in May what Engram brings to the table, offensive coordinator Dan Werner said simply, “The fact that he’s almost a wide receiver.”

“He’s got the talent of a wide receiver, but he’s more physical so he can play inside. Now we’re getting him matched up on linebacker and safeties a bunch. That’s just a total mismatch.”

But it’s not just Engram who is poised to wreak havoc on SEC defenses this season. The entire league seems to be strong at tight end. When the John Mackey Award watch list came out last month, Engram and six other SEC players were on it: Rory Anderson, Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard, Malcolm Johnson, Jay Rome and C.J. Uzomah. The seven total selections (compared to five the year before) were more than any other conference in college football.

Top SEC players: Nos. 20-16

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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Edward kicked off our countdown of the SEC's best 25 players with selections 25-21 on Monday.

Keep in mind there's always some projection in these lists after reaching out to coaches, scouts and other media members for their input. The goal is to pinpoint who we think will be the 25 best players for the 2014 season, meaning it's not merely a list of the 25 returning players who've been the best players in the league to this point.

Today, we look at selections 20-16:

20. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a freshman was lead Ole Miss with 72 catches and earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors from the coaches. He's added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, and at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, will be even tougher to defend with his physicality, sure hands and run-after-the-catch ability. With Donte Moncrief leaving early for the NFL, Treadwell is moving from slot receiver to the Rebels' outside receiver spot and will get plenty of chances for big plays.

19: Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: The Michael Sam-Kony Ealy tandem at defensive end last season was ultra-productive, but go back and look at the havoc the 6-3, 260-pound Golden caused despite playing only 40 percent of the snaps. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks, and steps up this season as a senior as the Tigers' top finisher off the edge. Missouri has produced its share of talented defensive linemen under Gary Pinkel, and Golden is poised to join that fraternity.

18. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said Nkemdiche is a tackle all the way for the Rebels, although he's certainly athletic enough to play outside in certain situations. He plans to play at 285 pounds this season after playing closer to 300 as a freshman. He's also healthy after racking up eight tackles for loss last season and eager to prove that he can be as dominant as any interior defensive lineman in this league and maybe the country.

17. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Some of the best news for the 5-9, 223-pound Davis is that the Gamecocks are deep at running back, so they'll be able to keep him fresh. He was a dynamo last season in his first full season as a starter and finished with 1,183 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and caught 34 passes a year ago. He turns missed tackles into touchdowns and had two scoring runs of more than 50 yards last season.

16. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: Even though Derrick Henry has generated plenty of buzz over the way he played in the bowl game last season, the 6-2, 218-pound Yeldon is still the Crimson Tide's feature back. He'll be gunning for his third straight 1,000-yard season in 2014 and has averaged at least 6 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons. Yeldon led the SEC in rushing in league games last season with an average of 123.5 yards per game. He's as adept at running over you as he is at running by you.
HOOVER, Ala. -- It wasn't a surprise to see Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper selected as first-team All-SEC by the media Thursday. He led all wide receivers in points, and his 282 points were the most received by any player at any position.

“Never have I seen a player like Amari,” teammate Landon Collins said when asked about Cooper. “Not even playing in Louisiana when I was a recruit coming up.”

Cooper battled injuries throughout the 2013 season but still finished with 736 yards receiving and four touchdowns. He's healthy now and primed for a big season.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesLaquon Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman at Ole Miss.
However, there's another wide receiver in the conference, Ole Miss sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who is hoping to follow in the same footsteps and make that jump to elite status. He was actually left off the media's first-team offense despite a freshman season in which he was third in the SEC in receptions (72) and had 608 yards receiving with five touchdowns. If you ask his teammates, they'll tell you Treadwell is just as good, if not better, than Cooper.

“Amari Cooper is fast,” Rebels safety Cody Prewitt said. “But if I were going to go up in a jump ball against both of them, I'd rather do it against Amari because Laquon is a big body. He's a really good receiver. To be as big as he is, it's amazing to watch him run because he still runs like a deer at 230.”

“Oh absolutely Quon,” Rebels defensive end C.J. Johnson said. “He's a freak physically. I think him being able to impose his will over people -- he's so big, he's gotten bigger since last year -- you can just imagine what that's like.”

When Treadwell first arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, he was 195 pounds. Now, a year later, he's closer to 220 pounds. He looks more like former Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief, now a member of the Indianapolis Colts, which is fitting considering he'll be moving outside and filling the role once occupied by Moncrief.

Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace went one step further and compared Treadwell to Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant.

“I don't like to compare anybody -- you get in trouble when you compare people -- but he's that type of player,” Wallace said.

Treadwell, a former ESPN 300 prospect who was ranked No. 1 at his position, was part of the star-studded recruiting class head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff put together in 2013. Freeze remains high on the players in that class, Treadwell in particular, as they enter their second year with Ole Miss.

“I couldn't be more pleased with the leadership of that class,” Freeze said. “[Laquon] really takes serious his role of being a leader on the offensive side of the football. He's a physical specimen. He's a blocking machine. His hands are really good. I'm really excited to see what Laquon is going to do this year.”

Maybe Treadwell isn't on Cooper's level just yet, but even Collins remembers facing No. 1 on Ole Miss from last year's game.

“Laquon is very talented, very gifted,” Collins said. “I see that when he plays against other teams. I saw that when he played against us -- he made some spectacular plays."
HOOVER, Ala. -- The fourth and final day of SEC media days will likely be a circus with Alabama coming through, but there will be no shortage of storylines on all four teams in attendance Thursday. Let's take a look.

Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.

Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.

Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.

Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.

OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze reaches up and brushes his hair back with his right hand as he slides back into his office chair inside his oversized office in the heart of Ole Miss’ newly renovated football facility.

He’s reaching for a thought, as he tries to remember a laundry list of young names he doesn’t want to forget while he rattles off players he’s excited about.

After mentioning a handful, he runs out of names and sports a faint smile which slowly covers his face after a reporter points out that this is the first time he’s seen him smile about his team without provocation.

Ole Miss’ head coach, who is entering what many in Oxford hope is a very exciting and accomplished third year with the Rebels, has too many names to remember and is genuinely excited about the team he has in front of him. Following his second straight winning season and bowl win, Freeze is manning a team that returns 16 starters and 60 lettermen.

Freeze admits that he thought the only real serious bowl talk he’d have with his team would come in Year 3. He also thought it would take three full recruiting classes in order to have adequate SEC depth. But as he relaxes in his chair and talks about his team, you can feel the ease in his voice. With 15 wins (two bowl victories) in two years after the incredible rut this program was in when Freeze took over, Ole Miss is ahead of schedule. Freeze says players are buying in, depth is improving, leaders are emerging and the talent pool is much deeper now than it has been in years.

Freeze doesn’t know if his excess smiling or a more gratifying start to spring will result in more wins in 2014, but he knows the product he has now is better than what he had during his two prior springs.

“I just know today when we step on that practice field, we’re better than we were [last year],” Freeze told ESPN.com last week. “I know that today.”

Today, no games will be played, but the wheels are in motion in Oxford. With depth improving after two solid recruiting classes, including that monster of a 2013 haul, Freeze decided to up the intensity this spring. He wanted a more physical practice because he felt his team could finally take it.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche is a key part of Ole Miss' outstanding recruiting class from 2013.
There’s always the risk of injury when you ramp up the contact, but extra quality bodies sprinkled around eases those worries. Players embraced a more rugged spring, Freeze said. Last season was another step forward for the Rebels, but Freeze knows neither he nor his players were satisfied with winning just eight games.

“I’m really pleased with where we are in attitude and effort,” Freeze said.

“There’s no possible way that I could do what we’ve done this spring and expect to finish [the spring] feeling good, but we’re a lot deeper than we have been. The good teams have physical springs, and I know that it helps you get better if you can survive it.”

One reason for the increased depth, intensity and confidence is that 2013 class. Headlined by ESPN 300 studs Robert Nkemdiche (the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect), Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Tony Conner, Ole Miss’ 2013 class landed in Oxford with historic hype and crazy expectations. Even with enough golden stars attached to their names to light the night sky, these freshmen didn’t boast about their high-profiled prep careers, Freeze said. They were humble when they arrived, and that only increased after strength coach Paul Jackson got ahold of them before fall camp.

“They weren’t five-star players anymore,” quarterback Bo Wallace said with a smile, “they were Ole Miss football players. That’s how we treated them and they loved it.”

For Nkemdiche, whose hype dwarfed that of his classmates, living up to lofty expectations was be tough, but he said he and his classmates got together to discuss drowning out the talk and focusing on football. They wanted wins and wanted to change the program.

Slowly, it’s happening, and the freshmen are making sure the process continues under their watch.

“They want it to be a high level of competitive juices flowing every day and that’s the next step for us to win the day, so to speak,” Freeze said. “We have to have people like that who bring it every day, and those are the ones that naturally will help our team follow a lot quicker.”

After winning eight in 2013, the Rebels face much higher expectations this fall, and while depth is still an issue at receiver and along the offensive line, players and coaches feel confident that this year could be special.

With questions piling up around the SEC in 2014, the Rebels hope they have plenty of answers this fall.

“The expectations for us are just growing and growing and I feel like some of the other teams around the conference lost some of their key players,” Nkemdiche said. “I feel like it’s our turn to take over and do big things.”

AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
4:10
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Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

It wasn’t pretty, but Ole Miss did just enough to knock off Georgia Tech and win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl 25-17. With the win, the Rebels have now won 10 of their past 11 bowl games.

Here’s how it went down:

It was over when: Mike Hilton sealed the victory with an interception in the final minute, but the key play came the drive before when Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace connected with Laquon Treadwell for 27 yards on third-and-13. It allowed the Rebels to run an extra two minutes off the clock and made a Georgia Tech comeback nearly impossible. The freshman wide receiver finished with five catches for 51 yards, but none bigger than that third-down grab.

Game ball goes to: Wallace. The Ole Miss signal-caller played maybe his worst game as a Rebel in an overtime loss to Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, but he redeemed himself with an impressive performance against Georgia Tech on Monday. The junior went 22-of-32 for 256 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed 13 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns. It was a successful homecoming for the Tennessee native, who finished the season on a high note.

Unsung hero: Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford. The senior, who missed the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to ACL tears, might not have gotten the credit he deserved this season, but he was all over the field for the Rebels on Monday. Down the stretch, he blew up the Yellow Jackets' reverse pass attempt that ultimately led to a safety, and he was the one to apply pressure on the quarterback which forced the game-clinching interception.

Stat of the game: Georgia Tech rushed for 92 yards in the first quarter, including 64 yards on the opening drive. Ole Miss held the Yellow Jackets to just 59 yards on 33 carries the rest of the way. The return of freshman star Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt in the second quarter was huge (both were suspended for the first quarter; Prewitt later left due to injury), but the whole defense stepped up, stopped the triple-option attack and carried the Rebels to victory.

What we learned: Ole Miss fell short of its goals this season, but with a victory in the bowl game, the Rebels can take some momentum with them into the offseason. This is clearly a team on the rise, and it’s not far from competing in the SEC West with the likes of Alabama and Auburn. As for Georgia Tech, it’s time to start wondering if the Yellow Jackets have reached their ceiling under coach Paul Johnson. They will lose 11 senior starters on both sides of the ball, and all they have to show for it is a 7-6 season with a loss in the bowl game.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Music City Bowl, click here.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's safe to assume that Eddie Jackson understands the opportunity ahead of him at Alabama. He can't say as much publicly because of the school's policy prohibiting freshmen from speaking to the media. But given all he's already gone through, it would be a wonder if he didn't look back on his road to Tuscaloosa and comprehend the enormous turnaround it took for him to get there.

It's a wonder he's wearing Alabama's signature crimson helmet in the first place. The fact that he's starting at cornerback for the defending national champions is something even more implausible considering where he was at this time last year.

Jackson needed a change of scenery before any of the chips fell into place. He likely learned the value of a fresh start from his brother, Demar Dorsey, a former blue-chip defensive back prospect who signed a letter of intent to play for Michigan in 2010 but never made it to Ann Arbor. Dorsey's past included poor grades and three felony charges that robbed him of the opportunity to play at a BCS-level football program. He failed to meet Michigan's standard for admission, announced he would transfer to Louisville, failed to make it there because of more issues and eventually landed at Grand Rapids Community College. Dorsey was supposed to transfer to Hawaii in 2012, but he never reached the Big Island and today is not listed on Hawaii's roster.

[+] EnlargeEddie Jackson
AP Photo/Dave MartinEddie Jackson was a virtual unknown in recruiting at this point last year. Now he's a key piece on defense for the No. 1 team in the country.
Wayne Blair knew of Dorsey's story when Jackson walked into his office at Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., looking to transfer after becoming academically ineligible at his previous school. Blair saw Dorsey's "pitfalls" up close at nearby University School, where he was an assistant in 2009. He took a chance on Jackson, who was then a junior with serious eligibility issues. His grades were "way below normal standards," said Blair, who helped get Jackson eligible just in time for spring football.

Blair's investment and Jackson's hard work paid off instantly.

"He played free safety for us at the time," Blair said of the spring game against University School, a national powerhouse. "He had an interception, he returned one for a touchdown and then had another interception. And I realized then that I had something really, really special on my hands."

Jackson, though, had no college offers at the start of his senior season. Blair worked the phones, calling contacts at all the major conferences looking for someone to take a flier on his wide receiver/defensive back, a tall kid with enormous raw potential. Blair said he told them, "I got a guy that if I can get him NCAA eligible, you might want to go ahead and put your vested interest into him." Of course, no one took him seriously.

What Jackson did on the football field as a senior caught their attention, though, making him an increasingly rare sight in college recruiting: a late-blossoming prospect.

"Every game he either did something extraordinary offensively or completely excellent defensively or on special teams," Blair said. "And the buzz started growing as we had ourselves a good year. We went into the playoffs and he went off."

Jackson's grandmother passed away early in Boyd Anderson's postseason run. Blair said that's when "he went from good to great within a two-week span."

Blair had to chuckle when he retold his "folklore of Eddie Jackson" by telephone this week. He remembered how Florida State offered Jackson as a wide receiver, LSU wanted him as a defensive back and Miami looked at him as a wide receiver. Alabama had him strictly as a cornerback, though, drawn to his raw athleticism and 6-foot-1 frame.

"We thought Eddie was a good player," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "There were some academic questions and some of those things. We're always looking for longer corners, guys that have got a little bit more size. We had Maurice [Smith], who had committed to us. We were still looking for somebody else and we found Eddie. We'd known about Eddie, but we weren't sure we were going to be able to recruit him. As soon as we found out that he would be qualified and all that, we really jumped on him."

Being able to work closely with Saban, who coaches cornerbacks one-on-one at Alabama, was part of what swayed Jackson to sign with the Tide. The other factor was timing. With last season's top corner for Alabama, Dee Milliner, likely to enter the NFL draft and not much behind him in terms of depth, Jackson and Blair saw an opportunity to play right away.

"I knew he'd probably be jumping into the starting lineup; I just didn't know when," Blair said. "I was thinking by Week 6. Low and behold, here we are."

Blair's prediction was off by two weeks. Jackson accomplished the improbable, learning enough of Alabama's complicated defensive scheme by Week 4 that he was inserted into the starting lineup against Colorado State.

A week later he proved that his first start wasn't a fluke opportunity against a cupcake opponent, starting again against No. 21 Ole Miss. On Saturday, Jackson was fourth on the team in tackles, had two pass breakups and a key interception against the Rebels, prompting senior cornerback Deion Belue after the game to say, "We finally found a piece to our secondary so that we all can come together."

"He fit in perfectly," said safety Vinnie Sunseri. "Having Jarrick [Williams] and Deion [Belue] back was a huge part of it, too, but Eddie in there, and him getting comfortable and getting that one pick, kind of gave him that confidence booster that he needed. He played unbelievable. I was so proud of him."

Jackson's first-half interception was a defining moment. The rookie corner whiffed on Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss' veteran wideout, on the previous play, allowing a 36-yard gain and a first down. Coach Hugh Freeze then reached into his bag of tricks, calling for a backward pass to Laquon Treadwell, who looked toward Jackson's side of the field for a pass. But Jackson didn't bite on the fake, stuck to his assignment and secured the ball for the takeaway.

"He did everything perfect," Sunseri said. "He jammed the guy off the line, stayed, stepped in the divider, and he threw one right to him and he got the pick. It was a great momentum swing for us."

Saban, who covets long, aggressive corners such as Jackson, was pleased. He and his staff had been searching for an answer at the position after John Fulton and Cyrus Jones were torched by Texas A&M and Mike Evans, and in Jackson it appears they've found someone to work with. He's still just a freshman, but he's already done more in one game than all but Belue, Alabama's top on-ball defender.

"He played well," Saban said of Jackson. "Made a couple of mistakes, but I thought that most of those were because of communication, which is one of the things that we emphasize, where he wasn't sure about what the call was. But when it came to just his technique and what he was supposed to do and the way he competed in the game, I thought he did a really good job."

Blair, who talks to Jackson regularly, said it's now "his position to lose."

"Before it's all said and done, he could end up being the prototype defensive back like that guy over at Seattle, Richard Sherman," he said. "You have a tall, smart kid with good range, good hips. He can end up being the prototype Coach Saban has been looking for."

Reading into Blair's comments, it's clear he thinks that development could happen quickly. And why shouldn't it? It might seem improbable, but everything about Jackson's journey, going from academically ineligible with no college offers to a top prospect signing a letter of intent with Alabama, has been just that.

Jackson turned it around in a hurry in high school. What's to say he can't take the next step in just as timely a fashion? He's certainly showed he's no stranger to making the most of an opportunity.

SEC freshmen power rankings

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
10:30
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We're continuing to look at the first quarter of the 2013 college football season today by checking out the effect true freshmen have had. We know that the days of freshmen sitting back and watching are over, and SEC teams have made sure to get the youngsters on the field as quickly as possible.

Who has received the best results from their freshmen through the first four weeks? Who not only has quantity but quality when it comes from the freshmen impact? Take a look:

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesTrue freshman WR Laquon Treadwell has been one of several instant-impact rookies for Ole Miss.
1. Ole Miss: The Rebels might have had the most talked about recruiting class this past spring, and boy has it delivered. Coach Hugh Freeze was concerned about the class receiving too much hype, but these kids haven't had trouble adapting to the college game. Heading into this week's Alabama game, Ole Miss has five true freshmen as starters on the depth chart. The headliners in the class have been defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who has 10 tackles, including four for loss, and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who is averaging 5.3 catches per game and has 154 receiving yards. Tight end Evan Engram has also had a major impact, catching 11 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns, while offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil will make his second straight start at left tackle. Starting nickel corner Tony Conner intercepted a pass on his first career defensive snap, while offensive lineman Austin Golson has played around 50 percent of the snaps.

2. Georgia: The Bulldogs knew they were going to have to get a lot out of their freshman class, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Through the first four weeks of the season, six of Georgia's top 15 tacklers are freshmen: safety Tray Matthews (14), linebacker Leonard Floyd (12), cornerback Brendan Langley (10), safety Quincy Mauger (five), defensive lineman John Taylor (four) and linebacker Reggie Carter (four). The Bulldogs have played 14 true freshmen this season, which ranks third nationally. Ten of them have played on the defensive side of the ball and three of them -- Matthews, Floyd and Langley -- have started. In addition, freshman receiver Reggie Davis has two catches for 134 yards, including a school-record 98-yard touchdown reception against North Texas.

3. Arkansas: The first thing you think about when you see this Razorbacks team is the running game. Alex Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine straight in 2004. Collins leads the SEC with 481 rushing yards, is averaging 120.3 yards per game and has been named the SEC Freshman of the Week twice. Tight end Hunter Henry is second on the team with eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Offensive tackle Denver Kirkland grabbed a handful of snaps against Southern Miss, while fellow tackle Dan Skipper blocked a field goal against Rutgers. Cornerback D.J. Dean has received a lot of snaps this fall as well.

4. Tennessee: Fourteen true freshmen and 22 freshmen overall have played for the Vols this season. Three true freshmen have made starts this season: wide receiver Marquez North (four), defensive back Cameron Sutton (four) and wide receiver Josh Smith (two). North, who leads the team with 12 catches for 112 yards, became the first true freshman to start the season opener for Tennessee at receiver since Marsalis Teague in 2009, while Sutton is the first true freshman defensive back to start a season opener since Justin Coleman in 2011. Defensive back Malik Foreman intercepted a pass in his debut against Austin Peay, becoming the first true freshman to record a pick in his Vols debut in the season opener since Dwayne Goodrich in 1996. Defensive back Devaun Swafford recorded a pick-six in Tennessee's loss to Florida last week.

5. LSU: The Tigers have played 14 true freshmen this season, and eight of those are defensive players. Cornerback Tre'Davious White is the only freshman to make a start this year, doing so against Kent State and Auburn. White has 17 tackles on the season, including one for loss, and has also forced a fumble and broken up a pass. Kendell Beckwith has received some good snaps at linebacker and on special teams. He also lines up at defensive end to provide more of a pass-rushing threat on third downs. Defensive lineman Christian LaCouture has seen time in the rotation along the Tigers' defensive line.

Ole Miss freshmen living up to the hype

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
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The most challenging part of recruiting nowadays is the de-recruitment process once you get the players onto your campus.

That’s why Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was braced for the worst this past summer when members of the Rebels’ top 5 signing class began filtering onto campus.

“You know how the social media feeds the egos of these kids,” Freeze said.

In this case, the hype was only escalated because it’s not every day that Ole Miss goes out and signs such a coveted group of freshmen.

Likewise, it’s not every day that that crop of freshmen turns out to be even better than advertised.

The Rebels, unbeaten and ranked No. 21, head into their showdown Saturday at No. 1 Alabama with true freshmen sprinkled throughout their starting lineup.

As pleased as Freeze has been with how well they’ve played, he’s been even more impressed with their maturity, their approach and the way they’ve blended in with the rest of the team.

“I never in my wildest dreams, when you bring in so many of these kids who were highly rated, thought it would go this smoothly,” Freeze said. “You think you’re going to have to spend most of your time getting them grounded, but I have not had a single issue with any of them.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche -- a part of Ole Miss' highly regarded freshman class -- has started every game at defensive end.
“They are the most humble, hungry, grounded kids. They’re just really, solid good kids, and all they want to know is, ‘Coach, what can I do better? How can I work harder? That’s all of them, from Robert Nkemdiche all the way down to the other freshmen. We’re just very blessed that that’s the case, and then to get the performance we’re getting on the field from them is pretty remarkable.”

The 6-5, 294-pound Nkemdiche, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country last year, has started every game at defensive end for the Rebels. He’s tied for the team lead with four tackles for loss and has been every bit the defensive force he was projected to be coming out of high school.

“I really believed he’d be everything that he’s shown,” said Freeze of Nkemdiche.

The same goes for Laremy Tunsil, who’s played in every game and started at left tackle two weeks ago against Texas. Go back and watch the tape of that game, and Tunsil hardly looks like a true freshman with the way he held his own against Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who showed up on a number of preseason All-America teams.

Tony Conner has been a perfect fit at the Rebels’ hybrid “Huskie” position and has started each of the last two games. Laquon Treadwell had nine catches in the first game against Vanderbilt and is sixth in the SEC with 5.3 catches per game.

"I went back and forth on Treadwell," Freeze said. "I knew he was going to be a special talent, and then you get into fall camp and the grind got to him a little bit, and you’re thinking, ‘We may need to ease him into this thing a little bit,’ and then those lights come on at Vandy, and you find out that this guy is a baller. He’s exactly what you thought he was."

So, it's really not a surprise to anyone that Nkemdiche, Tunsil, Connor and Treadwell have been so good so early. They were all ranked among the top three players nationally at their respective positions.

But Evan Engram has been a pleasant surprise, and that’s been huge because the Rebels were hurting at tight end coming into the season. He’s caught touchdown passes in each of his last two games and is averaging 58.3 receiving yards per game, which leads all SEC freshmen.

“He’s already caught more balls by a freshman tight end in the history of the school, and we’ve only played three games,” Freeze said.

The other freshman who’s playing even more than Freeze had expected this early is Austin Golson, who’s playing about 50 percent of the snaps at offensive guard.

“They all make mistakes and go to the wrong gap and do some things that are typical freshman things,” Freeze said. “But when a chance comes their way and they’re in the right spots and they’re asked to make a play, they’ve been making them most of the time.”

And they’re not trying to do too much, either, nor have they come in with any sense of entitlement.

“They’re the hardest workers I’ve ever seen as freshmen,” Freeze said. “We started coaching them on that as soon as they signed with us, and they came in right away and earned tremendous respect from some key people on the team with how hard they worked and their sense of doing anything they could to make the team better. They’re kind of letting the game come to them.

“Certainly, there are times when you have older players who are envious because they don’t want their playing time to be affected, but they know these guys have come in and earned the right to play, and it didn’t take anybody long to see that they were going to help our team.”

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