NCF Nation: Morris Claiborne

LSU embraces playing freshmen

May, 28, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles has never been afraid to play a true freshman -- LSU’s sports information department reports that the Tigers have played 87 first-year freshmen in Miles’ nine seasons -- but it has become one of the program’s trademarks only in recent years.

The Tigers ranked among the nation’s top-five programs at playing freshmen in each of the last two seasons -- 14 freshmen in 2013 (third) and 15 in 2012 (fifth) -- and Miles has all but guaranteed at least 15 more will see the field this fall once a star-studded recruiting class arrives on campus.

It has quickly become a calling card for Miles’ staff on the recruiting trail.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherTyrann Mathieu is one of many LSU players in recent years who've had a chance to contribute as true freshmen.
“I think kids like that about LSU,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “They like our style, they like Coach Miles’ philosophy that young guys are going to play early, which we do. I think we’ve averaged maybe ... at least 15 freshmen a year playing. And so all that plays into recruiting.

“You can’t guarantee a guy he’s going to play, but if he knows he’s given the opportunity and he’s got confidence in his ability, the track record speaks for itself. Come in and help us win and here’s the key thing, I think, that I’ve learned since being here is our veteran players -- our juniors and sophomores and redshirt sophomores and so forth -- they expect young guys to come help them play. They’re not afraid of young guys coming in and playing with them.”

Considering its recent history at the position group, it should come as no surprise that LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson traces the development of this trend back to the arrival of key players in the secondary. The wheels were set in motion when cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne contributed as true freshmen in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but the freshman movement truly took off with the 2010 class that featured Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.

Those players -- and several others who played bigger roles the next season when LSU won an SEC championship -- started to show what they could do in the second half of their freshman seasons, capped by an impressive win against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl where Mathieu, Reid and Simon all intercepted passes.

“It really hit because we had three guys in the secondary because so many spread defenses came (along), so we played a lot of nickel and a lot of dime with five and six defensive backs there,” Wilson recalled. “So Tyrann Mathieu took to the field, Tharold Simon took to the field as well as Eric Reid, and then offensively Spencer Ware began to emerge, et cetera. So probably in that class, the class of [2010], it kind of hit a high point from that point on. These guys have relished and looked forward to the opportunity to contribute as freshmen, and we like it.”

Mathieu went on to become the 2011 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist thanks to his dynamic playmaking ability. Reid also became an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. Simon didn’t earn the same level of acclaim in college, but he was still able to jump to the NFL after his junior season and become a draft pick himself.

All three players had eligibility remaining when they left LSU, which exemplifies the greatest contributing factor in the program’s recent trend of playing youngsters. No program has had more players enter the draft early in the last couple seasons than LSU, and those departures created holes that talented freshmen could fill.

LSU recruited toward that end for this year's class and cashed in on signing day when it landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, one that featured the top overall prospect in tailback Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 receiver (Malachi Dupre), top guard (Garrett Brumfield) and 16 players who made the 2014 ESPN 300.

“We knew our needs, we knew what we wanted to get,” Wilson said of signing day. “We targeted certain guys, so there was never a panic on our part. We kind of knew early on by way of communication and feedback who we’re in good shape with and who we’re not and have a plan on people to place and sign in those positions.”

Tailback and receiver will certainly be manned at least in part by freshmen this season, and many other freshmen such as quarterback Brandon Harris, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett also might follow Mathieu, Reid and Simon’s lead by playing key roles this fall.

LSU isn’t the only school that relies heavily on young players, but it has quickly gained a reputation as a trendsetter in that regard.

“I think that’s a little unique,” Cameron said. “Sometimes guys are afraid of young players coming in and taking their position, but here I don’t sense that. I sense guys like the competition and they know we’re going to need everybody to win a championship.”
As the 2014 NFL draft drew to a close last Saturday, I could still hear Joe Pendry’s prophetic words in the press box on Nov. 5, 2011.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Scott Donaldson/Icon SMIC.J. Mosley was taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.
Pendry, who had just retired the previous year as Alabama’s offensive line coach, said there was a very simple reason that nobody could score a touchdown that night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“Look out there on the field, and probably 20 of the 22 defensive starters will be playing in the NFL,” said Pendry, who was an offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans before ending his career in the college ranks.

Turns out, he might have undersold just how much talent was on the field, which in my 20-plus years of covering the SEC is unquestionably the gold standard for premium defensive talent on the field together at one time.

In that game alone, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime, there were 28 defensive players who played in the game -- 14 on each side -- who would get drafted. That includes 10 first-rounders.

The grand total of future draftees who played in the game was 42, and that doesn’t even count another handful of players who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

“You don’t see that every Saturday,” said Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager and current executive director of the Senior Bowl.

“That’s why it was a tug-of-war in the middle of the field, all those future pros on defense. We call it a logo game. Neither offense could move the ball very far past the logo at midfield.”

Savage, the color man on Alabama’s radio broadcasts, remembers doing interviews leading up to that epic No. 1-versus-No. 2 encounter and estimating that 40 to 50 players from the game would end up playing in the NFL.

“It’s as close to an NFL game as you’re ever going to see in terms of a college matchup, with so many future NFL players on each side,” Savage said.

The two teams wound up playing twice that season. Alabama avenged its only loss by beating LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans. Alabama finished No. 1 nationally that season in scoring defense, and LSU was No. 2. Between them, they gave up 27 touchdowns in 27 games.

The only games in Savage’s recent memory that would come close to that Alabama-LSU affair in terms of producing NFL draft picks were the Florida State-Miami game in 2000 and the Miami-Ohio State BCS National Championship game to cap the 2002 season.

Miami beat Florida State 27-24 in 2000, snapping the Seminoles’ 26-game regular-season winning streak.

In the next three drafts, Miami produced 26 draft choices, although not all of those players played in that 2000 game. For instance, Willis McGahee and Jerome McDougle redshirted in 2000, and Clinton Portis was injured and didn’t play.

Florida State, over the next three drafts, produced 18 draft choices.

But in one game, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see 42 future draft choices again on the field playing, and certainly not 28 on defense.

As a comparison, in that FSU-Miami game in 2000, there were a total of 17 defensive players who would end up being drafted.

Now, when it comes to one team, good luck in trumping Miami’s 2001 national championship team. The Hurricanes had 16 players from that team who would go on to be first-round picks.

Here’s a look at the draftees from that Alabama-LSU game in 2011:

ALABAMA

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
AP Photo/David RichardBarkevious Mingo was one of the many LSU defenders on the 2011 team that was drafted.
2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft
LSU

2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft

Mathieu may have violated NCAA rules

October, 16, 2012
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If Tyrann Mathieu wants to return to LSU's football team, it appears his journey back into a purple-and-gold uniform might be even tougher.

According to a report by Sports Illustrated, Mathieu may have violated NCAA rules by promoting a night club while he was still a member of the team. Sports Illustrated reported that Mathieu appeared in a video made by a group of his friends called Era Nation where he promotes a party at a Baton Rouge, La., club called The Palace on March 10 of this year.

Sources told SI that Mathieu received benefits at the club that could also affect his eligibility.

His pictures were also used on fliers promoting the event "Era Nation Album Release Party For Tyrann Mathieu." Former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and current LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson were also on the fliers.

LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette said the school was aware of Johnson being featured on the flier, but said that he didn't think Johnson knew about his picture being used and didn't think the sophomore had committed any violation.

Mathieu, who was dismissed from LSU's football team in August following a failed drug test, re-enrolled at LSU as a student this fall after entering a four-week treatment program in Houston run by former NBA star John Lucas. While Mathieu hasn't confirmed he'd like to return to LSU's football team in 2013, the thought is that he'd like to return to the Tigers' team and play next season.

Now, his path back to the team is a little muddier with the possibility of NCAA violations hovering over his head. It wouldn't just affect him with LSU, either. Mathieu could miss out on playing for other schools as well if what he did is considered a violation.

It's been a rough road for the Honey Badger to venture down since August, and it's going to get tougher if the NCAA finds him in the wrong. The hope is that after his time in treatment, football is no longer his main concern, and that whatever happens doesn't affect his new path in life.
We're all looking for the next great thing. Whether it's in life or in football, new and better is what's popular.

As we get closer and closer to the 2012 college football season, we'll continue to poke and prod every team out there in order to figure out which teams should be front-runners and which teams will be in the rearview mirror for most of the season.

ESPN's KC Joyner points out that one way we can judge teams is by the amount of returning starts they have. But he also points out that sometimes new can be better in his look at four breakout first-time starters for 2012 .

Joyner's lone SEC member is LSU rising junior cornerback Tharold Simon. It's a good pick by Joyner. While I don't think he'll be the game-changer that Morris Claiborne was, he might be a better cover corner in one-on-one situations. Joyner points out some interesting facts concerning the two that might suggest that Simon does have better coverage skills, but isn't the ball hawk that Claiborne was.

We'll find out this season.

We'll find out if other new starters can get the job done and maybe make their positions better this fall as well, so why not take a look at a few more SEC players who will be stepping into new starting roles this fall?

Don't expect to see the obvious candidates, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter and Alabama running back Eddie Lacy aren't on here either because we know what those players bring to the table. Also, no junior college transfers. Sorry Denico Autry.

[+] EnlargeMike Gillislee
Phil Sears/US PresswireMike Gillislee (left) made a case during the spring to be Florida's top running back.
Here are 10 first-time starters to keep an eye on in the SEC:

  • Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defensive line will get a lot of attention this fall, as it makes the transition to playing against SEC offensive lines. Ealy is a player who could make much more of an impact this fall. He left spring as a starter on the outside and the coaches think he has a good bit of upside to him. He started just one game last year, registering three tackles for loss, but seemed to be much more comfortable this spring.
  • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Ford made one start in 2010, but missed most of last season because of back issues. That didn't stop him from being one of Auburn's best players this spring and catapulting him to the top of the depth chart opposite Corey Lemonier. The rising junior was extremely disruptive this spring and looks poised to have a big year in 2012.
  • Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: The Gators haven't had a power back since Tim Tebow and have struggled to generate any sort of consistent production between the tackles since. In steps Gillislee, who has appeared in 36 games with no starts. He's a bigger body who the coaches think will have much more of an impact up the middle, especially with what the coaches think is an improved offensive line. During his career, Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
  • Steven Jenkins, OLB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started during the second half of last season and had a very solid spring in College Station this year. With the Aggies moving to a 3-4 scheme, the coaches expect to get a lot more out of him in 2012. Jenkins has tremendous speed and athleticism and could be a real spark for a defense undergoing changes in a new league like the SEC.
  • Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: Kouandjio was one of the top prospects coming out of high school and played in eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. While his conditioning suffered a little as he rehabbed, the hope is that he takes complete hold of the left tackle spot this fall, with Barrett Jones moving to center. Kouandjio has a ton of talent, but he'll have to get back healthy in order to show all his worth.
  • Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU: With Rueben Randle gone, the Tigers are looking for a new deep threat in their offense. While Odell Beckham Jr. had a bit of a breakout freshman year, keep an eye on Landry. The rising sophomore might be LSU's most athletic receiver and has a chance to take over as the Tigers' new big-play threat. He has solid speed and his bigger frame could frustrate opposing cornerbacks. Landry and Mettenberger seemed to generate good chemistry this spring, and LSU's staff hopes it carries over to the fall.
  • Marcus Lucas, WR, Missouri: Most of the focus when it has come to the Tigers' passing game has revolved around incoming freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. But don't forget about Lucas. He only started three games last year, but the coaches tried to get him on the field as much as possible because of the speed and deep-threat ability he possess. Lucas caught 23 passes in 2011, averaging 18 yards per reception, and registered five touchdowns.
  • Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: The Vols were looking to enhance the play of their offensive line, and seeing Richardson's development this spring was a major plus for Tennessee's staff. After spending 2011 on special teams as a freshman, Richardson emerged this spring as the starter at left tackle. Richardson's move to left tackle shifts vet Dallas Thomas to left guard, giving what Tennessee's staff thinks is the best combination on the line.
  • Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: The youngster redshirted last year, but could end up as the Tigers' starting left tackle this fall. Robinson said this spring that redshirting was probably the best thing he could have done. It gave him the chance to get much more comfortable with things on the field.
  • Avery Williamson, MLB, Kentucky: The Wildcats are looking to replace four starting linebackers from last year and Williamson stood out plenty of times this spring. He registered 49 tackles as Ronnie Sneed's backup at middle linebacker last year and was one of the better defensive players for the Wildcats this spring.
A lot of votes were cast and it came down to the wire, but the fans have spoken and South Carolina has won the poll battle of the defenses.

With nearly 12,000 votes cast, South Carolina barely claimed first place with 24 percent of the vote. Alabama was second with 23 percent, while LSU grabbed 21 percent. Georgia got 13 percent of the vote while the category of "Other" received 19 percent.

South Carolina is a solid pick when you look at who returns. Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor are back alongside tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Quarles really progressed as the season went on and provided a nice big, disruptive body against the run.

Veterans return at linebacker, with seniors Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens in the middle and DeVonte Holloman is back at the Spur, where he's at his best. Seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) are back in the secondary, as well.

Most of the questions for this defense lie in the secondary, with sophomores-to-be Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety) expected to start this fall. Williams collected a start against Florida last year, while Hampton did most of his damage on special teams. Expect offenses to key in on them early.

At this moment, I'd have to go with LSU. The Tigers return one of the best defensive lines in the country, with two potential first-rounders in ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. And LSU's staff is very excited about what Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson can do at the tackle spots. This line should be the strength of this team and it will make it hard to run and throw on the Tigers. It'll take pressure off the linebackers, which lose two starters.

The secondary loses Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor, but the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is back and so is Eric Reid, who might be the league's top safety. Keep an eye on Tharold Simon at cornerback. He should be a solid cover corner this fall.

Alabama is down a handful of starters from last year, but don't think that will send this unit into a tailspin. Defensive tackle Jesse Williams is an animal and linebackers C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard aren't slouches by any means. Yes, the secondary is a little green, but corner Dee Milliner and Robert Lester should help provide some stability. JUCO standouts Deion Belue and Travell Dixon impressed this spring and youngsters Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix look ready to be big contributors.

And with nine starters returning for Georgia, the Bulldogs should have another solid defensive squad this fall. There has to be some worry with four starters suspended for the beginning of the season, but at full strength, this defense will be a handful, especially with one of the best linebacking corps in the country that includes All-American Jarvis Jones, speedster Alec Ogletree and work horse Michael Gilliard. Once Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith are all back and together, Georgia's secondary will be potent.

Big draft looming for the SEC

April, 26, 2012
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It could be a record haul tonight in the NFL draft for the SEC.

As many as 12 players from the SEC are being projected to go in the first round, which will be carried live tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. ET. Rounds 2 and 3 will be on Friday, also on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. Rounds 4-7 will be on Saturday with ESPN coverage beginning at noon.

The most first-round selections the SEC has produced in one draft was 11 in 2007.

So if 12 go tonight, that would break the record.

Here's a look at the 12 SEC players being pegged to go in the first round. They're listed in order of their rank on Mel Kiper's Big Board :
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis seeks out the cameras and microphones the way a vampire does daylight.

But when it comes to having his players’ backs, Chavis is going to be there all day and every day.

So when he heard the fallout from former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne's reported score of four on the Wonderlic Test, Chavis was eager to set the record straight.

“I’ve heard what’s out there about that test, but I also know the kid, who he is and what he did for us,” Chavis said. “We run a very multiple scheme. You don’t just line up and play in our scheme. You have to know what’s going on and be able to make adjustments.

“You have to be able to think and move and do those things, and let me tell you: I’ve coached a lot of great players, and Mo Claiborne had no problem picking up anything in our system and doing all the things we wanted him to do.”

Claiborne, who gave up his senior season to enter the draft, is rated as the No. 5 prospect overall on Mel Kiper’s latest Big Board. He won the Thorpe Award last season as the top defensive back in college football.

However, it leaked out earlier this week that he scored a four on his Wonderlic Test at the NFL combine. The NFL average on the test is 21.

“I don’t know how many defensive backs I’ve coached that have gone on and played and been successful in the NFL, and Mo will handle it as well or better than any of them that we’ve had,” said Chavis, who was the defensive coordinator at Tennessee for 14 seasons before moving to LSU in 2009.

Chavis pointed out that two-thirds of LSU’s defensive calls in the season opener against Oregon last season were made on the field. Furthermore, Claiborne moved inside to nickel the week of the Arkansas game after Eric Reid was injured and unable to play.

“If we had asked him to play safety, he would have and could have done that,” Chavis said. “He had three days to get ready at the nickel spot, which is a totally different animal, and was going against some talented Arkansas receivers in the slot and was able to do that with no problem at all.

“The bottom line is that Mo Claiborne can make adjustments and understands concepts, and obviously, people know that he can play the game.”

Checking in on the LSU Tigers

March, 29, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its last practice of the spring Thursday prior to Saturday's spring game, and coach Les Miles opened up the practice to the students.

Following practice, the students were invited inside to the indoor practice facility, where they had a meet-and-greet with the players and coaches.

It's Miles' way of reaching out to the student body, and the students' chance to get an up-close view of the team.

Just like the LSU team that went 13-1 last season, this team certainly passes the look test.

Most of the attention this spring has been on quarterback Zach Mettenberger, and specifically, the Tigers' passing game. Miles said Thursday there's no doubt in his mind that LSU will throw the ball much more efficiently in 2012, and a lot of that has to do with the way everybody on offense has rallied around Mettenberger, entering his junior season.

"He plays the game the way I want all of my players to play it," Miles said. "I enjoy his attitude. He's bringing the passing game to life, and he wants to compete on every single play. He doesn't mind stirring the pot, either."

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesEntering his junior season, quarterback Zach Mettenberger is "bringing the passing game to life," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Already this spring, Mettenberger went after defensive tackle Josh Downs in a scrimmage after Mettenberger felt there had been a late hit, and several in the LSU program said Mettenberger delivered the kind of tackle that even defensive coordinator John Chavis admitted was impressive.

Speaking of Chavis, he's losing two first-rounders off last season's defense. Both cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers elected to give up their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft.

They will certainly be missed, but Chavis isn't exactly fretting.

In a lot of ways, he thinks the Tigers will be even faster on defense in 2012. They're two-deep at every position in the defensive line, and even though Brockers is gone, Chavis thinks junior tackle Bennie Logan was one of the more underrated defenders on the team last season. Chavis said sophomore tackle Ego Ferguson had also made a big jump.

Chavis really likes the way Kevin Minter and Tahj Jones have answered the call at linebacker, even though Jones has been out recently with turf toe.

"It's the best Kevin Minter has played since he's been here," Chavis said. "He really looks like an SEC linebacker and is playing like an SEC linebacker."

Two redshirt freshmen making big moves in the secondary this spring have been Jalen Collins at cornerback and Micah Eugene at safety. Chavis likes Collins' size and length. He's 6-foot-1 and 184 pounds, which gives the Tigers a pair of bigger corners. Tharold Simon is 6-3 and 187 pounds.

Chavis said Craig Loston was also playing well at safety until a foot/toe injury slowed him.

"Loston was really grasping things, but with him out, it's given us a chance to work several other kids," Chavis said. "Ever since Eugene got a chance to jump in there and work with the first unit, he got a lot of people's attention really quick. He's still learning the position, but he has a chance to be a really good safety for us."

Chavis said junior Tyrann Mathieu would continue to play both the cornerback and nickel back roles.

"We'll have some young kids that aren't here on campus yet that will come in and help us, too," Chavis said. "We like this class, and the linebacker group has a chance to be special. They have to come in here and do it, but we like the kids we signed there."
The postseason top 25 countdown is done and it's time for us to discuss our reasons for how we sorted our list and why we left some players off.

Anytime you do this sort of thing you always second-guess yourself. There are always players you wish you had put higher, slid down lower, left off or put on the list. The only thing that's for sure is that you'll never be perfect and you'll never please everyone, but that's the way it goes.

Alabama running back Trent Richardson was the obvious choice to be first on our list. He was named the nation's top running back and was a unanimous first team All-American and All-SEC member. He accounted for more than 36 percent of Alabama's offense last year and became just the third player in SEC history to rush for 20 or more touchdowns.

Richardson is a track star built like a tank.

While Richardson was spot on, there was another player who we felt should have been higher. At second glance, Chris and I felt that Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones was too low. He ended up sixth, but we now feel like we should have had him above both Melvin Ingram and Courtney Upshaw.

When you finish the year with an SEC-best 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks after a a year away from the field you deserve to be higher.

Our bad.

We took some heat from the College GameDay crew during the season for having only one LSU player — cornerback Morris Claiborne — on our preseason list. (We didn't even have Tyrann Mathieu on the preseason list! We sure look boneheaded now.) Well, we certainly deserved that and had four Tigers on the postseason list, including No. 2 (Claiborne) and No. 3 (Mathieu). Defensive end Sam Montgomery and guard Will Blackwell just missed the cut, too.

We've also received word from some readers that we missed on Tennessee wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who was passed by LSU's Rueben Randle and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery.

When we created this list we took into consideration stats and total impact on a team — good and bad. Yes, Rogers led the SEC in receiving, but his impact wasn't as positive as the others. Randle was LSU's top receiving target all season, was a true leader and finished the year third in the SEC in receiving. Jeffery was South Carolina's only real dependable receiver all season and of his eight touchdowns, five came in conference games. Jeffery also spent the first eight games on a team that didn't have much of a passing game and was still sixth in the league in receiving.

Also, Jeffery had a monster outing in South Carolina's bowl win, while when Tennessee needed a win over Kentucky to become bowl eligible, Rogers caught just two passes in the loss and was openly complaining and being divisive on the sideline.

Rogers had a solid season, but more was taken into consideration than just his play.

Five players — Richardson, Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower, Barrett Jones and Mark Barron — from our preseason top 10 remained there in our postseason countdown, so that made us look good.

We missed on two South Carolina players in the preseason in Devin Taylor (No. 6) and Stephon Gilmore (No. 12) and didn't see Ingram (postseason No. 5) coming. But we did have 14 of 25 from our preseason list back on our postseason list. It probably would have been more if not for injuries to South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, Arkansas running back Knile Davis and defensive end Jake Bequette, or the dismissal of former Tennessee safety Janzen Jackson.

Here's a breakdown of the list by team, position, side of the field, year and division:

TEAM
  • Alabama (7)
  • Georgia (5)
  • LSU (4)
  • Arkansas (3)
  • South Carolina (2)
  • Auburn (1)
  • Kentucky (1)
  • Mississippi State (1)
  • Vanderbilt (1)
POSITION
  • DB (7)
  • LB (4)
  • WR/TE (4)
  • DL (3)
  • QB (2)
  • RB (2)
  • OL (3)
SIDE OF THE FIELD
  • Defense (14)
  • Offense (11)
YEAR
  • Senior (11)
  • Junior (9)
  • Sophomore (5)
DIVISION
  • West (16)
  • East (9)

Check in tomorrow to see players who just missed the cut for the postseason top 25.

SEC combine update

February, 28, 2012
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Other than Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe's performance, several SEC players put up some of the most impressive numbers Monday at the NFL combine.

Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram all helped themselves.

And with the defensive backs working out Tuesday, already LSU cornerback Ron Brooks has turned heads with a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, which unofficially is the fastest 40 time this year at the combine.

Some of the other unofficial 40 times from Tuesday included South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore (4.44), LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne (4.47), Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward (4.53) and South Carolina safety Antonio Allen (4.62).

Hightower, weighing 265 pounds, ran a 4.68 in the 40-yard dash on Monday, and also recorded a 32-inch vertical leap.

The ESPN Scouts Inc. guys said Hightower showed impressive mobility for his size.

Todd McShay of ESPN Scouts Inc. said Ingram had the best workout of the perimeter defensive linemen. Ingram turned in the second-best three-cone (6.83) and third-best short shuttle (4.18), and also finished in the top 10 among linemen in the 40 (4.79) and vertical jump (34).

McShay said of Ingram: "Ingram's lack of size could mean a move to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but for now he has the most explosive, violent hands in the defensive end class and he could end up being a top-10 pick. The Miami Dolphins (No. 8 pick) and Buffalo Bills (No. 10) could both have interest."

Cox's 4.79 in the 40 topped all defensive tackles. He posted a 7.07-second three-cone drill, which is more than a half-second faster than the four-year average. He turned in a 4.53 in the short shuttle.

McShay said of Cox: "Cox came into the combine as the second-rated defensive tackle on the Scouts Inc. board, and he did nothing to change our opinion. He shows the versatility to play the 3-technique (DT) or even left end at times in a 4-3 alignment or the 5-technique in a 3-4."

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers didn't test well. He ran a 5.36 in the 40 and did only 19 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. Even so, it sounds like Brockers will still be a high draft pick.

McShay said: "Brockers didn't look as quick or explosive as some of the other top prospects in drills, but he did move well in space for a 6-5 322-pounder. It's important to keep things in perspective, though, because Brockers' game tape is strong enough that his combine workout won't affect his stock nearly as much as it would a prospect who is less consistent on tape."

SEC postseason position rankings: DB

February, 9, 2012
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Just like there was no shortage of defenses in the SEC this season, there was no shortage of defensive backfields.

Here’s the way we would rank them.

1. LSU: Where do you start? The Tigers had a Heisman Trophy finalist in their secondary (Tyrann Mathieu). They also had the Thorpe Award winner as the best defensive back in college football (Morris Claiborne) and a pair of safeties (Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor) who were both outstanding. They were as deep as they were talented in the secondary and allowed just four touchdown passes and intercepted 13 passes in 10 games against SEC foes.

2. Alabama: In any other league, Alabama would be at the top, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk that LSU would get the No. 1 spot. Mark Barron was the best safety in America. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is poised to be a first-round draft choice, while the Tide’s other cornerback, DeQuan Menzie, was one of the more underrated players in the country. Alabama’s defense was menacing this season, and a big reason why goes back to how much they improved from 2010 to 2011 in the secondary.

[+] EnlargeBacarri Rambo
Dale Zanine/US PresswireGeorgia safety Bacarri Rambo led the SEC in interceptions last season with eight.
3. Georgia: Imagine being as good as Georgia was in the secondary this season, but only third in your conference. Welcome to the SEC. Safety Bacarri Rambo led the league with eight interceptions, while cornerback Brandon Boykin did a little bit of everything for the Bulldogs and was named the winner of the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. In league play, Georgia finished second in pass efficiency defense and tied for second with 12 interceptions.

4. South Carolina: Nobody in the league made more improvement than South Carolina from last season to this season when it came to defending the pass. A big part of that was the Gamecocks’ pass rush, but they also intercepted an SEC-high 15 passes in league games and ranked atop the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore led the team with four interceptions. Safety D.J. Swearinger was second on the team with 80 tackles, and linebacker/safety Antonio Allen, who played the hybrid Spur position for the Gamecocks, turned in an All-SEC season.

5. Vanderbilt: It seems like Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson have been playing for six seasons in the Vanderbilt secondary. It always seems that way when two players step in and play the way Hayward and Richardson have since their freshman seasons. Hayward had seven interceptions this season and led the SEC with 17 passes defended. The emergence of Trey Wilson at the other cornerback spot was also a big factor in the way Vanderbilt played defense this season.

6. Mississippi State: Johnthan Banks developed into one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks and had a big year with five interceptions and 14 passes defended. Safety Nickoe Whitley also was a big part of the Bulldogs’ secondary. He was one of the enforcers back there with his customary big hits and four picks, but missed the final four games with a ruptured Achilles tendon. It’s a secondary that’s been together for a while, but the Bulldogs were still ninth in the league in passing defense against SEC competition.

7. Arkansas: There were a lot of bright spots in the Hogs' secondary despite disappointing overall defensive numbers. Freshman cornerback Tevin Mitchel wound up starting and showing a lot of promise. Sophomore Eric Bennett moved from cornerback to safety and wound up fourth on the team with 74 tackles. He also had three interceptions. Senior safety Tramain Thomas was the anchor back there with five interceptions and 91 total tackles, ranking him among the leading tacklers in the league.

8. Florida: Will Muschamp is excited about the young talent in his secondary. Freshman cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy both have a chance to be stars, although both endured their share of growing pains this season. Safety Matt Elam was one of the veterans of the unit, and he was only a sophomore. He played beyond his years with 11.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. This biggest thing working against the Gators this season was youth, and that cost them in some games.

9. Tennessee: Losing safety Janzen Jackson prior to the season was a big blow for the Vols. They finished next to last in the league in interceptions with nine and struggled all season at the cornerback position. The good news for them is that it looks like freshman safety Brian Randolph is a keeper. He was fifth on the team with 55 tackles, and junior college newcomer Izauea Lanier was the Vols’ top cornerback. Tennessee finished the season by giving up 11 touchdown passes and intercepting just six passes in SEC play.

10. Kentucky: The Wildcats didn’t have a lot of depth in the secondary, and it didn’t help any when safety Martavius Neloms hurt his ankle late in the season. Neloms still wound up third on the team with 71 total tackles. Winston Guy played a linebacker/safety hybrid role and had a huge season with 120 total tackles, including 14 for loss. He was a second-team All-SEC selection. Big plays hurt the Wildcats. They gave up 19 touchdown passes, which was next to last in the league.

11. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ defense spent the entire 2011 season on the field, which meant the secondary gave up its share of big plays. In SEC play, Ole Miss finished last in pass defense efficiency. The Rebels gave up 12 touchdown passes and intercepted only three passes. Freshman Nickolas Brassell wound up playing both offense and defense and has a bright future, and sophomore Charles Sawyer led the team with four interceptions and was second on the team with 70 total tackles. It simply wasn’t a season to remember all the way around for the Rebels.

12. Auburn: There wasn’t a lot that went right for Auburn on defense this season, but the Tigers’ struggles in the secondary were particularly glaring. They gave up an SEC-high 21 touchdown passes and finished last in the league in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Chris Davis has a ton of potential, but was limited early in the season by injuries. Safety Neiko Thorpe finished with 102 total tackles and three interceptions, but the bottom line is that it’s hard to see past nearly 3,000 passing yards allowed.

How 2011 All-SEC team ranked as recruits

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
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One of the things I like to do every year leading up to national signing day is go back and look at where the players who made All-SEC that season ranked as high school recruits.

Occasionally, it’s stunning how few of the All-SEC players were hot-shot recruits. For instance, of the 11 defensive players who earned first-team, All-SEC honors in 2010 by the Associated Press, only two were ESPNU 150 recruits (ranked among the top 150 players nationally).

It’s a reminder that recruiting rankings are anything but foolproof.

However, the recruiting folks at ESPN batted a much higher percentage with the players on the 2011 All-SEC team.

Using the coaches’ selections this time, 10 of the 22 position players on offense and defense were ESPNU 150 selections coming out of high school.

In fact, both of the running backs -- Trent Richardson and Michael Dyer -- were rated as the No. 1 running back prospects in the country the years they graduated high school.

LSU’s Rueben Randle was the No. 1-rated receiver in 2009, while Arkansas receiver/return specialist Joe Adams was the No. 2-rated athlete in 2008.

So the evaluations by the ESPN recruiting team on the top skill players from this past season in the SEC were dead-on when they were coming out of high school.

It’s a little trickier with the guys up front.

Of the 10 offensive/defensive linemen named to the 2011 All-SEC team by the coaches, counting the tight end, only three were ESPNU 150 selections coming out of high school – Alabama center William Vlachos, Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier and LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery.

LSU offensive tackle Alex Hurst and Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette weren’t ranked nationally or regionally as high school prospects.

Using ESPN’s recruiting rankings and the 2011 coaches’ All-SEC team, here’s a look back:

OFFENSE

  • QB: Tyler Wilson, Arkansas – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2008. Ranked as the No. 8 quarterback in the class and the No. 82 prospect overall. A grade of 82. Ranked one spot below Andrew Luck that year among quarterbacks. Terrelle Pryor was No. 1. Wilson was the top-rated quarterback to sign with an SEC school in 2008. No. 2 on the list was Jordan Jefferson, and No. 3 was Star Jackson.
  • RB: Trent Richardson, Alabama – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2009. The No. 1 running back in the class and the No. 6 prospect overall. A grade of 91. Only two players were rated higher than Richardson that signed with SEC schools in 2009 – No. 3 Russell Shepard to LSU and No. 4 Dre Kirkpatrick to Alabama.
  • RB: Michael Dyer, Auburn – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2010. The No. 1 running back in the class and the No. 5 prospect overall. A grade of 87. The No. 1 player that year was Ronald Powell, and No. 3 was Dominique Easley, both defensive linemen who went to Florida.
  • [+] EnlargeJarius Wright
    Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJarius Wright wasn't as highly touted coming out of high school as several other wide receiver prospects who ended up at SEC schools.
  • WR: Jarius Wright, Arkansas – Ranked as the No. 44 receiver nationally in 2008 and the No. 115 prospect in the Southeast. A grade of 79. Twelve receivers who signed with SEC schools were rated ahead of Wright, including Julio Jones and A.J. Green. Some of the others rated ahead of Wright included Rod Wilks, Aaron Boyd, T.J. Lawrence, Chris Tolliver, Destin Hood and Frankie Hammond Jr.
  • WR: Rueben Randle, LSU – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2009. The No. 1 receiver in the class and the No. 10 overall prospect overall. A grade of 86. Six players that year rated in from of him signed with SEC schools – Russell Shepard, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, Craig Loston, Bryce Brown and Jelani Jenkins.
  • TE: Orson Charles, Georgia – Ranked as the No. 15 tight end prospect nationally, the No. 150 prospect in the Southeast and the No. 59 prospect in the state of Florida in 2009. A grade of 79. Arthur Lynch, who also signed with Georgia, was rated ahead of Charles that year at tight end. The top-rated tight end to sign with an SEC school that year was Zaccheus Mason, who went to Ole Miss.
  • AP: Joe Adams, Arkansas – An ESPNU 150 selection in 2008. The No. 2 athlete in the class and the No. 41 prospect overall. A grade of 83. The player ranked No. 1 nationally that year as an athlete was Burton Scott, who went to Alabama and later transferred to South Alabama. For what it’s worth, No. 86 on that list was Randall Cobb.
  • OL: Barrett Jones, Alabama – Ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle nationally and the No. 157 prospect in the Southeast in 2008. A grade of 78. The No. 1 offensive tackle that year nationally was Jones’ Alabama teammate, Tyler Love. Another teammate, John Michael Boswell, was also rated ahead of Jones at No. 19.
  • OL: Will Blackwell, LSU – Ranked as the No. 15 defensive tackle nationally in the 2007 class and unranked regionally or overall. A grade of 79. The top-rated defensive tackle that year to sign with an SEC school was D.J. Stafford, who went to Kentucky and was No. 2 nationally. John Brown was No. 3 and went to Florida. For what it’s worth, Josh Chapman was the No. 74 defensive tackle, and 18 tackles that year who signed with SEC schools were rated ahead of Chapman.
  • OL: Cordy Glenn, Georgia – Ranked as the No. 74 offensive tackle nationally in 2008 and the No. 390 prospect in the Southeast. A grade of 74. Ten offensive tackles who signed with SEC schools that year were rated ahead of Glenn.
  • OL: Alex Hurst, LSU – Unranked regionally or nationally with a grade of 40 coming out of Bartlett, Tenn., in 2008. Hurst was able to attract Les Miles’ attention at an LSU football camp.
  • C: William Vlachos, Alabama – An ESPNU 150 selection. Ranked as the No. 3 offensive guard nationally and the No. 80 prospect overall in 2007. A grade of 80. The No. 1 offensive guard that year was James Wilson, who went to Florida.

(Read full post)

Five plays that got LSU here

January, 9, 2012
1/09/12
2:30
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NEW ORLEANS -- You've already read about the five plays that got Alabama to the Allstate BCS National Championship, so now it's time to take a look at how LSU ended up in Monday's title game:

1. Eric Reid's interception: With Alabama sitting on LSU's 28-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Tide coach Nick Saban reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a play in which wide receiver Marquis Maze was supposed to take the ball and throw it to tight end Michael Williams. Maze, who was bothered by a sprained ankle, threw the ball up, but Reid wrestled it away from Williams at LSU's 1-yard line. Alabama never got inside LSU's 35-yard line again until overtime.

2. Morris Claiborne's kick return: After West Virginia scored to get within six of the Tigers late in the third quarter, Claiborne put the game away with some magic in the return game. On West Virginia's ensuing kickoff, Claiborne dazzled his way through Mountaineer players for a 99-yard touchdown return that put LSU up 34-21. That touchdown put LSU on a 20-0 run to close the game.

3. Brad Wing's punt: The drive after Reid's interception, LSU's offense failed to get much of anything backed up inside its 10-yard line. A normal punt would have given Alabama ideal field position to make up for its blown opportunity on the last drive, but Wing launched a kick from inside LSU's end zone that eventually traveled 73 yards to Alabama's 18-yard line after some very favorable rolling.

4. Tyrann Mathieu's return: Down 14-7 to Arkansas in the second quarter, the Honey Badger came through in the clutch on special teams. He took Dylan Breeding's punt 92 yards to the house and sent Tiger Stadium into a frenzy. That play paralyzed Arkansas, and led to a 34-3 run by LSU on the last Saturday of the regular season.

5. Mathieu's second return: Like the Arkansas game a week earlier, LSU was in need of a spark against Georgia in the SEC championship game. Down double digits early for the second straight game, Mathieu provided the momentum builder LSU needed when he took a punt 62 yards for a touchdown that made it 10-7 in the second quarter. The score, which sparked a 42-0 run, should have actually been overturned because replay showed that Mathieu clearly flipped the ball to the ref and out-of-bounds before he crossed the goal line.
NEW ORLEANS -- The only drama in what remains of the 2011 college football season won’t be saved for just Monday night’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

If Alabama should beat LSU, particularly in a close game, then the vote in the final Associated Press poll in the hours following the game could get really interesting.

Can you say split national championship?

Nobody has really wanted to talk about the possibility this past week in New Orleans, and that includes both sides.

“The only thing on our minds is this game,” LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson said. “This is the BCS championship game. It’s not about what we’ve done this season or anything that’s happened in the past. This is the game that counts.”

One by one, the Alabama players have also shrugged off the possibility that they might have to share the national championship if they win on Monday night.

The only time that has happened in the BCS era, ironically, was in 2003, when LSU beat Oklahoma in New Orleans to win the BCS national championship and USC was voted No. 1 in The Associated Press poll after beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

“All we can do is play this game,” Alabama running back Trent Richardson said. “They’re going to remember who wins this ballgame, nothing else. It’s just like a lot of people saying we didn’t deserve to be in the game. Well, we are, and we plan on proving to everybody that they got it right by putting us here.”

The winner Monday night is automatically crowned the BCS national champion, but the AP poll is no longer part of the BCS equation.

And already, a sampling of AP voters have said they would seriously consider keeping LSU No. 1 even if the Tigers lose to the Crimson Tide in a close game.

Oklahoma State (12-1) is also sitting there and would warrant some consideration, especially if it’s a sloppy game and Alabama barely squeaks by. The Cowboys were just 18 points behind the Crimson Tide in the final AP regular-season poll.

LSU’s overall body of work is what’s so impressive, and the thinking among some AP voters is that the Tigers would be as deserving as anybody at 13-1 when you consider that they’ve already beaten eight nationally ranked teams, including three top-5 teams, and took down Alabama the first time in Tuscaloosa.

If Alabama were to win handily on Monday night, the talk of a split national title would die down considerably.

Either way, the Crimson Tide’s Outland Trophy winner, offensive tackle Barrett Jones, said nobody on the team has spent any time worrying about having to share the championship with anybody.

“Whoever wins the national championship game is the national champion,” Jones said. “I understand how a lot of people are saying that they’ve already beaten us once, and they have.

“But this is the game for the national championship. They know that, and we know that. No matter what side you’re on, this is the game you wanted to be in when the season began.”

The LSU players didn’t even want to broach the subject of what happens if they come up short on Monday night.

Rather, their focus is on making history. They could become the first unbeaten national champion since the advent of the AP Top 25 poll in 1937 to beat four top-5 teams on their way to the title.

“We want to be remembered as the best team ever,” LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “When you mention LSU, we want people to remember this team.”
NEW ORLEANS – Thoughts race through Tyrann Mathieu’s brain as his piercing stare finds the opposing offense’s huddle.

For only a split second his eyes wander, as he scans his surroundings. He checks to see what down it is. Glances at the yard marker to calculate the precise distance needed for the first down, then communicates with his teammates.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireHis game instinct and hours of study help Tyrann Mathieu make the most of his physical abilities.
LSU’s superstar sophomore cornerback finds some sort of order with his defensive comrades before fixing his eyes back on the huddle. In real time, it’s been only a matter of seconds, maybe shorter, but in Mathieu’s brain it’s been an eternity.

Before the unassuming quarterback even receives the snap, Mathieu already has a pretty good idea of where the ball is headed.

In fact, he knows before the huddle is broken.

The Honey Badger is well into hunter mode as he waits for the exact moment to strike.

Once the quarterback has the ball, he assumes it’s his decision on where to send it and how to avoid Mathieu, but usually it isn’t. Usually, the Honey Badger’s instincts direct him toward where the ball should go. If they fail, he’s usually too fast for anyone to notice.

“You kind of see the play before it happens and put yourself in position to make a play,” Mathieu said.

“Practicing plays and seeing it in real speed is one thing, but to know what formation they may line up in before the snap, just off down and distance, that gives you an advantage.”

For all the talk about how physically gifted Mathieu is, it’s his brain and his eyes that do the lifting. What you don’t see are the brain waves zipping around, helping him determine where to position himself. What you don’t see are his eyes zeroing in on a player, a part of the field or the ball.

Because of countless hours Mathieu puts in during game weeks meticulously dissecting each play, each player tendency, how long it takes for a quarterback to release the ball, what receivers’ favorite routes are and each trend of every team he faces, Mathieu has an acute sense of vision and exemplary timing that make him the nation’s most exciting – and feared – defensive player.

“Tyrann has an unusual view,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “His eye gets a little bit big and he says, ‘We’re fixin’ to do something,’ and generally it happens.”

Mathieu should obviously credit his ability to good genes, but he mostly attributes his mental advantages to his homework. While he can have a very big personality out on the field, Mathieu is quietly a nerd of the game. He puts just as much time into honing his ball skills and shaping his body as he does studying his opponents.

Junior corner Morris Claiborne couldn’t come close to counting the hours the two spend watching game film. It’s almost second nature for both to wander into the film room at odd times of the day.

Claiborne and Mathieu constantly pick each other’s brains for new material and not a film session goes by where both don’t learn something new about a player or formation.

Mathieu’s speed and athleticism played a major role in his ability to lead LSU with 70 tackles, grab seven takeaways, force six fumbles and defend nine passes this season, but he’d be nowhere without his awareness.

“Some people can make plays, but they don’t know actually what to do,” Claiborne said. “When you can put both of them together, it’s amazing.”

Another important ingredient in Mathieu’s game is his confidence. The Honey Badger feeds off his mettle. Mathieu said he tries to play within the defensive scheme as much as he can, but there’s no escaping his need for improvisation. If he thinks he can get to the ball, he’ll make a break for it.

“He thinks he can make every play,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said.

Added Mathieu: “The things you see, you have to believe in it. You can’t second-guess yourself. When you see something that looks familiar, just go ahead on and make the play.”

Mathieu’s array of talents will be put to the test one last time this season in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Monday — against an Alabama team he says he played poorly against the first time.

Mathieu didn’t exactly take what he wanted back on Nov. 5 … but the Honey Badger is a relentless animal.

“Oh, he always finds a way to get to the ball,” cornerback Brandon Taylor said.

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