NCF Nation: Nickolas Brassell
Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell might be the headliners of Freeze's class, but Nickolas Brassell might the immediate difference-maker the Rebels need in 2013.
He's been down this road before, being a two-way freshman standout for Ole Miss in 2011 before having to go the junior college route because of academic issues. But after getting his grades up during his year at East Mississippi Community College, Brassell returned to Oxford this spring with more dedication and a chance to be a real star for the Rebels at cornerback and in the return game.
In order to help the Rebels like he'd want to, Brassell has to continue to take care of things in the classroom this year.
"He's got a mountain to climb," coach Hugh Freeze said about Brassell's academic situation. "Hopefully he can get it done, because he can certainly make us a better defensive football team."
Freeze describes Brassell, who played more receiver than defensive back at East Mississippi, as a "lockdown corner." He has great size and speed, and strong field instincts. He's extremely athletic, and has the ability to cover a ton of ground in the defensive backfield.
Ole Miss returns some solid bodies in its secondary, but Brassell's talent and athleticism stand out above the rest. He's the kind of X-factor this defense, especially the secondary, needed last season, and Freeze thinks having someone like him on the field will take Ole Miss' defense to the next level because of his tremendous man-coverage ability.
"In this league, if you can do that and play 10 elsewhere, it's very beneficial," Freeze said.
"He's a game-changer. He really changes our team if he becomes eligible."
A playbook or schemes aren't likely to keep Brassell away from the field this fall. His biggest obstacle remains the classroom. He made vast improvement during his year away from Oxford, and that has Freeze otimistic, but he knows Brassell isn't out of the woods.
Freeze said he will find out more about Brassell's academic situation after the spring semester, but he'll still be monitored during the summer and intersessions.
"Right now, I'd say it's a mountain," Freeze said. "If he has a decent semester, it can come down to a hill."
If Brassell can continue to make strides academically, he could be a special player for the Rebels.
Not only has he hit the gym and practice field harder in order to improve on his solid freshman campaign, but he’s making sure those around him are elevating their game as well.
Ole Miss had just three wide receivers -- Moncrief, Nickolas Brassell and Ja-Mes Logan -- record 20 or more catches last season. Those three were the only players to eclipse the 200-yard mark, they combined for just six touchdowns and Moncrief was the only player to catch more than 30 passes (31).
Making things worse is the fact that Brassell left the team after being ruled academically ineligible, meaning there isn’t much production behind Moncrief and Logan.
There are also two relatively inexperienced quarterbacks battling for the starting spot in Barry Brunetti and Bo Wallace, so having a more reliable receiving group becomes even more crucial for the Rebels.
“I push them to be the best,” Moncrief said Thursday during the third day of SEC media days. “I talk noise to them, try to make them go harder. I challenge them with catches, one-handed catches, hard catches.”
But what’s the best motivation? Fear. Fear of physical pain.
The Rebels have a new policy in place during summer workouts where one drop during drills means 20 pushups for the culprit. A second drop, and a player is at 50.
Moncrief said a poor move on a slant resulted in his one and only drop of the summer, but one receiver wasn’t so lucky. Moncrief said a freshman came out to workouts a bit nervous and dropped enough passes to hit the century mark in the pushup department. That was the last time the rookie headed out to workouts with wide eyes.
Moncrief said the unnamed freshman has made sure to keep both eyes on the ball and is now pushing some of the older guys.
“He might play this year,” Moncrief said.
At this point, Moncrief said he’ll take as many other players as he can to work with this fall. The hope is that Hugh Freeze’s new spread offense will help them produce more because of all the space Moncrief anticipates the receivers will get.
But Moncrief also understands that those bodies have to be able to produce or offensive growth won’t be made.
“We know we have to make big plays,” he said. “We have to get better at going to the ball and take hits. It’s the spread. That’s what we’ve been wanting so we have to be ready for it.”
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:
1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.
2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.
3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.
4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.
5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.
7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.
8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.
9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.
10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.
11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.
12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.
13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.
14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
Sure, Freeze was always hopeful and did all he could to help Brassell, one of the most dynamic freshmen in the SEC last season, but the official word came down Friday. Ole Miss announced that Brassell was academically ineligible and would transfer.
Brassell, who became the first Ole Miss player since 1988 to start on both offense and defense, missed all but a few practices this spring to try and get his academics in order. Ultimately, he didn't pass the required 18 credit hours over the last two semesters.
It's always tough to lose a player of his ability. Again, though, Freeze knew it was going to be a long shot for Brassell to be eligible.
The plan was to use him at cornerback and then play him situationally at receiver. The good news for the Rebels is that both Wesley Pendleton and Dehendret Collins had big springs, and there's also some depth at cornerback. Senquez Golson will be back from baseball in the fall after starting four games as true freshman at cornerback last season. Also, heralded signee Trae Elston will be on campus this summer.
The Rebels are still looking for more playmakers on offense, and Brassell would have certainly helped there. He also returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown last season.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
However, he didn’t know that the biggest would be in the academic world.
With final exams only days away, Freeze is still concerned about the academic standing of a few players, including key starters Jeff Scott (running back) and Nickolas Brassell (cornerback/receiver).
“We’ve made some headway, but we inherited such a mountain to climb that I think it would be presumptuous for me to believe we’re going to climb every single mountain. I don’t think that’s going to be reality.”
The reality of losing those players makes Freeze nervous heading into summer workouts. While he’s seen improvement from them throughout the spring, he’s not ready to say they’ll be academically eligible once the spring semester finishes.
“I feel better because I see improvement, but if you’re asking me do I feel confident at this point to say that they’re going to make it, no, I don’t feel confident to say that,” Freeze said.
“When you start out at nearly zero, it’s a tall task to climb in one semester.”
Although the next few days will be nerve-racking for Freeze and his coaching staff, he is very proud of the way some players improved their classroom habits, especially Scott. The struggles Scott was going through when Freeze first arrived seemed to dissipate as spring progressed.
“I’m extremely proud of Jeff Scott. He has bought in,” Freeze said. “Couldn’t be more pleased with what we’re getting from him right now, as far as effort in the classroom. I’m [hopeful] that he has a good chance of making it. He didn’t have as far to come as some others.”
Having Scott in Ole Miss’ starting lineup this fall will be huge for the Rebels. Last season, Scott was eighth in the SEC in all-purpose yardage, averaging 101.4 yards per game. He also led the Rebels with 529 rushing yards and six touchdowns in his nine starts.
Scott, who will be a junior this fall, entered spring as Ole Miss’ top playmaker, but there isn’t much depth at all behind him at running back. He’s one of three scholarship running backs that include senior Devin Thomas (20 career carries) and Nicholas Parker, who has spent two years on the scout team. Freeze said those two will have to compete with the four incoming freshmen due in this summer if Scott can't go.
“We’re so thin there,” Freeze said. “I’ve never inherited any team that’s as thin at running back as we are here.”
Ole Miss would benefit from Brassell’s athleticism, no matter where he lines up, but the Rebels do have pretty good depth in the secondary and Freeze said cornerback was the most productive unit for the team this spring. Wesley Pendleton and Dehendret Collins, who grabbed two interceptions in Ole Miss’ spring game, made the most progress this spring and the former junior college teammates should be pretty solid players this fall.
Standout Senquez Golson will be back after baseball and the Rebels will welcome talented incoming freshmen Trae Elston and Anthony Standifer.
Freeze will sweat out the next few days as he awaits the fate of some of his players, but he’s pleased with how his team responded to the new coaching staff this spring. It was tough to get players on board at first, and he still thinks less than 80 percent of the team has bought in, but it’s certainly higher than when he first arrived.
This would be a tough job for any coach and Freeze knows that patience will be key to getting this program back on track.
“It won’t be an overnight fix,” he said. “It probably won’t be a one-year fix. It’s a process. I call it the ‘Journey.’”
Fortunately, there are other aspects of special teams that involve more exciting plays, like returns that can change the dynamic of a game or are just really easy on the eyes (just take a look at what Joe Adams did to Tennessee last fall).
You can see how we ranked the SEC's special teams units before the season here.
Here are our final rankings:
2. Arkansas: Adams was one of the best punt returners in the country, averaging 16.9 yards per return and taking four to the house for scores. The Hogs were just as dangerous on kickoffs, as Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade both returned kicks for touchdowns and ranked in the top five in the SEC in return average. Zach Hocker hit 21-of-27 kicks and led all kickers by averaging 9.1 points per game. Dylan Breeding led the SEC in punting (45.3) and downed 16 inside the 20. Arkansas was one of the best in the SEC in kickoff coverage, but did allow two punt returns to go for scores in the two biggest games of the season.
3. Auburn: Auburn had Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason take kickoffs back for touchdowns, as the Tigers led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.7) and also in kickoff coverage. Auburn wasn't great returning punts, but punter Steven Clark was a Ray Guy Award finalist and pinned 33 punts inside the 20. Cody Parkey ranked sixth in the league in field-goal kicking, connecting on 13-of-18 kicks (72.2).
4. Florida: Even without Urban Meyer running the show, the Gators were still pretty successful in this department. Florida was first in the SEC and tied for sixth nationally with six blocked kicks. Two punt blocks went for touchdowns. Caleb Sturgis was a Lou Groza Award finalist, hitting 22-of-26 field goals, including three from 50-plus yards. Florida was also solid in kickoff coverage and got kickoff touchdowns of their own from Andre Debose, who was third in the league in return average, and Jeff Demps. Florida averaged 7.2 yards per punt return and averaged 39.8 yards per punt.
5. Ole Miss: If not for special teams, Ole Miss would have been even worse in 2011. Tyler Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt on his 72 attempts and pinned 28 inside the 20. The Rebels also had two different players -- Nickolas Brassell and Jeff Scott -- return punts for touchdowns and Ole Miss was near the top of the league in kickoff coverage and had a net punting average of 38 yards. Bryson Rose also hit nine of his 11 field-goal attempts.
6. Vanderbilt: It was a mixed bag for the Commodores when it came to special teams. Vanderbilt was second in the league in opponent punt return average (3.9), but allowed a touchdown, and gave up another touchdown on kickoff coverage. Vanderbilt also blocked two kicks. Missed field goals haunted Vanderbilt, as the Commodores missed two in the six-point loss to Tennessee and one at the end of regulation in a three-point loss to Arkansas. Andre Hal logged a kickoff touchdown, but Vandy was 11th in the league in punt return average.
7. Alabama: Before the national championship game, Alabama's field-goal kicking game received a ton of criticism, especially for the four misses in the 9-6 loss to LSU. But Jeremy Shelley redeemed the unit by hitting 5-of-7 in the rematch. Alabama's kickers missed 13 kicks. Marquis Maze only had 12 kickoff returns, but averaged 28.5 yards per return, was third in the SEC in punt return average (13.2) and had that nifty touchdown against Arkansas. However, Alabama was 11th in the league in kickoff coverage and 10th in punt average.
8. Kentucky: Punter Ryan Tydlacka was fourth in the league in punting (43.6), had 20 punts of 50-plus yards and had 19 of his punts downed inside the 20. Craig McIntosh connected on 12-of-14 field-goal attempts (.857). Kentucky was in the middle of the pack in kickoff coverage. The Wildcats weren't so good at returning kicks, ranking 11th in the SEC in kickoff returns and last in punt returns, averaging 1.8 yards per return.
9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were last in the league in kickoff returns and were the only team to average fewer than 20 yards a return. The Bulldogs were better on punts, getting touchdowns from Chad Bumphis and Johnthan Banks, and ranked fifth in the league in punt return average. Punter Baker Swedenburg ranked seventh in punting and pinned 19 punts inside the 20. Derek DePasquale hit 12-of-18 field goals.
10. Tennessee: The Vols didn't record any special teams touchdowns, but were fifth in the league in kickoff returns and seventh in punt returns. As far as defending returns, Tennessee allowed just 18.1 yards per return, but was 10th in punt return coverage and gave up a touchdown. Michael Palardy hit of nine of his 14 field-goal attempts and punter Matt Darr was 10th in the SEC in punt average (38.1).
11. South Carolina: The Gamecocks struggled in the kicking game, but did have a bright spot in Ace Sanders recording a touchdown on a punt return and South Carolina blocked two kicks. However, South Carolina was seventh and eighth in the SEC in kickoff and punt returns, respectively. South Carolina was last in kickoff coverage and gave up a touchdown. Jay Wooten missed four field goals and three extra points, while punter Joey Scribner-Howard was ninth in the SEC in punting, averaging 38.9 yards per punt.
12. Georgia: Outside of Brandon Boykin's 92-yard touchdown return in the Outback Bowl, his 22.4-yard average on kick returns and Drew Butler's 44.2 yards per punt, Georgia didn't do much at all on special teams. The group that was supposed to be first in the league allowed two kickoffs and punts to go for touchdowns and allowed a fake punt for a touchdown against South Carolina. Blair Walsh entered the season as one of the nation's top kickers, but hit just 21-of-35 kicks, including missing two in overtime in the bowl loss to Michigan State.
1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.
2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.
3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.
4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.
5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.
6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.
7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.
8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.
9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.
11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.
12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.
13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.
14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.
The Bulldogs jumped out to an early 17-0 lead in Oxford, but thanks to some nifty trick plays, Ole Miss has crawled back into this one.
The Rebels' first bit of trickery came when what started as a reverse turned into a 38-yard pass from quarterback Randall Mackey, who replaced starter Zack Stoudt, to Donte Moncrief to make it 17-7.
Ole Miss then caught the Bulldogs off guard with a nice onside kick, but moments after it looked like the Rebels had a major momentum shift go their way as Mackey tossed a pass right into Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo's hands. Three plays later, quarterback Aaron Murray hit tight end Aron White for a 35-yard touchdown, in which White bounced right off a poor attempt of a tackle by an Ole Miss defender.
As the crowd shrank back to a whisper, the Rebels used yet another trick to get back in when Jeff Scott handed his punt return off to Nickolas Brassell for an 81-yard touchdown. Naturally, the extra point was botched and Ole Miss trails 24-13.
Georgia's receivers are dropping passes like crazy out there on the field and that has to be driving Murray nuts. He has 158 yards and two touchdowns, but his numbers should be much better.
I say hand the ball off to Isaiah Crowell more. He has 14 carries for 92 yards and was trending on Twitter earlier today.
As for Ole Miss, the defense must tighten up and get back to tackling fundamentals. And the running game needs to arrive. The Rebels have carried the ball 18 times for 18 yards. That won't win you games in this league.
The NCAA Clearinghouse reviewed Singleton’s high school transcript after his ACT score increased from a 16 to a 24. The Clearinghouse is accustomed to reviewing such high jumps in scores, so it came as no surprise when Singleton was flagged.
Getting Singleton on campus and ready to compete this summer is pretty big news for the Rebels. Singleton, who ESPN Recruiting ranked as the No. 21 receiver in the country and the No. 128 player overall in the 2011 recruiting class, finished his senior season at Madison (Miss.) Madison Central with more that 1,800 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns.
With the Rebels short on proven playmakers at wide receiver, the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder is expected to compete immediately for playing time.
Singleton not only possesses quality speed, but he's extremely elusive in the open field. He's someone Ole Miss' coaches are hoping they can use early in the Rebels' offense.
Ole Miss is in desperate need for receiving weapons. Running back Brandon Bolden was Ole Miss' leading receiver last year, grabbing 32 passes for 344 yards. Returning junior Melvin Harris was second in receptions with 30 and had 408 receiving yards. The only other receiver returning with double-digit catches from 2010 is Ja-Mes Logan (29 catches for 387 yards).
The Rebels currently have no proven downfield threat or a receiver who makes defenses adjust what they do. It's still too early to ask Singleton to be that player, but there's no doubt that Ole Miss' staff is expecting him to be that kind of player down the road.
This spring, offensive coordinator David Lee had mixed emotions when discussing his receiving corps. While there were flashes here and there by players, the one consistent factor was the knack for dropping passes.
One real bright spot was redshirt freshman Vince Sanders, who had a game-high 96 receiving yards in the spring game and possesses that big-play ability the Rebels are seeking on offense.
Now, the focus is grooming Singleton, who will be joined by fellow in-state receiver Nickolas Brassell. Brassell is more of a slasher on offense and caught 52 passes for 877 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.
It's not ideal to put freshmen in these kinds of situations, but the Rebels' coaches won't be afraid to play true freshmen. The Rebels need them and the freshmen will have to learn very quickly if they want to make meaningful contributions to a team looking to rebound from a sloppy 4-8 campaign from a year ago.