NCF Nation: Tevin Mitchel

Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

Things could not have gone much worse for No. 8 Arkansas on Saturday night. The Razorbacks lost starting quarterback Tyler Wilson to an "above-the-shoulders" injury in the first half. They saw starting cornerback Tevin Mitchel and starting fullback Kody Walker carted off the field during a herky-jerky third quarter. To top it all off, they watched Sun Belt squad Louisiana-Monroe waltz into War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark., and ruin their top-10 ranking with a 34-31 overtime upset.

Some quick, breathless reaction:

It was over when: ULM quarterback Kolton Browning looked for a play-action pass while trailing the Razorbacks 31-28 on fourth-and-1 in overtime. With his slot receiver covered in the flat to his left, Browning reversed field and took off through the Arkansas defense. Browning got the yards he needed for a first down and kept going, outrunning two Razorbacks defenders into the end zone for the upset.

Game ball goes to: Browning deserves more than one game ball for this performance. The junior threw a whopping 68 passes and completed 42 for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Browning didn't just save the Warhawks in overtime, either. His final passing touchdown of the night was a game-tying 23-yard strike delivered to wide receiver Brent Leonard on fourth-and-10 with just 47 seconds remaining in regulation. He led the Warhawks in rushing as well, with 15 carries for 76 yards and the winning score.

Hogs hampered by injuries: Wilson was the first and most notable Razorback to fall out of the affair with an injury. The senior left the game with what was described as an "above-the-shoulders" injury in the second quarter. Not only did he not return to the game, he also did not return to the Arkansas sideline. Mitchel was the next loss when he took a scary helmet-to-helmet hit in the third quarter. Play was stopped for upward of 10 minutes while trainers attended to the cornerback, who had to be carted off the field. Reports from the sideline said that Mitchel was responsive. Walker needed the cart moments later when he left the game with what appeared to be a leg injury.

The players' well-being means much more than any result, but it's discouraging that the suddenly injury-depleted Hogs must host No. 1 Alabama next weekend.

Giant killers: This is the second time in five years that the Warhawks have laid out an SEC West powerhouse. ULM famously upset Alabama 21-14 in 2007. The Warhawks travel to Auburn next week. Based on the way the Tigers played Saturday against Mississippi State, they should probably be worried.

Stopped cold: It looked as if Arkansas would survive the evening without Wilson when backup quarterback Brandon Allen fired a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mekale McKay to take a 28-7 lead early in the third quarter. But the Warhawks outscored the Razorbacks 27-3 from the 9:42 mark of the third quarter to the end of overtime. Arkansas converted just three of 12 third downs on the night.

Sophomores poised to make a big move

March, 28, 2012
Now that spring practice is under way for everybody in the SEC but Texas A&M, let’s take a look at a few sophomores worth keeping an eye on next season.

These aren’t necessarily the most promising freshmen from a year ago, but rather, a group of players poised to make the biggest jump in Year 2:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Crowell
AP Photo/David GoldmanIsaiah Crowell will look to build on a successful freshman campaign in his second season as Georgia's lead rusher.
Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell: Even though he rushed for 850 yards last season as a freshman, Crowell wasn’t very durable, and he was lacking in the mental toughness department. By all accounts, Crowell has grown up considerably in the offseason, and he also knows he has a deep running back stable nipping at his heels, led by heralded freshman Keith Marshall.

Mississippi State running back Nick Griffin: A knee injury has held the talented Griffin back. But even at less than 100 percent, he’s shown enough speed and power that the Mississippi State coaches can’t wait to see what a healthy Griffin can do with the ball in his hands this fall.

Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard: He’s got the height, length and athleticism to be a marquee pass-rusher in this league. The 6-6, 237-pound Hubbard backed up last season at three linebacker positions, but appears to be best suited to replace Courtney Upshaw at Jack linebacker.

Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: A knee injury cut short Kouandjio’s freshman season, but everybody who saw him play agreed that it was just a matter of time before he was one of the SEC’s most dominant offensive linemen. He’ll step in at left tackle this fall with 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones moving to center.

LSU receiver Jarvis Landry: Last season, Landry made his presence felt on special teams and delivered some crushing hits on kickoff returns. Look for him to make a similar impact catching the ball and making big plays in the passing game in 2012.

Auburn running back Tre Mason: As the Tigers search for a starting tailback to replace Michael Dyer, Mason is making a strong bid this spring to be the guy. He’s gotten stronger and is weighing right around 200 pounds. He hasn’t lost any speed, either, and the coaches love his toughness.

Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel: After making seven starts last season as a true freshman and earning SEC All-Freshman honors, the 6-1, 185-pound Mitchel has everything it takes to be one of the premier cornerbacks in the league next season. He’ll also have experience on his side.

South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles: He was overshadowed by another freshman on the Gamecocks’ defensive line last season (Jadeveon Clowney), but Quarles was playing his best football by season’s end. He’s extremely active for an interior lineman and ticketed for a big sophomore season.

Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson: One of the Vols’ top signees a year ago, Richardson picked up some much-needed experience as a freshman. He didn’t start any games, but played in all 12. The 6-6, 325-pounder is now working as the first-team left tackle and has been good enough that the Vols moved senior Dallas Thomas from left tackle to left guard.

Auburn cornerback Jermaine Whitehead: As first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder puts in his defense this spring, one of the things that has jumped out to him is Whitehead’s versatility. He can play cornerback and safety and is also working as the Tigers’ nickel cornerback when they go to five defensive backs.