NCF Nation: Vernon Hargreaves III

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Finally, the game is almost here.

For both Alabama and Florida, it's been a long time coming. The Crimson Tide breezed through the nonconference portion of their schedule to get here. The Gators missed their season-opener, gassed Eastern Michigan and survived Kentucky to reach its trip to Tuscaloosa undefeated and eager to prove that last season was a fluke.

What do we know about both teams so far? Not a lot. But that's what Saturday is for.

To get you prepared, we had SEC writers Jeff Barlis and Alex Scarborough assess the matchup.

Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.

I could tell you Blake Sims is a changed man. I could tell you he's transformed overnight into a quarterback capable of carrying an offense against a good defense like Florida's. But I might be stretching the truth.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxThe challenge for Florida will be to keep Alabama's defensive line off Jeff Driskel.
Sims' numbers are impeccable -- 75 percent completion percentage, 215 passing yards per game, six total touchdowns, one interception -- but that's just the top layer. Dig deeper and you'll see that of Sims' 646 total yards passing, 454 of which has gone to one receiver. And that one receiver, Amari Cooper, has racked up 245 of those yards after the catch.

So what happens when Vernon Hargreaves III takes away those quick passes that have been so effective? What happens when Dante Fowler rushes off the edge? What happens when Sims gets in the weeds?

Frankly, I don't know.

But I do know this: I trust him more than I do Jeff Driskel.

Barlis: There's no doubt Driskel's performance against Kentucky undermined some of the optimism that had grown for him and for the Gators. He failed to recognize obvious blitzers, didn't run the ball when he needed to, didn't give his receivers a chance at catching the deep ball, and hesitated to hit an open Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on what could have been a crushing mistake in overtime.

Driskel's numbers -- 25-of-43 passing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- weren't bad, though, and he deserves credit for some key plays that helped Florida stave off a colossal upset.

I don't think anyone is expecting Driskel to brilliantly engineer an upset of his own this Saturday, but he can't afford the kind of big mistakes that have plagued him in the past. He just needs to be efficient, manage the game and give his team a chance.

It's not all on Driskel's shoulders. I think one of the biggest matchups of this game will be in the trenches when Florida has the ball. The Gators' offensive line has been a sore spot, particularly in pass protection, for the last couple of years.

Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (ankle) is out, and while senior right tackle Chaz Green is a capable fill-in, his understudy is Roderick Johnson, a redshirt freshman making his second start in the third game of his career. He's never seen anything like the No. 3 Tide and it's stable of defensive linemen.

Scarborough: That's an interesting point. Alabama's D-line has been solid so far, but hasn't lived up to the preseason hype yet. A'Shawn Robinson, the All-SEC tackle/end, has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss. He's got help rushing the passer with Ryan Anderson, Xavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen, but that group can't allow Driskel time in the pocket.

If that happens, watch out for Alabama's secondary. Nick Perry will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting, and Jarrick Williams isn't likely to play after fracturing his foot a few weeks ago. Those are two of the Tide's most veteran DBs.

Landon Collins is as solid as they come at safety, but he'll need help. Eddie Jackson's return has been a boon, but pay attention to rookie Tony Brown, whom Nick Saban said will play a lot on Saturday.

Still, my biggest question mark for Alabama isn't on defense. Setting aside Sims' play at quarterback, who is going to step up besides Cooper? O.J. Howard hasn't caught a pass all season and Christion Jones has dropped a few passes himself.

While there are a lot of talented tailbacks to turn to, I'll be interested to see how Alabama's receivers and Florida's defensive backs match up.

Barlis: I will, too. These are two of the best run defenses in the SEC if not the country. Although both teams are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, neither passing game has more than one scary playmaker -- Cooper for the Tide, and Robinson for the Gators.

It appears both defenses will be in a similar situation -- apply consistent pressure on the quarterback or else a vulnerable secondary could be exposed. Florida's D-line was strong in the first half against UK but fatigued in the second when Patrick Towles went off. That made the mistakes by young DBs even more glaring.

I say the matchup the matters most on Saturday is Florida's defensive line against Alabama's offensive line. The Gators desperately need someone other than Dante Fowler Jr. to emerge, but I'm not sure this is the game for that to happen. Bama has an outstanding line that has keyed a deadly efficient offense. The Tide have just two three-and-outs in 32 possessions this season.

The bottom line in what could very well be a defensive struggle is that both teams prefer to run the ball but probably won't be able to dominate the game that way. It'll be up to the passing attacks.

I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.

SEC slant: Defense still optional

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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Blame Missouri and Texas A&M. Blame the targeting rule, the emphasis on protecting the quarterback or the failed attempt to slow down the pace of play. Blame whoever and whatever it takes. But it's time to start facing facts about the SEC. The league that has long thrived on defense, the league that made its name on defense, is in the midst of an identity crisis. These last few years -- it feels like it started with the expansion to 14 teams, right? -- defenses have gone missing, particularly against the pass.

Back in the day

Of course it wasn't that long ago, but it feels as if it's been a decade since the SEC was a defense-dominated league.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe SEC's defensive decline has coincided with the arrival of Big 12 coaches such as Kevin Sumlin.
For the longest time, the defenses of Alabama and LSU were measured in feet, not yards. Urban Meyer's Florida defenses swarmed to the football, not giving an inch.

Remember the Gators' thrashing of Oklahoma in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game? The Sooners, who averaged 54 points per game entering the contest, were held to just two touchdowns.

From 2004-11, SEC defenses surrendered an average of 330.2 yards per game, 192.11 of which came through the air. Meanwhile, the rest of the Power 5 conferences gave up 350.1 total yards per game, 219.6 of which came by way of the forward pass.

During that time, quarterbacks completed an average of 55.3 percent of their passes against SEC defenses.

But in 2012, Missouri and Texas A&M entered the league and everything changed.

From 2012-13, SEC defenses allowed an average of 361.3 yards per game. Passing yards per game went from 192.11 to 221.16. Quarterback completion percentages climbed by 4.2 percent.

It was supposed to get better, but it hasn't

Remember the offseason? It feels like only yesterday that we were talking about all the stellar quarterbacks who left the league.

With Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel gone, defenses would finally catch a break. Zach Mettenberger wouldn't be around to rifle those impossible 25-yard outs. Even James Franklin would move on and leave behind his 51 career touchdown passes at Missouri.

The quarterbacks left, but the offense hasn't.

Texas A&M -- without Johnny Football, mind you -- racked up 680 total yards of offense against South Carolina in the league opener. Kenny Hill, a first time starter, threw for a whopping 511 yards.

Then there was this past weekend. Not much defense to be found there either. Georgia's secondary was shredded by South Carolina as Dylan Thompson threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns. And on the other side of the ball, South Carolina's front seven was gashed for 131 yards and a touchdown by Todd Gurley.

So far, SEC defenses are allowing an average of 354.6 yards per game, which is only slightly down from this time last year.

Pass defense has actually gotten worse from 2012-13 to now. Through three weeks, SEC secondaries are allowing 231.5 yards through the air per game, compared to 221.16.

Interceptions per pass attempt are down from 3.6 percent from 2004-11 to 3.2 percent this season. Over time, that adds up.

Where have all the star DBs gone?

Don't you miss Tyrann Mathieu? No, not for the off-the-field stuff, but for the way he made plays on the back end of the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesStar defensive backs such as Alabama's Landon Collins are rare these days in the SEC.
It seems like there are fewer Honeybadgers in the SEC these days. Outside of Landon Collins and Cody Prewitt, are there any other star safeties in the league? Besides Vernon Hargreaves III, is there another cornerback worth talking about nationally?

Four cornerbacks were taken in the first round of this year's NFL draft. None were from the SEC. Only Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix represented the league's secondaries in the first round.

The year prior, Dee Milliner, Eric Reid and Matt Elam were all drafted in the first round. In 2012, three SEC DBs were taken in the top 10 picks.

How many SEC DBs are projected to go in the first round of next year's NFL draft? According to the mock draft from ESPN's Todd McShay in May, he expects only Collins and LSU's Jalen Mills to be taken Day 1.

Maybe the SEC is just catching up

To be fair, offenses deserve credit, too. Coaches like Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have challenged SEC defenses with their unique brand of spread-you-out, push-the-tempo offenses.

And therein lies the problem.

Big 12 football invaded the SEC when Sumlin, Malzahn and Freeze started entering the league in 2012. Since, it's become the norm to operate without a huddle and use multiple receiver sets. Passing has become a necessity, not a luxury.

Through three weeks of play, eight SEC quarterbacks rank in the top 50 nationally in Raw QBR. Five SEC QBs have thrown for eight or more touchdowns and more than half of the league's starters average more than 200 yards per game through the air.

The SEC might not be as dominant defensively as it used to, but it's still the best defensive league in the country.

From 2012 to now, no Power 5 conference has allowed fewer total yards per game or rushing yards per game, and only the Big Ten has allowed fewer passing yards per game.

Here's the breakdown in total yards allowed per game: SEC (369.0), Big Ten (370.7), ACC (374.0), Pac-12 (399.0) and Big 12 (401.7).
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The true measure of any recruiting class' worth isn't fully realized until a couple of years down the road. Regardless of the hype and golden stars racked up before signing day, getting the most out of a class takes time.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor
AP Photo/Stephen MortonRunning back Kelvin Taylor and the rest of the Florida Gators' underclassmen are looking to rebound from a 4-8 season in 2013.
For Florida, that time might have to be now for its 2013 class following last season's 4-8 debacle. It's a class that ESPN's RecruitingNation ranked second nationally with its 30 signees and 16 ESPN 300 members and held the nation's best high school cornerback -- Vernon Hargreaves III -- and running back -- Kelvin Taylor. It grabbed a potential game-changing receiver in Demarcus Robinson and 12 players who ranked within the top 10 at their respective positions.

The Gators will certainly need a lot from their upperclassmen, but the 2013 class could hold the key to Florida's present -- not just its future -- especially after a handful of its members were thrown into the SEC fire last season.

"We knew we wanted to come in and make an impact," said sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood, who caught 16 of his 17 passes in the final seven games of last season. "Not necessarily take someone's position or anything out of the ordinary, but we knew we had to come in and make an impact as a class and that's pretty much what we did."

For the most part, this class was mainly constructed of a group of contributors last season, with Hargreaves and Taylor being the headliners. Hargreaves was a third-team All-American member and ended up being one of the nation's best corners, leading the Gators with three interceptions and ranking third in the SEC with 14 passes defended. Taylor was a freshman All-SEC selection after rushing for 508 yards and four touchdowns.

Eleven members of the class lettered last season and collected 22 combined starts. With the majority of the class redshirting, even more is expected from this group, but players don't feel any added pressure. They don't mind the added responsibility.

"I feel like the guys who the coaches are looking at will definitely be able to step up," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "They know what to do and they know they're talented."

"These guys are ready to take on that role."

And it isn't just the talent and potential this class contains that has teammates and coaches trusting it. Once players saw injuries piling up, Taylor said the freshmen realized they were going to be counted on more so they started to buckle down with their preparation.

In a year in which this group could have resisted and pushed away from the core group, it grew closer and began to see older players looking up to them. Not even a year removed from high school, and this group was being relied on to help carry the team through some very dark weeks in 2013.

"You were a freshman, but they were depending on you to win games," Taylor said.

The wins didn't come, but resiliency did, redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor said. What impressed him the most was how this group continued to work through an exhausting seven-game losing streak.

"When you face adversity that you'll see in a 4-8 season, those guys kept fighting through all of it -- through the injuries, through the losses," Taylor said. "That's what shows that they have what it takes to take ownership of the team and lead us."

Moving forward, the contributions from this class will only grow. Keanu Neal, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington could be staples in Florida's secondary this year. Following a suspension-filled first year, Robinson has been one of the Gators' best offensive players during the offseason, and Fulwood has been even more consistent and could be a real vertical threat for the offense this fall.

Roderick Johnson is the next tackle in line after vets D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, while linebacker Alex Anzalone has a chance to see time in Florida's linebacker rotation.

Davis was pegged as an early leader for the Gators last season and is right in the thick of a battle for a starting spot. Joey Ivie and Jay-nard Bostwick are in the early rotation along the defensive line, and Caleb Brantley has the chance to play his way in to as well.

This group has barely scratched the surface, but Taylor said guys are playing faster and thinking less. Last year this class was asked to learn, now, Taylor believes it will lead. Then, well, Taylor expects big things ... soon.

"Our whole mindset was that we were going to come here together and try to win a national title," he said.

"Now that we're so close, like brothers, it's going to be special in the future. We're looking forward to it."
The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.

Preseason All-SEC team

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

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

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

OFFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At SEC media days, coach Will Muschamp was asked when his Florida Gators hit rock bottom in 2013.

Naturally, it involved an injury.

[+] EnlargeTyler Moore
AP Photo/John RaouxThe Gators lost tackle Tyler Moore for the remainder of the 2013 season after a scooter accident Nov. 5.
"On a Tuesday night, it was about 9:30, 10 at night," he said, recalling the night of Nov. 5. "I'm in the defensive staff room preparing third down for the next day. Our trainer Paul [Silvestri] knocks on the door. I come to the door. He's usually not there at 10 at night.

"What do you want?" Muschamp asked.

"Tyler Moore just wrecked on his scooter and broke his elbow," Silvestri said.

The thought that burst into Muschamp's mind was, "You've got to be kidding."

"I can't tell you exactly what I said, but it wasn't good," Muschamp said. "That was at a point where it was just very frustrating."

The final tally by UF officials was 21 injured players who missed a combined 126 games during the 2013 season. There were 15 season-ending injuries, including 10 to starters.

The Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, backup QB Tyler Murphy, starting tailback Matt Jones, defensive tackle Dominique Easley (their best player and most important leader), and most of the starting offensive line.

"It was rough," said right tackle Chaz Green, who missed the entire season with a torn labrum suffered in preseason camp. "I can only say it so many times. It was a rough year just going to practice in the training room and you see half the team in there."

Perhaps it was Moore's scooter accident, but at some point the rash of injuries smothered the team's spirit. It quelled any hopes of pulling out of the tailspin that turned into a season-ending seven-game losing streak.

"I haven't ever faced anything like that," Muschamp said.

No one had. Coaches and players just shook their heads, while Muschamp began an offseason quest for answers.

He spoke to medical experts like famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. He gathered UF's training staff and strength staff for a full day in his office.

"Honestly, I'm a football coach," Muschamp said. "I'm not a doctor, and I need to sit down and have someone explain to me why this happened.

"... We looked at a lot of stuff, went back and looked at film, looked at training methods. Are we doing the right thing? Absolutely. It just reaffirmed what we're doing."

One decision for fall camp was to cut down on midday practices on days after a two-a-day.

"I think we only have three or four," Muschamp said. "The midday practice was hard from the standpoint of the heat and also weather. Sometimes you get lightning.

"We're going to practice every morning. When we do have opportunities, per the rules, to have a two-a-day practice, [we'll] go later at night and a little lighter than we had been doing before, so it won't be as taxing for the players."

Just over a week into camp, Florida has avoided the big injury. But everyone seems aware of the threat.

Last Thursday, the Gators' first public practice was marred by an injury to the team's best player -- All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III -- that turned out to just be a bone bruise.

"Football is a tough game and injuries happen," Muschamp said the day after Hargreaves' injury sent chills throughout his team and fan base. "We had our share last year. We've just got to move forward."

There's a balancing act going on, as players are obviously conscious of injuries but know they can't let up, either.

"[Being hesitant is] the worst thing to do because generally injuries come when some guy is pulling up," Muschamp said. "I feel like we've addressed that with our team and I feel pretty comfortable where we are."

He's also addressed the scooter issue.

"There's been many a night I've thought about trying to ban them, but I don’t know if that’s the right thing," Muschamp said. "Be smart. Let's be responsible. No texting and scootering at the same time. We do have that rule."

Despite his best intentions, scooters and Gators continue to not mix well.

"Keanu Neal got fortunate," Muschamp said. "He had a tire slip this summer. His girlfriend is a gymnast. ... Nothing happened to her. He messed his finger up. She's a lot better athlete than him. I should have recruited her.

"But no, I haven't made that rule. It’s something we emphasize with our players. We tell them about it. They've got to understand being careful. But they can’t live in a glass bubble. You just can't do that."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The specter of last season's plague of injuries still looms over the Florida football program.

That much was obvious after the team's best player, sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, was hurt during Thursday night's practice, the team's first session that was open to the public.

The news spread like wildfire through the stands and on social media, reminding everyone of the Gators' protracted run of bad luck that started about a year ago. When the 2013 schedule was finished, and Florida's seven-game losing streak culminated in a 4-8 record, an astounding 15 players (10 of them starters) had suffered season-ending injuries.

Before Hargreaves' injury, which head coach Will Muschamp later announced was just a bone bruise, the Gators had been basking in the glow of good health.

Players and coaches were quick to recall how bad the injury situation was in camp a year ago when Florida was without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, starting running back Matt Jones and starting guard Jon Halapio before its first practice.

Having just one player unavailable this year (true freshman offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher is out after back surgery) offers an extremely sharp contrast. Muschamp called it "drastically different," and players said they were grateful for each healthy day.

"It feels good after every practice that everybody made it through with no injuries," sophomore running back Kelvin Taylor said on Wednesday. "That's the great part.

"This year we've just got to practice smart, practice fast and take care of our players. We'll be OK. We'll be fine."

The mood took a sudden turn when Hargreaves was helped off the field on Thursday night, and the rest of the practice was far more subdued on the field and in the stands.

Players crowded around Hargreaves in the medical tent, showing concern and looking for a prognosis before the All-SEC performer was carted off the field.

"A lot of people were definitely surprised," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said on Friday. "I was surprised myself. I really didn't know what was going on.

"Coach Muschamp addressed the team at the end of practice and I was kind of shocked to hear that somebody actually got hurt. And then just to hear that it was Vernon kind of sent a shock through everybody because of just what kind of impact he has for our team. It threw a lot of us off."

Ironically, it was a scuffle in practice that knocked Hargreaves out of action. Ironic, because injuries were the biggest factor in Florida's 4-8 record last season, and the team that had been channeling so much of its anger and frustration from 2013 into some very intense practices.

"I feel like fights are definitely a part of it," Davis said. "As football players, we're all trying to be out there and be aggressive and show how dominant we are as a player.

"... But now that Coach Muschamp has addressed it, we've all got that in the back of our head. We've got to take care of our team, got to take care of each other, because we're all we got right now."

Tussles in practice are nothing new, but neither is the injury bug that bit Florida so hard last year. The sight of Hargreaves limping brought back all of the pain and fear.

The drama ended a couple of hours later when Muschamp announced the star cornerback was day-to-day. A shaken fan base heaved a sigh of relief, hoping Thursday night's episode was a sign that the Gators' luck might be changing.

SEC's Super Sophomores in 2014

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

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

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

Here goes, and they’re listed alphabetically:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five who just missed the cut:

Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss

Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas

Marquez North, WR, Tennessee

Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU

Florida Gators season preview

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
10:30
AM ET

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Florida Gators:

2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)

Final grade for 2013 season: Pardon the pun, but there's just no way to give a passing grade to a team that could hardly complete a forward pass. An incomplete grade might be warranted by the Gators' ridiculous number of injuries, but the final judgement for these Gators is inescapable. The team that lost home games to FCS Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt, lost seven games in a row and broke its 22-year bowl streak gets a well-deserved F.

Key losses: DT Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, DB Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, QB Tyler Murphy, DB Cody Riggs

Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR/KR Andre Debose, RT Chaz Green, LT D.J. Humphries, C Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, CB Vernon Hargreaves III

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDante Fowler Jr., a preseason All-SEC first-team player, hopes to lead the Gators back to respectability.
Projected starters: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Latroy Pittman, TE Jake McGee, LT D.J. Humphries, LG Tyler Moore, C Max Garcia, RG Trenton Brown, RT Chaz Green, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DT Leon Orr, DT Darious Cummings, DE Jonathan Bullard, LB Neiron Ball, LB Antonio Morrison, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Jalen Tabor, S Jabari Gorman, S Marcus Maye

Instant impact newcomers: TE Jake McGee (senior transfer from Virginia), CB Jalen Tabor, CB Duke Dawson, DL Gerald Willis III, OT David Sharpe

Breakout player: Florida expects its offense to be improved, but the Gators, under coach Will Muschamp, are still all about defense. Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis has drawn raves from coaches and teammates for being a high-motor playmaker with a nose for the ball. One of the quickest learners on the team, Davis surprised everyone when he worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Big things are expected for his follow-up performance.

Most important game: For a head coach on a very hot seat and a team champing at the bit to erase the memory of a 4-8 season, every game will be important in 2014. Muschamp and Florida can't afford many losses, but one foe looms above the rest -- Georgia. The Gators dominated this series for years, but Muschamp has lost three in a row to his alma mater. These games are always closely contested, full of emotion and extremely important in the SEC East race. But this year Muschamp and his players ought to have a little something extra: desperation.

Biggest question mark: There are holes and concerns on defense, but addressing them should be a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of resurrecting Florida's offense, which ranked No. 113 out of 123 FBS teams last season. New coordinator Kurt Roper brought a no-huddle, shotgun, spread offense from Duke with the promise of a better fit for Driskel and several underutilized receivers. Will they find success right away?

Upset special: Florida visits Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a showcase game against the Crimson Tide in Week 4, but the Gators' best chance for an upset will be a couple of weeks later in the Swamp. LSU, ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches' poll, is Florida's permanent SEC West opponent. The teams have played every year since 1971, and the rivalry has become hotly contested with both winning seven times in the last 14 meetings. In that span, the road team has won six times, so anything goes when these talent-rich programs clash.

Key stat: When he was hired, Roper said, "Our whole philosophy on offense is points per game. It's not yards, it's not going up and down the field, it's how many points we can get." Last year, Roper's Duke Blue Devils ranked 41st in the FBS with 32.8 points per game. Florida, by contrast, ranked 112th with 18.8 PPG.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 7.55 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: Florida's schedule is as brutal as ever with visits to Florida State and Alabama, the top two teams in the preseason coaches' poll. The SEC East promises to be a minefield as well. But the Gators get to play nine out of 12 games in their home state. As tough as this slate looks, the bye weeks are positioned perfectly. Florida looks to be 3-0 heading into the game against Bama. Then the first bye week offers a chance to recover, reevaluate and prepare for a big test at Tennessee. The Gators return home for two critical games against LSU and Missouri before the second bye precedes the all-important Georgia game. If Florida can make the most of those byes, defeating the Vols and Dawgs might be the difference between seven and eight wins. Beat both East rivals, and the Gators could have a solid chance at nine.
One of the fringe benefits of growing up as a coach's kid is having a front-row seat to the inner workings of a team.

In the case of Vernon Hargreaves III, his father’s occupation provided him the chance to witness greatness at an early age. And it had a lasting impact that influences him to this day, one contributing factor, among several, to Hargreaves' quick rise to elite status in college football.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsVernon Hargreaves III used his strong coverage skills to earn first-team All-SEC honors as a freshman.
His father, Vernon Hargreaves Jr., was the linebackers coach at Miami from 1998 to 2005, so young Vernon had the chance to see a national championship team and pipeline of first-round NFL draft picks.

"Just seeing those great players play -- Santana Moss, Ed Reed, Clinton Portis, Ken Dorsey -- seeing them work at practice, seeing how competitive they were [was great]," Hargreaves III said. "There were fights at practice, but they were like fights that, 'I'm going to be better than you.' I can just remember sitting there thinking, 'I want to be where they are.'"

Hargreaves III is well on his way to being there.

As a true freshman cornerback at Florida, Hargreaves quickly excelled. He has already established a reputation as the best player at his position in the SEC and could soon assume that title nationally, already being considered one of the nation’s best as a sophomore. In the ESPN.com ranking of 2014 players, Hargreaves ranked 13th overall, the highest-ranked true sophomore and one of only two in the top 15 (Myles Jack of UCLA being the other).

A first-team All-SEC selection last season, Hargreaves ranked second in the league in passes defended per game (1.17, with 11 total) and had three interceptions to go with 38 tackles. Ask his teammates and coaches about him, and glowing reviews follow.

"What makes Vernon Hargreaves so special is that he's just a well-polished football player," Florida defensive lineman Dante Fowler said. "He has the tools, he has the athletic ability and he's a great student on and off the field, with film. Also, just being a leader, being a coach, being able to teach guys, he's helping himself become a better player. He's in the right direction, and he's going to stay in the right direction. The sky is the limit for him."

Florida coach Will Muschamp joked that Hargreaves' parents don’t take any grief from him, intimating that the values they instilled in him have helped mold him into a player Muschamp said is quite coachable.

"He is a very quick learner," Muschamp said. "He is very coachable. He is very difficult on himself as a guy who really takes a lot of pride in his performance. But he's a guy you can coach hard. You can get after him and he handles it and he moves to the next play. He's got a lot of confidence, the type of confidence you're going to need with the way we play."

And while Hargreaves experienced much personal success last season, the Gators’ 4-8 record didn’t sit well with him.

"I like to win," he said. "And we didn't win, so it's not hard for me to push [the individual success] aside. But you can't focus on the future if you're so worried about the past. We have to let it go. It already happened. There's nothing we can do about it. We can talk about it as much as we want and nothing's going to change. We were still 4-8, and it's still unacceptable. As a team, we've moved on from it, and that's that."

Winning is what he saw those early-2000s Miami teams do. His father said the Hurricanes' practices in those days were intense.

"Every day was a war," Hargreaves Jr. said. "You can't go out there and not perform at a high level. That's just the way it was. When you think about the guys we had, it was a who's who of guys."

Hargreaves III took a liking to the late Sean Taylor, who was an All-American safety with the Hurricanes. Though Taylor was much bigger physically (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) in college than Hargreaves (5-11, 192), the way Taylor played was something Hargreaves admired, and he tries to adopt those qualities now.

"The way he played, you're going to feel him on the field," Hargreaves said. "Receivers didn't want to catch balls because he was on the middle of the field. I want to have an impact like that.

"Maybe not the same impact he had because, I'm not as big a hitter as he was, but when I'm on the field, I want people to say, 'We've got to watch out for Vernon on that side.'"

It appears he is already accomplishing that goal.

Top SEC players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:00
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Finally, the moment you've all been waiting for. Our top-25 countdown ends here and now with our best five players in the SEC entering the 2014 season.

5. Landon Collins, S, Alabama Crimson Tide
It was only a matter of time before Collins became one of the league’s best DBs. The former five-star recruit had to wait his turn, but when he got his chance as a sophomore, he jumped at the opportunity. Despite switching back and forth between free and strong safety and not starting the first four games of the season, he filled up the stat sheet with 70 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and eight passes defended.

4. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida Gators
Cornerback is one of those positions that’s supposed to take time to master. You have to learn the various coverages and physically mature to handle more experienced receivers. But Hargreaves defied convention last season, quickly becoming the top on-ball defender in the SEC by season’s end with three interceptions and 11 passes defended. "At the end of the day, he has some natural instincts that others of us don't have," his coach, Will Muschamp, explained.

3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama Crimson Tide
We didn’t see Cooper’s best until late in 2013. By the time his foot injury healed, he tweaked his knee, and without full mobility, he wasn’t his usual elusive self. But in the final six games, he looked more like the Cooper we saw burst onto the scene as a true freshman, catching 30 passes for 507 yards and three touchdowns. Now fully healthy and armed with an offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin who loves to highlight his playmakers, Cooper’s stock could soar even higher as a junior.

2. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M Aggies
There’s got to be something in the water in College Station, Texas. The way the Aggies keep producing NFL-caliber offensive tackles defies any other explanation. First, it was Luke Joeckel. Then, it was Jake Matthews. Now, it’s Ogbuehi, who made himself a potential first-round pick at right tackle last season before deciding to return for his senior year and a shot at playing left tackle, the O-line’s biggest money position. You'd be hard pressed to find an offensive lineman who has a better blend of size, strength and athleticism than Ogbuehi.

1. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia Bulldogs
Coaches, players and sports writers can agree on at least one thing: Gurley is a beast. At SEC media days, nearly every player surveyed by ESPN called Georgia’s lead tailback the most intimidating player to tackle in the league. Reporters, meanwhile, made Gurley a first-team All-SEC choice, awarding him the second-most votes overall. If he can stay healthy, he’s the league's best shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. With 2,374 yards in the past two seasons, only Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah has more career rushing yards entering 2014.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!

Five SEC players to root for

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
10:00
AM ET
On Thursday, we examined five individuals who could be potential SEC "villains" in 2014. And while some people love to be "haters" let's be real, most of us like to feel good about who we root for. If you feel like the player you like is also generally a good guy off the field and does the right things, it makes you feel that much better when he scores a touchdown or makes a big tackle on Saturdays.

With that in mind, let's keep it positive today and discuss five guys that are worth rooting for this season, in alphabetical order:

Luke Boyd, LSU: Boyd's name might not be one known to SEC fans but he has quite a story. The 27-year-old walk-on is an active-duty Marine who served the last five years, including six months in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, he was promoted to staff sergeant. He walked on with the Tigers last season and dressed for home games and hopes to find his way onto the field as a special-teams contributor this season. Another interesting nugget: He was a guest at the 2012 NFL draft where, in full uniform, he announced the Seattle Seahawks' third-round pick -- Russell Wilson.

Shon Coleman, Auburn: Former Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, leaves some big shoes to fill. Coleman, who was his backup at left tackle last season, is a candidate to replace Robinson and what a story it would be if he does so. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Coleman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in spring of 2010 shortly after he signed with the Tigers out of high school. He was able to overcome that and saw his first collegiate action last season. To get to that point is impressive, to finish it off by becoming a starter this year would be a storybook-like development.

Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: He's only a sophomore, but he is the model physically (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) and athletically when it comes to playing cornerback and is already the conference's best at the position. He has the right stuff mentally to be the heartbeat of that Florida defense. A third-team Associated Press All-American last year, Hargreaves is also one of the nicest guys you'll meet, a coach's kid who is incredibly humble.

Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott is already a talented quarterback who emerged into a real playmaker for the Bulldogs last season. He's a true leader and played through injuries last season and more importantly, the death of his mother, Peggy, who lost her life at 52 after a long bout with colon cancer. He returned to practice shortly after his mother's burial and played later that week against Texas A&M and compiled 303 offensive yards (154 rushing; 149 passing) and two touchdowns in a 51-41 loss. His toughness, both physical and mental, is one of his best qualities.

Deterrian Shackelford, Ole Miss: A rare sixth-year senior, Shackelford missed two whole seasons after an ACL injury that was worse than initially thought when he suffered it in 2011. After missing the 2011 and 2012 seasons, he returned last season to play every game at linebacker and finished seventh on the team with 44 tackles and fourth on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss. He is in the mix to be a starter for the Rebels at linebacker this season and one of the most respected players on the team. After football, he said he wants to be an athletic director or high school principal to positively impact teenagers.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Vernon Hargreaves III was on a mission.

Immediately following his first career interception in Florida’s 2013 opener against Toledo, the no-longer-wide-eyed-freshman jumped up and sprinted toward the sideline, weaving his way around teammates who congratulated him.

Hargreaves III had no time for celebration, as he had some beef to settle with defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson.

[+] EnlargeJordan Cunningham and Vernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is expected to be the leader of Florida's secondary this fall.
“You can see it on the film. I ran right to him,” a smiling Hargreaves III told ESPN.com in February. “I just kind of stood in front of him and was like, ‘I told you!’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I guess.’”

It’s rare that a freshman has the gall to approach his position coach like that, but Hargreaves III had incentive after Robinson, known for being quite the trash-talker, challenged him earlier in the week.

Sidelined for eight preseason practices with a shoulder injury, Hargreaves III was first provoked by Robinson in the training room eight days before the opener. Robinson asked if he was going to get beat against the Rockets, or worse, quit.

“No, I’m gonna get a pick,” he told Robinson.

Eight days later, Hargreaves III ended his first mission as a Gator but began a journey that earned him both All-American and all-SEC honors.

Thanks to his father Vernon Hargreaves II's assistant coaching stints at Miami, Florida International, East Carolina and South Florida, Hargreaves III called Miami, Greenville, N.C., and Tampa home.

It exposed Hargreaves III to different places and people, but his love for sports flourished during his nine years in Miami, starting at age three.

“More often than not, they were outside riding their bikes and out running and doing stuff outside, which is kind of old school these days,” Hargreaves II told ESPN.com.

That evoked Hargreaves’ competitive side, as he immersed himself in football, basketball, baseball, soccer and even swimming.

When Hargreaves II got the job to coach USF’s special teams and defensive ends, the family moved from North Carolina to Tampa heading into Hargreaves III’s sophomore year of high school. That’s when Hargreaves III decided to focus solely on football.

His father took him to the Team Tampa 7-on-7 practices, where he had his son line up at cornerback against one of the best high school athletes around -- current USC receiver Nelson Agholor. Hargreaves II said his son held his own for the most part, and he could see his natural fit was at cornerback. He advised his son to stay there, but he never pushed him or trained him outside of anything Hargreaves III didn’t want.

When Hargreaves III garnered five-star status, earned a trip to the Under Armour All-America Game and was offered a scholarship to Florida, it came from his own desire and work ethic.

“He took it upon himself to get as good as he can,” Hargreaves II said.

“I hate to say it, but a lot of that stuff just comes naturally. I don’t know how to explain it, really.”

One interception wasn’t enough for Hargreaves III so he snatched another one in his second game and a third in his fourth.

Hargreaves III seemed almost too comfortable on the field in the country’s toughest conference. He said fall camp was tough … for a week. Hargreaves III wasn’t used to being yelled at or getting beat so he sought guidance from veteran corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. After some tough love and reflection, Hargreaves III said he started to ease in, even with the coaches moving him around from outside corner to nickel.

Coach Will Muschamp said he could tell that Hargreaves III was special with “off the charts” high school film, but he knew he needed to get him on the field early after that first week of preseason practice.

He was collecting interceptions and constantly picking things up. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the workload, understood all the new verbiage and was extremely coachable, Muschamp said.

“Vernon’s got the talent of hard work. He works,” Muschamp said. “When he goes out on the offseason program, he competes, and he works. He’s extremely intelligent; football comes very easy to him.

“Hard work is a talent, and a lot of very talented guys don’t have that.”

To Hargreaves III, it’s more than just work ethic. It’s a desire to never sit.

“I guess I don’t like not playing,” said Hargreaves III, who started 10 games in 2013 and was third in the SEC with 14 defended passes. “That’s what pulls me over. I don’t like not being able to do anything.”

Now, he’ll be asked to do even more. In a depleted secondary, Hargreaves III is the top returning member. He’s a youngster by grade, but not by his level of play. He understands that he has to do more than just elevate his game.

“I’m ready to take that on,” he said. “I don’t really feel the pressure, but I know that my coaches and the players look up to me to be able to make plays and teach other guys. That’s what I want to do. I want that to be on me. I’m looking forward to it.”

Hargreaves III will now be hunted in a league and society comprised of wolves. He’ll be scrutinized at every turn, as the spotlight shifts his way.

Neither Muschamp nor Hargreaves II are worried. They know their quiet secondary assassin is capable of ignoring the noise. But they also know that he has to build on 2013 and evolve as he looks to take his next steps.

“If you go backward, they’re going to wear you out,” Hargreaves II said. “You have to go full blast and be even better than you were. This may sound crazy, but that’s the reality. It’s gotta happen.”
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.

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