Ball security in the SEC

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
4:00
PM ET
Turnovers are the great equalizer in football.

Teams that turn it over consistently don't win very often, and teams that force turnovers typically find ways to win.

Looking back at the SEC in the last three seasons, it's not surprising that Alabama and LSU lead the way in turnover margin. The Tigers are plus-36 and the Crimson Tide are plus-24 during that span. They've combined to win two of the last three SEC titles and played each other for the national championship in 2011.

Alabama has been especially good at not turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide haven’t turned it over 20 or more times in a season since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Alabama and LSU are the only teams in the league that haven’t had a 20-turnover season at least once over the last three years. During that three-year span, Alabama has turned it over just 44 times.

By contrast, Ole Miss has turned it over 75 times during the last three seasons, which is the most in the league. Arkansas is right behind the Rebels with 74 turnovers, and the Hogs have forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC since 2011 (47). Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams to turn it over more than 20 times in each of the last three seasons, although Texas A&M was a member of the Big 12 in 2011.

In the last three seasons, South Carolina's defense has led the way when it comes to creating turnovers. The Gamecocks have forced 86 turnovers. LSU is second with 82. The Gamecocks have intercepted an SEC-high 52 passes in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt is second with 48 picks during that span.

Ole Miss has thrown the most interceptions (44) in the last three seasons, just one more than Tennessee (43). Alabama has thrown the fewest picks (18).

Below is the turnover margin for all 14 SEC schools in the last three seasons. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the Big 12 in 2011.

1. LSU: 82 gained, 46 lost -- plus-36
2. Alabama: 68 gained, 44 lost -- plus-24
3. Mississippi State: 78 gained, 55 lost -- plus-23
4. South Carolina: 86 gained, 64 lost -- plus-22
5. Missouri: 77 gained, 57 lost -- plus-20
6. Georgia: 77 gained, 66 lost -- plus-11
7. Vanderbilt: 77 gained, 69 lost -- plus-8
8. Florida: 62 gained, 61 lost -- plus-1
9. Kentucky: 52 gained, 55 lost -- minus-3
10. Tennessee: 60 gained, 64 lost -- minus-4
11. Ole Miss: 67 gained, 75 lost -- minus-8
12. Auburn: 55 gained, 65 lost -- minus-10
13. Texas A&M: 53 gained, 66 lost -- minus-13
14. Arkansas: 47 gained, 74 lost -- minus-27

Video: Auburn RB Racean 'Roc' Thomas

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
2:30
PM ET
video
Auburn running back signee Racean 'Roc' Thomas talks with ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf about the Tigers' running back battle and how he will factor in this summer.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have been 3-9 in 2012, but that didn’t stop the fans from piling inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for last year’s spring game. There was a record crowd of 83,401 who were on hand to welcome new coach Gus Malzahn, not thinking that he would eventually lead the Tigers to the BCS title game nine months later.

“I think [A-Day] is for the overall program,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together -- our fans, our players, our coaches. This is one of those unique opportunities. We want to make it exciting for our fans, and at the same time, we want to get better.”

The crowd could be even bigger this year with the Tigers coming off a 12-2 season and an SEC championship. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s spring finale (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith his confidence sky high, expect Auburn QB Nick Marshall to be even better running the Tigers' high-powered offense.
1. Faster is better: The proposed “10-second” rule never made it to a vote, and that means that Auburn’s offense is only going to get faster. It took first-year quarterback Nick Marshall nearly half the season before he became comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and even then he wasn’t as confident as he has looked this spring. The senior is making better reads, throwing the ball better and more importantly, he’s become a leader. Expect Marshall to take the hurry-up, no-huddle offense to another gear this fall, and although the spring game won’t give much away, it will give the fans a glimpse of what’s to come.

2. Juco impact: If you ask the fans, the player they most want to see Saturday would almost certainly be wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player a year ago, and there’s already talk that he could be one of the top wideouts in the SEC next season. The coaches and players alike have raved about his talent this spring, and he’ll make his debut in front of the fans this weekend. However, don’t sleep on his juco teammate Derrick Moncrief. The former Prattville (Ala.) defensive back has had as good as spring as anybody on the team and could push for a starting role in the secondary.

3. Blind side battle: Don’t expect the left tackle battle to be decided during Saturday’s spring game. The coaches have all but said they will wait until the fall before naming a starter. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth keeping an eye on. Sophomore Shon Coleman, who served as Greg Robinson's primary backup last year, might have a leg up in the race and will likely take the field with the first-team offense, but Patrick Miller, the more experienced of the two, will get his reps, too. In his first two seasons at Auburn, Miller started 14 games at right tackle, and he might see some time there depending on what the coaches do with Avery Young.

4. Health concerns: There could be some familiar faces not in action Saturday. It’s been a frustrating spring from a health standpoint, and while there haven’t been any serious injuries, there have been enough nagging injuries to force the coaches to get creative. Defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have both worked some at end, and with LaDarius Owens out and Carl Lawson questionable, the “Rhino package” could make an appearance. Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson indicated that some of the starters who have been banged up might not get as many reps in the spring game.

5. The running backs: It was this time last year when Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer at the time, first made his mark on the Plains. He had 164 yards of offense and a touchdown in the spring game, which earned him offensive MVP honors. He’d like to duplicate that performance in this year’s game and claim the starting job, but Corey Grant won’t go down without a fight. Grant, who primarily ran the jet sweep last year, will show what he can do as a featured back. And don’t forget about redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who could wind up leading the team in carries when it’s all said and done.

SEC lunch links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
12:00
PM ET
Alabama, Auburn and Missouri will all hold their spring games this weekend. To get you ready for all the action, be sure to check out Friday’s lunch links.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when Alabama takes to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday for A-Day, the finale of spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherQB Blake Sims has had a good spring and hopes to finish with a strong effort in Alabama's spring game on Saturday.
1. The quarterbacks: No, unfortunately the missing piece in the quarterback puzzle, transfer Jacob Coker, won’t be on the field Saturday. Instead, he’ll be in the stands watching his competition get a head start. And so far the clear leader has been veteran Blake Sims, who has put up some monster numbers in earlier scrimmages. He and Cooper Bateman have separated themselves, but Alec Morris and Parker McLeod will have an opportunity, however limited it may be, to make one final push before the offseason.

2. The Lane Train: We’ve heard that he’s more “player-friendly” and has “simplified” the offense since coming to Tuscaloosa. But the specifics of Lane Kiffin’s transformation of Alabama’s offense still remain to be seen. So while fans shouldn’t expect much more than a vanilla playbook, do pay attention to the formations and how the ball is distributed.

3. A young secondary: The focus of the spring has been primarily on Kiffin and the quarterbacks, and maybe that’s rightfully so. But no one should forget Alabama’s secondary, which faces a large rebuilding task. Starting safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are gone. So is former starting cornerback Deion Belue and top reserve John Fulton. With the exception of Landon Collins at strong safety, every position in the secondary is up for grabs.

4. Rushing the passer: Defensive line coach Bo Davis has brought energy and a renewed focus on rushing the passer to Alabama this offseason. And with the depth he inherited at the position, he has the tools to get after the quarterback. Promising freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are a year wiser, Dalvin Tomlinson is back from injury and D.J. Pettway returns after a year of exile. That’s a good nucleus of pass-rushers, but don’t forget Dee Liner and Tim Williams. Though the quarterbacks will essentially be playing two-hand touch, pay attention to how the down-linemen fire off the snap and get into the backfield.

5. The up-and-comers:

  • Derrick Henry: We all know by now what the former five-star athlete did in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. But can he follow it up?
  • Tony Brown: With Eddie Jackson out and other injuries at the position, the top-five corner and early enrollee has gotten plenty of repetitions. With a strong close to the spring, he could put himself in position to vie for a starting job in the fall.
  • Cam Robinson: The former No. 1 offensive tackle in the ESPN 300 has come on as of late, challenging for the role of left tackle vacated by Cyrus Kouandjio. There’s no question Robinson fits the build from a physical and talent standpoint. The real question is how he acclimates to college and learns the playbook.
  • Reuben Foster: With C.J. Mosley gone, there’s a vacancy at middle linebacker. Foster, a former four-star recruit, has impressed with his athleticism and ability to deliver the big hits. But can he bring the complete package to the table?
Ask Maty Mauk if the Missouri Tigers are his team now, and he doesn't hesitate to answer yes.

But there are words and there are deeds, and Mauk knows the difference.

A week ago he was just getting comfortable with the mantle of leadership that goes with the quarterback position, just settling in and stretching his legs. Then adversity rocked the program.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk, Sam Wren
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk is looking forward to being the leader of Missouri's offense and working with an inexperienced receiver corps.
Sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, an all-world talent at receiver, was dismissed last Friday. In a flash, the offense -- Mauk's offense -- was dramatically altered.

Mauk sprang into action, gathering his offensive linemen and receivers.

"Yeah, it's hard," he said a few days later. "It's something we're not really focused on anymore. It's behind us and we can't do anything about it."

When Mauk rallied his troops they had one week of practice left before the annual Black & Gold game on Faurot Field (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET). They needed to start getting used to life without Green-Beckham.

"It's different," Mauk said of the new look. "[Green-Beckham] brings something to the table that not a lot of teams can have. But we have plenty of guys that can step in."

Without DGB, Missouri has to replace its top three receivers from a year ago. Green-Beckham, along with seniors L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, combined for 167 of the team's 267 catches. They had 2,468 of Missouri's 3,540 receiving yards and 25 of the Tigers' 31 touchdowns through the air.

In other words, they left a huge void.

Or is it a great opportunity? That's how a leader would spin the situation.

Mauk listed his receivers earlier this week and spoke of their skills with such enthusiasm that one would hardly notice the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Green-Beckham-sized hole.

"You've got Darius [White] and Bud [Sasser] on the outside who are 6-3, 6-4 guys that run routes that are nice, crisp routes," Mauk said of his seniors. "I know them so well that I feel like we can run anything and be able to do whatever we want down the field together. And then you look inside at Jimmie [Hunt]. Jimmie's been here for a while. He's played. He's a tremendous guy in there.

"Levi [Copelin], he's stepping in. He brings something to the table that we might not have had. ... J'Mon Moore, who was a freshman last year, he's going to be something. I'm expecting huge things. That's a guy I'm on every day. He's really got to step up, especially with Dorial gone."

Urging his teammates on is something that comes naturally to Mauk. He started four games last year when starter James Franklin went down with a sprained shoulder. A 3-1 record, 1,071 yards passing and 11 touchdowns (to just two interceptions) gave Mauk instant credibility.

Franklin came back for the last four games of the season, and Mauk stepped aside.

"I understood what my role was," he said.

But Mauk saw an opening. There was an obvious contrast between Franklin and him. The senior was quiet, while the redshirt freshman was loud and demanding.

"Even when James came back I was like, 'These are still my guys, too,'" Mauk said. "Now it's just so natural to me that I can just come out here and say stuff. They understand me and they'll accept that and they'll get better."

Being an integral part of a 12-win season gave Mauk a voice, and he's using it to keep Missouri on track through words and deeds. He and his teammates know their breakthrough success in 2013 won't mean anything if they don't follow it up with another successful season.

"Everybody is picking us to be down at the bottom of the SEC East again," Mauk said. "That's just motivation for us. We just want to come out here and keep proving people wrong."
If Florida is going to take a real step forward this season, a receiver must step up and be a force for the Gators.

Everyone is looking at quarterback Jeff Driskel, who still has a lot to prove, but he's going to need some help in this new offense, and the Gators need a true playmaker at receiver in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
AP Photo/Phil SandlinWR Demarcus Robinson has made an impact this spring. Now Florida hopes he can carry it over into the fall and become a playmaker for the Gators.
Rising sophomore Demarcus Robinson could be that guy.

With all due respect to the rest of Florida's receiving corps, Robinson has all the athleticism and talent to be a real star in this league. He could be the kind of game-changer who could really give this offense a jolt.

The 6-foot-2, 201-pound receiver didn't show much of his potential last season (five catches for 23 yards in seven games), but when you talk to people around the program you hear the same thing: A focused and determined Robinson could be a really special player for the Gators.

The key, of course, is that Robinson stays on the field. He didn't do a very good job of that last season, getting suspended twice, which hurt his development and hurt his team. From all accounts, Robinson kept his head in his playbook this spring and was able to make plenty of highlight-reel plays in practices. The former ESPN 300 prospect and U.S. Army All-American, who registered more than 1,000 receiving yard and had 15 touchdowns as a senior at Peach County High in Fort Valley, Ga., can stretch the field to be a deep threat and can make tough catches over the middle. He could also be a headache for defensive backs with his size and range.

“He has done some fantastic things in the passing game,” Florida coach Will Muschamp told reporters earlier this spring. “He’s an explosive receiver. He’s a tough matchup one-on-one because of his size, his athleticism. He’s got really good ball skills down the field."

Fans got a fun glimpse of Robinson during Florida's spring game this past Saturday with that nifty 31-yard touchdown catch when he sprinted across the field, made the catch underneath, headed upfield, made a move on a pursuing defender and then jogged into the end zone.

He's a speedster, and he's elusive. What he needs to do is continue to be consistent on and off the field because he could make Driskel's -- and Muschamp's -- life so much easier in 2014. He just has to stay on the field.

If he can do that, people might want to refrain from sleeping on Florida's new offense. Will he single-handedly make this a top-10 offense or take the Gators to Atlanta for the SEC championship game? No, but what he can do is be a major player in Florida's success. He can be that playmaker Driskel desperately needs, and a guy who can help open things up for other players in this offense.

Florida has a veteran in Quinton Dunbar and a group of other young receivers who appear to making strides, but Robinson has the potential to play on another level when he totally buys in. He'll make the tough catches and tough cuts.

Robinson isn't the overall solution to Florida's offensive troubles, but if he can play to his potential and stay focused, he could be a key cog in the Gators' attempt at a major 2014 rebound.

Stopping the run in the SEC

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
4:15
PM ET
The game of football will always evolve, and there are always going to be changes -- from how fast teams want to play on offense, to whether the quarterback lines up under center, to whether there are four or six defensive backs on the field.

What doesn't change, at least if you want to be good, is that you have to be able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense.

To the latter, I went back and looked at the recent SEC champions.

Last season, Auburn was 62nd nationally in rushing defense, the lowest any SEC champion has finished in rushing defense in the SEC championship game era. Nine of the previous 10 SEC champs had finished in the top-15 nationally in rushing defense, and six had finished in the top 10.

So, clearly, Auburn was the exception a season ago. The Tigers allowed an average of 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, the most by an SEC champion since the advent of the SEC championship game in 1992. Only three other SEC champions during the championship game era have averaged giving up more than 120 yards per game on the ground.

Prior to last season, the last seven SEC champs averaged giving up just 91.1 yards per game rushing.

Here's a look at the rush defensive numbers for all of the SEC champions going back to the first SEC championship game in 1992. Their national rank is in parentheses:
  • 2013 -- Auburn (62nd) -- 162.1 yards
  • 2012 -- Alabama (1st) – 76.4 yards
  • 2011 -- LSU (5th) – 90.1 yards
  • 2010 -- Auburn (9th) – 109.1 yards
  • 2009 -- Alabama (2nd) – 78.1 yards
  • 2008 -- Florida (15th) – 105.4 yards
  • 2007 -- LSU (12th) – 106.1 yards
  • 2006 -- Florida (5th) – 72.5 yards
  • 2005 -- Georgia (52nd) 143.8 yards
  • 2004 -- Auburn (12th) 104.2 yards
  • 2003 -- LSU (3rd) – 67 yards
  • 2002 – Georgia (19th) 114 yards
  • 2001 – LSU (21st) 116.7 yards
  • 2000 – Florida (39th) 133.1 yards
  • 1999 – Alabama (2nd) 75.3 yards
  • 1998 – Tennessee (6th) – 93.9 yards
  • 1997 – Tennessee (8th) – 93.3 yards
  • 1996 – Florida (18th) – 108.6 yards
  • 1995 – Florida (25th) – 130.2 yards
  • 1994 – Florida (5th) – 84.6 yards
  • 1993 – Florida (9th) – 111.2 yards
  • 1992 – Alabama (1st) – 55 yards
Kentucky and Texas A&M both lost quarterbacks Wednesday, which means the race for their starting jobs is down to two.

SportsNation

Which team in the SEC has the most precarious quarterback situation in terms of talent, depth and experience heading into 2014?

  •  
    25%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    33%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,428)

Jalen Whitlow is leaving Kentucky, and Matt Joeckel is leaving Texas A&M. Now, the reality might be that neither one of those guys was going to win the job. But in both cases, the Wildcats and Aggies are going to put a quarterback on the field in the fall who has very little experience.

They're hardly the only ones in that boat in the SEC.

Only three teams in the league are bringing back an established quarterback who started all or most of the season a year ago. Auburn returns Nick Marshall, while Dak Prescott is back at Mississippi State and Bo Wallace at Ole Miss. Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson returns at South Carolina, but most of his work to this point has been coming off the bench in relief, although he did have the memorable performance against Clemson two years ago in a start when Connor Shaw was injured and couldn't play.

The bottom line: There aren't a ton of rock-solid quarterback situations in the SEC as we exit the spring.

Your homework assignment (the fans) is telling us who has the most precarious quarterback situation heading into the 2014 season. So go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll unveil the results in the next few days.

Obviously, the landscape can change pretty dramatically. Did anybody really know what Texas A&M had at quarterback with Johnny Manziel entering the 2012 season?

The five schools we've come up with as candidates all have some major question marks.

At Kentucky, sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Drew Barker are now battling it out. And at Texas A&M, it's down to a redshirt freshman (Kenny Hill) and a true freshman (Kyle Allen). Hill has already been in trouble this offseason, too.

Brandon Allen is the guy at Arkansas, but struggled through an injury-marred season a year ago. The Hogs finished last in the SEC in passing offense.

True freshman Brandon Harris outplayed sophomore Anthony Jennings in LSU's spring game, so this summer and the preseason should be quite interesting on the Bayou.

And at Alabama, the Crimson Tide's starter for the 2014 season might well be attending classes at another school. Jacob Coker is transferring from Florida State and won't be on Alabama's campus until he graduates from FSU in May. Fifth-year senior Blake Sims has taken the lead this spring in the Tide's quarterback derby as he adjusts to Lane Kiffin's pro-style offense, but will have to hold off Coker. Whoever wins the job at Alabama will have very little, if any, meaningful game experience.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On a pro day all his own, former Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley on Thursday worked out in front of representatives of 17 NFL teams.

Easley, who is rated the draft's No. 5 prospect at DT and the No. 64 prospect overall by Scouts Inc., tore the ACL and medial meniscus in his right knee in a late September practice.

After Thursday's workout, Easley said his knee was "about 80 percent" of its full strength, but he expects to be 100 percent for summer mini-camps.

"I felt real good out there," he said. "I wanted to show them that I can move, that I still have the quickness, I still have my get-off and my tenacity in everything that I do."
Florida head coach Will Muschamp started Easley's day with drills to show off his flexibility, lateral movement and quickness.

"We made the workout very difficult purposely," Muschamp said. "I got him going a little bit. The coaches finished it up. They all made comments about how when it got tough, that's when he's at his best."

It's been a long, hard road to recovery for Easley, who said he rehabbed the injury three times a day, every day.

It's also not the first time he has gone through this. He tore the ACL in his left knee in November 2011 but missed no playing time and established himself as a disruptive force playing mostly at defensive end for the Gators in the 2012 season.

"The mental part was different," he said. "I didn't know my limits [with the first injury]. With this knee, I know I'm going to be safe. I know my knee is stable, so I can push it."

Considered undersized at 6-foot-1.75 and 285 pounds, Easley has nevertheless proved most effective at defensive tackle, where he can consistently penetrate gaps with a lightning-quick first step.

Several of Easley's teammates and coaches were on hand Thursday morning to show support for the player they called the heart and soul of the team. Easley started 26 of 32 games at Florida and led the team with four sacks in 2012.

"He was very impressive," Muschamp said. "The [NFL scouts] all commented you could see what he does on tape in the workout. His competitive edge is one of his greatest talents.

"I think he's got a great ceiling. ... He would have been [a sure first-round pick]. It's unfortunate, but his best football is ahead of him. I know one thing: Nobody is going to work harder than him to get it done. He's got a great work ethic. He's got a great competitive edge. All the intangibles are there."

Easley is projected most often as a second- or third-round pick in the NFL draft, which is May 8-10.

"I don't really pay attention to that," he said. "Everybody knows how I play. Everybody sees my love for the game. So that stuff doesn't matter to me."

He'll visit NFL teams for seven straight days starting on Sunday.

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
1:00
PM ET
Let them eat a late lunch!
MOBILE, Ala. -- Idle is not a position Jacob Coker prefers. Yet here he is, amid the constant swish of windshield wipers, sitting impatiently in the passenger seat of a silver sedan as a thunderstorm continues to pummel this swampy patch of the Gulf Coast.

It's a Friday morning in late March, and while many of Alabama's football players are laid out on sunlit beaches enjoying spring break, Coker has his mind set to working in his own slushy backyard.

The 21-year-old put aside a jam-packed final semester at Florida State to drive 250 miles home to Mobile, sit in a car and watch as rain threatened to wash away his scheduled throwing session with David Morris, his quarterback coach of more than 5 years.

A week earlier, Coker spent his spring vacation in Tuscaloosa watching film and working out. He missed walking in on AJ McCarron's pro day by minutes, leaving Alabama's indoor facility just as the Crimson Tide's former star quarterback began throwing for scouts.

Coker is the favorite to inherit McCarron's throne when he finishes his undergraduate degree and transfers to Alabama next month, but not before days like this -- days where you either push through less than ideal conditions or waste away at home. If there's the slightest hint of precipitation, his future teammates move practice indoors to an air-conditioned, 97,000-square foot facility. Meanwhile, Coker is left to create his own version of camp at empty high school stadiums and busy city parks. Wherever there's room and whenever there's time, he's training.

So even though a window of decent weather won't appear, it's no matter. Coker swings open the car door and steps on the field with his cleats already laced.

To continue reading this story, click here.
There's a saying that the Arkansas defense is living by this spring in hopes of becoming a better, more aggressive unit this fall.

It rings true with the mentality new defensive coordinator Robb Smith wants to instill in his group.

"Coach Smith stressed he can stand getting beat, but he can't stand getting 'beat up,'" senior defensive end Trey Flowers said.

[+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesSenior DE Trey Flowers and the Arkansas defense have a new attitude this spring.
The Razorbacks would prefer to be on the right side of both, but the effort is the key part of the equation. Given that, the unit is working this spring to become faster, more physical and more aggressive than before. Rather than read-and-react, it's more line-up-and-attack in Fayetteville, Ark., which is the what Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema is looking for.

"When Bret hired me, one of the things he wanted to do was be aggressive on defense," Smith said. "We're going to pick our opportunities to do that. We have a couple of wrinkles in right now, and we'll continue to build off of that. We've got to continue to get more precise with those things and keep getting better and keep improving."

The focus this spring, Flowers said, has been on physical play, stopping the run and creating turnovers. The Razorbacks were 11th in the SEC and 90th in the nation last season in yards-per-carry allowed (4.67) to opponents and were 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (178.58). When it comes to turnovers, the Razorbacks had the worst turnover margin in the SEC (minus-9) and they created the fewest, too (14).

So the current defensive staff, which consists of one returnee (linebackers coach Randy Shannon) and three newcomers (Smith, defensive line coach Rory Segrest and secondary coach Clay Jennings) has honed in on getting the Razorbacks playing with the type of mentality desired.

"I think you do it a couple different ways," Smith said. "You practice it in terms of technique. You make sure you're physical tackling. You make sure that you're taking on blocks the right way. You can do it from a scheme standpoint. You make sure you're dictating daylight, things of that nature. You can pressure a little bit. I think all of that kind of builds to an aggressive mentality."

While the Razorbacks remain in a base 4-3 alignment, there are definitely wrinkles and differences in what they're doing this season. Segrest said the defensive line is transitioning to the attacking mentality.

"I think one of the biggest things, just looking back at least year, there was more of a read concept and I'm more of an attack guy when the ball is snapped," he said. "We still want to make sure we're attacking proper aiming points and not just running up the field, so there's an adjustment going from a pure read to an attack and react. That's been a little bit of a transition, but I think the guys have really come a long way as far as that goes."

Senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel, one of six starters returning on Arkansas' defense, said he completely buys into Smith's "I can stand getting beat, but I can't stand getting beat up," approach.

"I love that saying because as a corner, you can tell that he understands that you're going to get beat. That's just the game of football," Mitchel said. "He can stomach that, he can deal with that. But he cannot stomach getting beaten up. I'm down for that. I'm doing my best every practice not to get beat. My job is to defend my man from the ball and be more physical than the other man."

Smith stressed that there's a long way to go before the Razorbacks are where they want to be defensively and that the defense is still "a work in progress." But the players seem to have the kind of attitude he and his staff are seeking, and they hope that translates to results in the 2014 season.

"It's just instilling that attitude, being a championship defense," Flowers said. "That's with everything from running to the ball, smart swarming, tackling, creating takeaways and just being physical. That all-around attitude is one we just want to hang our hat on and get better at during the spring."
video
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It didn’t take long for the sickening feeling to seep out of Landon Collins’ stomach and circulate through his body.

On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.

Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.

“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a less-than-stellar performance in its bowl loss to Oklahoma, Landon Collins expects Alabama's defense to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2014.
If Alabama is going to make it back to the national championship, Collins said the defense has to improve. During Alabama’s two-year BCS title run (2011-12), the Tide finished first nationally in total and scoring defense in both seasons. Last season, Alabama finished in the top five in both categories, but that final game serves as a harsh reminder of the defense's flaws.

Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.

Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.

“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”

But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.

Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.

There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.

For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.

“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”

There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.

Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?

Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.

Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.

For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.

Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.

“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”

“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”

Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.

The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.

“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”
video
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shortly after a string of grueling 6 a.m. offseason workouts and just before spring practice began on the Plains, Auburn’s offensive players gathered together. Around the same time, the defense locked itself away, too.

There was no discussion of mutiny or complaining about the harsh offseason that was. These meetings were strictly business and about progress.

Offensive players anonymously wrote down their ideas on what it was going to take to push forward and what would hinder their growth, while defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson preached to his unit that it was much easier to build on losses than success.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright leads a group of young, hungry defensive linemen intent on keeping Auburn atop the SEC.
Both sides emerged motivated to cast away any complacency. They were hungry to capitalize on a special season that saw the Tigers rebound from an embarrassing 3-9 2012 to march to the final BCS national title game, only to come up seconds short to Florida State.

“We’ve not arrived,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in early April. “We had a really good season and we came a long way. We were 13 seconds away from winning the whole thing, and we’re trying to use all of that in a positive way moving forward and not let any of the things that come with success seep in. We have a heightened alert of it.”

More than a year removed from the dark stain that was 2012, the Tigers embark on a season in which they’ll be viewed as favorites more often than not, but they’re looking to evolve. Last year has vanished, and while it was a special season, everyone on the Plains feels something was left out in California with the loss to FSU.

Complacency isn’t an option for this year’s Auburn Tigers.

“Getting to the national championship was one of the hardest things to do,” senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said, “but let’s face it: Getting there and then not winning it probably puts more fire in you than getting there and winning it. I know this team is highly motivated, highly driven, and that’s not coach-talk -- that’s talk in the locker room, and that’s exactly how we feel.”

Beyond hunger, this team has talent. Important pieces such as running back Tre Mason (a school-record 1,816 rushing yards and 2,374 yards of total offense), defensive end Dee Ford (10.5 sacks), cornerback Chris Davis (15 pass breakups and the Alabama kick-six) and left tackle Greg Robinson (future first-round draft pick) are gone, but the Tigers are stockpiled with more than adequate personnel.

Auburn has an All-SEC candidate quarterback in Nick Marshall, a healthy stable of running backs, older and improved receivers, and a young, yet beastly, set of defensive linemen that could be budding stars.

This team isn’t perfect, but it isn’t learning so much this spring as it is adjusting and growing. There’s less installing. Practices have been more technical than anything, with extra wrinkles being thrown in.

There’s also a healthy nucleus of veterans and youngsters who were key to last season's success, creating a great balance of camaraderie and skill.

Going 12-2 with an SEC championship and some miraculous victories set the college football world ablaze, but it hasn’t satisfied an Auburn team looking for more.

“It’s going to be tougher next year,” senior center Reese Dismukes said. “Now, everyone is going to have a target on us. You can’t let the little things slip ... you have to focus on everything being right.

“You can’t ever sleep. You gotta keep working hard and keep getting better because someone is always going to be coming after you.”

With a schedule that features trips to Kansas State, both Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will get all it can handle during its run to repeat as SEC champs. To attack that road, the no-longer-sneaky Tigers must make sure their defense can keep up with what should be another potent offense.

After allowing 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game in conference play, Johnson described last season's defense as not very good. It gave up too many yards, had too many missed assignments, made too many adjustment mistakes, and allowed too many “cheap plays,” Johnson said.

But with the experience returning, instead of rebuilding and re-coaching, Johnson said he’s been able to work with a more comfortable group. Players know what they are doing now and aren't making the same silly mistakes that plagued them last spring and fall, which has made the defense "so much better" this spring, Johnson said.

“It’s a fine line sometimes between panic and recklessness,” Johnson said of his defense. “We’ve got to keep that recklessness and intensity if we’re going to have a chance. We’re still not one of the most talented teams in America, but we’re talented enough if we continue to focus like we did last year and keep trying hard and improving.”

It would be easy for the Tigers to rely on their talent and past success. But that's not the mindset. The mindset is that this team has so much more to show in 2014. The Tigers want to get comfortable with a championship lifestyle.

“Really and truly, I don’t think the confidence level could be too high," Wright said. "It’s not anything about overconfidence, it’s just that we don’t want to maintain to stay here. We know there’s another level to go.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES