Aggies everywhere hope Chavis, with his two decades-plus experience of coaching SEC defenses, most recently at LSU, can be the one who does it and rectifies the most glaring weakness on this Texas A&M squad, which has become more synonymous with high-scoring offensive football in recent years. Chavis' track record suggests he can.
On Thursday night, the former LSU defensive coordinator met with the media for the first time since he was hired to be the Aggies’ new defensive boss and discussed his new home, his early impressions of Texas A&M’s defense through three spring practices, his new colleagues and the emotions involved with leaving LSU, where he spent the past six seasons.
“What wouldn’t be appealing?” Chavis said. “I mean, we’re talking about a university, look what’s going on — look at what’s going on with the facilities. This is a university that’s wanting to invest, not just wanting, but has invested in its program. If you look at that stadium it’s a place where you can recruit, there’s no doubt about that; there’s a wealth of talent in Texas, so why wouldn’t you want to be a part of this program at Texas A&M?
“To be quite honest with you we’re building to win championships. That's what it's all about. I want to be a part of a championship program. There’s no question you can win them here at Texas A&M and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Chavis, who retained all three Texas A&M full-time defensive assistants that were on staff prior to his arrival – Terry Price, Mark Hagen and Terry Joseph – said the chemistry with his new staff is “really good” and that they’re “excellent football coaches.” The talent needed on the roster to succeed exists in Chavis’ mind; the biggest thing he said he will work on is the unit’s confidence. The Aggies ranked last in the SEC in yards per game allowed and rushing defense each of the last two seasons.
“We’ve got talent, there’s no question about that,” Chavis said. “The first thing we need to do is get our guys confident that they’re good enough to play and good enough to win in the SEC. Once they feel that way — and I think we’re well on the road to being there — they’re going to be able to compete. Sure, they had some struggles. That was last year and we’re not going to talk about last year. We’ve got some core principles that we believe in and we’re going to apply those and have applied them and we think it'll get us to the situation where we're going to be very, very competitive.
“Now we've got a lot of work to do, don't kid yourself. I'm not kidding myself. But the talent is here and we're going to put the work in.”
Leaving LSU wasn’t an easy decision, and Chavis acknowledged that difficulty considering the relationships built in his time in Baton Rouge.
“The emotions are with those kids,” Chavis said of the Tigers. “I love those kids. But there came a time when you have to make a decision and you have do what's best for you. And I've coached this game for 38 years or so and to be quite honest with you, I haven't always made decisions solely based on what was best for me. But this was a great opportunity that I couldn't turn down. It's a great situation, certainly it's one where I hope I can finish my career. If I get eight or 10 good years here, if I can go that long, it would be great.”
Chavis also had positive things to say about LSU coach Les Miles.
“Listen, I love Coach Miles too,” Chavis said. “He was a great guy to work for. We have a great relationship and it'll always be that kind of relationship. But the toughest thing was leaving those kids. The good thing is, I have a great group of young men [at Texas A&M]. And we're learning to love and care about each other. We're learning to trust each other. That's how it has to happen. They've got to trust me. I've got to trust them. And that happens over time and we're learning that now and Texas A&M feels like home.”
There is a legal battle going on between Chavis and LSU over a $400,000 buyout the Tigers claim he owes for terminating his contract. Chavis declined to elaborate on the topic, noting that “There’s not anything I can say that will help the matter. Got a great law team handling it. They’ll get it worked out. My focus is on coaching football.” He said it hasn’t been a distraction and his focus is on his current task: improving the Aggies’ defense.
“Obviously, there is SEC talent here — there’s no question about that,” he said. “We've got to help them get better and that’s what coaching is all about. You can take young talent and make it better and I’m excited about coaching a young football team.”
What’s new: Kentucky welcomes a new offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson. Previously at West Virginia, Dawson is part of the Air Raid offensive coaching tree, which should help the Wildcats keep some continuity offensively after the departure of Neal Brown, who was also an Air Raid disciple and left Lexington after two years as the offensive coordinator to be the head coach at Troy. Having worked under Dana Holgorsen, Dawson brings some keen insight and it should be interesting to see how the offense operates with him calling the plays. The Wildcats also brought in Andy Buh, most recently the defensive coordinator at Cal, to be Kentucky’s linebackers coach. Buh also made stops at Stanford, Nevada and Wisconsin in the last eight years.
New faces: Six players enrolled early in the 2015 recruiting class: offensive lineman George Asafo-Adjei, tight end C.J. Conrad, defensive end Kengera Daniel, tight end Greg Hart, linebacker Jordan Jones and linebacker Courtney Love. Hart and Love transferred from Nebraska, the other four are high school signees that graduated early.
Question marks: Kentucky loses a lot of production on the defensive side of the ball with the departure of Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. The duo did wonders for the Wildcats’ pass rush and finding quality successors is a key task for defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh. Both players were also considered leaders on last year’s Kentucky teams, so finding new voices in that area is also important. Also, the Wildcats return four starters on the offensive line but must show some improvement from last season, where they were near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed and rushing yards.
Key battle: Quarterback will be a position to watch again this spring. Towles won the job and performed respectably last season, helping Kentucky to a tremendous first half before the Wildcats struggled in the season’s second half. With Phillips out, the primary contender to push Towles this spring is redshirt freshman Drew Barker. Remember, Barker came in last season with a lot of buzz because of his lofty status as a recruit -- the ESPN 300 prospect was the No. 9 ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class and was the state of Kentucky’s top-rated recruit. After a redshirt year, how much will Barker challenge Towles for the starting job?
Breaking out: Stanley Williams showed some real promise late last season, rushing for a 126 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale against Louisville and 100 yards and a score against Georgia. The man they call “Boom” will be a sophomore and with Braylon Heard gone, there are more carries to go around between Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton. The Wildcats also have a wealth of gifted young receivers who are continuing to grow. Keep an eye on junior Ryan Timmons (45 catches, 536 yards last season), sophomore Garrett Johnson (22 catches, 271 yards), sophomore Dorian Baker (19 catches, 199 yards) and sophomore Blake Bone (14 catches, 194 yards) as guys who could potentially see their production jump this year.
Don’t forget about: Safety A.J. Stamps. The junior college transfer had a promising start to last season, picking off three passes in the Wildcats’ first five games and ended the season with his fourth interception in the season finale against Louisville. If he can take a step forward and become more consistent, that would be good for the back end of the defense. Don’t forget about Kentucky’s linebackers either. The Wildcats have some talent there with the likes of Josh Forrest, who was fifth in the league with 110 tackles. Veteran Khalid Henderson returns, as does Ryan Flannigan. If the unit can get a boost from the NCAA in the form of ruling Courtney Love immediately eligible rather than having to sit out a year, that would be a nice boost.
All eyes on: Mark Stoops. He has done a solid job building the Wildcats in his short time there, recruiting well and showing signs of on-field progress. Now the question is whether they can take the next step under Stoops and make a bowl game. For a short time last season it looked like they might do it in 2014 but lost six straight to close out the year. Stoops was rewarded for his good job so far with a deserved raise and contract extension, now fans are hoping he can keep that progress going by getting Kentucky into the postseason.
What’s new: The Tigers have three new assistant coaches this spring, including a new defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele. When longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis split for Texas A&M after LSU’s bowl loss to Notre Dame, his close friend Steele left a position at Alabama to join Les Miles’ staff. LSU introduced Steele and new defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who replaces Brick Haley, at the same news conference in January. Finally, former Georgia assistant Tony Ball takes over as receivers coach after Adam Henry accepted a job with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
New faces: The Tigers will have four early enrollees in camp. Two names to watch this spring are those of cornerback Kevin Toliver and running back David Ducre. Toliver was the highest-rated signee in LSU’s 2015 recruiting class (ESPN’s No. 10 overall prospect and No. 2 cornerback) and could compete for immediate playing time in the secondary. Same with Ducre, who jumps directly into the competition to replace Connor Neighbors at fullback. The Tigers also have quarterback Justin McMillan and tight end Hanner Shipley in camp as early enrollees.
Question marks: We addressed several spring storylines in greater detail in a post earlier this week. One of the leading questions entering spring practice is what shape the defense will take under Steele’s guidance. Chavis coached a 4-3 base defense and regularly deployed personnel packages with five and six defensive backs. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Steele continue those alignments since that’s what the current Tigers were specifically recruited to play. But we will also likely see him add some new wrinkles -- maybe even some 3-4 looks like his defenses played under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart at Alabama.
Key battle: No question about this one. LSU will have competition at nearly every position, but the most important one is at quarterback. The single most important issue for the Tigers this season is getting more effective play from the quarterback position. Incumbent Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games last season, but completed just 48.9 percent of his passes and clearly didn’t frighten defenses with his passing ability. However, talented freshman Brandon Harris was unable to overtake Jennings and was a flop in his one starting opportunity against Auburn. The Tigers desperately need one of them to grab this job and develop into an effective SEC quarterback. It could mean the difference between contending in the SEC West and remaining in the middle of the pack where LSU sat last fall.
Breaking out: After a standout freshman season, safety Jamal Adams seems likely to play a key role in the secondary this fall. This is also an important time for junior defensive end Tashawn Bower to lock down one of the starting spots vacated by Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter. Up front, two defensive tackles who sat out in 2014 -- Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao -- have a chance to make an immediate impact. On offense, it will be interesting to see which pass-catchers -- receivers like Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, John Diarse and D.J. Chark and tight ends like DeSean Smith, Colin Jeter and Jacory Washington -- join Travin Dural as the Tigers’ most reliable targets. Dural (37 catches for 758 yards and seven TDs last season) had 20 catches and 440 receiving yards more than the next-closest Tiger in 2014.
Don't forget about: Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture developed into an effective combination at defensive tackle as last season progressed, after the interior line was a bit of a mess early in the fall. Should Steele tinker with the Tigers’ defensive alignments, it will be interesting to see how many ways he is able to use the duo -- both of whom would probably fit better at defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
All eyes on: The Tigers return a pile of talent from last season’s young 8-5 team, led by star running back Leonard Fournette, but plenty of questions remain for Miles’ club. Steele’s impact will be a source of interest, but the likelihood of improvement probably rests on the job Cam Cameron does developing his quarterbacks. This is a team with enough talent to contend in the SEC West -- and maybe even for a College Football Playoff spot if everything goes smoothly. It starts with developing a more consistent passing game and a competent player under center who will prevent defenses from stacking the box to defend Fournette.
And with spring practice already up and running at a handful of schools, now seems about as good a time as any to take a stab at some early predictions as we look ahead to the 2015 season.
Let's hope I have more success than the West Division did in bowl games last season.
Missouri will win at least 10 games ... again: We've heard all the backhanded reasons about how and why Missouri has won 23 games over the last two seasons (tying Alabama for the most in the SEC). Chief among those reasons is that the East Division has been down. That doesn't change the fact that the Tigers are 14-2 in SEC games with a pair of championship game appearances and bowl wins during that span. Gary Pinkel and his staff are obviously doing a lot of things right, and that's not going to change in 2015. Being able to hold onto ace defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was huge. The Tigers just keep developing explosive difference-makers up front defensively, and that's where the game is won.
The SEC will crown a new champion: Alabama fans might want to sit down for this, but there won't be a repeat SEC champion. The Crimson Tide will almost certainly be picked to win the title. When are they not? They were the choice four of the last five years at the SEC media days. Of course, the only time the media got it right was last year. Repeating in this league is akin to winning the lottery in back-to-back years. The last time anybody did it was Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. To put how long it's been in perspective, the only current head coach who was a head coach in the league then was Steve Spurrier, and he was at Florida. Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze were coaching high school football. So, yes, it's been a while.
Carl Lawson will lead the conference in sacks: Some of the best news for Auburn is that Lawson is moving around just fine on his surgically repaired knee and will be ready this spring. Former teammate Gabe Wright called Lawson a “physical beast” last spring when it looked like he was poised to step right in for Dee Ford as the Tigers' finisher off the edge. But then came the ACL tear a month later, and Lawson was out for the season. He had four sacks as a freshman in 2013 but could triple that number this season. He will flourish in Will Muschamp's defense.
Malcolm Mitchell returns to prominence: Speaking of players returning from injury, isn't it about time Mitchell had some luck? When healthy, the guy is an absolute blur. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Some of it's been freakish. He tore his ACL two years ago in the opener against Clemson while celebrating a Todd Gurley touchdown run. He reinjured his knee prior to last season and missed the Bulldogs' first four games. This is the season it all goes right for Mitchell and he emerges as the top deep threat in the league. Come on, you gotta root for a guy who's in a book club.
Arkansas and Tennessee break out: The Hogs and Vols are both primed for breakout seasons in 2015. Are they ready to make that leap? We should find out on Oct. 3 when they meet in Knoxville in what will be a top-20 matchup. Brace yourselves for more “Woo Pig Sooie” calls and more renditions of “Rocky Top” than should ever be allowed.
Kentucky will go bowling: The Wildcats looked like they were on their way last season after starting out 5-1, but they lost their last six games and stayed home for the postseason. In Year No. 3 under Mark Stoops, Kentucky will get back to a bowl after a four-year hiatus. Even then, the Wildcats will lose more games in September than their basketball team does this entire season. That's good news for Cal's boys, right?
HailState shows staying power: Mississippi State won 10 games in the regular season a year ago for the first time in school history. The Bulldogs lost some key pieces on defense, and the general feeling around the league is that they won't be able to sustain that success. But with Dak Prescott back, they aren't going to just roll over and play dead. They'll find a way to go at least .500 in SEC play for the second straight season. The last time that happened was when Jackie Sherrill was running “bullish” in Starkville with four straight seasons of .500 SEC records or better from 1997-2000.
Nick Saban joins Twitter: Saban will follow Steve Spurrier's lead and take the Twittersphere plunge even though he vowed last season he was too old school to go down that road. I have it on good authority that Saban has at least kicked around the idea, although it's still a real long shot. Boy, if it were to happen, though, what's next? Saban rearranging practice this spring to play golf? OK, let's not get carried away.
Fans will complain about overpaid coaches: Fans of every SEC West team that doesn't win at least 10 games will gripe loudly and lengthily that their coach is overpaid. That sort of comes with the territory when all seven coaches in the division are making $4 million or more per year.
- John Chavis got the opportunity to address his pending legal issues on Thursday, not that Texas A&M’s new defensive coordinator went into much detail about the legal wrangling over whether he owes LSU a buyout after joining Kevin Sumlin’s coaching staff in January. The gruff veteran coach immediately shot down questions about the subject when asked about the issue following Thursday’s practice. (Here’s video of Chavis’ interview). The longtime SEC assistant was very complimentary of Texas A&M and the resources at the program’s disposal in his first media appearance. But he clearly didn’t want to discuss the lawsuit, which has been a bitter subject over the last week -- particularly in Baton Rouge. It’s an unusual story even by the always-dramatic SEC’s standards. If you haven’t been keeping up, here is an SB Nation recap of the issue.
- Ole Miss wrapped up this week’s batch of NFL pro days on Thursday by hosting scouts in Oxford. The big story was how All-America safety Cody Prewitt improved upon the disappointing 40-yard dash time he ran at the NFL combine, and he wasn’t the only Rebel who potentially made himself some money. According to NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, cornerback Senquez Golson and little-known defensive end Carlos Thompson also helped their causes with impressive performances in Thursday’s workouts.
- Continuity was the key word as Butch Jones brought on Mike DeBord as his new offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
- SI.com’s Zac Ellis lists the big question facing each SEC program entering spring practice.
- With LSU preparing to open spring practice on Saturday, Geaux247’s Shea Dixon lists five Tigers freshmen -- including early enrollees Kevin Toliver II and David Ducre -- to watch this spring.
- Kentucky expects a jolt from 18 players who redshirted last season when it opens spring practice on Saturday.
- What are the positions of strength and positions of need for Missouri as the Tigers prepare to open spring pratice?
- Auburn opens spring practice next week. Here is a look at the Tigers’ crew of wide receivers.
- TideSports.com looks at the linebackers at Alabama, which must replace two starters at the position, ahead of spring practice.
Heard 'Bama's Nick Saban speak today at a seminar on leadership. Incredible. If he recruits me, I'm going. Doesn't matter where.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 5, 2015
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal from the NCAA Rules Committee that would reduce the number of yards offensive linemen can move downfield on a pass play from 3 to 1 yard.
"It’s going to change the way we do things, those of us who are run-pass offenses, and when you look around college football right now, that’s a lot of us," Malzahn said. "You’re always looking for ways to be creative, and I don’t think you should ever change the rules to take creativity out of the game unless it’s a safety issue. This is not a safety issue.
Last year, a 10-second rule designed to slow the pace of play offensively was proposed by the NCAA Rules Committee, but it was tabled before it ever got to the oversight panel.
Malzahn and Freeze are among a group of coaches nationally who have asked Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, the rules committee chairman, to also table this proposal and make it a point of emphasis this season among officials.
"I understand those coaches who are upset when a lineman is 5 or 6 yards downfield and the quarterback pulls up and throws a pass," Freeze said. "That’s a penalty and should be called. Throw the flag, but don’t penalize those of us who are doing it right and coaching it right by changing the rule."
Malzahn and Freeze are among several coaches nationally who use the “pop pass,” which is a play-action pass that many of the spread teams use to make it look like a run, particularly on a zone-read play, and then throw it. One of the most obvious examples of a “pop pass” was Nick Marshall’s touchdown pass to Sammie Coates to tie the Alabama game two years ago, which was then won by the Tigers on Chris Davis’ Kick-Six.
Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of officials, said the new rule would stipulate that an offensive lineman could still be 3 yards downfield as long as he was engaged with a defender, but that offensive linemen would no longer be able to free release beyond 1 yard and a team legally throw a pass.
"This will hurt the high school coaches, too, because a lot of those guys are running the same stuff," Malzahn said. "Those of us coaching in college who came from high school understand how important this is and how much it will change the game.
"Scoring will be down. You’re not going to see teams scoring as many points, and when it’s getting harder all the time to get fans to come to games, is that something that college football wants?"
Rogers Redding, the NCAA’s coordinator of officials, maintains that the proposal has support from both offensive and defensive coaches and that one offensive-minded coach even commented to him, "We have to play defense, too."
Redding added that the changes the committee are sending to the oversight panel are good for the game and that he supports them.
The split among FBS coaches on whether to change the rule, according to Redding, was about 50-50. The rules committee gathered input from coaches via a survey, but Malzahn said only a small sampling of coaches ever send those back.
"Part of the problem is that they do those surveys in January, right in the middle of recruiting, and a lot of us don’t have time to think,” Malzahn said. “Whatever happens, we need to come up with a better system on how to go about doing this."
Just a few days before Ball opens his first spring practice with the Tigers, he has spent plenty of time watching game and practice film to evaluate who he will officially start working with on Saturday.
"I’ve done my homework on them and we’ve gone through the coaches’ early morning workouts, and I’ve gotten a chance to see them compete and see their athleticism and their ability to focus and pay attention to the little things," Ball said Wednesday evening. "I feel like I have a real good sense of each individual guy."
Ball said an important part of his job as a new coach is letting players like that -- a foursome that combined for zero catches in 2014 -- know that he believes they can be productive receivers.
"Those that probably didn’t play as much, for whatever the reason, they’ve got to feel energized," Ball said. "And I think that I’ve given them the sense that I believe in them. And I think more than anything, that’s what energizes you. They get a sense that, 'Hey, this guy believes in me,' because I do. I think they’re very talented.
"We’ve got very talented young players. Those guys that haven’t had a bunch of reps, for whatever reason, they’re talented. So we’ve got to find a way as a staff to get them to perform at a high level."
That is a theme of this season for Ball. It’s not necessarily a knock against departed receivers coach Adam Henry, who worked with an incredibly inexperienced batch of receivers last season, that LSU’s wideouts were an up-and-down group in 2014.
Take Quinn, for example. ESPN’s No. 3 receiver prospect last year, Quinn was a standout during summer workouts and started the opener against Wisconsin, but he disappeared down the stretch, catching just three passes in the Tigers’ final six games.
Ball believes the sophomore can do better, and his job is to get his new player to agree with him.
"I love his skill set," Ball said. "Obviously he kind of dropped off a little bit last year and we’ve got to help him get his confidence back, because he has the ability to make a lot of plays."
Quinn represents one example of a general trend that existed within LSU’s receivers last season. Certainly part of the group’s issue was inconsistent quarterback play, but they didn’t do Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris many favors, either.
LSU’s wideouts were also learning on the job in 2014, and the results weren’t always positive. But the group got its first significant taste of SEC competition last fall, and now it’s Ball’s job to help them take the next step. He helped A.J. Green do that as an assistant at his previous stop, Georgia, and he hopes to help players with similar pedigrees -- like Dupre, who was ESPN’s No. 1 wideout prospect in 2014 -- advance in similar fashion at LSU.
It starts with learning about their personalities and capabilities, Ball said.
"No. 1, knowing who they are, knowing what their abilities are, knowing how they play the game right now, and then assessing how they play, having the ability to assess them and knowing how they work out and how they focus and how they work," Ball said. "That will certainly help.
"So now, the first challenge is teaching them how to prepare, how to train, how to ready ourselves, how we should focus, how we should think even before we get on the field -- just getting into the mental aspect of it," he continued. "And then once you get on the field and know what’s expected and they’ve got the right mindset, it really makes it easy on the field."
Indeed, the competition between junior Jennings (1,611 passing yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs in 2014) and sophomore Harris (452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs) might determine whether the Tigers re-emerge as legitimate contenders in the SEC West or remain in the middle of the pack like last season’s 8-5 club.
But there are plenty of spring stories to follow at LSU beyond Jennings-Harris. Here are five more that deserve some attention.
What will Kevin Steele’s defense look like? The public likely won’t gain a full understanding of Steele’s defensive modifications until the regular season starts in September, as LSU’s spring practices are open only for short periods of time and the Tigers will probably play it close to the vest in their spring game.
How will the secondary take shape? The Tigers have a ton of good options at defensive back, so this is hardly a nightmare for Corey Raymond’s crew. It’s a matter of figuring out which pieces fit best at which positions.
The biggest position of interest is the cornerback spot opposite two-year starter Tre'Davious White. With the departures of Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson, the Tigers lack a proven second option -- assuming that senior Jalen Mills remains at safety. Mills started for two seasons at corner and could move back, but will that be necessary? LSU has numerous options to fill the spot -- including heavily recruited early enrollee Kevin Toliver, sophomore Ed Paris and junior Dwayne Thomas, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. And other alternatives will arrive this summer in signees Donte Jackson and Xavier Lewis.
Safety is also an interesting position, particularly if Mills works at corner. Sophomore Jamal Adams seems likely to grab a starting spot, but who else claims the top spots in the rotation out of Rickey Jefferson, Corey Thompson, John Battle and Devin Voorhies? Raymond will have his work cut out in distributing the PT to so many capable players.
Will Cam Cameron open up the offense? This is a corollary to the decision on the starting quarterback. LSU’s passing game was woefully unproductive last season, mostly because of underwhelming play at quarterback. How much will offensive coordinator Cameron be able to open up his playbook in 2015 after playing it so conservatively a season ago?
With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, LSU still figures to be a run-heavy offense. But the Tigers might not be able to beat the high-scoring teams on the schedule without getting the ball downfield more effectively. Cameron understands this reality.
Either way, expect him to throw more wrinkles at opposing defenses than he did for most of the 2014 season. Perhaps the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was a template. Cameron mixed things up against the Aggies and a stagnant offense came to life with 491 yards of total offense. Between that game and the bowl loss against Notre Dame, Cameron handed the ball to speedy receiver Travin Dural -- mostly on jet sweeps -- a total of eight times for 110 yards.
Getting more out of the quarterbacks would greatly help Cameron make better use of his skill talent, but it seems likely that he will be more ambitious this season regardless, out of necessity.
What impact will the new assistant coaches have on their positions? We’ve already discussed Steele and how he might juggle different defensive looks. Any shuffling would likely impact how he uses the players at his new position group, linebacker, as well. When the Tigers open spring practice on Saturday, it will be interesting to see where Steele has the various linebackers lining up.
LSU’s other new assistants, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and receivers coach Tony Ball, both have young groups to develop. They both have obvious candidates for playing time (tackles Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture for Orgeron and wideouts Dural, Malachi Dupre, John Diarse and Trey Quinn for Ball), but building depth will be an objective for both coaches.
The Tigers have a boatload of unproven youngsters at both position groups, and LSU would benefit greatly if the new assistants could get some production out of them starting this spring.
Who grabs the last two starting spots on the offensive line? The positions for LSU’s three returning starters on the offensive line -- Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins and Ethan Pocic -- aren’t set in stone, but it’s almost a certainty that all three will start somewhere.
Jeff Grimes’ job this spring will be figuring out where they fit best and which players to slide into the other two openings along his offensive line. Grimes lost two senior starters (left tackle La’el Collins and center Elliott Porter) and two top reserves (seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika) from last season, so the Tigers will be young in spots.
Most likely that will be on the interior line, although Alexander could play either guard or tackle and Pocic is capable of playing every position on the line. Guard/tackle Josh Boutte, center Andy Dodd, center/guard William Clapp, tackle K.J. Malone and guard Garrett Brumfield are all players who might get some consideration from Grimes this spring.
Junior days are underway, and the spring evaluation period is quickly approaching. While a number of programs are off to a fast start and in need of keeping impressive commitments in the fold, there also are programs in need of creating momentum and battling archrivals on the trail this spring and headed into the summer.
Here is a look at 10 programs that need a big spring, for various reasons (listed alphabetically):
The Gators saved the 2015 class in the days leading up to national signing day creating some momentum heading into the spring and summer. The time to capitalize is now for Jim McElwain and staff, and Florida simply must continue to gain steam with archrival Florida State swinging a big recruiting stick in state, and Miami on a run headed into the spring evaluation period. Florida currently has three verbals, all outside the ESPN Junior 300.
After enrolling early and spending seven months competing with sophomore Kenny Hill, gunning for one singular goal -- a chance to be the Day 1 starter for the Aggies in 2014 -- the true freshman was dealt a gut punch from Kevin Sumlin and Jake Spavital.
The Aggies' head coach and offensive coordinator pulled Allen into an office to deliver news he wasn't expecting to hear.
Emotions flooded. The 18-year-old, in search for a sympathetic ear, reached out to family and friends back in Arizona. One of the phone calls he made was to his longtime private quarterback coach, Dennis Gile.
"I've never heard Kyle down; he broke down to me, crying on the phone," Gile said. "I didn't know how to take it because he's like my little brother. He's really close to me. To hear your little brother cry for the first time, when I know how good he is and how much he wanted it, it was hard for myself. I was getting choked up talking to him."
Gile urged Allen to not let the emotions of the disappointment affect him moving forward, nor let those emotions be seen by coaches and teammates. "Practice like you're the starter, every day," Gile said, and "your time is going to come."
Allen followed that advice, and 10 weeks later, it came true: He was named the starter, replacing Hill before the Aggies' home game against Louisiana-Monroe. Now, Allen begins a sophomore season with five starts under his belt and much promise as the Aggies look to trek up the SEC West standings in 2015.
From the moment he stepped on campus, teammates and coaches praised Allen's approach to his craft. Several attribute his ability to wrangle the starting job from Hill in midseason to those traits.
"The approach that Kyle has taken since Day 1, even when Kenny won the battle at the beginning of the year, [Allen] came in every single day and kept putting the work in," Spavital said. "He was wanting to get better every single day, and naturally when you see a kid take that approach to the game and the way he works, you are naturally going to see him increase and get better each day."
"He is always up here watching film before practice," current backup quarterback Conner McQueen said. "Every day Coach Spav will talk about things when we watch film, and Kyle will have seen it once or twice already. He is always up here, just doing the right things, being the first one in the weight room and doing extra. I really think his preparation, not only this year but starting last spring, put him in a great position to succeed."
Allen's starting debut vs. Louisiana-Monroe was, in many ways, forgettable. The Aggies were more than 30-point favorites but squeaked by with a 21-16 win. The offense only managed a meager 243 yards, Allen was 13-for-28 passing for 106 yards with a touchdown and an interception. With a road trip to Auburn looming, Allen's debut didn't exactly provide an overflow of optimism.
"I came in nervous, I’m not going to lie," Allen said. "Even though it’s Louisiana-Monroe, you’re playing in front of 105,000 people. You step on the field, you look around and there are people everywhere. I come from a high school where I am lucky if a thousand people come to my game."
Gile, who was on the sideline at Kyle Field for Allen's debut, implored Allen later that week to talk to his teammates before the Auburn game, to lead. Before the Aggies took the field, junior defensive end Julien Obioha requested Allen do the same. There was a sense the group needed to hear from its quarterback, even if he was a true freshman making his second start. He did and the team responded to Allen's words and energy before kickoff, exploding to a 35-point first half and hanging on for a dramatic 41-38 win.
After losses to Missouri and LSU, Allen closed out the season on a high note, winning offensive MVP honors in the Aggies' 45-37 win against West Virginia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He bounced back from an early pick-six to put together a 294-yard, four-touchdown performance which included a dazzling rushing touchdown.
This spring Allen is not pushing anyone; he's the incumbent, with only McQueen to push him. The program awaits the fate of its five-star quarterback signee, Kyler Murray, who signed a letter of intent in February and would be Allen's primary competition upon arrival.
Murray, 42-0 as a starter with three state championships at the highest level of Texas high school football, is also a baseball star and is finishing up his senior year at Allen High School. A decision on whether he goes to Aggieland or signs with the professional baseball team that drafts him (he's projected by several experts to be a possible first-round selection) won't come until the summer.
Either way, Allen -- who couldn't possibly have missed all the hand-wringing over Murray's decision leading up to national signing day or the deserved universal praise he received for his long list of prep accomplishments -- sounds like a focused, confident competitor ready to welcome the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
"He deserves it, the kid’s never lost a game in his life. He’s a Texas legend. I know everyone here is from Texas and I’m from Arizona, so I don’t get that love yet," Allen said with a smile and a laugh. "So, he’s going to step in, he’s going to put the work in just like I did, but it’s going to be a fun competition."
- Another offseason, another proposed rule change that has spread offense coaches on the defensive. Auburn's Gus Malzahn spoke out this week on the possible new rule that would reduce the yards an offensive lineman can move downfield on a pass play from 3 yards to 1. The change, Malzahn said, would stifle offensive innovation, like his team's “pop pass,” which simulates a run before throwing downfield. Malzahn isn't the only SEC coach to criticize the possible change. Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is also against the new rule, saying officials should simply enforce the perfectly reasonable rule that is already on the books. That, writes CBS Sports blogger Jerry Hinnen, is the key point in this debate. Perhaps offenses are given too much leeway today by not effectively enforcing the rules governing linemen downfield. Doing so might prevent the sport from having to rewrite the rulebook.
- Former South Carolina receiver Sidney Rice, who said he has suffered at least 10 concussions since age 8, announced plans to donate his brain to medical research after his death.
- Kentucky's quarterback competition took a hit when Reese Phillips ruptured an Achilles' tendon on Wednesday, leaving the Wildcats with just two healthy scholarship quarterbacks for the time being. UK officials said Phillips should be able to return this fall, however.
- Sean Patterson, formerly an offensive quality control assistant at LSU, is now associate director for recruiting operations at Ole Miss, where his younger brother Shea is committed to play quarterback next year.
- TideSports.com's Aaron Suttles examines who might pick up the slack at receiver for Alabama now that Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are out of the picture.
- According to Georgia coach Mark Richt, the Bulldogs will open spring practice with options 1A, 1B and 1C at quarterback in Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Jacob Park.
- The Columbia Daily Tribune's David Morrison looks at Missouri's 21 redshirt freshmen and early enrollees and projects which players have the best opportunity to help the Tigers in 2015.
Asked whether he would allow TB Nick Chubb to be tackled to the ground during spring drills, #UGA coach Mark Richt said, "if they can."— AJC UGA (@ChipTowersAJC) March 4, 2015
Let’s turn our focus specifically to LSU and examine some players who can solidify their roles with a productive spring.
Defensive ends: There are situations where it makes more sense to group players together instead of singling out one. This is one such case. Starting ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are both gone after playing the vast majority of the snaps in 2014. Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema seem to be the top candidates to take over those snaps among the players who are already on campus, with signees Arden Key and Isaiah Washington joining the competition once they arrive in the summer.
Then there is the question of how new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might tinker with the Tigers’ defensive scheme. If he incorporates more 3-4 looks, some guys who played defensive tackle in LSU’s traditional 4-3 might also get some chances at end.
RB David Ducre: Out of the four early enrollees, Ducre and cornerback Kevin Toliver probably have the best chance to contribute immediately. Let’s focus on Ducre because of LSU’s wide-open depth chart at fullback. With Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones both leaving the team after the season, the Tigers lacked a scholarship fullback. John David Moore will have a role, but Ducre could jump straight into the starting lineup this fall if he gets his assignments down pat.
LB Clifton Garrett: Garrett didn’t redshirt last season -- he appeared in three games -- but he might as well have. Last season’s No. 2 inside linebacker prospect was the low man on the totem pole among a veteran group of linebackers, but he’ll have a chance to occupy a much larger role this season. It will be interesting to see whether he grabs more playing time this spring.
QBs Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings: We don’t need to elaborate on these guys’ issues much. Every LSU fan knows that their quarterbacks have to play better. Can Harris -- the more explosive contender -- grab the job, line up under center and make good things happen while avoiding major catastrophes? That might be one of the biggest keys of the season for LSU.
Inexperienced OLs: Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are apparently the starting tackles and Ethan Pocic will start at either center or guard. Now who claims the other two starting positions? Josh Boutte, Andy Dodd, K.J. Malone, William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield all turned heads at times last season. They’ll get the chance this spring to convince Jeff Grimes they deserve bigger roles.
WRs Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears: With next to no veteran presence at receiver last season, there was plenty of playing time to be had. Redshirt freshmen Peterson and Spears basically got none of it. Spears played in three games and Peterson one last fall. They have a clean slate with a new position coach, Tony Ball, and maybe that will allow them to contribute more as sophomores.
WR Trey Quinn: It was Quinn, not No. 1 receiver prospect Malachi Dupre, who started LSU’s 2014 opener and caught a two-point conversion pass in the Tigers’ comeback win. But Quinn was a disappearing man down the stretch, catching just three passes for 45 yards in LSU’s final six games. That wasn’t entirely Quinn’s fault -- nobody caught many passes thanks to shaky quarterback play -- but it would be a surprise if the sophomore isn’t more productive in 2015.
TE DeSean Smith: This time a year ago, a common prediction was that LSU would make better use of the tight end and that Smith might be the guy who got the most looks. Then he went the entire regular season without recording a single catch. The interesting twist, however, was that Smith caught four passes for 66 yards in the bowl game against Notre Dame. That reignited talk that Smith would become an asset in the passing game after all. We shall see.
Sophomore DTs: As with Smith, it was disappointing that LSU’s three ESPN 300 defensive tackle signees from the 2013 signing class (Greg Gilmore, Frank Herron and Maquedius Bain) failed to emerge. Bain played the biggest role, appearing in 10 games while Gilmore played in six and Herron four, but no member of the group was particularly impactful. They still have plenty of time to make a difference at LSU, but their redshirt freshman season was not notable.
S Corey Thompson: What will be Thompson’s role after sitting out the 2014 season while rehabbing a knee injury? He had started five of the last six games at safety when he injured his knee late in 2013. Now he re-enters a competition where most of last season’s regulars return, along with several younger players. Thompson should be a veteran leader in this group, but Jalen Mills, Jamal Adams and Rickey Jefferson all played a ton of snaps at safety in his absence.
1. Georgia: Kicker Marshall Morgan wasn’t at his best last season, but everyone knows the talent is there for him to rebound in 2015 from his 16 of 21 (.762) performance kicking field goals last season. Punter Collin Barber is certainly serviceable, even if he didn’t have to punt too much last year. But return man Isaiah McKenzie might have been the league's best last season, registering two touchdowns on kickoff returns and one on a punt return.
2. LSU: Leonard Fournette is so dangerous as a return man, and capped his season with a 100-yard return for a touchdown. Tre’Davious White wasn’t so bad returning punts either, averaging 10.9 yards per return and taking one back for a touchdown. As for kicking, LSU has a solid duo in place-kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11 of 15) and Jamie Keehn, who averaged 44.9 yards per punt, downed 27 inside the 20-yard line, and blasted 17 kicks 50 yards or more.
3.Texas A&M: The Aggies have to replace incredibly reliable kicker Josh Lambo, but Taylor Bertolet tallied 106 points off kicks in 2012, as a freshman, before getting benched for Lambo in 2013. Drew Kaser proved to be one of the SEC’s best punters last year, downing 22 punts inside the 20 and booming 18 50 yards or more. Speedy Noil is a dynamic returner on both kickoffs and punts.
4. Tennessee: The Vols were excellent at defending returns and will bring back kicker Aaron Medley, who made 20 of 26 field goals last year, but went 1-of-6 from 40-plus. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown, while Evan Berry is a big-play threat on kickoffs after he averaged 29.3 yards per return last season. Matt Darr is gone so the Vols have to find a punter.
5. Vanderbilt: Tommy Openshaw connected on 8 of 11 field goals, but went 2-of-5 on kicks between 40 and 49 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.7 yards per punt and downed 19 kicks inside the 20. Darrius Sims, who can return kickoffs and punts, is one of the league's best returners and took two kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy has to do better than allowing two returns for touchdowns.
6. Alabama: One thing’s for sure: Alabama can punt. More specifically, JK Scott can punt. He brings back the SEC’s best leg, which knocked 31 punts inside the 20 launched 23 kicks 50 yards or more. He also led the nation in punt average (48.0) However, placekicking is still a concern, as Adam Griffith hit 12 of 19 field goals (.632) last season. Christion Jones is gone, but Cyrus Jones and others should pick up the slack in the return game.
7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs bring back Devon Bell, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Word out of Starkville is that both returner positions are up for grabs, but the Bulldogs have a litter to pick from. Juco transfer Donald Gray could be the favorite, but Will Redmond, Fred Ross and Brandon Holloway will also be involved. The Bulldogs were also one of the best at defending kicks last season.
8. Ole Miss: Jaylen Walton is still a mainstay at returning kickoffs, but the Rebels need to be more consistent returning punts, where Markell Pack, who averaged just 5.3 yards per return last year, will compete with two players coaches are excited to see return kicks: JUCO transfer Tony Bridges and freshman Jalen Julius. Will Gleesen was solid punting (24 downed inside the 20) alongside Gary Wunderlich, who also hit 6 of 8 field goals last season. Ole Miss also ranked in the top half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.
9. Auburn: Daniel Carson pulled double duty for the Tigers, hitting 18 of 24 field goals (.750) and averaging 42 yards per punt. The Tigers said goodbye to Quan Bray (two touchdowns) and Corey Grant so Ricardo Louis is the most experienced return man (eight returns last year). Roc Thomas and Stanton Truitt, who redshirted last year, could also get looks in the return game. Auburn ranked in the bottom half of the league in defending punts and kickoffs.
10. Arkansas: Adam McFain was Arkansas’ top kicker last year, hitting 7 of 10 (.700) field goals, but punter Sam Irwin-Hill is gone so his spot will need to be filled in the coming months. Korliss Marshall is gone, but Keon Hatcher and D.J. Dean return. Hatcher averaged 23.2 yards per kick return (six) and Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards.
11. South Carolina: Elliott Fry is back after hitting 18 of 25 field goals (.720) last year. No punters return so the Gamecocks will have to figure that one out starting with spring practice. Pharoh Cooper was a decent punt returner for the Gamecocks, while Shon Carson should enter spring as the front-runner to head up kick returns after recording 633 return yards last year. Also, might want to cut down on the two kickoff touchdowns allowed.
12. Florida: Austin Hardin eventually took over placekicking duties later in the season and finished the year making 7 of 10 field goals, including the game-winner against Tennessee. Incredibly valuable punter Kyle Christy is gone, but Johnny Townsend is back and he actually forced Christy to the bench in 2013. Record-breaker Andre Debose is gone, meaning the Gators are holding tryouts for returners, and this team has to improve on allowing two returns for touchdowns last year.
13. Missouri: The Tigers must find someone to replace one of the league’s best returners in Marcus Murphy. Right now, that task is totally up in the air. Because Murphy was so good, no one on the roster really has much experience returning kicks. Andrew Baggett mad 18 of 25 field goals (.720) and might have to handle punting duties as well, but that isn't 100 percent yet.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats' kick coverage was just bad last year. They gave up four touchdowns on returns last season, which cannot happen again. Kicker Austin MacGinnis led the SEC with 21 made field goals on 27 attempts (.778) and punter Landon Foster brings back 27 punts downed inside the 20. Kentucky must replace Demarco Robinson at punt returner, but Stanley Williams is back after averaging 26.9 yards on kickoffs.
Alabama: Cornerback and quarterback
The Alabama secondary left much to be desired last fall, allowing 226 passing yards per game (11th in the SEC). Cyrus Jones serves as a returning starter but the spot opposite him is open for competition. There are plenty of contenders, such as sophomore Tony Brown, junior Eddie Jackson, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, senior Bradley Sylve and sophomore Maurice Smith. Alabama's cornerback recruits, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, aren't on campus yet but when they arrive in the summer, they'll join the fray. As for the quarterback battle, if last season taught us anything, it's not to assume what Nick Saban will do. Many felt Jake Coker being the starter was a foregone conclusion only for Blake Sims to emerge as the guy. This year, it's Coker, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Who will emerge from that battle?
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant graduated. Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber are next in line, but junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 running back in the ESPN JC 50, is one to watch here. He's enrolled early, so he will participate in spring football. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he's been at Auburn going back to his coordinator days, so whoever wins the job will likely be one of the top backs in the SEC.
Florida: Quarterback and offensive line
With a new head coach in Jim McElwain, this situation is intriguing. Treon Harris showed some promise when given the chance to play as a true freshman last season but Will Grier, who redshirted, looks like he'll get an opportunity to compete for the job, too. And there should be battles across the offensive line, because the Gators have to replace virtually every spot up front. Those are just as important as the quarterback battle, because good protection is a must.
There's a three-man battle for the right to succeed Hutson Mason and it's a wide-open battle. There's redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, redshirt junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park. Georgia coach Mark Richt called the race wide-open; Ramsey is the most experienced of the bunch, and Park is the only one who hasn't taken a collegiate snap yet. It should be compelling to follow.
It's just a little bit of history repeating -- same candidates, same position, new season. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris square off once again for the right to start for the Tigers. Jennings emerged victorious last season and held on to the job for most of the year (Harris started at Auburn and it didn't go well), but that didn't stop the fans calls for a longer look at Harris. Jennings finished the season with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing only 48.9 percent of his passes; Harris completed 55.6 percent with six touchdowns and two picks.
Missouri: Defensive end
The tradition of defensive line talent at Mizzou is rich but the latest two greats have departed to pursue the NFL: Shane Ray (as an early entrant) and Markus Golden (who was a senior). So who's next in line to replace them? At one end, sophomore Charles Harris is a potential option after appearing in 14 games, starting one, last season. At the other end, junior Rickey Hatley and sophomore Marcus Loud are the returning candidates with game experience and could battle it out for a spot. There's also a host of youngsters behind these three.
Ole Miss: Quarterback
Bo Wallace is gone so the signal-caller spot is up for grabs. Who will it be? Junior college transfer Chad Kelly? DeVante Kincade? Ryan Buchanan? Kelly appears to be the early favorite, though Kincade and Buchanan got a little bit of game action last season.
South Carolina: Quarterback
The Head Ball Coach has to replace a graduating senior quarterback for the second straight season -- first Connor Shaw, now Dylan Thompson. This spring, it will be sophomore Connor Mitch, junior Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia competing. Quarterback recruit Lorenzo Nunez doesn't join the fray until the summer. Mitch appears to be the early favorite.
Texas A&M: Left tackle
This has been a money position for the Aggies in the Kevin Sumlin era. He had the good fortune of having Luke Joeckel man the position in 2012 (he went on to be selected second overall in the NFL draft); then Jake Matthews succeeded Joeckel (Matthews was also a top-10 pick) and last season Cedric Ogbuehi took over. With Ogbuehi gone, the spot is up for grabs; look for Avery Gennesy and Germain Ifedi to compete for it. Gennesy, a 2014 ESPN JC 50 signee, redshirted last year but has the ability needed for the position. Ifedi had a good year as the Aggies' starting right tackle in 2014, and Sumlin said Ifedi has "earned the right" to at least compete for the job.
This position was a mess for the Commodores last season. They started four different quarterbacks, the most of any FBS team (only Utah State started as many quarterbacks as Vanderbilt). This spring there are four competing, three of which are returnees -- Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Patton Robinette. Stephen Rivers, who was with the Commodores last year, transferred, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage joined the competition. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was blunt early in spring practice, saying simply "We've got a lot of work to do."
1. LSU: The Tigers were the best in the SEC in 2014 against opposing pass defenses and there’s plenty of talent still in LSU’s defensive backfield to keep the good times going. Jamal Adams really came into his own late last season and is poised to be a star. Tre'Davious White is the only starting corner returning but he is a big-time player. Safety Jalen Mills returns, too. The Tigers need to find a corner opposite White but have plenty of talented players to compete for that spot.
2. Georgia: After LSU, this unit was the SEC’s best in limiting opponents through the air (170.3 passing yards allowed per game). The good news for Jeremy Pruitt is that not only does he have quite a few options in the secondary, most of them have experience. Dominick Sanders, who shined as a freshman, returns; so does fellow safeties Quincy Mauger, who started seven games. All the cornerbacks on the two-deep return. With Damian Swann’s departure, a new leader needs to be established, but overall, this is a good group.
3. Florida: The Gators still have the conference’s best cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III, and that’s worth a lot. Fortunately for them, the rest of the young secondary is back -- cornerback Jalen Tabor, safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, nickel Brian Poole, and new secondary coach Kirk Callahan will try to help them take the next step this year, improving on last year’s finish (seventh in the SEC in pass defense). The talent is there.
4. Ole Miss: Replacing players such as Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt is a tall task but the Rebels have talent on the back end. Tony Conner was a second-team All-SEC pick last year and is back. So is Trae Elston, the starting “rover,” who is a three-year starter. Senior Mike Hilton, who led the team in tackles, returns and the team welcomes the No. 1 cornerback in the ESPN JC 50, Tony Bridges. Look for a bigger role for C.J. Hampton. There is some good depth in this group as well.
5. Arkansas: Razorbacks’ secondary coach Clay Jennings returns for his second year in Fayetteville and his unit showed significant growth in 2014. Elder statesmen Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel are gone, but the Hogs had a mostly young secondary last year and bring back plenty of experience, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver, all of whom saw starts at the position. Three of the four safeties on the end-of-season two-deep -- De'Andre Coley, Josh Liddell and Davyon McKinney, also return to a unit that was fifth in the league in pass defense in 2014.
6. Tennessee: The Vols have a player with All-SEC potential in cornerback Cameron Sutton and a tremendous amount of experience at the back in senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. The other cornerback will be the spot to watch where there will be a battle. Emmanuel Moseley, Rashaan Gaulden, Malik Foreman and highly-touted junior college signee Justin Martin are among the contenders.
7. Missouri: The Tigers are set at cornerback with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton returning. Losing the experience of a Braylon Webb at safety is tough but Ian Simon is a seasoned veteran himself and returns at the position. The unit finished sixth in SEC pass defense last season (212.7) but benefited from the league’s best pass rush. The experience in the secondary is helpful but more consistency is needed from this group.
8. Alabama: The Crimson Tide had a rough year on the back end in 2014, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game (226). The group has a new secondary coach (Mel Tucker) but a lot of attrition, with Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams gone. Cyrus Jones, who led the team with 13 pass breakups, and Eddie Jackson, who started 11 games, are back at cornerback as are Tony Brown and Maurice Smith. Geno Smith, who started six games at the Star position, is also back. ESPN 300 safety Deionte Thompson and four-star safety Ronnie Harrison arrived in January so they’ll participate in spring practice.
9. Auburn: The Tigers yielded a lot to opposing passing games last year (230.08 yards per game; 12th in the SEC), but were also opportunistic, intercepting 22 passes. Returning Auburn defensive backs accounted for 12 of those interceptions -- Jonathan Jones (six), Johnathan Ford (three) and Trovon Reed (three). Auburn also welcomes a new secondary coach, Travaris Robinson, who was key in the Tigers’ landing four defensive back recruits from Florida on signing day. Numbers are there in terms of options to choose from, now it’s just a matter of making on-field progress.
10. South Carolina: This is a young group that played a lot of freshmen and sophomores last season but will be a year older and should show progress, especially with the addition of new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who has a long history of coaching defensive backs in the NFL. Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams are penciled in as the starting cornerbacks. Brison Williams is gone but T.J. Gurley, who was second on the team with 80 tackles last season, returns. Corners Al Harris Jr. and D.J. Smith as well as safeties Chris Moody and Chaz Elder also return. Look for this group to make strides this season after finishing 10th in pass defense last season.
10. Mississippi State: There’s a lot of room for improvement for the Bulldogs, who allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC last season and allowed many big plays. They do have a nice talent in Taveze Calhoun at cornerback; who starts opposite him is to be determined. (Look for Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles, who missed all last season with an injury, to compete.) The Bulldogs will be young at safety but did bring in the nation’s No. 2 player at the position, ESPN 300 prospect Jamal Peters.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats return both starting cornerbacks from 2014, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. Starting safety A.J. Stamps, a standout junior college transfer, returns after leading the team with four interceptions and safety Marcus McWilson, who started the season finale against Louisville, also returns. Kentucky, which was eighth in the SEC in pass defense last year, secured a safety as its top-rated recruit in February, ESPN 300 prospect Marcus Walker.
13. Vanderbilt: The Commodores fielded a young, unproven secondary last season but finished just a hair behind the middle of the pack in the conference, allowing 218.3 passing yards per game. With virtually the entire group back, led by cornerbacks Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson and safeties Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Oren Burks, there’s some promise on the back end for Vandy, especially considering the fact that Derek Mason will be simplifying the defense.
14. Texas A&M: The Aggies were second-to-last in pass defense and last in interceptions a year ago. Gone are veterans Deshazor Everett and Howard Matthews but senior cornerback De’Vante Harris remains. The group surrounding Harris is young, but has a potential star in safety Armani Watts. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs this spring but look for Nick Harvey to challenge for it. The safety next to Watts could be veteran Devonta Burns (last year’s nickel), Donovan Wilson, or possibly junior college transfer Justin Evans.