SEC: SEC

Quarterback Jalen Whitlow's decision to transfer from Kentucky leaves a very big opportunity for early enrollee freshman Drew Barker and third-year sophomore Patrick Towles.

Both arrived at Kentucky with enormous hype and now could be barreling toward their own two-man race for the starting QB job for the Wildcats.

Both have dealt with early superstar status in Lexington, but with one more body out of the quarterback race, they better get used to the attention around them greatly increasing.

While coach Mark Stoops isn't in a hurry to name a starting quarterback for the 2014 season, the Wildcats now likely will have to speed up Barker's development and throw a little bit more at him. He's clearly the quarterback of the future for Big Blue Nation, and this is another step in that direction.

“He has every opportunity to take control because we’re so unsettled there,” Stoops told ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough last month. “He’s a guy that’s very mature. He’s a guy that has high expectations himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position.”

Barker, a former ESPN 300 recruit, better get ready for even more pressure. He already knew before arriving at Kentucky that he'd get every opportunity to take the starting job, either this spring or in the fall. Taking Whitlow out of the equation could expedite the process for a player who passed for 2,671 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013 at Conner Senior High in Hebron, Ky.

[+] EnlargeDrew Barker
John Albright/Icon SMIKentucky freshman Drew Barker, who was ranked as the No. 9 pocket passer in the country in the 2014 class, could start as a freshman.
What also works to Barker's advantage is that fellow QB Maxwell Smith is out this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery. That means that for the rest of spring, which concludes on April 26 with the annual Blue/White Spring Game, Barker will compete with Towles and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips.

Towles, who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Kentucky in 2011, has never really found his groove on the field since his arrival. After passing for 233 yards and a touchdown in five games as a freshman in 2012, he redshirted last season when Stoops and his coaching staff arrived.

Towles has played well this spring, especially in Kentucky's second scrimmage, and this could be his last chance to prove to the coaches that he can be the guy under center. Honestly, he might not get any more chances if Barker takes the job. Towles was labeled as the quarterback of the future before he even stepped on campus, but he has yet to live up to expectations. The time is now for him, if he truly wants it.

It's still very early in the process, but this is a very important battle for the Wildcats. Don't expect Stoops to slow Barker's progression because he's a freshman. If he's good enough to play, he will.

If Smith can return and Phillips makes headway, that's just another plus for the Wildcats. A more intense battle will go a long way for every quarterback, but for now Barker and Towles have the most to prove.
video The departure of senior Matt Joeckel means that Texas A&M is down to two in its quarterback race. From here on out, it's all about sophomore Kenny Hill and early-enrollee freshman Kyle Allen.

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Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Kenny Hill threw for 183 yards and a touchdown in limited playing time last fall.
The question now becomes who has the edge at the position entering summer workouts and fall camp?

It really is up in the air. Coach Kevin Sumlin is not expected to announce a starter until August, much like when he chose Johnny Manziel to be the starter before the 2012 season. Sumlin isn't the type to make a decision like this early, so there's plenty of time for both guys to prove themselves before the season opener against South Carolina on Aug. 28.

While Allen, a U.S. Army All-American and former ESPN 300 member, arrived in College Station with a mountain of hype and expectations, the more experienced Hill might still have a leg up on the rising star. Yes, Hill was indefinitely suspended this spring after he was arrested in late March on a public intoxication charge, but that setback won't disqualify him from taking the starting job this fall.

After all, Manziel was also arrested -- much later in the process, too -- and did just fine with the quarterback battle in 2012. He also turned out to be a pretty decent starter for the Aggies.

Now, Hill isn't Manziel. He isn't going to make the kind of jaw-dropping plays that made Manziel so much fun to watch and so tough to defend, but he knows the offense the best and has the only on-field experience. Hill played in five games last season, throwing for 183 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-22 passing. With that said, Hill is on thin ice and certainly can't afford to have another off-field transgression if he wants a shot at being the starter.

Hill's suspension set him back this spring, giving Allen more opportunities. Allen showed the expected freshman jitters and errors this spring. He was far from perfect and still has a way to go in this offense. He might have an advantage in the arms race, as he threw arguably the best ball of all the competitors this spring. Allen might be the quarterback of the future with his talent and upside, but that doesn't mean he'll be the quarterback of 2014.

Hill has some work to do to get fully back into his coaches' good graces, but his knowledge of the offense gives him an advantage at the moment. Both will likely see playing time this fall, but Sumlin isn't one to swap quarterbacks in and out on a regular basis during the season.

Eventually there's going to be one guy for the job, and the next few months will still go a long way in determining who starts for the Aggies at quarterback in the fall.

If the season opener was this Saturday, Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey would be playing. It’s not, though. It’s only the spring game, and that’s why Holsey will be held out just like he has been for the majority of spring practice.

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Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJoshua Holsey has made a remarkable recovery from last season's injury.
The junior safety tore his ACL in practice just days before the Texas A&M game last fall and missed the remainder of the season. It was a tough blow for the Auburn defense at the time, but the recovery has been nothing short of remarkable to this point. Holsey was back and ready to go by the start of spring practice, just five months after the injury occurred.

“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said last month. “He’s doing some one-on-one and out there in a little bit of pass scale. If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, he’d be ready to go.

“He’s been playing here. He’s got two years under his belt, one year under our system. We know what he can do. We’re just kind of erring on the side of caution with him.”

If it were up to Holsey, he’d be out there with his teammates. Fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said Holsey was sneaking in and taking reps on the first day of practice, and even when he’s not been out there, he’s still finding ways to help his secondary mates.

“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said.

Once fall camp rolls around, the question won’t be whether Holsey returns, it will be what position is he going to play when he does return?

As a sophomore, he started every game at boundary safety before the injury occurred. However, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has stepped in and found a home at the same position this spring. The newcomer has played so well that the coaches might look to move Holsey when he does return from injury.

“We feel like with Holsey coming back that we’ve still got a wild card,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “We feel fine about the guys that went this spring, but in the back of your mind, you have to feel like Holsey was a legitimate starter. And who’s job is he going to take?

“The four that finished the spring -- [Jonathan] Jones, [Jonathon] Mincy, Whitehead and Moncrief -- all had good springs. And then Johnathan Ford, he and some of the other guys made great progress, and we’ve got confidence in them right now.

“[With] all that being said, I just have to believe that Josh Holsey will come back and probably get in the fight for a starting job. Is he going to be the boundary safety? Is he going to be a boundary corner? Where are we going to need him the most?

“We’ve got some question marks, but they’re not the type of question marks where we’re not sure who can do this. It’s more of who’s going to win that battle and who’s going to be that No. 1 guy and who’s going to be that No. 2 guy.”

Ultimately, that’s not a bad problem to have if you’re Auburn.

The secondary looked depleted at times last year, and it was never more evident than when Holsey went down midway through the season. The Tigers lost top cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Davis and Ryan White this past offseason, but when Holsey returns, they’re going to be better off than they were a year ago, regardless of his position.


Florida's spring standouts

April, 16, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Fresh faces were everywhere at Florida this spring.

A poor season in 2013 brought a clean slate. A new offense brought opportunities at every position. A large group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen brought a much-needed infusion of talent.

Going into spring practice, our list of players to watch consisted of quarterback Jeff Driskel, cornerback Jalen Tabor, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, tight end DeAndre Goolsby, and running back Adam Lane.

Now that football is finished for a few months, we'll take a look at the spring results and see who else stood out.

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Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida QB Jeff Driskel is healthy again and it showed in the spring game.
Driskel: The fourth-year junior had a very good spring in terms of health, leadership and command of the offense. He capped it with a solid spring game, going 18-for-32 for 167 yards and a touchdown.

Tabor: It says a lot when a true freshman is thrown right into the competition for a starting cornerback job. At 6-foot-1, 188 pounds, Tabor used his long arms to make plays in coverage. He still needs to work on his press technique and where to keep his eyes, but it's easy to see that he has great athleticism and natural instincts.

Robinson: He came in with a lot of hype last season as a true freshman and didn't respond well to the rigors of college life, but this spring Robinson lived up to expectations. He is clearly Florida's most complete receiver and best hope for a star in the passing game.

Goolsby: The true freshman has the talent to become Florida's top pass-catching tight end. He drew the attention and praise of head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. But most young tight ends struggle with inline blocking, and Goolsby was no exception. He still has a lot to learn before he gets regular playing time.

Lane: Out of 12 redshirt freshmen, Lane made the biggest splash this spring. He proved to be very tough to tackle because, at 5-7, 222 pounds, he's built like a fire plug and never stops moving his feet. The Gators rode the "Lane Train" to a team-leading 12 carries for 67 yards (5.8 yards per carry) in the spring game.

Dante Fowler Jr.: Not enough can be said about the junior buck linebacker's importance in Florida's defense. The Gators simply need him to become a pass-rushing menace. He showed up in better shape this spring, commanded the respect and attention of his teammates and delivered on the field with consistency.

Trenton Brown: The mammoth senior began the spring looking like a backup at right tackle, but by the spring game Brown convinced his coaches that he was among Florida's five best offensive lineman and started at right guard. At 6-8, 361, Brown is easy to spot, especially when he's clearing running lanes.

Jarrad Davis: As a true freshman last year, Davis made a late-season breakthrough and followed that up with a very good spring. He consistently earned first-team reps and the praise of his coaches and teammates. Davis has quickly become a leader and clearly has a very bright future.

Hunter Joyer: After very limited offensive contributions over his first three seasons, the senior fullback was something of a revelation at the B position. He showed good hands, even on intermediate routes. Joyer sustained a minor knee injury in the spring game but earned praise afterward. "[He] did a great job this spring," Muschamp said.

Bryan Cox Jr.: It's unclear if the third-year sophomore was just a spring starter or if he can stick with the first unit this fall, but there's no denying that Cox stood out. With a nonstop motor, he forced coaches to experiment with moving junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle. At the very least, Cox stepped forward to show that he can provide quality depth.

Duke Dawson: The "other" true freshman cornerback on the roster came in with less acclaim than Tabor but had just as much success this spring. Dawson is solid in coverage and plays with more of a physical edge than Tabor. "We’re excited about him, too," said defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.

Veterans who performed up to their coaches' expectations included sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, junior left tackle D.J. Humphries, sophomore tailback Kelvin Taylor, senior safety Jabari Gorman, senior running back Mack Brown, senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and senior right tackle Chaz Green.

Several other players developed well enough to win consideration for playing time this fall. They were: junior slot receiver Latroy Pittman, junior guard/center Trip Thurman, sophomore safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, sophomore linebacker Daniel McMillian, redshirt freshmen defensive backs Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, and true freshman defensive end Taven Bryan.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- One look at Mississippi State center Dillon Day, and you get why he’s been put in the position he’s in.

The robust 6-foot-4, 300-pound wall resembles a jacked 80s rocker with long golden hair and colorful tattoo sleeves slathered on both arms.

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Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDillon Day's perseverance is paying off for Mississippi State.
Strap a helmet and pads on him, and Day displays ferocious features on the football field. He’s intimidating to look at and just plain scary when he gets going.

In a league predicated on the success of its line play, you need that look and that feel from your center. You need a beast in the middle to direct your line and claw his way around the trenches.

But the fifth-year senior, who has started 45 games for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons, wasn’t always such a menacing player. The first days were unbearable at times. When he was the one getting pushed during his very first set of collegiate two-a-days, he almost quit.

“It was horrible,” Day told ESPN.com in March. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought that this wasn’t the life for me.”

For a player so used to dominating at the high school level, Day was trying to climb his way out of a valley as a true freshman. The former West Monroe (La.) standout was physically and mentally beaten down during his first summer in Starkville. The practices drained him, and the workouts defeated him.

The good news was that Day, who worked out at guard after playing tackle in high school, was redshirting his first season. He’d have time to grow.

But when Year 2 rolled around, Day felt overwhelmed yet again. Thinking his body would have adjusted better, Day said workouts were tougher as coaches expected more and pushed even harder because of his prospects to start; this time at center.

“We certainly didn’t make that easier on him -- yelling and screaming and grinding on him,” coach Dan Mullen said.

The idea was to break him into being that “every-down, perform-at-a-high-level guy” who was going to lead the entire offensive line. Mullen couldn’t have a soft center. He needed someone with a chip on his shoulder, someone with grit and mettle.

But Day’s tough-guy attitude that he exuded in high school seemed to wash away. The mental side was crumbling, and in turn, his physical nature suffered. But the coaches kept pushing.

Halfway through two-a-days, Day decided his time was up with the Bulldogs. But as soon as he thought he was out the door, his parents talked to him. Day said they continued the trend of pushing him, this time to strike back with his own play and attitude. They motivated him to stay and prove to himself that he could conquer the madness that was the preseason.

“My bags were packed,” Day said. “I was about to go right back to Louisiana. I stuck it out and then I got my number called my redshirt freshman year, and it’s been clicking ever since.”

Going from unranked high school prospect to three-year starter in the SEC is the definition of clicking. Day picked himself up and marched up the depth chart into a valuable role with a Bulldogs team that has enjoyed a steady climb under the guidance of Mullen.

It was his realization years ago that he had to be a fighter that helped get him to the final stage of his career in Starkville.

“I don’t scream at him as much,” Mullen said with wicked grin. “He understood that by being the center, his standard of play has to be above everybody else because he’s the leader of that line. It’s all going to go through him. Where he sets the bar, that’s where the bar’s going to be. However high he sets it, that’s where our success level is going to be.”

Day now relishes that spotlight. As he puts it, he’s “the brains of the offensive line.” He’s become a fundamental cog with help from co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy. He’s learned how to own his presence up front with guidance from guys like Gabe Jackson.

So much has happened since Day packed his bags. As he looks at his final days in Starkville, he’s now looking to leave Mississippi State in another fashion.

“That’s just life. You have to stick through the battles,” Day said.

“I’m here my fifth year and just the other day I was here as a freshman trying to quit. It does hit home with you.”
Maybe it's a surprise to some, and maybe it shouldn't be. Either way, Texas A&M's offensive line will be the cream of the crop in the SEC in 2014, according to the fans.

More than 17,000 people voted in our SportsNation poll last week, and the Aggies were a clear winner. They received 34 percent of the vote. LSU was second with 23 percent and then Auburn with 16 percent, Alabama with 14 percent and South Carolina with 13 percent.

The Aggies will have a bit of a new look up front offensively in 2014. Senior Cedric Ogbuehi is moving from right tackle to left tackle and is another in a long line of outstanding tackles to play at Texas A&M. Luke Joeckel was the second overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Jake Matthews is being projected as a top-10 pick in May's draft, and Ogbuehi also has the makings of a first-rounder when the 2015 draft rolls around. He got a first-round grade from the advisory board this past year but decided to return for his senior season.

Ogbuehi is one of four returning starters up front for the Aggies, who should also have more depth next season. Senior left guard Jarvis Harrison was out all spring with a shoulder injury, and senior Garrett Gramling worked with the first team. He played well enough that he could work his way into the starting lineup. Every good offensive line is stout right up the middle, and junior Mike Matthews returns as one of the top centers in the league. He has excellent command of the offense in terms of all his checks and calls.

The right tackle job is the big question, although sophomore Germain Ifedi worked there this spring after playing last season at guard. The 6-5, 330-pound Ifedi is a mammoth individual, but seems to move well enough to play outside at tackle. Junior college tackles Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor will benefit from having gone through the spring, and junior Joseph Cheek got a lot of first-team work at guard this spring.

The big surprise coming out of the SportsNation poll was that South Carolina received the fewest votes. The Gamecocks also return four starters and have three players -- tackles Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell and left guard A.J. Cann -- who are likely to be drafted. This also will be their third season playing together. When it's all said and done, here's betting that the Gamecocks are as good as anybody up front offensively in 2014.

We'll see how it all plays out in the fall.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 15, 2014
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The tax man cometh ...
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Down 7-3 early in the second quarter against LSU, Alabama’s offense needed a spark. The No. 1 team in the nation was in need of a big play, and it was seldom-used but talented freshman O.J. Howard who delivered.

The 6-foot-6 tight end split out wide before the snap. He ran a deep slant, caught the pass over the middle and outran the entire defense en route to a 52-yard touchdown.

“I saw a seam, so I was like I’m running full speed no matter what,” Howard said, recalling the play from last fall. “Those guys didn’t think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end, so they were jogging. When they tried to speed up, it was too late.”

[+] EnlargeOJ Howard
RVR Photos/USA TODAY SportsO.J. Howard showed flashes of his immense talent last season. He plans on making even more of an impact this season.
It was the play that highlighted Howard’s freshman year, and if only for a moment, it showed the potential that everybody raved about when the former ESPN 300 star signed with the Crimson Tide in February 2013. That potential was held in check for the most part, though, as he finished the year with just 14 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

Fans blamed the former offensive coordinator for not getting Howard more involved. They pointed fingers at quarterback AJ McCarron who tended to favor the veteran wide receivers on the team. But in the end, it falls back on the freshman.

“Maybe there was some things he didn’t do right,” said O.J.’s father, Kareem Howard. “Maybe he didn’t get open in time. Maybe he was a step off. Maybe he took a step that away and he should’ve went right. That all comes with time and experience, though.”

As Howard enters his second spring with Alabama, there’s a new sense of confidence. He’s no longer scared to make a mistake. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and he knows the expectations that the staff has for him. The stats from the first two scrimmages haven’t been a good reflection, but he believes he’s playing faster this spring.

“Last spring, I came in early,” Howard said. “I was a new guy. I wasn’t playing fast because I didn’t really know what to do yet. Now I know what to do, and when you know what to do, you’re going to play really fast. It makes the game a lot easier.”

Howard recorded three catches for 38 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage, but the key to an expanded role on the team won’t be tracked by how many how catches or yards he has this spring. It’s more about how he improves as a blocker in Alabama’s run-first offense.

“O.J. is a very talented guy,” head coach Nick Saban said. “I think he needs to continue to improve in some areas because he’s a great pass receiver, but we continue to work on trying to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well.”

It’s a part of his game that Howard has worked tirelessly at since arriving in Tuscaloosa. In high school, he was typically the one with the ball in his hands, so blocking was foreign to him. It was something he had to learn on the fly once he got to Alabama.

“I knew when I got here I was going to learn to block,” Howard said. “We were a run-first team, so blocking is a big thing here. I knew I was going to block.

“We work on it every day with Coach [Bobby] Williams, so every day I’m getting better at blocking. Brian [Vogler], he’s a really good blocker, so I learn things from him also. He’s teaching me some things, and I’m taking it and running with it.”

With Howard, the potential is there. The whole country saw it last November against LSU. Now it’s about putting it together for a full season.

“He knows he belongs now,” Howard’s father said. “He knows he can compete at that level.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nobody does optimism quite like a football team in springtime. Especially one with a lot to prove.

As Florida made its way through spring practice, a majority of players who spoke to the media predicted that 2014 will be a whole lot better than 2013. Even coach Will Muschamp got into the prognostication business.

"We’re going to have a good team next year," he said. "We just need to continue to progress."

Now that the Gators' spring practice is in the rear-view mirror, it's time to re-evaluate our spring predictions with the benefit of hindsight.

Prediction No. 1: Florida will have a whole new attitude

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida coach Will Muschamp was satisfied with the progress the Gators made in spring practice.
OK, so we started off with a softball. It wasn't much of a reach to say the Gators would change the "woe-is-me" tune that permeated through an awful 2013 season. Nevertheless, a new attitude was extremely important in setting the tone of spring practice, building team chemistry and creating an environment for learning and development.

Leaders who were projected to step forward, such as quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., actually did more than was expected. Fowler became an authority, at one point taking two teammates to task over academics. Driskel was a focal point, gathering his teammates before the spring game to spur them into action.

The biggest thing that Muschamp needed to see this spring was belief in the concept of the new offense. He got that and a more.

Prediction No. 2: Kurt Roper will lead an improved offense

This seemed to be another easy one to fulfill, as the Gators' offense really had nowhere to go but up.

The biggest surprise of the spring might have been how the offense looked on the first day of practice. It was fast-paced, generally well-executed and coherent in its design.

In Roper, Florida fans were promised a fresh offensive mind. Four weeks later, he might have been the biggest new star to emerge.

The best move Roper made was to simplify everything and make his offense easy to learn. Aside from designing and implementing a scheme that best suited the players, Roper also did well in coaching his new pupils. He was equal parts patient and assertive and quickly established himself as a respected authority figure.

Prediction No. 3: New leaders will emerge on defense

This kind of thing happens every year at Florida, where the defense produces NFL players like a factory assembly line.

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Michael Taylor aims to lead by example for the Florida defense.
The names might have been slightly off, but the final outcome was as expected. Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jabari Gorman, Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis are the players to whom teammates look for tone-setting and guidance.

Taylor, a senior linebacker and a respected veteran, pointed out that UF had too much of the wrong kind of leadership in 2013. He and his defensive teammates did very little talking this spring and made few predictions. The emphasis is now on leading by example, so it's no surprise to see that all of Florida's aforementioned leaders are reliable performers.

There is an obvious air of confidence on this defense, despite a heavy dose of youth. Some of these guys are going into their fourth year in Muschamp's system, which has made players like Taylor practically into coaches on the field.

Prediction No. 4: Roper's offense will showcase the QBs

This one didn't fully bloom to fruition, as Florida focused on basic installation for most of the spring and then added more complexity late.

Driskel, a junior coming back from a broken leg, showed that he was both healthy and clearly ahead of his competition. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and freshman Will Grier split second-team reps. All three wore noncontact jerseys and were limited in the running game, which is likely to be the foundation of the offense.

It should also be noted that Muschamp is extremely cautious about revealing details of any new schemes to the public. The overall result was a pretty vanilla version of a no-huddle spread offense. In the spring game, however, each of the three QBs had their moments.

"I really have looked at Practice 1 to Practice 15," Muschamp said after Saturday's game. "Have those guys improved every day? Yes. I think the answer is yes. Those guys have made subtle and sometimes huge leaps of improvement."

Prediction No. 5: Spring standouts will emerge

Ugh. This happens every year. Some poor player lights it up and is crowned the star of spring practice ... only to never be heard from during the regular season.

There were a lot of names -- some hits and misses -- mentioned in our final prediction blog.

Running backs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane were excellent in camp, but Florida might very well use four tailbacks this fall, which would greatly diminish the possibility of a star rising.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Alvin Bailey was solid but unspectacular and did not climb the depth chart as predicted. He's behind at least six other wideouts.

Junior cornerback Brian Poole did not capitalize on his experience to pull away from his competition this spring. Young defensive backs Jalen Tabor, Nick Washington and Marcus Maye performed well, but the secondary remains unsettled heading into the summer.

Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Trenton Brown had very strong showings, and Brown did indeed move to guard, where he started the spring game.

The other side of the line was up and down. Fowler met everyone's expectations, but young reserve defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick were regularly pushed and prodded by coaches and teammates to improve their focus and stamina.

There was no singular star player this spring, and that could be a good thing.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina’s Mike Davis just concluded a quiet spring.

But come fall, in his words, it’s on.

“I’m going to run angry next season, and everybody’s going to know about it,” said Davis, who received only minimal contact this spring after rushing for 1,183 yards a year ago in his first season as the Gamecocks’ starting running back.

A second-team All-SEC selection as a sophomore, Davis was one of the breakthrough players of the year in the league. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and rushed for 100 yards in seven of his first nine games.

But when November arrived, Davis was running on fumes. He injured his shoulder and ribs against Mississippi State, but it was a bum right ankle that he couldn’t shake.

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AP Photo/John RaouxThe grind of the SEC schedule got to South Carolina running back Mike Davis in 2013.
“Every game, it felt like people started falling on it just because,” Davis lamented.

Davis finished with 203 carries. The only two backs in the SEC (playing in 12 or fewer games) who carried it more were Tennessee’s Rajion Neal (215) and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (207). By the time Davis got to Florida, Clemson and Wisconsin, all three with stout run defenses, he didn’t look like the same player.

He was still running as hard, but the wear and tear from the season had obviously taken a huge toll.

“I was hurting, but I was still playing,” Davis said. “That’s the time of year a lot of guys are hurting. But you keep going. You’re playing for the guys around you.”

Some of the best news for Davis is that he will have more guys around him at running back in 2014. He won’t have to carry it as much during the early part of the season, meaning he should be fresh for the stretch drive.

Junior Brandon Wilds is healthy again, and the Gamecocks also like junior Shon Carson’s versatility. One of the most physically impressive backs on campus is redshirt freshman David Williams, who has explosive speed.

“When one person is beat up, another can come in and our offense is still going to run the same,” Davis said. “We will be the same offense. We have four guys who can play for anybody.

“Brandon Wilds has done a great job. Shon Carson is killing it this offseason, and David Williams is a freak athlete. He has everything you want in a running back -- size and power -- and his speed will wow you with how big he is.”

The centerpiece of that deep running back stable, though, will remain the same -- No. 28.

And despite his 1,000-yard season last season, Davis still carries a big chip on his shoulder. It goes back to his recruitment.

The Lithonia, Ga., native was committed to Florida for several months, but he soured on the Gators when he found out they were also trying to recruit Keith Marshall late in the process.

“I talked to Keith Marshall, and he told me they sent the whole coaching staff to his house, and they told me that they didn’t,” said Davis, whose other brother, James Davis, played at Clemson.

“I knew Florida was going to take two running backs, and I knew Matt Jones wasn’t going to change his mind. I had asked if they were recruiting other running backs beside us, and they told me no. But when I found out they sent all their coaches to [Marshall’s] house for an in-home visit and only the tight ends coach to my house, I felt very disrespected.”

Davis decommitted from Florida soon after and told South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward privately that he would sign with the Gamecocks. Ward had stuck with Davis through the whole recruiting process and they shared a strong bond.

We will be the same offense. We have four guys who can play for anybody.

-- South Carolina running back Mike Davis, on the running backs who will be his backups in 2014
Of course, that didn’t mean the recruiting drama was completely over.

“Georgia came -- all the teams did toward the end -- but it was too late,” Davis said. “I looked at it like, ‘I’m in Georgia. I’m one of the top running backs. How come I’m just getting an offer from UGA?’ With, Clemson, my brother went there. So I was like, ‘Why are you just now hopping on?’

“They were all too late to the game. I think they looked at me as a backup plan, that they’d go recruit other guys and if they didn’t get them, they’d go get me. That’s how I looked at it.

“But I’m nobody’s backup plan.”

Davis bulked up to more than 220 pounds this spring but wants to play at around 215. He said he was between 205 and 210 last season.

“You’re going to see a totally different person. I’m not going to lie,” Davis said. “I did a lot to help myself and better myself this offseason, trying to stay healthy. I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been, and being around our guys has helped me be a better teammate.”

Davis will be running behind one of the better offensive lines in the SEC. The Gamecocks return four starters, and senior guard A.J. Cann said blocking for a guy like Davis makes their jobs easier.

“That first hit, he’s not coming down,” Cann said. “Unless you clip him by his ankles, he might fall. But if you go at him up high, I don’t think he’s coming down. He runs angry, and he runs mean.”

The meanest version may be yet to come, although Davis will measure himself by how many games the Gamecocks win next season, and more specifically, whether they can break through and win a first SEC championship.

“If you want to be great, then you’re going to do whatever it takes to help your team win,” Davis said. “It’s not about wowing people, but you do want them to come away saying, ‘Why is he running so hard? He has that extra oomph.’

“That’s how I want to run on every carry.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Cameron Artis-Payne addressed the media last week, he didn’t look like a player who was in the midst of a heated position battle. He looked at ease and confident of where he stood. And why wouldn’t he be? Spring has been kind to the second-year running back. It was when he emerged last year, and he hopes it will be when he solidifies a starting role for this fall.

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Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne is ready to carry the load in Auburn's backfield this fall.
“Who me?” Artis-Payne joked when asked about winning offensive MVP honors for the second year in a row. “I definitely got a shot at that ... I don’t think I’m going to need as many as touches as I did last year.”

Artis-Payne had 20 touches in last year’s spring game and finished with 164 yards of offense and a touchdown. It was a breakout performance that capped what was an impressive spring for the junior college transfer, and it ultimately landed him a contributing role in Auburn’s backfield this past season.

Although he gave way to Tre Mason once SEC play began, Artis-Payne still finished with 610 yards and six touchdowns in his debut on the Plains.

With Mason leaving early for the NFL, Artis-Payne is now battling fellow senior Corey Grant for the featured back role this spring, and although they are looked at as very different runners -- Artis-Payne known for his power and Grant for his speed -- there’s more than what meets the eye.

“It’s funny that we get that label,” Artis-Payne said. “A lot of people say I'm a power back, but I can run in the low 4.4 range. And Corey is one of the strongest guys on the team.”

Both players have shown they’re more than capable of carrying the load, but regardless of who wins the job, they’re both going to play in 2014 and play to their strengths.

“We complement each other very well,” Artis-Payne added. “It's something that just happens naturally. Out there on the field, it's just a change of pace with a guy like Corey. He's literally a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. And then you've got a guy like me that grinds away the defense. It's just a good thing to have.”

Earlier this spring, Artis-Payne admitted that he was eager for a resolution and wanted to know who the starter would be, but there has been no indication to this point as to who will win the job or when it will be announced. That’s up to head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff.

“Everybody wants to be the guy, so from that aspect of course [I want to know],” Artis Payne said. “But at the end of the day, that's out of my hands. We just need to go out there and keep working, and when he feels like it's time for a decision to be made, he'll make it.”

The uncertainty certainly hasn’t affected Artis-Payne this spring. He has practiced with that same confidence he had last spring and the same confidence that carried over into the season. He’s not concerned with what’s going on around him. He’s just putting in the work.

“Love it,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of Artis-Payne’s confidence this spring. “Cam's a pro. Cam was a pro last year. He practices like a pro. What that means is he comes to meetings every day. He's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's always attentive. He's always trying to get better.

“I've got a lot of confidence that Cam will do everything we ask him to do -- carrying the ball, protections -- and really do a good job.”

The running back battle could go the way of the left tackle battle and spill over into the fall, but Artis-Payne is hoping -- no, confident -- he will put an end to it Saturday with another MVP-caliber performance in the spring game.
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Try as he might, Georgia running back Todd Gurley just couldn’t find his legs.

The usual sledgehammer of a player -- so used to ramming through and trampling defenders – felt frail and out of shape during his first few spring practices. That came after he returned from complications stemming from a nagging ankle injury that plagued him for most of the 2013 season.

“The first three practices, every time somebody touched me I kept falling to the ground,” Gurley told ESPN.com last week. “… My legs were just weak.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley shook off some spring woes and plans on being a more vocal leader going forward.
“It was frustrating. Every time I tried to do a move or cut, somebody would just touch me and I’d just fall to the ground. I probably fell at least, like, 10 times in those first three practices.”

Gurley, who has rushed for 2,374 career yards in two seasons with the Bulldogs, is a tank whose human side has failed him at times. He was held out of postseason workouts and drills as he tried to recover from a 15-inch high ankle sprain he originally suffered at the end of September in a back-and-forth win over LSU.

“That game, I felt perfect,” Gurley said with a hint of bitterness in his tone. “I felt perfect running and I was the right size and [had the right] speed. I felt like I was going to have one of the best games of my life. When it happened, I was like, ‘Dang.’”

Gurley missed three straight games after that -- a stretch in which Georgia went 1-2 -- and hasn’t been 100 percent since. A leaner Gurley hobbled into spring practice, but eyebrows were raised at the sense that Gurley wasn’t pushing himself hard enough and that his desire wasn’t there.

“The really great players, they have to love to practice,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

“None of [them] has arrived. You have to work. You’re either going to get better or worse every day; you’re not going to stay the same. Him going out there and trying to get better every day is going to make him and us better.”

Gurley admits his energy was lacking. Spring practice wasn’t pressing or exciting. But the coaches needed more from Gurley, and a conversation between Gurley and head coach Mark Richt a week before the Bulldogs’ spring game helped deliver that.

“Even though he may feel that way, he still has to give effort on a daily basis to become great,” Richt said of Gurley’s early spring attitude. “Those were some of the things we talked about, and he was awesome with it and did well.”

Gurley showed more effort during the final week, pushing his two-hour practices to the limit, before capping the spring with 70 total yards of offense and a touchdown in Georgia’s spring game. His touches were limited, but he ran with fire and purpose. He pounded his teammates and fought for extra yards.

“Everything’s starting to get better, slowly but surely,” Gurley said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been healthy, but it’s slowly getting there.”

When Gurley is at his best, he’s in a class of his own. It’s rare for someone with his size (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) to cut and explode like he does. Gurley punishes defenders with his strength and embarrasses them with his moves and breakaway speed. He’d easily have more than just 13 career 100-plus-yard rushing games if his body would cooperate.

But Gurley’s physical side is only part of what could make him a truly special back. The way he carries himself and how he instructs those around him will go a long way as well.

This spring, his coaches pushed him to bring more energy and leadership. More of a leader by example, Gurley said he opened his mouth this spring. He got more serious and wanted to make sure younger players followed him for the right reasons.

“This Todd is doing a better job of leading,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “We feel like as long as he’s in shape, he’s healthy and he’s strong, he’s the best back in the country.”

Aaron Murray is gone. Keith Marshall’s status is still up in the air after that devastating ACL injury. The spotlight is fixed on Gurley more than ever before, and he says he’s ready to shine even brighter in a year that could be his last in Athens.

That idea has served as a distraction. Gurley equates this upcoming season to his senior year in high school when some around him told him not to work as hard because he was already headed to college. Save his body, they said.

It makes sense to some, but that’s not Gurley’s concern, he said. He doesn’t want to take time or plays off to save up for the NFL. Gurley has more to prove. He wants more yards. He wants records. And he wants wins and at least one championship.

Resting won’t bring any of that.

“That’s never been the case for me,” Gurley said. “The NFL isn’t going anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to be getting drafted [this fall]. I just have to make sure I’m focused on now and getting better every day so that can help me out for my future and basically doing it for my team.”
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Once again, Georgia took home the victory on G-Day.

The Bulldogs' annual spring game ended with the Red Team, comprised mostly of the first-team offense, defeating the Black Team, headed by most of the first-team defense, 27-24 in front of an announced crowd of 46,073 inside Sanford Stadium.

You can learn only so much from spring games, but there are always some nuggets here and there that you can take away from them.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsHutson Mason looked in full command of the offense in Georgia's spring game.
Here are five things we learned from Georgia's G-Day:

1. Mason looks pretty comfortable: It's easy when the quarterback isn't getting hit, but Hutson Mason looked very comfortable on Saturday. He was quick with his delivery, very accurate and very sharp. Again, he wasn't asked to do too much, but you can tell that he's more than comfortable running coordinator Mike Bobo's offense. I mean, he has been there for what feels like a decade now, so he better be. Even without some of his best targets in Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley (both were out this spring recovering from ACL injuries), he didn't skip a beat, as he passed for 241 yards and a touchdown on 18 of 27. "I felt good about my accuracy and my completions," Mason said. "Just wish I would have thrown the deep ball a little better."

2. Floyd and Johnson could be a solid combo: There's no question that Georgia's defense still needs a lot of work. The secondary had its issues and the defensive line is still looking for more playmakers. But one thing that really stood out on Saturday was the play of defensive lineman Toby Johnson and linebacker Leonard Floyd. Both required constant double teams on Saturday. We all knew Floyd had the potential to be a very, very special player, and he constantly harassed the Red Team's quarterbacks. He finished with six tackles and broke up two passes. Floyd can play with his hand down when the Dawgs are in a 4-3 formation or at outside linebacker in a 3-4. As for Johnson, he could be one to watch for the Dawgs this year. He made his way to the quarterback early and often in the game before the Black Team's line adjusted to put an extra body on him. Still, he was able to break through even with that extra set of arms to battle.

3. Gurley ran with purpose: There has been plenty of talk this spring about running back Todd Gurley's toughness, but he didn't look like he was holding back on Saturday. While he was limited to just six rushes (32 yards and a touchdown) and caught three passes (38 yards), Gurley was trying his hardest to bowl guys over. Coach Mark Richt sat Gurley down earlier in the spring to talk about his toughness and his practice habits, and it clearly paid off. Gurley didn't look hesitant, despite still not being 100 percent with nagging ankle issues. We don't know if Gurley will ever truly be healthy at Georgia, but it's a good sign that he doesn't have an issue playing through pain. He just wanted to deliver it Saturday.

4. Battle for No. 2 continues: Mason is clearly Georgia's starting quarterback, but the fight behind him should be a fun one for the months to come. It's down to redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey. On Saturday, Bauta was the more impressive of the two, passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Ramsey, who suited up for both teams, finished with 78 total yards and an interception on 2 of 13 passing. While Ramsey wasn't as accurate as he'd like to be, he has a cannon of an arm and might have the most arm talent on the team. He just has to get that thing under control before he can take another step in the process. "I obviously could have thrown it a lot better, but at the same time I feel good about my performance," Ramsey said. "I was picking up blitzes, making the right reads. I just need to put the ball on. I had a bad day throwing." As for Bauta, he shed the black non-contact jersey in order to take some contact and finish plays after defenders got their hands on him. He was certainly a lot more efficient than Ramsey, but he said he knows that he can't slow down when it comes to winning this job before the fall.

5. The secondary has a ways to go: New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will have his hands full with Georgia's secondary. A unit that surrendered 227 passing yards per game and 18 touchdowns last year showed some of the same issues it had last season during the spring game. Now, injuries to guys like Tray Matthews and J.J. Green, who was at running back last year, contributed to that, but the offenses were able to make too many big plays in the passing game. If not for a couple of overthrown deep balls, the offenses could have put up a few more points. It didn't help that the defenses were called for six pass interference penalties with half of the starting receivers out. Six players averaged 15 or more yards per reception against the secondary on Saturday. "We're getting better," cornerback Damian Swann said. "Everything that happened today can be fixed, and that's why you have games like this. ... I think we did pretty good as a secondary."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In keeping with tradition, Florida concluded a month of practices with a feel-good scrimmage in front of thousands of fans and called the spring a success.

Coming off of a terrible 2013 season, the Gators desperately needed changes and positive feelings. They got that and more.

Florida satisfied head coach Will Muschamp's top priorities by installing a new offense, developing confidence, discovering some new players and rehabilitating some old ones.

Here's what else happened this spring:

[+] EnlargeWill Grier
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFreshman Will Grier showed a quick release in Florida's spring game.
Quarterbacks in command: From the opening of the first practice, it was obvious the QBs had studied hard and grasped the no-huddle spread offense. They led the installation process and made enough progress with fundamentals and basic principles to add wrinkles throughout the spring. Junior Jeff Driskel clearly separated himself as the starter in camp and had the strongest arm. He got into a good rhythm in the spring game and showed what the offense can do (against much of Florida's first-team defense). The battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot was a draw. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg improved as a passer throughout the spring and split reps with true freshman Will Grier. The much-anticipated prospect didn't disappoint, as Grier showed he has an extremely quick release and a bright future.

Deeper at receiver: The Gators have been painfully short of playmakers on offense in recent years, but the numbers are tilting in their favor. Florida will lean heavily on senior starter Quinton Dunbar and three talented sophomores who gained valuable experience last season in Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. The three combined for 13 receptions in Saturday's spring game. Robinson led the way with five catches for 53 yards, including a 31-yard, highlight-reel touchdown. The biggest proof of concept for the offense was that it did what everyone promised it would -- get the ball to players in space.

Still some concerns: After years of departures to the NFL, Florida has a very young secondary. There's plenty of talent, but it appears likely that at least one of the true freshman cornerbacks -- Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson -- will start either at corner or nickel. There will also be two new starters at safety, with an open spot still up for grabs opposite senior Jabari Gorman. ... The issue Muschamp harped on the most throughout the spring was a "huge" drop-off in ability from his first team to the second team on the offensive and defensive lines. Mental and physical stamina is part of the problem. ... Florida still isn't getting much offense from its tight ends and fullbacks. "We’re still looking for that consistent playmaker at the B-position," Muschamp said Saturday. He did single out true freshman DeAndre Goolsby for praise. ... Though there weren't any major injuries this spring, the bug still looms. Florida on Saturday held out two key starters on defense in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. There was no reason to expose them to risk, and can you blame a team that lost one of its best players in Ronald Powell to a torn ACL in the spring game two years ago?

Kick in the pants: Muschamp said he's talked to a lot of mental conditioning coaches to try to help place-kicker Austin Hardin iron out his mechanics. Hardin, who struggled mightily in his first season as UF's kicker, made all four of his field-goal attempts in the spring game and won his coach's praise for achieving some consistency. Hardin will still have to fight off a few walk-ons who will try to take his job.

Position changes: Senior offensive tackle Trenton Brown moved inside to guard, performed well as a starter in the spring game and will stay there. At 6-foot-8 and 361 pounds, the Gators love his ability to be a people-mover in the running game. ... Florida gave junior Trip Thurman a long look at guard throughout the spring before giving him second-team snaps at center in Saturday's game. ... Redshirt freshman Antonio Riles moved from defensive line to offensive guard midway through spring. Florida coaches like his athleticism and said he looked natural on the O-line, but the real reason for the move might have more to do with three highly touted defensive line signees who are coming this summer: Thomas Holley, Gerald Willis III and Khairi Clark. ... Redshirt freshman Marqui Hawkins wasn't making much of an impact at wide receiver early in the spring so he was moved to safety, where he played some in high school. Florida felt good about its numbers at receiver and needed more help in the secondary.

What's next: The Gators are on their own as far as workouts, as veteran players typically organize drills throughout the summer to stay sharp. Driskel said he plans to throw a lot and work on timing with his receivers. Muschamp said it best in outlining the next phase for his players: "Still got a way to go, 112 days until we report. Our older players understand the importance of this time of year. Understanding in all three phases, taking the next step schematically, being in shape, being ready to go and understanding what it’s going to take to be successful and win in this league."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A typical spring football game in the South is like throwing red meat to hungry animals. For the Gators and their football-starved fans, Saturday's scrimmage went down easy.

Positive feelings were in abundance inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, as Florida's Team Orange finished in a 23-23 tie with Team Blue. The crowd was estimated at 35,834, and you'd be hard pressed to find any fans who weren't there to glimpse a brand-new offense.

"I'm extremely pleased with the day offensively with 15 practices and how far we've come," head coach Will Muschamp said. "I think you can attribute all that to [new coordinator] Kurt Roper and the offensive staff and the job they've done.

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Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsJeff Driskel, who broke his leg last season, completed 18 of 32 passes in Florida's spring game.
"Our kids have been very receptive and have confidence in what we're doing. I think it's a good fit moving forward."

It was a sharp contrast to the way Florida ended its 2013 season with a seven-game losing streak and a 4-8 record, the program's first losing season in 34 years.

Saturday's spring game was successful in many ways. The Gators pleased their fans with a no-huddle offense that was both efficient and coherent. They avoided the injury bug that plagued the team last year. Even the kickers looked good, as sophomore Austin Hardin connected on all four of his field goal attempts.

"It was a great day and great crowd," Muschamp said. "Probably the best crowd we’ve had since I’ve been here. It says a lot about our fanbase and the loyal support we have from all the Gators fans out there."

It was a game tailor made to check off the list of priorities set by Muschamp at the start of spring practice 24 days ago.

By halftime, Florida's first-team and second-team offenses combined for 69 plays, more than 400 yards of total offense and 36 points, which is more than the Gators scored in any game last season.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of 2013 with a broken leg, showed that he's healthy and has the best grasp of the offense among UF's quarterbacks. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 167 yards with a touchdown.

The word Driskel used to describe the Gators this spring was "re-energized."

"We did have a great spring," he said. "We felt like it's a new start, and there's something about [the offense] where you can get rolling. ...

"When you start getting completion after completion, it kind of builds your confidence and gets you in a rhythm that sometimes is tough for the defense to break."

Twenty receivers caught passes, including eight on Driskel's Team Blue, which was largely comprised of starters.

"That's going to help us out a lot," said sophomore Chris Thompson, who had three catches. "It’s going to keep our receivers fresh, and we're going to be keep making plays throughout the whole game."

Confidence on offense was one of Muschamp's top priorities. It was everywhere on Saturday.

"It felt like we were really efficient," Driskel said. "We moved the ball really well. We only turned it over one time and we only had one penalty on offense. I think when you’re not beating yourself up, you can really, really gain momentum and gain confidence."

There were several big plays, most notably Driskel's 31-yard touchdown pass in which sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson made several defenders miss with his speed and cut-back ability.

Open receivers and highlight-reel plays were in short supply in 2013. And while spring games are designed to generate optimism, it was still a welcome change for Gators fans.

The biggest contrast between this spring and last year? No major injuries. When that was pointed out to Muschamp, he heaved a great sigh of relief.

"We've still got to get them out of the locker room," he said with a laugh.

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