- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Let’s take a closer look at the first-week depth charts of the Western Division teams.
There’s always a few surprises.
There’s been a lot of talk about the inexperience in the Alabama secondary and how that compares to the 2010 season when the Crimson Tide suffered their share of mental breakdowns back there. Junior college newcomer Deion Belue will start at cornerback opposite Dee Milliner. It’s noteworthy that the Tide made the decision to keep Belue at cornerback and not overload him by also playing him at the “star” or nickel position. When Alabama goes to five defensive backs, safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will both be on the field. Also, a pair of true freshmen are in the defensive backfield two-deep -- cornerback Geno Smith and safety Landon Collins -- and both are expected to play this season.
Sophomore Christion Jones, who filled in when Marquis Maze was injured last season in the BCS National Championship Game, will be the Tide’s top return man on punts and kickoffs. Jones is also one of those guys who should be a really good after-the-catch guy and is listed as the starter at the H receiver position.
Depth chart (page 13)
It’s no secret that Arkansas has to take a big step forward on defense if the Hogs are going to unseat Alabama and LSU in the Western Division. One of the things that jumps out is their depth up front on defense. They return five guys -- tackles Byran Jones, D.D. Jones and Robert Thomas and ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers -- who all started in at least three games last season. There’s also junior college transfer Austin Flynn at end as well as senior tackle Alfred Davis and senior end Colton Miles-Nash, both of whom have played a lot.
Senior fullback Kiero Small will be one tired soul after games. He’s the starter at fullback and also listed No. 2 at middle linebacker behind Tenarius Wright. The Hogs are thin across the board at linebacker, and starters Alonzo Highsmith and Wright have missed a lot of practice time this preseason while dealing with injuries.
Mekale McKay was a late addition to the Hogs’ 2012 signing class, but he’s made enough of an impression this preseason to earn a starting job at one of the three receiver spots. Cobi Hamilton and former Arkansas backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell are the other two starting receivers. The 6-6 McKay was also a standout basketball player in the state of Kentucky.
The Tigers will open the season against Clemson with three first-time starters in the offensive line -- sophomore center Tunde Fariyike, true freshman right tackle Avery Young and redshirt freshman left tackle Greg Robinson. Fariyike is starting for the suspended Reese Dismukes.
A trio of veterans who were starters most of last season will open the 2012 season as backups -- junior defensive end Nose Eguae, cornerback T’Sharvan Bell and strong safety Demetruce McNeal. Dee Ford beat out Eguae at end and will start opposite Corey Lemonier. Ryan White and Chris Davis are the two starting cornerbacks, and Jermaine Whitehead will start at strong safety. Bell, in particular, will still play a lot in the nickel package.
Sophomore Quan Bray earned one of the starting receiver jobs, and he’ll also be the Tigers’ deep man on punt returns. In both spots, the Tigers will be counting on him to generate some big plays this season.
Now that Tyrann Mathieu is gone, the Tigers’ secondary will feature a heavy dose of youth. True freshman Jalen Mills will start at one cornerback opposite Tharold Simon. Mills, the only true freshman starter for the Tigers, will also slide inside and play the nickel spot when LSU goes to five defensive backs with redshirt freshman Jalen Collins coming in and playing cornerback.
With Michael Ford waiting on an academic appeal, fellow junior Alfred Blue has moved to the top of LSU’s depth chart at tailback. Sophomore Kenny Hilliard goes into the season as Blue’s backup. Senior Spencer Ware has been slowed this preseason by a thigh bruise. Ware started in 10 games last season. Ford, Ware and Blue all rushed for more than 530 yards last season.
Sophomore La’El Collins beat out sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk for the starting left guard job on the offensive line. Dworaczyk will stay play a valuable role as the utility man for the Tigers. LSU coach Les Miles said Dworaczyk can play every spot on the offensive line. He was a starter in 2009 and 2010 at guard before getting injured. The Tigers are both talented and experienced up front on offense, and there shouldn’t be any drop-off from a year ago. If anything, they may be better, especially with a healthy P.J. Lonergan at center.
Depth chart (page 4)
There was an intense battle for the Bulldogs’ starting middle linebacker job, but redshirt freshman Benardrick McKinney came out on top. The 6-5, 235-pound McKinney has a huge upside, and the Mississippi State coaches think he’ll be a pro. Sophomore Ferlando Bohanna is also plenty capable, and the Bulldogs like their depth there in the middle.
The right tackle spot on the offensive line will be manned by two guys, at least for the time being. Sophomore Damien Robinson and junior college newcomer Charles Siddoway are in a dead heat, and both are expected to play Saturday in the Bulldogs’ opener against Jackson State. The big challenge for Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell may be throwing over them. Both Robinson and Siddoway are 6-7. Senior Tobias Smith will start at right guard, but the Bulldogs will probably limit his snaps in this first game. He’s coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss most of last season.
One of the surprises is that redshirt freshman Joe Morrow is not listed on the two-deep at receiver. The 6-4 Morrow was supposed to be that bigger target for the Bulldogs, who have three senior receivers starting -- Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith.
Depth chart (page 11)
There’s a serious traffic jam at running back for the Rebels. Junior Jeff Scott is the returning starter, but he’s been hurt for much of the preseason. How much he plays in Saturday’s opener remains to be seen. Former quarterback Randall Mackey will be a vital part of the Ole Miss offense in his new role at running back, and we’ll probably see both Scott and Mackey on the field together at times. Coach Hugh Freeze also likes what he’s seen out of his true freshman running backs. I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton have both been impressive this preseason. Veterans Devin Thomas and Nick Parker are also in the mix.
There’s still no answer on who will be the Rebels’ starting quarterback, although junior college newcomer Bo Wallace has made up a lot of ground this preseason. Right now, junior Barry Brunetti and Wallace are bracketed as co-No. 1’s. The reality is that both of them will play in the opener.
The Rebels’ starting defensive line includes two sophomores and a true freshman. Issac Gross, one of the Rebels’ top signees in the 2012 class, is listed as the starter at nose tackle ahead of seniors Gilbert Pena and Uriah Grant. Gross is undersized. He’s listed at 270 pounds, but has continually earned the coaches’ praise this preseason. Grant underwent offseason shoulder surgery and was limited some in camp, but he’ll play a lot this fall.
Talk about makeovers. The Aggies’ passing game will feature a ton of new faces in addition to a new look in Kevin Sumlin’s fast-break offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel steps in as the starting quarterback. And while senior receiver Ryan Swope put up monster numbers a year ago, redshirt freshman Mike Evans moves in as the starter at one of the other receiver spots. True freshmen Thomas Johnson and Sabian Holmes are also listed in the two-deep at receiver.
True freshman De’Vante Harris punctuated his strong preseason camp by being named a starter at cornerback. The Aggies’ other starting cornerback will be sophomore Deshazor Everett, who was one of the breakout players for Texas A&M this spring. Everett was primarily a special teams player a year ago. Of the 22 players listed on Texas A&M’s two-deep, 11 are freshmen or sophomores or slated to see their first game action this season for the Aggies.
The Aggies’ strength on offense is clearly up front, where four starters return. Both tackles, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, are starting to pop up on early NFL draft lists for next year, and the most valuable player on the entire team may be senior center Patrick Lewis. Sophomore Cedric Ogbuehi also returns at right guard. With a healthy Christine Michael at running back, the Aggies should be able to lean on their running game.