Best of the spring in the SEC

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
4:00
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Best performance: Alabama's Amari Cooper was already one of the best returning receivers in the college game, maybe the best receiver. He only got better, bigger and stronger this spring and was like a machine when it came to catching passes and making plays. Cooper is such an explosive player, but his ability to run crisp routes and separate from the defender will make him that much more dangerous next season.

Best performance by a true freshman: Georgia was looking for help across the board on defense after losing seven players who were drafted on that side of the ball. Enter true freshman safety Tray Matthews. The early enrollee was the hit of spring practice and passed out more than a few bone-jarring hits along the way. He's exactly what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was looking for at free safety and has a big future ahead of him in this league.

Best comeback: After two seasons away from football because of lingering knee issues, it was great to see Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford back on the practice field this spring. Just his presence in the huddle and the way he relates to his teammates will make the Rebels a better team. He's their emotional leader.

Best comeback II: Don't sleep on Missouri running back Henry Josey, who looked good this spring after missing the past year and a half with a knee injury so severe that it required three surgeries. He's the kind of home run threat the Tigers were lacking on offense last season and hungry to prove that he's still got it.

Best rebirth: It's a close call between Auburn junior Justin Garrett and Tennessee senior Dontavis Sapp. Garrett was a reserve linebacker with one career start, but emerged as a perfect fit at the hybrid "Star" position in Ellis Johnson's new 4-2-5 defense. Sapp had started just two games at Tennessee, but separated himself as the Vols' most consistent defender this spring at one of the starting linebacker spots.

Best group of promising true sophomores: At Florida, they can't wait to see what "Buck" defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., linebacker Antonio Morrison, defensive end Jonathan Bullard, running back Matt Jones and offensive tackle D.J. Humphries have in store for 2013.

Best quote: Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, countering the perception that the Aggies will be a marked team in 2013 after winning 11 games in their first season in the SEC, quipped, "We're playing in a league with a team that's won three out of four national championships. We didn't beat LSU. We were third in our division and didn't play in a BCS bowl. That's the way I see it."

Best player nobody is talking about: Vanderbilt senior offensive tackle Wesley Johnson has started games at left tackle, right tackle, left guard and center during his career (38 career starts). He's never had a holding penalty and given up just 6.5 sacks … or one every 157 snaps on 1,021 attempts. What's more, Johnson has been on the field for every offensive touchdown the Commodores have scored over the past three seasons. He's easily one of the most underrated players in college football.

Best post-spring "What were you thinking?" move: LSU running back Jeremy Hill managed to get himself indefinitely suspended after, according to a police report, punching a guy in the side of the head outside a bar and then celebrating with high-fives after somebody else knocked the victim out. It only gets worse when you consider that Hill was already on probation. For the record, his attorney says Hill was heckled about his past legal troubles, which precipitated the incident.

Best revival of hope: The Kentucky fans showed up in force for Mark Stoops' first spring game. A crowd of 50,831 flocked to Commonwealth Stadium, which was about 30,000 more than the Wildcats drew for a couple of games last season. And, please, no jokes about a hoops scrimmage being held at halftime. The Kentucky fans are genuinely excited about Stoops' vision for getting the program back to respectability and the way he's recruiting.

Chris Low | email

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