SEC: Aaron Douglas

This week is harder than most for the Douglas family.

Their son, Aaron Douglas, would have returned to Neyland Stadium this Saturday to face Tennessee as a member of Alabama’s No. 1-ranked football team. It would have been his first game back in Knoxville since starting his career with the Vols and earning Freshman All-America honors in 2009.

Tragically, though, Douglas died of an accidental drug overdose before he ever had a chance to play for the Crimson Tide. He was 21.

Aaron Douglas
AP Photo/Unversity of Alabama, Jeri A. GuslbyAaron Douglas was making a bid for the starting left tackle job at Alabama when he died, May 12, 2011 in Florida. He was 21.
While Douglas might be gone, he certainly hasn’t been forgotten by the Alabama football family.

When the Crimson Tide handed out their 2011 national championship rings this year, they sent one to Douglas’ family -- complete with his name and 77 jersey number engraved on it. His parents, David and Karla, and 8-year-old sister, Ashley, returned home on March 11 after dedicating a scholarship in Aaron’s name that day at Maryville (Tenn.) High School to find the ring waiting on them.

It had been almost a year to the date since Aaron’s death (May 12, 2011), and even now, it’s difficult for David or Karla to express what that gesture meant to them, not to mention the outpouring of support they’ve received from the entire Alabama football family.

“It was one of those acts of kindness that just said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you and still have you in our hearts and our thoughts,’” Karla said. “In our time of need, they have been there for us above and beyond.”

Aaron Douglas was at Alabama for only five months. He’d transferred there from Arizona Western College, but went through spring practice in 2011 and was making a bid for the starting left tackle job.

“I think it’s a testament to what kind of teammate Aaron was that they would want us to have a ring,” Karla said. “Ask anybody who ever played with him, and they will tell you what kind of teammate he was. It’s humbling that he could touch that many people in such a short period of time, but that’s who he was.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban said the decision to send Douglas’ family a national championship ring was something that everybody in the program wanted.

“To all of us here at Alabama, Aaron was a part of our team,” Saban said. “It’s only fitting that his family receive anything that came as a result of what our team accomplished.”

Douglas knew, too, that Alabama was on the verge of a special season. He told his mother as much soon after arriving on campus.

“He was so excited about being there,” Karla said. “He told me in February that he’d never been around a group of athletes that all they cared about was working hard, working together and winning. He told me in February that they would be national champions. He knew that in February 2011. He’s still a part of that team. We all are. It’s a special place.”

Alabama’s players all wore a No. 77 sticker on their helmets last season in memory of Douglas, who grew up a huge Tennessee fan.

Both of his parents were athletes at Tennessee and both won championships. David was an offensive lineman on the Vols’ 1985 SEC championship team and later played in the NFL. Karla was a member of the Lady Vols’ national championship basketball team in 1987. They still live in Tennessee and still contribute to the Vols’ athletic fund.

But despite their Big Orange heritage, they will also forever be indebted to Alabama.

Karla just recently wrote Saban a letter soaked with tears.

“I was just now able to do it,” she said. “I’d start to write it and couldn’t get through it. It was just too hard. But I wanted to thank him for being there and making us feel such a part of the Alabama family.”

Karla and David are unsure if they will attend the game Saturday. They did go to the Alabama-Tennessee game last season in Tuscaloosa, and the emotion of it all was overwhelming.

“The pain was so intense,” Karla said. “Last year was really difficult. I don’t know that it’s better, but the pain’s not as intense.”

For the time being, they have Aaron’s ring stored away in a safe spot, but it’s not going to stay there forever.

“Some day, we’ll be able to put out his jersey, his helmet and all of his things,” Karla said. “Right now, it’s just too hard.”

SEC lunch links

October, 20, 2011
10/20/11
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Welcome to our Thursday lunch links:
The cheers could be heard through the closed double doors of the second floor ballroom in the Wynfrey hotel.

The Alabama fans had arrived.

Well, they had been there hours before, but they were making sure anyone who didn't see the group sandwiched together in the downstairs lobby heard their thunderous presence.

It was nothing unusual at SEC media days. Alabama is always the main attraction. Auburn might be the reigning national champion, but the Tigers’ popularity wasn't remotely close to Alabama's. In fact, two Auburn players strolled easily through the mall attached to the Wynfrey for a quick bite and went relatively unnoticed. Human buffers surrounded Alabama players and coach Nick Saban during their entire trip to the Wynfrey, as crazed fans looked for autographs and pictures.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban's Crimson Tide are the preseason favorites to win the SEC.
It was like watching Will Smith hand-in-hand with Jennifer Aniston walk into a room to promote a new blockbuster movie.

Saban and his players hit the ballroom to greet the media after 9:30 a.m., but the feverish fans were there to welcome their team hours before.

Players didn’t see the fans when they arrived because they crept through the back door, but hearing about their fans’ devotion brought nothing but boyish smiles.

“I love it,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “There’s one thing I can say about Alabama: I don’t think you’re going to find any place in the this country that you’re going to find better fans than Alabama fans. They follow you everywhere. There’s probably going to be just as many people in Beaver Stadium when we play Penn State.

“If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is. When you have someone depending on you, when you have people adoring you, obsessed with you because you’re doing something they love to watch and love to come watch you play, I love it.”

Bama fans bombard the Wynfrey each year, but so much is expected from the Tide this season. With the tremendous talent returning on both offense and defense, Alabama was the overwhelming media favorite to win the SEC this year and most have the Tide pegged as a national title contender.

There are concerns with a quarterback battle that features two players -- A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims - with very little experience. However, two positives are that the winner will be able to heavily lean on stud junior running back Trent Richardson and will be protected by an extremely experienced offensive line.

Arguably the most impressive aspect of Alabama’s roster is the defense, which has been smothered with preseason accolades this summer.

Saban doesn’t look at or care about preseason rankings. They don’t mean anything to him. He even took a shot at the media for its predictions made in Hoover, Ala., last week.

“Even though I have a tremendous amount of respect for the intelligence level and your ability to prognosticate, which we really can't do, I'm not capable of doing, I don't understand how you come to the decisions that you come to,” Saban said.

Senior safety Mark Barron tends to agree with his coach. He’s not feeding into the hype, either, and said it’s not something he ever thinks about.

“I don’t pay it no mind,” he said.

Expectations don't motivate the Tide. What does is the devastation Tuscaloosa suffered from the deadly tornadoes in late April and the loss of teammate Aaron Douglas in May.

This team feels like it's playing for much more now, and Richardson said he hopes a successful football season will bring some jubilation back to the community.

"You've got a situation where people lost everything in Tuscaloosa," he said, "lots of people lost hope. We want to bring joy back to the town.
Trent Richardson had already been counting down the days to the 2011 football season.

As much as he respected Mark Ingram and as much as he learned from Alabama’s only Heisman Trophy winner, Richardson was like any other running back.

He yearned to be “the man,” to carry it 20 or 25 times a game and see just where he could take the Crimson Tide in what may well be his final season at the Capstone.

On April 27 of this year, Richardson’s perspective on football and what it means to play the sport that he loves so dearly changed in a way that he still has a hard time describing.

Not a day has gone by that Richardson hasn’t thought back to the devastating tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa, killing 41 people and flattening everything in its path.

It still seems like a horrible nightmare to Richardson, who was sleeping when the storm hit.

“When it was over, I just started calling and texting everybody I could think of, to make sure they were OK,” Richardson recalled. “Even now, when you drive around the parts of town where the tornado hit, it just takes your heart away.

“It shows you another side of life, a side that we as football players probably don’t think about enough. One day, you’re here, and the next day, you’re gone.

“You better make every day count.”

The killer tornado last month wasn’t the only tragedy that the Alabama football program has had to endure this spring.

On May 12, offensive tackle Aaron Douglas was found dead in Fernandina Beach, Fla. Douglas, a junior college transfer, had participated in spring practice with the Crimson Tide, but had yet to play in a game.

More than 30 Alabama players attended his memorial service in Knoxville, Tenn., along with coach Nick Saban and countless other team officials. Richardson also desperately wanted to be there, but was in Louisiana attending the college graduation ceremonies of his older brother, Terrell, a former player at Louisiana-Lafayette.

“We’ve got a lot to play for this year. A lot has happened,” Richardson said somberly. “There are a lot of people hurting out there that are a part of our family. All we can do is play for them, and I can promise you that’s what we’re going to do.”

So more than ever -- and for reasons that never really hit home in the past -- Richardson is itching to get back onto the field. But the difference is that it’s about much more than just him or any of his teammates this coming season.

“We can’t wait until this season,” Richardson said. “We know how much this season means to a lot of people in Alabama, and we also know those folks need us. If we can bring a little bit of joy to their lives, that’s what we plan on doing.

“We can’t bring anybody back, but we can do our part on the field. Those are the people we’re playing for this year. I want them to know that we’re here for them.

“We’re going to put Alabama on our back, run with it and take a shot at that title.”
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- They gathered from all corners of the college football world on Sunday night to say goodbye to Aaron Douglas.

And that was just a small sampling of the overflow crowd that squeezed into Cokesbury United Methodist Church’s Epworth Hall, all trying to make sense of a tragedy that rips at your heart in more ways than you ever thought imaginable.

The 21-year-old Douglas, who had just started to rekindle a promising football career at Alabama, was found dead this past Thursday morning in Fernandina Beach, Fla. Authorities are still investigating the cause of death.

Aaron Douglas
AP Photo/Unversity of Alabama, Jeri A. GuslbyAaron Douglas was found dead Thursday in Florida. He was 21.
There are sure to be a multitude of questions surrounding Douglas’ death. But as Dr. G. Steven Sallee so eloquently reminded those in attendance at Sunday’s Celebration of Life service for Douglas, those questions are best left to be wrestled with by Douglas’ family.

Douglas’ college football career never completely took off. He was a freshman All-American at Tennessee in 2009 before transferring to Arizona Western College following Lane Kiffin’s departure and then resurfacing in the SEC this spring at Alabama. He was battling for the Crimson Tide’s left tackle job.

Those who knew Douglas best -- family members, friends, coaches and teammates -- all tell a similar story, that his heart was as big as his hulking 6-foot-7, 280-pound body.

His parents, David and Karla, were both athletes at Tennessee. David was an offensive lineman on the Vols’ 1985 SEC championship team and played several seasons in the NFL. Karla was a member of the 1987 Lady Vols’ national championship basketball team.

In some small way, their grief had to be eased by seeing how many different people’s lives their son had touched despite such a short life of his own.

In attendance were three men who’ve won national championships as head coaches -- Nick Saban, Phillip Fulmer and John Majors. They all sat up front with the family.

It hardly stops there, either.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, a longtime assistant at Tennessee, was there. So was former Tennessee assistant Dan Brooks, who’s now at Clemson and recruited Douglas to Tennessee.

Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson was on hand along with former Vol great and current assistant athletic director Condredge Holloway, associate athletic directors David Blackburn and Carmen Tegano and Tennessee radio broadcaster Bob Kesling.

Alabama, still dealing with the fallout from the devastating tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa earlier this month, brought two planes full of people.

In addition to Saban, athletic director Mal Moore, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and former offensive line coach Joe Pendry made the trip.

Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran left a family vacation in Florida and drove to Tuscaloosa so he could fly to Knoxville with the Alabama contingent and be at the service.

That’s not even counting the more than 30 members of the Alabama football team who carpooled together and drove on their own dime to pay their last respects to a fallen teammate they'd known for less than six months.

There were also several of Douglas’ former Tennessee teammates in attendance, including Nick Reveiz, Chris Walker, Jonathan Crompton, Cody Sullins, Cory Sullins and Josh McNeil, not to mention Douglas’ Maryville, Tenn., high school coach, George Quarles, and scores of his former high school teammates.

Arkansas assistant coach Steve Caldwell, also a former Tennessee assistant, had a conflict and couldn’t be at the service Sunday, but Caldwell flew in Saturday to visit with the family.

Agent Jimmy Sexton, who represented Douglas’ father when David was playing in the NFL, was there. So were members of Alabama’s academic and training staff, members of Tennessee’s equipment staff along with current and former team managers for the Vols.

Even Douglas’ first babysitter was there.

They were all there to say a tearful goodbye to a young man who was taken from us much too soon.

I think I speak for all of us in the SEC when I say this is an area where we’re all on the same team.

No matter where you live or who your allegiances are to in the fall, when you get home tonight, hug your kids a little longer and a little tighter.

It's been a tragic stretch for Alabama, the latest blow coming early Thursday morning when offensive tackle Aaron Douglas was found dead in Fernandina Beach, Fla.

Douglas, 21, had transferred to Alabama from Arizona Western College and was competing this spring for the starting left tackle job. He started his career at Tennessee and earned Freshman All-America honors in 2009.

Both of Douglas' parents, David and Karla, were athletes at Tennessee. David played on the Vols' 1985 SEC championship football team, and Karla played on the Lady Vols' 1987 national championship basketball team.

The details surrounding Douglas' death aren't known at this point. He decided to leave the Tennessee program after Lane Kiffin bolted for USC and later admitted to struggling with depression issues.
Most of the news coming out of Alabama’s A-Day spring game last weekend centered around the fact that A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims are apparently dead even in the race for the starting quarterback job.

There’s some talk that they may even split snaps next season.

I still think McCarron will be the guy, although props go out to Sims for making it a legitimate race.

Clearly, Alabama has two guys at that position the team feels it can win with, and that’s always a luxury in this league.

To me, though, the bigger story coming out of the spring centers around who’s going to be protecting the quarterback’s blind side.

[+] EnlargeBarrett Jones
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAll-SEC offensive lineman Barrett Jones has worked at guard and left tackle this spring.
Barrett Jones, a first-team All-SEC selection at guard last season, played left tackle in the spring game after working there some the final week of practice.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said it was only an experiment and that the Crimson Tide would continue to search for their best combination up front.

The 6-foot-5, 311-pound Jones is the best offensive lineman on Alabama’s team and more than held his own against Courtney Upshaw last Saturday. For what it’s worth, Upshaw will be one of the best pass-rushers in the league next season.

But moving Jones means you shake up the interior of that offensive line, an interior that was experienced and seemingly set with senior William Vlachos at center, junior Chance Warmack at left guard and Jones at right guard.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Jones will be an All-SEC player no matter where Alabama elects to play him up front. Whether he moves out to left tackle full time probably has more to do with sophomore Anthony Steen’s continued development at right guard. Steen is coming off a solid spring.

Nobody’s giving up on the two guys who went into the spring battling for the left tackle job, either. Junior college newcomer Aaron Douglas and senior Alfred McCullough shared snaps at left tackle for much of the spring.

But Douglas, weighing in the 280-pound range, still needs to bulk up some, and McCullough wound up playing most of the spring game at guard.

Here’s the other thing: If both players are made of the right stuff, they’ll view this as a challenge, have a great summer and come back during preseason camp determined to keep Jones at guard.

“When we make these kind of moves, we do it with the idea that it could help the quality of our offensive line,” Saban said. “But we also evaluate whether that’s really happening. Is it really better that way?”

That’s what Saban & Co. hope to find out after evaluating how the new-look line performed in the spring game and seeing how certain players develop this summer.

It’s always nice to have options up front, and it’s also wise to cross-train players in the spring.

Ultimately, though, the offensive line is all about continuity and getting it done as a unit.

The Crimson Tide will be looking to find that same chemistry up front in the fall that carried them to a national championship in 2009.

Opening spring camp: Alabama

March, 21, 2011
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Schedule: The Crimson Tide will open practice Monday afternoon and conclude the spring with their A-Day spring game on April 16. It will be televised live by ESPNU with a 3 p.m. ET kickoff.

What’s new: Veteran offensive line coach Joe Pendry retired following the 2010 season and was replaced by Jeff Stoutland, who’d been Miami’s offensive line coach the previous four seasons. Mike Groh takes over as the Crimson Tide’s receivers coach and will also serve as recruiting coordinator. Chris Rumph was hired away from Clemson to replace Bo Davis as Alabama’s defensive line coach. Davis took a job on Texas’ staff.

On the mend: Defensive tackle Kerry Murphy, receiver Kendall Kelly and defensive back Wesley Neighbors will miss spring practice with injuries. Safety Mark Barron will be limited while recovering from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle.

On the move: Sophomore Ed Stinson, who spent most of last season at linebacker, is making the move full time to defensive end.

Key battle: Steady Greg McElroy threw 37 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions the past two seasons in leading the Crimson Tide to a 24-3 record, including a national championship in 2009. His departure sets up what will be one of the most closely watched battles in the league this spring. Sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims will duke it out for Alabama’s starting quarterback job. McCarron goes in as the guy to beat and is oozing with talent, but Sims can also throw it and has been looking forward to his opportunity on this stage.

New faces: Alabama welcomed nine enrollees in January who will be participating in spring practice, and at the head of the list are former Arizona Western College teammates Aaron Douglas and Jesse Williams. Douglas will vie for the starting job at left offensive tackle. He started his career at Tennessee and was a Freshman All-American for the Vols in 2009. The 6-4, 330-pound Williams has a chance to be an early impact guy at nose guard. A third junior college signee, Quinton Dial, will factor in at defensive end. Heralded running back Dee Hart of Orlando, Fla., is talented enough to warrant some carries next fall. He'll go through spring practice along with five other high school early enrollees -- receiver Ronald Carswell, quarterback Phillip Ely, defensive end Wilson Love and linebackers Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest.

Breaking out: Senior jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw finished fifth in the SEC last season with 14.5 tackles for loss, and had six of those in his final two games against Auburn and Michigan State. You won't find Upshaw's name on any of the first- or second-team All-SEC lists from the past season, but he’s poised to make that jump and then some in 2011. The 6-2, 263-pound Upshaw returns as one of the best pass-rushers in the league.

Don’t forget about: Junior running back Trent Richardson wasn’t 100 percent for the latter half of the season a year ago, and it showed. But with Mark Ingram gone to the NFL, there are going to be a ton of carries coming Richardson’s way next season. Look for him to remind everybody why he’s one of the most feared offensive playmakers in the SEC.

All eyes on: An inexperienced secondary cost the Crimson Tide last season, especially when it came to blown assignments. Getting that unit to play with more discipline could be the difference between returning to the SEC championship game for the third time in four years and staying at home for the second straight year.

SEC spring preview: Western Division

February, 22, 2011
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Mississippi State hits the practice field next Friday to kick off spring practice in the SEC, and several other teams will follow the next week.

Football is back, and here’s a snapshot of what to watch this spring in the Western Division:

ALABAMA

Start of spring practice: March 21
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • McCarron or Sims? If you’re looking for one of the more intriguing position battles of the spring, it doesn’t get much better than A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims battling it out for the Alabama starting quarterback job. Both players are extremely talented and were highly rated coming out of high school, and they’re vying to replace a guy who was the essence of precision, smarts and productivity all wrapped into one -- Greg McElroy. McCarron played a little bit last season as a redshirt freshman, while Sims redshirted. We’ll see if one separates himself enough this spring for Nick Saban to name a starter.
  • Back in the SEC: In addition to settling on a starting quarterback, the other thing the Crimson Tide would like to determine this spring is who will be protecting that quarterback from the left tackle position. Junior college signee Aaron Douglas is probably the guy to beat. He’s already on campus after attending Arizona Western College last year and drawing a wide array of interest from schools. He started his career at Tennessee, where he earned Freshman All-American honors in 2009 while playing right tackle for the Vols.
  • Rushing the passer: The Crimson Tide would like to amp up their pass rush next season, which means getting there without having to blitz all the time. Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw finished last season on fire and lived in the opposing backfield his last two games. This is an important spring for middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who’s also been used outside in pass-rushing situations. Hightower was coming off reconstructive knee surgery last season and didn’t appear to be all the way back. He’s eager to show this spring that he is all the way back and poised to be an All-SEC player again.
ARKANSAS

Start of spring practice: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Mr. Wilson: A year ago, Tyler Wilson got a chance to show what he could do with the first unit because Ryan Mallett broke a bone in his foot and missed the spring after undergoing surgery. This spring, it’s Wilson’s show again, although Mallett won’t be coming back this time. Wilson, a sophomore, is the odds-on favorite to win Arkansas’ starting quarterback job. He passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn last season on the road after Mallett was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he thinks Wilson can be a terrific quarterback, but wants to see him beat out Brandon Mitchell and Jacoby Walker for the job before handing him the keys to the Hogs’ offense.
  • Getting defensive: The Hogs’ defense took the kind of step last season that was required to get them to 10 wins. They went from 89th in the country in total defense in 2009 to 36th in the country a year ago. The key figures from that defense return next season, and Petrino has said he thinks Arkansas will be even better on defense in 2011 than it was last season. Finding a replacement for Anthony Leon at one of the linebacker spots will be important this spring, and the Hogs could still use some more speed in the secondary.
  • Fourth-quarter blues: Special emphasis was placed on winning the close games last season and getting it done in the fourth quarter. That will be a familiar cry on the practice field again this spring. All three of Arkansas' losses last season came on the heels of fourth-quarter breakdowns. The Hogs couldn’t hold a lead at home against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide rallied from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to win. At Auburn, the Hogs were snowed under by a 28-point Auburn avalanche in the fourth quarter. And in the Sugar Bowl, the Hogs couldn’t capitalize in the final minutes despite blocking a punt and recovering inside the Ohio State 20.
AUBURN

Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Playing with a target: Auburn emerged from the shadows last season to go 14-0 and win its first national championship since 1957. Nobody really saw the Tigers coming. Now, even though they lost great players the caliber of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, everybody will be circling the Auburn game on their calendars. With so many new faces in key positions, this team will have to establish its own identity and be prepared to get everybody’s best shot every weekend.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: It’s hard to imagine Auburn playing a game without departed senior offensive line starters Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Byron Isom and Ryan Pugh. They were together so long and made so many career starts alongside each other. This spring, the Tigers start the process of replacing their four rocks up front. The lone holdover from the BCS National Championship Game is right tackle Brandon Mosley, although A.J. Greene was also a starter last season until he injured his ankle. Redshirt freshman Ed Christian is definitely somebody to watch at one of the guard spots, and don’t forget about junior John Sullen, who can play guard or tackle.
  • Trotter in the race: Even as great as Newton turned out to be, coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn were careful to make sure Newton was clearly the guy before naming him the starter at the conclusion of spring practice and heading into the summer. Junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley were two of the guys battling with Newton last spring. But this spring, they will be battling each other for the starting quarterback job, a battle that’s likely to continue into preseason practice once heralded true freshman Kiehl Frazier arrives on campus this summer.
LSU

Start of spring practice: March 11
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby: Perhaps the most closely watched quarterback battle this spring will occur at LSU, where seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will try and hold off talented junior college signee Zach Mettenberger. Jefferson played better toward the end of last season, but the Tigers’ passing game was nonexistent for much of the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mettenberger put up huge numbers in junior college last season after starting his career at Georgia. He obviously didn't sign with LSU to sit and watch.
  • Kragthorpe to the rescue: Former Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe takes over as LSU’s offensive coordinator and does so after the Tigers finished 11th in the SEC last season in total offense and last in the SEC in 2009. Kragthorpe wants to make sure LSU is getting the ball in the hands of its best playmakers, but he also wants to make sure the Tigers are balanced. Their running game improved dramatically last season. With Stevan Ridley leaving early for the NFL draft, Spencer Ware is next in line after rushing for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
  • Special-teams makeover: The Tigers were gutted on special teams. Even special teams coordinator Joe Robinson left to take a job on North Carolina’s staff. Also gone are All-SEC place-kicker Josh Jasper, All-SEC return specialist Patrick Peterson and punter Derek Helton, who was second in the SEC with a punting average of 45.7 yards per game. LSU will be looking to fill voids across the board this spring in its kicking game, which was a big reason the Tigers won 11 games last season.
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Start of spring practice: March 4
Spring game: April 9
End of spring practice: April 11

What to watch:
  • New defensive chief: Manny Diaz was hired away by Texas to be the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator, meaning co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson is now the guy running things in Starkville. Diaz and Wilson worked together closely last season, so it’s doubtful much will change. Dan Mullen did bring in Geoff Collins to serve as co-defensive coordinator to Wilson and also coach the Bulldogs' linebackers.
  • Lining up linebackers: The Bulldogs lost all three of their starting linebackers from last season, including their top two tacklers in Chris White and K.J. Wright. Emmanuel Gatling was the other starter, although he shared time with Cameron Lawrence at one of the outside spots. So while Lawrence might have first dibs on one of those three starting jobs this spring, the competition will be fierce. Redshirt freshmen Felando Bohanna and Christian Holmes are two to watch in the middle. Chris Hughes played some last season as a true freshman on the outside, and third-year sophomore Michael Hunt will also be in the mix for a starting job.
  • Relf’s supporting cast: Chris Relf enters his senior season as one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC, and he’s also one of the league’s most improved players. The Bulldogs’ top threats in the running game return, but Relf will have several new guys he’ll be hooking up with in the passing game. Junior receiver Chad Bumphis has been working out and is expected back this spring after missing the Gator Bowl with a broken collarbone. The Bulldogs also redshirted several receivers last season they have high hopes for, including Malcolm Johnson, Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis. Getting a healthy Marcus Green back at tight end will also make Relf's life easier.
OLE MISS

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Lee to call plays: The last time Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t call his own plays was 2007 when David Lee called them during Nutt’s final season at Arkansas. Well, Lee has reunited with Nutt at Ole Miss for the 2011 season after coming over from the Miami Dolphins, and Nutt has again turned over the offensive play-calling duties to Lee in order to spend more time focusing on other areas of the team. Lee will build what the Rebels do offensively around an underrated stable of running backs, led by Brandon Bolden.
  • Quarterback questions: Jeremiah Masoli popped in at the last minute a year ago. But this time, it appears that the guy who separates himself this spring will be the Rebels’ quarterback for the season. Junior Nathan Stanley has the edge in experience. Randall Mackey is probably the most athletic, but will be limited this spring after undergoing knee surgery. Junior college signee Zack Stoudt is already enrolled and also eyeing the starting job, while West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti will be in the middle of the race as well if he receives a waiver from the NCAA and is allowed to play this coming season.
  • Building back the defense: After back-to-back seasons in 2008 and 2009 when Ole Miss’ defense was outstanding, Tyrone Nix’s unit came crashing down last season. More than anything, it’s a group that needs to regain its confidence this spring and play with that same attacking mentality that made the Rebels so effective on defense the previous two seasons. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford is a leader and the kind of guy you win with in this league, but Nix & Co. need to find a few more like him this spring, especially in the secondary.

SEC impact junior college transfers

February, 11, 2011
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Earlier this week, Bruce Feldman of ESPN The Magazine identified eight junior college signees nationally he felt would make the biggest impact during the 2011 season.

Three SEC players made the cut. Georgia nose guard John Jenkins was No. 3 on his list, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger No. 4 on his list and Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams No. 5 on his list.

All three would certainly be on my list if I were selecting the SEC’s most impactful junior college transfers for the 2011 season.

Here are eight more to watch from this class, in alphabetical order:

OT Kaleb Broome, South Carolina: The 6-6, 314-pound Broome is already enrolled after allowing just one sack last season at Georgia Military College. With the Gamecocks losing four senior offensive linemen who started games last season, Broome will be a guy to watch at right tackle.

DT Maurice Couch, Tennessee: The Vols need all the help they can get inside on the defensive line, and the 6-2, 305-pound Couch showed great burst off the ball last season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. He was one of the Vols’ top targets in this class and will arrive on campus this summer.

OT Aaron Douglas, Alabama: A Freshman All-American at Tennessee two years ago, the 6-6, 285-pound Douglas spent last season at Arizona Western College. He’s already enrolled in school and will get first dibs to replace James Carpenter as the Crimson Tide’s left tackle.

CB Byron Moore, Tennessee: He originally signed with Southern California out of high school and redshirted. He played both cornerback and safety last season at Los Angeles Harbor Community College, and with Janzen Jackson in limbo, Moore projects as a key cog in the Vols’ secondary next season. He won’t be on campus until this summer.

DT Gilbert Pena, Ole Miss: The 6-4, 310-pound Pena figures to step in right away with the Rebels losing four senior defensive tackles. Pena worked for three years out of high school to help support his sick mother before enrolling in ASA College. He’s already enrolled and will go through spring practice.

CB Wesley Pendleton, Ole Miss: The Rebels were in dire need of secondary help, which made Pendleton a huge pick-up out of Copiah-Lincoln Community College. He has great speed and can play both cornerback and safety. Like Pena, he’s already in school and will participate in spring practice.

QB Zack Stoudt, Ole Miss: After starting his career at Louisville, Stoudt transferred to Iowa Western Community College after Steve Kragthorpe was fired as Louisville’s head coach. The 6-5, 220-pound Stoudt will compete for the Rebels’ starting quarterback job this spring along with Nathan Stanley and Randall Mackey.

OT Joey Trapp, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are going to take a look at the 6-5, 285-pound Trapp this spring at both guard and tackle. He played tackle at Los Angeles Harbor Community College and will be one of the candidates to replace the Bulldogs’ All-SEC performer, Derek Sherrod, at left tackle.

SEC lunch links

January, 28, 2011
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Our regular Friday cruise around the league:

SEC lunch links

December, 27, 2010
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Hope everyone had a great Christmas. Here's a look at what's shaking around the SEC:

Douglas trades Rocky Top for Roll Tide

December, 17, 2010
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Aaron Douglas started his college career as a Freshman All-America offensive tackle at Tennessee.

After a stopover at Arizona Western College, he'll end his career playing for one of the Vols' fiercest rivals -- Alabama.

Douglas, one of the top junior college offensive line prospects in the country, signed his scholarship papers with the Crimson Tide on Thursday after also entertaining offers from Arkansas, Oregon and Southern California. He'll enroll in school in January and be able to go through spring practice.

[+] EnlargeAaron Douglas
Skip Williams/Icon SMIFormer Tennessee offensive lineman Aaron Douglas (78) is heading to Alabama.
Nick Saban doesn't usually sign a lot of junior college players, but thinks Douglas has a chance to come in and win the left tackle job. The Crimson Tide had success with another former junior college player at that position the past two seasons. Senior James Carpenter will start his 27th consecutive game at left tackle in the Capital One Bowl.

Douglas' signing with Alabama won't be a popular decision with Tennessee fans. He was the Vols' most promising offensive lineman when Derek Dooley took over for Lane Kiffin following the 2009 season. What's more, he was a Tennessee legacy. Both of his parents were former Tennessee athletes. His father, David, was an offensive lineman on the Vols' 1985 SEC championship team and later played in the NFL. His mother, Karla Horton Douglas, was the starting center on the Lady Vols' 1987 national championship basketball team.

Douglas, despite coming to Tennessee as a tight end, played well as a freshman, but was never really happy. He was also battling depression and asked Dooley for a release, saying he wanted to get away.

Dooley, saying Douglas never gave him a chance, would only grant Douglas a release if he would agree to go somewhere that was at least eight hours away from Knoxville.

As part of his request for a release, Douglas told Dooley he wouldn't transfer to any other SEC school, any school in the state of Tennessee or any school on the Vols' schedule for the duration of his career. Still, Dooley balked.

So Douglas decided to go the junior college route, which freed him up to go anywhere he wanted after a year.

And here he is at Alabama.

He understands that some Tennessee fans will see this as his trying to get back at Dooley and the Vols. His parents, who still live in the Knoxville area, are also prepared for the fallout.

"This had nothing to do with Tennessee," David Douglas said. "We're always going to be Tennessee fans and want them to win. There was no vengefulness against Tennessee. In fact, Aaron struggled for the first month or two when he knew Alabama was going to be a factor. He still keeps in touch with a lot of those guys. They're his buddies, so there are no hard feelings.

"This is just the best thing for his life and his livelihood, to get a new start. He made this decision with no input from us. I know some people aren't going to like it. That's their problem. What's important to us as parents is that he's happy, and he is."

Spring superlatives: Tennessee

May, 25, 2010
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Where were the Vols the strongest and where were they the weakest coming out of the spring? Today, we’ll take a look.

Strongest position: Receivers/tight ends

Key returnees: Senior receiver Gerald Jones (46 catches, 680 yards, four touchdowns), senior receiver Denarius Moore (40 catches, 540 yards, seven touchdowns), senior tight end Luke Stocker (29 catches, 389 yards, five touchdowns), sophomore receiver Marsalis Teague (13 catches, 147 yards, two touchdowns)

Key departures: Receiver Quintin Hancock (27 catches, 298 yards, two touchdowns), receiver Nu’Keese Richardson (eight catches, 102 yards, one touchdown)

The skinny: Even though the Vols will be starting a quarterback who’s never thrown a pass in an SEC game, they return a collection of pass catchers who’ve played a lot of quality football in this league. Jones and Moore combined for 11 touchdown catches last season. Jones is at his best after the catch, and Moore is the Vols’ best deep threat. Both players have had their issues with injuries, but should be healthy to start next season. Look for the Vols to get more out Teague in 2010, too. He started quickly a year ago, but sort of disappeared. That’s not uncommon for a true freshman. Whoever emerges at quarterback, Matt Simms or Tyler Bray, will want to keep tabs on where Stocker is, especially on key downs. He runs good routes, knows how to get open and is one of the better all-around tight ends in the league. There could be some more help on the way, too, when true freshman Da’Rick Rogers arrives later this summer. He’s a big receiver with speed and great leaping ability and should work his way into the rotation right away.

Weakest position: Offensive line

Key returnees: Senior guard Jarrod Shaw, sophomore tackle Dallas Thomas

Key departures: Tackle Chris Scott, tackle Aaron Douglas, guard Jacques McClendon, guard Cory Sullins, center Cody Sullins

The skinny: There was some promise shown in the spring by several of the Vols’ younger offensive linemen, including true freshman tackle Ja’Wuan James and redshirt freshman guard JerQuari Schofield. Both are penciled in as starters going into the fall. First-year Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is excited about his young talent up front. He just wishes he didn’t have to play so many young guys so soon. James will be the starter at right tackle, while sophomore Dallas Thomas will step in at left tackle. Douglas probably would have shifted over from right tackle to left tackle following a Freshman All-America season a year ago, but left the program in the spring and is transferring to a junior college. Shaw is the only guy up front with any meaningful experience, and all of his starts came at the beginning of last season. Incoming true freshman James Stone will also compete for immediate playing time once he arrives. Down the road, this has a chance to be a very good group. But it’s also a group that will pay the price next season that comes with being so inexperienced in the offensive line in this league.

SEC early exits

May, 18, 2010
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We’ve covered pretty extensively the players SEC schools have lost from last season due to their eligibility expiring or the NFL draft.

But what about those players who won’t be returning or playing this season for other reasons?

Here’s a team-by-team list of some of the more notable scholarship players who won’t be back, keeping in mind that this list may grow once semester grades are in. There's sure to be a few academic casualties:

ALABAMA

S Robby Green (NCAA suspension)

RB Terry Grant (graduated, gave up football)

QB Star Jackson (transferring)

ARKANSAS

CB David Gordon (transferring)

OT Matt Hall (transferring)

QB/TE Jim Youngblood (transferring)

AUBURN

QB Tyrik Rollison (transferring)

FB John Douglas (transferring)

FLORIDA

CB Adrian Bushell (transferring)

LB Brandon Beal (transferring)

DT Gary Brown (dismissed)

GEORGIA

QB Zach Mettenberger (dismissed)

OLB Montrez Robinson (dismissed)

KENTUCKY

S Matt Lentz (injury)

WR Kyrus Lanxter (left the team)

WR Eric Adeyemi (transferring)

LSU

WR John Williams (injury)

MISSISSIPPI STATE

WR O’Neal Wilder (concentrating on track)

OLE MISS

WR Andrew Harris (transferring)

SOUTH CAROLINA

QB Aramis Hillary (transferring)

QB Reid McCollum (left the team)

TENNESSEE

OT Aaron Douglas (transferring)

RB Bryce Brown (transferring)

QB Nick Stephens (transferring)

VANDERBILT

OT Reilly Lauer (transferring)

WR Collin Ashley (transferring)

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