SEC: Brandon Boykin

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 4

September, 24, 2014
Several true freshmen once again made an impact last week in the SEC -- particularly in Georgia’s rout of Troy, when former high school teammates Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie stole the show. They’re on our list of five SEC freshmen who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) last Saturday.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama

What he did: Against Florida, the former five-star prospect made the first start of his young career at Alabama. Put up against the likes of Demarcus Robinson, he didn't back down. He ended up with three tackles, including one that went for a loss, and helped contribute to a secondary that limited QB Jeff Driskel to just 9 of 28 passing.

What it means: Alabama desperately needed help at cornerback. Bradley Sylve showed in the season opener he can't hold down a starting job, and Eddie Jackson hasn't proven he can stay healthy enough to start either. Though Brown is young, he seems like the man for the job. Growing pains will likely occur, but his ceiling is certainly high. (Alex Scarborough)

WR Malachi Dupre, LSU

What he did: Dupre caught touchdown passes of 31 and 30 yards in the final two minutes of a 34-29 loss to Mississippi State, helping the Tigers close within striking distance after trailing by 24 points early in the quarter. Dupre finished with four catches for 120 yards, notching the first 100-yard outing of his young career.

What it means: Dupre didn’t make much of an impact in LSU’s first three games, and in truth he didn’t make an enormous impact in the first three quarters against Mississippi State. But he was one of the key figures in LSU’s comeback bid, and that might be a sign of things to come for the former No. 1 receiver prospect. (David Ching)

QB Brandon Harris, LSU

What he did: Like Dupre, Harris made his presence felt in the closing minutes against Mississippi State. He first entered the game with 3:43 to play and LSU trailing 34-16 and promptly led touchdown drives of 95 and 30 yards. Harris drove the offense to the Mississippi State 46 on LSU’s final drive and attempted a game-winning heave to the end zone, only to have the pass intercepted at the goal line by Will Redmond.

What it means: Harris nearly led LSU to what would have been one of the most miraculous comeback win in its history. He finished 6-for-9 for 140 yards and two touchdowns in barely more than two series, while Anthony Jennings was 13-for-26 for 157 yards in three-and-a-half quarters. The freshman provided a spark that Jennings did not, and that seems to have reignited the Tigers’ quarterback battle. (David Ching)

RS Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia

What he did: With a zig-zagging 52-yard score against Troy, McKenzie provided Georgia’s first punt return for a touchdown since Brandon Boykin did it against Michigan State in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. McKenzie also ran twice on sweeps and picked up 54 yards, including one that one for a 49-yard gain.

What it means: Opponents had punted 160 times since Boykin’s touchdown and Georgia had not scored once. In fact, the Bulldogs hadn’t broken a return longer than 30 yards since then. But McKenzie and sophomore Reggie Davis (51 yards) both broke long punt returns in the Troy game, so perhaps Georgia’s unproductive return game might actually develop into a weapon like it was several years back. (David Ching)

RB Sony Michel, Georgia

What he did: With Todd Gurley taking a seat on the sideline early and Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall limited by injuries, Michel got a chance to be the star in Georgia’s backfield against Troy. He made good use of the opportunity, rushing 10 times for 155 yards and three touchdowns. His long run of the day, which covered 75 yards, actually didn’t go for a score, but it set up his 8-yard score on the next play.

What it means: Georgia has no shortage of backfield talent, so don’t look for Michel to post enormous numbers this season -- particularly if Gurley remains healthy. But Michel and Chubb have already given Bulldogs fans reason to be excited about the running game even after their Heisman Trophy-contending star leaves campus. The freshmen look like future stars themselves. (David Ching)

Other notables:

QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M: Took over for Kenny Hill in a 58-6 rout of SMU and went 8-for-15 for 130 yards and connected with Jeremy Tabuyo on a 50-yard touchdown strike.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Rushed seven times for 38 yards, all in the first half, caught a pass for a 1-yard gain and returned three kickoffs for 60 yards against Mississippi State.

QB Wade Freebeck, Vanderbilt: Replaced injured starter Patton Robinette against South Carolina and went 11-for-20 for 168 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

OT Cam Robinson, Alabama: Started at left tackle for the fourth time in four games and continues to impress at the position. In last Saturday’s win against Florida, the Gators rarely pressured quarterback Blake Sims. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense generated 672 yards of total offense.

S Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Started at safety against SMU and posted five tackles and one stop for a 3-yard loss.

Georgia's defense has to toughen up

October, 23, 2012
To say that there’s some frustration on Georgia’s defense is quite the understatement.

Senior safety Shawn Williams made that abundantly clear while speaking with the media Monday night when he called the play of the defense “soft.”

[+] EnlargeShawn Williams
AP Photo/Don KellySafety Shawn Williams had some strong words for his defensive teammates.
“We’re playing too soft as a defense,” Williams said. “That goes for the D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties, everybody. We’re just not playing with the same attitude we were last year. I don’t know what it is.”

In Georgia's 29-24 win over Kentucky on Saturday, the Bulldogs surrendered 206 yards rushing yards and allowed two scoring drives of 75 yards or more. However, Georgia surrendered just 329 total yards of offense, the second-lowest total by an offense this season against Georgia.

Senior linebacker Christian Robinson told on Tuesday that he agreed Georgia’s defense has to be more physical, but he also said the defense has to stay together, not take shots.

“I’m sticking to what I’ve been taught since I’ve been growing up -- everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to anger,” Robinson said. “At this point, we’re a team and we have to stick together, and as a team, I’m not going to call anybody out. We’re just going to try and fix the issues that we have.

“Yes, we need to be more physical -- that’s anytime you play any opponent. We always have room to improve.”

Williams also suggested on Monday that certain players should see the field more than others.

“Personally, if I was the coaches, I can’t tell them what to do, but I’d have Amarlo Herrera in the game more,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t bring him out. ... I want to see Amarlo and [Alec] Ogletree in the game at linebacker; I don’t want to see anybody else at linebacker. I feel like they’re two guys that are going to go out and give you all they got, no matter if they mess up or do right. I feel like they’re going to get to the ball and tackle. That’s what we need.”

Herrera and Ogletree both start inside for the Bulldogs. Herrera registered three tackles Saturday and is second behind only Williams in tackles this season with 50. Williams has 51. Ogletree finished Saturday’s game with a team-high 11 tackles and has 33 total tackles on the year.

It's probably not a good thing that the defensive captain is calling players out like that. Is he wrong in his assessment? Maybe not, but this isn't the time to create any sort of rift within a unit, especially one that has struggled to this point. And definitely not before such an important game like this weekend's bout with No. 2 Florida.

“I know the coaches put the players on the field that they think can get the job done, and until that changes, we’re going to continue to play the guys we have and put our best foot out there to beat teams,” said Robinson, who was left off of Williams' list of players who should play more.

Clearly, this defense hasn't been as good as it was last year, even with basically the same lineup. Brandon Boykin is gone, but the issues we’ve seen can’t be placed on one player being out of the lineup.

Georgia is ninth in the SEC in total defense (367.4 yards per game) and is giving up nearly 170 rushing yards a contest. Last year, the Bulldogs surrendered more than 360 yards of offense four times. This year, that’s happened three times already.

Mark Richt said last week that communication issues in the secondary have helped generate big plays for opposing offenses. That happens when the core of your secondary misses multiple games. But it's halfway through the season. Communication issues should be almost nonexistent, and so should the big plays.

“Once you do close that loophole of a big play, then you have a chance to really play some good defense,” Richt said.
The Mississippi State duo of Johnthan Banks and Chad Bumphis leads a contingent of 12 SEC players on the preseason watch list for the 2012 Paul Hornung Award, which is presented to the most versatile player in major college football.

Georgia's Brandon Boykin was the 2011 winner.

There are 49 players on the preseason watch list. The SEC leads the way with 12 players. The Pac-12 is second with 10 players on the list.

Here's a complete rundown of the SEC players on the list:
Players from all FBS teams are eligible, and appearing on the Paul Hornung Award watch list is not a prerequisite for winning the award. That said, look for Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell to play his way into consideration this season as both a cornerback and receiver for the Bulldogs.

Ranking the SEC's safeties

July, 17, 2012
Now that we've ranked the SEC's secondaries, it's time to take a look at the league's top cornerbacks.

Past rankings:
Here are our top 10 SEC safeties:

[+] EnlargeEric Reid
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLSU safety Eric Reid has tremendous cover skills.
1. Eric Reid, Jr., LSU: He might be the league's best ball-hawking threat and he packs quite the punch. He had a knack for making all sorts of plays in LSU's secondary last year -- none bigger than his game-changing interception in the first game against Alabama. He tied for the team lead with 76 tackles, broke up three passes and intercepted two. Pro scouts love his ability to roam all around the field and his tremendous cover skills.

2. Bacarri Rambo, Sr., Georgia: He had a true breakout season last year and could have easily left for the NFL draft. The first-team All-American led the SEC and ranked second nationally with eight interceptions and was second in the SEC with 16 pass breakups. He takes the deep pass away, but is also very solid in defending the run and shorter passes.

3. Matt Elam, Jr., Florida: The headliner of Florida's defense, Elam found himself playing all over the field in 2011. He was second on the team with 78 tackles, but led the Gators with 11 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He loves contact, but also has improved his coverage skills and can line up at the nickel if needed.

4. Robert Lester, Sr., Alabama: Lester has had a solid career with the Tide so far. He notched an SEC-best eight interceptions in 2010 and flirted with leaving for the NFL after his junior season. He's moving to free safety, but has the speed and ability to play that rover position. He covers a lot of ground and can come in and play in the box as well.

5. D.J. Swearinger, Sr., South Carolina: His move from strong safety to free safety was a plus for the Gamecocks. He turned into a tremendous rover in South Carolina's defensive backfield and wasn't afraid to move closer to the line to hit people -- a lot of people. He's a proven playmaker and has no issues finding the ball, as he's registered 122 solo tackles in three seasons.

6. Charles Sawyer, Jr., Ole Miss: He led the Rebels with four interceptions last year, but he even admits that he should have had at least seven after dropping a few easy ones. Though he did breakup 13 passes. He's very quick with his movements and with the speed he possesses, he can cover a lot of ground in Ole Miss' secondary.

7. Nickoe Whitley, Jr., Mississippi State: If not for that ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short, Whitley would probably be higher on this list. In nine games last year, he racked up 34 tackles and four interceptions. He has that impressive ball-hawking ability that will take the deep ball away.

8. Shawn Williams, Sr., Georgia: He was a bit of an underrated talent last year because of the combination of Rambo and Brandon Boykin in Georgia's secondary, but Williams had a very solid 2011 season. He led the Dawgs with 72 tackles, forced a fumble, had two fumble recoveries, broke up six passes and had four interceptions. He's solid defending both the pass and the run.

9. Brian Randolph, So., Tennessee: Playing as a true freshman didn't seem to bother him, as he was an SEC All-Freshman selection, after playing in 12 games (eight starts) and getting time at both the nickel spot and at free safety. He enters the spring as the Vols' starting free safety and is primed to have a big second year.

10. Eric Bennett, Jr., Arkansas: The former high school quarterback hasn't had much of a problem playing defense in college. Last year, he started all 13 games at safety, after moving from cornerback during the spring, and finished the year with 74 tackles, three interceptions and three pass breakups.

DawgNation links: OL Kublanow commits

May, 23, 2012
Kipp Adams writes Insider: Talented O-lineman Brandon Kublanow has long considered an offer from UGA to be a dream, but a host of other programs thought the same of him. He took his time through the recruiting process, but followed his heart Wednesday and became a Bulldog.

video Adams Insider: Super competitive, strong and intense, Kublanow will afford Georgia great versatility on the O-line. It also doesn’t hurt that his HS coach says Kublanow is the best lineman he has seen in 16 years of coaching.

Video interview: Brandon Kublanow

DawgNation Roundtable Insider: UGA tied for the second biggest NFL class in the 2012 draft, and it could've been bigger. Who among the newest Bulldogs to go pro will have a banner career?
We all know that defense wins championships and the SEC is very much a testament to that. Alabama possessed the nation's No. 1 defense last season and now possesses another national championship. Runner-up LSU ranked second nationally.

Alabama ran away with the crown as the nation's and the SEC's best defense, but that title is for the taking in 2012. Alabama is down key players from last year's squad, like linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive tackle Josh Chapman, and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and DeQuan Menzie.


Who will have the best defense in 2012?


Discuss (Total votes: 12,039)

Alabama's defense isn't as green as the 2010 group, but it's still drawing some comparisons to it. That's exactly what the Tide wants to hear. Nico Johnson seems primed to be a true leader at linebacker, while Adrian Hubbard could be a budding star at Upshaw's old position. Defensive backs Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are back and will be joined by a couple of JUCO standouts and talented sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Jesse Williams could be a real force at defensive tackle along with end Damion Square.

Then you have LSU. The Tigers lost All-World cornerback Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and two starting linebackers. Michael Brockers is gone at defensive tackle as well. But LSU is still loaded. The Tigers return Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, who should be fine with an expanded role at cornerback. Junior Kevin Minter really stepped up at linebacker last year and should pick up right where he left off. Even without Brockers, the line is solid with future first-rounder Sam Montgomery at one end position and the underrated Barkevious Mingo at the other. The two combined for 17 sacks last season.

Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson should provide some meat nastiness in the interior, while the very talented Eric Reid is back at free safety.

Georgia and South Carolina both finished the 2011 season ranked in the top five nationally in total defense. South Carolina was third, while Georgia was fifth, respectively. The Gamecocks lost first-round defensive end Melvin Ingram, but return freshman standout Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who many thought would be better than Ingram last season. Kelcy Quarles is back at defensive tackle and the coaches think he'll be even better in his second year.

Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last year, will grab time at linebacker again, while the very athletic DeVonte Holloman returns to the Spur for his senior year. There are questions in the secondary, but seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) return.

Georgia returns nine defensive starters. Brandon Boykin is gone at corner, and the Bulldogs will enter the fall with a lot questions in the secondary, especially with starters Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo suspended to start the season. Star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner this spring and fits right in, but there are depth issues at the position.

Other than that, the Bulldogs are still pretty stacked. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will serve a suspension to start the year, but Georgia will fill his spot by committee. Mike Gilliard, Cornelius Washington, Christian Robinson, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson provide Georgia with a very solid linebacking unit alongside star Jarvis Jones, who racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Georgia's defensive line should also be pretty stout with the massive John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers battling in the middle. Abry Jones really progressed at end as well this spring.

Or maybe someone else will step up and take the crown ...

Lunchtime links

April, 24, 2012
Time for links.
Malcolm MitchellGreg McWilliams/Icon SMIMalcolm Mitchell played receiver as a freshman, but this season he plans on playing corner, too.
ATHENS, Ga. -- In order for Malcolm Mitchell to pull off his quest of playing double duty for Georgia this fall, a major change must occur.

It won’t be so much changing his workout habits. Sure, he’ll work more on quick burst drills and sprints with little time for breaks, but Mitchell’s change will be much more significant to his realm of comfort.

Mitchell must significantly alter his diet if he wants to have the stamina to play both cornerback and wide receiver in the SEC this fall. He’ll have to trash the sweets.

“I always had a problem eating candy,” said Mitchell, who moved to cornerback this spring after catching 45 passes for 665 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman last fall.

Mitchell said that since he was a kid, his diet has mainly consisted of fruit-flavored candy, preferably Starburst jelly beans, and Sprite -- a catastrophic combination of sugar and carbonation.

The 6-foot-1, 184-pounder is used to consuming at least five bags of jelly beans and who knows how much Sprite a week. That’s approximately 1,160 grams of sugar and 6,000 unnecessary calories from jelly beans alone.

“I know that’s going to have to change,” Mitchell said with a laugh.

“I’m going to work for that stamina because I know I want to play both ways.”

Mitchell plans to replace some of that candy with fruits and veggies and will add more water to replace his Sprite intake. He refuses to go cold turkey, but hopes to get down to one bag of candy a week. Maybe.

If Mitchell can get his diet on track, it will make life much easier. He started the spring working primarily at corner, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and quarterback Aaron Murray have tried to steal him away as much as they can.

Murray still throws with him and he’ll run the occasional route here and there, but his main focus this spring is to own the cornerback spot. The Bulldogs are dealing with depth issues at corner and the suspensions of two starters -- Sanders Commings and Branden Smith -- for the beginning of the season, so Mitchell’s training has accelerated.

While Mitchell played both receiver and corner at Valdosta High in southern Georgia, he admits it took him some time to get his defensive legs back. The first practice at corner was filled with slipping and sliding and poor technique.

Mitchell only decided to play wide receiver after he saw that A.J. Green was going pro. However, he quickly realized that his heart was still on defense and after talking with his mother just before Georgia’s bowl game last season, he approached coach Mark Richt about the idea of playing some defense in 2012.

“I was never going to be satisfied with myself if I let the opportunity pass,” Mitchell said.

One thing he’ll have to do is brush up on his two-way player history. Mitchell admits he didn’t grow up watching football and has never seen film of past two-way stars, such as Deion Sanders or Georgia great Champ Bailey.

Mitchell got into football later in his younger life, after seeing all the attention his brother received from playing. Jealous of that attention, Mitchell suited up and looked to steal the limelight.

Mitchell is looking to steal it once again and is taking full advantage of his time on defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has been more than impressed with Mitchell, especially his increased knowledge of the defense.

Grantham said Mitchell can play inside and outside, has premier speed, showcases excellent ball skills and has the instincts to excel at corner.

“He’s a dynamic corner,” Grantham said. “He’s a guy that has the total skill set to be a dominant corner at this level and the next.

“He’s an NFL corner.”

Grantham said that after only a few spring practices, Mitchell is ahead of where past Georgia corners were at the same point.

Murray isn’t thrilled with facing Mitchell in practice and has already been the victim of a few “freakish” plays by the youngster.

“He’s a special athlete,” Murray said.

“He could easily be one of our best corners if he wanted to do that full time and one of our best receivers if he wanted to do that full time. It’s great to see how spectacular of an athlete he really is.”

Richt sees it too. More importantly, he sees a player who doesn’t have to worry about his knowledge of the game. Unlike Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith, who both pulled a little double duty for the Dawgs, Mitchell understands the entire offense. Plugging him in with few offensive reps won’t be an issue from a mental standpoint; so getting him more time on defense shouldn’t drastically hinder his offensive ability.

But can he hold up physically?

“He’s very capable of playing both ways,” Richt said.

“The question isn’t going to be if he knows enough of the system, it’s going to be his stamina and how much is too much.”

The new diet should help.

Mitchell understands that less sugar and more water is just the start. He’s expecting practices and film sessions to intensify and his performances will be scrutinized more.

But it’s worth it. Mitchell wants it and he wants to prove himself because he’s honored to be a member of Georgia’s defense.

“This defense is the best defense I’ve been a part of or even played against,” he said. “Me being over there to help that makes me feel like a better player. To feel like I can help something that’s already great makes me feel better than anything I did last year because how good the players are.

“Just to be a part of it and help out means a lot to me.”

DawgNation links: New & improved Crowell

March, 26, 2012
David Ching writes Insider: Georgia fans will be happy to know -- or will they? -- that mercurial freshman star Isaiah Crowell is earning kudos in spring practice for being a stand-up guy and dependable teammate.

Ching: Breaking down Georgia’s RB race.

Kipp Adams writes Insider: The Bulldogs hoped top OL target Josh Cardiello would give himself a big birthday present by committing this past weekend while visiting Athens.

Adams Insider: WR target DeMarcus Robinson makes a return trip to see the Georgia Bulldogs.

Radi Nabulsi writes Insider: Georgia offers sophomore DB Nick Glass.

Ching: Brandon Boykin sets a date for pro day.

DawgNation links: Roundtable

March, 21, 2012
DawgNation Roundtable Insider: Malcolm Mitchell's position switch from receiver to cornerback -- the right move?

David Ching Insider: Isaiah Crowell Q&A. The star RB has set the bar early and high, aiming for a Heisman and a national championship.

Ching: O is for opportunity on an O-line that has a lot of immediate needs that must be addressed this spring.

Radi Nabulsi photo gallery: UGA practice, Day 1

DawgNation: Spring look, special teams

March, 20, 2012
David Ching writes: As spring practice started Tuesday, UGA announced senior tailback Carlton Thomas' intention to transfer.

Ching also writes Insider: Player(s) to watch, special teams -- Walk-ons. While it seems UGA's special teams walk-ons must accept their fate of only a slim chance at playing time, award-winning punter Drew Butler explains that consistency can be the key to changing that.

Ching: Looks at special teams this spring.

Video: DawgNation’s special teams analysis

Video: Mark Richt on special teams

DawgNation links: Tramel Terry recommits

March, 6, 2012
Kipp Adams writes Insider: After he committed to UGA last summer, wide receiver Tramel Terry faced backlash in his home state of South Carolina. He took a step back to reconsider, but finally realized his heart is with Georgia.

David Ching writes Insider: Former UGA tight end Orson Charles has taken stock of where tight ends are typically selected in the NFL draft. He is determined to stay patient and work hard. And, he says, “I just want a job.”

Radi Nabulsi writes Insider: 2013 DT Montravius Adams enjoyed his Athens visit.

Radi Nabulsi: UGA pro day photo gallery.

Ching writes Insider: DeAngelo Tyson hopes he turned heads at pro day.

DawgNation links: Team mailbag

March, 5, 2012
Radi Nabulsi writes Insider: In this week's team mailbag, DawgNation addresses pressing questions from our Insiders about who might change positions or double up on positions, how the backup QB situation will shake out, and making second-half corrections.

David Ching writes Insider: Quick pro day observations from Athens.

Kipp Adams writes Insider: The Georgia Bulldogs' first Very Important Dawg Day in review.

SEC lunch links

February, 27, 2012
Making the rounds on a Monday:
Speed and athleticism are always immediately mentioned when talking about SEC defenses, but there’s a mental side that’s often overlooked.

For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.

“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAlabama linebacker Nico Johnson says today's young SEC players enter the league with an impressive grasp of defensive schemes.
“I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.”

That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.

Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.

And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.

As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.

Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.

Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.

But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.

At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.

“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.

“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”

But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …

LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.

LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.

Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.

“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”

South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.

The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.

The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.

“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”