SEC: Brandon Shell

SEC pre-spring position rankings: OL

February, 26, 2015
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The SEC is still won in the trenches so the teams with good offensive line play will likely do well for themselves. As we look ahead to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest up front? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season arrives, here’s our pre-spring ranking:

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs were the No. 1 rushing team in the SEC and they return four starters from that unit: Kolton Houston, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, and John Theus. Losing All-SEC pick David Andrews at center is tough, but the Dawgs are in good shape up front for 2015.

2. Arkansas: This unit was the Hogs' strength in 2014, and the Razorbacks also return four starters, losing only right tackle Brey Cook. With starters Dan Skipper, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, and Denver Kirkland back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks (14) and was in the top 25 nationally in rushing, the future is bright.

3. Auburn: Reese Dismukes is gone, but the Tigers have a lot of pieces to work with. Three starters return (Shon Coleman, Devonte Danzey, Avery Young) and they regain the services of Alex Kozan, who started all 14 games in 2013 but missed last season with a season-ending back injury suffered in training camp. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson and highly regarded youngster Braden Smith could also be factors.

4. LSU: The Tigers lose two starting linemen, including standout left tackle La'el Collins, but Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are back and are likely to man the tackle spots. Keeping those two for another year is big. Interior lineman Ethan Pocic, who played center last season, is back too, from a group that led the Tigers to 224.5 rushing yards per game.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide only return two starters, but they are important ones -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. There are reserves with game experience who can step into starting roles like Alphonse Taylor, Grant Hill, and Dominick Jackson. There is room for improvement here; the Tide were sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2014.

6. Texas A&M: Two full-time starters who were mainstays on the left side (Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison) are gone; but the rest of the line is back -- center Mike Matthews, right guard Joseph Cheek, and right tackle Germain Ifedi. Junior college transfers Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, who redshirted last season, likely factor into the lineup. The question is who will play left tackle.

7. Missouri: Four starters return for the Tigers, led by center Evan Boehm. They, too, need to find a left tackle to replace the departed Mitch Morse. The unit was up and down last season, but showed some promise in late-season wins against Texas A&M and Minnesota.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks must replace the left side of the line (A.J. Cann and Corey Robinson are gone) but the right side returns, including tackle Brandon Shell, who is sitting out spring because of labrum surgery but should be ready to go in the fall. Getting back guard Cody Waldrop, who was banged up last season, is key.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three talented senior linemen: Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Causell. They were fortunate enough to land the No. 1 junior college tackle in the country in December, ESPN JC 50 prospect Martinas Rankin. Center is the biggest question mark.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels bring back all their starters but suffered a blow late in the season when they lost starting guard Aaron Morris, who tore his ACL before the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the stalwart of the group who was lost during the Peach Bowl with a fractured fibula. The Rebels did happen to land the nation’s No. 3 offensive guard recruit, Javon Patterson. Results have to get better after they averaged only 155 rushing yards per game and allowed 31 sacks.

11. Tennessee: This is a group that could move up these rankings. The Volunteers had a rough go in 2014 (allowing an SEC worst 43 sacks) but showed a lot of growth as the season went on. The Vols bring back four starters from last season’s unit, and Butch Jones signed two of the top 10 offensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class: Drew Richmond and Jack Jones.

12. Florida: There is a lot of work to be done for the Gators, who return only one full-time starter -- left guard Trip Thurman. The Gators have to reconstruct the rest of the offensive line with seniors and early draft entries departing. Fortunately for the Gators, they signed the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle, Martez Ivey, and the No. 3 center, Tyler Jordan.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats were near the bottom of the league in rushing and sacks allowed last season, meaning much improvement is needed. Kentucky returns four starters, but must replace departed left tackle Darrian Miller. The Wildcats do have some depth on the interior of the line where everyone on the two deep at both guard spots and center return.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores averaged an SEC-low 109.25 rushing yards per game, and that number has to improve. What helps is that the offensive line at least returns some experience in the form of four starters, led by Spencer Pulley.
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.
The SEC has long been a line-of-scrimmage league. It's no coincidence that the team winning the title going back a decade or more has almost always been outstanding in the offensive line.

SportsNation

Which of these teams will have the SEC's best offensive line in 2014?

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    14%
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    16%
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    23%
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    13%
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    34%

Discuss (Total votes: 17,611)

It's not absolute. The team with the best offensive line doesn't always win the title, but good luck in finding a recent SEC champion that was just average in the offensive line. Case in point: Was anybody better up front offensively last season than Auburn?

Looking ahead, we're asking you (the fans) to tell us who in the SEC will carry the banner in the offensive line this fall. So go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll break down the results later this week.

We've come up with five choices, including Auburn. The Tigers lost star left tackle Greg Robinson, who's being projected as a top-5 pick in May's NFL draft. But they're still plenty salty up front, led by All-SEC center Reese Dismukes.

The other four choices -- Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- also have a chance to be really good. And that's not to say that one of the other nine teams in the league could end up with the SEC's top offensive line by November. After all, how many people were touting Auburn as the best offensive line in the league this time a year ago?

Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all return four starters. Alabama returns three.

Of note, the SEC returns an extremely talented crop of centers. The tackle position is equally loaded with LSU's La'el Collins, Florida's Chaz Green, Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi, South Carolina's Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell, and Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil.
South Carolina Gamecocks

2012 record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 6-2 (third, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; Defense: 5; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Connor Shaw, QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, WR Bruce Ellington, OT Brandon Shell, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DT Kelcy Quarles, CB Victor Hampton, CB Jimmy Legree

Key losses

RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, C T.J. Johnson, DE Delvin Taylor, LB Shaq Wilson, LB Reginald Bowens, Spur DeVonte Holloman, S D.J. Swearinger

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Marcus Lattimore (662 yards)
Passing: Connor Shaw* (1,956 yards)
Receiving: Bruce Ellington* (600 yards)
Tackles: Shaq Wilson (86)
Sacks: Jadeveon Clowney* (13)
Interceptions: Jimmy Legree* and DeVonte Holloman (3)

Spring answers

1. Lattimore’s replacement: It wasn’t going to be easy to replace Marcus Lattimore at the running back spot, but rising sophomore Mike Davis did a heck of a job showing that he has what it takes to be the No. 1 guy at that spot this fall. He left the spring as the starter and during his limited time in the spring game he rushed for 40 yards on two carries, including a 25-yard touchdown. He has all the talent to be a big-time back.

2. Good problem at QB: With Connor Shaw out this spring because of foot surgery, Dylan Thompson took more steps forward in his development. Coach Steve Spurrier has made it clear that there isn’t a quarterback controversy, and that Shaw is the starter, but he has a good problem on his hands with two very quality quarterbacks on his roster. Thompson prepared like the starter this fall and should be more than ready if Shaw goes down again this fall.

3. Clowney’s focus: With “The Hit” taking the world by storm and all of that Heisman hype bombarding South Carolina’s best player, Jadeveon Clowney took everything in stride. He didn’t flinch and talked more about the improvements he’d like to make before fall practice arrives. Clowney is a man on a mission this year (he also might be faster) and he took the proper steps this spring to make sure he's still on track to accomplish his goals for 2013.

Fall questions

1. Receiving help: Ace Sanders’ surprising exit left no seniors at receiver and a big hole to fill. Bruce Ellington is back, which certainly helps, but he’ll need assistance this fall. Rising sophomore Shaq Roland arrived with a ton of hype last year, but didn’t live up to his billing. He made good strides this spring, but he’ll still have to prove himself all over again this fall. The coaches are also hoping Damiere Byrd can turn into a consistent deep threat. Throw in Nick Jones and a couple more youngsters and there are bodies to work with but not a lot of experience.

2. Finding that Spur: Losing DaVonte Holloman was a big hit to this defense. The hybrid linebacker/safety spot is a big piece to what the Gamecocks do on this side of the ball, and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward doesn’t have a ton of confidence in the position right now. Junior Sharrod Golightly and redshirt freshman Jordan Diggs battled for the spot this spring, with Golightly having a slight lead heading into the offseason. He’s primarily played special teams at South Carolina.

3. New faces at LB/DB: The Gamecocks will have a lot of new faces to work with at linebacker and in the secondary. They have to replace their entire two-deep at linebacker along with D.J. Swearinger and Akeem Auguste in the secondary. Cornerback Victor Hampton looked like a potential first-round pick at times to coaches this summer and linebackers Kaiwan Lewis and Kelvin Rainey made good strides, but both are learning and there should be growing pains this fall from both positions.
Now that Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are both pointing toward NFL careers, LSU needs to find some more pass-rushers.

Junior Jermauria Rasco has been waiting his turn, and he showed Thursday during the Tigers’ second scrimmage of the spring that he has everything it takes to be a force off the edge. Rasco led the defense with three sacks in his best outing of the spring.

Two of his sacks came during the two-minute drill against the No. 1 offense. His final sack came in a fourth-and-long situation, and would have sealed the deal had it been a real game.

“Rasco had a nice day. He continues to improve with practice,” said LSU coach Les Miles, adding that safety Craig Loston also had a big scrimmage.

Offensively, Miles was disappointed with some of the sloppy mistakes, in particular bobbled snaps, penalties and cadence issues. The Tigers are breaking in a new center. Junior Elliott Porter and freshman Ethan Pocic are getting most of the snaps at center, but senior Josh Williford is also working some there.

“I can tell you this, in the next six practices, we’ll get a lot of center-quarterback exchanges,” said Miles, who said the burden fell on both the centers and quarterbacks.

Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger again had solid passing numbers in the closed scrimmage. He finished 21-of-35 for 247 yards, a touchdown and an interception. LSU’s newest running back, Terrence Magee, had his second straight impressive scrimmage with 76 yards on seven carries, including an 11-yard touchdown run.

The Tigers like Magee’s speed. He played sparingly at receiver last season, but has shown this spring that he’s very comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield and gives them a speed option that will be important in Cam Cameron’s offense.

For more on LSU’s scrimmage, read here and here. The Tigers will be off next week for spring break. Their spring game is scheduled for April 20.

SOUTH CAROLINA

The Gamecocks ended their practice Thursday with a scrimmage that focused primarily on the younger players.

Freshman quarterback Connor Mitch was 9-of-11 for 78 yards and threw the game's only touchdown, a 5-yard pass to Shamier Jeffery -- the younger brother of former South Carolina star receiver Alshon Jeffery.

Coach Steve Spurrier wasn't thrilled with the way his offensive line played, and in vintage Spurrier fashion, delivered a few zingers. He got tired of seeing the defensive front-seven spending much of the scrimmage in the offensive backfield, although the Gamecocks' defensive line should be a load for anybody to block next season.

"The offensive line has got to learn how to block," Spurrier said. "They're pretty good at everything except blocking. Unfortunately, that's all we ask them to do. So, if we can block a little better, we'll be in good shape."

The Gamecocks' running game was limited to 36 yards on 20 carries. The top two running backs, Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds, only combined for five carries. Spurrier challenged right tackle Brandon Shell to take his game to another level next season. Shell started nine games last season as a redshirt fresman and earned Freshman All-America honors.

The South Carolina staff likes the progress sophomore receiver Shaq Roland has shown this spring. He caught three passes for 40 yards Thursday, and is getting better fundamentally after sort of being lost last season as a true freshman.

Defensively, coordinator Lorenzo Ward liked the way his guys ran to the ball and said he would again use his "Rabbits" package next season with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton sliding inside on passing downs. Redshirt freshman Darius English and sophomore Mason Harris have worked as the ends in the "Rabbits" set, and Ward said Thursday that Harris looks quicker and faster than he did a year ago.

For more on South Carolina's scrimmage, read here and here.
South Carolina's offensive line depth took a hit this week.

Steve Spurrier announced on Thursday that junior offensive tackle Cody Gibson will miss the rest of spring after tearing the meniscus in his knee. Gibson will have to undergo surgery to repair his knee, but should be back by the summer.

The Gamecocks were already without junior tackle Mike Matulis, who will miss all of spring while he recovers from shoulder surgery.

Gibson has made six starts during his career and played in nine games last year (two starts). Before his injury, he was pushing both Brandon Shell (right tackle) and Corey Robinson (left tackle) for reps this spring.

The Gamecocks still have redshirt freshman Mason Zandi to work with at tackle, but are pretty thin at the tackle spot right now. The good news for the Gamecocks is that they signed four players who played tackle in high school, including four-star prospect Alan Knott (Tyrone, Ga./Sandy Creek).

Lunchtime links

October, 26, 2012
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Ending the week with some SEC links.

Welcome to the Bayou

October, 13, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Greetings from Tiger Stadium. We have a big one between LSU and South Carolina.

Two top-10 teams and two very, very talented defenses will be going at it under the lights Saturday in one of college football's best environments.

The Tigers are limping in after that 14-6 loss to Florida, but interesting things happen under the lights in this place, and something tells me The Hat will have a few new things in store for the Gamecocks. It will be interesting to see how South Carolina deals with not just the crowd noise but with its own emotions after last week's blowout victory over Georgia.

This is South Carolina's first real road trip and the Tigers have their backs against the wall.

It'll be interesting to watch both of these offenses tonight. The Gamecocks have been very balanced and have one of the SEC's most efficient quarterbacks in Connor Shaw. That fractured shoulder hasn't been much of an issue at all. The Gamecocks will face their toughest test up front, and that is a concern for offensive-line coach Shawn Elliott. His line has been shaky at times this year, and the tackle spots are key. Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell will have their hands full with Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo going at them.

For LSU, the Tigers were already without top offensive lineman Chris Faulk and will now be without starting left tackle Alex Hurst, who continues to deal with personal issues. Josh Dworaczyk will start at left tackle, where he has really struggled. Trai Turner will also start for the injured Josh Williford at right guard, while Vadal Alexander will start at right tackle; both are freshmen. LSU will have three underclassmen starting on the offensive line ... with Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles to battle.

Talk about a lot of pressure up front ...

Instant impact: Eastern Division

August, 24, 2012
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As the season gets closer we're continuing to look at some of the SEC's newcomers in 2012.

This time, we're taking it a little further by involving all of the new faces that could see the field this fall.

Today, we're looking at true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers and junior college transfers who could help teams right away. So we don't get too cluttered, we're picking three players from each team.

I'll take a look at the candidates in the Eastern Division, while Chris will pick his Western Division players later today.

Let's see who could strut his respective stuff in the East this fall:

FLORIDA
  • Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Fr.: Will Muschamp wants as many pass-rushers as he can get, and Fowler has been very impressive this fall. He should be used at the Buck position to rush in third-down situations.
  • Damien Jacobs, DT, JC: He has been impressive since arriving this spring and should be in Florida's line rotation. He's made the biggest impact in practice stopping the run.
  • Latroy Pittman, WR, Fr.: He isn't the fastest receiver out there, but Pittman was one of Florida's most consistent players this spring and should have every opportunity to get solid playing time this fall.
GEORGIA
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Fr.: He didn't arrive until the fall, but he's been a practice favorite for coaches and teammates. Ken Malcome might have been named the starter, but Gurley should still push for that spot.
  • Marshall Morgan, K, Fr.: Georgia's kicking game was hard to watch last year, but Marshall was signed to ease that pain. He's the favorite to land Georgia's place-kicking job this fall.
  • John Theus, OT, Fr.: He has already made his presence known on Georgia's line by taking the right tackle spot. All indications are that he isn't giving it up either.
KENTUCKY
  • Daryl Collins, WR, RFr.: He made an impression on the coaches since coming back from a knee injury this spring and is hoping to be used similar to how Randall Cobb was used for the Wildcats.
  • Landon Foster, P, Fr.: Kentucky must replace one of the league's best punters in Ryan Tydlacka, and Foster stepped right in this fall and became the favorite to do just that.
  • Zach West, OG, RFr.: He was a top recruit for Kentucky in 2011, has very good size and will start for the Wildcats at left guard to start the year.
MISSOURI
  • Evan Boehm, OG, Fr.: Injuries at left guard, including projected starter Travis Ruth, have given Boehm a lot more practice reps. He's been impressive enough to earn time and already has good size up front.
  • Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Fr.: He was the nation's best recruit in the 2012 class and has been extremely impressive in fall camp, lining up both inside and out. Mizzou won't keep him off the field this fall.
  • Mike Scherer, LB, Fr.: He already looks like a college linebacker with his size and has been getting reps with both the first-team and second-team defenses during fall camp.
SOUTH CAROLINA
  • Jerell Adams, TE, Fr.: The staff loves his potential and he's been an absolute beast during fall camp this year. South Carolina isn't afraid to use multiple tight ends in its offense.
  • Shaq Roland, WR, Fr.: South Carolina needs another consistent receiving target and Roland, who was the Gamecocks' top signee, has shown a ton of natural playmaking ability in camp.
  • Brandon Shell, OT, RFr.: He sat out last year, but his coaches didn't hesitate to make him the starting left tackle. With that year off, he became an even better pass-blocker.
TENNESSEE
  • Daniel McCullers, NG, JC: He arrived this summer, but has been extremely solid up front. He'll enter the first game as the starting noseguard.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, JC: Now that Da'Rick Rogers is out, Patterson becomes even more important. He has all the talent to be a legit deep threat in this league.
  • Darrington Sentimore, DE, JC: Tennessee needed more help up front and plucked a pretty good one in Sentimore from the juco ranks. He's set to start opening day.
VANDERBILT
  • Josh Grady, WR, RFr.: He moved from quarterback to receiver because of his athleticism and he'll have a chance to make plays catching the ball and as a Wildcat quarterback.
  • Kris Kentera, TE, RFr.: Another former quarterback, Kentera is being used as an H-back, but has the ability to line up at different positions on the field as well.
  • Brian Kimbrow, RB, Fr.: He's one of the few true freshmen James Franklin guaranteed playing time to and he'll get to show his stuff at running back, in the passing game and as a punt returner.
Barrett JonesNed Dishman/Getty ImagesA move to center shouldn't slow Alabama's Barrett Jones, last season's Outland Trophy winner.
Our preseason SEC position rankings continue with the big uglies. The real muscle down in the trenches. Offensive lines are crucial in every level of football, but teams seriously do live and die by the play of their offensive lines in the SEC.

Past rankings:
On to the SEC's offensive line groups:

1. Alabama: Four starters return (with 95 combined starts), there's size, there's athleticism and this line just screams first-round NFL talent, starting with mammoth tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack. Reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones is moving to center, but with his versatility he should excel there. Add former top recruit Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle and this is arguably the country's top offensive line.

2. LSU: Like Alabama, this line is full of experience, as four starters return and so does Josh Dworaczyk, who was granted a sixth-year after a knee injury caused him to miss all of 2011. Some think he was LSU's best lineman before last season began. Tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst are two of the best in the league and center P.J. Lonergan is tough to beat. Former highly-touted recruit La'El Collins should also contend for time this fall, too.

3. Texas A&M: This could be the strength of the team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is a future first-rounder, while right tackle Jake Mathews has All-SEC potential. Senior center Patrick Lewis provides a very sturdy anchor in the middle. Guards Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi are young, but both got good experience last year, as Harrison started five games and Ogbuehi started six. Depth could be an issue, as most reserves are younger.

4. Arkansas: The Hogs have one of the better center-guard combos in the league in Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey. Both have received preseason accolades and should be even better in 2012. Sophomore tackle Brey Cook came in with a lot of hype and if he develops in his second season, this line will be really good. Sophomore Mitch Smothers proved he can play just about anywhere and big left tackle Jason Peacock is back, but is still in the doghouse after his arrest this spring.

5. South Carolina: Replacing Rokevious Watkins at left tackle won't be easy, but the staff feels like redshirt freshman Brandon Shell might be the man for the job. He's incredibly talented and athletic and improved his blocking ability during his redshirt year. Center T.J. Johnson and guard A.J. Cann are coming off of solid seasons, but the right side has questions. Right tackle Mike Matulis started five games last year, but missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery and right guard Ronald Patrick recorded zero starts last year.

6. Tennessee: The good news is that everyone is back. The bad news is this is the same line that was incredibly inconsistent last year in the run game, as Tennessee ranked 116th in rushing offense. However, the staff feels it has a better lineup with the emergence of sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle. Stud Dallas Thomas moves to left guard and Ja'Wuan James, who has started 25 games at right tackle, provides some good stability. The line has 99 combined starts and allowed just 18 sacks last year, but the proving ground with this group is establishing that it can come off the ball and be a better running team.

7. Missouri: The Tigers lost three starters from last year, but that doesn't mean Mizzou is without experience. Old man Elvis Fisher was granted a sixth year after last year's season-ending knee injury and will provide a major boost at left tackle. And three other linemen return with starting experience from last year: tackle Justin Britt, who took over Fisher's spot last year, and guards Jack Meiners and Travis Ruth. One thing to keep an eye on is the line's durability. The average weight of this group is roughly 295 pounds.

8. Auburn: Three starters return to a line that has a ton of young depth. Center Reese Dismukes is the anchor and one of the top centers in the league. Guard John Sullen and tackle Chad Slade combined for 21 starts last year. The staff really likes redshirt freshman Greg Robinson at left tackle and former top recruit Christian Westerman will compete for time after sitting out last year. Guard Eric Mack made strides this spring before he was shot near the hip during the tragic shooting that occurred near Auburn's campus in June.

9. Mississippi State: Injuries and constant reshuffling along the line caused the Bulldogs' offense to struggle for most of last season. Three starters are gone, but junior guard Gabe Jackson, who is one of the league's best, is back and so is right guard Tobias Smith. If Smith, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early last year, is healthy, this line should be very strong along the interior. Dillon Day started six games last year and returns at center, while junior college transfers Charles Siddoway and Dylan Holley are pushing for time.

10. Florida: The Gators return four starters to a line that struggled all last season. Will Muschamp said he saw vast improvement up front this spring, but tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan must show more consistency and leadership. Jonotthan Harrison is solid at center and guard Jon Halapio has improved each year. Sophomore tackle Chaz Green and impressive early enrollee D.J. Humphries will compete for time as well.

[+] EnlargeKenarious Gates
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.com Georgia may have O-line questions, but likely none concerning junior Kenarious Gates.
11. Georgia: Yet again the Bulldogs have questions up front. Junior Kenarious Gates is very versatile and athletic and is Georgia's most reliable lineman. The staff was pleased with guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette coming out of spring, but a lot is riding on sophomore David Andrews making it at center. If he has to move, Burnette will have to move to center and more reshuffling will come. Inexperience is worrisome and true freshman John Theus should get plenty of chances to take one of the tackle spots.

12. Vanderbilt: Thanks to offensive line coach Herb Hand, this group was one of the most improved in the league last year. He'll have a tall task again with a lot of youth and inexperience. Left tackle Wesley Johnson is one of the most underrated linemen out there, while Ryan Seymour has been solid up front. The right side has issues and the depth is a concern. Injuries made it tough for this line to get through spring practice, and six freshmen are coming in to compete for spots during fall camp.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost three starters from a line that struggled throughout 2011, but vets Larry Warford and Matt Smith are back to provide a solid center-guard combo. However, they'll be asked to help a cluster of youngsters. The left side is gone and will be replaced by youngsters Zach West (redshirt freshman) and Darrian Miller (sophomore). Right tackle Kevin Mitchell started just one game last year. Any sort of injury up front would be devastating for the Cats.

14. Ole Miss: This is arguably the Rebels' weakest position. Hugh Freeze wasn't thrilled with the line this spring, continuing to say it didn't handle the offense's tempo well. Guard Matt Hall, who had double-digit starts last year, left the team this spring. Center Evan Swindall was Ole Miss' most consistent lineman this spring, while senior A.J. Hawkins moved to guard. Comfort was an issue for everyone, and the tackle spots were filled this spring by Emmanuel McCray, who missed all of last season, and JUCO transfer Pierce Burton.

Video: South Carolina X factors

June, 11, 2012
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Chris Low breaks down the X-factors for South Carolina this coming season, offensive tackle Brandon Shell and defensive tackle Byron Jerideau.

South Carolina spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
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2011 record: 11-2
2011 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners:
WR Ace Sanders, OG A.J. Cann, QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, CB Akeem Auguste, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Shaq Wilson, Spur DeVonte Holloman, S D.J. Swearinger

Key losses:
WR Alshon Jeffery, OT Rokevious Watkins, OG Terrence Campbell, Spur Antonio Allen, DE Melvin Ingram, CB Stephon Gilmore, DT Travian Robertson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Marcus Lattimore* (818 yards)
Passing: Connor Shaw* (1,448 yards)
Receiving: Alshon Jeffery (762 yards)
Tackles: Antonio Allen (88)
Sacks: Melvin Ingram (10)
Interceptions: Stephon Gilmore (4)

Spring answers

1. Shaw's development: The goal for quarterback Connor Shaw this spring was to work on the passing part of the position. The run-first quarterback showed flashes of transformation in his mindset toward the end of last season and it bled over to this year. He seems to be more confident in his passing and that will go a long way for the Gamecocks offense, as the downfield passing game was missing for most of South Carolina's season in 2011.

2. Running back depth: With Lattimore sitting out the spring, South Carolina turned to reserves Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles. Both performed well, but Miles was named the offensive player of the spring. He wrestled with returning to the Gamecocks, and still seems to be creating some drama about his return this fall, but if he comes back he'll be the No. 2 back. Miles made major strides in his game and his return would mean South Carolina has some insurance at running back if Lattimore struggles. Even if he returns at full health, having Miles there will give the Gamecocks a solid option to keep Lattimore fresh.

3. Shell's development: South Carolina's coaches were anxious to see what redshirt freshman Brandon Shell could do and he didn't disappoint. He ended spring as the starter at left tackle -- the same position that Rokevious Watkins manned last season. The Gamecocks lost two starters along the offensive line, but Shell provided a nice spark at the most important position along the line.

Fall questions

1. Lattimore's health: While word out of South Carolina's camp is that Lattimore was ahead of schedule with his knee rehab, it's still unknown if he will be back to his old self. It's hard to believe that anyone could come back from an ACL injury in this amount of time and be as effective and as good as Lattimore was, but his coaches think he can do just that. Until we see him play, there will still be some uncertainty. A healthy Lattimore makes this an SEC contender and maybe more.

2. Secondary: South Carolina has veterans Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger returning in its defensive backfield, but both dealt with injuries in the spring and the Gamecocks must replace three of its top four cornerbacks from last season. The injuries gave young guys the opportunity to get more reps, but questions still remain. Victor Hampton, listed as a starter, might be South Carolina's most athletic returning corner, but he has limited experience and a history of off-field issues. Brison Williams should enter the fall as a starter at strong safety, but has just one career start. He's one of two players at strong safety with game experience. Jimmy Legree and Cadarious Sanders are the only other corners with game experience. Expect redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian to compete for time as well.

3. Wide receiver: The Gamecocks will start the summer still wondering about the wide receiver position. Ace Sanders returns as the team's most productive receiver, but after that there isn't a lot of production. The good news was that Bruce Ellington returned to football this spring, but the bad news is that even with him back, Sanders is still the only receiver returning with 20 or more catches (29). Speedster Damiere Byrd showed progress and the coaches expect to get more from D.L. Moore, but the position is still a mystery. Incoming freshman Shaq Roland will be relied on a lot when he reports in the summer.

SEC lunch links

April, 2, 2012
4/02/12
1:49
PM ET
We're taking a later lunch today as we glance around the league:
Devin Taylor is noticing all the attention surrounding South Carolina’s program, and he likes it.

It means people are expecting big things from the Gamecocks, and some might even be a little fearful of them.

“It’s almost like a target on our backs,” South Carolina’s senior defensive end said.

But that target didn’t just appear in Columbia, S.C. It started to form after South Carolina’s first trip to the SEC championship game in 2010, and Taylor said he could sense it every week last season. He could tell that the perception of South Carolina’s team had changed around the league and more respect was thrown the Gamecocks’ way.

“You could just feel it,” he said.

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina's Devin Taylor
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireDefensive end Devin Taylor says South Carolina's defense isn't rebuilding, it's reloading.
It’s not hard to believe that the team that once struggled to make upward moves in the SEC's Eastern Division is now linked to divisional favorite talk. In coach Steve Spurrier’s seven seasons at South Carolina, he has compiled 55 wins (leaving him nine away from tying Rex Enright’s school record for career wins), took South Carolina to Atlanta, and led the Gamecocks to their first 11-win season in 2011.

The next step? An SEC championship.

It’s a goal that Spurrier said he expects, and so do his players. Taylor said winning the East is no longer the No. 1 goal. They want to be showered with celebratory confetti inside the Georgia Dome in December.

And South Carolina has the parts in place to make such a run. The offense loses star receiver Alshon Jeffery and returns a cluster of unproven receivers, but the plus is that there is a ton of depth there. Also, much-ballyhooed incoming freshman WR Shaq Roland will be in town this summer, and a lot is expected of him.

On the offensive line, Rokevious Watkins and Terrence Campbell are gone (both were seniors in 2011). But South Carolina returns three starters, and the coaches expect redshirt freshman Brandon Shell to step right in at left tackle for Watkins. Get him going and South Carolina’s line should be fine.

Quarterback Connor Shaw returns after really starting to come into his own as more of a passer at the end of last season. He’ll always run the ball, but he showed he can be disciplined and lead with his arm.

Running back Marcus Lattimore (knee) won’t practice in the spring, but he certainly hasn’t been ruled out for the regular season. A healthy Lattimore, who has racked up 2,015 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in 20 career games, is an obvious Heisman Trophy candidate.

Defensively, Taylor can’t help but get excited. While South Carolina enters spring camp down in numbers in the secondary -- especially with injuries to Akeem Auguste and D.J. Swearinger -- Taylor said he’s seen younger players (such as cornerback Victor Hampton) make improvements during offseason workouts. And Taylor has really been impressed with DeVonte Holloman, who is transitioning back to the spur position from safety.

When it comes to the front seven, Taylor knows the key names are Jadeveon Clowney -- who was seventh in the SEC in sacks (eight) and 11th in tackles for loss (12) -- along with Kelcy Quarles, Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens. But you can’t sleep on defensive tackle Byron Jerideau or linebacker Damario Jeffery, who moves to middle linebacker from the spur.

Taylor said South Carolina isn’t rebuilding on defense, it’s reloading, which is a scary thought. South Carolina was third nationally in total defense in 2011, and Taylor thinks the Gamecocks are equipped with just as much talent to have a similar year in 2012.

Even with the skill that returns on both sides for South Carolina, Taylor still expects the Gamecocks to be overlooked at times -- maybe not by opposing teams, but by those on the periphery.

And he’s fine with that.

“We can do the underdog thing and then come back and bite them in the butt,” he said.

Taylor hopes that “underdog thing” will take South Carolina to the top of the SEC in 2012. From where this program has been to where it is now, a win in Atlanta in early December would show just how big a turnover the Gamecocks have made, Taylor said.

“That would mean a lot, and it would let this entire program shine [and show] how much it’s grown and how much it’s willing to grow for future players coming here,” he said.

“I’ve worked hard over all these summers, and all this work actually paid off to do something great.”
Schedule: South Carolina opens spring camp at 4:15 p.m. ET Tuesday at the Bluff Road Practice Fields. The Gamecocks will conclude spring with the Garnet & Black Spring Game on April 14, beginning at 1 p.m. ET at Williams-Brice Stadium. All 15 of practices are open to the public, unless determined otherwise.

What's new: Four of South Carolina's nine assistants are new. John Butler, Jay Graham, Jeep Hunter and Ellis Johnson are all gone. Lorenzo Ward was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator, replacing Johnson. Ward will still focus on the cornerbacks this season. Head coach Steve Spurrier also added Kirk Botkin to coach linebackers/Spurs, Grady Brown to coach the secondary, Joe Robinson to coach special teams/tight ends, and Everette Sands to coach running backs. Joe Connolly also replaces Craig Fitzgerald as South Carolina's strength and conditioning coach. Also, South Carolina will be looking to replace kicker Jay Wooten and punter Joey Scribner-Howard. Walk-ons Landon Ard and Adam Yates will compete at kicker this spring, and sophomore Patrick Fish should be No. 1 at punter.

On the move: Safety DeVonte Holloman is looking to transition back to the Spur position after spending 2011 at safety. He worked at the Spur last spring, but the departing Antonio Allen played there last season. Also, Damario Jeffery is slated to move from the Spur to Will linebacker this spring. Jimmy Legree is moving back to cornerback after making a couple of starts at free safety last season.

On the mend: The Gamecocks will be without star running back Marcus Lattimore, who is still recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered halfway through the 2011 season. Running back Shon Carson is also out and recovering from a knee injury suffered last season. Sophomore offensive lineman Mike Matulis will sit out the spring after recovering from shoulder surgery, and senior cornerback Akeem Auguste will be limited as he tries to get over a foot injury that kept him out of all but one game last season. Safety D.J. Swearinger will miss the spring after having an operation on his foot. Offensive lineman Brock Stadnik will sit out the spring following shoulder surgery.

Questions: Auguste and Swearinger are dealing with injuries, South Carolina must replace three of its top four cornerbacks, and Holloman is moving back to the Spur, meaning the Gamecocks' secondary is loaded with questions. Sophomore Victor Hampton is expected to take one of the cornerback spots. He's talented, but has had off-field issues. He has the potential to be a key player for the Gamecocks. Depth behind him is a question, as Legree and Cadarious Sanders are the only other cornerbacks with game experience. A big spring from redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian could put him in the thick of it for a starting cornerback spot. Sophomore-to-be Brison Williams takes over at strong safety after playing in eight games last season, but depth behind him is a concern, as rising sophomore Kadetrix Marcus, Edward Muldrow and Sheldon Royster enter spring with six games of experience, all from Marcus. South Carolina must also find players at free safety.

Key battle: With Alshon Jeffery taking his talents to the NFL, and Bruce Ellington sticking to basketball, South Carolina enters the spring with little experience at wide receiver. Ace Sanders is the only returning receiver with 20 or more catches (29), and Nick Jones is the only other one with 10 or more catches (12). There are bodies, but not production. D.L. Moore and DeAngelo Smith should enter the spring as starters, along with Sanders. Both showed promise in the past, but they combined for just 11 catches last season. Lamar Scruggs is a junior, but didn't catch a pass last season. Speedster Damiere Byrd is back after missing four games last season because of NCAA issues. Also, redshirt freshmen Shamier Jeffery (Alshon Jeffery's brother) and K.J. Brent will need to have big springs. South Carolina is expected to get good use out of incoming freshman Shaq Roland, but the Gamecocks need to find at least two solid options before he arrives this summer.

Don't forget about: South Carolina's front seven should be solid again in 2012. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor will man the defensive end positions, while rising sophomore Kelcy Quarles, who enjoyed a tremendous freshman season, will help ease the loss of Travian Robertson inside. At linebacker, South Carolina only lost Rodney Paulk, and returns seniors Reginald Bowens and Shaq Wilson, who combined for 96 tackles in 2011. Seniors Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will also get time at the Will spot.

Breaking out: The coaches are very excited about the potential redshirt freshmen offensive tackle Brandon Shell possesses. He was a standout high school player, and will have every chance to earn the starting spot at left tackle this spring. He has supposedly had a good offseason so far, and has gotten stronger. If he's as good as the coaches say, he'll help shore up a line that has to replace two starters, including left tackle Rokevious Watkins.

All eyes on: Quarterback Connor Shaw saw vast improvements in his game as the 2011 season went on. He started to develop into more of a passer than a runner. While he still likes to run at times, you could tell that Shaw was making a conscious effort to rely on his arm first. In his last three games, Shaw averaged 219 yards and threw eight touchdowns to one interception. Now is the time for him to really come into his own as a passer. For South Carolina's offense to be successful, Shaw has to play smarter, and has to boost the Gamecocks' passing game. He'll also need to create better chemistry with his unproven receivers. South Carolina's offensive players will feed off Shaw's spring.

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