SEC: Brian Randolph

To finish out our week-long look at the players poised to be at the top of the stat charts at their respective positions, we're checking out the guys picked to man the skies.

Who will be able to snag five or more interceptions in the SEC in 2014? Well, last year, the league had four players -- Ole Miss' Cody Prewitt (six interceptions), Missouri's E.J. Gaines (five), Vanderbilt's Kenny Ladler (five) and Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley (five). This year, I'm going to go with five.

Here are the guys with the best chance of reaching five or more interceptions in 2014:

1. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Considered one of the nation's best cornerbacks, Hargreaves is the league's best cover man. He led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended last year.

2. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss: He led the SEC with six interceptions last year, but thinks he left a few more out there in 2013. Prewitt is a legitimate ball hawk and moves around the field so much that he'll have no problem finding the ball a lot again this fall.

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss' Cody Prewitt led the conference last season with six interceptions.
3. Taveze Calhoun, CB, Mississippi State: The long, rangy Calhoun can move all over for the Bulldogs as well. He has a nose for the ball and is an elite cover corner. He'll nab more than the three interceptions he had last season.

4. Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Collins can do just about everything on the field. He takes away the deep ball, can play in the box and is actually very good in coverage. As the seasoned guy in Alabama's secondary, he'll find his way to the ball even more this season.

5. Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU: Another elite player in man-to-man situations, White led LSU with nine passes defended, but had just two interceptions in 2013. For as much as he likes to be around the ball, expect both of those numbers to increase in 2014.

6. Brian Randolph, S, Tennessee: He bounced back from a season-ending injury in 2012 with a monster year last season. He was tied for fifth in the SEC with four interceptions in 2013 and should be even better this fall at finding the ball in the air.

7. Jonathan Mincy, CB, Auburn: With Mincy moving to boundary corner this fall, he should be even more of a headache for quarterbacks looking to go deep on the outside. He's another player who just knows how to find the ball. Mincy led the Tigers and was second in the SEC with 15 passes defended and had one interception.

8. Jamerson Love, CB, Mississippi State: Throwing on the Bulldogs could be a mistake for opponents most of the time this fall. With Calhoun on one side and Love on the other, expect a lot of takeaways. Love defended 10 passes and had three interceptions last year.

9. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss: Extremely athletic, fast and versatile, Conner finds ways to move all over the field for the Rebels. He defended only seven passes and snagged one interception last year, but he'll be an even bigger threat with teams trying to shy away from Prewitt.

10. Deshazor Everett, CB, Texas A&M: A struggling Aggies defense did produce a pretty solid player in Everett last season. He can play both corner and safety, which means his instincts will frustrate plenty of quarterbacks. Last year, he defended nine passes and grabbed two interceptions.

11. Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina: He might not line up in the secondary like the rest of the guys on this list, but Moore has ways of getting himself involved in a lot of plays during games. He covers so much ground for a linebacker and actually led the Gamecocks with four interceptions last year.
We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Tennessee.

Most important game: Nov. 22 vs. Missouri

Key players: By this point in the season, we'll know plenty about Tennessee's offense. Whether the quarterback situation is ironed out once Missouri gets into town is a mystery at this point, but all signs point to Justin Worley as being the starter heading into the season. His play will be crucial to Tennessee's success. Inconsistency at quarterback doomed this offense last year, but Worley showed some promise. Eyes also will be on sophomore Marquez North, who led Tennessee with 496 receiving yards last season. That number will have to increase if this offense is going to get off the ground, but North could have a big day against a very inexperienced Missouri secondary. The hope in Knoxville is that North gets some help from true freshman Josh Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson. Both were on campus during the spring and both have the big-play ability to give Worley a chance to make some big plays against this secondary. Tennessee lost all five starters along its offensive line, but junior Marcus Jackson is back after redshirting last year. Behind him, you have running backs Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd, who will have to be active against a solid Missouri defensive line. Hurd could be the one to watch, as he has the skill to be a star in this league. On defense, linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson will be key. Johnson will have to direct things and contain Mizzou's explosive running game, while Maggitt will have to generate consistent pressure on quarterback Maty Mauk, considering the Vols also are rebuilding their entire defensive line. Safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton will have to be on their toes against Mauk, who isn't afraid to sling the ball around.

Why it matters: With so many questions surrounding this team, we don't know if the Vols are a bowl team right now. The month of September has zero gimmies for Butch Jones' group, and October features Florida, Ole Miss and Alabama. With trips to Oklahoma and Georgia on the September slate, Tennessee needs to go at least 2-2 before October arrives, where Tennessee has to get at least one win (Chattanooga). The Florida game (Oct. 4) is important -- and the Vols could certainly win it -- but the season isn't over if Tennessee loses it. That might not be the case against Mizzou. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are on the schedule in November, so those wins are important, too. But dropping the Missouri game could end all hope for the postseason. If Tennessee wants to make it back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, it has to beat Missouri. Two years ago, this game took four overtimes to complete and pretty much cost the Vols a trip to the postseason. Tennessee can't afford to let history repeat itself.

Ranking the SEC safeties

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
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We could have sold ourselves short with a top 10 comprised of all the league's defensive backs. Instead of leaving out too many talented players, we took the long route and split the secondary in two.

Earlier this afternoon you should have read Chris Low's breakdown of the top-10 cornerbacks in the SEC. Now it's time for the safety rankings entering 2014.

Safety position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the anchor of what could be the SEC's best secondary.
1. Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss: On a defense loaded with former blue-chip recruits, it was Prewitt, a three-star safety from the tiny town of Bay Springs, Mississippi, who stood out the most last season. The 6-foot-2 junior showed the complete package as he led the SEC with six interceptions and became a near unanimous first team All-America selection. Now a senior, he’s the clear face of a secondary that could be the best in the conference.

2. Landon Collins, Soph., Alabama: It’s scary to think what he’ll do as a starter from Day 1. Alabama fans will remember that Collins was the backup to Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety last season and only became a full-time starter after Sunseri tore his ACL. Despite starting only nine games, Collins led the team in passes defended and finished second in total tackles. A heavy hitter as much as he is a ball hawk, Collins could easily develop into a first-round pick with a strong junior season.

3. Tony Conner, Soph., Ole Miss: Talk about fulfilling on promise. Conner, a four-star safety prospect coming out of high school, was an immediate impact player for Ole Miss, playing in all 12 games and earning Freshman All-America honors for his 66 tackles, one interception and seven passes defended.

4. Braylon Webb, Sr., Missouri: Gary Pinkel’s defense could use a veteran presence now that E.J. Gaines, Matt White and Randy Ponder are all gone. Webb, fortunately, is just the stabilizing force that’s needed. He has 30 career starts, and last season he was the team’s second leading tackler in addition to picking off three passes.

[+] EnlargeBrison Williams
AP Photo/Richard ShiroBrison Williams, who had three INTs last season, hits like a linebacker and adds valuable experience to the South Carolina secondary.
5. Brison Williams, Sr., South Carolina: He may look like a linebacker in a helmet and shoulder pads, but the 5-11, 218-pound Williams is all safety. In the past two years he has started 23 games and racked up 97 tackles and three interceptions. In a secondary lacking experience, his leadership will be vital.

6. Jermaine Whitehead, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers’ secondary was unspectacular last season, but Whitehead wasn’t the problem. The soon-to-be senior finished fourth on the team in tackles (65) and third in passes defended (6), two of which he turned into interceptions. Now with a full year in Ellis Johnson’s system, he and the rest of the defense could take a big step forward in 2014.

7. Brian Randolph, Jr., Tennessee: Count Randolph among the better players you probably don’t hear much of. A year after suffering a season-ending injury, the former SEC coaches’ All-Freshman team selection had the best year of his career in 2013, finishing second in the team with 75 tackles. On top of that, he finished fifth in the SEC with four interceptions.

8. Alan Turner, Sr., Arkansas: You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more productive, experienced safety in the SEC this season than Turner, who has played in more than 30 games for Arkansas. The 6-foot senior was the team leader in tackles last season with 97 and also hauled in two interceptions.

9. Ronald Martin, Sr., LSU: This might be Jalen Mills’ spot had he not been arrested and subsequently suspended indefinitely by coach Les Miles. Martin, nonetheless, is a worthy selection. Though he had a quiet 2013, expect a big senior season from him as he takes over for Craig Loston at strong safety in 2014, a spot where his 6-1, 218-pound frame should come in handy in run support.

10. Justin Cox, Sr., Mississippi State: Cox was admittedly a step behind last season after transferring from a junior college. He was asked to play cornerback and ended up contributing very little. But this spring he came up to speed and was welcomed back with a new position that better suits his 6-3 frame: safety. Now the word from Starkville is what an upside he has at safety, how it’s a more natural fit and how he can really cover some ground. Though he may not start right away, don’t be surprised if he climbs the depth chart quickly.
Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.

Opening spring camp: Tennessee

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
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Schedule: The Volunteers open spring practice on Friday at 4:20 p.m. ET. All practices are closed to the general public. The Orange and White spring game is scheduled for April 12 at 3 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium.

What’s new: There weren’t any changes on Butch Jones’ coaching staff. All nine position coaches return in their same roles.

[+] EnlargeJalen Reeves-Maybin
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMILinebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin will take on a bigger role for Tennessee in 2014.
On the mend: Safety Brian Randolph (shoulder), defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (knee), receiver Drae Bowles (shoulder) and tight ends A.J. Branisel (knee) and Brendan Downs (knee) will miss the spring while recovering from injuries and/or surgeries. Receiver Pig Howard isn't injured, but will not take part in the spring while taking care of personal business. It's unclear whether he will return to the team in the fall.

On the move: Sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin made the move from safety to linebacker late last season as a freshman and will spend this spring at weakside linebacker. This will be his first spring at linebacker. He enrolled early last year but missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery.

New faces: The Vols have 14 early enrollees from their 2014 signing class on campus, including 11 freshmen. A pair of junior college newcomers -- offensive tackle Dontavius Blair and receiver Von Pearson -- could be immediate starters. Freshman Coleman Thomas will also get a long look at offensive tackle, while running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone were two of the highest-rated players at their positions nationally.

Question marks: There are a ton of unknowns for the Vols on both lines of scrimmage. In fact, 12 players are gone on the offensive and defensive lines from a season ago, including all five starters on the offensive line. Blair will get a chance to win the left tackle job this spring, and Thomas will be in the mix for the right tackle job. The Vols redshirted Marcus Jackson last season, and he will be a key at guard. It's also wide open on the defensive line, and most of the help on that side of the ball won't be on campus until this summer when the likes of Dewayne Hendrix, Michael Sawyers, Derek Barnett and Charles Mosley arrive. There's also a huge void at safety, especially with Randolph out for the spring. The Vols like their safety signees -- Todd Kelly Jr., Cortez McDowell and Rashaan Gaulden -- but they won't arrive until the summer.

[+] EnlargeJustin Worley
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSenior Justin Worley is back healthy for the Volunteers, but he will battle three others to start at quarterback.
Key battle: It's a four-man race for the Vols' starting quarterback job. Three players saw action last season, but the guy who didn't play -- redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson -- has as good a chance as any to win the job. He's got a big arm and a nice release and is plenty mobile enough. Senior Justin Worley is also healthy after missing the final part of last season with a thumb injury. Sophomore Joshua Dobbs was forced into action last season as a true freshman when Worley was hurt. He has gotten bigger and stronger during the offseason. Sophomore Nathan Peterman started the Florida game last season before suffering a broken hand.

Breaking out: Finding guys who can consistently get to the quarterback will be a priority, and sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen could be poised for a big season. The 6-foot-2, 248-pound Vereen showed promise after returning from a knee injury during fall camp last season and has the kind of burst off the line that could make him a key part of Tennessee's defense. The Vols finished last in the SEC last season with 18 sacks in 12 games.

Don't forget about: Speaking of rushing the passer, getting back junior Curt Maggitt is huge for Tennessee. He missed all of last season while recovering from ACL surgery. He'll line up at outside linebacker in Tennessee's base defense, but the Vols will also walk him up to the line on passing downs. The 6-3, 244-pound Maggitt is the most talented defender on the Vols' roster. They desperately need Maggitt to be healthy and to be a leader. Jones has been encouraged by what he has seen so far.

All eyes on: Hurd and Malone are both homegrown kids who could have gone to any school in the country. They chose Tennessee because they wanted to be a part of returning the Vols to prominence. Hurd suffered a labrum injury last season in high school, so his contact might be somewhat limited. Still, there will be a lot of pressure on Hurd and Malone to deliver the kind of explosive plays on offense Tennessee lacked last season. That's a heavy burden to carry as freshmen, but they're both oozing with talent.

SEC Players of the Week

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
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Here are the SEC players of the week, as announced by the league Monday:

OFFENSIVE: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
  • Against No. 6 South Carolina, Murray was 17-of-23 passing (74 percent) for 309 yards and four touchdowns for a 244.2 pass efficiency mark.
  • This was the ninth time in his career that Murray has had at least four passing touchdowns in a game.
  • He connected with eight different receivers, including first-time starter Justin Scott-Wesley, who hauled in a career-long 85 yard touchdown to put Georgia up 41-30 in the fourth quarter.
  • Murray moved to No. 2 on the school's all-time list for total offense with 10,907 yards.
DEFENSE: Brian Randolph, DB, Tennessee
  • Intercepted two passes and broke up another in Tennessee’s 52-20 win over Western Kentucky. He also finished with eight tackles.
  • Randolph is third in the NCAA in interceptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Odell Beckham Jr., KR/PR/WR, LSU
  • Racked up 331 all-purpose yards -- the third-highest total in school history and tied for eighth in SEC history -- in LSU’s win over UAB.
  • Became the first player in LSU history to return a missed field goal for a touchdown as he returned a 59-yard UAB attempt 109 yards (statistically 100 yards) for a touchdown in the third quarter. It tied for the longest scoring play in LSU history.
  • He finished the game with a total of four touchdowns (three receiving, one return).
  • He also rushed one time for 15 yards, caught five passes for 136 yards, returned three punts for 59 yards, including a 60-yarder that set up a touchdown, returned one kickoff 21 yards and returned the missed field goal 100 yards for his 331 all-purpose yards.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Markus Golden, DE, Missouri
  • Golden had a huge momentum play in the third quarter that helped fight off the Rockets, when he got loose in the backfield and pressured Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens. Owens tried to throw the ball away, but it went straight up in the air as Golden was getting to the quarterback. Golden snatched the ball out of midair as he pushed Owens to the ground, and he raced 70 yards the other way for a touchdown that gave Mizzou a 24-9 lead at the 11:40 mark of the third quarter.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Kevin Mitchell, OG, Kentucky
  • Graded at 90 percent.
  • Had nine knockdown blocks.
  • Did not allow a sack or have a penalty.
  • Helped UK amass 675 yards total offense, third-highest game in school history.
FRESHMAN: Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas
  • Rushed for career-high 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in 31-21 win vs. Samford. That is the ninth-highest single-game total in the NCAA this season, highest among freshmen, and third-highest in school history for a freshman.
  • Leads SEC and ranks sixth in NCAA, first among freshmen, in rushing yards per game (151.5).
  • First freshman in school history to begin career with consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
  • Fourth freshman in school history with multiple 100-yard rushing games in a season and first Arkansas freshman to rush for 100 yards in consecutive games since Darren McFadden in 2005.
  • Had zero negative carries in 24 rushing attempts.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
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Week 2 was another wild week in the SEC that provided plenty of highlights, and now it’s time to hand out the helmet stickers.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: The monkey is finally off his back. Murray delivered in a big game, in front of a national audience, and the Bulldogs came out victorious. Before Saturday, he had a reputation for losing big games. He lost to Clemson in the opener. He lost to Alabama in last year’s SEC championship. He was 0-3 in his career against South Carolina. That’s all changed now. Murray finished 17-of-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns. More importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over. It’s just one game, and Georgia still has aspirations of winning an SEC title and then a national title, but Murray can sleep easy for now.

The Tennessee secondary: Many pundits thought Western Kentucky would go into Knoxville and take down the Volunteers, but Tennessee’s defense had other ideas. At one point in the first quarter, it forced five turnovers in a span of six snaps, including two interceptions that were taken back for touchdowns. In all, the Volunteers pulled down five interceptions and held coach Bobby Petrino’s passing offense to just 222 yards through the air. Junior safety Brian Randolph, who missed the majority of last season with a torn ACL, finished with two picks.

Odell Beckham, WR/RS, LSU: What didn’t Beckham do? As a receiver, he had five catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns. He returned a missed field goal 100 yards for a score, and he also added a 60-yard punt return that set up another LSU touchdown. For the game, he finished with 331 all-purpose yards. The junior now has more than 100 yards receiving in both of his first two games and has emerged as a go-to target for quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

The Auburn defensive line: In Week 1, Auburn failed to generate much of a pass rush from its defensive line. After a rigorous week of practice under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, the line responded. The Tigers had 13 tackles for loss against Arkansas State, including a pair of sacks. They held the Red Wolves to just 150 yards rushing after they had gained 500 on the ground the week before. Defensive end LaDarius Owens led the way up front with eight tackles, two for a loss, and a sack.

Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, QBs, Kentucky: The Wildcats needed a win in the worst way, and the two quarterbacks delivered against Miami (Ohio). Smith, who started, finished 15-of-23 for 310 yards and three touchdowns while his counterpart Whitlow added 103 yards passing on a 10-for-12 night. Whitlow also rushed for 48 yards and a score. New coach Mark Stoops picked up his first win and has to feel good about his two signal-callers going forward.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
3:17
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A little lunchtime reading from around the SEC:

Opening camp: Tennessee

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
4:30
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Schedule: The Vols begin practice at 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday. Tennessee will hold an open practice on Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. ET at Neyland Stadium. The plan is for it to simulate a preseason game. Players will be in pads for the first time on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

On the mend: Linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee, shoulder) and safety Jaylen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) both missed the spring. Keep an eye on Maggitt. He hopes to be 100 percent once the season starts. Safety Brian Randolph is returning to the field after tearing his ACL early last season.

Key battle: The Vols left spring without the quarterback spot being settled. Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman were about as even as they could have been this spring, but there's a sense that Worley, who has the only college experience, has the edge heading into fall camp. Still, first-year coach Butch Jones won't say who leads and is hoping that one took over as more of a leader during the offseason. Finding a quarterback is the top priority for the Vols heading into the season.

Of note: With the loss of the team's top four pass-catchers from 2012, the Vols will have to replace the 2,914 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns they combined for last year. That won't be easy, as receiver Alton "Pig" Howard is the only pass-catcher who returns with double-digit catches (10) from a year ago and Vincent Dallas returns the most receiving yards (149) from a year ago.

Predicted order of finish: Picked to finish fifth in the SEC East at SEC media days.

They said it: "We always talk about inches make the champion and everyone is searching for the inches. I'm a firm believer in team chemistry and I think we all know this, it's not a secret. Are we going to be the most talented team this year? No we're not. We all understand that, but talent doesn't win championships. Teams win championships." -- Jones

Safety Brian Randolph is Tennessee's X factor for the 2013 season.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
2012 record: 5-7

2012 conference record: 1-7, (sixth, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; Defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Rajion Neal, RB Marlin Lane, OT Antonio Richardson, OT Ja’Wuan James, LB A.J. Johnson, LB Curt Maggit, S Brian Randolph, S Byron Moore

Key losses

QB Tyler Bray, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Justin Hunter, OG Dallas Thomas, TE Mychal Rivera, DE Darrington Sentimore, LB Herman Lathers, CB Prentiss Waggner

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Rajion Neal* (708 yards)
Passing: Tyler Bray (3,612 yards)
Receiving: Justin Hunter (1,083 yards)
Tackles: A.J. Johnson* (138)
Sacks: Darrington Sentimore (4)
Interceptions: Byron Moore* (5)

Spring answers

1. Buying into the new staff: There are always those awkward first moments with a new coaching staff, but the Vols seemed to go through spring pretty smoothly with new coach Butch Jones and his staff. This team didn’t have time to question Jones and his guys because the program has been trending downward for sometime now. Thanks to Jones, you could tell there was a lot more excitement in Knoxville this spring.

2. Defensive comfort: It looks like Tennessee’s defense adjusted back to a 4-3 defense will this spring. After struggling all year with the SEC’s worst defense in a 3-4 scheme under Sal Sunseri, Vols defenders really took to defensive coordinator John Jancek’s 4-3. With good experience coming back in the front seven, which proved to be a much more aggressive front this spring. If those guys continue to improve, it will help mask some of the issues in the secondary.

3. Sapp's emergence: With Herman Lathers gone, the Vols were in search of a valuable replacement, and it looks like they found it in senior Dontavis Sapp. He entered the spring with just two career starts and was Lathers' backup at the Will spot last year, but was Tennessee's most consistent defender this spring. His development this spring was very important with Curt Maggitt out for the spring while he recovered from the ACL injury he suffered last fall.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback competition: Jones left the spring saying that both Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman were about even for the starting quarterback spot. Worley was a little more consistent this spring and has game experience, but Jones is now putting the team in their hands, as they head into the summer. This competition won’t officially be decided until fall camp, so neither can afford to slip now.

2. Wide receiver issues: The Vols lost 2,914 yards and 26 touchdowns from their top four pass-catchers in 2012. Tennessee is in desperate need of finding quality replacements to help its inexperienced quarterbacks this fall. Pig Howard is expected to make an impact this fall, but struggled this spring. Sophomore Cody Blanc showed good strides, and the staff needs more out of redshirt freshmen Drae Bowles and Jason Croom.

3. Thin secondary: Tennessee still has some work to do in its secondary. Brian Randolph's return will be nice, but the numbers are still thin throughout the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback. Justin Coleman emerged as the Vols' top option at corner, but the spot opposite him still hasn't been determined. Having Eric Gordon away from the team for disciplinary reasons doesn't help, either. There were signs of improvement from the secondary, but it's still very much a work in progress.

Chris Low talks with Tennessee Volunteers safety Brian Randolph.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A Tennessee helmet signed by Peyton Manning sits prominently displayed in Butch Jones’ office at the Vols’ plush new digs, a reminder of where this program once operated among college football’s upper crust.

Manning’s signature includes a short note that reads simply: “Coach Jones, I’m in your corner.”

The truth is that they’re lining up in Big Orange Country to be in Jones’ corner. He hasn’t won a game, hasn’t even coached in a game. But he’s made a lot of right moves to this point, starting with fully embracing Tennessee’s traditions and reaching out to the former players.

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Wade Rackley/Getty Images"We're going to get back to being Tennessee," vows new Vols coach Butch Jones.
“It’s the pride of who we are,” Jones said. “Those individuals have laid the foundation for this program. They’re the ones who’ve put in the sweat equity. They are who we are, and it’s important that our players understand the great players who came before them.”

It’s one of the reasons Jones is bringing back a captain from every era to address the team. Manning was on campus last week. Al Wilson, who captained the 1998 national championship team, is also scheduled to come in at some point.

On Friday, Jones tweeted out a picture of he and Arian Foster together in Tennessee’s new $45 million football complex. Foster, the Houston Texas’ All-Pro running back, had not been back to campus since 2009. He spoke to the team on the eve of Saturday’s Orange & White spring game.

“There’s only one Tennessee, and we’re going to get back to being Tennessee,” vowed Jones, who’s made it a point to get out and see fans, engage fans on social media, and speak just about anywhere he’s asked to speak.

“I think our fans and former players see our body of work, and feel the passion and energy and zeal me and my coaching staff have to be here at Tennessee. We’re one of them and as impatient as anyone, but we’re going to do it right and build it brick by brick and make sure that foundation is set in stone.”

As passionate as Jones is, he’s equally realistic. There aren’t going to be any quick fixes, not with a killer schedule in 2013 that includes trips to Alabama, Florida and Oregon.

The good news is that the Vols return an offensive line that should be one of the best in the SEC. But just about everywhere else, there are major question marks.

Simply getting to a bowl game next season would be a huge accomplishment for the Vols, who have suffered through three straight losing seasons.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to overcome some of the challenges we have starting out with our effort, our fundamentals, and our chemistry,” said Jones, who won four conference championships in his six seasons as head coach at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.

“The big thing for us is continuing to get better in our program day by day, hour by hour, and the winning will take care of itself.”

Amazingly, Jones is the fourth different head coach at Tennessee in the past six seasons. It’s hard to find genuine stability anywhere these days in the realm of SEC football. But for more than 30 years, the Vols were coached by two men -- John Majors and Phillip Fulmer.

Jones is hellbent on bringing back that stability, and his players insist the difference from the old regime under Derek Dooley has been night and day.

“There’s no locker room drama, people talking bad in the locker room,” said junior safety Brian Randolph, who is healthy again after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. “We used to have those people. That went away once coach Jones got here. The locker room atmosphere is much better, people hyped every day for practice. The team camaraderie is a lot better.”

Junior quarterback Justin Worley said Jones has followed through on giving everybody a fresh start, which has made for some fierce competition on the practice field this spring and eliminated any sense of entitlement that might have existed previously.

“Everybody’s had an opportunity to prove what they can do on the field and off the field, whether it’s in the classroom or the weight room,” said Worley, who exits the spring as the Vols’ likely starter at quarterback.

“That’s been a huge change. He hasn’t focused on just a small group of guys. We’ve had some walk-ons even step up and take some reps. We’ve never had that here. It really has been a clean slate, and we needed that.”

Something else Jones has done is get off to a blazing start on the 2014 recruiting class, which has been his most important move. The Vols were No. 7 nationally in ESPN’s early class rankings. They have already landed a pair of commitments from ESPN 150 prospects Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. A third ESPN 150 prospect, linebacker Dillon Bates, could be soon to follow.

If the Vols are indeed going to return to elite status under Jones, they have to get back to beating teams on the recruiting trail that they have to beat on the field. When they had it rolling under Fulmer in the 1990s, that was the formula.

Jones’ message to recruits hasn’t wavered since he took the job, and the early returns suggest that they’re listening.

“We have it all right here at Tennessee, and then to be on the ground floor to build it back to its rightful place makes it even more special,” Jones said. “That’s a legacy, and something that will live with you for the rest of your life.

“It’s easy for players to go somewhere that’s established and they can just sort of fit in. Go some place you can make a difference.”

They’re believers on Rocky Top that Jones will make a difference. It’s just going to take some time.

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