SEC: Charles Mitchell
Mississippi State kicks things off Thursday and there aren't any surprises on offense, but there's no question that the offensive line will get a ton of attention this spring. The Bulldogs are without tackles James Carmon and Addison Lawrence, so sophomores Blaine Clausell (left tackle) and Damien Robinson (right tackle) will begin the spring in their spots.
With safety Charles Mitchell gone and fellow safety Nickoe Whitley limited with a ruptured Achilles, senior Louis Watson and sophomore Jay Hughes are listed at the starting safety spots to open the spring.
You'll also notice that early enrollee defensive linemen Denico Autry (JUCO defensive end) and Quay Evans (defensive tackle) aren't both listed on Mississippi State's two-deep. Not to fret Bulldogs fans. They aren't in coach Dan Mullen's doghouse. Autry is behind Shane McCardell, but man think he could exit the spring as a starter. They just have to earn their way. Both are highly touted new arrivals and both will have plenty of opportunities to earn spots this spring.
South Carolina practice update
The Gamecocks went through their fourth spring practice Tuesday, but did so without a few players who were dealing with injuries.
Starting center T.J. Johnson sat out Tuesday's practice after suffering a sprained foot last week. Other players out were tight end Rory Anderson (sprained ankle), cornerback Ahmad Christian (concussion), cornerback Cadarious Sanders (hamstring) and linebacker Quin Smith (back).
With South Carolina set to conduct its first scrimmage of the spring Saturday, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward talked about how some players on defense have looked heading into the weekend.
He complimented the play of the line up front, singling out end Gerald Dixon and tackles Gerald Dixon Jr. and J.T. Surratt. Ward said sophomore safety Kadetrix Marcus is doing well on the perimeter, while fellow safety Brison Williams has shown signs of "being a starter for us at the boundary safety spot."
Ward also said that while cornerback Victor Hampton is doing well at times, he has a tendency to take too many chances at times.
This defense is expected to yet again be one of the top ones in the SEC this fall, but Ward said the unit still has a ways to go and still has a lot to clean up in the coming weeks.
“We still have a long way to go,” Ward said. “We’ve seen some slight improvement by some young guys but not enough improvement to where we can feel good about them helping us win a lot of ball games next season. We’ve still got a ways to go, but still have quite a few practices to get it done.
"I feel good about some of the young guys but we’ve got to get a lot more out of a couple of them.”
South Carolina returns to practice Friday at 4:15 p.m. ET and it's open to the public.
Here are the SEC representatives:
- Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas
- Antonio Allen, S, South Carolina
- Justin Anderson, OT, Georgia
- Ryan Baker, LB, LSU
- Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State
- Mark Barron, LB, Alabama
- Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas
- Brandon Bolden, RB, Ole Miss
- Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia
- Michael Brockers, DT, LSU
- Ron Brooks, CB, LSU
- Randy Bullock, K, Texas A&M
- Drew Butler, P, Georgia
- Josh Chapman, DT, Alabama
- Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
- Greg Childs, WR, Arkansas
- Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
- Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
- Jeff Demps, RB, Florida (Demps decided earlier this year that he will not pursue a career in football and will focus on professional track)
- Michael Egnew, TE, Missouri
- Terrence Frederick, CB, Texas A&M
- Jeff Fuller, WR, Texas A&M
- Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
- Cordy Glenn, OT, Georgia
- Cyrus Gray, RB, Texas A&M
- A.J. Greene, OT Auburn
- Winston Guy, S, Kentucky
- Dom Hamilton, DT, Missouri
- Darius Hanks, WR, Alabama
- Josh Harris, LS, Auburn
- Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt
- Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama
- Jaye Howard, DT, Florida
- Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
- Jerrell Jackson, WR, Missouri
- Malik Jackson, DT, Tennessee
- Jordan Jefferson, QB, LSU
- Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
- Ben Jones, C, Georgia
- Coryell Judie, CB, Texas A&M
- Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
- Bobby Massie, OT, Ole Miss
- Marquis Maze, WR, Alabama
- Quan Menzie, CB, Alabama
- Charles Mitchell, S, Mississippi State
- Brandon Mosley, OT, Auburn
- DeAngelo Peterson, TE, LSU
- Tauren Poole, RB, Tennessee
- Chris Rainey, RB, Florida
- Rueben Randle, WR, LSU
- Sean Richardson, S, Vanderbilt
- Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
- Quentin Saulsberry, OG, Mississippi State
- Jacquies Smith, DE, Missouri
- Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
- Brandon Taylor, S, LSU
- Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky
- DeAngelo Tyson, DE, Georgia
- Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama
- Blair Walsh, K, Georgia
- Rokevious Watkins, OT, South Carolina
- Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas
- Alabama: 9
- Arkansas: 4
- Auburn: 3
- Florida: 3
- Georgia: 8
- Kentucky: 2
- LSU: 8
- Missouri: 4
- Mississippi State: 4
- Ole Miss: 2
- South Carolina: 5
- Tennessee: 2
- Texas A&M: 6
- Vanderbilt: 2
LSU comes in with all the momentum after two tremendous showings by its defense. Mississippi State was a trendy dark-horse pick to win the West before the season started, but that talk was halted after a tough loss to Auburn last week.
Starkville will no doubt be jumping for tonight's game, but how can each team win? I looked into three ways that the Bulldogs could pull the upset, while Chris looked at how LSU can stay undefeated in a hostile environment.
Mississippi State's keys to victory:
1. Stop the run: Mississippi State was awful when it came to stopping the run last week. Auburn carved up the Bulldogs' front seven for 235 yards on the ground inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Maybe we should have seen it coming after the Bulldogs surrendered more than 160 yards to Memphis a week earlier. LSU brings in a tough running game that features multiple backs, so stamina won't be an issue. The Tigers have put up back-to-back 175-yard rushing performances and if the Bulldogs don't get tougher in the trenches, it could be another long day for Mississippi State's defense. Mississippi State barely got any push from defensive tackle Fletcher Cox when he returned last week, but he and Josh Boyd can't afford to slump tonight.
2. Force Jarrett Lee to beat you: Lee hasn't been spectacular this season, but he has run the offense the way his coaches have asked him to. Lee's unsettled football past is well documented and if he gets in trouble, he can be a defense's best friend. He has had interception problems in the past and Mississippi State fields one of the most athletic and dangerous secondaries in the SEC. Cornerbacks Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks are big plays waiting to happen, while Charles Mitchell and Nickoe Whitley have a tremendous knack for finding the ball. Lee has yet to feel rattled this season, but the Bulldogs have the personnel in the secondary to do that.
3. Get the wide receivers more involved: Quarterback Chris Relf showed that he can be a one-man wrecking crew, but even that wasn't enough to push the Bulldogs past Auburn last week. He needs more help from his receivers. In two games, Mississippi State's leading receiver, Jameon Lewis, has just five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. He had one catch for 3 yards against Auburn. Last week, Relf passed for 198 yards, but running back Vick Ballard led the team in catches with five. In order to get more variety out of the offense, Mississippi State's receivers have to get more separation and be more of a factor.
LSU's keys to victory:
1. Take control early: Scott Field is a tough place to play, and those cowbells have a way of ringing in your ears after a while. They don’t ring nearly as much or as loudly when Mississippi State is down, though. So taking the crowd out of the game early would be a huge help to LSU, which is at its best when it’s playing with the lead, running the football and dictating the flow of the game.
2. Hit some plays in the passing game: The Tigers don’t necessarily need to throw for 250 or 300 yards, but they do need to keep the Mississippi State defense honest by hitting a few big pass plays down the field. LSU’s longest completion to a wide receiver in the Oregon game was 10 yards to Rueben Randle, but Randle came back with a big outing last week in the blowout of Northwestern State. LSU is going to need Randle, Odell Beckham and Kadron Boone to stretch that Mississippi State defense tonight so that the Bulldogs aren’t able to walk a safety up and stack the box.
3. Ground the Bulldogs’ ground game: Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard is tied for third nationally in rushing. He has 301 yards in his first two games and is averaging 9.1 yards per carry. It’s not just Ballard, either. Quarterback Chris Relf is a big part of the Mississippi running game along with backup running back LaDarius Perkins, who had a 40-yard touchdown run last week against Auburn. LSU’s challenge is to keep Mississippi State from getting that running game going, particularly on first and second down, and forcing Relf into a lot of third-and-long situations. The Tigers are ranked eighth nationally against the run and are allowing just 1.65 yards per attempt. If they play that way tonight, they’ll make it 12 in a row over the Bulldogs.
Also gone are Mississippi State’s top two tacklers from a season ago, linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright, as well as the top pass-rusher, end Pernell McPhee.
Senior strong safety Charles Mitchell understands fully what the Bulldogs lost last season in the way of Diaz’s defensive smarts and the production on the field that White, Wright and McPhee provided.
But Mitchell also thinks the Bulldogs will have even more speed on defense in 2011 and maintain that same attacking style under Chris Wilson, who takes over as Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator after serving as co-coordinator alongside Diaz last season.
“You’re going to see a lot of speed on defense,” Mitchell said. “We lost a lot of good players at linebacker, but we’ve got some guys coming who run 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash). That’s going to be our identity, a fast defense that makes plays and creates turnovers, and we’re going to be that way all across the defense.”
The Bulldogs return one of the best inside tandems in the SEC in junior tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. What’s more, Mitchell is part of a secondary that returns intact, and it’s a secondary that possesses both depth and experience.
“We’re versatile back there, too,” said Mitchell, who was third on the team last season with 93 total tackles. “We’ve got corners who can move over and play safety and safeties who can cover like a corner. We also have some athletes back there who can move down and play like a linebacker when we need to on third-down situations.
“The main thing is that we have a lot of guys who’ve played back there. We won’t be making a lot of mental mistakes, and it’s a mature group.
“We want to be the best secondary in the SEC, the best one in the country. That’s what we expect out of ourselves.”
Mitchell said one of the Bulldogs’ goals this season on defense was to lead the SEC in turnovers. They had 28 a year ago, which tied for third in the league with Tennessee behind LSU (32) and Florida (29).
The other thing Mississippi State did last season was keep teams out of the end zone. The Bulldogs were third in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 19.8 points per game, and gave up just 30 touchdowns in 13 games. The only team in the league giving up fewer was Alabama, which held opponents to 19 touchdowns in 13 games.
“We’re going to have some new plays under coach Wilson, but it’s still going to be the same approach,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to go after the quarterback and make him do things he doesn’t want to do.
“One way or the other, we’re going to find the offense’s weakness.”
Alabama’s Trent Richardson will be here. So will the South Carolina tandem of Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, not to mention Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Arkansas running back Knile Davis.
The spotlight will be bright for all of those players and probably won’t dim much during the season.
But what about those players who haven’t received the pub they deserve? You know, the guys who are outstanding football players in their own right, but seem to fly under the radar for some reason.
We’ve already sized up the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team. The media’s preseason All-SEC team will be unveiled on Friday.
So while we’re picking teams, here’s our stab at the 10 most underrated players in the SEC:
2. Arkansas LB/S Jerico Nelson: Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson will tell you that Nelson is the guy who sets the tempo for the rest of the Hogs’ defense. He’s small for a linebacker (5-foot-10, 211) and also has some safety responsibilities, but he’s incredibly productive. He was second on Arkansas’ team with 87 tackles last season, including 11 for loss. Nelson is also another player you won’t find anywhere on the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team.
3. Tennessee RB Tauren Poole: There’s no denying that the running back position in the SEC is insanely talented, but Poole rushed for 1,034 yards last season and rarely gets mentioned among the top backs in the league. One of the most respected players on Tennessee’s team, Poole recorded six 100-yard rushing games a year ago, which tied for the SEC lead. Where’s the love?
4. LSU S Brandon Taylor: When the Tigers lost Taylor to that ankle injury in the Alabama game last season, they were never quite the same defensively. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said Taylor adds a presence to the LSU secondary that’s irreplaceable. The 6-foot, 195-pound senior was also selected to wear No. 18 this season, which is one of the Tigers’ top honors as a player.
5. Vanderbilt S Sean Richardson: The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior has started in 18 consecutive games, including all 12 at free safety a year ago. He’s been overshadowed at times by others in the Vanderbilt secondary, but Richardson is the real deal. He set single-season career highs a year ago in total tackles (98) and tackles for loss (7) and finished fourth in the SEC in solo tackles (5.2 per game).
6. South Carolina C T.J. Johnson: He’s the guy who makes it go up front for the Gamecocks. The 6-foot-3, 314-pound junior has started every game in his first two seasons at South Carolina, all 13 at right guard as a redshirt freshman and all 14 at center last season. He’s tough. He’s smart, and he’s one of the strongest leaders on South Carolina’s team.
7. Georgia CB Brandon Boykin: More pub is starting to flow his way leading into this season. Boykin was a second-team preseason All-SEC selection by the coaches. Of course, he’ll readily tell you that he doesn’t think there’s a better cornerback in the league than him, and he’ll get a chance to prove that this fall. When you throw in his return skills, Boykin rates right up there with any of the SEC’s two-way players.
8. Auburn WR Emory Blake: Here’s a quick trivia question: Who led the Tigers in touchdown catches last season en route to their BCS national championship? Some might be surprised that it was Blake, who had eight touchdown catches. He’s also Auburn’s leading returning receiver and averaged 16.8 yards per catch. So when you start listing the top receivers in this league, don’t forget about Blake.
9. Kentucky OG Stuart Hines: The Kentucky guard getting all the love right now is Larry Warford and deservedly so. He’s an excellent player, but don’t sleep on the Wildcats’ “other” guard. The 6-foot-4, 296-pound Hines is one of the better pulling guards in the league and has made 24 starts during his career. It’s no secret that Kentucky will lean heavily on its offensive line in 2011, and Hines -- rock-solid in every way -- is a big reason why.
10. Mississippi State S Charles Mitchell: He’s been an integral part of the Bulldogs’ secondary since he was a true freshman and has played in all 37 games of his college career. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound senior is a big-time hitter and collected 93 total tackles a year ago. He’s the Bulldogs’ enforcer in what should be a very productive secondary in 2011.
The range of some of these players is amazing to watch. Some are known more for their hitting, while others can get involved in the cover game as well.
Here’s the list we came up with at the safety position:
1. Mark Barron, Alabama, Sr.: It would have been easy for Barron to have turned pro this year, but he opted to stay another year with the Tide. He might be the top safety prospect for next year’s NFL draft and even though he went through spring in a non-contact jersey, the coaches expect him to be back to his old self this fall. Passers beware.
3. Robert Lester, Alabama, Jr.: Lester has already heard his name associated with next year’s draft and plenty of mock drafts have him going in the first round with Barron. He led the Tide with eight interceptions a year ago and was second in the league with 12 pass breakups. He makes Alabama’s safety tandem arguably the best in the country.
4. Brandon Taylor, LSU, Sr.: He’s the leader of the defensive backfield and should be healed from his foot injury he suffered at the end of last season. Before his injury, he started the first nine games, collecting 44 tackles, including four for loss and had five pass breakups. He has great cover skills and should fly around the field if that foot is fine.
5. Janzen Jackson, Tennessee, Jr.: He would be right near the top if we knew for sure that he’d be playing this fall. He withdrew from school this spring to take care of some personal issues, but Tennessee’s staff is hopeful he returns. If he does, he shouldn’t miss a beat with his ability to take away the deep ball. He grabbed five interceptions last season and has some of the best range at the postion.
6. Sean Richardson, Vanderbilt, Sr.: He’s another member of Vanderbilt’s stout defensive backfield. He’s not an interception machine, but he roams all over the field and registered a team-high 98 tackles and had a sack in 2010. Richardson has the talent to compete at the highest level in the SEC.
7. Winston Guy, Kentucky, Sr.: For a while, Guy didn’t get much praise from his coaches, but that has changed this spring after he was more consistent during spring practice. He plays in the box a lot and will be the team’s nickel linebacker as another one of those versatile hybrids.
8. Bacarri Rambo, Georgia, Jr.: As a freshman, Rambo looked like he was going to be a major hit in the SEC safety world. He had 82 tackles and three interceptions last year, but lacked consistency at times. If he regains the form he had when he first arrived, he could easily move up on this list.
9. Charles Mitchell, Mississippi State, Sr.: He’s another safety that makes his way all around the field. He was third on the team with 93 tackles and is praised by his coaches for having relentless work ethic and is considered the team’s best tackler.
10. D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina, Jr.: The Gamecocks coaches have been very impressed with the progress Swearinger has made. Now in his third year, Swearinger has the talent to be the X factor in the Gamecocks’ secondary. He’s a hard hitter and can move down from his free safety spot to play in the box.
Here’s how the teams look:
2. LSU: No Patrick Peterson? No problem. The Tigers are once again loaded in their secondary with corners Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Both are All-SEC material and Claiborne led the Tigers with five interceptions last season. Mathieu found a way to get to the ball often last season and both should make it tough for any quarterback to throw on LSU this fall. Sophomore Tharold Simon made strong improvements at corner this spring as well. Safety Brandon Taylor is another top player at his position and he should be fine after suffering a foot injury at the end of last season. Youngsters Eric Reid and Craig Loston look like stars in the making at safety.
3. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return five players who started at some point in 2010. Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley each recorded three interceptions and had 50-plus tackles last year. Broomfield should be the Bulldogs' top option at corner, while Banks can play both corner and safety. Charles Mitchell returns at safety and was third on the team with 93 tackles last season. All of Mississippi State’s defensive backs not only have a knack for making big plays down field but they can each play efficiently in the box.
4. Arkansas: This group is a little inexperienced, but there is a lot of talent to go around. Things start with safety Tramain Thomas. Thomas was fourth on the team in tackles last season and grabbed four interceptions. Thomas looked even better this spring, making play after play. Fellow senior Elton Ford should get time at safety, and converted corner Eric Bennett should get reps as well. Hybrid linebacker Jerico Nelson enhances the group when he drops back with the safeties and Isaac Madison returns at one of the corner spots and should team up with Darius Winston. The two have 27 career starts under their belts.
5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ secondary has to improve after underachieving a year ago, and South Carolina has the weapons to do it. Corner Stephon Gilmore wasn’t at his best last year, but has tremendous cover ability and speed to be tops at his position. Akeem Auguste moved from safety back to his more natural position at corner and should give the Gamecocks one of the top corner tandems in the SEC. DeVonte Holloman moved to the Spur linebacker spot, so there are still questions at safety, but D.J. Swearinger really impressed this spring and some think he’s the most gifted defensive back in Columbia. Replacing Holloman’s spot is going to be tough, and the coaches have yet to find someone to solidify that position.
6. Vanderbilt: This is the strongest part of Vanderbilt’s team. The Commodores return a heap of talent, starting with senior corner Casey Hayward, who was a second-team All-SEC pick a year ago. Hayward led the SEC with 11 pass breakups and had six interceptions. Safety Sean Richardson led the team with 98 tackles and would start on a lot of teams in the SEC. The other safety spot is occupied by Kenny Ladler, who was one of the top safeties in the league last season, even as a freshman. Junior Trey Wilson had a great spring and could move past last year’s starter Eddie Foster on the depth chart.
7. Georgia: Like most positions at Georgia, there’s no shortage of talent. However, there are still questions. Senior Brandon Boykin is solid at one of the corner spots with his natural corner instincts, great speed and is the defensive leader. Sanders Commings is talented and has the best size, but he’ll have to battle Branden Smith at the other corner spot. Smith is a total athlete, but he has to improve his coverage skills. Bacarri Rambo is solid at safety, but he needs to return to the form he had as a freshman. Finding someone to line up next to him is important. With Alec Ogletree moving to linebacker, there is a hole at safety and one of Georgia’s newcomers might have to step in this fall.
8. Florida: The Gators would have been higher on this list had it not been for the dismissal of All-SEC corner Janoris Jenkins. There’s a gaping hole at corner, and the hope is that junior Jeremy Brown can help fill it. He finally played after a severe back injury kept him out for two years, and while he struggled at times, Florida’s coaches were very impressed with his play this spring. Sophomore Cody Riggs was a pleasant surprise at corner last season and is battling unproven senior Moses Jenkins. There is nothing but youth and inexperience behind them. At safety, Matt Elam had a good spring at strong safety, while free safety wasn’t totally locked down by Josh Evans. The good news is that Florida signed six defensive backs this year.
9. Tennessee: This group could be decent, but there are so many questions. We aren’t sure if star Janzen Jackson will return after leaving school this spring. Prentiss Waggner moved from safety to corner last season, where he was an All-SEC performer, and then back to safety when Jackson left. But he might be back at corner this fall. If Waggner is a corner and there’s no Jackson, there’s an enormous hole at safety. If he stays at safety, then there’s one at corner. Fortunately, Brent Brewer, a former minor league baseball player, is a solid safety, and corner Marsalis Teague returns after converting from receiver last season. Incoming junior college transfer Byron Moore should compete immediately for time at corner.
10. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience with four senior starters returning, but the unit has to show that it can be consistent in big games. Safety/linebacker hybrid Winston Guy leads the group with his speed, strength and athleticism, and will move down into the box as the nickel linebacker. Seniors Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley are back at corner after combing for 11 pass breakups and two interceptions. Junior Martavius Neloms began the spring as the starter at corner, but could see more time at safety this fall. Mychal Bailey will line up at safety and was second behind Guy with two interceptions last season. Inexperience behind this group is still a problem.
11. Auburn: Things started off poorly when senior safety Michael McNeil was one of the four players arrested for robbery and later dismissed this spring. McNeil, who started seven games last season, was supposed to be one of the stars of the Tigers’ defense this fall. Now he’s gone and former corner Neiko Thorpe is moving over to safety. The move actually benefits the hit-first defensive back. T’Sharvan Bell is at corner and has the speed and tight cover skills to be one of the best at his position. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Incoming freshman Erique Florence should get an opportunity to come in and play immediately at safety.
12. Ole Miss: This group had to hear about how it was the goat of last season’s 4-8 campaign after allowing 246 passing yards a game. It was a motivational tool this spring, but there’s a lot of work to do. New defensive backs coach Keith Burns was pleased with the spring progress and really liked how JUCO transfer Wesley Pendleton played at corner. He’s competing to take one of those spots from either Marcus Temple, who missed spring with injury, or Charles Sawyer, who had to be pushed at times this spring. The reliable Damien Jackson is back at safety and could line up next to Brishen Mathews, who got good playing time last season, but is still unproven. JUCO transfer Ivan Nicholas and freshman Cliff Coleman will compete for time at safety and corner, respectively.
No one seemed overly upset with the tandems listed. It was more about the tandems that were left off that got some fans all hot and bothered.
There were a few combos that I thought would make the list, but not everyone can. It just doesn't work that way.
But that's the beauty of this blog. You people have expressed your frustration and I've looked at the numbers. So here are some other tandems around the league that you should keep your eyes on this fall:
Arkansas: LB/S Jerico Nelson, LB Jerry Franklin -- Franklin and Nelson led the Razorbacks in tackles last season, combining for 187, including 24 for loss. Franklin was second on the team with 6.5 sacks, while Nelson had 2.5.
Florida: DE/LB Ronald Powell, DT Sharrif Floyd, DT Dominique Easley -- This young group could be the heart of Florida's defense this fall. Powell should be the Gators top pass rusher off the edge, while Floyd and Easley should plug holes and frustrate offensive linemen when they line up next to each other.
Georgia: QB Aaron Murray, WR Tavarres King, TE Orson Charles: These will be Murray's main playmakers to start the season. King moved to A.J. Green's flanker spot and showed this spring that he's ready to be the guy. Charles is athletic enough to flex out and play receiver and should be even better in his third season. Both combined for 926 yards and five touchdowns last fall.
Georgia: LB Christian Robinson, LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree -- Alabama might have the most intimidating group of linebackers, but Georgia could have the fastest, most athletic. Robinson is the leader in the middle and Ogletree will be a tackling machine alongside him. Jones should help lessen the blow of losing Justin Houston outside and could be a more complete player than Houston.
Mississippi State: QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard -- Relf showed last fall that he's one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league, rushing for 713 yards and five touchdowns while passing for 1,789 and 13 more scores. That second number should increase this fall. Ballard rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and scored 19 rushing touchdowns in 2010. These two should be quite the combo this fall.
Mississippi State: CB Johnthan Banks, CB Corey Broomfield, S Charles Mitchell, S Nickoe Whitley -- The Bulldogs might have the most athletic defensive backfield around. This group is a big play waiting to happen. Banks, Broomfield and Whitley each had three interceptions last season, while Mitchell was third on the team with 94 total tackles in 2010.
Ole Miss: RB Brandon Bolden, Jeff Scott -- Bolden was one of the SEC's top rushers a year ago, gaining 976 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns. Scott added 429 yards and three scores and he's the home run threat in the Rebels' backfield. He and Bolden will get a lot more action this fall with Ole Miss throwing an inexperienced quarterback onto the field this fall.
Tennessee: QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter, WR Da'Rick Rogers -- This group grabbed the most votes from fans out there. Hunter showed he’s a playmaker by turning his 16 receptions into 415 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010. Rogers had a very impressive spring and will start opposite Hunter. Rogers can play both receiver and in the backfield, so expect his touches to dramatically increase this fall. Bray went 4-1 as a starter and set Tennessee freshman records for passing yards (1,849) and touchdowns (18).
Vanderbilt: RB Warren Norman, RB Zac Stacy, RB Wesley Tate -- This group didn't put up monster numbers in 2010, but it will be the strength of the Commodores offense this season. Norman should be fully healthy this fall and will be the lead horse, while Stacy should continue to put up solid numbers. Tate might be the most athletic of the bunch and he's bigger than Norman and Stacy.
Think back to everything this program has endured since Mississippi State defeated Kentucky 24-17 on Oct. 30.
Three days after the Bulldogs’ sixth straight win, senior defensive end Nick Bell died after a short bout with cancer. He’d played and started for Mississippi State five weeks earlier against Georgia and was on the sidelines for the UAB game two weeks earlier.
But last Saturday, when the Bulldogs were supposed to be enjoying an open date, they were burying their fallen teammate.
About the time the memorial service was being held on Mississippi State’s campus for Bell last Thursday, the story broke concerning Auburn quarterback Cam Newton being allegedly shopped to Mississippi State for money during his recruitment.
It became a full-blown firestorm this week with Mississippi State acknowledging that it turned over information to the SEC concerning Newton’s recruitment and then former Mississippi State players Kenny Rogers and Bill Bell saying on Thursday that Newton’s father, Cecil Newton, did reach out to them for money in exchange for Newton to sign with the Bulldogs.
All the while, Dan Mullen has been trying to get his football team ready for Saturday’s visit to Alabama.
Despite everything going on around them, Mullen thinks the Bulldogs are itching to get back out there and play again.
“It’s been a tough go, but our team has responded and I’m pleased with how they’ve prepared for this game and the focus they’ve had in getting ready to play a big-time football game despite all the other things that have gone on,” Mullen said.
This is the kind of game that could be the difference in a good season and a great season for the No. 19 Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2). Following this weekend’s trip to Alabama, they return home to face Arkansas on Nov. 20 and travel to Ole Miss to end the regular season on Nov. 27.
Mississippi State hasn’t won eight games in the regular season since 1999. That’s also the last time the Bulldogs had a winning record in SEC play.
Mullen has deflected questions about Newton and the NCAA’s investigation into Newton’s recruitment. He said his focus has remained on the “players on our team.”
He conceded that last week was unlike anything he’d ever dealt with as a coach and made it a point to give the players plenty of time for themselves.
“After the funeral, I think there was a feeling that they’re ready to move forward and learn from what Nick taught us in his life about achieving your goals and things you want to achieve in life,” Mullen said. “This week, we’ve been able to turn the focus back to game-planning.”
Junior safety Charles Mitchell, who roomed with Bell at one point during their college careers, will wear Bell’s No. 36 jersey number Saturday against Alabama. All of the Mississippi State players will wear a patch on their jerseys in honor of Bell.
More than anything else, Mitchell said he knows Bell would want the Bulldogs to finish out this season the right way.
“I just hope I can play for him and let him play through me,” Mitchell said.
- Stewart Mandel of SI.com writes that Ole Miss' Houston Nutt is certifiably a dirty coach now that he's taken Jeremiah Masoli.
- Travis Haney of The Charleston Post and Courier takes a look at the burning questions facing South Carolina this season.
- Kentucky signee Mychal Bailey has passed his summer school classes and is expected to be eligible to play this season. Bailey could make an immediate impact in the Wildcats' secondary.
- Mississippi State's Charles Mitchell quietly emerges as one of the Bulldogs' leaders.
- Auburn is up to 14 commitments for the 2011 class with the commitment over the weekend of cornerback Jonathan Rose of Leeds, Ala. Rose is rated by ESPN as the 12th-rated cornerback prospect in the country.
- Defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry of Gainesville, Fla., is Tennessee's 11th commitment. He picked the Vols over South Florida and Oregon.
- Vanderbilt's Robbie Caldwell sheds some weight and the interim tag on his head coaching title.
- Former LSU quarterback Chris Garrett plans to play this season for Northwestern State.
- Florida is closing all of its preseason practices to fans and media.
In fact, 12 were taken in the NFL draft, and seven went in the first three rounds. Gone are Eric Berry, Joe Haden, Kareem Jackson, Major Wright, Javier Arenas, Chad Jones, Myron Lewis, Walt McFadden, Marquis Johnson, Kendrick Lewis, Reshad Jones and Trevard Lindley.
What’s that leave in the way of the top defensive backfields in the SEC for 2010?
Here’s a look:
2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were second in the league last season in pass defense and should be even harder to throw the ball on in 2010. Sophomore Stephon Gilmore is one of the best young cornerbacks in college football, and his former high school teammate, safety DeVonte Holloman, may be one of the breakout players in the league. Senior Chris Culliver, a second-team All-SEC selection last season, also returns and is switching from safety to cornerback.
3. LSU: If you’re looking for the fastest secondary in the SEC, look no further than the unit the Tigers will put on the field this season. Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the country -- period -- and his running mate on the other side, Morris Claiborne, has been turning heads since the spring. They may end up being the best cornerback tandem in the league. Jai Eugene has moved from cornerback to safety, while Brandon Taylor returns at the other safety. He, too, is a former cornerback.
4. Auburn: There’s nothing like adding three veteran leaders back to the mix, and that’s what Auburn will do with senior safeties Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil. All are returning from serious injuries. One of the priorities this season is to get junior cornerback Neiko Thorpe more help. He played too many snaps a year ago. Demond Washington is returning to his cornerback position after filling in at safety last season.
5. Vanderbilt: Don’t blink. Vanderbilt has consistently played some of the best pass defense in the SEC under Jamie Bryant, who oversees the Commodores’ secondary. Safety Sean Richardson and cornerback Casey Hayward are returning starters, and both have what it takes to be All-SEC players. Junior Jamie Graham has settled in at the other cornerback after playing receiver earlier in his career. Nickelback Eddie Foster also returns, and the Commodores liked what they saw this spring from freshman safeties Jay Fullam and Kenny Ladler.
6. Alabama: The only guy who won’t be new for the Crimson Tide this season in the secondary is junior safety Mark Barron, who led the SEC with seven interceptions a year ago. Everybody else who was in the rotation is gone. Alabama still has plenty of young talent in its defensive backfield, but there could be some growing pains early. Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has unlimited potential. There’s also a chance that junior college cornerback DeQuan Menzie could be back after tearing his Achilles tendon in the spring.
7. Georgia: The Bulldogs gave up far too many big plays in the secondary last season and allowed a league-high 25 touchdown passes. They should be better in 2010, particularly with the addition of junior college safety Jakar Hamilton, who was one of the stars of the spring. Junior cornerback Brandon Boykin has the skills to be one of the league’s top cover guys, but the Bulldogs are still thin at the cornerback position. They can’t afford any injuries.
8. Tennessee: The dismissal of starting safety Darren Myles Jr. following his arrest and involvement in a bar brawl drops the Vols down a spot or two. They don’t have a lot of depth behind him. The leader of the unit is sophomore free safety Janzen Jackson, who can be one of the best defensive backs in the league if he stays out of trouble off the field. Junior cornerback Art Evans is underrated and will be the Vols’ top cover guy.
9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got big performances from freshmen last season in their secondary, which means their pass defense should improve considerably from their No. 11 showing in the SEC a year ago. Sophomore cornerback Corey Broomfield had six interceptions, and sophomore Johnthan Banks had four interceptions. Banks is moving from free safety to cornerback this season. Also look for a big junior season from strong safety Charles Mitchell, who is Mississippi State’s enforcer back there.
10. Kentucky: With Lindley missing four full games last season with a high ankle sprain, the rest of the Wildcats’ defensive backs were forced to step up their games. Three starters return, including budding star Winston Guy at free safety. Cornerbacks Paul Warford and Randall Burden are also back, as Kentucky started five defensive backs in most games. Finding another safety will be key this preseason.
11. Ole Miss: The lone returning starter is senior safety Johnny Brown, who’s coming off his best season. The Rebels’ other safety a year ago, Kendrick Lewis, was one of their mainstays on defense, and replacing him won’t be easy. Junior college newcomer Damien Jackson will draw that job, and he was extremely impressive in the spring. Ole Miss will be both inexperienced and thin at the cornerback positions.
12. Arkansas: The Hogs gladly welcome back junior cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Their pass defense suffered with Madison out of the lineup, and they finished last in the league, allowing 401.2 yards per game. They also gave up 22 touchdown passes. To get more speed on the field, Arkansas moved Rudell Crim to safety during the spring. Ramon Broadway returns at the other cornerback and Elton Ford at the other safety.
2009 conference record: 3-5
Offense: 7; Defense: 8; Kicker/punter: 2
QB Chris Relf, WR Chad Bumphis, TE Marcus Green, OT Derek Sherrod, DE Pernell McPhee, LB K.J. Wright, FS Johnthan Banks, SS Charles Mitchell
QB Tyson Lee, RB Anthony Dixon, LB Jamar Chaney, CB Marcus Washington
2009 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Anthony Dixon (1,391 yards)
Passing: Tyson Lee (1,444 yards)
Receiving: Chad Bumphis* (375 yards)
Tackles: Jamar Chaney (90)
Sacks: Pernell McPhee* (5)
Interceptions: Corey Broomfield* (6)
1. Relf’s improvement: He was more of a specialty player last season, sort of a designated runner from the quarterback position. But junior Chris Relf was one of the Bulldogs’ most improved players this spring, in particular with regard to his passing. At 240 pounds, he’s one of those guys nobody wants to take on head-on when he takes off down the field, but he should be much more of a legitimate passer in 2010 than he was a year ago. Plus, throwing the football is what redshirt freshman Tyler Russell does best, so it should be a good combo.
2. Muscle in the defensive line: The Bulldogs struggled to stop people when they really needed to last season, which made defensive line play a priority this spring. Tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are both bigger and stronger after playing as undersized freshmen a year ago, and junior college newcomer James Carmon is massive at 345 pounds. The bell cow of the group is senior end Pernell McPhee, who had 12 tackles for loss last season in his first tour through the SEC. He has a chance to be one of the best defensive linemen in the league in 2010.
3. Second time around: Now that Dan Mullen has laid the groundwork, he feels like the second season will go much smoother. There shouldn’t be any questions about expectations or how Mullen wants it done. He does have a few new staff members, notably defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Look for the Bulldogs to attack a little more next season on defense and really go after the quarterback. The Bulldogs also played a bunch of freshmen on defense last season who are now battle-tested entering their sophomore seasons.
1. Finding Dixon’s replacement: Anthony Dixon was the heart and soul of Mississippi State’s offense last season. The Bulldogs leaned on him all year, and he delivered. They won’t be able to replace him with one guy. It’s probably going to take three, as nobody really jumped out there and won the job this spring. Junior Robert Elliott has the most experience, but junior college transfer Vick Ballard and redshirt freshman Montrell Connor will both factor into the rotation.
2. Development at receiver: Chad Bumphis had a nice freshman season, but Mullen still wants to see him become a more complete receiver. He was good once he got the ball in his hands. The next step is becoming more proficient at getting open and running better routes. Mullen thinks the Bulldogs are thin right now across the board at receiver, especially when you consider they’re running a spread offense. He wants to see more development, period, at the receiver position.
3. Winning the close ones: The Bulldogs took LSU, Houston and Florida to the fourth quarter last season, but couldn’t close the deal. Learning how to win those games is what separates teams in the SEC. With so many young guys on the field a year ago, Mississippi State found itself on the short end of the experience factor more times than not in crucial situations. We’ll see how much the Bulldogs have grown up and how much they learned about keeping their poise during those key moments in games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
After consulting with ESPN recruiting guru Tom Luginbill and several others around the conference, here's a look at the 15 freshmen (true and redshirt) most likely to have the biggest impact this season.
Obviously, this could change depending on injuries, academics and upperclassmen making a move this August. It's also not necessarily a list of the 15 most talented freshmen or 15 highest rated freshmen.
It's 15 guys who could have a profound impact based either on need or the fact that they're just that good. They're listed alphabetically:
Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: After redshirting last season, Bequette was good enough during the spring that the Razorbacks were able to move Malcolm Sheppard inside to tackle. Bequette finished the spring as one of the Hogs' most improved players, according to Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino.
Aaron Boyd, WR, Kentucky: Boyd is the younger brother of former Kentucky quarterback Shane Boyd. He had plenty of offers, but stayed home to play for the Wildcats. He fills a huge void at receiver, where just about everybody who made a play for the Wildcats last season is gone.
Enrique Davis, RB, Ole Miss: He signed with Auburn originally out of high school, but settled on Ole Miss after attending Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy last year. And why not? Davis is Houston Nutt's type of back -- big, bruising and blessed with breakaway speed. He'll get the ball early and often this season.
Aaron Douglas, TE, Tennessee: Shoulder surgery has slowed Douglas somewhat, but he's the kind of athletic tight end new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson is looking for in his West Coast offense. The Vols will use two tight ends a good bit this season if everybody's healthy.
Robert Elliott, RB, Miss. State: One of the country's top-rated running back prospects two years ago, Elliott showed flashes of brilliance last August in camp, but was held back by some fumbling problems. He's had the reshirt year to mature and will team with Anthony Dixon and Wade Bonner to give the Bulldogs a potent running game.
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: One of the top receiving prospects in the nation last year, Green could quickly become one of Matthew Stafford's favorite targets. The Bulldogs are looking for more playmakers at receiver, and Green is one of those guys who stretches the field with the best of them.
Jerrell Harris, LB, Alabama: It's no secret that Alabama needs linebackers. Harris could factor in on the strong side immediately. He has great speed and finds the football. The Crimson Tide had some pretty good success with another freshman linebacker last season ... Rolando McClain.
Will Hill, S, Florida: The 6-3, 200-pound Hill is a punishing hitter who figures to get a shot right away in the Gators' secondary. They won an intense recruiting battle with Florida State and Southern California to get him and won't waste any time putting him out there.
Omar Hunter, DT, Florida: The unofficial count of how many times Urban Meyer mentioned Omar Hunter's name this spring was somewhere around double digits. The Gators need defensive tackle help, and the 6-1, 300-pound Hunter has all the tools to be a great one.
Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: He has the look of a five-year NFL veteran. The 6-4, 210-pound Jones was one of the crown jewels of Alabama's top-rated recruiting class. Senior quarterback John Parker Wilson will be looking for a big, athletic target this season, and Jones certainly fits that bill.
Caleb King, RB, Georgia: Get ready for a one-two punch at tailback in Athens. Knowshon Moreno was the redshirt freshman everyone couldn't wait to see at Georgia last season (and with good reason). This season, it's King, who gives the Bulldogs another explosive running threat in their backfield.
Alonzo Lawrence, CB, Alabama: Nick Saban played a lot of nickel and dime packages last season and is always looking for more depth in the secondary. Lawrence made his name by shutting down fellow Alabama signee Julio Jones in the Alabama vs. Mississippi high school all-star game.
Jarrett Lee, QB, LSU: A highly rated prospect coming out of Texas, Lee redshirted last season. But with Ryan Perrilloux gone, Lee moves to the forefront of the Tigers' quarterback race along with junior Andrew Hatch. Another one to watch is 6-5, 220-pound true freshman Jordan Jefferson, especially if he can handle the mental jump to college football.
Charles Mitchell, S, Miss. State: The state of Mississippi's top prospect last year, Mitchell is enrolled in second-session summer school classes at Mississippi State. He'll start out at safety, but could play just about anywhere -- including offense. He's one of those rare prospects who was physically ready to play college football the day he signed.
Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: The star of the Gators' spring game, Rainey received a medical redshirt last year after injuring his shoulder. Not only is he super fast, but he has moves that are even scarier for a defender in the open field. Rainey has beefed up and is now pushing 180 pounds. He has a chance to be one of the SEC's most exciting players.
12:00 PM ET South Carolina 21 Clemson 12:00 PM ET 16 Georgia Tech 9 Georgia 12:00 PM ET Kentucky 22 Louisville 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Florida State 3:30 PM ET 4 Mississippi State 19 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Tennessee Vanderbilt 7:45 PM ET 15 Auburn 1 Alabama