SEC: Chase Garnham
OFFENSE: Terrence Magee, RB, LSU
- Rushed for a career-high 149 yards and one TD on 13 carries in win over No. 9 Texas A&M.
- Had a 65-yard run on LSU’s third possession of the game that setup his 1-yard TD run to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead in the contest.
- Averaged 11.5 yards per carry as the Tigers racked up 324 yards on the ground, the most in an SEC game for the Tigers since a 52-3 win over Ole Miss in 2011.
- Garnham paced the Commodore defense with 10 total tackles, including seven solo stops and a tackle for loss, in Vanderbilt's 14-10 victory over Tennessee. The 10-tackle total tied a career high for the three-year starting linebacker.
- Garnham's performance was a key factor in Vanderbilt limiting the Volunteer offense to 237 total yards and the fewest points scored by Tennessee against Vanderbilt since 1968.
- Had two huge plays that impacted the outcome of Mizzou’s 24-10 road win Saturday at No. 24 Ole Miss, as he first blocked a Rebels field goal attempt in the first quarter to snuff out a scoring threat. Mizzou led 7-0 at the time, and Ole Miss drove to the Tiger 1-yard line before being forced to settle for a 23-yard try. Brantley got a big push and blocked the kick to give Mizzou back the ball with its lead intact. Fellow freshman Josh Augusta was initially credited with the block, but after film review, it was Brantley.
- Later, in the third quarter, after Ole Miss scored on its opening possession of the half to cut Mizzou’s lead to 17-10, Mizzou’s offense went three-and-out, but on fourth-and-2 from the Tigers' 20-yard line, Brantley’s number was called on a fake punt. Serving as one of the shield protectors for the punt, Brantley took the direct snap and raced around to the left edge to daylight. He made a nice move to shake one potential tackler near the first-down line, and raced 26-yards to the Tiger 46-yard line to squelch the Ole Miss momentum.
- In his first career start, shut down Texas A&M’s top receiver Mike Evans, Robinson limited the SEC’s leading receiver to his season SEC-low for receptions (four) and second-lowest yardage output in an SEC game this year (51) … Also held him without a TD.
- Evans came in with a league-best 12 receiving TDs … Had 2 tackles and his first career interception in the game … Interception came on A&M’s first possession of second half and resulted in a LSU touchdown nine plays later that stretched the Tiger lead to 31-10.
- Inserted into the Vanderbilt defensive secondary after injuries forced both starting cornerbacks to the sidelines, Head contributed two key interceptions in the Commodores' 14-10 victory over Tennessee.
- Head's second pick ended a Tennessee threat deep in Vanderbilt territory in the fourth quarter. His interception of a Tennessee fake field-goal attempt came at the Vanderbilt 10-yard line with Tennessee leading 10-7.
- Head's performance at cornerback helped the Commodores limit Tennessee to 53 passing yards, 237 total yards. The secondary also picked off three Volunteer passes.
- Jackson was credited with three pancake blocks and was instrumental in the Bulldogs totaling 488 yards of offense, including 209 on the ground.
- Smith was Georgia’s second-leading tackler against Kentucky with seven tackles, including two sacks for 10 yards and three tackles for a loss of 11 yards.
- He also forced a pair of fumbles, one of those leading to a Bulldog touchdown.
- Smith moved to fourth on the team’s tackle list with 58.
- He helped anchor a defense that held Kentucky to 211 total yards on offense, including just 62 on the ground.
The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).
And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.
Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.
Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.
Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker
Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.
Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.
Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson
LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger
Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley
Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson
Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford
South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton
Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone
Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews
Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews
Coach: James Franklin (15-11)
2012 record: 9-4 (5-3, SEC)
Key losses: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson
Newcomer to watch: Wide receiver Jordan Cunningham was rated the No. 13 receiver in the country in the 2013 recruiting class and will have every opportunity to see solid playing time this fall.
Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 vs. Ole Miss, Sept. 14 at South Carolina, Oct. 19 vs. Georgia, Oct. 26 at Texas A&M, Nov. 9 at Florida and Nov. 23 at Tennessee
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The tight end position is a major concern for the Commodores. Only three tight ends were on campus this spring, and all lacked consistency. The recent dismissal of junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg was a big blow to the position. Redshirt sophomores Kris Kentera and Steven Scheu are the top guys at the spot, but neither has stepped up to take the position and neither has shown that he's ready to.
Forecast: The Commodores return 17 starters from a team that tied a school record for both single-season wins (nine) and SEC victories (five). Last year's team also scored more points (390) than any Vanderbilt team since 1916, and owned a top-20 defense. The Commodores have every reason to be thinking about competing for more than just another winning record in conference play, but these players are too focused to talk about or think about an SEC championship or even a bowl game.
What they can focus on is having a lot of firepower coming back on offense, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who combined for 2,097 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Matthews could have easily left early for the NFL draft last year, but returns as one of the SEC's best receivers. A new quarterback will be taking snaps, with Austyn Carta-Samuels taking over, but he'll have a strong, deep offensive line that has a handful of players ready to rotate in and out each game.
The defensive line is strong, starting with ends May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike. There's more speed and experience up front than last year. There's also good depth at linebacker, starting with one of the top LBs in the league in Garnham, and quality starters in the secondary. Hal (CB) and Ladler (S) are two of the best players at their positions.
The Commodores have made tremendous strides under Franklin, and this team seems primed to take down one of the big boys in the SEC East. Vandy plays Georgia at home, while games against Florida and South Carolina are on the road. With a harmless nonconference schedule, another eight-win regular season certainly isn't out of the question for the Commodores.
- Scheduling debate continued at SEC media days.
- Robbie Andreu of The Gainesville Sun gives us his final impressions of SEC media days.
- Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron says people must be "out of their minds" if they think he dissed Johnny Manziel in any way.
- Alabama faced few questions about a possible three-peat at SEC media days, but maintained its process-driven focus.
- The lost year: Gus Malzahn, Houston Nutt and Mitch Mustain open up about their days together at Arkansas.
- Scott Rabalais of the Baton Rouge Advocate writes that Les Miles' antics help him fit in the SEC more and more.
- LSU's new offense is about simple changes.
- Georgia coach Mark Richt and his Bulldogs race to be ready for 2013.
- Tennessee picks up its 21st commitment with the pledge of offensive lineman Ray Raulerson.
- Missouri quarterback James Franklin is eager to show there's grit behind his grin.
- During a visit to Dallas, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin jokes that the Aggies will be OK at quarterback.
- Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews ranks No. 7 on The Gainesville Sun's list of the SEC's top 25 players in 2013.
- Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart thinks the Vols representatives at SEC media days "did great down there."
- Mississippi State is going old school by putting its quarterback under center.
- Ole Miss announces a record year for donations.
- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema sees value in the state of Texas.
- Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham joins the NCAA lawsuit.
- Kentucky defensive tackle Donte Rumph hopes the Wildcats will follow his lead.
Linebackers need love, too:
1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.
3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.
4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.
5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.
6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.
8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.
9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.
11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.
12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.
13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.
14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.
Five players from the SEC are among the 42 nominees on the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list. They are Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford and Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson.
Named after Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, the Lott Trophy goes to college football's Defensive IMPACT Player of the Year. It's the first and only college football award to equally recognize athletic performance and the personal character attributes of the player.
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was the 2012 winner.
What's surprising about the initial 2013 Lott Trophy watch list is who wasn't on it from the SEC -- South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Here are the positions he's looked at so far:
Now, we're checking out the top linebacker prospects for next year's NFL draft. Kiper divided things up to look at outside linebackers and inside linebackers . I'm just combing the two to make things easier for everyone.
When it comes to outside linebackers, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard comes in at No. 2 on Kiper's list. Hubbard led Alabama with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. He has what it takes to be an elite pass-rusher in the SEC, but he still has some growing to do. He has great speed, but just has to stay consistent with his speed off the edge. He's a player who Nick Saban is very excited about in 2013.
Other draft-eligible outside linebackers I'll keep an eye on this fall:
- Tahj Jones, LSU: An academic issue kept him out of all but one game last year, but Jones should start at one of the outside spots for the Tigers this fall. He's been very productive in the 28 games he's appeared in.
- Ronald Powell, Florida: He's coming off two ACL injuries and will be a hybrid defensive end as well. Powell was the top recruit a couple of years ago and had his best spring last year before his injury. He has all the skill to be a top-notch pass-rusher.
- Steven Jenkins, Texas A&M: He's versatile and experienced enough to play both outside and inside. He grabbed 79 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks last year.
- Deontae Skinner, Mississippi State: He was a little overlooked last year at his position, but Skinner is a player. He grabbed 62 tackles last year, including five for loss and forced a fumble.
As for the inside linebackers, Kiper went SEC-heavy with his top five. Alabama's C.J. Mosley comes in at No. 1 in Kiper's top five, while Trey DePriest ranks second, and Tennessee's A.J. Johnson ranks fourth.
Mosley flirted with leaving early for the NFL this year, but he will likely enhance his draft stock with one more year at Alabama. He can be an extremely aggressive player in the run, but also knows how to drop back into coverage to make plays. He's an extremely smart player and will be relied upon to be the quarterback of Bama's defense.
Joining Mosley in the middle is DePriest, who might be bigger than Mosley but is also pretty good in coverage. He's tough against the run and can get after the quarterback as well. He also puts his strength to good use on the field.
Johnson has really blossomed since arriving at Tennessee in 2011. Last year, he led the SEC with 138 tackles and continued to develop pretty much every area of his game. A lot of people think he could be a first-round draft pick next year.
Other draft-eligible inside linebackers I'll keep an eye on:
- Lamin Barrow, LSU: He's LSU's top returning tackler (104) and he'll take over as the Tigers' defensive captain. He's a very versatile player and can play both inside and outside if needed.
- Chase Garnham, Vanderbilt: He might not have received the same sort of attention as his fellow middle linebackers last year, but Garnham is a solid player. He not only registered 84 tackles last year but he led Vandy with seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
- Mike Marry, Ole Miss: He's a fierce competitor and worker for the Rebels. He's become a true leader with both his words and play, coming away with 78 tackles, including 10.5 for loss last year.
- Curt Maggit, Tennessee: He's another player who is versatile to play both inside and outside. He's coming off an ACL injury but should be ready to go this fall.
- Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: The redshirt sophomore was extremely busy during his first year on the field in 2012, collecting 102 tackles. He should be looked at as one of the top inside linebackers in the SEC this fall.
- Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The old man of Mizzou's linebacking corps has a ton of experience -- and tackles -- under his belt. He can make plays against the run and the pass.
2012 record: 9-4
2012 conference record: 5-3 (fourth, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; Defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1
WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, RB Wesley Tate, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, LB Chase Garnham, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler
QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zac Stacy (1,141 yards)
Passing: Jordan Rodgers (2,539 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Matthews* (1,323 yards)
Tackles: Kenny Ladler* (90)
Sacks: Chase Garnham* (7)
Interceptions: Trey Wilson (3)
1. Stronger offensive line: There is far more depth and talent up front for line coach Herb Hand to work with. Three-year starter Wesley Johnson is back at tackle, along with junior Joe Townsend at center and sophomore Jake Bernstein at guard. The unit is deeper and more talented than in past years. It’s now deep enough that talented redshirt freshman Adam Butler was able to move to defensive tackle.
2. Depth at linebacker: The Commodores might have lost just one starter at linebacker this past year, but the staff was looking for dependable depth coming out of spring and really found it with the improvements made by sophomores Jake Sealand and Darreon Herring. They didn’t just add quality depth but they could be potential starters this fall.
3. Edge power: Vandy will have solid options at defensive end this fall. Redshirt junior Kyle Woestmann and sophomore Caleb Azubike really stepped up this spring, but they’ll get some help from redshirt freshman Stephen Weatherly, who might have been the team's most improved player this spring. Weatherly gained 30 pounds and has the speed to be a potential edge rusher this fall. The Commodores should excel more in the pass rush this fall.
1. Quarterback battle: While Austyn Carta-Samuels ended the spring ahead of Patton Robinette on the depth chart, coach James Franklin says the two still have a ways to go when it comes to being the guy. Both are athletic and can make extra plays with their feet, but now they have to take over as leaders and learn to consistently move the offense. Carta-Samuels has the edge going into summer and fall, but he can’t afford to slip because Robinette will take advantage of every rep he gets this fall.
2. Tight end troubles: There are just three tight ends currently on Vandy’s roster, and Franklin is still looking for someone to step up and take control at the position. Kris Kentera led tight ends with 10 catches last year, but it sounds like redshirt sophomore Steven Scheu, who caught eight passes last year, has what it takes to be the guy there. Vandy will also get help from junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg when he arrives this summer.
3. Lack of depth at WR/CB: The Dores might have a solid foundation in Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd and Jonathan Krause at receiver, and Andre Hal and Steven Clarke at corner, but there is limited depth behind them at both spots. Redshirt freshmen Paris Head and Torren McGaster have a chance to play this fall, but have no experience. Vandy is hoping to get some help from its five receivers it signed in its 2013 class. Still, there isn’t much proven talent behind the main guys.
In this league, it’s never too early to look at who’s bringing back what on defense.
We went back and looked at the number of top tacklers returning at each school. Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee all return eight of their top 10 tacklers from a year ago.
Of course, just because you return a bunch of your leading tacklers doesn’t guarantee success.
Tennessee returned 12 of its top 15 tacklers from 2011 and proceeded to have its worst defensive showing in school history last season. The Vols finished 107th nationally in total defense and gave up 37 or more points in eight of their 12 games.
By contrast, Alabama lost four of its top five tacklers and nine of its top 18 tacklers from 2011. The Crimson Tide never blinked and repeated as national champions in 2012. They finished first nationally in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense and were seventh in passing defense.
We’ll take a closer look at each SEC school and what it has coming back on the defensive side of the ball in 2013.
We’ll start with the Eastern Division and come back later today with the Western Division:
- Eight of the Vols' top 10 tacklers return.
- Leading returning tackler: Linebacker A.J. Johnson, who led the team with 138 total tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. His 138 tackles led all SEC players.
- The Vols return four of their top five tacklers. They’re also getting back safety Brian Randolph, who tore his ACL last season and was fifth on the team in tackles in 2011 and earned SEC All-Freshman honors.
- Six of the Wildcats' top 10 tacklers return.
- Leading returning tackler: Middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who led the team with 135 total tackles last season and was second among all SEC players.
- The Wildcats return four of their top five tacklers, including linebacker Alvin “Bud” Dupree, who led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
- Six of the Commodores' top 10 tacklers return.
- Leading returning tackler: Safety Kenny Ladler, who led the team with 90 total tackles.
- The Commodores return their top three tacklers and six of their top seven. Middle linebacker Chase Garnham, outside linebacker Karl Butler and end Walker May all had more than 10 tackles for loss last season, and all three players return.
- Five of the Gators' top 10 tacklers return.
- Leading returning tackler: Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who was fourth on the team with 51 total tackles.
- The Gators lost five of their top six tacklers. Gone are tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam, who combined for 24 tackles for loss. End Dominique Easley and "buck" end Dante Fowler, Jr., return after combining for 16.5 tackles for loss last season.
- Five of the Tigers' top 10 tacklers return.
- Leading returning tackler: Middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team with 79 total tackles.
- Three of the top five tacklers are gone, including tackle Sheldon Richardson and linebacker Will Ebner. They tied for the team lead last season with 10.5 tackles for loss. End Kony Ealy is back, and he had 10 tackles for loss in 2012.
- Four of the Gamecocks' top 10 tacklers return.
- Leading returning tackler: End Jadeveon Clowney, who was fifth on the team with 54 total tackles and led the team with 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
- The Gamecocks lost their top four tacklers and six of their top eight. Nobody returns at linebacker or the hybrid "spur" linebacker/safety position that had more than five total tackles last season.
- Three of the Bulldogs' top 10 tacklers return.
- Leading returning tackler: Inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who was fifth on the team with 70 total tackles.
- The Bulldogs lost their top four tacklers. Gone are outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, who combined for 36 tackles for loss. Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is back after finishing third on the team with eight tackles for loss and second to Jones with five sacks.
As the Commodores’ second-year defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, is quick to point out, that was good enough for sixth in the SEC ... or middle of the pack.
“That’s the reality in this league,” Shoop said.
The other reality in this league is that there’s no resting on your defensive laurels.
As good as the Commodores were last season on defense, as sound as they were and as proficient as they were at taking the ball away from opponents, it all starts anew Thursday night when South Carolina visits Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Each team has its own identity, and you can’t ever take it for granted that because you did it last year, you’re going to do it again this year,” Shoop said. “Each level of defense has its own piece.”
The Commodores are missing some key pieces from a year ago, notably middle linebacker Chris Marve, defensive end Tim Fugger and cornerback Casey Hayward.
“One of the biggest things we’ll miss is Casey’s playmaking ability because he had such a unique ability to intercept passes,” Shoop said.
Hayward had seven of the Commodores’ 19 interceptions last season, and that's a tribute to his ball skills and nose for the ball. But it’s also a tribute to the way Shoop likes to play defense.
The Commodores never quit attacking and are masterful at bringing pressure from all different angles. Although some of the pieces might be different, the approach won't change this season.
In fact, Shoop said he thinks there’s enough speed and versatility on this defense that the Commodores might take their creativity to another level.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are interchangeable, and this group might be even more suited to pressuring, believe it or not,” Shoop said. “Our linebackers and safeties are all basically the same guys. They all run around and are aggressive and fast.
“We may do it a little differently than we did a year ago, but our defense is built on running to the ball and never-ending pressure. Coach [George] Barlow, our defensive backs coach, always says that pressure makes the pipes burst.”
Shoop’s transformation of Vanderbilt's defense shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did it at William & Mary and put together some of the top defenses in the FCS ranks, which no doubt attracted the interest of James Franklin.
The Commodores allowed 9.6 fewer points and 96.4 fewer yards per game last season than they did the year before and intercepted 10 more passes.
Shoop, who earned an economics degree from Yale and was the head coach at Columbia University from 2003 to 2005, also isn’t afraid to think outside the box.
During the offseason, Shoop visited with a former SEC defensive coordinator also known for his innovative schemes -- current Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
So who knows what Shoop might dial up Thursday against the Gamecocks, who will have a new look of their own. Running back Marcus Lattimore returns after missing the last half of last season with a knee injury, and he’ll be in the lineup with junior quarterback Connor Shaw. They played only 1½ games together last season before Lattimore was injured.
“It’s really more difficult preparing for them now because you look at the film and see Connor playing so well at the end of last season and doing so many good things, and then you add Marcus to the equation,” Shoop said. “It’s a challenge. But like any opening game, it’s more about us than it is them.
“It’s on us doing things well, and it’s on me and the staff to adjust during the course of the game.”
I'll handle the Eastern Division, while Chris takes a look at the West later today.
I've added some notes of my own for each team:
- The first thing you notice is that "Or" comes up a few times. The quarterback spot is still up for grabs, as sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will play by quarters against Bowling Green Saturday. The "X" receiver spot has three names by it with Frankie Hammond, Latroy Pittman and Andre Debose competing for that spot. Everyone is still waiting for Debose to be more of a complete player.
- Both corner spots might appear to be up for grabs, but it would be a shocker if sophomores Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy didn't start. Roberson has the talent to be an All-SEC player at some point, while the staff thinks Purifoy is an extremely athletic player. Also, seeing Antonio Morrison behind Jelani Jenkins is impressive. He's been solid since arriving this spring.
- You don't see De'Ante Saunders on there at free safety. Will Muschamp said he's battling a hamstring injury and will be out two weeks. Corner Jeremy Brown is also battling a wrist injury and isn't on the two-deep, either.
Depth chart (Page 2)
- It's hard to say how much we can really make of Georgia's depth chart. Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree are both listed as starters. Rambo and Ogletree could still sit out a couple of games due to their reported failed drug tests this spring and Mark Richt hasn't said if either will play Saturday.
- Malcolm Mitchell is listed as a starter at cornerback, opposite Branden Smith, and is a third-team receiver. That sounds about right, as Mitchell has primarily played corners since the spring. He has taken some reps on offense, so you might see him on both sides of the ball Saturday.
- Two guys to keep an eye on are center David Andrews and outside linebacker Ramik Wilson. Andrews might be the key to the offensive line. He has done very well at center and there was some worry that he might not be cut out of the position. If he had to move this line might have been in disarray. Wilson received a lot of praise from his teammates this spring and he continued to show out this fall. He won't outshine Jarvis Jones this fall, but he'll cause a stir on defense.
- You can tell that the Wildcats aren't afraid to throw out some younger players this fall. Kentucky has 24 sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen listed on its two-deep for Saturday. That's a lot, especially for a team that is looking to revamp both sides of the ball. There could be a lot of growing pains for this team early.
- Sophomore receiver Demarco Robinson and redshirt freshman receiver Daryl Collins might be currently listed as backups for the Cats, but don't let that fool you. Both have been very impressive since the spring and both will get plenty of chances to see the field Saturday. Having three senior starters at wide receiver will help bring those two along, but I expect them to breakthrough eventually.
- You won't see sophomore Josh Clemons listed on the two-deep at running back, as he's out after his knee was cleaned up. CoShik Williams and Raymond Sanders are listed as co-starters. I'm also curious to see what happens at linebacker. Four new starters are in and there were questions surrounding the weakside position. Former quarterback Tyler Brause moved ahead of Malcolm McDuffen, who exited spring as a starter. Joker Phillips has said this will be a day-to-day competition.
- The Tigers enter Week 1 against Southeastern Louisiana pretty banged up, especially on the offensive line. Potential starting guards Jack Meiners (knee) and Travis Ruth (triceps) are both out with injuries, and so is backup right tackle Taylor Chappell, who tore the ACL in his left knee and is out for the season. Starting corner Kip Edwards and projected starting free safety Braylon Webb are listed as doubtful with knee injuries. It's probably best to rest these guys if they could aggravate their injuries before the Georgia game next week.
- Gary Pinkel also announced on Monday that running back Henry Josey is out for the season. He hasn't recovered from his devastating knee injury, but this was no surprise at all.
- Some good news is that four starters -- linebacker Will Ebner, nose guard Matt Hoch, wide receiver L'Damian Washington and tight end Eric Waters -- made the two-deep after they were held out of last week's scrimmage. Listed behind Waters at the tight end/"Y" receiver spot is freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. Missouri wants to use him both inside and out, so expect him to move around Saturday.
- Sophomore Kony Ealy and junior Michael Sam are listed as the starting defensive ends, with senior Brad Madison behind Sam. Madison's shoulder has healed, but maybe it says more about how far the others have come. Madison should still get solid reps, but keep an eye on Ealy. He has breakout potential.
- The first thing that stands out to me is that top signee Shaq Roland is listed as a third-team wide receiver behind Ace Sanders and DeAngelo Smith. It might say more about how the others have done, but Roland is someone this staff has been very excited about and hopes he can make an instant impact on offense. He isn't taking Sanders' spot, but he'll get on the field.
- That secondary looks pretty green without Akeem Auguste in it. He's out after tearing a muscle in his right thigh, meaning junior Jimmy Legree, who moved from safety this spring will get the start against Vanderbilt Thursday. Legree began last season as a starter, but lost his spot after struggling during the first two games. First-time starter Victor Hampton is at the other corner spot. He's unproven, but the staff is excited about his talent and athleticism.
- Freshman tight end Jerell Adams might be listed as a second-teamer, but the coaches have been very impressed by him this fall and he'll have every chance to get some solid playing time early.
- Junior Rajion Neal did a good job of staying ahead in the running back race. After an impressive spring, he will enter Friday's opener against NC State as the Vols' starter. He edged out Devrin Young and Marlin Lane, who both made good strides this spring. He has a lot of pressure to deal with, as Tennessee was awful running that ball in 2011.
- Tennessee is hoping to get much more out of its defensive line this fall and junior college transfers Daniel McCullers and Darrington Sentimore could be the answers. Both came in with a ton of hype and snatched starting spots at nose guard and end, respectively. McCullers' arrival moved Maurice Couch from tackle to end. Derek Dooley has said the line is still a work in progress, but a lot is expected from Sentimore and McCullers.
- Byron Moore and Brent Brewer are listed as co-starters right now, but Moore let it slip last week that he was named the starter. This could be another position that won't be settled right away. The secondary will get a nice test against the Wolfpack, so that could make things clearer for Week 2.
- Redshirt junior Warren Norman is back, but he might have to wait his turn for reps. He's listed on Vandy's second team, but Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour are on the first team. If the Commodores line up with two backs Seymour could be out there before Norman, who is coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2011.
- The defensive side has a few guys who were banged up listed as starters. Inside linebacker Chase Garnham was limited during fall camp, but he's set to start Thursday against South Carolina. So are defensive tackles Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter.
- Looking at that offensive line, you'll see nothing but underclassmen on the second team. While that's a good sign for the future, it could be worrisome for this staff if a starter goes down this fall. Staying healthy up front is critical for this team.
Returning starters: Nine on offense, eight on defense and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.
Star power: Running back Zac Stacy returns this fall as the SEC's top statistical back from a year ago after he broke Vanderbilt's single-season rushing record with 1,193 yards and single-season rushing touchdown record with 14.
New faces: The Commodores welcome in six true freshmen offensive linemen. That's big for Vanderbilt, considering the depth issues along the offensive line. The coaching staff will be looking to expedite the learning process for them, as they'll all be expected to compete for some sort of time this fall. Also, the staff is especially excited about incoming frosh Brian Kimbrow, who could lineup at running back and return punts for the Dores. And don't forget that former Montana QB and Mountain West Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels is eligible to play this fall and will continue to push Jordan Rodgers in camp.
Don’t forget about: Running back/return specialist Warren Norman is back and should be healthier than he's been since his sophomore year. Norman was Vandy's top rusher back in 2009 and was also one of the league's best kick returners. Injury cut his 2010 season short and he missed all of 2011 with a bad knee. If he's back at 100 percent, he'll not only bolster Vandy's return game but he should add another solid weapon in the running game.
Big shoes to fill: Linebacker Chris Marve wasn't just a tremendous player out on the field for the Commodores, he was the unquestioned leader of this team inside the locker room. This spring, Chase Garnham did a pretty good job of filling in for Marve on the field, but growth is still needed for him to become an impact player on defense. The staff has been happy with Garnham in the leadership department, but more is expected during camp and when the season starts.
Key battles: Vandy returns two starters on the offensive line -- Wesley Johnson and Ryan Seymour -- and there is still a lot of inexperience that offensive line coach Herb Hand will have to deal with. One interesting battle should be between sophomores Spencer Pulley and Joe Townsend for the center spot. The third receiver spot is also up for grabs, with juniors Wesley Tate and Jonathan Krause battling redshirt freshman Josh Grady.
Rising star: Grady made the move from quarterback to wide receiver and shined this spring. The staff has always been excited about his potential because of how athletic of a player he is, and it seems as though he has the best chance to be a big-play threat at receiver. He showed his versatility this spring by lining up receiver, running back and as the Wildcat quarterback.
Bottom line: James Franklin turned Vandy around during his first year, after the program underwent a major attitude adjustment. There was more confidence and excitement surging through the program last year, and it has spilled over into Year 2 of Franklin's tenure. The Commodores have to replace some key defensive weapons and are thin on the offensive line, but there are enough offensive playmakers returning to make the Commodores' offense fun to watch. And if the defense holds up like last year, the Commodores could go bowling for a second straight year.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 3
WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OG Ryan Seymour, C Wesley Johnson, LB Archibald Barnes, Chase Garnham, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson
TE Brandon Barden, OT Kyle Fischer, DE Tim Fugger, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zac Stacy* (1,193 yards)
Passing: Jordan Rodgers* (1,524 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Matthews* (778 yards)
Tackles: Chris Marve (91)
Sacks: Tim Fugger (8)
Interceptions: Casey Hayward (7)
1. Finding more leaders: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin wanted to leave spring with more leaders than started with. By his accounts, a few veterans stepped up with guys like Marve, Fugger, Hayward and Fischer gone. Franklin said that if the Commodores were going to build off of last season's success, some veterans had to step up and take hold of the team. Guys like Jordan Rodgers, Chase Garnham, Walker May, Trey Wilson and Zac Stacy really expanded their roles as leaders and will be leaned on even more this fall.
2. Marve's replacement: Finding someone to take over for Marve in the locker room was one thing, but filling his position on the field is another. Exiting the spring, Franklin thinks he found the perfect player for the job in Garnham. He moved from the outside to the middle and really excelled at Marve's old position. Garnham was one of the Vanderbilt's most consistent defensive players this spring and the coaches expect to perform this fall.
3. More playmakers: The Commodores return much of their offense this season, but it sounds like the coaches found a few more players. People know about Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but a few other players caught the coaches' eyes like redshirt freshmen Josh Grady and Kris Kentera, who were former quarterbacks. Grady showed his versatility by playing all over the field at receiver, running back and as a wildcat quarterback. It looks like Kentera earned some playing time at H-back this fall, helping to take pressure off Matthews and Boyd.
1. Offensive line: Spring practices have not addressed any of the issues the Commodores have on the offensive line. Ryan Seymour and Chase White began spring by rehabbing injuries, leaving Vandy with just nine healthy bodies up front. As spring went on, Franklin said there were times when his team sometimes had just seven linemen to work with. It was bad enough that Vandy rarely went through practices with a full offensive line taking reps. Six true freshmen linemen will enroll at Vandy this fall, but there's no question this unit is the biggest worry for the Commodores.
2. Quarterback consistency: While Rogers made improvements to his game, he still showed the inconsistency that frustrated Franklin last season. There's no question he has the athletic ability to be a solid starter in this league, but he sometimes fails to stand tall in the pocket and deliver solid throws when things collapse around him. That kind of play really hurt Vandy's offense last season. He was pushed by 2009 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels during the spring and the battle is expected to continue through fall camp.
3. Warren Norman's health: After missing all of the 2011 season with a knee injury, Norman returned to the practice field this spring. Though he was non-contact, he showed some improvement in his mobility. It's still unclear how healthy Norman will be and if really complement Stacy in the running game. Rising sophomore Jerron Seymour is the one other returning running back that registered carries last season.
The SEC returns three of the top 10 tacklers from 2011, but don't let that fool you. There's still a lot of quality out there on those SEC defenses. Last season's tackling king, Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan, is gone, and so are his 143 tackles. But the league's No. 2 tackler is back.
Here's a look at the top tackler returning in the SEC:
Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles and had 50 solo stops. He also averaged 9.5 tackles per game. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder found ways to take down opposing offensive players by roaming all over the field for the Bulldogs. Lawrence started on the outside, but made his presence known on many different areas of the field with his speed and relentless attitude. Lawrence picked up right were he left off this spring, and the coaches expect him to be just as valuable this fall. It'll be tough to stop Lawrence from taking the tackling crown in 2012.
The SEC returns two more of its top tacklers:
- Daren Bates, LB, Auburn: He registered 104 tackles, including 59 solo, and averaged eight tackles a game.
- Jonathan Bostic, LB, Florida: He registered 94 tackles, including 60 solo, and averaged 7.2 tackles a game.
Those three will certainly get their chances to fight for the crown, but there are other players to keep an eye on as well this fall. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at Alabama, but that means Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley will have the chance to take some of that lost production.
Missouri linebacker Andrew Wilson was a stud last season with his team-high 98 tackles, so he'll definitely be in the race this season. So will South Carolina's Devonte Holloman, as he moves back to the Spur position that he lost last season to Antonio Allen, who led the Gamecocks in tackles. Georgia's Jarvis Jones will also take a crack at it. He was the best when it came to making plays behind the line of scrimmage last season, but you better believe offenses will look to protect the backfield more against him. That means he'll have more opportunities to make plays past the line, and he's just as deadly when he isn't rushing the passer.
Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry had a solid season in 2011, accumulating 81 total tackles. He's turned into a better player, and with the Rebels lining up in all sorts of different defensive formations, he'll be moving all around the field to make plays. Also, keep tabs on Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and defensive end/linebacker Tenarius Wright. Highsmith had a tremendous 2011 season, racking up 80 tackles, and with the team's top tacklers gone, expect his production to increase. And if Wright stays at linebacker, he'll have more opportunities to add to his tackling numbers.
Two other players to watch out for are Texas A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart and Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham. Stewart led the Aggies with 98 tackles last season, and Garnham moves into Chris Marve's spot in the middle. A spot where Marve registered a team-high 91 tackles.
Final Troy 0 13 Georgia 66 Final 6 Texas A&M 58 SMU 6 Final Florida 21 3 Alabama 42 Final Indiana 31 18 Missouri 27 Final Northern Illinois 14 Arkansas 52 Final Mississippi State 34 8 LSU 29 Final 14 South Carolina 48 Vanderbilt 34