SEC: Corey Grant

It was midway through the first quarter, and Auburn found itself in a 21-0 hole on the road against Mississippi State. The Tigers needed a spark in the worst way, and so head coach Gus Malzahn called on freshman running back Roc Thomas.

It didn't matter that the only carries in his career had been in the fourth quarter with Auburn well ahead of its opponent. It didn't matter that the kid who had yet to play a true road game was facing the most hostile atmosphere in college football that day. All that mattered was when his number was called, he was ready.

[+] EnlargeRoc Thomas
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsFreshman running back Roc Thomas provided a lift on three consecutive carries for the Tigers' offense in a tough divisional game at Mississippi State.
Thomas ran three straight times and picked up 11, 8 and 18 yards in succession. The drive would ultimately end with a missed field goal, but his appearance provided a lift to the Auburn sideline. It provided an extra hitch in the Tigers' step.

"I've just been trying to prepare myself the same way every week," Thomas said after the game. "Just trying to be patient and trying to wait until my name gets called."

The freshman finished with six carries for 42 yards, a stat line that would not typically stick out in a box score, but his performance not only swung the momentum, it also showed the coaches he's capable of playing a bigger role, regardless of the situation.

"I was proud of him," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "I thought he looked fast. I thought he looked fresh. I thought he looked confident. He protected the football. He ran hard. When he was in there in protections, he knew what to do on the road, in a hostile environment.

"He didn't look like the moment was too big for him. That's what you look for as coaches. If you feel like they had a little bit then you're ready to give them more."

Before the season, Thomas was buried on the depth chart behind Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. The talent was there -- he was ranked No. 28 in the ESPN 300 -- but he would have to wait his turn.

As Auburn enters the second half of the season, his turn might be now.

"We do have a strategic plan for the second half," Malzahn said Tuesday. "And Roc will have a bigger role."

Don't expect the freshman to unseat Artis-Payne, who is fifth in the SEC with 664 yards rushing, but he might be used more to spell Artis-Payne down the stretch, similar to what he did against Mississippi State the last time out.

"We want to keep our running backs fresh," Lashlee said. "He's a true freshman, but things are slowing down and the talent he has is obvious. We just think that it's time to really start fusing him into things and trying to keep Cameron fresh throughout the game. It also adds that extra dimension to what we're trying to do."

Next up for Auburn is a home date with South Carolina this Saturday. The coaches have had an extra week to prepare, and Thomas has had an extra week to catch his breath and get that much more acclimated to the offense.

There's no telling how much he'll play against the Gamecocks, but he'll be ready when the coaches call on him.

"It's just a matter of being patient and waiting until my name gets called," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to play my part in the offense."

Planning for success: Auburn

October, 21, 2014
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The Auburn Tigers, who are still licking their wounds from their 38-23 loss to Mississippi State, couldn't have picked a better opponent coming out of their bye week.

Ranked fifth in the nation and sporting a 5-1 record (2-1 SEC) that still has a playoff feel to it, the Tigers come off their week of rest to face an underachieving South Carolina team that has to be extremely disappointed with how 2014 has gone.

Yes, the Gamecocks (4-3, 2-3) are coming off of a much-needed 41-10 win over Furman, but they have found themselves in the back of the SEC East race and with no playoff hopes. They will be looking to salvage part of their season, while they ruin Auburn's.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoCameron Artis-Payne, Auburn's leading rusher at 664 yards, could have a big night against South Carolina's defense.
Exactly what the Tigers need.

Auburn got time to rest before its showdown with South Carolina, which just so happens to precede next week's trip to Oxford, Mississippi, to face the third-ranked Ole Miss Rebels. There will be no looking ahead for the Tigers, which is great, because it would be easy to do that with the Rebels looming.

The Tigers know how important Saturday is, and they know that their opponent is desperate. The Gamecocks want some dignity back, and the easiest way to do that is to upset Auburn and torch its playoff hopes. That alone will keep the Tigers on their toes when the Gamecocks visit the Plains Saturday.

Talent-wise and statistically, this game points right at the Tigers with neon arrows. Auburn ranks in the top four of the SEC in scoring (38.8 points per game), rushing (262 yards per game) and total offense (487.8). On the flip side, South Carolina sports one of the SEC's worst defenses, ranking 12th or worse in all four major defensive categories.

The Gamecocks have actually given up a league-worst 6.21 yards per play this season and have allowed opponents to average more than 6.7 yards in five of seven games this season.

Auburn should be fine with that, as the Tigers are cranking out 6.64 yards per play.

What the Tigers need to do is keep that running game churning in the second half of the season. That's when the offense is at its best because it opens up things for quarterback Nick Marshall. What made this offense so special last season was its ability to wear down defenses with its explosive, yet powerful running game. While there is no Tre Mason to carry the load, Auburn has rushed for more than 230 yards in every game but the Kansas State game this season.

Cameron Artis-Payne has taken the title of lead back and has 664 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Marshall is next with 492 and four touchdowns. The next running back on the list is Corey Grant, who has 254 yards and two scores. But the longest run of the season for the Tigers is just 49 yards by Marshall.

This is a chance to really get some of that explosion back in the running game, with the Gamecocks giving up a 181.7 rush yards per game and an SEC-high 15 rushing touchdowns.

You wanna energize that running game even more and break off some bigger plays? Run early and often against the Gamecocks. Artis-Payne has been solid this year (110.7 yards per game), so create some space for him. The Gamecocks have had holes on defense all year, so the Tigers should be able to exploit that.
The Magnolia State captivated college football fans nationwide last Saturday, and it’s in the spotlight again this weekend as No. 3 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0) hosts No. 2 Auburn (5-0, 2-0) in this season’s first top-5 matchup. It pits two teams that have a long history with each other and two quarterbacks who both have Heisman Trophy aspirations.

Let’s break it down:

Auburn’s key to victory: Ask Gus Malzahn and he’ll tell you his team needs to get out of the gates quickly. Up until its most recent win over LSU, this Auburn team had struggled early in games. They were gashed on the ground in the first half against Arkansas. The offense managed just 10 points on the road at Kansas State. The Tigers can’t afford to do that this Saturday, not against a team as talented as Mississippi State and especially not in what will be a hostile road environment. Auburn has played plenty of these big games in the past year and a half, winning most of them, but it can’t afford to fall behind early.

Mississippi State’s key to victory: Mississippi State has the SEC’s No. 1 red zone defense. Opponents are scoring only 54 percent of the times they get inside the 20, and the Bulldogs have allowed only four red zone touchdowns this season. The only problem is that the nation’s top red zone offense is coming to town this weekend. Auburn has scored on all 21 trips inside the red zone, with 17 touchdowns. The Bulldogs aren’t going to keep Nick Marshall and that offense out of the red zone. Instead, they have to find a way to force a turnover or hold Auburn to a field goal. If not, they might find themselves playing from behind all game.

Auburn’s X factor: Good luck running inside the tackles against Mississippi State. Auburn was the best in the country at it last year, and it still struggled against the Bulldogs, rushing for a season-low 120 yards. The Tigers’ leading rusher in that game? Corey Grant. He’s the fastest back on the team, and he can get outside on just about anybody. If Cameron Artis-Payne struggles against Mississippi State’s physical front Saturday, look for Malzahn to get Grant more involved than he has been this season. The senior has the potential to break one at any time.

Mississippi State’s X factor: The offense showed last week that it can score just fine without wide receiver Jameon Lewis, but boy it’d be nice to have him. The diminutive Lewis adds a different element to Mississippi State’s attack and one that’s hard to replicate. At LSU, he led the team with five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown before injuring his leg. He missed the next game but hinted this week that he’s ready to return to action. Nothing has been announced yet, though it’d be surprising not to see Lewis give it a go on Saturday. If not, it will be up to freshman Gabe Myles to fill in for the second straight week.

Playoff impact: The winner of this game becomes the favorite to win the SEC and could unseat Florida State as the No. 1 team in the country. Whoever loses will take a hit, but it won’t be a crippling one. Both teams will still be in the mix after this weekend. Mississippi State has an easier road ahead, so it can more afford to take a loss. Auburn still has road trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama before the season is over.

Three key factors in LSU-Auburn

October, 3, 2014
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Nick MarshallAP Photo/Butch DillContaining Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall will be one of LSU's main tasks this week.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will become a familiar scenario for No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) for at least the foreseeable future. Entering Saturday's game against No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0), LSU probably can't afford another division loss if it wants to remain in contention in the SEC West -- much less a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

That's a tall order this weekend, considering Auburn hasn't lost at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Gus Malzahn became coach last season (11-0) and LSU will have a true freshman quarterback, Brandon Harris, making his first career start.

LSU has won six of the past seven games in this series, but getting a win Saturday will be a major challenge. Let's look at three key factors as kickoff approaches, with some help from ESPN's Stats & Information group:

Who can run and who can stop it

Both starting quarterbacks -- Harris and Auburn's Nick Marshall -- are understandably getting plenty of attention ahead of this game. But it's the teams' respective running games -- and whether the defenses can slow them -- that might be the most important factors.

Auburn ranks 17th nationally with 260.5 rushing yards per game and boasts two of the SEC's most productive runners in Cameron Artis-Payne (86 carries, 468 yards, 5 touchdowns, fourth in the SEC with 97.2 YPG) and Marshall (42 carries, 273 yards, 2 touchdowns).

Meanwhile, LSU has struggled against the run, ranking 12th in the SEC and 70th nationally by allowing 161.6 rushing YPG. Coordinator John Chavis' defense is thin at defensive tackle, and its problems there were evident against Mississippi State, which rushed for 302 yards against LSU two weeks ago. Wisconsin also rushed for more than 250 yards against LSU.

Auburn is 13-0 when it runs for at least 250 yards under Malzahn and 3-2 when it does not.

On the other side, LSU's struggling run game got a boost last week when it picked up 363 yards on 54 attempts against New Mexico State. LSU is sixth in the SEC with 226.2 rushing YPG, but Auburn has been stingy against the run (third in the SEC with 90.8 YPG). If coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense is able to shut down Leonard Fournette (LSU's leading rusher with 322 yards on 56 attempts, 64.4 YPG), Kenny Hilliard (57 carries, 298 yards, 59.6 YPG), Darrel Williams (33 carries, 165 yards, 41.2 YPG) and Terrence Magee (34 carries, 144 yards, 28.8 YPG), that will place even more pressure on Harris' shoulders.

Defending the zone read/QB run

Let's dig a little deeper into the running game. To have any chance on Saturday, LSU must contain Marshall and Auburn's option runs.

Auburn has been one of the nation's most effective teams at using the zone-read run since the start of last season. It is averaging 144.39 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry in those games.

It's worth noting, however, that Kansas State kept itself in the game against Auburn two weeks ago by slowing Marshall and the zone-read runs. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 62 yards and 3.1 yards per carry off the zone-read, holding them below 200 total rushing yards for only the second time in Malzhn's tenure as Auburn's coach.

LSU was atrocious against the zone-read in its 34-29 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Bulldogs ran 20 times for 192 yards from that look, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and breaking five runs of at least 10 yards.

The key element here is slowing Marshall, but LSU has struggled to do that against mobile quarterbacks. LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks (56 carries for 260 yards) of all FBS programs this season. That includes a 79-yard touchdown last week against New Mexico State and a 56-yard run by Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.

Marshall has 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season, which ranks third among active FBS quarterbacks.

Harris vs. Auburn pass defense

This subject has been beaten to death all week, but Harris is in rare air for an LSU quarterback. He's the first LSU true freshman to start at the position since Jordan Jefferson in 2008 and the first since Jamie Howard in 1992 to start by Game 6.

He clearly outplayed Anthony Jennings against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but both of those outings were off the bench. Making his first road start against a better-than-average Auburn defense -- Johnson's defense is fourth in the SEC in total defense (313.2 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) -- won't be easy.

However, Auburn has yet to face a prolific passing team. Its opponents thus far rank 107th nationally (Arkansas, 167.8 ypg), 62nd (San Jose State, 243.0), 59th (Kansas State, 246.3) and 55th (Louisiana Tech, 248.4) in passing offense and yet Auburn still ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense at 222.5 ypg.

We'll see whether Harris can settle his nerves enough to exploit it, but Auburn is vulnerable against the pass -- especially if veteran safety Jermaine Whitehead remains on suspension for a third straight game.

Auburn, LSU swap roles from 2013 game

September, 30, 2014
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Every championship team faces adversity at one point or another. For last year’s Auburn team, it came in the form of a September road trip to Death Valley.

The Tigers began the season 3-0, snapping their SEC skid against Mississippi State along the way. But in the first half at LSU, Auburn simply looked outmatched. It was pouring rain; the offense couldn’t move the ball; the defense couldn’t stop Jeremy Hill; and it was 21-0 after the first 30 minutes. It felt like the team should get back on the bus and head home.

Auburn didn’t, though. As the rain tapered off in the second half, Gus Malzahn’s team fought back and nearly made it a one-possession game before eventually losing 35-21.

Looking back, the game can be remembered two different ways. On one hand, it was the lone blemish on an otherwise flawless resume heading into the BCS title game and a contest Auburn would rather forget. On the other hand, it was a turning point for Auburn, a loss that would create momentum and ignite a nine-game winning streak.

As for the players, all they remember is the rain, or the “very stiff, wind-driven dew,” as LSU coach Les Miles so eloquently put it.

“It was raining in Death Valley, and that’s always a good time,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “It was a night game. I remember that was kind of our turning point in our season. We lost the game, but it really showed that we had fight. It came down to the wire at the end.”

“Wet, rainy,” running back Corey Grant said. “Started off slow. Came back second half, made some adjustments and we kind of got back on track, but it was a little bit too late.”

“I kind of remember the rain a lot,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “It was really slippery. It was my first road game as a college player and I didn’t know I was going to play that much, but coach put me in so I tried to do what I could.

“And I remember losing. That’s the big thing I remember. I think it’s going to be better this year. I hope we get the win.”

“We didn’t really come out the way we should’ve,” cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “We didn’t have that edge. By the time it was time for us to adjust, we didn’t really put the proper points on the board or we didn’t make the correct stops, fill in gaps.”

It’s been more than a year since that game, and Malzahn admits it still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. To this day, it’s his only SEC loss as a head coach.

However, he also remembers the second-half comeback and how it was a defining moment for Auburn last season. He remembers how the players responded after halftime and how they were an onside kick away from making things interesting.

“Our guys came back,” Malzahn said on Monday’s Tiger Talk radio show. “They responded like champions in the second half, and it gave us momentum the rest of the year.”

This is a new year, though, and the roles have reversed. Auburn is the overwhelming favorite at home against a young, inexperienced LSU team that has a quarterback in Brandon Harris who is making his first road start in a hostile environment. Sound familiar? Nick Marshall made his first road start in Baton Rouge last year.

The good news for Harris is there’s no rain in the forecast this year. The bad news is Auburn is hungry for a win.

“I haven’t beat them all four years and I’m coming up on the last time playing them, so I’ll be excited and especially motivated to play those guys,” Dismukes said.

"We lost last year in their house," added Adams. "They’re coming to our house now, so we’re going to try and get that win."
Quan Bray Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsQuan Bray scored half of the Tigers' six touchdowns against Louisiana Tech.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before the season, Gus Malzahn talked to his team about the seniors and how this is their year, their last opportunity before their time at Auburn comes to an end. He asked all of his seniors to simply play the best they have ever played before.

Quan Bray took that message to heart.

"My coaches look at me as a leader," he said. "I'm a vet. I've been here a long time. Coach Malzahn said at the beginning of the year that our seniors are going to need to step up and play big. We took the challenge, and we're trying to do just that."

The senior wide receiver had a career game Saturday, finishing with three catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech. He added a third score on a 76-yard punt return, his second return touchdown of the season, and he currently leads the nation with 36.8-yard average on his five punt returns through the first four games.

Has Bray ever had a game like that, at any level?

"Probably high school," he said. "Everybody probably had games like that in high school because you were probably the best player on your team and this and that, but from what I've been through and the things that we've been doing, the hard work is really paying off.

"It had to be my senior year, but it doesn't take nothing but a year for us to be successful."

A year is all that he has left, but Bray is making the most of it. He had as many touchdowns Saturday as he had his first three seasons at Auburn, and he's well on his way to setting a new career high for receiving yards in a season.

Nobody was happier to see him break though than this fellow seniors, who have been with him every step of the way.

"Any time a guy has a day like he did, you've just got to be excited for him," center Reese Dismukes said. "We're close with all the guys on the team, and the seniors -- we've been here for a while -- and you're happy for one of your guys you came in with."

"It's a great feeling," added running back Corey Grant. "He's been working his butt off and been though a lot. To see him come out and to see all that hard work pay off, it kind of motivates me and it just excites me."

This is a senior-laden team at Auburn. From quarterback Nick Marshall to Saturday's captains Dismukes and Gabe Wright, there are 14 seniors listed on the two-deep depth chart which didn't include safety Jermaine Whitehead.

If the Tigers want to repeat as SEC champions, it's up to them.

"It's like we got a bond," Bray said. "From when we first connected, it was like we're going to grind together, we're going to leave here together, we're going to graduate together and we're going to try to win most all of our games. We're going to try to win a national championship.

"That was our goal -- to win a national championship. We fell a little short [last year], but we still got this year to finish it off."

Auburn will need that senior leadership the rest of the way as six of its final eight games are against teams currently ranked in the top 15, beginning with Saturday's game against No. 15 LSU, a team that most of the seniors, Bray included, have never beaten.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first two games, Cameron Artis-Payne has rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns. His 42 carries are twice as many carries as Corey Grant, the team's No. 2 running back. So does that mean Auburn has found its workhorse? Have the Tigers found their replacement for Tre Mason?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoCameron Artis-Payne, Auburn's leading rusher through two games, is out to prove he can carry the ball, as well as the Tigers' offense.
Not quite. At least not according to head coach Gus Malzahn.

"He did a good job," Malzahn said after Saturday's game. "Corey did a good job in there, too. We utilized both those guys. Nothing's changed as far as that goes. We've got to have two of those guys. And you saw the young guys get in there -- Peyton Barber and then Roc [Thomas], too. It's good to get those guys some carries in a game-type situation."

And so we're back to square one.

Technically, Artis-Payne is Auburn's starting running back. He started the first two games, and he will likely start next Thursday's game at Kansas State. But for some reason, Malzahn has been reluctant to acknowledge that he's the guy.

To be fair, more than one back is needed in Malzahn's offense -- it's why the Tigers led the nation in rushing a season ago -- but by the beginning of SEC play last season, they settled on Mason as the featured back. That's the role Artis-Payne wants to have.

"Selfishly, yeah of course, everybody wants to keep getting the ball," Artis-Payne said after Saturday's game where he rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns. "But at the end of the day, we have to go with the looks that they give us and what the defense is giving us.

"It's a team game. We've got a lot of really, really good running backs in the backfield."

That attitude is why Artis-Payne's position coach Tim Horton calls him "a pro before he's a pro." It basically means he's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's professional in meetings, professional in work. As offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee put it, "he's all business and all work."

It's the same way when he faces the media. There's plenty of personality, but there's a certain edge to him, too, a chip on his shoulder that's likely a reminder of where he came from.

"I'm sure there are some personal aspects in his life that he draws from, but also, he didn't have any offers coming out of high school," Lashlee said. "He goes out to junior college, and he earned his way here. He didn't have the typical road that a kid playing at a big school in the SEC would have as far as recruiting goes.

"So I think he's constantly out to prove himself, and he's out to prove that we don't have to miss a beat with him back there."

Even Artis-Payne admitted to having a little chip on his shoulder coming into this season.

"Yeah, ya'll saw me sitting on the bench last year," he said. "I read everything that everybody puts out, talking about how the running game is going to be. I'm here to prove that it's going to be all right."

After two games, it's been more than all right.

Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. It doesn't matter that Mason is gone or that Greg Robinson left early for the NFL or that Alex Kozan is out for the season with an injury. The Tigers still feature a dominant rushing attack, and whether Malzahn wants to admit it, Artis-Payne is quickly becoming the driving force behind that.

"I'm just getting more comfortable knowing that I'm going to get in the game and not have to worry about playing time and all that type of stuff," Artis-Payne said.

So is he OK with 20+ carries a game from here on out?

"Oh yeah, I definitely enjoy that," he said. "I'd like for that to continue if it can."

SEC morning links

September, 3, 2014
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1. The biggest concern for Alabama's football team might not be at quarterback. After the Crimson Tide gave up 365 passing yards and 29 completions to West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, many gave the Tide's secondary some nasty looks. Cornerback Bradley Sylve drew most of the ire, as he was consistently beaten all night. Not the biggest defensive back, Sylve had a tough time with West Virginia's bigger, more physical receivers, especially Kevin White, who finished with 11 catches for 143 yards. Well, coach Nick Saban made a change Monday, having Eddie Jackson, who was recovering from a knee injury, run with the first-team defense alongside Cyrus Jones. Sylve ran with the second-team defense with freshman Tony Brown, who could see some time in the next few weeks.

2. Mississippi State's football team was met with tragedy this weekend after wide receiver Jameon Lewis' brother, Tyriunce, was shot and killed Sunday morning in their hometown of Tylertown, Mississippi. Lewis, who is Mississippi State's top returning receiver, returned to campus on Monday, but his availability for Saturday's game against UAB is still uncertain. Coach Dan Mullen made it clear that he wasn't worried about Lewis taking the field Saturday. His concern is with Lewis' emotions. Our thoughts are with Lewis and his family.

3. Last weekend, we saw Saban face West Virginia. Why was that significant? Well, Saban is from West Virginia, so there was a little bit of a storyline there. But for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Saturday's game with Toledo actually means a lot to him. Why, you ask? Well, he coached at Toledo from 1991-2000, becoming the school's all-time leader in wins after going 73-37-3 with the Rockets. Man, three ties? That's so old school. Toledo might hold a special place in Pinkel's heart, but he won't let that get to him this weekend. “Great people, great community. It was a big part of my life, big part of my career,” Pinkel said. “I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket. Not this weekend, but I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket.”

Impact freshmen from the SEC

August, 28, 2014
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Every season, several true freshmen make an immediate impact in the SEC. Judging by the way things look to be heading at some SEC powerhouses there might be even more than usual this season, but here are five that we predict to make the biggest splash in 2014.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette was the top-ranked recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: When well-respected college football writers are projecting a true freshman running back as the Heisman Trophy winner -- and more than a few have at least mentioned Fournette’s name in the conversation -- you know the kid is special. LSU fans rejoiced when Fournette announced that he would become a Tiger, and he has done nothing since then to temper their excitement. Blessed with exceptional size, speed and power, Fournette is going to become a star. The only question is when. Even if he must share carries with backfield mates Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams, Fournette’s debut will be celebrated with Mardi Gras-like fanfare around Louisiana. -- David Ching

Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough

Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan

Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough

SEC 1,000-yard rushers for 2014

August, 12, 2014
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On Monday, we checked out the SEC quarterbacks who could hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2014. After so many good quarterbacks left the league after the 2013 season, I went with four making it to 3,000.

Next up, we're looking at the folks who like running the ball. This is where the SEC could really strike gold this fall. There are a plethora of talented running backs returning in 2014 who could really wear down some of those stout defensive fronts around the league.

Last year, eight players (including a quarterback) rushed for at least 1,000 yards:
The league lost four of those players, but it shouldn't have a problem replacing them. As for how many players will hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2014, I'm going with nine. Here are the 14 who I think could reach 1,000 yards:

1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: Even with the nagging injuries he's dealt with in his past, Gurley enters the 2014 as arguably the nation's best running back. After sitting out a month last season, Gurley still rushed for 989 yards and 6 yards per carry. He has that rare combination of size, strength and explosion.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesT.J. Yeldon will once again be a key cog in Alabama's offense this fall.
2. Yeldon: He's the only back in Alabama history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two years on campus. There are a lot of offensive weapons for Alabama to work with this fall, but Yeldon's breakaway speed and grinding ability make him a back to be reckoned with.

3. Derrick Henry, Alabama: Yeldon might be the starter, but Henry will get plenty of carries this fall. Alabama is no stranger to having multiple 1,000-yard rushers, and with a new quarterback coming in, expect Nick Saban to give his backs the ball as much as possible. This freak, tank-like athlete should blow past last year's 382 yards.

4. Davis: He's one of the toughest, most explosive backs around. Somehow, Davis' legs never seem to stop moving when he gets going. He finished with 1,183 yards and had seven games in which he rushed for more 100 yards or more in 2013.

5. Tra Carson, Texas A&M: He only rushed for 329 yards last year, but now that he's the lead back for the Aggies, he'll be asked to do more than just be a short-yardage guy. Carson has home-run speed, a ton of strength and is tough to bring down in space.

6. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: You might not have noticed the fact that he barely missed the 1,000-yard mark last year by 100 yards because of Arkansas' forgettable season, but Williams is the real deal. He's strong, fast and tough. Arkansas will use more than one back, but that won't stop Williams from reaching 1,000 yards.

7. Leonard Fournette, LSU: The freshman version of Michael Jordan, Fournette will have every opportunity to hit 1,000 yards. He wasn't the nation's No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class for nothing. Fournette has everything you'd want in a feature back, and he'll immediately make an impact for the Tigers.

8. Collins: He'll continue to battle Williams for carries this fall, but that won't be a problem. He dropped off a little after a fast start last season, but he still became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine in a row in 2004.

9. Marshall: Yes, he's working to throw more and become more confident in the passing game, but Marshall knows that his legs are his bread and butter. As long as Gus Malzahn is running the zone-read, Marshall will continue to pile up rushing yards.

10. Cameron Artis-Payne/Corey Grant, Auburn: The Tigers aren't afraid to use multiple backs. Both of these guys ran for more than 600 yards and had six touchdowns last fall behind Tre Mason. One of these guys could be the lead back, or they'll work together. Either way, Auburn will be deadly on the ground.

11. Kelvin Taylor, Florida: The sophomore is faster, leaner and more agile this year after rushing for 508 yards last fall. He's still a handful to bring down and the hope in Gainesville is that Kurt Roper's offense opens up the running game even more.

12. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri: He's an incredibly explosive back, who could be primed for a breakout season this fall. With his strength and speed, he should have no problem surpassing the 685 yards he had last year.

13. Josh Robinson, Mississippi State: A wrecking ball in a smaller package, Robinson is finally taking over as the Bulldogs' lead back. Behind LaDarius Perkins last fall, Robinson rushed for 459 yards and 5.9 yards per carry.

14. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He led the Bulldogs with 829 rushing yards last season, but his coaches would like him to throw the ball a little bit more this fall. You just can't take the runner out of the player, so Prescott could still push for 1,000 yards.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s never easy to replace the SEC’s leading rusher, but Auburn doesn’t have just one guy to replace Tre Mason. It has five.

“We have some really good cards,” running backs coach Tim Horton said. “When you’re playing cards, it’s nice to have some good ones to play, and we’ve got some good players. Now it’s just our jobs to figure out how to use these cards we have.”

As expected, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack in the Tigers’ backfield hierarchy. The two have been around the longest and they know the offense, so when the time comes for Gus Malzahn to name a starter, expect one of the two seniors’ names to be called.

However, that doesn’t mean you can just write off the freshman trio. Regardless of whether or not they start, Peyton Barber, Racean Thomas and Kamryn Pettway are all capable of contributing right away.

“I think all three of them are talented,” Malzahn told reporters Saturday. “And that’s the main thing. You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Are you talented enough to play?’ If they’re talented enough to play, then (come) all the little things. Who’s coachable? Who will protect that football? That’s what’s on my mind. Who’s going to protect the football, especially being young?

“Hopefully, we’ll give them enough chances during fall camp to show who can do that, who can execute our offense and who we can count on.”

Barber is a year ahead of the other two after redshirting last season. He turned heads this spring and was primed for a breakout performance at A-day, but a foot injury on his first carry forced him to miss the rest of the game. A missed opportunity, no doubt, but he’s back now and ready to compete.

Thomas arrived this summer, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s handled himself through the first week and a half of fall camp.

“He’s done well,” Horton said. “The thing that’s really been impressive is his knowledge of the game. He’s really a good learner and has made very few mental mistakes.

“We’ve put him in scrimmages and walked away. I think sometimes you can get up there and coach them every play, whisper every play, and we haven’t done that. We’ve thrown him in the fire, and he’s done really well with that.”

Of the three freshmen, Thomas was the most highly regarded coming out of high school. He was ranked No. 28 overall in the 2014 ESPN 300 and was named Mr. Football in the state of Alabama. When it came time to talk goals with Malzahn, the Auburn coach went as far as to say he wants to get Thomas a Heisman Trophy before he leaves Auburn.

“I’m just trying to learn a lot,” Thomas said in April. “I want to get in the system and be a dynamic playmaker.”

Pettway, the other incoming freshman, might not be as decorated as Thomas, but he’s impressed the coaching staff to this point and also has an opportunity to be in the mix.

As Horton alluded to earlier, it’s now time for the coaches to figure out how to best use this talented group of running backs. Who starts? Who plays? How do you get all five backs involved?

“It’s a great problem,” Horton said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to understand, and unfortunately I’m old enough to have had this happen to me, is you have five guys that you think are really good and next thing you know, two of them are out for the season, one of them is out with a hamstring for two weeks and you’re down to two.

“You better have depth in this league because I do know this: Those guys are going to get hit.”

Auburn will likely name a starter in the coming weeks, but this backfield isn’t strong because of just one running back. It’s strong because of all five backs, freshmen included, and all five need to be ready in case the coaches decide to play their card.
Every four years, we all have soccer fever. I have it 24/7, 365, but the World Cup helps bring out the inner futboler in all of us.

The United States is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game, but fans have come out in full force this year to support arguably our most talented World Cup team. And I've even seen it from SEC football players this summer.

Tweets from football players concerning the World Cup have littered my news feed the past couple of weeks. It might be because of the enormous popularity of the "FIFA" video game series, but it's still great to see.

You know what else would be great to see? Athletes like the ones that amaze us every Saturday in the SEC playing some footy. Now, I realize that a lot of these guys might not be the agile athletes that glide all over the pitch with their size, but let's put that aside for a second. Let's expand our minds and have a little fun here. Let's imagine some of the SEC's best current athletes suiting up to make a squad of 11 to play the original football.

We're going with a 4-3-2-1 look, meaning we have four fullbacks and a striker up top. And remember: Please, no biting.

Note: Only one kicker made the cut because most of them played soccer growing up. We wanted to use our imaginations a little more here.

STRIKER
  • Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: He looks like a cannonball when he shoots through the line of scrimmage. He's incredibly agile and elusive and would give a healthy Jozy Altidore a run for his money. He makes the most of his opportunities and would be a ball specialist up top.
WINGERS
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Yes, he's the SEC's best cornerback, but imagine that speed and athleticism up front. He played soccer growing up, and he's just too agile and quick to keep in the back. Plus, it's a major advantage to have a legitimate ballhawk at forward talk about takeaways at midfield!
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He was my first choice for goalkeeper because of that wingspan and those hands. But the more I thought about it, I want that speed, strength and athleticism leading the charge up front. He also has tremendous control. Wherever Treadwell is, he's the best pure athlete around.
MIDFIELDERS
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Think Jermaine Jones: Big, fast and powerful. It's going to be tough to get past his intimidating frame, and he has the speed to track the long ball and create a lane for himself when he takes off. He'd be great on set pieces in both boxes with his size, and having him run up and down the field sounds frightening.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Just try to send the long ball over his head. He's the perfect player to have at center mid. He's your field general/ballhawk, who can take a lot of pressure off the defense. No one is getting behind him and he isn't afraid to challenge opponents. Just call him our enforcer.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another big body in the middle who has great explosion. I need my midfield well conditioned, but I also need guys who are going to be able to attack and defend. With Gurley's strength, he won't get out-muscled for balls, and once he gains possession, he's gone. He also has superb field vision to own midfield.
FULLBACKS
  • Corey Grant, RB, Auburn: Like fellow SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf told me, "Think Fabian Johnson." Grant has a ton of speed to carry the ball up and be a threat to score, but he's also incredibly strong, so sitting back and playing defense would be something he'd thrive in on the pitch.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: You want a captain and a brick wall heading up the middle of your defense? Well, just look at the thick, rock of a man that is McKinney. He definitely isn't afraid to get physical and with his drop back speed, getting behind him would be terribly tough. Challenge him!
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, DE, Alabama: Who? Yeah, you probably haven't heard of him, but we'll just call him the bowling ball in the back. Somehow, this big bruiser played varsity soccer in high school, so he'd bring good experience to the group. Plus, having an athletic 6-2, 287-pound presence in the middle is scary.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Like Grant, I love his speed on the back wing. He can carry the ball up and create plays for himself and his teammates, plus he can hustle back if a deep ball is sent. Oh, and that tank-like build will make him tough to beat outside the box.
GOALKEEPER
  • Josh Lambo, K, Texas A&M: As a keeper myself, this was the position I had to make sure was perfect. The only kicker on the team, Lambo started playing soccer at age four and eventually played for the U.S. men's under-20 team. He was also drafted eighth overall by the MLS' FC Dallas in 2008 before making it to A&M. No-brainer, really.

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
10:00
AM ET
Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

SEC's lunch links

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
12:00
PM ET
The World Cup begins today. Will you be watching? If so, make sure you take in today’s lunch links before Brazil and Croatia kick off. If not, still check out the lunch links and see what’s going on around the SEC.
  • Former Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro is the perfect O’Bannon witness to show the NCAA’s economic model is broken.
  • Between Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber, there isn’t a clear pecking order at running back, but that’s how Auburn likes it.
  • Recruits react to Joker Phillips’ resignation at Florida on Wednesday.
  • Georgia’s secondary: How it looks after the Tray Matthews’ dismissal and a possible position change since the end of spring practice.
  • Not so fast: Jalen Mills’ attorney says the LSU cornerback wasn’t the one who struck the victim in the incident last month that led to Tuesday’s arrest.
  • Missouri wide receiver signee Darnell Green, the younger brother of former star Dorial Green-Beckham, plans to delay his enrollment until January.
  • South Carolina’s new-look defensive line remains a work in progress.

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