SEC: Craig Stevens

Auburn is our next stop for the league’s rebound players:

OFFENSE

A.J. Greene, OT, Sr.: Greene started the first three games of last season before suffering a season-ending injury when he broke his left ankle against Clemson. Greene went through spring, and while he isn’t completely healthy, he has progressed, and the coaching staff expects him to be fine this fall. Getting him back will be a major boost to an offensive line that lost four veteran starters from last season. At 6-foot-5, 309 pounds, Greene should return to left tackle for the Tigers and will have the job of protecting a an inexperienced quarterback. If Greene’s mobility returns, he could be one of the tougher tackles in the league to get around this fall.

DEFENSE

Eltoro Freeman, LB, Sr.: Freeman hasn’t exactly been a slouch since his arrival, but the former junior college standout hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. He has played in 22 games, starting 12 in his two seasons. Freeman has 68 tackles and two sacks to his name, but the Tigers’ staff predicted more from the 5-foot-11, 226-pounder. There is some untapped potential brewing inside Freeman. Auburn lost two very valuable linebackers in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, so in his final season, Freeman has a chance to make a much-needed impact on the Tigers’ defense. From all accounts, Freeman had a good spring, but he’ll have to fend off some young talent during preseason camp.

Lunchtime links

July, 26, 2011
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Read some of these SEC links while you get your afternoon grub on.

SEC recruiting needs: Western Division

January, 28, 2011
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For many, National Signing Day in college football is more anticipated than the season itself.

It’s just around the corner, Wednesday to be exact.

We’ll start with the Western Division in the SEC and take a look at each team’s recruiting needs:

ALABAMA

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/John RaouxAlabama is losing star receiver Julio Jones to the NFL.
Offensive line: Alabama has been swimming in All-America and All-SEC offensive linemen the past three years, but it’s time to replenish up front. With James Carpenter departing, the Crimson Tide need to find a left tackle. Junior college signee Aaron Douglas, who started his career at Tennessee and was a Freshman All-American two years ago, could be the answer.

Receiver: Talents like Julio Jones don’t come around very often, and he’s now headed to the NFL a year early on the heels of a record-setting junior season. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks will both be seniors next season, so finding a few more playmakers on the perimeter is a priority.

Defensive end: Whether it’s defensive ends or outside linebackers, the Crimson Tide are looking for some finishers in their 3-4 scheme to help improve their pass rush. Defensive end Marcell Dareus declared early for the NFL draft. The Tide’s other starting end, Luther Davis, is also gone, while “Jack” linebacker Courtney Upshaw will be a senior next season. Alabama finished in the middle of the SEC pack this season with 27 sacks.

ARKANSAS

Receiver: There won’t be a more talented receiving corps in the SEC next season. However, Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright will all be seniors. Cobi Hamilton will be a junior, so it’s imperative that the Hogs add some youth to their talented receiving stable.

Tight end: D.J. Williams ended his Arkansas career as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in SEC history. Also gone is Ben Cleveland. Rising junior Chris Gragg had his moments this season, but he’s going to need some help down the road.

Defensive back: The Hogs are losing half of their starting secondary in cornerback Ramon Broadway and strong safety Rudell Crim. Free safety Tramain Thomas and cornerback Isaac Madison return, but both will be seniors next season. Cornerbacks will be at the top of the Hogs’ wish list.

Offensive line: Tackles DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez were both seniors along with left guard Wade Grayson. Several of the Hogs’ backups on the offensive line will be seniors next season.

AUBURN

Offensive line: The Tigers lose four senior starters on their offensive line. Left tackle Lee Ziemba, right guard Byron Isom and center Ryan Pugh all earned some type of All-SEC honors. Getting tackle A.J. Greene back will help. He was a starter at right tackle until he injured his knee in the third game. The Tigers’ top offensive line signee from last year, Shon Coleman, remains on hold. He’s battling Leukemia.

Defensive line: Most of the guys who played the meaningful snaps up front defensively for the Tigers this season are gone. The big loss was Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley declaring early for the NFL draft. Rising sophomore end Nosa Eguae will be looking for all the help he can get, even though there are some promising young defensive linemen in the program.

Quarterback: It was only one season, but what a season it was for Cam Newton. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner will now take his shot at the NFL, leaving Auburn thin in the quarterback ranks. Rising junior Barrett Trotter is probably the guy to beat next season. The Tigers needed a multi-dimensional quarterback in this class and think they scored a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s offense in Kiehl Frazier of Springdale, Ark. He’s rated by ESPN as the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the country.

Linebacker: The Tigers have been lacking for depth at linebacker the past two seasons, which is the reason Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens played so many snaps. They’re gone now, and Eltoro Freeman will be a senior next season. Auburn went looking for linebackers last recruiting period and is looking for a few more this year.

LSU

Defensive line: With defensive tackle Drake Nevis graduating, muscle inside is a priority. The same goes for adding some top-flight pass-rushers at end. The return of Sam Montgomery will be a huge plus for the Tigers, who didn’t get to the quarterback nearly as much once he got hurt this season. They’re looking for a few more pass-rushers just like him.

Receiver: Terrence Toliver is gone, and suddenly, Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle will be juniors next season. The Tigers need more firepower on the outside, in particular a deep threat at receiver. They’re hopeful that four-star commitment Jarvis Landry of Lutcher, La., can come in and help provide more big plays next season.

Quarterback: It was a struggle in the passing game all season for LSU, which finished with just 10 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. Jordan Jefferson did play better toward the end of the season, but he and Jarrett Lee are both rising seniors. It was critical that the Tigers get a marquee quarterback in this class, and they were able to get one at midterm. Former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger is already enrolled and will go through spring practice. The 6-5, 230-pound Mettenberger threw 32 touchdown passes last season at Butler (Kan.) Community College.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Linebacker: The Bulldogs are losing all three starters, and Chris White and K.J. Wright were their top two tacklers this season. Ferlando Bohanna is one of the 22 freshmen they redshirted last season and will get every chance to win a starting linebacker job in the spring.

Defensive line: In particular, Mississippi State is looking for ends and guys that can get to the quarterback. Pernell McPhee is gone, and Johnathan McKenzie left the team in September. The Bulldogs’ depth up front was also hurt by the tragic death of Nick Bell, who passed away in November after a bout with cancer.

Receivers: Dan Mullen is always looking for more receivers, even though the Bulldogs redshirted four of those guys last season. With the kind of offense Mullen wants to run, it’s important that Mississippi State bring in more guys on the perimeter who can stretch the field.

OLE MISS

Defensive line: The Rebels lost four senior tackles, both starters and both backups, and one of those was Jerrell Powe, one of the best run-stoppers in the league. Kentrell Lockett has applied to the NCAA for a sixth season. Regardless of whether or not he gets another season, the Rebels need more pass-rushers. Wayne Dorsey, a touted junior college transfer, struggled last season.

Receiver: An overall lack of production at receiver really hurt Ole Miss this season, and the Rebels’ two most dependable wide receivers, Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux, are both gone. They need to find some more playmakers at the receiver position.

Defensive back: The Rebels lost two of the three in their safety rotation, and the one coming back, Damien Jackson, will be a senior. They’re also in need of cornerbacks, and just generally need to beef up a secondary that took its lumps this season. Ole Miss gave up 24 touchdown passes and intercepted only six passes.

Quarterback: Jeremiah Masoli’s year is up, leaving Nathan Stanley and redshirt freshman Randall Mackey, who’s more of a runner. Junior college signee Zack Stoudt is already on campus and will participate in spring practice.

The 10 plays that got Auburn here

January, 9, 2011
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Well, here Auburn is, unbeaten and playing in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game two years removed from suffering through a losing season.

If you’re an Auburn fan, the Tigers weren’t easy on the old ticker this season. They rallied from two-touchdown deficits four different times to win games, including the epic 24-point comeback at Alabama.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Paul Abell/US PresswireQB Cameron Newton (2) gets past LSU safety Brandon Taylor (15) for a wild touchdown run during Auburn's 24-17 win on Oct. 23.
It was truly a thrill-a-minute ride, and here’s a look back at the top 10 plays (in reverse order) that paved the way for Auburn to meet Oregon on Monday night on college football’s grandest stage:

10. Everything counts in a championship season, even good “field-goal defense.” Clemson’s Chandler Catanzaro, a walk-on redshirt freshman, missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt in overtime. He had just made a 27-yarder to seemingly send the game into a second overtime, but the Clemson center, Dalton Freeman, double-clutched the snap. Clemson was moved 5 yards back, and Catanzaro hooked his kick wide left, giving Auburn a 27-24 win in overtime in a game the Tigers trailed 17-0 late in the first half.

9. Speaking of field goals, Auburn’s Wes Byrum has five game-winning field goals during his career. One of those came as time expired this season against Kentucky, a 24-yarder allowing the Tigers to escape 37-34 on the road the sixth week of the season. Byrum’s game-winner came on the tail end of a 19-play, 86-yard drive by the Tigers that consumed nearly seven and a half minutes of the fourth-quarter clock.

8. In the first South Carolina game, the Gamecocks turned the ball over on each of their last four possessions. The final one came when freshman quarterback Connor Shaw lofted a pass to Alshon Jeffery in the end zone. Jeffery got his hands on the ball, but was hit by Zac Etheridge. The ball popped out, and Demond Washington made a diving interception with 54 seconds to play, preserving Auburn’s 35-27 win.

7. Cam Newton made so many spectacular plays this season that they all run together. But his 49-yard touchdown run against LSU to put Auburn ahead 17-10 on its first possession of the second half was in a class all by itself. He broke tackles. He showed tailback-like moves in the open field. He accelerated. He wasn’t going to be kept out of the end zone on a run they will be talking about on the Plains for years to come.

6. The offenses were scoring at will, and the defenses almost seemed helpless when Arkansas visited Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 16. The Tigers led 44-43, and the Hogs had a third-and-1 at their own 43. Broderick Green motored around right end for the first down, but fumbled after being hit by Craig Stevens. Etheridge picked up the ball and raced 47 yards for a touchdown. It was close as to whether or not Green was down before the ball came loose. The play was reviewed, and the replay official confirmed the call on the field. Auburn went on to dominate the fourth quarter and win 65-43.

5. Etheridge’s fumble return for a touchdown was just the first of several big defensive plays by Auburn in the fourth quarter of that Arkansas game. On the Hogs’ next offensive play following Etheridge’s return, Tyler Wilson threw a ball over the middle that senior middle linebacker Josh Bynes read perfectly and intercepted. Bynes returned it 33 yards to the Arkansas 7-yard line, setting up Newton’s 3-yard touchdown run to break the game wide open. Bynes intercepted another Wilson pass three offensive plays later to seal the deal.

4. The Tigers knew they had to make something happen right out of the gate coming out of halftime against Alabama, and that’s exactly what they did. Trailing 24-7 at the half, Auburn got a 70-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Terrell Zachery on the Tigers’ second offensive play of the second half. It was a deep ball down the left sideline, and Alabama safety Mark Barron appeared to be in position to make a play. But Barron had torn his pectoral muscle in the first half and was unable to pick his arm up and knock the ball away. Zachery made the catch and raced to the end zone. Just like that, what was once a 24-0 lead had been cut to 10 points with an entire half to play.

3. Auburn piled up a staggering 440 rushing yards against LSU in its 24-17 win. But with just under six minutes to play, the game was deadlocked at 17-17. Somebody needed to make a play. Onterio McCalebb was that somebody. He showcased his speed by racing 70 yards for a touchdown on a jet sweep. McCalebb got key blocks from Kodi Burns and Zachery on the play, made one cut and was gone. It was the knockout blow for Auburn in a game that was teetering up until that point.

2. Antoine Carter didn’t score a touchdown. He didn’t ring up a key sack. But he did save the Tigers’ season with the kind of hustle that epitomizes why you never give up on a play. Alabama was leading 21-0 in the first half, and running back Mark Ingram caught a pass and broke loose for what looked like might be another touchdown. Ingram stumbled briefly, which allowed a hustling Carter just enough time to get to Ingram and poke the ball away. Carter, a senior defensive end, had to run nearly 50 yards from where he started. He got to Ingram at the Auburn 18-yard line and knocked the ball loose. Instead of going out of bounds, it squirted through the end zone for a touchback. A 28-0 lead there would have probably been insurmountable, but Auburn had new life thanks to Carter never giving up.

1. Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley was to the Tigers’ defense what Newton was to the offense. He led the SEC with 10.5 sacks, and none were any bigger than his sack of Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. The Crimson Tide, leading 24-7, had the ball second-and-goal at the Auburn 8-yard line and were about to salt the game away for good in the final minute of the half. On the snap, Fairley exploded off the ball and got to McElroy in a flash, forcing a fumble. Fairley was on the ground by that point, but saw the ball rolling around. He was able to beat all of the Alabama players and pounce on the fumble at the Auburn 12. It was a huge momentum swing going into halftime, keeping the Crimson Tide from scoring any more points. If they score there and go up 31-7, the game’s over. Fairley had other ideas with his version of a hat trick -- sack, forced fumble and recovered fumble -- and Auburn rallied in the second half for an improbable 28-27 victory.

Josh Bynes has been Auburn's rock

January, 8, 2011
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Cam Newton is Auburn’s best player and highest profile player.

[+] EnlargeJosh Bynes
John Reed/US PresswireLinebacker Josh Bynes has been a vocal leader for Auburn this season.
Nick Fairley is Auburn’s best defensive player and the Tigers’ most dominant player physically.

Josh Bynes is one of the Tigers’ most selfless players, and in his own way, the player who’s been at the center of putting this dream season together.

A senior middle linebacker, Bynes is the unquestioned leader on this team. He’s vocal. He’s demanding. He’s productive. He’s smart, and he’s the guy everybody on this team feels comfortable going to if there’s a problem.

Simply, he’s the kind of player every team needs if it’s going to win a championship.

“We knew back in the spring that we had the makings of something special. Really, you got that feeling back in the offseason with how committed everybody was to this team,” said Bynes, who’s led Auburn in tackles the past two seasons.

“My role was to make sure all the pieces came together.”

Over and over again this week, Bynes has been quizzed by the media about other players on Auburn’s team. He’s been the go-to guy when somebody wanted to know more about Newton or Fairley or anybody else on the team.

It’s a tribute to Bynes because he has such a keen feel for this team and for the players on this team.

But his teammates are quick to point out that Bynes’ iron-clad leadership is one of the chief reasons the Tigers will play Monday night in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.

The chemistry on this team has been outstanding all season long, and Bynes is a big reason why.

“There are a lot of things, some might call them little things, that he does for this team that people outside the team wouldn’t know about,” said Craig Stevens, Bynes’ fellow senior linebacker. “But they’re the things that add up to being where we are now. He’s always going to have your back out there on defense, and we’re going to have his back.”

As the Tigers’ play-caller on defense, Bynes faces what will be one of his greatest challenges on Monday against an Oregon offense that runs plays at warp speed.

There are times when the Ducks don’t go 15 seconds before getting off the next play.

That’s not much time for Bynes to make his normal checks and get everybody lined up correctly.

The key, he says, is staying cool.

“We know our assignments. We’ve repped them over and over again,” Bynes said. “We’re going to have time. We just have to trust in our preparation and trust in each other.”

It’s a trust that Bynes has demanded from this team and a trust that has worked beautifully for the Tigers for 13 games.

Now, they’re down to one game, the most important game they’ll play all season.

Auburn's Stevens to play with cast

January, 7, 2011
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Auburn senior linebacker Craig Stevens plans to play in Monday night's Tostitos BCS National Championship Game with a case on his left wrist.

Stevens said he jammed his wrist in the Alabama game and then played in the SEC championship game against South Carolina with a brace on his wrist.

The Auburn medical staff decided to put a cast on it to keep from having the wrist bend back and forth.

"I'll still be able to use my fingers," Stevens said. "The thing we're trying to avoid is having my wrist bend back and getting it jammed up again. That's why they decided to go ahead and put a cast on it."

Video: Auburn's Craig Stevens

December, 4, 2010
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Chris Low talks with Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens after the win over South Carolina.

Stevens to play for Auburn

September, 18, 2010
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Craig Stevens, Auburn's defensive co-player of the year in 2009, will play tonight against Clemson after being suspended (undisclosed reasons) for team's first two games, sources close to the team confirmed to ESPN.

Getting Stevens back will help an Auburn linebacker corps that is hurting for depth. Senior Josh Bynes played every snap in the last game against Mississippi State.

SEC position rankings: Linebackers

July, 27, 2010
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Who in the SEC can claim the Linebacker U. moniker this season?

Here’s a rundown:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireExpectations are high for Alabama's Dont'a Hightower.
1. Alabama: How many teams lose a player the caliber of Rolando McClain in the middle and replace him with somebody just as talented? Dont’a Hightower made an amazing recovery from a serious knee injury and was going through contact in the spring. He’ll play in the middle of the Crimson Tide’s base defense and will rush the passer from the “jack” linebacker position on passing downs. Courtney Upshaw, Jerrell Harris, Chris Jordan and Nico Johnson are also back, and all four have star potential.

2. Georgia: With the Bulldogs going to a 3-4 scheme this season, that means junior pass-rushing specialist Justin Houston now falls into the linebacker category. Houston had 7.5 sacks last season from his end position. Sophomore Cornelius Washington also shifts from end to outside linebacker after collecting four sacks a year ago. The Bulldogs have moved senior starter Darryl Gamble from inside to outside linebacker, while senior Akeem Dent and junior Marcus Dowtin are also back. Dent and Dowtin were part-time starters last season.

3. Ole Miss: Two of the more underrated linebackers in the SEC are Ole Miss seniors Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Cornell started all 13 games in the middle last season and was third on the team with 79 tackles, including eight for loss. Walker started 11 games last season at strongside linebacker. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix also likes his younger talent, including D.T. Shackelford, Joel Kight and Mike Marry. Shackelford, in particular, could be poised for a breakout season. This is a productive and versatile group.

4. Auburn: The Tigers will line up with a pair of senior All-SEC candidates in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens. They both finished among the top 10 tacklers in the league last season, combining for 199 total tackles. The only problem was that they had to play just about every meaningful snap. The Tigers hope to have more depth this season. They didn’t have any last season and are moving Daren Bates from safety to a hybrid outside linebacker position. Bates led all SEC freshmen a year ago with 70 tackles. He wasn’t able to go through spring, though, because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.

5. Florida: Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper were major cogs in the Gators’ linebacker corps a year ago and made a ton of plays. Life without them will be different, but not impossible. That’s what happens when you recruit talented players like Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, both of whom had big springs. There’s also some experience returning. Senior A.J. Jones has 30 career starts and started the first 11 games a year ago at outside linebacker before injuring his knee. Senior Brandon Hicks has also been a part-time starter each of the past two seasons. There’s a lot of speed in this group.

6. South Carolina: The Gamecocks might have a little more depth than they had a year ago at linebacker, but what they don’t have is that proven playmaker on the outside. Eric Norwood filled that role as well as anybody the past two seasons, but now he’s gone. Junior Shaq Wilson was the team’s leading tackler last season, and he’s moving to one of the outside spots from middle linebacker. Senior Rodney Paulk returns in the middle after suffering through season-ending knee injuries each of the past two seasons. Senior Josh Dickerson is another guy who can move around and play different spots.

7. Tennessee: One of the most experienced positions on Tennessee’s team is at linebacker. The Vols had several players playing at a high level there last season only to be injured. They’re all back, including senior Nick Reveiz in the middle. Tennessee’s defense was never the same after he left the lineup with a knee injury. Senior LaMarcus Thompson is also back after battling through injuries a year ago, and the same goes for senior Savion Frazier. Sophomore linebacker Greg King is currently suspended, but he also showed promise last season as a freshman.

8. LSU: Senior Kelvin Sheppard returns as one of the top middle linebackers in the SEC. He’s a tackling machine who was fourth in the league in tackles a year ago with 110. He’s one of those defenders who’s a factor on every play. The key for the Tigers will be how quickly the players around him grow up now that veterans Jacob Cutrera, Harry Coleman and Perry Riley have all moved on. Sheppard thinks junior Ryan Baker is ready to shine at weakside linebacker after being a force on special teams the past two seasons. Junior Stefoin Francois is the top candidate to step in on the strong side after starting his career as a safety.

9. Vanderbilt: Linebacker has been one of the Commodores’ strong suits for several years now, and that shouldn’t change this season with junior Chris Marve manning the middle. A first-team preseason All-SEC selection, Marve has racked up more than 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons. Senior John Stokes, who’s already been accepted into Vanderbilt’s medical school, returns at one of the outside linebacker spots. The Commodores could use a healthy Tristan Strong, who tore his ACL last season as a redshirt freshman.

10. Mississippi State: Gone is hard-hitting Jamar Chaney, who came back from an injury last season and helped anchor the Bulldogs’ defense. Senior Chris White will move over to play in the middle after starting all 12 games and recording 75 tackles last season. Senior K.J. Wright returns as one of the best big-play defenders on the team after finishing with 6.5 tackles for loss and forcing two fumbles last season. After White and Wright, the Bulldogs will be counting on several younger players at linebacker.

11. Arkansas: The Hogs need to improve across the board on defense, and linebacker is no exception. Junior Jerry Franklin has started since he was a freshman and finished with 94 tackles last season. He’s capable of playing in the middle, but Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino wants to leave him at weakside linebacker and give him a chance to make more plays against both the run and pass. The Hogs still need to settle on a middle linebacker. Senior Jermaine Love and sophomore Terrell Williams were battling it out in the spring.

12. Kentucky: Junior Danny Trevathan returns at weakside linebacker. He’s the Wildcats’ leading returning tackler. But after Trevathan, there’s not much game experience at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie made a big impression on the coaches last preseason before hurting his shoulder. Sophomore Ridge Wilson is another younger player who needs to come through for the Wildcats at linebacker.

Five who just missed the cut

July, 7, 2010
7/07/10
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Trust me. Keeping a list of the SEC’s best football players to 25 was one of those tasks that rates right up there with cleaning up the driveway the day after July 4th fireworks.

There were at least 12 to 15 other players I strongly considered and agonized over, but there’s only so many spots.

That said, here are five players, listed alphabetically, who just missed the cut:

Josh Bynes, LB, Sr., Auburn: The emotional leader of the Tigers’ defense, Bynes was sixth in the SEC last season in tackles. He finished with 104 for an average of eight per game. He’s the third leading returning tackler in the league behind Vanderbilt’s Chris Marve and LSU’s Kelvin Sheppard. The 6-foot-2, 239-pound Bynes will again anchor the Auburn defense from his middle linebacker position. In addition to being one of those guys who’s always around the ball and making plays, Bynes was an iron man for the Tigers in 2009 along with running mate Craig Stevens and played every meaningful snap.

Jeff Demps, RB, Jr., Florida: He’s the SEC’s fastest man after running a 9.96 in the 100 meters last month and one of the most dynamic breakaway threats in the league. Demps has 14 touchdowns during his first two seasons at Florida and averaged a team-high 7.5 rushing yards per carry last season. He’s Florida’s leading returning rusher after finishing with 745 yards last season and will be featured even more now that Tim Tebow won’t be around to spearhead the Gators’ ground game.

Justin Houston, OLB, Jr., Georgia: Houston was one of the toughest players to leave off the top-25 list, especially after finishing third in the SEC with 7.5 sacks last season and second with 15 tackles for loss. He’s a natural pass-rusher and is only going to get better as he improves from a fundamental standpoint. Houston will be moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense and will be the guy opposing offenses scheme around.

Kentrell Lockett, DE, Sr., Ole Miss: Along with tackle Jerrell Powe, Lockett is a big reason the Rebels enter the 2010 season with what could be the best defensive front seven in the league. He finished with 10 tackles for loss last season, including five sacks, and led the Rebels with 13 quarterback hurries. He’s a complete player who plays the run equally well and also blocked a kick last season. The 6-5, 260-pound Lockett has 28 career starts and will wear the No. 38 patch on his jersey during the 2010 season after winning the Chucky Mullins Courage Award in the spring.

Warren Norman, RB/KR, So., Vanderbilt: Norman burst onto the scene last season as one of those freshmen who hadn’t been hyped up in the recruiting process and promptly played his way to SEC Freshman of the Year honors. He led the SEC in all-purpose yardage, averaging 161.8 yards per game, and broke Herschel Walker’s freshman record, which had stood for 30 years. Norman was Vanderbilt’s most effective offensive threat at running back with 783 rushing yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, but he was also one of the league’s top return men on special teams. He tied an SEC record with three kickoff returns for touchdowns.
The Football Writers Association of America on Monday published its preseason watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defensive player) and the Outland Trophy (nation's top interior lineman). As expected, the SEC was well represented on both lists.

Here's a look:

BRONKO NAGURSKI TROPHY

  • Alabama S Mark Barron
  • Alabama DE Marcell Dareus
  • South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore
  • Alabama LB Dont'a Hightower
  • Georgia LB Justin Houston
  • Florida CB Janoris Jenkins
  • Vanderbilt LB Chris Marve
  • South Carolina DE Cliff Matthews
  • LSU CB Patrick Peterson
  • Ole Miss DT Jerrell Powe
  • LSU LB Kelvin Sheppard
  • Auburn LB Craig Stevens
Note: LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was the last SEC player to win the Nagurski Trophy, doing so in 2007. Dorsey and Georgia's Champ Bailey (1998) are the two Outland Trophy recipients from the SEC.

OUTLAND TROPHY

  • Georgia T Clint Boling
  • Alabama T James Carpenter
  • Florida DT Omar Hunter
  • Florida G Carl Johnson
  • Alabama G Barrett Jones
  • Georgia C Ben Jones
  • Arkansas T DeMarcus Love
  • LSU DT Drake Nevis
  • Florida C Mike Pouncey
  • Ole Miss DT Jerrell Powe
  • Auburn T Lee Ziemba
Note: Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith was the last SEC player to win the Outland Trophy, doing so in 2008. Besides Smith, 10 others from the SEC have won the trophy.

Spring superlatives: Auburn

May, 13, 2010
5/13/10
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We spotlight Auburn today and take a look at where the Tigers were the strongest and the weakest coming out of the spring.

Strongest position: Offensive line

Key returnees: Senior left tackle Lee Ziemba, senior left guard Mike Berry, senior center Ryan Pugh, senior right guard Byron Isom.

Key departures: Right tackle Andrew McCain

The skinny: The only negative is there isn’t a lot of experience behind the starters. Otherwise, Auburn has a chance to put one of the best offensive lines in the league on the field in 2010. The Tigers return four senior starters who should be even better the second time around in Gus Malzahn’s offense, not to mention offensive line coach Jeff Grimes’ blocking schemes. Ziemba has 38 starts under his belt and Pugh 32 starts. Both are All-SEC caliber players. Berry sat out the spring after undergoing offseason knee surgery, but should be good to go when preseason practice resumes. The left side of the Tigers’ line should be particularly strong. Junior college newcomers Brandon Mosley and Roszell Gayden battled it out for the right tackle job this spring. Mosley, a converted tight end, ended the spring with a slight lead, but Gayden will give it another shot in the fall. Staying healthy will be key. That and backups Bart Eddins and John Sullen stepping up and providing some quality depth.

Weakest position: Linebacker

Key returnees: Senior middle linebacker Josh Bynes (104 tackles, six tackles for loss), senior outside linebacker Craig Stevens (95 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), sophomore safety/outside linebacker Daren Bates (70 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss)

Key departures: Adam Herring (12 tackles).

The skinny: It’s a wonder Bynes and Stevens are still standing after all of the snaps they had to play last season. They both were on the field for every defensive snap in the overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Both players are solid, too. It’s just that there aren’t a surplus of definitive answers after Bynes and Stevens. The Tigers plan to move Bates to outside linebacker after a stellar freshman season at safety. But it’s difficult to say right now how Bates will adjust to his new position. He was unable to go through spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Junior Eltoro Freeman is also a possibility after an up-and-down first season at Auburn. Freeman, who transferred in from junior college, has to shake his inconsistency if he’s going to be a starter. If Bates can successfully make the transition during preseason practice, he’ll be the third starter and play more of a hybrid role. The Tigers like the idea of getting more speed on the field at linebacker. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof made it a point to cross-train guys at different position this spring. Sophomore Jonathan Evans, who started against Alabama last season, will be a key backup at several different spots. True freshmen Jessel Curry, Jake Holland and LaDarius Owens may also find their way into the rotation. Curry enrolled early and went through spring practice.

Tigers ready to take that next step on 'D'

March, 30, 2010
3/30/10
7:27
PM ET
AUBURN, Ala. -- Help is on the way for Auburn’s defense.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that a ton of first-year players could be in the rotation for the Tigers next season, which is never ideal in the SEC.

“If there’s somebody who can help us in this signing class in the front seven, then I’d say there’s a very good chance they’re going to be out there this fall,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik, whose Tigers are in their second week of spring practice.

“That’s not the way you’d choose for it to be, but that’s just where we are right now. We’ve got to build depth on defense, which means a lot of these young guys are going to be playing.”

Linebacker Jessel Curry, the son of former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry, is already on campus and going through the spring. The same goes for defensive end Craig Sanders.

The rest of the Tigers’ top-5 signing class won’t arrive until this summer, and there are a number of defensive linemen and linebackers in that class who will get every chance to show what they’ve got.

Neither Chizik nor defensive coordinator Ted Roof is interested in pinpointing who in this class will be the quickest to play, but they’re certainly eager to find out.

Linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, along with cornerback Neiko Thorpe, played far too many snaps on defense last season. Then again, the Tigers didn’t have any choice. They dressed three scholarship linebackers for the Alabama game to end the regular season, and Bynes and Stevens played every defensive snap in the overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

“The first couple of weeks of the season, it doesn’t take its toll on you like it does at the end when those reps add up, when you’ve played 150 more plays than some other teams,” said Roof, the former head coach at Duke. “That’s two extra ballgames.

“So, yeah, some of the freshmen walking in the door … we’re counting on them being there. Obviously, you never want to count on freshmen, but we’re in a position where we’ve got to. That’s how we’re going to build this thing.”

The Tigers finished 11th in the SEC last season in total defense. They were 10th in rushing defense and gave up an SEC-high 25 rushing touchdowns.

It’s that facet of the game that again concerns Roof the most as he looks toward the 2010 season.

“We’ve got to get better against the run,” Roof said. “In order to win a championship in any league, you’ve got to be able to stop the run. If you can’t, it’s a headache that won’t go away.”

As much as anything, the added depth will allow the Tigers to practice more physically. They were scared to death last season that they were going to get somebody hurt in practice.

“Coach Chizik always says there’s tough and dumb tough,” Roof said. “We didn’t want to be the latter.”

With veteran defensive backs Aairon Savage, Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge all slated to come back from injuries, Roof has moved some guys around. Daren Bates is now working at outside linebacker following a brilliant freshman season at safety, while Demond Washington has moved from safety to cornerback.

It’s still slow-go this spring with all three of the injured veterans, but Roof is optimistic that they’re going to be ready to go in the fall, at least to some degree.

“Adding guys like Aairon Savage back to our locker room is critical,” Roof said. “A lot of guys don’t feel comfortable in leadership positions when they’re not out there going through it every day and grinding every day. A guy like him coming back is really going to help us. I don’t think you can underestimate his value.”

Bynes concedes that he and several of his teammates on defense were running on fumes toward the end of last season, especially with the Tigers having to play 11 straight weeks without a bye. They face that same gauntlet next season.

“We’re going to be a lot better with the extra numbers on defense,” Bynes said. “I remember back to my sophomore year when I rotated with Tray Blackmon and how much fresher I was. In this league, you’ve got to be 100 percent on every play, and it’s hard to do that when you’re playing as many plays as a lot of us were last year.”

And while this class will help the Tigers’ numbers on defense, Roof said this is just the start.

“There is no quick fix in this league,” he said. “We needed to sign a good class, and we need to again next year and the year after. That’s what we have to get back to.”

That is, if Auburn is going to get back to playing the kind of defense that has defined this program when it’s been at its best.

As Roof correctly points out, there was a time when it seemed like every defensive lineman that played at Auburn for a 10-year stretch ended up playing in the NFL.

“The tradition and history here of defensive football and the responsibility we have to put that product on the field is certainly one we take seriously,” Roof said. “We understand it, and we get it … and we’re going to keep working toward that standard.”

Position superlatives: Auburn

March, 18, 2010
3/18/10
11:00
AM ET
Today, we take a look at what should be the strongest and weakest positions for Auburn in 2010:

Strongest position: Offensive line

Key returnees: Lee Ziemba, Ryan Pugh, Byron Isom, Mike Berry, Bart Eddins, John Sullen

Key departures: Andrew McCain

The skinny: The Tigers' offensive line played the whole way last season with essentially five guys, and four of those starters are back. The 6-8, 310-pound Ziemba should be one of the best left tackles in the league, while Pugh was a second-team, All-SEC selection at center last season. There’s plenty of depth, too, when you look at the other players coming back, not to mention a pair of junior college newcomers – Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosley – who are on campus and will go through spring practice. Whether it’s running the football or throwing it in 2010, the Tigers will have the experience and talent up front to get it done.

Weakest position: Linebacker

Key returnees: Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, Eltoro Freeman, Jonathan Evans

Key departures: None

The skinny: Bynes and Stevens both had extremely productive seasons in 2009. The problem was that they had to play the whole game because the Tigers only had four scholarship linebackers available most of the season. Freeman should be better mentally and physically his second year in the program after coming over from junior college, and Evans was forced into action against Alabama and collected eight tackles. There’s some talk that the Tigers may take a look at Daren Bates at linebacker this spring. As a freshman safety last season, he was fourth on the team with 70 tackles. However it shakes out, Auburn needs to build more depth at the position. Highly rated freshman signee LaDarius Owens will be another one to watch.

Midseason review: Auburn

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
12:07
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Thanks to a soft schedule, Auburn probably wasn’t as good as the Tigers looked those first five games, but that still doesn’t diminish the job that first-year coach Gene Chizik and his staff have done to this point. The Tigers (5-2, 2-2) have lost their last two games after starting out 5-0 and being nationally ranked at one point. The 21-14 home loss last week to Kentucky was particularly troubling. That’s one you’ve got to win if you’re planning on a big season. A lack of depth is a problem at a number of different spots, and the defense looks like it might be treading water. Offensively, the Tigers need to get quarterback Chris Todd back on track. His production has gone way down the last two weeks after he looked great during the five-game winning streak to start the season.

Offensive MVP: RB Ben Tate. The SEC is loaded with quality running backs this season, but Tate deserves to be right up there with any of them. He’s second only to Mark Ingram in the SEC with 856 rushing yards and has gained 128 yards or more in each of his last three games. He’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry on the season. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is feeding him the ball, and the senior is delivering with his best season.

Defensive MVP: LB Craig Stevens. The 6-3, 223-pound junior has been an iron man for the Tigers, as all three of the starting linebackers have had to play too many snaps this season. Stevens is third in the SEC with 62 total tackles and leads the team with 5.5 tackles for loss. He’s also tied for the team lead in quarterback hurries with five and has been the Tigers’ most consistent performer on a defense that has taken it on the chin.

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