SEC: Da'Runnya Wilson

We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It’s been nearly three months since the Super Bowl, and Dan Mullen is still gloating.

Before the big game in early February, he told his assistant coaches at Mississippi State to pay attention to Percy Harvin. He didn’t care that Harvin was more statue than standout for Seattle during the season. He took one look at Harvin's underwhelming production due to injuries -- three games played, four receptions, no touchdowns -- and knew not to be fooled.

Mullen understood the cold hard truth about playmakers like Harvin, whom he coached as offensive coordinator at Florida: In the biggest moments, they always show up.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDan Mullen is looking for guys who can score, and the Mississippi State offense looks to have some options this fall.
“They said Percy wasn’t going to play much,” Mullen recalled. “I said, ‘It’s the Super Bowl. He’s playing. And not only is he playing, if they kick it to him he will score. As soon as he touches the ball on a kickoff in the open field, he will score.’ [Defensive coordinator] Geoff Collins texted me and said, ‘C’mon man!’”

On his first touch, Harvin took an end around 30 yards. After a short reception, he carried another end around 15 yards for a first down. And then, on the opening kickoff of the second half, he ran the ball back 87 yards for a touchdown.

Voilą!

Now if only Mullen could make another Percy Harvin magically appear.

When Mullen arrived at State in 2008, he was greeted with the usual sort of optimism. And in terms of wins, he has delivered, taking the Bulldogs to a bowl game in each of the last four seasons. But in terms of hype, he’s fallen short of creating the kind of dynamic offense he became known for at Florida, featuring multitalented weapons like Harvin, Tim Tebow and Chris Rainey. Instead, his quarterbacks have been inconsistent, his receivers underwhelming and his running backs, while productive, have never been home-run hitters.

This year Mullen hopes to change that. He sees playmakers emerging. Dak Prescott, who is being billed as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, won’t have to do it all on his own.

“We ask, Who can score?” Mullen said. “Dak can’t score. He can score inside the 5, but that means we have to get the ball all the way down inside the 5. But in the SEC, who can score? … Who in the field can make you miss, take a 5-yard play and turn it into a 50-yard play? That’s important to us.”

Because of his height (5-foot-9) and role as receiver/return specialist, Jameon Lewis fits the Harvin mold the best of any player on State’s roster. He may not have his top-end speed, but he has a version of it. And even a poor man’s Harvin can score plenty, as Lewis did with five receiving and three rushing touchdowns last season. His 118.2 all-purpose yards per game ranked sixth in the SEC.

Consistency, though, will be key. Of Lewis’ eight touchdowns, six were against sub-.500 or non-BCS opponents.

“We have to consistently get the ball in his hands,” Mullen said, whether that's motioning him in the backfield or having him take direct snaps. “He’s certainly helped himself as a wide receiver learning to be a route-runner. Instead of saying, ‘Hey coach, put the ball in my hands and I can run around like I did in high school and make stuff happen,’ I said, ‘Hey, you have to get open. You have to run routes so we can get the ball in your hands first.’”

Helping Lewis will be De'Runnya Wilson, who present his own set of challenges at 6-5 with the ability to jump out of the gym. The part-time basketball player came into his own late during his freshman season, catching 16 passes and two touchdowns over his final five games. As Mullen said, “He might not run away from you, but one-on-one he can go over you.”

Wilson’s size and Lewis’ escapability play well off one another, making for a tough assignment on defense, Collins explained.

“De’Runnya is a big, physical receiver out on the edge,” he said. “Jameon is a mismatch for linebackers or even some nickel backs. And then you have Dak, who can throw it with the best of them and then is a threat to run, which makes it difficult for a play-caller to make sure you’re hitting all the right bases.”

LaDarius Perkins and Vick Ballard were solid running backs, but this season's group has the chance to be special.

“We’re better at running back this year than we were last year,” Mullen said. “Now that’s hard to say with Perkins being gone, who was a great player for us. But Josh Robinson is really now to the point where he’s developed into a legit back. He knows what he’s doing out there on the field. Ashton Shumpert is back, now with experience. Nick Griffin is as healthy as he’s been in three years. And I finally smartened up and put Brandon Holloway -- he was a high school tailback at 165 pounds that we tried to make into a slot receiver, he’s the fastest kid on the team -- back at running back.

“I hate comparing him to anyone up north,” Mullen added of Holloway, “but he’s a Dexter McCluster type player who isn’t a big guy, but plays off of contact a lot bigger than he is. … He’s electric in the perimeter and is physical enough of a player.”

Prescott, for his part, couldn’t help but smile. Running the read-option with those backs could be lethal. And as good as Lewis and Wilson could be, there’s also Joe Morrow and Robert Johnson to consider.

Prescott pointed to the come-from-behind victory over Ole Miss and the 44-point, 533-yard win against Rice as only the start of where the offense is headed.

“We have experience coming back at every position,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of talented receivers, big and small. They can do all do different things. We’ve got a great group of running backs that performed well this offseason.

“We can be as good as we want to.”
Three things we learned in the spring about the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

1. Expectations are fine: Mississippi State has long relished the underdog role behind Alabama, LSU and Auburn. But no longer. Armed with a dark horse Heisman contender at quarterback and a defense high on depth and talent, Dan Mullen and his staff are embracing sky-high expectations this spring as a legitimate contender to win the West and reach the SEC championship game.

2. Leadership on both sides: Mullen is in a position most coaches only dream about. Not only does he have a strong leader on offense and defense, but both players happen to be among the most talented athletes on the team. Dak Prescott, who dealt with injury and personal loss last season, is the heartbeat of the offense at quarterback, while veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney guides the defense after posting 173 tackles the last two seasons.

3. 1A and 1B: Chris Jones, who emerged as one of the most talented freshmen in the SEC last season, isn’t technically a starter. Instead, he’s a defensive lineman with the 1Bs. That’s how deep Mississippi State’s defense will be. Instead of ones and twos, coordinator Geoff Collins has a 1A and 1B unit. Both are littered with returning starters at all levels. Of the 25 or so players who saw action in 2013, 22 were back on campus this spring.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesMississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott had a stellar outing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl win over Rice, completing 17 of 28 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns.
1. Prescott’s evolution: He has the intangibles. He has the talent. But what do we really know about Prescott? He has shown flashes of promise and finished last season with a bang, but we’ve yet to see consistency from the unseasoned starter. For him to become a legitimate Heisman contender, he’ll have to put the offense on his shoulders and take his team to another level.

2. Help on offense: Prescott won’t be able to do it on his own, though. Playmakers must emerge on offense. Mullen likes the tandem of Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson at wide receiver, and the running back situation is bright with Josh Robinson leading the charge. But like Prescott, they’re all largely unproven in their careers.

3. Kicking game: During the final practice before the spring game, Mississippi State’s kickers missed everything from extra points to chip shots. Groans could be heard from the sidelines every time the ball sailed shy of the goalpost. While Mullen has a lot to like about his offense and defense, without a strong kicking game it could all be for naught.

One way-too-early prediction:

Mississippi State’s schedule could be its savior as much as its doom. A nonconference slate of Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and UT-Martin should be a cakewalk. Crossover games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky is as undaunting as it gets in the SEC. So where are the tests? Playing down to the level of competition could ultimately backfire against Alabama, LSU and Auburn.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Make no mistake, Dan Mullen is a coach who thinks offense first. In addition to being the head coach at Mississippi State, he fancies himself the quarterbacks coach, sitting in on meetings and delivering pointers during practice. He wants his offense to go places in 2014, and with Dak Prescott, Jameon Lewis and Da’Runnya Wilson in place, he has the tools to see that vision through.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDan Mullen sees the defense as Mississippi State's strength.
But Mullen is also a practical man. He knows that however good his offense is or however good it will be, Mississippi State will rely most heavily on its defense. He acknowledges that the unit, led by defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, is the strength of the program entering a season that promises to be special as both players and coaches are embracing expectations now, rather than playing the familiar role of underdog in the SEC West.

Mississippi State has the momentum of three straight wins to end last season thanks to its defense, which surrendered an average of 11.3 points per game against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Rice. If not for the scoreless second half the defense pitched in the Egg Bowl, the tenor of this spring might have been much different. The fairytale ending might have gone sideways.

“They grew up,” Mullen said of his defense, which lost three-quarters of its secondary from 2012, and then watched as its only returning starter, Jay Hughes, went down with a season-ending injury Week 1 against Oklahoma State. It was an uphill battle, but the defense eventually coalesced. “Coming into the season, we knew we had talent on the defensive side of the ball. We were just young. Both corners had gone on to the NFL. Our corners now are maybe better. They just hadn’t played. They were developing.”

It must be ringing in his ears constantly, because in multiple conversations with Mullen over the past few months he’s cited the fact that of the 25 or so defensive players who saw action a season ago, 22 are back. It’s been an emphasis for obvious reasons. There aren’t many SEC teams that can boast such strong numbers, which are usually a good indicator of future success. By developing them even further this spring -- “We put the pressure on them,” Mullen said -- the hope is they will become a defense capable of keeping Mississippi State close in games.

Losing Deontae Skinner, Nickoe Whitley and Denico Autry hurt, but there’s reason for optimism at every level of the defense this spring. Chris Jones is poised to become a household name on the defensive line, and he’s not even technically a starter, Nick James, a highly rated defensive tackle coming out of high school a season ago, is developing quickly, and the secondary is loaded with talent at corner and safety.

As Collins said: “They got thrown into the fire of SEC play last year. Now they’ve had a spring to sink their teeth into it.”

“He’s such a big, physical presence,” Collins said of Jones. “He’s a freakish athlete. The good thing about him is everyone talks about him a lot and he’s a high-profile kid, but the thing that’s nice about Chris is he knew his fundamentals and his technique had to improve. Last year we had to rely on his God-given ability. So he really took the time to be with [defensive line coach David Turner] to focus on technique, focus on fundamentals, really learn the scheme even more and invest in playing hard.”

[+] EnlargeJustin Cox
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJustin Cox is expected to be an impact player on defense this fall.
Collins was overwhelmingly positive in assessing his defense this spring. The two major questions he said he had entering the spring -- leadership and an eagerness to compete -- his defense passed with flying colors. Getting Benardrick McKinney back for his senior year was a huge boost in both areas.

“He’s such a great kid,” Collins said of McKinney, who is a vocal presence during every practice. “He’s blessed to be 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and run a 4.6. He has a 40-inch vertical jump. But he’s even a better kid than he is an athlete. His attention to detail, a great leader.

“The nice thing for us is we have Dak Prescott, who’s an incredible leader on the offense, and then you have Benardrick McKinney, who’s an incredible leader on the defensive side of the ball. And both of them are big-time players for us. So that’s a nice thing to have during the summer when the coaches can’t be around.”

It’s not just the front seven that has Collins excited, though. The secondary, he said, has “10 kids that can play SEC ball.”

“It’s just a lot of confidence, a lot of positive guys about kids who can step in and play for us,” he said.

One such defensive back to watch is Justin Cox, who was a high-profile junior college transfer to Mississippi State last season that ultimately played more of a reserve role at cornerback. Now he’s been moved to safety, where he said he’s much more comfortable.

At 6-3 and in the neighborhood of 200 pounds, he fits the part. Mullen called him a “violent, aggressive player with some toughness -- and he runs a 4.3 [40-yard dash] so he can cover lots of ground out there.”

“You can see the light coming on for him,” Collins said. “He’s going to be another kid with tremendous physical gifts. With more confidence we’ll see him make a big impact for us.”

Armed with confidence, talent and depth, look for the entire Mississippi State defense to take off. The end of last season might have just been the prelude. Now Mullen and his staff hope they’re ready to turn the defense into the blockbuster surprise of the SEC.

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