SEC: Daryl Collins
Coach: Mark Stoops (0-0)
2012 record: 2-10, 0-8 SEC
Key returnees: QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Dyshawn Mobley, DT Mister Cobble, DT Donte Rumph, DE Alvin Dupree, LB Avery Williamson
Newcomer to watch: Junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith had a great spring and summer and should be able to make an immediate impact at defensive end this fall.
Biggest games in 2013: Western Kentucky (in Nashville), Aug. 31; Louisville, Sept. 14; Florida, Sept. 28; Missouri, Nov. 9; at Vanderbilt, Nov. 16; Tennessee, Nov. 30
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Wildcats might have three quarterbacks competing for the starting job, but figuring out who will catch passes from any of them is still a mystery. There is a lot of potential at receiver, but there isn't any real production or consistency coming back. Junior Demarco Robinson and sophomore Daryl Collins were expected to break out in 2012, but combined for just 45 catches and 468 yards with no touchdowns. Highly recruited freshman Ryan Timmons and junior college transfer Javess Blue will have every opportunity to be fixtures at receiver this fall.
Forecast: Stoops has quite the task in his first season with the Wildcats. The good news is that the defensive-minded coach will have a lot of talent and experience to work with along his defensive line. Past coaches waited and waited for defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to reach their potential. Now, it seems like both are ready to do that and more this fall. Helping them out will be Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who is one of the league's best pass-rushers and moved from linebacker to end when the Wildcats went from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. Having Za'Darius Smith and freshman Jason Hatcher at the ends should make this line even more athletic this fall.
There are mixed reviews at running back. Even with the loss of Josh Clemons for the second straight year, the Wildcats have senior Raymond Sanders and sophomore Dyshawn Mobley, who is returning from hernia surgery. Both had good springs, but with Clemons' injury and the departure of Justin Taylor, both have to remain healthy because there isn't much depth at all.
There's a three-headed quarterback battle that carried into camp. Sophomore Jalen Whitlow left spring with the edge, but he still has to beat Maxwell Smith, who began last season as the starter before injuries took his season, and classmate Patrick Towles.
Players have to step up at receiver and tight end, and the Wildcats are thin at linebacker after Dupree's move to the defensive line. Three starters from the secondary are gone; Kentucky is getting some help, but it's coming in the form of the 2013 signees.
Stoops knows he has a lot of issues to work through in his first season, and while a bowl game could be a lofty goal, there's no doubt the Wildcats will be more competitive in 2013. Stoops certainly wants to win this fall, but a lot of the season will be devoted to development for the future.
We've missed you guys, but we can't do it without you, so don't forget to send in as many questions as you want each week. We get comments a lot, but questions get published. Remember that.
On to the questions:
Phillip in Little Rock, Ark., writes: Every year we hear how the gap between the SEC and the rest is narrowing and every year that prophecy proves incorrect. The SEC always has seven or more teams in the Top 15 in recruiting every year. What is your take on this? Do you think the gap is narrowing, and if not how much longer can it go on?
Edward Aschoff: Well, if you look at the SEC recruiting classes right now, it doesn't look like that trend is going to end in 2014. Nine SEC teams are currently ranked within the top 15 of the ESPN class rankings, and one of those teams is Kentucky. South Carolina and Vanderbilt will push to get in there as well, as the year goes by. I think the SEC could be in store for its toughest few years coming up. There are maybe five or six legitimate national championship contenders in the SEC right now and I think the league will be even better next year.
Alabama will still be elite, while Florida and Georgia could be very, very good in 2014. LSU will be more experienced, South Carolina might get hurt along the defensive line, but should return a lot of talent pretty much everywhere else. Texas A&M will likely lose Johnny Manziel, but will be stacked at the skill positions and in the front seven. Vanderbilt will be good again, Tennessee should be better, Auburn could be a real threat in the West and Ole Miss will display more of that impressive 2013 class.
But the league could really beat up on itself in the next few years. The good news for the conference is the first two years of the playoff will come with only eight conference games. You'll see the SEC champ in the four-team playoff, but getting a second team in the playoff could be tough if the conference gets 10 legit BCS conference games before the SEC championship.
dropkicked meeko in Atlanta writes: In regards to your recent future power rankings, how far will UK rise if they have two top 10 classes back to back, and do you think they can keep these guys from switching commitments to other SEC powers?
Edward Aschoff: Interesting choice in your name there. Meeko is actually looked at as a hero on the blog. You must be a rookie or just learning your way around the blog. You'll learn to love him. As for Kentucky, I think you'll only see the Wildcats rise in the power rankings if the defense can look out for the offense more often than not. The defense is in very good hands with Mark Stoops in charge, but the Wildcats have to find consistent playmakers on offense. There are no true go-to guys on the roster at the skill positions. The good news is that running backs Raymond Sanders and Dyshawn Mobley really impressed this spring and incoming freshman receiver Ryan Timmons could be a stud. There are some youngsters who have shown flashes here and there, like Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins, but consistency has been an issue for this offense the last couple of years.
Development is key. Stoops will be able to recruit, especially in and around Ohio, but he and his assistants have to start developing because they just didn't happen before he got there. Players have to buy in and they have to mature on the field or the wins won't come. It can't just be about recruiting. If Stoops continues to recruit well and real development takes place, Kentucky will move up.
Caleb in Big Rock/TN writes: Do you think Tennessee can sustain the recuiting success they are having this season over the next couple of years?
Edward Aschoff: It's hard to say right now because no games have been played. I think Butch Jones has brought some real excitement to the program and the recruiting trail. But we all know that this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and if recruits aren't impressed with the Vols this fall or start paying attention to other, more successful schools, it could hurt Tennessee next year. One thing he can sell is that there is plenty of playing time out there for prospects to have once they get on campus. That will really help. I think Jones is doing a great job, but wins and losses go a long way, and fans have seen Tennessee reel in top recruits with little results coming on the field.
Bruce in Osceola, Mo., writes: Do you think Missouri will be bowl eligible this year? When do you think Missouri will be competitive in the SEC?
Edward Aschoff: If the offense stays healthy and quarterback James Franklin plays with the confidence he had in 2011, the Tigers will go bowling. I think the defense will be fine. The defensive line played pretty well this spring and has good depth, and the secondary should be decent. I worry about the youth at linebacker, but a good front can hide those issues. For me, it's about that offense getting its act together. It has to be a tougher unit all around. This team just wasn't built for SEC play last year. There is so much talent at receiver and running back, but inconsistency and those injuries to Franklin and the offensive line killed the receiving corps last year. Running back Henry Josey has what it takes to be a star, but he can't do it alone.
There are four nonconference games out there for this team to win, leaving just two SEC games. The game at Vanderbilt is big, along with the home game against Tennessee and the trip to Kentucky. There are two wins there if the Tigers can stay healthy. If not, it's going to be tough with the rest of the SEC slate that Missouri has. I think the Tigers squeak by with six wins.
As for finally becoming truly competitive, it'll happen when the lines get bigger, more SEC-caliber players get on campus. Missouri was behind in the physical department last year. Recruiting has to get better from here on out, too.
Dave in Belton, Texas, writes: The August date for the Aggies and Tide in College Station is interesting to me. Both are working in new-but-good offensive lines, and both are retooling defensive lines. D-Line wasn't necessarily the strength for either team last year, and now it's an open question for both. Is it going to be harder for the Aggies' new D-Line to stop the Bama power game, or for the new Bama D-Line to keep their contain on Manziel? Which team would benefit the most from moving this game to November?
Edward Aschoff: I think Texas A&M will have a tougher time stopping Alabama because that running game just pounds and pounds and pounds. The Aggies lost so much in that front seven, especially along the defensive line. Replacing Damontre Moore will be tough enough, but two senior tackles are gone as well. Kirby Ennis started 11 games last year, but ran into legal trouble before spring practice and was suspended. Youngsters like Alonzo Williams, Tyrone Taylor and Tyrell Taylor will be thrown right into the fire this fall. You'll see some growing pains up front for the Aggies against Alabama. Alabama's defensive line isn't great right now, and playmakers still have to step up, but I think having a solid linebacker corps coming back and Kirby Smart running the defense will go a long way to stopping Manziel. Now, I'm not saying Manziel will be ineffective against the Tide, but I do think Alabama's defense will be much better prepared to defend him. Remember, Smart and his defense made great adjustments in the second half of this game last year.
It's time to check out Kentucky's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season:
Strongest position: Defensive line
New coach Mark Stoops really lucked out when it came to his defensive line. The Wildcats have the pieces in place up front to cause some real discomfort for opposing offenses. The foundation up front could help mask the issues the Wildcats have at linebacker and in the secondary due to inexperience. Inside, Kentucky has starters Donte Rumph and Tristian Johnson return, along with the talented Mister Cobble, who showed vast improvement last year and this spring. Rumph registered four sacks and six tackles for loss last year, while Cobble and Johnson combined for 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Two starters are gone outside, but Alvin Dupree is moving from linebacker to end. He was Kentucky's best pass-rusher last year (12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks) and could be even more of a threat to passing games with his hand in the ground. Dupree is All-SEC material. And he'll have help from junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who registered 47 tackles, 11 for loss and 6.5 sacks at the juco ranks last fall. He had a very good spring and should come in and make an immediate impact. Freshman Jason Hatcher should also help on the outside as well.
Weakest position: Secondary and/or pass-catchers
The Wildcats are really hurting to find a consistent receiving threat now that La'Rod King is gone. Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins will be in their third years this fall, and while they have big-play potential, they just haven't been able to live up to that potential. Yes, the quarterback play hasn't been great, but there comes a point where players have to step up and figure out a way to make plays. Both players were held under 300 yards last year. It doesn't help that three seniors are gone, making this a very young group overall. Only four players return with any experience from last year, with only Robinson catching more than 20 passes. Freshman Ryan Timmons has a chance to play right away, along with juco standouts Javess Blue and Steven Borden, who was on campus this spring.
As for the secondary, the Wildcats lost three starters and safety Ashely Lowery is working his way back onto the field after his horrific car accident. Both cornerback and safety are littered with youngsters, which means that incoming players will have a pretty good shot at getting valuable playing time. Regardless, the secondary is going to be younger and more inexperienced than Stoops would like in his first year. Sophomore corners J.D. Harmon (two interceptions), Cody Quinn (five pass breakups) and Fred Tiller (two pass breakups) are the only returners with any stats at corner. There is a little more experience at safety, but not much. Getting senior Dakotah Tyler back from his knee injury will be big, but he's only played sparingly for the Cats during his career.
2012 conference record: 0-8 (seventh, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1
QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Dyshawn Mobley, DT Mister Cobble, DT Donte Rumph, DE Alvin Dupree, LB Avery Williamson
RB CoShik Williams, WR La’Rod King, OG Larry Warford, C Matt Smith, DE Collins Ukwu, DE Taylor Wyndham, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Raymond Sanders* (669 yards)
Passing: Maxwell Smith* (975 yards)
Receiving: La’Rod King (488 yards)
Tackles: Avery Williamson* (135)
Sacks: Alvin Dupree* (6.5)
Interceptions: J.D. Harmon* (2)
1. Stout defensive line: New coach Mark Stoops has to be very happy with the foundation he has along his defensive line. There has always been potential with guys like Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, but they've never truly put things together. However, the entire line impressed this spring and should be driving force for Kentucky’s defense. Rumph missed most of spring with a shoulder injury, but should be fine this fall. Having Dupree at end in the new 4-3 scheme now provides the Cats with a top-notch pass-rusher. Add junior-college transfer defensive end Za'Darius Smith, and Kentucky should certainly hold its own up front this fall.
2. Comfort at running back: Stoops is still searching for more playmakers on offense, but he was pretty happy with what he saw from his running backs this spring, especially senior Raymond Sanders and Dyshawn Mobley. Sanders has been around for a while, but he’s battled health issues. Mobley did well last season as a freshman, but really stepped up this spring. Josh Clemons is back from his 2011 knee injury and showed flashes of his old playmaking self at times this spring.
3. Offensive line feeling fine: The Wildcats might have lost two mainstays up front in Larry Warford and Matt Smith, but it sounds like the line did well without them around. Redshirt freshman Zach Myers spent the spring in Matt Smith’s spot, and both tackles -- Kevin Mitchell and Darrian Miller -- return. However, Mitchell worked inside this spring and the very large Jordan Swindle spent the majority of his time at right tackle with the first-team line.
1. Whitlow’s time?: The Cats have a three-headed quarterback competition on their hands, but it sounds like Jalen Whitlow, who was a true freshman last year, has the edge heading into summer workouts. He moved past Maxwell Smith (last year’s starter before injuries ended his season early) and Towles after having the most impressive outing during the spring game. Whitlow really showed a lot of improvement this spring and is probably the most athletic of the three. Still, Stoops has said competition will continue this fall.
2. Searching for a go-to receiver: La'Rod King is gone, so the coaches are searching for someone to be a consistent target for whichever quarterback wins the starting job. There were only six scholarship receivers on the team this spring and there isn’t a ton of experience there. Demarco Robinson returns with 28 catches from last year and has shown that he’s an explosive player, but he has to be more consistent going forward. Daryl Collins is next in line and has shown playmaking flashes as well, but caught just 17 passes last year.
3. Help at linebacker and the secondary: The Cats are thin at linebacker and throughout the secondary. Kentucky lost three starters in the secondary and Dupree moved to defensive line this spring. Avery Williamson will provide an anchor at middle linebacker and Miles Simpson is back on the outside, but there isn’t a lot of experience at linebacker, and Stoops didn’t sign any in his first class. Junior starting safety Ashely Lower's recent car accident has his status for the season unknown, and there isn’t much experience in the secondary. Help is on the way in terms of numbers with the 2013 class, but the youth back there will likely have to deal with a lot of growing pains this fall.
What's new: The entire coaching staff is new in Lexington. Former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops replaced Joker Phillips as the Wildcats' head coach. Neal Brown takes over as Kentucky's offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, while D.J. Eliot left FSU with Stoops to become the Wildcats' defensive coordinator/linebackers coach. Derrick Ansley is Kentucky's new cornerbacks coach and Jimmy Brumbaugh takes over as the new defensive line coach. Tommy Mainord will coach wide receivers, while Vince Marrow will coach up the Wildcats' tight ends. Bradley Dale Peveto will coach the safeties and be the special teams coordinator. John Schlarman will coach Kentucky's offensive line, while Chad Scott coaches running backs.
On the mend: Running back Josh Clemons missed all of last season with a knee injury that he suffered halfway through the 2011 season and could be limited this spring. The amount he works out this spring will depend on well his knee responds. Rising senior safety Dakotah Tyler will miss spring ball while he recovers from a knee injury he suffered last year. Freshman cornerback Shawn Blaylock also suffered a knee injury last year and is still recovering as well. Tight end Anthony Kendrick will also miss spring practice with a foot injury.
On the move: Junior Alvin Dupree played both linebacker and defensive end last year, but the coaches want him to focus more on end this spring. With a new staff, position changes are expected to develop as practice continues and the new staff gets to see how players look on the field.
New faces: The Wildcats welcomed in three early enrollees. Junior college transfers Za'Darius Smith (defensive end) and Steven Borden (tight end) joined true freshman quarterback Reese Phillips.
Question marks: With wide receiver La'Rod King gone, Kentucky is in desperate need of someone stepping up to be the go-to guy in the passing game. King wasn't a game-changer, but he was the team's most reliable offensive weapon in 2012. Youngsters Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins will be looked at first, and while both have big-play potential, they both have a lot of room to grow on the field. The Wildcats also looking for someone to take over at the running backs spot. The good news is that a handful of players come back, but finding that No. 1 guy is a priority. The Wildcats also lost three starters in the defensive backfield. Replacing do-it-all safety Martavius Neloms will be particularly hard for the Wildcats to do, but there are young options for Kentucky's new staff.
Key battle: With injuries derailing Maxwell Smith's second year as the Wildcats' starting quarterback, all eyes will be on this position. Along with Smith, who needed ankle surgery last year, Kentucky will have two rising sophomores competing this spring in Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who both saw time last year. Smith enters the spring as the starter, but he will have to hold off the two youngsters, who gained valuable experience last year. Plus, this is a new staff, so Smith's spot from a year go isn't guaranteed. With the heavy amount of passing Brown wants out of his offense, figuring out the quarterback situation is the top priority for the Wildcats this spring.
Breaking out: Really, anyone at wide receiver is a candidate to break out because the Cats expect to sling the ball around a ton this spring. Robinson was a candidate to break out last year, but fell short of expectations. Collins has the potential too with his playmaking ability, but he also he still has a lot of room for improvement. The same can be said at the tight end position as well. Stoops was very excited about the offseason reports he got about Za'Darius Smith in the weight room and with Collins Ukwu gone, he's expected to start right away. Offensive tackle Jordan Swindle was a backup last year and the previous staff really raved about him. Two starters are gone up front so he could get a shot to move around and help even more this spring. Also, keep an eye on young running backs Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor.
Don't forget about: The Cats' strength could be the defensive line this year. Bringing in Za'Darius Smith was big, but Kentucky also returns rising senior defensive tackles Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson. Rumph and Cobble finally started playing up to their potential last season, and are expected to be even better this fall. Stoops and Eliot have to be pretty excited about working with this group.
All eyes on: With a team that has struggled as much as the Wildcats have over the last two years, everyone will be watching to see how players respond to a new coaching staff. Stoops brings in a more defensive-minded philosophy, but he certainly understands how important it will be to get the offense off the ground. Brown's high-flying pass attack has fans excited, but players have to buy into the new scheme and have to get comfortable with it this spring. It's all about finding the right level of comfort in Lexington this spring.
I'll handle the Eastern Division, while Chris takes a look at the West later today.
I've added some notes of my own for each team:
- The first thing you notice is that "Or" comes up a few times. The quarterback spot is still up for grabs, as sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will play by quarters against Bowling Green Saturday. The "X" receiver spot has three names by it with Frankie Hammond, Latroy Pittman and Andre Debose competing for that spot. Everyone is still waiting for Debose to be more of a complete player.
- Both corner spots might appear to be up for grabs, but it would be a shocker if sophomores Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy didn't start. Roberson has the talent to be an All-SEC player at some point, while the staff thinks Purifoy is an extremely athletic player. Also, seeing Antonio Morrison behind Jelani Jenkins is impressive. He's been solid since arriving this spring.
- You don't see De'Ante Saunders on there at free safety. Will Muschamp said he's battling a hamstring injury and will be out two weeks. Corner Jeremy Brown is also battling a wrist injury and isn't on the two-deep, either.
Depth chart (Page 2)
- It's hard to say how much we can really make of Georgia's depth chart. Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree are both listed as starters. Rambo and Ogletree could still sit out a couple of games due to their reported failed drug tests this spring and Mark Richt hasn't said if either will play Saturday.
- Malcolm Mitchell is listed as a starter at cornerback, opposite Branden Smith, and is a third-team receiver. That sounds about right, as Mitchell has primarily played corners since the spring. He has taken some reps on offense, so you might see him on both sides of the ball Saturday.
- Two guys to keep an eye on are center David Andrews and outside linebacker Ramik Wilson. Andrews might be the key to the offensive line. He has done very well at center and there was some worry that he might not be cut out of the position. If he had to move this line might have been in disarray. Wilson received a lot of praise from his teammates this spring and he continued to show out this fall. He won't outshine Jarvis Jones this fall, but he'll cause a stir on defense.
- You can tell that the Wildcats aren't afraid to throw out some younger players this fall. Kentucky has 24 sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen listed on its two-deep for Saturday. That's a lot, especially for a team that is looking to revamp both sides of the ball. There could be a lot of growing pains for this team early.
- Sophomore receiver Demarco Robinson and redshirt freshman receiver Daryl Collins might be currently listed as backups for the Cats, but don't let that fool you. Both have been very impressive since the spring and both will get plenty of chances to see the field Saturday. Having three senior starters at wide receiver will help bring those two along, but I expect them to breakthrough eventually.
- You won't see sophomore Josh Clemons listed on the two-deep at running back, as he's out after his knee was cleaned up. CoShik Williams and Raymond Sanders are listed as co-starters. I'm also curious to see what happens at linebacker. Four new starters are in and there were questions surrounding the weakside position. Former quarterback Tyler Brause moved ahead of Malcolm McDuffen, who exited spring as a starter. Joker Phillips has said this will be a day-to-day competition.
- The Tigers enter Week 1 against Southeastern Louisiana pretty banged up, especially on the offensive line. Potential starting guards Jack Meiners (knee) and Travis Ruth (triceps) are both out with injuries, and so is backup right tackle Taylor Chappell, who tore the ACL in his left knee and is out for the season. Starting corner Kip Edwards and projected starting free safety Braylon Webb are listed as doubtful with knee injuries. It's probably best to rest these guys if they could aggravate their injuries before the Georgia game next week.
- Gary Pinkel also announced on Monday that running back Henry Josey is out for the season. He hasn't recovered from his devastating knee injury, but this was no surprise at all.
- Some good news is that four starters -- linebacker Will Ebner, nose guard Matt Hoch, wide receiver L'Damian Washington and tight end Eric Waters -- made the two-deep after they were held out of last week's scrimmage. Listed behind Waters at the tight end/"Y" receiver spot is freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. Missouri wants to use him both inside and out, so expect him to move around Saturday.
- Sophomore Kony Ealy and junior Michael Sam are listed as the starting defensive ends, with senior Brad Madison behind Sam. Madison's shoulder has healed, but maybe it says more about how far the others have come. Madison should still get solid reps, but keep an eye on Ealy. He has breakout potential.
- The first thing that stands out to me is that top signee Shaq Roland is listed as a third-team wide receiver behind Ace Sanders and DeAngelo Smith. It might say more about how the others have done, but Roland is someone this staff has been very excited about and hopes he can make an instant impact on offense. He isn't taking Sanders' spot, but he'll get on the field.
- That secondary looks pretty green without Akeem Auguste in it. He's out after tearing a muscle in his right thigh, meaning junior Jimmy Legree, who moved from safety this spring will get the start against Vanderbilt Thursday. Legree began last season as a starter, but lost his spot after struggling during the first two games. First-time starter Victor Hampton is at the other corner spot. He's unproven, but the staff is excited about his talent and athleticism.
- Freshman tight end Jerell Adams might be listed as a second-teamer, but the coaches have been very impressed by him this fall and he'll have every chance to get some solid playing time early.
- Junior Rajion Neal did a good job of staying ahead in the running back race. After an impressive spring, he will enter Friday's opener against NC State as the Vols' starter. He edged out Devrin Young and Marlin Lane, who both made good strides this spring. He has a lot of pressure to deal with, as Tennessee was awful running that ball in 2011.
- Tennessee is hoping to get much more out of its defensive line this fall and junior college transfers Daniel McCullers and Darrington Sentimore could be the answers. Both came in with a ton of hype and snatched starting spots at nose guard and end, respectively. McCullers' arrival moved Maurice Couch from tackle to end. Derek Dooley has said the line is still a work in progress, but a lot is expected from Sentimore and McCullers.
- Byron Moore and Brent Brewer are listed as co-starters right now, but Moore let it slip last week that he was named the starter. This could be another position that won't be settled right away. The secondary will get a nice test against the Wolfpack, so that could make things clearer for Week 2.
- Redshirt junior Warren Norman is back, but he might have to wait his turn for reps. He's listed on Vandy's second team, but Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour are on the first team. If the Commodores line up with two backs Seymour could be out there before Norman, who is coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2011.
- The defensive side has a few guys who were banged up listed as starters. Inside linebacker Chase Garnham was limited during fall camp, but he's set to start Thursday against South Carolina. So are defensive tackles Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter.
- Looking at that offensive line, you'll see nothing but underclassmen on the second team. While that's a good sign for the future, it could be worrisome for this staff if a starter goes down this fall. Staying healthy up front is critical for this team.
This time, we're taking it a little further by involving all of the new faces that could see the field this fall.
Today, we're looking at true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers and junior college transfers who could help teams right away. So we don't get too cluttered, we're picking three players from each team.
I'll take a look at the candidates in the Eastern Division, while Chris will pick his Western Division players later today.
Let's see who could strut his respective stuff in the East this fall:
- Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Fr.: Will Muschamp wants as many pass-rushers as he can get, and Fowler has been very impressive this fall. He should be used at the Buck position to rush in third-down situations.
- Damien Jacobs, DT, JC: He has been impressive since arriving this spring and should be in Florida's line rotation. He's made the biggest impact in practice stopping the run.
- Latroy Pittman, WR, Fr.: He isn't the fastest receiver out there, but Pittman was one of Florida's most consistent players this spring and should have every opportunity to get solid playing time this fall.
- Todd Gurley, RB, Fr.: He didn't arrive until the fall, but he's been a practice favorite for coaches and teammates. Ken Malcome might have been named the starter, but Gurley should still push for that spot.
- Marshall Morgan, K, Fr.: Georgia's kicking game was hard to watch last year, but Marshall was signed to ease that pain. He's the favorite to land Georgia's place-kicking job this fall.
- John Theus, OT, Fr.: He has already made his presence known on Georgia's line by taking the right tackle spot. All indications are that he isn't giving it up either.
- Daryl Collins, WR, RFr.: He made an impression on the coaches since coming back from a knee injury this spring and is hoping to be used similar to how Randall Cobb was used for the Wildcats.
- Landon Foster, P, Fr.: Kentucky must replace one of the league's best punters in Ryan Tydlacka, and Foster stepped right in this fall and became the favorite to do just that.
- Zach West, OG, RFr.: He was a top recruit for Kentucky in 2011, has very good size and will start for the Wildcats at left guard to start the year.
- Evan Boehm, OG, Fr.: Injuries at left guard, including projected starter Travis Ruth, have given Boehm a lot more practice reps. He's been impressive enough to earn time and already has good size up front.
- Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Fr.: He was the nation's best recruit in the 2012 class and has been extremely impressive in fall camp, lining up both inside and out. Mizzou won't keep him off the field this fall.
- Mike Scherer, LB, Fr.: He already looks like a college linebacker with his size and has been getting reps with both the first-team and second-team defenses during fall camp.
- Jerell Adams, TE, Fr.: The staff loves his potential and he's been an absolute beast during fall camp this year. South Carolina isn't afraid to use multiple tight ends in its offense.
- Shaq Roland, WR, Fr.: South Carolina needs another consistent receiving target and Roland, who was the Gamecocks' top signee, has shown a ton of natural playmaking ability in camp.
- Brandon Shell, OT, RFr.: He sat out last year, but his coaches didn't hesitate to make him the starting left tackle. With that year off, he became an even better pass-blocker.
- Daniel McCullers, NG, JC: He arrived this summer, but has been extremely solid up front. He'll enter the first game as the starting noseguard.
- Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, JC: Now that Da'Rick Rogers is out, Patterson becomes even more important. He has all the talent to be a legit deep threat in this league.
- Darrington Sentimore, DE, JC: Tennessee needed more help up front and plucked a pretty good one in Sentimore from the juco ranks. He's set to start opening day.
- Josh Grady, WR, RFr.: He moved from quarterback to receiver because of his athleticism and he'll have a chance to make plays catching the ball and as a Wildcat quarterback.
- Kris Kentera, TE, RFr.: Another former quarterback, Kentera is being used as an H-back, but has the ability to line up at different positions on the field as well.
- Brian Kimbrow, RB, Fr.: He's one of the few true freshmen James Franklin guaranteed playing time to and he'll get to show his stuff at running back, in the passing game and as a punt returner.
- The SEC and Big 12 sent Champions Bowl bid proposals to 10 cities.
- Tennessee offensive lineman Antonio Richardson is still looking to grow as a player and a person.
- Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason still hopes to redshirt this fall.
- Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Gardner has a "thug love" approach.
- Ole Miss is still working on its new offense.
- Dominique Easley's versatility will be on display along Florida's defensive line.
- Jackson (Miss.) Academy offensive lineman Jamaal Clayborn committed to Mississippi State on Monday.
- Joe Morrow is standing tall among Mississippi State receivers.
- Kentucky wide receiver Daryl Collins is looking to be the next Randall Cobb for the Wildcats.
- Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is thankful for his stability at Alabama.
- Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood says Nick Saban will get the Tide's secondary "right."
- Vanderbilt linebacker Archibald Barnes wants to leave a lasting impression.
- Brian VanGorder installs a different defense and attitude at Auburn.
- LSU cornerback Tharold Simon is still looking to improve on the field.
- Missouri's offensive line can't catch a break with injuries.
Let's see what the Wildcats can do in 2012:
Kentucky will make a bowl game: Joker Phillips is more confident in the offense.
Last year, finding consistent, reliable playmakers in Kentucky's offense was almost nonexistent. Wide receiver La'Rod King was the most reliable offensive weapon for the Wildcats last year, hauling in 40 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns. There were some bright spots in the running game here and there, but Josh Clemons' season-ending knee injury early in the year was a major blow. But this spring Phillips found more players to rely on offensively. For starters, quarterback Maxwell Smith impressed the coaching staff with a solid spring. Clearly, the starting quarterback job is his to lose. The Wildcats also got solid production out of wide receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins this spring. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson stepped up as well, giving Smith plenty more options than he had last year. Having more reliable options at receiver will take pressure off of King and will help Smith develop more. It should also help a running game that expects to get Clemons back and will still have CoShik Williams, who led the Cats in rushing last year, and Raymond Sanders.
The offensive line is still a work in progress, but Phillips said at SEC media days he felt much better about the line coming out of spring than he did going in. The Wildcats were the SEC's worst offense last year because of its lack of playmakers, but if these pieces fall into place like the coaches hope, the Wildcats' offense should be much improved and could be what Kentucky needs to get back to the six-win mark.
Why it won't: There are too many holes on defense.
While the Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the SEC in most defensive categories last season, there were some solid starters that will be tough to replace. Gone is Danny Trevathan, who was the SEC's leading tackler and one of the league's top linebackers. He wasn't just Kentucky's best overall player but he was the team's unquestioned leader. The Wildcats have to replace not just his production on the field but his guidance in the locker room. Hybrid linebacker/safety Winston Guy, who was third in the SEC in tackles last year, is also gone. Overall, the Wildcats are replacing six defensive starters -- four linebackers and two cornerbacks.
Replacing Trevathan might be the toughest job, as youngsters Malcolm McDuffen and Demarius Rancifer struggled to man the weakside linebacker spot this spring. Sophomore Miles Simpson left spring as the projected starter at Guy's hybrid position, but will be pushed for playing time by redshirt freshman Josh Forrest. The coaches feel pretty good about Marcus Caffey's move from running back to cornerback, but he has no collegiate experience on defense, and he might be the Wildcats' top corner on the roster.
If Kentucky's defense can't fill those holes, this unit won't make the necessary strides it needs to improve upon last year and it certainly won't go bowling.
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:
1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.
2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.
3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.
4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.
5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.
7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.
8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.
9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.
10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.
11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.
12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.
13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.
14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters:: offense: 6; defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1
C Matt Smith, OG Larry Warford, WR La’Rod King, QB Maxwell Smith, RB CoShik Williams, DE Collins Ukwu, DT Donte Rumph, DT Mister Cobble, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton
OT Chandler Burden, OG Stuart Hines, OT Billy Joe Murphy, WR Matt Roark, LB Ronnie Sneed, LB Danny Trevathan, LB Ridge Wilson, CB Anthony Mosley, S Winston Guy, CB Randall Burden
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: CoShik Williams* (486 yards)
Passing: Maxwell Smith* (819 yards)
Receiving: La'Rod King* (598 yards)
Tackles: Danny Trevathan (143)
Sacks: Trevathan (3)
Interceptions: Trevathan (4)
1. Finding more playmakers: Coach Joker Phillips feels like he has more firepower to work with on offense again. After struggling mightily to find consistent playmakers on offense in 2011, Phillips left spring with more confidence about players he felt he could rely on going forward. The biggest standout was receiver Demarco Robinson. He became one of the most consistent players at practice and caught nine passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Also, freshman receiver Daryl Collins surprised coaches with his playmaking ability. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson also stepped up and should help take pressure off of Kentucky's running game.
2. Adjusting to Minter's defense: Strides were definitely made by Kentucky's defense in Year 1 with Rick Minter, but it looks like the defense felt even more comfortable in it this spring. While there is still work to do and bodies to replace, Minter has said he sees more aggression and attitude out of this unit. The defensive line also progressed this spring and could finally be the strength of this unit. The goal is for Kentucky's defense to be a much more physical and tougher group and both Minter and Phillips see it shifting that way.
3. Caffey's move: Kentucky entered the spring trying to replace two starters at cornerback, so the staff moved running back Marcus Caffey there. The experiment appeared to work, as Caffey was one of the more impressive looking players this spring. He caught on quickly at his new position and ended the spring as a starter. He's also a bigger body and the coaches say he's very durable. Both will come in handy against bigger receivers in this league.
1. Offensive line: Three starters up front had to be replaced this spring and the Wildcats ended practice knowing that the offensive line is still a work in progress. There is leadership and experience in Larry Warford and Matt Smith, but after that there's a lot of inexperience. Behind Warford and Smith, rising sophomore Darrian Miller and junior-to-be Kevin Mitchell combined for three starts last year. There were bright spots here and there this spring, but the inexperience up front is still a concern for coaches heading into the offseason.
2. Defensive holes: While the Wildcats got more comfortable in the defense, there are still a lot of missing starters at linebacker and in the secondary. There will be four new starting linebackers, including the Spur, and two new starting corners. The coaches feel good about Caffey at corner, but questions still remain at the other corner spot. Players must also replace the production created by Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Ridge Wilson, who was dismissed this spring. They accounted for 310 tackles, including 28.5 for loss. Alvin Dupree and Avery Williamson turned heads at linebacker, but Malcolm McDuffen and Miles Simpson struggled to fill in for Trevathan and Guy and could be pushed by incoming freshmen.
3. Smith as the guy: Outside of the spring game, Maxwell Smith had a pretty impressive spring in Lexington. He seemed to develop his game the way the coaches wanted and needed him too, but his mistakes in the spring game brought some worry. He rushed his play and reverted back to some bad habits. While he'd be the starter if the season started today, the coaches hinted that the race is still open with Morgan Newton coming back from shoulder surgery and incoming freshman Patrick Towles arriving this summer. Smith might have improved, but Newton and Towles will get every chance to win the starting job. If Smith regresses again, he might fail to win the job he thinks is his to lose.
The mailbag is back this week and we were bombarded with questions. The pages went on for a while, so I'm sorry if I couldn't get to all of them. Keep them coming, though, because there's always next week.
Let's get to this week's questions:
Ethan in Cullman, Ala., writes: With the recent dominance of Alabama and Coach Saban do you see Auburn and Chizik really being relevant nationally? I realize they have recruited fairly well but I think we all know without Cameron Newton the 2010 Auburn Team was a 6-7 7-5 football team and in all honesty I don't see them improving their win-losses as long as Gene Chizik is the head coach. Take away the 14-0 season and Chizik has a total record of 21-29 as a collegiate head coach. Lets just be honest in the world of college football everything runs through Tuscaloosa, Alabama and I don't see that changing anytime soon. RTR (:
Edward Aschoff: Man, Auburn fans will love you now. I'm sure the Christmas cards are being written as we speak. While I don't see Auburn surpassing Alabama this season, or really next season, I don't think Auburn is going to fall off the map without Newton. Like you wrote, Chizik has recruited well and the team he has now is pretty young. It's going to take more time for this team to crawl back up the SEC standings, but I don't think it's going to take years and years. Auburn has the young talent to challenge some teams in the West this year. Yes, even Alabama. I'm one of the few still on the Auburn bandwagon. I see improvement on the offensive line, quarterback Kiehl Frazier really came along stronger this spring with Scot Loeffler's help and the defense can only get better after a lousy 2011 showing. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Auburn made more news nationally in 2013.
Jmathews in Weslaco, Texas, writes: Do you think Kevin Sumlin is going to surprise some teams this year with his offensive plan?
Edward Aschoff: It's a little unorthodox by SEC standards, for sure, but I'm not sure if SEC defenses will be confused by that air game. Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury will have to run the ball more in order to catch some defenses off guard. I know that flashy passing game was fun at Houston, but you have to run the ball to survive in the SEC. Balance will be key because we all know that Sumlin is going to want to throw the ball as much as he can. I don't think we'll truly see what all Sumlin wants to do because he's working with such young quarterbacks. That will restrict a lot of it and could make Christine Michael that much more important at running back. Once Sumlin has the right pieces in place then you'll see some offenses have to plan differently. For now, I think it's a work in progress.
Jimmy in Pikeville, Ky., writes: Do you believe that Joker Phillips will be able to get the Kentucky Wildcats back to a bowl game this season?
Edward Aschoff: Phillips thinks he's found more offensive playmakers this spring, with youngsters such as Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins and Ronnie Shields stepping up, and that's huge for the Wildcats. They didn't have many at all last year and that was a main reason Kentucky's offense was so bad. But we still need to see what those players can do against SEC competition in October. And a consistent quarterback has to step up. Maxwell Smith has the lead, but the race isn't over. The schedule is going to be tough for the Wildcats, as well. I think Kentucky needs to sweep nonconference play to ensure a bowl birth. That means beating Louisville to start the season. The Louisville loss was a big one for the Cats last year and right now, Louisville is still a better team. Getting those four nonconference wins will go a long way for Kentucky.
Reed in Beijing, China, writes: Ex-pat hog fan here in Beijing. I wanted to get your opinion on how Arkansas will split carries between Ronnie Wingo, Knile Davis, and Dennis Johnson this year. Also, who besides Cobi Hamilton do you think will step up to fill the void at receiver?
Edward Aschoff: If Davis is healthy, he'll get the majority of the carries. I don't think there's any debate there. He is in another league compared to the other backs. After that, I think Arkansas goes Johnson then Wingo. Johnson came on during the second half of the season, while Wingo was inconsistent in my opinion. As for receiver, I think Marquel Wade could have a big year, along with tight end Chris Gragg. Wade is a very good athlete and the coaches loved what he did in practice last year. He's someone who has that dynamic feel in the offense and can make big plays. Gragg is big, athletic and tough. Tyler Wilson will key in on him a bunch this fall. He's probably the top returning tight end in the league.
Ryan in Anaheim, Calif., writes: Is it safe to say that Vanderbilt will have one of the best offenses in the SEC this year? Returning Rodgers, Stacy, Matthews, and Boyd, while also getting Norman back and explosive freshman in Kimbrow. The only weakness I see is the O-line which will be inexperienced, but will that hold them back that much?
Edward Aschoff: That line barely got through spring practice, so it's a problem. Injuries and numbers really hurt the line. The good news is that six true freshmen will be on campus this summer. The bad news is that they are true freshmen. Jordan Rodgers still has to be more comfortable in the pocket. He can be really sporadic at times and coach James Franklin knows it. If he can't improve on the mental side, this offense will struggle. Brian Kimbrow is someone who can be used all over the field, so that will really benefit this offense. The other playmakers you mentioned are solid, no question, but there are some good offenses to battle near the top, such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
Kyle in Gainesville, Fla., writes: The Gators haven't had many people drafted in the past two years, but next year will be much better. Who do you think could be drafted in the top 2 rounds next year? Bostic, Jenkins, Powell, Easley, Floyd, Elam, Nixon, Debose, and Reed are all guys I think can if they have a big year.
Edward Aschoff: Well, if Ronald Powell doesn't come back from his knee injury don't count on him heading to the draft. NFL scouts love Dominique Easley's potential. He's so strong and athletic and just pounds his way through offensive lines. He did suffer that knee injury, so his health will be monitored closely. Elam will compete to be the top safety in the SEC, but his name hasn't been thrown out as much as someone like Eric Reid. Jelani Jenkins is someone scouts like because of his speed and strength. He isn't the biggest linebacker, but he's extremely smart and that will help him a lot. Jon Bostic is getting some attention and a big year will boost his stock for sure. Xavier Nixon has to improve on a bad 2011 and Andre Debose and Jordan Reed have to be more consistent. Of all of them, I think Easley and Jenkins are Florida's top pro prospects.
Brad in Longview, Texas, writes: If you could take one player from the SEC, outside of a QB, who would it be?
Edward Aschoff: Last year, the answer was easy: Trent Richardson. This year, it's a little more difficult. I don't think I'd go with another offensive player, so I'm going to go with Georgia's Jarvis Jones. He was one of the best players in the nation last year and was the SEC's top defensive player, after getting 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. He's a superb athlete, has tremendous speed and has a relentless attitude. He's also a great leader. He commands respect in the locker room and on the field. It's hard to find a better linebacker out there.
What's new: Kentucky welcomed two new assistants to Joker Phillips' coaching staff during the offseason. Mike Cassity returned to his alma mater this year and will coach the Wildcats' defensive backs. Cassity coached Kentucky's defensive backs from 1980-81. Pat Washington also joined Kentucky's staff to coach wide receivers and to be the passing game coordinator after Tee Martin left to coach wide receivers at USC.
On the mend: Quarterback Morgan Newton will only do some light tossing and handoffs as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Defensive end Collins Ukwu will miss drills after undergoing labrum surgery. Running back Josh Clemons will be non-contact throughout the spring because he's rehabbing from the torn meniscus he suffered last season. Defensive tackle Tristian Johnson will be limited this spring because of a shoulder injury. Wide receiver Gene McCaskill is being evaluated day-to-day because of knee issues that he's dealt with the last couple of years. Offensive lineman Tyler Davenport won't go through contact either this spring because of a knee injury and center Sam Simpson is out indefinitely with a back injury. Linebacker Jabari Johnson won't go through contact either because of shoulder surgery.
On the move: Marcus Caffey is making a significant move for the Wildcats as he switches from running back to cornerback, which is a position that needs all the bodies it can get this year. Eric Dixon is also moving from safety to cornerback to help the Wildcats with numbers. Bookie Cobbins is moving from quarterback to wide receiver.
Questions: The Wildcats enter spring with a lot of questions on both sides of the ball. Kentucky must replace three starting offensive linemen from last season. The good news is that vets Larry Warford and Matt Smith are back, but Kentucky will work rising sophomores Darrian Miller (left tackle) and Zach West (left guard), and junior-to-be Kevin Mitchell (right tackle) with the first-team offense. Miller started two games last year and the coaches are high on him, but there won't be a lot of experience behind Warford and Smith. Kentucky is also looking for another wide receiver to step up opposite La'Rod King, who proved to be the Wildcats' best receiving option in 2011. Outside of King, Kentucky returns just one receiver -- E.J. Fields -- who registered 10 more receptions in 2011. Kentucky will likely have to look to its youngsters and is hoping for a couple of redshirt freshmen to stand out, like Cobbins, Daryl Collins and Rashad Cunningham. Kentucky is also replacing two starting corners and safeties (Winston Guy was a Spur) and three linebackers after Ridge Wilson was dismissed before spring. Converted corners Caffey and Dixon will come in handy at corner because Kentucky needs the most help there.
Don't forget about: Kentucky's offense was dead last in the SEC last season, but the Wildcats had some success at times running the ball. Kentucky's offense took a major hit when Clemons went down with that devastating knee injury last fall. The coaches expected big things from him and when he's healthy he's arguably the Wildcats' best offensive weapon. But Kentucky also returns rising senior CoShik Williams. He's added 10 pounds of muscle and could help Kentucky develop a solid rushing tandem once Clemons is healthy again. Raymond Sanders is another running back to keep an eye on. Injuries wrecked his 2011 season, but if he's healthy he'll help Kentucky's offense as it looks for more consistency.
Waiting in the wings: Quarterback Maxwell Smith won't have to fight off Newton this spring, as Newton recovers from shoulder surgery, but he'll get an up-close glimpse of his summer competition when 2012 signee Patrick Towles visits Lexington during his Spring Break. Towles will be on hand to take in as much of the Wildcats' offense as he can. Towles will arrive this summer with a lot of hype following him from high school and might already be the most athletic of the bunch at quarterback.
Breaking out: Kentucky is once again searching for playmakers this spring and it hopes to find a few at wide receiver. Cobbins, Collins and Cunningham are all players the coaches are excited about working with in the next month and with receiver so wide open, each will have the opportunity for a big spring. Kentucky also needs players to step up at linebacker, cornerback and the Spur position. All the starters from those positions are gone, including Kentucky's best player in linebacker Danny Trevathan. Attempting to replace Trevathan at the Will spot is rising sophomore Malcolm McDuffen. Underclassmen Tim Patterson and Demarius Rancifer are also players the coaches are excited about using at linebacker. Josh Forrest and Miles Simpson are also battling at the Spur.
All eyes on: Smith ended up being the best option Kentucky had at quarterback last season, despite some rocky play, but an injury kept him out of the season finale against Tennessee. It worked out that wide receiver Matt Roark managed well enough to guide the Wildcats to their first win over the Vols in 26 years. Smith now enters the spring with questions surrounding his game and the pressure of having to hold off Newton and Towles this summer. Coaches and players have more confidence in Smith now, but he'll have to continue to develop as more of a passer and generate more confidence in has abilities this spring. He'll have to start making those around him better, especially the wide receivers, who enter spring as a very unproven group. Smith could either run away with the starting job this spring or make the competition that much more fierce once the others start throwing with him this summer.
- LSU coach Les Miles announces that quarterback Jordan Jefferson and reserve linebacker Josh Johns have been suspended indefinitely from the football team following their arrests.
- Alabama coach Nick Saban hints at progress in junior college receiver Duron Carter's transcript issues.
- Big debut nearing for Georgia freshman running back Isaiah Crowell.
- South Carolina plans to play both Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw at quarterback in the opener against East Carolina.
- Kentucky freshman receiver Daryl Collins suffers a season-ending knee injury.
- Mississippi State's Vick Ballard plans to prove that he's a 1,000-yard rusher this season.
- It's been a quiet preseason for Ole Miss' Brandon Bolden, but he's ready to turn it loose for the season.
- Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley is more at home and primed for a big season.
- Back from a nasty knee injury, Auburn receiver Travante Stallworth is ready to play a big role on offense.
1:33 4th Qtr Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Halftime 22 Utah 24 Colorado State 10 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State