SEC: Dee Hart

SEC's lunch links

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
12:00
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Here's a quick look at what is happening around the SEC:

" Alabama said Monday after running back Dee Hart's arrest on drug possession charges that he has not been a part of the program since the bowl game.

" Ole Miss suspended linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant following their weekend arrests in Oxford.

" Several SEC players made NFL.com analyst Nolan Nawrocki's list of the most controversial players in the draft, including Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who Nawrocki said “carries a sense of entitlement and prima-donna arrogance.”

" Athlon Sports lists the top-10 SEC linebackers of the BCS era.

" Did Georgia recruit too well at running back when it signed Sony Michel and Nick Chubb this year? Highly sought-after 2015 prospect Taj Griffin discusses that and other subjects with the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Michael Carvell.

" USC has removed a signing-day video where an off-camera voice can be heard describing a Tennessee signee as “soft and terrible.”

" Mercedes-Benz won't allow a Birmingham-area car dealership to carry Nick Saban's name, but the Alabama coach is aligned with a proposed dealership that is caught up in litigation ahead of its opening.

" Baton Rouge police arrested three suspects in connection with a weekend home invasion at former LSU athletic director Skip Bertman's residence.

" The Columbia Daily Tribune's David Morrison takes a look at the Tigers' running back depth chart entering spring practice.

" South Carolina's Bruce Ellington followed his mother's advice and opted to enter the NFL draft early.

Dee Hart faces possession charge

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
11:10
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Former Alabama running back Dee Hart was arrested Sunday for possession of marijuana and giving false information, according to reports.

Hart, who was a top recruit for Alabama in 2011, was supposed to head into the fall for his junior season on the field, but the school announced that he is no longer part of the football team. He hasn't been with the team since Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Here's the statement from Alabama on Hart's status:
"Dee Hart has not been a part of the football team since the bowl game and has not participated in any of the offseason program. Hopefully he will learn from this mistake and continue to work toward completing his degree, which he is on track to do by the summer."

[+] EnlargeDee Hart
AP Photo/ Butch DillDee Hart never really got his career off the ground at Alabama.
It's unknown if Hart could return to the team beforehand, but this recent arrest certainly won't help him. Hart might have been a top recruit for the Crimson Tide a few years ago, but he was never able to really make much movement on the Tide's depth chart. Hart suffered season-ending ACL injuries in 2011 and 2012 and tried out at cornerback last year before moving back to running back.

Hart rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in 2013 and had 166 yards and a touchdown on 43 career carries with Alabama.

With the return of back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon and backups Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, it might have been tough for Hart to rise through the ranks at running back. Not to mention, rising sophomore Altee Tenpenny, a former ESPN 300 recruit, saw action last season and Tyren Jones, also an ESPN 300 prospect in 2012, redshirted last year. The arrival of highly touted five-star athlete Bo Scarbrough won't help either, with Scarbrough expected to start his Alabama career at running back.

Heading into the spring, it appears the top spot at running back is going to come down to Yeldon or Henry, who had a breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Hart might have a tremendous amount of athleticism and his work ethic was once thoroughly praised by coach Nick Saban, but the chances of him jumping those two was minimal. The chances of him pushing the others out of the way at this point in his career was going to be a mountain to climb as well.

Alabama will be fine without Hart, but here's hoping Hart lands on his feet soon.

AUBURN, Ala. -- All Corey Grant ever wanted was a shot.

He grew up in Auburn's backyard, but the four-star running back committed to cross-state rival Alabama in the Class of 2010 based on a pitch the Crimson Tide staff gave him, promising to open the offense and utilize his blazing speed. Had he stayed home and signed with the Tigers, he would've been a part of the 2010 BCS National Championship team.

Not to worry, Grant surely would get a ring while at Alabama, right?

Wrong. The role he thought he was going to play in Tuscaloosa never panned out, and he transferred to Auburn after his freshman season. He was back home, but he had to watch his former team win back-to-back national championships.

The state of Alabama has claimed the past four crystal balls, and Grant doesn't have a ring to show for it. But none of that matters.

"I'd rather play than sit on the bench and get rings," Grant, now a junior, said.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant finally is playing, which means more to him than winning rings while on the sideline.
That's how he always has been.

Grant grew up around football. His father, Ike Grant, was a football coach for 33 years and would take his son with him to work as soon as Corey was old enough to walk. Corey would cut the grass. He would watch film. He would hang out in the weight room with the players. He was always working, always around football.

"Corey didn't have no other choice than to be the kind of kid that he is, simply because I was a football coach and no stranger to hard work," said Ike, the 10th child of 14.

More than anything else, Ike wanted his son to be a good person, but he could see at an early age that Corey was going to be a special athlete. When Corey started walking, it wasn't long before he was running around the house. In pee-wee football, they would toss him the ball and Corey would outrun everybody.

It continued into high school, where he emerged as one of the top prospects in the state.

"Corey had a tremendous junior year," Opelika coach Brian Blackmon said. "Corey had a really big upside. He played a little bit at a bunch of different positions as a sophomore for us. His junior year, though, he had an incredible year. A lot of big plays."

Stanford was the first to offer Corey a scholarship. Auburn was the first SEC school to offer back when Tommy Tuberville was still the head coach. He had double-digit offers but chose Alabama over both Auburn and Florida, which was also in the mix.

But Corey never found a fit while he was in Tuscaloosa.

"He went to Alabama, but we could tell during preseason that he wasn't really happy," his father said. "He wasn't really sure. Midway through the season, we really knew it, because when he'd come home, he would kind of indicate that, and he would always regret going back."

Corey stuck it out through the next spring, but when freshman running back Dee Hart arrived in January and passed him on the depth chart, the writing was on the wall. It was time to move on.

There was just one problem. Nick Saban wouldn't release Corey's scholarship if he chose to play for another SEC school. The Alabama coach knew the caliber of athlete he had and didn't want to have to compete against him for the next two or three years.

That left Corey with very few options. Ultimately, he wanted to come home and play for Auburn. But to do that, he was forced to walk on to the program and live at home for the first year. He would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive to the football complex every morning for practice. It wasn't easy, but it was the only way.

"I think Corey was just happy to be home," Blackmon said. "Corey's a very driven kid. He had to go back and earn it all over again. He went from a four-star, highly recruited kid to a walk-on, having to earn it again."

Corey won multiple team awards the year he walked on and eventually earned a scholarship. But when former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Arkansas State, Corey's opportunity to play left with him. The local kid was working hard and doing everything the right way, but his opportunity never came.

"He's had a hard road, simply because when he got to Auburn, he had to sit down, because Coach Saban wouldn't release him," Ike said. "Then the next year, he stood on the sideline and nobody gave him an opportunity.

"All the coaches would say he's a great kid, he's a great athlete, he's a hard worker, he does what he's supposed to, but he never got that opportunity. He's had a struggle with that."

Flash forward to this season. Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach, and, in turn, Corey has become an integral part of the rushing attack. He's one of four Tigers with more than 500 yards rushing, and he leads the SEC in yards per carry (9.9) with a minimum of 50 attempts. He had 53 yards and a touchdown on just six carries last week against Georgia.

"He's one of the faster guys probably in college football," Malzahn said. "He's been a speed guy, but he's gotten a lot better at running in between the tackles and doing the things that a normal running back does. He's an outstanding player and an even better person."

It would have been easy to stay at Alabama. He might never have seen the field, but he'd have been part of two national championship teams. Some of his teammates knew they were never going to play but stayed anyway for the shot at getting a ring.

But that's not Corey. His father once asked him about the rings, to which he responded, "Daddy, it don't make no difference if you're not happy."

Corey's finally happy, and he'll get his shot against his former team this Saturday in the Iron Bowl. If Auburn wins, he might even get a chance to play for a ring.

Alabama season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
9:30
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Today, we're looking at Alabama, which enters the 2013 season looking to make history with a third straight national championship.

Coach: Nick Saban (154-55-1 overall, 63-13* at Alabama)

2012 record: 13-1 (7-1)

Key losses: C Barrett Jones, LG Chance Warmack, RB Eddie Lacy, NG Jesse Williams, CB Dee Milliner, S Robert Lester

Key returnees: QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, RG Anthony Steen, WR Amari Cooper, RB T.J. Yeldon, CB Deion Belue, DL Ed Stinson

Newcomer to watch: TE/H O.J. Howard

Biggest games in 2013: Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Saban is the first to admit the secondary is a "work in progress" after losing his shutdown cornerback and three-year starter at safety. The seventh-year head coach tried shifting running back Dee Hart and wideouts Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones to cornerback, but only Cyrus stuck on defense. The former four-star athlete will be a much-needed option off the bench behind projected starters Deion Belue and Geno Smith. Depth isn't quite a concern on the back end, though, as Saban can mix and match veterans Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry with former No. 1 safety prospect Landon Collins. In a year where the SEC is arguably the strongest quarterback conference in the country, it's vital that Saban stabilize his passing defense.

Forecast: What Alabama is attempting to do this season borders on the impossible. History dictates the Tide fall short of another national championship, but the talent assembled in Tuscaloosa, Ala., dictates otherwise. Despite losing nine starters to the NFL, Alabama is in good position for a three-peat thanks to back-to-back No. 1-ranked recruiting classes and six straight top five finishes overall.

But it's not just new faces like Reuben Foster and Derrick Henry that give Tide fans hope. They're simply the icing on a cake that already features a league-best 16 preseason All-SEC selections. The offense is loaded with a Heisman Trophy-caliber backfield and a wide receiver corps that's deeper and more talented than at any point in recent memory. The defense should be in good shape, too, with All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley back for his senior year and Butkus Award hopeful Adrian Hubbard poised for a breakout season.

No, the level of talent isn't in question at UA. And, no, the schedule isn't insurmountable, either. Getting Virginia Tech and Texas A&M back-to-back is a rough way to open the season, but Alabama won't have to face any of the SEC East power programs, and cupcakes like Georgia State and Chattanooga are basically third and fourth bye weeks. Rather, the real question is how this team handles expectations. "Championship or bust" is a familiar slogan for Saban and Co., but living in that kind of pressure-packed atmosphere can prove difficult.

Alabama wasn't perfect a season ago: the secondary was shaky, the pass rush was inconsistent and there were times where the run-pass balance on offense looked out of whack. A heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M nearly derailed the Tide. But a bizarre weekend where No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls both lost cleared the way, and Alabama gladly picked up the slack. Will UA get so lucky again? Or will this team take fate out of the equation, learn from its mistakes and realize its potential?

*Five wins vacated in 2007
We conclude our position rankings by looking at special teams. These can be some of the unsung heroes of teams or they can be major goats. Believe it or not, it's hard out there for special teams guys.

Here's how all 14 SEC special teams units rank heading into the 2013 season:

1. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return starting kicker Devon Bell, who hit 14 of his last 18 field goals last year, and punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 41.1 yards per kick last year and had a net of 39.9 yards. Jameon Lewis was Mississippi State's top return man last year, averaging 25.9 yards on his 20 kick returns. He also took one 100 yards for a touchdown. With Johnthan Banks gone, Lewis could move to punt returner, while LaDarius Perkins and Robert Johnson can handle kickoffs. Mississippi State also allowed just 6 yards on 13 punt returns (.46 yards per return), but did allow two touchdowns on kickoffs.

[+] EnlargeKyle Christy
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Christ has averaged 44.0 yards per punt in his two seasons at Florida.
2. Florida: The Gators have to replace All-American kicker Caleb Sturgis, which won't be easy at all with nothing but inexperience there, but Florida has arguably the nation's best punter in Kyle Christy. He averaged 45.8 yards per kick, pinned 27 kicks inside the 20-yard line, blasted 25 punts that went 50-plus yards and ranked ninth nationally in net punting. Andre Debose proved to be one of the SEC's best return men again, averaging 28.3 yards on 18 kick returns and taking one back 100 yards for a score. Loucheiz Purifoy is a great cover guy and can help return kicks along with Marcus Roberson. Florida gave up 7.3 yards per punt return (one touchdown), just 18 yards on kickoffs and blocked six kicks last year.

3. Vanderbilt: Carey Spear knocked 20-of-24 field goals through last year, setting the school record for field goals made and kick scoring. He also didn't miss anything within 43 yards. Vandy must replace solid punter Richard Kent. Redshirt freshman Colby Cooke and walk-on Taylor Hudson competed at punter this spring, but freshman Tommy Openshaw could get a shot as well. Jonathan Krause returned 25 punts for 281 yards and became the first Commodore in 45 years to return two punts for touchdowns last year. Both Brian Kimbrow and Andre Hal averaged a little more than 22 yards per kick return. Vandy was solid defending kickoffs, but was second-to-last in the SEC in defending punts (10.7 yards per return and one touchdown).

4. Missouri: The Tigers return one of the nation's best return men in Marcus Murphy, who took three kickoffs and a punt to the house last fall. He averaged 24.1 yards per kick return and 13.9 per punt return. Andrew Baggett, who only missed two kicks under 40 yards last year, was a an SEC All-Freshman Team member last year, but has to be more consistent in 2013. Punter is up for grabs with Trey Barrow gone. Junior Christian Brinser is the favorite, but has just one career punt.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide has one of the league's most reliable punters in Cody Mandell, whose 44.3 yards per kick, pinned 19 inside the 20 and booted 14 50-plus yards. Christion Jones averaged 26.6 yards per kick return (eight returns) and had a touchdown last year, while returning 21 punts for 213 yards. He could get help from the shifty Dee Hart, who returns from an ACL injury. Short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley is gone, but long-distance man Cade Foster is back. He's shown improvement, but hit just 4-of-9 kicks last year and could share duties with redshirt freshman Adam Griffith. Coverage has to improve as well.

6. LSU: The Tigers lost kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing. Losing Wing sounds like the most significant, but the staff feels pretty confident in fellow Aussie Jamie Keehn, who averaged 43.7 yards on 12 punts last year. Odell Beckham Jr. racked up 320 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns and might get more chances on kickoffs. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is extremely fast and shifty, so expect him to get work in the return game, too. LSU was also one of the best kick/punt coverage teams in the SEC last year. Finding a suitable kicker won't be easy, though. Two walk-ons competed for the kicking job this spring. Junior James Hairston has a monster leg, but has been inconsistent on field goals.

7. Ole Miss: In hindsight, Ole Miss' coaches made a smart decision when they decided to redshirt Tyler Campbell. He was one of the country's best punters two years ago and has a career average of 44.6 yards per kick. In 2011, he downed 28 kicks inside the 20. Jaylen Walton became a dangerous returner for the Rebels last year, averaging 24.7 yards on 26 kick returns, and took one 100 yards for a score. The Rebels have to replace kicker Bryson Rose, but senior Andrew Ritter, who redshirted last year, should have the first crack at it. Though, he hasn't attempted a field goal in his career. Ole Miss also has to improve its kick coverage, as they gave up three total touchdowns on returns.

8. Auburn: The Tigers had some of the best numbers around when it came to defending kickoffs and punts. But that's because Auburn didn't kick off much and opponents rarely punted. So it's tough to say how good the Tigers are in those areas, but on five punt returns the Tigers allowed just 4 yards. Kicker Cody Parkey hit 11 of 14 kicks last year and didn't miss from within 46 yards. He's also hit 51 straight extra points. Punter Steven Clark averaged only 39.8 per kick, but his hang time forced only five returns last year. Onterio McCalebb is gone, finding a game-changer like him is up for grabs. Eyes are on Trovon Reed and Quan Bray.

9. Arkansas: Kicker Zach Hocker enters the season as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made (143), total points (287) and points per game (7.6). He'll have to improve on his 11-of-18 field-goal mark from last year. The Hogs were middle-of-the road when it came to defending returns and lost top return man Dennis Johnson. D'Arthur Cowan and Nate Holmes will handle return duties. Holmes ranked 10th in the SEC with a punt return average of 6.4 yards per return, while Cowan averaged 17.6 yards per kick return.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have one of the SEC's best returners in Trey Williams, who averaged 22.3 yards on 25 returns. Brandon Williams, who should be a big-play athlete for A&M, should also help out on kick returns. De'Vante Harris and Sabian Holmes should provide the Aggies with some solid return options on punts as well. A&M lost punter Ryan Epperson, but Drew Kaser shouldn't miss a beat as his replacement. Kicker Taylor Bertolet has to be much better, though. He hit just 13 of 22 field goals, missed seven extra points and was just 2-of-9 on field goals between 30 and 49 yards.

11. South Carolina: Bruce Ellington is a very good and very experienced kick returner. He averaged 22.6 yards per return last season and had a long of 50 yards. Now, replacing Ace Sanders at punt returner won't be easy, but Victor Hampton should be a viable option there. He's extremely fast and is a fast-twitch player, so he should be able to create plays in space. Speedy Damiere Byrd will get a chance on kickoffs and possesses the speed to hit a home run when he touches the ball. Punter Tyler Hull is back after averaging 39.4 per kick and pinning 12 inside the 20. Landon Ard left spring as the top placekicker, but has only handled kickoff duty during his career.

12. Tennessee: The Vols might have to rely on Michael Palardy to handle field goals, punts and kickoffs this fall. He hit 9 of 12 field goals last year, while Derrick Brodus hit 6-of-7. Only Palardy attempted a kick more than 40 yards last year and missed it. There will be competition at kicker, but Palardy should have the punter spot after averaging 43.1 yards per kick, pinning 16 inside the 20 and blasting 13 50-plus yards. With Cordarrelle Patterson gone, Devrin Young should take over kickoff and punt return duties. He was Tennessee's top punt returner last year.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats return one of the nation's best punters in Landon Foster, who averaged 42.9 yards per kick and had 22 kicks go for 50-plus yards last year. But Kentucky is still searching for a field goal kicker. Joe Mansour has been the kickoff guy for three years, but freshman Austin MacGinnis might be the guy the coaches are depending on the most when he gets in for fall camp. Kentucky has one of its top return guys coming back in Demarco Robinson, but lost DeMarcus Sweat this summer. Sweat averaged 20.5 yards per return.

14. Georgia: The Bulldogs continued the trend of having issues defending returns, ranking last in the SEC in punt coverage (11.1 yards per return and a touchdown) and eighth in kickoff coverage (20.2 yards per return). Another concern is kicker, where Marshall Morgan could miss at least one game this fall following an arrest on June 29 for boating under the influence. He's Georgia's only scholarship kicker and was shaky last year, hitting 8 of 14 field goals. Punter Collin Barber averaged 41.5 yards per punt and pinned 19 of his 60 kicks inside the 20. Malcolm Mitchell has all the talent to be a return star, but his ill-advised decision-making has turned him into a liability.
College football prognosticator Phil Steele continues his look at the top depth charts around the country. Today, we're looking at his top running back depth charts Insider.

Steele has three SEC teams on his list, with Georgia taking his top spot. Alabama is No. 2, while Texas A&M is 14th.

It's hard to argue against having Georgia No. 1. The Bulldogs bring back the top one-two rushing punch in Todd Gurley, who led SEC running backs with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, and slasher Keith Marshall. The duo combined for 2,144 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. There isn't much behind these two, but they did just fine with the majority of the carries last year.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon returns to lead a deep backfield for the Crimson Tide this season.
Alabama has a very deep backfield that's led by sophomore T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year. He should compete to be one of the top players at his position this fall as both a slasher and a pounder. The Tide will get back the beastly Jalston Fowler, who is coming off of knee surgery, and scat back Dee Hart, who is also returning from a knee injury. Sophomore Kenyan Drake is back and true freshman Derrick Henry should help out as both a running back and H-back this fall.

As for the Aggies, they're also very deep at running back. Leading rusher Ben Malena (808 yards) is back, and he'll be working with some younger but very talented teammates. Brandon Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma, has the potential to be very special. Then you have Oregon transfer Tra Carson and sophomore Trey Williams. There is a lot of speed and athleticism in Texas A&M's running back stable.

I'd also keep an eye on Florida, LSU and Ole Miss this fall. The Gators will be led by sophomore Matt Jones, who had a very good spring and should pick up right where Mike Gillislee left off. He'll also get help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who left spring as the No. 2 back, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane. Taylor had a good spring and Lane should come in and help right away.

LSU might have made Steele's list if Jeremy Hill wasn't suspended from the team. Hill's recent arrest has his future at LSU in doubt, but if he plays this fall he'll be one of the league's best. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue are nothing to sneeze at. Both have shown flashes in the past and Blue should be healed from a knee injury that cost him most of his 2012 season. Losing Hill will really hurt, but the Tigers have a solid duo in Hilliard and Blue to work with.

Ole Miss returns rushing leader Jeff Scott and a talented bunch of youngsters. Scott is a solid all-purpose-type back, while sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton came on strong late last year and this spring. True freshman Mark Dodson will get his chance to see the field as well after a strong spring.
Looking at ESPN NFL Insider KC Joyner's recent piece on whether West Virginia's offense can stay elite got me to thinking: Can the SEC's top offenses from 2012 replicate last year's success?

The SEC is bringing back some real offensive firepower in 2013. Sure, this is still a defensive league, but as we've seen over the past couple of years, the offenses are really evolving and getting better.

So can the top five SEC offenses from last year duplicate what they did in 2012? Let's take a look:

1. Texas A&M
2012 total offense: 558.5 yards per game
2012 scoring offense: 44.5 points per game

The Aggies bring back Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, but a lot of Johnny Football's supporting cast is gone. Gone are offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, left tackle Luke Joeckel and senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu. Joeckel was the best tackle in the SEC last year, Kingsbury and Manziel had a special on-field relationship, and those receivers are taking 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns.

The Aggies have a stacked backfield that should be headlined by senior Ben Malena and Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams, and Mike Evans leads a younger but very talented receiving corps. But teams will have better game plans for Manziel and those youngsters at receiver will have to grow up quickly. Manziel is special, but that target on his back is enormous. The Aggies were great on offense last year, and they'll be good again, but I expect the Aggies' numbers to dip in 2013.

2. Tennessee
2012 total offense: 475.9
2012 scoring offense: 36.2

The Vols lost their starting quarterback and top four receiving targets. Tyler Bray accounted for 3,612 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. His top four targets, including Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, caught 187 passes for 2,914 yards and 26 touchdowns. Tennessee returns one of the top lines around and has a solid trio at running back, but so much is different on offense.

Can the Vols adapt to Butch Jones' new hurry-up offense before the season starts? Can either Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman play beyond their inexperience this fall? There isn't a lot of experience at quarterback or receiver, and that's a major problem when Tennessee's offense revolved around its passing game last year.

3. Georgia
2012 total offense: 467.6
2012 scoring offense: 37.8

Record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is back along with his entire offensive line, arguably the top running back duo in the SEC (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and a host of talented receivers. Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, ranked first and third on the team in receiving last year, are gone, but Malcolm Mitchell is back and Michael Bennett should be healthy for the start of the season. Bennett might have been the Dawgs' top receiver before he went down with an ACL injury early last season.

There are some young players to keep an eye on as well in Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley. Junior college transfer Jonathan Rumph and seasoned tight end Arthur Lynch should both be valuable options as well. This could be one of the most balanced offenses in the country this fall.

4. Alabama
2012 total offense: 445.5
2012 scoring offense: 38.7

Running back Eddie Lacy and three starters along Alabama's offensive line are gone. Two of those linemen were first-round picks and Lacy was a second-rounder. But quarterback AJ McCarron is back and he has a lot to work with. Amari Cooper is one of the top receivers in the league and Chris Black should be 100 percent this fall, giving McCarron another deep threat to complement Cooper and Kenny Bell. Kevin Norwood is also a reliable target for McCarron.

We know the offense goes through the running game first, and Alabama's backfield is once again stacked. T.J. Yeldon will battle to be one of the top rushers in the league and he'll have big boy Jalston Fowler and speedster Dee Hart to share time with. Youngsters Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, who is returning from a spring injury, should both contribute as well. Henry can be used in both the rushing and passing game. Alabama's line seems fine, so there isn't much worry in Tuscaloosa.

5. Ole Miss
2012 total offense: 423.8
2012 scoring offense: 31.5

The Rebels return a lot of pieces on offense and you'd think they'd be even better in Year 2 of Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ole Miss managed to get through last season without any major injuries. Even Freeze doesn't know if that's likely to happen again. If it does, the Rebels should be fine, considering starters Bo Wallace (quarterback), Jeff Scott (running back) and Donte Moncrief (wide receiver) are all back. There are some talented younger players the Rebels can use as well, but the continuing theme in Oxford is that there are still depth issues along the offensive line and at receiver.

Any sort of injuries to those positions could rock the Rebels. Plus, Wallace is coming off of shoulder surgery and threw 17 interceptions last year. Wallace can't be as careless with the ball this fall. Vince Sanders and Ja-Mes Logan, along with true freshman Laquon Treadwell, should take some pressure off Moncrief, and the Rebels are also deep at running back, but the Rebels won't sneak up on people this fall.
The other day I was asked a question about the SEC that caught me off guard a little.

And no, it wasn't about Bob Stoops or scheduling.

I was asked if the league would be a quarterback or running back league in 2013. Obviously, when you think about the SEC, you think of pound-it-out, grind-it-out football. Games are won and lost in the trenches and running backs are usually a team's most coveted asset. The more the merrier, too.

But the SEC returns some pretty good experience at both positions.

At running back, the SEC will be without four of the league's top 10 rushers -- Eddie Lacy, Mike Gillislee, Zac Stacy and Kendial Lawrence -- from the 2012 season. The SEC will be without three of the top 10 passers -- Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson and Jordan Rodgers.

Now, my math skills tell me that seven top players at a position is better than six, but the SEC is deep at running back this season. Of the seven top quarterbacks returning, six reached 2,500 passing yards, while only two made it to 3,000 yards -- Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel. Nine true starters return (Kentucky's Maxwell Smith missed most of last season and ended the spring behind Jalen Whitlow). So five teams are breaking in new starters.

The SEC saw eight running backs hit the 1,000-yard mark last season. There's a chance the league could not only reach that number again but it could eclipse it.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanT.J. Yeldon takes over for running back Eddie Lacy as "the guy" for Alabama.
Alabama lost Lacy -- and his 1,322 yards/17 touchdowns -- but rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon appears more than ready to take over as the lead back. He rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and it sounds like he looked even better as the guy. He'll also have help from fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake, who played in 12 games last year, and Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, who are both returning from season-ending knee injuries. Remember, Fowler had nearly 400 rushing yards in 2011. True freshman Derrick Henry, who was tearing it up this spring before his leg injury, should help once he's healthy this fall.

Oh, and Alabama will welcome three more backs this summer, including ESPN 150 member Alvn Kamara.

Texas A&M and Florida will also have the luxury of a packed backfield. The Aggies return leading rusher (for a running back) Ben Malena (808 yards), but will also have rising sophomore Trey Williams, and transfers Brandon Williams and Tra Carson. Brandon Williams might be the most talented of the bunch, and none of these guys should get too tired with all those legs to work with.

The Gators lost Gillislee, but sophomore-to-be Matt Jones had an excellent spring. He knew the playbook backward and forward and showed a more physical style. He already has the goal of getting 1,500 yards. But he'll have help from redshirt junior Mack Brown, who had a very solid spring, and freshmen Kelvin Taylor (early enrollee) and Adam Lane. The coaches feel very good about all four contributing a lot this fall.

Georgia is a little thin at running back, but with Gurley and Keith Marshall returning, the Dawgs could have the best running back duo in the SEC -- maybe the country.

Here's a quick look at how other SEC teams currently fare at running back heading into the summer:

Arkansas

The Razorbacks lack experience at the position, but sophomore Jonathan Williams made good strides this spring and looks poised to be the top back. He'll also have incoming freshman Alex Collins to help him this fall.

Auburn

Tre Mason and his 1,000 yards return. He should have even more space to work with in Gus Malzahn's spread, which could spell trouble for defenses. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne had a solid spring, and Corey Grant returns.

Kentucky

Leading rushers Raymond Sanders (669 yards) and Jonathan George (504 yards) return with two talented youngsters to help out. Dyshawn Mobley had an excellent spring and Josh Clemons is back from a devastating knee injury he suffered in 2011.

LSU

Legal issues have Jeremy Hill's fall status unknown for the fall. If he returns, he gives the Tigers on of the top backs in the league. Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue return, but LSU will be thin at the position without Hill.

Mississippi State

LaDarius Perkins returns after his 1,000-yard season. He's a complete back and can hurt teams running and catching. Josh Robinson returns after a productive year as the backup. Nick Griffin has a ton of skill, but still hasn't reached his potential.

Missouri

Lawrence is gone, but Henry Josey is back and says he's 100 percent after his devastating knee injury in 2011. He was one of the Big 12's best and most explosive running backs before his injury. The Tigers have plenty of bodies at running back and should get good use out of Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough.

Ole Miss

Leading rusher Jeff Scott (846) is back and he'll be working with some solid sophomores in I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. True freshman Mark Dodson had a productive spring as well. Along with the six returning lettermen, Ole Miss will have three more signees on campus this fall.

South Carolina

Mike Davis isn't trying to be Marcus Lattimore, but he did a good job of taking his spot this spring. The rising sophomore can pound it or break out for that home run play. Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are back from injuries and ESPN 150 member David Williams will be in town this fall.

Tennessee

Marlin Lane's off-field problems didn't help things this spring, but Butch Jones was very happy with the play of Alden Hill and Rajion Neal this spring. Lane has every chance to come back and if he does the Vols will have a pretty solid three-headed rushing monster.

Vanderbilt

Stacy is gone, but Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow had good springs in Nashville. Jerron Seymour gives Vandy another body to use, as well. Tate and Kimbrow both have big-play ability, but they'll have to stay healthy because there isn't a lot of experience behind them.
Alabama will be without one of its top offensive athletes for the rest of spring after true freshman running back Derrick Henry fractured his tibia in Saturday's scrimmage, according to his high school coach Bobby Ramsay.

Henry, who was the No. 1-rated athlete in the 2013 recruiting class, was having a very solid spring until his injury and was actually the Crimson Tide's third-leading rusher through two scrimmages. Alabama was already dealing with rehabilitation efforts from backs Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart, who both suffered season-ending knee injuries last year.

While the Tide will have to wait to see if Henry will be back up to speed this fall, Alabama does have three more highly recruited running backs arriving this summer. Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny were all top-10 running backs in the 2013 class and were also ESPN 150 members. Plus, 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon returns along with rising sophomore Kenyan Drake, who rushed for 281 yards and five touchdowns on 42 carries last season.

Alabama certainly won't be short at the running back position this fall, but they'd love to get Henry back on the field. He could be a real difference-maker in this offense. With his 6-foot-3, 238-pound frame, he's a mismatch waiting to happen on the field. He can be a threat carrying the ball and catching it out of the backfield.

This is why Nick Saban loves stocking up on running backs.

"To me, to have really good depth at running back, you need five really good players," Saban said on national signing day. "Three of those guys usually play a lot, so I know in your guys' little fantasy football world you put these guys' names down, but there are circumstances. I think a lot of these guys are going to have a good opportunity to contribute next year."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's a good problem to have, losing players early to the NFL draft. Alabama coach Nick Saban knows all too well what it's like to watch talent walk out the door, especially from the secondary. In two of the last three drafts he's seen at least one of his defensive backs get taken in the first round. This year will be no different as Dee Milliner is likely to go among the top 10 picks.

"We keep losing first-round picks back there," Saban told ESPN on Wednesday afternoon. "For guys to step up on a consistent basis is the biggest concern I have."

Not a rebuilt offensive line, a thin linebacking corps or a defensive line replacing two of three starters. It's the secondary that worries Saban most.

[+] EnlargeDee Milliner
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDee Milliner stepped in and became an immediate impact player in Alabama's secondary. Now that he's NFL-bound, who's next for the Tide?
"Even though we have a lot of guys back at safety, we don't have the depth or quality corners and experience at corner that we've had in the past," he said, "so that's the challenge."

With top reserve cornerback John Fulton out all spring recovering from a turf toe injury, the depth in the secondary has been left wanting. As a result, Alabama opened camp with three offensive players trying their hands at cornerback: running back Dee Hart and wide receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones.

It was an experiment, Saban said, one he hoped would yield at least one player who could make the move to defense full time. And after 10 practices it appears he's found his man. Cyrus, who caught four passes as a reserve wideout last season, has practiced every day at corner and has even spent some time with the first unit at nickel back.

"The first couple weeks out there, it felt weird because [Cyrus] used to be right next to me, running routes with me," said UA receiver Kenny Bell, "but he took ownership of the position."

Bell went on to say that Cyrus has become a "great player" on defense, a spot he's familiar with from his time at Gilman School in Baltimore. Cyrus was the No. 4-rated athlete in the 2012 class and could have played on either side of the ball, according to scouts. It just so happens he would play both in his first two years on campus.

"He picked up on it fast and he comes out there and competes," Bell said.

(Read full post)

Now that all of the early entries for this year's NFL draft are in, we decided to take a closer look at some of the players who decided to leave school early.

We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:

[+] EnlargeJoeckel
Brett Davis/US PresswireIt was a no-brainer for Luke Joeckel to take his talents to the NFL.
1. Biggest winners: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel flirted with staying in school for his senior year, but it appears that would have been a major mistake for the nation's top left tackle. He was a guaranteed top-10 pick for most of the season, but with the draft creeping closer, Joeckel has a great chance of being the top pick come April. He definitely made the right decision to leave school early, and so did his teammate Damontre Moore. After a monster 2012 season, Moore could follow Joeckel as the second player taken off the board. He moved to defensive end last fall and is a very attractive pick for teams because of his versatility. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could also hear their names called very early in April, as they too could both be top-five picks.

2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.

3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.

4. The replacements:

  • LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
  • With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
  • Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
  • Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
  • Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.

TideNation links: Lacy's backfield

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Alex Scarborough writes: Waiting patiently for his turn, then working through nagging injuries, Eddie Lacy is finally leading the Alabama ground attack, pain or no pain.

Scarborough Insider: Missouri defender Sheldon Richardson, who made headlines for calling the Georgia Bulldogs’ style “old man football,” has paid quite the toll for the early-season comment, but that doesn’t mean Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron is going to dismiss the Tigers’ defense this weekend.

Greg Ostendorf writes Insider: ESPN watch list offensive lineman Andy Bauer is a Missouri commitment, but dozens of schools are still offering the 2014 prospect, who has an eye on Alabama.

Injuries hit Alabama and Kentucky

October, 1, 2012
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The injury bug has set up shop in the SEC.

Week 6 has started with Alabama and Kentucky losing a couple of offensive players. For Alabama, the Tide will be down sophomore wide receiver DeAndrew White and redshirt freshman running back Dee Hart, after both suffered season-ending knee injuries in Alabama's win over Ole Miss this past weekend.

Tide coach Nick Saban said that both will require surgery.

Losing White takes away a deep threat for the Tide. He had only caught eight passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns this season, but he entered the season expecting to be a key part of the Tide's more downfield passing game. Now, true freshman Amari Cooper, who is coming off of his best game with the Tide (eight catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns) will move to White's starting "X" position. Junior Kevin Norwood and sophomore Christion Jones will compete for time there as well.

Freshman Cyrus Jones has the "athlete" labeled attached to his name, but has lined up at receiver this season. He'll now be expected to do more at that position going forward.

The good news for Alabama is that there are a few players to pick from at wide receiver, although they are young. Young, but talented. Plus, when you have a quarterback like AJ McCarron directing things, the passing game should be just fine.

At running back, the Tide is now down to three scholarship running backs, with Jalston Fowler being lost for the season with a knee injury earlier this season. While Hart provided a nice option in the passing game for the Tide, he wasn't exactly a between-the-tackles guy, so Alabama won't be hurt too much in that area. Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake should still be able to work just fine at running back. Expect to see even more of Drake.

Kentucky isn't so lucky when it comes to quality depth. The Wildcats have lost starting quarterback Maxwell Smith "indefinitely," coach Joker Phillips said. Smith is out after injuring his ankle against South Carolina over the weekend. Phillips said Smith will need surgery to repair a torn ligament in his ankle.

With Smith missing a game with a shoulder injury, Phillips said that the team will apply for a medical hardship for Smith if he can't return this season.

Now, the Wildcats will turn to a freshman duo at quarterback in Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles. Towles, who was arguably the Wildcats' most ballyhooed signee in 2012, will now burn his redshirt as he competes with Whitlow, Phillips said.

"It's going to take an effort of both of them," Phillips said. And it could be right in the middle of the series. If it's not series to series, it could be play after play after play, switching them in and out, give them things that they both can do, give them a chance to go out and play and compete."

This offense has bee inept without Smith in the lineup, so losing him is a huge blow the Wildcats. Already reeling with a 1-4 record, this team has to rally around a new quarterback -- or two. It will be important that their confidence and knowledge of the playbook are both accelerated this week before taking on No. 20 Mississippi State, which sports arguably the best cornerback duo in the SEC with Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.

Phillips also said that starting safety Dakotah Tyler is out for the season with a torn ACL and running backs CoShik Williams and Raymond Sanders are both day-to-day. Tight end Gabe Correll is also out with an injury.

Losing Tyler hurts the Wildcats with depth. Kentucky was already struggling with bodies in its secondary, so this certainly doesn't help.

TideNation links: Replacing White, Hart

October, 1, 2012
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Scarborough/Ostendorf Insider: Alabama will turn to its talented freshmen -- the nation’s top signing class a year ago -- in the wake of season-ending injuries to starting WR DeAndrew White and reserve RB Dee Hart.

Scarborough Insider: Junior LB C.J. Mosley, the heart of the staunch Tide defense, is atop the Alabama 10 player power rankings.

Greg Ostendorf writes Insider: ESPN watch list LB Tre Williams made a visit to Saturday’s game against Ole Miss, focusing on Mosley’s play.

Ostendorf Insider: 2014 RB Racean Thomas visited Alabama for the Ole Miss game and liked the Tide’s rotation among its rushers.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jalston Fowler, who will likely miss the rest of the season recovering from knee surgery, wasn't the leading rusher, the leading blocker or the leading receiver for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide. His name didn't appear first on any depth chart. In fact, he shared the distinction of being the No. 2 tailback with true freshman T.J. Yeldon.

But what Fowler lacked for in distinction on paper he made up for in usefulness on the field. His unique skill set -- a power runner with light feet and soft hands -- was put to use by the Alabama coaching staff. He was second on the team in yards rushing, but he was also a reason why the Alabama rushing game has been so effective this season in his role as a lead blocker at H-back.

[+] EnlargeJalston Fowler
John David Mercer/US PresswireTide running back Jalston Fowler gets helped off the field during the fourth quarter against W. Kentucky.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said replacing Fowler's production will be a team effort. His loss at tailback hurts when considering starter Eddie Lacy's health concerns. He missed all of spring practice recovering from surgery to fix his battle with turf toe, only to sprain his ankle late in fall camp. He's been limited thus far, carrying the ball less than 10 times in each of the first two games.

The good news is Yeldon has emerged so quickly. The rookie was the first freshman in school history to rush for 100 yards in his debut. He followed up that performance by leading the team in receptions against Western Kentucky on Saturday. He and fellow freshmen Dee Hart and Kenyan Drake will take on more responsibility in Fowler's absence.

"I think we have what we have," Saban said. "We have backups at every one of the positions and roles that he filled. There may not be one particular guy. I think on special teams, there's a different guy on each special team that would take his place now. At running back, Dee Hart, Kenyan Drake will have a little more opportunity. Kelly [Johnson] was his backup at fullback, which is where he plays anyway. So we are going to miss him. It's going to take a number of people to replace him in various roles that he played on our team."

Junior receiver Kevin Norwood, who caught two touchdowns against Western Kentucky, said there's not much the team can do now other than move on.

"We're all going to pray for Jalston that hopefully he'll get back our there soon," Norwood said. "But the only thing we really can do is move on and make sure everybody is focused and preparing right for this team."

Guard Chance Warmack said he hasn't spoken to Fowler since the injury and hopes his recovery will happen swiftly. In the meantime, he said Alabama's lost a weapon on offense.

"Phenomenal player," Warmack explained. "Brought a lot to the offense. I don't want to count him out just yet. I don't know the specifics about how the injury is. Great guy, brought a lot to the offense. Very powerful back."

Fowler was one of three tailbacks in the SEC to average better than 6.9 yards per carry in 2011-12. He ran for 395 yards and four touchdowns on 56 carries.

Linebacker Nico Johnson went up against Fowler every day in practice. The 6-foot-1, 242-pound wrecking ball at tailback was routinely considered the most difficult man to bring down with the ball in his hands.

"He's more like a back like Trent (Richardson)," Johnson said. "He can run, catch out of the backfield, and he's tough to tackle. So, it's going to be real tough, but we've got enough guys and depth for somebody to step in and fill his role."

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