SEC: Dexter McCluster

Recent SEC signing class steals

January, 27, 2012
Everyone wants the five-stars. No recruiting collection would be complete without them.

But as we've seen over the years, not all of them really pan out, leaving fans and coaches pouting along the way. However, when one of those five-stars busts, there's always an unheralded recruit that finds a way to steal the scene.

Today, we'll look at some of the best signing class steals from the past few years. We'll use ESPN's player rankings and since the ESPN rankings go back to 2006, we'll only go back that far.

These are players who might not have been so highly recruited coming out of high school, but were stars at the college level. We could have gone on for days with this list, but it had to be shortened.

Here they are:

  • [+] EnlargeNick Fairley
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Fairley was unheralded but broke out during in 2010 and was the nation's best lineman that season.
    Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: He was unranked in the 2007 class and was actually a tight end prospect. He received a grade of 40, but finished his Arkansas career as a top pass rusher, with 24 career sacks, 31 tackles for loss and forced eight fumbles.
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He was a junior college transfer who wasn't highly sought after at all. But it didn't take Ballard long to make a name for himself as he quickly became a star for the Bulldogs in his two seasons, rushing for 2,157 yards and 28 touchdowns.
  • Ahmad Black, S, Florida: He came out of high school as the No. 49 safety and wasn't ranked in his region. He started off as a cornerback for Florida, but moved to safety and became quite the player. Black finished his career with 244 tackles and 13 interceptions. He also returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: He was rated the No. 41 corner and No. 267 in his region in 2008. At Georgia, he was a dangerous return man, ranking second all-time in the SEC in kickoff return yards (2,593) and is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind. He was also a tremendous corner, recording nine interceptions, 18 pass breakups and 152 tackles. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2011.
  • Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: Cobb was ranked as the No. 86 athlete back in 2008 and was overlooked by just about everyone. He played just about everywhere in college and finished his Kentucky career with 1,661 receiving yards, 1,313 rushing yards, 689 passing yards and 1,700 return yards. He also had 42 total touchdowns.
  • Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: The JUCO transfer signed with Auburn in 2007, but didn't qualify and finally made it to the Plains in 2009. He wasn't a highly rated JUCO prospect and was actually the No. 32-rated OT in 2007. He was an absolute star in 2010, setting the Auburn single-season record with 24.0 tackles for loss and had 11.5 sacks. He also earned the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman.
  • Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas: He was a relative nobody coming out of high school as an unranked wide receiver. All he did in his four years was lead the Razorbacks in tackles each year and finished second all-time at Arkansas with 376 total tackles in his career.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He was unranked and received a grade of 40 as a safety prospect in 2008. He turned into one of the SEC's best cover corners with the Commodores and left Vanderbilt tied for first in school history with 15 interceptions.
  • Brandon James, RB/KR, Florida: He was ranked as the 111th running back back in 2006 and ranked 345th in his region. James made his mark as a return man, as he finished his Florida career with four SEC and 11 Florida records for kickoff and punt returns. He is still the SEC career leader in return yards (4,089) and had five touchdowns on returns.
  • Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: He was ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle back in 2008, but enters his senior year with the Crimson Tide as arguably the nation's best offensive lineman. His versatility really showed in 2011 when he played just about every position on Alabama's offensive line and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman.
  • Tyrann Matheiu, CB, LSU: He was the No. 36 cornerback in 2010 and was unranked in his region with a grade of 77. LSU was his only major offer, but he's been one of the most exciting -- and dangerous -- players to watch on defense and in the return game the last two seasons. He was a Heisman finalist in 2011, led LSU in tackles (71), has forced 11 fumbles in two seasons and has 10 career takeaways.
  • Dexter McCluster, RB, Ole Miss: He was ranked the No. 71 running back back in 2006 and was No. 189 in his region. McCluster became an all-purpose star in the SEC during his four years, totaling 1,703 receiving yards, 1,955 rushing yards and 23 offensive touchdowns.
  • Eric Norwood, LB, South Carolina: He was ranked the No. 99 defensive end back in 2006 and was No. 387 in his region, but he had quite the career at South Carolina, leaving with the all-time record in tackles for loss (54.5) and sacks (29). He finished his career with 255 tackles as well.
  • Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: He was an unranked linebacker with a grade of 40 coming out of high school in 2008. He became one of the league's top linebackers in his final two seasons, leading the SEC in tackles both seasons. He finished his career with 372 tackles.
  • Prentiss Waggner, DB, Tennessee: He was the No. 50 corner in 2008 and was 305th in his region. Waggner has really been one of Tennessee's best defenders the past two seasons, playing both safety and corner. He has defended 11 passes, recording seven interceptions. He can be a shutdown corner and a ball-hawking safety.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: He came out of high school as the No. 44 wide receiver in 2008 and was ranked 115th in his region. His 2011 season, in which he led the SEC in receiving, gave him the single-season records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He is also the Arkansas leader in career catches (168) and receiving yards (2,934).

Multi-running back systems rule the SEC

September, 23, 2011
Houston Nutt has always taken pride in a treacherous rushing attack. Mostly because its success relied on multiple bodies.

There was Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas. And more recently at Ole Miss he’s had the combinations of Dexter McCluster, Cordera Eason, Brandon Bolden, Jeff Scott and even a little Enrique Davis.

In Nutt’s three seasons at Ole Miss, his teams have averaged 186.5, 183.6 and 207.6 yards per game during a full season. Most of that damage was done with the help of the use of multiple running backs in the offense.

[+] EnlargeJeff Scott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyRunning back Jeff Scott has had to carry the load for Mississippi because of injuries.
Fast forward to 2011, and Nutt finds himself without a strong running game and his Rebels are 1-2, averaging 109 rushing yards a game, which ranks 11th in the SEC.

Nutt watched as his top two backs -- Bolden and Davis -- went down with injuries in Week 1, leaving Scott to carry the load. Scott has been successful, but not having that second punch in the backfield has hurt the Rebels’ offense.

Bolden returned last week, but Ole Miss still couldn’t run the ball effectively. Without a successful multiple rushing attack, Nutt thinks any offense will struggle in this league.

“It’s a must,” Nutt said of having a multi-running back system in the SEC. “You probably gotta have three -- two for sure -- but you need three and sometimes four. This is the guy that’s going to get hit … this is the guy that’s gonna take some shots. How durable you are at the position is really the key for the year.”

Look at past three national champions.

In 2008, Florida basically used four rushers in quarterback Tim Tebow, wide receiver Percy Harvin and running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Each eclipsed the 600-yard mark and had four or more touchdowns. The Gators averaged 231.1 rushing yards per game and finished 13-1.

Alabama’s 2009 team had one of the toughest running back duos around in Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Ingram won the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns. Richardson, then a freshman, had 751 yards and eight scores.

Of course, Auburn’s perfect run last season was fueled by the three-headed rushing monster of quarterback Cam Newton and running backs Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb. Newton and Dyer both rushed for more than 1,000 yards (Newton had 1,400-plus) and McCalebb had 810, giving Auburn a staggering 284.8 rushing yards per game.

Currently, four -- Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt -- of the top six rushing teams in the SEC consistently utilize multiple running backs. Tennessee, Ole Miss and Kentucky are at the bottom of the league in rushing and don’t.

South Carolina, the SEC’s top rushing team, runs on Marcus Lattimore power, something coach Steve Spurrier worries could begin to weaken over time without some help. Lattimore already leads the nation in yards (534) and carries (87).

Alabama coach Nick Saban understands Spurrier’s concern, saying the use of more running backs helps keep players fresh and the offense firing. Saban's combo of Richardson and Eddie Lacy has combined for 619 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it that if you’re going to be able to run the ball it’s always good to have a guy who’s healthy and fresh out there that can give a little change of pace and have a little juice all the time,” Saban said. “That’s been beneficial for us for several years now.”

Seeing two talented running backs lineup together can also have defenses spinning, wondering who and how to attack.

“We’re going to be anywhere from empty to three backs,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose rushing attack averages 210.3 yards a game. “That’s what’s difficult in preparing for our offense.

“There are a lot of multiple formations and shifts and different things that happen with the same personnel on the field.”

For Richardson, he’s thrived in a two-running back operation and loves it, even though he’s the go-to guy. It not only keeps him energized but it makes wearing down defenses that much more fun.

“It’s like, how are you going to control these two guys?” he said. “With the rotation that they have, and with the features they have to bring to the field, it’s kind of hard to slow these guys down.”
Going back to my post on potential 1,000-yard rushers next season in the SEC, I thought it would be interesting to see who has produced the most 1,000-yard rushers in the league over the past five seasons.

That would be Arkansas with six, including four different players. Darren McFadden did it twice, and so did Felix Jones. In fact, they both rushed for 1,000 yards in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

Florida and Vanderbilt have not had a 1,000-yard rusher over the past five seasons.

The Gators’ last 1,000-yard rusher was Ciatrick Fason in 2004 with 1,267 yards. The last time the Commodores produced a 1,000-yard rusher was Jermaine Johnson in 1995 with 1,072 yards.

Last season, Marcus Lattimore became the first South Carolina player to rush for 1,000 yards since Derek Watson had 1,066 yards in 2000.

Here’s a rundown:

Arkansas: 6 (Darren McFadden 1,830 yards in 2007, Darren McFadden 1,647 yards in 2006, Knile Davis 1,322 yards in 2010, Felix Jones 1,168 yards in 2006, Felix Jones 1,113 yards in 2007, Michael Smith 1,072 yards in 2008)

Auburn: 3 (Cam Newton 1,473 yards in 2010, Ben Tate 1,362 yards in 2009, Mike Dyer 1,093 yards in 2010)

LSU: 3 (Charles Scott 1,174 yards in 2008, Stevan Ridley 1,147 yards in 2010, Jacob Hester 1,103 yards in 2007)

Ole Miss: 3 (Dexter McCluster 1,169 yards in 2009, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 1,137 yards in 2007, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 1,000 yards in 2006)

Tennessee: 3 (Montario Hardesty 1,345 yards in 2009, Arian Foster 1,193 yards in 2007, Tauren Poole 1,034 yards in 2010)

Alabama: 2 (Mark Ingram 1,658 yards in 2009, Glen Coffee 1,383 yards in 2008)

Georgia: 2 (Knowshon Moreno 1,400 yards in 2008, Knowshon Moreno 1,334 yards in 2007)

Mississippi State: 2 (Anthony Dixon 1,391 yards in 2009, Anthony Dixon 1,066 yards in 2007)

Kentucky: 1 (Rafael Little 1,013 yards in 2007)

South Carolina: 1 (Marcus Lattimore 1,197 yards in 2010)
It’s that time of year all football coaches hate.

While most of the players are on campus for summer school and going through conditioning and voluntary workouts, it’s also a given that the players have more free time than usual.

That means more time to get in trouble, get injured away from football or just generally find themselves in a precarious position that leads to off-the-field issues.

And many times, it’s just bad luck.

A year ago, the whole state of Mississippi collectively held its breath after initially hearing about the scary car wreck involving Dexter McCluster and Greg Hardy. Fortunately, they escaped without serious injury after a car pulled out in front of them, although Hardy did aggravate his foot injury.

More recently, it was Kentucky running back Derrick Locke, who broke a bone in his left forearm during a moped accident last week. Locke will be in a splint for four weeks and re-examined by doctors at that point.

The good news is that it doesn’t appear he will need surgery, which means he should be good to go when preseason practice begins in August.

In the immortal words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on “Hill Street Blues,” let’s be careful out there.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt winces when he thinks about it, but he knows it’s reality.

Of all the challenges facing the Rebels in 2010, replacing Dexter McCluster will be the most daunting.

That’s because guys who can change a game as quickly and as consistently as McCluster did in 2009 don’t come around very often.

“He was special, special, special,” Nutt said. “I know I didn’t have one like that this spring. I kept looking for him, but I didn’t have one.”

McCluster was the SEC’s most dynamic offensive player over the second half of last season. He kept the pressure off the Ole Miss offense because he was always breaking long runs for touchdowns or setting up the offense with big plays. The Rebels didn't have to rely on long, grind-it-out drives, which are never easy to come by against SEC defenses.

In his last five SEC games, he averaged 219.6 all-purpose yards and was responsible for eight touchdowns. He also became the first player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 500 receiving yards in the same season.

Replacing him will be more by committee next season, Nutt said.

But at the head of the list will be Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, both of whom improved significantly this spring, according to Nutt. Look for Bolden to play a little lighter than he has in the past. Some of the Ole Miss coaches think he might have tried to bulk up too much at one point.

“You look at Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, and they got better,” Nutt said. “I’m excited about the guys we have, all those guys … Jesse Grandy, Brandon Bolden, Enrique Davis, Rodney Scott, Derrick Herman, Korvic Neat and Devin Thomas.

“We’ve got to see which one of those guys, if not all of them, are going to make up for Dexter.”
As we count down the top 25 players in the SEC going into the 2010 season, I thought we'd take one final look back at both the postseason and preseason lists from a year ago.

Notice some of the omissions in the preseason list.

No Mark Ingram. No Ryan Mallett. No Maurkice Pouncey and no Ben Tate.

Also, keep in mind that we did 30 players last year and only 25 this year, which makes this an even more impossible task.

The SEC's 30 best players, 2009 postseason:

  • No. 1: Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
  • No. 2: Rolando McClain, LB, Alabama
  • No. 3: Dexter McCluster, RB/WR, Ole Miss
  • No. 4: Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
  • No. 5: Eric Berry, S, Tennessee
  • No. 6: Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
  • No. 7: Anthony Dixon, RB, Mississippi State
  • No. 8: Javier Arenas, CB, Alabama
  • No. 9: Joe Haden, CB, Florida
  • No. 10: Antonio Coleman, DE, Auburn
  • No. 11: Aaron Hernandez, TE, Florida
  • No. 12: Eric Norwood, OLB, South Carolina
  • No. 13: Brandon Spikes, LB, Florida
  • No. 14: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
  • No. 15: Carlos Dunlap, DE, Florida
  • No. 16: Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee
  • No. 17: Ben Tate, RB, Auburn
  • No. 18: Montario Hardesty, RB, Tennessee
  • No. 19: Mike Johnson, OG, Alabama
  • No. 20: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida
  • No. 21: Rennie Curran, LB, Georgia
  • No. 22: Randall Cobb, QB/WR, Kentucky
  • No. 23: Shay Hodge, WR, Ole Miss
  • No. 24: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
  • No. 25: Pernell McPhee, DE, Mississippi State
  • No. 26: Malcolm Sheppard, DT, Arkansas
  • No. 27: Mark Barron, S, Alabama
  • No. 28: Terrence Cody, NG, Alabama
  • No. 29: Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU
  • No. 30: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
The SEC's 30 best players, 2009 preseason:

  • No. 1: Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
  • No. 2: Eric Berry, S, Tennessee
  • No. 3: Jevan Snead, QB, Ole Miss
  • No. 4: Brandon Spikes, LB, Florida
  • No. 5: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
  • No. 6: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
  • No. 7: Rolando McClain, LB, Alabama
  • No. 8: Trevard Lindley, CB, Kentucky
  • No. 9: Greg Hardy, DE, Ole Miss
  • No. 10: Carlos Dunlap, DE, Florida
  • No. 11: Eric Norwood, OLB, South Carolina
  • No. 12: Antonio Coleman, DE, Auburn
  • No. 13: Ciron Black, OT, LSU
  • No. 14: Terrence Cody, NG, Alabama
  • No. 15: D.J. Williams, TE, Arkansas
  • No. 16: Rennie Curran, LB, Georgia
  • No. 17: Joe Haden, CB, Florida
  • No. 18: Michael Smith, RB, Arkansas
  • No. 19: Charles Scott, RB, LSU
  • No. 20: Malcolm Sheppard, DT, Arkansas
  • No. 21: Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU
  • No. 22: Jeffery Demps, RB/WR, Florida
  • No. 23: John Jerry, OT, Ole Miss
  • No. 24: Chad Jones, S, LSU
  • No. 25: Geno Atkins, DT, Georgia
  • No. 26: Anthony Dixon, RB, Mississippi State
  • No. 27: Javier Arenas, CB/RS, Alabama
  • No. 28: Micah Johnson, LB, Kentucky
  • No. 29: Dexter McCluster, RB/WR, Ole Miss
  • No. 30: Myron Lewis, CB, Vanderbilt

Ole Miss spring wrap

May, 4, 2010
2009 overall record: 9-4

2009 conference record: 4-4

Returning starters

Offense: 3; Defense: 6; Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Brandon Bolden, WR Markeith Summers, WR Jesse Grandy, OT Bobby Massie, DE Kentrell Lockett, DT Jerrell Powe, LB Jonathan Cornell, S Johnny Brown

Key losses

QB Jevan Snead, RB Dexter McCluster, WR Shay Hodge, OG John Jerry, C Daverin Geralds, DE Marcus Tillman, LB Patrick Trahan, S Kendrick Lewis

2009 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Dexter McCluster (1,169 yards)

Passing: Jevan Snead (2,632 yards)

Receiving: Shay Hodge (1,135 yards)

Tackles: Kendrick Lewis (84)

Sacks: Marcus Tillman and Emmanuel Stephens (5.5)

Interceptions: Kendrick Lewis, Cassius Vaughn, Patrick Trahan and Fon Ingram* (2)

Spring answers

1. Front seven dominance: The Rebels return six of their seven players in a front seven that should be as good and as experienced as any in the league. Senior end Kentrell Lockett and senior tackle Jerrell Powe are All-SEC caliber players, and if junior college newcomer Wayne Dorsey continues on the pace he set this spring at the other end, the Rebels again should rank right up there near the top nationally in tackles for loss. Senior linebackers Allen Walker and Jonathan Cornell are both underrated and have played a lot of quality football for the Rebels.

2. Sophomores to the rescue: The Rebels’ sophomore class looked poised this spring to really break out. Nathan Stanley takes over at quarterback. Receiver Patrick Patterson will be a key in the passing game, assuming he returns from suspension. Jesse Grandy is that big-play guy on offense and special teams that Ole Miss will need now that Dexter McCluster is gone, while Rodney Scott is Houston Nutt’s kind of running back. Offensive tackle Bobby Massie returns as the anchor up front, while linebacker D.T. Shackelford has star potential written all over him.

3. A Davis sighting: The Rebels don’t have anybody that can do what McCluster did for them at running back last season, but one of the more encouraging parts of spring practice was the way junior Enrique Davis ran the ball. He’s elusive, has breakaway speed and can make people miss. He’s been a disappointment so far after coming to Ole Miss with so much hype, but maybe the light has come on and it’s his time. Davis would be a nice complement to Brandon Bolden, who’s lost weight and also looks poised for a big season.

Fall questions

1. Stanley’s time to shine: Nathan Stanley came out of spring practice as the Rebels’ starter at quarterback. He threw the ball well, made good decisions and was effective in moving the team. Can he hold onto the job? A lot of that will depend on redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton’s shoulder issues. He also looked good at the end of the spring, but is battling a partially torn labrum and is trying to hold off from having surgery until after the 2010 season.

2. Protecting the passer: Nobody struggled more last season for the Rebels up front than left tackle Bradley Sowell. His nightmarish outing against South Carolina’s Eric Norwood just seemed to set an ominous tone. To his credit, he hung in there and did get better as the season progressed. His experience a year ago should prove valuable in 2010. The biggest question now for the Rebels in their offensive line is solidifying their inside positions.

3. Help in the secondary: The Rebels lost three of their four starters in the secondary, including both cornerbacks. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix liked what he saw in the spring in some of the new faces, but it’s never ideal to go into a season with so much inexperience in the secondary. Redshirt freshman Charles Sawyer had a big spring at one cornerback, while UCLA transfer Jeremy McGee may be the answer at the other cornerback. Safety Johnny Brown is the lone returning starter, but junior college newcomer Damien Jackson may end up being the best of the bunch.

Seven SEC players go in first round

April, 23, 2010
The SEC's seven first-round NFL draft picks on Thursday night was second to the Big 12's nine.

The SEC has now had five picks in the top 20 of the first round four years in a row.

The first-round proceedings Thursday night reminded us all one more time that how decorated you are at the college level and how many awards you win aren't real important in the eyes of pro scouts.

Take Alabama cornerback Kareem Jackson, for instance. He played in the shadow of Javier Arenas all season a year ago. Arenas was a consensus All-American and one of the "stars" of the defense. It was all Jackson could do to earn honorable mention All-SEC status.

Still, he was solid all season as a shutdown cornerback, ran great times in the 40-yard dash and wound up being the fourth defender drafted from the league, going 20th overall to the Houston Texans.

Jackson is another one of those guys who wasn't highly recruited, either. He went to Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy out of school even though he was qualified academically and was committed initially to Vanderbilt until Nick Saban and Alabama jumped on him.

Say this, too, for Jackson. He's supremely confident in his abilities. He turned pro this past season despite Saban telling him he needed another season of college ball.

As for guys who slipped, who would have thought at the end of the regular season last year that Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap wouldn't go in the first round?

At that point, he was being projected as a top 15 pick by all the analysts. But that next week, he was arrested on DUI charges, was suspended for the SEC championship game, and apparently some of his interviews with teams following the season didn't go well.

In Friday night's second and third rounds, one of the SEC guys to watch will be LSU defensive tackle Al Woods. After a so-so college career, Woods really shot up draft boards this offseason with solid workouts.

And who will be the first SEC player to get picked in the second round?

I'll go with Alabama's Terrence Cody, but my dark horse is Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster.

Here's the complete list of SEC first-rounders on Thursday:

Nathan Stanley says he was as surprised as anyone when he got the news in January that Jevan Snead was turning pro.

He knew Snead was thinking about it, but like most people, felt like Snead would return to Ole Miss for his senior season.

[+] EnlargeNathan Stanley
Matt Pearce/Icon SMINathan Stanley is the front-runner to take over as Ole Miss' starting quarterback.
“I found out when I got back from Christmas break,” Stanley said. “The first thing that goes through your mind is that you didn’t really see it coming. Then you think, ‘Wow, he’s leaving. This is my shot, my chance. I’m going to have to buckle down.’ ”

Stanley, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound sophomore, did just that for much of the spring and established himself as the clear-cut starter at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton also played well, particularly in the spring game, but he’s got a lingering shoulder problem.

The Rebels are hopeful that Cotton will be able to make it through the season before having surgery, but there are no guarantees.

For now, Stanley is the only sure thing, although junior college newcomer Randall Mackey is set to arrive this summer.

“The main thing for me this spring was getting out there and earning everyone’s trust,” Stanley said. “Everyone looks to the quarterback to be the leader of the offense, and I knew I had to step up and prove that I was that guy.”

Snead threw 20 touchdown passes last season, but he also threw 20 interceptions. And 15 of those interceptions came in SEC contests.

When the Rebels got in trouble last season, they turned around and handed the ball to Dexter McCluster. They won’t have that luxury next season with McCluster gone.

That means Stanley will have to walk that fine line of producing enough big plays to jump-start the Rebels’ offense, while not trying to do too much and turning the ball over.

He feels like his strength is decision-making.

“I want to be real level-headed and real calm,” Stanley said. “My job is to put the team in a position to be successful.”

Not only is McCluster gone, but so is leading receiver Shay Hodge. Stanley thinks the Rebels will spread it around more next season and be even more diverse on offense.

“Dexter will be hard to replace, but we have guys who played behind him last year like Jesse Grandy, who’s definitely a game-breaker,” Stanley said. “All he needs is the ball. He’s got the speed, got the hands. He’s got it all. I feel like he will sort of take Dexter’s place.”

Stanley said sophomore Melvin Harris and redshirt freshman Ja-Mes Logan also made big strides this spring, and that junior running back Brandon Bolden looked like his old self now that he’s about 10 pounds lighter.

Senior receivers Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux helped set the tone for the offense with their consistent play, and the most pleasant surprise was junior running back Enrique Davis, who looked like it was finally clicking for him.

“He makes us a whole different offense,” Stanley said. “He really seemed to perfect his craft. He’s big and fast and is really going to help us out.”

Stanley will take all of the options he can get on offense in 2010. The more, the better.

“We’ll all lean on each other,” Stanley said. “It’s going to take more than just one guy anyway, but I feel like we’re on the right track and have the time to get there.”
Making the rounds in the SEC:

After I pointed out recently that South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia was the leader in total offense last season in conference games, several of you asked about the leaders in the other statistical categories in conference games only.

Here goes:

In rushing, Alabama’s Mark Ingram led the way with 128.8 yards per game, but Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon was right on his heels at 127 yards per game.

Interestingly enough, five of the top seven rushers from a year ago in SEC games are gone. The only two back are Ingram and Kentucky’s Derrick Locke, who averaged 84.4 yards per game.

Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett was the passing leader in conference games. He threw for 273.6 yards per game. Garcia wasn’t far behind with an average of 263.1 yards per game.

Anybody want to venture a guess on who threw the most touchdown passes in SEC games?

That would be Georgia’s Joe Cox with 17. Ole Miss’ Jevan Snead threw the most interceptions with 15.

Arkansas’ Greg Childs led the way in receiving yards per game (92.1), yards per catch (23) and most receiving yards (737) in conference games. Childs’ six touchdown catches were also tops among receivers in conference games.

Ole Miss’ Shay Hodge had the most catches (41), followed by LSU’s Brandon LaFell (39) and Florida’s Aaron Hernandez (38).

The top scorers among position players were Tennessee running back Montario Hardesty and Kentucky quarterback/receiver Randall Cobb, both of whom scored 10 touchdowns.

Ole Miss’ Dexter McCluster topped the league in all-purpose yardage with an average of 160.5 yards per game. The Kentucky twosome of Cobb and Locke were the next two. Cobb averaged 156.9 yards and Locke 156.8 yards.

Defensively, Tennessee linebacker Rico McCoy led the league with 91 total tackles. Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran was second with 90. Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had seven sacks in conference games to lead the way, while Georgia defensive end Justin Houston had 11 total tackles for loss to finish No. 1 in the category. Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas had 10 solo tackles for loss.

Alabama safety Mark Barron had six interceptions in SEC games to rank No. 1 in that category.

SEC combine report: Tate sparkles

March, 1, 2010
The NFL combine wraps up Monday and Tuesday, and already several former SEC players have helped themselves.

A few might have hurt themselves, too.

Auburn running back Ben Tate had a super workout session. Weighing 220 pounds, he turned in the third fastest 40-yard dash time among the running backs (4.43), was second among the running backs with a 40.5-inch vertical leap and tied for the most reps on the bench-press among running backs with 26. He also had a 10-4 broad jump, which tied Tennessee's Montario Hardesty for first among the running backs.

Hardesty, who had bulked up to 225 pounds, ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and did 21 reps on the bench.

The defensive linemen and linebackers are working out on Monday, and Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens set the bar pretty high on the bench-press with 44 reps. His teammate, Geno Atkins, did 34 reps. As a comparison, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh did 32 reps.

Kentucky linebacker Micah Johnson put up 31 reps Monday morning.

The strongest former SEC player of the combine was Arkansas offensive guard Mitch Petrus, who did 45 reps over the weekend. That tied a combine record (since 2000).

The fastest former SEC player was LSU return specialist Trindon Holliday, who ran a 4.34 40-yard dash.

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow didn't throw at the combine. He'll show off his new delivery at the Gators' pro day on March 17, but he did demonstrate what kind of athlete he is. He ran a 4.72 40-yard dash, fourth fastest among the quarterbacks, and tied Josh McCown's record for quarterbacks with a 38.5-inch vertical leap. Tebow's hands (10 1/8) also measured the largest of the quarterbacks.

One of the biggest surprises of the combine so far was that Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster didn't turn in a faster 40 time. Weighing 172 pounds, McCluster ran a 4.55, but did show off his strength with 20 reps on the bench-press.

LSU receiver Brandon LaFell also had a disappointing 40 time (4.6), while Ole Miss' Shay Hodge was even slower (4.63).

Some players chose not to run the 40 and/or work out because they were injured or simply wanted to wait until their school's pro day. Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez had a strained back and didn't run.

The defensive backs work out on Tuesday.

What to watch in the SEC West this spring

February, 22, 2010
Here’s a breakdown of some of the issues facing each SEC West team heading into the spring:


Spring practice starts: March 12

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Retooling the secondary -- The Crimson Tide are losing three starters in the secondary, and another guy who played a good bit last season, safety Robby Green, is in limbo. The battle for the two starting cornerback spots this spring will be fierce. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick has star potential with his combination of talent and swagger. Coveted freshman signees DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton both enrolled early and will go through spring practice, while sophomore B.J. Scott will also get a shot at one of the three starting positions in Alabama’s nickel defense along with LSU transfer Phelon Jones, who already has SEC experience. Junior college newcomer DeQuan Menzie arrives this summer, so there will be a bunch of new faces in the Alabama secondary next fall. And with Green’s eligibility in question, another guy to watch at safety is sophomore Robert Lester, a teammate of Julio Jones’ in high school. Scott could also play safety if needed.
  • Cody’s replacement -- Even though Terrence Cody wasn’t an every-down player for Alabama, he was a one-man wrecking crew against the run. Teams simply didn’t run between the tackles against the Crimson Tide. Junior Josh Chapman is the most experienced of the inside guys and played behind Cody the last two seasons. The defensive coaches are eager to get a more extensive look at sophomore Kerry Murphy this spring. He may have as much pure talent as anybody up front. He got a late start getting to Alabama because of qualifying issues, but was a big-time recruit. Damion Square is a wild card and can play any position on the defensive line. He’s back after tearing his ACL in the second game, but will be limited this spring.
  • Special teams makeover -- Don’t underestimate the importance special teams played for Alabama each of the past two seasons. Place-kicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald both had excellent senior seasons. Freshman place-kicker Cade Foster is already enrolled in school and will show off his leg in the spring. Christian Kauffman is walking on and will be on campus this summer. Freshman punter Jay Williams will be on campus in the summer. Equally important is finding a dynamic return man. How many games did Javier Arenas win for the Crimson Tide the last few seasons? Julio Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, Marquis Maze and Terry Grant are all more than capable candidates. We’ll see who emerges.

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Playing without Mallett -- It will be sophomore Tyler Wilson’s show this spring at quarterback with Ryan Mallett out with a broken bone in his left foot. Wilson will get some help from redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell and true freshman Jacoby Walker, who enrolled early and will also participate in spring practice. Obviously, the Hogs would like to have their main guy under center with everybody getting better around him, but it’s also a chance for Wilson and some of the other quarterbacks to get valuable practice time with the first unit. Having a second-team quarterback who’s ready to step in as opposed to having one who’s in over his head is the difference between saving a season and going belly-up if the starter happens to go down.
  • Making strides on defense -- The Hogs will be older and more experienced on defense next season, and they’re hopeful that means they will be stingier. Depth at linebacker remains a concern, but the secondary should be better with the return of cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. For precautionary reasons, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he’s not sure how much contact Madison will get this spring. Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis are gone from the defensive line, but Petrino thinks the defensive front will be good. Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose, Tenarius Wright, Zach Stadther, D.D. Jones, Patrick Jones and Lavunce Askew are all back. Petrino says it’s paramount that the Hogs develop more depth at linebacker this spring, and ultimately, find a way to eliminate the big plays.
  • Loaded backfield -- It’s no secret that Arkansas is loaded at receiver, but Petrino really likes the potential in the backfield, headlined by sophomore Ronnie Wingo Jr. He has track speed and has beefed up to 230 pounds. He’s primed for a breakout season. It’s also a backfield that appears to have all the pieces. Broderick Green is pushing 250 pounds and gives the Hogs that power back down around the goal line, while Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis are guys who can do a little bit of everything. With new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis coming over from Nevada, look for the Hogs to tweak their running game and use a lot of the Pistol formation that was so successful for Klenakis at Nevada.

Spring practice starts: March 22

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Linebacker depth -- The Tigers were so thin at linebacker last season that Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens had to play every snap in the overtime win against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Both of those guys are back, and both should be primed for big seasons. But one of the priorities this spring is building some depth around them. Junior Eltoro Freeman should be more consistent in 2010 after coming over from junior college last season. Redshirt freshman Harris Gaston was injured for much of last season, while sophomore Jonathan Evans played well late when he was forced into action. Freshman signee Jessel Curry was a midterm enrollee. The rest of the linebacker reinforcements -- LaDarius Owens, Jake Holland and Jawara White -- will be on campus this summer.
  • Newton stepping in at quarterback -- All signs point to junior college newcomer Cameron Newton being the guy to beat at quarterback. He’ll go through spring practice after signing in December. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound Newton can run and pass, which is what Gus Malzahn is looking for in his spread offense. Redshirt freshman Tyrik Rollison was thought to be the Tigers’ quarterback of the future until his suspension prior to the bowl game last year. Now, his status remains up in the air. Senior Neil Caudle will also get a shot this spring. Remember that Chris Todd sort of came from the back of the pack last season to win the job.
  • Difference-makers on defense -- Antonio Coleman was the SEC’s sacks leader and tackles for loss leader a year ago, but now he’s gone. Who’s going to take his place when it comes to making the big plays on defense? Senior Antoine Carter is the odds-on favorite at Coleman’s end spot, but the guy the Auburn coaches were really excited about last season was freshman Nosa Eguae, who injured his foot just prior to the season and wound up redshirting. It’s also a big spring for junior tackle Nick Fairley. He made some big plays inside last season after coming over from junior college, but needs to show more consistency. Junior college players are typically much better their second season in the program.

Spring practice starts: Feb. 26

Spring game: March 27

What to watch:
  • Finding an identity on offense -- After last season’s woeful showing, the Tigers have to find an identity on offense. They weren’t particularly good at anything a year ago and finished 112th nationally in total offense (304.5 yards per game). The first part of that equation this spring will be revving up the running game. Even though Charles Scott and Keiland Williams are both gone, junior Stevan Ridley has all sorts of ability, and senior Richard Murphy will be back after missing most of last season with a knee injury. LSU coach Les Miles also brought in former Florida assistant Billy Gonzalez to be the Tigers’ passing game coordinator. It’s not a talent issue. There’s more than enough talent on LSU’s roster to be one of the top offensive clubs in the league. The key is utilizing that talent properly.
  • Searching for Russell Shepard -- It’s pretty obvious by now that Shepard isn’t going to be an every-down quarterback at LSU. In fact, don’t be surprised if he takes very few snaps at quarterback this spring. Miles believes Shepard might have been spread too thin last season at all the different positions, which is the reason he’s going to work primarily at running back and receiver this spring. He’s one of the most dynamic athletes on LSU’s roster, and the Tigers have to find a way to get his hands on the ball more than they did during his freshman season. Finding his niche in this offense will be critical this spring.
  • Jefferson’s next step -- It’s true that quarterback Jordan Jefferson tended to hold onto the ball too long last season, but it’s also true that there were more than a few breakdowns in LSU’s offensive line. The Tigers gave up a staggering 37 sacks. Jefferson has to get a better feel for the pressure this spring, where it’s coming from and when he has to get rid of the ball. The LSU coaches will be looking for him to make a big jump from his sophomore to junior season. Either way, redshirt freshman Chris Garrett will get a good look this spring, too. The 6-4, 220-pound Garrett is more of a classic drop-back passer with a big arm.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Tyler Russell’s stage -- Certainly nobody is going to hand the starting quarterback job to redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, who was one of the prizes of the Bulldogs’ 2009 signing class. But he will get every chance to win the job this spring. Junior Chris Relf isn’t going anywhere and was effective as Mississippi State’s designated running quarterback when he returned from his suspension last season. Still, it’s Russell who has the most upside to be the kind of every-down quarterback Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is looking for in his offense. Mullen didn’t think Russell was ready last season and didn’t push him. We’ll have a better idea of how ready he is after this spring.
  • Life after Anthony Dixon -- When you take away almost 1,400 yards rushing from an offense, that means somebody waiting in the wings better be really special or that two or three people better be poised to step up and divvy up that production. It’s probably going to be the latter for the Bulldogs, who face the task of replacing Dixon and his 126.5 yards per game. Junior Robert Elliott has the most experience. Freshman Montrell Conner redshirted last season, while junior college newcomer Vick Ballard is in school and will also go through spring practice. Look for sophomore receiver Chad Bumphis’ role in this offense to grow exponentially, too. He’s one of those guys who makes plays no matter where you put him.
  • New identity on defense -- Mullen brought in Manny Diaz from Middle Tennessee to run the Mississippi State defense along with Chris Wilson from Oklahoma. Wilson will serve as co-defensive coordinator and also coach the defensive line. The Bulldogs finished 11th in the SEC last season in both total defense and scoring defense. There’s some young talent in place defensively, not to mention a dominant presence up front in senior end Pernell McPhee. Diaz’s goal is to bring more of an attacking mentality to Mississippi State’s defense, and that starts this spring. The Bulldogs have a chance to be really good in the secondary when you look at all the young guys who made plays back there last season.

Spring practice starts: March 27

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Overhauling the offense -- With a new coordinator (Dave Rader) and new players at just about every position, the Rebels will take on a different look in 2010. The first order of business is settling on a starting quarterback. Sophomore Nathan Stanley is probably in the best position to win the job, but redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton will also get a long look this spring. Don’t count out multipurpose junior college newcomer Randall Mackey once he arrives in the summer, either. With Houston Nutt calling the shots on offense, the running game is always going to be what drives Ole Miss. Dexter McCluster won’t be around to break 70- and 80-yard touchdown runs anymore, which means Brandon Bolden, Rodney Scott, Tim Simon (if he’s healthy) and Enrique Davis will have split up the backfield duties. If Davis is going to make his move, it needs to be this spring.
  • Sophomores stepping up -- Several talented, younger players in the program will need to take that next step if Ole Miss is going to have the kind of success it has during Nutt’s first two seasons in Oxford. In particular, there are a cluster of sophomores who showed a lot of promise last season as freshmen. They have to become leaders and prime-time players this coming season. Some of those guys include D.T. Shackelford at linebacker, Jesse Grandy at running back, return specialist or anywhere he can get his hands on the ball and Pat Patterson at receiver. If Patterson matures both on and off the field this spring, he’s got a chance to be Ole Miss’ next great receiver in the mold of Shay Hodge. And on the offensive line, tackle Bobby Massie needs to become a dominant player.
  • Plugging in Dorsey at end -- The Ole Miss coaches will get their first look at 6-8, 255-pound Wayne Dorsey in their defense this spring. He’s the kind of guy who should fit perfectly into what defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is looking for from his ends and was a force in junior college as a pass-rusher. Dorsey signed in December and is already enrolled in school. The Rebels had to have an impact player at end after losing Marcus Tillman, Emmanuel Stephens and Greg Hardy. Dorsey was one of the top junior college players in America, and getting him on campus for spring practice was huge.
No matter how you slice it, some familiar faces in the SEC are gone.

In fact, some might say the league has lost its star power, especially when you consider the likes of Tim Tebow, Rolando McClain, Eric Berry, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Javier Arenas, Dexter McCluster, Anthony Dixon, Eric Norwood and Terrence Cody are all now embarking on their professional careers.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
Kim Klement/US PresswireArkansas hopes quarterback Ryan Mallett will rise up and be one of the league's new stars.
Can any league, even one that captured four straight BCS national championships, sustain such deep personnel losses and expect to stay atop the college football mountaintop?

“I don’t think it will be any different,” said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, entering his third season in the SEC. “You’re going to see those other guys step up and be good players and be leaders. Hopefully, we have a few on our team.”

No doubt, and a good place to start is a marquee quarterback. Arkansas has one of the best passers in the country in junior Ryan Mallett, who threw 30 touchdown passes a year ago and is the ideal building block.

If the Hogs can plug the holes on defense, they might end up being one of the new faces of the league.

The last couple of years, it’s pretty much been an Alabama/Florida stranglehold.

The Crimson Tide haven't lost a regular-season game in two years. They were 14-0 in winning their first national championship in 17 years last season.

The Gators had a 22-game winning streak snapped last season by the Crimson Tide. Prior to last season’s breakthrough by Alabama, Florida had won two of the last three national titles.

And the one in that stretch that wasn’t won by Florida was won by LSU in 2007.

The odds of the SEC making it five straight with so many new faces playing starring roles?

Well, that depends on how you look at it.

The league does have a chance to be more balanced in 2010. A year ago, there was a pretty clear separation between Alabama and Florida and everybody else.

But with the Gators losing five juniors to the NFL in addition to Tebow, Spikes and the other seniors, they’re going to have their work cut out merely getting out of the East alive.

As soon as you say that, you look around the East and realize there’s not a clear-cut challenger. Everybody has their warts, and everybody has major question marks to address this spring.

South Carolina has 19 starters returning, but this is South Carolina we're talking about. The Gamecocks have made a living of stumbling all over themselves any time they face real expectations.

Georgia has 10 starters coming back on defense, but will be guided by a first-year starter at quarterback, probably a redshirt freshman who will be taking his first college snap. The Bulldogs are also overhauling their defense, as Todd Grantham takes over for Willie Martinez as coordinator.

Georgia last played in the SEC championship game in 2005, which was also the last time the Bulldogs won an SEC title.

The door might not be cracked open this much again in the East for a long time when you examine how relentlessly and how well Meyer has recruited at Florida -- regardless of how bizarre the whole resignation/leave of absence flip-flop was.

New stars will emerge for the Gators, and don’t be surprised if junior quarterback John Brantley is one of those stars next season.

There’s a reason nobody has repeated as champion in this league since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998. It’s the same reason this league has been so cyclical over the last two decades.

On any Saturday, the eighth best team can beat the best team. And when the tide turns in this league, it turns quickly.

[+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireDespite losing many starters on defense, Alabama has young players like Marcell Dareus waiting to take up the mantle.
Just ask Tennessee.

Speaking of the Tide, the class of the league remains defending national champion Alabama, which has a chance to be even better on offense in 2010.

The defense loses nine starters, but that’s deceiving. The young talent Nick Saban stockpiled on that side of the ball has simply been waiting its chance.

Marcell Dareus, Nico Johnson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kerry Murphy, Dont’a Hightower and the rest of their cohorts get a chance to step into leading roles this fall.

Arkansas isn’t the only team in the West capable of taking down Alabama. Auburn and LSU are both talented enough to make a run. Like Arkansas, Auburn has to prove it can take that step defensively to play championship-caliber football. LSU has to rediscover itself after finishing 11th in the league in total offense a year ago.

Looking for a surprise?

Mississippi State is poised to be one of the league’s most improved teams. The Bulldogs might not be ready to contend for a championship, but it would be a huge disappointment in Starkville next season if they’re not in a bowl game.

They also have one of those fresh, new faces that should become familiar to just about everybody next season.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is counting the different ways to get the ball in Chad Bumphis’ hands after a promising debut season in the SEC.

So sit back and enjoy. It all cranks back up on Friday when LSU opens spring practice.

If recent history is any indication in this conference, it will all end on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., site of the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.

The SEC's 30 best players: No. 3

February, 19, 2010
It’s been a while since a player has electrified this league on a week-in, week-out basis the way this next guy did last season.

Simply, he was a 170-pound dynamo that nobody could tackle. He was also one of my biggest misses in the preseason countdown of the SEC’s 30 best players. I had him No. 29, which was much too low.

I guess he showed me and everybody else in this league with just a sensational senior season:

No. 3: Dexter McCluster, RB/WR, Ole Miss: McCluster was the most dynamic player in the league in 2009 – period. And had he been at running back from the beginning of the season, he would have been mentioned in all the Heisman Trophy talk. He was that good and that productive. In rushing for 1,169 yards and catching 44 passes for 520 yards last season, McCluster became the first player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 500 yards receiving in the same season. Go back and count up all the long touchdown plays he had, too. There’s no substitute for that in an offense. McCluster turned missed tackles into touchdowns and didn’t need much of a hole to make things happen. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t put McCluster at running back full time until the Arkansas game on Oct. 24. In his last five SEC games, he averaged 219.6 all-purpose yards, 164.2 rushing yards and was responsible for eight touchdowns. For the season, McCluster had six plays of 50-plus yards, including an 86-yard touchdown run in the Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma State. His best game came in a magical performance against Tennessee when he rushed for a school-record 282 yards, the 11th highest rushing total in SEC history. McCluster was so good the second half of the season that every time he touched it, you almost expected him to score.
  • No. 4: Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
  • No. 5: Eric Berry, S, Tennessee
  • No. 6: Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
  • No. 7: Anthony Dixon, RB, Mississippi State
  • No. 8: Javier Arenas, CB, Alabama
  • No. 9: Joe Haden, CB, Florida
  • No. 10: Antonio Coleman, DE, Auburn
  • No. 11: Aaron Hernandez, TE, Florida
  • No. 12: Eric Norwood, OLB, South Carolina
  • No. 13: Brandon Spikes, LB, Florida
  • No. 14: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
  • No. 15: Carlos Dunlap, DE, Florida
  • No. 16: Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee
  • No. 17: Ben Tate, RB, Auburn
  • No. 18: Montario Hardesty, RB, Tennessee
  • No. 19: Mike Johnson, OG, Alabama
  • No. 20: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida
  • No. 21: Rennie Curran, LB, Georgia
  • No. 22: Randall Cobb, QB/WR, Kentucky
  • No. 23: Shay Hodge, WR, Ole Miss
  • No. 24: A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
  • No. 25: Pernell McPhee, DE, Mississippi State
  • No. 26: Malcolm Sheppard, DT, Arkansas
  • No. 27: Mark Barron, S, Alabama
  • No. 28: Terrence Cody, NG, Alabama
  • No. 29: Brandon LaFell, WR, LSU
  • No. 30: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama