SEC: Gilbert Pena

Five SEC schools -- Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- will close spring practice with their annual spring games Saturday.

These really are just glorified scrimmages, but they're a chance for fans to see what players and coaches worked on during all those practices.

Here are five things to watch this weekend:

1. Defending down low: Ole Miss might return a host of starters on the defensive side of the ball, but the Rebels are very thin along the defensive line this spring. Defensive tackle Isaac Gross went down with a groin injury on the first day of spring practice and end C.J. Johnson has missed most of spring with a broken fibula. The Rebels were already dealing with the departures of seniors Gilbert Pena, Uriah Grant and Jason Jones. Injuries and graduation have left the Rebels down six bodies up front this spring. Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin has been impressed with Carlos Thompson and Woodrow Hamilton this spring, but also keep an eye on sophomore Channing Ward and juco transfer Lavon Hooks. Ward is getting more comfortable, while Hooks has the talent to be a stud for the Rebels.

2. Quarterback musical chairs: Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has been playing his quarterback cards very close to the vest this spring. Maxwell Smith entered as the favorite, but the staff has handed out a good amount of reps to rising sophomores Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who shared reps last year while Smith was out with injuries. The reps will be split evenly among the three quarterbacks, and all three are expected to line up for both the Blue and White teams Saturday. This battle is far from over, and Saturday could be really big for one of these guys.

3. New defensive faces: Texas A&M lost a lot of defensive firepower from its 2012 team. All-American defensive end Damontre Moore is gone and so are linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Overall, the Aggies are having to replace five starters from the front seven. Defensive end Julien Obioha and linebacker Steven Jenkins (projected starters) are out with injuries, so fans will have the opportunity to see a lot of youngsters on defense Saturday. Keep an eye on early enrollee linebackers Tommy Sanders, Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade and young linemen Tyrone Taylor, Tyrell Taylor and Alonzo Williams.

4. Wideout help: With Ace Sanders gone, South Carolina is searching for more receiving help this spring. Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 600 receiving yards and caught seven touchdowns last season, needs someone to help out and take some of the pressure off of him. Speed demon Damiere Byrd was third on the team in receiving yards last year but caught just 14 passes. Then there's Nick Jones, who caught 12 passes but entered the spring as one of the Gamecocks' three starting receivers. There's also rising sophomore Shaq Roland, who has all the talent to be a star but has struggled with his focus. He has the ability to excite the crowd here and there Saturday.

5. Replacing Rodgers: Now that Jordan Rodgers is gone, Vanderbilt has a real quarterback competition on its hands. Austyn Carta-Samuels and Patton Robinette entered the spring as the top two quarterbacks, but Josh Grady moved over to the position from wide receiver. While Grady is a big-time athlete, it looks like things will really come down to Carta-Samuels and Robinette. Both are athletic, but Robinette brings a little more to the table with his legs. Both will quarterback opposite teams, so we'll really get to see these guys compete on Saturday.

Lunchtime links

August, 9, 2012
PGA Championship and U.S. women's soccer going for gold on the dame day? Must be my birthday!
Everyone is looking for the next Nick Fairley.

Everyone would love to have their own Cam Newton.

So as we look around the league at some of the newcomers from either the junior college ranks or who have transferred in from other schools, we'll try to find them.

Could Georgia noseguard John Jenkins be the beast in the middle that Fairley was? Does Barry Brunetti have what it takes to have a Newton-like impact at Ole Miss?

Here is a look at some of the new athletes around the league to keep an eye on this fall:

  • Duron Carter, WR: Carter could be a big-time playmaker for the Tide, but he has yet to enroll because of transcript issues. The former Ohio State and juco wideout is the son of star former NFL receiver Cris Carter.
  • Quinton Dial, DL: Dial could play both inside and out, but is currently getting quality reps at defensive end for Alabama. The former juco standout has made quite the impression on his head coach and he seems to be in line for a starting spot.
  • Jesse Williams, DT: Like Dial, Williams transferred in from the juco ranks in January and has also performed well in practice. He's gotten reps all around the line, but could also be in contention for one of the end spots. He's a massive lineman at 6-foot-4 and 319 pounds.
  • Alonzo Highsmith, LB: The juco transfer is an extremely athletic linebacker and has really impressed since his arrival. He stepped in at the starting weakside linebacker spot on Day 1 of preseason camp and appears to have the edge there heading into the season.
  • Robert Thomas, DT: Speaking of athleticism, the Razorbacks might have found their most athletic defensive lineman in Thomas. The juco transfer got a ton of reps this spring with Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones out with injuries, and is currently competing for a starting spot.
  • Dan Wenger, C: He earned an extra year of eligibility after concussions cut his Notre Dame career short. He's reuniting with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and offensive line coach Frank Verducci and is not only competing for the starting spot at center but has become a leader on the offensive line.
  • John Jenkins, DT: He was a giant gem of Georgia's 2011 class and was expected to snatch the starting noseguard position. However, the juco standout has had injury issues and hasn't been in the best shape. At 6-foot-4, and 340 pounds, people are hoping he can be a force in the middle this fall, but he's currently behind Kwame Geathers.
  • Jarvis Jones, LB: Jones transferred in from USC last year and takes over as the starting strongside linebacker. Georgia's coaches feel that with his speed and athleticism he could be a more versatile player than former stud Justin Houston.
  • Zach Mettenberger, QB: If Jordan Jefferson is indeed punished for his alleged involvement in a horrific fight outside of a Baton Rouge bar, Mettenberger's time could be now. He matches his cannon of a right arm with tremendous accuracy and might have the best skill set of any of LSU's current quarterbacks.
  • Brandon Maye, LB: Maye transferred from Clemson and with the Bulldogs looking to replace three starters at linebacker, Maye is expected to make an immediate impact at middle linebacker. He had a slow start to fall camp, but improved throughout.

  • Barry Brunetti, Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt, QBs: All three are vying for the starting quarterback spot and all have done well since the spring. Brunetti transferred from West Virginia, while Mackey and Stoudt are former juco athletes. Brunetti has the edge at quarterback, but Mackey was on top this spring and won't make things easy for the sophomore. Stoudt isn't as athletic as the other two, but has been very sharp with his passing ability.
  • Uriah Grant, Gilbert Pena, DT: Both players were brought in to add some beef in the middle of Ole Miss' line and both could end up starters for opening day. Both have dealt with injuries, but that really hasn't slowed their on-field production in practice.
  • Wesley Pendleton, CB: Pendleton had an impressive juco career and has really caught on in Ole Miss' defense. He's in the thick of it for one of the starting cornerback spots and has shown that he might be the Rebels' most athletic defensive back.
  • Alex Bullard, OG: He transferred from Notre Dame and was granted a hardship in order to play this fall. Bullard has moved all along the line this preseason, but it looks like he could be in the running for one of the starting guard positions.
  • Maurice Couch, DT: A lot is expected from Couch, who hopes to fill one of the spots in the middle of Tennessee's line. It hasn't been an easy preseason for Couch, who suffers from asthma, but he has made improvements. He'll contribute at noseguard and the three technique this fall.
  • Izauea Lanier, CB: Though he made his mark playing safety in junior college, Lanier is competing for time at corner. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he's a bigger corner, which coach Derek Dooley likes.
  • Byron Moore, DB: Moore appears to be a "tweener" on defense. He could play safety or corner for the Vols. With Tennessee running a lot of nickel formations, Moore should see the field in some capacity this fall.
  • Jordan Rodgers, QB: Rodgers missed the 2010 season and missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, but is No. 2 at quarterback. The younger brother to Super Bowl champ Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Rodgers is a player coach James Franklin has been especially excited about seeing.

Coaching 'em up: Ole Miss

June, 30, 2011
We take a closer look today at a key member of Ole Miss' staff.

Coach: Tyrone Nix

Position: Defensive coordinator and linebackers

Experience: He's entering his fourth season on the Ole Miss staff and was promoted to assistant head coach in January 2010. Prior to coming to Oxford, Nix was the defensive coordinator at South Carolina for three seasons from 2005-07 under Steve Spurrier. Nix spent 10 years on the Southern Miss staff from 1995-2004 and coached every position on defense. During his final four seasons at Southern Miss, he was the Golden Eagles' defensive coordinator. Ole Miss has finished among the top 20 teams nationally in tackles for loss all three of Nix's seasons as defensive coordinator.

Of note: The Rebels have generated more than 30 sacks in each of Nix's three seasons as defensive coordinator. They finished with 31 last season, 36 in 2009 and 39 in 2008. ... Nix, 38, got his first job as a defensive coordinator in 2001 at Southern Miss when he was just 29, making him the youngest Division I-A defensive coordinator in the country. ... In 2003, Nix was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. ... He played collegiately at Southern Miss from 1990-93 and was a standout linebacker. He was inducted in 2003 into the Southern Miss M-Club Hall of Fame. ... Former Florida coach Urban Meyer tried to hire Nix as the Gators' defensive coordinator when Charlie Strong took the head coaching job at Louisville following the 2009 season, but Nix stayed put at Ole Miss and received a hefty raise. He made $500,000 last season and will earn $550,000 in 2011.

His challenge: The Ole Miss defense took it on the chin last season, finishing 11th in the SEC in total defense and giving up just under 400 yards per game. Not much went right for Nix and the Rebels' defense, which was decimated by injuries and inexperience in the secondary. The Rebels gave up 24 touchdown passes and intercepted only six passes. Nix's first order of business in 2011 is seeing to it that his team rekindles that same edge and attacking, aggressive style that epitomized the 2008 and 2009 Ole Miss defensive units. Somewhere along the way, the Rebels lost that edge a year ago. And as linebackers coach, Nix faces a major rebuilding task. His top returning defender, junior D.T. Shackelford, tore up his knee in the spring and isn't expected back this season. Shackelford was the Rebels' weak side linebacker and also lined up some at defensive end. If that's not enough, sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was kicked off the team in May following his second arrest in nine months. Jackson ended the spring as the starter at weak side linebacker. The Rebels had already lost a pair of senior starters at linebacker from a year ago -- Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Nix is high on sophomore Mike Marry and junior Joel Kight, but there's not much in the way of proven depth at linebacker. Incoming true freshman C.J. Johnson will almost certainly have to play right away. It helps that defensive end Kentrell Lockett was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, but he's coming off a serious knee injury. The Rebels could really use big years from a couple of junior college transfers, namely nose guard Gilbert Pena and cornerback Wesley Pendleton, and it's a defense that needs something good to happen early to help build some momentum. Last season, it was just the opposite. The bottom fell out in that season-opening 49-48 overtime loss to Jacksonville State, and it was a struggle the rest of the way for Nix's guys.
Today we look at the big uglies that cause all the mayhem in the trenches. The SEC consistently spits out nasty defensive linemen and this year has more of an athletic feel.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a defensive line that would make any offensive line shutter. Plus, incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney comes in as the top high school player in the country and could be one of the best ends in the league this fall. Devin Taylor leads the group at end and was second on the team with 7.5 sacks as a sophomore. Helping on the outside is Melvin Ingram, who plays inside on passing downs, and led South Carolina with nine sacks a year ago. Senior Travian Robertson, who came off injury to get four sacks last year, is solid in the middle as well.

[+] EnlargeDevin Taylor
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDevin Taylor made a habit of harassing quarterbacks last season.
2. Arkansas: The Razorbacks might have the best pass-rushing group Arkansas has seen in a while. Things revolve around defensive end Jake Bequette, who was one of the more unheralded players in the league last year, despite having seven sacks. On the other side of the line is Tenarius Wright, who will make up the second part of a formidable outside duo in Fayetteville with his speed and athleticism. In the middle, there are plenty of options. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones missed spring due to injury, but will be back this fall and there’s a wealth of depth behind them. Junior college transfer Robert Thomas might be the best and most athletic option in the middle is primed to break out.

3. LSU: There are some questions about the experience the Tigers bring back, but no one will question the talent and athleticism in Baton Rouge. Sam Montgomery is back at defensive end, after suffering a serious knee injury. He hasn’t played much, but the coaches believe he’s got what it takes to be a top end in this league. Kendrick Adams started 11 games last year at end, while Lavar Edwards filled in for Montgomery. Ego Ferguson redshirted last year, but should get a ton of playing time in the middle this fall. He is already one of the most athletic tackles in the SEC. Don’t forget about five-star early enrollee Anthony Johnson, who made very strong impressions on his coaches this spring and will be in the rotation inside.

4. Florida: This unit was criticized for lacking toughness last season, but will be full of that and even more athleticism in 2011. Jaye Howard is returning from spring ankle surgery and is already considered a top defensive tackle prospect in next year’s NFL draft. Alongside him are youngsters Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley. Floyd was the most consistent of the much-ballyhooed freshman class last fall, while Easley struggled with attitude problems. Easley has rebounded and both excelled this spring. Omar Hunter is finally healthy and will share time with Floyd at noseguard and senior William Green will occupy an end spot. This group is even better when Ronald Powell lines up at end in the 4-3.

5. Alabama: On paper, there are a few questions with this group, but it’s hard to drop Alabama very far on this list. The 3-4 scheme will have senior Josh Chapman at noseguard. Chapman started 12 games in the middle last fall, totaling 31 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Damion Square will compete for time on the outside, and since returning from his ACL injury, he’s gained a lot more playing confidence and could be a budding star in the league. Junior college transfers Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams will compete for time on the line as well, while sophomore Ed Stinson will stay at end after starting last season at Jack linebacker.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have arguably the top returning tackle tandem in the SEC. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are the behemoths in the middle who combined for 53 tackles, 13 for loss and five sacks last year. Finding any sort of inside running game against Mississippi State will be extremely tough. Developing a pass-rusher is the next step for the Bulldogs’ staff. Sean Ferguson occupies one side, but the other is still up for grabs. Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell battled for the spot this spring, but neither has really pushed ahead.

7. Georgia: There is a lot of talent in Athens, but there could be a lot of movement on the line. JUCO transfer John Jenkins is the big -- and we mean big -- name up front and he’s yet to play a down in the SEC. He arrives with a ton of hype, but is perfect at noseguard in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. DeAngelo Tyson moves to his natural position outside after playing noseguard last year. Kwame Geathers played in the middle this spring, but could be usurped for Jenkins this fall and move outside. Abry Jones is still maturing after moving to end and recording 34 tackles including 3.5 for loss last season and had a 16-tackle performance against Georgia Tech.

8. Auburn: The Tigers must replace three starters this season. Inside, Auburn is talented but inexperienced with Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker having 13 combined tackles from a year ago. There’s less concern on the outside with lone returning starter Nosa Eguae on one side and sophomore Corey Lemonier on the other. Eguae might have more experience with 11 starts, but Lemonier appears to be more athletic and should be near the top of the defensive end pool this year. After that, the Tigers are young across the board.

9. Tennessee: The Volunteers’ line will grow with senior Malik Jackson running things in the middle. He had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago and some think he’ll be even better this fall. A lot will also be expected from incoming JUCO transfer Maurice Couch. He’s pretty athletic at 6-foot-4, 327 pounds and he’ll be greatly needed, considering the dismissal of Montori Hughes. Jacques Smith has All-SEC potential and will hold one of the end spots. After that, Tennessee has some young, but encouragingly talented bodies at each position.

10. Ole Miss: Some of the best news of the spring coming out of Oxford was the return of Kentrell Lockett at defensive end. Lockett was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will not only be the Rebels’ top lineman but possibly their best defensive player. After that, the questions roll in with four tackles gone and youth coming in. Tackle Justin Smith has yet to really emerge as the All-SEC talent he was expected to be and Ole Miss is smaller up front. JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena could add some size in the middle. Gerald Rivers returns to get time at end, but has played in just 15 career games in two years.

11. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a strength for the Commodores last year until injuries hit. Still, Vanderbilt returns three starters. Experience is there, but this unit has to continue to improve, especially in the pass-rushing department where the Commodores had just 20 sacks in 2010. Rob Lohr led Vanderbilt with four sacks a year ago and had 35 tackles. T.J. Greenstone is coming off of injury and will line up inside. Tim Fugger was one of the Commodores' most consistent players at end, playing in every game and registering three sacks and four forced fumbles.

12. Kentucky: End Collins Ukwu and tackle Luke McDermott return with the most experience on Kentucky’s line. Ukwu improved not only on the field but in the weight room this spring and is expected to be a more consistent pass-rusher. McDermott is a walk-on currently ahead of Donte Rumph, who has the talent to be one of Kentucky’s top defenders, but has yet to fully buy in to the program. The coaches are also waiting for tackle Mister Cobble to finally break out of his funk and be a regular contributor. The rest of Kentucky’s linemen have some developing to do and are inexperienced.

Mining the JUCO ranks for defensive tackles

April, 5, 2011
It’s fair to say that junior college defensive tackles have made huge impacts for the last two national champions.

Auburn’s Nick Fairley was the Lombardi Award winner last season and led the SEC with 24 tackles for loss. Oregon coach Chip Kelly said he was the difference in the BCS National Championship Game.

The year before, Alabama’s Terrence Cody was a first-team All-American and a one-man fortress against anybody who tried to run the ball between the tackles against the Crimson Tide. Cody also saved Alabama’s season by blocking a Tennessee field-goal attempt as time expired.

Will there be one of those guys this coming season in the SEC?

Time will tell, but there are certainly some candidates. What’s more, it appears that teams in this league are mining junior colleges as diligently as ever trying to find that dominant interior defensive lineman.

At Arkansas, sophomore Robert Thomas is getting a ton of reps this spring, especially with injuries to starters Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones. The 6-2, 325-pound Thomas signed with Arkansas out of high school, but wound up at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. Now he’s back as a redshirt sophomore, and his athleticism and strength this spring have been hard to miss.

Once Thomas becomes a little more acclimated with the playbook, and he will by the fall, the Arkansas coaches think he will be a key component up front.

You look around the league, and several other schools will be counting heavily in 2011 on junior college defensive tackles.

John Jenkins has yet to arrive at Georgia, but there’s no doubt that he will be one of the keys for the Bulldogs in that 3-4 defense. They’ve moved DeAngelo Tyson to end and are confident the 340-pound Tyson can slide in at nose guard and command double teams -- something they didn’t have a year ago in the first season in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 system.

The most important signee for Tennessee’s Derek Dooley this past February may well have been Maurice Couch, a 6-2, 305-pound defensive tackle from Garden City (Kan.) Community College.

Couch also arrives this summer, and the Vols need an enforcer up front in the middle of that defense. They have very little depth and are undersized, although Malik Jackson played well once he moved inside last season.

At Alabama, fans can’t wait to get a look at a healthy Jesse Williams, who’s been dealing with some soreness in his knee following minor knee surgery. But the 320-pound Williams, coming over from Arizona Western College, is a physical specimen and was a highly coveted junior college defensive tackle. He’s from Australia and is expected to make an immediate impact at nose guard in the fall.

The same goes for Gilbert Pena at Ole Miss. The 6-2, 336-pound Pena is already on campus and going through spring practice with the Rebels, who lost four senior defensive tackles, including nose tackle Jerrell Powe. Pena didn’t go to college initially and instead worked for more than three years to help take care of his mother, who was battling cancer at the time. Pena, who’s originally from Yonkers, N.Y., spent his last two years at ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y., before coming to Ole Miss.

SEC impact junior college transfers

February, 11, 2011
Earlier this week, Bruce Feldman of ESPN The Magazine identified eight junior college signees nationally he felt would make the biggest impact during the 2011 season.

Three SEC players made the cut. Georgia nose guard John Jenkins was No. 3 on his list, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger No. 4 on his list and Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams No. 5 on his list.

All three would certainly be on my list if I were selecting the SEC’s most impactful junior college transfers for the 2011 season.

Here are eight more to watch from this class, in alphabetical order:

OT Kaleb Broome, South Carolina: The 6-6, 314-pound Broome is already enrolled after allowing just one sack last season at Georgia Military College. With the Gamecocks losing four senior offensive linemen who started games last season, Broome will be a guy to watch at right tackle.

DT Maurice Couch, Tennessee: The Vols need all the help they can get inside on the defensive line, and the 6-2, 305-pound Couch showed great burst off the ball last season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. He was one of the Vols’ top targets in this class and will arrive on campus this summer.

OT Aaron Douglas, Alabama: A Freshman All-American at Tennessee two years ago, the 6-6, 285-pound Douglas spent last season at Arizona Western College. He’s already enrolled in school and will get first dibs to replace James Carpenter as the Crimson Tide’s left tackle.

CB Byron Moore, Tennessee: He originally signed with Southern California out of high school and redshirted. He played both cornerback and safety last season at Los Angeles Harbor Community College, and with Janzen Jackson in limbo, Moore projects as a key cog in the Vols’ secondary next season. He won’t be on campus until this summer.

DT Gilbert Pena, Ole Miss: The 6-4, 310-pound Pena figures to step in right away with the Rebels losing four senior defensive tackles. Pena worked for three years out of high school to help support his sick mother before enrolling in ASA College. He’s already enrolled and will go through spring practice.

CB Wesley Pendleton, Ole Miss: The Rebels were in dire need of secondary help, which made Pendleton a huge pick-up out of Copiah-Lincoln Community College. He has great speed and can play both cornerback and safety. Like Pena, he’s already in school and will participate in spring practice.

QB Zack Stoudt, Ole Miss: After starting his career at Louisville, Stoudt transferred to Iowa Western Community College after Steve Kragthorpe was fired as Louisville’s head coach. The 6-5, 220-pound Stoudt will compete for the Rebels’ starting quarterback job this spring along with Nathan Stanley and Randall Mackey.

OT Joey Trapp, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are going to take a look at the 6-5, 285-pound Trapp this spring at both guard and tackle. He played tackle at Los Angeles Harbor Community College and will be one of the candidates to replace the Bulldogs’ All-SEC performer, Derek Sherrod, at left tackle.