SEC: I'Tavius Mathers

After three years of success running Ole Miss' once rag-tag football program, coach Hugh Freeze and his Rebels will vault into 2015 with arguably the highest expectations of Freeze's Ole Miss coaching career. That's all well and good, considering the talent returning on both sides of the ball, but there are glaring personnel issues Freeze must overcome at quarterback and running back.

With longtime starter Bo Wallace finally departing, the Rebels are in search for their next full-time quarterback. Redshirt freshmen DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan both played a bit in 2014, and sophomore Jeremy Liggins was used more as a specialist at quarterback. The status of junior college transfer Chad Kelly, who on Monday pleaded guilty to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct after a fight with bouncers outside a Buffalo nightclub last month, is unknown at this moment.

[+] EnlargeJaylen Walton
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesOle Miss needs more out of Jaylen Walton and the rushing offense to remain among the elite in the SEC.
So for now, that position is completely up in the air.

What could really help that quarterback is a manageable running game that was nonexistent for most of 2014. It's a valuable safety net that the Rebels just didn't have. An inconsistent rushing attack plagued the Rebels more a few times this season, and it became a glaring problem for Ole Miss after top-notch receiver Laquon Treadwell was lost for the season to a broken leg in the Auburn game.

The embattled Wallace took a lot of grief for some of the dubious decisions he made this season, but once Treadwell went down, he really was on his own when it came to jump-starting the offense because the Rebels had to pass to set up an insufficient run game.

In 2014, Ole Miss ranked 10th in the SEC and 74th nationally in rushing, averaging 155.5 yards per game -- the lowest in the Freeze era.

Junior Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 yards and five touchdowns, averaging only 45.1 yards per game (fewest of any starting SEC running back). Redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins, viewed as more of a power runner, was second on the team with 361 yards and one score. While the Rebels didn't have a running back eclipse 600 yards for the second straight season, they did have three backs rush for at least 490 yards in 2013, and Jeff Scott rushed for 846 yards in Freeze's first season in 2012.

In Ole Miss' four losses in 2014, the Rebels averaged a measly 88.8 yards per game. In their last two losses -- both without Treadwell -- the Rebels rushed for 72 yards on 70 carries and were outscored 72-3 by Arkansas and TCU, which held Ole Miss to just 9 yards on 37 carries in that 42-3 Chick-fil-A Bowl massacre.

Wallace made a handful of mistakes in both losses, but when you don't have a shred of a running game to speak for, defenses aren't going to be afraid to continuously go after your quarterback. That means Ole Miss has to find some bite in its backs.

Walton again becomes the favorite to head the running game, but the Rebels are hoping to get more from Wilkins, who weighs roughly 40 more pounds than Walton. There's also junior I'Tavius Mathers, who has 1,061 career rushing yards but ran for just 290 this season. With redshirt freshman Mark Dodson transferring, the Rebels return five scholarship running backs and could get immediate contribution from 2015 commit Eric Swinney, who is an ESPN 300 selection and has turned some heads with his athleticism.

Getting Treadwell and three of the Rebels other ' top receiving targets back will help whichever quarterback takes over, but if Ole Miss is going to really compete and really make an SEC run with a new quarterback, the running game must be more effective. It just has to.

Rebels hope opportunistic ways return

October, 28, 2014
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Ole Miss was up to its old turnover tricks on defense Saturday against LSU. The Rebels’ problem in the 10-7 loss was that they failed to capitalize on turnovers the way they normally do.

In fairness, the Rebels’ lone touchdown of the night did follow safety Cody Prewitt's fumble recovery in the Ole Miss end zone. But this was an Ole Miss club that's made opponents pay for their mistakes all season, entering the LSU game with an FBS-high 90 points off turnovers.

They won the turnover battle against the Tigers 4-1, but were otherwise unable to turn those takeaways into points.

“When you turn the ball over that many times, it’s rough,” LSU center Elliott Porter admitted. “But we got it done, thank you Lord.”

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesCody Prewitt and Ole Miss forced turnovers against LSU like they had all season, but the Rebels' offense was unable to turn them into points.
The Tigers can thank their increasingly hard-nosed defense as well, as Ole Miss didn’t accomplish much on offense after the other three turnovers and a missed 28-yard field goal by LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye.

  • After Delahoussaye’s first-quarter miss gave Ole Miss the ball at the Rebels’ 20-yard line, they drove into LSU territory, but quarterback Bo Wallace threw incomplete to running back Jaylen Walton on fourth-and-2 at the LSU 30.
  • Following a second-quarter C.J. Johnson fumble recovery at the Ole Miss 48, the Rebels actually scored on a 34-yard I'Tavius Mathers run, but the touchdown came back on a holding penalty against tight end Nicholas Parker. Instead, the Rebels were forced to punt.
  • Senquez Golson intercepted LSU’s Anthony Jennings at the Ole Miss 49 in the third quarter, but Golson was then flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play. The 15-yard penalty gave the Rebels first-and-25 at their own 34, and they went backward to their 29 before punting.
  • Finally, Mike Hilton intercepted a Jennings pass at the Ole Miss 35 in the fourth quarter. Afterward, the Rebels went three-and-out and punted to LSU again -- with the Tigers then launching the game-winning, 95-yard touchdown drive.

This was not the opportunistic Ole Miss club that had taken the field each previous Saturday en route to a No. 3 national ranking, and Rebels coach Hugh Freeze admitted that he might have played it too conservatively since his defense had been so effective against LSU.

“The plan that we had certainly gave us a chance to win,” Freeze said of not using more up-tempo pace against the Tigers. “We had two touchdowns called back and had chances to score more points, and either we didn’t make the right call or we didn’t execute properly at times or LSU made good plays.

“So should we speed it up more? Maybe, but I still say that we had a chance to win in a hostile environment against a very good football team that’s playing really well right now had we made better calls, better plays at certain times.”

Freeze and Wallace said the Tiger Stadium crowd was a factor on Saturday, particularly during the period where Ole Miss was without two offensive line starters. Center Ben Still missed the game with a knee injury and was replaced by converted tackle Robert Conyers. When star left tackle Laremy Tunsil missed time in the second half with a biceps injury, normal fill-in Conyers was already at center, so the Rebels were forced to go with inexperienced redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin.

Ole Miss generated just 107 yards (36 on the ground) and went 2-for-10 on third down after halftime.

“Daronte’s [issue] was not physical as much as it was playing in that environment on a silent count was very, very late off the ball all three possessions,” Freeze said. “That cost us some negative plays. We’ve got to prepare him better and hopefully get some kids healthy where we can play kids that have been in those environments before.”

Freeze said Still and Tunsil are both “day-to-day” for Saturday’s game against No. 4 Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC), and it’s clear the Rebels (7-1, 4-1) need them both. LSU overwhelmed their replacements at times on Saturday, and Auburn boasts one of the SEC’s better defensive fronts.

Obviously their presences in the starting lineup would make it easier for Wallace and the offense to attempt to force the issue more against Auburn than they did against LSU. Either way, that is the Ole Miss’ quarterback’s hope for Saturday.

“At lot of times when we’re throwing the ball right now, it’s third down. It’s easy when you know it’s coming, third-and-9, third-and-long,” Wallace said. “We’re staying in third-and-long so much when you know it’s coming, people get in their third-down defense and it’s hard obviously to convert three downs with as well as you can play third-down defense.

“So we have to get back to throwing the ball on first and second down and making plays like we did earlier in the season.”

SEC morning links

October, 8, 2014
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1. Ole Miss almost had a catastrophic no-call on an obvious penalty ruin Saturday's upset of Alabama. With less than a minute left in the first half, Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones took down Ole Miss running back I'Tavius Mathers and forced a fumble that he eventually returned for a touchdown. But he also got away with an obvious facemask penalty that actually turned Mathers' head sideways. Somehow, the refs missed it and the touchdown stood. Jones took some time on Tuesday to talk about what happened.

2. It's pretty obvious that LSU's defense is nowhere near what we've come to expect. In two SEC games -- both losses -- the Tigers have given up 1,136 yards and an average of 37.5 points. During Les Miles' LSU tenure, the Tigers had only allowed 500 or more yards just four times. It's already happened twice this season. Things just haven't been gelling for LSU when other teams have the ball, and the Tigers know they haven't played up to par, and they're hoping to right some things at Florida this weekend.

3. You want to talk about a proud and generous fanbase? How about Ole Miss' followers? Rebels fans have made sure that the athletic department doesn't have to reach into its own funds to pay for its two goal posts ($11,000 each), the $50,000 SEC fine for fans running onto the field following the win over Alabama, or the $3,000 bill for miscellaneous repairs. No, the fans have this one covered, as they've have already raised $80,000 to cover the $75,000 costs ... and that number appears to be growing.

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
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Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 10, 2014
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Was HBO's "True Detective" one of the best shows ever? Did Les Miles turn out to be the Yellow King? Hopefully you were able to watch the finale and find out.

Video: Ole Miss offseason spotlight

February, 14, 2014
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SEC reporter Chris Low discusses players to watch this offseason and spring at Ole Miss.


OXFORD, Miss. -- Even though Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze isn’t one to make excuses, he had plenty of room to do so this week. The Rebels, who had lost three consecutive games, were without five starters on defense and the team’s leading rusher when they hosted No. 6 LSU on Saturday.

Turns out Freeze and the Rebels didn’t need any excuses as they stunned the Tigers, 27-24.

“I couldn’t be more proud of that staff and those kids to go through what they’ve been through, with the injuries and the outside world having their opinion of things,” Freeze said. “In the back of your mind, you always wonder as a coach if you can get a team ready to do those things like this when you’re shorthanded and coming off an extremely disappointing loss.”

The Rebels were in a similar situation last week when Texas A&M came to town. The game was tied with three minutes left, and it was up to quarterback Bo Wallace and the offense to drive down the field and win the game. Instead, they went three-and-out, punted the ball and watched as the Aggies drove down and kicked the game-winning field goal.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Ritter
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Ritter drilled a 41-yard, game-winning field goal with 2 seconds remaining that gave the short-handed Rebels a stunning win over LSU.
“For A&M to beat us the way they did, I wasn’t letting that happen to us again,” Wallace said. “Ja-Mes [Logan] made a huge catch in the same situation that he had last week. He took a shot and hung onto it. Everybody just came together and fought hard on that last drive.”

It was Ole Miss who kicked the game-winning field goal this week, but it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for a number of players who stepped up when called upon.

The defense lost four starters due to injury against Texas A&M, and Freeze told his team Friday that starting cornerback Senquez Golson would be suspended for the visit from LSU. Four more Rebels defenders went down during Saturday's game, and yet, they forced three turnovers in the first half and held on for the upset.

“I think it was a God thing,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “We sat in there on Sunday and said, ‘We got 14 players, not starters, 14 players for seven spots between the defensive line and the linebackers. We tried to make D.T. [Shackelford] do two different things, and he was able to do that. Fortunately, Tony Conner made a big difference because we were able to teach him some linebacker stuff. The kids are warriors. We needed that for our program.”

On offense, running backs Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers more than made up the absence of starter Jeff Scott. Walton finished with 106 yards rushing and two touchdowns while Mathers added 51 yards on 12 carries.

“We ran the football against a really good defense,” Freeze said. “Our offensive line played against a good defensive front. I have great confidence in Jaylen and I’Tavius. Jaylen has quick acceleration. He did really well tonight and protected the ball.”

It was a crushing loss for Les Miles and his LSU team, who lost any chance they had to play in the BCS National Championship, but the victory shouldn’t be understated for Ole Miss. The Rebels were down, but they showed they’re not out.

“We really needed a win,” Walton said. “We came close last week where we should’ve won, but this week, we got the W and now we can keep moving forward with wins.”
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.
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.
First-year coach Hugh Freeze knew he’d be working with low numbers during his first year at Ole Miss, but his recent loss hurts a lot.

When the Rebels open the season against Central Arkansas on Saturday, they will likely be without top running back Jeff Scott, who has battled back issues this fall, Freeze said. Tests were run Wednesday morning, but Freeze said no one was sure what was going on with his back.

Freeze added that there’s still a possibility that Scott could play against the Bears, but he’s heavily leaning toward that not happening.

“I’m not real confident that Jeff will play this Saturday, as of right now,” Freeze said.

Scott was one of Ole Miss’ top overall players in 2011. He led the team with 529 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and added 386 total return yards and another score.

The Rebels will now have to fill Scott’s position by committee Saturday. Randall Mackey, who finally found a home at running back after moving from quarterback to wide receiver, will likely start in Scott’s place. The staff feels as though he might be the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon and could line up at three different positions Saturday.

Behind Mackey, Freeze will rely on true freshmen I’Tavius Mathers, who had a very good fall camp, and Jaylen Walton. Senior Devin Thomas and sophomore Nicholas Parker. For now, Mackey, Mathers and Walton are set to get the majority of the snaps at running back.

“Definitely, those first three we’re going to play,” Freeze said.

Also expected to play are a host of true freshmen. Ole Miss signed 13 in order to save some scholarships for next year’s class, and Freeze said seven or eight freshmen from the 2012 class could play in Saturday’s opener.

Instant impact: Western Division

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
2:35
PM ET
Edward has briefed us with the new faces that will make the biggest impacts in the Eastern Division this season.

We’ll now turn our attention to the Western Division and the key newcomers to look for on each team:

ALABAMA
  • Deion Belue, CB, Jr.: Following in the footsteps of former junior college transfer DeQuan Menzie, Belue has staked his claim to the starting cornerback job opposite Dee Milliner.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Fr.: He’s been one of the Crimson Tide’s most impressive receivers during preseason camp, although he’s been slowed recently by a foot injury.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Fr.: Eddie Lacy is the starter at running back, but he’s a bit banged up. Yeldon is an explosive threat who can make things happen both running it and catching it.
ARKANSAS
  • Austin Flynn, DE, Jr.: Having had the benefit of going through spring practice, Flynn has worked his way into the rotation at end and will play a lot of snaps this fall.
  • Mekale McKay, WR, Fr.: Also a standout basketball player in high school, the 6-foot-6 McKay was a late signee who has repeatedly turned heads in preseason camp with his ability to go up and get the football.
  • Otha Peters, LB, Fr.: A big-time hitter, Peters has worked some with the first team while Tenarius Wright has been out with an injury. The Hogs are thin at linebacker, meaning Peters will play early and often.
AUBURN
  • Kris Frost, LB, RFr.: He would have played some last season as a true freshman had it not been for a shoulder injury. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Frost is a freakish athlete who will find his way onto the field at outside linebacker.
  • Jay Prosch, FB, Jr.: The transfer from Illinois should not only help open up some holes for the Tigers’ running game, but his arrival also frees up Philip Lutzenkirchen to be a true tight end and more involved in the passing game.
  • Greg Robinson, OT, RFr.: Now that he’s had a redshirt season to mature both physically and mentally, Robinson takes over at left tackle for the Tigers and has a huge upside.
LSU
  • Jalen Collins, CB, RFr.: There’s obviously a big opportunity in the LSU secondary with Tyrann Mathieu gone. Collins will open the season as one of the starting cornerbacks outside when the Tigers go to their nickel package.
  • Deion Jones, LB, Fr.: LSU needed reinforcements at linebacker and went out and signed some serious talent in the 2012 class. Jones has been as impressive as anybody to this point and will also be a beast on special teams.
  • Jalen Mills, CB, Fr.: How much confidence do the LSU coaches have in the true freshman? He’s poised to be a starter at cornerback in the base defense and has also been working at nickel when the Tigers go to five defensive backs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Denico Autry, DE, Jr.: The Bulldogs are banking on Autry being that finisher off the edge that they lacked at times last season. His specialty is rushing the passer.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, RFr.: The redshirt year was good for McKinney, who appears to have edged out sophomore Ferlando Bohanna for the starting middle linebacker job.
  • Charles Siddoway, OT, Jr.: The Bulldogs were looking for some junior college help on the offensive line, and Siddoway looks like he could be the opening-day starter at right tackle.
OLE MISS
  • Pierce Burton, OT, Jr.: One of several newcomers who will see the field early for the Rebels, Burton has been the starter at right tackle almost from the time he arrived in Oxford from junior college.
  • Dehendret Collins, CB, Jr.: Another junior college transfer who will start, Collins will line up inside at the “Husky” position and be the third corner in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme.
  • I’Tavius Mathers, RB, Fr.: Mathers has been the talk of the Rebels’ preseason scrimmages with his ability to accelerate and generate big plays. He’ll get plenty of carries this fall.
TEXAS A&M
  • De’Vante Harris, CB, Fr.: It’s not every day in the SEC that a true freshman starts at cornerback in his very first game. Harris has played with confidence and great instincts this preseason, which is why he’s earned a starting job.
  • Johnny Manziel, QB, RFr.: A fan favorite a year ago, “Johnny Football” will open the season as the Aggies’ starter at quarterback and won’t be hesitant about taking his shots in Kevin Sumlin’s fast-break offense.
  • Trey Williams, RB, Fr.: Now that Brandon Williams has not been cleared to play this season by the NCAA, Trey Williams becomes even more valuable in sharing the backfield duties with Christine Michael.
Now that Edward has unveiled his freshmen of influence in the East this season, I’ll take my shot at those first-year players who will make the biggest impacts in the West.

Remember, we’re picking only true freshmen.

Here goes:

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: One of the key questions for Alabama heading into the season was who would emerge as the big-play threat in the Crimson Tide’s passing game. Enter Cooper, who’s drawn rave reviews from coach Nick Saban and several of Cooper’s veteran teammates. Even though a foot injury has hampered the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Cooper in recent days, he’s given the defending national champions confidence that they won’t be lacking when they decide to throw the football in 2012.

De’Vante Harris, CB, Texas A&M: The Aggies were able to pry Harris away from Oklahoma during the recruiting process, and it’s a good thing. He might very well be starting in the Texas A&M defensive backfield from Day 1. In fact, one of the first players Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin mentioned following last weekend’s scrimmage was Harris, who’s been hard to miss this preseason. He’s played like a veteran, challenges the receivers and has kept his mistakes to a minimum.

I'Tavius Mathers, RB, Ole Miss: Nagging injuries have limited junior running back Jeff Scott this preseason, which has provided a big opportunity for Mathers. Needless to say, he’s taken that opportunity and run with it. So has fellow freshman running back Jaylen Walton. Mathers, who’s right around 200 pounds, has shown the power and strength to get the tough yards, but he also has breakaway speed. He ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run in last weekend’s scrimmage.

Jalen Mills, CB, LSU: He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest guy, but Mills is a fierce competitor and an excellent tackler. Sound familiar? OK, it’s way too premature to compare him to Tyrann Mathieu, but Mills has been mighty impressive during preseason camp with his instincts and nose for the ball. With Mathieu gone, Mills worked with the first-team defense last Saturday during the scrimmage and is pushing to be a fixture in the Tigers’ secondary rotation this season.

T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: After enrolling early, Yeldon burst onto the scene this spring and had 91 yards receiving and 88 yards rushing in the A-Day spring game. He had the play of the game on a 50-yard touchdown reception and has picked up where he left off this preseason. The Crimson Tide aren’t short on talent at running back, but Yeldon is the kind of playmaker that demands touches. He’s explosive as a runner and also makes things happen after the catch. Saban will see to it that Yeldon is a big part of the offense.

Weekend SEC scrimmage notes

August, 13, 2012
8/13/12
11:35
AM ET
A handful of SEC teams took to the practice field to conduct scrimmages over the weekend. Here are some notes from some of the scrimmages:

ALABAMA

  • Junior quarterback Aj McCarron led the way for the offense, completing 19 of 29 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. Running back Eddie Lacy led all rushers with 57 yards on eight carries, and caught a scrimmage-best five passes for 25 yards. Jalston Fowler ran seven times for 34 yards and a score, and T.J. Yeldon had 24 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Kevin Norwood led all receivers with 61 yards on two catches, and freshman linebacker Trey DePriest stood out on defense with five tackles and an interception.
  • For more on Alabama's scrimmage, check out the school's official website.
ARKANSAS

  • Quarterback Tyler Wilson had another solid performance, completing 21 of 39 passes for 288 yards, with four touchdowns and the interception. However, it was Arkansas' defense that commanded most of the attention. Arkansas' defense racked up 12 sacks, 27 tackles for losses and forced two turnovers.
  • Arkansas' offense scored touchdowns on just five of its 12 possessions, but quarterback-turned-wide receiver Brandon Mitchell was a major part of the offense, catching nine passes for 74 yards and two touchdowns.
  • You can find more on Arkansas' scrimmage here.
LSU

  • Quarterback Zach Mettenberger had a solid outing during the Tigers' first fall scrimmage. He led all passers with 190 yards and two touchdowns on 15 of 30 passing. He connected with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for a 55-yard touchdown pass, and hit James Wright for a 31-yard touchdown.
  • Beckham Jr. led all receivers with four catches for 101 yards, and Wright caught four passes for 57 yards. Freshman running back Jeremy Hill was the team's top rusher, with 71 yards on just nine carries.
  • Junior cornerback Tharold Simon stood out on defense with two tackles, one sack and an interception.
  • For more on LSU's scrimmage, check out the school's official website.
MISSOURI

  • It seems as though quarterback James Franklin is healing well after shoulder surgery this spring. During Mizzou's first scrimmage, he completed 18 of 22 passes for 228 yards. He completed his first nine passes for 111 yards before throwing his first incompletion. Freshman Maty Mauk added 152 yards on 25 of 36 passing.
  • Running back Kendial Lawrence had the lone touchdown of the day when he ended a 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. Lawrence also carried 11 times for a team-high 37 yards, and caught six passes for 50 yards. Jimmie Hunt led all receivers with 68 yards on six catches.
  • For more on Missouri's practice, check out the school's official website.
OLE MISS

  • The Rebels' quarterbacks struggled during Ole Miss' scrimmage. Both completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes, with Bo Wallace passing for 145 yards and Barry Brunetti passing for 94 yards. Brunetti also threw two interceptions.
  • The running game was much more productive, as I'Tavius Mathers ran for 47 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries, and Jaylen Walton rushed for 30 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries.
  • For more on Ole Miss' scrimmage, check here and here.
SOUTH CAROLINA

  • A lot is expected from freshman wide receiver Shaq Roland, and he had a pretty solid debut for the Gamecocks. He led all receivers with 59 yards and a touchdown on four catches.
  • Running back Brandon Wilds was the top rusher of the day, getting 40 yards on three carries, and Marcus Lattimore, who is coming back from his season-ending knee injury, carried the ball four times for 25 yards.
  • Quarterback Connor Shaw threw for 108 yards and a touchdown, but backup Andrew Clifford led the quarterbacks with 122 yards and two scores.
  • For more on South Carolina's scrimmage, check out the school's official website.
TENNESSEE

  • Quarterback Tyler Bray had no problem finding his favorite receiving targets during the Vols' scrimmage. He hit Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter 13 times, with Rogers grabbing six passes for a team-high 105 yards. Hunter caught seven passes for 47 yards.
  • Tennessee' offense also did well running the ball. The Vols' totaled 295 rushing yards, with 134 coming from junior running back Rajion Neal.
  • For more on Tennessee's scrimmage, check out the school's official website.
TEXAS A&M

  • Freshman running back Trey Williams had a solid debut Saturday, rushing for 125 yards and two touchdowns on six carries during the first half of the Aggies' scrimmage. His highlight of the day came on a 76-yard touchdown run.
  • The Aggies showcased a tremendous pass rush last season, and continued that trend during the scrimmage, registering four sacks in the first half, including two from defensive end Damontre Moore.
  • For more on Texas A&M's scrimmage, check out the school's official website.
VANDERBILT

  • It was all about offense for the Commodores on Saturday night. Vandy's offense scored eight touchdowns in the 105-play scrimmage.
  • Running back Zac Stacy got it going again during the third-down situation portion of the scrimmage with a 40-yard run on the first play. The offense finished the third-down situations 8 of 14.
  • Freshman Brian Kimbrow had a solid debut, leading rushers with 112 yards. Stacy racked up 98 rushing yards, and quarterback Jordan Rodgers passed for 153 yards and a touchdown.
  • For more on Vandy's scrimmage, check out the school's official website.

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