SEC: Jacob Carter

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Lunchtime links

April, 18, 2012
4/18/12
12:00
PM ET
It's time to check out the SEC with some linkage.

Recapping the weekend scrimmages

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
11:15
AM ET
While there were six SEC spring games this weekend, six other teams also took part in scrimmages over the the weekend:

ARKANSAS

Quarterback Tyler Wilson had yet another big scrimmage for the Razorbacks. Wilson completed 39 of 49 passes for 448 yards and three touchdowns during Friday's scrimmage. Wilson completed 20 consecutive passes at one point.

Wilson has yet to throw an interception in Arkansas' three spring scrimmages. He led the offense on scores on seven of the offense's 11 possessions Friday.

The good news for Wilson is that his production has come against the first-team defense. The bad news for Arkansas is that his production has come against the first-team defense. But maybe Wilson is just playing that well this spring.

Wide receiver Marquel Wade led Arkansas with nine receptions for 98 yards, while tight end Chris Gragg caught eight passes for 83 yards and a touchdown on Friday. Receiver Javontee Herndon added five receptions for 73 yards and two scores.

Defensive tackle Robert Thomas led the defense with four sacks, while defensive end Austin Flynn added three sacks.

Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, linebacker Tenarius Wright and tight end Austin Tate all sustained injuries Friday, but coaches didn't feel they were serious.

Check out more from Arkansas' scrimmage here and here.

KENTUCKY

The Wildcats took part in a very spirited scrimmage Saturday. It was one that left coach Joker Phillips proud of both the offense and defense.

The 90-minute scrimmage featured the first-, second- and third-team offense and defense. The offense started things well, with quarterback Maxwell Smith leading a 70-yard drive on 13 plays. He capped the drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver La'Rod King.

Smith finished the scrimmage completing 25-of-38 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns. King also led the offense in receiving with seven catches for 76 yards and two scores.

Kentucky's defense stepped up considerably after that, allowing just one touchdown and a field goal on the next 10 possessions, including seven three-and-outs.

You can find more info on Kentucky's scrimmage here.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Despite a fast start by the offense, the defense won Mississippi State's scrimmage Friday after forcing five turnovers late.

The first- and second-team defense held the offenses to four touchdowns and a field goal on 27 possessions. They also registered seven sacks and four interceptions.

After quarterback Tyler Russell led touchdown drives of 75 and 80 yards on the offense's first two possessions, the defense stepped up, forcing a few three-and-outs for the first- and second-team offense.

Russell had an impressive outing inside Davis Wade Stadium, passing for 310 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Wide receiver Joe Morrow had arguably the play of the day when he caught an 83-yard touchdown pass. He sprinted 50-plus yards to the house after spinning off of cornerback Corey Broomfield about 30 yards up field. Morrow finished with 103 receiving yards, while tight ends Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill registered 110 and 75 receiving yards, respectively.

The player of the day might have been senior cornerback Darius Slay, who intercepted three passes.

Head coach Dan Mullen missed the practice after the birth of his daughter Friday.

For more on Mississippi State's scrimmage, check here and here.

OLE MISS

It was an air affair in Oxford, as Ole Miss quarterbacks combined for eight touchdowns in the Rebels' Saturday scrimmage.

Barry Brunetti finished the day with 119 passing yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed seven times for 41 yards and two more scores.

But he didn't do much to separate himself from junior college transfer Bo Wallace, who threw for 113 yards and three touchdowns. He also carried the ball five times for 32 yards and another score.

However, both had their hiccups, as Wallace completed less than 45 percent of his passes and Brunetti threw two interceptions. Coach Huge Freeze told reporters after the scrimmage that he had mixed emotions about both, but felt Wallace played a little better Saturday.

"Standing out there it's real clear to me our quarterbacks, our personnel, we don't quite understand the game," Freeze said. "Third-and-2 we don't know those things. We have very little awareness of those at times. We get in second-and-5s and we get negative plays because we try to do more than we can do. Then it puts you in third-and-8, instead of just keeping it third-and-5. There's so many things that we have to understand."

Brunetti threw two 20-yard touchdowns, one to wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan and one to receiver Vince Sanders. Logan also caught two touchdown passes from Wallace, who also hit receiver Terrell Grant for another score.

For more on Ole Miss' scrimmage, you can go here and here.

TENNESSEE

Justin Hunter picked up right where he left off the last time he played inside Neyland Stadium.

After missing most of last season with an ACL injury, Hunter caught three passes for 70 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown pass in his return to Neyland.

Quarterback Tyler Bray completed his first seven passes of the day and finished with 180 yards and a touchdown on 13-of-23 passing.

While Hunter had a solid outing, sophomore wide receiver Jacob Carter was the top receiver of the day, catching four passes for 102 yards.

Marlin Lane, who has improved a lot this spring, had the big day that he needed with his 71 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

Defensively, the Vols got sacks from defensive linemen Jordan Williams, Willie Bohannon and Steven Fowlkes. Defensive backs Justin Coleman, Izauea Lanier and Rod Wilks added six tackles.

For more on Tennessee's scrimmage, go here.

TEXAS A&M

As the quarterback race continues in College Station, redshirt sophomore Jameill Showers stood out in Texas A&M's scrimmage over the weekend. He threw for more than 150 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an interception, but only after it was dropped by a receiver.

Showers played in seven series with both the first- and second-team offense.

Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel split snaps with Showers, throwing for more than 150 yards and two touchdowns as well, but he threw two interceptions, with one that was returned for a touchdown by junior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr.

None of the offenses' possessions reached double digits in plays. Turnovers, sloppy play and penalties hurt the offense in the Aggies' first open scrimmage of the spring.

"We just have to be more consistent in our play on both sides of the football, and that's why we're here," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "For the quarterbacks to go operate the way they did, checking plays and moving around, it's encouraging. It gives us a real starting point."

Sophomore linebacker Donnie Baggs, junior linebacker Charlie Thomas, junior linebacker Domonique Patterson and senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart all registered sacks in the scrimmage.

For more on the Texas A&M's scrimmage, go here and here.

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