SEC: Javontee Herndon

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).
On the surface, the departure of wide receiver Mekale McKay looks like a big blow to an Arkansas team in major transition mode.

McKay, who was granted his release from his scholarship by head coach Bret Bielema over the weekend, was Arkansas' top returning receiver heading into the 2013 season. But that doesn't mean this receiving unit is in major trouble at all.

There will be some nice qualities that McKay possesses that the offense will miss. Last season, McKay was Arkansas' second-leading wide receiver with 21 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns. McKay had all the measurables and ability to be the Hogs' go-to guy this fall, but he battled injuries throughout spring and wasn't listed on the team's two-deep depth chart.

What improvements he could have made this fall with the Hogs, we'll never know, but Bielema has plenty of options to work with at receiver.

Missing someone who stands 6-6 and weighs nearly 200 pounds hurts from a matchup stand point, but Bielema should at least feel good about his team's options. Are any of them on the same level as the receivers who have recently passed through Fayetteville? Not right now, but there's good potential sprinkled all around.

Things will start with senior Demetrius Wilson, who really impressed the staff this spring. Bielema has already said that he was the team's best receiver this spring and was arguably the most consistent player, too. Wilson only caught nine passes in 2012, but he picked up this new offense quickly. He could become quarterback Brandon Allen's top target if he continues on the track he's on.

Wilson won't be a lone by any means. Fellow seniors Javontee Herndon, who was right behind McKay in receiving last season, and Julian Horton, are also in the mix. Herndon displayed a high level of physical play this spring, which should help him fit in nicely in Bielema's more smash-mouth offense. Horton has the speed and elusiveness to be a real playmaker for the Hogs as well.

Sophomore Keon Hatcher will also get a chance to help this offense. Plus, Arkansas should be much more run-oriented this season, which will take some heat off the receivers.

Allen has slowly improved through the early stages of fall camp. While he's certainly getting more comfortable, he's also getting help from his receivers. It would have been nice to have McKay out there, but the Hogs still have a solid group coming back. It hasn't been the most productive unit (Herndon, Horton and Wilson have combined for just 67 receptions), but the skill is there to make this a good group for Allen to grow with.
Cobi Hamilton isn't walking through Arkansas' doors in 2013.

He may come back for a visit or two, but he won't be suiting up for the Razorbacks, which means that his single season school-record 90 receptions and 1,335 receiving yards aren't returning, either.

With a relatively inexperienced quarterback in Brandon Allen taking over and a brand new coaching staff in town, the Hogs will surely miss a top-flight receiver like Hamilton, but things aren't totally bleak in Fayetteville. The good news is that the Hogs will be able to replace Hamilton with numbers -- veteran numbers.

[+] EnlargeJavontee Herndon
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsThe toughness of Arkansas WR Javontee Herndon has caught the eye of new coach Bret Bielema.
Arkansas has three senior receivers -- Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Demetrius Wilson -- sitting atop the post-spring depth chart. Now, they might only have 67 combined receptions among them, but they've been around the game long enough to generate some confidence in the coaching staff this spring.

Their hunger to make things right again at Arkansas during their last go-round also excites Arkansas' coaching staff.

"When you have three seniors and it's as important to them as it is, the other guys can kind of take shape around them," coach Bret Bielema said. "I expect them to lead us."

Herndon will enter the fall with the most production of the three. He has 31 career receptions for 473 yards and three touchdowns. He caught 21 of those passes and all of his touchdowns last year. Herndon's on-field attitude and toughness really impressed Bielema this spring.

"Probably one of the more physical guys in our group," Bielema said of Herndon.

While Wilson, who came from the junior college ranks last year, only caught nine passes in his first year with the Hogs in 2012, Bielema said he was Arkansas' top performer at receiver this spring. The thing that really made him stand out was his consistency and he bought into the offense and what coaches asked him to do.

"Everything he does is 100 miles an hour," Bielema said. "He's very engaged, he's very hard on himself. If he makes a mistake or does something that he knows is wrong he's very critical, but is quick to rebound and make a great play after it."

Then you have Horton, who caught 14 passes last year. He has the physical ability to be a real playmaker in this offense with his speed and elusiveness. Bielema said he really came on during the last few weeks of spring practice.

It's not going to be easy to replace Hamilton -- or his production -- but the Hogs have bodies to work with. The next step is really developing that on-field confidence during game situations. It'll be tough with a younger QB taking over, but this is where coaches have to lean on their vets.

The Hogs will call upon youngsters like Mekale McKay and Keon Hatcher to help this fall, but to have three seniors clicking like they are exiting spring is a big win for this new coaching staff.
We continue my chat with Arkansas senior fullback Kiero Small.

What did he think about Bret Bielema's joking jab at Nick Saban and Alabama? Does he like Arkansas being a huge underdog this year?

Let's find out:

You’ve been around this program for a couple of years now and have seen some big highs and bad lows, so what’s the feeling like for you and some of your teammates this spring with everything being so new?

Kiero Small: For me, right now, it’s a good feeling. It’s steady and I know what’s coming next. I know the coaching staff is going to be here. You know, this time last year, we were all in an uproar and we didn’t really know what was going to happen. It feels good to know what’s coming and to know that Coach “B” (Bret Bielema) and all of the rest of the coaching staff have our backs and they are going to put us in the best situations to be good.

I know your coach caused a little bit of a stir this week when he was joking about Nick Saban, but do you guys like that? Do you like the confidence that he’s brought and the fact that he isn’t afraid to say stuff like that?

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireIn Bret Bielema, Arkansas players know they have a coach who isn't lacking confidence.
KS: I’ve seen it here and there, but I didn’t really see what context it was in and I didn’t really get to read it. Coach B is a guy that believes in himself and he believes in us. That helps us know that when we go out on the football field it’s going to be us against whoever we play and it’s going to be our set of guys against their set of guys and our coaches against theirs. It’s a good feeling to know that your coach has confidence.

Does it feel like you guys are flying under the radar right now, and do you like that feeling?

KS: I like it a lot. Right now, no one is talking about us. Everybody is making their (preseason) picks and everything of that sort and should they (pick Arkansas)? We didn’t have a good year last year and lost a lot of guys, but this team has taken on more of a working mentality. We have to go and make our own name. It’s a new regime and it’s time for us to go pick a name for ourselves, but, you know, last year we were picked to beat everybody. We were picked to win a lot of games and picked to be great and it didn’t turn out that way. At the end of the day, those picks really don’t mean anything. You have to go out and play football.

You guys have a lot of young parts coming back on offense, but what have you seen so far this spring that excites you about that side of the ball?

KS: A lot of guys have a working mentality and at every position group you have maybe one or two guys who have been here a long time. On the (offensive) line we got [Travis] Swanson, you got me in the running backs room, you’ve got Javontee [Herndon] in the receivers room and you have [Austin] Tate in the tight ends room, so you have one guy or two guys who have been here for a long time and the young guys are really preparing themselves behind them. That’s a sight to see when you have young guys who are willing to learn and willing to go and attack practice every day.

What have you seen from the quarterbacks so far this spring?

KS: It’s been pretty good. We have some competition there. You like to see competition, especially at that position. Every day they are racking their brains to try and be good and make the plays. It’s been a steady competition and good to see. You have two guys (Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell) who can get the job done. Right now they are battling to see who is going to make it happen for this year. There are no set positions. Everybody is having to look over their shoulder and have to be able to go and attack practice.

What do you guys really want to get out of spring practice this year?

KS: Right now, we’re just trying to learn these new systems and new schemes. We’re playing fast, but the coaches are doing a good job of simplifying things so we can learn it, which allows us to play faster. I really like that. They’re not trying to complicate things because at the end of the day we don’t have games on Saturdays. We have the spring game and we have scrimmages, but now we get to learn and that’s going to push us through the summer so in (fall) camp we have a basis for what is going on.

Stifling pass rush sparks Arkansas

October, 6, 2012
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Even with a new quarterback, Auburn couldn't manage to find much semblance of an offense in its third SEC loss of the season.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik replaced starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier with backup Clint Moseley at halftime of the Tigers' 24-7 loss to Arkansas on Saturday. Frazier threw an interception and failed to register any points in another abysmal first half for the Auburn offense.

Moseley couldn't manage much better against an unstoppable Razorbacks pass rush, however. Arkansas came into the game allowing 40.6 points per game -- last in the SEC. That average will drop all the way down to 35 points after holding Auburn to one touchdown, largely thanks to a pass rush that generated a whopping eight sacks against a completely overmatched Auburn offensive line.

Even when the Tigers could keep their quarterbacks upright, they still committed five turnovers on the afternoon. Moseley fired two interceptions along with Frazier's one, and the Tigers coughed up a pair of fumbles.

Those horrific stats made a stop-and-start Arkansas performance look masterful by comparison. It looked like the Razorbacks would blow Auburn off the field early when they racked up 224 yards on the way to a 10-0 lead at halftime. But ugly miscues -- such as a missed 26-yard field goal and a muffed third-quarter punt -- allowed the Tigers to hang around and cut the lead as close as 10-7 at the end of the third quarter.

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, who finished the day with 216 yards on 20-of-27 passing, led the Razorbacks into the Auburn red zone on his first drive of the fourth quarter. From there wide receiver Brandon Mitchell fired a 26-yard touchdown pass to fellow wideout Javontee Herndon on a trick play, putting Auburn in what proved to be an inescapable 10-point hole.

Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson carried the bulk of the ground game in place of starter Knile Davis, who did not appear to be injured. Johnson toted the rock 16 times for 70 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His second touchdown of the day put Arkansas up 24-7 with 8:20 to play.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.

One good reason: Arkansas

July, 10, 2012
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We continue our "One good reason" series by checking in on the Arkansas Razorbacks:

Arkansas will win the SEC: That offense is still very good.

Sure, quarterback Tyler Wilson lost three NFL wide receivers from last season and stud Marquel Wade's status for the upcoming season is unclear. But as a whole, this team is still very talented and very explosive on offense. Wilson is the SEC's top quarterback and could have easily been a first-round draft pick in this year's NFL draft if he had decided to leave school early. But he's back and so is that cannon of a right arm. Oh, and who will be by his side? None other than the dynamic Knile Davis. He's one of the best running backs in the country and it sounds like he's going to be 100 percent this fall after that gruesome ankle injury he suffered last fall. This is the league's best QB/RB duo.

At receiver, Cobi Hamilton should be in contention to be the league's best. We always knew he had talent, so now he'll really get to show it as the primary receiver for the Razorbacks. It sounds like he and Wilson developed some pretty good chemistry this spring, too. Tight end Chris Gragg, who is on the John Mackey Award watch list, is one of the top tight ends in the SEC and the coaches expect him to be an even bigger part of the offense this fall. Rising juniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton have had to bide their time, but impressed coaches in practice all of last year and should step right in and contribute more this fall.

The offensive line is still a bit of a concern, but there is still some decent experience there and that goes a long way in this league. Paul Petrino certainly isn't his brother, but don't expect too much change, if any, when it comes to how the Hogs' offense is run.

Why it won't: Bobby Petrino's absence will be too much. Defensively, there are still some questions and Arkansas still plays in the toughest division in all of college football, but the real concern is how this team will respond without Bobby Petrino. His embarrassing exit was a real slap in the face to a team that he heralded as arguably his best during his tenure. Sure, the Hogs have rallied around interim coach John L. Smith, but we haven't seen this team with him as the head coach in a pressure situation during a big game or during the season. We haven't seen him as the leader during two-a-days. What happens if adversity strikes this fall? Could an early-season loss cause this team to lose some confidence?

Petrino injected a ton of confidence and edge into his past Arkansas teams. You could see the same confidence he carried every second of the day in his players, and that's one thing that made Arkansas so good and gritty the past couple of seasons. He was also an exceptional playcaller, so the loss of that will surely be felt at times.

It'll be interesting to see how players react to Smith this fall, considering he has that 10-month interim tag attached to his name. Will he be able to command the same sort of respect that Petrino did and will he be the same sort of leader and motivator that Petrino was? Honestly, we aren't sure, yet.

Recapping the weekend scrimmages

April, 16, 2012
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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.
After a drama-filled, late signing day for ESPNU 150 athlete Davonte Neal (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral), the nation's No. 8 prospect finally made a decision.

He picked Notre Dame over Arizona, Arkansas and North Carolina, ending what had turned into quite the spectacle.

Now that Neal's recruitment is officially over, Arkansas' coaching staff can officially put the 2012 recruiting class to bed. And while Neal would have been a tremendous addition to the Razorbacks' class, it's not the end of the world that Arkansas didn't land him. In fact, missing out on both Neal and top receiver Dorial Green-Beckham won't set Bobby Petrino's team back.

Also, after the "show" that Neal put on with his recruitment, there are definitely questions about his mindset. We don't know every single detail concerning his recruitment, but from what I know about Petrino's offense, a me-first attitude doesn't work within a scheme that tries to spread the ball around as much as possible.

[+] EnlargeCobi Hamilton
Beth Hall/US PresswireCobi Hamilton should be among the top returning receivers in the SEC.
Arkansas lost three future NFL draft picks in Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright, but returns a handful of receiving targets in 2012. Two of those returning -- tight end Chris Gragg and receiver Cobi Hamilton -- ranked third and fourth, respectively, in receiving for the Hogs.

Hamilton, who will probably see his name near the top of the list of returning SEC receivers this fall, caught 34 passes for 542 yards and was second on the team with four touchdowns. Gragg, one of the top returning tight ends in the league, caught 41 passes for 518 yards and two scores.

That's a good foundation, but it doesn't end there for the Hogs. Arkansas' deep receiving corps hasn't accumulated a ton of stats, but that's because these players haven't had much of a chance with those vets in front of them. They've shown that to the coaches in practice, but haven't had the chance to do it for the public.

One of those players expected to make a big leap in 2012 is rising sophomore Marquel Wade. He only caught eight passes last fall, but the coaches are expecting big things from him in Year 2. Wade has big play ability, is shifty and the coaches think he resembles Adams in his movements and returning ability. He should receive a lot more attention from quarterback Tyler Wilson and opposing defenders. However, with his speed and elusiveness, he should be able to make a play or two next fall.

Juniors-to-be Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton, who combined for 17 catches in 2011, are also back and from what the coaches have seen in practice, they expect them to step right in this fall.

Also, keep an eye out on incoming juco transfer receiver Demetrius Wilson and freshman tight end Demetrius Dean. Wilson should certainly get a chance to compete early because coaches don't exactly bring in juco players to sit and watch. Dean (6-foot- 3, 240 pounds) could come in and line up opposite Gragg and has the ability to split out wide if needed.

Striking out with both Neal and DGB wasn't exactly part of Petrino's recruiting plan, but his teams have led the SEC in passing the past three years for a reason, so don't expect him to pout too much about losing these two.

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