SEC: John Hevesy
The robust 6-foot-4, 300-pound wall resembles a jacked 80s rocker with long golden hair and colorful tattoo sleeves slathered on both arms.
In a league predicated on the success of its line play, you need that look and that feel from your center. You need a beast in the middle to direct your line and claw his way around the trenches.
But the fifth-year senior, who has started 45 games for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons, wasn’t always such a menacing player. The first days were unbearable at times. When he was the one getting pushed during his very first set of collegiate two-a-days, he almost quit.
“It was horrible,” Day told ESPN.com in March. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought that this wasn’t the life for me.”
For a player so used to dominating at the high school level, Day was trying to climb his way out of a valley as a true freshman. The former West Monroe (La.) standout was physically and mentally beaten down during his first summer in Starkville. The practices drained him, and the workouts defeated him.
The good news was that Day, who worked out at guard after playing tackle in high school, was redshirting his first season. He’d have time to grow.
But when Year 2 rolled around, Day felt overwhelmed yet again. Thinking his body would have adjusted better, Day said workouts were tougher as coaches expected more and pushed even harder because of his prospects to start; this time at center.
“We certainly didn’t make that easier on him -- yelling and screaming and grinding on him,” coach Dan Mullen said.
The idea was to break him into being that “every-down, perform-at-a-high-level guy” who was going to lead the entire offensive line. Mullen couldn’t have a soft center. He needed someone with a chip on his shoulder, someone with grit and mettle.
But Day’s tough-guy attitude that he exuded in high school seemed to wash away. The mental side was crumbling, and in turn, his physical nature suffered. But the coaches kept pushing.
Halfway through two-a-days, Day decided his time was up with the Bulldogs. But as soon as he thought he was out the door, his parents talked to him. Day said they continued the trend of pushing him, this time to strike back with his own play and attitude. They motivated him to stay and prove to himself that he could conquer the madness that was the preseason.
“My bags were packed,” Day said. “I was about to go right back to Louisiana. I stuck it out and then I got my number called my redshirt freshman year, and it’s been clicking ever since.”
Going from unranked high school prospect to three-year starter in the SEC is the definition of clicking. Day picked himself up and marched up the depth chart into a valuable role with a Bulldogs team that has enjoyed a steady climb under the guidance of Mullen.
It was his realization years ago that he had to be a fighter that helped get him to the final stage of his career in Starkville.
“I don’t scream at him as much,” Mullen said with wicked grin. “He understood that by being the center, his standard of play has to be above everybody else because he’s the leader of that line. It’s all going to go through him. Where he sets the bar, that’s where the bar’s going to be. However high he sets it, that’s where our success level is going to be.”
Day now relishes that spotlight. As he puts it, he’s “the brains of the offensive line.” He’s become a fundamental cog with help from co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy. He’s learned how to own his presence up front with guidance from guys like Gabe Jackson.
So much has happened since Day packed his bags. As he looks at his final days in Starkville, he’s now looking to leave Mississippi State in another fashion.
“That’s just life. You have to stick through the battles,” Day said.
“I’m here my fifth year and just the other day I was here as a freshman trying to quit. It does hit home with you.”
Spring start: March 15
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
- What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
- Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
Spring start: March 16
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
- A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
- Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
- Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
- Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Jennings next at QB?: Anthony Jennings engineered a memorable, game-winning drive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, leading the Tigers 99 yards downfield, capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass. His performance in the Outback Bowl was far from impressive, though, as he went 7-for-19 passing for 82 yards and an interception in the Tigers’ win over Iowa. Still, he is considered the favorite to replace Zach Mettenberger. Competing with Jennings is Penn State transfer Rob Bolden and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
- Starting over at WR: LSU loses two 1,000-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, plus a senior (Kadron Boone). That’s a lot of production to replace. Travin Dural, who made the game-winning catch against Arkansas, is back, as is Quantavius Leslie and Armand Williams. The Tigers have a host of redshirt freshmen joining the mix (John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears) and bring in several freshmen (Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark) to compete for playing time. But replacing 72 percent of the 2013 receiving yardage will be challenging.
- Finding safeties: Craig Loston has moved on, and the Tigers don’t have a returning starter at safety. But they do have Jalen Mills, who slid from his cornerback spot to safety to start in the Outback Bowl. Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson all return, and ESPN 300 recruit Edward Paris Jr. is already on campus and will participate in spring practice.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
- Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
- Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
- Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
- A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)
What to watch:
- Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
- Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
- New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.
• The matchup between Florida's stellar defense and LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger should be highly intriguing. The Gators lead the nation in Total QBR allowed, with opposing quarterbacks rating just a 13.0 against Florida and completing just 21.1 percent of their passes of 15 yards or longer. Meanwhile, Mettenberger has completed 60 percent of his throws of 15-plus for eight touchdowns, no interceptions and an average of 15.8 yards per attempt.
• Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy has led an offensive revival since taking over for Jeff Driskel as the Gators' signal-caller. He hasn't played enough snaps to qualify for ESPN's Total QBR rankings, but only Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Baylor's Bryce Petty have higher QBRs than Murphy's 93.7 among QBs who have participated in at least 80 action plays.
• South Carolina expects star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to start this week after missing last week's game with a much-debated injury. ESPN Stats and Information reports that Clowney has played 63 percent of South Carolina's defensive snaps this season. Opponents are averaging 5.9 yards per play with Clowney on the field versus 4.8 ypp when he's off.
• Georgia enters Saturday's game against Missouri riding a 15-game winning streak. That's the longest active home winning streak in the conference and the third-longest such streak in school history. The Bulldogs last lost at home against South Carolina on Sept. 10, 2011.
• Expect Alabama to look to establish the run against Kentucky on Saturday. The Crimson Tide are averaging an SEC-high 6.6 yards per designed run in SEC games. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are allowing 5.2 yards per designed run -- second-most in the league. Kentucky has allowed an SEC-high 629 yards before contact on such runs.
• Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray claimed the SEC's career passing yards lead last week against Tennessee. He's closing in on two more career marks. With 11,908 yards of career total offense, Murray is 324 yards behind Tim Tebow's SEC record (12,232). And with 109 career touchdown passes, he's five behind Danny Wuerffel's SEC record of 114.
• Ole Miss' no-huddle offense has been a mess of late after a strong start. The Rebels averaged just 1.6 yards per play last week against Auburn when employing the no-huddle after averaging 7.6 yards per play through the first four games when operating out of the no-huddle. Quarterback Bo Wallace was 2-for-10 on passes out of the no-huddle against Auburn after going 19-for-23 in the first four games.
• Arkansas freshman Alex Collins leads the SEC with 651 rushing yards, but his workload has decreased in his first two conference games. Collins was averaging 21.5 carries against nonconference opponents, but that average dipped to 13.5 in SEC play. His average yards per game dipped from 120.3 to 85.0 and his yards after contact per game have dropped steeply, from 73.0 to 27.5.
• Aside from its shaky performance in a win against Texas A&M, Alabama's defense has been impressive. Following a shutout against Ole Miss and a 45-3 win last week against Georgia State, the Crimson Tide are now tied with Florida for the SEC lead in scoring defense at 12.2 ppg. Alabama is second in rushing defense (85.8 ypg), second in total defense (299.8) and fifth in pass defense (214.0). The Tide have an SEC-low 25 missed tackles according to ESPN Stats and Information.
• Missouri is first in the SEC in rushing (258.8 ypg) and fourth in passing (285.0). The Tigers rank among only five FBS teams averaging at least 255 yards on the ground and 285 through the air alongside Baylor, Oregon, Washington and UCLA.
• Auburn will hold its 100th observance and 87th homecoming game on Saturday against Western Carolina. The Tigers are 74-8-4 in their previous homecomings. They own a 2-0 all-time record against the Catamounts, winning by a combined 111-6 margin.
• It's also homecoming at Mississippi State and a reunion between three Bulldogs coaches with a program where they once worked: Bowling Green. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and assistants Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy coached at Bowling Green in 2001-02. Mullen also met his wife Megan while coaching there.
It's time to check out Mississippi State's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season:
Strongest position: Offensive line
The Bulldogs have the luxury of bringing back a very talented offensive line that is led by first-team All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson. Jackson could have tested the NFL waters after last season but decided to stay for his senior year. That's great news for the Bulldogs, who return three other starters. Both tackles -- Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway -- return, but they have to be better in pass protection. Quarterback Tyler Russell took far too many hits last year, and offensive line coach John Hevesy made it a point to make his line much tougher this spring. Expect to see the tackles play at a much higher level this fall. Dillon Day is also back at center, giving the Bulldogs four upperclassmen returning up front. Filling the right guard spot is the next step for Mississippi State; sophomore Justin Malone left the spring as the starter. The coaching staff has some pretty good depth to work with all along the line. Pass protection should get better and the Bulldogs should once again be fine running the ball with this line coming back.
Weakest position: Wide receiver
The Bulldogs are basically starting over at wide receiver, as four seniors, including three starters, are gone. Those seniors accounted for 148 receptions, 2,096 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. The Bulldogs' top three receivers from last year were all seniors, including Chad Bumphis, who caught a team-high 58 passes for 922 yards and 12 touchdowns. Replacing this group won't be easy, and there isn't a lot of experience there to help. Juniors Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis are the leading returning receivers -- having combined for 27 catches for 272 yards and two touchdowns, both by Johnson. The good news is that both had good springs, but they'll need help this fall. Sophomore Joe Morrow has all the potential to be a deep threat for Mississippi State, but he has to become more consistent on the field and in practice. He dealt with a bad knee last year, but will have much more responsibility this fall. Junior-college transfer Jeremey Chappelle enrolled this spring and has a chance to start. He could provide another deep threat for the Bulldogs, too. Getting junior Michael Carr back helps, too.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Don't you just love the SEC recruiting soap opera?
South Carolina signee Alshon Jeffrey accused Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin of telling him he'd be pumping gas for the rest of his life if he signed with the Gamecocks. And, now, Georgia signee Orson Charles called Florida's recruitment of him "horrible."
Charles, one of the top tight end prospects in the country, told Ben Volin of The Palm Beach Post that former Florida assistant John Hevesy was the guy who turned him away from the Gators. Hevesy is now a member of the Mississippi State staff and followed Dan Mullen to Starkville.
Charles narrowed his choices to Georgia, Southern California and Tennessee before picking the Bulldogs.