SEC: Josh Chapman

DESTIN, Fla. -- Nick Saban isn't looking to compare his 2012 football team to past ones, but he'd like to take one key ingredient from 2011 and sprinkle it around his team right now, especially on defense.

What Saban hopes to see more of from his defense when the players and coaches get back together shortly before fall camp is leadership. This defense can be as hungry as it wants, but Saban knows it won't go very far without a few chiefs stepping up.

He saw progress this spring, but it wasn't enough.

"I'm never satisfied," Saban said at the 2012 SEC spring meetings. "That's an area of our team that we need to continue to develop and mature."

Gone are upperclassmen leaders like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Josh Chapman. In are seniors Nico Johnson (linebacker) and Jesse Williams (defensive tackle) and linebackers C.J. Mosley (junior) and Adrian Hubbard (sophomore). All seemed to make strides this spring, but there's still a lot of room for them and others to grow, Saban said.

This defense isn't on the same level as the historic one in 2011, but it's still pretty talented. But so was the 2010 defense and its slow start hurt Alabama's chance to repeat as SEC champs. Though this unit is older than the 2010 defense, Saban made it clear that leadership and maturity can take a team further than talent and experience.

There's still plenty of time for all the leadership kinks to be worked out and there's no doubt that Saban will take a different approach in helping that growth after what transpired in 2010.

"I've been pleased with the leadership on this team so far," he said," but it's a work in progress and it's developing. It's going to have to continue to develop for them to be what we need them to be successful on a consistent basis."
We all know that defense wins championships and the SEC is very much a testament to that. Alabama possessed the nation's No. 1 defense last season and now possesses another national championship. Runner-up LSU ranked second nationally.

Alabama ran away with the crown as the nation's and the SEC's best defense, but that title is for the taking in 2012. Alabama is down key players from last year's squad, like linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, defensive tackle Josh Chapman, and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, and DeQuan Menzie.

SportsNation

Who will have the best defense in 2012?

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Discuss (Total votes: 12,039)

Alabama's defense isn't as green as the 2010 group, but it's still drawing some comparisons to it. That's exactly what the Tide wants to hear. Nico Johnson seems primed to be a true leader at linebacker, while Adrian Hubbard could be a budding star at Upshaw's old position. Defensive backs Robert Lester and Dee Milliner are back and will be joined by a couple of JUCO standouts and talented sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Jesse Williams could be a real force at defensive tackle along with end Damion Square.

Then you have LSU. The Tigers lost All-World cornerback Morris Claiborne to the NFL draft and two starting linebackers. Michael Brockers is gone at defensive tackle as well. But LSU is still loaded. The Tigers return Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, who should be fine with an expanded role at cornerback. Junior Kevin Minter really stepped up at linebacker last year and should pick up right where he left off. Even without Brockers, the line is solid with future first-rounder Sam Montgomery at one end position and the underrated Barkevious Mingo at the other. The two combined for 17 sacks last season.

Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson should provide some meat nastiness in the interior, while the very talented Eric Reid is back at free safety.

Georgia and South Carolina both finished the 2011 season ranked in the top five nationally in total defense. South Carolina was third, while Georgia was fifth, respectively. The Gamecocks lost first-round defensive end Melvin Ingram, but return freshman standout Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who many thought would be better than Ingram last season. Kelcy Quarles is back at defensive tackle and the coaches think he'll be even better in his second year.

Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last year, will grab time at linebacker again, while the very athletic DeVonte Holloman returns to the Spur for his senior year. There are questions in the secondary, but seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) return.

Georgia returns nine defensive starters. Brandon Boykin is gone at corner, and the Bulldogs will enter the fall with a lot questions in the secondary, especially with starters Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo suspended to start the season. Star freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner this spring and fits right in, but there are depth issues at the position.

Other than that, the Bulldogs are still pretty stacked. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree will serve a suspension to start the year, but Georgia will fill his spot by committee. Mike Gilliard, Cornelius Washington, Christian Robinson, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson provide Georgia with a very solid linebacking unit alongside star Jarvis Jones, who racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Georgia's defensive line should also be pretty stout with the massive John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers battling in the middle. Abry Jones really progressed at end as well this spring.

Or maybe someone else will step up and take the crown ...
Everybody talks about the best value picks come NFL draft time.

In other words, who were the best football players to go later in the draft?

Now that everybody else has had a say, I’ll weigh in with regard to SEC players.

Below are my value selections. These guys either went in the last three rounds of the draft or went undrafted, and I’m betting that all five will be contributors in the NFL. They’re listed alphabetically:

Josh Chapman, DT, Alabama: The Indianapolis Colts took Chapman with the first pick of the fifth round, and all you really need to know about Chapman is that he played most of last season with a torn ACL. He waited until after the season to have surgery. That decision hurt his draft stock, but helped his team and was a big reason the Crimson Tide won their second national championship in the last three years. Had Chapman not been recovering from surgery at draft time, he would have gone a lot higher. He should be cleared for practice in July and will have a great chance to win the starting nose guard job this fall.

Tim Fugger, DE, Vanderbilt: The Colts took Fugger with the seventh pick of the seventh round, and he projects as an outside linebacker in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme. The thing you love about Fugger is how smart, tough and intense he is. Plus, he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash in his workout at 250 pounds. He has a knack for making big plays, as evidenced by his eight sacks and three forced fumbles last season, and he doesn’t take plays off. There are more than a few former Vanderbilt defenders earning a living in the NFL right now. Fugger has everything it takes to join that fraternity.

Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: The Pittsburgh Steelers took Rainey with the 24th pick in the fifth round. Just from a special teams perspective alone, Rainey figures to be a huge asset. He has game-changing speed and will certainly be a threat in the return game, but what a lot of people forget is that he’s also Florida’s all-time leader with six blocked kicks. There’s just no substitute for the kind of speed Rainey possesses, and he’s proven than he can both run and catch the football. The Steelers will find a niche for him, and Rainey will put his speed to use in a number of different ways.

Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: The Denver Broncos took Trevathan with the 18th pick in the sixth round. There were some who didn’t think Trevathan would be drafted at all, but a savvy football personnel guy is always going to take a chance on a player as productive as Trevathan was during his career at Kentucky. He racked up 287 total tackles over his last two seasons and was one of the surest tacklers in the SEC. He doesn’t have ideal size (6-0, 237), and he’s not very fast (4.82 in the 40). But turn on the tape and watch him make play after play against some of the best competition in the land. The guy’s a football player, and he’ll get it done on defense and on special teams at the next level.

William Vlachos, C, Alabama: Vlachos was not drafted and agreed to a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans. Let’s face it. If Vlachos were about three inches taller, he would have gone as high as any center in the draft. But he’s barely 6-0, and we all know the NFL’s hang-up with measurables. It’s a given that Vlachos isn’t going to get any taller, but he’s a natural when it comes to playing center. He was the engine for that Alabama offensive line last season and has started for three years. He’s as smart as he is tough and always wins the leverage battle because he plays so low. Go ask Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram what they think of Vlachos, who went up against everybody from Nick Fairley to Michael Brockers to Fletcher Cox during his career.
SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will occasionally give their takes on a question facing the league or certain teams in the league. They'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same opinions. We'll let you decide who's right.

Today's Take Two topic: Other than obvious stars such as Barrett Jones and AJ McCarron, who's the player that needs to come through for Alabama next season if the Crimson Tide are going to become the first team since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995 to win outright national championships in back-to-back seasons?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff

Jesse Williams is a guy who I think has to have a big season in 2012 in order for Alabama to repeat this fall. Now that Josh Chapman is gone at nose guard, Williams is moving over from defensive end to follow in Chapman's big footsteps. It won't be easy when you consider how effective Chapman was last season, even while basically playing on one knee. He absolutely clogged the middle of the line and was a key cog in the Crimson Tide's suffocating run defense.

[+] EnlargeRob Bolden
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesAlabama needs Jesse Williams, right, to stuff the run and get to the QB from his new spot at nose guard.
Chapman was a big reason Alabama ranked first nationally in rush defense last season, giving up only 72 yards a game and 2.4 yards per rush. Alabama's defense will go through some growing pains this season. But if the Tide can control things up front, it will go a long way toward protecting that younger secondary. While Williams isn't built like Chapman, he's big enough -- and mean enough -- to clog up the middle just like Chapman. He's 6-foot-4 and weighs 320 pounds, but he's also very athletic, so he won't just be relied on against the run. He'll also be asked to get after the quarterback.

Remember, Williams played tackle when Alabama went to a four-man front last year, so playing inside isn't unfamiliar territory for him. He's likely to get time on the edge again as well, so his versatility will really help Alabama. Getting pressure on opposing backfields will be key for this Tide defense, so the coaches are expecting a lot from Williams. Everything starts up front in the SEC, and Williams' performance could determine a lot for Alabama's defense this fall.

Take 2: Chris Low

The interior of the defensive line is always a good place to start when you’re retooling a defense, and there’s no doubt that Josh Chapman will be sorely missed. The guy was a rock in the middle and played more than half the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. So I understand, Edward, how you could go with Jesse Williams, especially with Williams sliding over from end to nose guard this spring in the Crimson Tide’s 3-4 scheme. But I’m picking sophomore Adrian Hubbard as that under-the-radar guy who needs to come through because I think he has everything it takes to become a premier playmaker on defense next season.

Let’s face it. When you’re losing the likes of Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Chapman on defense, new playmakers don’t just magically appear -- even for a team that has recruited as well as Alabama has. The 6-6 Hubbard, who looked more like a basketball player when he arrived at Alabama, is now pushing 250 pounds. He was listed at 237 last season. Upshaw was that finisher for the Tide from his Jack linebacker position. He was the guy who made most of the game-changing plays on Alabama’s defense. Hubbard is poised to be that guy in 2012, and the Crimson Tide could be relying on him to harass the opposing quarterback more than ever before.

Much like 2010, Alabama will be inexperienced in the secondary next season with three of the four starters departing. It remains to be seen if the Crimson Tide can match up at cornerback the way they did a year ago. Moreover, when you’re plugging new players into the defensive backfield, there are always going to be growing pains. Remember the mental errors that plagued the Tide in the secondary in 2010? The best way to cover up those errors and help a secondary find its way while players learn on the job is to keep the opposing quarterback running for his life. That’s where Hubbard comes in. He’s had an excellent spring and will be counted on to fill Upshaw’s role next season. According to Upshaw, Hubbard will do more than just fill it. Upshaw as much as guaranteed last season that Hubbard would be a dominant player before his time was up at Alabama. That time is now.
Speed and athleticism are always immediately mentioned when talking about SEC defenses, but there’s a mental side that’s often overlooked.

For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.

“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAlabama linebacker Nico Johnson says today's young SEC players enter the league with an impressive grasp of defensive schemes.
“I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.”

That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.

Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.

And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.

As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.

Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.

Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.

But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.

At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.

“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.

“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”

But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …

LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.

LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.

Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.

“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”

South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.

The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.

The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.

“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”

Fremeau: Weaknesses for top 5 teams

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
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Just because a team is projected to have a top-five finish doesn't mean it's perfect. No matter how good you think your team is, we're here to bring it down a notch.

And that's exactly where Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders/ESPN.com comes into play. He has taken a look at ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach's 2012 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 and broken down the weaknesses of Schlabach's top 5.

It just so happens that three of them are SEC teams (imagine that!). Here's what Fremeau had to say about them:

2. Alabama
"Alabama's defense will take a step back with the roster turnover, but the question is how big a step -- (Nick) Saban's past four teams at Alabama have ranked in the top 10 in opponent points per drive.
"The learning curve will be steep. The Crimson Tide will open the year against the Michigan Wolverines in Dallas, an offense led by Denard Robinson that was more efficient than any opponent Alabama faced a year ago. Special teams needs to be a point of emphasis, as well -- Alabama was below average on field goals, punts, kickoffs and kickoff return efficiency a year ago."
3. LSU
"The big question is whether LSU can take a step forward on offense. The offense was completely smothered by Alabama in the title game, but generating first downs plagued the Tigers at times throughout the year. LSU earned at least one first down on only 69 percent of its drives (49th-best rate nationally) and ranked 101st in producing 'methodical drives' (possessions of at least 10 plays). All eyes will be on transfer quarterback Zach Mettenberger in spring practice."
5. Georgia
"The focal point for next season has to be about finishing games and drives. On methodical drives of ten or more plays, Georgia scored a pathetic 1.5 points per possession (119th nationally and 2.3 points fewer than the national average). Late drives stalled in the bowl game loss to Michigan State due to conservative play calling and execution breakdowns. Georgia also needs to win the field position battle next year -- the Bulldogs were 63rd in field position advantage on the season, and all four losses a year ago were due in part to field position mismanagement."
My thoughts:
  • Alabama will lose some key pieces to its defense in 2012, but I don't think you'll see the same team we all saw in 2010. That defense was susceptible to the big play, and the Tide isn't exactly returning a group of youngsters. Alabama's defense will be made up mostly of juniors and seniors next season, but there's no denying the talent gone. I am also interested to see who steps up in the leadership department now that guys like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Josh Chapman are gone.
  • At LSU, all eyes will be on Mettenberger, but it should be interesting to see what those young receivers do during the offseason, too. Russell Shepard is the lone senior returning to the starting lineup at receiver, and if his post-championship Twitter escapade was any indication, he still has some maturing to do before next season. A lot more will be expected from rising sophomores Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Beckham was LSU's No. 2 receiver last season, so he could move to No. 1 before the season starts. People think Landry can be a real playmaker in LSU's offense.
  • Obviously, a lot of the focus in Athens, Ga., this offseason will be on running back Isaiah Crowell. His nagging injury issues became a problem for the Bulldogs, and the running game was inconsistent because of it. Georgia has pretty good depth at the running back position, but Crowell is the headliner and if he's going to be the guy again, he has to become more reliable for the Bulldogs to repeat as SEC Eastern Division champs.

SEC players invited to NFL combine

February, 7, 2012
2/07/12
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The NFL has released its list of invites to this years NFL combine. Of the more than 300 prospects taking part in the pre-draft shenanigans starting Feb. 22, 62 are from the SEC (for fun we are including Missouri and Texas A&M).

Here are the SEC representatives: School breakdown:
  • Alabama: 9
  • Arkansas: 4
  • Auburn: 3
  • Florida: 3
  • Georgia: 8
  • Kentucky: 2
  • LSU: 8
  • Missouri: 4
  • Mississippi State: 4
  • Ole Miss: 2
  • South Carolina: 5
  • Tennessee: 2
  • Texas A&M: 6
  • Vanderbilt: 2

SEC postseason position rankings: DL

February, 7, 2012
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We turn our attention to defense today, specifically the top defensive lines in the SEC during the 2011 season.

Year in and year out, strong defensive line play is what separates the SEC from other leagues, so there’s no shame in finishing in the bottom half of these rankings.

You can see our preseason rankings here.

Now onto our postseason rankings:

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireEnd Barkevious Mingo, 49, and tackle Michael Brockers, 90, led a stout LSU defensive line.
1. LSU: The Tigers overwhelmed teams this season up front with numbers, power and speed. They had the luxury of running fresh guys in and out of the game and not dropping off one bit. Michael Brockers was one of the top interior linemen in the league, while Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo combined for 28.5 tackles for loss, including 17 sacks, off the edge. Finding a better collection of defensive linemen anywhere in college football would be difficult.

2. Alabama: Even Nick Saban said before the season that Alabama didn’t have that dominant difference-maker up front this season in the mold of a Marcell Darius, but it didn’t matter. The Crimson Tide’s play up front was still dominant. Nose guard Josh Chapman courageously played through a torn ACL and plugged the middle, and nobody got any push against the Alabama front when it came to running the ball. The Tide led the country in rushing defense with opponents managing just 2.4 yards per carry.

3. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ specialty was rushing the passer, and they ended the season with six sacks against Nebraska in the bowl game. Senior defensive end Melvin Ingram was a consensus All-American with 10 sacks, but he had plenty of good players around him. Freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is next in line for All-America honors. He tied for the lead in league games with five forced fumbles.

4. Georgia: Not only were the Bulldogs one of the best defensive lines in the league, but they were also one of the most improved. Junior college newcomer John Jenkins made a huge difference at nose guard, and junior end Abry Jones had a breakout season with seven tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hurries. The Bulldogs were a lot bigger up front this season, too, which comes in handy when you’re playing a 3-4.

5. Florida: The Gators could have used some more depth in their defensive line, but they held up surprisingly well this season despite getting very little help from their offense. Sophomore Dominique Easley emerged as one of the more active defensive tackles in the league before tearing his ACL against Florida State, and Sharrif Floyd played both inside and outside for the Gators. With just about everybody back, Florida should have one of the top lines in the SEC next season.

6. Vanderbilt: A few eyebrows might be raised to see the Commodores ranked in the top half of the league when it comes to defensive line play, but look at the numbers. In SEC games, Vanderbilt held opponents to an average of 111 rushing yards per game, which was fourth in the league. Senior defensive end Tim Fugger might have been the most underrated player in the league with 13.5 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. Junior tackle Rob Lohr wasn’t too far behind with 11.5 tackles for loss, including five sacks.

7. Mississippi State: It wasn’t the best start to the season for Mississippi State’s defense, but the Bulldogs closed with a flurry thanks in large part to the way they played up front the last half of the season. Tackle Fletcher Cox led the charge down the stretch and led all SEC interior linemen in league games with 12.5 tackles for loss. Cox’s running mate inside, Josh Boyd, also did his share of damage with eight tackles for loss.

8. Arkansas: Coming into the 2011 season, the Hogs looked like they had one of the deepest defensive lines in the SEC. But star defensive end Jake Bequette was plagued by a nasty hamstring injury early in the season, and his sidekick on the other end, Tenarius Wright, broke his arm in the fourth game against Alabama. Bequette still responded with seven sacks in seven SEC games, and Wright also returned late in the season. The Hogs’ weakness was stopping the run. It was a problem all season long.

9. Auburn: The Tigers had some decent sack numbers, but that’s where it ends for them up front defensively. Sophomore defensive end Corey Lemonier was second in the SEC in league games with 8.5 sacks, but the Tigers were carved apart up front more times than not. They allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game to SEC foes, and had a terrible time getting off the field on third down. Auburn was painfully young up front defensively this season, but everybody returns in 2012.

10. Tennessee: The Vols had trouble getting to the passer this season, and they also weren’t especially good at stopping the run. That’s a combination that’s difficult to overcome for any defense. They finished with just 10 sacks in SEC games, which was 11th in the league, and they also gave up an average of 178.8 rushing yards per game to league foes. The Vols were hurting at tackle, which is why Malik Jackson played inside. He led the team with 11 tackles for loss.

11. Kentucky: As a whole, Kentucky improved defensively under first-year coordinator Rick Minter, particularly when it came to forcing turnovers. The Wildcats collected 16 in eight league games. They still need to get better up front after allowing an average of 203.8 rushing yards per game to SEC opponents. They also managed just 13 sacks in eight SEC contests. This is a big offseason for guys like Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph.

12. Ole Miss: One of the biggest blows for the Rebels was senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett not being able to make it all the way back from his knee injury. Ole Miss was left without any finishers up front and also couldn’t stop the run. In SEC contests, the Rebels gave up an average of 256.5 rushing yards per game, which ranked them last in the league and was 50 yards more than the 11th place team.
NEW ORLEANS -- When Alabama’s defensive players think about Round 1 with LSU, all those blown assignments in the running game stand out.

LSU was one of only two FBS teams to rush for more than 100 yards against Alabama’s defense. The Tigers rushed for 148 yards on 41 carries and wore down one of the best front sevens in the nation.

No matter how good or gritty the defense is, it’s tough to stop a running game that throws fresh legs out there like LSU does. The Tigers can have four to five backs carry the ball on any given drive. It keeps the Tigers’ legs fresh and defenders exhausted.

“It’s hard for teams to prepare for us because they don’t know who they’re going to get or what they’re going to get,” said LSU running back Michael Ford, who led the Tigers with 72 rushing yards against Alabama in November.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Spruce Derden/US PresswireOne of the Crimson Tide's biggest challenges will be containing Jordan Jefferson, who thrives at escaping pressure and breaking big plays.
Tide players are certainly giving LSU’s backs their due. They understand that those guys can play. But they feel some of their own mistakes definitely helped get the Tigers rolling.

Players were out of position. Running gaps weren’t filled. Jobs didn’t get done.

“We had guys in the right spot, but then we’d have another guy who’s not,” Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. “It’s on all 11 players on defense to get to the ball and be in the right spot.”

The most frustrating part for players is that stopping the run is what Alabama does. Alabama leads the nation in rushing defense and is giving up just 2.5 yards per carry.

Defensive tackle Josh Chapman said the key is to own the big uglies up front and force LSU to throw. The more teams try to beat Alabama through the air, the more mistakes are made.

“We have to go out and create a new line of scrimmage,” Chapman said. “One thing we do try to do is make teams one-dimensional, and that’s by throwing the ball. Once you throw the ball, our DBs have a mindset that once it’s in the air, it’s ours.”

But that won’t be so easy with this LSU team. The Tigers have yet another running threat that creates a supreme multiheaded backfield monster.

When asked what Alabama’s defense had to account for most during Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game, linebacker Dont’a Hightower emphatically said two words: Jordan Jefferson.

“He’s their MVP,” Hightower said. “He’s the reason why they’re doing so good right now.”

He’s become such a weapon because he has the ability to run. He can squirm his way out of tough situations when the pocket collapses, opening up running lanes and passing plays.

Defensive breakdowns helped Jefferson be successful on designed runs, options and wild scrambles. Tide players are particularly worried about the option because it brings the element of Jefferson running AND one of the many running backs right back into the picture.

For Alabama’s defense to be successful in stopping LSU’s rushing attack, which led the SEC with 220.4 yards against league opponents, Hightower said it comes down to closing in on rushing lanes, filling gaps and throwing in some tricky defensive looks to confuse Jefferson.

When Jefferson keeps the ball, it’s all about containment.

“I feel like once you keep a dual-threat quarterback inside the pocket, I feel like he’s kind of done,” Hightower said.

LSU’s ground game can hurt Alabama in so many different ways. From Jefferson’s legs, to runners that average well over 220 pounds, LSU’s backfield is a physical force that overpowered Alabama the first time.

Well, Hightower says bring it. Hightower is excited for his shot at redemption and wants to prove that Alabama is just as tough.

Hightower wants that robust running game to come right at this defense.

“I like power guys,” he said. “I don’t like chasing the guys who run the 4.23s. I don’t like that. I’d rather them line up in the I-formation and just run at me.”

Iron Bowl pregame fun

November, 26, 2011
11/26/11
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AUBURN, Ala. -- The rivalry feeling of the Iron Bowl is in full effect here in Auburn.

Friends aren't speaking to each other. Family members are parting ways. And opposing tents are competing in everything from food presentation to technological advantages ... but rarely sharing with the enemy.

From chants of "Thirteen. We've got 13 here," to, "Defending champs!" my first Iron Bowl has the exact atmosphere that I wanted.

Auburn isn't favored and isn't the team it was last year, while Alabama is a win away from probably securing a berth in the national championship. But the Tigers would love nothing more than to end the Tide's title hopes and ruin what was supposed to be a special season for those dressed in crimson. Auburn won't be holding back at all. Not for this game.

Auburn's student section filled up almost immediately after the gates opened and there is no lack of confidence swirling around down there.

As Alabama running back Trent Richardson said, records truly are thrown out for this game. Everyone wants it and everyone wants to ruin the other side's season.

Speaking of Richardson, he hasn't done well against Auburn in the past. His longest run has been for 7 yards, and he doesn't even have 100 total yards in two meetings with the Tigers. If he wants to get to the very top of the Heisman Trophy race, he needs a tremendous performance today on national television.

Alabama enters feeling pretty healthy on both sides. Offensive lineman Barrett Jones was back at practice this week since injuring his ankle. Nose guard Josh Chapman's knee appears to be healthier these days as well.

It sounds like linebackers Jonathan Evans and Jawara White will also be back for Auburn.

When talking to people around Alabama's program, revenge is definitely on the minds of these players. A chance at a national championship would make a win over the Tigers even sweeter.

I hear boos raining down from the stands, so Alabama's kickers must have taken the field for warmups.

Don't blame just the Alabama kickers

November, 8, 2011
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Losing the special teams battle will be what most in the Alabama camp point to when explaining the Crimson Tide’s 9-6 overtime loss to LSU Saturday.

Four missed field goals, even though they were all from 44 yards or longer, are enough to be the difference in any game, especially against a defense bursting at the seams with future NFL talent.

But the Crimson Tide didn’t lose because they missed four field goals. They lost because they lost their poise at some of the worst times possible.

[+] EnlargeEric Reid
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEric Reid's interception in the fourth quarter was just one of many critical mistakes in Alabama's loss on Saturday.
That’s uncharacteristic of a Nick Saban-coached team, and it’s certainly uncharacteristic of this team.

Alabama entered the game with the fewest penalties (27) and fewest penalty yards (236) in the SEC.

The Crimson Tide had six penalties for 73 yards in the loss to LSU. Go back and look at when they occurred. What’s more, the Tide had several plays for negative yardage. Go back and look at when they occurred.

They lost two turnovers after losing just one in their previous five SEC games combined.

There were five different times in the game, including the overtime period, when Alabama had the ball inside the LSU 35-yard line and came away with no points.

On each of the five, there was some type of penalty, negative yardage play, dropped pass or turnover on first down.

It happened three times in the first quarter alone.

On the game’s opening drive, Alabama had it first-and-10 at the LSU 30, and Trent Richardson was thrown for a 5-yard loss.

On the Tide’s next offensive possession, they moved to the LSU 23 and had a first-and-10, but were hit with a 5-yard substitution infraction.

On their third possession, it was first-and-10 at the LSU 24 when Marquis Maze was tackled for a 6-yard loss on a reverse.

In the fourth quarter, on the heels of Richardson’s 24-yard run to the LSU 28, Maze was intercepted by Eric Reid at the 1 on a first-down play out of the Wildcat formation.

Alabama’s possession in overtime started with a dropped pass by Richardson on an inside screen. Then on second down from the 25, the Tide were hit with another 5-yard substitution infraction.

It was that kind of night for Alabama, which had specialized in not beating itself for the eight games prior to the LSU showdown.

But the bottom fell out Saturday against an LSU defense that no doubt had a lot to do with Alabama’s struggles any time the Tide looked like they might be getting near the red zone.

Perhaps the most costly blunder of the night for the Tide came when Mark Barron intercepted Jarrett Lee's pass in the third quarter and returned it to the Tigers’ 3. A block in the back penalty on Josh Chapman nullified that return and brought the ball back out to the 35.

"You know from Little League that if you see the numbers in the back, don't hit him," Chapman said. "That was an error on my behalf, a mistake."

Alabama did muster a field goal to go ahead 6-3, but would have been looking at a first-and-goal from the 3 had most of Barron’s return not been wiped out. A touchdown at that point probably changes the entire game.

How many times do you hear coaches talk about doing the little things right?

Well, there were a series of those little things that cost the Crimson Tide last Saturday.

How much it cost the Tide is still to be determined. We’ll see how the rest of this season plays out.

But this much we do know: It wasn't all on the kickers.

Video: Alabama's Josh Chapman

September, 23, 2011
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Chris Low talks with Alabama noseguard Josh Chapman.

Edward's SEC all-star ballot

July, 6, 2011
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In the spirit of next week's MLB All-Star Game, we've decided to get in on the fun with our own shot at building all-star teams in the SEC.

I'll go first, while fellow SEC blogger Chris Low will unveil his team later today.

Since there are two divisions, we're going East versus West. Like MLB, the school from the winning division will be the home team in the SEC championship game. As a bonus, the winning representative will also get unlimited Chick-fil-A during its stay in Atlanta.

(Supplying unlimited amounts of food from The Varsity would leave the team sluggish and bloated before the big game, so we went lighter.)

Without further adieu, here are my East and West all-stars:

EAST

OFFENSE


QB - Aaron Murray, Georgia, So.
RB - Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina, So.
RB - Tauren Poole, Tennessee, Sr.
WR - Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina, Jr.
WR - Justin Hunter, Tennessee, So.
TE - Orson Charles, Georgia, Jr.
C - Ben Jones, Georgia, Sr.
OL - Cordy Glenn, Georgia, Sr.
OL - Larry Warford, Kentucky, Jr.
OL - Ja'Wuan James, Tennessee, So.
OL - Rokevious Watkins, South Carolina, Sr.

DEFENSE

DE - Devin Taylor, South Carolina, Jr.
DE - Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, Sr.
DT - Jaye Howard, Florida, Sr.
DT - Malik Jackson, Tennessee, Sr.
LB - Danny Trevathan, Kentucky, Sr.
LB - Chris Marve, Vanderbilt, Sr.
LB - Ronald Powell, Florida, So.
CB - Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina, Jr.
CB - Casey Howard, Vanderbilt, Sr.
S - Janzen Jackson, Tennessee, Jr. (consider this like the wacky fan vote because he has yet to return to the team)
S - D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina, Jr.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K - Blair Walsh, Georgia, Sr.
P - Drew Butler, Georgia, Sr.
RET - Andre Debose, Florida, So.

WEST

OFFENSE

QB - Tyler Wilson, Arkansas, Jr.
RB - Trent Richardson, Alabama, Jr.
RB - Knile Davis, Arkansas, Jr.
WR - Greg Childs, Arkansas, Sr.
WR - Joe Adams, Arkansas, Sr.
TE - Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn, Jr.
C - William Vlachos, Alabama, Sr.
OL - Barrett Jones, Alabama, Jr.
OL - Bradley Sowell, Ole Miss, Sr.
OL - Josh Dworaczyk, LSU, Sr.
OL - Brandon Mosely, Auburn, Sr.

DEFENSE

DE - Jake Bequette, Arkansas, Sr.
DE - Kentrell Lockett, Ole Miss, Sr.
DT - Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State, Jr.
DT - Josh Chapman, Alabama, Sr.
LB - Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, Jr.
LB - Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, Sr.
LB - Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, Sr.
CB - Morris Claiborne, LSU, Jr.
CB - Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama, Jr.
S - Mark Barron, Alabama, Sr.
S - Tramain Thomas, Arkansas, Sr.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K - Zach Hocker, Arkansas, So.
P - Tyler Campbell, Ole Miss, Jr.
RET - Joe Adams, Arkansas, Sr.

Coaching 'em up: Alabama

June, 27, 2011
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Over the next couple of weeks, we're going to highlight one assistant coach daily on all 12 SEC teams.

In this particular case, it's a coach who has his work cut out for the 2011 season. Maybe he's new to the scene, or maybe the position he's coaching will be extremely inexperienced in 2011. Then again, it could be that the position he's coaching holds the key to that team's success in 2011.

One way or the other, the spotlight will be on him and his players this coming season.

We'll start with Alabama.

Coach: Chris Rumph

Position: Defensive line

Experience: First season on Alabama's staff. Rumph spent the previous five seasons as the defensive ends coach at Clemson. He was hired to replace Bo Davis, who left to take a job on the Texas staff. Rumph also served stints on the Memphis and South Carolina State staffs.

Of note: Played his college football at South Carolina and was a linebacker for the Gamecocks from 1991-94. ... Among his star pupils at Clemson were Da'Quan Bowers and Phillip Merling. ... One of the top recruiters in the ACC over the past few years.

His challenge: Alabama's defense appears poised to return to the kind of dominant unit that paved the way for the Crimson Tide's run to the 2009 national championship. The linebacker corps is loaded with future NFL talent, and the talent and depth in the secondary isn't too far behind, especially with some of the younger players back there having had a chance to mature a year ago. With Marcell Dareus leaving early for the NFL, Alabama doesn't return a proven difference-maker up front. Senior nose guard Josh Chapman is solid, and junior end Damion Square has proven in the past that he can get after the passer. He should only be better in 2011 now that he's two years removed from a torn ACL. Generating a more consistent pass rush will be a priority for Alabama this coming season, and a big part of that will hinge on getting a better push from the defensive line. The departure of Dareus opens the door for some of Alabama's younger players to step up, guys like Darrington Sentimore and Ed Stinson. How quickly junior college newcomers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial develop will also be critical to the Tide's success up front. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Williams has the size and physical tools to be a dominant nose guard. It's up to Rumph to help get him there.
We take a look at the interior players on the defensive line next. The frightening thing about this area is that there is a lot of young talent that could be just as good as the veterans around the league.

That just goes to show you how good the recruiting is in this league. There are a couple of junior college players who could also make instant impacts on SEC lines in this league.

Here’s a look at some of the big fellas in the middle:

1. Jaye Howard, Florida, Sr.: Howard has never wowed people with his stats, but when he’s playing to his potential, he’s one of the toughest interior linemen to stop in this league. The athletic 300-plus-pounder is already a top NFL draft prospect at tackle. He had just 29 tackles and three sacks in 2010, but would have added to that had he not suffered a nagging ankle injury. He had his ankle cleaned out this spring and should be back to full strength for two-a-days.

2. Malik Jackson, Tennessee, Sr.: Jackson will be the center of attention on Tennessee’s line. He’s not only talented but he makes those around him better, and the Vols’ line should greatly improve around him. Jackson had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago after transferring from USC and making the switch from end to tackle.

3. Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State, Jr.: Cox started four games as a freshman and was a staple on the defensive front last season for the Bulldogs. He managed 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks and improved even more during the spring. Cox had a solid spring and looks to be even more of a force in the middle this fall.

4. John Jenkins, Georgia, Jr.: Jenkins has resided in the JUCO world for the past two years, but he arrives at Georgia as someone expected to have a profound influence on the Bulldogs’ defense. He’s perfect for Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense and will be immediately thrown into the noseguard battle. At 6-foot-4, 340 pounds, Jenkins will be a player who stuffs the run and collapses the pocket.

5. Josh Chapman, Alabama, Sr.: He’s the anchor on the line and started 12 games a year ago after backing up and learning a lot from Terrence Cody in 2009. He’s not as big, but he’s more athletic than Cody and improved his strength this spring. Chapman enters the fall as the Tide’s most-experienced lineman.

6. Travian Robertson, South Carolina, Sr.: Robertson returned in 2010 after a season-ending knee injury cost him most of 2009. All Robertson did was record 42 tackles, including 10 for loss and four sacks. He’s become more of a leader on defense and should improve on his solid numbers from a year ago.

7. Josh Boyd, Mississippi State, Jr.: Boyd is the second part of Mississippi State’s talented duo in the middle. He was right behind Cox with 24 tackles and also had 2.5 sacks. Boyd has been a tremendous player since his freshman year and seemed to grow even more throughout the spring.

8. Sharrif Floyd, Florida, So.: Floyd was the most consistent of Florida’s much-heralded freshmen defensive linemen last season. The thing is that he could have been even better, but it took him some time to adjust to the college game. He’ll battle for time at noseguard when Florida is in the 3-4 and will be a regular on the line when the Gators go back to the 4-3.

9. Ego Ferguson, LSU, Fr.: He redshirted last season, but people on the Bayou expect him to be a big-time player this fall. He has tremendous size and strength and should be an excellent run-stopper in the middle. His spot in the middle hasn’t been guaranteed, but it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup.

10. Robert Thomas, Arkansas, So.: Sure, Thomas has yet to play a down of SEC football, but coach Bobby Petrino said this spring that Thomas might be the most-talented player in the middle for the Hogs. Thomas had 48 tackles, including 15 for loss, and 4.5 sacks as a JUCO standout last year. The coaches gushed over his athleticism after he took advantage of the reps he got with Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones injured this spring.

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