SEC: Justin Garrett

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AUBURN, Ala. – Robenson Therezie wasn’t expected to play Saturday. He was “working through some eligibility issues” as Gus Malzahn put it during fall camp, and his name didn’t even show up on the two-deep depth chart released last Tuesday.

This is the same player who was named Auburn’s defensive MVP last year after he led the team in interceptions (four) and finished sixth in tackles (57).

But both Therezie and the Tigers received good news Friday when he was cleared to play, less than 24 hours before the Arkansas game.

The senior didn’t start, giving way to Justin Garrett at the Star position, but he was on special teams early on and played sparingly in the second quarter. After a lackluster performance from the defense in the first half, the coaches turned to him after halftime, and to nobody’s surprise, he made a pair of game-changing plays.

“He’s a playmaker,” Malzhan said after the game. “Last year he was a playmaker, and he made a big play tonight.”

Late in the third quarter with Auburn leading 28-21, Therezie blitzed and hit quarterback Brandon Allen just as he let go of the ball. The errant pass was intercepted by Jermaine Whitehead and returned for a touchdown, but the play started with Therezie wreaking havoc in the backfield.

“I think the big swing was when BA [Allen] got hit as he was throwing the ball there,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema told reporters in his postgame news conference.

On the very next drive, Therezie nearly caused another turnover when he popped running back Jonathan Williams in the flat, jarring the ball loose. Williams would recover, but the Razorbacks lost 3 yards on the play.

“He’s a freak,” Whitehead said. “He does a lot for the team. With all the experience he got last year, he feels a lot more comfortable. He’s got some big football left, and I can’t wait to see him play. With him and Justin together, it’s going to be a lot of trouble for somebody.”

There’s no word yet as to whether Garrett or Therezie will start this coming Saturday against San Jose State, but with the latter now eligible, it’s safe to assume that Therezie’s name will at least be on the two-deep depth chart for this week.

“We found out [Friday] he’s eligible,” Malzahn said. “That’s really all I’m going to say about that out of respect for him, but that’s a good thing moving forward.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

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Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.

Midseason report: Auburn

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Of the four first-year head coaches in the SEC, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is having the best season to this point. His Tigers are 5-1, ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2011 and coming off a game where they set a school record with 712 yards of total offense against Western Carolina.

Auburn certainly looks to be ahead of schedule with their rebuilding efforts.

The offense has thrived under Malzahn. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing at 287 yards per game. Their trio of running backs -- Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant -- have all rushed for over 100 yards in at least one game this season. Even quarterback Nick Marshall reached the century mark with 100 yards rushing against Ole Miss.

Meanwhile, the defense has also shown signs of improvement. Although they’ve given up plenty of yards, the Tigers are ranked in the top half of the league in scoring defense. They have been solid in the red zone, and they’re making plays in critical situations.

The road ahead is not an easy one. Three of the Tigers’ next four games are on the road, including Saturday’s matchup with No. 7 Texas A&M. They finish the year with back-to-back home games against Georgia and Alabama. However, the Tigers are just one win away from bowl eligibility, a monumental step for a team who had just three wins a season ago.

Offensive MVP: C Reese Dismukes

When you lead the SEC in both rushing yards and fewest sacks allowed, it says something about your offensive line. For Auburn, Dismukes is the leader of that group. He also claims he leads his fellow offensive linemen with over 60 knockdowns this season, the only stat they keep track of on the line, but his impact goes far beyond the numbers. Every play starts with him, so if the offense falters, it’s on him. If they execute, that’s on him, too. Through six games, it’s safe to say Dismukes has helped trigger a lot of positive plays.

Defensive MVP: DB Robenson Therezie

Therezie wasn’t even a starter coming out of fall camp. The only reason he started the season opener was because of an injury to Justin Garrett, but he took full advantage of the opportunity. Therezie finished with seven tackles and two interceptions against Washington State, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Since that game, he’s found a permanent home at the Star position for the Tigers. He leads the team in both tackles (28) and interceptions (3), and he made a critical pick-six in Auburn’s 30-22 win over Ole Miss.
Auburn defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker will not return to the field this season and will receive a medical redshirt, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday.

Whitaker started the last two seasons for the Tigers and was expected to be an anchor on the defensive line this year before he underwent surgery on his right knee during fall camp. The senior was working his way back but will now wait and return in 2014.

"Jeff has been playing banged up the last year or so anyway," Malzahn said. "I think it will be good for him to be healthy. That is our goal -- to get him healthy for next year and have a chance to have his best season."

In 35 appearances with Auburn, Whitaker had 44 tackles, three for a loss, and a forced fumble.

The staff recently moved Nosa Eguae from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he joins a rotation that includes two-year starter Gabe Wright, junior college transfer Ben Bradley and true freshman Montravius Adams.

Malzahn also announced on Tuesday that linebacker Justin Garrett will not play this weekend because of a foot injury. He has already missed three games this season, and the Auburn coach said Garrett will be "week-to-week" going forward.

On a more positive note, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy returned to practice Tuesday after suffering a neck injury over the weekend. He had to be carted off the field.

"That was a scary deal, and it looks like it is going to turn out good," Malzahn said.

The Tigers will host Western Carolina on Saturday at 1 p.m. CT.

Auburn uses open week to get healthy

September, 26, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn has played four games under new coach Gus Malzahn, and although the Tigers are coming off a loss to LSU, the results have been fairly positive. They started 3-0, won their first conference game in nearly two years and stayed competitive in Death Valley.

With no game this weekend, the Tigers are planning for the future.

“The open date comes at a very good time for our team,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got four games under our belt for our coaches to evaluate our personnel, see where we’re at as a team and plan moving forward for the rest of the year to put our guys in the best place to be successful.”

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
AP Photo/Dave MartinDee Ford is slowly rounding back into form after recovering from an MCL injury.
But more importantly, the week off gives Auburn a chance to get healthy.

“I don’t think I’ve been around a team that had that many (injuries) this early and to main impact players,” Malzahn said. “Defensively, we’ve been playing without a lot of our impact players, and even when we get them back, they’re not quite 100 percent yet. But they’re getting there.”

Both Dee Ford and Justin Garrett missed the first two games due to injury but returned against Mississippi State. Ford, the team’s top pass rusher, sprained his MCL in fall camp but is slowly working his way back. Garrett sprained his foot in camp and has since moved positions from the Star to weakside linebacker.

Against LSU, Auburn was without cornerback Chris Davis and defensive end Craig Sanders as both players suffered ankle injuries prior to the game. Davis led the Tigers with 10 tackles against Arkansas State in week two and also serves as the team’s primary punt returner.

Additionally, running back Corey Grant, defensive back Robenson Therezie and linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy all missed time or were limited against LSU.

Needless to say, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Auburn.

“That may be the biggest blessing of the off week that we have a chance to get some of our guys healed up,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got guys that weren’t 100 percent that played anyway last week, so hopefully this week will help them get back to 100 percent. And the guys that haven’t played, we’ll have a chance to have two weeks before our next game and have a chance to get one of those guys back on the field.”

Defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker is among those who have yet to play this season, but his status is a little more in question. The two-year starter suffered a knee injury in fall camp that required surgery, and the coaching staff said they plan to make a decision on his future in the coming weeks.

The team also confirmed this week that wide receiver Jaylon Denson would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

“To lose a guy like Jaylon Denson is a huge blow, but it creates opportunities for other people,” Malzahn said. “The good thing is for the future we’re playing a whole bunch of young guys. That will do nothing but helps us for the future.”

Next up for Auburn is a home game with Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 5.

Instant analysis: Auburn 31, WSU 24

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AUBURN, Ala. -- It wasn't easy, but Auburn used big plays in the first half and key stops in the second half to earn a victory over Washington State in Gus Malzahn's debut as head coach Saturday.

It was over when: Washington State had a chance in the final minutes to tie the game, but on fourth-and-5 from the Auburn 25, Connor Halliday's pass fell incomplete. The Tigers got the ball back, picked up a first down and put the game away.

Game ball goes to: In an unexpected lineup change, Robenson Therezie filled in at the star position for Justin Garrett. He turned out to be the star of the game, literally. Therezie pulled down two interceptions, including one late that killed a Washington State drive.

Stat of the game: Last year, Auburn finished the season with two interceptions. The Tigers matched that number in the first quarter alone. Add the late pick by Therezie, and they finished with three interceptions in the game.

Unsung hero: Running back Corey Grant wasn't even listed on the depth chart before Saturday's game. That likely will change. The former Alabama transfer ran wild against Washington State, finishing with 146 yards on nine carries and a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

What it means for Auburn: It might not have been as convincing as the fans would've liked, but a win is a win, and Auburn already is off to a better start than last year. There were a lot of positives to take away, but there also were a lot of needs to address going forward. Either way, the Tigers are 1-0 under Gus Malzahn.

What it means for Washington State: Even though the Cougars have to fly back home with a loss, they looked much improved from a year ago and battled right down to the end. Halliday finished 35 of 63 for 344 yards and a touchdown, and the offense as a whole racked up 464 yards against Auburn.

Auburn season preview

August, 15, 2013
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Today we're looking at Auburn, as the Tigers look to get back to being competitive in the SEC West with the return of Gus Malzahn.

Coach: Gus Malzahn (9-3 overall, 0-0 at Auburn)

2012 record: 3-9, 0-8 SEC

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/US PresswireGus Malzahn and Auburn will be counting on big production from running back Tre Mason this season.
Key losses: RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, DE Corey Lemonier, LB Daren Bates

Key returners: RB Tre Mason, OT Greg Robinson, C Reese Dismukes, WR Ricardo Louis, DE Dee Ford, DT Angelo Blackson, CB Chris Davis, S Demetruce McNeal

Newcomer to watch: Freshman defensive end Carl Lawson has impressed the staff since stepping on campus and has the tools to help improve Auburn's pass rush this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Washington State, Aug. 31; Mississippi State, Sept. 14; Ole Miss, Oct. 5; at Arkansas, Nov. 2; at Tennessee, Nov. 9

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: With the news that Kiehl Frazier is moving to safety, Auburn's quarterback battle is down to three players. Right now, it looks like newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson are pulling ahead of sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who started the final four games for Auburn last season. Marshall and Johnson have been very impressive this fall and split first-team reps during Tuesday's scrimmage. Regardless of who starts, Malzahn will have his eighth different starting quarterback in eight years.

Forecast: Auburn returns a handful of starters on both sides of the ball, but neither side was very good at all last season. Auburn ranked last in the SEC in total offense and 13th in total defense. Auburn barely scored 18 points per game and allowed nearly 30. All of that has to change in 2013, and with Malzahn back on the Plains, many believe it will.

Offensively, with the return of the spread offense, the Tigers will no longer be trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The Tigers had spread players last season, but were running a very uncomfortable pro-style attack that drastically set the offense back. While this team still has to figure out who its starting quarterback will be, the offense will likely revolve around running back Tre Mason, who was Auburn's only offensive weapon last season, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He can be a downhill threat and has the ability to make plays in space.

A solid offensive line returns, but the Tigers are still looking for more consistency at receiver. The hope is that former big-time recruit Ricardo Louis' big spring translates to the fall, and that Quan Bray and Trovon Reed reach their big-play potential.

Defensively, coordinator Ellis Johnson wants a much more aggressive unit with his 4-2-5 scheme and might have budding stars in "Star" Justin Garrett and cornerback Chris Davis. There is talent up front, but the defensive line has to be much more disruptive this fall, and the secondary can't allow the big plays that crippled it in 2012.

There's no question that Auburn has the talent to return to a bowl game, but it's all about development. The Tigers just didn't have it during the last two years of the Gene Chizik era, but Malzhan and Co. have made it a priority. Johnson should have the defense in much better shape, while an improved offense will be a major reason why the Tigers return to the postseason in 2013.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 12, 2013
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Here’s some required SEC reading to help get you through the rest of your Monday.
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.

Video: Auburn Tigers' X factor

June, 27, 2013
6/27/13
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Safety/linebacker Justin Garrett is Auburn's X factor for the 2013 season.
We saw a lot of bright spots all over the SEC this spring. And things were pretty close when we asked our readers who was the league's biggest star this spring.

With more than 5,500 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Tennessee senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp narrowly beat Georgia freshman safety Tray Matthews by grabbing 29 percent of the vote, compared to Matthews' 28 percent.

Sapp didn't enter the spring with a lot of experience (he has only made two career starts), but he really impressed his new coaching staff. With the Vols moving back to a 4-3 defensive scheme, Sapp was Tennessee's most consistent defender this spring. And that was really important to this team because Curt Maggit was out for the spring, recovering from his ACL injury from the fall. Sapp might have locked up a starting spot.

Matthews had a tremendous spring as well. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham lit up when I talked to him back in March about Matthews' development this spring. He'll start at one of the safety spots this fall. Remember, he should still be in high school. He has the speed and athleticism to make plays all over the field for the Bulldogs.

LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry had a big spring with the Tigers and captured 16 percent of the vote. He might have proved that he can be the go-to, big-play receiver in this offense.

Auburn junior Justin Garrett grabbed 14 percent of the vote, while Florida running back Matt Jones earned 13 percent. Garrett really impressed the Tigers' new coaching staff at Ellis Johnson's coveted "Star" hybrid position. Garrett seems ready for more responsibility to be thrown his way.

Jones really impressed his coaching staff this spring. He's become a more physical back and picked up the playbook faster than anyone expected. His teammates were raving about his speed and strength all spring.

Auburn Tigers spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
10:30
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2012 record: 3-9
2012 conference record: 0-8
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Tre Mason, C Reese Dismukes, DE Dee Ford, DT Angelo Blackson, CB Chris Davis, S Demetruce McNeal

Key losses

RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, DE Corey Lemonier, LB Daren Bates

2012 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Tre Mason* (1,002 yards)
Passing: Kiehl Frazier* (753 yards)
Receiving: Emory Blake (789 yards)
Tackles: Daren Bates (94)
Sacks: Dee Ford* (6)
Interceptions: Daren Bates, Trent Fisher* (1)

Spring answers

1. Getting defensive: Veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson implemented his 4-2-5 scheme this spring, and the early returns were promising. The real test will come in the fall, but there’s every reason to believe the Tigers will be significantly better on defense in 2013 after finishing 13th in the league in total defense a year ago. There’s depth up front. Senior end Dee Ford had a terrific spring, and Johnson likes the way his cornerbacks, led by senior Chris Davis, lock down on receivers.

2. Garrett emerges: One of the most pleasant surprises of the spring for the Tigers was junior Justin Garrett’s emergence at the “Star” position. Garrett had not done a lot previously as a linebacker, but possessed the combination of size and speed to slide into that hybrid linebacker/safety role that’s become a staple of Johnson’s defenses. The 6-1, 214-pound Garrett can cover well enough to match up in the slot, but also has the muscle to hold up in run support.

3. Catching on: There really hasn’t been a vertical passing game to speak of on the Plains for the last two seasons. But this group of receivers provided new hope this spring. Sophomore Ricardo Louis could be on the verge of a breakout season. Junior Jaylon Denson flew in under the radar and impressed with his consistency this spring, while juniors Quan Bray and Trovon Reed and sophomore Sammie Coates all have big-play potential.

Fall questions

1. Settling on a quarterback: It was a struggle at quarterback the whole way last season with true freshman Jonathan Wallace finishing up as the starter. Now, the spring has come and gone under new coach Gus Malzahn, and the Tigers are still not sure who their quarterback will be in the fall. Kiehl Frazier and Wallace are locked in a dead heat. They combined to throw six touchdown passes and 12 interceptions last season. Newcomer Nick Marshall, who played defensive back at Georgia, might have a chance to get into the mix when he arrives this summer.

2. Adjusting to the pace: Auburn spent much of spring practice getting used to Malzahn’s dizzying pace on offense. There’s no such thing as playing too fast in Malzahn’s world, and it takes some getting used to. He wants to play even faster than the Tigers did when he was the offensive coordinator from 2009-11. Settling on the right quarterback will be a big part of that, but equally important will be settling on the right five offensive linemen and making sure they’re in tune both physically and mentally with Malzhan’s hurry-up approach.

3. Rising from the ashes: Malzahn has said repeatedly that the Tigers are moving on and not rehashing what did or didn’t happen last season when they failed to win a game in the SEC and completely tanked at the end of the season. Those kind of collapses are hard to get out of your mind, even with an entirely new coaching staff onboard. Five of the first six games are at home, which could come in handy. It will be interesting to see how the Tigers respond when they hit their first patch of adversity.

Edward Aschoff talks about Auburn linebacker/safety Justin Garrett coming out of spring.
Spring stars can break your heart.

Sometimes, guys look like All-SEC material during spring practice and then don't do much of anything during the season.

Other times, we get a glimpse of what's to come during the spring, guys who tear it up during spring practice and then ride that momentum into big falls.

SportsNation

Who was the biggest star of the spring in the SEC?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    27%
  •  
    30%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,683)

We've come up with five players who had excellent springs this year, and we're going to leave it up to you the fans to pick who was the biggest spring star by voting in our SportsNation poll.

It's a good mix of players.

Georgia's Tray Matthews is only a true freshman who enrolled early. He played well enough this spring (and handed out enough bone-crunching licks) that he enters preseason camp as one of the starters at safety.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp. A senior with just two career starts, Sapp was the Vols' most consistent defender this spring, and first-year coach Butch Jones couldn't say enough good things about the way Sapp performed.

Florida thinks it's found its go-to running back in sophomore Matt Jones. LSU junior receiver Jarvis Landry caught everything in sight this spring and put up big numbers, while Auburn junior Justin Garrett found a home in Ellis Johnson's new 4-2-5 defense at the hybrid "star" position, which is part linebacker and part safety.

Go ahead and start voting, and we'll unveil your pick as the SEC's biggest spring star in the coming days.

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