SEC: Lerentee McCray

Lunchtime links

April, 29, 2013
Quite the NFL draft for the SEC ...

Top SEC players who didn't get drafted

April, 29, 2013
Among the SEC players who didn't get drafted were Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Arkansas guard Alvin Bailey, Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb, Mississippi State receiver Chad Bumphis and Alabama safety Robert Lester.

Bray was the most surprising because of his big arm and ability to throw the football, although there were serious questions among NFL scouts about his football smarts, maturity and work ethic.

Here's a list of some of the more high-profile players in the SEC who didn't get drafted. If they agreed to a free-agent deal, that team is listed in parentheses:
After physical games over the weekend, Alabama and Florida are hurting a bit heading into Saturday.

The sixth-ranked Gators (8-1, 7-1 SEC) could be missing a handful of players against Louisiana-Lafayette, while No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0) is hoping running back Eddie Lacy and wide receiver Amari Cooper are 100 percent for Saturday's showdown with 15th-ranked Texas A&M (7-2, 4-2).

Alabama's injuries aren't too significant. Both Cooper and Lacy suffered ankle injuries in last week's win over LSU, but both practiced on Tuesday.

"Amari seems to be getting better and Eddie's, you know, hopefully he'll be even better today," coach Nick Saban said during Wednesday's SEC coaches call. "He probably took about half the reps yesterday. We're optimistic that both those guys will be ready to go."

Having freshman T.J. Yeldon helps take some of the pressure off Lacy, and if he were hobbled this weekend, Yeldon would have no issues taking the bulk of the carries (he's had no issue doing it before), but if Cooper isn't 100 percent the Tide could lose an important part of its passing game. Cooper is Alabama's best deep threat and has been the team's most consistent receiver. He leads Alabama Tide with 32 catches, 472 yards and five touchdowns.

The Gators are hurting a little more. Coach Will Muschamp said on Wednesday that backup running back Mack Brown will "probably be out" with an ankle injury and hasn't been able to do anything in practice this week. Wide receiver Andre Debose hyperextended his knee last Thursday and could miss his second straight game. Also, defensive tackle Leon Orr has been working his way back from an illness and "probably will not play Saturday."

Florida left the Missouri game with a laundry list of battered Gators: K Caleb Sturgis (ankle injury suffered in last week's practice), OG James Wilson (knee), OT Xavier Nixon (knee), LB/DE Lerentee McCray (ankle), OG Jon Halapio (undisclosed), FB Hunter Joyer (knee) and S Matt Elam (groin).

On Wednesday, Muschamp said he expects players back from Saturday's injuries. Expect to see a lot more of Florida's younger players this week and next, as the Gators play tune-up games before traveling to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on archrival Florida State.
Lerentee McCray has been through and seen a lot during his long Florida career.

The fifth-year senior linebacker/defensive end has seen the highs of winning a national championship and the lows of the school’s first losing record in conference play since the 1980s.

As he prepares to suit up for his final season in Gainesville, McCray wants to be a major component in what he hopes is a revival for the program in 2012.

“Whatever it takes to win, I’m ready to do it,” McCray said.

He’ll certainly get his chance, as he fills in for the injured and ever-popular Ronald Powell at the Buck position. Powell, who was the nation’s top recruit two years ago, had his best spring as a Gator this year before suffering an ACL injury during the spring game that should keep him out for most of the fall. While McCray missed all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Florida’s coaches didn’t hesitate to name him as Powell’s replacement.

[+] EnlargeLerentee McCray
Kim Klement/US PresswireFifth-year senior Lerentee McCray is in line for more playing time this fall.
And why would they? McCray is basically a bona fide hybrid. He began his career as an outside linebacker, but has since moved back and forth between linebacker and defensive end. He even got some action at Buck last year when Powell went down with an injury against Auburn.

He doesn’t have the name or hype Powell does, but McCray might have a little more fire and hunger, considering the up-and-down career he’s had in his four-plus years at Florida.

The former U.S. Army All-American participant and ESPN 150 member made the 50-plus-mile journey from Dunnellon, Fla., to Gainesville with lofty expectations. Along with just about everyone in his hometown, McCray expected to immediately compete for a starting spot and certainly expected a healthy amount of playing time as a freshman. But things didn’t exactly work out, as the 202-pound frosh played in just eight games, mostly on special teams, during the Gators’ national championship run. He played in just three games in 2009, receiving a medical redshirt.

Even with frustration mounting, McCray took time to learn from veteran playmakers such as Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper and Jermaine Cunningham. Sitting and watching motivated him and created a fierier attitude when it came to working out and practice.

But to make the kind of impact he wanted, McCray had to get bigger, so he was placed in Florida’s famed “Breakfast Club” where he turned into a real eater, inhaling as much steak, lobster and shrimp as he could during team feeding hours.

“I wasn’t a big eater before I got here, but they made me eat,” said McCray, who is at a comfortable 253 pounds that he hopes to maintain this fall.

Now that McCray has the will and the size, he’s looking to make a statement. He’s enjoyed a national championship and has seen Florida defenses rack up accolades, but he feels empty knowing he hasn’t been a tremendous help to his team yet.

“It’s been a high and low experience,” McCray said. “That’s life.”

That could change this fall, as McCray, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list, sees his role increase. He’s only appeared in 30 career games with just five starts, but had his best season yet in 2011, recording 24 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, giving coach Will Muschamp the impression that McCray could shine in 2012.

“I’m expecting a big year out of him,” Muschamp said. “I really am.”

Senior linebacker Jon Bostic feels the same way, but he’s always expected McCray to be a star. The first sign was during his freshman year, when Bostic recalls watching a scrawny McCray consistently put offensive linemen on their backs in practice.

“Regardless of what weight he was, he wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Bostic said. “He’s one of those hard-nosed guys that’s going to run right down the middle at people.

“He makes somebody feel the pain before he does.”

McCray hopes to inflict even more pain this fall. And he isn’t concerned about any added pressure that will come with replacing Powell, who led Florida in sacks last year. He embraces the test and plans to finally make a name for himself.

“I’m a person who likes to take on challenges,” he said. “I came from the bottom. I’d like to get to the top. That’s what I’m looking to achieve, so I really don’t feel any pressure because I’m already the underdog.”
HOOVER, Ala. -- Now that another year of SEC media days are through, it's time to take a look back at the best moments from this year's three days in the Wynfrey Hotel:

Best interview: Yes, Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe had a pretty good time with the media in Hoover and Arkansas coach John L. Smith seemed to win over the main ballroom during his press conference, but the best interview of the week had to go to Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. The veteran strolled right into our interview room munching on pecan pie bites without a care in the world. But the real magic came during his video interview where he playfully crushed his best friend and former teammate William Vlachos and gave fellow SEC blogger Chris Low a shout out during his hit. Jones came prepared and knew how to have fun.

[+] EnlargeDonte Moncrief
Butch Dill/AP PhotoOle Miss WR Donte Moncrief dresses to the nines for his appearance at SEC media days.
Best quote: There were so many good one-liners from Moe that we're giving you our top three from the week:

  • Moe on what's different about the SEC: “They say girls are prettier here, air’s fresher and toilet paper is thicker.” -- Offensive lineman Elvis Fisher later told us that this line was planned after a conversation during the trip over.
  • But Moe wasn't done there: "Apparently Ryan Swope is a god because he can come in and get first-team all-SEC. But that’s fine.”
  • And this one really got to Arkansas running back Knile Davis: “In the Big 12, we put our best athletes on offense. [In the SEC], they put their best athletes on defense."
Best outfit: The players came out and dressed well this week, like Auburn's Corey Lemonier and bow tie and red-striped socks and Vanderbilt's Trey Wilson in his slick charcoal suit with the black checkered shirt and red tie. But Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief stole the show with his colorful outfit. He rocked a light beige jacket over a checkered mint shirt and a blue bow tie. He was also equipped with salmon pants and a bright pink pocket square. The man dresses with confidence.

Best moment: Davis was as cool and relaxed as ever during his time in Hoover. He had no problem proclaiming that he still was the league's best running back, but the best moment came when he was leaving our room. As Davis headed toward the door, Chris asked him if he still thought he was the best and Davis replied with a smile, "Still the best and tell Marcus [Lattimore] I'm coming for him."

Best interviewer: We paled in comparison to the journalistic skills of Mississippi State offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, who took some time to interview Chris on camera. Chris looked like a deer in headlights when Jackson started firing hard-hitting questions and then asked him to name as many dog breeds as he could in 10 seconds. The tongue-tied Chris didn't even mention bulldog.

Most improved: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has had a very up-and-down college career, but he walked right into media days without a nervous fiber in his body. He's known to boast a little about his talents and had every opportunity to once again, but didn't. He was very humble and praised his teammates before even mentioning his ability. Plus, he handled questions about his past at Georgia like a pro.

Most confident: We're naming our top four here:

  • Moe: He's sick of hearing about transitioning over to the SEC and he let everyone know about it.
  • Davis: No hesitation in claiming he's the SEC's best running back.
  • Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray: He doesn't talk much, but he made the statement that Tennessee will win the SEC this season. That's pretty gutsy.
  • Florida running back Mike Gillislee: His goal for the season: 1,500 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ciatrick Fason in 2004 and 24 rushing touchdowns would break Tim Tebow's record of 23.
Best hair: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones had his hair braided in a very creative, funky way and it looked clean. It also took three and a half hours to do.

Coming out of his shell: Florida outside linebacker/defensive end Lerentee McCray is pretty soft-spoken and can be shy around the media, but not in Hoover. He was talkative and showed a little confidence when he said his favorite part of football is hitting the quarterback so he can "wipe the smiles off their faces."

GatorNation links: At SEC media days

July, 18, 2012
Michael DiRocco writes: Mike Gillislee has never started a game, rushed for 100 yards in a game, or carried the ball more than 59 times in a season. But the senior running back is convinced he’s about to turn in one of the greatest seasons by a running back in Florida football history.

DiRocco writes: Florida coach Will Muschamp is able to do something that a lot of college football coaches can't -- laugh at himself. Muschamp did a lot of that when he saw the video that College Station, Texas, mayor Nancy Berry did in response to a comment Muschamp made about playing at Texas A&M.

DiRocco writes: Muschamp maintains his belief that buck linebacker Ronald Powell will get on the field in 2012 despite suffering a torn ACL during the Gators’ spring game.

Video: Muschamp talks with Mark Schlabach about having one of the strongest defenses in the league, but knowing Florida must rely on offense to carry the load this year.

Chris Low writes: Muschamp made it clear Wednesday that he's a fan of keeping the annual Florida-Georgia clash in Jacksonville every year.

DiRocco writes: The decision of Florida tight end A.C. Leonard to transfer will hurt. Redshirt junior Jordan Reed is the only tight end remaining on the roster who has caught a pass in college.

Video: Edward Aschoff talks with Florida defensive end/linebacker Lerentee McCray during Day 2 of SEC media days.

Video: Florida DE Lerentee McCray

July, 18, 2012

Edward Aschoff talks with Florida defensive end Lerentee McCray at Day 2 of SEC media days.

One good reason: Florida

July, 17, 2012
We continue our "One good reason" series looking at the Florida Gators.

Good reasons:
Let's see what the Gators could have in store for 2012:

Florida will win the SEC Eastern Division: The Gators' defense is stacked.

We all know that defense wins championships, and Will Muschamp has a group that could be one of the country's elite defensive units this fall. Led by All-SEC safety Matt Elam, the Gators return 10 starters from last year's squad. Buck Ronald Powell, who had an exceptional spring, could miss most of the season after suffering an ACL injury during the spring game, but the staff is confident that senior Lerentee McCray will fill in nicely in Powell's absence. Even without Powell, Florida's front seven is stacked. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley should be healthy after his ACL injury in last year's season finale, and Sharrif Floyd will be at his more natural position of tackle much more this fall. Veteran tackle Omar Hunter is back and junior college transfer Damien Jacobs had a solid spring at tackle.

The linebackers are experienced, starting with All-SEC candidates Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and rookie Antonio Morrison was a real spark for the defense this spring. The secondary should be decent as well, with sophomore Marcus Roberson back after a solid freshman season. Fellow sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy could be a budding star.

This unit finished the season ranked eighth in total defense and still didn't play up to its full potential. Muschamp came out of spring more excited and happier with his defense, which wasn't even at full strength. If the Gators can cut down on the mental mistakes and play with more attitude, this defense will be even better in 2012 and will be tough for East's top offenses to beat.

Why it won't: The offense is just too unproven.

While the defense is equipped with plenty of star power, the offense is lacking ... considerably. The players seem to be pretty excited about new offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and not much will change from Charlie Weis' offensive scheme, but the pieces in place are very unproven. Florida will throw out two sophomore quarterbacks -- Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel -- who struggled in relief last year. At this point, neither has separated himself from the other in the race for the starting spot. Chance are that both will play this fall, but finding consistent throwing targets is concerning. The Gators have talent at wide receiver, but it's either unproven or inconsistent. Andre Debose has shown flashes of being a solid playmaker, but he's had a tendency to fade away during games. Quinton Dunbar was supposed to break out last year, but caught just 14 passes. And Frankie Hammond Jr. just hasn't turned the corner like the coaches have wanted. Tight end Jordan Reed could be the answer, but he has to stay more focused on the field.

At running back, Mike Gillislee gives the Gators their first true downhill threat since Tim Tebow, but he's been inconsistent when given his chances. Redshirt sophomore Mack Brown has barely done anything and Omarius Hines is moving from tight end. The offensive line has struggled mightily for the past two seasons, but the staff feels it made considerable strides this spring.

Florida was 105th in total offense last year, 89th in passing, 73rd in rushing and lacked toughness across the board. Most of the components from that unit return, so a lot of pressure is on this group to improve in Muschamp's second year.
Florida's football team got some very good news Friday.

A little more than a year after an arteriovenous malformation was found on linebacker Neiron Ball's brain, forcing him to miss all of the 2011 season, the sophomore linebacker was medically cleared to play this fall.

The 6-foot-2, 222-pound Ball played in all 13 of Florida's games in 2010, mainly on special teams, and registered 10 tackles. Ball started working out and running again this spring.

Ball will compete at the weakside linebacker spot behind Jelani Jenkins with freshmen Antonio Morrison and Jeremi Powell. Coach Will Muschamp said during the 2012 SEC spring meetings that if Ball were to return to Florida's football team, he could also get some work at the Buck position with Lerentee McCray and Gideon Ajagbe, since starter Ronald Powell is still questionable for the 2012 season while he recovers from an ACL injury he suffered during Florida's spring game.

Getting Ball back into the lineup not only provides more depth at linebacker for the Gators but it will bring a spark to that side of the ball. When Ball was on the field for Florida he was a very energetic figure for the Gators. Florida returns 10 starters to a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011.
DESTIN, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp isn't going to bet against Ronald Powell coming back this fall.

Despite the rising junior defensive end/linebacker undergoing ACL surgery on April 23, Muschamp said he's still holding out hope that Powell will return at some point during the fall.

“I think so. I really do," Muschamp said during the 2012 SEC spring meetings Tuesday. "I’m not going to bet against him. He’s working extremely hard. His range of motion is way ahead of where it should be at this time. His strength levels are good. Everything points really good."

By all accounts, Powell, who led the Gators with six sacks and recorded nine tackles for loss in 2011, had a tremendous spring and showed a lot of improvement in the maturity department before his injury during Florida's spring game.

Earlier this month, Muschamp said that Powell was off crutches and appeared to be ahead of schedule, but he's still in wait-and-see mode.

"Like I’ve said, I think the last 30 percent of an ACL is the hard part," he said. "That’s when you start cutting, that’s when you start to take on people, the weight, all of that that you’ve got to deal with. Those are the things that I think will decide (when he returns) as we move closer and when we get into August and September and that four-month timeframe. Our (medical) people do a great job and the surgery went very well. We’re pleased with how the surgery went and how the swelling and all things hold up.”

Redshirt senior Lerentee McCray backed Powell up at the Buck position last fall, but missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Muschamp also said that sophomore linebacker Neiron Ball could compete at Buck or the Sam linebacker position this fall if he's medically cleared to play. Ball missed all of the 2011 season because of the arteriovenous malformation found in his brain in February of 2011, but Muschamp said Ball has recently started lifting and running again.

“He’s got one more appointment with the doctor,” Muschamp said. “I think he should be fine. He’s in Gainesville.

“You never know, something might pop up at the end. But he’s going back for one more deal to make sure he’s really cleared. Our medical people would not clear him if they thought there was an issue of any sort.

“I totally trust their opinion. Nor would he want to play if there was any chance for anything happening.”

Top performer: Sacks

May, 11, 2012
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the sack artists.

Past producers:
The SEC returns six players that ranked in the top 10 in sacks in 2011. Three of the top four sack men from a year ago are gone, but Mr. Sack himself, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, is back. Defenses will key in on Jones more this fall, but it'll still be hard to stop him, so expect him to battle to keep his crown.

The obvious top performer when it came to sacks:

Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia: Jones led the SEC with 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. He did all of this in his first season playing in the SEC after transferring from USC in 2010. Jones really made SEC tackles suffer, as 12.5 of his sacks came in league play. Jones played like a freight train chugging off of the line. He showed tremendous speed and agility and was nearly unstoppable at times, registering 49 quarterback hurries. His best performance came in a pivotal game against Florida, where he recorded four sacks. Jones is already getting a ton of NFL draft love, as ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. rates him as the No. 2 player on his first Big Board Insider. Jones was also second on the team with 70 tackles.

The SEC returns five more of its top sackers:

Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn: He recorded 9.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries.

Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU: He recorded nine sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and one quarterback hurry.

Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU: He recorded eight sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries.

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: He recorded eight sacks, 12 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries.

Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina: He recorded six sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries.

It feels like the SEC produces pass rushers likes trees produce leaves. Jones leads the pack right now, but those LSU ends are going to put up quite the fight because it'll be tough for anyone to block both at the same time. Clowney was good as a freshman, but people expect bigger and better in 2012.

Florida lost Ronald Powell this spring, but Lerentee McCray is a player to keep an eye on. He missed spring with a shoulder injury, but coach Will Muschamp is very excited about what McCray can do on the outside with his speed and relentlessness. Also, watch out for linebackers Alonzo Highsmith at Arkansas and Adrian Hubbard at Alabama. Highsmith suffered a pec injury this spring, but he should be fine for the fall after leading the Razorbacks with 12.5 tackles for loss. Hubbard replaces Courtney Upshaw at the Jack linebacker position and people at Alabama left spring impressed with the youngster.

Texas A&M has a couple of players that could compete for the sack title this fall in linebacker Sean Porter and end Damontre Moore, who combined for 18 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss. Porter is a player who is already garnering a lot of draft attention and will enter the fall as one of the SEC's top linebackers.

And don't forget about Ole Miss linebacker/defensive end C.J. Johnson. He only registered one sack last year, but the coaches in Oxford feel very good about how much he improved this spring. He'll be used as more of a pass rusher this year, and if he adds some weight he'll be the cause of a lot of headaches for opposing tackles.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Some extra thoughts and notes on my time in Gainesville from last weekend:
  • I'll start things off by talking about defensive end/Buck Ronald Powell, who will be out four to six months after tearing his ACL in the Orange and Blue Debut. Before the injury, most around Florida's program felt Powell was having the best spring of any of the defenders. After two seasons in which people expected more from Powell, he really turned it up this spring. He was more aggressive, tougher and caused more headaches for Florida's offense than he had during any other time. Coach Will Muschamp might have found that dangerous pass rushers he needs in his defense. Now, Muschamp must turn elsewhere and things will start with OLB Lerentee McCray. He was out with an injury this spring, but played the Buck in place of Powell at times last fall. He made his biggest jump as a player last season and is one player Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are especially excited about.
  • True freshmen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard will get chances to play at the Buck, too, but keep an eye on Neiron Ball. He didn't play last season because of the arteriovenous malformation found in his brain in February of 2011. There has been no word yet if Ball could resume playing for the Gators, but if he remains healthy and the SEC clears him, Ball could get a shot at play at the Buck.
  • The quarterback situation was tight before the spring game and was even tougher afterward. Jacoby Brissett entered the spring with a little bit of an advantage, but Jeff Driskel played his way right back into it. I was told that he really has matured both on and off the field this spring. He's taking film more seriously and he's looking to be a real leader now. He wasn't sure how to operate at the college level last fall, but is getting much more comfortable, now. As for Brissett, he doesn't lack confidence at all. He was smiling, laughing and cracking jokes (one on me in front of everyone) during his news conference after the spring game. He fits a pro-style offense more than Driskel and that will help him in the long run. Athletically, Driskel has the edge, but this thing will come down to which one can take over this team during summer workouts.
  • Tyler Murphy is a distant third in the quarterback race. He didn't get much time in the spring game and spent more time talking with offensive coordinator Brent Pease. But that doesn't mean he's not helping. He was relaying signals better than anyone and most there think he understands the offense the best, he's just not has gifted physically. He knows what to do the best of the three, but might not be able to do it the best. His role will be more of helper at this point, but he's valuable for the other QBs.
  • Pease is much more hands-on with his quarterbacks and players. He was snatching players around during spring game warmups as they ran through plays and formations. He's making sure everyone knows exactly what they're doing and where they're supposed to be. It's especially helping the quarterbacks. Driskel said Pease's closer instruction has helped him learn the offense better than he did last fall. Driskel didn't have any bad words for former coordinator Charlie Weis, but said Pease's approach has been very helpful. "He's developed us into much better quarterbacks in the short time he's been here," Driskel said of Pease.
  • This team is much closer than it was a year ago. Like I said in my coaching recap, the pregame locker room was electric. It wasn't like that last year, especially not for a spring game. Linebacker Michael Taylor told me this group really banded together after the Florida State loss. That one really hurt these guys. They were all called soft by their coach and made it a point to change Muschamp's opinion of his team. Something certainly is different. Players are stepping up and leading more than they did a year ago. "A team that's together is a team that's better," Taylor said.
  • Two young players to keep an eye on are wide receiver Latroy Pittman and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy. Pittman might have been Florida's best receiver this spring and while he's not the fastest guy out there, he's tough, physical and has solid hands. With Florida still lacking a true playmaker at receiver, Pittman will get his chance to play a lot this fall. Purifoy drew praise from Muschamp last season, but really came along this spring. With Marcus Roberson out for most of the spring, Purifoy got more reps at corner. He might be lining up opposite Roberson at the second starting corner spot this fall.
  • Don't forget about corner Jeremy Brown. I talked to him briefly before the spring game and he said that his knee is much better than it was last fall. His career has been riddled with injuries (he's missed three seasons in four years), and he received a medical redshirt from the NCAA after missing all of last season. This is a guy who was ahead of Janoris Jenkins at one point in his career before a back injury sidelined him for two years. Having him back will definitely upgrade this secondary.
  • The offensive line looked better, but time will tell how good this unit can be. Muschamp seems pretty happy with it, mainly because he has depth. He talked about only having six scholarship linemen at one point during the offseason because injury. The team had to take breaks in practice to keep those guys going. That wasn't the case this spring. For as bad as the quarterback play looked and for as much as Florida struggled to run up the middle, a lot of the Gators' shortcomings came because of an inefficient offensive line. "We're better offensively than we were at any time last year," he said. "We have everybody back and we have some talented guys."
  • Jeff Dillman might have been Muschamp's biggest hire. Florida's new strength coach was with Muschamp at LSU when the Tigers won it all in 2003-04. He's focusing on more Olympic-style lifting and you can tell. The players are much bigger than last fall. Dillman's secret? Three moves: the power clean, the snatch and the split jerk. He's making sure they're hitting every muscle possible as efficiently as possible.

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 14, 2012
Schedule: Florida opens spring practice Wednesday afternoon and concludes on April 7 with the Orange & Blue Debut, presented by Sunniland, at 1 p.m. ET in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. In conjunction with Florida Football's Annual Coaches Clinic, practice will open to the public twice -- March 16 and March 17.

What's new: Florida welcomes in new offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who left Boise State, as its new offensive coordinator after Charlie Weis left to become the head coach at Kansas. Florida also hired former Utah offensive line coach Tim Davis to replace Frank Verducci, while Jeff Dillman replaces Mickey Marrotti as the Gators' strength and conditioning coach.

On the mend: Florida will be down a few players this spring. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley is out while he recovers from an ACL injury he suffered at the end of the regular season. Cornerback Jeremy Brown is out with a knee injury that kept him out all of the 2011 season. Offensive linemen Ian Silberman, Tommy Jordan, Kyle Koehne and Cole Gilliam, along with linebacker Lerentee McCray and defensive end Kedric Johnson, are all out with shoulder injuries. Cornerback Marcus Roberson (neck) was cleared for non-contact drills. Linebacker Neiron Ball, who was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation after a blood vessel burst in his head before the 2011 season, has been cleared to resume physical activity, but not for practice.

On the move: Redshirt senior Omarius Hines is moving from wide receiver to cross train at running back and tight end. Hines has always been some sort of a hybrid player, recording 41 career receptions for 559 yards and two touchdowns and carrying the ball 13 times for 164 rushing yards and two more scores. Nick Alajajian is moving from offensive tackle to defensive tackle to provide depth with Easley out.

Questions: The major question on the minds of fans in Gainesville is what will happen at the quarterback spot. Now that John Brantley is gone, Florida will be working with rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy this spring. One of those three will be Florida's starter this fall, and after what people saw last year from Brissett and Driskel, there's a bit of an uneasy feeling in Gainesville. Florida is also looking to replace running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Senior-to-be Mike Gillislee enters the spring No. 1 on the depth chart, with Mack Brown behind him. Gillislee has played some in the past, while Brown has barely seen the field as a running back. Wide receiver and the offense line also have their own issues. Florida returns four starters up front, but this group struggled significantly last season. Keep an eye on early enrollees D.J. Humphries and Jessamen Dunker. Florida has a handful of receivers, but none are proven and none return with more than 16 catches from last season.

Key battle: If Florida's offense wants to take any steps forward, the Gators have to figure out their quarterback situation. Brissett enters spring with the most experience of the trio, but people around Florida believe he and Driskel are pretty even when it comes to physical ability. The difference right now seems to be that Brissett has more of an edge to him and more confidence. And he did pass Driskel on the depth chart last year. Murphy is pretty athletic, but in his two years on campus he has yet to take a collegiate snap, so he is clearly behind the other two. Pease is a quarterbacks coach, so one of his biggest jobs will be improving the play of all three of these players. One needs to step up and separate himself as both a player and a leader heading into summer workouts.

Don't forget about: Safety Matt Elam might be Florida's best defensive player and he's talented enough to put himself in the conversation as one of the top defensive backs in the SEC. In his first year as a starter at strong safety, Elam was second on the team with 78 tackles and was first with 11 tackles for loss. He also had two sacks, broke up seven passes and recorded two interceptions. Elam plays both the run and the deep ball well. He's turning into a true leader of Florida's defense and is primed for a real breakout season in 2012.

Breaking out: Tight end Jordan Reed was supposed to be one of Florida's top offensive weapons last season, but injuries and poor offensive execution hurt him in 2011. Now that he's healthy and he has young quarterbacks lining up, Reed could get a lot of attention this spring. Don't expect these quarterbacks to go deep much, so they'll have to rely on Reed underneath. Gillislee has shown flashes here and there, but has yet to put everything together. One moment he's running over players, the next he's yanked for poor blocking. Now, he enters spring as the guy at running back and with a bulk of the reps coming his way, Gillislee should be able to do a little more this time around.

All eyes on: Pease has a lot to do in such a short amount of time this spring. He'll be adding a few of his own wrinkles to Florida's offense, but don't expect him to change too much of the offensive terminology. Making things easy will be crucial as he attempts to fix Florida's offensive issues, starting with the quarterback position. The good news is that younger players tend to take to coaching a little better than vets. This is a chance for some reinvention on offense for the Gators, but it will start with Pease's coaching. Weis seemed to struggle a lot last season with communicating his messages to Florida's offensive players. Pease can't have that issue this spring. Everything has to clear and concise for Florida's offense.
It's Depth Chart Day on the SEC blog.

We've already seen Arkansas' and South Carolina's and now we'll take a look at Florida's. Mike DiRocco of ESPN's GatorNation has the complete two-deep depth chart right here.

What you'll notice is that there wasn't a lot of turnover at all on the defensive side of the ball. Florida returns 10 starters, after saying goodbye to defensive tackle Jaye Howard. Rising senior Omar Hunter and redshirt sophomore Leon Orr will man the interior of Florida's defensive line this spring, with Dominique Easley out, as he recovers from an ACL injury he suffered in the regular-season finale. Easley is expected to be back this fall.

Sharrif Floyd will cross train at defensive end and tackle. When Florida is in the 3-4, Floyd will move inside.

Also, with cornerbacks Marcus Roberson (neck) and Jeremy Brown (knee) dealing with injuries, rising sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy and Cody Riggs will start out as the top two corners. And with Lerentee McCray out with a shoulder injury, Darrin Kitchens will begin the spring No. 1 at Sam linebacker.

Offensively, Florida enters the spring with a handful of questions at every position. Sophomores-to-be Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are at the top of the quarterback depth chart, now that John Brantley is gone. Mike Gillislee is listed as the No. 1 running back, with Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps gone. The wide receivers are pretty unproven, but there are a handful of players to work with.

Keep an eye on Omarius Hines, as he will be cross training at running back and tight end after playing wide receiver.
We move to linebackers today in our postseason position rankings.

Defensive lines are very important in this league, but there are other guys in the box who have to be pretty reliable as well in this league. This league has done a pretty solid job of producing some top talent at this position as well.

You can see what are preseason linebacker rankings looked like here.

And here are our postseason rankings:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDont'a Hightower had career highs in tackles (79), sacks (3.0) and interceptions (1) this season.
1. Alabama: This unit was at the top of our preseason rankings and didn't budge throughout the season. When you have two All-Americans in Courtney Upshaw, who was the defensive MVP in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and Dont'a Hightower it's pretty understandable to see why. Those two combined for 136 tackles, including 29 for loss. Nico Johnson was fourth on the team in tackles, while C.J. Mosley added 37 of his own. Alabama's defense was first nationally in total defense and first in rushing defense, allowing 74.2 yards per game.

2. Georgia: Linebackers are essential to any 3-4 defense, and the Bulldogs' group did quite well in 2011. Georgia ended up with one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 19 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He also had 49 quarterback hurries. Michael Gilliard was third on the team behind Jones with 65 tackles. While Alec Ogletree missed part of the first half of the season, the speedster still finished with 52 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. Cornelius Washington, Amarlo Herrera Christian Robinson combined to add 101 more tackles, as Georgia's defense ranked fifth nationally.

3. Arkansas: Arkansas' defense had a lot of bend in it last season, but the linebackers found ways to make plays. Newcomer Alonzo Highsmith was third on the team with 80 tackles, led with 12.5 tackles for loss and had 4.5 sacks. The star continued to be Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles (101) for the fourth straight year. Then there was Jerico Nelson, who was all over the field as that hybrid linebacker/safety. He came away with 70 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Ross Rasner, who played outside with Nelson, added 53 more tackles and two sacks.

4. Florida: The Gators' defense ranked eighth nationally in part because of the aggressive play of its front seven. Jon Bostic commanded the middle, leading the team with 94 tackles, including 10 for loss. Jelani Jenkins seemed to come more into his own outside, finishing third on the team in tackles. The big surprise was Lerentee McCray, who played both Sam linebacker and the hybrid Buck. He was one of Florida's most active linebackers and grabbed 7.5 tackles for loss. Ronald Powell started at the Buck, but saw most of his production from defensive end.

5. Vanderbilt: The Commodores entered the season needing to replace three starting linebackers and ended the year with a very impressive linebacking corps. It was led by vet Chris Marve, who was 10th in the league in tackles. Archibald Barnes had a solid year at the Will, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and grabbing two interceptions. Chase Garnham and Al Owens manned the Sam position and combined for 72 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Against conference foes, Vandy's rush defense ranked fourth in the league.

6. LSU: The Tigers were in search of that dominant middle linebacker all season and might have found a budding star in Kevin Minter, really grew into the position by the end of the season and was fifth on the team in tackles. He started 11 games, but shared time with Karnell Hatcher, who finished with 24 tackles. Ryan Baker was LSU's best linebacker, was an outstanding leader and was fourth on the team with 64 tackles. Stefoin Francois was the starter at Sam, but he accumulated just 11 tackles, while backup Tahj Jones registered 27. Still, LSU owned the No. 2 national defense.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks saw improvement from this group as the season went on. While the defensive line got a ton of credit, the linebackers did their part in securing the defense's No. 3 national ranking. Antonio Allen spent some time in the box at the Spur position and led South Carolina with 88 tackles and had 9.5 for loss. Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson, who returned from injury, rotated at the Mike and combined for 109 tackles. Will linebacker Reginald Bowens added 44 tackles.

8. Kentucky: The Wildcats owned the SEC's top tackler in Danny Trevathan (143), who should have received more national attention. Trevathan was one of the most active defenders around at the Will. Winston Guy played the hybrid linebacker/safety and was third in the SEC with 120 tackles. Ronnie Sneed added 71 more tackles. Kentucky's defense was much more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Rick Minter and got more exotic looks from its linebackers.

9. Mississippi State: Cameron Lawrence was a beast for the Bulldogs in 2011. He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles, and had 49 solo. Senior Brandon Wilson added 94 more tackles. Brandon Maye, who transferred from Clemson, was expected to make a bigger impact for the Bulldogs, but played behind Wilson and was 11th on the team in tackles. Sophomore Deontae Skinner added 69 tackles and Mississippi State ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense.

10. Tennessee: The Vols' top three tacklers were linebackers. The leader was senior Austin Johnson, who finished the season with 81 tackles, including 41 solo. Next were two true freshmen on the outside in A.J. Johnson (80) and Curt Maggitt (56). Both freshmen experienced up-and-down seasons, but were SEC All-Freshman selections. Herman Lathers, who was a projected started, missed 2011 with a fractured ankle, and after the big three, the Vols didn't get a ton out of their linebackers, as Dontavis Sapp was their next most productive linebacker with 20 tackles.

11. Auburn: The Tigers' defense really struggled in 2011 and gave up more than 200 rushing yards a contest. Auburn had to basically start over at linebacker, but lone returning starter Daren Bates had a heck of a year, ranking fourth in the league with 104 tackles. He really tried to make sure he played all over the field last fall. After that, the play was up-and-down. Senior Eltoro Freeman took over in the middle halfway into the year and finished with 58 tackles, while Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans combined for 83 tackles.

12. Ole Miss: The Rebels' defense had all sorts of problems defensively, including allowing 256.5 yards per game and 21 rushing touchdowns. The linebackers took a major hit with the absence of D.T. Shackelford, who missed the season with a knee injury. Mike Marry stepped up at the Mike and led Ole Miss with 81 tackles and five for loss. Freshman Serderius Bryant and junior Joel Kight combined for 122 tackles. Damien Jackson played the Spur and added 64 tackles, but Ole Miss' defense ranked dead last in the SEC.