SEC: Matt Elam

We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Kentucky.

Most important game: Sept. 13 at Florida

Key players: All eyes will be on the Kentucky quarterback ... whoever that might be. Mark Stoops and his staff have yet to name a starter, but sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Drew Barker are the favorites heading into fall camp. Neither took a snap last season, but they are both going to have to grow up quickly with a trip to the Swamp looming in Week 3. It will be a good barometer, not only for this Wildcats team but also for the quarterback position which holds the key to success this season.

If Towles and/or Barker struggle on the road, it’s up to the defense to keep Kentucky in the game. The good news is that if there’s one strength on this team, it’s the defensive line. Ends Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith combined for 13 sacks last season, and though they lost two seniors in the middle, 350-pound freshman Matt Elam has arrived to fill the void at defensive tackle. Florida’s offense was down right ugly at times last season, so it’s not a stretch to say this could end up being a low-scoring contest.

It might come down to one big play, and Kentucky has one of the league’s top home-run hitters in running back Jojo Kemp. If he gets loose, watch out.

Why it matters: Year 1 didn’t go as planned for Stoops. Kentucky finished 2-10, and the team seemed to play worse and worse as the season progressed. The setback hasn’t deterred him or his players, though. They still believe a turnaround is imminent.

“Next year will be our year,” Dupree said prior to spring practice. “Next year we’ll come out and we’ll shock a couple of people. We’ll start off with the first couple games in the non-conference schedule, and then against Florida, I think we’ll be ready to show how much Coach Stoops has changed the program.”

A win against Florida would do just that. The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986 and haven’t won in Gainesville since 1979. That is 27 straight losses. And it will be on the players’ mind leading up to kickoff. If they are looking for a statement win to help turn the program around, this is a prime opportunity.

Knock off Florida and there is a chance Kentucky starts the season 5-1 or even 6-0. At that point, we’re talking bowl game for the first time since 2010. However, a loss to the Gators, and the season could just as easily go in the other direction.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ever the perfectionist, Florida coach Will Muschamp was not happy with his run defense last season.

Sure, the Gators had a top-five defense overall. But the run defense, which gave up 94.9 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation in 2012, slipped to No. 33 in the country last fall and gave up 142.4 yards per game.

Those concerns carried over to spring practice, as the run defense had some struggles last weekend in scrimmaging against the team's new uptempo spread offense.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison is trying to mature in his role as the QB of Will Muschamp's defense.
"Our defense needs to handle and respond better to the tempo, especially our young defensive linemen understanding getting aligned, getting the call," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "All those things that a hurry-up offense creates angst with, we did not handle very well defensively.

"Atrocious tackling for leveraging the ball, being in the right spots. So those are all things we need to improve on."

Florida has lost plenty of reliable veteran starters from the middle of its defense in the last two offseasons. Last year, the Gators had to cope with the departures of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. All were drafted in the first six rounds of the NFL draft.

The defense started strong last fall but slumped noticeably after star defensive tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season to injury, which had a cascading effect on the rest of the unit.

"Some other guys' production went down a little bit when Dominique wasn't in there anymore," Muschamp said. "It affects you tremendously. ...

"You get blocked a lot more when you lose a guy like that."

As a result, Muschamp said, the linebackers weren't as productive as he expects.

"It was tough," junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison said. "We lost some of our best players to injury, not to use that as an excuse. It was a tough year, but that’s behind us. We learned from it and we’re ready to get on with it.

"We just know that’s unacceptable. We’re not trying to put that on the field anymore."

This spring the Gators are counting on experienced linebackers such as Morrison and Michael Taylor to turn things around.

"They need to be able to calm the defense down at times," said Muschamp, calling his middle linebacker the quarterback of the defense. "I think Jon Bostic was as good as I've been around as far as handling and managing our front and back end with communication. Just did an outstanding job of that, and Jelani did a great job as well.

"We need to do a better job from a communication standpoint at that position, and I think we've made some strides."

Muschamp acknowledges that his defense puts a lot of pressure on its linebackers. Leadership and communication are not optional.

Perhaps no player has been under more scrutiny than Morrison, who was impressive as a freshman outside linebacker but struggled at times last fall in the middle. It didn't help that two arrests last summer undermined Morrison's ability to be a vocal leader, but Muschamp sees signs of progress.

"I think each year you mature a little bit, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes publicly to take steps forward, and I think he's done that," Muschamp said. "I've been pleased with his production as a player on the field; I've been pleased with how he's handled himself off the field.

"We all mature at different levels and different times, and certainly he is a guy that needed to mature, take that next step. I think he's done that."

Florida is looking to its interior defensive linemen to grow up as well. Muschamp has cited the talent level of redshirt freshman defensive tackles Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles and Jay-nard Bostwick. But he has also repeatedly expressed how much work they still need.

"The hardest thing for a young defensive lineman is disengaging from blocks," he said, "because they've been so much better than the other guys in high school, they haven't had to disengage from blocks. A lot of the time, the guy blocking them wasn't good enough to get a hat on them.

"Well now you've got to take on the block, understand how to defeat the block and then go to the ball carrier and do it over and over again, which sometimes is a little bit of a challenge for some of our guys."

With senior defensive tackle Leon Orr out this spring with a broken wrist, the onus has fallen on senior Darious Cummings and junior Jonathan Bullard, whom Muschamp praised for his work in moving inside from defensive end.

"I’ve seen some positive things, just very inconsistent once we get past that first group," he said. "The drop down is way too big. Way too much of a separation between the groups."

Taylor, who prefers to lead by actions instead of words, is confident the run defense will improve after identifying the problems.

"[We] saw what we needed to work on," Taylor said, "saw how we were getting blocked, saw how teams were trying to run on us and simplified some things, cleared some stuff up, and we worked on what we needed to get better on. And that's what we've been doing."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When asked for his early concerns in spring practice, Florida head coach Will Muschamp didn't have a long list. But the safety position, his position as a college football player and the one he personally coaches, was on it.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter registering 48 tackles a year ago, senior safety Jabari Gorman is primed for big things in the Gators' secondary.
"We need to continue to improve there," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "I think the ability is there. We need to continue to be more productive."

One player, however, was spared his coach's ire -- Jabari Gorman -- and it's no coincidence he's the only senior in Florida's secondary.

“He has done a nice job," Muschamp said. "The others, I can’t say that. But he has done a nice job. He understands the importance of communication on the back end. We've just got to do a better job at understanding that a mistake there is normally not good for the Gators. That’s where we’ve got to tie some things up."

Understandably, Muschamp can be tough on his safeties. He holds them to a high standard, one that has been achieved in recent years.

Florida's starters two seasons ago, Matt Elam and Josh Evans, are playing in the NFL. Jaylen Watkins, one of UF's starling safeties last season, expects to follow their footsteps in the NFL draft this May.

The Gators lost their other starting safety from 2013, Cody Riggs, who is transferring to Notre Dame after he graduates this spring. That's a clean sweep of starting safeties from Florida's secondary in back-to-back season.

To Gorman, it's an opportunity. His time has come.

"Especially at the safety position, you've got to grow up," Gorman said. "You've got to be able to be vocal. In that position you have to develop into a leader because so much is needed from you. You're the quarterback of the defense.

"What I do, I try to let these kids know that it's never personal with Coach. It's always for the better, to make you a better player, make you faster and more instinctive."

Getting better is what Gorman has done in three years at UF. He had a breakout season last year with 48 tackles (sixth most on the team), seven pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.

"Jabari’s very smart, he’s a guy that gets it," Muschamp said. "He understands and learns well. He’s seen the game. It’s slowed down tremendously for him over the years. He’s played a lot of football for us, played well for us last year. I’ve been very pleased with his spring to his point through four days and the offseason program."

After playing right away on special teams and as a reserve in 2011, Gorman's time at Florida has grown short.

"Yeah man, I say it's the blink of an eye," he said. "I still remember the first day I came to campus. What I want to do is help my team to go out with a bang, be the best we can be."

Gorman easily lists the names of his classmates, fellow seniors who want badly to erase the blemish of last year's 4-8 record.

"We've got a lot of seniors that have been here, gone through a process," he said. "We went through struggles at times, went through the good times, and we just want to leave on a good note. I think it's more important to us than anybody to go out and win."

Q&A: Kentucky DT signee Matt Elam

February, 21, 2014
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Kentucky was already in the middle of putting together a historically good recruiting class, but the icing on the cake came in late January when Mark Stoops and his staff were able to keep four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam (Elizabethtown, Ky./John Hardin) in state and away from SEC powerhouse Alabama.

Now Elam is a celebrity in the Bluegrass State, even signing the occasional autograph. We caught up with him to see what life’s been like since he made his big decision.

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Damon Sayles/ESPNFour-star defensive tackle Matt Elam chose Kentucky over Alabama.
Q: I saw where it was your birthday Monday. How’d you celebrate it?

Elam: I just celebrated with my mom, my coach and a couple of my friends. We went out to eat, so it was something small, just being around the people that I love. It was real nice. I got to chill and have some time off with them. It was a nice birthday.

Q: Looking back, how close was your decision between Alabama and Kentucky?

Elam: It was really close all the way up until the end. I just felt like I could be better at UK, and I felt like my heart was there. I was more comfortable there, and I just had a better relationship with the coaches. That’s what it came down to. It was neck and neck the whole time, so I just had to find that one thing that put them on top. People said I should’ve picked Bama, but it was my decision, not everybody else’s. I don’t regret it. I’m loving the decision that I made already.

Q: What did it mean to you to stay home and play for in-state team?

Elam: I think that was a big part of my decision because I feel like I can play better for my home-state team. At Kentucky, they haven’t had a good football team in awhile, but they haven’t had the players either. That’s what you really need -- good players make a great football team. Before, their recruiting classes -- I don’t even think it was in the top 50 last year. Now it’s in the top 20. I feel like we’re finally getting it, so that’s good.

Q: So how good is this Kentucky recruiting class?

Elam: It’s the best in the history they say. I think it’s just the relationships that all of us have because we all clicked. We all know what we want to do. We want to turn around the program and just ball out while we’re doing that. All of the commitments, we know that’s where we want to be, so we’re all in the same boat. I appreciate everybody for getting on the phone and committing to Kentucky because a lot of these kids weren’t from the state of Kentucky and it’s hard going to a losing program. It takes a man to go to a losing program and help change it around. I appreciate all the commitments for that.

It was really close all the way up until the end. I just felt like I could be better at UK, and I felt like my heart was there. I was more comfortable there, and I just had a better relationship with the coaches.

Matt Elam, on his recruitment coming down to Kentucky and Alabama.
Q: I know there was an incident involving your jersey from the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. What happened with that and has it all been cleared up?

Elam: It’s all been taken care of. It was a big scandal with people saying I sold my jersey and I did all this and that, but it was nothing like that. I was going to get a frame and put it in my school, and the guy put it on the internet just to see how much it would go for. He didn’t know it was going to be that big of a deal. He shut down everything because I told him it could mess up my playing (football). He said, 'I’m so sorry man. I didn’t mean to do all that. I just wanted to see, as a joke, how much your jersey would go for.' He said it got up to like $800 or $1,000 for the practice jersey. Everything was fixed after that. I appreciate everybody being compliant with that and not getting mad because it wasn’t how the media made it seem.

Q: Did the NCAA ever reach out to you or your parents?

Elam: I never heard anything from them because I don’t think it was that big of a deal.

Q: Lastly, what are your goals and expectations for your first year at Kentucky?

Elam: Personally, I just want to help out my team. Whether that’s playing or not, the main thing is me becoming a better football player. That’s what college is all about -- improving your skills so you can go on to the next level. Team-wise, I don’t have these expectations that we’re going to come in and start winning all these games because that’s not going to happen. But I think this class will set the tone. Hopefully, we’ll get a good class next year and turn things around.
Quietly, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops made an emphatic statement with his 2014 recruiting class: The Wildcats aren't going to sit idly by and watch the big boy have all the fun.

Just months removed from a 2-10 debut that resulted in Kentucky's fourth straight losing season, Stoops secured the No. 20 recruiting class in the ESPN rankings. It was the highest-ever finish for Kentucky in ESPN's recruiting rankings.

Stoops rubbed shoulders with the SEC's best, signing 28 players, including six ESPN 300 members and eight four-stars. Stoops flipped a Florida State commit and beat out Alabama for a highly coveted defensive tackle. He snagged a top-10 quarterback and filled critical holes on both sides of the ball.

Stoops has zero SEC wins on his Kentucky resume, but he got a major win on signing day.

"We hit on a lot of areas," Stoops told ESPN.com Thursday.

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Damon Sayles/ESPNFour-star DT Matt Elam is one of the key pieces in Kentucky's 20th-ranked recruiting class.
"Last year, we did a nice job of piecing together a good a class as we could in five or six weeks. From that point on -- from signing day last year to signing day this year -- I thought it was absolutely the most critical time for us to have a great year in recruiting. We needed good players, we needed guys at every position."

But the Wildcats couldn't afford to just fill space. That would have been counterproductive for a team looking to rebuild. Kentucky needed both quality and quantity, which can be a tough task for a new coach at a struggling program.

Stoops said he and his coaches set out with a simple message of building relationships and getting in front of as many quality prospects as possible. They got players on campus for junior days when Stoops' crew first arrived last year, they got them to last year's record-setting spring game, they got them to basketball games to see that other historic program on campus, and they stayed confident in their message of the future.

There was no magic selling point, just very detailed process of showing prospects exactly what they were doing in the program, not just in games.

"They understood that we were in for a little bit of a struggle -- that this is a rebuild -- and we need good players to rebuild this program," Stoops said. "They understood very clearly the success that we've had before and what we do offensively and defensively. These coaches have been very successful and showed them exactly what our plan was for the future."

Stoops held a top-20 class for most of 2013, proving that players didn't waver, despite the Wildcats' on-field struggles. He was able to keep ESPN 300 defensive end Denzel Ware, who flip-flopped between Kentucky and Florida State for months before staying with the Wildcats. He kept ESPN 300 early enrollee quarterback Drew Barker, who went through winter workouts and has a chance to push for the starting spot this year.

Stoops also kept ESPN 300 standouts Thaddeus Snodgrass (wide receiver) and Stanley Williams (running back), and he sold Kentucky to four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam, who picked the Cats over Alabama last month.

"It's very important to win your fair share of battles, and we're going to win our fair share," Stoops said. "We're going to recruit very hard, we're going to recruit the best players, and we're not afraid to go in and compete. You're going to win some and lose some, but I thought we did a nice job of hitting a very high percentage of guys we targeted."

Where Kentucky really succeeded was in the secondary, signing ESPN 300 cornerbacks Darius West and Kendall Randolph. Stoops desperately needed offensive playmakers, but gaining talents like this in the secondary was crucial.

"It's a real issue," Stoops said of the depth in his secondary.

"For us, it's hard for me to pinpoint an area, but we were clearly not very good in the secondary so I thought that was very important to hit that [hard] as well."

Stoops left fingerprint in 10 states and came away with a handful of players who could make an immediate impact in Lexington. But Stoops understands that this class can't do it alone. He needs development to continue with his current players already on campus. He needs competition to blossom and he needs his upperclassmen to mesh with the youngsters in order to get Kentucky up and running.

"We're at a point where we're still trying to put together a top-notch first team," Stoops said. "Not only do we need depth, we need some playmakers with our starters as well.

"In our business, no one has patience, everybody wants to win now. But it is a process, and we're working to improve every day and we're getting better."

Monday chat wrap

February, 3, 2014
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Another great chat, as usual. Here's the wrap for your viewing pleasure and here's a quick preview in case you missed the chat because you were too sad to roll out of bed after a subpar Super Bowl and set of commercials:

Andy (South Carolina)
Any comments on the Kentucky class?

Edward Aschoff (12:08 PM)
I think Mark Stoops has done an excellent job with his first true class in Lexington. He has six ESPN 300 members and just got DT Matt Elam to commit to the Wildcats over Alabama. He had to hit this class hard and he did. This is exactly what he needs to attempt a rebound at Kentucky. DE Denzel Ware picked the Cats over FSU. QB Drew Barker could compete for playing time immediately. Now it's all about developing these guys when they get on campus.

[+] EnlargeSpurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier and his staff will develop their talent regardless of recruiting rankings and stars.
Johnny (South Carolina)
Ed! How was your weekend? Your thoughts on South Carolina recruiting? Not really the caliber of players, but the coaches coaching them up. What do you think about South Carolina getting 3- and 4-star players and turning them into 5 star caliber players?

Edward Aschoff (12:12 PM)
I don't think Steve Spurrier has ever really cared about stars. He and his coaches have done a great job developing players for a long, long time. Right now, the Gamecocks have seven ESPN 300 guys and I think a few could make immediate impacts, including DE Dante Sawyer. For South Carolina to be competitive, the Gamecocks have to get those top guys here and there, and they will as long as Spurrier is there. I think this class is solid and fills some big needs.

Matt McLendon from Douglasville GA [via mobile]
Who do you think will have the biggest turnaround, good or bad, this season?

Edward Aschoff (12:16 PM)
I think Florida has a chance to make a big turnaround in a good way. I know, I know: believe it when I see it. But I think that you'll see a lot more from the offense with Kurt Roper bringing in the spread. I think Jeff Driskel will be much better in that offense and I think the defense will continue to be elite. The Gators have to find an identity on offense and have to be tougher. Plus, I don't see the injury bug creeping its ugly head like it did last year. The schedule is tough but I think the Gators will be much better than 4-8.

JDK (Nashville TN)
How much of a hit do you think the Commodores under new head coach [Derek] Mason will take? Still good enough for a bowl trip this year?

Edward Aschoff (12:19 PM)
Honestly, it's tough to say, but I think this team does take a hit overall. There is a lot of talent coming back, but will this team have the same intensity and mindset? Will it have that edge that James Franklin brought? I don't know. I think we'll know more this spring when the coaches and players get to interact more.

Boone chackalacka (Tookiedoo, SC)
If Connor Shaw has a good showing at the combine and SC's pro day, what round would you see him going in the draft?

Edward Aschoff (12:19 PM)
I still think he's at best a late-round pick, regardless. I could see six or seven because of his arm. Has the intangibles, but doesn't have an elite arm.
After 16 straight SEC losses, Kentucky needed something to get excited about in football.

Mark Stoops, who just finished his first season as the Wildcats’ coach, has delivered with what’s shaping up to be the program’s highest-ranked signing class in history.

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
University of Kentucky AthleticsAs signing day approaches, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is making an impact on the recruiting trail.
With Wednesday’s national signing day fast approaching, Kentucky is currently ranked 20th in ESPN’s class rankings, which would be the Wildcats’ first-ever top 25 finish.

The big get last week was four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam of Elizabethtown, Ky. Kentucky was able to beat Alabama for the 6-5, 350-pound Elam, which is always a telltale sign that a program is headed in the right direction.

When you’re beating the top teams in your league on the recruiting trail for marquee prospects, that’s the quickest way to start beating them on the field. It’s also significant that Stoops was able to keep one of the top prospects in the state of Kentucky at home. That has been a priority.

Three of the top four in-state prospects in the 2014 class have opted for the Wildcats. The other two were ESPN 300 quarterback Drew Barker of Hebron, and three-star defensive tackle Adrian Middleton of Bowling Green.

Stoops also has cashed in on his Ohio roots and done very well in that state. Nine of Kentucky’s 28 commitments in this class are from Ohio, a state traditionally laden with talent. Ohio State and Michigan can’t take them all.

Kentucky has eight four-star prospects committed in this class. In Stoops’ first class a year ago, he reeled in six four-star prospects. That’s 14 in two years. For perspective, in the three previous classes combined, the Wildcats signed a total of four four-star prospects.

Stoops knows what a talented roster looks like. He came to Kentucky from Florida State.

Upgrading the talent level is the only way Kentucky is going to make a move in the SEC, and based on these last two classes Stoops and his staff have put together, there’s hope on the horizon.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

February, 3, 2014
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This was the final weekend before national signing day, and of course, there was a ton of news around the SEC. Vanderbilt added a slew of commitments, as did Alabama and Texas A&M. There were also some key visits and a decommitment from an SEC West school. Here’s a closer look at the latest recruiting news around the SEC.

Biggest commitments: After suffering 11 decommitments after coach James Franklin left for Penn State, Vanderbilt was in desperate need of a big recruiting weekend, and it finally got it.

SEC's lunch links

January, 30, 2014
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The Super Bowl is just days away, but we know you college football fans are just as excited, if not more, about what comes after that. National signing day. Notably, stories relating to both are a part of today's lunchtime links:

Most important targets: SEC 

January, 28, 2014
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video
The Southeastern Conference already has commitments from six of the top 10 players in the country and has a real possibility of landing two more before signing day. With several key targets still remaining, here’s a look at the top remaining targets in the SEC.

Alabama
CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover)
6-foot-0, 180 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: 15


Humphrey is a big, athletic cornerback with great size and would be a natural fit in Nick Saban's system. FSU is also very much in the picture for the five-star defensive back, but with the Seminoles losing defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia, the Crimson Tide might have a slight advantage. Alabama will have to fight to keep this dynamic defensive back from leaving the state. With his skill set, Humphrey has a chance to play early in his college career.


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SEC recruiting scorecard

January, 24, 2014
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Believe it or not, national signing day is creeping closer and closer. Soon, we'll be introducing 2014 recruiting classes all over the country, before eventually stashing them in the past and salivating on the gems of 2015.

Recruiting, right?

But as fans all over -- especially in the Southeast -- continue their anxious countdown to Feb. 5, it only made sense that we take a quick look at how all 14 SEC teams are faring before college football's equivalent to Christmas Day.

As of Friday, seven SEC teams rank in the top 10 of ESPN's recruiting class rankings. Alabama and Texas A&M lead the charge for the league, ranking first and second , respectively. Alabama has 24 verbal commitments, with 17 in the ESPN 300. Four are five-star prospects. Texas A&M has 21 commitments, including 10 ESPN 300 members and two five-star prospects.

How's the rest of the SEC doing before signing day? Let's take a look:

ALABAMA

2014 verbal commitments: 24

Spotlight: Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va., is a huge addition for the Crimson Tide. He's the nation's No. 2-ranked defensive end and could provide an immediate spark to a front seven that wants to generate more pressure on opposing backfields.

ESPN 300 members: 17 (Hand, OT Cameron Robinson of West Monroe, La., CB Tony Brown of Beaumont, Texas, RB Bo Scarbrough of Tuscaloosa, Ala., S Laurence Jones of Monroe, La., OLB Christian Miller of Columbia, S.C., WR Cameron Sims of Monroe La., QB David Cornwell of Norman, Okla., Ross Pierschbacher of Cedar Falls, Iowa, ATH Ronnie Clark of Calera, Ala., ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton of Montgomery, Ala., DT Joshua Frazier of Springdale Ark., C Josh Casher of Mobile, Ala., C J.C. Hassenauer of Woodbury, Minn., WR Derek Kief of Cincinnati, DT O.J. Smith of Bossier City, La.)

Key targets: There isn't a ton of space left in this class, but Alabama is still going strong after five-star cornerback Marlon Humphrey of Hoover, Ala., and four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam of Elizabethtown, Ky.

ARKANSAS

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: Defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado, Ark., is the top player in the state and ranked as the nation's No. 6 defensive tackle. At 6-2, 334 pounds, Jackson can clog the middle for the run, but has the quickness off the line to be a threat against the pass as well.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Jackson, OT Brian Wallace of St, Louis)

Key targets: The Razorbacks would like to add a receiver and are looking at Vanderbilt commit Kameron Uter and three-star Kendrick Edwards of Miami. Offensive linemen Frank Ragnow and Rashawn Shaw are also on Arkansas' radar.

AUBURN

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Tre Mason might be gone, but Gus Malzahn hopes he has a solid replacement in running back Racean Thomas of Oxford, Ala. The nation's No. 5 running back runs hard and has the explosiveness to make some real noise in Auburn's offense. He's also elusive and strong enough to stretch plays.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Thomas, QB Sean White of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., CB Stephen Roberts of Opelika, Ala., CB Kalvaraz Bessent of Kingsland, Ga., ILB Tre' Williams of Mobile, Ala., ATH Nicholas Ruffin of Atlanta, DE Justin Thornton of Prichard, Ala., DT Dontavius Russell of Carrollton, Ga., ATH Stanton Truitt of Monre, Ga., RB Kamryn Pettway of Prettville, Ala.)

Key targets: Auburn is almost done with this class, but ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans and defensive end Andrew Williams are still in the mix. So is offensive guard Jordan Sims of Birmingham, Ala.

FLORIDA

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Quarterback Will Grier of Davidson, N.C., is already on campus and gives the Gators a real quality body to work with behind Jeff Driskel. Grier appears to be he future of the position and totaled 4,989 passing yards with a national-best 77 touchdowns, while rushing for another 1,251 yards with 13 more scores in 2013.

ESPN 300 members: 12 (Grier, CB Jalen Tabor of Washington, D.C., OT David Sharpe of Jacksonville, Fla., DT Gerald Willis III of New Orleans, DT Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, N.Y., ATH J.C. Jackson of Immokalee, Fla., WR Moral Stephens of Perry, Fla., CB Duke Dawson of Cross City, Fla., ATH Brandon Powell of Deerfield Beach, Fla., DE Justus Reed of Clearwater, Fla., S Quincy Wilson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Key targets: The loss of running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Ermon Lane left two big holes in this class, but the Gators are still in the running for ESPN 300 prospects Isaiah McKenzie, Derrell Scott and Florida State commit Treon Harris. Junior college WR Eric Lauderdale is still on the board, as are five-star defenders Lorenzo Carter and Adoree' Jackson.

GEORGIA

2014 verbal commitments: 17

Spotlight: The Bulldogs have had some recent success at the running back position and just added to it with Sony Michel of Plantation, Fla. The 5-11, 194-pound Michel is the nation's No. 2 RB and is an every-down back who can do it all. He has a chance to see the field early in his career at Georgia.

ESPN 300 members: 9 (Michel; DT Lamont Gaillard of Fayetteville, N.C.; RB Nick Chubb of Cedartown, Ga.; ATH Malkom Parrish of Quitman, Ga.; QB Jacob Park of Goose Creek, S.C.; TE Jeb Blazevich of Charlotte, N.C.; OG Isaiah Wynn of Saint Petersburg, Fla.; DE Keyon Brown of Wauchula, Fla.; WR Shakenneth Williams of Macon, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive end Lorenzo Carter of Norcross, Ga., is the top remaining target on the Bulldogs' board. Georgia appears to be in good shape for the five-star prospect. Georgia is also hoping to gain ground with Rashaan Evans.

KENTUCKY

2014 verbal commitments: 25

Spotlight: After being committed to Florida State for a year, defensive end Denzel Ware of Crestview, Fla., committed to Kentucky, before decommitting, and then committing again. He appears solidly committed to the Wildcats and has tremendous upside to match his explosiveness off the line.

ESPN 300 members: 6 (Ware; QB Drew Barker of Hebron Ky.; WR Thaddeus Snodgrass of Springfield, Ohio; RB Stanley Williams of Monroe, Ga.; CB Darius West of Lima, Ohio; CB Kendall Randolph of Tallahassee, Fla.)

Key targets: The Wildcats are still battling Alabama for ESPN 300 defensive tackle Matt Elam and are still in the hunt for fellow ESPN 300 member Travonte Valentine.

LSU

2014 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans was the recruit LSU had to have. Not only is he the nation's No. 1 overall player but he immediately fills the need at running back with Jeremy Hill's departure. His excellent combination of size, speed and strength will get him on the field early in Baton Rouge.

ESPN 300 members: 14 (Fournette; S Jamal Adams of Lewisville, Texas; OG Garrett Brumfield of Baton Rouge, La.; TE Jacory Washington of Westlake, La.; S Devin Voorhies of Woodville, Miss.; OLB Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla.; WR Trey Quinn of Lake Charles, La.; QB Brandon Harris of Bossier City, La.; S Edward Paris Jr. from Arlington, Texas; DE Davon Godchaux of Plaquemine, La.; OLB Donnie Alexander of New Orleans; WR D.J. Chark of Alexandria, La.; DE Deondre Clark of Oklahoma City; WR Tony Upchurch of Pearland, Texas)

Key targets: Five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson is still on the board, as is Lorenzo Carter. ESPN 300 receiver Malachi Dupre is also still in the mix.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: ESPN 300 athlete Jamoral Graham of Decatur, Miss., has been committed for nearly a year and gives the Bulldogs their most versatile commitment. The 5-11, 180-pound Graham has 4.4 speed and can play on both sides of the ball. He will probably end up as a defensive back for the Bulldogs.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Graham; WR Jesse Jackson of Petal, Miss.)

Key targets: Four-star running back Aeris Williams of West Point, Miss., is the top player remaining on the Bulldogs' recruiting board.

MISSOURI

2014 verbal commitments: 25

Spotlight: With the Tigers losing two starting linebackers from the 2013 team, the addition of outside linebacker Brandon Lee of Indianapolis could be big down the road. There will be a lot of competition for those open spots, and Lee has a chance to get some reps, especially with him already being on campus. He has good speed and should fit any scheme once he adds some weight.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Lee; OT Andy Bauer of St. Louis)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford of Hilton Head, S.C., is one of the Tigers' top remaining targets, as is four-star linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla.

OLE MISS

2014 verbal commitments: 26

Spotlight: It won't be easy to replace Donte Moncrief, but adding wide receiver Markell Pack of Purvis, Miss., to the roster will help soften the blow early. He's a natural playmaker who can get to the next level quickly with his speed. He'll need to add some weight when he gets on campus, but he's a major get at a position of need.

ESPN 300 members: 4 (Pack; OG Rod Taylor of Jackson, Miss.; DT Garrald McDowell of Covington, La.; S C.J. Hampton of Meridian, Miss.)

Key targets: There are three top targets remaining for the Rebels, and all of them are ESPN 300 members: defensive end Andrew Williams, safety Steven Parker II and running back Dacorius Law.

SOUTH CAROLINA

2014 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Defensive end Dante Sawyer of Suwanee, Ga., might not be Jadeveon Clowney, but he could help ease the pain of losing that physical freak. One plus about Sawyer is that he's versatile enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, which should allow the Gamecocks to move him around and show different looks to opposing offenses.

ESPN 300 members: 7 (Sawyer; CB D.J. Smith of Marietta, Ga.; TE Kevin Crosby of Bamberg, S.C.; WR Shaquille Davidson of Gaffney, S.C.; OLB Bryson Allen-Williams of Ellenwood, Ga.; OG Donell Stanley of Latta, S.C.; ATH Terry Googer of College Park, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 running back Derrell Scott is still a top target for the Gamecocks, as is cornerback Wesley Green of Lithonia, Ga. Former Florida cornerback commit Chris Lammons is also very much in the picture.

TENNESSEE

2014 verbal commitments: 34

Spotlight: The Vols need to add more athleticism and playmaking ability to the wide receiver position, and Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., could step right in and get a healthy amount of reps this spring. Having him on campus now will help him as he continues to develop into a more sound receiver.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Malone; S Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn.;RB Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville, Tenn.; OLB Dillon Bates Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.; DE Dewayne Hendrix of O'Fallon, Ill.; S Cortez McDowell of Locust Grove, Ga.; ILB Gavin Bryant of Jackson, Ala.; CB D'Andre Payne of Washington, D.C.; ATH Evan Berry of Fairburn, Ga.; DE Derek Barnett of Brentwood, Tenn.)

Key targets: Junior college defensive tackle prospects Calvin Heurtelou and Lance McDowell have become very important targets for the Vols, who need another interior linemen. Tennessee's staff is still going after Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough and Derrell Scott.

TEXAS A&M

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Defensive end Myles Garrett of Arlington, Texas, is a major addition to this Texas A&M class. The Aggies need more playmakers on defense, especially up front, and Garrett, the nation's No. 1-rated defensive end has a chance to compete for immediate playing time and should add more of a presence in the pass rush.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Garrett; ATH Speedy Noil of New Orleans; QB Kyle Allen of Scottsdale, Ariz.; ATH Nick Harvey of Richmond, Texas; WR Frank Iheanacho of Houston; DT DeShawn Washington of Nederland, Texas; DE Qualen Cunningham of Chandler, Ariz.; RB Shaun Nixon of Austin, Texas; ATH Armani Watts of Forney, Texas; OLB Josh Walker of Gilmer, Texas)

Key targets: Safety has become a spot of need, so the Aggies are going after ESPN 300 safeties Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and Mattrell McGraw of River Ridge, La. ESPN 300 linebackers Otaro Alaka and Kenny Young are also still on the board.

VANDERBILT

2014 verbal commitments: 10

Spotlight: Safety Kyle Gibson of Seffner, Fla. would be a major keep for the Commodores. Having to replace a stud like Kenny Ladler won't be easy, but the ESPN 300 member is long, rangy and can cover a ton of ground. He's the kind of player the Commodores need to keep building.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Gibson; RB Dallas Rivers of Stone Mountain, Ga.)

Key targets: What might be the most important thing for new coach Derek Mason is making sure most of the guys currently committed to Vandy stay committed with signing day so close. ESPN 300 wide receiver Trevon Lee of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is visiting this weekend and would be a big get for Mason's first class.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 20, 2014
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The dead period is over, and this was the first of three official visit weekends remaining before national signing day on Feb. 5. Several top prospects visited SEC schools, there were some commits, and there will be a few announcements this week. Here’s a closer look at the latest recruiting news from around the SEC:

Biggest commits: Georgia is already feeling the effects of new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt on the recruiting trail. The Bulldogs were able to land two ESPN Junior 300 commitments, Rico McGraw (Nashville, Tenn./The Ensworth School) and Terry Godwin (Hogansville, Ga./Callaway), over the weekend.


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SEC lunchtime links

January, 15, 2014
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The NFL draft early entry deadline is today, and that leads our news roundup of what's happening around the SEC.

Most important targets: SEC 

January, 8, 2014
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The Southeastern Conference already has commitments from five of the top 10 players in the country and a real possibility of landing two more before signing day. With several key targets still remaining, here’s a look at the top remaining targets in the SEC.

Alabama
CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover)
6-foot, 180 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: 9

Humphrey is a big, athletic cornerback with great size. He would be a natural fit in Nick Saban's system. Florida State is also very much in the picture for the five-star defensive back, and with a national championship in hand, the Seminoles might have the upper hand at the moment. Alabama will have to fight to keep this dynamic defensive back from leaving the state. With his skill set, Humphrey would have a chance to play early on in his career.


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SEC recruiting storylines: Dec. 19 

December, 19, 2013
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Here are five things to watch over the holidays in the SEC:

Fournette set to announce

The nation’s top ranked prospect, running back Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine), is scheduled to announce his decision during the Under Armour All-America Game Jan. 2, which will be on ESPN at 4 p.m. ET. Fournette has made official visits to Texas, LSU and Alabama.

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