SEC: Matt Smith

2012 record: 2-10
2012 conference record: 0-8 (seventh, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Dyshawn Mobley, DT Mister Cobble, DT Donte Rumph, DE Alvin Dupree, LB Avery Williamson

Key losses

RB CoShik Williams, WR La’Rod King, OG Larry Warford, C Matt Smith, DE Collins Ukwu, DE Taylor Wyndham, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Raymond Sanders* (669 yards)
Passing: Maxwell Smith* (975 yards)
Receiving: La’Rod King (488 yards)
Tackles: Avery Williamson* (135)
Sacks: Alvin Dupree* (6.5)
Interceptions: J.D. Harmon* (2)

Spring answers

1. Stout defensive line: New coach Mark Stoops has to be very happy with the foundation he has along his defensive line. There has always been potential with guys like Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, but they've never truly put things together. However, the entire line impressed this spring and should be driving force for Kentucky’s defense. Rumph missed most of spring with a shoulder injury, but should be fine this fall. Having Dupree at end in the new 4-3 scheme now provides the Cats with a top-notch pass-rusher. Add junior-college transfer defensive end Za'Darius Smith, and Kentucky should certainly hold its own up front this fall.

2. Comfort at running back: Stoops is still searching for more playmakers on offense, but he was pretty happy with what he saw from his running backs this spring, especially senior Raymond Sanders and Dyshawn Mobley. Sanders has been around for a while, but he’s battled health issues. Mobley did well last season as a freshman, but really stepped up this spring. Josh Clemons is back from his 2011 knee injury and showed flashes of his old playmaking self at times this spring.

3. Offensive line feeling fine: The Wildcats might have lost two mainstays up front in Larry Warford and Matt Smith, but it sounds like the line did well without them around. Redshirt freshman Zach Myers spent the spring in Matt Smith’s spot, and both tackles -- Kevin Mitchell and Darrian Miller -- return. However, Mitchell worked inside this spring and the very large Jordan Swindle spent the majority of his time at right tackle with the first-team line.

Fall questions

1. Whitlow’s time?: The Cats have a three-headed quarterback competition on their hands, but it sounds like Jalen Whitlow, who was a true freshman last year, has the edge heading into summer workouts. He moved past Maxwell Smith (last year’s starter before injuries ended his season early) and Towles after having the most impressive outing during the spring game. Whitlow really showed a lot of improvement this spring and is probably the most athletic of the three. Still, Stoops has said competition will continue this fall.

2. Searching for a go-to receiver: La'Rod King is gone, so the coaches are searching for someone to be a consistent target for whichever quarterback wins the starting job. There were only six scholarship receivers on the team this spring and there isn’t a ton of experience there. Demarco Robinson returns with 28 catches from last year and has shown that he’s an explosive player, but he has to be more consistent going forward. Daryl Collins is next in line and has shown playmaking flashes as well, but caught just 17 passes last year.

3. Help at linebacker and the secondary: The Cats are thin at linebacker and throughout the secondary. Kentucky lost three starters in the secondary and Dupree moved to defensive line this spring. Avery Williamson will provide an anchor at middle linebacker and Miles Simpson is back on the outside, but there isn’t a lot of experience at linebacker, and Stoops didn’t sign any in his first class. Junior starting safety Ashely Lower's recent car accident has his status for the season unknown, and there isn’t much experience in the secondary. Help is on the way in terms of numbers with the 2013 class, but the youth back there will likely have to deal with a lot of growing pains this fall.

SEC lunch links

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
12:30
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Our Thursday stroll around the SEC:

SEC power rankings: Week 1

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
11:00
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Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

We are just days away from the college football season, so it's time to unveil our first batch of power rankings for the regular season.

A lot goes into our power rankings. It isn't just about how strong teams are right now. We look into our crystal ball as well to get a good read on how each team will finish the season -- before it has even started.

For each school, we look at talent coming back, coaching, roster changes, how teams have looked in practice now compared to the spring and uniform style. Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the point.

Here are our season-opening SEC power rankings for 2012:

1. LSU: The gap between the Tigers and Alabama got a lot smaller after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, so this could be viewed as 1A and 1B. Mathieu is a big loss for LSU on defense and special teams, but there is just way too much talent for this team not to make another title run. LSU's offense still has one of the best/deepest running games around and gets an upgrade with quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU also might have the best offensive line/defensive line combo in the nation.

2. Alabama: The defending champs lost a lot of star power on defense, but that unit should still be pretty darn good this fall. There could be some growing pains at times, but the Tide should still have one of the league's best defensive units this fall. The offense might be better and more balanced this fall, even without Trent Richardson. There is a good stable of backs, the nation's top offensive line and quarterback AJ McCarron has a little more explosiveness and athleticism to work with at receiver.

3. Arkansas: Bobby Petrino is gone, and that could be tough for the Razorbacks to overcome in the long run, but the team has bought in to what interim coach John L. Smith is saying. We still need to see how this team -- and Smith -- acts when adversity enters the picture. The offense has two of the league's best in quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, who is back from a serious ankle injury. Wilson lost three NFL receivers, but his receiving corps doesn't lack talent. Questions still surround the defense, which lacked depth last season.

4. Georgia: A load of talent returns on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Aaron Murray could be a Heisman candidate, while linebacker Jarvis Jones might be one the country's best players, regardless of position. Isaiah Crowell is gone, but the Bulldogs seem happy with their stable of running backs and were probably going to run by committee again this season anyway. The defense will take a hit with a couple of key stars suspended to start the year, but this group has elite status. The schedule is set up again for a run to Atlanta.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a filthy defense headlined by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive line should be one of the best in the league with Clowney and Devin Taylor on the ends and Kelcy Quarles coming back in the middle. The secondary has issues, especially with Akeem Auguste going down, but safety D.J. Swearinger and hybrid safety/linebacker DeVonte Holloman are studs. Marcus Lattimore is one of the nation's best, and he appears to be 100 percent after his ACL injury. The hope is that quarterback Connor Shaw will help take some pressure off of him.

6. Florida: The Gators return a fierce defense that should be strong across the board. End/tackle Dominique Easley is coming off an ACL injury, but has the ability to be one of the top linemen in this league. But for Will Muschamp, his second-year success will be determined by what the offense can do. Questions are everywhere, starting with a quarterback battle that isn't close to being settled. There are unproven pieces at receiver and the offensive line, which returns most of last year's parts, struggled mightily in 2011.

7. Tennessee: The Vols have a chance to challenge Arkansas for the league's best passing game. Tyler Bray can throw it all around a bit and has two potential stars in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to throw to. However, Da'Rick Rogers is gone, which means the pressure is on Hunter, who is coming off an ACL injury, and Patterson, who is in from the juco ranks. The defense has a lot of experience and talent, but four new coaches are on board, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville, and it's no secret that Derek Dooley's seat is very hot there.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of confidence in quarterback Tyler Russell, who can finally call this team his. He'll have quite a bit of experienced weapons to throw to, including seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith, who have combined to catch 221 passes for 2,782 yards and 22 touchdowns in their careers. The running game should be strong with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, while the offensive line is just hoping to stay healthy this year. The defense should be solid with a talented front seven and a very gifted secondary, starring potential All-American Johnthan Banks. The schedule is also very favorable in September and October.

9. Missouri: The newbies don't lack confidence, but on paper they lack size up front -- on both sides. The staff and players say it's not a problem, but let's see come mid-October. Quarterback James Franklin appears to be 100 percent after undergoing shoulder surgery and might be the league's best dual-threat QB. He's the key to a spread offense that returns a lot of speed. The defense is experienced and has a strong linebacker group. Ends Brad Madison and Kony Ealy could form a pretty good tandem this fall.

10. Auburn: The Tigers are still a young team and there are two new coordinators in town. Now that Kiehl Frazier has been named the starting quarterback, the offense can start molding around him. He'll have a solid group of running backs to work with, but the line is young and he needs more reliable receiving targets alongside Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen. The defense is loaded up front, headlined by end Corey Lemonier. But the defense as a whole still has a lot of questionable parts for new coordinator Brian VanGorder to work with.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a new coaching staff, have to replace some key starters from last year and will be working with a very green quarterback in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. The good news for him is that the offensive line is very strong, starting with tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Helping Manziel will be senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and stud running back Christine Michael, who is coming back from an ACL injury. The defense is moving to a 4-3, but is stacked at linebacker. The secondary is dangerously young and thin.

12. Vanderbilt: This team surprised a lot of people last year, but opponents won't be caught off guard by the Commodores in 2012. There is good offensive firepower coming back, with quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Plus, there is some good, young offensive talent. But the offensive line has depth issues and will have to use a lot of young guys this fall. The defense is also replacing some key components from last year's team.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats saw their five-year postseason run end after having the SEC's worst statistical offense in 2011. Joker Phillips thinks he has more potential playmakers this fall and is excited about quarterback Maxwell Smith's potential. The offensive line is younger and can't afford an injury to either Matt Smith or Larry Warford. The defense will be strong up front, but is replacing all four linebackers and two starters in the secondary.

14. Ole Miss: New coach Hugh Freeze isn't working with a lot of numbers, as attrition from the past few years is catching up. The offense was one of the league's worst last year, and still has a quarterback battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti going on. The offensive line struggled mightily to grasp Freeze's spread this spring and has to improve quickly. Receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan have a lot of upside, while the defense should be better, especially in the secondary. Still, depth is an issue overall.

SEC lunch links

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
12:26
PM ET
Making the rounds on a Thursday:
Barrett JonesNed Dishman/Getty ImagesA move to center shouldn't slow Alabama's Barrett Jones, last season's Outland Trophy winner.
Our preseason SEC position rankings continue with the big uglies. The real muscle down in the trenches. Offensive lines are crucial in every level of football, but teams seriously do live and die by the play of their offensive lines in the SEC.

Past rankings:
On to the SEC's offensive line groups:

1. Alabama: Four starters return (with 95 combined starts), there's size, there's athleticism and this line just screams first-round NFL talent, starting with mammoth tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack. Reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones is moving to center, but with his versatility he should excel there. Add former top recruit Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle and this is arguably the country's top offensive line.

2. LSU: Like Alabama, this line is full of experience, as four starters return and so does Josh Dworaczyk, who was granted a sixth-year after a knee injury caused him to miss all of 2011. Some think he was LSU's best lineman before last season began. Tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst are two of the best in the league and center P.J. Lonergan is tough to beat. Former highly-touted recruit La'El Collins should also contend for time this fall, too.

3. Texas A&M: This could be the strength of the team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is a future first-rounder, while right tackle Jake Mathews has All-SEC potential. Senior center Patrick Lewis provides a very sturdy anchor in the middle. Guards Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi are young, but both got good experience last year, as Harrison started five games and Ogbuehi started six. Depth could be an issue, as most reserves are younger.

4. Arkansas: The Hogs have one of the better center-guard combos in the league in Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey. Both have received preseason accolades and should be even better in 2012. Sophomore tackle Brey Cook came in with a lot of hype and if he develops in his second season, this line will be really good. Sophomore Mitch Smothers proved he can play just about anywhere and big left tackle Jason Peacock is back, but is still in the doghouse after his arrest this spring.

5. South Carolina: Replacing Rokevious Watkins at left tackle won't be easy, but the staff feels like redshirt freshman Brandon Shell might be the man for the job. He's incredibly talented and athletic and improved his blocking ability during his redshirt year. Center T.J. Johnson and guard A.J. Cann are coming off of solid seasons, but the right side has questions. Right tackle Mike Matulis started five games last year, but missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery and right guard Ronald Patrick recorded zero starts last year.

6. Tennessee: The good news is that everyone is back. The bad news is this is the same line that was incredibly inconsistent last year in the run game, as Tennessee ranked 116th in rushing offense. However, the staff feels it has a better lineup with the emergence of sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle. Stud Dallas Thomas moves to left guard and Ja'Wuan James, who has started 25 games at right tackle, provides some good stability. The line has 99 combined starts and allowed just 18 sacks last year, but the proving ground with this group is establishing that it can come off the ball and be a better running team.

7. Missouri: The Tigers lost three starters from last year, but that doesn't mean Mizzou is without experience. Old man Elvis Fisher was granted a sixth year after last year's season-ending knee injury and will provide a major boost at left tackle. And three other linemen return with starting experience from last year: tackle Justin Britt, who took over Fisher's spot last year, and guards Jack Meiners and Travis Ruth. One thing to keep an eye on is the line's durability. The average weight of this group is roughly 295 pounds.

8. Auburn: Three starters return to a line that has a ton of young depth. Center Reese Dismukes is the anchor and one of the top centers in the league. Guard John Sullen and tackle Chad Slade combined for 21 starts last year. The staff really likes redshirt freshman Greg Robinson at left tackle and former top recruit Christian Westerman will compete for time after sitting out last year. Guard Eric Mack made strides this spring before he was shot near the hip during the tragic shooting that occurred near Auburn's campus in June.

9. Mississippi State: Injuries and constant reshuffling along the line caused the Bulldogs' offense to struggle for most of last season. Three starters are gone, but junior guard Gabe Jackson, who is one of the league's best, is back and so is right guard Tobias Smith. If Smith, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early last year, is healthy, this line should be very strong along the interior. Dillon Day started six games last year and returns at center, while junior college transfers Charles Siddoway and Dylan Holley are pushing for time.

10. Florida: The Gators return four starters to a line that struggled all last season. Will Muschamp said he saw vast improvement up front this spring, but tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan must show more consistency and leadership. Jonotthan Harrison is solid at center and guard Jon Halapio has improved each year. Sophomore tackle Chaz Green and impressive early enrollee D.J. Humphries will compete for time as well.

[+] EnlargeKenarious Gates
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.com Georgia may have O-line questions, but likely none concerning junior Kenarious Gates.
11. Georgia: Yet again the Bulldogs have questions up front. Junior Kenarious Gates is very versatile and athletic and is Georgia's most reliable lineman. The staff was pleased with guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette coming out of spring, but a lot is riding on sophomore David Andrews making it at center. If he has to move, Burnette will have to move to center and more reshuffling will come. Inexperience is worrisome and true freshman John Theus should get plenty of chances to take one of the tackle spots.

12. Vanderbilt: Thanks to offensive line coach Herb Hand, this group was one of the most improved in the league last year. He'll have a tall task again with a lot of youth and inexperience. Left tackle Wesley Johnson is one of the most underrated linemen out there, while Ryan Seymour has been solid up front. The right side has issues and the depth is a concern. Injuries made it tough for this line to get through spring practice, and six freshmen are coming in to compete for spots during fall camp.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost three starters from a line that struggled throughout 2011, but vets Larry Warford and Matt Smith are back to provide a solid center-guard combo. However, they'll be asked to help a cluster of youngsters. The left side is gone and will be replaced by youngsters Zach West (redshirt freshman) and Darrian Miller (sophomore). Right tackle Kevin Mitchell started just one game last year. Any sort of injury up front would be devastating for the Cats.

14. Ole Miss: This is arguably the Rebels' weakest position. Hugh Freeze wasn't thrilled with the line this spring, continuing to say it didn't handle the offense's tempo well. Guard Matt Hall, who had double-digit starts last year, left the team this spring. Center Evan Swindall was Ole Miss' most consistent lineman this spring, while senior A.J. Hawkins moved to guard. Comfort was an issue for everyone, and the tackle spots were filled this spring by Emmanuel McCray, who missed all of last season, and JUCO transfer Pierce Burton.
The SEC has seven players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, which is presented annually to the nation's most outstanding tight end.

Here are the seven SEC players who made the Mackey watch list:
For the full Mackey watch list, go here.

The SEC leads the nation with 10 players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the nation's most outstanding center.

Here are the 10 SEC players:
For the full Rimington watch list, go here.
If the 2012 Rimington Trophy watch list is any indication, it should be a banner year for centers in the SEC.

Nine SEC players were named on the list of 50. The Rimington Trophy is awarded annually to the top center in college football.

The last SEC player to win the Rimington Trophy was Florida's Maurkice Pouncey in 2009.

The nine SEC players making the watch list this year were:

Kentucky spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
10:00
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2011 record: 5-7
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters:: offense: 6; defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners:
C Matt Smith, OG Larry Warford, WR La’Rod King, QB Maxwell Smith, RB CoShik Williams, DE Collins Ukwu, DT Donte Rumph, DT Mister Cobble, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton

Key losses:
OT Chandler Burden, OG Stuart Hines, OT Billy Joe Murphy, WR Matt Roark, LB Ronnie Sneed, LB Danny Trevathan, LB Ridge Wilson, CB Anthony Mosley, S Winston Guy, CB Randall Burden

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: CoShik Williams* (486 yards)
Passing: Maxwell Smith* (819 yards)
Receiving: La'Rod King* (598 yards)
Tackles: Danny Trevathan (143)
Sacks: Trevathan (3)
Interceptions: Trevathan (4)

Spring answers

1. Finding more playmakers: Coach Joker Phillips feels like he has more firepower to work with on offense again. After struggling mightily to find consistent playmakers on offense in 2011, Phillips left spring with more confidence about players he felt he could rely on going forward. The biggest standout was receiver Demarco Robinson. He became one of the most consistent players at practice and caught nine passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Also, freshman receiver Daryl Collins surprised coaches with his playmaking ability. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson also stepped up and should help take pressure off of Kentucky's running game.

2. Adjusting to Minter's defense: Strides were definitely made by Kentucky's defense in Year 1 with Rick Minter, but it looks like the defense felt even more comfortable in it this spring. While there is still work to do and bodies to replace, Minter has said he sees more aggression and attitude out of this unit. The defensive line also progressed this spring and could finally be the strength of this unit. The goal is for Kentucky's defense to be a much more physical and tougher group and both Minter and Phillips see it shifting that way.

3. Caffey's move: Kentucky entered the spring trying to replace two starters at cornerback, so the staff moved running back Marcus Caffey there. The experiment appeared to work, as Caffey was one of the more impressive looking players this spring. He caught on quickly at his new position and ended the spring as a starter. He's also a bigger body and the coaches say he's very durable. Both will come in handy against bigger receivers in this league.

Fall questions

1. Offensive line: Three starters up front had to be replaced this spring and the Wildcats ended practice knowing that the offensive line is still a work in progress. There is leadership and experience in Larry Warford and Matt Smith, but after that there's a lot of inexperience. Behind Warford and Smith, rising sophomore Darrian Miller and junior-to-be Kevin Mitchell combined for three starts last year. There were bright spots here and there this spring, but the inexperience up front is still a concern for coaches heading into the offseason.

2. Defensive holes: While the Wildcats got more comfortable in the defense, there are still a lot of missing starters at linebacker and in the secondary. There will be four new starting linebackers, including the Spur, and two new starting corners. The coaches feel good about Caffey at corner, but questions still remain at the other corner spot. Players must also replace the production created by Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Ridge Wilson, who was dismissed this spring. They accounted for 310 tackles, including 28.5 for loss. Alvin Dupree and Avery Williamson turned heads at linebacker, but Malcolm McDuffen and Miles Simpson struggled to fill in for Trevathan and Guy and could be pushed by incoming freshmen.

3. Smith as the guy: Outside of the spring game, Maxwell Smith had a pretty impressive spring in Lexington. He seemed to develop his game the way the coaches wanted and needed him too, but his mistakes in the spring game brought some worry. He rushed his play and reverted back to some bad habits. While he'd be the starter if the season started today, the coaches hinted that the race is still open with Morgan Newton coming back from shoulder surgery and incoming freshman Patrick Towles arriving this summer. Smith might have improved, but Newton and Towles will get every chance to win the starting job. If Smith regresses again, he might fail to win the job he thinks is his to lose.
Joker Phillips isn’t sugarcoating anything when he talks about Kentucky’s ugly 14-3 win against Western Kentucky.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Newton
Jim Brown/US PresswireMorgan Newton and the Kentucky offense never hit stride in a 14-3 win against Western Kentucky.
It wasn’t pretty and there were way too many offensive mistakes. Phillips has acknowledged as much this week. He watched like the rest of us as his offense, led by junior quarterback Morgan Newton, sputtered along in Nashville.

Kentucky gained a SEC-low 190 yards of offense, including an SEC-worst 97 yards passing. Newton, who started most of his freshman season, was expected to have good command of the offense, but struggled to find in any sort of rhythm. He finished the game with three interceptions to one touchdown.

His passing was more erratic than normal and when he did hit receivers, they had trouble holding onto the ball.

The lack of a passing threat caused Kentucky’s running game (93 yards) to stall more most of the game.

“It’s been said that we’re a better throwing team, but our offense starts with our running game and we could never get our running game going to open up the passing game,” Phillips said. “Once we dropped back, we didn’t do a very good job of protecting.”

One offensive bright spot was freshman running back Josh Clemons, who led Kentucky with 39 rushing yards and a touchdown. Phillips said he wanted to get Clemons the ball more, but because of the way the game went he couldn’t.

Phillips expects that to change from here on out and wants Clemons to be more of a factor.

The main focus for Kentucky’s defense this week has been cleaning up the mistakes -- and we’re talking major spring-cleaning here.

Throwing, running, blocking and catching need to improve, Phillips said, putting pretty much everyone on offense on notice.

What doesn’t help is that the offensive line is more banged up now than it was heading into the season. Center Matt Smith, who missed the opener with an undisclosed injury, is doubtful this weekend against Central Michigan and right tackle Billy Joe Murphy, who was healthy heading into the season, is also doubtful after suffering a knee injury in last week’s game.

Redshirt freshman Teven Eatmon-Nared could get the start at right tackle if Murphy can’t go.

But don’t count on Phillips using injuries up front as an excuse.

“We’re banged up, but a lot of people are this time of the year,” he said. “We expect production not to drop off, especially the way it did last week. We expect those guys to go in and play like veterans when they get a chance and we did not do that last week.”

One thing that keeps Phillips hopeful is the play of his defense. The defense didn’t allow the Hilltoppers to find the end zone and forced four turnovers.

If the defense keeps this up and the offense finds a spark, Phillips likes the Wildcats’ chances this fall.

“The way our defense is playing right now, you could win a lot of games if we score 14 points and those guys do what they did last week with shutting people down,” he said.

SEC media days: One good thing

July, 22, 2011
7/22/11
9:30
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AUBURN: The defending national champion Tigers won't have to look far for motivation in 2011. They've heard from their own coaches all spring and all offseason that "all the good players are gone."

Not that anybody on the Plains really believes that, but it's made for some fierce competition on the practice field and in the weight room.

It's also driven the returning players to prove that the foundation of the Auburn football program remains rock-solid despite the departure of Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, Antoine Carter, Josh Bynes, Lee Ziemba, Darvin Adams and 30-some other players who were on the roster in Glendale, Ariz., in January.

"We lost some great players, no doubt," Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. "But we have a lot of other talented players who've just been waiting for their shot. Nobody expected us to do what we did last year, so why would this year be any different?"

GEORGIA: It's no secret that Georgia's depth on the offensive line has taken a considerable hit.

It started with Trinton Sturdivant's third torn ACL in the spring and continued with A.J. Harmon and Brent Benedict both leaving the program.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, though, is more interested in who he will have this fall up front, and it's a unit that's anchored by a guy, Ben Jones, whom Richt calls the "best center in America."

Richt knew from the time Jones attended Georgia's football camp that the Bulldogs were getting a great one.

"We're doing a little pass-rush drill," Richt said. "He's just whooping everybody. Finally, I stepped in and said, 'Look, I want every defensive lineman to line up. One by one, I want you to go against Ben, play after play after play.

"After about I don't know how many, 10 or 12, he was finally exhausted and somebody beat him. But he's a fierce competitor. He's mean as a snake on the field, but he knows what he's doing. He's a great leader. He's a great football player. I'm glad we got him."

KENTUCKY: A year ago, it was the Randall Cobb Show at Kentucky with Derrick Locke, Chris Matthews and Mike Hartline all playing supporting roles.

This year, it might not be as flashy offensively for the Wildcats (unless you like the big guys up front), but they enter the 2011 season with one of the best and most experienced offensive lines in the league.

"Everybody knows that's where it starts … in your offensive line," said Kentucky junior quarterback Morgan Newton, who enters his first season as the full-time starter.

Stuart Hines and Larry Warford form perhaps the best guard tandem in the SEC, while center Matt Smith and left tackle Chandler Burden are also returning starters.

"We've all played together for two years now," Hines said. "We trust each other. We rely on each other, and we want it to be on our shoulders this year."

TENNESSEE: Quarterback Tyler Bray did a lot of things right last season as a true freshman.

He threw 16 touchdown passes while starting the final five games and led the Vols to a 4-1 record.

He also threw seven interceptions in his last three games and beat up on four teams (Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky) who won a combined 13 games.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is as anxious as anybody to see what kind of encore his strong-armed sophomore has and whether he's ready to enter the next stage as a quarterback.

"He's made a tremendous investment in getting better, having a better command of the offense, being able to make better decisions and putting our offense in better positions," Dooley said. "It's only going to come with experience."
Workout numbers are always nice to look at, and he who wins the bench-press battle, usually wins a heap of respect.

But while cranking out the reps and stacking the weight might be the top priority for some athletes when they step into the gym, Ray “Rock” Oliver, who is in his first year with the Kentucky Wildcats as the director of strength and conditioning, likes to add emphasis to another area when the workouts begin.

The size he’s most concerned about is the girth of is athletes’ necks.

A neck doesn’t help you run faster, jump higher or throw farther, but it does provide some extra safety in the violent game that is football.

[+] EnlargeRaymond Sanders
Mark Zerof/US PresswireKentucky is hoping Raymond Sanders' improvement in the weight room will translate to success on the field.
“The No. 1 mechanism that’s absorbing a lot of the shock is the neck, so we need to get that bigger,” said Oliver, who joined Kentucky’s strength staff after spending the past six seasons as the associate strength and conditioning coach with the Cincinnati Bengals. “We’re really proud of that. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have ever been talking about that. Ten years ago, I would have been talking about our bench [press] and our vertical jumps.”

But Oliver -- and the rest of his staff -- is more concerned with protecting his players during head-on collisions.

Kentucky’s staff makes the neck a gym priority by working it out every other day with lateral raises, shrugs and flexing exercises.

Oliver said his goal is to add one-half to three-fourths of an inch to each player’s neck in the span of a year. That might sound silly to some, but Oliver said there’s nothing foolish about wanting to strengthen and thicken the cylinder that holds the head.

“It’s the No. 1 concern of mine,” he said.

Oliver also prides himself on the amount of lean muscle mass his athletes have been able to put on each year during offseason training sessions.

“If you want to really want to find out if you’re doing your job, put 15 to 16 pounds of lean muscle mass on a kid in a year,” Oliver said. “That’s where me and my staff take great pride in.”

With a late bowl game, Kentucky’s football team started lifting together four weeks before spring practice began, Oliver said. But when spring ball began, he could tell the gym work was paying off.

Some examples include defensive end Collins Ukwu making vast improvements to his playing shape, running back Raymond Sanders adding some needed bulk and center Matt Smith has increased his weight in 75 percent of his workouts.

As a whole, Oliver said the Wildcats entered spring in much better shape. That was a good and bad thing to Oliver. He was both happy and irked by the fact that 95 percent of the team passed the conditioning test.

The good news was that almost the entire team was able to beat the time needed to pass a test consisting of 16 grueling gassers -- that’s 10 more than Oliver was told the majority of the team could get through a year ago.

The bad news was that the Wildcats were starting to become immune to Oliver’s rigorous training.

“I was pissed off because we only wanted 5 percent to pass,” he joked. “But we worked them extremely hard.”

The Wildcats are undergoing a lot of changes in Lexington, and Oliver wants to make sure he does his part by making this one of the most well-conditioned and strongest teams in the SEC.

“The most important thing for us is to get guys to buy into a certain way of working and take pride in everything that we do and to take pride into the others that excel, as well as yourself,” he said.

“We work extremely hard to make sure each individual gets his maximum full potential based off his varied potential.”

Seven SEC centers on Rimington list

May, 19, 2011
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Seven of the SEC's 12 starting centers are on the 2011 Rimington Trophy spring watch list.

The Rimington Trophy is presented annually to the top center in college football. There are a total of 42 players on the spring watch list.

Making the cut from the SEC were Ole Miss' A.J. Hawkins, South Carolina's T.J. Johnson, Georgia's Ben Jones, LSU's P.J. Lonergan, Kentucky's Matt Smith, Arkansas' Travis Swanson and Alabama's William Vlachos.

Hope and concern: Kentucky

May, 5, 2011
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Today we look at what could power the Wildcats and what could hold them back this fall:

Biggest reason for hope: Veteran offensive line

The Wildcats are breaking in a new quarterback and running back this fall. What better way to boost their confidence than having the strength of the team be the big uglies up front? Kentucky returns four starters from a year ago and they aren't just experienced, they're big. The returning starters -- Chandler Burden, Stuart Hines, Matt Smith and Larry Warford -- average nearly 310 pounds across the line. Another good thing going for the Wildcats' line is that Jake Lanefski can play each position. He's listed as a center, but can play guard and tackle as well. Kentucky's offense lost a bit of its firepower from last year, so it will have to heavily lean on this line to keep it going this fall.

Biggest reason for concern: Unproven wide receivers

While Kentucky's coaching staff feels like starting quarterback Morgan Newton has the talent to be a star for the Wildcats, there isn't a ton of trust in the receivers he'll be throwing to. Losing Randall Cobb was a major blow to Kentucky's offense, and besides La'Rod King -- the only wide receiver with any real experience -- no one really stood out this spring at the receiver position. Making matters worse was that there were about 10 drops by Newton's receivers during the spring game. It didn't help that junior Gene McCaskill missed all of spring. There were improvements made by Brian Adams and Matt Roark, but Adams spent time playing baseball as well this spring. There aren't a lot of catches in Kentucky's receiver stable and that is worrisome around Lexington.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There were a few times this spring when Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton dropped back to pass and looked for No. 18.

The only problem was that he was usually somewhere on the sideline watching in street clothes.

Randall Cobb, who will be in New York City later this week at the NFL draft waiting for his name to be called, was the ultimate bail-out player the past few seasons for the Wildcats.

You could throw it to him, snap it to him, hand it off to him, and if none of those worked, he could always throw it.

He was the quintessential playmaker.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Newton
AP Photo/Butch DillMorgan Newton will have the luxury of operating behind an experienced offensive line in 2011.
“Sometimes you just wanted to tell him to jump back in there and run some of those old plays,” Newton joked. “Randall has been great and great for the receivers. It’s tough not having him out there, but we know what the standard is now and have some other guys who can step up and make plays.”

Perhaps so, but one of coach Joker Phillips’ biggest concerns coming out of the spring centered around who those guys would be on a consistent basis.

It wasn’t a stirring end to the spring for the Wildcats’ receivers, although Brian Adams made the most of his time on the football field while also playing baseball.

Sophomore Raymond Sanders emerged as Kentucky’s go-to running back this spring and also showcased his versatility, and Phillips can’t wait to get a look at incoming freshman running backs Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons.

But if you’re looking for the epicenter of Kentucky’s offense next season, look no further than the five guys up front.

The Wildcats return four starters on their offensive line, and two other seniors who’ve played a lot of football for them and are capable of playing different positions.

It’s an offensive line that should be one of the best in the SEC after finishing second in the league a year ago in sacks allowed (19 in 13 games) and paving the way for the Wildcats to finish fourth in total offense.

“That’s always a good place to start, when you think you have a chance to match up with anybody you play up front,” Phillips said. “We’ll lean on those guys a lot next season.”

Senior Chandler Burden returns at left tackle. He wasn’t supposed to do much this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but returned for the final part of practice. Also back is junior center Matt Smith, who’ll be flanked by one of the better guard tandems in college football.

Junior Larry Warford plays right guard and was a second-team All-SEC selection a year ago. Senior Stuart Hines has 24 starts over the past two seasons and will be the Wildcats’ left guard.

Senior Billy Joe Murphy made starts at left tackle, right tackle and left guard last season, but will settle in at right tackle next season. Senior Jake Lanefski also returns and can play center or guard.

“We’re all on the same page with each other and are really starting to learn to play together even more than last year,” said Hines, one of the strongest leaders on the team. “We’re able to communicate well, and even if we don’t get calls made, we’re still able to be on the same page. I know the center is going to still be on his block.

“What that does with our young running backs coming up is hopefully give them confidence to run behind us.”

This will also be offensive line coach Mike Summers’ second year with this group, and Hines points out that Burden was just learning to play offensive line a year ago after moving over from defense.

“We have a solid group of guys who are continuing to learn, and continuity makes a big difference,” Hines said. “At this point last year, we’d only been together for 15 practices and only 15 practices with Coach Summers as well. We hadn’t really come together as a group yet, but now we’re really starting to come together as a unit and know what he expects from us.”

Hines welcomes the offensive burden being on the line’s shoulders next season.

With so many veterans returning, he said that’s the way it should be.

“We’re a group of guys who will take the blame if we have a bad game,” Hines said. “Put it on us. We can take it.

“It’s on us to give everybody a chance to make the kind of plays Randall and Derrick [Locke] did last season, and that’s the way we want it.”

Kentucky may lean on offensive line

March, 29, 2011
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Most of the questions surrounding Kentucky this spring center around who will make the plays next season for the Wildcats.

That’s understandable when you lose the likes of quarterback Mike Hartline, running back Derrick Locke and receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews. Cobb was the quintessential playmaker for the Wildcats the last two years.

What’s not being talked about as much, and probably should be, is that Kentucky returns what could be one of the better offensive lines in the SEC next season.

Kentucky was vastly underrated up front a year ago, as Mike Summers did a terrific job in his first season as the Wildcats' offensive line coach. Despite having to replace four starters, they finished second in the league in sacks allowed (19 in 13 games) and paved the way for Kentucky to finish fourth in the league in total offense and fifth in scoring offense.

Returning are four starters from that unit -- senior left tackle Chandler Burden, senior left guard Stuart Hines, junior center Matt Smith and junior right guard Larry Warford, who was a second-team All-SEC selection a year ago. Hines, who battled through injuries, also got some All-SEC mention.

The Wildcats will be experienced up front in 2011, and they also have some depth that will allow them to move some guys around in case of injuries.

Senior Jake Lanefski, who started four games at right guard in 2008, will be the swing guy. He can play center or guard.

Senior Billy Joe Murphy slides in for Brad Durham at right tackle. Murphy can play both guard and tackle and has started nine games during his career. He ended last season as the starter at left tackle.

Burden, who started his career as a defensive end, is still recovering from shoulder surgery and isn’t going through the spring. His absence has allowed the Kentucky coaches to get a closer look at redshirt freshman Teven Eatmon-Nared, who’s getting a lot of work at left tackle. The 6-7 Eatmon-Nared is up to 325 pounds after coming to Kentucky as a tight end.

Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said sophomore Kevin Mitchell also had a good offseason. The 6-6 Mitchell has trimmed down to 310 pounds and is another guy who could play guard or tackle.

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