SEC: Michael Williams

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Consistency has been the hallmark of the tight end position at Alabama since Nick Saban arrived in 2007.

Michael Williams was as dependable as they come, starting 41 games in his four years on campus. He was big, hard-nosed and reliable, a force blocking downhill in the running game and a sure-handed target in the red zone. Brad Smelley and Preston Dial before him were the same way, blue-collar players who put their hand on the ground and went to work everyday.

Brian Vogler doesn't want that identity to change. Rather, he'd like to see it evolve.

[+] EnlargeBrian Vogler
Greg McWilliams/Getty ImagesBrian Vogler hopes he can play a big role in Alabama's offense.
A former four-star prospect out of Georgia, Vogler signed with Alabama in 2010 and watched the progression of the tight end position from afar. And like those before him, his No. 1 point of pride is his work ethic. No. 2 is his intelligence. He may not be the fastest or the most athletic, he admits, but he wants to bring a little something different to the table this season as the presumptive starter.

"Each year you have a different mold of a guy," he explained. "When you watch film on each guy, you try to take something they do and bring it into your game. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to pull everything I see out of their talents and try to mix it in my game."

At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, his size is the first thing you notice. And despite what he'd describe as lackluster athleticism, he can move. A former high school basketball player, he knows how to create space and use his long arms to shield defenders. That's only translated to three career receptions thus far, but that should change as he becomes a focal point of the offense.

Nick Saban called Vogler "one of the top conditioned guys coming back from summer," and praised his ability to sustain. Much of fall camp has been about promoting mental toughness for Alabama's seventh-year head coach, and he was able to point to Vogler on Tuesday as an example of just that.

"You create your own standard of superiority whatever you're trying to do," Saban said. "But the challenge is, Can you sustain that? Can you continue to do it with consistency and consistency in performance? That's one thing that he has, the mental toughness and maturity to do so it allows you to continue to improve."

Trust has never been in short supply at the tight end position for Saban. Unfortunately the ability to create big plays has.

If there's been one noticeable gap in Alabama's offense in recent years, it's been that no tight end has had more than 35 catches in a season since 2007. This past year was an all-time low as Williams and Co. combined for a paltry 33 catches and 249 yards. Meanwhile a new wave of tight ends like Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert snagged 50 receptions and 685 yards.

Vogler isn't likely to develop into that type of player overnight. But combined with backups Harrison Jones, O.J. Howard and Jalston Fowler, the position could become more potent in 2013.

Fowler's transition to a utility running back/fullback/H-back role was cut short by season-ending knee surgery last season, but now he's back where he left off, according to Vogler, who called the bowling ball of a back a "hard-hitting guy who's not afraid of anybody."

"That's the exact same guy you're going to see at the H-back position," he said.

Fowler's ability to play multiple spots on the field could be of use to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Fowler said he had begged coaches to let him catch the football, and last year they finally listened. After having things end tragically, he said he's coming out with something to prove.

"I've got a big chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm trying to show the world what I'm worth."

The wild card in it all is Howard, an early enrollee who came to campus in January and immediately began making waves. If there's anyone on the roster capable of taking the tight end position into the 21st century, it's him. A former four-star recruit, he was a "monster on tape," according to scouts. He has the size at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds to dominate cornerbacks and the track-level speed to blow by linebackers.

Vogler called Howard a "whole new dimension to this offense" in the spring and praised his athleticism and ability to run after the catch. If he made the right kind of progress, Vogler said he thought he'd be a viable part of the offense.

On Tuesday, Vogler revisited the subject, praising the way the former blue-chip prospect has come into camp eager to do all the little things right.

"He's working really hard," Vogler said. "He asks me questions if he has any problems or wants to know how to do things. He's one of those guys that comes into work everyday with a really good work ethic and tries to learn."

Looking back at the Senior Bowl

January, 28, 2013
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The South defeated the North 21-16 this past Saturday in the Senior Bowl, and there was a huge SEC representation in the game.

Here are a few highlights from the game and the week:
  • Alabama tight end Michael Williams caught a 20-yard touchdown pass on a nice over-the-shoulder grab from Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel, who was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.
  • Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson completed 8 of 11 passes for 40 yards.
  • Georgia noseguard John Jenkins was among the five best players during the week of practice, according to ESPN analyst Todd McShay.
  • Florida running back Mike Gillislee and Kentucky guard Larry Warford also helped their draft stock with strong performances during the week, according to McShay. Gillislee impressed with his instincts and quickness, while Warford further established himself as one of the top guards in the draft.
  • Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton was impressive during red zone work during the week. Kevin Weidl of Scouts Inc. said Hamilton scored points with how physical he was in his route running, his strong hands and his ability to use his frame to shield defenders from the ball. Weidl said Hamilton was able to consistently win battles in the red zone.
  • Gillislee rushed for 46 yards on 10 carries.
  • Williams caught two passes for 39 yards.
  • Georgia receiver Tavarres King caught two passes for 19 yards.
Our group of ESPN scouts are down in Mobile, Ala., checking out all those lovely Senior Bowl practices. A bunch of SEC players are out competing and here's a little of what people are saying about them:
  • It appears that Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson made up for a shaky second day of Senior Bowl practices. After fluttering a few passes and struggling with his accuracy earlier in the week, Wilson was more on point Wednesday. He might not have the best arm strength, but he will certainly help his draft stock if he continues to zip the ball down the field like he did Wednesday.
  • SEC linebackers continue to make noise down in Mobile. Missouri's Zaviar Gooden was described by ESPN scouts as "an absolute freak of an athlete" and really impressed people with his speed. He might have impressive athleticism, but our scouts noted that he still finds himself out of position at times. Gooden played in and started in 10 games last fall, collecting 61 total tackles, including four for loss. Texas A&M's Sean Porter continues to impress, according to scouts, while Alabama's Nico Johnson has shown flashes against the run, but has struggled in coverage.
  • On the offensive side, Alabama tight end Michael Williams might have separated himself as the top blocking tight end, but he's having issues getting that same separation when it comes to making catches and plays. Florida running back Mike Gillislee is showing the same sort of toughness on his runs that he showed during the season and was praised for his "instincts and quickness."

The 2008 signing class turned the Tide

November, 21, 2012
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The bulk of Alabama’s 2008 signing class is gone, but a few key contributors remain.

Center Barrett Jones, tight end Michael Williams, defensive end Damion Square and safety Robert Lester are the four holdovers, and they have a chance to do something that no other class in SEC history has done.

Win three outright national championships.

Jones, Williams, Square and Lester will be among the nine Alabama seniors saying farewell to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. They came in as part of the 2008 class, but all four redshirted that first season.

It’s a class that also included the likes of Julio Jones, Mark Barron, Mark Ingram, Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.

Alabama coach Nick Saban didn’t hold back Wednesday when asked what that class has meant to the program.

“It’s probably the best recruiting class I’ve ever been associated with or a part of assembling,” Saban said. “The evaluation was good, and the development of the players was really good. Lot of good people in that class.

“Obviously, the amount of success they’ve had indicates the competitive character they have and the kind of people they are as well as their ability.”

Going back to their redshirt freshman season in 2009, Jones, Williams, Square and Lester are 46-5 with two national championships and a third victory in the Capital One Bowl.

“(The 2008 class) was the key to getting things turned around here,” Saban said.


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The scoreboard read like just another day at the office for Alabama, but Saturday night’s performance meant so much more to the No. 1 team in the nation.

It would have been easy for Alabama to coast through this one and grind out things in the fourth quarter, as it did against Missouri last week.

But the Crimson Tide didn’t come close to that. With their most balanced offensive performance of the season and yet another tremendous effort from their defense, the Tide pounded Tennessee 44-13 by playing arguably their most complete game of the season.

With top-15 opponents Mississippi State and LSU coming up in consecutive weeks, this was exactly the kind of performance Alabama needed going forward.

“We came in with a game plan and we executed it,” tight end Michael Williams said. “We like to come out and impose our will on our opponent, and we did that to the best of our abilities tonight.”

Previous games were mere tuneups for what lies ahead. Now, Alabama’s true tests come, and the difference between the SEC and more lies within the next two weeks. Heading into Saturday, questions still remained. Alabama did a great job of answering them.

Everyone harped on Alabama’s passing. On Saturday, quarterback AJ McCarron couldn’t throw it enough, as he passed for a career-high 306 yards and had four touchdowns on 17-of-22 passing.

People wondered how Alabama’s secondary would fare against a talented passing game. It shined, as Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson were targeted 14 times but combined for five catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Randy Sartin/US PresswireAJ McCarron answered doubts about Alabama's passing with four TDs and a career-high 306 yards.
Tyler Bray threw for just 184 yards and two interceptions.

And the young offensive playmakers are getting better, as receiver Amari Cooper led all receivers with 162 yards and two touchdowns, and T.J. Yeldon led all rushers with 129 yards and two scores.

Players knew how important it was to come out and have everything click before Alabama's upcoming stretch. A rusty win only makes for longer film sessions and more pressing. This team had to have a complete game before facing the Bulldogs and Tigers.

After Saturday, Alabama is showing the systematic separation between not just its opponents, but the rest of the nation.

“We played all four quarters of Alabama football tonight,” center Barrett Jones said.

People nitpicked at the offense being too run-oriented, but it was as balanced as ever Saturday. McCarron was asked to pass more and showed he certainly doesn’t have a problem slinging the ball.

“Everybody’s gotta understand, we’re gonna take what the defense gives us,” McCarron said. “One week, we might have to run it, and the next week, we might have to throw it. Tonight, we got them on their heels a little and we were able to do both really well.”

So well that it even had coach Nick Saban consenting that this was his team’s most complete game.

“I was really pleased with how our guys played for 60 minutes in the game, and we know that’s what it would take,” Saban said. “They kept grinding, and we finally got control of the game.”

Alabama’s recovery was splendid, as well. Adversity hadn’t really hit this team until Saturday, but the Tide always responded, as the offense scored touchdowns directly after three drives that ended without scores and the defense erased big plays almost immediately after they occurred.

Tennessee averaged just 4 yards on the plays right after the Vols’ four pass plays that went for 20-plus yards. One play was a 2-yard touchdown, while only one other drive led to a score -- a 32-yard field goal.

Trouble didn’t bother Alabama.

“We did an excellent job doing that, forgetting about the big plays and making all big plays on defense,” said safety Robert Lester, who intercepted Bray in the end zone three plays after a 44-yard Hunter reception in the third.

Alabama wasn’t perfect, but it played its most well-rounded game without a lull in its performance. That’s what this team has waited for. It’s more focused and it’s getting better at the most important time of the season.

Lunchtime links

August, 15, 2012
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Taking a look around the SEC on a Wednesday.

Video: Alabama tight end Michael Williams

August, 1, 2012
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video

Edward Aschoff talks with Alabama tight end Michael Williams.
HOOVER, Ala. -- The talk won't go away. Alabama versus LSU, two games that defined a college football season, isn't going away anytime soon.

Eight months after Round 1, Alabama tight end Michael Williams is still asked about the touchdown he had wrestled from him by LSU safety Eric Reed. Six months after Round 2, Alabama coach Nick Saban can't get through an interview without being asked whether a team that didn't win a conference championship should play for the BCS title.

At SEC media days Saban didn't do much to sidestep the controversy that's burned through the offseason and into the start of Alabama's 2012 campaign. Never mind that the Crimson Tide wiped the Superdome floor with the Tigers, the question remains if they should even have been there.

"To me, it should prove the value of a good football team who loses a game, loses a chance to win their conference championship in overtime to a very, very good team, LSU, that goes on to win the rest of their games," Saban said. "I don't know why they should be eliminated."

Saban brought evidence to the table, too.

"Kentucky and North Carolina play a basketball game, one of them lost, but everybody wants to see Kentucky and North Carolina playing in the championship game," Saban said, reaching deeper for another example. "In the NFL you lose. You might not even win your division. You might be a wild-card team. You still get in the playoffs. You still have a chance to win the Super Bowl. You still have to play your way in."

But Saban wasn't pointing his fingers at anyone in Hoover. The blame, to him, lies with the conference's detractors.

"To be honest with you, whoever is making the statements about conference champions is really making a statement against the SEC and against any league who has more than one good team who would qualify, trying to enhance the opportunity for somebody from their league to get in," he said.

For the players' part, they've saved any thought of LSU for the week of Nov. 3, when the two schools will meet for Round 3.

Williams was upset when he lost what could have been the winning touchdown against LSU last November -- the one that might have kept all this talk from happening -- but he didn't let it become too big an issue.

"I was down that night and had the 24-hour rule," Williams said. "I got up, ran and got that out of my mind and went on to finish the season."

Now if everyone else could follow his cue.

Ranking the SEC tight ends

July, 11, 2012
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Now that we've ranked the top 10 wide receivers, it's time to check out the top tight ends.

Past rankings
Here are our top 10 SEC tight ends:

[+] EnlargePhilip Lutzenkirchen
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesPhilip Lutzenkirchen will be Auburn's go-to guy for game-winning scores this season.
1. Chris Gragg, Sr., Arkansas: Gragg is a big, fast target who can cause mismatches for defenders. He has great hands and with the loss of three NFL wide receivers he'll be one of Tyler Wilson's top targets this fall. Expect him to improve on his 41 catches and 518 yards from last year.

2. Philip Lutzenkirchen, Sr., Auburn: He only caught 24 passes last year, but seven of those catches went for touchdowns. He's a big-time threat in the red zone and is a solid blocker as well. The addition of fullback Jay Prosch will give Lutzenkirchen a chance to be even more active in the receiving game.

3. Jordan Reed, Jr., Florida: There's no doubt that Reed is extremely athletic, but he can lose focus at times on the field. Still, when he's on the ball, he can make plenty of plays. He's the Gators' top returning receiving target and with two young quarterbacks throwing this year, Reed has the chance to rack up receptions as a close-to-the-line safety net.

4. Mychal Rivera, Sr., Tennessee: Rivera is a very reliable and consistent weapon for the Vols. Even with Justin Hunter coming back and Cordarrelle Patterson jumping into the receiving mix, Rivera might not see his production drop too much if Tyler Bray can stay health. This team will throw it around as much as possible.

5. Michael Williams, Sr., Alabama: Williams only caught 17 passes last year, but there were a couple more proven players around him. This time around, his experience will be valued more by quarterback AJ McCarron. He's a solid player and can be a beast on the field, so the coaches are expecting to get a lot more out of him this fall.

6. Malcolm Johnson, So., Mississippi State: He was once a receiver, but has now found a home at tight end. He averaged 18.7 yards on his 11 catches last year and scored three touchdowns. The Bulldogs have a lot of receiving options, but Johnson should have plenty of chances to improve on last year's production.

7. Justice Cunningham, Sr., South Carolina: He'll continue to have Rory Anderson playing on the other side of him, but Cunningham's a bigger, more experienced target in the Gamecocks' passing game and will likely get more looks this fall with Alshon Jeffery gone. He's a solid blocker and will even line up as a fullback in two-back sets.

8. Chase Clement, Sr., LSU: He's on the John Mackey watch list, but has just nine career catches, with seven coming last season as a backup. Clement will be used to block often, which is needed with a team that runs the ball as much as LSU does. And with an offense that's expected to be more pass-friendly, Clement could see the ball thrown his way more often.

9. Nehemiah Hicks, Jr., Texas A&M: The Aggies have three tight ends they can use in their offense, but Hicks might be the most gifted of the bunch. He started seven games last year and is coming off of shoulder surgery, but if he's healthy he'll be a nice looking target for whichever quarterback takes the field for A&M this fall.

10. Jamal Mosley, Sr., Ole Miss: While he only caught 12 passes last year, Mosley is expected to be used more often in Ole Miss' new spread offense. He's another one of those more athletic tight ends and should help the Rebels with their depth issues in the passing game.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
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.

One good reason: Alabama

July, 9, 2012
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Everyone thinks they have all the answers and reasons for why their team will win each year. But for me, it’s all about being objective and offering you my reasons why your team will excel and why it won’t.

It’s a gift and curse, really.

Well, I'm taking a page out of ACC blogger Heather Dinich's book and looking at one good reason why each team in the SEC will win and why each won't.

Some teams will give their fan bases more hope to make 2012 a pretty darn good year, while some might have their followers a little more worried.

Let's begin things with the defending champs:

Alabama will repeat as national champions: The offense will be more explosive.

Yes, All-World running back Trent Richardson is gone, but that doesn't mean that the Crimson Tide offense won't be as intimidating. In fact, it might be more balanced and more explosive without him in the lineup. Quarterback AJ McCarron is a year older and the coaches hope wiser. Coach Nick Saban really does want to let him loose. He wants to see more of a downfield passing game and he knows that McCarron has the talent to do all that and more for Alabama. The question is if he can get over some of the silly mistakes he tends to make by trying to press and do too much.

Regardless, an older, more experienced McCarron is a good thing for the Tide. He'll be equipped with some younger receivers, but the coaches expect to get more home run power out of them, starting with the true freshmen from this year's recruiting class. Chris Black and Amari Cooper both enrolled early this spring and showed off solid playmaking ability. The thought is that they'll open things up more in the passing game and spread the field more for McCarron. Also, highly-touted incoming freshman Eddie Williams will get his chance at wide receiver. Sophomore DeAndrew White could be a big-time deep threat with all that speed he possesses. Also, tight end Michael Williams can really be a beast on the field. The coaches are expecting even more from him this fall.

The Tide is still stacked at running back, too. Bruising Eddie Lacy takes over as the lead back, while he'll get help from talented freshman T.J. Yeldon, a monster in Jalston Fowler and speedster Dee Hart. The thing Alabama will be able to do is get multiple backs on the field more this year by putting guys like Yeldon and Hart out wide at times.

Also, Alabama returns arguably the nation's best offensive line. That will give McCarron more time and help generate steam for that running game.

Why it won't: Too much defensive talent and leadership is gone.

It's not like Alabama doesn't have a lot of talent on defense, but there's no denying that this team lost a lot from last year's defense. Seven starters, including three first-round draft picks, are gone. Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Josh Chapman weren't just relied on for their playing ability. They were major leaders for this team, and that's something Saban has said he needs to see more of from this group.

These defenders say they're motivated by the comparisons to 2010, but that group also didn't lack in talent. It did lack in the leadership department and that's currently a concern for this unit. Linebackers Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard are guys who have to step up more and not just lead by example. Veteran safety Robert Lester will be counted on more and so will senior defensive linemen Jesse Williams and Damion Square.

The secondary is also replacing three regular starters, which could be worrisome at times. The overall talent of this defense is still pretty solid and it'll still be tough to move against the Tide, but for this unit to avoid the mental mistakes that hurt Alabama's defense back in 2010, the maturity level and the leadership has to increase during fall camp.

Top performer: Tight end

May, 10, 2012
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Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with tight ends.

Past producers:
The SEC returns six of the top 10 statistical tight ends this season. Orson Charles led all tight ends in yardage with 574 yards and had five touchdowns on 45 catches. The No. 2 tight end returns this fall, and this race might be the most wide open of all the top returners by position.

Here's the conference's top returning producer at tight end:

Chris Gragg, Arkansas: He was second among tight ends in catches (41) and receiving yards (518) last season, and had two touchdowns. Gragg also averaged 12.6 yards per catch last season. In an offense obsessed with throwing the ball, there was no way Gragg wouldn't get a good amount of passes thrown his way. But it's not like Gragg didn't deserve all the attention. The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder is an ideal target for any quarterback, and while he's a big body, he has good speed and is quite agile for his position. With all the receiving talent leaving Fayetteville, Gragg should get even more looks from quarterback Tyler Wilson, and there probably aren't too many people around that program upset by the thought of that.

The SEC returns five more of the top 10 statistical tight ends from a year ago:

Mychal Rivera, Tennessee: He caught 29 passes for 344 yards and one touchdown, and averaged 11.9 yards per catch.

Jordan Reed, Florida: He caught 28 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns, and averaged 11 yards per catch.

Philip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn: He caught 24 passes for 238 yards, and led all tight ends with seven touchdowns. He averaged 9.9 yards per catch.

Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State: He caught 11 passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns, and averaged 18.7 yards per catch.

Michael Williams, Alabama: He caught 16 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns, and averaged 11.9 yards per catch.

This race really is wide open. While Gragg is probably the most physically gifted of the returning tight ends, it's not a foregone conclusion that he'll take home prize of top SEC tight end. Reed, who is a freak athlete, is someone who the coaches at Florida think will be a major factor in the Gators' offense this fall because young quarterbacks tend to shorten throws, and Reed is a solid underneath target. Williams will get more attention with Brad Smelley gone, and Johnson, who won't share time with Marcus Green this year, drew comparisons to past Mackey Award winner Aaron Hernandez in spring camp.

Keep an eye on South Carolina rising senior Justice Cunningham. He played alongside fellow tight end Rory Anderson, who had more yards and touchdowns, but Cunningham doubled Anderson's catch count last season, and gained 142 yards and one score. With Alshon Jeffery gone, expect Cunningham to get more looks this fall.

If Missouri's Eric Waters comes back 100 percent from his MCL injury this spring, he could have a pretty productive season in that offense. Waters is replacing one of the best in Michael Egnew, but one reason Egnew was so successful was because Mizzou loves using its tight ends.

Texas A&M uses its tight ends a lot as well. Nehemiah Hicks is probably the most gifted tight end for the Aggies and started seven games, but is recovering from shoulder surgery. Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau combined to catch 28 passes for 244 and four touchdowns last season.

Kiper's top 5s for the 2012 season

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
2:46
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Mel Kiper, ESPN's NFL draft expert, has compiled his list of the top 5 players by position of the returning seniors in college football for the 2012 season.

Here's a look at the SEC players on the list:

TOP RETURNING SENIORS BY POSITION
Thoughts: Look at the returning firepower for Arkansas on offense. The Hogs have a player in the top 5 at quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end. Gragg has a chance to be one of the breakout players in the league next season. He was third on Arkansas' team this past season with 41 catches. Barrett Jones is Kiper's No. 1-rated senior prospect at guard, but could end up playing center for the Crimson Tide next season. Jones has already earned All-SEC honors at both tackle and guard and was the Outland Trophy winner in 2011. Banks thought about turning pro this year, but made a good decision in returning to Mississippi State. He has a chance to be one of the top cornerbacks in the country next season. Even though Alabama is losing a lot of talent from its 2011 national championship team, the Crimson Tide still lead the way in the SEC with five players on Kiper's list. Arkansas and Georgia are next with four apiece.

The SEC's top 10 moments in 2011

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
11:00
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As we take another look at the 2011 season, we'll check out the top 10 moments from the SEC's year.

It's not as easy as it looks, but someone has to do it.

I'm sure we'll think of a couple more as the days go by, but here are our top 10 moments from 2011 in reverse order:

10. Houston Nutt's dismissal:
Ole Miss said goodbye to its head coach after Nutt was fired toward the end of the season. After back-to-back nine-win seasons that ended with Cotton Bowl victories, Nutt was fired after two dismal seasons in Oxford. He coached the entire season, but ended his tenure with 14 straight losses to SEC opponents.

9. Kentucky's last stand: There wasn't much for the Wildcats to be proud of in 2011, but Kentucky's 10-7 win over Tennessee was truly memorable. It snapped a 26-game losing streak to the Vols (dating back to when Joker Phillips played at Kentucky) and eliminated Tennessee from postseason play.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Richt and the Bulldogs overcame an 0-2 start to the season to win the SEC's Eastern Division.
8. Georgia clinching the East: After starting the season 0-2, Georgia won 10 straight, but its ninth win meant the most. Georgia's 19-10 win over Kentucky on Nov. 19 clinched the SEC Eastern Division and sent the Bulldogs back to the SEC championship for the first time since 2005.

7. Vandy's bowl bid: Coach James Franklin promised change at Vanderbilt and he got it in his first year. The Commodores reeled off six wins and their 41-7 win over Wake Forest on the last weekend of the regular season sent Vandy bowling for the first time since 2008.

6. Richardson's run: Trent Richardson's Heisman moment came on a run and a move for the ages. Before he could finish off his eventual 76-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against Ole Miss, he had to embarrass defender Senquez Golson by cutting back and then immediately forward, leaving the rookie stumbling to the turf just before the end zone.

5. Adams' return: No plays were as exciting to watch in the SEC -- and probably nationally -- than Joe Adams' amazing punt return against Tennessee. Adams was scintillating, as he reversed field 10 yards and shook off five tackles before darting down the right sideline for what stood as a 60-yard touchdown return.

4. South Carolina's 11th win: Last year, the Gamecocks made history when they made it to their first SEC championship game. In 2011, South Carolina won 11 games in a season for the first time when the Gamecocks routed Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It also ended a streak of three straight bowl losses.

3. Reid's interception: When you think back at the 2011 season, Eric Reid's interception against Alabama at LSU's own 1-yard line has to be one of the first images you see. With the Tide running a trick play involving a pass from receiver Marquis Maze to tight end Michael Williams, Reid out-muscled Williams for the ball in midair. The play propelled LSU on its magical run and sent Alabama home with what seemed like a season-changing loss.

2. LSU's magical run ends: LSU was a win away from entering the "best ever" conversation, with eight wins over ranked teams, but LSU ran into a freight train named Alabama in the hated rematch in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game. LSU's offense fell flat as the Tide ran over the Tigers 21-0 in their own backyard of New Orleans.

1. Alabama hoists the crystal football ... again:
The state of Alabama clearly owns college football at the moment. Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in the national championship gave the state three straight crystal footballs and was the second for the Crimson Tide in three years. Nick Saban admitted that this championship (his third) was the sweetest and you could tell because he actually smiled afterward and took his Gatorade bath like a true champ.

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