SEC: Morgan Newton
Well, you be the judge.
Over the past four years (2009-12), Alabama and Florida have tied for the most ESPN 150 prospects signed with 41 apiece. During that span, the Crimson Tide have won an SEC-high 49 games and three national championships.
The Gators, meanwhile, have won 10 fewer games (39) than the Crimson Tide and haven’t won any SEC or national titles during that span. In fact, they’ve been shut out of the SEC championship game the last three years.
The most ESPN 150 prospects any SEC school has signed in one year going back to 2009 was Florida in 2010 when the Gators signed 17 ESPN 150 prospects.
For perspective, that’s more than eight SEC schools -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- have managed to ink in each of their last four signing classes.
Every SEC school has signed at least one ESPN 150 prospect over the past four years, although Kentucky and Vanderbilt have both been limited to one each. The Wildcats’ only ESPN 150 signee during that period was quarterback Morgan Newton in 2009, while the Commodores signed running back Brian Kimbrow last year.
The school doing the least with the most over the last four years has been Tennessee. The Vols have signed 20 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is tied for the fifth most in the SEC. However, the Vols are just 23-27 during that stretch (9-23 in the SEC) and have suffered through three straight losing seasons.
Tennessee signed six ESPN 150 prospects in 2009, Lane Kiffin’s only signing class in Knoxville. But four of those players (Jerod Askew, Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, Jr., and Nu’Keese Richardson) were kicked off the team, and the other two (Bryce Brown and David Oku) wound up transferring out of the program.
The school doing the most with the least has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have signed 13 ESPN 150 prospects since 2009, which is seventh in the league. But the Gamecocks have the third-best record over the last four years (38-15) behind only Alabama and LSU. They’re also one of two teams in the league (along with Alabama) to have won 11 or more games each of the last two seasons.
As the Head Ball Coach himself would say, somebody’s coaching ‘em up in Columbia.
Arkansas, prior to its collapse this past season, had managed a nice run despite not reeling in very many highly ranked signees under former coach Bobby Petrino. The Hogs won 11 games in 2011 and 10 games in 2010, including a trip to the Sugar Bowl, and signed just five ESPN 150 prospects between 2009-12.
Below is a breakdown of how many ESPN 150 signees each SEC school has signed over the past four years along with each school’s overall and SEC record during that span. We’ve also included Missouri and Texas A&M even though they’ve just played one season in the SEC.
Of the Aggies’ nine ESPN 150 prospects signed over the past four years, five came last year in Kevin Sumlin’s first signing class.
One other interesting nugget is South Carolina is the only team to have played in the SEC championship game over the past four years that hasn't signed at least 20 ESPN 150 prospects during that span.
Here’s a closer look:
- Alabama: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 49-5 (.907), 27-5 SEC
- Florida: 41 ESPN 150 signees, 39-14 (.736), 22-10 SEC
- LSU: 28 ESPN 150 signees, 43-10 (.811), 25-7 SEC
- Georgia: 26 ESPN 150 signees, 36-18 (.667), 21-11 SEC
- Auburn: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635), 15-17 SEC
- Tennessee: 20 ESPN 150 signees, 23-27 (.460), 9-23 SEC
- South Carolina: 13 ESPN 150 signees, 38-15 (.717), 20-12 SEC
- Texas A&M: 9 ESPN 150 signees, 33-19 (.635)
- Ole Miss: 6 ESPN 150 signees, 22-28 (.440), 8-24 SEC
- Arkansas: 5 ESPN 150 signees, 33-18 (.647), 17-13 SEC
- Mississippi State: 4 ESPN 150 signees, 29-22 (.569), 13-17 SEC
- Missouri: 3 ESPN 150 signees, 31-20 (.608)
- Kentucky: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 20-30 (.400), 7-25 SEC
- Vanderbilt: 1 ESPN 150 signee, 19-31 (.380), 8-24 SEC
- Ron Higgins of The Memphis Commercial Appeal has a midseason look at the SEC.
- LSU could be without offensive lineman Alex Hurst for Saturday's game against South Carolina.
- Gene Chizik's wife uses social media to try to rally Auburn fans.
- Auburn is still looking for its primary running back.
- Vanderbilt has its first home sellout in four years.
- Mississippi State's secondary will have its hands full with Tennessee's wide receivers.
- Alabama cornerback Deion Belue is "doing fine" as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
- Wide receiver Korvic Neat's return from a groin injury gives Ole Miss more options in its offense.
- Composure has been an issue for Missouri backup quarterback Corbin Berkstresser.
- Arkansas' injury list could fill two or three teams this season.
- Florida is showing fight to the finish in 2012.
- Georgia's tackles feel they gained valuable experience against South Carolina.
- South Carolina is again leaning on its running game and stingy defense.
- Texas A&M's secondary depth faces a difficult task against Louisiana Tech.
- Former walk-on running back Jaron Toney is pushing for time in Tennessee's secondary.
- Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton gains praise for his good attitude.
Both are hoping that shoulder injuries don't sideline their starting quarterbacks with tough matchups coming up Saturday.
For Kentucky, Phillips expects to see Maxwell Smith back on the field against No. 6 South Carolina, after he missed last week's 38-0 loss to Florida with a shoulder injury that he suffered in the loss to Western Kentucky.
Having Smith back is very important for this offense, as he's third in the SEC with 966 passing yards and has eight touchdowns.
But if Smith can't go, true freshman Jalen Whitlow will start in his place. Whitlow replaced senior Morgan Newton against Florida last week, completing one of his six passes for 12 yards. Phillips said Whitlow has been taking the second-team reps at quarterback since the Louisville game and Newton's struggles as the starter against the Gators officially moved Whitlow behind Smith.
"He's coming," Phillips said of Whitlow. "He doesn't have the full package of our offense, but there are some things he can do. Every week he gets closer and closer to being able to do even more."
Freeze is also optimistic about getting Bo Wallace back against No. 1 Alabama. Wallace injured his shoulder in Ole Miss' 39-0 win at Tulane last week and was held out of practice Tuesday. Wallace told his coach that he could have practiced Tuesday, and Freeze seemed confident that Wallace would practice Wednesday.
"We'll see how the ball is coming out of his hand today," Freeze said.
If Wallace is held out, junior Barry Brunetti will start. Brunetti has had a very up-and-down Ole Miss career, but Freeze said he's been pleased with Brunetti's play during games this season. However, his issue is with his consistency in the passing game in practice.
If Brunetti goes this weekend, he'll have to leave that inconsistency in Oxford, as he'll face the SEC's top defense.
But has our No. 2 team fallen after a sloppy win on the road?
1. Alabama (4-0; LW: 1): I feel like a broken record, but Alabama dominated yet again Saturday. It's hard to find any real weaknesses in this team. Although the backups did give up a touchdown to Florida Atlantic, so there's that.
2. LSU (4-0; LW: 2): The Tigers looked pretty sloppy offensively in a tough 12-10 win against Auburn Saturday. LSU probably will have its name dragged through the mud after its play this weekend, but all good teams have those hiccup games. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has to play better, but the defense still looks extremely dominant. The goal now is to not let that hiccup bleed into future games.
3. Georgia (4-0; LW: 3): This Bulldogs offense has been really fun to watch through the first four weeks. Quarterback Aaron Murray has looked like a real Heisman candidate at times, while freshman running back Todd Gurley just gets better every time he gets on the field. Georgia completely overwhelmed Vanderbilt and heads into a fun showdown with Tennessee with a load of confidence.
4. South Carolina (4-0; LW: 4): Connor Shaw has proven he's a true player for the Gamecocks. He battled through a hairline fracture in his throwing shoulder to complete 20-of-21 passes in a blowout win against Missouri. You're starting to see more balance from this Gamecocks offense and that will be very important as SEC play continues. The defensive front is also getting stronger each week.
5. Florida (4-0; LW: 5): The Gators seem to be growing up with each week. After back-to-back tough road wins, Florida shut out Kentucky at home and now has two weeks to prepare for LSU. This really has become more of the blue-collar team Will Muschamp wants, but we'll really find out how tough Florida is when LSU ventures into the Swamp.
6. Mississippi State (4-0; LW: 6): Dan Mullen wasn't exactly pleased with the effort the Bulldogs gave in their lackluster 30-10 win against South Alabama, but a win is a win these days. This team can't be too happy with the way it has played in the past two weeks, but it's still undefeated. It's obvious players are losing focus against lesser opponents, and that should change with SEC play starting back up next week.
7. Tennessee (3-1; LW: 7): There were some tense moments in the Vols' win over Akron Saturday, but the second half belonged to Tennessee. Tyler Bray showed off that cannon of a right arm, passing for 401 yards and four touchdowns. The running game also got going with Rajion Neal rushing for a career-high 151 yards. The key for this team is to duplicate those kinds of efforts against SEC opponents.
8. Texas A&M (2-1; LW: 9): Man, the Aggies know how to use that football, right? In the past two games (both wins), A&M has averaged 526.5 yards and 59 points. Sure, you can point your nose up at the competition, but those are pretty good numbers for a team dealing with a brand new coaching staff and philosophy. Let's see how this offense performs with the SEC slate coming up.
9. Missouri (2-2; LW:8): The Tigers just didn't put up much of a fight against South Carolina. Both the offensive and defensive lines got pushed around and it's looking more and more like the size up front is an issue for this team. Mizzou has too much talent offensively not to get the ball moving, but the Tigers failed to get big plays against South Carolina. You have to wonder what sort of offensive changes might come heading into the Central Florida game.
10. Ole Miss (3-1; LW: 11): The Rebels really rebounded from that Texas blowout with a 39-point shutout of Tulane. Through four games, Ole Miss is third in the SEC in total offense (488 yards per game) and is averaging 36.8 points per game. This team has to cut down on the turnovers and the defense still needs some work, but the product on the field is much better than it has been the past two years.
11. Auburn (1-3; LW: 10): The Tigers suffered a tough loss at home to LSU over the weekend. It was a game in which Auburn played its toughest ball of the season, but just didn't have anything going on offense. Like, absolutely nothing. The defense made strides, but the offense is still a major concern. Defense wins championships, but you have to put points on the board and move the ball, and Auburn has issues doing both, scoring only 20 points in two SEC games.
12. Arkansas (1-3; LW: 12): Things just aren't working in Fayetteville, Ark. Tyler Wilson returned against Rutgers, but he couldn't help a defense that gave up 525 yards in the loss to the Scarlet Knights. Arkansas has now lost three straight -- all in the state of Arkansas -- and it's fair to say that leadership is lacking inside that locker room. There shouldn't be any smiling this week as the Hogs prepare for Texas A&M.
13. Vanderbilt (1-3; LW: 13): The Commodores had nothing in the tank against Georgia. For a team that is supposed to have a different attitude, Vandy lacked any form of passion in its 45-point loss to the Bulldogs. The defense was shredded and the offense just never got into rhythm. This team is also dealing with quarterback issues. You never know who is going to be throwing the ball for the Commodores, and that's not a good thing.
14. Kentucky (1-3; LW: 14): Nothing seems to be going right for the Wildcats. Maxwell Smith missed Saturday's loss to Florida with a bum shoulder and Morgan Newton did noting to help in Smith's place. Kentucky's offense has lacked any sort of consistency this season and the defense has been walked over. The bad news is that things get a lot tougher for the Wildcats with the teeth of the schedule coming up.
Let's take a look at each one from the spring and see where they currently stand:
The matchup: Sophomore Kiehl Frazier left the spring with the edge because he took most of the reps, as a sore shoulder sidelined junior Clint Moseley. This fall, freshman Jonathan Wallace entered the race and has continued to impress Auburn's staff.
The winner is: Frazier has the most athleticism and has felt much more comfortable throwing the ball with help from first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. While coach Gene Chizik continues to say the race is even between Frazier and Moseley, who is still dealing with shoulder soreness, we'll go with Frazier because of overall talent. He can make more plays with his feet and if his arm really does improve, he could be a solid dual-threat QB in this league.
The matchup: This two-horse race between Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel has been intense since the spring. Brissett has had a little bit of the edge because of his game experience last year, but Driskel has made tremendous strides under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
The winner is: Will Muschamp continues to say the race is dead even. Driskel's bruised shoulder didn't even complicate the race. It doesn't sound like anyone really knows who has outperformed the other, but the concensus is the team and the coaches can win with either. With that said, Brissett has more experience and we assume is completely healthy, so we'll go with him, but both should play in the opener.
The matchup: Sophomore Maxwell Smith took all of the first-team reps this spring, while senior Morgan Newton recovered from shoulder surgery. However, Newton returned to get back into the race this fall. Joining them this fall were freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow.
The winner is: Smith. Joker Phillips named Smith the starter on Monday, so this race has come to an end. The offense can now focus on running around Smith, who has been the most consistent of Kentucky's quarterbacks since the spring. This isn't a surprise.
The matchup: Neither of Hugh Freeze's quarterbacks have proven much at all and have struggled with consistency since spring. Barry Brunetti was given the starting job at the beginning of last season, but lost it almost immediately, and Bo Wallace is fresh off a season in the junior college ranks. Wallace, however, did spend a year with Freeze at Arkansas State.
The winner is: Wallace seemed to have the edge for part of the spring, and then lost it as Brunetti got more comfortable with Freeze's offense. Both quarterbacks and Freeze felt things were very even heading into champ, but Wallace has had a much stronger champ. Both could end up playing in the opener, but we'll go with Wallace.
The matchup: Sophomore Jameill Showers, who has the only game experience at quarter, and redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel were nearly neck-and-neck for most of the spring, but Showers seemed to pull away little toward the end. Sophomore Matt Joeckel and true freshman Matt Davis also competed this spring.
The winner is: Manziel. It seemed as though Showers had the edge in this one, but Manziel outplayed him during fall camp. After a solid outing during one of the Aggies' scrimmages, coach Kevin Sumlin decided to end the battle and give the starting job to Manziel.
The matchup: Jordan Rodgers replaced Larry Smith last season, but still showed inconsistency on the field at times. So, this spring, he had a battle on his hands with Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels, who was the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year in 2009.
The winner: Rodgers. This was probably always his job to lose, and he didn't. He had a very good spring and fall camp. Rodgers said this summer that he felt way more comfortable with the people around him this spring and is poised to have a much better year this fall.
“The first thing I would like to say is how proud I am of Max and Morgan (Newton) and how they have handled this,” Phillips said. “They have both done a great job of preparing and both done a great job of competing. When I was asked about this position (head coach), and the difference going from one chair to another, was the difference is having to make the tough decisions and be accountable for them. This is one of the tougher decisions I have had to make. We have two quarterbacks that we feel like we can win with, but the guy that gives us the best chance to win at this point (gets the job.)
"Max Smith, we feel, gives us the best chance to win at this point and he will be our starting quarterback versus Louisville.”
Smith competed with Newton, a senior, and freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow for the starting spot. One advantage that Smith had was that he took all of the first-team snaps this spring while Newton recovered from shoulder surgery. Newton returned to the competition this fall, but Phillips said Smith was more consistent as he become more and more comfortable with the Wildcats' offense.
“This is what I have been working for since I was a little kid to get a chance to start for an SEC team,” Smith said. “I am glad to be where I am and I am looking forward to having a good season. … I was just wanting to go out and work as hard as I could and that is what it was all about.”
Smith played in eight games last fall, starting three. He was named a freshman All-SEC player by the league's coaches after completing 84 of 153 passes for 819 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. Smith replaced Newton toward the end of last season after Newton suffered an ankle and shoulder injury.
But with the way Newton had played to that point, it was likely Smith was going to finish out the season as the starter, regardless of Newton's injuries.
The Wildcats can now move on with the offense and begin game planning around Smith and his abilities. This teams struggled mightily on offense last year because it just couldn't find multiple, consistent playmakers, but the quarterback play really set this offense back. Smith has to be more consistent and productive if Kentucky wants to make offensive improvements this fall.
South Carolina's sophomore defensive end wreaked havoc as a backup last season, but with a starting job in hand, the Gamecocks' coaching staff wants to make sure it can get the most out of Clowney. Coach Steve Spurrier said after Monday's practice that he plans to move Clowney all around the field, including middle linebacker.
"We’re going to move him all over the place,” Spurrier told reporters. “We have to put him where hopefully he’s most of the time one-on-one with somebody -- inside, outside, middle linebacker. There are all kinds of things you can do. It’s a pass-rush game out there now, as everybody knows.”
This just gives Clowney, who accounted for 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks in his rookie season, more room to roam around and more opportunities to frustrate his opposition. This doesn't just say something about Clowney's skill, it says something about his maturation within the Gamecocks' defense. Remember, he was lost at times as a freshman.
Now, he's more comfortable and will have the chance to make even more plays this fall. It's a scary thought, really.
Spurrier also announced that true freshman cornerback Rico McWilliams is out for the season after suffering an injury in practice.
“Rico probably will have to have surgery, so it looks like he will be out this year," Spurrier said. "It’s an unfortunate injury, but no way we could have prevented that. Just two guys running down the field and he accidentally stepped on Shaq (Roland) a little bit and twisted his knee up real good.”
Wright leaves practice after hit
Arkansas wasn't full contact on Monday, but that didn't prevent an injury to an important member of the Razorbacks' defense.
Senior linebacker Tenarius Wright, who moved from defensive end this spring, left practice early after colliding with running back Knile Davis. There was no diagnosis for Wright on Monday night, but the staff will continue to evaluate him.
“I didn’t even know he was hurt until after practice,” Davis told reporters. “I saw he wasn’t in there. We’ll see. I don’t know what happened to him."
Davis added that he didn't think Wright's injury was serious.
Arkansas is already down one linebacker, as Alonzo Highsmith missed his second straight practice with a hamstring injury.
Kentucky's quarterback race heating up
While sophomore Maxwell Smith left spring as the projected starter for the fall, he's finding out that fall practice is a whole new animal.
Senior Morgan Newton is back after sitting out the spring following shoulder surgery, and he seemed to impress Sunday. Newton was the starter for most of last season before an injury cut his season short. Newton struggled through most of the games he played in last season, but is looking for one last chance to make an impact at the quarterback spot.
Freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow are also competing for time, making for a pretty crowded quarterback spot.
“Still hard to evaluate the quarterbacks after three days, especially when you are installing, so we will take it slow,” coach Joker Phillips said. “We have two weeks before I would like to get it done, which means you have two scrimmages. But we have seven days of installation that we are building up to the first scrimmage, and we will see if it shakes its way out then, but probably not. Making the decision after the first scrimmage is probably way too soon.”
Miller back at Vols practice
After missing spring because of academic issues, junior defensive lineman Corey Miller was back on the practice field for Tennessee on Monday. Miller had to rededicate himself away from the field before he could get back on it, and it appears he got on the right track.
"I changed my focus and just had to get my mind right," Miller said. "I'm just glad to be back, and it's nothing but looking forward from here on out. It hurt me not being with my guys, so I got back this summer and took it full fledge, all the weight on my shoulders. I just have to get back at it."
Miller, who has played in 25 career games, has moved around the defensive line, but expects to stay at end this fall.
Miller will have a bit of a fight on his hands to earn playing time this fall, but coach Derek Dooley was just happy to get him back.
"This is his second chance," Dooley said. "He kind of messed up in the classroom, but hopefully he learned from it, and hopefully everyone else learned from it, too."
For more on Tennessee's Monday practice, check out the Vols' official website.
Returning starters: Four on offense, five on defense and the place-kicker on special teams.
Star power: Wide receiver La'Rod King didn't get a ton of publicity last year, but he was easily Kentucky's most consistent offensive weapon in 2011. He was 11th in the SEC with 598 yards on 40 catches. He also had seven touchdowns.
New faces: Quarterback Patrick Towles was the biggest get of the 2012 class for Kentucky. He was a Parade All-American and has a chance to push both Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton for time this fall. He might possess the most skill at the quarterback position. The Wildcats also welcome in five freshmen offensive linemen. Kentucky has to replace three starters from last year and is in need of depth up front. Also, keep an eye on running back Justin Taylor, who was originally committed to Alabama.
Don’t forget about: Kentucky's staff has been waiting for defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to step up in the middle of that line. Last year, they combined for 64 tackles, but just six tackles for loss, including two sacks. But the staff feels much more confident in the two big guys up front, after both had very good springs this year. Joker Phillips said this summer that he thinks Cobble could be poised for a big year and should be even better at stopping the run.
Big shoes to fill: Linebacker Danny Trevathan wasn't just a leader, he was the heart and soul of Kentucky's team. He led the league in tackles the past two years and was easily the team's best player last year, regardless of position, and it will take a lot to replace what he did on and off the field. So far, the Wildcats' staff is still searching for the right player to take over his spot at weakside linebacker. Malcolm McDuffen and Demarius Rancifer battled there this spring, but neither did enough to earn a lot of confidence from their coaches. Kentucky might have to look at a true freshman here as well.
Key battles: The Wildcats are replacing two starting cornerbacks and four linebackers. Avery Wilson returns with the most experience at linebacker and sophomore Alvin Dupree seems to have wrapped up hybrid linebacker/defensive end, but everything else is up for grabs. McDuffen and Rancifer will continue to battle for the weakside spot, along with incoming freshman Khalid Henderson. Miles Simpson, Josh Forrest and junior college transfer Kory Brown will compete for the hybrid linebacker/safety spot. With Marcus Caffey being ruled ineligible, the staff will now look to Eric Simmons and Eric Dixon to help out Cartier Rice.
Rising star: King needs help at the receiver position, and the staff thinks it might have found some in redshirt freshman Demarco Robinson. He had a tremendous spring and hauled in nine catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. He's versatile enough to line up all over the field and could be a solid deep threat in the Wildcats' offense.
Bottom line: This is a crucial year for Phillips. After Kentucky made a bowl game for five straight years, the Wildcats fell a win short in 2011, causing Phillips' seat to get a little warmer. The one saving grace was the fact that Kentucky ended a 20-plus-year losing streak to rival Tennessee. But Kentucky has to show progress this fall or Phillips' job security could come into question. The offense was the SEC's worst last season, but the staff feels it has more playmakers and should be more explosive this time. The defense has a lot of key players to replace and could go through some growing pains with all that youth. If Kentucky wants to get back to a bowl, it has to start the season 3-0. That means beating Louisville in the season opener.
Again, we are looking at overall talent, game-changing ability and experience. We also looked at past performances and projections for 2012.
Here are our top 10 SEC quarterbacks:
2. Aaron Murray, RJr., Georgia: Murray has a chance to own a few more school and SEC records before his time at Georgia is up, but he does have to get over his turnover issues. Murray has some of the best technique and mechanics around, and when he's on and focused, he is one of the most talented passers out there.
3. Tyler Bray, Jr., Tennessee: Bray might have the strongest arm in the SEC, and has the ability to make some of the toughest throws in traffic. If he's healthy, he could go for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. His focus hasn't always been great, but he made sure to correct that this spring and appears to finally be transforming into the real leader he's wanted to be.
4. AJ McCarron, Jr., Alabama: He has the tools and the moxy to be a real star. As last season progressed, he looked better and better, and capped things off with a marvelous performance in the BCS title game. If coach Nick Saban is really going to let him loose, McCarron has to improve some of his on-field decisions.
5. James Franklin, Jr., Missouri: If he's healthy, Franklin will be the SEC's top dual-threat quarterback. During a breakout season last fall, he passed for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns, and rushed for 981 yards and 15 more scores. Franklin wants to be a pass-first quarterback in his new league, but his shoulder injury is a concern.
6. Connor Shaw, Jr., South Carolina: Shaw showed his inexperience when he was first thrown into the starting spot last season, but seemed to improve and calm down every week after. Coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be more of a pass-first quarterback, and that seemed to be the case at the end of last season and this spring.
7. Zach Mettenberger, Jr., LSU: Mettenberger was a top quarterback prospect coming out of high school, but has very little experience outside of a stint at the junior college level after leaving Georgia. Still, he's certainly an upgrade for the Tigers, and showed this spring that he should make LSU's passing game stronger and more explosive.
8. Jordan Rodgers, RSr., Vanderbilt: Rodgers was an instant playmaker for the Commodores when he replaced the struggling Larry Smith last year, but he struggled with turnovers. This spring was all about him improving his leadership skills and his game management. Vandy's coaches left spring more confident in Rodgers' play.
9. Tyler Russell, Jr., Mississippi State: He bided his time during his first two years, but is now the guy in Starkville. The hope is that he'll be more consistent and more comfortable now that he knows he's the starter. It looks like the Bulldogs will have a more downfield passing game with Russell taking over.
10. Maxwell Smith, So., Kentucky: Smith played in eight games last season, but proved to be a much more effective player than former starter Morgan Newton. Despite averaging just 102.4 passing yards per game, Smith earned SEC All-Freshmen honors last fall. Smith looked even better this spring, and it appears the Wildcats' starting quarterback spot is his to lose.
This is never easy. We go back and forth dozens of times before finding any sort of confidence in our lists. After checking with colleagues and people around the league, we come up with lists ranking each position and in the end someone gets upset. Someone has to be last and someone is always underrated or overrated.
Such is life.
The important factors for every position were great players, true game-changers, depth and experience. We also considered past performances, but we also had to think about possible projections for the upcoming season.
We’ll start with the quarterback position:
1. Georgia: Aaron Murray has thrown 59 touchdowns in his first two seasons and is on his way to breaking several school records. He has great toughness and mechanics, but needs to cut down on his 14 interceptions from a year ago. The staff is looking to redshirt Hutson Mason, but he might be the league's best quarterback insurance policy. He could be used if Murray suffers a serious injury. Freshmen Faton Bauta and Christian LeMay are both talented, but inexperienced.
2. Arkansas: Tyler Wilson is arguably the SEC’s best quarterback and probably would have been a first-rounder had he come out this past season. Junior Brandon Mitchell complements Wilson well with his running ability, but he'll be in an intense battle with redshirt freshman Brandon Allen, who is a stronger drop-back quarterback.
3. Tennessee: If Tyler Bray can stay healthy, he’s potentially a 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown guy. Justin Worley was thrown into the fire last season and gained some valuable experience, and the Vols also have high hopes for true freshman Nathan Peterman, who showed promise in the spring before dislocating his finger.
4. Alabama: If AJ McCarron picks up from 2011, he could contend to be the league's top quarterback. He has all the tools, but needs to keep making strides with his decision-making. Behind McCarron, Alabama doesn't have much experience with Phillip Sims transferring to Virginia. Next in line would probably be redshirt freshman Phillip Ely, but true freshman Alec Morris has turned heads in summer workouts.
5. Vanderbilt: Jordan Rodgers put a charge into the Commodores’ offense when he took over midway through last season. He’s a big-play quarterback, but needs to cut down on his turnovers. The other thing Vanderbilt has going for it is Austyn Carta-Samuels, who started for two seasons at Wyoming and rolled up nearly 2,100 yards in total offense in 2010. Plus, the staff is excited about early enrollee Patton Robinette, who is one of the top quarterback prospects to sign with Vandy in a while.
7. South Carolina: Connor Shaw is hardly the biggest quarterback in the SEC and runs a lot, so that’s never an ideal situation. However, he improved greatly toward the end of last season and made strides this spring to use his arm more than his legs. The Gamecocks have barely any experience behind Shaw, as Dylan Thompson and Andrew Clifford battle for the No. 2 spot.
8. LSU: It's Zach Mettenberger time in Baton Rouge, as he takes over a unit that has struggled with consistency. He was a very talented high school player a few years ago and helped make LSU's offense much more pass-friendly this spring. While he's an obvious upgrade for the Tigers, he's still pretty unproven at this level. Behind him, there's no experience, as Jerrard Randall and Stephen Rivers both redshirted in 2011.
9. Auburn: The Tigers should have quite the quarterback battle on their hands. Clint Moseley returns with more experience under center, but he lost ground to Kiehl Frazier this spring because of shoulder soreness. Frazier was a run-first QB last year, but looked much more confident with his arm this spring with help from new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Zeke Pike was a top QB prospect coming out of high school, but off-field issues sent him home for the summer.
10. Florida: Will Muschamp said following spring practice that he felt like he had two quarterbacks he could win with. Nonetheless, he wasn’t ready to name either Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel the starter. Both struggled for the most part last year, but both were very talented high school prospects and each could excel with more experience. The reality is that both will end up playing this season.
11. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen said this spring that he was very pleased with how Tyler Russell performed this spring, but Russell has had consistency issues in the past. The hope is that now that Russell knows he's the starter, he'll be more comfortable on the field. However, Mississippi State only has one other scholarship quarterback on its roster: redshirt freshman Dak Prescott. Quarterbacks Dylan Favre and Nick Schuessler both transferred.
12. Kentucky: Maxwell Smith was far from perfect last year, but he took advantage of his time on the field. After replacing the injured Morgan Newton late in 2011, Smith was named to the SEC's All-Freshmen team. He also seemed to improve this spring with Newton watching and rehabbing. Newton's time as a starter could be over, but both will be pushed by incoming freshman Patrick Towles, who might be more physically gifted than the two ahead of him.
13. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin is working with a ton of inexperience at quarterback. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge, but he’s thrown all of five career passes. Things got even foggier for the Aggies when backup Johnny Manziel was arrested in late June and charged with disorderly conduct by fighting, failure to identify and having a fake driver's license. That leaves sophomore Matt Joeckel and true freshman Matt Davis with the chance to catch Showers.
14. Ole Miss: It looked like Bo Wallace would come in and snatch the starting job, but as spring went on Barry Brunetti played himself into a tie with Wallace. But Brunetti was the starter coming out of last spring and played in just five games last fall. Randall Mackey moved from quarterback to wide receiver, while Zack Stoudt left the team in June, so there is very little experience at the quarterback position in Oxford.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters:: offense: 6; defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1
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
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)
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.
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.
- Florida returns 10 starters on defense where the Gators ranked eighth nationally in total defense (299.5 yards per game) in 2011. The Gators ranked second in the nation in third-down defense in 2011, holding opponents to 48-for-176 (.273).
- Florida returns 14 of its top 15 tacklers for the 2012 season, including leading tackler senior linebacker Jon Bostic, who tallied 94 total tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and three sacks. Also returning for the Gators are their second and third leading tacklers, junior safety Matt Elam who recorded 78 tackles, a team-leading 11 tackles for a loss and a team-high-tying two interceptions, and junior linebacker Jelani Jenkins who totaled 75 tackles and a team-best six pass break-ups.
- Last year marked Florida’s FBS-leading 32nd-straight season with a winning percentage of .500 or higher. With the win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, the Gators have had 24 consecutive winning seasons, the longest active streak in the country. Additionally, with the trip to the Gator Bowl, Florida made its 21st straight bowl appearance, which ranks first in the SEC and second nationally.
- Sophomore outside linebacker/defensive end Ray Drew and redshirt freshman receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are splitting time between track and football. Drew has competed in three discus competitions during the outdoor season, taking second and third in separate competitions. Scott-Wesley competed indoors and already ranks in the top 10 on the school’s 60-meter dash list.
- The Bulldog defense returns nine starters and 12 of the 14 leading tacklers after posting a No. 5 national ranking in 2011. All-American junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and All-American senior free safety Bacarri Rambo headline the unit.
- The line should be a strength of the UK defense in 2012. All three regular starters return, senior end Collins Ukwu and junior tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. Senior end Taylor Wyndham, a starter when Kentucky goes to a four-man line, also will be back.
- Junior linebacker Avery Williamson continued his improvement in the spring and is expected to anchor the defense at middle linebacker. He led all players in the spring game with eight tackles, featuring two tackles for loss and a sack. He made 49 tackles last season as a reserve and is ready to step into a leadership role.
- The Wildcats did not appear to have any major new injuries in the spring. Six players sat out the contact portions of spring drills, including quarterback Morgan Newton, tailback Josh Clemons, wide receiver Gene McCaskill, offensive lineman Tyler Davenport, Ukwu and linebacker Jabari Johnson. All six are expected to be ready to go in time for preseason practice.
- Mizzou comes to the SEC after seven consecutive winning seasons under coach Gary Pinkel, who will be in his 12th year on the Tiger sideline. Mizzou has won 48 games in the past five seasons, which ranks as ninth-most in the nation from 2007-11 among BCS-AQ conferences. Mizzou is one of only six schools from BCS-AQ leagues to have won a minimum of eight games in each of the last six seasons (2006-11).
- Pinkel enters the 2012 as the eighth-winningest active coach in the FBS ranks, with his 158 wins. In 21 years as a head coach (1991-2000 at Toledo, 2001-present at Mizzou), Pinkel has a 158-91-3 overall record (.633). With an 85-54 mark in 11 seasons at Mizzou (.612), Pinkel stands 3rd alltime in wins, trailing only College Football Hall of Famers Don Faurot (101 wins from 1935-42, 1946-56) and Dan Devine (93 wins from 1958-70).
- The Gamecocks will open the 2012 season on a four-game winning streak. They had not finished a season with four consecutive wins since 1958 prior to last season’s finish, which included wins over Florida, The Citadel, Clemson and Nebraska.
- Connor Shaw is the first Gamecock quarterback in the last 40 years to win eight of his first nine starts.
- The Gamecocks have signed the last four “Mr. Football” winners in the state of South Carolina -- Stephon Gilmore (2009), Marcus Lattimore (2010), Jadeveon Clowney (2011) and Shaq Roland (2012).
- The Gamecocks are a perfect 8-0 over the last two seasons over their top four rivals -- division foes Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, and in-state rival Clemson.
- Tennessee is slated to open a new training center this summer. The 145,000-square foot building includes an amphitheater-style team room, coaches offices, position meeting rooms, a dining hall, players' lounge, a 7,000-square foot locker room, a 22,000-square foot, multi-level weight room as well as a new training room and hydrotherapy area.
- For just the fourth time in school history, Tennessee will enter October with five games under its belt (2006, 1995, 1990). In the previous three campaigns, the Vols won at least nine games, highlighted by a 1990 SEC Championship.
- Eight of Tennessee’s opponents earned a bid to play in a bowl game last season: NC State (Belk), Florida (Gator), Georgia (Outback), Mississippi State (Music City), Alabama (National Championship), South Carolina (Capital One), Missouri (Independence) and Vanderbilt (Liberty). All but Georgia and Vanderbilt were victorious.
- For the second consecutive year, Tennessee’s opponents compiled an overall record of 81-71 the previous season. Seven of Tennessee’s opponents had winning records in 2011: NC State (8-5), Florida (7-6), Georgia (10-4), Mississippi State (7-6), Alabama (12-1), South Carolina (11-2) and Missouri (8-5).
- Among the most impressive offensive players during spring practice for the Commodores were redshirt freshmen Josh Grady and Kris Kentera, both recruited out of high school as possible quarterbacks. Grady, from Tampa, Fla., impressed as a wide receiver and wildcat quarterback during the Black & Gold Spring Game. Kentera, from Colorado Springs, Colo., has athleticism and excellent hands and made a strong case for playing time this fall at H-back.
- For the second straight spring, the Commodores were limited with potential offensive linemen. During the spring game, only eight linemen participated. The limited numbers allowed three young prospects to showcase their talents to the staff: sophomore center/guard Spencer Pulley and Joe Townsend, and redshirt freshman guard Jake Bernstein.
- The Commodores introduced a "rover" position on defense during spring drills. Junior Karl Butler was one of Vanderbilt's defensive standouts during the spring working exclusively in the hybrid linebacker-safety role.
If a kid can play, schools are going to find him.
Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith was the exception. He recruited Kentucky.
Now a sophomore, Smith heads into the 2012 season as the guy to beat at the quarterback position for Kentucky. Coach Joker Phillips said coming out of the spring that Smith would be the Wildcats’ starter if the season started today.
A Granada Hills, Calif., product, Smith had Sacramento State as a possibility and was also thinking hard about going to junior college.
“I found Kentucky. They didn’t find me,” Smith now jokes.
What happened is that Smith didn’t play his junior season of high school. He had some minor injuries and was playing at a high school, Bishop Alemany in Mission Hills, Calif., that ran the ball most of the time.
So Smith transferred prior to his senior season to Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Calif., and put up big numbers.
The only problem was that schools were just starting to hear about him and thought he was a junior.
“Stanford and UCLA were asking for my film, but they thought I was a junior,” Smith explained. “I was way under the radar.”
Determined to play big-time college football, Smith started sending out tape from his senior season. He picked out several SEC schools with offenses that he felt like fit his game. Kentucky was on that list.
Offensive line coach Mike Summers was the coach Smith made contact with, and the Wildcats immediately liked what they saw. They offered Smith a scholarship, but like everybody else, thought he was a junior.
Smith wound up coming on a visit to Kentucky two springs ago. He still didn’t have a firm offer at that point. The Wildcats were full and didn’t have any scholarships available, so they offered him a chance to grayshirt, which meant delaying enrollment until that January.
Smith accepted, and even though there was very little fanfare surrounding his signing, he had exactly what he wanted -- a chance to compete at the highest level in college football.
“I just went back to California and worked,” Smith said. “I didn’t have a playbook or anything. I didn’t even know any of the Kentucky players. I just knew I had to work as hard as I could to be ready.”
Smith didn’t have to wait long to get his first taste of the SEC. He played in eight games last season as a true freshman and made his first start against Ole Miss in Game 9.
Kentucky trailed in the fourth quarter of that game, but Smith brought the Wildcats back with a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and they won 30-13. Smith finished 19-of-36 for 283 yards. His 38-yard touchdown pass to La’Rod King was a beauty, and most importantly, he didn’t throw any interceptions.
“The thing you like about Maxwell is his toughness and the way the guys respond to him,” Phillips said. “That’s something your quarterback’s got to have, and Maxwell never flinched last year.”
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Smith started the rest of the way until a sprained throwing shoulder kept him out of the finale against Tennessee.
While not pleased with the two interceptions he threw in the spring game, Smith said there’s no question that his teammates look at him in a different light than they did this time a year ago.
“They know me now and know what I can do,” Smith said. “Nobody really knew anything about me last year. But when I went into that Mississippi State game and played well, and then we came back and won against Ole Miss, you could sort of see everybody then saying, ‘OK, maybe Maxwell can do this.’
“I’ve tried to feed off that. I feel like I have real good camaraderie with my teammates, both on and off the field. I think they trust me now to make good throws and get it right out there.”
Still, Smith isn’t taking anything for granted. A Freshman All-SEC selection a year ago, he knows senior Morgan Newton isn’t going to just lie down when he returns to the practice field this fall. Newton missed the spring after having shoulder surgery.
“With Morgan coming back healthy, you’ve got to win it all over again,” Smith said. “You’re never safe. It’s a business. It really is, just like the NFL. You have to be ready for anything.”
Until somebody tells Smith differently, though, he views it as his job to lose.
“That’s how I’ve got to look at it,” he said. “If I’m performing and doing things well in practice, and they feel like I can help this team win, then it’s my team.”
That battle, at least from a football sense, is still raging at Kentucky, and it’s never going to be anything but a battle when it comes to making the Wildcats a consistent winner in the SEC.
In this basketball-crazed state, one that’s still aglow thanks to the hoops national championship brought home by John Calipari and his band of one-and-done phenoms this month, football will always reside in the shadows to some degree.
But Phillips, entering his third season as Kentucky’s head coach, has a little different perspective. He’s seen how far the program has come in the past decade, and has been an integral part of the Wildcats’ resurgence.
Prior to last season’s 5-7 finish, the Wildcats were one of only five SEC teams that had gone to five consecutive bowl games. The other four were Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU, which is obviously some pretty exalted company.
And even though it was a struggle the whole way offensively a year ago, it’s the way Kentucky ended the season that gives Phillips and his staff so much optimism for 2012.
“We were a game away from playing in our sixth straight bowl game. Only four other teams had done that,” Phillips said. “We were really close, but it was a down year for us with some of the injuries and losing some of the personnel that we lost, and being as young as we were. I think with another year of growth in our system, and another year of growth with our personnel, we think we can get back to the level that we’ve been at and continue to grow from there.”
Phillips couldn’t be more pleased with the young talent in the program, and he said the Wildcats have stuck by their guns in terms of what they’re looking for in a player.
Toward the end of the season, Phillips said he looked out on defense and there were five true freshmen on the field at various times against Georgia and Tennessee. That experience, not to mention the infusion of new talent, will be vital next season, especially with the Wildcats losing top defensive playmakers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy.
“You look at this last class, and we wanted to find 25 guys who have high character and are highly intelligent, and have ability also,” Phillips said. “Those guys that have all those things will do something every day to improve themselves. Therefore, it’s easier for us to develop them and get them ready to play.
“That’s how we decided to build this thing, and we think these last two classes that we put together have a chance to be two of the best classes to ever play here, and we’re already working on a third straight.”
The disappointment of not going to a bowl game last season was tempered by what happened on the final Saturday of the regular season in Lexington.
After 26 straight losses to Tennessee, Kentucky finally ended that drought by beating the Vols 10-7, and did so with senior receiver Matt Roark stepping in and playing quarterback after Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton were unable to play because of injuries.
Phillips was a player on that 1984 Kentucky team that had last beaten Tennessee, and he’d also been on the losing end to the Vols 15 different times as an assistant coach or head coach.
So, it goes without saying that he suffered as much as anyone through all those losses to the Vols.
“I’d been in a lot of those meeting rooms, war rooms, whatever you want to call it, and trying to get a plan together to beat those guys,” Phillips said. “Never did I think when I left here in 1984 that that would be the last time that we would beat Tennessee in 20-something years.
“A lot of the ex-players who left in 1984 can sit and criticize those teams, but I was a huge part of it. I was in there trying to get those players prepared to beat those guys. So, yes, there was a lot of pain. It didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t sit well with our fans, and I understand that.
“Maybe we can start our own streak now.”
It wasn’t just that one win against Tennessee that reassured Phillips the program was headed in the right direction.
A week earlier, Kentucky went toe-to-toe with eventual Eastern Division champion Georgia on the road, before falling 19-10, and opened the month of November with a 30-13 blistering of Ole Miss.
“The way we finished, period, was encouraging -- playing well against Georgia and then beating Tennessee,” Phillips said. “The thing I liked about the Tennessee game was that we got to see some seniors go out the right way. Every senior that played on defense made plays, but there were a lot of young guys who played, too.
“And for those young guys to have success carried through to the offseason, and that momentum has shown this spring. It’s shown in the way they’ve worked, and now it’s starting to show in their confidence level and the way they’ve played this spring.”
Final UCF 10 20 Missouri 38 Final Massachusetts 31 Vanderbilt 34 Final Arkansas 49 Texas Tech 28 Final 6 Georgia 35 24 South Carolina 38 Final Louisiana-Lafayette 15 14 Ole Miss 56 Final Mississippi State 35 South Alabama 3 Final Southern Miss 12 3 Alabama 52 Final Louisiana-Monroe 0 10 LSU 31 Final/3OT Kentucky 30 Florida 36 Final Tennessee 10 4 Oklahoma 34 Final Rice 10 7 Texas A&M 38