SEC: Morris Claiborne

A Decade of Les: All-Miles team

August, 8, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade with Miles helming the Tigers' program. Today we take a swing at naming a roster of the best players from the Miles era.

Let's break down the picks by offense, defense and special teams and discuss some of the tougher decisions.

OFFENSE
Among the most difficult positions to settle on were running back and wide receiver.

We went with Jeremy Hill (who set a record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per carry in 2013) and Jacob Hester at running back. Because of his ability to play fullback, Hester -- the leading rusher on the 2007 BCS championship club with 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns -- gets the nod over a host of talented alternatives like Charles Scott, Joseph Addai and Stevan Ridley.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJarvis Landry had 77 catches for 1,193 yards last season before being drafted by the Dolphins in the second round.
Receiver was an even more difficult position to evaluate. Wideouts such as Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet and Rueben Randle all belong on the list, but we went with Jarvis Landry, whose 2013 (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) was the best single-season effort in the Miles era, and Brandon LaFell, a two-time All-SEC pick who is LSU's career receiving leader (2,517 yards) under Miles. We added Odell Beckham Jr. as an all-purpose player thanks in large part to a standout 2013 season (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight TDs) when he won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and ranked second nationally in all-purpose yardage (178.1 yards per game).

There are quarterbacks worth mentioning aside from JaMarcus Russell, namely Matt Flynn and Zach Mettenberger, but Russell completed one of the best seasons by a quarterback in LSU history in 2006 (232-of-342, 3,129 yards, 28 TDs) before becoming the top overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

La'el Collins gets the nod at one offensive tackle spot over candidates like Andrew Whitworth and Joe Barksdale, so he needs to prove he deserves that distinction this season. He has the potential to be the best pro prospect LSU has had at tackle under Miles.

LINEUP
QB: JaMarcus Russell
RB: Jeremy Hill
RB: Jacob Hester
WR: Brandon LaFell
WR: Jarvis Landry
TE: Richard Dickson
OT: Ciron Black
OG: Herman Johnson
C: Rudy Niswanger
OG: Will Blackwell
OT: La'el Collins
AP: Odell Beckham Jr.

DEFENSE
Defensive line and secondary have been loaded positions under Miles and John Chavis, so picking just two players at those positions wasn't easy.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Peterson won the Thorpe and Bednarik awards during the 2010 season.
At defensive end, we went with two-time All-SEC pick and eventual No. 3 overall draft pick Tyson Jackson and Sam Montgomery, LSU’s sack leader under Miles with 32.5 between 2010 and 2012, over alternatives like Barkevious Mingo and Melvin Oliver.

One tackle position was easy with 2007 Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski and Lott award winner Glenn Dorsey claiming one of the spots. The other tackle was a tough call, but we went with 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers over a ton of great options such as Drake Nevis, Al Woods, Bennie Logan, Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams.

It would have been awfully difficult to pick just two cornerbacks if we hadn’t added a nickelback spot for Tyrann Mathieu to occupy. One of the SEC’s leading defensive playmakers of the 2000s, he definitely belongs on the roster, but Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne feel like no-brainers at corner, too.

At safety, it wasn’t much fun leaving All-American Craig Steltz off the list, but Eric Reid and LaRon Landry both made All-America teams, too -- and both of them became first-round draft picks, while Steltz went in the fourth round in 2008.

Linebackers Kevin Minter (130 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss in 2012) and Kelvin Sheppard (116 tackles in 2010) posted the top single-season tackle totals of the Miles era, while Ali Highsmith earned one All-America designation when he totaled 101 tackles and nine tackles for a loss on the 2007 BCS championship club.

LINEUP
DE: Sam Montgomery
DT: Glenn Dorsey
DT: Michael Brockers
DE: Tyson Jackson
LB: Ali Highsmith
LB: Kevin Minter
LB: Kelvin Sheppard
CB: Patrick Peterson
S: Eric Reid
S: LaRon Landry
CB: Morris Claiborne
Nickel: Tyrann Mathieu

SPECIAL TEAMS
LSU has had a bunch of electric kick returners under Miles. Peterson, Claiborne and Beckham would have been among the top options among kickoff returners, but since they're already on the roster, we went with Trindon Holliday, LSU's career kickoff return yardage leader under Miles (1,806 yards between 2006 and 2009). Peterson, Beckham, Holliday and Mathieu were phenomenal punt returners, so let’s add another new name to the list in Skyler Green, who ranks second all-time among LSU punt returners with 1,064 yards between 2002 and 2005.

It's tough to ignore LSU's single-season and career kicker scoring leader Colt David, but Josh Jasper is the most accurate field goal kicker in school history (83.9 percent) and trails only David on the kicker scoring list with 120 career points.

Brad Wing posted two of the top five seasons by a punter in school history in 2011 (an All-America season where he averaged 44.37 yards per punt) and 2012 (44.8), so he gets the nod over Derek Helton, Patrick Fisher and Chris Jackson.

LINEUP
PK: Josh Jasper
P: Brad Wing
KOR: Trindon Holliday
PR: Skyler Green
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade under the eccentric Miles. Today we look back at the five best recruiting classes of the Miles era.

5. 2013
ESPN class ranking: Seventh
We’re making a call based on potential here, since several of the most talented members of this group have yet to make much of an impact (or haven’t played yet at all). Cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson and quarterback Anthony Jennings are the headliners thus far. But players like tight end DeSean Smith; defensive tackles Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron; and linebacker Kendell Beckwith could all become household names among LSU fans before the 2014 season is over.

4. 2007
ESPN class ranking: Sixth
Wide receiver Terrance Toliver was the highest-rated prospect in this 27-man class, and he had a fine college career, but other 2007 signees became the more important college players. The Tigers had three players in this signing class (kicker Josh Jasper, defensive lineman Drake Nevis and offensive lineman Will Blackwell) who became All-Americans according to at least one organization. They also had six players (Blackwell, Jasper, Nevis, defensive lineman Joe Barksdale, safety Chad Jones and running back Stevan Ridley) who made at least one All-SEC team and six (Jones, Ridley, Nevis, Barksdale, cornerback Ron Brooks and receiver Demetrius Byrd) who became NFL draft picks.

3. 2011
ESPN class ranking: 10th
No. 2 overall prospect Anthony Johnson was the biggest fish in this class, but “The Freak” didn’t quite live up to his advance billing in three seasons at LSU before becoming an undrafted free agent in the most recent NFL draft. However, this class was loaded with impact players -- including two of the most productive receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) in school history, a pair of All-SEC offensive linemen from 2013 (La'el Collins and Trai Turner) and several others who should make an impact this season (running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, defensive end Jermauria Rasco, safety Ronald Martin and defensive tackle Quentin Thomas, among others). LSU also added quarterback Zach Mettenberger as a junior college transfer and signed running back Jeremy Hill in this class, although Hill didn’t contribute as a member of the team until 2012.

2. 2014
ESPN class ranking: Second
Yes, this is completely unfair. These kids haven’t played a single snap in college yet. Much like the 2013 class, it will be several more years before we know the full impact that this class will have at LSU. But with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect (running back Leonard Fournette), the No. 1 players at three different positions (Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and offensive guard Garrett Brumfield) and other exciting additions like quarterback Brandon Harris, record-setting receiver Trey Quinn, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett, this could conceivably become one of the best recruiting classes in school history before it’s all over. Miles said on national signing day that he believes this class can help LSU contend for several national championships, and it certainly has the talent to do so.

1. 2009
ESPN class ranking: First
No. 1 athlete Russell Shepard was initially the crown jewel in the nation’s top signing class, but he wasn’t the guy who eventually made this such a successful class. Sure there were several star prospects who panned out in this class -- including No. 1 safety Craig Loston, No. 1 receiver Rueben Randle, No. 2 defensive end Sam Montgomery and No. 11 outside linebacker Kevin Minter -- but the Tigers got as much out of the players who weren’t considered to rank among the highest-rated signees at the time. The Tigers signed 10 ESPN 150 honorees in the 25-man class. Among those who didn’t make the list of the top 150 prospects: cornerback Morris Claiborne; defensive linemen Michael Brockers, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan; offensive lineman Chris Faulk and linebacker Lamin Barrow. Claiborne, Brockers and Mingo all became first-round NFL draft picks, and five members of that group made at least one All-SEC team.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU’s head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade under the eccentric Miles. Today we look back at the five best seasons of the Miles era.

5. 2010: Thanks to a series of heart-stopping wins early in the season -- most notably last-second victories against Tennessee and Florida in consecutive weeks -- LSU started the 2010 season with a 7-0 record. Eventual BCS champion Auburn handed the Tigers their first loss in an exciting 24-17 ballgame, but LSU bounced back by knocking off defending BCS champ Alabama in its next game. The Tigers dropped their regular-season finale, 31-23 at No. 12 Arkansas, but rebounded to beat Texas A&M 41-24 in the Cotton Bowl. LSU finished 11-2 in a season that set up what would become a huge 2011 under Miles.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles and LSU enjoyed one of the school's finest seasons in 2011, though it ended with an ugly loss.
4. 2005: Miles’ debut season provided glimpses of what would become staples of the coach’s LSU tenure: wild outcomes (including three overtime contests, a crazy comeback win over Arizona State in Miles’ first game and seven games decided by seven points or less), five wins over ranked opponents and the first of his three SEC West titles. The Tigers finished the season 11-2, capped by a 40-3 destruction of No. 9 Miami in the Peach Bowl.

3. 2006: The Tigers could make a case as the hottest team in the SEC West by the end of 2006 as they bounced back from a loss to eventual BCS champion Florida by winning their final seven games. That run included road wins against No. 8 Tennessee and No. 5 Arkansas and a season-ending 41-14 win against No. 11 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Although starting quarterback JaMarcus Russell would leave to become the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NFL draft, this 11-2 season -- much like 2010 -- helped LSU build toward an appearance in the BCS title game the following season.

2. 2011: Led by Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, Bennie Logan, Kevin Minter, Brandon Taylor, Michael Brockers and seemingly a defensive cast of thousands, Miles’ 2011 LSU club was one of the best college football teams of the 2000s. There’s just one problem: the Tigers’ sputtering offense laid an egg in the BCS title game, a rematch against Alabama -- a team the Tigers had beaten 9-6 in overtime in the fall. That spoiled what had been an undefeated season. The Crimson Tide’s 21-0 victory in the rematch was probably the most miserable night of the Miles era, but this still goes down as an incredible team even if the 13-1 season ended with a thud.

1. 2007: Miles had to know he had something special on his hands when the Tigers obliterated No. 9 Virginia Tech 48-7 in the second game of the season. And he did. One of the most exciting seasons in school history ended with a second BCS title in four seasons -- with the Tigers navigating through insane wins against Florida, Auburn and Alabama, bouncing back from triple-overtime losses to Kentucky and Arkansas and eventually throttling top-ranked Ohio State 38-24 in the BCS title game. Once again, LSU featured a fearsome defense that included defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, safety Craig Steltz and linebacker Ali Highsmith -- all of whom earned All-America distinction from at least one organization. The offense was led by quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Jacob Hester and a deep group of productive receivers en route to Miles’ first SEC title and the third national title in school history.

LSU embraces playing freshmen

May, 28, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles has never been afraid to play a true freshman -- LSU’s sports information department reports that the Tigers have played 87 first-year freshmen in Miles’ nine seasons -- but it has become one of the program’s trademarks only in recent years.

The Tigers ranked among the nation’s top-five programs at playing freshmen in each of the last two seasons -- 14 freshmen in 2013 (third) and 15 in 2012 (fifth) -- and Miles has all but guaranteed at least 15 more will see the field this fall once a star-studded recruiting class arrives on campus.

It has quickly become a calling card for Miles’ staff on the recruiting trail.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherTyrann Mathieu is one of many LSU players in recent years who've had a chance to contribute as true freshmen.
“I think kids like that about LSU,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “They like our style, they like Coach Miles’ philosophy that young guys are going to play early, which we do. I think we’ve averaged maybe ... at least 15 freshmen a year playing. And so all that plays into recruiting.

“You can’t guarantee a guy he’s going to play, but if he knows he’s given the opportunity and he’s got confidence in his ability, the track record speaks for itself. Come in and help us win and here’s the key thing, I think, that I’ve learned since being here is our veteran players -- our juniors and sophomores and redshirt sophomores and so forth -- they expect young guys to come help them play. They’re not afraid of young guys coming in and playing with them.”

Considering its recent history at the position group, it should come as no surprise that LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson traces the development of this trend back to the arrival of key players in the secondary. The wheels were set in motion when cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne contributed as true freshmen in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but the freshman movement truly took off with the 2010 class that featured Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.

Those players -- and several others who played bigger roles the next season when LSU won an SEC championship -- started to show what they could do in the second half of their freshman seasons, capped by an impressive win against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl where Mathieu, Reid and Simon all intercepted passes.

“It really hit because we had three guys in the secondary because so many spread defenses came (along), so we played a lot of nickel and a lot of dime with five and six defensive backs there,” Wilson recalled. “So Tyrann Mathieu took to the field, Tharold Simon took to the field as well as Eric Reid, and then offensively Spencer Ware began to emerge, et cetera. So probably in that class, the class of [2010], it kind of hit a high point from that point on. These guys have relished and looked forward to the opportunity to contribute as freshmen, and we like it.”

Mathieu went on to become the 2011 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist thanks to his dynamic playmaking ability. Reid also became an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. Simon didn’t earn the same level of acclaim in college, but he was still able to jump to the NFL after his junior season and become a draft pick himself.

All three players had eligibility remaining when they left LSU, which exemplifies the greatest contributing factor in the program’s recent trend of playing youngsters. No program has had more players enter the draft early in the last couple seasons than LSU, and those departures created holes that talented freshmen could fill.

LSU recruited toward that end for this year's class and cashed in on signing day when it landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, one that featured the top overall prospect in tailback Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 receiver (Malachi Dupre), top guard (Garrett Brumfield) and 16 players who made the 2014 ESPN 300.

“We knew our needs, we knew what we wanted to get,” Wilson said of signing day. “We targeted certain guys, so there was never a panic on our part. We kind of knew early on by way of communication and feedback who we’re in good shape with and who we’re not and have a plan on people to place and sign in those positions.”

Tailback and receiver will certainly be manned at least in part by freshmen this season, and many other freshmen such as quarterback Brandon Harris, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett also might follow Mathieu, Reid and Simon’s lead by playing key roles this fall.

LSU isn’t the only school that relies heavily on young players, but it has quickly gained a reputation as a trendsetter in that regard.

“I think that’s a little unique,” Cameron said. “Sometimes guys are afraid of young players coming in and taking their position, but here I don’t sense that. I sense guys like the competition and they know we’re going to need everybody to win a championship.”
As the 2014 NFL draft drew to a close last Saturday, I could still hear Joe Pendry’s prophetic words in the press box on Nov. 5, 2011.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Scott Donaldson/Icon SMIC.J. Mosley was taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.
Pendry, who had just retired the previous year as Alabama’s offensive line coach, said there was a very simple reason that nobody could score a touchdown that night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“Look out there on the field, and probably 20 of the 22 defensive starters will be playing in the NFL,” said Pendry, who was an offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans before ending his career in the college ranks.

Turns out, he might have undersold just how much talent was on the field, which in my 20-plus years of covering the SEC is unquestionably the gold standard for premium defensive talent on the field together at one time.

In that game alone, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime, there were 28 defensive players who played in the game -- 14 on each side -- who would get drafted. That includes 10 first-rounders.

The grand total of future draftees who played in the game was 42, and that doesn’t even count another handful of players who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

“You don’t see that every Saturday,” said Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager and current executive director of the Senior Bowl.

“That’s why it was a tug-of-war in the middle of the field, all those future pros on defense. We call it a logo game. Neither offense could move the ball very far past the logo at midfield.”

Savage, the color man on Alabama’s radio broadcasts, remembers doing interviews leading up to that epic No. 1-versus-No. 2 encounter and estimating that 40 to 50 players from the game would end up playing in the NFL.

“It’s as close to an NFL game as you’re ever going to see in terms of a college matchup, with so many future NFL players on each side,” Savage said.

The two teams wound up playing twice that season. Alabama avenged its only loss by beating LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans. Alabama finished No. 1 nationally that season in scoring defense, and LSU was No. 2. Between them, they gave up 27 touchdowns in 27 games.

The only games in Savage’s recent memory that would come close to that Alabama-LSU affair in terms of producing NFL draft picks were the Florida State-Miami game in 2000 and the Miami-Ohio State BCS National Championship game to cap the 2002 season.

Miami beat Florida State 27-24 in 2000, snapping the Seminoles’ 26-game regular-season winning streak.

In the next three drafts, Miami produced 26 draft choices, although not all of those players played in that 2000 game. For instance, Willis McGahee and Jerome McDougle redshirted in 2000, and Clinton Portis was injured and didn’t play.

Florida State, over the next three drafts, produced 18 draft choices.

But in one game, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see 42 future draft choices again on the field playing, and certainly not 28 on defense.

As a comparison, in that FSU-Miami game in 2000, there were a total of 17 defensive players who would end up being drafted.

Now, when it comes to one team, good luck in trumping Miami’s 2001 national championship team. The Hurricanes had 16 players from that team who would go on to be first-round picks.

Here’s a look at the draftees from that Alabama-LSU game in 2011:

ALABAMA

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
AP Photo/David RichardBarkevious Mingo was one of the many LSU defenders on the 2011 team that was drafted.
2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft
LSU

2014 draft
2013 draft
2012 draft

Ultimate 300: SEC's top classes 

January, 30, 2014
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The SEC has dominated the recruiting world over the past several years. Since 2008, the SEC has had at least three schools finish in the top 10 of the ESPN recruiting class rankings each year. Last year, the conference had an impressive six schools ranked among the top 10 recruiting classes in the country. This year is much of the same, as seven SEC schools are ranked in the top 10.

Here’s a closer look at the five best recruiting SEC schools in the Ultimate ESPN 300.

Alabama, LSU form NFL pipeline

May, 20, 2013
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Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com recently suggested that an NFL roster comprised exclusively of Alabama and LSU players wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

As he points out, according to a listing on ESPN.com, there are 49 players from LSU in the NFL and 41 players from Alabama.

In reading that piece, I couldn’t help but think back to a conversation I had with former Alabama offensive line coach Joe Pendry just prior to the first Alabama-LSU game in 2011. Pendry retired following the 2010 season and had served as offensive coordinator for both the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans in the NFL before joining Nick Saban at Alabama.

Realizing how much talent would be on the field that night at Bryant-Denny Stadium, especially on defense, I jokingly asked Pendry how anybody would score.

He estimated that somewhere around 18 to 20 of the 22 defensive starters would end up playing in the NFL.

Looking back, he was dead on.

Of the 22 defensive starters that night, 16 were selected in the NFL draft. Six other defensive players who played in the game were also drafted. That’s a total of 22 players. Two other players that went undrafted spent last season on NFL practice squads.

We’re talking high-round draft picks, too. Of the 22 who were drafted, 14 went in the top three rounds.

Moreover, as many as seven other defensive players from that game who are still in school are likely to be drafted in either 2014 or 2015. Among them: Linebackers Adrian Hubbard, C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and safety Craig Loston of LSU.

So, the final tally of defensive players from that game (some played on special teams) who were either drafted or have spent some time on an NFL roster will likely end up being 30-plus.

No wonder those two teams played eight quarters that year, and only one touchdown was scored between them.

Here’s a rundown of the draft picks from that game on defense:

ALABAMA
LSU
The SEC is a conference founded on defensive principles. If you don't have a top-notch defense, chances are you won't rise to the top.

There are exceptions (Auburn in 2010), but for the most part, when you look at five of the past six national champions from this league you see a very good defense as well.

Last year, the SEC crowded the top 10 nationally when it came to defenses. This year, Alabama, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are all ranked within the top 17 in total defense.

SportsNation

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But which team had the best defense in the SEC this season?

Was it Alabama, which currently owns the nation's top statistical defense? The Crimson Tide gave up 246 total yards of offense a game and allowed 4.09 yards per play, which was good enough for second nationally. Alabama also ranked first nationally in rushing defense (79.8 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (10.7).

But this unit had glaring weaknesses in its secondary. The Tide might have ranked sixth overall in pass defense, allowing 166 yards through the air per game, but teams found ways to make big plays on Alabama's less experienced defensive backs. Alabama gave up 400-plus yards to LSU and Texas A&M (the Tide's lone loss) in back-to-back weekends and surrendered 394 yards in its shootout win over Georgia in the SEC title game.

Unlike Alabama, Florida returned just about everyone from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in total defense. This year, the Gators were even more aggressive than last year and finished the regular season ranked fifth in total defense, giving up just 282.6 yards per game and also allowed just 12.9 points per game, which currently ranks third nationally behind Alabama. The most amount of offensive yards the Gators surrendered in a game this year was 363 to Vanderbilt.

The main differences this year compared to 2011 for the Gators defense was the lack of late breakage it showed in games because of poor endurance and the amount of turnovers it forced. Florida forced 29 turnovers in 2012, compared to 14 in 2011. But the Gators didn't register a lot of tackles for loss or sacks on the year.

Even after losing two starting linebackers, the Jim Thorpe Award winner in Morris Claiborne, Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu and defensive tackle Michael Brockers, the Tigers still finished the regular season with a top-10 defense. LSU tied for ninth nationally with 31 takeaways and allowed just 4.5 yards per play. The Tigers finished the season with 30 sacks and averaged 2.5 sacks per game.

LSU didn't surrender 300 yards or more through the first seven games, but did allow more than 400 yards three times in the final five games.

South Carolina quietly had another solid defensive year. The Gamecocks ranked 12th nationally in total defense (312.3) and tied for sixth with 40 sacks on the season. When you have a stud like Jadeveon Clowney directing things up front, its not surprising that South Carolina was so aggressive up front. What's also impressive is that the Gamecocks' young secondary played a lot better than what most expected.

But there were other defenses that played well, too. Vanderbilt ranked 17th nationally and led the SEC with 93 tackles for loss (ranked seventh nationally). The Commodores also ranked 10th nationally in pass defense.

Georgia might have had the most NFL talent on its defense this year and owned the country's No. 8 pass defense. It really came alive in the second half of the season, starting with the Florida game, and seemed to be regaining the elite status it had in 2011. But it gave up 300-plus rushing yards in the final three games, including allowing an SEC championship-record 350 to Alabama.

Or maybe there's another defense you fancy out there ...

Mathieu may have violated NCAA rules

October, 16, 2012
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If Tyrann Mathieu wants to return to LSU's football team, it appears his journey back into a purple-and-gold uniform might be even tougher.

According to a report by Sports Illustrated, Mathieu may have violated NCAA rules by promoting a night club while he was still a member of the team. Sports Illustrated reported that Mathieu appeared in a video made by a group of his friends called Era Nation where he promotes a party at a Baton Rouge, La., club called The Palace on March 10 of this year.

Sources told SI that Mathieu received benefits at the club that could also affect his eligibility.

His pictures were also used on fliers promoting the event "Era Nation Album Release Party For Tyrann Mathieu." Former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and current LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson were also on the fliers.

LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette said the school was aware of Johnson being featured on the flier, but said that he didn't think Johnson knew about his picture being used and didn't think the sophomore had committed any violation.

Mathieu, who was dismissed from LSU's football team in August following a failed drug test, re-enrolled at LSU as a student this fall after entering a four-week treatment program in Houston run by former NBA star John Lucas. While Mathieu hasn't confirmed he'd like to return to LSU's football team in 2013, the thought is that he'd like to return to the Tigers' team and play next season.

Now, his path back to the team is a little muddier with the possibility of NCAA violations hovering over his head. It wouldn't just affect him with LSU, either. Mathieu could miss out on playing for other schools as well if what he did is considered a violation.

It's been a rough road for the Honey Badger to venture down since August, and it's going to get tougher if the NCAA finds him in the wrong. The hope is that after his time in treatment, football is no longer his main concern, and that whatever happens doesn't affect his new path in life.

Opening preseason camp: LSU

August, 1, 2012
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Schedule: The Tigers’ first practice is Thursday morning with the varsity players. The freshmen and selected veterans will practice later in the day. The first full-squad practice is Sunday, and the first day in pads is scheduled for Monday. LSU opens the season Sept. 1 against North Texas in Tiger Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised by ESPNU.

Returning starters: Six on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker, punter and top return man on special teams.

Star power: Junior cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season. He tied for the team lead with 76 total tackles and led the SEC with six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. He also returned two punts for touchdowns.

New faces: Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist, a pair of true freshmen, went through spring drills and showed enough that that they’re going to be in the rotation at linebacker this season. Also keep an eye on incoming true freshman Kwon Alexander. In the secondary, redshirt freshman Jalen Collins could end up being the Tigers’ third cornerback, while redshirt freshman Micah Eugene is expected to push Craig Loston for the starting strong-safety spot.

Don’t forget about: Sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk didn’t go through the spring and missed all of last season with a knee injury. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, and he adds a wealth of experience to an already-talented offensive line. Dworaczyk started at left guard in all 13 games of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but will have to beat out promising sophomore La'El Collins if he’s going to return to the starting lineup.

Big shoes to fill: Morris Claiborne picked up right where Patrick Peterson left off the year before and took away one whole side of the field at cornerback last season. He was an eraser back there for the Tigers and also contributed a key 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia. Next in line is junior Tharold Simon, who has the size, skills and drive to be the next great corner to come out of LSU.

Key battle: LSU coach Les Miles likes to play a lot of running backs, but he can’t play five, and the Tigers have five who could start for a lot of teams. The new kid on the block is 6-foot-2, 225-pound freshman Jeremy Hill, who might be the most complete package physically. Juniors Michael Ford and Spencer Ware combined for more than 1,450 rushing yards last season, and 240-pound sophomore Kenny Hilliard came on toward the end of the season. There’s also junior Alfred Blue, who averaged 6.9 yards per carry a year ago. The competition at running back should be fierce over the next month.

Rising star: After starring on special teams last season and blowing up a few opposing return men, sophomore Jarvis Landry is ready to make his mark at receiver. He runs excellent routes and catches everything. He’ll be a vital part of the Tigers’ passing game this fall.

Bottom line: The Tigers came up one game short a year ago after winning 13 in a row against a brutal schedule and then laying an egg in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. They lost three talented underclassmen to the NFL draft, but the defense has a chance to be even better in 2012. Good luck in finding a deeper, more talented defensive line this side of the NFL. The secondary won’t be too far behind. If quarterback Zach Mettenberger can have success throwing the ball down the field, it’s going to open up all sorts of things on offense for the Tigers. Their running game will be as potent as ever. The schedule is also much easier, and Alabama has to come to Baton Rouge this season. When you add it all up, it has the feel of another national-championship run for the Tigers, who are still smarting from what happened to them in New Orleans last season.

One good reason: LSU

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
5:00
PM ET
Our "One good reason" series continues with the LSU Tigers.

Good reasons:
Let's see what the Tigers could be up to this fall:

LSU will win the national championship: This team might be better than last year's squad.

Yes, Jim Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne is gone. All-SEC offensive lineman Will Blackwell isn't around and neither are top receiver Rueben Randle or two starting linebackers from last year. But the scary thing is that this LSU team might be even better than the one that almost had one of the most historic seasons in NCAA history. We all knew the defense was still going to be loaded with the return of Tyrann Mathieu and arguably the nation's best line with Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan running things, but the offense is sure to be much better with Zach Mettenberger under center.

The quarterback play for LSU the last few years has been average at best, and there were times last year where it was downright unbearable to watch. But Mettenberger, who is relatively inexperienced, has the arm, talent and IQ to take this offense to the next level. The Tigers will still pound opposing offenses with their multi-head running back monster, which adds another stud in freshman Jeremy Hill, but what will really make this offense imposing is the threat of the downfield passing game. Odell Beckham Jr. is a year older and so is Jarvis Landry. Beckham was impressive yet again this spring, while Landry had an excellent spring and has the makings of being a true deep threat in this offense. Add an offensive line that returns five players with starting experience and LSU should have a much more balanced and productive offense in 2012.

With a defense that should yet again be one of the nation's best, LSU should be even more formidable and could run the SEC table again. If the Tigers get another title shot, you better believe this group will be thirsting to make up for last year's failure at the end of the season.

Why it won't: History just isn't on the Tigers' side.

The last team to make it to back-to-back national championships was Ohio State, which played in and lost in the 2006 and 2007 BCS title games. Before that, USC made it back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, losing the latter and having the first one vacated. Oklahoma lost in both 2003 and 2004 (last one vacated because USC won), Miami won in 2001 and lost in 2002, and Florida State went three straight years from 1998-2001, but lost Round 3. Florida State is the only team in the BCS era to win the national title in its second consecutive trip. History does not favor this Tigers team.

LSU might be loaded on both sides of the ball, but it's still in the SEC, which hasn't had a team go to back-to-back title games since Florida did in 1995-96. That means no repeat trips during the SEC's current run of six straight national championships. The Tigers are good, but are they good enough to defeat history's curse?
We continue to rank all the positions in the SEC and turn our attention to groups of defensive backs the conference has to offer.

Past rankings:
On to the league's secondaries:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTyrann Mathieu is a force to be reckoned with in the LSU secondary.
1. LSU: The Tigers bring back a load of talent here. Tyrann Mathieu and his Honey Badger persona return, but he might not be LSU's best pure corner. While Mathieu has a true knack for finding the ball, no matter where he is, junior Tharold Simon, who replaces Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne, might have the best cover ability on the team. Junior safety Eric Reid takes the back end of the field away and will challenge to be one of the nation's top safeties this fall. The coaches are still waiting for safety Craig Loston to break out, and his solid spring was an encouragement. Keep an eye on safety Micah Eugene, who turned heads this spring.

2. Georgia: The Bulldogs have some depth concerns and some players will face early-season suspensions, but the Bulldogs are loaded at the top. Bacarri Rambo is one of the nation's best safeties and he has a very solid partner in Shawn Williams, who led the Dawgs in tackles last year. Seniors Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are back, but will likely sit out the start of the year because of suspension. That leaves Malcolm Mitchell, who moved from receiver, to fill in and he's no stranger to defense. The coaches are also excited about youngster Damian Swann, who will play early.

3. Alabama: With three starters gone, this group is drawing a lot of comparisons to the 2010 unit that struggled at times. However, this batch of DBs insists it'll be more prepared this fall and shakes off the comparisons. Veteran Robert Lester is back at safety and is an All-SEC-type player. Junior cornerback Dee Milliner has 16 career starts under his belt and is an underrated talent, and the coaches are expecting to get a lot out of junior college transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue. Keep an eye on safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who has the talent to be a star in this league.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs own one of the league's best corner duos in seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Banks might hold the title as the league's best returning cover corner. Darius Slay is also another corner to watch, as he has some legit playmaking ability. Junior safety Nickoe Whitley is back as well and he would have had better numbers if not for a ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short. He grabbed four interceptions in nine games and should be 100 percent this fall.

5. Florida: This group was pretty young last year, but now has some quality experience under its belt. Safety Matt Elam is the best of the bunch and should challenge to be the league's top safety this year. Sophomore Marcus Roberson had a solid freshman season and has the makings to be a top cover corner in this league. The other corner spot is up for grabs, but keep an eye on sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy, who the staff is very excited about. Josh Evans had a good spring at free safety, but he'll have his hands full fighting off sophomore De'Ante Saunders, who started nine games last year.

6. Missouri: The star of this group is junior corner E.J. Gaines, who recorded only two interceptions, but he broke up 16 passes in 2011 and is bonafide All-SEC candidate. Across from Gaines is senior Kip Edwards, who returns for his second year as a starter and has 37 games to his credit. Edwards turned into a solid cover man toward the end of last season. Seven players return with starting experience, including safeties Kenronte Walker (four starts), who was named the team's most improved safety this spring, and Braylon Webb (four), who had a strong freshman year.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are down three starters, but they aren't without talent. Senior safety D.J. Swearinger, the lone returning starter, is one of the league's top safeties and is solid against the pass and the run. Vet Akeem Auguste returns after missing all of last year with a foot injury, and he's back at corner after moving to safety in 2010. The questions begin with sophomores Victor Hampton (corner) and Brison Williams (safety). Hampton has the talent to succeed, but has some maturing to do. Williams struggled in his only start last year, but the staff really likes his upside.

8. Vanderbilt: Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson are gone, but the Commodores still possess some pretty good talent in the secondary, starting with corner Trey Wilson, who had a solid 2011 in Hayward's shadow. The coaches like what they've seen from junior corner Andre Hal, and safety Kenny Ladler could be a real player at free safety. Expect Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall, who have both see plenty of field time in their careers, to get into the safety rotation this fall.

9. Auburn: The Tigers' secondary took some lumps last year, but certainly has experience back there. Three veteran starters are back with 33 combined starts from a year ago. Fifth-year senior cornerback T'Sharvan Bell didn't go through spring while he recovered from knee surgery, but has the talent to be a top corner in this league. Juniors Chris Davis (corner) and Demetruce McNeal are both back and sophomore Jermaine Whitehead, who had a solid freshman campaign, will get time at safety.

10. Tennessee: Tennessee gave up 7 yards per attempt last year, but things could turnaround this fall. Tennessee has a lot of game experience at corner, including senior Prentiss Waggner, who is the leader of the group. Sophomore Brian Randolph had a solid freshman campaign and junior Brent Brewer is returning to the other safety spot after suffering an ACL injury in late October. Izauea Lanier was ruled ineligible this summer, meaning Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon will compete with Justin Coleman for a corner spot.

11. Arkansas: Sophomore Tevin Mitchel had a solid first year in Fayetteville and is on course to have a true breakout year this fall. Junior Eric Bennett is holding down one of the safety sports and started 13 games in 2011 after moving from cornerback last spring. The staff is still waiting on senior corner Darius Winston to live up to the hype that followed him from high school. Freshmen Kelvin Fisher Jr. and Davyon McKinney will get their chances to play this fall and help with depth.

12. Ole Miss: The Rebels should be better against the pass this year and things start with veteran safety Charles Sawyer, who has All-SEC quality and should have had at least three more than the four interceptions he recorded last year. Former JUCO transfer corner Wesley Pendleton had an impressive year last season, but looked even better this spring. Nickolas Brassell is gone, but the coaches hope to get more out of former freshman standout Senquez Golson, and junior Brishen Mathews returns from back injury to take the hybrid Husky position.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats must replace two starting corners, but the coaches feel good about senior Cartier Rice and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey. Caffey, who moved from running back, might have the most upside and was one of Kentucky's top players this spring. Senior starting safeties Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton are back. Neloms had a solid spring and racked up 71 tackles last year. Behind them, the Wildcats are full of unproven youngsters.

14. Texas A&M: This is where the Aggies could really struggle. Texas A&M ranked 109th nationally in pass defense last year and could start three sophomores in its secondary this fall. Senior safety Steven Campbell can be a real playmaker for this group, but he's struggled to stay healthy during his career. Senior Dustin Harris has shown flashes on defense, but left spring as a backup to sophomore Deshazor Everett. Sophomore Floyd Raven, who was impressive this spring, has the edge over JUCO transfer Tremaine Jacobs at the other corner spot. The coaches are hoping this is a more athletic group in 2012.
The SEC leads the nation with five players on the preseason watch list for the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented annually to the nation's best defensive back.

LSU, which owns the past two Thorpe Award winners -- Patrick Peterson (2010) and Morris Claiborne (2011) -- leads the SEC with two players on the watch list.

Here are all five SEC players on the Thorpe list:
For a complete look at the Thorpe watch list, go here.
We're all looking for the next great thing. Whether it's in life or in football, new and better is what's popular.

As we get closer and closer to the 2012 college football season, we'll continue to poke and prod every team out there in order to figure out which teams should be front-runners and which teams will be in the rearview mirror for most of the season.

ESPN's KC Joyner points out that one way we can judge teams is by the amount of returning starts they have. But he also points out that sometimes new can be better in his look at four breakout first-time starters for 2012 .

Joyner's lone SEC member is LSU rising junior cornerback Tharold Simon. It's a good pick by Joyner. While I don't think he'll be the game-changer that Morris Claiborne was, he might be a better cover corner in one-on-one situations. Joyner points out some interesting facts concerning the two that might suggest that Simon does have better coverage skills, but isn't the ball hawk that Claiborne was.

We'll find out this season.

We'll find out if other new starters can get the job done and maybe make their positions better this fall as well, so why not take a look at a few more SEC players who will be stepping into new starting roles this fall?

Don't expect to see the obvious candidates, such as South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter and Alabama running back Eddie Lacy aren't on here either because we know what those players bring to the table. Also, no junior college transfers. Sorry Denico Autry.

[+] EnlargeMike Gillislee
Phil Sears/US PresswireMike Gillislee (left) made a case during the spring to be Florida's top running back.
Here are 10 first-time starters to keep an eye on in the SEC:

  • Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defensive line will get a lot of attention this fall, as it makes the transition to playing against SEC offensive lines. Ealy is a player who could make much more of an impact this fall. He left spring as a starter on the outside and the coaches think he has a good bit of upside to him. He started just one game last year, registering three tackles for loss, but seemed to be much more comfortable this spring.
  • Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Ford made one start in 2010, but missed most of last season because of back issues. That didn't stop him from being one of Auburn's best players this spring and catapulting him to the top of the depth chart opposite Corey Lemonier. The rising junior was extremely disruptive this spring and looks poised to have a big year in 2012.
  • Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: The Gators haven't had a power back since Tim Tebow and have struggled to generate any sort of consistent production between the tackles since. In steps Gillislee, who has appeared in 36 games with no starts. He's a bigger body who the coaches think will have much more of an impact up the middle, especially with what the coaches think is an improved offensive line. During his career, Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
  • Steven Jenkins, OLB, Texas A&M: Jenkins started during the second half of last season and had a very solid spring in College Station this year. With the Aggies moving to a 4-3 scheme, the coaches expect to get a lot more out of him in 2012. Jenkins has tremendous speed and athleticism and could be a real spark for a defense undergoing changes in a new league like the SEC.
  • Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: Kouandjio was one of the top prospects coming out of high school and played in eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. While his conditioning suffered a little as he rehabbed, the hope is that he takes complete hold of the left tackle spot this fall, with Barrett Jones moving to center. Kouandjio has a ton of talent, but he'll have to get back healthy in order to show all his worth.
  • Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU: With Rueben Randle gone, the Tigers are looking for a new deep threat in their offense. While Odell Beckham Jr. had a bit of a breakout freshman year, keep an eye on Landry. The rising sophomore might be LSU's most athletic receiver and has a chance to take over as the Tigers' new big-play threat. He has solid speed and his bigger frame could frustrate opposing cornerbacks. Landry and Mettenberger seemed to generate good chemistry this spring, and LSU's staff hopes it carries over to the fall.
  • Marcus Lucas, WR, Missouri: Most of the focus when it has come to the Tigers' passing game has revolved around incoming freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. But don't forget about Lucas. He only started three games last year, but the coaches tried to get him on the field as much as possible because of the speed and deep-threat ability he possess. Lucas caught 23 passes in 2011, averaging 18 yards per reception, and registered five touchdowns.
  • Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee: The Vols were looking to enhance the play of their offensive line, and seeing Richardson's development this spring was a major plus for Tennessee's staff. After spending 2011 on special teams as a freshman, Richardson emerged this spring as the starter at left tackle. Richardson's move to left tackle shifts vet Dallas Thomas to left guard, giving what Tennessee's staff thinks is the best combination on the line.
  • Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: The youngster redshirted last year, but could end up as the Tigers' starting left tackle this fall. Robinson said this spring that redshirting was probably the best thing he could have done. It gave him the chance to get much more comfortable with things on the field.
  • Avery Williamson, MLB, Kentucky: The Wildcats are looking to replace four starting linebackers from last year and Williamson stood out plenty of times this spring. He registered 49 tackles as Ronnie Sneed's backup at middle linebacker last year and was one of the better defensive players for the Wildcats this spring.

Top performer: Interceptions

May, 16, 2012
5/16/12
4:30
PM ET
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at players that grabbed the most interceptions.

Past producers:
The SEC returns four players that ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in interception. The top pick man returns this season, though he'll have to sit to start the fall.

Here's a look at No. 1:

Bacarri Rambo, S, Georgia: He had eight interceptions and defended eight passes last season. With his size and strength, Rambo could play in the box and defend the run, but he never had any issue dropping back into coverage with his speed. Physically, Rambo was a beast, but his field vision was very underrated. He showed to have tremendous ball-hawking ability and could attack from all over the field. Rambo could have easily gone to the NFL after his junior year, but stayed, and even though he'll serve a suspension to start the year, he'll still be in the hunt to keep his crown.

The SEC returns three more players that ranked high in interceptions:

Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State: He had five interceptions and defended 14 passes.

Shawn Williams, S, Georgia: He had four interceptions and defended six passes.

Charles Sawyer, S, Ole Miss: He had four interceptions and defended nine passes.

All three of those players will have the opportunity to dethrone Rambo. Banks is one of the most underrated players in the league and he'll start to get a lot more national attention with his cover skills. Keep an eye on Sawyer. He said earlier this spring that he should have had at least two more picks last year and intends to have more in 2012.

Vanderbilt cornerback Trey Wilson recorded three interceptions last season, but defended 11 passes. He's a solid cover corner and he'll get more opportunities to frustrate quarterbacks this fall with Casey Hayward gone. Missouri corner E.J. Gaines is another player to watch. He only had two interceptions, but defended 16 passes. He isn't the biggest defensive back, but he'll annoy a lot of receivers and quarterbacks this fall.

South Carolina has two players to monitor in safety D.J. Swearinger and Spur DeVonte Holloman. Swearinger is someone who can roam all over the field and should improve on his 2011 numbers. Holloman is back at his old position and anytime you have the chance to move around more, you're likely to find the ball more.

LSU's Tyrann Mathieu is a corner you can't ignore, either. Mathieu has a magnetic attraction to the football, even though he only registered two interceptions. He defended 11 passes last season, and with Morris Claiborne gone, he'll have a little more room to work with. Teammate Eric Reid (safety) could also have a shot with his range.

Tennessee's Prentiss Waggner only recorded two interceptions in 2011, but that was with him playing both free safety and cornerback. He's staying put at corner and we saw how successful he is there when he picked off five passes in 2010. He'll battle to be one of the top corners in the SEC this fall.

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