SEC: Nickoe Whitley

Season wrap: Mississippi State

January, 15, 2014
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As the 2013 regular season entered its final two weeks, Mississippi State appeared to be teetering, at least from afar. The Bulldogs were battling injuries at quarterback, mired in a three-game losing streak and licking their wounds from a brutal schedule. Needing to win their last two just to get into a bowl game, that’s exactly what they did -- both in overtime.

True freshman quarterback Damian Williams finished the 24-17 road win at Arkansas and provided the winning points with a 25-yard touchdown run in overtime. The 17-10 overtime victory over Ole Miss was equally thrilling, this time with an ailing Dak Prescott coming off the bench to score the winning touchdown on a 3-yard run. The Bulldogs then exploded in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl with a 44-7 rout of Rice.

Just like that, they went from nearly missing a bowl game to a three-game winning streak to close the season and their fourth consecutive winning season under Dan Mullen, the first time that has happened in Starkville since the Jackie Sherrill-led Bulldogs did it from 1997-2000.

Offensive MVP: Senior offensive guard Gabe Jackson was the best interior offensive lineman in the league and a rock for the Bulldogs. But without Prescott, the Bulldogs would have been in huge trouble this season. The sophomore quarterback led Mississippi State in rushing (829 yards) and passing (1,940 yards), and his 13 rushing touchdowns topped all SEC quarterbacks. He also displayed remarkable courage, playing through injuries and his mother’s death during the season after she lost her battle with cancer.

Defensive MVP: Senior safety Nickoe Whitley was a catalyst for a Mississippi State defense that played lights out down the stretch and allowed just three touchdowns in its final three games. Whitley was fourth on the team with 44 total tackles. He was also among the league leaders with five interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Best moment: Easy call here. Prescott’s 3-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 in overtime brought the Egg Bowl trophy back to Starkville. It was Mississippi State’s third win in the last four years against rival Ole Miss.

Worst moment: All six of the Bulldogs’ losses came to teams that finished in the Top 25 in the final polls. The only one of those that was ugly was the 59-26 home loss to LSU. The Bulldogs were outscored 31-3 in the second half on their way to giving up the most points of the Mullen era.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 4, 2013
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Like Georgia QB Aaron Murray before him, it's tough to see a senior like LSU's Zach Mettenberger get hurt before he has a chance to play his final bowl game and ride off into the sunset. Here's to good health in the NFL.

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- An iPhone App said that it was 84 degrees on Mississippi State's campus Tuesday afternoon, which could only be true if Starkville was located at the bottom of a lake. It's only a few minutes into the start of practice and you can see the players struggling with the humid, sapping conditions. Coaches shout at the medical staff to "Water the O-line!" as if the assembly of 300-pound men were a patch of wilting dandelions.

One of the team doctors takes issue with the readout. Robert Collins, a white-haired holdover from the Jackie Sherrill era, says it's at least 5-6 degrees warmer on the practice field most days, and that's not counting the radiant heat, a measurement he argues is a much more accurate gauge of how hot it actually feels. Inside the players helmets, it's a good 20 degrees warmer, he says.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreThe Mississippi State defensive coaches hope to see more "juice" out of Benardick McKinney and the rest of the Bulldogs defenders.
It feels hot watching the Bulldogs run through individual and team drills. There's no shade for onlookers and even less relief for the players trying to catch their breath. Rick Ray, the school's basketball coach, wears a oversized bucket hat to keep from burning. He's here to watch 6-foot-5 freshman wideout De'Runnya Wilson, who came to school this summer with intentions of playing both sports, though it looks like football will keep him from doing so.

"They're killing the sled," said Ray, craning his neck to the far side of the field where the defensive linemen are working. "You can hear it all the way over here."

A few minutes later, players break from their position groups and begin to practice live action. What happened next should have looked familiar to Ray. It wasn't basketball, but the tempo sure looked like it. All that was missing was the high pitch of sneakers screeching on hardwood floor.

Mississippi State has long been a team that likes to run the football and control the clock, but today both sides of the ball are working at a full sprint. The NASCAR offense, as coaches call it, is in full effect. There's almost no break between plays. The first series is over before there's even time to measure it by hand. Ready for the second series, the average time between the blow of the whistle and the snap clocks in at roughly 19 seconds.

Players aren't the only ones running. Coaches are, too. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins waves his hands like a man possessed and screams at his cornerback to, "Crank your a-- up!" before he's dropped to the scout team.

Time, you see, is of the essence.

Oklahoma State and its high-octane offense await Mississippi State on Saturday. The Cowboys, who finished seventh nationally in passing a year ago, averaged one play every 20.3 seconds. Fifty-eight of their 69 offensive touchdowns came on drives that lasted 3 minutes or less. Under the direction of coach Mike Gundy, they scored 19 touchdowns in under 60 seconds, good enough for third in the country.

"Once their tempo gets started, it's like a train rolling downhill," Collins said earlier in the day, "it's kind of hard to stop it."

For more than seven months, Mississippi State has been preparing for Oklahoma State and its no-huddle offense. Collins has stressed to his players that the best way to stop it is to never let it get going in the first place. Negative plays and pass breakups, he says, put the offense at a disadvantage. Throwing off the tempo is the only real option, because once the Cowboys have a defense on its heels, it's lights out.

(Read full post)

In the SEC, it's all about recruiting and player development. It's the big reason why the league has won seven straight BCS championships and produced more NFL players than any other conference. The two go hand-in-hand.

The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).

And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.

Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.

Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.

Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker

Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.

Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.

Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson

LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger

Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley

Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson

Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford

South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton

Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone

Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews

Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews

Mississippi State season preview

August, 12, 2013
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Our SEC preview continues today with a look at the Mississippi State Bulldogs

Coach: Dan Mullen (29-22 overall, all at MSU)

2012 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/US PresswireDan Mullen says the Bulldogs have a chip on their shoulder about the way their season ended last year.
Key losses: WR Chad Bumphis, LB Cameron Lawrence, DB Darius Slay, DB Johnthan Banks, WR Chris Smith, WR Arceto Clark.

Key returnees: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, LB Benardrick McKinney, OG Gabe Jackson, DE Kaleb Eulls, S Nickoe Whitley.

Newcomer to watch: DE Chris Jones, WR Jeremey Chappelle, CB Justin Cox, WR Fred Ross.

Biggest games in 2013: Oklahoma State (In Houston), Aug. 31; LSU, Oct. 5; at South Carolina, Nov. 2; at Texas A&M, Nov. 9; Alabama, Nov. 16; Ole Miss, Nov. 30.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can the Bulldogs take the next step? Last season, they started 7-0 and were in the top 15 nationally before a loss to Alabama began a stretch where they lost five of their final six games, which also happened to be when their schedule became its toughest. All five of those losses were by double digits. With the return of quarterback Tyler Russell, guard Gabe Jackson and a talented offensive line, as well as some key pieces in the front seven and secondary, the question is whether the Bulldogs can fare better against the top SEC West squads. One plus for the Bulldogs is that they get LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss all in the friendly confines of Davis Wade Stadium. Mullen has said several times that the Bulldogs' goal is to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.

Forecast: This is a young group for Mullen with only 10 seniors on the roster and Mullen said that he thinks the team let the Alabama loss affect them in the weeks following. This young squad will have to learn how to respond to defeats like that this year and Mullen said he feels the group comes in with a chip on its shoulder after the way 2012 ended.

But there are key pieces back at key positions, namely at quarterback with Russell and along the offensive line led by Jackson at guard. There is production to be replaced at receiver. On defense, guys like Benardrick McKinney, Nickoe Whitley and Kaleb Eulls are part of a group of six returning starters on that side of the ball.

Taking the next step won't be easy for this crew though, considering the schedule. There are five ranked teams on the slate (Oklahoma State, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama) and those last three fall in consecutive weeks in November. That doesn't count the Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss, which the Bulldogs lost last season. This year, though, they host the Rebels.

Winning around eight games again, as they did a season ago, is certainly achievable, but taking the leap forward into the top three in the SEC West might be asking too much, at least this season, unless one of those three (Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M) falter. A win against Oklahoma State to start the season would go a long way toward building some momentum early in the year, which they hope to carry into the Oct. 5 tilt against LSU. Bottom line is for the Bulldogs to be real contenders in the SEC West, they have to show that they can beat one of the big dogs in the division.
Another preseason watch list is out, and today we're looking at some of the best players in the secondary.

The Jim Thorpe Award watch list was released Friday, and four SEC players made the cut. The Thorpe Award is given annually to the nation's best defensive back. The last four winners have come from the SEC. Will one of these four take home the award at the end of the season?
Can't disagree with any of these four, but I'm shocked Florida cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson didn't make it. Purifoy might be the most athletic corner in the country and is projected by many to be the top corner taken in next year's NFL draft. He's rangy, fast and developed into a better pure cover man as last season went on. He's also on the Nagurski and Bednarik watch lists. As for Roberson, he was already one of the best cover corners in the game, defending 14 passes and grabbing two interceptions last year. Both could be first-round picks next year.

No Kenny Ladler? Vandy's senior safety can play all over the field and had 60 solo tackles to go with his 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions last year.

Mississippi State senior safety Nickoe Whitley, Alabama corner Deion Belue and Missouri corner E.J. Gaines are also some players to keep a close eye on when it comes to the Thorpe Award this fall.
Two more preseason watch lists are out, and both are very SEC heavy.

The conference led all others by putting 16 on the Bronco Nagurski and 15 on the Outland Trophy watch lists. The Nagurski Trophy is given annually to the national defensive player of the year, while the Outland Trophy is given annually to college football's best interior lineman.

Here are the 16 who made the Nagurski list:
Here are the 16 who made the Outland list:

Ranking the SEC safeties

July, 10, 2013
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We've checked out the top cornerbacks in this league, now it's time to look at the top safeties:

1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jr., Alabama: He might be the nation's best safety prospect with his range, speed, athleticism and physical nature. Clinton-Dix has a great football mind when he's on the field and isn't afraid to play high or in the box. What makes him so good is that he's not only a ballhawk and a banger, but he's excellent in coverage, too. He had five interceptions and defended nine passes last season.

2. Craig Loston, Sr., LSU: It has taken some time for Loston to come into his own at LSU, but he is in position to be one of the nation's best. It's not like he ever lacked the talent, but his work ethic needed some improvement. Having more responsibility thrown his way helped turn his game up and he started to play like the top-flight athlete LSU's coaching staff had been waiting for. He's a ballhawk and can lay the lumber with ease.

[+] EnlargeKenny Ladler
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesKenny Ladler was a playmaker for the Commodores last season, notching 90 tackles and forcing three turnovers.
3. Kenny Ladler, Sr., Vanderbilt: He's another one of those safeties who likes to mix it up all over the field and doesn't run from contact. You'll see him in the box ready to pounce. He led Vandy with 90 tackles last year and tied for the team lead with 60 solo stops. He also registered 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions.

4. Nickoe Whitley, Sr., Mississippi State: He's basically the grandpa of Mississippi State's secondary, but he certainly doesn't play like an old man. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on Mississippi State's team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play threat at the safety spot and covers a lot of ground with his speed.

5. Byron Moore, Sr., Tennessee: His team-high five interceptions were probably overlooked because of how poorly Tennessee's defense played, but Moore was a heck of a player. Moore, who was second on the team with 86 tackles last year, is extremely versatile as well. He started the first three games of the season at strong safety before moving over to free safety after Brian Randolph got hurt. He started the final nine games there.

6. Jaylen Watkins, Sr., Florida: He's played in 36 games with 19 starts, but the majority of his work has come at cornerback. But Watkins is talented enough and knows Florida's defense well enough that moving to safety wasn't an issue. He played there at the end of last season and cross-trained there all year. He's a physical player, has good coverage skills and should be able to fly all over the field.

7. Demetruce McNeal, Sr., Auburn: There weren't many positive things to say about Auburn's defense last year, but McNeal was pretty impressive. Off-field issues this spring made his status for the fall uncertain, but now that he's cleared everything up, he should be good to go. He notched a team-high 53 solo tackles last year and was tied for first with seven tackles for loss. Anytime you have a safety who isn't afraid to get rough up front, that's a very good thing.

8. Trae Elston, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels expected him to play early last year and he didn't disappoint. He played in 12 games and made nine starts as the Rebels' Rover. Elston led the team with six pass breakups, had a sack and recovered a fumble last year. Elston is a big-hitting safety who can play all over. He'll get in the box and cover guys. He's a very dynamic athlete in the Rebels' defense.

9. T.J. Gurley, So., South Carolina: A knee injury cut his 2012 season short, but even with only eight games under his belt he was selected to the SEC All-Freshman team. South Carolina's coaches are extremely excited about his potential and think he could have been a tremendous player if he was able to finish last season. He didn't go through spring, but should be 100 percent this fall. Gurley has the skill to make plays all over the field and be a solid ballhawk.

10. Tray Matthews, Fr., Georgia: No, he hasn't played a down in college, but he could be one of the most physically gifted safeties in the SEC right now. He made an immediate impression on his coaches, especially defensive coordinator Todd Grantham this spring, and was an easy choice for the starting free safety spot. He's an excellent tackler, lays bone-crushing hits and has tremendous field range.
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.

Kiper: Top 5 RBs, S draft prospects

May, 15, 2013
5/15/13
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Now that we've looked at draft guru expert Mel Kiper Jr.'s early list of the top wide receivers and defensive ends for the 2014 NFL draft, it's time to check out two more positions.

Today, we're on to running backs Insider and safeties Insider. The interesting thing about the SEC is it's extremely deep at running back, but most of the top returning backs aren't draft eligible. No SEC backs made Kiper's top five, but Auburn rising junior Tre Mason made his "Next up" list.

Mason was Auburn's best overall player last year, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He also averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Mason should have even more room to move around in Gus Malzahn's spread offense. He has a pounding nature about him, but has the ability to break the big one and has the agility to make defenders miss at times.

Other draft-eligible running backs I'd keep an eye on in the SEC this fall:
  • Jeremy Hill, LSU: Now, this one is interesting because he's dealing with legal trouble. If he makes it back to the playing field, he'll be one of the best running backs in the league with his strength, size and speed. He's a sophomore, but is three years removed from his graduating high school class.
  • Henry Josey, Missouri: The redshirt sophomore back from that devastating knee injury he suffered halfway through the 2011 season. Josey says he's finally back to 100 percent, which is scary because he was one of the top backs in the country before his injury.
  • Ben Malena, Texas A&M: He surprised some when he shot to the top of A&M's depth chart, but he's an extremely hard worker and can be a bear to take down. He'll be challenged by younger players, but he proved last year that he isn't intimidated by competition.
  • LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State: He can be a solid downhill runner or a weapon in the passing game. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark last year and returns as Mississippi State's top offensive player.
  • Jeff Scott, Ole Miss: He isn't the biggest back in the league, but he has great speed and his very shifty. He won't be a viewed as an every-down back, but he's solid in open space and in the return game.

When it comes to safeties, there are a few more SEC faces on Kiper's list. Headlining his top five is Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He's such a rangy player and covers so much ground with his speed. He's also very good in coverage, which NFL scouts will surely drool over this season. Clinton-Dix also showed last year that he isn't afraid of contact and can play up in the box if needed. He's probably the league's most versatile ballhawk.

Coming in on Kiper's "Next up" list are LSU's Craig Loston and Ronald Martin, and Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley. Loston is someone people are really starting to rave about. He's always had the potential, but his work ethic has been called into question. However, with more responsibility thrown his way last year, he really started to make strides with his game. He's also a hard-hitter who will basically be the captain of the defensive backfield this fall.

As for Martin, he was Eric Reid's backup last year and played in 13 games with one start. He really is an athlete and showed off some of his breakaway speed and instincts when he intercepted a tipped pass in the Idaho game and took it 45 yards for a touchdown. He doesn't have a ton of experience, but he'll make up for that this season.

Whitley has been a solid weapon for Mississippi State's secondary for the past few years. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on the team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play safety and covers a lot of ground in the back of the Bulldogs' defense.

Other draft-eligiblle safeties I'd keep an eye on this fall:
  • Eric Bennett, Arkansas: He's been around for a while now and has had some up-and-down moments, but he has a ton of skill. He has smooth movements and can be a very physical player.
  • Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: The rising senior wasn't afraid to mix it up all over the field last year. He can play closer to the line if needed and certainly isn't afraid of delivering a good amount of contact.
  • Floyd Raven, Texas A&M: He was a backup corner last year, but moved to safety this spring and it proved to be the right decision by coach Kevin Sumlin. He's fast, rangy and extremely athletic. He has all the tools to be a stud, but just has to keep learning the position.
  • Jaylen Watkins, Florida: He started his Florida career off as a cornerback, but moved to safety this spring. He's a very physical defensive back, has experience at safety and is a very smart player on the field.

Eight just doesn’t feel good enough in Starkville.

Looking back at a 2012 season that saw Mississippi State’s football team start 7-0, reach its third straight bowl for only the second time in school history and reel off at least seven wins for the third straight year, players, coaches and administrators can’t help but want more after an 8-5 season.

“I remember when it was acceptable for Mississippi State to win four games, beat Ole Miss and everything was fine,” fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell told ESPN.com last week. “Now, if you don’t go to a good bowl game -- and win a bowl game -- it’s like you don’t have a successful season. That’s great.”

It’s great because expectations are higher and people believe that under Dan Mullen, who will coach in his fifth season at Mississippi State this fall, the Bulldogs can push through and become real contenders in the SEC.

It’s not something that was ever supposed to be quick, but Mullen hasn’t strayed from his patient plan of slowly building up this program. In his four seasons, Mullen has gone 29-22, is 2-1 in bowl games, and has watched as the Bulldogs have sold out 23 straight home games. He’s also beaten eight of the 11 other SEC teams that were around when he arrived at Mississippi State in 2009. The school has even thrown $75 million into expanding and renovating Davis Wade Stadium.

“I can see that things have changed since I’ve been here,” Russell said. “Three years, four years ago, nobody would have said anything (negative) if we would have had the season that we had last year. They probably would have been happy that we won as many games as we did.”

But fans -- and just about everyone in and around the program -- are craving more. Three straight winning seasons for the first time since Mississippi State and four straight from 1997-2000 has Starkville beaming about the future, but last year’s late-season stumble brought plenty of concern.

After a 7-0 start and a rise to No. 11 in the BCS standings, the Bulldogs limped to a 1-5 finish and were outscored 188-81 in the process, conjuring past feelings of the historical inconsistency this program has had. All their losses were by double digits and none were closer than 14 points (a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl). A 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss also stopped the Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak over the Rebels.

A soft early-season schedule helped mask glaring defensive issues this team had, causing Mississippi State to go from a force to a phony in a matter of weeks.

Russell, who went from being one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country to throwing nine interceptions to five touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ five losses, said players got complacent after seven wins and developed an almost invincible mindset.

“I wouldn’t say you don’t work as hard, but I feel like we were like, ‘We can’t be beat,’” Russell said. “Then, you take that first loss and everything goes down hill and you try to catch back up.”

Mississippi State didn’t catch up, but with the 2013 season approaching, confidence is being restored. A slew of starters are gone, questions surround a much younger receiving corps, the defensive front has to make major strides this year and the secondary lost three valuable weapons, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. But core players like Russell, 1,000-yard back LaDarius Perkins, linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner, safety Nickoe Whitley, and four starting offensive linemen return.

Mullen has endured some backlash since the season ended. Foolish talk of him being on the hot seat has made the rounds, and athletic director Scott Stricklin couldn’t be more annoyed by it.

“Well, that is silly because he’s not on the hot seat,” Stricklin told ESPN.com Sunday night.

Mullen isn’t even in a hot room, according to Stricklin. Sure, he wasn’t thrilled with last November or a poor bowl experience, but Stricklin believes in Mullen’s product and loves the organization and structure he has behind the scenes.

“All of those pieces of it are phenomenal,” Stricklin said. “Dan has the traits that all really good coaches have. He’s very bright, very smart and he’s very organized. That’s a pretty powerful combination.”

What Stricklin wants -- and expects -- is consistent play to build a championship-like program. That means regularly moving past the eight-win mark, annual bowl trips, keeping a recruiting edge and being more competitive in the SEC West, where Mullen has beaten just three teams -- Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss.

There will be more stumbles along the way, but Stricklin truly sees a program built for long-term success under Mullen.

“You don’t see a lot of Johnny-come-latelys having great success at a high level in this league,” he said. “It’s the schools that are there year after year after year, and that’s what we want to be.”
Those who have the unfortunate task of facing Mississippi State's secondary must deal with the thought of going into lockdown mode.

Wide receivers have to face facts as they enter "Precinct 913” run by cornerbacks Darius Slay (9) and Johnthan Banks (13).

The clever title involving both players’ uniform numbers supposedly came from the mind of a fan, but the two have grown to love and live it, as they own the title of the SEC’s best corner duo.

"Me and Slay work real good together," Banks said.

[+] EnlargeDarius Slay
Spruce Derden/US PresswireDarius Slay is helping Mississippi State make its case for having the best secondary in the country.
Their seven combined interceptions (Slay 4, Banks 3) are more interceptions than 108 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have, they haven’t allowed a touchdown against them, Slay is one of four players nationally averaging 1.0 interceptions per game and Banks is allowing just 4.2 yards per pass thrown his way in man coverage.

Banks was thrown at 11 times through the first three games, but watched offenses pay the price, as Slay ended up being the only player in the nation to intercept a pass in each of the first three weeks of the season.

South Alabama avoided Slay, throwing 10 passes at Banks, but he left the game with yet another interception.

Things only get better when you add safeties Corey Broomfield, who moved from corner, and Nickoe Whitley. The foursome has combined to defend 12 passes and intercept eight. It's also helped Mississippi State's defense allow just 53 points in four games, the lowest allowed through the first four games since 1999 (28).

The Bulldogs are giving up 213.5 passing yards per game, but have allowed just two passing touchdowns while registering nine interceptions.

Yet, Banks feels the jury is still out on this unit.

"I don't think anybody else thinks we have a really good secondary, but we know we have a good secondary," Banks said. "It kind of makes us mad that I get singled out, out of the four. That motivates us. We know that people are going to come watch me and praise me, but that makes them go even harder to show what I can do, they can do, and maybe do it better."

Added Broomfield: "You can say what you want to say. You can put any list together that you want to, but we're going to put it on tape that we're the best secondary in the nation."

Through three seasons of work, these players have 32 career interceptions among them, but nearly half go to Banks, who ranks first among active FBS players with 15 career interceptions. He's also tied for third nationally with Broomfield with three interceptions returned for touchdowns. He's an excellent cover man who moonlights as a ball hawk.

But he’s nothing without his posse.

"I know I get all the praise, but I'd say we're all dangerous," Banks said. "All those guys just get it done -- 'Broom,' Slay, Nickoe -- all of them do the same things I do. It's just ridiculous how good these three guys that play with me are."

Banks said the crew really started to jell when Slay moved into the starting lineup. It gave the Bulldogs a chance to be in nickel on every down with Broomfield still on the field. Having three corners on the field at all times makes for more versatile packages for the secondary and provides more opportunities for man coverage, which they all love.

It’s also helped make them more competitive in practice. Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said his players have to keep an edge in the secondary, and they do that by constantly challenging each other in practice.

It’s almost another game to see who can out-do the other each day in order to eliminate complacency.

“In the big picture, if these guys can really prepare as well as I think they can, week in and week out, they'll only get better,” Wilson said.

Saturday, this secondary should feast off Kentucky's pass game, which will be without starting quarterback Maxwell Smith. The thought of possibly playing against two true freshmen quarterbacks has to make State's foursome salivate uncontrollably.

But in two weeks, Tennessee comes to town. Tyler Bray and his band of receiving threats will invade Starkville on a mission to rule the skies. However, they should tread lightly when around the precinct.

Handcuffing is its specialty.

“We're ready,” Slay said. “We're built for good competition and we look forward to playing good receivers.”

SEC lunch links

September, 27, 2012
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A check of what's making news in the SEC:

Ranking the SEC's safeties

July, 17, 2012
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Now that we've ranked the SEC's secondaries, it's time to take a look at the league's top cornerbacks.

Past rankings:
Here are our top 10 SEC safeties:

[+] EnlargeEric Reid
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLSU safety Eric Reid has tremendous cover skills.
1. Eric Reid, Jr., LSU: He might be the league's best ball-hawking threat and he packs quite the punch. He had a knack for making all sorts of plays in LSU's secondary last year -- none bigger than his game-changing interception in the first game against Alabama. He tied for the team lead with 76 tackles, broke up three passes and intercepted two. Pro scouts love his ability to roam all around the field and his tremendous cover skills.

2. Bacarri Rambo, Sr., Georgia: He had a true breakout season last year and could have easily left for the NFL draft. The first-team All-American led the SEC and ranked second nationally with eight interceptions and was second in the SEC with 16 pass breakups. He takes the deep pass away, but is also very solid in defending the run and shorter passes.

3. Matt Elam, Jr., Florida: The headliner of Florida's defense, Elam found himself playing all over the field in 2011. He was second on the team with 78 tackles, but led the Gators with 11 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He loves contact, but also has improved his coverage skills and can line up at the nickel if needed.

4. Robert Lester, Sr., Alabama: Lester has had a solid career with the Tide so far. He notched an SEC-best eight interceptions in 2010 and flirted with leaving for the NFL after his junior season. He's moving to free safety, but has the speed and ability to play that rover position. He covers a lot of ground and can come in and play in the box as well.

5. D.J. Swearinger, Sr., South Carolina: His move from strong safety to free safety was a plus for the Gamecocks. He turned into a tremendous rover in South Carolina's defensive backfield and wasn't afraid to move closer to the line to hit people -- a lot of people. He's a proven playmaker and has no issues finding the ball, as he's registered 122 solo tackles in three seasons.

6. Charles Sawyer, Jr., Ole Miss: He led the Rebels with four interceptions last year, but he even admits that he should have had at least seven after dropping a few easy ones. Though he did breakup 13 passes. He's very quick with his movements and with the speed he possesses, he can cover a lot of ground in Ole Miss' secondary.

7. Nickoe Whitley, Jr., Mississippi State: If not for that ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short, Whitley would probably be higher on this list. In nine games last year, he racked up 34 tackles and four interceptions. He has that impressive ball-hawking ability that will take the deep ball away.

8. Shawn Williams, Sr., Georgia: He was a bit of an underrated talent last year because of the combination of Rambo and Brandon Boykin in Georgia's secondary, but Williams had a very solid 2011 season. He led the Dawgs with 72 tackles, forced a fumble, had two fumble recoveries, broke up six passes and had four interceptions. He's solid defending both the pass and the run.

9. Brian Randolph, So., Tennessee: Playing as a true freshman didn't seem to bother him, as he was an SEC All-Freshman selection, after playing in 12 games (eight starts) and getting time at both the nickel spot and at free safety. He enters the spring as the Vols' starting free safety and is primed to have a big second year.

10. Eric Bennett, Jr., Arkansas: The former high school quarterback hasn't had much of a problem playing defense in college. Last year, he started all 13 games at safety, after moving from cornerback during the spring, and finished the year with 74 tackles, three interceptions and three pass breakups.
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.

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