SEC: Paris Head

Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.

Vanderbilt spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Vanderbilt Commodores:

1. The front seven has promise: With Vandy moving to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator David Kotulski, the defensive line should have more freedom and be more versatile. The coaches were very happy with the progress the front seven made, especially Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann, who made the successful move from end to outside linebacker.

2. A more improved running game: Vandy’s coaches were very pleased with how the running game looked this spring, especially when veteran Brian Kimbrow and redshirt freshman Ralph Webb carried the ball. Kimbrow looked a little stronger and still has that home-run ability, while Webb could be a star in the making. Oh, and vet Jerron Seymour is back, too. This offense shouldn’t have a problem leaning on the running game.

3. Strength at cornerback: While the Commodores lost solid starters Dre Hal and Steven Clarke, Mason felt pretty good about the youngsters filling in. Sophomores Paris Head and Torren McGaster had exceptional springs and could take starting spots, while redshirt freshman Tre Bell really made strides this spring. Taurean Ferguson also had a good spring at corner.

Three questions for the fall

1. Who will start at quarterback? While coaches seemed pretty pleased with the progress made by redshirt sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, it doesn’t look like either really separated himself. That could be a good thing, for now, but Mason will be pushing those guys even harder in fall camp. Also, don’t forget that LSU transfer Stephen Rivers will be around to compete this fall.

2. Who becomes the guy at wide receiver? Top receivers Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause are gone, which means so are 2,191 yards, 154 catches and 10 touchdowns from last year. Sophomore Jordan Cunningham is the top returning pass-catcher, after snagging 15 receptions last year. There is a lot of inexperience at receiver and not having the quarterback situation figured out doesn’t make figuring things out there easier.

3. Can players get their edge back? Mason has to replace a coach in James Franklin who completely turned Vandy’s program around. The excitement surrounding Franklin and his teams were tremendous, but can the Commodores get that edge back? This team has a lot of pieces to replace and has to maintain the attitude it had that made it so competitive under Franklin.

One way-too-early prediction:

For a couple of years now, we've heard about the potential that Azubike has. He's an athletic freak and has all the tools to be a top-end defensive player in this league. His move to outside linebacker should make him an even bigger threat for the Commodores. He'll hit the double-digit mark in sacks this fall.
The loss of James Franklin is really going to sting for Vanderbilt. There's just no way to get around it, but all should not be lost for those that make up a more-energized Commodores fan base.

While it will be very hard for Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams to replace the charisma, fire and work ethic that Franklin displayed every day he was on the job, the program is light-years ahead of where it was before Franklin's arrival in 2010, which should help make this a more attractive job for top-notch coaching candidates.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Zumapress/Icon SMICoach James Franklin, who is now Penn State's new coach, has left a solid foundation at Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt was the perennial cellar-dweller of the SEC before Franklin came along. Now, there's swagger after three consecutive bowl berths (two straight wins) and back-to-back nine-win seasons (all firsts for the Commodores). The facilities have vastly upgraded and they'll only continue to get better because of what Franklin did -- and demanded. A new coach might not have the attitude and salesmanship of Franklin, but he'll have a good base to work with in Nashville, Tenn.

When Vanderbilt hired Franklin more than three years ago, the program had won just four games total in the previous two seasons and had always been traditionally looked down upon. Making a bowl would have been a major accomplishment for Franklin and the program, but he went far beyond that. Because of his triumphs with the Commodores, it will be much easier for this program to attract a decent name from the coaching ranks.

The Commodores could certainly look in-house, at defensive coordinator Bob Shoop or offensive-line coach Herb Hand, but if Williams decides to search elsewhere, he shouldn't have much of a problem luring solid candidates. Expect well-known up-and-coming coordinators to hear their names attached to this opening. Vandy might never be a true SEC championship contender, but it's now a job that you can't laugh at. There's moxie and confidence swirling throughout that locker room and program.

There's also a new breed of talent. Studs such as Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson, Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler might be gone, but there's a solid group of youngsters still in town. Keep an eye on running backs Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Defensive end Caleb Azubike appears to have a bright future ahead of him, as do cornerbacks Paris Head and Jahmel McIntosh.

Getting Vandy to stay competitive means the Commodores' next head coach has to be able to build immediately. Even with a solid foundation, he has to be able to hit the same recruiting spots in the Southeast, especially the Atlanta area, with the same tenacity Franklin showed. He has to be able to keep the same level of confidence in that locker room and he has to invigorate a fan base that took a bit of an emotional hit with the loss of Franklin in order to keep this program relevant.

What Franklin did in Nashville was tremendous. Even after taking Vandy bowling in his first season, there was still plenty of skepticism. But the next year he did it again, this time winning a bowl, and equaled that accomplishment in 2013.

Really, keeping Franklin this long was a major win for Vandy, and now he leaves this program in much better shape than how he found it. He showed that there's a recipe for winning at Vandy -- but it isn't easy, and he's leaving some monster shoes to fill. The expectations are much higher at Vandy and it's going to take a special person to keep this momentum going.

Institutions with strong academic traditions have proven of late that winning is in fact an option. Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever in 2013 and hasn't lost a game in November since 2011. This team had a ton of momentum going into the offseason with Franklin as the coach, but now it's someone else's turn to keep that fire burning. With what Franklin has taught these guys, they'll be able to find it, and you had better believe they'll be motivated to show they can win without him.

SEC players of the week

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
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Here are the SEC players of the week, as announced by the league Monday:

OFFENSE: Terrence Magee, RB, LSU
  • Rushed for a career-high 149 yards and one TD on 13 carries in win over No. 9 Texas A&M.
  • Had a 65-yard run on LSU’s third possession of the game that setup his 1-yard TD run to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead in the contest.
  • Averaged 11.5 yards per carry as the Tigers racked up 324 yards on the ground, the most in an SEC game for the Tigers since a 52-3 win over Ole Miss in 2011.
DEFENSE: Chase Garnham, LB, Vanderbilt
  • Garnham paced the Commodore defense with 10 total tackles, including seven solo stops and a tackle for loss, in Vanderbilt's 14-10 victory over Tennessee. The 10-tackle total tied a career high for the three-year starting linebacker.
  • Garnham's performance was a key factor in Vanderbilt limiting the Volunteer offense to 237 total yards and the fewest points scored by Tennessee against Vanderbilt since 1968.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Harold Brantley, DT, Missouri
  • Had two huge plays that impacted the outcome of Mizzou’s 24-10 road win Saturday at No. 24 Ole Miss, as he first blocked a Rebels field goal attempt in the first quarter to snuff out a scoring threat. Mizzou led 7-0 at the time, and Ole Miss drove to the Tiger 1-yard line before being forced to settle for a 23-yard try. Brantley got a big push and blocked the kick to give Mizzou back the ball with its lead intact. Fellow freshman Josh Augusta was initially credited with the block, but after film review, it was Brantley.
  • Later, in the third quarter, after Ole Miss scored on its opening possession of the half to cut Mizzou’s lead to 17-10, Mizzou’s offense went three-and-out, but on fourth-and-2 from the Tigers' 20-yard line, Brantley’s number was called on a fake punt. Serving as one of the shield protectors for the punt, Brantley took the direct snap and raced around to the left edge to daylight. He made a nice move to shake one potential tackler near the first-down line, and raced 26-yards to the Tiger 46-yard line to squelch the Ole Miss momentum.
Co-FRESHMAN: Rashard Robinson, DB, LSU
  • In his first career start, shut down Texas A&M’s top receiver Mike Evans, Robinson limited the SEC’s leading receiver to his season SEC-low for receptions (four) and second-lowest yardage output in an SEC game this year (51) … Also held him without a TD.
  • Evans came in with a league-best 12 receiving TDs … Had 2 tackles and his first career interception in the game … Interception came on A&M’s first possession of second half and resulted in a LSU touchdown nine plays later that stretched the Tiger lead to 31-10.
CO-FRESHMAN: Paris Head, DB, Vanderbilt
  • Inserted into the Vanderbilt defensive secondary after injuries forced both starting cornerbacks to the sidelines, Head contributed two key interceptions in the Commodores' 14-10 victory over Tennessee.
  • Head's second pick ended a Tennessee threat deep in Vanderbilt territory in the fourth quarter. His interception of a Tennessee fake field-goal attempt came at the Vanderbilt 10-yard line with Tennessee leading 10-7.
  • Head's performance at cornerback helped the Commodores limit Tennessee to 53 passing yards, 237 total yards. The secondary also picked off three Volunteer passes.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Gabe Jackson, OL, Mississippi State
  • Jackson was credited with three pancake blocks and was instrumental in the Bulldogs totaling 488 yards of offense, including 209 on the ground.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Garrison Smith, DE, Georgia
  • Smith was Georgia’s second-leading tackler against Kentucky with seven tackles, including two sacks for 10 yards and three tackles for a loss of 11 yards.
  • He also forced a pair of fumbles, one of those leading to a Bulldog touchdown.
  • Smith moved to fourth on the team’s tackle list with 58.
  • He helped anchor a defense that held Kentucky to 211 total yards on offense, including just 62 on the ground.

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