SEC: Prentiss Waggner

Vols melt under the bright spotlight

September, 16, 2012

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Good thing the Knoxville Police Department put out that warning earlier in the week about fans rushing the field at Neyland Stadium.

The next time, somebody might want to instead put out a warning about expecting a different ending to a movie we’ve all seen over and over again for much of the last decade.

In this case, it’s eight years and counting.

That’s how many times Florida has beaten Tennessee in a row after the latest flop on Rocky Top, a 37-20 romp by the Gators on Saturday night that spoiled what the Vols had hoped would be their breakout party.

The buildup was as loud as Tennessee’s shade of orange.

ESPN’s “College GameDay” was in the house. The Vols were ranked nationally for the first time since the beginning of the 2008 season, and Tennessee defensive end Darrington Sentimore even went semi-Joe Namath on us earlier in the week when he said, “I think people want to wait and see how we do against Florida, but I’m here to tell them that we’re going to beat them.”

For a while, it looked like Sentimore might be a prophet and that the Vols would make the splash they were looking for on this big stage.

But a 20-13 Tennessee lead midway through the third quarter turned into one big Gator-chomping party. Florida reeled off 24 unanswered points to rudely remind the Vols of their place in this rivalry, which really hasn’t been much of a rivalry at all for a long time.

Since the SEC’s divisional split in 1992, Florida has won 16 of the 21 meetings between the schools.

“They’re front-runners. They talk a lot,” Florida running back Trey Burton said of the Vols. “As soon as we got up, their fans started leaving. It’s a big win for us.”

Indeed, the anticipated rush of the field became a rush of the aisles, as frustrated Tennessee fans scurried to the exits.

Afterward, the Vols’ coaches and players sounded equally frustrated. They talked about crumbling under the pressure, not responding to adversity, not making the proper checks on defense and being confused at times by what the Gators were doing on offense.

[+] EnlargeDerek Dooley
Randy Sartin/US PresswireCoach Derek Dooley and the Vols brain trust couldn't find any answers during the second-half meltdown.
“Once you get in the heat of battle and once adversity hits, you’ve got to respond to adversity and not crunch under adversity, and that’s what we did,” Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers lamented.

The Vols’ defense was torched for 555 total yards, including 336 rushing. Burton’s 80-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat package tied the game at 20-20. Then came a three-play, 70-yard drive by the Gators with Jordan Reed catching a 23-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Driskel.

The Gators’ third touchdown in the decisive spree was Frankie Hammond gathering in a short toss when the Vols came on a corner blitz and then sprinting through the Tennessee secondary for a 75-yard touchdown.

“You can’t give up those in this league and expect to win the football game. You just can’t,” said Derek Dooley, who dropped to 0-11 against nationally ranked teams as Tennessee’s coach.

The truth is that the Vols didn’t do much of anything it takes to win in this league.

Getting gashed for 336 rushing yards is one thing. But the Vols looked slow in trying to recover when they were out of position, and there were more than a few orange-shirted players with their hands hanging for much of the fourth quarter.

“We’ve got to go to work on that and keep guys motivated for 60 minutes,” Tennessee cornerback Prentiss Waggner said.

It wasn’t all on the Tennessee defense, either.

The Vols melted on offense after Florida tied the game at 20-20. They managed just five total yards in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Tyler Bray, who threw a pair of touchdown passes in the first half, was 1-of-10 in the fourth quarter and wasn’t helped much by his two star receivers.

Cordarrelle Patterson couldn’t pull in a deep pass down the left sideline that might have been a touchdown, and Justin Hunter dropped one over the middle on the next possession that would have been a first down.

“It looked like we lost a little juice at the end, on both sides,” Dooley said. “When the ball broke out, it looked like we were lumbering on both sides.”

The Vols also seemed to panic in the play-calling department. They had 67 rushing yards at the half, but forgot about trying to run the football in the second half. In fact, after Florida tied the game at 20-20, Tennessee threw the ball on 11 of its next 13 plays.

“We weren’t responding well,” said Bray, whose intentional grounding penalty after the Vols snuffed out a Florida fake punt in the third quarter was when the game turned in the Gators’ favor.

“We knew that we were going to be the ones that stopped us. We just fell apart.”

Dooley did his best to emphasize that it was just one game. But this was more than just one game for the Vols, who get Akron at home next week before starting a grueling stretch that includes away games at No. 7 Georgia, Mississippi State and No. 9 South Carolina and a home game with No. 1 Alabama.

Nope, this was a chance for Tennessee to make some real noise with the rest of the country watching and serve notice that the Vols were at least on their way back.

The only thing they’re back to is the proverbial drawing board, and Dooley didn’t sound like he had a lot of answers.

“We felt like we were equipped to go toe-to-toe with them for four quarters,” Dooley said. “There’s no excuses. We didn’t get it done and give Florida the credit. They did what they needed to do. I don’t know what else to say.”
Tyrann MathieuKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTyrann Mathieu tops the list of explosive and dynamic SEC cornerbacks.
Think back to some of the top cornerbacks who’ve come out of the SEC recently.

Just in the last three years, Morris Claiborne, Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden and Kareem Jackson have all gone in the first round of the NFL draft.

There could be a few more first-rounders on the way.

Here’s the way we would rank the SEC’s top 10 cornerbacks heading into the 2012 season:

1. Tyrann Mathieu, Jr., LSU: OK, he’s not a true cover cornerback and doesn’t have ideal size. But as a playmaker, few are any better. Mathieu tied for the team lead in tackles last season (76) while forcing six fumbles and recovering five.

2. Johnthan Banks, Sr., Mississippi State: A starter since his freshman season, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Banks has terrific size, speed and ball skills. He intercepted five passes last season and has 12 for his career.

3. Dee Milliner, Jr., Alabama: The Tide’s third cornerback in all nickel and dime situations last season, Milliner is poised to make the kind of jump in 2012 that Dre Kirkpatrick did a year ago. Milliner led the team with three interceptions last season.

4. Tharold Simon, Jr., LSU: At 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, Simon is one of those corners who drapes all over a receiver. He steps in as the full-time starter for Morris Claiborne after intercepting two passes last season.

5. E.J. Gaines, Jr., Missouri: A first-team All-Big 12 selection a year ago in his first season as a starter, Gaines finished fourth nationally with 18 passes defended. He’s fearless and plenty explosive when he gets his hands on the ball.

6. Trey Wilson, Sr., Vanderbilt: One of the more underrated defensive backs in the SEC, Wilson had three interceptions and 11 passes defended last season. He has everything it takes to be an All-SEC player in 2012.

7. Prentiss Waggner, Sr., Tennessee: After bouncing around between safety and cornerback, Waggner is back home at corner. He’s been productive wherever he’s lined up and has seven interceptions in his last two seasons.

8. Sanders Commings, Sr., Georgia: The only downer for Commings is that he will be suspended for the first two games. He led the SEC with 12 pass breakups last season, and at 217 pounds, is one of the more physical corners in the league.

9. Marcus Roberson, Soph., Florida: A sprained neck caused Roberson to miss the final three games of his freshman season, but he was a starter in the first 10. He’s a special talent who could easily zoom up this list.

10. Tevin Mitchel, Soph., Arkansas: After a debut season that saw him finish third among SEC freshmen with 56 total tackles, Mitchel should be even better his second time through the league. The Hogs will look to him to make even more plays in 2012.
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.

Top performer: Interceptions

May, 16, 2012
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.

Tennessee spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
2011 record: 5-7
2011 conference record: 1-7
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners:
OG Dallas Thomas, WR Da'Rick Rogers, OT Ja'Wuan James, WR Justin Hunter, TE Mychal Rivera, QB Tyler Bray, LB A.J. Johnson, S Brian Randolph, LB Curt Maggitt, LB Herman Lathers, CB Prentiss Waggner

Key losses:
RB Tauren Poole, DT Malik Jackson, DE Ben Martin, LB Austin Johnson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Tauren Poole (693 yards)
Passing: Tyler Bray* (1,983 yards)
Receiving: Da'Rick Rogers* (1,040 yards)
Tackles: Austin Johnson (81)
Sacks: Malik Jackson (2.5)
Interceptions: Austin Johnson (4)

Spring answers

1. Tyler Bray's leadership: No one has questioned Bray's arm as he can sling it with the best of them. But his heart has been questioned, and he knew it heading into spring. He never considered himself a real leader until this year, when he decided to take his job more seriously. Bray said players listened to him more in practice and respected him more as a person, not just a player. Bray can now be looked at as someone to rally around and look up to. He's finally learning how to be a real quarterback in this league.

2. Richardson's revival: Tennessee's offensive line took a lot of heat last season and for good reason. The Vols were last in the SEC and 116th nationally in rushing. The line needed to find a spark and rising sophomore Antonio Richardson might be just that. His potential has always impressed coaches and after playing on special teams last year, he came out of the spring as the starter at left tackle. Richardson is an extremely athletic and gifted player and the coaches feel confident that he can protect Bray's blind side.

3. Lathers' and Hunter's health: Linebacker Herman Lathers and wide receiver Justin Hunter did all the right things this spring. Lathers missed the 2011 season with an ankle injury, while Hunter missed most of the season after tearing his ACL in against Florida last September. While both still aren't 100 percent, the coaches feel confident that both will be by the fall. Hunter got some good work in this spring and even flew by some players in a scrimmage. Lathers' ankle progressed more and more and thinks he'll be right on track come fall practice.

Fall questions

1. Defensive comfort: Tennessee returns eight defensive starters, but it welcomed a brand new defensive coordinator in Sal Suneri, three other new coaches and a new defensive scheme. Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but it'll take time for his players to adjust and Tennessee isn't sure if that comfort level is quite there yet. Tennessee players will also have to continuing adjusting to the new coaching faces they'll be working with this fall. It's important that this defense, which is still relatively young, get on the same page exiting camp.

2. Running the ball: Rising sophomore Marlin Lane showed nice improvement, but he finished the spring tied with Rajion Neal and Devrin Young at running back. So, the jury is still out on whether this team will be able to run the ball more consistently this season and Tennessee might have to look to its incoming freshmen for more help. While the running backs struggled last year, the offensive line was another reason for the Vols' shortcomings in the rushing department. There was a lot of movement up front and improvements need to start there before Tennessee can even think about handing the ball off more.

3. Defensive tackle: There's a lot of uncertainty and inexperience at tackle, and a lot of of players listed as co-starters on Tennessee's post-spring depth chart. Maurice Couch had an up-and-down 2011 season and now will be called to take on more responsibility now that Malik Jackson is gone. Daniel Hood, who was recovering from shoulder surgery this spring, Steven Fowlkes, Darrington Sentimore and Gregory Clark will all get chances in the middle. Also, keep an eye on incoming junior college transfer Daniel McCullers, who the coaches think can contribute immediately.

Lunchtime links

April, 4, 2012
It's the middle of the week, so how about some links?

Derek Dooley likes Vols' depth

March, 26, 2012
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley isn't ready to say his Vols have arrived, but he does like what he sees in the way of depth.

In short, the Vols have more of it, which is a necessity if you're going to contend in the SEC.

"I think this is the first time since I've been here that we have some quality depth at a lot of positions, and there should be a lot of good competition," said Dooley, whose Vols opened spring practice on Monday. "I think that's going to help our team."

In his first two seasons, Dooley was relying on freshmen and sophomores to step in and play lead roles. It's a big reason the Vols suffered through losing seasons each of the last two years. But approaching Year 3, Dooley feels like the roster is much more stable.

"We finally have guys who are settled in and have a lot of guys who have played a lot of snaps, so there is a lot more maturity," Dooley said. "There's a lot more experience, and I think the ability in the roster has led to a better work environment and better dynamic day-to-day."

The Vols don't have a depth chart entering the spring. Rather, they have an organizational chart.

The reason being: Dooley plans to move a lot of guys around and look at different combinations, especially with Tennessee shifting from a 4-3 to a base 3-4 defense.

"We're going to be moving guys around a lot trying to find the right mix in all the areas, whether it's the offensive line or on defense," Dooley said. "We're going to have a pre-spring organizational chart, and then we'll give you a post-spring depth chart. [There's] really nothing in between, because it's going to be a lot of experimenting."

Already, the Vols have moved Curt Maggitt from outside linebacker in the 4-3 to one of the inside linebackers in the 3-4, although he'll still line up as a pass-rusher on third down. Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon, both of whom played defensive end last season, will line up at "Jack" linebacker in the 3-4 scheme. Also, senior Prentiss Waggner is moving from safety to cornerback, which is his more natural position. And to further solidify the depth at linebacker, Channing Fugate is moving there from fullback, while Brent Brewer will move from safety to strong side linebacker.

Opening spring camp: Tennessee

March, 26, 2012
Schedule: Tennessee begins spring practice Monday and concludes with the Orange and White Game on April 21.

What's new: There was a lot of movement on coach Derek Dooley's staff this offseason. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville this spring. Sal Sunseri arrives as the Vols' new defensive coordinator after serving as Alabama's linebackers coach the previous three seasons. After being a defensive assistant at Alabama from 2010-11 and the defensive backs coach at Central Florida for a couple months, Derrick Ansley joined Tennessee's staff to coach the Vols' cornerbacks. Charlie Coiner is Tennessee's new special teams/tight ends coach. Josh Conklin left The Citadel to coach Tennessee's safeties, and Jay Graham left South Carolina to return to his alma mater to coach running backs. John Palermo and Sam Pittman round out Tennessee's new hires. Palermo will coach the Vols' defensive line, and Pittman will coach the offensive line. Tennessee also welcomed seven early enrollees -- Cody Blanc (wide receiver), Alden Hill (running back), Justin Meredith (tight end), Nathan Peterman (quarterback), Darrington Sentimore and Trent Taylor (defensive line), and Tino Thomas (defensive back).

On the mend: Wide receiver Justin Hunter and defensive back/linebacker Brent Brewer are both coming off of ACL injuries from last fall and will be limited during the spring. Linebacker Curt Maggitt, nose guard Daniel Hood and defensive back Prentiss Waggner all had offseason shoulder surgery and will be non-contact this spring. Offensive lineman Zach Fulton will be limited this spring as he tries to recover from a stress fracture suffered a couple of weeks ago during offseason workouts. Offensive lineman JerQuari Schofield and defensive lineman Corey Miller will not be practicing for academic reasons.

On the move: Dooley plans to move a few players around this spring. With Tennessee moving to a 3-4 defense, the team is adding to its linebacker depth. Brewer (defensive back), Channing Fugate (fullback), Jacques Smith (defensive lineman), and Willie Bohannon (defensive lineman) are all working at linebacker this spring. Smith and Bohannon will compete at the Jack linebacker spot. Maggitt is also moving to inside linebacker. Rajion Neal is moving exclusively to running back after playing both wide receiver and running back last season. Waggner is moving back to cornerback after playing safety last season. James Stone, a center last season, will play some guard and tackle this spring.

Questions: The Vols return a lot of bodies on defense, but with a new coordinator, new scheme, and several position changes, there will be starting jobs available. With the 3-4 coming in, Tennessee will be in search of a reliable nose guard. Maurice Couch played there more as last season progressed, but Tennessee's staff thinks very highly of incoming junior college noseguard Daniel McCullers, who will be on campus this summer. Having Hood limited also means depth is an issue there this spring. There is still a little uncertainty in Tennessee's secondary. Waggner moving to cornerback will help with boundary play, but it takes a solid player out of the safety spot. Redshirt senior Rod Wilks takes over at free safey, but has no career starts. The running back position also enters the spring with questions surrounding it. The Vols were last in the SEC in rushing last season, and lose starter Tauren Poole. Only three lettermen return, and none are proven. Neal and Marlin Lane will start spring getting the majority of reps, but they combined for just 414 rushing yards on 102 carries last season.

Key battle: Injuries to Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray certainly hurt Tennessee's offense last season, but being unable to run the ball effectively really kept the Vols from overcoming their struggles in the passing game. There is no question that Tennessee's run game, which ranked 116th nationally (90.1) last season, needs a major upgrade. Lane and Neal will get the first shots at earning the job this spring, but having Hill on campus early will definitely add some depth, and he should push both this spring. Sophomore Devrin Young, who rushed for 25 yards last season, will also compete for time this spring. Tennessee can't go another season without having much of a running game to speak of if it wants to take a step forward and compete for an SEC East title.

Don't forget about: Tennessee will get back a familiar face on defense this spring when linebacker Herman Lathers returns. After fracturing his ankle last June, Lathers missed all of the 2011 season, but will be full go this spring. Tennessee needs more linebackers, and adding a veteran like Lathers will help. Tennessee's staff is also excited about what Sentimore can bring to the defensive end spot. He played one season at Alabama before going the JUCO route in 2011. He's on campus now, and is listed on the Vols' two-deep at one of the end spots. Sentimore has a good shot at earning a starting spot this spring.

Breaking out: The staff has high expectations for offensive lineman Antonio Richardson. The sophomore spent 2011 playing on special teams, but after being such a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, the coaches are expecting him to compete for playing time even though the Vols return all five starters. With Fulton limited this spring, Richardson will get his chance to impress. Also, Lane is a player who has the physical tools to make a big jump this spring. He was a top high school prospect, and now has a chance to claim the running back spot for himself. He's a big body with pretty good speed, but Lane needs to work on his consistency.

All eyes on: Bray has yet to play a full season at Tennessee. A thumb injury kept him out for half of the 2011 season, but he appears to be back to full health. He wasn't great when he returned at the end of last season, but rust will do that to a quarterback. Now is a chance for Bray to get back into the swing of things and get more comfortable after his injury. It's also time for him to improve his leadership skills. Those have been called into question during his two years in Knoxville, but now that he's officially a veteran, it's time for him to take hold of this team. He has weapons around him to help his passing numbers, but Bray should look to improve this team as a whole by leading by both example and with his words.

Recent SEC signing class steals

January, 27, 2012
Everyone wants the five-stars. No recruiting collection would be complete without them.

But as we've seen over the years, not all of them really pan out, leaving fans and coaches pouting along the way. However, when one of those five-stars busts, there's always an unheralded recruit that finds a way to steal the scene.

Today, we'll look at some of the best signing class steals from the past few years. We'll use ESPN's player rankings and since the ESPN rankings go back to 2006, we'll only go back that far.

These are players who might not have been so highly recruited coming out of high school, but were stars at the college level. We could have gone on for days with this list, but it had to be shortened.

Here they are:

  • [+] EnlargeNick Fairley
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Fairley was unheralded but broke out during in 2010 and was the nation's best lineman that season.
    Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: He was unranked in the 2007 class and was actually a tight end prospect. He received a grade of 40, but finished his Arkansas career as a top pass rusher, with 24 career sacks, 31 tackles for loss and forced eight fumbles.
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He was a junior college transfer who wasn't highly sought after at all. But it didn't take Ballard long to make a name for himself as he quickly became a star for the Bulldogs in his two seasons, rushing for 2,157 yards and 28 touchdowns.
  • Ahmad Black, S, Florida: He came out of high school as the No. 49 safety and wasn't ranked in his region. He started off as a cornerback for Florida, but moved to safety and became quite the player. Black finished his career with 244 tackles and 13 interceptions. He also returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: He was rated the No. 41 corner and No. 267 in his region in 2008. At Georgia, he was a dangerous return man, ranking second all-time in the SEC in kickoff return yards (2,593) and is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind. He was also a tremendous corner, recording nine interceptions, 18 pass breakups and 152 tackles. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2011.
  • Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: Cobb was ranked as the No. 86 athlete back in 2008 and was overlooked by just about everyone. He played just about everywhere in college and finished his Kentucky career with 1,661 receiving yards, 1,313 rushing yards, 689 passing yards and 1,700 return yards. He also had 42 total touchdowns.
  • Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: The JUCO transfer signed with Auburn in 2007, but didn't qualify and finally made it to the Plains in 2009. He wasn't a highly rated JUCO prospect and was actually the No. 32-rated OT in 2007. He was an absolute star in 2010, setting the Auburn single-season record with 24.0 tackles for loss and had 11.5 sacks. He also earned the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman.
  • Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas: He was a relative nobody coming out of high school as an unranked wide receiver. All he did in his four years was lead the Razorbacks in tackles each year and finished second all-time at Arkansas with 376 total tackles in his career.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He was unranked and received a grade of 40 as a safety prospect in 2008. He turned into one of the SEC's best cover corners with the Commodores and left Vanderbilt tied for first in school history with 15 interceptions.
  • Brandon James, RB/KR, Florida: He was ranked as the 111th running back back in 2006 and ranked 345th in his region. James made his mark as a return man, as he finished his Florida career with four SEC and 11 Florida records for kickoff and punt returns. He is still the SEC career leader in return yards (4,089) and had five touchdowns on returns.
  • Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: He was ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle back in 2008, but enters his senior year with the Crimson Tide as arguably the nation's best offensive lineman. His versatility really showed in 2011 when he played just about every position on Alabama's offensive line and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman.
  • Tyrann Matheiu, CB, LSU: He was the No. 36 cornerback in 2010 and was unranked in his region with a grade of 77. LSU was his only major offer, but he's been one of the most exciting -- and dangerous -- players to watch on defense and in the return game the last two seasons. He was a Heisman finalist in 2011, led LSU in tackles (71), has forced 11 fumbles in two seasons and has 10 career takeaways.
  • Dexter McCluster, RB, Ole Miss: He was ranked the No. 71 running back back in 2006 and was No. 189 in his region. McCluster became an all-purpose star in the SEC during his four years, totaling 1,703 receiving yards, 1,955 rushing yards and 23 offensive touchdowns.
  • Eric Norwood, LB, South Carolina: He was ranked the No. 99 defensive end back in 2006 and was No. 387 in his region, but he had quite the career at South Carolina, leaving with the all-time record in tackles for loss (54.5) and sacks (29). He finished his career with 255 tackles as well.
  • Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: He was an unranked linebacker with a grade of 40 coming out of high school in 2008. He became one of the league's top linebackers in his final two seasons, leading the SEC in tackles both seasons. He finished his career with 372 tackles.
  • Prentiss Waggner, DB, Tennessee: He was the No. 50 corner in 2008 and was 305th in his region. Waggner has really been one of Tennessee's best defenders the past two seasons, playing both safety and corner. He has defended 11 passes, recording seven interceptions. He can be a shutdown corner and a ball-hawking safety.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: He came out of high school as the No. 44 wide receiver in 2008 and was ranked 115th in his region. His 2011 season, in which he led the SEC in receiving, gave him the single-season records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He is also the Arkansas leader in career catches (168) and receiving yards (2,934).

Vols lose another player to injury

November, 1, 2011
Tennessee, mired in a four-game losing streak, continues to be plagued by injuries.

Starting strong safety Brent Brewer tore his ACL in the Saturday's 14-3 loss to South Carolina and will miss the remainder of the season. The Vols are extremely thin at safety, meaning Prentiss Waggner will have to move back to free safety from cornerback. Waggner had provided some stability at cornerback, which is his natural position, but Tennessee doesn't have a lot of options at safety with Brewer out. Freshman Brian Randolph will shift to strong safety from free safety.

With Waggner needed at safety, that means the Vols will have to turn to either junior Marsalis Teague or freshman Justin Coleman at one of the cornerback spots. Both players have struggled this season in coverage, which is the reason they were no longer starting.

Waggner had an interception last week against South Carolina and nearly returned it for a touchdown. It was the first interception by a Tennessee defensive back since the season opener against Montana.

The Vols were already without quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter. There's a chance they may get Bray back for one or both of the final two regular-season games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. He's still recovering from a broken thumb.

Freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt is expected to return this weekend against Middle Tennessee after missing the South Carolina game with a calf injury.

Offensive line changes in Tuscaloosa

October, 22, 2011
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- We are all set down here inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, where temperatures could deep into the 40s tonight.

Both teams are making adjustments to their offensive lines tonight. For Alabama, right guard Anthony Steen is out after suffering a concussion against Ole Miss, so we'll see Alfred McCullough start in his place.

We could also see some of freshman Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle tonight. Starter Barrett Jones missed time at practice this week, so Kouandjio could get more action tonight.

Tennessee has moved Alex Bullard, who transferred from Notre Dame, from left guard to center. James Stone moves from center to left guard. The Vols worked with this setup during the week — and Stone has had snapping issues all year.

The interesting thing about this move is that Bullard has yet to play center in an organized football game in his life. Well, what a time to make the move.

We could also see Prentiss Waggner play some corner tonight for the Vols, which would mean that freshman Brian Randolph would play in Waggner's place at safety. Waggner is Tennessee's best defensive back and is so versatile that he's also the Vols' best cover guy.

Tennessee will no doubt load the box to try and slow down Alabama running back Trent Richardson, so if someone's going to be on an island back there it might as well be Waggner.

Meanwhile, former Alabama quarterback Joe Namath is the honorary captain for the Crimson Tide tonight.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 8

October, 20, 2011
Four SEC teams are taking the week off, including Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the East. Mississippi State also has an open date in the West.

Here’s a look at what to watch in Week 8:

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFollowing the suspension of three players, LSU coach Les Miles has his work cut out for him this week.
1. Suspensions on the Bayou: LSU coach Les Miles refused to confirm anyone was suspended for Saturday’s game against Auburn. Rather, he said there was an internal disciplinary matter that he was not inclined to share with external forces. The translation, when you get through the Les-speak, is that running back Spencer Ware and cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon won’t be playing for the No. 1 Tigers this weekend. They reportedly tested positive for synthetic marijuana, which is par for the course when you consider how chaotic off the field it’s been for LSU going back to the preseason. Maybe this is a team that thrives on drama, although losing key players has a way of catching up with you.

2. The replacements: The good news for LSU is that it keeps on winning despite all these distractions, suspensions and injuries, and one of the reasons the Tigers do is because they’re so deep. Michael Ford and Alfred Blue have shared the carries with Ware at running back and already have 10 combined rushing touchdowns between them. In the defensive backfield, there’s a chance you might see senior Brandon Taylor move to cornerback. If Taylor does move, Craig Loston would probably step in at Taylor’s safety spot. Ron Brooks and Derrick Bryant can also play corner.

3. Miles’ call: The Tigers are going to play two quarterbacks the rest of the way, and Miles said everybody might as well get used to it. He said Jarrett Lee remains the starter, but that the Tigers will continue to look for ways to get Jordan Jefferson in the ballgame. “As imperfect as I am, that’s going to be my call,” Miles said. “It’s not going to have to do with critics, and it’s not going to have to do with personality and what somebody sees as his due. … We have our two quarterbacks, and we like the way they play, and we’ll play it that way.”

4. Another new quarterback: For the third straight week, LSU will be facing a quarterback who didn’t open the season as the starter. This week, it’s Auburn’s Clint Moseley, who takes over for Barrett Trotter. Moseley played the second half, and the Tigers threw only 16 passes all game. One of the reasons Auburn is going with Moseley is to try and generate more of a downfield passing attack, which has pretty much been nonexistent lately. Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn likes Moseley’s ability to make plays down the field. Last week, LSU went up against Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms, who was filling in for the injured Tyler Bray. And in the Florida game, LSU went up against true freshman Jacoby Brissett, who took his first college snaps in that game after John Brantley sprained his ankle the week before against Alabama.

5. Stingy with the ball: Not only have Alabama and LSU won 14 straight games between them, they’ve also gone a combined 98 offensive possessions without a turnover. The Crimson Tide have yet to commit a turnover in four SEC games this season. They haven’t thrown an interception in 77 possessions, dating back to the third quarter of the season opener against Kent State. LSU has just three turnovers all season. The Tigers’ last turnover came in the fourth quarter of the Mississippi State game the third week of the season.

6. Banged-up Bama: Alabama’s consistency in the offensive line this season speaks for itself, but right guard Anthony Steen has not practiced this week after suffering a concussion in the 52-7 win over Ole Miss last Saturday. Also, left tackle Barrett Jones has been slowed by a nagging hip injury, although coach Nick Saban said Jones would be fine for the Tennessee game. It took a while earlier in the season, but Alabama was able to settle on its best combination up front. Jones moved around and played four of the five positions on the line, including center. It’s been a unit that’s been rock-solid, as evidenced by the fact Alabama is the only team in the league averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game (241.6). There’s also some depth. Senior Alfred McCullough has experienced and could step in at guard or tackle, and true freshman tackle Cyrus Kouandjio may be the most physically talented of the bunch.

7. Cranking up the run: Once Arkansas got its running game cranked up during the second half of the season a year ago, the Hogs took off and won six straight games. Granted, that was with Knile Davis, but the Arkansas coaches and players feel a lot better about the running game coming out of the bye week. For one, outside of Davis, the Hogs are a lot healthier at running back. Broderick Green’s return has added that power dimension to the running game, and Dennis Johnson is one of those guys who gives you a little bit of everything. Arkansas is still looking for that home run threat in the running game, which was supposed to be Ronnie Wingo’s role. Wingo injured his toe and didn’t play in the last game against Auburn, but Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said Wingo should be back for Saturday’s Ole Miss game. The Hogs will be without freshman running back Kody Walker the rest of the season. He underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his shin.

8. Shuffling in the secondary: Tennessee coach Derek Dooley noted this week what has become painfully obvious to Vols fans. “We need to play better at the corner position,” Dooley said. Tennessee is tied for last nationally with just one interception through its first six games and is ranked last in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. The Vols plan to move junior Prentiss Waggner from safety back to cornerback this Saturday against Alabama. Waggner has gone back and forth between the positions during his career. It’s been a struggle for junior Marsalis Teague at cornerback this season, and with true freshman Brian Randolph playing as many snaps as he has, there are always going to be growing pains. The Vols have also taken a look at junior college newcomer Byron Moore this week at the nickel position. Moore hasn’t made much of impact to this point on defense.

9. Trevathan Tornado: There hasn’t been a whole lot that's gone right for Kentucky this season, but senior linebacker Danny Trevathan hasn’t slowed down one bit. In fact, he’s gotten even better and leads the SEC with 72 total tackles. Trevathan finished with 144 last season to lead the league, and even though the Wildcats are just 2-4, opposing coaches are all coming away from their games with Kentucky saying the same thing: Trevathan is the real deal. He’s averaging 12 tackles per game, which is sixth nationally, and his consistency has been remarkable. He’s recorded double-digit tackles in five of Kentucky’s six games and is a shining example of how you go out and play the game every Saturday regardless of how well or how poorly your team is playing.

10. Rodgers to start for Commodores: After playing extensively a week ago in the Georgia game, Jordan Rodgers will make his first start at quarterback this Saturday against Army, taking over for senior Larry Smith. Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, led Vanderbilt on three touchdown drives in the second half against Georgia. He made several plays with his legs and rushed for 80 yards. Rodgers probably would have played a good bit last season, but redshirted after having shoulder surgery. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said the decision to start Rodgers this week was based on a combination of Rodgers’ playmaking skills and how the team responded to him when he entered the game last week. “I think we kind of fed off that, so we’ll keep going with it and see what happens,” Franklin said.

Midseason review: Tennessee

October, 11, 2011

Record: 3-2 (0-2 SEC)

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley just can’t catch a break. Not only did his mom embarrass him on a local radio station by defending her "baby" as one of the greatest coaches in the country, but he has yet another major injury to deal with heading into the second half of the season. Tennessee will be without starting quarterback Tyler Bray, who is dealing with a broken thumb, for at least four weeks. Before his injury, Bray was averaging an SEC-high 332 yards per game and had 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Bray’s injury means senior Matt Simms takes over at the quarterback position. Simms was 2-6 as a starter last year and he jumps in right in time to take on the likes of LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas during the next five-week span. That’s a rough way to return, but Simms’ teammates have confidence in the veteran and respect the heck out of him.

Not having Justin Hunter, who is out for the year with a knee injury, at wide receiver won’t make Simms’ transition back to starter much easier, but Da'Rick Rogers is a solid No. 1 option. Running Tauren Poole is battling a hamstring injury, but the running game hasn’t been much of a factor at all this year, and that’s a major problem for this team. You can’t win games in this league without running the football, and Tennessee has -30 rushing yards in two SEC games.

Offensive MVP: QB Tyler Bray: Before he went down, he was the conference’s most consistent passer. He had thrown for two or more touchdowns in each of the first four games and broke the 250-yard mark in all five games. What was also impressive about Bray’s play was that since Hunter went down against Florida he passed for 869 yards and six touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: S Prentiss Waggner: Waggner proved to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league last season, but now he’s showing that he can be one of the best safeties as well by covering a ton of ground. While he doesn’t have an interception, he’s been very active this fall. He is second on the team with 26 tackles, has a sack and five pass breakups. He also has three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

The shootout continues in Auburn

September, 10, 2011
AUBURN, Ala. -- After a bit of a lull, we've got ourselves a pretty exciting game again in Auburn.

The Bulldogs reeled off 21 straight points, with the most recent being a 27-yard interception return for a score by Johnthan Banks on a terribly telegraphed pass by Barrett Trotter.

Oh, but the Tigers, who entered their last drive with just 15 yards passing, came right back with a 46-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the field from Trotter to Emory Blake to tie the game.

Right when you think the Bulldogs' pass defense is dominating, Trotter finds a weakness and exploits it. Blake didn't do anything special on the route, he just hit his spot and the middle of the field was free of Bulldogs. After that, it was a foot race to the end zone -- one that Blake easily won.

That was the only real mistake Mississippi State's defense has made all day. Neither defense has been perfect, but both have gotten on the board with touchdowns.

An interesting note brought to you by Mississippi State officials: Banks now has three career interceptions returned for a touchdown. That ties him with teammate Corey Broomfield and Tennessee's Prentiss Waggner for the most in the nation.

Tennessee opens fall camp

August, 3, 2011
Tennessee was the first SEC team to open preseason practice on Tuesday, and the website has a complete rundown, including video of Derek Dooley's post-practice comments and links to stories from different media outlets around the state.

It sounds like sophomore Daniel Hood is serious about making an impact at defensive tackle. Hood, who's listed at 293 pounds now, made the switch from offensive line and is one of the players Dooley complimented.

Junior safety Janzen Jackson also made a big impact in his first day back. He missed all of spring practice after withdrawing from school last semester to deal with personal issues.

"I think what benefits the team is just his energy level," Dooley said of Jackson. "It rubs off on people. He's first in everything. He has good enthusiasm. He's active. He loves competing. He's everything you look for in a competitor on the field."

After suffering his second torn Achilles tendon, senior defensive end Ben Martin was back on Haslam Field for the first practice. The Cincinnati native missed last season after his first torn Achilles suffered in August 2010. Then in February, he suffered the same injury on the foot causing him to miss spring practice.

"It felt really good to be back on the field with the guys," Martin said. "It felt good to be a part of the team again, going through the drills and getting yelled at by the coaches, it felt good again."

Martin took a moment to collect himself when asked about what `the moment' was that he felt like he was back.

"Probably when we were going through the first set of drills and I realized I was tired -- this is what football is supposed to feel like," Martin said. "I had my helmet, my mouth piece, that's what football is. I wasn't hesitant -- that's how you get hurt. I do think about limitations and have to know what my limits are .... But I am a football player, I just want to get back out there and play."

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray said he's up to 202 pounds, and one of the battles to watch this August will be at safety. Junior Prentiss Waggner, who had five interceptions last season, will be vying with Jackson and Brent Brewer for one of the starting jobs. It could be that Waggner settles in as a nickelback. He's also played some at cornerback, so his versatility should come in handy for the Vols this season.

They also have junior college newcomers Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier, both of whom are expected to contribute right away in the secondary.