SEC: Reese Dismukes

The extended version of SEC media days is behind us, and we've seen the way the media voted in terms of picking the champion and the preseason All-SEC selections.

Alabama was the pick, which given our track record, might not be the best news for the Crimson Tide. As Nick Saban so willingly reminded everybody, it's not like the media has had a crystal ball lately when it comes to picking the SEC champ. Only four times in the last 22 years have the media correctly picked the SEC champion at the SEC's preseason shindig.

Maybe this is the year we start the kind of streak John Wooden would be proud of. Here's a look at the selections from SEC media days this year.

Below is my own ballot, and Edward will unveil his later today after he finishes breaking down tape from all of the World Cup matches (or are they games?).

OFFENSE
QB: Nick Marshall, Auburn
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
WR: Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn

DEFENSE
DL: Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
DL: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
LB: Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Trey DePriest, Alabama
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

SPECIALISTS
PK: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Marcus Murphy, Missouri
AP: Christion Jones, Alabama

EAST
1. South Carolina
2. Georgia
3. Florida
4. Tennessee
5. Missouri
6. Vanderbilt
7. Kentucky

WEST
1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. Mississippi State
4. LSU
5. Ole Miss
6. Texas A&M
7 Arkansas

SEC CHAMPION
Alabama
The opening of SEC media days isn't the only news of the day. Two more college football award watch lists debuted Monday, and the SEC is a major player on both.

Thirteen of the 123 watch list honorees for the Lombardi Award, which is given annually to the top lineman or linebacker, are from the conference. Likewise, nine of the 51 nominees for the Butkus Award, which goes to the top linebacker, are SEC players.

Here are the full lists of SEC nominees:

Lombardi
G A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OT La'el Collins, LSU
C Reese Dismukes, Auburn
DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
OG Arie Kouandjio, Alabama
LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
DE A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

Butkus
Trey DePriest, Alabama
Leonard Floyd, Georgia
Kris Frost
Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Braylon Mitchell, Arkansas
Reggie Ragland, Alabama
Ramik Wilson, Georgia
Another day, another college football watch list.

The 2014 Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list debuted Thursday, along with the 2014 Outland Trophy watch list.

The SEC made its presence known again by ranking second out of all the major conferences with 16 players on the Nagurski watch list. The Nagurski Trophy is given out annually to college football's top defensive player.

The SEC led the nation with 19 players on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is given annually to the nation's top interior lineman. Eighty-one players make up the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, and 64 are on the Outland Trophy's watch list.

The SEC players who made each list:

Nagurski
Outland
Another day, another two college football award watch lists arrive.

Today we have the lists for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end, and the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the top center.

The SEC well represented on both lists, with seven players on the Mackey list and 11 on the Rimington. Here is a rundown:

Mackey
Rory Anderson, South Carolina
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
O.J. Howard, Alabama
Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
Jay Rome, Georgia
C.J. Uzomah, Auburn

Rimington
David Andrews, Georgia
Evan Boehm, Missouri
Dillon Day, Mississippi State
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Max Garcia, Florida
Ryan Kelly, Alabama
Mike Matthews, Texas A&M
Elliott Porter, LSU
Jon Toth, Kentucky
Joe Townsend, Vanderbilt
Cody Waldrop, South Carolina
Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their offensive line. Now it’s time to look at the top tackles, the top guards and the top centers and determine who will stand out above the rest this fall.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherTexas A&M expects big things from Cedric Ogbuehi, who is expected to move over to left tackle this fall.
1. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M: The recent string of left tackles in College Station has been nothing short of remarkable. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews each were selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft the past two years, and there’s a strong possibility that Ogbuehi will make it 3 for 3. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior played right tackle last fall, but he’s expected to move over and replace Matthews at left tackle this season.

2. OT La'el Collins, Sr., LSU: The Tigers had nine players drafted last month, more than any team in college football, but it could’ve easily have been 10 had Collins opted to leave school early. He was projected to go as high as the second round. Instead, he will return for his senior season, try to improve his draft stock and anchor LSU’s offensive line.

3. OT Laremy Tunsil, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels’ 2013 recruiting class was full of five-star prospects, but none played better than Tunsil last season. He appeared in 12 games, making nine starts at left tackle. He allowed just one sack all year. He was a second team All-SEC selection, a member of the SEC All-Freshman team, and the coaches expect him to only get better as a sophomore.

4. C Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn: In a league full of standout centers, Dismukes tops the list. He wasn’t the most talented player on Auburn’s offensive line last season, but you can make the argument that he was the most important during the Tigers' run to the BCS title game. He’s started every game in the past three years, and he’s looking to end his career on a high note.

5. OG A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina: The 37 career starts made by Dismukes over the past three seasons is impressive, but Cann has him beaten. The South Carolina senior has made 38 straight starts at left guard since taking over as a redshirt freshman in 2011, and after serving as the captain in 2013, he’ll again be counted on for his leadership this fall.

6. C Ryan Kelly, Jr., Alabama: The transition from All-American Barrett Jones to Kelly shouldn't have been a simple one, but the fact that it occurred without a hiccup is a testament to Kelly's ability not just athletically, but intellectually. Injuries, however, caused him to miss four games last season. Now recovered, he has every shot to to win the Rimington Trophy.

7. OT Corey Robinson, Sr., South Carolina: At 6-foot-8 and 348 pounds, it’s hard to miss Robinson when you watch the Gamecocks play. He has the size that makes everybody, NFL scouts included, take notice. The former defensive tackle has found a home at left tackle and will be in charge of protecting Dylan Thompson’s blind side this fall.

8. C Evan Boehm, Jr., Missouri: What can’t Boehm do? As a true freshman, he started 12 games at left guard, earning freshman All-American honors. He moved to center last season and led an offensive line that paved the way for a stellar Tigers rushing attack. The junior could probably play tackle if he wanted, but he’ll stay at center, where he could have a big season.

9. OG Vadal Alexander, OG, LSU: If going against Collins at left tackle weren't intimidating enough, imagine seeing the 6-foot-6, 342-pound Alexander lining up right next to him on every play. The two of them can open a hole big enough for a truck to run through, and it should be plenty big enough for five-star freshman Leonard Fournette.

10. OT Chaz Green, Sr., Florida: The other nine offensive linemen on this list all played last season, but Green is the wild card of the group. He missed the entire season after tearing his labrum during fall camp. He has all the talent -- he started in 10 games in 2012 and was a freshman All-American in 2011 -- but how will he bounce back?
How important is offensive line play?

Go back and find the last time a team with an average offensive line won the SEC championship. The translation: If you’re going to win a title in this league, you better be good and deep up front offensively.

That said, we take a look today at our offensive line rankings in the SEC for the 2014 season.

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are losing some key pieces from last season’s 11-win team, but their offensive line stacks up as the best of the Steve Spurrier era. The left side with senior tackle Corey Robinson and senior guard A.J. Cann is outstanding, and junior Brandon Shell returns at right tackle. All three have NFL potential, while sophomore Cody Waldrop is healthy again and on the preseason Rimington list as the top center in the country.

2. Texas A&M: Talent has flowed through the Texas A&M offensive line the last few seasons, and even with top-10 picks in the NFL draft departing each of the last two years, the Aggies should again be as strong as anybody. Cedric Ogbuehi, moving from right tackle to left tackle, will be the next first-rounder to come out of College Station. It looks like sophomore Germain Ifedi will move from guard to right tackle, and junior center Mike Matthews is the latest gem to come out of that family.

3. LSU: Four starters are back for the Tigers, and they also like their young talent. La’el Collins passed on the NFL draft and returns for his senior season. He’s a franchise left tackle. The left side of the line, period, should be strong with 6-6, 342-pound junior guard Vadal Alexander returning, and sophomore Ethan Pocic is good enough and versatile enough that he could be a factor at a couple of different positions.

4. Auburn: A year ago, Greg Robinson came out of nowhere to be the best offensive lineman in the league and go No. 2 overall in the NFL draft. Avery Young and Shon Coleman are in line to replace Robinson at left tackle, and the other four starters are back. Senior center Reese Dismukes leads a unit that ended last season as the best offensive line in the league and should be right there at the top again in 2014.

5. Missouri: The Tigers are big, experienced and deep. They also have some versatility with a couple of guys who’ve played different positions. Junior Evan Boehm is one of the top centers in the country, and senior Mitch Morse is moving over from right tackle to left tackle to replace Justin Britt. Gary Pinkel’s track record for putting together a strong offensive line speaks for itself.

6. Alabama: For a change, Alabama doesn’t enter the season with one of the top two or three offensive lines in the league, but that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide won’t get there. Junior Ryan Kelly is All-SEC material at center, and as talented as Cam Robinson is, it’s never ideal to start a true freshman at left tackle. Senior right tackle Austin Shepherd is one of the more underrated players in the league.

7. Mississippi State: The heart and soul of Mississippi State’s line a year ago, mammoth guard Gabe Jackson, is gone, but look for senior center Dillon Day to fill that role in 2014. The Bulldogs also return junior Blaine Clausell at left tackle and senior Ben Beckwith at right guard. One of the keys will be junior Justin Malone staying healthy after missing most of last season with a foot injury. He brings experience, size and talent to the interior of that line.

8. Florida: The Gators should be just fine if they’re able to play most of the season with their starting five. The problem comes if somebody gets hurt, and that’s been a recurring theme. The tackle tandem could be one of the best in the league with junior D.J. Humphries on the left side and fifth-year senior Chaz Green on the right side. Again, though, Green has struggled to stay healthy.

9. Ole Miss: The Rebels have some impressive young talent in their offensive line, including sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, but they’re precariously thin. Losing right tackle Austin Golson was a blow, and they need returning senior Aaron Morris to stay healthy. He was the Rebels’ best lineman before he got hurt last season. True freshman Rod Taylor also has what it takes physically to come in and play right away.

10. Georgia: Senior center David Andrews is the anchor of the group, but three starters from a year ago are gone. Junior John Theus started eight games at right tackle last season and could move to the left side, but senior Mark Beard started at left tackle in the spring game. Fifth-year senior Kolton Houston is also back and could wind up at right tackle or left guard.

11. Vanderbilt: The deepest position on Vanderbilt’s roster is the offensive line, which has rarely been the case in Nashville. Four-year starter Wesley Johnson will be difficult to replace at left tackle, but talented sophomore Andrew Jelks is poised to move from right to left tackle. The interior of the Commodores’ line is especially stout, led by senior center Joe Townsend.

12. Arkansas: After having no choice but to play a pair of true freshmen last season, the Hogs should see that pay dividends in 2014. Bret Bielema knows what a menacing offensive line looks like, and he has some talented building blocks in sophomore left tackle Dan Skipper and sophomore guard Denver Kirkland. Replacing All-SEC center Travis Swanson will be dicey.

13. Tennessee: The Vols are faced with having to replace all five starters. Fortunately for them, junior Marcus Jackson redshirted last season and provides some experience at guard. They need junior college transfer Dontavius Blair to make an immediate impact at left tackle, and true freshman Coleman Thomas may end up being the starter at right tackle.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ struggles in the offensive line last season were well chronicled. They gave up a league-worst 37 sacks, but return four starters. They’re hopeful that a season together will lead to more continuity. The veteran of the group is senior Darrian Miller at left tackle, and sophomore Jordan Swindle has a nice future at right tackle.
Who are the players that this year’s Auburn team cannot live without? This week, I’ll take a look at the five most indispensable players on each side of the ball.

Let’s begin with the offense:

WR Sammie Coates: The talk this spring has been focused on junior college transfer D'haquille Williams and how deep the Auburn receiving corps is, but where would the Tigers have been last year without Coates? The sophomore, who had just six catches the year before, finished with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. He was the lone player who kept defenses from putting everybody in the box to stop the run, and he’s fast enough that it’s almost impossible for one player to cover him. This year, he’s back and stronger than ever. The one-handed grab in the spring game might have been a glimpse into what’s to come. If Nick Marshall wants to take the next step as a passer, he has to have Coates on the field.


[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn has plenty of running backs, but Corey Grant's speed would be hard to replace.
RB Corey Grant: Auburn’s offense is predicated on speed. It’s been the selling point of the program this offseason, and for Gus Malzahn to do what he wants to do, he needs players who are fast. Who better fits the bill than Grant? He reportedly ran a sub-4.2 40 last month, and if you don’t believe it, just go back and watch his touchdown run from the spring game. He brings a different element to the offense. He might lose the starting running back job to Cameron Artis-Payne, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less important. Auburn will have two other backs on campus this fall similar to Artis-Payne, but no player can match Grant’s speed out of the backfield. He’s easily the biggest home run threat on the team.

C Reese Dismukes: There’s an argument to be made that the center is the most important player on an offense. They don’t get as much attention as the quarterback or the skill players, but every single play begins with them. In Auburn’s case, it couldn’t be truer. Dismukes, who has been the starter since 2011, has been though the bad times and the good, and he was instrumental in last year’s turnaround. The senior was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list on Monday, and it would be a shock if he’s not a finalist for the award again this year. If you’re looking for somebody to help Auburn avoid getting complacent, look no further. Dismukes will make sure this team stays hungry in its quest to repeat as SEC champions.

QB Nick Marshall: OK, now the easy one. Marshall was the key last year, and as he improved, so too did the offense. The junior college transfer finished with 1,976 yards passing, 1,068 yards rushing and 26 combined touchdowns. He still has work to do in the passing game, but by all accounts, he’s improved this spring and could be in for a huge senior season. The only argument to be made against Marshall is that quarterback is actually a deep position for Auburn. Backup Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than able last season, and ESPN 300 signal caller Sean White is set to arrive later this month. But let’s not kid ourselves. If Auburn wants to reach the first ever College Football Playoff, it needs Marshall to stay healthy.

RT Avery Young: Typically, it’s the left tackle that teams covet, and while both Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller will be vital to Auburn’s success next season, the versatility of Young on the right side makes him an even more important commodity. Young took over at right tackle midway through the year last year and never relinquished the job. He exceeded expectations as a redshirt freshman, and now he’s entrenched there as the starter. However, the AU coaches gave him some reps at right guard this spring, and his ability to play multiple positions gives Auburn a deeper, more effective offensive line.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Shortly after a string of grueling 6 a.m. offseason workouts and just before spring practice began on the Plains, Auburn’s offensive players gathered together. Around the same time, the defense locked itself away, too.

There was no discussion of mutiny or complaining about the harsh offseason that was. These meetings were strictly business and about progress.

Offensive players anonymously wrote down their ideas on what it was going to take to push forward and what would hinder their growth, while defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson preached to his unit that it was much easier to build on losses than success.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright leads a group of young, hungry defensive linemen intent on keeping Auburn atop the SEC.
Both sides emerged motivated to cast away any complacency. They were hungry to capitalize on a special season that saw the Tigers rebound from an embarrassing 3-9 2012 to march to the final BCS national title game, only to come up seconds short to Florida State.

“We’ve not arrived,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in early April. “We had a really good season and we came a long way. We were 13 seconds away from winning the whole thing, and we’re trying to use all of that in a positive way moving forward and not let any of the things that come with success seep in. We have a heightened alert of it.”

More than a year removed from the dark stain that was 2012, the Tigers embark on a season in which they’ll be viewed as favorites more often than not, but they’re looking to evolve. Last year has vanished, and while it was a special season, everyone on the Plains feels something was left out in California with the loss to FSU.

Complacency isn’t an option for this year’s Auburn Tigers.

“Getting to the national championship was one of the hardest things to do,” senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said, “but let’s face it: Getting there and then not winning it probably puts more fire in you than getting there and winning it. I know this team is highly motivated, highly driven, and that’s not coach-talk -- that’s talk in the locker room, and that’s exactly how we feel.”

Beyond hunger, this team has talent. Important pieces such as running back Tre Mason (a school-record 1,816 rushing yards and 2,374 yards of total offense), defensive end Dee Ford (10.5 sacks), cornerback Chris Davis (15 pass breakups and the Alabama kick-six) and left tackle Greg Robinson (future first-round draft pick) are gone, but the Tigers are stockpiled with more than adequate personnel.

Auburn has an All-SEC candidate quarterback in Nick Marshall, a healthy stable of running backs, older and improved receivers, and a young, yet beastly, set of defensive linemen that could be budding stars.

This team isn’t perfect, but it isn’t learning so much this spring as it is adjusting and growing. There’s less installing. Practices have been more technical than anything, with extra wrinkles being thrown in.

There’s also a healthy nucleus of veterans and youngsters who were key to last season's success, creating a great balance of camaraderie and skill.

Going 12-2 with an SEC championship and some miraculous victories set the college football world ablaze, but it hasn’t satisfied an Auburn team looking for more.

“It’s going to be tougher next year,” senior center Reese Dismukes said. “Now, everyone is going to have a target on us. You can’t let the little things slip ... you have to focus on everything being right.

“You can’t ever sleep. You gotta keep working hard and keep getting better because someone is always going to be coming after you.”

With a schedule that features trips to Kansas State, both Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will get all it can handle during its run to repeat as SEC champs. To attack that road, the no-longer-sneaky Tigers must make sure their defense can keep up with what should be another potent offense.

After allowing 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game in conference play, Johnson described last season's defense as not very good. It gave up too many yards, had too many missed assignments, made too many adjustment mistakes, and allowed too many “cheap plays,” Johnson said.

But with the experience returning, instead of rebuilding and re-coaching, Johnson said he’s been able to work with a more comfortable group. Players know what they are doing now and aren't making the same silly mistakes that plagued them last spring and fall, which has made the defense "so much better" this spring, Johnson said.

“It’s a fine line sometimes between panic and recklessness,” Johnson said of his defense. “We’ve got to keep that recklessness and intensity if we’re going to have a chance. We’re still not one of the most talented teams in America, but we’re talented enough if we continue to focus like we did last year and keep trying hard and improving.”

It would be easy for the Tigers to rely on their talent and past success. But that's not the mindset. The mindset is that this team has so much more to show in 2014. The Tigers want to get comfortable with a championship lifestyle.

“Really and truly, I don’t think the confidence level could be too high," Wright said. "It’s not anything about overconfidence, it’s just that we don’t want to maintain to stay here. We know there’s another level to go.”
The SEC has long been a line-of-scrimmage league. It's no coincidence that the team winning the title going back a decade or more has almost always been outstanding in the offensive line.

SportsNation

Which of these teams will have the SEC's best offensive line in 2014?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    34%

Discuss (Total votes: 17,611)

It's not absolute. The team with the best offensive line doesn't always win the title, but good luck in finding a recent SEC champion that was just average in the offensive line. Case in point: Was anybody better up front offensively last season than Auburn?

Looking ahead, we're asking you (the fans) to tell us who in the SEC will carry the banner in the offensive line this fall. So go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll break down the results later this week.

We've come up with five choices, including Auburn. The Tigers lost star left tackle Greg Robinson, who's being projected as a top-5 pick in May's NFL draft. But they're still plenty salty up front, led by All-SEC center Reese Dismukes.

The other four choices -- Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- also have a chance to be really good. And that's not to say that one of the other nine teams in the league could end up with the SEC's top offensive line by November. After all, how many people were touting Auburn as the best offensive line in the league this time a year ago?

Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all return four starters. Alabama returns three.

Of note, the SEC returns an extremely talented crop of centers. The tackle position is equally loaded with LSU's La'el Collins, Florida's Chaz Green, Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi, South Carolina's Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell, and Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil.

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:15
PM ET
It's not exactly like the fall, but at least we'll have some football (spring) games this weekend. Let's take a quick spin around the SEC and see what's happening as the final spring scrimmages approach at some of the league's schools.

SEC's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:00
PM ET
College football's most high-profile head coach weighed in on the Northwestern players' bid to unionize yesterday. Nick Saban said after practice at Alabama that players should be compensated and deserve a voice in what happens. Are we seeing the beginning of a movement, the start of a never-ending legal process or both? Whatever it is, it's moving along as the next step is Washington, D.C.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn’s five early enrollees arrived in January, their heads were spinning. They were balancing school and studying with workouts, meetings and everything else that comes with playing football. They went from high school, or junior college in some cases, to the daily grind at an SEC program.

It was a difficult adjustment and one that’s even harder now that spring practice has started, but each of them has a unique opportunity in front of him. Everybody gets a chance in the spring, and it’s no different for the newcomers.

[+] EnlargeD'haquille Williams
Courtesy of Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.Juco WR transfer D'haquille Williams has made a big first impression as an early enrollee at Auburn.
“Each guy is a little bit different that came in,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “There will be a few of them that will rotate with the first group or with the second group. The great thing about it is everybody’s getting reps. Everybody’s learning -- the offense, defense and special teams -- really at the same pace.”

The headliner of the group is wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s top junior college player a season ago and one of the more anticipated recruits ever to sign with Auburn. It was hard to miss his 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame the first day of practice, and he’s certainly impressed the coaches through the first week.

“You can tell why we needed him and why we wanted him,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He’s got God-given abilities that are really good, and I think he’ll really add value to our receiving corps.”

Williams has been one of the players who has rotated in with the first group early on, and he also has worked some with the kick and punt returners. His addition plus the return of Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis gives the Tigers a talented and deep group of wide receivers for quarterback Nick Marshall to throw to.

“[Williams] is very impressive,” Marshall said. “He’s a guy who will make a play for you when the ball is in the air. We’ve got great receivers this year. It’s going to be sick watching them.”

Although it’s Williams who has grabbed most of the attention, his junior college teammate Derrick Moncrief has been every bit as impressive through the first part of spring. The former Prattville (Ala.) star has played the lion’s share at boundary safety with Joshua Holsey still on the mend, and he has made the most of his opportunity.

“Moncrief has been an extremely pleasant surprise,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Thursday. “When you get a junior college player who’s not played in your system, you always wonder how long it’s going to take him to transition. He’s making some mistakes out there, as you would expect, but I think at this point, he is way beyond all the new safeties.”

The problem will be what to do with Moncrief when Holsey returns, but that’s a good problem to have, especially considering the lack of depth back there last year.

The only other junior college player to enroll early was offensive lineman Xavier Dampeer, and he, too, has drawn praise from the coaching staff. He’s currently backing up Reese Dismukes at center, a position that’s critical to the offense.

“He’s getting reps,” Malzahn said. “His snaps have been good. I thought his communication has been good the first few days. He seems like a really football-savvy guy. I think he likes to compete, so he’ll have a chance.”

For Chris Laye and Stanton Truitt, the two younger enrollees, the adjustment has been a little more difficult. It has been a little over two months since they finished their high school careers, and now they’re in college, practicing with the defending SEC champs.

Still, they’re getting an opportunity this spring and have an advantage over the rest of the 2014 signees who won’t arrive until the summer.

At the end of the day, the rookies are always going to make a mistake here or there. It’s that way at every school. But through the first week, Auburn’s early enrollees have not only shown potential. They’ve shown that they belong.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Think Auburn was going to slow down based on a 10-second rule that had little to no chance of passing this year? Think again. The rule was tabled last week, and if anything, the Tigers are going to go even faster next season.

“We’re not going to change our approach,” coach Gus Malzahn said before any decision was made on the rule. “I’ve been running a fast-paced offense since 1997, and I’ve never felt like, on either side, that it was a health and safety issue.”

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall will get a full spring at QB, a prospect that has Gus Malzahn excited about the possibilities.
Said Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs: “There are some significant health and safety issues. The health is for the opposing fans, and the safety issue is for the opposing coaches because if they can’t stop it, they’re not going to have a job. So there’s health and safety [issues], but it’s not about the student-athletes.”

There is still some debate as to whether or not the coaches in favor of the rule are genuinely concerned about player safety, but nobody is arguing with what Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) offense was able to accomplish last season and the impact it had on the SEC. Auburn led the nation in rushing and finished second in the conference with 39.5 points per game.

Consider this: The Tigers averaged 73.8 plays per game last year, a staggering number given they averaged a league worst 60.5 plays per game the year before. That number is only expected to go higher as Malzahn enters his second year as head coach.

Quarterback Nick Marshall, the conductor of the offense, returns and will go through spring practice for the first time. It was clear, as he became more comfortable in the offense last year, the number of plays started to increase. By its last four games, Auburn was averaging 79 plays per game.

“We are really excited about the spring with Nick,” Malzahn said. “We got a lot of information throughout the year, and we can build around his strengths even more.”

The Tigers also return four of the five starters on the offensive line, including center Reese Dismukes, the leader of the group and the one who’s in charge of making the calls at the line of scrimmage. He knows a thing or two about running Malzahn’s offense.

College football is changing. More teams are moving to a hurry-up offense, and the game is faster now as a result. Auburn didn’t necessarily start the trend, but after its run to the BCS title last year, it’s certainly at the forefront of the movement.

“That’s what the players like,” Jacobs said. “They like it moving along. Even the defensive guys, they like it moving along. It’s fun.

“If you want to have fun playing football, you need to come to Auburn because it’s a fun place to play. We play fast-paced football. If you don’t like it, go some place that runs a mundane offense and go enjoy yourself. If you want to have fun, come here and play.”

Auburn opens spring practice a week from Tuesday, and if there’s one prediction to be made, it’s that the hurry-up, no-huddle offense will be back and better than ever.

Top of the line in the SEC

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
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Granted, spring practice hasn't even started yet, but we here at the SEC blog want to give a little love to the "big uglies" in the offensive line. Go back and look at the last few SEC champions/national champions, and it's no coincidence that those teams were outstanding on the offensive line.

Who will be the top five offensive linemen in the league next season?

That's a tricky question because a lot can change between now and next fall, and offensive linemen all develop at different rates. For instance, did anybody have Auburn's Greg Robinson as the SEC's premier offensive lineman this time a year ago? Robinson exploded during the 2013 season and is now being projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper as the No. 2 overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft.

There's sure to be a player or two just like Robinson that really emerges next season. With that said, here's our early take on the SEC's top-5 offensive linemen going into the 2014 season. They're listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLa'el Collins has the potential to become one of the nation's most dominant left tackles.
A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The heart and soul of a South Carolina offensive line that should be one of the best in the league next season, the 6-4, 314-pound Cann already has 38 career starts to his credit. He's a force at left guard and teams with tackle Corey Robinson, giving the Gamecocks an imposing left side of the line.

La'el Collins, OT, LSU, Sr.: The Tigers breathed a sigh of relief, and with good reason, when the 6-5, 315-pound Collins decided to return for his senior season. He has everything it takes to be one of the most dominant left tackles in the college game. He was a second-team All-SEC selection last season by the coaches and started his LSU career at guard.

Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn, Sr.: A starter for the Tigers since the day he walked onto campus, the 6-3, 297-pound Dismukes is the class of a deep and talented center crop in the SEC next season. He's tough, smart and has the kind of nasty streak coaches love. Dismukes was a first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches last season and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing with an average of 328.3 yards per game.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: When you start listing the top offensive tackles in college football, don't forget about Ogbuehi. He'll be moving from right tackle to left tackle to replace Jake Matthews and has already proven that he's a top run-blocker and pass-protector at both guard and tackle. The 6-5, 300-pound Ogbuehi is an exceptional athlete and came back for his senior season despite receiving a first round grade from the NFL draft advisory board.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, So.: Even though the 6-5, 315-pound Tunsil is the youngest of this group, he might have the most pure talent. He took over the Rebels' left tackle duties last season as a true freshman and started nine games, earning second-team All-SEC honors from the AP as well as freshman All-America honors. He allowed just one sack all year from his position, and with an entire offseason and spring workouts under his belt, he should take an even bigger step in 2014.

Five more to watch:

Dee Ford has seen it all during his time at Auburn -- the highs and the lows.

As a freshman, he won a BCS national championship. Two years later, he endured a 3-9 season and the coaching change that ensued. But the senior defensive end stuck around and finished his career as a part of this year’s Auburn team that came a play or two away from winning a second national championship in the last four years.

[+] EnlargeWinston Sacked
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNosa Eguae ended his senior season in the same way he ended his freshman season in 2010 -- starting for Auburn in a BCS championship game.
“It's been a big roller coaster,” Ford said prior to Monday’s title game. “There's a message behind it. Things aren't going to work out when you expect it to. It’s really revealed who we are as individuals and who we are as a team.”

Things didn’t work out for the Tigers in Pasadena. They ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal, losing to Florida State in the national championship, but it was still a season to remember for Ford and the rest of that senior class. After everything, they went out on top.

“It means a lot for me to go out (like this) my last year,” Ford said after the game. “In the entire time, we set a goal to have the biggest turnaround in college football history, and it was an amazing journey for me. I'm definitely proud to be an Auburn Tiger right now. We didn't win, but at the end of the day, I'm still proud of my team.”

It was the same sentiment shared by all 15 seniors. The majority of them were there for the 2010 national championship. They all went through last year’s difficult season and finished this season on top, despite the loss to the Seminoles.

It was a journey that brought them closer together.

Ford’s partner on the defensive line, Nosa Eguae, is also a senior. In fact, he was the only starter from the 2010 team still on the roster. On Tuesday, Eguae addressed his fellow seniors in an open letter to the fans that he shared with multiple media outlets.

“This is the last time my brothers and I will get to spend a day with each other,” Eguae said. “For tomorrow, we will go our separate ways and pass the torch to the next group of seniors that will lead and fight for the greater good of the family. From tragedy to triumph, I could not ask for a better group of men to ride off into the sunset with.”

In addition to Eguae and Ford, the senior class that has grown so close together includes the likes of Steven Clark, Chris Davis, Jake Holland, Cody Parkey, Jay Prosch, Ryan Smith and Ryan White -- all who started or made an impact at some point during the season.

It’s a group that could have won two national championships during their time at Auburn but will still leave behind a legacy that will affect the program for years to come.

“There will be a lot of great things and great memories that our seniors have led us to be,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were just on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons, but there's so many great things that we'll take. I just told the seniors they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward, and our program is very bright right now.”

With nine starters returning on offense, pending Tre Mason's decision, and seven starters returning on defense, the Tigers should be among the nation’s elite teams again next season. They’re ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2014. But it will be up to the seniors-to-be to provide the leadership.

Center Reese Dismukes, a three-year starter, knows he’ll be counted on as a leader again next season, but he showed his appreciation to the departing seniors after Monday’s game.

“Proud of my teammates and coaches,” the Auburn captain tweeted. “We fight and fight til the end. Thanks seniors for all you’ve done for this program.”

The torch has been passed.

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