SEC: Rico McWilliams

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

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

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

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

Secondary position rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Carolina spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the South Carolina Gamecocks:

1. Offense is deep: As long as fifth-year senior quarterback Dylan Thompson stays healthy, South Carolina shouldn’t have many issues on offense. The backfield is deep and talented with Mike Davis leading the way. The offensive line is loaded with future NFL players. Although Bruce Ellington turned pro, the receiving corps features plenty of explosive options. With Steve Spurrier at the controls, it should be an entertaining year to watch the Gamecocks move the ball in a wide variety of ways.

2. Linebacker will be a strength: South Carolina’s defense certainly has some holes to fill, but the linebackers are a proven commodity. Three of the Gamecocks’ top-five tacklers return in Skai Moore, Kaiwan Lewis and Marcquis Roberts. It's a deep group of playmakers who could carry the defense while some new faces finds their way early in the season.

3. Defense has a lot to prove: Losing one of the best defensive talents ever to don garnet and black, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, will obviously be a blow. Same with defensive linemen Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton and cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. Those guys were the rocks of a solid South Carolina defense last season, and their absences were evident in the spring game when the defenses surrendered 6.5 yards per play and 16.8 yards per completion. The cupboard isn’t bare, but the Gamecocks still must fill a lot of holes.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Who takes over at cornerback? This seems to be the most likely position where a freshman might earn immediate playing time. The Gamecocks added a slew of talented cornerbacks -- including three of their four highest-rated signees in ESPN’s rankings, Chris Lammons, D.J. Smith and Wesley Green -- and struggled a bit at the position during the spring without Hampton and Legree. Safety Brison Williams and Rico McWilliams started at corner in the spring game, and Jamari Smith might be another name to watch. But it’s clear that nothing is settled at the position as of now.

2. Who backs up Thompson? Spring practice proved that Thompson is head and shoulders above the competition at quarterback. But who steps in if the senior suffers an injury? Connor Mitch is one option. Brendan Nosovitch and Perry Orth are others. Not yet on campus is a fourth option, signee Michael Scarnecchia. Thompson has already played a lot while sharing time with the departed Connor Shaw, but the reserves are a completely unproven bunch.

3. Might this be the SEC’s best backfield? The star power at Alabama and Georgia attracts more attention, but the talent in South Carolina’s backfield is nothing to sneeze at. Davis proved himself as a tough runner and home run threat last season, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns before fading late because of injury issues. In Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson, the Gamecocks have another two SEC-caliber backs, and the Gamecocks’ coaches seem excited about adding redshirt freshman David Williams to the mix. The depth here is excellent, and the backs will be running behind a stout offensive line. That should make for a highly productive running game in the fall.

One way-too-early prediction:

This is the golden age of South Carolina football, and Spurrier will add another impressive chapter this season. Namely, the Gamecocks’ streak of three straight seasons with at least 11 wins will grow to four. Although Lorenzo Ward’s defense has a lot to prove, the offense should be good enough to help the D hit its stride like it did as last season progressed. Plenty of preseason publications will name South Carolina as the favorite to win the SEC East, and that’s for good reason. Spurrier’s staff has built one of the league’s most consistent programs, and it should once again rank among the top contenders this season.
Schedule: The Gamecocks will open spring practice at 4:15 p.m. ET on Tuesday. All 15 of the spring practice sessions are open to the public unless determined otherwise. The Gamecocks also will practice on Thursday this week and then take a hiatus for spring break and return to practice on March 18. The Garnet & Black spring game is set for April 12 at noon ET and will be televised live by ESPNU.

What’s new: From a staff standpoint, not a lot. For the first time in a while, South Carolina’s coaching staff will return intact.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Jim Dedmon/Icon SMIMike Davis topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2013, including seven 100-yard games.
On the move: Junior Cedrick Cooper, who played sparingly last season at linebacker and a good bit on special teams, is moving to defensive end. Sophomore Jamari Smith is moving back to cornerback after playing some at running back last season. Smith has bounced around between the positions since arriving as a freshman.

On the mend: Receiver Damiere Byrd will miss the spring after injuring his knee during bowl practice in December. Fullback Connor McLaurin will miss the spring after suffering a broken left fibula just days before the bowl game. Cornerback Ali Groves will be limited after undergoing shoulder surgery. Offensive tackle Mike Matulis has undergone surgeries on each of his shoulders and redshirted last season.

New face: Junior-college defensive tackle Abu Lamin enrolled in January and will go through spring practice. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Lamin has three years of eligibility remaining, and the Gamecocks are hoping he can be a run-stopper in the middle of that defensive line.

Question marks: Cornerback is at the top of the list. Only four recruited scholarship cornerbacks are on the roster this spring, and there’s little experience. Redshirt sophomore Rico McWilliams is the “veteran” of the group and has all of two career starts. The Gamecocks are bringing in several heralded cornerbacks in this signing class, but Wesley Green and Chris Lammons won’t be on campus until the summer. With Jadeveon Clowney leaving early for the NFL, the Gamecocks also need to find some disrupters off the edge on defense. It’s a big spring for redshirt sophomore Darius English, who has beefed up close to 245 pounds. Gerald Dixon is another redshirt sophomore who played some last season and showed a lot of promise. Cooper also could help in pass-rushing situations. He recently ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and is up to 235 pounds. He’s one of the best pure athletes on the team.

Key battle: Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward will have several options at linebacker, meaning guys will be jockeying for playing time this spring. It’s doubtful anybody will unseat sophomore Skai Moore at weakside linebacker, but Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman will battle it out at middle linebacker. Fifth-year senior Sharrod Golightly returns at the hybrid “spur” position, and sophomore Jordan Diggs is one to watch there, as well. Sophomores Larenz Bryant and Jonathan Walton will also be hard to keep off the field this fall at the linebacker/spur positions, where the Gamecocks should have plenty of depth, especially once top signee Bryson Allen-Williams arrives on campus this summer.

Breaking out: Pharoh Cooper was one of Steve Spurrier’s favorites last season as a true freshman, and you can bet the Gamecocks will look for more ways to get the ball in his hands in 2014 with Bruce Ellington leaving early for the NFL draft. The 5-11, 200-pound Cooper will get plenty of reps this spring, especially with Byrd still recovering from his knee injury. Cooper could be a force in the slot, and now that he has a season under his belt, should develop into one of the better after-the-catch players in the league. Staying at the receiver position, junior Shaq Roland could also be poised for a big season provided that he has matured off the field.

Don’t forget about: The Gamecocks are deep at running back, and Mike Davis is coming off an 1,183-yard season. Brandon Wilds should also be healthy, but redshirt freshman David Williams adds that breakaway dimension that’s so valuable in this league. The 6-1, 215-pound Williams posted the fastest 40 time on the team during winter conditioning (Byrd didn’t run) and has a chance to emerge as a nice complement to Davis, Wilds and Shon Carson.

All eyes on: Now that Connor Shaw has moved on after going 27-5 as the Gamecocks' starting quarterback, fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson gets his shot to show that he can lead this team and get it done on an every-down basis. He has been terrific in relief roles and was one of the stars of the Gamecocks’ offseason conditioning program. While he's not the extend-the-play quarterback Shaw was, Thompson can stand back there in the pocket and make precision throws. Not only that, but he has one of the biggest and best offensive lines in the SEC returning.

Video: South Carolina offseason spotlight

February, 13, 2014
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SEC reporter Chris Low discusses players to keep an eye on this offseason and spring at South Carolina.
If you thought Jadeveon Clowney was dangerous before, wait until you see him this fall.

South Carolina's sophomore defensive end wreaked havoc as a backup last season, but with a starting job in hand, the Gamecocks' coaching staff wants to make sure it can get the most out of Clowney. Coach Steve Spurrier said after Monday's practice that he plans to move Clowney all around the field, including middle linebacker.

"We’re going to move him all over the place,” Spurrier told reporters. “We have to put him where hopefully he’s most of the time one-on-one with somebody -- inside, outside, middle linebacker. There are all kinds of things you can do. It’s a pass-rush game out there now, as everybody knows.”

This just gives Clowney, who accounted for 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks in his rookie season, more room to roam around and more opportunities to frustrate his opposition. This doesn't just say something about Clowney's skill, it says something about his maturation within the Gamecocks' defense. Remember, he was lost at times as a freshman.

Now, he's more comfortable and will have the chance to make even more plays this fall. It's a scary thought, really.

Spurrier also announced that true freshman cornerback Rico McWilliams is out for the season after suffering an injury in practice.

“Rico probably will have to have surgery, so it looks like he will be out this year," Spurrier said. "It’s an unfortunate injury, but no way we could have prevented that. Just two guys running down the field and he accidentally stepped on Shaq (Roland) a little bit and twisted his knee up real good.”

Wright leaves practice after hit

Arkansas wasn't full contact on Monday, but that didn't prevent an injury to an important member of the Razorbacks' defense.

Senior linebacker Tenarius Wright, who moved from defensive end this spring, left practice early after colliding with running back Knile Davis. There was no diagnosis for Wright on Monday night, but the staff will continue to evaluate him.

“I didn’t even know he was hurt until after practice,” Davis told reporters. “I saw he wasn’t in there. We’ll see. I don’t know what happened to him."

Davis added that he didn't think Wright's injury was serious.

Arkansas is already down one linebacker, as Alonzo Highsmith missed his second straight practice with a hamstring injury.

Kentucky's quarterback race heating up

While sophomore Maxwell Smith left spring as the projected starter for the fall, he's finding out that fall practice is a whole new animal.

Senior Morgan Newton is back after sitting out the spring following shoulder surgery, and he seemed to impress Sunday. Newton was the starter for most of last season before an injury cut his season short. Newton struggled through most of the games he played in last season, but is looking for one last chance to make an impact at the quarterback spot.

Freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow are also competing for time, making for a pretty crowded quarterback spot.

“Still hard to evaluate the quarterbacks after three days, especially when you are installing, so we will take it slow,” coach Joker Phillips said. “We have two weeks before I would like to get it done, which means you have two scrimmages. But we have seven days of installation that we are building up to the first scrimmage, and we will see if it shakes its way out then, but probably not. Making the decision after the first scrimmage is probably way too soon.”

Miller back at Vols practice

After missing spring because of academic issues, junior defensive lineman Corey Miller was back on the practice field for Tennessee on Monday. Miller had to rededicate himself away from the field before he could get back on it, and it appears he got on the right track.

"I changed my focus and just had to get my mind right," Miller said. "I'm just glad to be back, and it's nothing but looking forward from here on out. It hurt me not being with my guys, so I got back this summer and took it full fledge, all the weight on my shoulders. I just have to get back at it."

Miller, who has played in 25 career games, has moved around the defensive line, but expects to stay at end this fall.

Miller will have a bit of a fight on his hands to earn playing time this fall, but coach Derek Dooley was just happy to get him back.

"This is his second chance," Dooley said. "He kind of messed up in the classroom, but hopefully he learned from it, and hopefully everyone else learned from it, too."

For more on Tennessee's Monday practice, check out the Vols' official website.

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