SEC: Robert Elliott
What’s new: While Mississippi State isn’t switching to a 3-4, the Bulldogs will have a completely new look defensively under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz. Chris Wilson comes over from Oklahoma to coach the defensive line and serve as co-defensive coordinator.
Sidelined: The Bulldogs don’t have any major injury problems, although freshman receiver Malcolm Johnson is out for the start of practice with a foot injury.
Key battle: Pernell McPhee is entrenched at one end on defense, but Sean Ferguson and Nick Bell will slug it out for the starting spot opposite McPhee. The Bulldogs like their talent and depth up front defensively. Redshirt freshman Johnathan McKenzie also showed in the spring that he will be able to help. He’ll enter the preseason as McPhee’s backup, but could play his way into a starting role at the other end.
New on the scene: Junior college defensive tackle James Carmon, all 345 pounds of him, adds some serious muscle to the middle of the defensive line. Junior college newcomer Vick Ballard will compete for the starting running back job. He and Robert Elliott were neck-and-neck in the spring. Redshirt freshmen Montrell Connor and LaDarius Perkins will also factor into the running back rotation. True freshman Ferlando Bohanna may end up being the starting strong side linebacker before it’s all over, and Dan Mullen is always looking for more receivers. So keep an eye on true freshman Robert Johnson.
Breaking out: Tight end Marcus Green was the second leading receiver on the team last season as a sophomore. He has All-SEC potential and could prove to be a key target for whoever wins the quarterback job.
Don’t forget about: Senior Maurice Langston was suspended for the first four games last season after getting into trouble off the field. But he cracked the Bulldogs’ starting lineup at cornerback the last five games and should be a steadying presence back there this season.
All eyes on: Junior quarterback Chris Relf and redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Russell. Relf is the runner, and Russell is the thrower. They will battle it out for the starting quarterback job this preseason. Relf has improved as a passer since last season when he was more of a specialty player, and there’s a good chance the Bulldogs will end up using both players. They complement each other well.
Quoting: “We didn’t win the close games last year. That sticks with you. Everything we did this offseason was about finishing games in the fourth quarter.” – Mississippi State safety Charles Mitchell
Strongest position: Defensive line
Key returnees: Pernell McPhee, Fletcher Cox, Josh Boyd, Nick Bell, Devin Jones
Key departures: Kyle Love
The skinny: It’s always nice to have a stud in your defensive line, a player the other team has to plan around, and that’s where McPhee comes in this season. He was very good as a junior after coming over from junior college and led the Bulldogs with 12 tackles for loss. But with this being his second year in the league, he has everything it takes to be the best defensive end in the league. Cox and Boyd both played last season as true freshmen, and both are listed as starters this spring at tackle. Even though they play inside, both are extremely athletic. The newcomer to watch inside is 6-foot-7, 345-pound James Carmon, who played at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College last year. There’s a lot of promising young talent up front defensively for the Bulldogs. In addition to Cox and Boyd, Bell, Jones and Shane McCardell are three other sophomores who’ve played.
Weakest position: Running back
Key returnees: Robert Elliott
Key departures: Anthony Dixon, Christian Ducre, Arnil Stallworth
The skinny: Take away a player as productive as Dixon from any offense, and there are going to be obvious questions. He led the SEC in rushing last season with an average of 126.5 yards per game, and the Bulldogs leaned on him every step of the way. There are some talented guys eager to replace him, but very little experience. Juniors Robert Elliott and Vick Ballard are listed atop the depth chart this spring at running back. Mississippi State fans have been waiting for Elliott to break out. Maybe this is his year after playing in Dixon’s shadow and being slowed by injuries. Ballard put up gaudy numbers in junior college last season, while 225-pound redshirt freshman Montrell Conner will also get a long look. All three will be running behind an experienced offensive line. Four of the five starters from a year ago are back up front.
Obviously, a lot can change in the spring as players fight it out for positions. But this will again by a young Mississippi State team.
Even some of the older projected starters will only be in their second year in the program. Receiver Leon Berry and defensive end Pernell McPhee were junior college newcomers a year ago.
Over and above the quarterback battle, finding a replacement for Anthony Dixon will be a priority this spring. Juniors Robert Elliott and Vick Ballard are bracketed as co-No. 1s on the depth chart entering the spring.
On defense, Chris White is sliding inside to middle linebacker to replace the departed Jamar Chaney.
And remember Cameron Lawrence? He was an athletic 205-pound quarterback/defensive back when he came to Mississippi State a couple of years ago. Well, he's now a 225-pound sophomore outside linebacker and listed as a starter going into the spring.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Making the rounds in the SEC:
- Columnist Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes that something is missing at Georgia, and it's not talent.
- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier wants to open it up a little more offensively this week against Georgia.
- Florida freshman receiver Andre Debose will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn hamstring.
- Tennessee picks up a commitment from Kingsburg, Calif., quarterback Tyler Bray, who was previously committed to San Diego State.
- LSU coach Les Miles said he wanted to play freshman Russell Shepard against Washington, but that the Tigers ran out of plays.
- Mississippi State running back Robert Elliott runs like he hasn't in a while, writes Ron Higgins of The Memphis Commercial Appeal.
- After being shot the week of the Virginia Tech game, Alabama defensive end Brandon Deaderick says he should be 100 percent "real soon."
- Auburn's Adam Herring fights through an assortment of setbacks to start for the Tigers at linebacker in the opener.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It would be a huge upset at this point if senior Tyson Lee wasn't Mississippi State's starting quarterback to open the season Sept. 5 against Jackson State.
The former walk-on is learning his third different offense in as many years, but his experience and work ethic will make him hard to beat.
"He's one of those guys who gives you everything he has every single day," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
What nobody knows is how quickly heralded true freshman Tyler Russell will mature. He's been impressive with the way he's thrown the ball during summer workouts and is clearly the Bulldogs' quarterback of the future.
Mullen won't get ahead of himself in terms of determining when that future will be.
"If I think he's going to give us the best chance to win, I will play him. If not, then he won't play," Mullen said of the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Russell, who was one of the most coveted prospects in the state of Mississippi last year.
"I'm not going to just throw him out there. If I think he can help us this year, we will slowly work him in there. The quarterback position is all about confidence, and to play somebody at that position before they're ready can set them back more than it helps them."
Mullen will be much more liberal about playing true freshmen at receiver. The Bulldogs really don't have much choice when you look at their numbers at receiver. One of those guys they're still waiting on is Ricco Sanders of Duncan, S.C. He's yet to be cleared academically and didn't report with the rest of the team Sunday.
Also, junior college newcomer Maurice Langston will remain suspended until his legal issues are resolved. Langston, a defensive back, was arrested in February and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
A pair of injured players from a year ago -- receiver Brandon McRae and running back Robert Elliott -- say they're ready to go. McRae broke his leg in the season finale against Ole Miss, but has worked his way back close to 100 percent. Elliott tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee last season against LSU and says he's fully healthy.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We go inside with our weekly "Internal Affairs" check of the conference. Not that it's a revelation to Tennessee, but the Vols had better be ready to see a lot of No. 1 this Saturday in Knoxville:
1. Putting more Green in the offense: There's one major problem with Georgia freshman receiver A.J. Green this season. He hasn't touched the ball nearly enough. The Georgia coaches have admitted as much this week, and they're going to try and get the ball in his hands more against Arizona State. Green is second on the team with eight catches for 141 yards and is averaging 17.6 yards per catch, but he's clearly their most explosive receiving threat ... and he goes and gets the football. One thing the Bulldogs may also do is whittle down their receiver rotation. They're playing too many guys right now.
2. Unleashing Percy: Look for Florida to add a new running back this week. Percy Harvin's not going to carry it 20 times, but he'll touch the ball more against Tennessee than he has all season. And a bunch of those touches will come with him lined up in the backfield. The Gators will hand it to him, pitch it to him and toss it to him. He's healthier than he's been, bigger than he's been (205 pounds) and ready to get back to what he was last season -- one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. The Gators will also have a few misdirection plays involving Harvin, plays the Vols have struggled to defend in recent years.
3. Burns-ing quarterback issues: This whole thing with Kodi Burns and the Auburn quarterback situation doesn't sound promising for the Tigers. Tommy Tuberville admitted that he met with Burns' parents following the Southern Miss game when Chris Todd was announced as Auburn's starter. Burns didn't play at all in the Mississippi State game, but remains in the Tigers' plans for the LSU game, Tuberville said. One of the holdups, according to Tuberville, is that he doesn't want Burns pegged as just a running quarterback and wants him to be ready to run the whole spread offense. Tuberville insists that he believes in Burns. But does first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin?
4. Williams moving to end: Tennessee has moved Gerald Williams from outside linebacker to defensive end for the Florida game, and the 6-4, 240-pound Williams is likely to stay there for the rest of the season after playing primarily on special teams the first two games. It's no secret that the Vols need to pressure Tim Tebow, get to him early and keep him boxed in as much as possible. Tennessee only has two sacks in its first two games and is looking for guys who can finish on the outside. The Vols hope Williams can be that guy, and he's also fast enough to pursue the ball and make plays on the perimeter.
5. Shaking it up in Starkville: Mississippi State offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey wishes he had a magic wand, but a few adjustments will have to do. The first thing the Bulldogs are going to do is give Tyson Lee a few more chances at quarterback. Coach Sylvester Croom had gone back and forth on that, but the plan now is to play Lee some against Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs also plan to get running back Robert Elliott a lot more involved, especially with Anthony Dixon questionable with a groin injury. Elliott gives them a chance for bigger plays. Mississippi State didn't have a play longer than 13 yards in the 3-2 loss to Auburn.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
After consulting with ESPN recruiting guru Tom Luginbill and several others around the conference, here's a look at the 15 freshmen (true and redshirt) most likely to have the biggest impact this season.
Obviously, this could change depending on injuries, academics and upperclassmen making a move this August. It's also not necessarily a list of the 15 most talented freshmen or 15 highest rated freshmen.
It's 15 guys who could have a profound impact based either on need or the fact that they're just that good. They're listed alphabetically:
Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: After redshirting last season, Bequette was good enough during the spring that the Razorbacks were able to move Malcolm Sheppard inside to tackle. Bequette finished the spring as one of the Hogs' most improved players, according to Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino.
Aaron Boyd, WR, Kentucky: Boyd is the younger brother of former Kentucky quarterback Shane Boyd. He had plenty of offers, but stayed home to play for the Wildcats. He fills a huge void at receiver, where just about everybody who made a play for the Wildcats last season is gone.
Enrique Davis, RB, Ole Miss: He signed with Auburn originally out of high school, but settled on Ole Miss after attending Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy last year. And why not? Davis is Houston Nutt's type of back -- big, bruising and blessed with breakaway speed. He'll get the ball early and often this season.
Aaron Douglas, TE, Tennessee: Shoulder surgery has slowed Douglas somewhat, but he's the kind of athletic tight end new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson is looking for in his West Coast offense. The Vols will use two tight ends a good bit this season if everybody's healthy.
Robert Elliott, RB, Miss. State: One of the country's top-rated running back prospects two years ago, Elliott showed flashes of brilliance last August in camp, but was held back by some fumbling problems. He's had the reshirt year to mature and will team with Anthony Dixon and Wade Bonner to give the Bulldogs a potent running game.
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: One of the top receiving prospects in the nation last year, Green could quickly become one of Matthew Stafford's favorite targets. The Bulldogs are looking for more playmakers at receiver, and Green is one of those guys who stretches the field with the best of them.
Jerrell Harris, LB, Alabama: It's no secret that Alabama needs linebackers. Harris could factor in on the strong side immediately. He has great speed and finds the football. The Crimson Tide had some pretty good success with another freshman linebacker last season ... Rolando McClain.
Will Hill, S, Florida: The 6-3, 200-pound Hill is a punishing hitter who figures to get a shot right away in the Gators' secondary. They won an intense recruiting battle with Florida State and Southern California to get him and won't waste any time putting him out there.
Omar Hunter, DT, Florida: The unofficial count of how many times Urban Meyer mentioned Omar Hunter's name this spring was somewhere around double digits. The Gators need defensive tackle help, and the 6-1, 300-pound Hunter has all the tools to be a great one.
Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: He has the look of a five-year NFL veteran. The 6-4, 210-pound Jones was one of the crown jewels of Alabama's top-rated recruiting class. Senior quarterback John Parker Wilson will be looking for a big, athletic target this season, and Jones certainly fits that bill.
Caleb King, RB, Georgia: Get ready for a one-two punch at tailback in Athens. Knowshon Moreno was the redshirt freshman everyone couldn't wait to see at Georgia last season (and with good reason). This season, it's King, who gives the Bulldogs another explosive running threat in their backfield.
Alonzo Lawrence, CB, Alabama: Nick Saban played a lot of nickel and dime packages last season and is always looking for more depth in the secondary. Lawrence made his name by shutting down fellow Alabama signee Julio Jones in the Alabama vs. Mississippi high school all-star game.
Jarrett Lee, QB, LSU: A highly rated prospect coming out of Texas, Lee redshirted last season. But with Ryan Perrilloux gone, Lee moves to the forefront of the Tigers' quarterback race along with junior Andrew Hatch. Another one to watch is 6-5, 220-pound true freshman Jordan Jefferson, especially if he can handle the mental jump to college football.
Charles Mitchell, S, Miss. State: The state of Mississippi's top prospect last year, Mitchell is enrolled in second-session summer school classes at Mississippi State. He'll start out at safety, but could play just about anywhere -- including offense. He's one of those rare prospects who was physically ready to play college football the day he signed.
Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: The star of the Gators' spring game, Rainey received a medical redshirt last year after injuring his shoulder. Not only is he super fast, but he has moves that are even scarier for a defender in the open field. Rainey has beefed up and is now pushing 180 pounds. He has a chance to be one of the SEC's most exciting players.