SEC: Ronnie Shields

One good thing: Kentucky

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
5:00
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We continue our "One good thing" series looking at the Kentucky Wildcats.

Good reasons:
Let's see what the Wildcats can do in 2012:

Kentucky will make a bowl game: Joker Phillips is more confident in the offense.

Last year, finding consistent, reliable playmakers in Kentucky's offense was almost nonexistent. Wide receiver La'Rod King was the most reliable offensive weapon for the Wildcats last year, hauling in 40 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns. There were some bright spots in the running game here and there, but Josh Clemons' season-ending knee injury early in the year was a major blow. But this spring Phillips found more players to rely on offensively. For starters, quarterback Maxwell Smith impressed the coaching staff with a solid spring. Clearly, the starting quarterback job is his to lose. The Wildcats also got solid production out of wide receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins this spring. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson stepped up as well, giving Smith plenty more options than he had last year. Having more reliable options at receiver will take pressure off of King and will help Smith develop more. It should also help a running game that expects to get Clemons back and will still have CoShik Williams, who led the Cats in rushing last year, and Raymond Sanders.

The offensive line is still a work in progress, but Phillips said at SEC media days he felt much better about the line coming out of spring than he did going in. The Wildcats were the SEC's worst offense last year because of its lack of playmakers, but if these pieces fall into place like the coaches hope, the Wildcats' offense should be much improved and could be what Kentucky needs to get back to the six-win mark.

Why it won't: There are too many holes on defense.

While the Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the SEC in most defensive categories last season, there were some solid starters that will be tough to replace. Gone is Danny Trevathan, who was the SEC's leading tackler and one of the league's top linebackers. He wasn't just Kentucky's best overall player but he was the team's unquestioned leader. The Wildcats have to replace not just his production on the field but his guidance in the locker room. Hybrid linebacker/safety Winston Guy, who was third in the SEC in tackles last year, is also gone. Overall, the Wildcats are replacing six defensive starters -- four linebackers and two cornerbacks.

Replacing Trevathan might be the toughest job, as youngsters Malcolm McDuffen and Demarius Rancifer struggled to man the weakside linebacker spot this spring. Sophomore Miles Simpson left spring as the projected starter at Guy's hybrid position, but will be pushed for playing time by redshirt freshman Josh Forrest. The coaches feel pretty good about Marcus Caffey's move from running back to cornerback, but he has no collegiate experience on defense, and he might be the Wildcats' top corner on the roster.

If Kentucky's defense can't fill those holes, this unit won't make the necessary strides it needs to improve upon last year and it certainly won't go bowling.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.

Kentucky spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
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2011 record: 5-7
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters:: offense: 6; defense: 5, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners:
C Matt Smith, OG Larry Warford, WR La’Rod King, QB Maxwell Smith, RB CoShik Williams, DE Collins Ukwu, DT Donte Rumph, DT Mister Cobble, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton

Key losses:
OT Chandler Burden, OG Stuart Hines, OT Billy Joe Murphy, WR Matt Roark, LB Ronnie Sneed, LB Danny Trevathan, LB Ridge Wilson, CB Anthony Mosley, S Winston Guy, CB Randall Burden

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: CoShik Williams* (486 yards)
Passing: Maxwell Smith* (819 yards)
Receiving: La'Rod King* (598 yards)
Tackles: Danny Trevathan (143)
Sacks: Trevathan (3)
Interceptions: Trevathan (4)

Spring answers

1. Finding more playmakers: Coach Joker Phillips feels like he has more firepower to work with on offense again. After struggling mightily to find consistent playmakers on offense in 2011, Phillips left spring with more confidence about players he felt he could rely on going forward. The biggest standout was receiver Demarco Robinson. He became one of the most consistent players at practice and caught nine passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Also, freshman receiver Daryl Collins surprised coaches with his playmaking ability. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson also stepped up and should help take pressure off of Kentucky's running game.

2. Adjusting to Minter's defense: Strides were definitely made by Kentucky's defense in Year 1 with Rick Minter, but it looks like the defense felt even more comfortable in it this spring. While there is still work to do and bodies to replace, Minter has said he sees more aggression and attitude out of this unit. The defensive line also progressed this spring and could finally be the strength of this unit. The goal is for Kentucky's defense to be a much more physical and tougher group and both Minter and Phillips see it shifting that way.

3. Caffey's move: Kentucky entered the spring trying to replace two starters at cornerback, so the staff moved running back Marcus Caffey there. The experiment appeared to work, as Caffey was one of the more impressive looking players this spring. He caught on quickly at his new position and ended the spring as a starter. He's also a bigger body and the coaches say he's very durable. Both will come in handy against bigger receivers in this league.

Fall questions

1. Offensive line: Three starters up front had to be replaced this spring and the Wildcats ended practice knowing that the offensive line is still a work in progress. There is leadership and experience in Larry Warford and Matt Smith, but after that there's a lot of inexperience. Behind Warford and Smith, rising sophomore Darrian Miller and junior-to-be Kevin Mitchell combined for three starts last year. There were bright spots here and there this spring, but the inexperience up front is still a concern for coaches heading into the offseason.

2. Defensive holes: While the Wildcats got more comfortable in the defense, there are still a lot of missing starters at linebacker and in the secondary. There will be four new starting linebackers, including the Spur, and two new starting corners. The coaches feel good about Caffey at corner, but questions still remain at the other corner spot. Players must also replace the production created by Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Ridge Wilson, who was dismissed this spring. They accounted for 310 tackles, including 28.5 for loss. Alvin Dupree and Avery Williamson turned heads at linebacker, but Malcolm McDuffen and Miles Simpson struggled to fill in for Trevathan and Guy and could be pushed by incoming freshmen.

3. Smith as the guy: Outside of the spring game, Maxwell Smith had a pretty impressive spring in Lexington. He seemed to develop his game the way the coaches wanted and needed him too, but his mistakes in the spring game brought some worry. He rushed his play and reverted back to some bad habits. While he'd be the starter if the season started today, the coaches hinted that the race is still open with Morgan Newton coming back from shoulder surgery and incoming freshman Patrick Towles arriving this summer. Smith might have improved, but Newton and Towles will get every chance to win the starting job. If Smith regresses again, he might fail to win the job he thinks is his to lose.
You ask for people to write into the mailbag and there's no hint of hesitation.

The mailbag is back this week and we were bombarded with questions. The pages went on for a while, so I'm sorry if I couldn't get to all of them. Keep them coming, though, because there's always next week.

Let's get to this week's questions:

Ethan in Cullman, Ala., writes: With the recent dominance of Alabama and Coach Saban do you see Auburn and Chizik really being relevant nationally? I realize they have recruited fairly well but I think we all know without Cameron Newton the 2010 Auburn Team was a 6-7 7-5 football team and in all honesty I don't see them improving their win-losses as long as Gene Chizik is the head coach. Take away the 14-0 season and Chizik has a total record of 21-29 as a collegiate head coach. Lets just be honest in the world of college football everything runs through Tuscaloosa, Alabama and I don't see that changing anytime soon. RTR (:

Edward Aschoff: Man, Auburn fans will love you now. I'm sure the Christmas cards are being written as we speak. While I don't see Auburn surpassing Alabama this season, or really next season, I don't think Auburn is going to fall off the map without Newton. Like you wrote, Chizik has recruited well and the team he has now is pretty young. It's going to take more time for this team to crawl back up the SEC standings, but I don't think it's going to take years and years. Auburn has the young talent to challenge some teams in the West this year. Yes, even Alabama. I'm one of the few still on the Auburn bandwagon. I see improvement on the offensive line, quarterback Kiehl Frazier really came along stronger this spring with Scot Loeffler's help and the defense can only get better after a lousy 2011 showing. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Auburn made more news nationally in 2013.


Jmathews in Weslaco, Texas, writes: Do you think Kevin Sumlin is going to surprise some teams this year with his offensive plan?

Edward Aschoff: It's a little unorthodox by SEC standards, for sure, but I'm not sure if SEC defenses will be confused by that air game. Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury will have to run the ball more in order to catch some defenses off guard. I know that flashy passing game was fun at Houston, but you have to run the ball to survive in the SEC. Balance will be key because we all know that Sumlin is going to want to throw the ball as much as he can. I don't think we'll truly see what all Sumlin wants to do because he's working with such young quarterbacks. That will restrict a lot of it and could make Christine Michael that much more important at running back. Once Sumlin has the right pieces in place then you'll see some offenses have to plan differently. For now, I think it's a work in progress.


Jimmy in Pikeville, Ky., writes: Do you believe that Joker Phillips will be able to get the Kentucky Wildcats back to a bowl game this season?

Edward Aschoff: Phillips thinks he's found more offensive playmakers this spring, with youngsters such as Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins and Ronnie Shields stepping up, and that's huge for the Wildcats. They didn't have many at all last year and that was a main reason Kentucky's offense was so bad. But we still need to see what those players can do against SEC competition in October. And a consistent quarterback has to step up. Maxwell Smith has the lead, but the race isn't over. The schedule is going to be tough for the Wildcats, as well. I think Kentucky needs to sweep nonconference play to ensure a bowl birth. That means beating Louisville to start the season. The Louisville loss was a big one for the Cats last year and right now, Louisville is still a better team. Getting those four nonconference wins will go a long way for Kentucky.


Reed in Beijing, China, writes: Ex-pat hog fan here in Beijing. I wanted to get your opinion on how Arkansas will split carries between Ronnie Wingo, Knile Davis, and Dennis Johnson this year. Also, who besides Cobi Hamilton do you think will step up to fill the void at receiver?

Edward Aschoff: If Davis is healthy, he'll get the majority of the carries. I don't think there's any debate there. He is in another league compared to the other backs. After that, I think Arkansas goes Johnson then Wingo. Johnson came on during the second half of the season, while Wingo was inconsistent in my opinion. As for receiver, I think Marquel Wade could have a big year, along with tight end Chris Gragg. Wade is a very good athlete and the coaches loved what he did in practice last year. He's someone who has that dynamic feel in the offense and can make big plays. Gragg is big, athletic and tough. Tyler Wilson will key in on him a bunch this fall. He's probably the top returning tight end in the league.


Ryan in Anaheim, Calif., writes: Is it safe to say that Vanderbilt will have one of the best offenses in the SEC this year? Returning Rodgers, Stacy, Matthews, and Boyd, while also getting Norman back and explosive freshman in Kimbrow. The only weakness I see is the O-line which will be inexperienced, but will that hold them back that much?

Edward Aschoff: That line barely got through spring practice, so it's a problem. Injuries and numbers really hurt the line. The good news is that six true freshmen will be on campus this summer. The bad news is that they are true freshmen. Jordan Rodgers still has to be more comfortable in the pocket. He can be really sporadic at times and coach James Franklin knows it. If he can't improve on the mental side, this offense will struggle. Brian Kimbrow is someone who can be used all over the field, so that will really benefit this offense. The other playmakers you mentioned are solid, no question, but there are some good offenses to battle near the top, such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.


Kyle in Gainesville, Fla., writes: The Gators haven't had many people drafted in the past two years, but next year will be much better. Who do you think could be drafted in the top 2 rounds next year? Bostic, Jenkins, Powell, Easley, Floyd, Elam, Nixon, Debose, and Reed are all guys I think can if they have a big year.

Edward Aschoff: Well, if Ronald Powell doesn't come back from his knee injury don't count on him heading to the draft. NFL scouts love Dominique Easley's potential. He's so strong and athletic and just pounds his way through offensive lines. He did suffer that knee injury, so his health will be monitored closely. Elam will compete to be the top safety in the SEC, but his name hasn't been thrown out as much as someone like Eric Reid. Jelani Jenkins is someone scouts like because of his speed and strength. He isn't the biggest linebacker, but he's extremely smart and that will help him a lot. Jon Bostic is getting some attention and a big year will boost his stock for sure. Xavier Nixon has to improve on a bad 2011 and Andre Debose and Jordan Reed have to be more consistent. Of all of them, I think Easley and Jenkins are Florida's top pro prospects.


Brad in Longview, Texas, writes: If you could take one player from the SEC, outside of a QB, who would it be?

Edward Aschoff: Last year, the answer was easy: Trent Richardson. This year, it's a little more difficult. I don't think I'd go with another offensive player, so I'm going to go with Georgia's Jarvis Jones. He was one of the best players in the nation last year and was the SEC's top defensive player, after getting 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. He's a superb athlete, has tremendous speed and has a relentless attitude. He's also a great leader. He commands respect in the locker room and on the field. It's hard to find a better linebacker out there.

Recapping Kentucky's spring game

April, 23, 2012
4/23/12
10:35
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It was obvious a year ago that Kentucky was lacking in the playmaker department on offense. That happens when you lose the likes of Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke the year before.

But judging from the Wildcats' Blue-White spring game Saturday, they've found some help on offense when it comes to generating game-changing plays.

Sophomore receiver Demarco Robinson hauled in touchdown catches of 69 and 21 yards in leading Kentucky's first-teamers to a come-from-behind 35-28 victory over the reserves before an announced crowd of 4,500 at Commonwealth Stadium. The reserves were spotted a 14-0 lead to start the game, meaning the starters outscored them 35-14.

Robinson finished with nine catches for 146 yards, and it's obvious that he's going to be one of the guys sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith looks for often in the fall. Senior receiver La'Rod King, who caught seven touchdown passes last season, didn't play in the game after spraining his knee in practice.

"We got an idea of who some of our playmakers are," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. "I worked a training camp one time with [former Washington Redskins head coach] Joe Gibbs and in one of our coaching meetings he said, 'There’s something to be said about a guy, every time you have a scrimmage, he makes a play.’ Demarco Robinson was that guy. Every time we came into this place [Commonwealth Stadium], he made a huge play for us. Today he made a lot of big plays for us."

Smith, who exits the spring as the Wildcats' starting quarterback, had a big day throwing the ball. He was 29-of-45 for 353 yards, but also threw two interceptions. In addition to Robinson, the Wildcats' tight ends demonstrated that they're ready to be a big part of the offense in the fall. Tyler Robinson and Ronnie Shields combined to catch eight passes.

Kentucky's first-team defense racked nine tackles for loss, including seven sacks. Linebacker Avery Williamson, who's stepping in for Danny Trevathan, had a game-high eight tackles, including two for loss.

For more on the Wildcats' spring game, fans can go here.

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