SEC: Tevin Mitchel

There's a saying that the Arkansas defense is living by this spring in hopes of becoming a better, more aggressive unit this fall.

It rings true with the mentality new defensive coordinator Robb Smith wants to instill in his group.

"Coach Smith stressed he can stand getting beat, but he can't stand getting 'beat up,'" senior defensive end Trey Flowers said.

[+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesSenior DE Trey Flowers and the Arkansas defense have a new attitude this spring.
The Razorbacks would prefer to be on the right side of both, but the effort is the key part of the equation. Given that, the unit is working this spring to become faster, more physical and more aggressive than before. Rather than read-and-react, it's more line-up-and-attack in Fayetteville, Ark., which is the what Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema is looking for.

"When Bret hired me, one of the things he wanted to do was be aggressive on defense," Smith said. "We're going to pick our opportunities to do that. We have a couple of wrinkles in right now, and we'll continue to build off of that. We've got to continue to get more precise with those things and keep getting better and keep improving."

The focus this spring, Flowers said, has been on physical play, stopping the run and creating turnovers. The Razorbacks were 11th in the SEC and 90th in the nation last season in yards-per-carry allowed (4.67) to opponents and were 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (178.58). When it comes to turnovers, the Razorbacks had the worst turnover margin in the SEC (minus-9) and they created the fewest, too (14).

So the current defensive staff, which consists of one returnee (linebackers coach Randy Shannon) and three newcomers (Smith, defensive line coach Rory Segrest and secondary coach Clay Jennings) has honed in on getting the Razorbacks playing with the type of mentality desired.

"I think you do it a couple different ways," Smith said. "You practice it in terms of technique. You make sure you're physical tackling. You make sure that you're taking on blocks the right way. You can do it from a scheme standpoint. You make sure you're dictating daylight, things of that nature. You can pressure a little bit. I think all of that kind of builds to an aggressive mentality."

While the Razorbacks remain in a base 4-3 alignment, there are definitely wrinkles and differences in what they're doing this season. Segrest said the defensive line is transitioning to the attacking mentality.

"I think one of the biggest things, just looking back at least year, there was more of a read concept and I'm more of an attack guy when the ball is snapped," he said. "We still want to make sure we're attacking proper aiming points and not just running up the field, so there's an adjustment going from a pure read to an attack and react. That's been a little bit of a transition, but I think the guys have really come a long way as far as that goes."

Senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel, one of six starters returning on Arkansas' defense, said he completely buys into Smith's "I can stand getting beat, but I can't stand getting beat up," approach.

"I love that saying because as a corner, you can tell that he understands that you're going to get beat. That's just the game of football," Mitchel said. "He can stomach that, he can deal with that. But he cannot stomach getting beaten up. I'm down for that. I'm doing my best every practice not to get beat. My job is to defend my man from the ball and be more physical than the other man."

Smith stressed that there's a long way to go before the Razorbacks are where they want to be defensively and that the defense is still "a work in progress." But the players seem to have the kind of attitude he and his staff are seeking, and they hope that translates to results in the 2014 season.

"It's just instilling that attitude, being a championship defense," Flowers said. "That's with everything from running to the ball, smart swarming, tackling, creating takeaways and just being physical. That all-around attitude is one we just want to hang our hat on and get better at during the spring."
Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
Even though Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson hasn't been cleared to practice, coach John L. Smith said on Wednesday that he felt better about Wilson's chances of playing against Alabama Saturday.

"I am more optimistic, but that decision has not been made yet and not in my hands," Smith said. "I’m keeping fingers crossed as well."

Wilson suffered a head injury when he was knocked out of Arkansas' 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe late in the second quarter. Smith is hoping doctors will clear him to practice either Wednesday or Thursday.

"He was out there yesterday, so maybe he'll able to get out and do some throwing and all of that and be able to go today a little bit," Smith said.

If Wilson can't go, Smith said either Brandon Allen or Brandon Mitchell will take his spot. Allen filled in for Wilson against Louisiana-Monroe, completing 6 of 20 passes for 85 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Mitchell arrived at Arkansas as a quarterback, but has spent the first two games lining up at wide receiver, where he has caught four catches for 122 yards.

Smith said that even if Mitchell does have more responsibility at quarterback this weekend, he'll still get some reps at wide receiver.

"You have to assume that Brandon’s going to be out there a ton," he said.

Smith also said that cornerback Tevin Mitchel is out for the Alabama game after undergoing gall bladder surgery that Smith said was "totally unrelated" to the hit that knocked him out of last Saturday's game.

The plan is to use seniors Kaelon Kelleybrew and Darius Winston to fill Mitchel's spot. If needed, Smith said he might even burn Jared Collins' redshirt if he absolutely has to.

"We’d still like to save a redshirt if you could, but you have to prepare that guy just to make sure you have enough bodies to get you out of a game, should something happen," Smith said.

Things could not have gone much worse for No. 8 Arkansas on Saturday night. The Razorbacks lost starting quarterback Tyler Wilson to an "above-the-shoulders" injury in the first half. They saw starting cornerback Tevin Mitchel and starting fullback Kody Walker carted off the field during a herky-jerky third quarter. To top it all off, they watched Sun Belt squad Louisiana-Monroe waltz into War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark., and ruin their top-10 ranking with a 34-31 overtime upset.

Some quick, breathless reaction:

It was over when: ULM quarterback Kolton Browning looked for a play-action pass while trailing the Razorbacks 31-28 on fourth-and-1 in overtime. With his slot receiver covered in the flat to his left, Browning reversed field and took off through the Arkansas defense. Browning got the yards he needed for a first down and kept going, outrunning two Razorbacks defenders into the end zone for the upset.

Game ball goes to: Browning deserves more than one game ball for this performance. The junior threw a whopping 68 passes and completed 42 for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Browning didn't just save the Warhawks in overtime, either. His final passing touchdown of the night was a game-tying 23-yard strike delivered to wide receiver Brent Leonard on fourth-and-10 with just 47 seconds remaining in regulation. He led the Warhawks in rushing as well, with 15 carries for 76 yards and the winning score.

Hogs hampered by injuries: Wilson was the first and most notable Razorback to fall out of the affair with an injury. The senior left the game with what was described as an "above-the-shoulders" injury in the second quarter. Not only did he not return to the game, he also did not return to the Arkansas sideline. Mitchel was the next loss when he took a scary helmet-to-helmet hit in the third quarter. Play was stopped for upward of 10 minutes while trainers attended to the cornerback, who had to be carted off the field. Reports from the sideline said that Mitchel was responsive. Walker needed the cart moments later when he left the game with what appeared to be a leg injury.

The players' well-being means much more than any result, but it's discouraging that the suddenly injury-depleted Hogs must host No. 1 Alabama next weekend.

Giant killers: This is the second time in five years that the Warhawks have laid out an SEC West powerhouse. ULM famously upset Alabama 21-14 in 2007. The Warhawks travel to Auburn next week. Based on the way the Tigers played Saturday against Mississippi State, they should probably be worried.

Stopped cold: It looked as if Arkansas would survive the evening without Wilson when backup quarterback Brandon Allen fired a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mekale McKay to take a 28-7 lead early in the third quarter. But the Warhawks outscored the Razorbacks 27-3 from the 9:42 mark of the third quarter to the end of overtime. Arkansas converted just three of 12 third downs on the night.

Opening preseason camp: Arkansas

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Schedule: The Hogs’ first practice is Thursday. The newcomers will go at 4 p.m. ET and the veterans at 7:30 p.m. ET. The first day in pads is scheduled for Monday. Arkansas opens the season Sept. 1 against Jacksonville State in Razorback Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on a pay-per-view basis and also shown on ESPN3.

Returning starters: Eight on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.

Star power: Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson thought seriously about declaring for the NFL draft this past spring, but ultimately decided that he had unfinished business at Arkansas. After leading the SEC with 3,638 passing yards last season, Wilson could make a run at 4,000 yards in 2012.

New faces: Junior college newcomer Austin Flynn should make an immediate impact at defensive end. He was one of the stars of the spring. Another junior college transfer to watch is receiver Demetrius Wilson. He wasn’t on campus for spring practice, but the Hogs think Wilson can be an explosive target in the passing game. The same goes for incoming freshmen D’Arthur Cowan and Keon Hatcher. On defense, incoming freshman Otha Peters will get a chance to show what he can do at linebacker, where the Hogs are hurting outside of Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith. Senior cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew, a transfer from Mississippi Valley State, had his moments this spring, while incoming freshman Defonta Lowe may be able to work his way into the safety rotation.

Don’t forget about: Kiero Small, a 5-foot-10, 255-pound bruiser of a fullback, is back for his senior season. Small’s forte is blocking, but he might get a chance to do some tackling this season. The Hogs are going to look at him at linebacker. Small played both linebacker and fullback in junior college and led his team in tackles.

Big shoes to fill: Between them, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams scored 20 touchdowns last season, and a lot of them came from long distance. Cobi Hamilton is a star in his own right and ready to become the Hogs’ go-to receiver, but he can’t do it by himself when it comes to generating big plays. Marquel Wade looked like he was going to be a nice complement with the way he performed in the spring, but he was booted from the team following his burglary arrest. The Hogs need guys like Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Keante Minor to come through this fall.

Key battle: One of the first orders of business this preseason will be settling on a starting five in the offensive line. Junior Travis Swanson is the starter at center, but nothing is written in stone after that. Junior Alvin Bailey has started 26 games at guard, but Mitch Smothers, Tyler Deacon and Luke Charpentier are all pushing hard. Senior Jason Peacock is a returning starter at tackle. He was suspended this offseason and then reinstated to the team following his arrest on a theft charge. Sophomore Brey Cook is the favorite to win the other tackle spot, although junior David Hurd, a former walk-on, was impressive this spring while working with the first unit.

Rising star: Sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchel made seven starts last season and was named to the All-SEC Freshman team. He just kept getting better and now that he’s been through an entire season in this league, he should emerge as one of the Hogs’ leaders in the secondary. They need him to be a rock back there because Mitchel and senior Darius Winston are it when it comes to experience at cornerback. The 6-foot, 192-pound Mitchel had 56 total tackles last season to rank him third among all SEC freshmen.

Bottom line: Preseason practice couldn’t get here soon enough for the Hogs, especially given the whole Bobby Petrino scandal this past spring and his subsequent ouster. John L. Smith takes over and joked recently that his most important task is making sure he doesn’t screw up things. Having been a part of this program for the past three years, Smith knows that he has a talented football team with some really good leadership. His job will be to press the right buttons. Knile Davis appears to be 100 percent, and that’s huge. Still, everyone will be watching him closely. Injuries have plagued him throughout his career. Getting both Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville this season also works in the Hogs’ favor. But breaking through in the Western Division still gets back to defense and whether or not new coordinator Paul Haynes can get the Hogs to play championship-caliber defense when it counts most. They ranked 74th nationally against the run last season, and that's not going to cut it in the SEC.
We continue to rank all the positions in the SEC and turn our attention to groups of defensive backs the conference has to offer.

Past rankings:
On to the league's secondaries:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTyrann Mathieu is a force to be reckoned with in the LSU secondary.
1. LSU: The Tigers bring back a load of talent here. Tyrann Mathieu and his Honey Badger persona return, but he might not be LSU's best pure corner. While Mathieu has a true knack for finding the ball, no matter where he is, junior Tharold Simon, who replaces Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne, might have the best cover ability on the team. Junior safety Eric Reid takes the back end of the field away and will challenge to be one of the nation's top safeties this fall. The coaches are still waiting for safety Craig Loston to break out, and his solid spring was an encouragement. Keep an eye on safety Micah Eugene, who turned heads this spring.

2. Georgia: The Bulldogs have some depth concerns and some players will face early-season suspensions, but the Bulldogs are loaded at the top. Bacarri Rambo is one of the nation's best safeties and he has a very solid partner in Shawn Williams, who led the Dawgs in tackles last year. Seniors Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are back, but will likely sit out the start of the year because of suspension. That leaves Malcolm Mitchell, who moved from receiver, to fill in and he's no stranger to defense. The coaches are also excited about youngster Damian Swann, who will play early.

3. Alabama: With three starters gone, this group is drawing a lot of comparisons to the 2010 unit that struggled at times. However, this batch of DBs insists it'll be more prepared this fall and shakes off the comparisons. Veteran Robert Lester is back at safety and is an All-SEC-type player. Junior cornerback Dee Milliner has 16 career starts under his belt and is an underrated talent, and the coaches are expecting to get a lot out of junior college transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue. Keep an eye on safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who has the talent to be a star in this league.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs own one of the league's best corner duos in seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Banks might hold the title as the league's best returning cover corner. Darius Slay is also another corner to watch, as he has some legit playmaking ability. Junior safety Nickoe Whitley is back as well and he would have had better numbers if not for a ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short. He grabbed four interceptions in nine games and should be 100 percent this fall.

5. Florida: This group was pretty young last year, but now has some quality experience under its belt. Safety Matt Elam is the best of the bunch and should challenge to be the league's top safety this year. Sophomore Marcus Roberson had a solid freshman season and has the makings to be a top cover corner in this league. The other corner spot is up for grabs, but keep an eye on sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy, who the staff is very excited about. Josh Evans had a good spring at free safety, but he'll have his hands full fighting off sophomore De'Ante Saunders, who started nine games last year.

6. Missouri: The star of this group is junior corner E.J. Gaines, who recorded only two interceptions, but he broke up 16 passes in 2011 and is bonafide All-SEC candidate. Across from Gaines is senior Kip Edwards, who returns for his second year as a starter and has 37 games to his credit. Edwards turned into a solid cover man toward the end of last season. Seven players return with starting experience, including safeties Kenronte Walker (four starts), who was named the team's most improved safety this spring, and Braylon Webb (four), who had a strong freshman year.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are down three starters, but they aren't without talent. Senior safety D.J. Swearinger, the lone returning starter, is one of the league's top safeties and is solid against the pass and the run. Vet Akeem Auguste returns after missing all of last year with a foot injury, and he's back at corner after moving to safety in 2010. The questions begin with sophomores Victor Hampton (corner) and Brison Williams (safety). Hampton has the talent to succeed, but has some maturing to do. Williams struggled in his only start last year, but the staff really likes his upside.

8. Vanderbilt: Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson are gone, but the Commodores still possess some pretty good talent in the secondary, starting with corner Trey Wilson, who had a solid 2011 in Hayward's shadow. The coaches like what they've seen from junior corner Andre Hal, and safety Kenny Ladler could be a real player at free safety. Expect Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall, who have both see plenty of field time in their careers, to get into the safety rotation this fall.

9. Auburn: The Tigers' secondary took some lumps last year, but certainly has experience back there. Three veteran starters are back with 33 combined starts from a year ago. Fifth-year senior cornerback T'Sharvan Bell didn't go through spring while he recovered from knee surgery, but has the talent to be a top corner in this league. Juniors Chris Davis (corner) and Demetruce McNeal are both back and sophomore Jermaine Whitehead, who had a solid freshman campaign, will get time at safety.

10. Tennessee: Tennessee gave up 7 yards per attempt last year, but things could turnaround this fall. Tennessee has a lot of game experience at corner, including senior Prentiss Waggner, who is the leader of the group. Sophomore Brian Randolph had a solid freshman campaign and junior Brent Brewer is returning to the other safety spot after suffering an ACL injury in late October. Izauea Lanier was ruled ineligible this summer, meaning Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon will compete with Justin Coleman for a corner spot.

11. Arkansas: Sophomore Tevin Mitchel had a solid first year in Fayetteville and is on course to have a true breakout year this fall. Junior Eric Bennett is holding down one of the safety sports and started 13 games in 2011 after moving from cornerback last spring. The staff is still waiting on senior corner Darius Winston to live up to the hype that followed him from high school. Freshmen Kelvin Fisher Jr. and Davyon McKinney will get their chances to play this fall and help with depth.

12. Ole Miss: The Rebels should be better against the pass this year and things start with veteran safety Charles Sawyer, who has All-SEC quality and should have had at least three more than the four interceptions he recorded last year. Former JUCO transfer corner Wesley Pendleton had an impressive year last season, but looked even better this spring. Nickolas Brassell is gone, but the coaches hope to get more out of former freshman standout Senquez Golson, and junior Brishen Mathews returns from back injury to take the hybrid Husky position.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats must replace two starting corners, but the coaches feel good about senior Cartier Rice and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey. Caffey, who moved from running back, might have the most upside and was one of Kentucky's top players this spring. Senior starting safeties Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton are back. Neloms had a solid spring and racked up 71 tackles last year. Behind them, the Wildcats are full of unproven youngsters.

14. Texas A&M: This is where the Aggies could really struggle. Texas A&M ranked 109th nationally in pass defense last year and could start three sophomores in its secondary this fall. Senior safety Steven Campbell can be a real playmaker for this group, but he's struggled to stay healthy during his career. Senior Dustin Harris has shown flashes on defense, but left spring as a backup to sophomore Deshazor Everett. Sophomore Floyd Raven, who was impressive this spring, has the edge over JUCO transfer Tremaine Jacobs at the other corner spot. The coaches are hoping this is a more athletic group in 2012.

Sophomores poised to make a big move

March, 28, 2012
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Now that spring practice is under way for everybody in the SEC but Texas A&M, let’s take a look at a few sophomores worth keeping an eye on next season.

These aren’t necessarily the most promising freshmen from a year ago, but rather, a group of players poised to make the biggest jump in Year 2:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Crowell
AP Photo/David GoldmanIsaiah Crowell will look to build on a successful freshman campaign in his second season as Georgia's lead rusher.
Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell: Even though he rushed for 850 yards last season as a freshman, Crowell wasn’t very durable, and he was lacking in the mental toughness department. By all accounts, Crowell has grown up considerably in the offseason, and he also knows he has a deep running back stable nipping at his heels, led by heralded freshman Keith Marshall.

Mississippi State running back Nick Griffin: A knee injury has held the talented Griffin back. But even at less than 100 percent, he’s shown enough speed and power that the Mississippi State coaches can’t wait to see what a healthy Griffin can do with the ball in his hands this fall.

Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard: He’s got the height, length and athleticism to be a marquee pass-rusher in this league. The 6-6, 237-pound Hubbard backed up last season at three linebacker positions, but appears to be best suited to replace Courtney Upshaw at Jack linebacker.

Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio: A knee injury cut short Kouandjio’s freshman season, but everybody who saw him play agreed that it was just a matter of time before he was one of the SEC’s most dominant offensive linemen. He’ll step in at left tackle this fall with 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones moving to center.

LSU receiver Jarvis Landry: Last season, Landry made his presence felt on special teams and delivered some crushing hits on kickoff returns. Look for him to make a similar impact catching the ball and making big plays in the passing game in 2012.

Auburn running back Tre Mason: As the Tigers search for a starting tailback to replace Michael Dyer, Mason is making a strong bid this spring to be the guy. He’s gotten stronger and is weighing right around 200 pounds. He hasn’t lost any speed, either, and the coaches love his toughness.

Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel: After making seven starts last season as a true freshman and earning SEC All-Freshman honors, the 6-1, 185-pound Mitchel has everything it takes to be one of the premier cornerbacks in the league next season. He’ll also have experience on his side.

South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles: He was overshadowed by another freshman on the Gamecocks’ defensive line last season (Jadeveon Clowney), but Quarles was playing his best football by season’s end. He’s extremely active for an interior lineman and ticketed for a big sophomore season.

Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson: One of the Vols’ top signees a year ago, Richardson picked up some much-needed experience as a freshman. He didn’t start any games, but played in all 12. The 6-6, 325-pounder is now working as the first-team left tackle and has been good enough that the Vols moved senior Dallas Thomas from left tackle to left guard.

Auburn cornerback Jermaine Whitehead: As first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder puts in his defense this spring, one of the things that has jumped out to him is Whitehead’s versatility. He can play cornerback and safety and is also working as the Tigers’ nickel cornerback when they go to five defensive backs.
Even as we turn our attention to the 2012 football season, there's always time to check back with the past from time to time.

The SEC released its last set of notes from the 2011 season this week, so we thought we'd take a look at some of the interesting facts and figures from the previous season.

For starters, how about a look at the SEC players of the week?

Week 1 (Games of Sept. 1-3): Offense - Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State; Defense - Tyrann Mathieu, DB, LSU; Special Teams - Joe Adams, WR/RS, Arkansas; Offensive Lineman - Rokevious Watkins, OT, South Carolina; Co-Defensive Lineman - Jaye Howard, DT, Florida; Luke McDermott, DT, Kentucky; Co-Freshman - Trey Depriest, LB, Alabama; Tre Mason, RB/RS, Auburn.

Week 2 (Games of Sept. 10): Offense - Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee; Defense - Mark Barron, S, Alabama; Special Teams - Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina; Offensive Lineman - Alvin Bailey, OG, Arkansas; Defensive Lineman - Rob Lohr, DT, Vanderbilt; Co-Freshman - Josh Clemons, RB, Kentucky; Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia.

Week 3 (Games of Sept. 15-17): Co-Offense - Chris Rainey, RB, Florida; Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina; Defense -Trey Wilson, DB, Vanderbilt; Special Teams - Caleb Sturgis, PK, Florida; Offensive Lineman - Wesley Johnson, C, Vanderbilt; Defensive Lineman - Bennie Logan, DT, LSU; Freshman- Odell Beckham, WR, LSU.

Week 4 (Games of Sept. 24): Offense - Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama; Defense -Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina; Special Teams - Brad Wing, P, LSU; Offensive Lineman - Barrett Jones, OT, Alabama; Defensive Lineman - Jaye Howard, DT, Florida; Freshman- Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia.

Week 5 (Games of Oct. 1): Co-Offense - Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas; Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas; Defense - Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina; Special Teams - Steven Clark, P, Auburn; Offensive Lineman - William Vlachos, C, Alabama; Defensive Lineman - Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU; Freshman - Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia..

Week 6 (Games of Oct. 8): Offense - Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina; Defense - Mike Gilliard, ILB, Georgia; Special Teams - Blair Walsh, PK, Georgia; Offensive Lineman - Will Blackwell, OG, LSU; Defensive Lineman - Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State; Freshman - Tevin Mitchel, CB, Arkansas.

Week 7 (Games of Oct. 15): Offense - Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama; Co-Defense - Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn; D.J. Swearinger, FS, South Carolina; Special Teams - Steven Clark, P, Auburn; Offensive Lineman - Chris Faulk, OT, LSU; Defensive Lineman - Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State; Co-Freshman - Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina; Ray Drew, OLB, Georgia.

Week 8 (Games of Oct. 22): Offense - Dennis Johnson, RB, Arkansas; Defense - Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama; Special Teams - Brad Wing, P, LSU; Offensive Lineman - Ryan Seymour, OG, Vanderbilt; Defensive Lineman - Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU; Freshman - A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee.

Week 9 (Games of Oct. 29): Offense - Michael Dyer, RB, Auburn; Co-Defense - Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas; Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia; Special Teams - Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas; Offensive Lineman - Cordy Glenn, OT, Georgia; Defensive Lineman - Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State; Freshman - Brandon Wilds, RB, South Carolina.

Week 10 (Games of Nov. 5): Offense - Jeff Demps, RB, Florida; Defense - Eric Reid, S, LSU; Special Teams - Dennis Johnson, RS/RB, Arkansas; Offensive Lineman - Ben Jones, C, Georgia; Co-Defensive Lineman - Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas; Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU; Freshman - Maxwell Smith, QB, Kentucky.

Week 11 (Games of Nov. 12): Offense - Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt; Defense - Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama; Special Teams - Joe Adams, WR/RS, Arkansas; Offensive Lineman - Ben Jones, C, Georgia; Defensive Lineman - Travian Robertson, DT, South Carolina; Freshman - Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia.

Week 12 (Games of Nov. 19): Offense - Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas; Co-Defense - Ron Brooks, DB, LSU; Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky; Special Teams - Blair Walsh, PK, Georgia; Offensive Lineman - Will Blackwell, OG, LSU; Co-Defensive Lineman - Malik Jackson, DT, Tennessee; Abry Jones, DE, Georgia; Freshman - Curt Maggitt, LB, Tennessee.

Week 13 (Games of Nov. 25-26): Co-Offense - Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama; Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina; Defense - Tyrann Mathieu, DB, LSU; Special Teams - Ryan Tydlacka, P, Kentucky; Co-Offensive Lineman - Kyle Fischer, OT, Vanderbilt; William Vlachos, C, Alabama; Co-Defensive Lineman - Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State; Garrison Smith, DE, Georgia; Freshman - Kenny Hilliard, RB, LSU.

SEC Championship Game MVP: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU

BCS (Yes, the SEC has won six straight)
  • Since 2006, more than half of the slots in the BCS National Championship Game have been taken by SEC teams (7 of 12). The Big Ten and the Big 12 have two each and the Pac-12 has one.
  • An SEC team has led or tied for the lead at the end of 20 of the last 24 quarters of BCS National Championship Game play.
  • Since 2006, an SEC team has been ranked first in the weekly BCS standings in 26 of the 48 weeks, with four different teams holding the top spot. Florida was first for seven weeks, Alabama for six weeks, Auburn for three and LSU for 10 weeks, including all eight polls of this season.
  • The SEC has had more teams ranked in the BCS standings for the most times than any other conference since 2006. The league has had 11 of its 12 teams ranked at one time or another since 2006 for a total of 238 times. The SEC breakdown: LSU (45), Alabama (35), Florida (33), Auburn (29), Georgia (23), Arkansas (23), South Carolina (21), Tennessee (14), Mississippi State (8), Kentucky (4) and Ole Miss (3).
  • Since 2006, the SEC has posted a 9-3 record in BCS bowl games, more wins and a higher winning percentage (.750) than any other conference. The win total equals that of the next two highest conferences.
Bowls
  • Since 2006, the SEC has accrued more bowl wins (36) and appearances (55) than any other conference. The conference’s .655 bowl winning percentage is third behind the Big East (23-10, .697) and Mountain West (20-9, .690) during that time.
  • In January bowl games, the SEC is 22-10 (.688) against nonconference competition. Since 2008, the league is 16-6 (.727) against nonconference opponents in January bowls.
  • In seven 2011-12 bowl games against nonconference teams, SEC defenses held opponents to less than its scoring average in five of those games. One of the two other games were in overtime (Michigan State-Georgia) and the other was Auburn holding Virginia to 24 points, when the Cavaliers season average was 23.2 points per game.
Random
  • Over the last five seasons, Alabama owns the SEC's best winning percentage with a 50-12 record (.806). LSU has the most wins with 53, while Vanderbilt owns the league's lowest winning percentage (.355). LSU owns the best winning percentage over the last 10 years (.795) with a 105-27.
  • SEC teams were 20-28 on the road against SEC opponents last season. Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt failed to win on the road against conference opponents.
  • LSU led the SEC with a touchdown efficiency on drives of 34.8. Alabama led in scoring efficiency (46.8). Ole Miss was last in scoring efficiency (20.1) and Kentucky was last in touchdown efficiency (13.2).
  • LSU led the SEC with 129 fourth-quarter points and a fourth-quarter scoring margin of plus-95. Ole Miss was last with 41 points and a scoring margin of -36.
  • Arkansas led the SEC in yards per scoring drive (61.9).

Season report card: Arkansas

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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Arkansas was in the BCS hunt right up until the very end of the regular season, but fell short after a trip to Baton Rouge, La.:

OFFENSE: A

Coach Bobby Petrino has shown throughout his coaching career that he knows a little bit about how to run an offense. The Razorbacks brought in new quarterback Tyler Wilson, who was equipped with four future NFL wide receivers, and led the SEC in total offense. Wilson led the SEC in passing, averaging 285.2 yards per game, and he also had 22 passing touchdowns. Wilson was very efficient for the Razorbacks, completing 63 percent of his passes and tossing just six interceptions. Jarius Wright and Joe Adams ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in receiving, with Wright leading the league with 93.5 yards per game and 11 touchdowns. Arkansas worked with a pretty inexperienced offensive line, but it was a line that grew as the season progressed. That growth became more evident in the running game. The Hogs started the season being very inconsistent running the ball and couldn't find a true number one to replace the injured Knile Davis. Following Week 6, Arkansas' running game gained more consistency and found a leader in Dennis Johnson, who led Arkansas with 637 yards. Arkansas' offense would have been even better with Davis in the lineup. He was arguably the most complete back in the league, but missed the season with an ankle injury.

DEFENSE: C

This was supposed to be Petrino's best Arkansas defense, but the Hogs fell well below expectations. Injuries did pile up, but Arkansas' lack of depth became a glaring issue throughout the year. Arkansas allowed 31.8 points against ranked opponents. Against SEC opponents, the Razorbacks allowed 24.6 points per game. While Arkansas won 10 games, the defense ranked ninth or worse in the SEC in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Opponents averaged nearly 19 first downs per game against Arkansas and converted almost 38 percent of their third-down conversions. There were some solid individual performances for the Hogs, as linebacker Jerry Franklin led Arkansas in tackles (93) for the fourth straight year and ranked sixth in the SEC. Defensive end Jake Bequette overcame injury to record eight sacks in just nine games. Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith enjoyed a solid first year in Fayetteville with 10.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A

Adams showed why he's such a dynamic athlete by becoming the human highlight reel on punt returns, including his scintillating 60-yard return for a score against Tennessee. He had three touchdowns on returns, and tied for first in the league with 16.2 yards per return. Johnson and Marquel Wade made Arkansas' kickoff team very dangerous. Both ranked in the top 5 in return average and combined for two touchdowns. Zach Hocker led SEC kickers with 8.9 points per game, and hit 18 field goals and 53 extra points. Dylan Breeding led the SEC with 45.2 yards per punt and downed 14 inside opponents' 20-yard lines. Arkansas also ranked third in the league in kickoff coverage.

COACHING: A-

Petrino had the Hogs in the thick of the BCS hunt yet again in 2011. A win over LSU at the end of the year might have put the Hogs on a path toward the national championship. His team overcame a flurry of injuries to grab double-digit wins for the second straight season. It's no shocker that offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was lured away to become the head coach at UAB after another season of directing Arkansas' offense. The Hogs ranked 26th nationally in offense, averaging 445.8 yards per game. Where Arkansas fell short was on defense. Arkansas was supposed to turn the corner there, but never did during the season and was pushed around by Alabama and LSU. Former defensive coordinator Will Robinson resigned at the end of the regular season.

SEC blog All-Freshman Team

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
9:30
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The coaches have spoken with their own SEC All-Freshman team, so we here at the SEC blog decided to come up with our own team.

We couldn't fit all of the youngsters on the list, and some tough cuts had to be made.

Honestly, our list wasn't much different from the coaches' list. There were a couple of changes, but nothing extreme.

One tough cut we made was Vanderbilt wide receiver Chris Boyd. He was Vandy's second wide receiver, catching 29 passes for 404 yards and seven touchdowns. He had a very solid first year in Nashville, Tenn., but we decided to go with LSU's Odell Beckham, who caught seven more passes and had 33 more yards. Although, Boyd had five more touchdowns. In the end, we felt he was more valuable to LSU's offense this season.

LSU also led the way with five selections, while Tennessee was second with four selections.

Here's our freshman team:

OFFENSE

QB -- Maxwell Smith, Kentucky
RB -- Kenny Hilliard, LSU
RB -- Isaiah Crowell, Georgia
WR -- Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia
WR -- Odell Beckham, Jr., LSU
TE -- Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL -- Chaz Green, Florida
OL -- Marcus Jackson, Tennessee
OL - A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL -- Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
C -- Reese Dismukes, Auburn

DEFENSE

DL -- Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL -- Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL -- Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
DL -- Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB -- A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB -- Curt Maggitt, Tennessee
LB -- Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss
CB -- Marcus Roberson, Florida
CB -- Tevin Mitchel, Arkansas
S -- Brian Randolph, Tennessee
S -- Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

K -- James Hairston, LSU (He handled kickoff duties for the Tigers.)
P -- Brad Wing, LSU
RS -- Tre Mason, Auburn

SEC All-Freshman Team announced

December, 8, 2011
12/08/11
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The SEC coaches announced their selections for the 2011 SEC All-Freshman Team Thursday.

LSU led the way with five selections, while Tennessee and Arkansas both had four selections.

The coaches also made Arkansas tight end Garrett Uekman, who died suddenly last month, Honorary Captain.

South Carolina placed three on the team, including SEC Freshman of the Year Jadeveon Clowney.

Here is the 2011 SEC All-Freshman Team:

OFFENSE

HONORARY CAPTAIN
Garrett Uekman, Tight End, Arkansas

TE - Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL - A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL - Marcus Jackson, Tennessee
OL - Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL - Chaz Green, Florida
C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR - Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia
WR - Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
QB – Maxwell Smith, Kentucky
RB – Isaiah Crowell, Georgia
RB – Kenny Hilliard, LSU
AP - Bruce Ellington, South Carolina

DEFENSE

DL - Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL - Trey Flowers, Arkansas
DL - Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL - Kaleb Eulls, Mississippi State
LB - A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB - Curt Maggitt, Tennessee
LB - Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss
DB - Brian Randolph, Tennessee
DB - Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama
DB - De'Ante Saunders, Florida
DB - Tevin Mitchel, Arkansas

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK - James Hairston, LSU
P - Brad Wing, LSU
RS – Marquel Wade, Arkansas
  • I'm actually surprised to see Saunders get the nod over teammate Marcus Roberson. Roberson was easily Florida's best cornerback this season. He has the makings of being a talented cover corner, but he did get overly aggressive throughout the season. I guess coaches paid attention to flags he earned.
  • It had to be tough when the coaches looked at the quarterback position. Smith was probably the best of the bunch, and even he threw just four touchdowns to four interceptions. Still, Kentucky's offense moved down the field much better when he was on the field.
  • Remember when all the talk in Oxford, Miss., before the season centered around how great true freshman linebacker C.J. Johnson was going to be? Well, he had a solid first year, but it was Bryant who really came on as one of the young guys on defense. He saw tremendous playing time and was fourth on the team with 61 tackles.

SEC players of the week

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
10:30
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Here is a look at the SEC players of the week as announced by the league Monday:

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw nearly surpassed his career totals in just about every passing category, as he completed 26-of-39 passes for 311 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the Gamecocks' 54-3 rout of Kentucky. He also rushed 15 times for 42 yards. Shaw became the first Gamecock quarterback since 2006 to throw four touchdowns in a game. In the first half, Shaw completed 15-of-22 passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Mike Gilliard, LB, Georgia: Gilliard recorded a game-high and career-high 12 tackles, including a sack for -14 yards and 2.5 tackles for a combined loss of 20 yards, forced a fumble and had a pass breakup during the Bulldogs’ 20-12 win at Tennessee. This marked the fourth straight game that Gilliard has led Georgia in tackles.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Blair Walsh, K, Georgia: Walsh was 2-for-2 in field goals and hit a pair of PATs to help clinch the Bulldogs’ 20-12 win at Tennessee. After starting the season 6-for-12, Walsh drilled a 35-yarder in the opening quarter to put Georgia up 3-0 and then a 23-yarder in the second quarter to give the Bulldogs a 6-3 edge.

OFFENSIVE LINEMAN OF THE WEEK

Will Blackwell, OL, LSU: Blackwell played every snap and recorded a team-high 10 knockdowns in LSU’s 41-11 win against Florida. He did not allow a sack as the Tigers rolled up 453 total yards against a Florida team allowing just 258 total yards going into the game. Blackwell helped pave the way for 100-yard rusher Spencer Ware as the Tigers ran for 238 yards against a Gators defense that was holding opponents to 90 yards on the ground per game.

DEFENSIVE LINEMAN OF THE WEEK

Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox posted a career-high seven total tackles, including five solo stops, in Mississippi State’s 21-3 victory against UAB. He was a presence in the UAB offensive backfield for most of the game, credited with five quarterback pressures. Mississippi State held the Blazers to 145 rushing yards on 35 carries with only one rush for more than 20 yards.

FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK

Tevin Mitchel, CB, Arkansas: In his first career start, Mitchel finished with seven total tackles, including three solos, in Arkansas’ 38-14 win against Auburn. Mitchel was part of a Razorback secondary that allowed just nine completions in 25 Tiger pass attempts for 104 total yards.

You can check out the other top performers from the weekend here.

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