SEC: Trovon Reed

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When asked about newcomer D'haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college player, Nick Marshall said he has been very impressive to this point, but the senior quarterback was quick to point out that Auburn has a number of other great wide receivers this season, too.

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Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsTop wideout Sammie Coates and the rest of the Tigers' receiving corps from 2013 return this season.
That’s because with the exception of Trovon Reed, who moved to cornerback this spring, the Tigers have their entire receiving corps back from last season.

Sammie Coates, the team leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns, is back for his junior season. Ricardo Louis, the hero from the Georgia game, has returned this spring with an added chip on his shoulder. Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, two reliable slot receivers from a year ago, are both back to solidify the position again in 2014.

Throw in former ESPN 300 stars Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker, who are both coming off their first seasons on the Plains, and what’s not to like if you’re Marshall?

“I think the biggest thing is the depth,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That is the biggest difference [from last spring]. We’ve got two, sometimes three at each position that at least have a good idea of what is going on. We’re trying to give those guys all a chance to show what they can do. That’s a good thing moving forward.”

Last spring, Bray was Auburn’s top returning wide receiver after catching only 14 passes in 2012. Nobody else on the roster had more than 10 catches the season before. Needless to say, the position was a huge question mark.

That’s no longer the case. There still might be questions as to who the go-to target will be -- though Coates filled that role admirably in 2013 -- but for the first time since the Tigers won the BCS title in 2010, there’s depth and experience at receiver.

"This year, I think it'll be more like everybody eats,” Stevens said. “Right now, we've got so many weapons on offense from the running back position to the offensive line to the skills. If you stop one of us, then you've got plenty more receivers in the slot, or at running back with Cam [Artis-Payne], Peyton [Barber] and Corey [Grant].”

The surplus at wide receiver has also led to more competition this spring, and more competition only makes the position better.

"Coach [Dameyune] Craig is really working hard to make us become the best receiving corps in the nation,” Louis said. “We do a lot of drills on and off the field. Times we don't have practice, we’ll be out together doing drills."

The orchestrator of the extra workouts has been Marshall. The dual-threat QB wants to improve as a passer, so he has made it a point to spend time with his receivers this offseason. Whether it’s after practice or in study hall, he’s taking them out to the field, working on specific routes and coaching them on what he wants them to do.

"We know to have a good season between quarterback and receiver you have to have a good relationship off the field and on the field,” Louis said.

The extra time has brought them closer to Marshall, but it’s also brought them closer to each other. Despite the fact that they’re all battling for playing time this spring, they still want to see each other do well.

“It’s a brotherhood for us,” Davis said. “Everybody’s together. Everybody wants to see each other do good, so we just correct each other and make plays. Everybody feels good when their brother makes a play.”

And the more plays made, the better Auburn will be this fall.

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
While college basketball teams are punching their tickets to the Elite Eight, the SEC's best quarterback of the last two seasons might have cemented his position as an elite talent in the NFL draft.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Who better to cover a wide receiver than a former wide receiver? That’s what Auburn was thinking when the coaches moved Trovon Reed to cornerback this spring.

The former four-star recruit from Thibodaux, La., has spent his entire Auburn career on offense. He’s played in 36 games and made four starts as a wide receiver over the last three seasons, but he’s yet to ever break through like many expected when he signed with the Tigers in 2010. As a junior this past season, he finished with just nine catches for 98 yards.

[+] EnlargeTrovon Reed
AP Photo/Dave MartinTrovon Reed has fit in well with Auburn's defensive backs after being moved to defense from wide receiver.
Now, as he heads into his fifth and final season at Auburn, Reed is moving into enemy territory. He’ll join a secondary that he’s competed against for the last four years, and one that knows him well.

“I’ve always liked Trovon’s energy,” safety Jermaine Whitehead said. “When he played offense, he was the guy who got us pumped to have a good game. Now he’s on my side of the ball, so it’s going to be a long year for the offense.”

The move was hinted at just days after the BCS title game, when Reed posted on his Instagram that he will be “the best cornerback in the nation” in 2014, but coach Gus Malzahn refuted the rumors, calling them premature. It wasn’t until the day before the Tigers opened spring practice that Malzahn confirmed the move.

For Reed, it’s a new position since coming to Auburn, but it’s not one he’s unfamiliar with. He played some defensive back in high school. In fact, his RecruitingNation scouting report says “his feet, hips and ability to accelerate could make for a great corner prospect.”

The skills were there. All he needed was an opportunity.

Through the first week, the transition has been seamless. Reed is competing with the likes of Jonathan Jones and Kamryn Melton at the field cornerback spot, and he’s providing a unique perspective for his teammates.

“He's an older guy,” Jones said. “He adds depth and experience. Coming from receiver, I'm always asking him, ‘What do the receivers think?’ He has the mindset of a receiver coming from receiver, so he definitely has knowledge that can help us.”

Reed isn’t the first Auburn player to shift from offense to defense under Malzahn. Former starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier moved to safety last fall, and 2013 signee Johnathan Ford started fall camp at running back before he switched to cornerback.

Ford, who is now at safety, played in all 14 games as a freshman and finished with five tackles and one pass break-up.

The Auburn coaches are hoping Reed can make a similar impact and provide depth at a position where the Tigers don’t have much experience, but as top cornerback option Jonathon Mincy can attest, it’s not as easy as it looks.

“Playing wide receiver, it’s a lot different than playing corner,” Mincy said. “Learning the role of defense, learning what the cornerback is supposed to do and just playing with his eyes ... that’s going to be a big adjustment. But he’s making a good transition. He’s eager to learn and he’s a very competitive person.”

With Tuesday’s practice in the books, Reed has 11 more practices this spring to learn the position and earn his spot before Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin, a pair of ESPN 300 cornerbacks, arrive over the summer. The next three weeks will be vital for the former wide receiver.

It’s his last shot.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.

SEC's lunch links

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
Two handy reminders: College football underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the NFL draft, which will be May 8 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Sammie Coates' voice didn't tremble when he spoke. He didn't pound his fist or raise his voice. He kept both hands on the podium, looked each reporter in the eye and answered every question with restraint in one of the most candid interviews you'll see from an athlete on any level.

Still, it was called a rant, a tirade, a young player pitching a fit.

If what Coates said had come from an established leader or, even better, a coach, we'd look back on Oct. 9, 2012, as a seminal moment in the football program at Auburn. We'd hear common sense, passion and a determination to turn things around from a freshman acting well beyond his years. We'd see how at least one player understood that Auburn lacked leadership and how his teammates needed motivation.

"Some of us need to see the picture for what it is," said Coates, then an unknown receiver with three career catches to his name. "So many older guys want it, but don't want it bad enough."

His soliloquy went on for nearly nine minutes: "Nobody is showing how they want to win. ... We just keep falling in a hole. ... Nobody is stepping up. ... We go out there [to practice] dead. ... To win, we have to let that anger go."

But no one listened. Then-coach Gene Chizik said that Coates' message was only "one guy's opinion." Linebacker Jake Holland said he didn't see any "finger-pointing" in the locker room.

Auburn was 1-4 when Coates spoke that day. The Tigers went on to finish 3-9, winless in the SEC. The entire coaching staff was fired. Whatever "new day" Auburn's newest coach Gus Malzahn offered seemed a long way off.

Coates knew two things: He never wanted to lose like that again and he had to get better, on and off the field.


"I really wasn't into football like I was supposed to have been," Coates admitted a few weeks ago while his team prepared to face Florida State for the VIZIO BCS National Championship. "This year I'm into everything. Football, I’m more focused on that. I’m more focused on helping others and more focused on my schoolwork. It’s really helped me be levelheaded and keep a solid mind."

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Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAuburn wideout Sammie Coates caught 38 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
Coates has always had a lot on his mind. He lost his father, Sammy Sr., in a work accident when he was 10 years old and Sharon, his mother, raised him on her own while working at a gas station near their home in Leroy, Ala. A tattoo on Sammie's chest reads, "Like Father, Like Son," but outwardly he has never expressed much pain.

"He seemed to be an outgoing kid," said Danny Powell, who coached football at Leroy High. "It didn't make him inverted or anything. He's just a really good guy."

Coates lost five games in his entire career at Leroy, winning state titles as a sophomore and senior. When he wasn't playing football, he was throwing in the low 90s and drawing the attention of Major League Baseball scouts.

In other words, Coates wasn't used to failing. He was, in the words of Powell, "A big small-town hero."

It took time for colleges to notice Coates, who was then a slender 180-pound athlete with great speed and tons of untapped potential. He started drawing the attention of scouts before his junior year, but he broke his ankle and didn't make it back until second game of his senior year. He committed to Southern Miss before former Auburn assistant Phillip Lolley took a flier and invited him to camp.

Coates ran a 4.35 40-yard dash and caught a number of passes over future Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, according to Powell. Auburn offered on the spot and he signed with the Tigers a month after they won the BCS National Championship.

"He has that thing you can't teach," Powell said. "He had a knack of making the spectacular play."

Coates injured his knee his first season on campus and was forced to redshirt. The next year he got to play some, but between losing and dropping some passes, frustration grew. He'd smile on the outside -- even during his so-called "rant" he flashed appeared optimistic -- but inside he felt the need to change.

When he spoke to the media that October day, he wore a bright orange Auburn sweater that read, "Protect this house." But as he threw open the program's doors to reveal its flaws, he neglected his own.

He talked the talk, but this season he chose to walk it, too. A year after pointing out the flaws of others, he and teammate Trovon Reed were baptized.

"Really, both of us became leaders on the team, and it's one of the big things that helped us out," Coates said. "I'm so thankful to him coming up and talking to me about doing it. It was one of the biggest steps I could have made in my life."


His feet now firmly planted, Coates has emerged as one to watch in the BCS title game. At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds with speed to burn, he's a matchup nightmare for Florida State. He's in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns, and trails only Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks nationally for the most receptions of 30 yards or more.

While Auburn's running game gains most of the attention, it's Coates' ability to stretch the field that makes Malzahn's offense go. Without him keeping defenses honest, Nick Marshall and Tre Mason would face nine and 10 men in the box.

"Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him, and can jump, that’s a threat," Malzahn said.

Coates credits the entire coaching staff for being a father figure, with wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig improving his play on the field while helping him "grow up and become a better man" off of it.

But when asked about Malzahn, his eyes lit up. When Malzahn was hired, everything changed. His competitiveness and positivity, Coates said, was infectious.

"Oh, man, he's a genius," Coates said. "He is unique. He's one of those guys that loves the game and he's going to put his all into it no matter what.

Whatever complaints Coates had before are now gone. Instead of getting his message confused for a negative rant, it's all praise.

"Malzahn, he comes in and tells us it's a new day and we're not going to have what we had last year, the team really bought into it," he said. "If you weren't going to be part of his new day, he wasn't going to have you here. He was going to get rid of you. That's Malzahn's mindset and that makes you work harder. … We just bought in, we fought together, we started coming closer as a team and that really helped us."

Auburn QB Marshall more confident

September, 9, 2013
Nick MarshallAP Photo/Dave MartinQuarterback Nick Marshall showed improvement in his second start for Auburn.

AUBURN, Ala. -- In the season opener, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall looked all out of sorts in the first half. He was nervous and understandably so -- it was his first start for the Tigers. However, before the second game, the junior college transfer turned to an unlikely source for advice.

“I talked to Jonathan Wallace before the game, and he told me just to be cool, calm and collected, so that's what I did,” Marshall said. “I just went out there and did what I do best.”

The encouragement from his fellow quarterback must have worked. On his first pass attempt, Marshall rolled out and connected with Trovon Reed for 17 yards and a first down. He completed his next two throws and capped the opening drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Davis, his first at Auburn.

“Early on, I thought he was clicking a lot better,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “As the game went on he had some ups and downs, but as a whole, I think he felt more comfortable.”

The second drive was more of the same for Marshall, who used both his arm and his legs to drive the Tigers down the field for another score. Two drives, two touchdowns, and the Auburn quarterback looked not just comfortable, but dangerous.

After back-to-back three-and-outs, Marshall struck again, this time with the deep ball. He hit Sammie Coates in stride on a 68-yard touchdown pass, a connection that had been close multiple times through the first two games but not quite there.

“That big pass play was huge,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I mean, that kind of gave us a sigh of relief right there, so we could open up and play.

“It was a well-executed play. The line did a good job on their blocks, and we got the safety down. He ran a really good route at the top, and it was a really good throw. That’s what it is supposed to look like.”

At halftime, Marshall was 7 of 12 for 139 yards with the two touchdowns. He also led the team with 59 yards rushing. In all, it was a far cry from his first-half performance in the opener.

“I think he did a great job,” running back Corey Grant said. “It seemed like he got better [Saturday]. It seemed like he didn't really have any jitters. He came out playing real smooth from the start, and you could see how he played that it carried over from practice.”

In the second half, Marshall completed just three passes for eight yards, but that’s because he was handing the ball off the majority of the time. The coaches were conservative with him down the stretch, partly because he fumbled the ball in the third quarter while trying to elude a pass rush. It was his first and only turnover through the first two games.

Despite the miscue, Marshall still showed improvement. He knows he’s going to have to continue that trend with conference play right around the corner.

“I felt way better than I did last week,” he said after Saturday’s victory over Arkansas State. “There's still more improvement in the offense, but we're just going to get better as the year goes on. We're looking for more rhythm and really just more execution.”

Marshall will face his first SEC test this weekend when Mississippi State comes to town.

“Going out, it’s the same thing,” he said. “Everyone still has 11 people on the field, so we’re just going to play, go at them and take care of business.”

Auburn season preview

August, 15, 2013
Today we're looking at Auburn, as the Tigers look to get back to being competitive in the SEC West with the return of Gus Malzahn.

Coach: Gus Malzahn (9-3 overall, 0-0 at Auburn)

2012 record: 3-9, 0-8 SEC

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/US PresswireGus Malzahn and Auburn will be counting on big production from running back Tre Mason this season.
Key losses: RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, DE Corey Lemonier, LB Daren Bates

Key returners: RB Tre Mason, OT Greg Robinson, C Reese Dismukes, WR Ricardo Louis, DE Dee Ford, DT Angelo Blackson, CB Chris Davis, S Demetruce McNeal

Newcomer to watch: Freshman defensive end Carl Lawson has impressed the staff since stepping on campus and has the tools to help improve Auburn's pass rush this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Washington State, Aug. 31; Mississippi State, Sept. 14; Ole Miss, Oct. 5; at Arkansas, Nov. 2; at Tennessee, Nov. 9

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: With the news that Kiehl Frazier is moving to safety, Auburn's quarterback battle is down to three players. Right now, it looks like newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson are pulling ahead of sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who started the final four games for Auburn last season. Marshall and Johnson have been very impressive this fall and split first-team reps during Tuesday's scrimmage. Regardless of who starts, Malzahn will have his eighth different starting quarterback in eight years.

Forecast: Auburn returns a handful of starters on both sides of the ball, but neither side was very good at all last season. Auburn ranked last in the SEC in total offense and 13th in total defense. Auburn barely scored 18 points per game and allowed nearly 30. All of that has to change in 2013, and with Malzahn back on the Plains, many believe it will.

Offensively, with the return of the spread offense, the Tigers will no longer be trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The Tigers had spread players last season, but were running a very uncomfortable pro-style attack that drastically set the offense back. While this team still has to figure out who its starting quarterback will be, the offense will likely revolve around running back Tre Mason, who was Auburn's only offensive weapon last season, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He can be a downhill threat and has the ability to make plays in space.

A solid offensive line returns, but the Tigers are still looking for more consistency at receiver. The hope is that former big-time recruit Ricardo Louis' big spring translates to the fall, and that Quan Bray and Trovon Reed reach their big-play potential.

Defensively, coordinator Ellis Johnson wants a much more aggressive unit with his 4-2-5 scheme and might have budding stars in "Star" Justin Garrett and cornerback Chris Davis. There is talent up front, but the defensive line has to be much more disruptive this fall, and the secondary can't allow the big plays that crippled it in 2012.

There's no question that Auburn has the talent to return to a bowl game, but it's all about development. The Tigers just didn't have it during the last two years of the Gene Chizik era, but Malzhan and Co. have made it a priority. Johnson should have the defense in much better shape, while an improved offense will be a major reason why the Tigers return to the postseason in 2013.
We conclude our position rankings by looking at special teams. These can be some of the unsung heroes of teams or they can be major goats. Believe it or not, it's hard out there for special teams guys.

Here's how all 14 SEC special teams units rank heading into the 2013 season:

1. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return starting kicker Devon Bell, who hit 14 of his last 18 field goals last year, and punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 41.1 yards per kick last year and had a net of 39.9 yards. Jameon Lewis was Mississippi State's top return man last year, averaging 25.9 yards on his 20 kick returns. He also took one 100 yards for a touchdown. With Johnthan Banks gone, Lewis could move to punt returner, while LaDarius Perkins and Robert Johnson can handle kickoffs. Mississippi State also allowed just 6 yards on 13 punt returns (.46 yards per return), but did allow two touchdowns on kickoffs.

[+] EnlargeKyle Christy
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Christ has averaged 44.0 yards per punt in his two seasons at Florida.
2. Florida: The Gators have to replace All-American kicker Caleb Sturgis, which won't be easy at all with nothing but inexperience there, but Florida has arguably the nation's best punter in Kyle Christy. He averaged 45.8 yards per kick, pinned 27 kicks inside the 20-yard line, blasted 25 punts that went 50-plus yards and ranked ninth nationally in net punting. Andre Debose proved to be one of the SEC's best return men again, averaging 28.3 yards on 18 kick returns and taking one back 100 yards for a score. Loucheiz Purifoy is a great cover guy and can help return kicks along with Marcus Roberson. Florida gave up 7.3 yards per punt return (one touchdown), just 18 yards on kickoffs and blocked six kicks last year.

3. Vanderbilt: Carey Spear knocked 20-of-24 field goals through last year, setting the school record for field goals made and kick scoring. He also didn't miss anything within 43 yards. Vandy must replace solid punter Richard Kent. Redshirt freshman Colby Cooke and walk-on Taylor Hudson competed at punter this spring, but freshman Tommy Openshaw could get a shot as well. Jonathan Krause returned 25 punts for 281 yards and became the first Commodore in 45 years to return two punts for touchdowns last year. Both Brian Kimbrow and Andre Hal averaged a little more than 22 yards per kick return. Vandy was solid defending kickoffs, but was second-to-last in the SEC in defending punts (10.7 yards per return and one touchdown).

4. Missouri: The Tigers return one of the nation's best return men in Marcus Murphy, who took three kickoffs and a punt to the house last fall. He averaged 24.1 yards per kick return and 13.9 per punt return. Andrew Baggett, who only missed two kicks under 40 yards last year, was a an SEC All-Freshman Team member last year, but has to be more consistent in 2013. Punter is up for grabs with Trey Barrow gone. Junior Christian Brinser is the favorite, but has just one career punt.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide has one of the league's most reliable punters in Cody Mandell, whose 44.3 yards per kick, pinned 19 inside the 20 and booted 14 50-plus yards. Christion Jones averaged 26.6 yards per kick return (eight returns) and had a touchdown last year, while returning 21 punts for 213 yards. He could get help from the shifty Dee Hart, who returns from an ACL injury. Short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley is gone, but long-distance man Cade Foster is back. He's shown improvement, but hit just 4-of-9 kicks last year and could share duties with redshirt freshman Adam Griffith. Coverage has to improve as well.

6. LSU: The Tigers lost kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing. Losing Wing sounds like the most significant, but the staff feels pretty confident in fellow Aussie Jamie Keehn, who averaged 43.7 yards on 12 punts last year. Odell Beckham Jr. racked up 320 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns and might get more chances on kickoffs. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is extremely fast and shifty, so expect him to get work in the return game, too. LSU was also one of the best kick/punt coverage teams in the SEC last year. Finding a suitable kicker won't be easy, though. Two walk-ons competed for the kicking job this spring. Junior James Hairston has a monster leg, but has been inconsistent on field goals.

7. Ole Miss: In hindsight, Ole Miss' coaches made a smart decision when they decided to redshirt Tyler Campbell. He was one of the country's best punters two years ago and has a career average of 44.6 yards per kick. In 2011, he downed 28 kicks inside the 20. Jaylen Walton became a dangerous returner for the Rebels last year, averaging 24.7 yards on 26 kick returns, and took one 100 yards for a score. The Rebels have to replace kicker Bryson Rose, but senior Andrew Ritter, who redshirted last year, should have the first crack at it. Though, he hasn't attempted a field goal in his career. Ole Miss also has to improve its kick coverage, as they gave up three total touchdowns on returns.

8. Auburn: The Tigers had some of the best numbers around when it came to defending kickoffs and punts. But that's because Auburn didn't kick off much and opponents rarely punted. So it's tough to say how good the Tigers are in those areas, but on five punt returns the Tigers allowed just 4 yards. Kicker Cody Parkey hit 11 of 14 kicks last year and didn't miss from within 46 yards. He's also hit 51 straight extra points. Punter Steven Clark averaged only 39.8 per kick, but his hang time forced only five returns last year. Onterio McCalebb is gone, finding a game-changer like him is up for grabs. Eyes are on Trovon Reed and Quan Bray.

9. Arkansas: Kicker Zach Hocker enters the season as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made (143), total points (287) and points per game (7.6). He'll have to improve on his 11-of-18 field-goal mark from last year. The Hogs were middle-of-the road when it came to defending returns and lost top return man Dennis Johnson. D'Arthur Cowan and Nate Holmes will handle return duties. Holmes ranked 10th in the SEC with a punt return average of 6.4 yards per return, while Cowan averaged 17.6 yards per kick return.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have one of the SEC's best returners in Trey Williams, who averaged 22.3 yards on 25 returns. Brandon Williams, who should be a big-play athlete for A&M, should also help out on kick returns. De'Vante Harris and Sabian Holmes should provide the Aggies with some solid return options on punts as well. A&M lost punter Ryan Epperson, but Drew Kaser shouldn't miss a beat as his replacement. Kicker Taylor Bertolet has to be much better, though. He hit just 13 of 22 field goals, missed seven extra points and was just 2-of-9 on field goals between 30 and 49 yards.

11. South Carolina: Bruce Ellington is a very good and very experienced kick returner. He averaged 22.6 yards per return last season and had a long of 50 yards. Now, replacing Ace Sanders at punt returner won't be easy, but Victor Hampton should be a viable option there. He's extremely fast and is a fast-twitch player, so he should be able to create plays in space. Speedy Damiere Byrd will get a chance on kickoffs and possesses the speed to hit a home run when he touches the ball. Punter Tyler Hull is back after averaging 39.4 per kick and pinning 12 inside the 20. Landon Ard left spring as the top placekicker, but has only handled kickoff duty during his career.

12. Tennessee: The Vols might have to rely on Michael Palardy to handle field goals, punts and kickoffs this fall. He hit 9 of 12 field goals last year, while Derrick Brodus hit 6-of-7. Only Palardy attempted a kick more than 40 yards last year and missed it. There will be competition at kicker, but Palardy should have the punter spot after averaging 43.1 yards per kick, pinning 16 inside the 20 and blasting 13 50-plus yards. With Cordarrelle Patterson gone, Devrin Young should take over kickoff and punt return duties. He was Tennessee's top punt returner last year.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats return one of the nation's best punters in Landon Foster, who averaged 42.9 yards per kick and had 22 kicks go for 50-plus yards last year. But Kentucky is still searching for a field goal kicker. Joe Mansour has been the kickoff guy for three years, but freshman Austin MacGinnis might be the guy the coaches are depending on the most when he gets in for fall camp. Kentucky has one of its top return guys coming back in Demarco Robinson, but lost DeMarcus Sweat this summer. Sweat averaged 20.5 yards per return.

14. Georgia: The Bulldogs continued the trend of having issues defending returns, ranking last in the SEC in punt coverage (11.1 yards per return and a touchdown) and eighth in kickoff coverage (20.2 yards per return). Another concern is kicker, where Marshall Morgan could miss at least one game this fall following an arrest on June 29 for boating under the influence. He's Georgia's only scholarship kicker and was shaky last year, hitting 8 of 14 field goals. Punter Collin Barber averaged 41.5 yards per punt and pinned 19 of his 60 kicks inside the 20. Malcolm Mitchell has all the talent to be a return star, but his ill-advised decision-making has turned him into a liability.

Strong and weak: Auburn Tigers

June, 19, 2013
Every year, players come and go in college football. With that teams can either grow or take steps back because of turnover.

It's time to check out Auburn's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season:

Strongest position: Running back

The Tigers didn't have too many bright spots at all on offense last year, but running back Tre Mason barreled his way to more than 1,000 yards, eight touchdowns and 5.9 yards per carry. Mason is back in 2013, and he should have even more space to move around in with Gus Malzahn's spread offense coming back to the Plains. Auburn lost Onterio McCalebb and Mike Blakely, but Mason will have quality help with junior Corey Grant returning and junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne on the roster. Grant is a big-bodied back who was once at Alabama and should help Mason stay fresh. Artis-Payne was the No. 2 juco running back last year, after rushing for 2,048 yards and 25 touchdowns last fall, and had a very strong spring for the Tigers. He was also named MVP of the Tigers' spring game with his 117 rushing yards and two receiving touchdowns. Auburn could have quite the trio on its hands at running back.

Weakest position: Wide receiver

Auburn really struggled to throw the ball last year and doesn't return anyone who registered more than 136 yards -- and that was tight end C.J. Uzomah, who could have a big year in Malzahn's spread. But as for actual wide receivers, Auburn returns just two who went over 100 yards last year -- Trovon Reed (122 yards) and Sammie Coates (114). While there was some improvement made this spring, the Tigers don't have any true proven weapons at wide receiver right now. Reed and Quan Bray, who leads all current Tigers with his 14 returning receptions from last year, have all the potential and skill to be valuable options in the passing and rushing game, but they have fallen below expectations during their time at Auburn. That has to change if this passing game is going to go anywhere in 2013. Sophomore Ricardo Louis was a prize recruit for the Tigers last year, but caught just three passes as a freshman. He had a good spring and showed that he can be a true deep threat for Auburn, but it has to translate to the field this fall. It will help that three ESPN 300 receivers will be on campus this fall.
On Monday, we took a look at the top five offenses and if they could replicate their success from 2012. But what about those offenses that struggled last season? Can they rebound this fall?

Thirteen might be an unlucky number in the realm of superstition, but I think it could bring some good luck to a few offenses that weren't so good a year ago.

It's early, but here are three offenses that I think will rebound in 2013:

2012 total offense: 305 yards per game
2012 scoring offense: 18.7 points per game

The Tigers' offense never really adapted to former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's pro-style offense. It was the whole square peg and round hole deal. Quarterback play suffered, which meant the receiving game struggled. The only real bright spots were running back Tre Mason and wide receiver Emory Blake. Mason rushed for 1,002 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Blake registered 789 receiving yards, which was 650 yards more than the second-highest total on the team.

But help is on the way with Gus Malzahn bringing his spread offense back to the Plains. He has to find his quarterback, but Kiehl Frazier is very familiar with Malzahn, and Jonathan Wallace fits the spread nicely. Mason is back, but the Tigers have to find consistency at the receiver spot with Blake gone. Luckily, guys like junior Quan Bray and freshman Ricardo Lewis made good strides this spring. Trovon Reed will still be counted on, and so will tight ends Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah.

Having a solid offensive line and the return of the spread should help Auburn's offense dig itself out of the offensive cellar of the SEC.

2012 total offense: 334
2012 scoring offense: 26.5

If not for a solid running game (187.7 yards per game), the Gators' offense would have really sputtered. Quarterback Jeff Driskel averaged just 137.2 passing yards per game and failed to reach 100 yards in a game four times last fall. Outside of tight end Jordan Reed, the Gators had no real consistent receiving target. When a play had to be made, the passing game rarely delivered.

The good news is Florida will have the same offensive coordinator -- Brent Pease -- for consecutive years for the first time since Urban Meyer was in charge. Driskel feels -- and looks -- much more confident, and he'll have a more physical offensive line to work with. The receivers still have to prove themselves, but Driskel will be able to defer to his running game yet again. Mike Gillislee might be gone, but the staff was very impressed with sophomore Matt Jones this spring, while Mack Brown, Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane will provide the Gators with a nice running back stable.

Florida's coaches are counting on Quinton Dunbar and true freshman Demarcus Robinson to lead the receivers, but more players have to step up. Still, having a strong offensive line and another year in the same offensive system will really help the Gators this fall.

2012 total offense: 356.4
2012 scoring offense: 25.8

The Tigers dealt with a ton of injuries on offense last fall. Only Evan Boehm was able to stay healthy along the offensive line through the entire season, and quarterback James Franklin dealt with a bad shoulder, a concussion and a bad knee. Thanks to that, Mizzour averaged less than 220 passing yards last season.

Most of the same pieces are back on offense, and players seemed comfortable with new offensive coordinator Josh Henson, who was promoted after David Yost resigned. Franklin's shoulder is better, and his confidence is high. It also helps that his main receiving targets are back, and explosive running back Henry Josey is returning from his devastating 2011 knee injury. Dorial Green-Beckham, the former top recruit, is more mature and made a handful of plays this spring.

The offensive line was healthier this spring, but had some communication issues throughout the spring. That has to get fixed before the season. If it does, the Tigers' offense should make good strides in 2013.

Who will transform?

August, 31, 2012

It's Kiehl Frazier's time on the Plains.

The sophomore quarterback arrived at Auburn with a load of hype attached to his shoulder pads, but never looked ready to lead the Tigers. Now, he has that chance, as he'll walk onto the Georgia Dome turf in Atlanta on Saturday as Auburn's starting quarterback against No. 14 Clemson in the second game of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.

The fans have been waiting. His coaches have been waiting. And he has been waiting. Now is his chance -- on a national stage, no less.

It wasn't easy for Frazier to get here. He was used more as a runner as a freshman, throwing the ball just 12 times with five completions and two interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Frazier hasn't completed a pass that traveled past the line of scrimmage in seven attempts -- unless you count his interceptions. It's no wonder Auburn's staff was so set on running him last year, as he carried the ball 76 times for 327 yards and three touchdowns.

But new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler arrived with his pro-style offense and pledged to turn Frazier into more of a passer. And it appears he has, as Frazier beat out junior Clint Moseley and freshman Jonathan Wallace during fall camp.

Frazier has all of the tools to be sucessful in this league, and now he'll really get to show if he's ready to guide the Tigers. Coach Gene Chizik seems to think so.

“We expect Kiehl to be a leader for this team and to continue to work hard every day," Chizik said. "I am confident in his ability and leadership skills and look forward to watching him progress in both areas.”

And what a stage to do it on. Not only is Auburn playing on national television, but it's against the defending ACC champs. You know, the same champs who are still giving up points to West Virginia. Those Tigers might have a new defensive coordinator in Brent Venables, but questions still remain for a unit that surrendered 70 points to the Mountaineers in last year's Orange Bowl, and ranked 71st nationally in total defense and 81st in scoring defense.

Frazier's job now is to control Auburn's offense. We know how athletic he is. If the pocket breaks down, he knows how to use his feet to get out of trouble. It's time for him to use his arm more and create receiving targets for himself. He'll get plenty of help from Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen, but he'll need to get others involved, such as Trovon Reed, Quan Bray or Travante Stallworth.

He'll have the chances to do that and we'll see a new and improved Frazier Saturday. We saw a one-deminsional Frazier in 2011. He'll be more of a threat to run and throw this fall and that maturation begins Saturday inside the Georgia Dome.

Proving ground: Western Division

August, 20, 2012
With the start of the 2012 college football season less than two weeks away, let’s take a look at those players in the SEC who have the most to prove.

I’ll kick it off with five players in the West, and Edward will come back later today with five players in the East.

Keep in mind that there are all sorts of reasons why a player may have something to prove. Sometimes, it’s making that jump from a good player to a great player. Other times, it’s going from a hyped freshman to a key contributor, bouncing back from a so-so or injury-plagued season or simply filling some big shoes.

Here are five players in the West to watch. They’re listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonA fractured ankle kept Knile Davis off the field last season, but the junior running back netted 1322 yards in 2010.
Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State: It’s Boyd’s time now to be the enforcer in the middle of that Mississippi State defensive line. He’s been a productive player the last couple of seasons, but with Fletcher Cox leaving early for the NFL, the Bulldogs need Boyd to step his game up more than ever in 2012. He has the physical tools to be an All-SEC player and one of the premier interior defensive linemen in the league.

Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas: There’s still some mystery as to whether Davis is all the way back after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle. The Hogs have held him out of full contact work this preseason in scrimmages, although his teammates say he’s looked like his old self in everything else. Davis led all SEC running backs in rushing in 2010 with 1,322 yards. There’s no doubting his talent, determination and heart. He just has to go show it on the field … again.

Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: From the day Kouandjio walked onto campus at Alabama, his teammates have raved about his pure physical ability. One of the most heralded prospects in the country two years ago, the 6-foot-6, 311-pound sophomore has been impressive enough that the Crimson Tide moved Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones to center to make room for Kouandjo at left tackle. That’s a lot of pressure for a first-time starter, but the feeling in and around the Alabama program is that he has a lot of game.

Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU: The Tigers were a consistent passing game away from winning the national championship last season. They think Mettenberger is the missing piece to the puzzle. He has a big arm and has been very impressive in both spring practice and preseason camp. He just doesn’t have any meaningful experience in SEC games. Coach Les Miles has said LSU will open up the passing game with Mettenberger at the helm. This is the second chance Mettenberger has been waiting for after getting in trouble at Georgia and being dismissed from the team earlier in his career.

Trovon Reed, WR, Auburn: Injuries have plagued Reed during his first two seasons on the Plains. He arrived with the reputation of being electric in the open field and the kind of player who can turn short passes into big gains. Auburn struggled to get anything going in the passing game a year ago, and with the uncertainty at quarterback going into this season, the Tigers are looking for as many playmakers as they can find on offense. They need Reed healthy and they need him to be the difference-maker everybody was convinced he was when they signed him.



Saturday, 12/27
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
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Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12