SEC: Emmanuel McCray

Barrett JonesNed Dishman/Getty ImagesA move to center shouldn't slow Alabama's Barrett Jones, last season's Outland Trophy winner.
Our preseason SEC position rankings continue with the big uglies. The real muscle down in the trenches. Offensive lines are crucial in every level of football, but teams seriously do live and die by the play of their offensive lines in the SEC.

Past rankings:
On to the SEC's offensive line groups:

1. Alabama: Four starters return (with 95 combined starts), there's size, there's athleticism and this line just screams first-round NFL talent, starting with mammoth tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack. Reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones is moving to center, but with his versatility he should excel there. Add former top recruit Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle and this is arguably the country's top offensive line.

2. LSU: Like Alabama, this line is full of experience, as four starters return and so does Josh Dworaczyk, who was granted a sixth-year after a knee injury caused him to miss all of 2011. Some think he was LSU's best lineman before last season began. Tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst are two of the best in the league and center P.J. Lonergan is tough to beat. Former highly-touted recruit La'El Collins should also contend for time this fall, too.

3. Texas A&M: This could be the strength of the team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is a future first-rounder, while right tackle Jake Mathews has All-SEC potential. Senior center Patrick Lewis provides a very sturdy anchor in the middle. Guards Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi are young, but both got good experience last year, as Harrison started five games and Ogbuehi started six. Depth could be an issue, as most reserves are younger.

4. Arkansas: The Hogs have one of the better center-guard combos in the league in Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey. Both have received preseason accolades and should be even better in 2012. Sophomore tackle Brey Cook came in with a lot of hype and if he develops in his second season, this line will be really good. Sophomore Mitch Smothers proved he can play just about anywhere and big left tackle Jason Peacock is back, but is still in the doghouse after his arrest this spring.

5. South Carolina: Replacing Rokevious Watkins at left tackle won't be easy, but the staff feels like redshirt freshman Brandon Shell might be the man for the job. He's incredibly talented and athletic and improved his blocking ability during his redshirt year. Center T.J. Johnson and guard A.J. Cann are coming off of solid seasons, but the right side has questions. Right tackle Mike Matulis started five games last year, but missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery and right guard Ronald Patrick recorded zero starts last year.

6. Tennessee: The good news is that everyone is back. The bad news is this is the same line that was incredibly inconsistent last year in the run game, as Tennessee ranked 116th in rushing offense. However, the staff feels it has a better lineup with the emergence of sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle. Stud Dallas Thomas moves to left guard and Ja'Wuan James, who has started 25 games at right tackle, provides some good stability. The line has 99 combined starts and allowed just 18 sacks last year, but the proving ground with this group is establishing that it can come off the ball and be a better running team.

7. Missouri: The Tigers lost three starters from last year, but that doesn't mean Mizzou is without experience. Old man Elvis Fisher was granted a sixth year after last year's season-ending knee injury and will provide a major boost at left tackle. And three other linemen return with starting experience from last year: tackle Justin Britt, who took over Fisher's spot last year, and guards Jack Meiners and Travis Ruth. One thing to keep an eye on is the line's durability. The average weight of this group is roughly 295 pounds.

8. Auburn: Three starters return to a line that has a ton of young depth. Center Reese Dismukes is the anchor and one of the top centers in the league. Guard John Sullen and tackle Chad Slade combined for 21 starts last year. The staff really likes redshirt freshman Greg Robinson at left tackle and former top recruit Christian Westerman will compete for time after sitting out last year. Guard Eric Mack made strides this spring before he was shot near the hip during the tragic shooting that occurred near Auburn's campus in June.

9. Mississippi State: Injuries and constant reshuffling along the line caused the Bulldogs' offense to struggle for most of last season. Three starters are gone, but junior guard Gabe Jackson, who is one of the league's best, is back and so is right guard Tobias Smith. If Smith, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early last year, is healthy, this line should be very strong along the interior. Dillon Day started six games last year and returns at center, while junior college transfers Charles Siddoway and Dylan Holley are pushing for time.

10. Florida: The Gators return four starters to a line that struggled all last season. Will Muschamp said he saw vast improvement up front this spring, but tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan must show more consistency and leadership. Jonotthan Harrison is solid at center and guard Jon Halapio has improved each year. Sophomore tackle Chaz Green and impressive early enrollee D.J. Humphries will compete for time as well.

[+] EnlargeKenarious Gates
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.com Georgia may have O-line questions, but likely none concerning junior Kenarious Gates.
11. Georgia: Yet again the Bulldogs have questions up front. Junior Kenarious Gates is very versatile and athletic and is Georgia's most reliable lineman. The staff was pleased with guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette coming out of spring, but a lot is riding on sophomore David Andrews making it at center. If he has to move, Burnette will have to move to center and more reshuffling will come. Inexperience is worrisome and true freshman John Theus should get plenty of chances to take one of the tackle spots.

12. Vanderbilt: Thanks to offensive line coach Herb Hand, this group was one of the most improved in the league last year. He'll have a tall task again with a lot of youth and inexperience. Left tackle Wesley Johnson is one of the most underrated linemen out there, while Ryan Seymour has been solid up front. The right side has issues and the depth is a concern. Injuries made it tough for this line to get through spring practice, and six freshmen are coming in to compete for spots during fall camp.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost three starters from a line that struggled throughout 2011, but vets Larry Warford and Matt Smith are back to provide a solid center-guard combo. However, they'll be asked to help a cluster of youngsters. The left side is gone and will be replaced by youngsters Zach West (redshirt freshman) and Darrian Miller (sophomore). Right tackle Kevin Mitchell started just one game last year. Any sort of injury up front would be devastating for the Cats.

14. Ole Miss: This is arguably the Rebels' weakest position. Hugh Freeze wasn't thrilled with the line this spring, continuing to say it didn't handle the offense's tempo well. Guard Matt Hall, who had double-digit starts last year, left the team this spring. Center Evan Swindall was Ole Miss' most consistent lineman this spring, while senior A.J. Hawkins moved to guard. Comfort was an issue for everyone, and the tackle spots were filled this spring by Emmanuel McCray, who missed all of last season, and JUCO transfer Pierce Burton.

SEC West post-spring notes

May, 8, 2012
5/08/12
2:10
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The good folks over at the SEC office delivered a plethora of post-spring notes for us to dive into as summer creeps closer and closer.

I've split it up by division, so you all aren't overwhelmed. We'll start with the SEC West:

ALABAMA
  • The attendance for A-Day was 78,526 (1st in the SEC and 2nd nationally this year to Ohio State) which was the fifth-largest in school history. Each spring game under coach Nick Saban has had an attendance of 78,200 (2008) or higher.
  • As an SEC head coach (beginning in 2001 at LSU and 2007 at Alabama), Saban has totaled 73 NFL draft picks with 20 first-round selections and 10 among the top 10 overall.
  • During the last academic year, Alabama’s football program led the SEC (in what is believed to be a conference record) with a total of 38 student-athletes on the Academic All-SEC Honor Roll. A total of 22 players were on the bowl roster who had already earned their degrees, which was tied for first nationally in terms of graduates on bowl rosters.
  • Of Alabama’s 13 starters lost, all were either drafted or signed free -agent contracts with the NFL. Included among those 13 were the four first-rounders along with LB Courtney Upshaw (2nd round), NG Josh Chapman (5th round), DB DeQuan Menzie (5th round) and TE Brad Smelley (7th round). OG Alfred McCullough, WR Marquis Maze, WR Darius Hanks, C William Vlachos and LB Jerrell Harris each signed as free agents following the draft.
ARKANSAS
  • Arkansas is the only team in the SEC to return a quarterback (Tyler Wilson) with a 3,000-yard passing season in his career and a running back (Knile Davis) with a 1,000-yard rushing season.
  • Arkansas has been ranked in 32 straight Associated Press polls, tied for the seventh-longest active streak in the nation, and in the top 10 for nine straight polls, which also ranks seventh among active streaks in the country.
  • Arkansas finished the 2011 season undefeated at home for the first time since 1999. With seven home victories in 2011, the Razorbacks have 19 wins at home in the past three years, which is tied for the fourth-highest total in the NCAA. Arkansas enters the 2012 season with an 11-game home winning streak, the fifth-longest active streak in the country.
  • Kicker Zach Hocker enters his junior season as Arkansas' record holder for career field goal percentage with his success rate of 80.4 percent. He also ranks in the top 10 in school history in six other categories and finished the 2011 season second in the SEC in points per game, field goals made per game and touchback percentage.
AUBURN
  • Auburn returns 48 lettermen (20 offense, 26 defense, 2 specialists). Of the 68 scholarship players who participated in spring drills, 61 percent (38) were underclassmen.
  • The Tigers start the 2012 season in the same location as they finished the 2011 campaign, playing in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. On Sept. 1, Auburn opens with Clemson in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game. The Tigers completed the 2011 season with a 43-24 victory over Virginia in the Chick-fil-a Bowl on Dec. 31. Auburn’s 2012 schedule features eight games against bowl participants from a year ago, including five that played in traditional New Year’s games.
  • Junior punter Steven Clark, one of three finalists for last year’s Ray Guy Award, is one of two returning first team All-SEC honorees for Auburn, along with junior defensive end Corey Lemonier. Returnees Philip Lutzenkirchen (senior tight end) and Onterio McCalebb (senior all-purpose back) were second team all-SEC selections in 2011.
LSU
  • The Tigers have four running backs coming back who had seven or more rushing touchdowns (Spencer Ware 8, Kenny Hilliard 8, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue 7).
  • LSU has five returning offensive linemen with starts to their credit, led by C P.J. Lonergan with 26 and OG Josh Dworczyk with 26. Other linemen with career starts to their credit include LT Chris Faulk (13), RT Alex Hurst (23) and RG Josh Williford (9). A sixth offensive lineman – La’el Collins – came out of spring practice as possibly the starter at left guard.
  • Defensively, LSU returns its top two tacklers (Tyrann Mathieu 76, Eric Reid 76) and its top two leaders in both tackles for loss (Barkevious Mingo 15.0, Sam Montgomery 13.5) and sacks (Montgomery 9.0, Mingo 8.0).
  • LSU returns 11 players on defense that started at least one game a year ago, including five defensive linemen.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Mississippi State is one of only two SEC teams to bring back all 10 on-field coaches from last season. The entire staff continuity is a first in more than a decade (1999-2000) for the Bulldogs.
  • Dan Mullen enters the 2012 campaign with 21 wins in his first three seasons, the second most in school history (Alllyn McKeen, 26, 1939-41). Mississippi State had only won 21 games over any three-year stretch eight times prior to Mullen’s arrival.
  • Wide receiver Chad Bumphis enters the season with 101 career receptions, good for eighth in school history and 61 shy of David Smith’s (1968-70) record of 162. The Tupelo native needs five touchdowns to reach the school record of 17 held by Eric Moulds (1993-95) and Justin Jenkins (2000-03).
OLE MISS
  • Five returning offensive linemen have each started five or more games in their career, including junior starting center Evan Swindall. Senior A.J. Hawkins and sophomore Aaron Morris settled in at the guards during the spring, while a pair of potential first-time starters, junior Emmanuel McCray and mid-year JUCO transfer Pierce Burton, have taken the lead at the tackles.
  • Special teams remains a strength of the Rebels, led by 2010 NCAA punting champion and two-time All-SEC senior Tyler Campbell. In addition, senior K Bryson Rose has made 25 of 29 career field goals and 65-of-67 PATs.
  • In the return game, junior running back Jeff Scott has established himself as a weapon during his career, ranking 20th in the country in kickoff returns in 2010 and helping Ole Miss finish third as a team nationally in punt returns in 2011.
TEXAS A&M
  • Senior Dustin Harris enters the 2012 football season as the reigning punt return average statistical champion. The cornerback from Livingston, Texas, led the NCAA with a 18.9 average on 18 returns in 2011, with a 72-yard touchdown return against Kansas. Against the Jayhawks, Harris set a school record with 162 punt return yards.
  • Senior Ryan Swope, from Austin, Texas, has career numbers of 180 catches for 2,204 yards and is chasing Jeff Fuller’s school records of 233 catches for 3,092 yards. Fuller’s records would appear to be within range after Swope’s record-setting junior season that saw him set school standards with 89 catches for 1,207 yards.
  • The Aggies led the nation with 51 sacks in 2011 (six more than the second-best team), and A&M’s top two pass-rushing threats return in 2012. In fact, Texas A&M is the only team in the nation with two returnees that posted 8.5 or more sacks in 2011. Senior Sean Porter led the Big 12 with .73 sacks per game (No. 19 nationally), while junior Damontre Moore chipped in .71 per game (No. 21 nationally).
  • Despite attempting the ninth most pass attempts in the NCAA FBS, the Aggies did a remarkable job of protecting their quarterback in 2011. In 13 games, A&M allowed just nine sacks for a NCAA-low 44 lost yards. Four of five starters return from the 2011 offensive front, including juniors-to-be OTs Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, who have been mentioned as first-round draft picks in several early 2013 mock drafts.
  • The offensive line was penalized for holding just twice in 2011 and enters 2012 with a streak of 11 straight games without a holding call against a lineman.
If new Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is going to get his spread offense off the ground in Oxford, he's going to have to see a lot of positive changes from his offensive line.

What entered the spring as the Rebels' most experienced unit left as arguably its weakest, as it struggled to transition to Freeze's new offense.

"The tempo of which we want to do it with caused some problems and we still have a ways to go in that adjustment period," Freeze said of his offensive line Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeRandall Mackey
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisRandall Mackey was a bright spot this spring for Ole Miss, contributing at quarterback, running back and as a receiver.
Ole Miss lost potential first-round pick Bobby Massie and three-year starter Bradley Sowell before spring, but watched as its returning starters struggled throughout the 15 spring practices.

Guard Matt Hall, who started 11 games at right guard last season, was missing for the first part of the spring before he eventually left the team. Fellow guard Patrick Junen, who started six games at left guard, ran with the first team at times, but continued to struggle picking up Freeze's offense throughout spring.

Rising senior A.J. Hawkins, who played in and started five games at center last year, took reps at guard, while rising junior center Evan Swindall (seven starts) was able to stay at his past position and might have been the Rebels' most consistent lineman.

Rising sophomore Aaron Morris (five starts) shined at times, while the tackle spots were filled by redshirt junior Emmanuel McCray, who missed all of last season but played in 12 games in 2010, and junior college transfer Pierce Burton.

There were bright spots here and there, but overall, Ole Miss' offensive line didn't excel. There are a lot of career games along the front five, but it'll take more than experience to get this group going before the season starts.

While Freeze was down on his offensive line, he was impressed by a couple of skill players this spring. Freeze said rising junior wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan had "the most consistent spring at wide receiver." Logan only caught 20 passes for 274 yards and zero touchdowns last season, but he's a big body who the staff hopes can be used as a deep threat in this offense.

He caught three passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

Freeze was also pleased with how Randall Mackey performed, even with all the moving around he did. After being a starting quarterback for the Rebels last season, Mackey moved to wide receiver. As one of Ole Miss' best pure athletes, he took reps in the slot, as a wildcat quarterback and as a running back.

In Ole Miss' spring game, Mackey completed two passes -- both touchdowns -- for 44 yards, caught a pass for 4 yards, and carried the ball twice for 16 yards.

"He's a talented kid," Freeze said, "and I expect him to give us an added boost to the offense from playing all the many positions that he'll play."

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