The East has been the most consistent, toughest portion of the SEC for a few years now -- especially with Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina becoming competitive on the gridiron. The question is: Can the East outpace the West right now with the likes of Houston Nutt at Ole Miss, Bobby Petrino at Arkansas and new faces at Auburn and Mississippi State?
Obviously the East is home to national champion Florida and perennial power Georgia, but will Lane Kiffin have Tennessee back in contention sooner or later? Can South Carolina ever get over the hump with its great defense, but with problems at quarterback? The answers lie in recruiting and who has made the best decisions with the prospects they have signed and are about to sign. One thing is for sure -- whether it's the East or West, fast players will be in the mix for every team, which is what seems to set this conference apart from others, top to bottom.
With half of their class residing in the ESPNU 150, the Gators appear to be capitalizing on their second national title in three years. However, the defection of our No. 2-rated CB, Greg Reid (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes), just before the BCS title game stings; the top-flight defensive back says he is no longer considering Florida. We think Reid is another Janoris Jenkins. The addition of WR Andre DeBose (Sanford, Fla./Seminole) couldn't come at a better time; Percy Harvin will depart early for the NFL, and DeBose is Harvin-like in his speed and versatility. DT Gary Brown (Quincy, Fla./West Gadsden) is the best DT in this class whom nobody wanted to recognize until recently.
Top prospect: We would like to say Brown here -- he's a top-flight defensive lineman and they are hard to come by -- however, with Harvin leaving, DeBose is our highest rated Florida commit and with good reason. The speedy and elusive DeBose can do it all -- he's played QB, WR, RB and he returns kicks and punts. DeBose will be joining an already experienced set of skill position players in Gainesville.
Don't be surprised if Florida adds to its linebacking stable with OLB Jelani Jenkins (Wheaton, Md./Good Counsel). Florida is nowhere close to being finished in this class and, along with Alabama, the Gators have the most to gain between now and signing day with undecided recruits.
For starters, how do the Bulldogs replace Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno? Well, the RB position is in good hands due to outstanding recruiting in the 2007 and 2008 classes, with RBs Caleb King and Richard Samuel already on the Georgia roster. Add to the mix 2009 RB Washaun Ealey (Twin City, Ga./Emanuel County) and the Bulldogs will be just fine. The question remains: Will 2009 quarterback recruits Aaron Murray (Tampa, Fla./Plant) and Zach Mettenberger (Watkinsville, Ga./Oconee County) be true contenders with incumbent QB Joe Cox? Both Murray and Mettenberger are enrolled in school now and will be expected to compete right away. It should be noted that 2006 class QB Logan Gray is also in the mix. Murray's the better athlete and gunslinger while Mettenberger will remind Georgia fans of David Greene with a stronger arm. Kudos to Mark Richt and his staff for doing an outstanding job of preparing for Stafford's early departure.
Top prospect: Murray is UGA's most talented incoming recruit, with CB Branden Smith (Atlanta, Ga./Booker T. Washington) as a close second. Both positions are the hardest to project and both are areas of need for Georgia. Murray, in our opinion, has the it factor, and although he lacks great height, he compensates for it with a lightning-quick release and arm, great feet and the ability to improvise.
Don't be surprised if One of these QBs decides to transfer within 18 months of signing.
The Wildcats have done a great job of improving their talent base and depth at quarterback by bringing in Morgan Newton (Indianapolis/Carmel) and Ryan Mossakowski (Frisco, Texas/Centennial) in this class. Newton is a replica of former Kentucky QB Andre Woodson, while Mossakowski is a pure pocket-passer. The Wildcats have also added a couple of excellent sleepers in the Walker brothers, DT Myron Walker and S Jarvis Walker (Metairie, La./Archbishop Rummel). If Myron were a little taller, everyone would have been recruiting him along the defensive line. Kentucky is here to stay as a competitor in the East.
Top prospect: Newton is smart, athletic, displays a nice arm and is extremely competitive. Expect him to redshirt, but if he adjusts through camp this fall he could be a factor with Kentucky's unsettled QB situation.
Don't be surprised if Just like the situation at Georgia, it is hard to please two high-profile QBs in the same class. Expect one to depart at some point.
This group of linebackers and defensive backs could be one of the best ever brought into the SEC. Safeties Stephon Gilmore (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe), Devonte Holloman (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe), Damario Jeffery (Columbia, S.C.) and Chris Payne (Columbia, S.C.) are all committed to the Gamecocks. In fact, all four rank within the top 15 nationally at the safety position and three of them rank in the top six (Gilmore, Holloman and Jeffery). However, we feel Holloman, Jeffery and Payne may end up at OLB in college. RB Jarvis Giles (Tampa, Fla./Gaither) is a big addition. Oh, by the way, where in the heck is a quarterback in this class?
Top prospect: This is a neck and neck race between Gilmore and Holloman. We give Gilmore the slight edge from a versatility standpoint; he has the ability to line up on the perimeter, too. With great ball skills, size and athleticism Gilmore gives you a lot of range in the secondary.
Don't be surprised if Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks struggle with their quarterback play. If QB Stephen Garcia does not pan out, the Gamecocks are in trouble. They have done nothing to address their overall lack of talent and depth at the QB position. It would be an understatement to say Spurrier's frustrated.
In what has been a hectic past three months on the recruiting trail for Tennessee and new coach Lane Kiffin, the Vols have weathered the storm and actually sit less than two weeks away from signing day with an impressive class. Three ESPNU 150 prospects are on board and now that Kiffin has completed his "super-staff" of proven recruiters with NFL gusto, expect a strong finish and also expect some 2010 cages to be rattled. This class needs a QB in the worst way, but Kiffin needs the right guy and that guy may not be available in this class. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and newly acquired linebacker coach Lance Thompson have jumped on board, so the expectation level has been ramped up significantly in Knoxville.
Top prospect: WR Je'Ron Stokes (Philadelphia/North East) could play cornerback or wide receiver. With Tennessee's need for improved offensive skill players at wide receiver, expect Stokes to remain on offense.
Don't be surprised if WR Marlon Brown (Memphis, Tenn./Harding Academy) ends up signing in Knoxville. The Vols need him. He would play right away and could help revamp the Vols' offense.
Vanderbilt is on the map now. Although Vandy's recruiting environment possesses more challenges than most programs, coach Bobby Johnson has worked admirably within difficult parameters to put a quality product on the field. RB Eric Samuels (Umatilla, Fla.) is quite the sleeper. He's one of four prospects committed to Vandy from Florida, which gives you an idea of how and why Vandy has become competitive. DT Darrius McMullin (Birmingham, Ala./Spain Park) is a key addition along the defensive line. Keep an eye on WR Brady Brown (Argyle, Texas). He is a tall possession receiver with great hands and he makes plays.
Top prospect: Samuels and McMullin share the same grade, but defensive tackles are valued at a premium next to only quarterbacks. Both players are excellent additions to this roster.
Don't be surprised if Vanderbilt is not a flash in the pan. The Commodores have had a taste of success now and the current roster and incoming prospects will know that winning is expected, not hoped for, in Nashville.
Tom Luginbill is the National Recruiting Director for ESPN's Scouts Inc.