10 SEC position groups under an intense microscope this season
JUL 30, 2014 2:52p ET
The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success -- and 2014 is no exception.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the top positions that must produce this season.
All eyes in Tuscaloosa will be on the quarterback battle, but the Crimson Tide must address its cornerback spot after struggling in key moments against the pass.
Florida’s offense struggled mightily last season and will be under the direction of new coordinator Kurt Roper. The Gators need a big year from quarterback Jeff Driskel, but the supporting cast has to give the junior signal-caller more help.
Let's take a closer look at those situations and eight more below.
Alabama Defensive Backs (CB)
The quarterback battle will garner most of the preseason attention in Tuscaloosa, but Alabama’s secondary could be a bigger concern. The Crimson Tide finished No. 3 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 55.5 percent of their throws. Despite the third-best conference finish, this unit was torched by Oklahoma (348 yards, three scores) and Texas A&M (464 yards, five touchdowns). Eddie Jackson was slated to start at one cornerback spot, but a torn ACL will sideline the sophomore indefinitely. Juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones are the frontrunners to start at cornerback, with freshmen Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown expected to push for snaps this fall. With the turnover at quarterback in SEC, the cornerback position isn’t a huge concern for coach Nick Saban. However, this unit has to play better against spread teams and could be a potential stumbling block in the playoffs if Alabama meets Florida State.
Auburn Defensive Line
Improving on defense is a top priority this offseason for coach Gus Malzahn, but this unit has already suffered a setback due to an ACL injury to end Carl Lawson. The sophomore was expected to play a key role in Auburn’s pass rush, especially with the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL. With Lawson sidelined, the Tigers will ask more of junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, along with sophomores Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. Senior LaDarius Owens is penciled in at one end spot, and Gabe Wright could shift between end and tackle this year. Coordinator Ellis Johnson isn’t hurting for talent, but there are a handful of new faces stepping into new roles. The Tigers allowed 162.1 rushing yards per game in 2013.
Florida Wide Receivers
From 2006-10, Florida had six receivers selected in the NFL Draft. Since 2010, it’s been a different story in Gainesville. The Gators haven’t had a receiver drafted since 2010 and no wide receiver has recorded more than 600 yards in a season since 2009. Last season, Florida pass-catchers averaged only 10.3 yards per catch. Improving the offense is a top priority for coach Will Muschamp this year, and new coordinator Kurt Roper is tasked with finding a quick fix for a unit that averaged only 18.8 points per game last year. Not only must quarterback Jeff Driskel pickup his performance for Florida to double its win total from 2013, but the receivers have to provide more help. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the top returning performer (40 catches), and sophomores Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson are back after combining for 23 receptions last year. There’s certainly talent on the depth chart, but this unit has to provide more big plays, consistency and overall better performance in 2014.
Georgia Defensive Backs
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt should provide a quick fix for a Georgia defense that allowed 29 points per game in 2013. The Bulldogs have a strong front seven, led by a linebacking corps that could be the best in the nation. The secondary is the main area of focus for Pruitt, and he will coach this unit in 2014. Shaq Wiggins and Tray Matthews transferred this offseason, leaving senior Damian Swann and sophomore safety Quincy Mauger as the only returning starters. Junior college recruit Shattle Fenteng, redshirt freshman Aaron Davis, converted running back J.J. Green and true freshman Malkom Parrish lack experience but could play significant snaps in 2014. Pruitt doesn’t inherit elite talent in the secondary like he had at Florida State, and he will need to mix and match in the fall to find the right combination. With the turnover at cornerback and safety, along with the performance of this group in 2013, Georgia needs its front seven to set the tone on defense. However, with matchups against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season, the secondary will be under pressure early and often.
LSU Defensive Line
Make no mistake: The Tigers aren’t hurting for talent in the trenches. However, LSU ranked eighth in conference-only games last season by allowing 170.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. John Chavis’ defensive front also registered only 15 sacks in eight league matchups, the lowest number for the Tigers since recording 11 in 2009. Junior Danielle Hunter and senior Jermauria Rasco should start at end this year, and both players should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. The tackle position is up in the air, as Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson departed after 2013. Sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas are listed as the starters on the preseason depth chart, but freshmen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore should push for snaps. Considering the amount of athleticism, speed and talent at this position, LSU’s defensive line will eventually be one of the best in the SEC. The opener against Wisconsin should provide a good barometer test for a unit that has room to improve after 2013.
Missouri Wide Receivers
Despite the departure of Dorial Green-Beckham, the Tigers aren’t in bad shape at receiver. In addition to replacing DGB, Missouri’s L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas expired their eligibility, leaving senior Bud Sasser as the No. 1 statistical option from 2013 (361 yards). In addition to Sasser, seniors Darius White and Jimmie Hunt are expected to round out the starting trio, with freshmen J’Mon Moore, Lawrence Lee, and Nate Brown vying for snaps. New quarterback Maty Mauk impressed in limited action and should be one of the SEC’s top passers in 2014. DGB will be missed, but the talent is there for Missouri to not suffer a dramatic drop in production. Can Sasser become the go-to option? Or will Hunt or White seize that spot? Although there’s talent, it may take a few games for Missouri to settle its pecking order at receiver.
Ole Miss Offensive Line
Thanks to back-to-back top 20 recruiting classes under coach Hugh Freeze, the depth and overall talent on the Ole Miss roster has improved. But the one area of concern on offense in 2014 has to be the line. Sophomore Laremy Tunsil returns after a standout freshman season and should team with guard Aaron Morris (back from ACL surgery) to form a strong combination on the left side. Junior Justin Bell is expected to start at right guard after making 13 starts in 2013, while Ben Still is penciled in at center. The right tackle spot could go to Robert Conyers, but junior college recruit Fahn Cooper could also factor into the mix. Even though the starting five could rank in the top half of best SEC offensive lines, depth is a concern. Freshman Rod Taylor may have to play immediately at guard, with redshirt freshman Davion Johnson providing depth at tackle. An injury up front could be a big problem for the Rebels.
South Carolina Defensive Backs
The Gamecocks finished 2013 ranked seventh in the SEC in pass defense efficiency, limiting opponents to just 15 touchdown passes and a completion percentage under 60 percent (59.9). This unit must replace cornerbacks Victor Hampton (second-team All-SEC) and Jimmy Legree, while also dealing with extra pressure due to the departure of standout linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. Depth at cornerback is thin, and the situation could get more perilous if incoming freshmen Chris Lammons and Wesley Green fail to qualify. Senior Brison Williams is listed on the preseason depth chart at safety but could shift to cornerback. Sophomore Rico McWilliams (one tackle in 2013) is slated to start at the other corner spot. This unit is thin on proven options, which is cause for concern with Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia in the first three weeks of the season.
Tennessee Offensive Line
The Volunteers are starting from scratch on the offensive line, replacing all five starters from a unit that allowed 12 sacks in SEC games last year. Making matters worse for second-year coach Butch Jones is there’s little in the way of proven options stepping into the starting role. Center Mack Crowder made one start in 2013, while guard Marcus Jackson redshirted after playing in 24 games in his first two years on campus. The Volunteers hope junior college recruit Dontavius Blair can step in at left tackle, with junior Kyler Kerbyson and freshman Coleman Thomas in the mix to anchor the right side. This unit is young, unproven and inexperienced. Building a cohesive line will take some time, which isn’t good news for a team that takes on Utah State, Oklahoma and Georgia before October.
Texas A&M Defensive Line
All three of Texas A&M’s defensive units warrant a mention in this article, but we will focus on the line. The Aggies allowed 236.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests last year and generated only 14 sacks. This unit has already suffered a few setbacks in the offseason, as end Gavin Stansbury left the team in July, and tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed after an off-the-field incident. Incoming freshman Myles Garrett ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 247Sports Composite for 2014, and he will have to play a significant role. Coordinator Mark Snyder also needs freshmen Zaycoven Henderson, Justin Manning and sophomore Daeshon Hall to emerge as key contributors. There’s talent available, but how quickly can this unit find its footing with new faces stepping into major roles? With an opener against South Carolina, Texas A&M needs to find answers in the fall.
OTHER POSITION GROUPS FEELING THE HEAT:
The last Arkansas linebacker to win first-team All-SEC honors was Sam Olajubutu in 2006. This position has seen its share of ups and downs in Fayetteville recent years, and the Razorbacks enter 2013 with just one returning starter. Senior Braylon Mitchell headlines the unit after recording 77 stops in 2013, but Arkansas needs Martrell Spaight, Otha Peters and Brooks Ellis to step up this year.
Georgia offensive line
Three starters depart from a line that allowed only nine sacks in eight SEC contests. Center David Andrews is one of the best in the SEC, and tackle John Theus returns after making eight starts in 2013. The other three spots on the line are up for grabs this fall.
Kentucky wide receivers
This unit was littered with inexperience and question marks last season, and three newcomers (Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Ryan Timmons) finished as the team leaders in receiving yards. The outlook for Kentucky’s pass catchers is better in 2014, but coordinator Neal Brown still needs more consistency from this group. Keep an eye on newcomers T.V. Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass.
Mississippi State running backs
Quarterback Dak Prescott led the Bulldogs with 829 yards in 2013, and LaDarius Perkins – the No. 1 running back in 2013 – departs after recording 542 yards on 137 yards last year. Junior Josh Robinson, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and true freshman Aeris Williams are expected to handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield, and it’s critical the Bulldogs get consistent production from their running backs to limit the wear and tear on Prescott during the season.
Missouri defensive backs
The Tigers return only one starter from a secondary that finished No. 6 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last year. Cornerback E.J. Gaines will be missed, but senior safety Braylon Webb will push for All-SEC honors, and sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson played well at corner in limited action last year.
South Carolina defensive line
The Gamecocks’ defensive line was depleted with the departures of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with standout tackle Kelcy Quarles. Due to the losses up front, coordinator Lorenzo Ward may utilize more 3-4 looks in 2014. A drastic drop in production isn’t expected, but the Gamecocks need contributions from junior college recruit Abu Lamin and sophomores Gerald Dixon and Darius English.
Tennessee defensive line
Much like the offensive line, Tennessee’s defensive front is in need of major repair entering fall practice. The Volunteers will have four new starters and expect major contributions from freshmen Dewayne Hendrix, Charles Mosley and Derek Barnett. Sophomore Corey Vereen could be in for a breakout season.
Vanderbilt defensive backs
The defensive backfield was a strength for Vanderbilt last season, finishing sixth among SEC teams (conference-only games) in pass efficiency defense. This unit heads into fall practice under construction, as four new starters must emerge. The secondary isn’t without talent, as junior Andrew Williamson and sophomore Paris Head are two building blocks for 2014.