With just two days remaining until the NFL drafts, all eyes are on the last two Heisman Trophy winners, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (2014) and Florida State’s Jameis Winston (2013). History tells us that Heisman winners rarely live up to the hype in the NFL and that the best quarterback bargains are often found somewhere other than the first round (see Tom Brady). Winston will probably go to the Tampa Bay Bucs with the #1 overall pick while Mariota could go as high as #2 if the Tennessee Titans elect to go with a QB over stud defensive end Leonard Williams or trade the pick to someone like the Philadelphia Eagles, who can dangle another former Heisman winner (Sam Bradford) as trade bait.
Whatever happens at the top of the draft, the best quarterback could very well turn out to be the guy Florida head coach Jim McElwain spent the last three years coaching. Garrett Grayson has quietly moved up everybody’s charts to the point some scouts have him rated better than UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.
Take a good long look at Grayson’s productivity the last two seasons. He threw for 4,006 yards, averaged 9.54 per attempt and connected for 32 touchdown passes last season. As a junior, he threw for 3,696 yards, averaged 7.73 per pass and hit 23 touchdown passes. In the past two seasons, Florida’s quarterbacks have thrown for a combined 4,210 yards, averaged 6.33 per pass attempt and hit 29 touchdown passes.
Now, also take a look at the fact that Grayson came to Colorado State as a read option quarterback who operated out of a spread, a similar offense to the one he ran as a freshman at CSU. Grayson was an unranked quarterback. Translation: no stars.
That Grayson could be the third quarterback taken in the NFL Draft and the fact that his 2014 was better in most ways than the last two seasons combined for Florida’s quarterbacks bodes well for the future for Will Grier and Treon Harris. Those two might struggle in the early going in trying to adapt to McElwain, but history tells us that patience might be a good thing. Grayson didn’t exactly burn it up his first year in Mac’s offense (2012) but he got better each year and ended up a quarterback who might, years from now when we compare what they did in the NFL, surpass the Heisman Trophy winners who will be selected above him in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Not even a hint from Oklahoma City about what the Thunder will do for a head coach next season, which seems to add credence to the rumor that Chicago Bulls head man Tom Thibodeau is the main target. Of course, there are other openings so Donovan will have more than one opportunity if he wishes to leave for the NBA. At this point, however, it does look more like Donovan will be back next season. His only comment Monday was regarding Eli Carter, who will graduate and transfer to a school up north.
Now that spring practice is over everywhere in the SEC, here is an early look at the defensive lines at all 14 schools for 2015.
Alabama: After a second half of the 2014 season in which Alabama’s defense was exposed multiple times, most notably by Auburn (630 yards including 456 through the air) and Ohio State (281 rushing, 256 passing), Nick Saban says, “We need to get our mojo back … we need to get our identity back.” Alabama’s defense is no longer feared and that has everything to do with why Saban shook up his defensive staff. Bama gave up more than 174 yards rushing on five occasions. It is imperative to get A’Shawn Robinson back to his freshman form when he dominated in the middle and got 5.5 sacks (zero last year). For Robinson to be better, the ends in this 3-4 setup (Jonathan Allen and Jarrad Reed) have to be more productive. There is hope that incoming freshman Da’Ron Payne (6-3, 350) can become the monster in the middle. There is no shortage of able bodies and it’s doubtful Nick Saban will stand for another season like last year.
Arkansas: Gone is Trey Flowers (18 career sacks, 47.5 tackles for loss). That’s the bad news. The good news is the other nine linemen who make up the two-deep are back and this is a defense that continually improved last season and posted back to back shutouts over ranked teams in November. This isn’t your typical SEC D-line, loaded up with 300-pounders. At 272 Darius Philon was the heaviest of the four down linemen but they were only pushed around twice in 13 games and held Texas to 2 yards rushing in the bowl game. Nose tackle Taiwan Johnson (256 pounds) returns as a starter along with Philon at the tackles and end Jamichael Winston. In short yardage situations, the Hogs bring in 335-pound DeMarcus Hodge and 334-pound Bijhon Jackson.
Auburn: Expectations are that this will become a dominant unit now that Will Muschamp is the defensive coordinator. The Tigers had problems stopping the run last year (4.45 per carry; Wisconsin ran for 400 yards in the bowl) and generated very little pressure (21 sacks) on the quarterback. The pass rush is expected to be much better with the return from injury of Carl Lawson (4 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss in 2013) who missed all of last year. Finding a tackle to work next to Montravius Adams (43 tackles, 3 sacks, 8 tackles for loss last year) is a priority. In the fall Auburn will have only five true tackles. The incoming freshman class includes rush end Byron Cowart who is expected to battle Gimel President for the starting role at buck end.
Florida: Will Muschamp may have left a bare offensive cupboard but that’s not the case on the D-line. Although the Gators will miss the productivity of rush end Dante Fowler Jr. (14.5 career sacks, 44 tackles for loss) and nose tackle Darious Cummings (30 tackles last season, 2 sacks), there is no shortage of able bodies or talent. Look for a four-man tackle rotation of Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark. On the outside, Alex McCalister (6 sacks last year), Jonathan Bullard (112 career tackles, 8.5 sacks, 23 QB hurries), Bryan Cox Jr. (4 sacks last year) and redshirt freshmanTaven Bryan will rotate in and out. Expect stud freshman CeCe Jefferson to move into the rotation quickly. The Gators are deep, fast and very strong. This could be one of the nation’s premier D-lines if they continue to develop.
Georgia: Georgia transitioned to first year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s scheme with mixed results last year. There were games like Missouri when the Bulldogs dominated (only 50 rushing yards) but there were also games like Florida (418 rushing yards) and Georgia Tech (399). When spring practice ended, the Bulldogs had only seven true D-linemen and two of those were early entry freshmen. Sterling Bailey (1 start), Josh Dawson (4 starts) and James DeLoach (14 tackles in three years) are the experienced ends while Chris Mayes (7 career tackles) is the nose tackle. The freshman class will have to play early and often and Georgia needs stud tackle Trent Thompson to live up to the high school hype.
Kentucky: In switching to a 3-4 this spring, Mark Stoops is hoping the Wildcats can do a better job against the run (191.17 yards per game and 4.49 per carry last year). When spring concluded, the starting D-line was Matt Elam (6-7, 360), Melvin Lewis (6-4, 342) and rush end Jason Hatcher (6-3, 249). Kentucky might have a hard time replacing the pressure off the edge they got last year from ends Bud Dupree (22.5 career sacks, 37 tackles for loss) and Za’Darius Smith (10.5 sacks in two years), who will play in the NFL. It is hoped that juco transfers Alvonte Bell and Courtney Miggins will help with the pass rush.
LSU: Even with Jamauria Rasco (4 sacks, 71 tackles last year) graduating and Danielle Hunter (73 tackles, 2 sacks, 13 tackles for loss last year) leaving early for the NFL no one is the least bit concerned in Baton Rouge. There is always talent in Baton Rouge and now the Tigers have one of the best D-line coaches in the country in Ed Orgeron. Christian LaCourture and Davon Godchaux finished the spring as the starting tackles while Marquedius Bain moved to the outside where he will start with Lewis Neal. Last year the Tigers gave up an unheard of 4.32 per carry and got to the quarterback only 19 times. There is plenty of room for improvement.
Misssissippi State: Although the Bulldogs lost three starters on their front four, so many players rotated in and out last year there are experienced replacements, just not as man of them as the year before. New coordinator Manny Diaz will build around nose tackle Chris Jones (58 tackles and 6 sacks in two years), who will make several preseason All-America teams. Ryan Brown (39 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 10 QB hurries) will be at one end along with A.J. Jefferson (2.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss). Nick James, who sat out last year, returns to the tackle rotation where he brings size (6-5, 325), strength and mobility. The Bulldogs brought in six linemen in the recruiting class including juco Johnathan Calvin, who is expected to bring pressure off the edge.
Missouri: For the second straight year the Tigers lose the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in Shane Ray (13 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss last year) and the bookend defensive end, this year Markus Golden (10 sacks last year). The year before it was Michael Sam and his sidekick Kony Ealy. The good news for Mizzou is the guy who keeps turning these guys into ferocious pass rushers (D-line coach Craig Kuligowski) is back. The ends (probably Marcus Loud and Charles Harris) will be all new but Mizzou keeps cranking out terrors off the edge. Nose tackle Harold Brantley (5 sacks, 7 QB hurries) returns along with 335-pound Josh Augusta. There is plenty of depth with 11 on scholarship and four incoming recruits including stud tackle Terry Beckner.
Ole Miss: Ole Miss gave up only 16 points per game and 329 yards in large part to a front four that excelled until injuries caught up with them in November. Still, Ole Miss gave up only 3.47 yards per carry and got to the QB 28 times. The Rebels return all four starters and this year there is ample depth (18 on scholarship this fall). What makes it all work is tackle Robert Nkemdiche whose numbers aren’t particularly overwhelming (35 tackles, 2 sacks last year) but whose presence causes a minimum of a double team on every play. The Rebels think Marquis Haynes (7.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries, 3 forced fumbles as a freshman) will be All-SEC caliber this year. C.L Johnson and Isaac Gross are the other starters.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks couldn’t get to the quarterback last year (only 14 sacks as a team), which has plenty to do with fourth quarter collapses that cost them four wins. The lack of pressure on the QB has everything to do with why Steve Spurrier brought in Jon Hoke from the NFL as the co-coordinator. Lorenzo Ward will be the co-coordinator but make no mistake, this will be Hoke’s defense and it should be vastly improved. Juco transfer Marquavius Lewis and redshirt freshman Darius English looked good coming off the edge in the spring. Dexter Wideman and Gerald Dixon Jr. will probably start in the middle. The Gamecocks brought in seven linemen in their recruiting class and all seven will get their opportunity to play in the fall.
Tennessee: All those young kids Tennessee has been playing woke up and smelled the coffee one morning around midseason last year, which is one of the big reasons there is so much optimism in Knoxville heading into Butch Jones’ third year on the job. Nine of the ten on the two-deep return from a unit that gave up 4.25 yards per carry but got to the QB 35 times. The Vols caught a break when hybrid end/linebacker Curt Maggitt (11 sacks last year) elected to return for his senior season where he will team up with Derek Barnett, who had 72 tackles and 10 sacks as a true freshman at other end. Danny O’Brien returns at nose tackle. The Vols already impressive depth is bolstered by a 5-man defensive line recruiting class rated best in the country.
Texas A&M: John Chavis, who has made his mark as a coordinator at both Tennessee and LSU, is trying to turn the Aggies into a formidable unit. The Aggies gave up 5.01 yards per running play last year. They were good at pressuring the quarterback (35 sacks) but they still gave up 19 touchdown passes. With Chavis it all starts with the D-line. He’s got three starters returning including Myles Garrett (11.5 sacks, 10 QB hurries), who was often a one-man wrecking crew as a true freshman last year. Julien Obioha was moved inside to tackle during the spring where he will team with nose tackle Alonzo Williams (57 tackles, 5 sacks). Daeshon Hall (4.5 sacks, 4 starts last year) will start at the other end. Much is expected of stud freshman tackle Daylon Mack, who should find his way into the rotation early. Depth will not be an issue.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores had trouble stopping the run (4.43 per rush) they couldn’t get pressure the passer (only 20 sacks). Two of the three starters on the line return along with four of the six on the two-deep. Ends Caleb Azubuike (4 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, 39 tackles) and Adam Butler (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss) are the best of the returnees. Nifae Lealo, who played a lot as a freshman, will be the nose tackle. Depth will be an issue. The Commodores have only seven linemen on scholarship and the recruiting class adds only two more.
Rating the defensive lines in the SEC:
4. Ole Miss
6. Texas A&M
9. Mississippi State
13. South Carolina
The five best defensive linemen in the SEC:
1. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
2. Chris Jones, Mississippi State
3. A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama
4. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
5. Curt Maggitt, Tennessee
Are you confident Jim McElwain can do for Will Grier and Treon Harris what he did for Garrett Grayson?
I’ve been a big fan of FourPlay ever since Bob James put the band together in 1991. James, Nathan East (bass) and Harvey Mason (drums) have been the band’s constants through the years, while the guitar job has been handed down from Lee Ritenour to Larry Carlton to the Chuck Loeb. The music is consistently good and the band is extraordinary in a live show. Today’s music is the album “FourPlay’s Greatest Hits 2012.”