SCOTT: The SEC's most prominent defections

It used to be said that the SEC has three basic seasons: football, recruiting and spring football. It might be time to add a fourth season: the period between the end of the season and the deadline to apply for the NFL Draft.

Losing the combination of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and offensive line coach Stacy Searels will hurt LSU temporarily, but there's enough talent, depth and coaching returning to ensure the Tigers will be the top contender for the SEC West title this fall.

 

Not every SEC program can say the same following the departure of some of the conference's underclassmen to the 2007 NFL Draft.

 

Just as the SEC was once again rising to top of the college football world in 2006 after a relatively down cycle, some of the players who elevated the conference will be playing in the NFL this fall. That's something every top program has come to expect in recent seasons, but it's not something every team can survive without taking a big hit or two.

 

It's all too easy to question the decisions of individual players, but it's just as easy to be wrong about the needs, desires and goals of those players. Some have economic and family concerns to address. Some are simply ready to move on to their chosen profession.

 

Moving past those individual decisions and LSU's well-documented comings and goings in recent weeks, let's take a look at the rest of the SEC's losses to see how various programs stack up now that the dealing for entering the draft has left its mark on the conference.

 

 

FLORIDA: No SEC team took a harder hit than Florida in the two weeks following the Gators' impressive win over Ohio State in the BCS National Championship game on Jan. 8.

 

It's tough enough losing seniors such as quarterback Chris Leak, receivers Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius, Wynn, fullback Billy Latsko, center Steve Rissler, defensive linemen Ray McDonald, Steven Harris and Joe Cohen, linebackers Earl Everett and Brian Crum, cornerback Reggie Lewis, punter Eric Wilbur and kicker Chris Hetland.

 

Now the Gators must move on without four juniors who declared for the draft: safety Reggie Nelson, defensive end Jarvis Moss, cornerback Ryan Smith and linebacker Brandon Siler.

 

The Gators caught a break when defensive end Derrick Harvey and wide receiver Andre Caldwell decided to return for their senior seasons, but the 2007 NFL Draft will take a heavy toll on a defense that exacted a heavy price from Ohio State's Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith in the BCS National Championship.

 

The decisions of those juniors and the loss of 21 seniors now leave the Gators with just eight seniors-to-be and just seven juniors-to-be for the 2007 season. Critics claimed coach Urban Meyer won with former coach Ron Zook's staff, but the gaps between the departing players and Meyer's freshmen is significant.

 

The bulk of the talent on the roster in this fall's sophomores, with players such as quarterback Tim Tebow, versatile receiver Percy Harvin and return specialist Brandon James.

 

Meyer has already made it clear that many of the current recruits preparing to sign with Florida will be needed on the field this fall. That means the Gators will be dangerously young for awhile.

 

That would prevent the Gators from contending for another SEC title, but don't be surprised if they endure a "down" season or two (relative to the 2006 season) before they're on top and contending for a national championship again.

 

 

ARKANSAS: Without a doubt, no SEC team took more controversial hits than Arkansas in the month of January.

 

When the Razorbacks lost two junior defensive starters, end Jamaal Anderson and cornerback Chris Houston, to the NFL Draft, few were surprised by their decisions.

 

The shock hit when offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn took off for Tulsa after just one season at Arkansas. Malzahn came to Arkansas from Springdale (Ark.) High School at the insistence of athletic director Frank Broyles and against the wishes of head coach Houston Nutt, who had always been his own offensive coordinator and called the plays.

 

Soon after Malzahn's hiring, three of Springdale's best players – quarterback Mitch Mustain, wide receiver Damian Williams and tight end Ben Cleveland – signed with Arkansas.

 

Malzahn was supposed to open up the Arkansas offense with more spread formations and passing, but according to various media reports and other sources, Malzahn never really fit in because the coaching staff wouldn't allow it. Too many egos were involved, with Nutt doing most of the damage to Malzahn's credibility and playbook.

 

Mustain started eight games and the Hogs won all eight before he was demoted in favor of sophomore Casey Dick. Williams and Cleveland played an active role in the offense until late in the season when Nutt took control of the offensive game plan to favor of the running game. Malzahn introduced the diverse Wildcat package that used tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in multiple roles, but Nutt's ego forced the Razorbacks to abandon the plan before a poor offensive performance against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.

 

Along the way, the parents of Mustain, Williams and Cleveland met with Broyles to express their belief that they had been deceived by Nutt during the recruiting process.

Nutt eventually informed Malzahn he would be demoted and would no longer call the plays and started looking for a new offensive coordinator midway through the 2006 season. By the time Nutt hired former Arkansas quarterbacks coach David Lee away from the Dallas Cowboys to run the offense, Mustain had already left to become co-coordinator and assistant head coach at Tulsa and Mustain had received his release from Arkansas.

 

With Williams leaving the program in December and transferring to USC and the departure of both Malzahn and Mustain, only Cleveland remains from the original Springdale Four.

 

Perhaps the Razorbacks will find a way to adequately replace Anderson, Houston, Williams, Mustain and Malzahn, but it will be difficult for Nutt to overcome the public hits he's taken over the past three weeks. Many Arkansas fans are angry over the way he's handled the whole mess and he could be one disappointing season away from losing his job.

 

 

GEORGIA: The Bulldogs weren't hit as near as hard as the Gators but then again, they didn't have as much talent to lose. The most painful loss is defensive end Charles Johnson, who outplayed preseason All-American defensive end Quentin Moses throughout the 2006 season and might end being a higher draft choice now.

 

The most curious decision is the departure of tailback Danny Ware. His Georgia career got off to a great start in 2004 when he became the first freshman since 1943 to start a season opener at tailback for the Bulldogs. He gained 135 yards on 18 carries and scored three touchdowns in his first game but eventually fell into a rotation with Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin over the past two seasons.

 

Ware finished his junior season as Georgia's second-leading rusher behind Lumpkin but recorded career-lows in both carries (81) and rushing yards (326). His stats most likely would have been even lower if Brown had not suffered a season-ending injury midway through the season.

 

While Ware isn't considered a first-day draft pick by any means, he figured if he wasn't going to start and see more playing time as a senior he might as well move on to the NFL.

 

"I just looked at the situation of how many running backs we had and just came to the realization it wasn't going to be any different than this year," Ware said.

 

While his departure doesn't deprive the Bulldogs of a star player, it does leave Georgia with some uncertain depth at tailback. Brown has a lot of work to do to get healthy for the 2007 season so the Bulldogs will most likely need plenty of help from redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno and incoming freshman Caleb King.

 

On the plus side, two defensive starters - cornerback Paul Oliver and linebacker Brandon Miller - decided to return for their senior seasons. Oliver's return is especially important because it gives the Bulldogs a solid cover guy one side of the field. At 6-4, 250 pounds, Miller is expected to make the move to defensive end and replace Johnson.

 

 

SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks are only losing one junior, but wide receiver Sidney Rice will be tough to replace. As LSU fans have seen with Dwayne Bowe, it's hard to find that combination of size, speed, hands and the agility to make plays in tight coverage.

 

The draft will be deep in talented junior receivers, but the Gamecocks are not that deep or talented at receiver without Rice. Kenny McKinley becomes South Carolina's most accomplished receiver but the offense will need more help from Freddie Brown, Jared Cook and Moe Brown. Coach Steve Spurrier has already made it clear he won't think twice about turning to a newcomer, whether it's junior college transfer Larry Freeman or one of the four high school receivers who have already committed to the Gamecocks.

 

On the plus side, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley decided to return for his senior year after leading the team in tackles in his first season at South Carolina.

 

 

TENNESSEE: After two years of showing hints of his potential, wide receiver Robert Meachem finally grew into his talent as a junior, emerging as one of the nation's top receivers.

 

His loss will be felt at Tennessee and not because of his ability to make big plays. Tennessee's other top receivers, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith, were seniors in 2006 so the Vols have a lot of rebuilding to do in their passing game in 2007.

 

The good news for the offense is the return of senior-to-be quarterback Erik Ainge and the return of all three tailbacks. Then again, the Vols often struggled to run the ball effectively last season – even with Meachem, Swain and Smith. It will be interesting to see what the Vols do with their offense in 2007.

 

 

AUBURN: Auburn caught a big break when defensive end Quentin Groves decided to return for his senior season. Groves has been an effective pass rusher the past two seasons, but at 6-3, 250 pounds, he'll need to show more versatility to improve his stock with NFL teams.

 

With defensive coordinator Will Muschamp committed to adding more 3-4 diversity to Auburn's 4-3 base defense, Groves will get a chance to show what he can do as a stand-up linebacker. The plan is to move him around to avoid double teams, put him in attacking situations and make use of his speed off the edge. If Groves makes good use of his opportunities, he'll likely be a prospect for the NFL's 3-4 teams.

 

"I've coached some good linebackers. He's as good as I've been around," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "He's got speed. He's got quickness. He's got the height. He has good athletic ability. The thing about what happened to him last year is that he played a different position. Another year in this defense will really help him learn to rush the passer on one play, blitz one play, drop back and cover a back or a receiver the next play. He's going to be a hot commodity next year in the draft. He's the type of guy they're looking for."

 

 

KENTUCKY: It might be hard to believe, but Kentucky is probably the SEC's biggest postseason winner at this point. With quarterback Andre Woodson, tailback Rafael Little and wide receiver Keenan Burton all choosing to return for their senior seasons, the Wildcats will continue to build a much-improved offense around their trio of proven playmakers.

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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