Winning the SEC West requires a mixture of coaching, discipline, and luck. And to some extent, you just need to be better than everyone else in the Division. Or the really good team needs to be on probation at the moment. It's June, and that means here at RCR, we are just throwing words at the internet and seeing what sticks. Stack-Ups are what's sticking today.
Last week, we compared the SEC West's quarterbacks. And Gonzo was there in full force; so that was the bomb.
Today, we're all about that position that kinda sounds like "quarterback" when Larry Munson says it: cornerbacks (and safeties). DEFENSIVE BACKS!
It is amazing - and indicative that the Tide is still quite talented - that when talking about Alabama, the punditry is not automatically talking about Javier Arenas. He is far more important to the Tide as a return man than as a cornerback, but for a guy that had 44 solo tackles (14 more than the more-heralded defender D.J. Moore at Vanderbilt) he ain't half bad at the day job. Justin Woodall brings back four interceptions. And Kareem Jackson is listed as a returning starter, as well at the other cornerback slot. Of course, these are the same guys that gave up 336 yards through the air to Utah, so only so much can be said for bringing back last year's guys. As a unit, these fellows return 9 interceptions, which is certainly a satisfactory number, if not electrifying. It's a group that has frustrating written all over it for Tide fans because, with all the experience returned, they are still going to give up big performances by the more challenging aerial attacks.
If everybody scored secondaries the way I score golf rounds, the 2008 Hog defensive backs would have a real argument that they were among the best in the SEC; nay the whole country. Instead, they finished tenth in the SEC and got lit the heck up by people like Mike Hartline, Tyson Lee, and whoever plays quarterback for UL-Monroe and Tulsa. (Full disclosure, the Rebels, don't forget, finished last in the SEC in pass defense, but we'll get to that in due time) This unit is full of guys whose middle name must be "If he can step up this season ..." and hopes of JUCO transfer production. Those JUCO's are named Anthony Leon and Rudell Crim (am I the only one who wishes Anthony Leon would transpose his name so that the Arkansas' secondary could be anchored by the very Arkansas-sounding tandem of "Leon and Rudell?"). It's not a top-flight squad, and adding insult to injury is that the guy about whom they ought to be most excited, Elton Ford, has been out since a neck injury in last year's game against Hootin' Dale.
Defensive backs, in keeping with a pretty respectable tradition on the plains, look to be the highlight of, perhaps, the whole team. The team leading tacklers last season, Mike McNeil and Zac Ethridge, are both still in school with eligibility (so, "returning" in one sense), but both missed time this spring with injuries (so, "returning" has something of a flexible timetable). Oh, and Jarraud Powers' replacement, senior Aairon Savage, is recovering from a knee injury. This is all to say that if the staff at Plains General Hospital can do for Auburn's safeties and cornerbacks what they haven't been able to do for Gregory House, the returning talent for what was a good Auburn defense ought to see an upgrade from "stable" to "wicked awesome."
Honorary Rebel Chris Low swears these guys will be better this year. And one thing, they don't lack is depth. Another thing they don't lack is coaching. Everybody seems to be a John Chavis fan; count me among the everybodies. Chavis moved their leading tackler from last year, Harry Coleman, from safety to linebacker. They're happy with Chad Jones at free safety and Patrick Peterson at cornerback. And, supposedly, Cornerback-to-Safety convert Ron Brooks is the class of this deep field. What's the storyline you keep hearing, though? Oh, yes, it's that, for all the hype, no one in this group was really a game-changer last year. Blue-faced professions of talent only go so far. The production on the field is yet to be seen.
Ole Miss fans wish many happy returns to Derek Pegues, who parlayed a disappointing senior season into a disappointing draft day. But now he's gone, and nobody on this staff will be for State what Pegues as for the Maroon in 2007. Between their projected starters (Zach Smith and Charles Mitchell at Safety; Marcus Washington and Damien Anderson at Corner), there are just about 7 or 8 starts. I should also note that Jerrell Powe has infinitely more interceptions (1) than their projected starting secondary. I'm sure that, in reality, State's secondary will be serviceable (as it usually is) and, statistically, it might actually look semi-impressive (at some point teams will stop throwing the ball against them).
In Oxford, for the first time in what seems like a long time, people aren't just talking about violations when they say "secondary." The defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl, Marshay Green, looked good in spring practice. The Rebels have, I might say similarly to Alabama, solid experience at the position (if that experience was not all good). This unit was dead last in the conference in pass defense in 2008, and their solid performance in the Cotton Bowl may just have been the Dr. Jekyll to a more more prevalent Mr. Hyde. However, we can look to Kendrick Lewis, the second-leading tackler among Safeties in the SEC last year, to provide leadership along with Marshay. I expect moderate improvement.
Every SEC West team ought to be a little tentative about calling its defensive backs "The Best in the West." Where some teams lack talent, they have experience. Where others lack experience, they have talent. And some teams might not have a whole lot of either. The punditry, though, seem pretty well agreed that LSU has too much depth, speed, and the leadership of old men not to turn things around and be a special unit. Who am I to disagree?
4. Ole Miss