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July 23, 2008

SEC Notes: LSU trying to move forward

MORE SEC MEDIA DAYS: Tebow cares about more than football | Day One Photo Gallery

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson said he stopped thinking about last season as soon as he received his national championship ring last month, but that hasn't stopped him from receiving constant reminders.

Just last week, Jackson was on his way to watch "The Dark Knight" when a group of fans stopped him at the movie theater and asked for an autograph. Then again, perhaps that served as a reality check since they confused Jackson with LSU defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois.

"I had to show their mom my license because a girl was crying because she wouldn't believe I wouldn't give her my autograph," Jackson said Wednesday at the Southeastern Conference Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel. "I'm like, 'I'm not Ricky Jean-Francois.' After that, they're like, 'You're Tyson Jackson.' But one little girl just kept crying. She's like, 'I want Ricky's autograph.' ''

There will be plenty more tears shed in Louisiana this fall if LSU fails to at least reach a BCS game the year after winning a national championship.

LSU must defend its title with an inexperienced quarterback, but the Tigers have plenty of talent everywhere else. LSU's offensive and defensive lines rank among the best in the nation. The Tigers also have plenty of firepower at running back and in the receiving corps.

All that talent elsewhere should compensate for the giant question mark at quarterback. The dismissal of 2007 SEC championship game MVP Ryan Perrilloux from the team leaves the Tigers relying on Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch or redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee.

"They got the experience (this spring), and I'm real confident in these guys," LSU center Brett Helms said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what they do in August. Whoever starts, I'm looking forward to it."

LSU coach Les Miles has tried to get his team to continue looking forward instead of thinking back to what happened last year. He went so far Wednesday as to insist his team isn't defending a national championship.

"We're not defending," Miles said. "We're not dealing with rankings. This is a brand new year. If we're defending, come see the trophy. It's in the trophy case. We're not defending it. It's there. We've got a brand new team."

It's a brand new team with the same old expectations.

LSU figures to duel Auburn for the Western Division title all year. On top of being the hunted, LSU faces a tougher schedule than last season. The Tigers must travel to Florida and Auburn after getting both teams at home last year. The Tigers also play host to Georgia, which didn't face the Tigers a year ago.

No wonder Miles has warned his players to stop thinking about last year.

"It's out of our system now," Jackson said. "When we got our rings in June, Coach Miles told us to move on and put it behind us. It's really not hard to move forward if you have a team that is hungry like we are. We know what we have to do."

As the Tigers talked about moving forward, their actions spoke as loud as their words. Jackson and Helms weren't wearing their championship rings as they met the media.

"I'm not a big jewelry fan at all," Jackson said. "I like to stick to leather watches and things like that. I took my rings and stuff and gave them to my mom, and she holds on to them."

Miles' mouth

Miles was speaking to an LSU booster in New Orleans on Sunday when he referenced the Tigers' 41-34 victory over Alabama last year and reportedly said "not to make too much of that game, as it seems like a lot of teams in Louisiana beat that team," a thinly veiled reference to the Tide's 21-14 loss last year to Louisiana-Monroe.

The comment caused quite a stir in Alabama, so it came as no surprise that the second question Miles fielded Wednesday was how the Tide would fare if they faced each of the 12 Louisiana schools that play college football. Miles laughed at the question before issuing his reply.

"I have great respect for the University of Alabama, the history they have presented to college football, the competition that they put on every time they take the field," Miles said. "I promise you that any fun and entertainment that I have with supporters is very respectful."

Miles' playful jab at Alabama didn't bother his players. Jackson said he thought it was funny.

"It's just Coach Miles being Coach Miles," Jackson said. "I don't think he means anything bad about it. He just has a lot of charisma and likes to have fun with it. Just knowing him personally, I don't think he'd disrespect any opponent. He has respect for everyone."

SEC Network? Maybe

Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said the league would decide this fall a year before the expiration of its current television agreement whether to establish its own cable network.

Slive said league officials had followed the progress of the NFL Network and the cable channels devoted to the Big Ten and Mountain West while deciding whether to form their own network.

He indicated the league is seeking a television option that would improve national distribution for all sports, enhance the SEC brand nationally, provide a window for non-athletic programming, maximize multimedia distribution and increase revenue for each of the league's members.

Rainey on the run

Florida running back Chris Rainey made headlines before the spring game when he outran fellow students who were seeking a football scholarship, which Meyer had promised to anyone who could win a race against his fastest players.

This summer, Rainey won a much more competitive race.

Rainey recently defeated true freshman running back Jeffrey Demps in an impromptu 40-yard dash. That's the same Demps who earlier this year ran the 100-meter dash in 10.01 seconds, the fastest time ever recorded by an American teenager.

"I wasn't there, but I would have liked to be," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "You could have probably sold about 10,000 tickets for that."

Rainey could be showing off that speed even more frequently this fall. The 5-foot-9 redshirt freshman ran for 75 yards in the spring game and also scored two touchdowns, including a 65-yard reception. He could team up with Southern California transfer Emmanuel Moody, Kestahn Moore and multipurpose threat Percy Harvin to provide Florida's rushing attack with the depth it has lacked thus far in Meyer's tenure.

"This is the best we've felt at running back," Meyer said. "This is our fourth season and it's not even comparable as far as work ethic, attitude and work level at our tailback position."

Spread's new wrinkle

Even in his fourth year at Florida, Meyer still can introduce new wrinkles to his spread offense.

The latest addition this year could involve using tight ends Cornelius Ingram and Aaron Hernandez at the same time. Florida rarely used two-tight end sets in Meyer's first three seasons.

Ingram, the top tight end in the SEC, has caught 30 passes each of the past two seasons and scored seven touchdowns last year. Hernandez averaged 16.8 per catch as a freshman last year and scored twice on just nine catches.

"We have a luxury this year with two tight ends who will be playing for a living if they stay healthy," Meyer said. "We could use two tight ends in a game at the same time because both are dynamic receivers. That's an element we haven't used a lot because of personnel."

Mistakes prove costly

Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said he hopes the situation involving offensive tackle Michael Brown sets an example to his former teammates.

Brown, the Bulldogs' starting left tackle last year, was dismissed from the team this spring after being arrested on a firearm possession charge. Mississippi state law prevents anyone from carrying a firearm on a college campus.

"That entire situation, I hope we've learned from that," Croom said. "Mike Brown is an excellent person. I think Mike was on the Dean's List the previous semester. (He's) an excellent student. In the spur of the moment, he made a bad decision. That's what we get our players to understand.

"I'm not making excuses, let's make sure you understand that. There were things that myself and my teammates did in college that if these guys did them today, it would be horrifying. But what happens now because of the Internet, all of these different kind of tubes we have on the Internet I don't totally understand it all (but) the public has so much access to what goes on so much quicker that a guy in a split second can change the entire course of his life just by a decision that he makes."

Earlier and earlier

Mississippi State represents a stark example of how high school players are making their college decisions earlier than ever.

Croom already has received 14 commitments for the Class of 2009, a stunning total for a guy who took the Mississippi State job with the idea that he didn't want to offer any recruit a scholarship before that player's senior year of high school.

"If you wait that long, you won't get any (commitments)," Croom said. "I got a letter the other day from a kid in the ninth grade (who) wanted to know if we could offer him a scholarship. I hope it doesn't get to that point."

Overcoming tragedy

Mississippi State must break in a first-year starter at the center position, but Croom already knows sophomore J.C. Brignone is tough enough to handle the job.

Brignone's father died this spring. Croom said Brignone also considered his dad his closest friend.

"He took care of all the family business and basically was the host and coordinator of his dad's wake," Croom said. "To sit there and watch him do that, even though he missed a week of spring practice, I knew he was going to be our center because of the mental toughness he displayed. If he's that mentally tough, he'll be fine there. I have no questions about him."

Better than before?

Vanderbilt lost first-round draft pick Chris Williams and four other starters on the offensive line. The Commodores also must replace record-setting receiver Earl Bennett. Yet Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson believes his offense will be even better without them this season.

Johnson wasn't diminishing the accomplishments of Bennett, Williams and Co. He just happens to believe Vanderbilt's improvements at quarterback and running back will offset the losses on the line and in the receiving corps.

"We will be better at quarterback this year, no doubt about it," Johnson said.

Vanderbilt quarterbacks Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams combined to complete just 54 percent of their passes last season, but Nickson played hurt for much of the season.

"I think we did a disservice to him last year trying to play him as much as we did after he got hurt," Johnson said.

The Commodores are hoping a fully healthy Nickson can recapture the form he showed in 2006, when he threw for 15 touchdowns and ran for nine more scores. Nickson first must beat out Adams, Jared Funk and Larry Smith for the starting job.

Happy to be here

Vanderbilt wide receiver George Smith may have the SEC's toughest task as he tries to replace the production of Bennett, who ended his college career as the conference's all-time leader in receptions.

Then again, Smith already has overcome much greater challenges. Four years ago, Smith spent five weeks in an intensive care unit while battling transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder that left him comatose and paralyzed.

"Day in and day out, I don't take anything for granted," Smith said. "When I'm having bad days, I have pictures in my phone of when I was laid up in bed to remind me that I've been through the worst. And even after that, I'd been through some more stuff, being shot."

Yes, that's right. Not long after Smith completed his comeback from transverse myelitis, he had to recover from a gunshot wound.

Smith was attending a party in a Vanderbilt dorm room celebrating a 37-13 victory over Richmond in September 2005 when he was shot in the biceps. Smith missed two games while recovering from the gunshot wound, but he returned to action that season and has started each of the last two years.

"It definitely made me a stronger person," said Smith, a fifth-year senior sociology major who wants to become a U.S. Marshal. "It made me feel I can battle through anything.''

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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