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Alabama's DeMeco Ryans (35), bringing down Florida's Vernell Brown, made 69 tackles this season, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage.He also intercepted a pass and forced a pair of fumbles.
DAILY File Photo by Dan Henry
Alabama's DeMeco Ryans (35), bringing down Florida's Vernell Brown, made 69 tackles this season, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage.He also intercepted a pass and forced a pair of fumbles.

Tackling an honor
UA's Ryans named SEC's top defender; Auburn lands 3 on all-league first team

By Paul Newberry
Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA — Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans led a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation in points allowed, and now he's receiving an award recognizing him as a conference leader.

Ryans, who helped the Crimson Tide to a 9-2 record and a Cotton Bowl bid, was named the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year by The Associated Press on Monday, his reward for a brilliant senior season.

Also on Monday, Ryans found out that he did not win the Nagurski Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive player. Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil won the award over Ryans and three other semifinalists.

Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler was picked as the SEC's offensive player of the year. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier received the coach of the year award for his winning return to the SEC. Arkansas running back Darren McFadden was named the top freshman.

Ryans gave Alabama its only first-team selection. Auburn had three: offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, running back Kenny Irons and punter Kody Bliss.

The Crimson Tide put three on the second team (receiver D.J. Hall, running back Kenneth Darby and linebacker Freddie Roach) and one on honorable mention (offensive tackle Kyle Tatum).

Auburn landed six on the second team, including offensive lineman Tim Duckworth, defensive end Marquies Gunn, nose tackle T.J. Jackson, linebacker Travis Williams, cornerback David Irons and safety Will Herring.

Offensive lineman Troy Reddick and defensive end Stanley McGlover made honorable mention.

Georgia was rewarded for its second SEC championship in four years by getting eight players on the first team — a record for the Bulldogs. A regional panel of 12 reporters selects The Associated Press team. The coaches' All-SEC team will be released later.

Ryans was part of an Alabama defense that carried the team after one of its top offensive players, receiver Tyrone Prothro, went out with injuries. The Tide managed to win its first nine games, but losses to LSU and Auburn put a damper on the end of the season.

Still, the 6-foot-2, 232-pound senior had a brilliant year, edging out Mississippi linebacker Patrick Willis by one vote for the defensive honor.

Ryans led Cotton Bowl-bound Alabama with 69 tackles, which included 3.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles behind the line. He also recovered two fumbles, forced a fumble, picked off a pass, broke up two other throws and rushed the quarterback four times.

"He is awesome," coach Mike Shula said.

When Shula took the Alabama job before Ryans' sophomore season, defensive coordinator Joe Kines told the new coach that there was a player who could be as good as former Crimson Tide greats Derrick Thomas and Cornelius Bennett.

"My eyes got big and I said, 'Wait just a minute. Those were two pretty good players,' " Shula said. "But I'd put DeMeco right up there. He is a special player."

Cutler never played on a winning team in college, never went to a bowl game. But he sure finished his career in style.

Cutler led the conference in passes (462), passing yards (3,073) and touchdowns (21) while throwing just nine interceptions. He led the Commodores to a 4-0 start, sparking excited talk about the school's first bowl bid since 1982 before six straight losses ruined those hopes.

Not that Cutler was to blame. Vandy scored 42 points in an overtime loss at Florida, then put up 43 on Kentucky in yet another high-scoring defeat. Even when the Commodores were no longer eligible for a bowl, Cutler threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-24 victory at Neyland Stadium, snapping a 22-year losing streak against Tennessee.

"We've had a lot of ups and downs and overcome a lot of adversity here," said Cutler, who won a total of six games in his first three seasons as the starter. "To get five wins and beat Tennessee and have this happen, it's been fun."

Cutler won in a tight race, edging Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley and Auburn running back Kenny Irons by one vote apiece.

"D.J. took a team to the SEC title," Cutler said. "He's very deserving as well. There's a lot of great players in the SEC. I think that really mixes things up and spreads out the votes. It's just one of those things. I won out, and it's an honor."

Cutler and Shockley shared the quarterback spot on the first team.

Spurrier is a special coach who clearly didn't lose a thing during his three seasons away from the SEC. He was an overwhelming choice for the coach of the year award, receiving all but two of 12 votes from the media panel.

After a disappointing two-year stint in the NFL and another year on the sidelines, Spurrier returned to the college game at South Carolina, perennially the fourth-best team in the Eastern Division. The Gamecocks got off to a rough start, losing their first three conference games, before they bounced back to win five straight in the SEC and claim a spot in the Independence Bowl.

South Carolina won for the first time at Tennessee, snapping a 12-game losing streak to the Vols. But Spurrier's most satisfying victory had to be a 30-22 triumph over Florida, the school where he won the Heisman Trophy as a player and led to six SEC titles in 12 years as a coach.

"I'm thrilled and honored," Spurrier said. "Our team achieved just about the maximum we could this year and, as a head coach, that's what you look for each season."

McFadden was the clear choice for freshman of the year after rushing for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns in his Arkansas debut.

"I could not have accomplished what I did this season without tremendous blocking by my offensive line and a coaching staff that believed in my ability," he said. "I'm happy I was able to help the team and I hope to have an even better year next season."

Georgia, picked to finish third in the SEC East after losing stars such as David Pollack, Thomas Davis and David Greene, instead reached the title game for the third time in four years and routed then-No. 3 LSU 34-14 on Saturday night.

Shockley, who passed for 2,311 yards with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions, was joined by seven Bulldogs on the first team. Offensive guard Max Jean-Gilles, safety Greg Blue, tight end Leonard Pope and kicker Brandon Coutu were unanimous selections, while defensive end Quentin Moses and cornerbacks Tim Jennings and DeMario Minter also garnered enough votes to make it.

The eight first-teamers eclipsed the school's previous record of seven, first set in 1976 and matched by the 1980 and 2002 teams. Each of those squads also won SEC championships.

Auburn had a couple of unanimous picks: Irons, who led the SEC with 1,205 yards rushing and filled the void left by Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, and McNeill, a repeat choice to the first team.

Ryans and South Carolina safety Ko Simpson were unanimous picks on the defensive side.

The remainder of the offensive first team included McFadden, receiver Chad Jackson and center Mike Degory of Florida, South Carolina receiver Sidney Rice, LSU tackle Andrew Whitworth, Tennessee guard Arron Sears, and Kentucky all-purpose back Rafael Little.

The defensive first team included Willis, LSU tackles Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten, Mississippi State end Willie Evans, Vanderbilt linebacker Moses Osemwegie, Florida cornerback Dee Webb and Bliss.

All 12 SEC schools had at least one player on the team.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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