One non-QB critical to the success of every SEC team
“It’s a quarterback-driven league.” How many tiresome times have you heard that line? The quote is about the NFL, but college quarterbacks get the seemingly non-stop spotlight treatment, too.
Look at Jacob Eason at Georgia, with the prevailing thought that a fresh, new gunslinger (along with a new coach) can lift the Bulldogs from that endless cycle of being good to finally becoming great. And maybe Eason can fulfill the lofty expectations and help Georgia do that. But he’s going to need help, and lots of it. All quarterbacks do, to complement their greatness in search of glory.
Now look at Alabama. Has it had any great quarterbacks during this stunning run of four titles in seven years? The answer is no, and it proves that while quarterbacks solve a lot of questions, they can never provide all the answers.
Knowing that, here is a list of that one non-quarterback on each SEC team who will be most key to their team succeeding in 2016. This doesn’t mean he’s the best non-QB on the roster, just that he very well could be the most vital.
Alabama: O.J. Howard, TE
With the Crimson Tide’s quarterback situation being uncertain going into fall camp, having a strong, dependable tight end presence is huge, and Bama has that in Howard. Yes, receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart will also help whoever is at the helm, but a great tight end can be a needed safety valve, and the 6-6, 242-pound Howard is the wonderfully big target to assume that role.
Of Howard’s 38 catches last season, 24 were for first downs, so his ability to both get open for the new quarterback and move the chains again in 2016 will be crucial for the offense while giving the defense more time to rest and then dominate.
Arkansas: Dan Skipper, OT
The offensive line allows the offense to perform — or it doesn’t. And this fall Skipper will be the only senior on the Razorbacks’ line. It will be up to Skipper to instill confidence and chemistry in that unit, especially with a new quarterback stepping in this fall as Austin Allen takes over for older brother Brandon.
Star running back Alex Collins declared early for the NFL Draft, so he won’t be back there to clean up the mess for the offensive line. If Skipper can’t be the leader of the line, then Arkansas will have a tough time duplicating last year’s explosiveness.
Auburn: Carl Lawson, DE
Lawson has the ability to dominate, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the field the past few seasons. Last year, a hip injury kept him out of six games. In 2014, it was a torn ACL that took Lawson out for the entire season. So the guy who was a Sporting News Freshman All-American in what must seem like a lifetime ago is itching to resume wreaking havoc.
The defense being a force once again, with Lawson leading the way, will be crucial as the offense attempts to rise from the ruins of 2015, when it finished 94th in the country.
Florida: Jordan Cronkrite, RB
With the defense expected to be stout again, the offense really holds the cards for what UF will do this fall. And with a new quarterback taking over (again) and the receiver position being uncertain, the crucial work will be done by the running backs, a deep position despite the departure of Kelvin Taylor to the NFL.
The Gators likely will rotate three backs this season: Mark Thompson, Jordan Scarlett and Cronkrite.
Cronkrite is poised for a breakout season after scoring three touchdowns last year as one of Taylor’s backups. If Cronkrite can become the man this fall, it will cover up the other skill-position weaknesses and give the Gators a chance to compete for the SEC East title again.
Georgia: Dominick Sanders, S
Nick Chubb was already on the mend. Sony Michel fractured his left forearm over the July 4th weekend. And Eason, though he has star potential, will still be a true freshman this fall trying to figure it all out — assuming he wins the starting job. That means you need to look at the backbone of the Bulldogs’ defense as the backbone of the team.
That’s Sanders. He was first-team All-SEC last year and received the Coaches’ Leadership Award with a team-high six interceptions, and that was as a sophomore.
Imagine what Sanders can be one year later and wiser. Yes, it might all come together yet for Georgia’s offense. But it’s not an absolute certainty. Sanders will provide that certainty for Kirby Smart in his first year as coach.
Kentucky: Denzil Ware, DE
The sophomore has had a spectacular offseason, highlighted by his performance in the spring game, and now it will be up to the former star recruit to translate that to the fall when the games matter.
The Wildcats’ strength on defense is expected to be in the secondary, so if Ware can live up to his mammoth potential and build off a strong freshman season, pressuring the passer and shutting down the run, then the talented secondary will be able to have a bigger impact.
That means more stops and more time on the field for a potentially explosive offense.
LSU: Ethan Pocic, C
If Leonard Fournette is to duplicate or surpass his phenomenal 2015 season (except for that one game against Alabama), it’s the guys up front like Pocic who will have to show the way. The senior could have easily bolted for the NFL and been a high pick, but the massive 6-7, 309-pounder stayed in Baton Rouge.
Pocic is versatile — he can play center or guard — he’s experienced, and his return could turn out to be the biggest reason the Tigers return to glory in 2016.
Mississippi State: Richie Brown, LB
Star quarterback Dak Prescott is gone, and so the offense won’t be nearly as scary. That means the defense will have to carry the burden, and Brown is an absolute tackle machine (109 last year) who can be a leader by example and a vocal leader.
Brown is on the Butkus Award Watch List, and the degree to which he dominates this fall will help determine whether the Bulldogs can win enough games without Prescott.
Missouri: Alex Ross, RB
The Tigers have a new head coach. They have a new offensive line coach, who’s in charge of a unit with big questions. Throw in a quarterback, Drew Lock, in his first full season as a starter. All of that is why graduate transfer Ross, who arrived at Missouri from old rival Oklahoma in the spring, will be so key.
He can take some pressure off Lock, and he also should boost field position with his abilities as a kick returner.
Ole Miss: Evan Engram, TE
If Chad Kelly wants to approach the 4,000-yard passing season he had last year, Engram will have to play a big part in 2016. He had 38 catches last year, and the 6-3, 227-pounder is like a wide receiver playing tight end. He has the talent to be great and not just good.
Engram, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, fulfilling his immense potential can be a big reason the Rebels push Alabama again for the SEC West crown.
South Carolina, David Williams, RB
The 6-1, 216-pound bruising junior will be counted on to grow into a leader and settle an offense that might have a new quarterback, quite possibly dynamic but raw dual-threat freshman Brandon Mcllwain.
Williams rushed for 299 yards on 86 carries, but that won’t cut it this fall if the rebuilding Gamecocks hope to have a winning season in Will Muschamp’s first year.
Tennessee: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB
The Volunteers have a lot at stake this season, being picked by a comfortable margin at Media Days to win the SEC East. They also have a lot of offense, led by one of the nation’s top running back duos. Points should be no problem.
That means a heart-and-soul, big-hitting defensive guy like Reeves-Maybin being able to come back from a left shoulder injury sustained during spring drills is so crucial.
He led the Vols with 105 tackles and 14 tackles for loss last year. He’s just a leader, period. And his presence — or possible absence — will help decide whether Tennessee fulfills those lofty expectations.
Texas A&M: Kingsley Keke, DT
Keke has the luxury of playing next to star defensive end Myles Garrett, who draws double-teams, even triple-teams. Now what does he do with that luxury? If Keke can thrive on that and improve the Aggies’ run defense while Garrett wreaks havoc on quarterbacks from the outside, Texas A&M will be in business.
The 6-3, 319-pound Keke saw limited time as a freshman, but he’ll be a vital part of the interior rotation with last year’s starters gone.
Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb, RB
For the Commodores to get to a bowl in 2016, Webb will have to carry the offense again, and that offense will have to at least be a satisfactory complement to what’s expected to be a strong, veteran defense.
Kyle Shurmur is a huge question mark at quarterback, so it’ll be up to a guy like Webb who’s made 24 starts in a row in his first two years and who rushed for 1,152 yards last season to do it all again — and maybe even better — in 2016.