1 junior from every SEC team we hope returns in 2017
The chants of “one more year” might not begin until bowl season is officially under way, but there are plenty of juniors who are flirting with the NFL Draft, and several others who could do well with another season of seasoning.
Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ended the drama early, announcing Thursday that they will return for their senior seasons.
Who else in the SEC might join them?
Here is a junior from every other SEC team we would like to see return next season:
Alabama: The Outland Trophy winner, offensive tackle Cam Robinson, is a big guy with athleticism and a good upside. He’s seen as a likely first-rounder, but there are off-field issues that could lead to a draft day surprise. Robinson was the anchor on an offensive line that helped the Crimson Tide finish second in the SEC with an average of 245 yards on the ground. He also protected the blind side of freshman QB Jalen Hurts.
Arkansas: Wide receiver Jared Cornelius was third on the team in receiving, and led the team in punt returns. He would easily be the top returning receiver as the top three wide receivers and tight end are all seniors. Cornelius had three games of at least 106 receiving yards, but his best game came against Alabama when he had five catches for 146 yards. While he has turned in paperwork for the NFL draft, Cornelius has plenty to gain with a return next season. He’s expected to play in the bowl game, but Cornelius missed some time this season with knee and back injuries.
Auburn: The quarterback of the Tigers’ secondary, Tray Matthews is know as a big-hitting safety with a big frame. He led the Tigers with 73 tackles and made an interception against his former team, Georgia. Despite two offseason surgeries, Matthews played in every game, and helped the Auburn defense hold opponents under 250 yards passing in nine games.
Florida: Jalen Tabor was the only Gator on the AP All-SEC first team after he led the Gators with five interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He also broke up five passes, recovered a fumble and made 32 tackles. He also was the only Gators player named to the AP All-America teams, as he made the third team.
Kentucky: Stanley “Boom” Williams was almost the forgotten guy in the backfield with the emergence of Benny Snell Jr. Williams still led the Wildcats with 1,135 rushing yards and seven touchdowns with an eye-popping 7.09 yards per carry. He had at least 123 yards in four games and scored a TD in each of the last five games of the regular season.
LSU: Malachi Dupre led the Tigers in receiving with 34 catches, 454 yards and three TDs. And while those numbers don’t stack up with the best in the country, he improved throughout the season along with the LSU offense. While he has the size and quickness, another year could help with seasoning. What might be most impressive for NFL scouts is his blocking, which help running back Derrius Guice twice on touchdown runs against Texas A&M.
Mississippi State: Receiver Donald Gray will get a chance to grab the spotlight following the departure of Fred Ross after he finished in the top 10 in the SEC in receiving with 39 catches and 691 yards with five touchdowns. His best game came against Samford with four catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns. He also had seven catches for 92 yards against Arkansas. Gray lived up to the preseason expectations to fill the vertical passing game void left by the departures of De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Brown.
Missouri: J’Mon Moore led the SEC in receiving as the only player with more than 1,000 yards receiving. The AP All-SEC second team selection became the eighth Mizzou player with more than 1,000 receiving yards after he had a career-high 1,012 on 62 catches. His 84.3 yards per game ranked second in the league and tops among players who played in every game. He started the season with a flourish with three 100-yard performances in his first four games and closed the year with three consecutive games with more than 100 yards.
Ole Miss: DeMarquis Gates led the team in tackles for the second straight year at middle linebacker. That’s a remarkable stat given that last season he began on the outside behind Robert Nkemdiche, and this season, while a known starter in the preseason, his position was unknown. Gates is expected to be a priority for the new defensive coordinator after eight players were inserted at two linebacker spots.
South Carolina: Chris Lammons was one of the more volatile players in the SEC this season, but also one of the Gamecocks most important players on defense. He was ejected in two straight games and called out by Will Muschamp after the Mississippi State loss. But Lammons also had three interceptions and will lead a secondary in 2017 that goes from a question mark in 2016 to a strength with three seniors at defensive back. Lammons was also inserted as punt returner midway through the season and delivered with a 42-yard return against UMass. Overall, Lammons had 46 tackles, four tackles for loss, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
Tennessee: Derek Barnett led the SEC with 12 sacks and tied Reggie White as the Vols’ career sack leader (32). Barnett was the first UT player name a first-team AP All-American since Eric Berry in 2009. The Football Writers Association of America also named him to the second team. Against South Carolina, he tied his career high with three sacks, and also set a career high with three QB hurries against Vanderbilt.
Texas A&M: Safety Armani Watts dealt with several injuries this season, which might be a main reason why he’s declared to return next season. There was multiple injuries in the second half of the season, including wearing a walking boot around his left ankle for the New Mexico State game. Overall, he missed three games, but his best game was when he recorded 12 tackles against Mississippi State. It’s not clear if he’ll play in the Texas Bowl, but for the season, he collected 56 total tackles, six tackles for a loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. In 2015, Watts led the team with 126 tackles and the next closest teammate had 81.
Vanderbilt: Arguably the best running back in Vanderbilt history, Ralph Webb ran for nearly 100 yards per game and became Vanderbilt’s career rushing leader, breaking Zac Stacy’s record. He also holds the school record for most rushing attempts, and extended his consecutive start streak to 36 games. Webb finished the regular season with 1,172 rushing yards, the second highest single-season total in team history. His performances throughout the season often keyed Vanderbilt victories, including against Western Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee.