10 SEC offensive names to know for 2021
Do yourself a favor; be smart before you read Phil Steele this summer.
Check that; be smart before you watch spring games this offseason.
Fortunately for you, you’ve come to the right place. The focus today is educating you on the offensive players who are ready to become household names in the SEC.
That means this list will exclude All-SEC players. If a player received an All-SEC Freshman of the Year Award like Tank Bigsby, he’s also exempt. And because the goal of this is to spot the breakout and under-the-radar players, let’s exclude the high-profile 5-star skill-players like Bryce Young and Kayshon Boutte, who are already going to be all over a bunch of preseason award watch lists.
You already know about guys like JT Daniels and Ainias Smith, too. Well, at least I hope so.
So here are 10 offensive players who I believe aren’t household names in the SEC (yet), but could very well be by season’s end:
Myron Cunningham, Arkansas OT
Go figure that we’re starting a list of “SEC offensive names to know” with a dude who will be entering Year 6 of college. I had to keep you honest. That’s what Cunningham did an exceptional job of in Year 1 with Sam Pittman. He was super durable having played 705 snaps in 10 games and was one of 2 SEC players who didn’t miss an offensive snap all year. The former JUCO All-American is still coming into form at 6-7, 325 pounds, 35 of which he put on in Year 1 with Pittman.
With a somewhat normal offseason, Cunningham should thrive with more work with Pittman, who is second to none in the SEC at producing NFL-ready talent at the tackle position. Pittman praised Cunningham’s improvement down the stretch. His ability to handle bull-rushes made him a valuable asset (PFF had him No. 7 among SEC tackles in pass-blocking). Cunningham won’t get the preseason buzz of Jamaree Salyer, Evan Neal and Darian Kinnard, but he’s absolutely got a shot at developing into an All-SEC tackle.
Justin Shaffer, Georgia OG
Here’s a question: Who was the SEC’s highest-graded guard according to PFF? Shaffer. In his first full season as a starter, he was the perfect fit in Todd Monken’s more versatile offense. Shaffer was 1 of 10 FBS guards who had grades of 78-plus as a run-blocker and as a pass-blocker. There’s room to grow for Shaffer, who was coming off a neck injury at this time last year. A full offseason with Matt Luke should do him wonders.
He switched to right guard in the Peach Bowl to fill in for Ben Cleveland, who is off to the NFL. In Year 5, Shaffer will block for a Georgia backfield that returns as one of the nation’s best, along with Daniels, a preseason Heisman candidate. In other words, there will be plenty of chances for the 330-pound 5th-year senior to become a household name.
Keyon Henry-Brooks, Vanderbilt RB
It couldn’t have been easy to be a running back playing for a winless team. Game flow didn’t exactly favor Henry-Brooks getting a ton of work, and the fact that he was limited to 6 games in 2020 didn’t do him any favors. Neither did the fact that he played on a team with a true freshman starting quarterback and on a team with seemingly weekly depth issues because of COVID. And still, the guy managed 125 scrimmage yards per game.
Keyon Henry-Brooks now with 16 carries for 85 yards (5.3 ypg) at the start of the fourth quarter pic.twitter.com/HEsnaU9d96
— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) November 7, 2020
He had 100-yard games against Kentucky and Mississippi State, both of which were actually good defenses, and he was the only SEC running back with 2 regular-season games of 80 receiving yards. On top of that, Clark Lea made a smart move to poach Louisville running backs coach Norval McKenzie. It was McKenzie who had a commitment from Henry-Brooks while he was at Arkansas State in 2018, though he flipped in December when Vanderbilt swooped in at the last minute. McKenzie helped Louisville average 200 rushing yards per game in 2020, which bodes well for the junior-to-be.
The SEC is loaded at running back, but if there’s a guy who can be a surprise candidate to post 1,500 scrimmage yards and get an all-conference nod, it’s Henry-Brooks.
Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky RB
Speaking of lightly recruited running backs out of Georgia, Rodriguez is already a household name among Kentucky fans. He should be nationally, as PFF’s top returning running back in America. That’s right. The reason Rodriguez didn’t become more of a household name was he played in a crowded backfield, and COVID limited him to just 9 games. Still, he ran for 11 touchdowns, including 7 in his final 3 games, and he averaged 6.6 yards per carry behind the Big Blue Wall.
Rodriguez is exceptional after contact. Between the tackles, he’s as good as there is returning in the SEC. He has a knack for falling forward. Kentucky’s offense is shifting to a more balanced attack with Liam Coen replacing Eddie Gran, but Rodriguez should see an uptick in carries (he only has 1 career game with 20 carries and it was a 100-yard game against Georgia’s No. 1 run defense). In Year 4, Rodriguez is going to be a problem.
— OTH Kentucky Wildcats #BBN (@OTHwildcats) December 6, 2020
Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky WR
Weird, I know. Not 1, but 2 Kentucky offensive skill-players made this list. To be fair, Robinson is a Nebraska transfer and it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be eligible in 2021. But if he is, yes, I think he could be the most impactful non-quarterback transfer in America. He’s that good. There’s a reason Kentucky fans were over the moon about his decision to transfer when the news broke. Robinson wasn’t used properly at Nebraska. Instead of being utilized like his buddy Rondale Moore, who was force-fed targets with Jeff Brohm at Purdue, Robinson was used far too much as a tailback. That won’t be the case in Kentucky’s new offense.
In 2020, Robinson had 4 times more catches than the next-closest Nebraska wide receiver, and he had 1,494 scrimmage yards in essentially 1.5 seasons (18 games). Back in his home state, Robinson will be a major part of an offense that needs to figure out its quarterback situation. But Robinson should still see a better use of his touches in the Robert Woods-like role in Coen’s offense. Those devastating skills in the open field will be on full display in Lexington.
Jaden Walley, Mississippi State WR
Maybe it was the fact that MSU was a total work in progress in Year 1 of the Air Raid. It could’ve been the fact that he was a former 3-star recruit who wore No. 31. But wow, did Walley really have an impressive true freshman season. He was the only true freshman in FBS with 50 catches and 700 receiving yards in 2020. His 4-game stretch to end the season consisted of 4 consecutive 100-yard games and 520 receiving yards on 29 catches. That included a 115-yard performance against Georgia:
So Jaden Walley from MissSt is quietly having himself a TRUE FRESHMAN season
20% MS (only played in 8/9 games)
Team lead in receiving yards
Punt return duty
>100y last 3 games (8-130 avg)
— ❓Why Wait Till Sunday❓ (@WWTSCFB) December 18, 2020
Mike Leach’s Year 2 bump is real. Leach’s Air Raid takes time, and it doesn’t really work when your offensive line can’t block 3-man fronts. MSU was so young by season’s end, too. Give Walley and Co. a full, relatively normal offseason to master the intricacies of the offense. With the volume in Leach’s passing offense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Walley lead the SEC in receiving in 2021.
Also, I’m going to accidentally call him “Jaylen Waddle” instead of “Jaden Walley” on several occasions, so be ready for that. Still, Walley will make a name for himself in 2021.
Dontario Drummond, Ole Miss WR
How did Ole Miss beat a top-15 Indiana team in the Outback Bowl without Elijah Moore, Kenny Yeboah, Braylon Sanders and Jerrion Ealy? Drummond stepped up. Big time. He racked up a game-high 110 receiving yards, including the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes.
No returning SEC receiver had more touchdowns than Drummond (7), who figures to receive a much more significant target share with Moore and Yeboah off to the NFL. Drummond was mostly split out wide — PFF had him for 513 snaps out wide and 48 in the slot — so he’s not exactly stepping into Moore’s role, and Sanders is a home run waiting to happen. That’s fine. Drummond is still working with Matt Corral, and Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby are still in Oxford, as well. That means this should still be an electric offense capable of putting up points on anyone, many of which will come from Drummond.
Trust Kiffin and Lebby to find plenty of ways to get Drummond involved. As they say in Friday Night Lights (the movie), “AND HE CAN PASS!”
Ole Miss doesn’t dial up ‘trick’ plays often but this play in Game 1 vs Florida was effective.
(Formation) 10 Personnel – Left Stack
(Concept 1) Double Pass
— (@Coach_Cam_Jones) January 7, 2021
Keon Zipperer/Kemore Gamble, Florida TE
I’m breaking a rule here and using 2 players. Oh well. Know bothr.
It’s OK to acknowledge 2 things. One is that Kyle Pitts was a football unicorn who had one of the great seasons we’ve ever seen from a college tight end. It’s unfair to expect his successor to perform at that level. The other thing is that Zipperer or Gamble are more than capable of becoming an All-SEC tight end in Dan Mullen’s offense, which is exceptional at scheming open looks for tight ends all over the field.
Yes, I know. The Cotton Bowl was rough for Pitts’ replacements. Zipperer’s drop might’ve changed the momentum of that game. But in a limited sample size, Zipperer actually graded out as the No. 4 tight end in the SEC, according to PFF. Don’t forget that when Pitts went down in the Georgia game on that nasty hit, Gamble and Zipperer combined for 90 receiving yards. On the season, they combined for 305 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns as Pitts’ understudies. Both can get out of their breaks and make plays downfield, though obviously they won’t quite be the matchup nightmare that Pitts was.
Jalen Wydermyer is a no-brainer for first-team All-SEC tight end with Pitts gone, but that No. 2 spot is totally up for grabs. Zipperer and Gamble could be competing with each other for it by season’s end.
Jahleel Billingsley, Alabama TE
Another reference to Friday Night Lights (the movie)? Don’t mind if I do.
BILLINGSLEY! BILLINGSLEY! Party at Taylor’s house, NOW Billingsley!
Sorry. I needed to get that out of my system.
Alabama’s Billingsley is all the rage among the Crimson Tide faithful, and he’s capable of becoming a national name in 2021. Down the stretch, he was incredibly important. In Alabama’s last 6 games, he had 17 catches for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns. That was as a backup tight end. Alabama had a 158.3 passer rating when targeting the sophomore, who had 61% of his catches go for first downs. With Miller Forristall off to the NFL, Billingsley should become one of Bryce Young’s favorite targets.
I mean, this is a 230-pound guy doing this:
JAHLEEL. BILLINGSLEY. HURDLE. pic.twitter.com/aXonI9dt3Z
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 21, 2020
No, Billingsley won’t have the benefit of Steve Sarkisian dialing up looks for him. That’s a bummer. But Bill O’Brien should have all sorts of fun moving Billingsley all over the field and watching him make plays.
Haynes King, Texas A&M QB
Finally, a quarterback. Stunning that it took this long, I know.
King is replacing Kellen Mond, who was in College Station for roughly 13 years and started every game of the Jimbo Fisher era. King is entering his second year working with Fisher, but this will be his first normal offseason. If you recall how much Mond developed from year-to-year after Fisher took over, the difference was significant. Like Mond, King can move well. They have similar builds and with so much proven talent returning among the A&M skill players (11 of the 12 players who caught a pass for the Aggies and the top 3 running backs return), he’s walking into an ideal situation.
The question with King is the same as it was with Mond throughout his time in Fisher’s system — how long will it take for the game to slow down? Mond finally mastered that in Year 3, when he was sacked just 4 times in the regular season.
Once upon a time, Fisher did pretty well with a redshirt freshman at quarterback. King won’t be expected to be Jameis Winston, but in terms of his skills and surroundings, he’s got all the makings of becoming a breakout SEC star in 2021.