10 SEC players who I'm surprised, but glad to see returning for another year
Let me make this clear.
I have no problem with players who decide to leave school early. I am in no position to say anyone should turn down a 6, 7 or even 8-figure payday and return to school.
Having said that, there are certain players who I feel are more ready for the NFL than others. That’s not to say they won’t succeed at the next level. It just might take the perfect sequence of events for that to happen.
But today, we’re not going to focus on the players who left early. Instead, we’re going to take a look at the top SEC players who had an option to leave early but surprised me by electing to stay. More specifically, these are the 10 guys who I’m glad to see back in school. That could be for the selfish reason of how much I like watching them play or for the reason that I think they could use another year of development.
Whatever the case, here are those players:
1. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State RB
Well, I thought Hill was leaving because he said he was leaving. But then Mike Leach showed up and clearly, that made an impact on Hill’s decision to return. The surprising thing is that Leach makes no secret about his lack of desire to run the ball. Hill’s 242 carries are sure to take a steep decline following his breakout, All-SEC season.
But perhaps the appeal of being used like Washington State running back Max Borghi, who had 127 carries and 86 catches, appealed to Hill as he tries to showcase his skills to the next level. Whatever the case, that was definitely a surprise — and a key one — when the announcement came Wednesday.
2. JaCoby Stevens, LSU S
I sort of just assumed that when you when a national title like LSU does, everybody with any sort of draft stock is gone. Stevens, a former 5-star recruit, certainly had that potential. There could have been some appeal to returning and not getting overshadowed by Grant Delpit on the back end of the LSU secondary. Stevens’ cover skills could certainly improve. That could have been what held back any sort of draft evaluation grade.
The good news is that Stevens really carried LSU’s defense at some key points. Three times this year he earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He’s a tackling machine who can make the spectacular play. He’ll be a welcome sight for a linebacker group that was just cleaned out by the NFL Draft.
Yeah, sign me up for more of these:
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 19, 2019
3. Richard LeCounte, Georgia S
Huge. Huge, huge, huge.
When LeCounte announced his return to Georgia fresh off a 2-interception performance in the Sugar Bowl, that was when it first hit me that Georgia could easily have the best defense in America. With Malik Herring, Eric Stokes and Monty Rice returning (more on him later), the Dawgs return a boatload of production off a defense that finished No. 1 in scoring. Instead of losing J.R. Reed and LeCounte, Kirby Smart will at least have one of them patrolling the back end of his defense.
4. Najee Harris, Alabama RB
I was on the field at the Citrus Bowl when Harris got carry after carry at the end of that game. The Alabama faithful wanted to see Harris put the finishing touches on the win, and it felt very much like a sendoff. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t a sendoff. Harris is returning to Alabama for his senior year, despite the fact that I thought he showed a lot down the stretch.
What could have influenced that decision was what Harris finally got to do with Mac Jones as the starter — be the focus of the offense. In those final 2 games, he averaged 25.5 carries for 141 rushing yards and 154 scrimmage yards. Compare that to this time last year when Harris wasn’t shy about his frustration not getting the workload he wanted in the national championship. With Tua Tagovailoa gone, nobody would be surprised if Alabama leaned heavier on the ground game, and Harris will be the biggest part of that.
5. Dylan Moses, Alabama LB
If Harris wasn’t the most surprising announcement of the potential returnees, it was Moses. Obviously the middle linebacker’s season didn’t go as planned with him missing 2019 because of the torn ACL he suffered in fall camp. But with him expected to be full-go for the combine, I sort of assumed someone with first-round buzz would head to the NFL. Moses’ return was the most important of any player in America, in my opinion. The quarterback of Alabama’s defense was missed incredibly during a year in which the injury bug bit Alabama’s front 7 on what felt like a weekly basis.
Don’t even bother debating one of the linebacker spots for preseason All-American. It’s going to the talented, invaluable tackling machine in Tuscaloosa.
6. DeVonta Smith, Alabama WR
That Steve Sarkisian fist pump was loud. At least that’s what I’m assuming. Smith gives Alabama an obvious preseason All-American receiver. More important, he’s someone who gives Sarkisian a proven vertical threat to work with. The duo of Smith and Jaylen Waddle is as scary as any in the country. I assumed that Smith, along with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, would all head off to the NFL together. The appeal of getting perhaps an even bigger share of the targets had to appeal to Smith, who led Alabama in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns after coming into the season as the perceived No. 4 target.
Now, Smith is the unquestioned top target in Alabama’s high-powered offense. Get ready for more fireworks in Tuscaloosa.
7. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas RB
Running back is different from any other position as it relates to early draft departures for the obvious longevity factor, so most running backs returning surprises me. Add in a new coaching staff and yeah, my assumption was that a junior after a solid season would test the NFL waters. Boyd and his breakaway speed, however, elected to stick around for the start of the Sam Pittman era.
Maybe in an offense that doesn’t shuffle quarterbacks like playing cards, Boyd could have even more success after being one of the few bright spots in 2019. There had to be the appeal of playing for a coach with a background developing offensive line talent to fuel the ground game. Boyd will be fun to watch if he can get some more offensive help in 2020.
8. Trey Smith, Tennessee OL
In a weird way, I thought Smith had a situation kind of like Tua Tagovailoa. Because he was dealing with a rare type of health concern, I assumed he’d leave for the next level to start that NFL clock. There’s enough tape on him playing against elite competition and playing well. But now the former 5-star offensive lineman will play alongside what’s easily the most talented front he’s been a part of.
That’s massive for a Tennessee team that finished incredibly well but still has major questions at quarterback. With Smith and the addition of Cade Mays (if he’s immediately eligible), the Vols should be able to impose their will with the ground game more than they have in recent memory.
9. Erroll Thompson, Mississippi State LB
I think Thompson’s ability to cover from the linebacker position makes him a great fit in today’s NFL. I know he wasn’t getting 1st-round buzz, but I thought he was someone who could step onto an NFL field and immediately start contributing. With a new defensive staff in there, it was natural to think Thompson would entertain the idea of leaving school early. But he didn’t necessarily have the junior year he was hoping for, and now, he’ll provide some stability in the middle of the new-look MSU defense.
Also, it’s been 16 months and I still can’t figure out how Thompson caught this:
Erroll Thompson, woah. pic.twitter.com/ORhuFc9OSO
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) September 8, 2018
10. Monty Rice, Georgia LB
This won’t come as much of a surprise, but the linebacker position is loaded in the SEC next year. Rice is a big part of that. He was at the center of this “no-name defense” that UGA had. There are few players in the country more disciplined than Rice. He’s exactly the leader that Georgia needs after the graduation of Reed. The guy led Georgia in tackles despite some nagging injuries that he played through. The way he closes on ball-carriers will surely be noticed at the next level.
In the meantime, though, Rice is back for the top scoring defense in America. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see he and the Dawgs repeat that feat in 2020.