10 SEC positions of strength exiting spring ball
There is no greater collection of talent in college football than the one the SEC boasts. As a result, some schools end up with stacked position groups that wind up being the foundation of the team.
Here are the SEC’s 10 best position groups heading out of spring practice:
We’re limiting Alabama to one group. Its secondary, defensive line and running backs certainly qualify as well.
No SEC player caught more passes in 2015 than Calvin Ridley, who pulled down 89 balls for 1,045 yards and seven scores in a standout freshman campaign. If he were the only big name, the unit would still warrant consideration on this list.
But he isn’t. ArDarius Stewart (63 catches, 700 yards, 4 TD) also is back, joined by tight end O.J. Howard (38 receptions, 602 yards, 2 TD), Robert Foster, a healthy Cam Sims and a bevy of talented younger players just waiting for a chance.
Toss in Bowling Green graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter, who reeled in 94 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, and this becomes a fearsome group of targets.
AUBURN DEFENSIVE BACKS
Cornerback Carlton Davis burst on the scene as a freshman last season with 56 tackles and three interceptions, and he’ll likely be joined by Ohio State transfer Jamel Dean, a former four-star recruit who sat out last season with a knee injury.
The safety position features nice depth, with Rudy Ford (118 tackles, 2 INT), Tray Matthews (46 tackles, 2 INT), Nick Ruffin (27 tackles) and Stephen Roberts (26 tackles) as the headliners.
GEORGIA RUNNING BACKS
It’s not a deep group, but it is certainly top-heavy.
Nick Chubb (747 yards, 7 TD) was in the Heisman discussion before his knee injury against Tennessee last fall, and his absence gave Sony Michel the chance to put up 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015.
Brendan Douglas and Tae Crowder are steady options in reserve, Shaquery Wilson worked with the running backs in the spring and Elijah Holyfield will join the team this summer.
KENTUCKY RUNNING BACKS
While not as glamorous as some groups, Kentucky has a fine stable of running backs in its own right.
Stanley “Boom” Williams averaged more than seven yards per carry and led the team with 855 yards and six touchdowns in 2015. The other three returning rushing leaders return as well.
Jojo Kemp (555 yards, 6 TD), Mikel Horton (318, 3 TD) and Sihiem King (127, 1 TD) each bring a different element to the backfield. King, a rising sophomore, posted 95 yards and a score in the spring game in his quest to carve out more playing time this fall.
LSU RUNNING BACKS
LSU’s secondary and receiving corps are deep and talented, but like Alabama, we’re limiting the Tigers to just one group.
Like Ridley, Leonard Fournette is good enough to get this group listed by himself. He rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns last fall and added another 253 receiving yards for good measure.
But there’s talent behind him, too. Derrius Guice averaged more than 8.5 yards per carry as a freshman, tallying 436 yards and three scores. Darrel Williams (296 yards, 4 TD) adds depth and J.D. Moore returns as a lead blocker at fullback.
Moore didn’t record a carry last season, but his job of opening holes for Fournette and company is critically important.
MISSOURI DEFENSIVE LINE
The Tigers return all four starters from the season finale last year, and there’s more help on the way this fall.
Walter Brady (40 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss) and Charles Harris (56 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss) each recorded seven sacks from the defensive end position, while Josh Augusta (27 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss) and Rickey Hatley (27 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss) were solid in the middle.
Terry Beckner Jr. suffered a knee injury late last year, and was suspended earlier this season, but is expected to be back this fall. Ditto Harold Brantley, who’s trying to work his way back from an injury. With one or both back in the fold, the Tigers look stout up front.
OLE MISS QUARTERBACKS
Chad Kelly is the league’s best returning quarterback, posting 4,042 and 31 touchdowns through the air and another 500 yards and 10 scores on the ground.
He had sports hernia surgery this spring, opening the door a bit for Shea Patterson to get more snaps. Patterson is a five-star recruit and the top-rated quarterback recruit in the country, and would be a starting option at a handful of other SEC schools this fall.
Jason Pellerin is the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster.
TENNESSEE OFFENSIVE LINE
Continuity is a key component for a successful offensive line, and the Volunteers return four starters from last year’s bowl victory over Northwestern.
Chance Hall, Dylan Wiesman, Coleman Thomas and Jashon Robinson return, and they’ll likely be joined in the starting lineup by Drew Richmond, a five-star recruit who redshirted last fall.
Tennessee’s playmakers are fueling the big playoff talk, but it’s the big bodies up front who will give Joshua Dobbs and Jalen Hurd the time and space to make those goals come true.
TEXAS A&M WIDE RECEIVERS
Texas A&M has plenty of options for new trigger man Trevor Knight.
Christian Kirk (80 catches, 1,009 yards, 7 TD) had a breakout freshman season while Josh Reynolds (51 catches, 907 yards, 5 TD), Ricky Seals-Jones (45, 560, 4) and Speedy Noil (21, 226, 2) helped the Aggies offense spread the field.
Damion Ratley, Jeremy Tabuyo, Quartney Davis and Clyde Chriss add depth to arguably the most explosive group in the conference.
Zach Cunningham (103 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss) blossomed into an All-SEC performer last fall. This year, he’ll welcome Nigel Bowden back to the fold.
Bowden, who missed last season with an injury, led the team in tackles as a freshman in 2014. Charles Wright and Ja’Karri Thomas also will play key roles this fall.
“First of all, it’s good to have Nigel Bowden back at linebacker after he missed most of last season with injury,” coach Derek Mason told Sports Illustrated. “I’ve seen Nigel do some things this spring that I didn’t see last year going into fall camp.
“Having him and Zach Cunningham anchoring the two inside ‘backer positions, it’s phenomenal for us. That gives us two guys who understand how this conference works.”