An early look at some 2020 comeback candidates in the SEC
Don’t call it a comeback.
On second thought, do call it a comeback. That’s what we’re focusing on here today.
A “comeback” candidate implies that a player is trying to get back to a certain level of success after a disappointing year. That year can be disappointing because of injuries, poor play, suspensions, etc.
For the sake of this list, I left off players who were true freshmen and either were injured or redshirted in 2019. It gets murky if those guys are included because if they haven’t succeeded in college, I’m not sure we can call it a true comeback.
So here are 5 guys who fit that criteria and should be set up to bounce back in 2020:
1. Terry Wilson, Kentucky QB
The Kentucky quarterback suffered a devastating knee injury on a horse-collar tackle in Week 2. It squashed the beginning of what looked like a promising second season as a starter. Ultimately, Lynn Bowden worked his magic and Kentucky still won 8 games. Dare I say the Cats would have won 9-10 games with a healthy Wilson?
Wilson’s 2018 numbers were conservative for a couple of reasons. For starters, that team had Benny Snell and an all-world defense. It didn’t need a quarterback to throw the ball 40 times. And Wilson was also playing through a midseason knee injury that clearly limited him.
So what makes me think he’ll be a solid quarterback in 2020? Besides his abilities — he can stretch the field and gash a defense with a long run — he has fantastic surroundings. That Kentucky offensive line was one of the nation’s best, and it returns 4 of 5 starters, and that versatile backfield is back.
We don’t know whether Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood will be eligible in 2020, but as of right now, there isn’t a QB battle in Lexington. As long as Wilson establishes that trust in his knee coming off a long rehab process, he can have that long-awaited season he was hoping for.
2. Larry Rountree III, Mizzou RB
Before the season starter, I forgot about Rountree when I put together my Top 25 running backs for 2019. It was a blatant omission. It wasn’t until my co-worker Adam Spencer pointed it out that I realized I made a big mistake.
Well, Rountree didn’t make my mistake look very dumb in 2019. He had nearly 400 fewer rushing yards than he did the previous season, and his yards per carry dropped almost a full yard. He had 70 scrimmage yards once in Mizzou’s final 6 games. In fact, he didn’t hit that mark once during Mizzou’s 5-game losing streak. In those final 6 games, he didn’t have a run longer than 13 yards and he averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Woof.
But that was then, and now, Rountree has a new, offensive-minded coach to work with. Eli Drinkwitz had the nation’s No. 16 rushing attack, and lead back Darrynton Evans racked up 1,678 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns in 2019.
That bodes well for Rountree. He does, however, have some major competition in the backfield with the emergence of Tyler Badie, who took snaps from the junior down the stretch. Drinkwitz hasn’t really been a running back by committee guy, so that bodes well for Rountree if he is able to win and hold down the starting gig in this new offense.
It wasn’t that long ago that Rountree looked like one of the SEC’s most promising young backs:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 1, 2019
3. Feleipe Franks, Arkansas QB
You don’t usually see guys who have a 24-6 TD-INT ratio with a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory hit the transfer portal. But after Franks suffered a season-ending injury in the Kentucky game, Kyle Trask took the Florida starting job and ran with it.
Franks’ well-documented roller coaster career will now put him in a situation in which he has a few things working for him and a few things working against him. On the positive side, he’s got some promising skill players with tailback Rakeem Boyd and receivers Treyon Burks and Trey Knox. Add that you’ve got an offensive line-focused head coach in Sam Pittman, and life could be much worse for the extremely talented Franks.
The challenge is that Kendal Briles isn’t Dan Mullen. Briles wasn’t the answer to save Willie Taggart’s job at Florida State, and it remains to be seen how the up-and-down quarterback will perform if he doesn’t have those big throwing windows to work with. Franks hasn’t exactly been praised for his ability to handle things well when things aren’t going his way. Could that play out in Fayetteville? Who knows.
But the last chapter of Franks in the SEC figures to be an entertaining one.
4. LaBryan Ray, Alabama DL
After an impressive sophomore season in which he had 5.5 tackles for loss, there was hope that Ray could develop into a 1st-team All-SEC guy and establish himself as the next great Alabama defensive lineman. Then he injured his foot against South Carolina, and his season was over.
Now, though, there’s reason to believe that the former 5-star recruit can get back on track as a force for a revamped front 7 (it’s crazy to think that group will return 3 veterans who suffered season-ending injuries). Ray has the ability to be that run-stuffing presence that Alabama lacked far too often in 2019. The Crimson Tide had the worst season defending the run since Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa.
Ray is going to establish a key veteran presence along that defensive line. Expect him to be all over the first-team All-SEC ballots in a few months.
5. Dylan Moses, Alabama LB
It’s either Moses or Travis Etienne who wins the award for “most important guy coming back to school who could easily be playing on Sundays next year.” Shoot, Moses could have been playing on Sundays as a sophomore when he led the team in tackles. That’s how good he was as the quarterback of Alabama’s defense. That’s why Moses’ preseason, season-ending injury was devastating.
Alabama’s defense struggled to replace Moses all year. It didn’t help that Josh McMillon also suffered a season-ending injury before the start of the season. Now, both of them are back with the aforementioned Ray. This should absolutely be a better Alabama defense with Moses going sideline to sideline.
It seems rare that a likely first-round pick returns to Alabama instead of bolting for the NFL. Moses bucked that trend. As a result, Alabama got an addition more valuable than any incoming recruit or transfer.
Moses is the most likely person to be the SEC’s unofficial comeback player of the year in 2020.