24 SEC players among ESPN's top returners in 2016
ESPN’s Travis Haney has concluded his rankings of the top-50 returning college football players in 2016, releasing Nos. 25-1. Not coincidentally, the SEC was well-represented.
That includes bragging rights as owners of the nation’s top returning player, according to the Bristol scribe. Of Haney’s top-50 (65 if you count his 15 honorable mention), 24 will be suiting up once again for SEC programs next year.
Alabama leads the list with seven returning players, followed by Tennessee and Texas A&M with four apiece. In fact, the list is fairly top-heavy with Aggies, Tide, Volunteers and LSU Tigers players. Arguably absent from the top-25 are athletes such as Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (No. 26 on the list), wide receiver Christian Kirk (No. 27) of Texas A&M and Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen (No. 32).
You won’t get much push-back with LSU running back Leonard Fournette’s listing at No. 1. What does come as a bit of a surprise is that Nick Chubb, the Georgia running back recouping from a season-ending knee injury, is the only other SEC player in Haney’s top-10. That said, there are plenty of talented conference players represented on ESPN’s rankings.
Here’s a look at Haney’s breakdown of where the SEC’s top players rank among the best in the nation.
Honorable Mention: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Tennessee; Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina; Dan Skipper, OT, Arkansas; Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida; Cam Sutton, CB, Tennessee
Nos. 26-50: Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss (No. 26); Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M (No. 27); Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama (No. 32); Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama (No. 33); Jamal Adams, S, LSU (No. 35): Daeshon Hall, DE, Texas A&M (No. 37); Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M (38); O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama (No. 41), Terry Beckner Jr., DT, Missouri (No. 45); Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama (No. 46); Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama (No. 47).
ESPN TOP 25
- No. 25: Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama – Fitzpatrick lived up to the hype his freshman year, posting 45 tackles, 2 sacks and a pair of interceptions, which he subsequently took the house. He’ll be back along with an Alabama defense that promises to be equal parts tough as their title-winning team.
- No. 21: Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee – With Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Alex Collins of Arkansas off the NFL, Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd could very well compete with Leonard Fournette (LSU) and Nick Chubb (Georgia) among the top athletes out of SEC backfields next year. Hurd should only benefit from a Vols offense that returns many vital pieces and improve upon his 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign.
- No. 19: Arden Key, DE, LSU – Key should return to Baton Rouge for his sophomore year bulked up, which should strike fear into opponents. The freshman grew stronger as the year progressed, finishing with 38 tackles, 6.5 TFL and 5 sacks.
- No. 18: Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee – If Barnett keeps up the pace of adding one more sack to his season-total every year, then the Tennessee lineman should have a dozen sacks in 2016 as a junior. Barnett dropped 11 quarterbacks for sacks this year en route to tallying 12.5 tackles-for-loss and 69 tackles.
- No. 14: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama – Amari Cooper who? Ridley (1,045 yards, 7 TDs) picked up at wide receiver for Alabama where former first-round draft pick Cooper left off. As Haney points out, Ridley had 30 more receptions and 45 more yards than Cooper did for the Tide as a frosh.
- No. 11: Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M – Bad news, SEC quarterbacks and offensive linemen…Garrett is returning for his junior year. The SEC first-teamer has 24 sacks through his first two seasons, including 12.5 in 2015. Auburn alum Derrick Thomas holds the SEC record for career sacks, if you were curious.
- No. T8: Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia – Chubb will be the biggest question mark entering the 2016 season as the junior attempts to return from a debilitating knee injury suffered in the opening moments of Georgia’s Week 6 loss to Tennessee. If Chubb’s 8.1 yards-per-carry stood up throughout the entire season, he’d have led the nation ahead in that category, ahead of Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida (7.92 YPC).
- No. 1: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU – Fournette will enter the 2016 season with the added pressure of being the nation’s Heisman front-runner. The NCAA’s leading rusher in 2015 (162.8 YPG), Fournette (1,953 yards, 22 TDs) ranks above Deshaun Watson and Christian McCaffrey on Haney’s list, despite the fact that the Clemson quarterback and Stanford tailback, respectively, were invited to the 2015 Heisman dais, while the LSU star sat home.