If SEC East team could bring back just 1 player, who would it be?
One of the hard parts of college sports fandom is just when you get attached to a certain player, your new favorite, he’s either walking across the stage to get his degree or departing early for the NFL.
What if the seven teams in the SEC East had the power to bring back one player without violating eligibility rules? Here are the seven who would give their former team some extra help in trying to make it to Atlanta:
Florida – S Marcell Harris
The Gators have a surprising number of candidates for this designation considering they went 4-7 last season. Perhaps that’s why they have a new head coach.
There are cases to be made for quite a few departed players. Dan Mullen would almost certainly find creative ways to get the ball in electric playmaker Antonio Callaway’s hands. Specialists Johnny Townsend and Eddy Pineiro were among the sport’s best players at their respective positions. Taven Bryan was the highest-drafted player of the bunch (No. 29 overall) and a pass-rushing force on the interior defensive line.
But the best fit for the 2018 squad would be Harris. While second-round pick Duke Dawson will be missed in pass coverage, Florida appears set at the corner and nickel spots with Marco Wilson, CJ Henderson and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. The likely starting safeties are Shawn Davis and Jaewon Taylor. Davis and Taylor might grow into their roles, but Harris would be an instant upgrade for the secondary. Harris missed 2017 due to a camp injury, but in 2016 he led the team with 73 total tackles.
Georgia – LB Roquan Smith
Not surprisingly, the defending SEC champs have the most difficult decision to make. It’s a tough call between 1,000-yard rushers Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, first-round lineman Isaiah Wynn and the Butkus Award-winning Smith, but ultimately the linebacker wins out.
As hard as it is to turn down another season of Chubb or Michel, Georgia’s backfield appears to be in good shape for 2018 with sophomore D’Andre Swift ready to take on a bigger workload and 5-star signee Zamir White likely to have an impact once he’s declared healthy.
Smith, the No. 8 overall draft pick, was a monster on Georgia’s defense last season. His 137 total tackles led not only UGA, but all SEC defenders. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has recruited well enough to reload at all positions, but given the chance, he’d gladly welcome back an elite defender like Smith.
Kentucky – QB Stephen Johnson
UK’s distinction as the only SEC team without a player selected in the 2018 NFL Draft made this pick interesting. Making the decision even more difficult was the fact that the Wildcats’ two All-SEC selections – RB Benny Snell Jr. and LB Josh Allen – both return for 2018.
So what’s the best way to give Kentucky a boost this fall? Bringing Johnson back for another season as signal-caller looks like the smart move. Since he wasn’t drafted or named All-SEC, it’s obvious that Johnson did not set the world on fire in 2017, but 2,680 yards of production (2,305 passing, 375 rushing) is hard to turn down.
Missouri – DE Marcell Frazier
Plenty of Tigers fans would love to see J’Mon Moore back for another season, but with Emanuel Hall and Johnathon Johnson both returning, Mizzou’s wide receiver corps should be a team strength again this fall.
Granted, DLU appears to be in good shape with Terry Beckner Jr. opting to return for the 2018 season, but Frazier is still the pick here. Another season of Frazier in CoMo, would make life difficult for the rest of the division. Frazier recorded an impressive 15.5 tackles for loss, production which is hard to replicate.
With so many key pieces back for Mizzou (Beckner, Drew Lock, Damarea Crockett), it’s fun to imagine the impact of a bonus returnee like Frazier.
South Carolina – TE Hayden Hurst
It’s a shame that we’ll never get to see a full season of Jake Bentley throwing to Hurst, Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards. Even though the Gamecocks return Samuel and Edwards as wideouts, there’s always room for another elite pass-catcher.
Hurst was South Carolina’s only player selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. His stock surged in the weeks leading up to the draft as teams began to realize that the former walk-on had everything you look for in a tight end. You can’t blame a first-round pick (No. 25 to the Baltimore Ravens) for leaving early, but it’s hard for Gamecocks not to be wondering “what if?”
Tennessee – RB John Kelly
The highest Vols draftee in 2018 was DB Rashaan Gaulden, but from a production standpoint, the biggest loss from 2017 is Kelly.
Kelly’s stats last year don’t jump off the page (189 carries, 778 yards), but his standout performances against Georgia Tech (19 carries, 128 yards, 4 TD) and Florida (19 carries, 141 yards, TD) in Weeks 1 and 3 – before the wheels fell off UT’s 2017 season – show that he had the potential to be a feature back in the SEC.
Borderline juniors leaving after a coaching change is just part of football, but UT offensive coordinator Tyson Helton probably wishes he had a better running back in his first season with the Vols.
Vanderbilt – RB Ralph Webb
LB Oren Burks was the only Commodore drafted, but Webb is the player Derek Mason wishes he had for 2018 (and beyond).
Webb left Vanderbilt holding multiple school rushing records, including rushing yards (4,173), 931 carries (931), touchdowns (32) and 16 games of at least 100 rushing yards. He’s not only a Vanderbilt great, but an SEC great. Webb is No. 6 all-time in the conference in career rushing yards.