The most critical non-QB on every SEC East team
Quarterbacks were the talk of SEC Media Days last week in Hoover, and with good reason. The league features multiple signal callers likely to selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, and 2 bona fide Heisman contenders in Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm.
Those junior All-Americans were joined at SEC Media Days by fellow College Football Playoff quarterback Kelly Bryant (Mizzou), as well as a contingent of talented quarterbacks from across the conference including SEC East starters Jake Bentley (South Carolina), Feleipe Franks (Florida) and Jarrett Guarantano (Tennessee). Along with Bryant, add in graduate transfers at Arkansas (Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel), Mississippi State (Tommy Stevens) and Riley Neal (Vanderbilt), and you get a sense of how stacked the SEC is at the quarterback position, from a talent and experience standpoint.
But as good as these guys can be, there are still critical players on each team who must produce to make the hope SEC coaches were selling at Media Days a reality this autumn.
Here’s a list of the most critical non-quarterback at each SEC East program heading into the 2019 season (programs listed alphabetically).
Florida: CJ Henderson, CB
Is it boring to go with a guy Mel Kiper slated to be a top 10 pick in the NFL Draft?
Maybe. But Henderson isn’t just the best 1-on-1 corner in college football (43% completion on throws against, 0 touchdowns allowed) per Pro Football Focus. He’s Todd Grantham’s relentless effort guy, too. Take last year at Neyland Stadium, when Tyson Helton appeared to have dialed up a winning play to get the crowd and the Vols back in the game in the second quarter. Tennessee’s Austin Pope caught a play-action flair down the left sideline, and appeared headed for the checkerboards when … well, Henderson happened.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 23, 2018
Henderson doesn’t give up on plays. Ever.
A freakish athlete with track speed, a 545-pound squat and a 40.5 inch vertical, Henderson has tremendous eye control, hand strength and recovery speed that make him a nightmare in 1-on-1 coverage. His speed and football instincts also make him a useful weapon in Grantham’s exotic boundary blitz schemes. Put plainly, the preseason All-American is Florida’s best football player.
The Gators are really good in the secondary but lack elite depth. As Florida fans saw last season in the Cocktail Party, they need Henderson badly against great opposition. Having Marco Wilson, a former All-SEC Freshmen Team selection with immense talent, back will help. But Henderson is the glue.
Georgia: George Pickens, WR
Georgia lost its best returning wide receiver when JJ Holloman was dismissed from the Georgia football team in late June due to a domestic violence arrest.
It was a tough blow for a Bulldogs squad that already was replacing 4 of its top 5 2018 players in terms of passing game production with the departures of Riley Ridley (559 yards, 9 TD), Mecole Hardman (532, 7), Isaac Nauta (461 yards, 4), Terry Godwin (385, 3). Holloman’s dismissal means offensive coordinator James Coley has to replace all 5 in 2019.
The ability of D’Andre Swift and Zamir White to catch the ball out of the backfield helps, but the reality is you need an intermediate and downfield passing game in the upper echelons of college football. Who will provide that for Georgia?
When Holloman was dismissed, Bulldog Twitter assured cynics Georgia would be fine due to the arrival of Miami transfer Lawrence Cager, but that’s unlikely. Cager is a matchup problem in the red zone, but he caught only 1 pass a game mid-October on for The U last season, despite playing one of the softer schedules in the Power 5.
That leaves it to one of Georgia’s outstanding recruits to step up, and Pickens, a 5-star Georgia stole from rival Auburn on signing day, is the best candidate.
It’s a big ask for a true freshman to replace the likes of Ridley, Hardman and Holloman- but Pickens, a tremendous athlete with a NFL prototype frame, has the physical tools.
Only 5 SEC wide receivers have generated more than 800 total yards as a freshman in the past 15 years, and the list reads like a Who’s Who of SEC greats: Mike Evans (Texas A&M), A.J. Green (UGA) Julio Jones (Alabama), Percy Harvin (Florida), Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) and Calvin Ridley (Alabama).
Is Pickens that good? Jake Fromm thinks so, calling him “the next A.J. Green.” Time will tell, though with a dearth of proven talent around him, he’ll have the chance.
Kentucky: Kash Daniel, LB
This was the easiest selection.
Kentucky fans had a bit of swagger in Hoover — and why not? Three consecutive winning seasons and last year’s 10-win campaign capped with a tremendous Citrus Bowl performance against Penn State should have people buzzing about what Mark Stoops has built on the Bluegrass.
But even as Kentucky fans project confidence, the program is generally flying under the radar. The Cats were picked to finish 6th in the East, a sign of continued disrespect for the program and perhaps, disbelief that the program will replace the likes of Benny Snell Jr. and Josh Allen easily.
Kash Daniel is the dude that can soften that transition.
Last week, Daniel arrived at Media Days with long flowing locks, evoking Game of Thrones Jon Snow and calling Kentucky’s haters and doubters “jack—“.
Daniel is the quarterback of a stingy Kentucky defense that finished in the top 20 nationally a year ago. He’s not Allen; you don’t find him until the middle rounds in draft projections and he lacks the explosiveness of the departed 2018 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. But he is a tackling machine (3rd on team in 2018) and his 26 tackles for loss over his career are a program best. Daniel is also nails tough, having played half of last season with a broken hand. That toughness and leadership, along with his nose for the football, will key a Kentucky team that should again reach a bowl in 2019.
Missouri: Larry Rountree III, RB
If it is possible to “quietly” return to a SEC program after rushing for 1,200 yards, Larry Rountree III does it for the Tigers in 2019.
Rountree set a tone for his junior year with a 204-yard performance in the Liberty Bowl against Oklahoma State, but in truth, Derek Dooley had decided to make the bruising tailback his bell cow by the Florida game in early November. Rountree III ran for 72 yards on 14 carries in Missouri’s rout of Florida in the Swamp, and never looked back, tallying 3 100-yard games down the stretch as the Tigers closed the season winning 5 of their final 7.
Rountree was top 5 in the SEC in yards after contact too, with great leg turnover that requires good contact to tackle.
Larry Rountree with the 7 yard TD pic.twitter.com/TjeviNWd6I
— Represent Mizzou (@RepresentMizzou) September 22, 2018
He’s the type of running back that is brutal to tackle in the second half, and with the surprising departure of Damarea Crockett to the NFL, the pressure — and the privilege — of being the SEC’s next Benny Snell falls on the shoulders of the terrific Rountree.
South Carolina: DJ Wonnum, Buck DE/LB
When a Will Muschamp defense has an elite “Buck” guy (Carl Lawson, Dante Fowler), it tends to be a pretty stout defense.
Muschamp likes to use his Buck to mix up his defensive fronts and confuse quarterbacks. On occasion, the Buck will simply line up like a hand-in-ground defensive end and play read-and-react. On other plays, he’ll stand up on the line and show blitz. On others, he’ll line up like a middle linebacker only to flare out and come off the edge just before the snap. It’s a complicated position that requires a cerebral player and an athlete capable of holding their own in coverage and getting after the quarterback.
Wonnum did well in that role in 2017, finishing 4th on the Gamecocks in tackles and collecting 6 sacks, which helped the Gamecocks finish in the top 20 nationally in total defense and collect a huge Outback Bowl win over Michigan. Unfortunately, Wonnum was injured early in the season a year ago and predictably, the Gamecocks struggled defensively, finishing 40th nationally in S&P defense, the worst finish by a Muschamp-coached defense this decade.
Muschamp is hopeful the return of a healthy Wonnum, along with improved depth to the front seven, will get the Gamecocks defense back up to Muschamp’s lofty standards, and help South Carolina prevent the type of second half collapse on defense that cost them games like the one at Florida late last season.
Tennessee: Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris, OL
I hope Jeremy Pruitt’s optimism is well-placed and Trey Smith plays football again and soon. But if he can’t play or is limited in 2019, it will be baptism by fire for Tennessee 5-star linemen Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright. The duo are two of the biggest’s (pun intended) recruits in recent Vols history, and they’ll be tasked with playing immediately and producing for an offensive line that was woeful in 2018.
If they play well, Jarrett Guarantano will have time to show his substantial talents and Ty Chandler and the Volunteer running game might establish the rhythm it needs to make Jim Chaney’s offense go. If the offense can go, the Vols have a chance to be pretty good, because the defense was salty at times in 2018 and will only be better with more rest and another year of Pruitt’s tutelage.
If the learning curve proves too much, it’s tough to see Tennessee improving much on an offense that finished 121st nationally in 2018, the 2nd-worst unit in the Power 5, ahead of only lowly Rutgers. It’s a tall ask, and maybe one that comes a season early, but that’s where Tennessee is right now in Jeremy Pruitt’s long rebuild.
Vanderbilt: Kalija Lipscomb, WR
You thought we were going Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and maybe we should have. Vaughn is one of the SEC’s elite tailbacks and a surefire future NFL back. But the certainty of Vaughn’s excellence is what makes Lipscomb so essential.
Riley Neal was a solid quarterback at Ball State, performing at an All-MAC level before an injury ended his season. He’ll be competent with help, but at Vanderbilt, he’ll play behind an inexperienced line and with teams stacked up to stop Vaughn, the Commodores will need to find some explosive plays in the passing game.
Lipscomb is as reliable as they come as a sticks mover, with his 87 receptions easily leading the SEC a season ago. Lipscomb also finished 3rd nationally (and 1st in the SEC) on third-down situational efficiency last season, per Pro Football Focus, coming up with a first down on 83.8 percent of his targets. What’s underrated is his explosiveness: Lipscomb tallied catches of 20 yards plus in 7 games last season, and was dominant on contested balls, collecting a SEC best 10-of-19 contested targets.
He’ll be Riley Neal and Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s best friend in 2019, and the guy who holds the key to whether Vanderbilt can send its senior class out 4-0 against Tennessee this November.