Projecting returning starters for every SEC team in 2017
By the time the headline games to start the 2017 season arrive — namely Alabama-Florida State and Florida-Michigan — the depth charts will be sorted out. But before the elite recruits are mixed in and look to assert themselves in spring and summer workouts, here are the known commodities exiting 2016 and setting the table for 2017.
Here is a look at returning starters for each SEC team, and how that fits with its preliminary outlook for 2017:
Skinny: There isn’t a deeper position group in America than Alabama at running back where B.J. Emmons, who is fourth or fifth on the depth chart, is set to return from a foot injury. Add top overall recruit in 2017 Najee Harris to a group led by Bo Scarbrough and the options are plenty. Defense could be a question mark with five returnees, but the same could be said a year ago before the Crimson Tide led the country in total defense in 2016. The Tide must replace a couple of offensive linemen, but between Jalen Hurts and Calvin Ridley at quarterback and receiver, and a host of other 4-star and 5-star recruits who waited their turn, there is more than enough talent available.
Skinny: Quarterback Austin Allen and a strong and experienced offensive line lead the offense, which is looking to establish new targets at receiver. Meanwhile, on defense, Ryan Pulley and Henre’ Toliver each had two interceptions in 2016 and are in line to start at cornerback in 2017, while the run defense will be led by McTelvin Agim and Dre Greenlaw.
Skinny: New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey will have plenty to work with led by the SEC’s best rushing offense in 2016 fueled by Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway. Both safeties, led by Tray Matthews, and all three linebackers are also expected back. A bonus returnee is placekicker Daniel Carson, one of the best kickers in SEC history.
Skinny: The Gators won’t have to wait for their first test — they’ll look to avenge a bowl loss to Michigan in their season opener Sept. 2 in Arlington, Texas.
The questions will also come early for the defense that’s led the Gators to back-to-back East crowns, and post-surgery Luke Del Rio presumably at quarterback. Could this be the year the Gators are led by the offense?
Skinny: Hard to find a team that benefited more from underclassmen passing on the NFL, especially in the front seven on defense and at running back. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel alone combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 12 TDs on the ground in 2016, and the Bulldogs added to an already deep backfield in this recruiting class. Trenton Thompson, a once highly touted recruit, is now a dominant inside talent after he led the Bulldogs with 9.5 tackles for loss in 2016 and and tied for the team lead with five sacks. The Bulldogs face a tough road schedule, including games at Notre Dame, Tennessee and Auburn.
Skinny: Stephen Johnson, a JUCO transfer, will look to build on his surprising career at quarterback following a better-than-expected 2016. Benny Snell Jr. showed himself more than capable of replacing Stanley “Boom” Johnson with a freshman season for the ages. Linebackers Jordan Jones and Courtney Love were among the best in the SEC and should offer a solid backbone to the defense in 2017. The schedule is also favorable as the Wildcats get Florida, Tennessee and Ole Miss all in Lexington.
Skinny: Derrius Guice is the headline player across the board after he led the SEC in rushing, touchdowns and all-purpose yards. But defensive tackles Ed Alexander and Greg Gilmore also add an intriguing competition on defense. Arden Key is a relative under-the-radar front seven player, and should only build on 12 sacks from 2016 playing alongside Devin White, perhaps the next great LSU linebacker. One intriguing decision is the quarterback choice of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, with incumbent Danny Etling beginning out front.
Skinny: One more of an up-and-coming group of quarterbacks across the league, Nick Fitzgerald had one of the best statistical seasons in program history in 2016 when he rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. On defense, new coordinator Todd Grantham will look to use experienced players Jeffery Simmons and Leo Lewis to improve a unit that allowed 31.8 points per game, which was 13th in the SEC.
Skinny: Young QB Shea Patterson and an experienced offensive line will look to find new playmakers in the passing game. The Rebels face a tough stretch, though there is an open week in the mix of Cal, Alabama and Auburn all on the road. By then, the results should reveal if the remade defense, led by new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff and linebackers coach Bradley Dale Peveto, has improved from the dreadful 2016 campaign.
Skinny: There is no shortage of talent at receiver with J’Mon Moore and Dimetrios Mason, among others, providing targets for quarterback Drew Lock. Mason made the SEC’s All-Freshman team in 2016 and his big-play ability could make him a key part of the Missouri playbook. On defense, A.J. Logan at defensive tackle is one of the few front seven players with experience.
Skinny: The young core of offensive players will look to build on strong freshman seasons, most notably Jake Bentley and Rico Dowdle. Though linebacker is a position of concern, the Gamecocks return 2015 leading tackler Skai Moore, who missed last season with a neck injury. The Gamecocks also have 18 offensive players from the bowl depth chart who return.
Skinny: Questions abound for the Vols, not only in the offensive backfield but also with the new coach leading the offense, Larry Scott. The challenge will be to reclaim optimism following the disappointing end to the 2016 season — losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt in Butch Jones’ fourth year. John Kelly’s blossoming potential at running back and the injury-riddled defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle should take the limelight in 2017.
Skinny: There are plenty of areas of strength for the Aggies, including offensive line, running back with Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams, safety with Donovan Wilson and Armani Watts and defensive tackle with Kingsley Keke and Zaycoven Henderson. But there are also concerns with experience at linebacker, defensive end, receiver and quarterback, where Jake Hubenak is the incumbent.
Skinny: All-time leading rusher Ralph Webb is at the forefront of Vanderbilt’s program, but he has a solid supporting cast in quarterback Kyle Shurmur and receiver Kalija Lipscomb, who had eight catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns and was one of six true freshmen to see action during the regular season. The Commodores also have rising seniors Trent Sherfield, C.J. Duncan and Caleb Scott in the passing game. Linebackers Colin Anderson and Dimitri Moore, along with Oren Burks, should lead a solid defense. It’s a tough schedule for the Commodores, as they face Kansas State, Alabama, Florida and Georgia in consecutive weeks.