Ranking the SEC's 10 most talented position groups heading into the season
On the strength of eight nationally-ranked teams in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25, here are the SEC’s top position groups heading into the opening weekend of play:
10. Auburn’s Defensive Line: There are few teams who could lose arguably their top pass rusher and still dominate, but that’s a safe bet for Ellis Johnson’s defensive line at Auburn this season. Dealing with Carl Lawson’s likely season-ending knee injury wasn’t ideal, but the Tigers have immense depth and are senior-heavy up front with Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, Jeff Wright and Ben Bradley assuming the role of veteran leaders. Coaches are also expecting stellar play from Montravius Adams, a monstrous sophomore who recorded 20 stops last season. Lately, Adams has worked primarily at defensive end but will move inside on third down according to Johnson.
9. Texas A&M’s Wide Receivers: Luckily for new quarterbacks Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, the Aggies are loaded at the wide receiver position even without Mike Evans. Veteran Malcome Kennedy headlines a unit that will utilize a wide variety of skills — speed, size, strength and athleticism — this season in Texas A&M’s wide-open offense. Ricky Seals-Jones is a 1,000-yard threat now that he’s back to full strength while five-star Speedy Noil’s one of the most anticipated true freshmen in college football coming in. Noil looks the part and has had a terrific fall camp. A spitting on-field image of Peter Warrick, Noil possesses the same dynamic play-making ability on offense and special teams that helped the former Florida State speedster enter the Heisman race in 1999. Both are former prep quarterbacks and have a similar 5-11, 190-pound build. Keep an eye on Josh Reynolds too, a JUCO transfer who arrived in the spring and is slated to start in Thursday’s opener at South Carolina.
8. Auburn’s Quarterbacks: The Tigers are set at quarterback the next three seasons, an ideal scenario for offensive juggernaut Gus Malzahn. JUCO transfer Nick Marshall exploded onto the scene as a first-year starter for the league champions last season and has the talent to win the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year award as a senior. The guy playing behind him, Jeremy Johnson, will appear in certain packages and has a better arm. Junior Jonathan Wallace is a forgotten man with four career starts, but he’ll have a shot at competing with Johnson for the starting job in 2015.
7. Alabama’s Linebackers: Kirby Smart’s defense may have lost its outspoken leader and enforcer in C.J. Mosley, but there’s still a few high-profile players left in the chamber at the linebacker position for the Crimson Tide. Senior Trey DePriest steps into Mosley’s quarterback of the defense role with the potential to have an All-American season if he stays healthy. Reggie Ragland is one of Alabama’s more physically imposing linebackers while Reuben Foster, a sophomore, will see more playing time this season from the inside spot. Foster’s often had stingers and shoulder issues early in his career due to his reckless style of play. After the running backs, this group is likely Alabama’s deepest and most skilled.
6. Florida’s Secondary: No Fly Zone’s not very original, but airspace will be limited against the baby-faced Florida secondary this fall. Sophomore Vernon Hargreaves is developing into one of college football’s top corners, the type of talent a struggling NFL defense will build around in 2016. Veteran Jabari Gorman has been too inconsistent to lock in a starting spot at safety and has been challenged during the fall by Marcus Maye and newcomer Duke Dawson. Five-star true freshman Jalen Tabor and junior Brian Poole will more than make up for the loss of Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy. Tabor’s the likely starter at corner opposite Hargreaves.
5. Georgia’s Linebackers: The Bulldogs return all four starters in the middle of their defense led by Ramik Wilson, the SEC’s leading tackler last season. Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera each possess all-conference talent and will shoulder the burden of providing pressure to help an inexperienced secondary. First-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt likes to blitz, so we expect sacks to rise for each player. Floyd was raw last season as a true freshman, but still notched a team-high 6.5 sacks and was a constant disruptive force off the edge.
4. South Carolina’s Offensive Line: The sky’s the limit for the Gamecocks’ offense this season under the direction of Dylan Thompson and Mike Davis who will perform behind one of South Carolina’s most talented offensive lines in program history. All-SEC and All-America caliber guard A.J. Cann enters his senior campaign with 38 career starts, the most for any Gamecock. The permanent team captain is helped out by massive veteran tackles Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson who each hover in the neighborhood of 6-foot-7, 335 pounds. This unit took a recent hit after losing Mike Matulis for at least half of the season with a knee injury, but Steve Spurrier’s confident he can fill in the void.
3. Ole Miss’ Secondary: Fins Up! Keeping your head on a swivel is essential for opposing wideouts this season going against the Ole Miss secondary, a hard-hitting group that picks off any errant throws hurled in its direction. Senior Cody Prewitt led all SEC players with six interceptions last fall and paired with junior Trae Elston headlines the league’s deadliest safety combo. Sophomore Tony Conner made 12 starts at the Husky spot in 2013 and ranked third on the team with 66 tackles. He could be this unit’s most talented player. Reliable corners Senquez Golson and Derrick Jones provide stability on the edges. Losing former JUCO corner Tee Shepard to a toe injury was difficult to stomach, but the Rebels have depth at the back end.
2. Georgia’s Running Backs: No assistant coach in the country is more excited about six playmakers at his disposal than Georgia’s Bryan McClendon is this season. Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and true freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are each capable of 100-yard performances every time they step on the field. Gurley’s the workhorse, Marshall’s a change-of-pace lightning back and the newcomers provide immense depth. There’s sophomore Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman, who had a tremendous spring, too. Mark Richt won’t redshirt Michel or Chubb and says both players could see action on special teams this season. In the current landscape, programs almost can’t afford to sit five stars and lose a year of potential impact should the athletes leave early.
1. Alabama’s Running Backs: You want to know the reason Alabama’s pick to win the SEC this season? It starts with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, two running backs that command the respect of every defense standing in their way. Yeldon’s posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons while Henry, who most believe is one of the best players at any position in the country, has waited the entire offseason post-Oklahoma to emerge as a household name. Henry’s Hercules in a football uniform. Junior Kenyan Drake’s electric and is coming a fantastic season during which he averaged 7.5 yards per carry, but there’s not enough footballs to feed his need for speed in a premium backfield in Tuscaloosa. Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones are part of the Crimson Tide’s next wave.