Post-spring SEC position rankings
Between graduating seniors, early entrants into the NFL draft, transfers, dismissals and signees from the last recruiting cycle, there are a few hundred players who’ve entered or exited the SEC since the end of last season.
Of course, there are a few hundred players returning to the SEC from a year ago, but the point still stands that there has been a tremendous amount of roster turnover in a short amount of time.
Spring ball is a coaching staff’s first opportunity to evaluate all the roster turnover and begin preparing for how the team will approach the coming season. So, with spring ball now behind us, we thought we’d rank the conference’s position groups from best to worst in looking ahead to the fall.
1. RUNNING BACKS
The SEC is as loaded as always at tailback, even after bidding farewell to the likes of Todd Gurley, Mike Davis, Matt Jones, Josh Robinson and others after last season. Nick Chubb and Leonard Fournette still have two years remaining before they’re draft eligible, and both of Arkansas’ 1,000-yard rushers are back for another year (plus third-string senior Kody Walker, who ran for more than 170 yards in the Hogs’ spring game).
Derrick Henry is still a monster running between the tackles, and Kenyan Drake returns healthy to add depth to Alabama’s backfield (five-star signee Damien Harris helps as well). Auburn has produced the SEC’s leading rusher for two straight years, and it has plenty of talent in the backfield in Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson. And we’ve yet to even mention Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara at Tennessee, Ralph Webb at Vanderbilt, Boom Williams at Kentucky or Kelvin Taylor at Florida. Needless to say, the SEC will be just fine at tailback in 2015.
2. DEFENSIVE LINE
Like at tailback, it seems remarkable the SEC could still be so loaded along the defensive line after losing guys like Dante Fowler, Shane Ray, Markus Golden, Bud Dupree and Preston Smith. However, the SEC also returns four of the nation’s most menacing defensive tackles in A’Shawn Robinson, Robert Nkemdiche, Chris Jones and Harold Brantley, plus both defensive ends that broke Jadeveon Clowney’s freshman sack record a year ago, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett. Additionally, the SEC recruited better along the defensive line than at any other position group, adding four- and five-star talents like Byron Cowart, Daylon Mack, Terry Beckner, Trent Thompson, Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Phillips, just to name a few. The clash between the league’s star tailbacks and its dominant defensive linemen will be a matchup worth focusing on this season.
One area in which the SEC knows how to maintain consistency is at the linebacker position, where the conference seems to produce NFL talent and recruit impact players on an annual basis. The same can be said for 2015. The SEC bid farewell to stars like Benardrick McKinney, Martrell Spaight, Amarlo Herrera, Ramik Wilson, A.J. Johnson (who was talented on the field before finding himself in legal troubles off it), Trey DePriest, Kwon Alexander and others last year, and all of those players (except Johnson) will be playing on Sundays this fall.
The SEC does return a number of star linebackers like Reggie Ragland, Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy, Leonard Floyd, Denzel Nkemdiche and Kentrell Brothers, and it replaced much of its departing NFL talent in the form of recruits like Leo Lewis, Josh Smith, Darrin Kirkland, Roquan Smith and more. There is the usual turnover at the linebacker, but don’t expect any sort of regression at the heart of SEC defenses.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE
The SEC didn’t lose nearly as much talent along the offensive line as it did at some other positions, but injuries have complicated matters this spring. Some teams suffered more overhaul along the line than others — teams like Mississippi State, which lost three key starters from last season — but injuries have plagued many more offensive lines since last season. Ole Miss barely had enough linemen to play a spring game, and much of Tennessee’s depth up front is in the form of freshman who will need more time than this offseason permits to translate their games to the college level. But what saved the SEC’s offensive lines is a combination of stellar recruiting (at a school like Tennessee, whose only fault is a need to play freshman right away) and a number of draft-eligible players opting to return to school, namely at Arkansas and Georgia.
5. DEFENSIVE BACKS
As the SEC falls more and more in love with the pass (although that may not be the case this year with so many great backs and so few proven quarterbacks), defensive backs have grown more and more important throughout the conference. The SEC has a few studs at the position, beginning with rising junior Vernon Hargreaves, who is a two-time All-SEC honoree after his first two years of college ball. He leads a deep group of defensive backs at Florida, but he’s not alone at the top.
Tennessee’s Cam Sutton is moving inside to nickel corner despite being one of the conference’s best, literally because Butch Jones feels no one else on his roster can cover on the inside. Auburn returns a few individual talents in the secondary like Jonathan Jones, and LSU is once again earning its “DB U” moniker by returning a slew of talented defensive backs and adding five-star signee Kevin Tolliver.
Unfortunately, uncertainty in the secondary at Alabama, due to injuries and legal troubles away from the field, has diminished one of the SEC’s traditionally good secondaries, and the losses of two All-Americans at Ole Miss and three starters at Mississippi State don’t help the position’s strength. Even without many proven quarterbacks, the SEC’s passing offenses may still best the league’s secondaries, just as they did a year ago (and two years ago when five NFL quarterbacks manned the position). There’s talent in the defensive backfield, but not quite the depth that other position groups enjoy throughout the conference.
6. WIDE RECEIVERS
Amari Cooper wasn’t just the best receiver in the SEC last year, he was the best receiver in the nation. Losing him would hurt any conference, and the SEC is no exception. Plus, Alabama lost the two receivers behind Cooper on last year’s depth chart, which won’t help a regular contender without a quarterback (we’ll get to that below). Sammie Coates, arguably the league’s best deep threat, is gone as an early entrant to the NFL draft, as are the top three wideouts at back-to-back SEC East champ Missouri. Von Pearson may not suit up for Tennessee this year, and senior Malcome Kennedy removes one option from a loaded Texas A&M offense. But what ultimately gave the receivers and edge over the quarterbacks on this list is the talent retained and the talent recruited. The SEC returns D’haquille Williams, Laquon Treadwell and Pharoh Cooper — all future NFL stars — and added 13 receivers rated four stars or better, laying the foundation for the future at the position.
This is a rather harsh assessment of the quarterbacks, but considering more than half the conference is still searching for a starter in 2015, it’s amazing the league’s signal callers didn’t finish last on this list. Dak Prescott is the reigning first-team All-SEC quarterback (he also finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting), and he’ll once again be the SEC’s biggest star at the position. Joshua Dobbs hopes to play for an entire season the way he played during Tennesse’s 4-1 finish to last year, and Jeremy Johnson looks to be the conference’s star newcomer under center as he takes over for Nick Marshall at Auburn.
The SEC lost Blake Sims, last year’s second-team All-SEC quarterback, and lost some hit-or-miss guys in Bo Wallace, Hutson Mason and Dylan Thompson, but it really didn’t lose all that much talent at the position. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great at the position to start with behind Prescott, Dobbs, Marshall and Sims last year, and the uncertainty at quarterback within power programs like Alabama and LSU indicates the SEC’s shot at bringing the national championship back home may hinge on the arm of a quarterback yet to even win a starting job. That’s pretty unsettling.
8. TIGHT ENDS
The SEC’s tight ends are a group quickly emerging throughout the conference, and it suffered the least amount of talent depletion, losing only South Carolina’s Busta Anderson and Arkansas’ A.J. Derby among its impact players at the position. Still, the SEC’s tight ends are the least accomplished position group after last season, and they’ll need to show more in 2015 to rise from the basement of these rankings. Evan Engram, Steven Scheu, Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard and Jeb Blazevich are all tremendous talents, but none of them were nationally recognized last season. The SEC had at least one shining star gain national attention at every other position group, and until the tight ends follow suit, they’ll sit at the bottom of these rankings. However, there is an element of the tight ends finishing last by default, because if this group is the least talented in the SEC, that more speaks to the depth of talent at every position throughout the conference.