SEC seniors who could have biggest impact on division races
Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel announcing they would return for their senior seasons was one of the biggest surprises of the offseason. Players of their caliber rarely stay all four years. Generally, if a player is talented enough to play in the NFL, which Chubb and Michel certainly are, conventional wisdom advises him to bypass additional wear and tear in college and start getting paid for his services.
That’s especially true for 1,000-yard running backs.
Many of the SEC’s best players never exhaust the entirety of their eligibility, which makes every senior class interesting. Four-year players are usually a mix of veteran backups looking to make a statement in their lone season as a starter, capable college players with a long shot at an NFL career or the rare impact star who decides to return to school.
Last week, we looked at the incoming freshmen who could have the biggest impact on the SEC division races. It’s only fair, then, to analyze the elder statesmen of the conference.
Here are the seniors not named Chubb or Michel who could help decide things before all is said and done.
Braden Smith – OL, Auburn: Smith has been a mainstay on Auburn’s line the past two seasons. After serving as the Tigers’ starting right guard for much of his career, Smith is shifting to right tackle. Smith’s spot on this list isn’t so much about what he can or can’t do, but rather how well he can fill the void left by departed tackle Robert Leff.
Auburn’s impressive ground game was particularly dominant when running behind Leff, who was Pro Football Focus’ top-rated run-blocking tackle last season. If Smith can play close to that level in 2017, Auburn’s offense could be as lethal as expected.
The Falcons have signed Auburn OT Robert Leff as a UDFA, who was arguably the best run-blocking tackle in this draft class. pic.twitter.com/irJ6JrHsrW
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 3, 2017
Duke Dawson – CB, Florida: Few teams are able to roll out great defensive backs the way Florida does, and Dawson will now be the main veteran in the secondary. Operating as the Gators’ slot cornerback, Dawson broke up seven passes and returned his lone interception for a touchdown. With Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson in the NFL, Dawson could move to the outside if that’s what coaches want. Dominant play in the secondary has helped lead Florida to the SEC Championship Game in consecutive seasons; Dawson is now in charge of making that happen for a third time.
Isaiah Wynn – OL, Georgia: A year after filling several key positions with first-time starters, Georgia will have a strong mix of talented seniors on the field in 2017. While Chubb, Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Dominick Sanders will all have a massive impact on the success of the season, arguably the most important senior will play in the trenches.
Bulldogs fans received a first-hand lesson in the importance of offensive line play last fall, and it’s the biggest remaining question mark on the roster. Wynn, one of the most versatile players Georgia has, will slide over to left tackle, which was a major problem spot in Kirby Smart’s first season.
Stephen Johnson – QB, Kentucky: That the Wildcats remained in the division hunt as long as they did last fall is even more impressive when considering how one-dimensional their offense was.
Losing starting quarterback Drew Barker early in the season forced Johnson, who transferred to Kentucky before his junior year, into a starting role.
Johnson struggled at times as a passer, but he led the Wildcats to an upset over Louisville and their first bowl game under Mark Stoops. With an underrated defense and Benjamin Snell returning after a breakout freshman season, an improved Johnson could make Kentucky’s dark horse bid a reality.
Danny Etling – QB, LSU: LSU’s situation isn’t much different from Kentucky’s on the surface. The offense is skewed toward its dominant rushing attack, but its second-year transfer quarterback could help push things over the top.
It’s been a few years since LSU had any sort of a dangerous aerial attack, but there is reason to believe new offensive coordinator Matt Canada can remedy that. If we’ve learned anything over the past several seasons, it’s that Alabama is most susceptible to downfield passes. Etling’s numbers in 2016 weren’t awful – 59.5 completion percentage, 2,123 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions – but if he can take his game to another level, it would seriously help LSU’s aspirations in the West.
Skai Moore – LB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks aren’t receiving a ton of talk about contending in the SEC East, but they might be the conference’s best sleeper team.
South Carolina’s defense made nice strides in its first season under coach Will Muschamp and did so without its best player. In 2017, Moore will return to the field after a neck injury sidelined him last fall.
Moore was the Gamecocks’ leading tackler in each season he was healthy, and his return will provide a major boost to a defense that struggled to defend the run at times.