Each SEC team's strongest position
Many teams are taking this time in the spring to analyze their biggest weaknesses, but even now it’s clear to see which areas aren’t as much of a concern for SEC teams.
Injury is always the wild card, but barring that, these units should be something for these respective teams to fall back on.
Here we assess each SEC team’s strongest area entering the 2016 season.
One could also make an argument for the defending national champs’ receiving corps, but the “No Fly Zone” is stocked with plenty of talent. Safety Eddie Jackson’s decision to return is key for a defense that led the SEC with 19 interceptions (four more than any other team). Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey played major roles as freshmen, and now they’ll be expected to lock it down at corner. The unit is being infused with promising newcomers as the team signed four corners in its 2016 class: four-stars Nigel Knott (No. 7 CB in the country), Shyheim Carter (No. 9 CB), Jared Mayden (No. 13 CB) and three-star Aaron Robinson.
ARKANSAS: RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Tight end Hunter Henry might be gone, but the Razorbacks return five of their top six pass-catching options in 2016, including another tight end that has a chance to put up big numbers. Senior Jeremy Sprinkle produced 389 yards on 29 catches in ’15. Meanwhile, his 6 TDs were two more than any other player at the position in the conference. Arkansas should be experienced at wideout with seniors Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed and Keon Hatcher and junior Jared Cornelius.
AUBURN: DEFENSIVE LINE
The Tigers have the talent to be among the best defensive fronts, but that will depend on defensive end Carl Lawson staying healthy and many unproven players reaching their potential. Auburn just enjoyed a ridiculously impressive haul of defensive linemen in the 2016 class, picking up six players that are either five- or four-star prospects: No. 4 DE Marlon Davidson, No. 4 DT Derrick Brown, No. 7 DT Antwuan Jackson, No. 11 DE Prince Sammons, No. 13 DE Nick Coe and No. 2 JUCO DE Paul James. Of that impressive group, Davidson, Jackson and James are early enrollees. Senior DT Montravius Adams and redshirt sophomore Dontavius Russell will be tasked with bringing along a young group. However, new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has plenty to work with.
FLORIDA: DEFENSIVE LINE
Even with Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister leaving for the NFL, the Gators’ defensive front is still the strength of the team. Defensive ends Bryan Cox and Caleb Brantley will be on the edge as CeCe Jefferson moves inside. UF has plenty more experience coming back as senior Joey Ivie and redshirt junior Taven Bryan saw lots of playing time last season. Plus, the school signed two four-star DEs for 2016, Antonneous Clayton (No. 2 DE) and Jordan Smith. Meanwhile, Florida’s secondary is still full of talent despite the departure of star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. Juniors Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson may make up the best corner tandem in the SEC, and safety Marcus Maye returns as a redshirt senior.
GEORGIA: RUNNING BACKS
The Bulldogs’ backfield has to get this title considering it has two players who have enjoyed 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Nick Chubb ran for 1,547 yards in 2014, and Sony Michel ran for 1,161 last season. Chubb seems to be ahead of schedule in his recovery as he’s already been seen taking a few snaps and running drills during spring practice. Senior Brendan Douglas is expected to be third in the rotation, but fans in Athens are also anxious to see what four-star running back Elijah Holyfield brings to the table.
KENTUCKY: RUNNING BACKS/RECEIVERS
Things look promising for the Wildcats on offense in 2016. The team returns all three of its top pass-catchers from last season with Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet. The trio combined for 130 catches for 1,732 yards receiving last season. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s running game has an impressive trio of its own with Stanley “Boom” Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton. When you add in the fact that the offensive line returns four of its five starters from a year ago, these playmakers have a chance to produce at a high level next season.
LSU: RUNNING BACKS
There’s one question that the Tigers won’t need to ask in 2016, and that’s who’s going to be carrying the rock. Junior Leonard Fournette is an early frontrunner for the Heisman, and sophomore sidekick Derrius Guice should get nearly all the leftover carries. Although Fournette’s Heisman campaign was totally derailed after the loss to Alabama, that was really his only poor performance of the season. Meanwhile, Guice had 436 yards on 51 carries last season for an incredible average of 8.6 yards per carry. Junior Darrel Williams should be third in the depth chart. The team obviously feels solid enough at this spot that Devin White, the No. 5 RB in the class of 2016, has been practicing this spring at linebacker, a position he also excelled at in high school.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: LINEBACKERS
While one could argue receivers as the Bulldogs’ biggest strength because of the return of the Freds — Ross and Brown — the sheer depth at linebacker should pay dividends for the defense. Beniquez Brown is gone to the NFL, but senior Richie Brown was the team’s leader in tackles (109) and sacks (6.5). Meanwhile, his 13 tackles for loss were just shy of A.J. Jefferson (13.5) for the lead. He’ll likely be joined by sophomores Gerri Green (who started in the Belk Bowl) and J.T. Gray (who started vs. Ole Miss). Mississippi State signed three linebackers in the class of 2015 who all redshirted last season: The top-rated inside linebacker Leo Lewis and a pair of outside linebackers in Timothy Washington and Traver Jung.
MISSOURI: DEFENSIVE LINE
While the offense may look different next season, one thing won’t change, and that’s the talent along the Missouri defensive line. New head coach Barry Odom will have plenty to work with at that position as Mizzou returns all nine defensive linemen from its two-deep at the end of last season. Plus, the Tigers get back redshirt senior DT Harold Brantley, who was sidelined for 2015 for injuries he suffered in a car accident. Defensive ends Charles Harris and Walter Brady will be on the edge after tying for the team lead with 7 sacks apiece. Harris, who was named second-team All-SEC, finished second in the SEC with 18.5 tackles for loss. Brady had 12.5 tackles for loss. Brantley will be back at defensive tackle along with Terry Beckner Jr. (still recovering from a knee injury), Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta. Missouri’s depth on the defensive front is superb.
OLE MISS: RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The Rebels may have the deepest receiving corps in the entire SEC despite the loss of star Laquon Treadwell. Wideouts Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Markell Pack along with tight end Evan Engram will lead the way. Ole Miss has plenty of other options waiting their turn like Derrick Jones, Damarkus Lodge and Van Jefferson. The program also signed four pass-catchers who are all four-star prospects: A.J. Brown (No. 5 WR for 2016), DeKaylin Metcalf (No. 18 WR), Tre Nixon (No. 36 WR) and TE Octavious Cooley (No. 6 TE). Despite having a standout receiver, QB Chad Kelly showed his willingness to spread the ball around last season. Ole Miss was the only SEC school to have six different pass-catchers with at least 30 receptions, two more than any other school. He’ll have options to be just as generous in 2016.
SOUTH CAROLINA: LINEBACKERS
The Gamecocks lack any single position that stands out as a strength by SEC standards, but the team has some promising talent at linebacker. Will Muschamp can work his magic with that group, which will be led by one of the best returning linebackers in the conference, senior Skai Moore. The second-team All-SEC performer will be limited in the spring due to a neck injury, but he’s expected to be back in full health. Moore will be alongside junior Bryson Allen-Williams and senior Jonathan Walton to lead a promising group.
TENNESSEE: RUNNING BACKS
Tennessee joins Georgia in having one of the best one-two punches at running back in the SEC. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are a perfect compliment to one another, and they’re sure to give opposing defenses headaches. The Vols finished second only to LSU in the conference in rushing last season (223.7 yards per game). The two combined for just shy of 2,500 yards from scrimmage last season and 24 TDs. The school also has four-star signee and No. 12 RB for 2016 Carlin Fils-Aime. As long as Hurd and Kamara stay healthy, they should wreak havoc in 2016.
TEXAS A&M: RECEIVERS
Trevor Knight transferred to the Aggies for a reason. Texas A&M boasts a deep crop of receivers, including freshman phenom from last season, Christian Kirk. Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones are NFL prospects as well. Regardless of who wins the battle between Knight and Jake Hubenak, considering the Aggies love to throw the ball around, there’s a high ceiling for this bunch in terms of production. Kirk finished with just more than 1,000 receiving yards, Reynolds was close to that mark and Seals-Jones added 560 yards and 4 TDs. The team also signed a couple four-star wideouts in Quartney Davis and Clyde Chriss.
The Commodores should benefit from a talented linebacking corps in 2016, especially in the middle with Zach Cunningham and Nigel Bowden. Cunningham, who will be a redshirt junior, made first-team All-SEC by posting 103 tackles (tied for seventh in the SEC) with 16.5 tackles for loss (tied for fourth) to go with 4.5 sacks and 4 fumbles forced. Cunningham and Bowden will be joined by Nehemiah Mitchell, Landon Stokes and promising sophomore Josh Smith on the outside.