Ranking the Top 10 QB-WR duos in the SEC for 2020
The SEC returns a number of elite wide receivers this fall, including reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase at LSU. Alabama also has a couple of potential first-round 2021 NFL Draft picks in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
On the quarterback side, the SEC no longer has Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa slinging the ball all over the field. But Florida’s Kyle Trask and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond are back. Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman and USC transfer JT Daniels are bringing their talents to Georgia. Auburn’s Bo Nix and South Carolina’s Ryan Hilisnki will try to improve on promising freshman seasons. And, a pair of former backups — Alabama’s Mac Jones and LSU’s Myles Brennan — will do their best to replace the aforementioned stars.
So, with so much turnover at the quarterback position, which QB-WR combos are going to have the most success this fall? Here’s a look at the top 10 returning passer-pass catcher combinations in the SEC in 2020:
10. Ryan Hilinski-Shi Smith, South Carolina
After losing Deebo Samuel to the NFL following the 2018 season and Bryan Edwards after 2019, the Gamecocks need Smith to emerge. Fortunately for them, he is capable of making quarterbacks look really good.
Even when Hilinski made an ill-advised throw into double coverage against Alabama, Smith made a play and hauled the pass in for a touchdown:
Shi Smith and @ryan_hilinski going to do more of this in the near future. Great tandem.
— FQSEC (@FifthQuarterSEC) August 2, 2020
As Hilinski improves his post-snap reads, that will only bode well for Smith, who should greatly improve on his stats (43 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns) from last season.
9. Kyle Trask-Trevon Grimes, Florida
Grimes didn’t put up huge numbers in 2019 behind Tyrie Cleveland, Van Jefferson, Kyle Pitts (more on him later) and others, but he did catch 33 passes for 491 yards and 3 touchdowns. When Trask needs to make a big play, he often looks for Grimes.
Check out this heat map of where Grimes’ catches came on the field, and keep it in mind when I show you a pair of highlights:
Trevon Grimes' 2019 target heat map. Short to the left or deep to the right. Two-thirds of his targets resulted in Success for the SEC's bronze medal in that department. His 51.1% First Down+TD Rate is top5 amongst returners. pic.twitter.com/WyM112hh1S
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) July 17, 2020
Here’s a throw to that 0-10 yards on the left hot spot. Grimes takes it to the house:
@GatorsFB receiver Trevon Grimes is ready to be a star this upcoming #CollegeFootball season. When you have this type of speed, a breakout is inevitable. #GoGators #SECFootball #NFLDraft #NFLTwitterpic.twitter.com/18s4f9o1gB
— Black and Gold Nation (@B_GNation1) June 16, 2020
Deep to the right? Trask chucks up a prayer and Grimes makes a big-time play on the ball:
That connection will need to continue to produce big plays if the Gators are going to knock Georgia off the SEC East throne.
8. Kellen Mond-Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M
Kendrick Rogers and Quartney Davis left for the NFL early and went undrafted. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it probably means even more targets for Ausbon this fall.
Ausbon already led that trio of receivers with 66 catches for 872 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2019. Expect him to get even more work this season.
Ausbon is one of the best at making contested catches in the SEC. Check out this grab against Ole Miss:
Jhamon Ausbon is a fun, strong receiver out of Texas A&M. I have yet to see someone play with more strength than he does, and it's a beautiful thing to watch in action. He is the contested catch master because of it. It's thread time. #12thMan #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/8nFKQz0jMO
— Josh Engler (@EnglerNFL) June 1, 2020
Here he is making a heck of a one-handed grab in traffic against Auburn:
Jhamon Ausbon has crazy hands. 👀 pic.twitter.com/RUiMzGKDET
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) July 26, 2020
Mond didn’t take a step forward like many expected in 2019. He still has room to grow. If he can be better in 2020, he has the arm to make Ausbon a star.
7. Myles Brennan-Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU
Brennan will make another appearance later on in these rankings (I bet you can guess who the receiver is), but he checks in at No. 7 with the underrated Terrace Marshall Jr. In LSU’s historic offense last year, Marshall was overshadowed by Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Thaddeus Moss and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
However, he still made more than his fair share of big plays. He only had 46 catches, but 13 went for touchdowns. Yards after catch are a quarterback’s best friend, and Marshall can make defenders miss:
Terrace Marshall doing a great job creating for himself after the catch. Really intriguing player at 6'3" 200 lbs with 46 receptions for 671 yards and 13(!!!) TDs in 2019 for LSU. No question, he's a player to keep tabs on for the 2021 NFL Draft. pic.twitter.com/E87TDmr1kW
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) August 2, 2020
He’ll need to take on a bigger role without Jefferson, Moss and Edwards-Helaire in the offense this fall, but he’s more than capable of putting up huge numbers if Brennan looks his way often.
6. Jamie Newman-George Pickens, Georgia
I’m giving Newman the edge in the QB battle at Georgia against JT Daniels because he’s not coming off a season-ending injury. He’d be wise to develop some chemistry with Pickens early in the season because Pickens is a guy who can make quarterbacks look really good.
Look at how many Baylor defenders he avoids on this catch in the Sugar Bowl:
George Pickens showed off some video game moves on this play 🎮
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) July 29, 2020
And he can also use his body to wall off defenders and make over-the-shoulder catches:
Pick 2.06: George Pickens (@George33101361), WR, GA
Pickens exploded onto the scene as a true freshman, finishing with 727 YDs and 8 TDs on merely 49 receptions. With another good QB in Jamie Newman, Pickens will almost certainly cement himself as one of the NCAA’s best in 2020. pic.twitter.com/mkGpjtwktz
— Smitty (@smittyshottakes) July 25, 2020
He didn’t have any drops last year, which is, well, ideal for a wide receiver. Expect big things from Pickens, no matter who is throwing him the ball in 2020.
5. Kyle Trask-Kyle Pitts, Florida
Pitts is probably the best tight end in the country heading into the 2020 season. He’s coming off a big year in 2019, where he caught 54 passes for 649 yards and 5 touchdowns. Almost all of that production came on passes from Trask.
The Gators have a versatile receiver in Kadarius Toney, but Pitts is actually just as versatile and tough for defenses to keep track of. He can split out wide, line up in a traditional tight end spot or even start out in the backfield. He also runs some smooth routes, looking like a receiver:
Florida TE Kyle Pitts is a 6'6 239 lbs matchup nightmare.
He is fluid & smooth athlete. His size & athleticism creates a larger window for his QB.
— Damian Parson (@DP_NFL) August 4, 2020
Trask is the most accurate quarterback returning to the SEC this year, having completed 66.9% of his throws in last season. He and Pitts are going to be tough to stop in 2020.
4. Mac Jones-DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Mac Jones already knows DeVonta Smith is one of the best deep threats in the country. They connected for this exciting touchdown against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl:
— Cold Blooded Sports Pod (@ColdBloodedChat) January 1, 2020
Smith averaged 18.5 yards per catch last season while leading the Crimson Tide in yards and touchdowns. Jones has proven he can lead the Tide offense, and with Smith and Jaylen Waddle (more on him in a bit) as his top receivers, he’ll have plenty of talent to work with once again.
3. Bo Nix-Seth Williams, Auburn
Many fans and analysts were disappointed that Nix didn’t progress more during his freshman season, but the connection with Williams was strong throughout the year. Williams led the Tigers in catches (59), receiving yards (830) and touchdowns (8).
It’s easy to see why Nix looked his way so often in 2019. Plays like these will go a long way toward building your quarterback’s confidence in you:
Finishing up this WR class’s initial first go around and I keep being surprised by so many of the receivers including Seth Williams.
There is a clear cut guy at the top of my rankings but after that so much is almost interchangeable. pic.twitter.com/lQwXCcFwtM
— Andrew Harbaugh (@MandrewNFL) July 30, 2020
With my second pick Im shocked he's there but gimme Seth Williams @ 2.10pic.twitter.com/qVUsGpvqxZ
— alFFred (@al_FF_red) August 4, 2020
If Nix improves under new Auburn OC Chad Morris, Williams will only see his targets and production go up.
2. Myles Brennan-Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
Now, we reach the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner — Ja’Marr Chase. His numbers were simply astounding in 2019. He recorded 84 catches and led the nation with 1,780 yards and an SEC-record 20 touchdowns.
He had 10 more catches on throws of 20 or more yards than any returning Power 5 receiver:
Ja'Marr Chase: Best deep-threat in College Football pic.twitter.com/DuSwcjdnJM
— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 24, 2020
He also led Power 5 receivers in yards after contact last year:
Power-Five WRs with 300+ yards AFTER contact last season:
🔹 Ja'Marr Chase – 431
🔹 Brandon Aiyuk – 378
🔹 CeeDee Lamb – 376
🔹 Devin Duvernay – 352
🔹 DeVonta Smith – 322
🔹 Justin Jefferson – 316 pic.twitter.com/ZEEBaIcHDY
— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 5, 2020
Plays like the ones Chase makes early in this title game highlight reel will make Brennan’s transition to full-time starter a lot easier:
SEC countdown take 2: SEC football returns in 52 days!
LSU’s offense started slow (at least in terms of their historic pace) against Clemson but got things going when Joe Burrow connected with Ja’Marr Chase on this 52-yard pass.
Once the offense woke up, this game was over pic.twitter.com/aWUh8SfkS3
— that SEC podcast (@thatSECpodcast) August 5, 2020
The LSU coaching staff is high on Brennan, but we just haven’t seen all that much of him. That’s why he and perhaps the nation’s best receiver are only at No. 2 on this list. At No. 1, we have…
1. Mac Jones-Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
I give Jones and Waddle the slight edge over Brennan and Chase simply because of the chemistry they already showed in 2019 during the Iron Bowl (when Tua Tagovailoa was injured). Waddle was a star in that game, scoring 4 total touchdowns, 3 of which came on passes from Jones.
The first touchdown pass from Jones to Waddle employs the always-smart strategy of “get the ball to the fast guy in space and watch him run”:
Jaylen Waddle probably ran for this touchdown faster than the time it took to type out this tweet. pic.twitter.com/sQr2SrCBlL
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
This throw and catch from Jones to Waddle, which was Waddle’s third touchdown (second receiving touchdown) of the game, shows just how in sync the 2 players were that day:
Jaylen Waddle scores his third touchdown of the Iron Bowl!
Auburn 37 pic.twitter.com/8vwrRECSMl
— Alabama Crimson Tide | AL.com (@aldotcomTide) November 30, 2019
That’s the kind of throw that requires lots of practice and chemistry. I don’t know this for sure, but I’d bet Waddle and Jones worked together a lot in practice. That’s what happens when your first-team receivers are a pair of first-round NFL Draft picks (Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy).
Waddle’s final touchdown was of the “throw it up in the end zone and let your star receiver go make a play” variety:
His FOURTH touchdown of the game. Incredible. pic.twitter.com/mypZCE3D43
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 30, 2019
That’s a good base to start from, and with Jones running the show in 2020, this duo should provide plenty of highlights this fall.