Spacing, spacing, spacing.

It’s the name of the game. If you aren’t spacing out defenses in this era of pass-heavy football, well, to quote Jon Pardi, “you’re the last of a dyin’ breed.”

Of course, there are different kinds of spacing. Lining up with 5 receivers split out wide doesn’t necessarily guarantee vertical spacing, just like how operating out of a bunch formation doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll lack either horizontal or vertical spacing.

Today, we’re gonna focus on vertical spacing. Specifically, the deep threats. These are the guys who, like Jameson Williams and Treylon Burks did last year, can change the entire complexion of how a defense operates. Deep threats aren’t all necessarily 4.3-second 40 guys, nor are they all built like Randy Moss. They come in all shapes and sizes.

What deep threats have in common is that they can all make plays 30 or 40 yards downfield. They take the top off a defense. They’re home-run hitters. They can turn a lost offensive series into 6 points at a moment’s notice.

Here are 5 guys who could earn the title of “SEC’s best deep threat” in 2022:

Arian Smith, Georgia WR

Drink every time you hear the words “breakout season” and “Arian Smith” in the same sentence. Just kidding. Your liver doesn’t want that smoke. Speaking of smoke, Smith can absolutely blow past a secondary. Unfortunately, the redshirt sophomore hasn’t played in more than 4 games in either of his first 2 seasons. A wrist injury in 2020 limited his reps, and then a shin injury derailed the start of his 2021 season. After returning, Smith broke his leg in November and missed the remainder of UGA’s title run.

But even with those injuries, we’ve seen that deep-threat ability in flashes. The 55-yard Peach Bowl grab was a teaser of what to expect from the former 200-meter FHSAA Class 2A state champ. Seeing Smith haul in a monster grab from Carson Beck in the spring game was another example of what he can be if he can stay healthy:

Stetson Bennett IV said that Smith “may be the fastest dude in the country.” Smith and Devon Achane in a race would be must-see TV. Either way, we’re talking about someone who averaged 37.6 yards per catch so far. Yeah, that number will come down if Smith plays his first full season, but he doesn’t need to be a high-volume guy to turn into the most dangerous deep threat in the league.

Josh Vann, South Carolina WR

If someone tells you “Spencer Rattler went to a place where he doesn’t have any weapons,” just roll your eyes. That’s their way of telling you that they haven’t watched Jaheim Bell or Vann, both of whom already showed that they could stretch the field against elite competition. I opted for Vann because I think he’ll get more opportunities to stretch the field in Marcus Satterfield’s offense.

Vann and Rattler will become fast friends if these are the types of plays we’ll see from the veteran wideout:

Or alternatively, Vann is good enough to beat press coverage and get behind a defense if you don’t provide safety help:

Cedric Tillman and Brock Bowers are the only SEC returners who had more catches of 30 yards last year than Vann (5). Mind you, that was with Luke Doty, Jason Brown and Zeb Noland at quarterback. Vann’s skill set lines up much better with Rattler’s arm talent. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Vann flirt with 20 yards per catch in 2022.

Brian Thomas Jr., LSU WR

If there’s Thomas stock left, I want it. I suppose I could apply that school of thought to the entire LSU receivers room, which is as talented and as deep as there is in the SEC. Kayshon Boutte putting a full season together and making an All-American team wouldn’t be a surprise. Boutte can certainly stretch the field, but I went with Thomas because he might be making downfield catches at a higher frequency if teams can only single-cover him.

Thomas didn’t put up monster numbers as a true freshman (he still had 359 receiving yards and multiple 40-yard grabs), but the former basketball recruit has immense potential.

You can’t teach this stuff.

Thomas is in a deep room of receivers, but getting 435 snaps as a true freshman should be valuable. Ed Orgeron said before he played a game that Thomas could become the next great LSU receiver. We already know that he can high-point a football and win 1-on-1 matchups. There’s some George Pickens-like ability to his game. If Thomas can develop as a route-runner, he’s going to have no shortage of opportunities to burn SEC secondaries.

Tyler Harrell, Alabama WR

If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the Louisville transfer yet, just know this: Last year, he averaged 29.1 yards per catch on his 18 receptions. Mercy. Half of his catches went for at least 30 yards and 2 of them went for 70. Only 7 returning Power 5 players had multiple catches of 70 yards last year, and Harrell is one of them (so is fellow Alabama transfer addition Jahmyr Gibbs).

Watch him for a minute and you’ll see exactly why he was a coveted target for the Tide after losing the aforementioned Williams. Speed, speed and more speed.

With all due respect to the underrated Malik Cunningham, he doesn’t connect with receivers downfield quite like Bryce Young. In 2021, no Power 5 team had more 40-yard passing plays than Alabama (18). Williams had almost twice as many 50-yard catches as any other Power 5 player.

It’s unrealistic to say that a transfer like Harrell or Jermaine Burton is going to develop the connection that Williams and Young had, all of which was formed post-spring ball. It is, however, fair to think that Alabama won’t struggle to stretch the field in a post-Williams world with Harrell on board.

Cedric Tillman, Tennessee WR

This list wouldn’t have been complete without Tillman. No returning SEC receiver had more receiving yards than Tillman in 2021, but more important for this argument, Jordan Addison is the only returning Power 5 receiver with more catches of 40 yards than Tillman, who had 8 such grabs. He had 16 grabs for 25 yards playing in Josh Heupel’s high octane offense.

In the final 7 games, he averaged 124 receiving yards and 1.4 touchdowns. Tillman’s late-season emergence was even more impressive when you consider who it came against. Against Alabama and Georgia, he went off for a combined 352 yards. He might not have the speed of someone like Harrell or Smith, but Tillman started to make plays like this look routine:

Tillman can burn press coverage, too. In that up-tempo offense, Tillman can make a gassed defense pay if it doesn’t have over-the-top help.

Tillman developed into Hendon Hooker’s go-to target. With both of them back and able to have an entire offseason to work together, health is the only thing that’ll get in the way of them putting up video game numbers together.

There’s no denying that Tillman is the most proven deep threat on this list. Will he be at season’s end? I wouldn’t bet against it.