As 23 SEC stars leave early for NFL, question becomes: Who replaces them?
The deadline has passed for underclassmen to declare their intentions for the NFL Draft. So who’s going to get the bulk of the snaps in spring practice and move up the depth chart by August?
In a rite of passage, the calendar flips to the next man up scenario that last year turned from Vernon Hargreaves III at Florida, for example, to Quincy Wilson.
There are 23 early entrants from the SEC from 11 teams for the upcoming NFL Draft.
There is the easiest option: Derrius Guice, who led the SEC with 1,387 rushing yards, replaces Leonard Fournette.
There are other easy options, like at Kentucky, where Stanley “Boom” Williams easily passed the baton to sensational freshman Benny Snell, Jr., who had 1,091 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Or at Ole Miss, where Damore’ea Stringfellow will give way to Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown, who had 49 and 29 catches, respectively, in 2016, with a combined five touchdowns.
Arguably the biggest hits came at Vanderbilt and Missouri with the departures of linebacker Zach Cunningham and defensive end Charles Harris, both all-SEC picks. Mizzou’s Marcell Frazier will look to build on big games against Vanderbilt and Arkansas, where he had a combined 5.5 sacks as he becomes the primary pass rusher in 2017.
Converted safety Oren Burks looks to be the most experienced linebacker to return for Vanderbilt.
LSU lost four standouts early to the NFL Draft, most notably Fournette.
But Guice largely replaced him for much of the 2016 season. Guice is already considered by some to be the SEC’s top candidate to win the Heisman Trophy next season. He broke Fournette’s single-game rushing record, going for 285 against Texas A&M.
If there’s an area where new LSU coach Ed Orgeron should consider a strength, it’s the position left by Davon Godchaux — defensive line — which will be left to a host of players, including Christian LaCouture, Frank Herron, Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan.
While Malachi Dupre, another early departure, led the Tigers in receiving, D.J. Chark had the same number of touchdowns (three) and average 17 yards per catch. Other considerations are Russell Gage, Dee Anderson, Drake Davis and Stephen Sullivan. Gage already had a highlight game against Texas A&M with five catches for 62 yards and a TD.
At LSU, if it’s not defensive line, it’s defensive back that should have no shortage of quality players, though safety Jamal Adams is among the best of the best behind all-timers Eric Reid, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. The candidates this time are John Battle, Xavier Lewis, Ed Paris and JaCoby Stevens.
Battle looks to be a starter, and he already had plenty of playing time following the injury to Rickey Jefferson.
Florida will have to replace two linemen and its top cornerbacks, but the latter is something the Gators are used to almost every season. After all, if they don’t have enough to squabble with LSU over, why not a debate over which one is the actual “DBU.”
Duke Dawson, a mostly nickel corner, and Chauncey Gardner, who’s played cornerback and safety and had two interceptions in the Outback Bowl, are the likely replacements. Florida also has two 4-star cornerback recruits in Quincy’s younger brother, Marco Wilson, and Elijah Blades.
Defensive lineman Caleb Brantley should give way to Khairi Clark, who has 23 tackles and two sacks in 27 career games. He’s a former four-star recruit.
Offensive lineman David Sharpe is another departure, but the Gators still have six offensive linemen in the mix who have experience. Among them are Martez Ivey, who was recruited as a tackle, but played guard mostly in college, Freshman All-SEC tackle Jawaan Taylor, center Cam Dillard, guard/tackle Fred Johnson, guard/center Tyler Jordan and center T.J. McCoy.
Alabama lost Cam Robinson, Marlon Humphrey and ArDarius Stewart, the first two expected to be first-round picks. One scenario for 2017 is move Jonah Williams, who started every game at right tackle, to left tackle and insert Matt Womack at right tackle. The secondary also appears to be set for a juggle as one possibility is moving Minkah Fitzpatrick to cornerback and Tony Brown from corner to safety. At receiver, Calvin Ridley is expected to slide to Stewart’s position, while Cam Sims, Robert Foster, Trevon Diggs and early enrollees Jerry Jeudy and Tyrell Shavers will also figure in the mix.
Tennessee will be charged with replacing an all-time pass rusher in Derek Barnett. Kendal Vickers, who had 2.5 sacks in 2016, Jonathan Kongbo, who had 1, and Dimarya Mixon, who had 1, are among the possibilities. Also in Knoxville, John Kelly looks to officially take the reigns at running back from Alvin Kamara after he gradually did throughout 2016.
While Carl Lawson will be a big loss at Auburn, younger underclassmen Marlon Davidson and Andrew Williams each had 2.5 sacks and should be poised to fill the void.
Texas A&M is familiar with what the Vols are going through as Myles Garrett takes his sack talents to the NFL. His replacements are likely to be Qualen Cunningham, who had one sack in 2016, and Jarrett Johnson, who had 4.5 sacks.