I’d give it to maybe 5-6 guys, and I can be talked into any one of them.

“It” is the SEC’s first-team spot for the best all-purpose player. It’s going to be difficult to settle on that in the preseason, and come December, it might be just as challenging.

Before we dig into the individuals who deserve a shot at that, it’s important to understand why that’s the case. There are some SEC skill-players who do a variety of things at an exceptional level, and they have coaches with systems in place that allow them to do just that.

No longer is the “all-purpose” spot simply a matter of picking the best punt/kick returner who also flashes some occasional ability on offense. It’s sort of a murky area to begin with. When you fill out the preseason ballot, there are slots for both “return specialist” and “all-purpose.”

The last 2 years, Jaylen Waddle claimed both preseason first-team honors. Come to think of it, Deebo Samuel was the first-team return specialist and the first-team all-purpose player before the 2018 season, and before that, Christian Kirk swept those categories prior to 2016 and 2017. You’d have to go back to 2015 to find a year in which the preseason first-team All-SEC honors for “return specialist” and “all-purpose” was split (Speedy Noil was the RS and Pharoh Cooper was the AP).

Why did I mention that?

Because this year, we have a unique set of weapons who have a strong case to earn the SEC’s first-team all-purpose slot, They should be separated from “who returns kicks well and is also a stud on offense.” Here are the top all-purpose candidates heading into 2021:

  • Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss
  • Ainias Smith, Texas A&M
  • Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky
  • James Cook, Georgia
  • Tyler Badie, Mizzou
  • Jo’quavious Marks, MSU

What do those guys all have in common? One time or another, they fell into the category of “all-purpose running backs,” which used to be more of a distinction used in recruiting than in actual SEC offenses. Sure, we’ve seen change-of-pace backs and we’ve seen running backs who can catch passes out of the backfield.

But that group is loaded with guys who can truly line up anywhere and make plays. Those 6 players are established, legitimate weapons who can beat you in a variety of ways, and they all play in recently revamped modern offenses (I’d argue A&M’s offense was at least tweaked last year). Of course, nobody is confusing Mike Leach’s Air Raid for Liam Coen’s new pro-style spread offense in Kentucky.

That’s part of this. These new crop of SEC all-purpose players are actually being used as such. In a shortened 2020 season, look how many catches and yards per catch they had:

Yards per catch
Robinson (at Neb.)

Again, these guys played in mostly different offenses in 2020. You might look at that and think Ealy doesn’t belong in this group because of his lack of passing volume while Marks doesn’t belong because of his inefficiency.

What those numbers don’t show is the usage. Specifically, the snap count. PFF charted Ealy for 149 snaps as a runner and 138 snaps in which he was used as a receiver in the passing game (he had 24 snaps from the slot).

And Marks had low efficiency because of how MSU used the swing passes/check downs as an extension of the run game. A good amount of his catches were essentially like a stretch run to either side. Yet Marks had more 2020 catches than any returning SEC player. He also had 96 more receiving snaps than any returning SEC running back.

Cook’s role was and is much different, in part because of Georgia’s offense and in part because of the backfield depth. He was healthy in 8 games last year, and 7 times, he had more snaps in the passing game than in the ground game. He played 29 snaps either in the slot or split out wide, which was where he made his biggest play of the season on an 82-yard touchdown grab against Alabama:

What’s incredible about that play is that immediately, Stetson Bennett IV recognized that Cook had an obvious mismatch with Alabama linebacker Christian Harris on him. Bennett was never going anywhere else with the football.

That’s what so many of these teams are now built to do — find those mismatches and exploit defenders who can’t cover running backs in the passing game. A&M and Mizzou will do a ton of that with their all-purpose weapons.

Among SEC running backs, Badie had PFF’s top receiving grade (he was No. 6 among Power 5 backs). How did Eli Drinkwitz use Badie? Like his Swiss Army Knife. In 6 of Mizzou’s first 8 games, Badie had a play of 25-plus yards. He played 22 snaps in the slot and 20 split out wide, but when the 5-9 all-purpose back was on the field, it was to run routes. It wasn’t to come provide a little extra protection on 3rd down (part of that was because Larry Rountree was outstanding in pass protection).

Badie no longer has a Rountree to work off. Mizzou is still in the process of finding that next feature back, though either way, Badie’s role as the mismatch pass-catcher out of the backfield (or anywhere else) should remain the same.

That’s what’s different than Smith at A&M, who is in the same offense as likely preseason All-SEC tailback Isaiah Spiller, who is also relied on in the passing game. It was the late development of Devon Achane as a true freshman that allowed Smith to shift to now being A&M’s slot guy.

How much potential is there for Smith as a hybrid player? Consider this. Only 2 returning SEC receivers (Treylon Burks and Cam Johnson) had a better PFF offensive grade than Smith in 2020. On top of that, Mel Kiper Jr. listed Smith as his No. 3 running back prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft class. Mind you, Smith figures to play much more as a slot receiver than as a true tailback and the 143 backfield snaps he got in 2020 should take a hit (compared to the 390 snaps he got at the line of scrimmage as a receiver).

But with Smith’s escapability, Jimbo Fisher has the luxury of still using him to run routes out of the backfield, where he’s just as dangerous:

Smith is a household name in the SEC after a breakout 2020 season. In his pre-draft season, he’ll have plenty of eyes on his unique skill set.

Robinson might not be a household name in the SEC, but he will be by season’s end. He might end up being the SEC East version of Smith. Coen sold him on coming to Kentucky by showing him film of Cooper Kupp. That’s the type of role Robinson is going to play in the new-look offense in Lexington. It’ll be a shift from what he did at Nebraska, where Scott Frost asked him to serve as a between-the-tackles tailback far more than he should’ve.

Like Smith, Robinson won’t line up in the backfield to help pass block. He might take the occasional handoff, but mainly, he’ll be running routes from the slot. Or he’ll also take jet sweep handoffs. Gone are the days in which Robinson has double-digit carries in a game, and his 12 touches per contest average will take a dip.

Among Power 5 receivers in 2020, Robinson and Smith were the only guys with 40-plus snaps as runners with PFF running grades of 70 or better. Even someone as versatile as Kadarius Toney only had 19 snaps as a runner in 2020.

It’s possible that both Robinson and Smith follow in Toney’s footsteps by taking their route-running to the next-level and becoming legitimate first-round prospects by season’s end. What seems likely is that both keep SEC defensive coordinators on their heels by creating mismatches in the passing game when they line up.

So who gets the preseason first-team All-SEC “all-purpose” nod?

My guess is Ealy for a couple reasons.

I think when voters fill out their ballots, they’ll realize just how deep this year’s group of SEC tailbacks is. I think you’ll see cases made for as many as 7 SEC running backs to get first-team honors. That list is Spiller, Ealy, Kevin Harris, Tank Bigsby, Zamir White, Chris Rodriguez and Brian Robinson. That’ll create a scenario in which voters want to try and use that first-team all-purpose spot for the third-best back.

That’s why Ealy, who catches passes out of the backfield and also serves as Ole Miss’ primary kick returner, will get the nod. There’s also probably something subconscious about Ealy being a 2-sport athlete that plays into the “all-purpose” association, though if we’re being honest, we shouldn’t add points for being able to hit with power to the opposite field. Just sayin’.

That’s not a slight at Ealy, who has lived up to his 5-star billing on the gridiron. It’s just that he’s more of that Spiller/Harris mold of a guy who can catch passes well, though he’s not asked to do so with the same frequency or route tree as guys like Cook, Smith, Badie and Wan’Dale Robinson. That’s partially why after last year’s season-opener, Ealy didn’t have a catch of 20 yards, and his post-Florida receiving numbers for 2020 were 12 catches for 111 yards (92% of his offensive snaps were out of the backfield).

If the goal of the all-purpose slot is to reward versatility, Ealy is probably the default choice for many in the preseason. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Personally, though, I’d rather look at someone who showed they could be a difference-maker all over the field on the offensive side of the ball like Smith or Robinson (Smith would probably get my vote because he’s already done it in the SEC). That’s where I think this slot is heading with all the new ways to get these types of hybrid players involved.

At least it should.

And what about by season’s end?

It’s tempting to pencil in Ealy for both categories, or to say that Smith will become a 1,000-yard receiver who shows occasional burst at tailback. It’s even tough to pick against Cook, who, if he can stay healthy, could easily be the best overall player on a Playoff team, though I wonder what the volume will be for him and Smith with such deep backfields. I wouldn’t go Marks or Badie because while they’ll be extremely valuable for their respective offenses, I can’t foresee 1,000 scrimmage yards from them.

Robinson, however, has that path. The guy averaged 88 scrimmage yards last year playing in a Nebraska offense that really didn’t maximize all of his abilities, and he didn’t have any help to loosen up the defensive pressure on him. At Kentucky, his volume won’t be at that level, but he’ll at least have Rodriguez demanding significant attention out of the backfield for what should be a more balanced attack in Lexington.

By season’s end, Robinson is going to change the way we think about the Kentucky offense.

And perhaps in the process, he’ll usher in a new era of the SEC’s all-purpose selection.