SEC Country takes a quick look at the conference’s four most replaceable stars from last season, relative to how the corresponding programs might fill these high-profile vacancies for the 2016 campaign.
To clarify, this countdown isn’t some exercise to mock or minimize the contributions of the following players; rather, it’s an appreciation for the SEC coaches and programs that wisely planned ahead of a potential depth-chart crisis.
Running back Derrick Henry, Alabama
At first blush, it may be insulting that Henry (2,219 rushing yards, 28 TDs in 2015) — only the second Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama history — would be deemed replaceable in this survey.
But are you familiar with Nick Saban? The Crimson Tide’s wildly successful head coach (four national titles in seven years; five total) and maniacally prepared salesman (nine straight seasons of a top-3 recruiting class nationally) always has contingency plans for early NFL departures.
Case in point: Mark Ingram captured the Heisman Trophy in 2009, and then returned to school for one more season. In 2011, after Ingram left early for the pros, the Crimson Tide’s backfield comprised of Trent Richardson (2,017 total yards, 24 TDs in 2011; No. 3 overall draft pick in 2012), Eddie Lacy (3,947 total yards in his first three NFL seasons) and Jalston Fowler (on the Tennessee Titans’ 2015 roster).
In other words, the 2016 Crimson Tide will be just fine without Henry or Kenyan Drake wreaking havoc in the backfield.
The early guesses for majority touches: The well-proportioned Bo Scarbrough (5.8 yards per carry in 2015), B.J. Emmons (the No. 2-ranked tailback in the 2016 class) and Damien Harris — the Class of 2015’s top-rated running back.
Quarterback Treon Harris, Florida
I might have offended a few Gators fans last week (below), when pointing out the potential pratfalls of supporting Austin Appleby — a graduate transfer from Purdue — as Florida’s starting quarterback for 2016.
And that’s OK, passionate fans are the backbone of college football’s far-reaching popularity. They’re allowed to vent.
— Jay Clemons (@ATL_JayClemons) February 5, 2016
But it also warrants clarification here: A negative vote for Appleby (2,777 yards passing, 19 TDs, 19 INTs in 16 career games) doesn’t necessarily imply a positive endorsement of Harris, whose cumulative completion rate (50.3 percent) and subsequent rushing acumen (just 3.4 yards per carry) were both unacceptable — relative to the expectations of an SEC-caliber starting quarterback.
As such, Harris’s reported move to wide receiver may be a win-win for both parties, as Florida bolsters its pass-catchers in the short term … and focuses on the long-term development of quarterback Feleipe Franks — the No. 5-ranked pro-style passer from the Class of 2016 (source: 247Sports.com).
Left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, Tennessee
Kerbyson, an All-SEC Second Team pick (Associated Press), played a strong role in the Volunteers offense averaging 35.2 points per game (29th nationally) and rushing for 224 yards per game (second-best in the SEC). For good measure, the O-line surrendered fewer than 1.8 sacks per game in 2015.
That reputation/production should serve Kerbyson (6-foot-4, 317 pounds) well in the pros — as either a tackle or offensive guard.
On the flip side, the Tennessee coaches have admirably stocked the shelves with high-upside talents along the offensive line, meaning that either Chance Hall (All-SEC Freshman Team in 2015) or redshirt freshman Drew Richmond (the No. 3-ranked offensive tackle from the Class of 2015) could be dynamic, long-term replacements at Kerbyson’s old spot.
Bottom line: The Volunteers could have as many as 17 returning starters this fall; and yet, the next wave of relative newcomers could solidify Tennessee’s viable quest for an SEC East title.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Mark it down: Hargreaves — an All-SEC First Team selection — will be a future All-Pro at the next level, perhaps serving as the bell cow to a championship-level defense someday (think Aqib Talib … minus the personality quirks and facemask penalties).
That aside, the Gators couldn’t be better suited to handle Hargreaves’ early exit from the college game, with junior-to-be Jalen Tabor — also an All-SEC first-teamer — taking over as Florida’s No. 1 cornerback.
Hargreaves (10 career interceptions) could be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, which is loaded with six or seven blue-chip prospects at corner. But in 2017, Tabor could end up going a few slots higher than his lauded Gators teammate.
As for who’ll replace Tabor as Florida’s No. 2 cornerback? Per usual, the Gators are flush with supremely athletic options — including Chauncey Gardner, the No. 4-ranked cornerback from the Class of 2016 (source: 247Sports.com).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.