As we count down the days to the return of the college football season, it is time to look at the SEC’s most dynamic pass-catching units.
1. Texas A&M
This receiving corps contains more proven talent than any other in the SEC. Indeed, of the top 15 receivers in the SEC, it’s fair to suggest that four of them reside in College Station.
Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds are the stars of the show. Kirk led the team with 80 receptions, 1,009 yards and 7 touchdowns last year — as a true freshman. He may be slight (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) but wins in contested catch situations and makes plays well away from his body. A game-changer in the return game, he averaged a stunning 24.2 yards per punt return in 2015.
Josh Reynolds is a more prototypical threat. He has the size and length of a traditional No. 1 receiver and he’s a difference-maker in the red zone.
What sets the school apart from the rest is the quality of its depth. Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are mismatch nightmares that would represent a starting tandem for 11 SEC schools. That rare collection of future pro talent makes Texas A&M’s receivers the most loaded group in the conference.
I know this is a pass-catchers list, but it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room: Who is throwing the ball to these guys? Whomever it is, he’ll have no complaints about a lack of weapons.
On pure talent, this is one of the best groups in the country. Calvin Ridley may be the best receiver in the conference. The addition of Gehrig Dieter as a graduate transfer is a tremendous pickup. And ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster provide more top-level talent.
It’s also difficult to ignore the explosion in production from tight end O.J. Howard in the national title game. Howard had an average year in 2015 given his natural ability, but was a devastating force against Clemson. At SEC Media Days, Nick Saban spoke about Howard’s development and his role in the Tide’s offense, according to 247 Sports: “We want to feature all of the players on our team that have a chance to be successful, and O.J. Howard should be a guy that should certainly create mismatches and do some good things stretching the field.”
How Alabama deploys all those weapons is interesting. Lane Kiffin runs an isolation offense. He likes to line up one receiver on one side of the offensive formation, force the defense to show its hand before the snap, and create as many 1-on-1 opportunities on the other side of the field as possible, hopefully finding a mismatch and signaling touchdown before his quarterback has thrown the ball.
Unlike some other coaches, Kiffin doesn’t use that isolated receiver as a decoy. Instead, he likes to force the ball to his most talented player, traditionally the isolated receiver. Amari Cooper had 124 receptions two years ago, 84 more than the second most targeted receiver. The trend continued last year with Calvin Ridley, as a freshman, having 26 more receptions than the next top target. With less offensive line and running back talent in 2016 expect Ridley’s numbers to be even more impressive in his second year, despite a quality supporting cast.
Equal parts pterodactyls and wide receivers, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural are a pair of athletic freaks who form the best one-two receiving punch in the conference. Together they have combined for more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, and have done so despite below-average quarterback play. They both have outstanding size and length, which limits some of the accuracy concerns at the quarterback spot.
Elsewhere, there’s less known talent. But with Dupre and Dural outside, and Leonard Fournette in the backfield, there will be ample opportunities for breakout performances. Jazz Ferguson and D.J. Clark should see single coverage the entire season. Add to that a trio of heralded 4-star prospects Stephen Sullivan, Drake Davis and Dee Anderson and LSU claims depth despite seeing three wide receivers transfer this offseason.
4. Ole Miss
Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core may be gone, but Ole Miss still enjoys a deep collection of reliable hands.
Evan Engram is the most athletic tight end in the conference and is an exceptional vertical threat aligning all over the offensive formation. Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow, and Markell Pack are all back after good seasons. Each already has built rapport with quarterback Chad Kelly.
Kelly’s ability to throw downfield should improve those around him and mitigate as much of the Treadwell loss as is possible.
The loss of Brandon Allen may hurt the overall production of the Arkansas receiving corps, but there is still a bevy of talent.
In tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, the Razorbacks have a potential star replacing second-round draft pick Hunter Henry. Sprinkle is longer than Henry, more athletic, and scored more touchdowns in 2015 than any other SEC tight end. It’s possible that the loss of Brandon Allen impacts him more than others, but he remains the most talented pass-catching threat on the Razorbacks roster.
Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius, and Dominique Reed all return. Reed intrigues with incredible athleticism. He averaged 19.1 yards per reception in 2015 and is a threat to score whenever the ball is in his hands.
The Vols’ passing game is built around veteran receivers Josh Smith and Josh Malone, with more explosive talent set to come through this season.
The position hasn’t been overly productive in the Butch Jones era, though it’s difficult to criticize given the limitations of Josh Dobbs at quarterback.
In Alvin Kamara they have the best receiving back in the conference. Jones has built in a number of packages to take advantage of Kamara as a receiver in space, and limit Dobbs from having to throw into tight windows further down the field.
Florida’s quarterback play was so awful during the back half of last season that it’s difficult to evaluate some of its receiving options.
Three things are certain:
- Antonio Callaway is a dynamic star.
- The Gators have a very good tandem of tight ends.
- Brandon Powell is a moveable chess piece.
Their biggest issue has been getting the ball into Powell’s hands. Most of the blame has been placed — fairly — on poor play from quarterbacks. However, there’s also been an issue with Powell and other receivers separating from man coverage.
Few coaches use more man-beater concepts than Florida head coach Jim McElwain. Stacked formations, pre-snap motion, shifts, screens, pick/rub plays using multiple crossing routes — he uses them all to create natural separation for his receivers. All of those concepts require a quarterback who can play with timing and anticipation. Without that, there’s been a greater burden on the receivers to separate for themselves. The likes of Powell, C.J. Worton and Ahmad Fullwood will have to do a much better job in 2016.
Junior college transfer Dre Massey is a crucial player to watch. McElwain describes Massey as a “receiver-back slash sweep” due to his electric athleticism, lack of size, and return ability. Whether he can separate from SEC defensive backs will be his biggest test.
The Kentucky receiving corps consists of veteran depth and reliability. The team’s top 5 pass-catchers, Jeff Badet, Dorian Barker, Garrett Johnson, Blake Bone and tight end C.J. Conrad, all return (a combined 165 catches, 2,091 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2015).
Starting quarterback Drew Barker (5 games in ’15) inherits a good-enough passing attack to complement a solid ground game.
9. Mississippi State
Fred Ross is the star of this group. He set a school record with 88 receptions and 1,007 yards in 2015, doing most of his damage out of the slot. He may not be as high-profile as Christian Kirk or Calvin Ridley, but he’s been equally effective. In a four-game span against Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri he dominated with 500 yards and three scores.
Donald Gray, Gabe Myles, and Malik Dear are all back after catching 20-plus balls in 2015. Losing their top two tight ends from a year ago hurts, but junior-college transfer Jordan Thomas is expected to be an impact piece.
Entering a new era, Georgia must replace Malcolm Mitchell, whom Bulldogs quarterbacks targeted on 30 percent of the team’s passes last season. New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been all things to all rosters throughout his career; when the talent dictates it, he runs the ball. When it’s time to open it up, he throws the ball all over the field.
The Bulldogs’ greatest talent clearly lies in their backfield, and the Nick Chubb-Sony Michel tandem will be the focal point of their offense.
That dominant ground game should open up opportunities for explosive playmakers to generate splash plays. Sophomore Terry Goodwin didn’t generate huge yardage (379 yards) in his freshman year, but he flashed the potential to be a difference-maker under Chaney.
One big change will be the increased emphasis on tight ends in the passing attack. Last year, tight ends Jeb Blazevich, Jay Rome, and Jackson Harris were all targeted less than running back Sony Michel.
Chaney likes to bring in multiple tight end sets. That helps move the pile in the run game, which forces the defense to put bigger bodies on the field. Then Chaney shifts to spread looks pre-snap with tight ends that are able to take advantage of athletic mismatches.
Sophomore Jackson Harris is a huge target and a good candidate to be a breakout performer.
Auburn is suffering from a severe lack of proven firepower. Their returning receivers combined for just 86 receptions at an average of 6.5 yards per reception last year. That lack of a home-run threat is an issue for an offense that does most of its damage in the running game. Further down the Tigers’ depth chart there is obvious talent that will need to make an immediate impact. Redshirt freshman Darius Slayton has pedigree as a track star. The roster also boasts a trio of 4-star true freshmen who could see playing time: Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis and Eli Stove.
Despite a couple of poor years from their receiver spots, there’s plenty of upside. Vandy’s top two receivers, Trent Sherfield and Caleb Scott, are back and should improve in their second year working with quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Most importantly, C.J. Duncan will return from an injury that forced him to miss the entire year. Duncan is an explosive player who averaged 44 yards per game in 2014.
Mizzou’s over-reliance on freshmen and sophomore receivers in 2015 could place them in good stead heading into the new campaign. Per Athlon Sports, 121 of the team’s 186 catches by receivers last year came from underclassmen. That was a detriment for quarterbacks Maty Mauk, Drew Lock and the Missouri coaching staff. But now the program has a chance to build a solid core with the young receivers and Lock growing together.
14. South Carolina
Things are going to be rough early in Will Muschamp’s time at South Carolina. The Gamecocks receiving corps is a microcosm of the team’s problems at the back end of Steve Spurrier’s tenure. They’ve suffered a real talent drain, including their best offensive playmaker Pharoh Cooper to the NFL, with no ready-to-go replacements. The Gamecocks feature a series of unproven freshmen who need to make an immediate impact. There’s little talent outside of sophomore Deebo Samuel.