SEC Country invokes a quick look at the SEC’s five most indispensable players from last season, relative to how the corresponding programs might replace these vacating stars for the 2016 campaign.
To clarify, this isn’t a listing of the SEC’s top five departing players from last season. If that were the case, tailback Derrick Henry — the second Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama history — would have been front and center.
But given the Crimson Tide’s absurd depth, power-football tradition and amazing strides in recruiting, it’s easy to imagine another five-star tailback performing well for Alabama this fall, stealthily running behind another strong offensive line.
Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
As the hypothetical general manager of the Tennessee Titans, I would do everything in my power to auction off the No. 1 overall draft pick to the highest bidder — on the hope of finding a team to leapfrog over the Cleveland Browns and take Cal quarterback Jared Goff — and then draft Treadwell somewhere in the 2-6 range of Round 1.
It’s the ultimate win-win for a Titans franchise that’s on the cusp of getting better in a hurry, assuming quarterback Marcus Mariota and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham — Tennessee’s top draft selections last year — are ready to make substantial leaps forward.
It remains to be seen whether Green-Beckham (32 catches, 549 yards, 4 TDs as a rookie) is a true No. 1 wideout at the NFL level; but it would be a moot concern … if the Titans end up taking Treadwell (82 catches, 1,153 yards, 11 TDs), a Julio Jones clone with similarly stellar upside.
The blow of losing Treadwell to the NFL was softened a bit on National Signing Day, when Ole Miss inked a pair of top-20 receivers (A.J. Brown — No. 5 WR; DeKaylin Metcalf — No. 18 WR). But it’ll take a cumulative team effort for the Rebels to replicate the relative output/impact from Treadwell — the school’s all-time leader in receptions (202) and single-season leader with catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Quarterback Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Prescott (four-year starter, 9,376 yards passing, 111 career TDs, 63-percent passer) is undoubtedly the greatest quarterback in Mississippi State history, so much that school officials could have held Prescott’s bronze-statue ceremony outside of Davis Wade Stadium last year … and no one would have said boo.
During Prescott’s run of glory at MSU (2012-15), the Bulldogs tallied 34 wins, two bowl triumphs and one No. 1 national ranking (midway through the 2014 season).
That success warrants bonus points, as well, considering how Mississippi State has produced just one draftable wide receiver in the last 20 years (three-time Pro Bowler Eric Moulds was a first-round pick in 1996).
Given head coach Dan Mullen’s track record with quarterbacks (Prescott, former Florida star Tim Tebow) and Mississippi State’s sublime offensive production since 2010 (averaging 30.5 points per game), the Bulldogs should theoretically sign a top-15 prep quarterback every other year — on the presumption each passer would command the offense in two- or three-year cycles.
However, it won’t be a grave concern if Nick Fitzgerald or Elijah Stanley — two heralded dual-threat quarterback prospects from previous years — can emerge from Prescott’s very-large shadow this fall.
That’s a big IF.
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, UGA
Floyd (team-high 4.5 sacks in 2015) was a highly productive linebacker during his three-year run with the Bulldogs, averaging 5.7 sacks, nine tackles for loss and 61 tackles.
Over time, new UGA head coach Kirby Smart — Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-15 (four national titles during that span) — will capably build upon Floyd’s legacy, at one of college football’s most instinctive/athletic positions.
But the Dawgs — ranked first nationally in passing yards allowed, seventh in total defense, eighth in scoring defense last season — will inescapably feel the loss of Floyd this fall, especially given the front-seven exits of linebackers Jordan Jenkins, Jake Ganus and defensive linemen James DeLoach, Chris Mayes and Sterling Bailey.
Great Blue North, one of the most reliable mock drafts on the Web, currently has Floyd (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) pegged as a first-round pick this spring — going 23rd overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
In 2015, Tunsil served a seven-game suspension as punishment for accepting improper benefits from an Oxford, Miss.-based car dealership. So in that regard, Ole Miss has a tacit understanding of pressing on without the mammoth offensive tackle.
But let’s be honest: Grade-A pro prospects like Tunsil — who could be a top-3 pick with the Titans, Browns or tackle-needy Chargers this spring — don’t necessarily grow on trees at Ole Miss; and that comes with the knowledge of offensive tackle Gregory Little’s signing on Wednesday.
Little (6-foot-5, 305 pounds) may be an eerie physical match to Tunsil; but it’s rare for true freshmen to dominate SEC competition in Year 1 — let alone at left tackle.
As such, Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly (4,042 yards passing, 41 total TDs; the SEC’s most prolific passer in 2015) may have a little less time to throw downfield this fall.
Wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
Cooper had been a two-year dynamo for the Gamecocks, averaging 67 catches, 1,055 yards and 10 total touchdowns. Compared to the other South Carolina pass-catchers during that span, Cooper lapped the field with essentially double/triple the production.
Moving forward, new head coach Will Muschamp must get the Gamecocks offense moving in a positive direction, without a bell-cow receiver in Year 1. That’s a tough task, seemingly made more difficult by the following factoid:
In Muschamp’s time as Florida’s head coach (2011-14), only one Gators pass-catcher broke the 600-yard mark in a season (Demarcus Robinson, 2014).
Obviously, Muschamp has a defensive-minded track record in coaching … but it does somewhat reflect his success rate (or lack thereof) of landing blue-chip receivers or conservative attitude about the offensive end. Either way, it’ll be daunting to replace Cooper.
The 2016 class of top-notch NFL receiving prospects runs 10 deep, with Cooper (5-foot-11, 208 pounds) possibly going low in Round 1 or high in Round 2.
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.