The only weakness to being the most talent-laden conference in college football is that the NFL comes calling every year.
Over 20 SEC underclassmen already have declared their eligibility for the 2017 draft, and more could be coming soon. But while it makes for a confusing time for fans and programs, early entries open up opportunities for new players.
Just in the last year, Vernon Hargreaves’ departure allowed Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor to grow into first-round corners at Florida. The same could be said of A’Shawn Robinson, who cleared the way for Jonathan Allen to be the best defensive lineman in college football. Other players will be next.
Here are five players from across the SEC who will benefit most from others’ early entry into the NFL draft.
RB Derrius Guice, LSU
2016 stats: 183 carries for 1,387 yards, 15 TDs; 9 catches for 106 yards, TD
Is it unfair to say a sophomore who rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns is poised for a breakout year? Probably. That should tell you just how much potential Guice has next season. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense only multiplies it.
Guice was always the second fiddle with Leonard Fournette on the roster. Even though he rushed for over 100 yards six times in 12 games (six starts), Fournette was always the sexy running back. It’s time for the nation to recognize that Guice led the SEC in rushing yards and yards per carry in the same dang year. He even finished second in rushing scores, behind only Nick Fitzgerald. Again, he did this as a second-string running back. Guice’s future is limitless.
DL Cece Jefferson, Florida
2016 stats: 30 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks
Florida boasted one of the most disruptive defenses in college football last season. When looking at the talent across the front seven, it’s easy to see why. Especially on the defensive line, as defensive tackle Caleb Brantley was a monster. It’s no wonder he decided to leave early for the NFL draft, along with linebacker Alex Anzalone.
While Jefferson played mostly on the end last season, he will be featured in several different looks in 2017. A former No. 7 overall recruit, Jefferson is a physical freak and managed to break through for 6.5 tackles for loss despite a largely complementary role. With Brantley and senior Joey Ivie’s departures, Jefferson should quickly become the featured piece on the defensive line.
WR DaMarkus Lodge, Ole Miss
2016 stats: 15 catches for 203 yards, 2 TDs
Maybe it’s because I saw plenty of his film while I covered football in Texas, but I’ve never understood why Lodge has struggled so much to make an impact. He was rated the No. 6 receiver and No. 42 overall player in the Class of 2015. It hasn’t mattered yet — Lodge was just the sixth-leading receiver for Ole Miss this year.
This is the year Lodge finally breaks out. The Rebels are losing Damore’ea Stringfellow early to the draft, and Evan Engram and Quincy Adeboyejo to graduation. Van Jefferson should slip into one of the roles, while Lodge and A.J. Brown will compete for the other. If he can stay on the field a little more consistently, expect his numbers to skyrocket.
DB Tony Brown, Alabama
2016 stats: 32 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 INTs
This pick could change drastically based on how the defensive backfield shuffles out. With Marlon Humphrey heading to the NFL, it’s unclear where Minkah Fitzpatrick will play next year. When 2015 All-American safety Eddie Jackson went out with a leg injury, Fitzpatrick moved to safety. Anthony Averett almost certainly will be one of the full-time corners, but that means there will be time open at either corner or nickel.
Brown forced his way into the defensive back rotation last season largely as either a nickel or star in Saban’s defensive system. His role became even more defined after Jackson went out for the year. If Fitzpatrick moves to safety full-time, Brown will have a shot to take over the other full-time cornerback spot.
WR Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M
2016 stats: 18 catches for 399 yards, 5 TDs (at IMG Academy)
Yes, it is cheating to include a kid who hasn’t stepped foot on campus. But in Texas A&M’s case, it seems appropriate. The Aggies were already losing Josh Reynolds, Jeremy Tabuyo and Edward Pope to graduation. Soon after the season, former 5-star underclassmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil joined them. Christian Kirk is awesome. The second-leading returning wide receiver on the team, Jamal Jeffery, had a whopping 74 yards.
Ausbon has long been considered a 4-star prospect, but he really broke onto the scene after transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Now, the former Houston Episcopal standout is the Aggies’ highest-rated incoming skill position player. Standing out at the most talented school in the nation is impressive, and Texas A&M will need him to be that player right away. Luckily, a starting spot is almost guaranteed with all the attrition.