Here are three detailed revelations about the state of the SEC offseason, in advance of college football’s Monday deadline (initially had “Friday”) for redshirt sophomores and juniors declaring for the 2016 NFL Draft.
One anecdotal opinion didn’t make the cut … so, we’ll wait a few days to address the rationale of Vegas bookmakers installing Alabama — and not LSU, Clemson, Baylor, Oregon, Michigan, Oklahoma or Ohio State — as the championship favorite for next year’s College Football Playoff.
1. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard should take a cue from George Costanza and leave college on a high note
I’m not a boisterous advocate of pushing draft-eligible sophomores and juniors out the door at big-time programs, especially if/when players cite “championships” or “diplomas” as their primary reasons for staying in school.
But O.J. Howard might be a special case here:
**As a freshman (2013) and sophomore (2014), Howard didn’t register more than three receptions in a single game.
**And for his junior campaign, Howard didn’t find the end zone until his title-game explosion against Clemson, rolling for five catches, 208 yards and two touchdowns.
The pessimist might chalk up Howard’s Monday-night breakout as a high-profile fluke, since Howard’s scores came against porous (or nonexistent) coverage.
However, the optimist would point to how the Alabama coaches finally devised a way to make Howard (6-foot-6, 242 pounds) viable in the offensive game plan. With that size and speed … the task shouldn’t be too daunting, right?
Either way, Howard has earned the right to explore the notion of going pro — before Monday’s national deadline.
The positives of joining the NFL right away, money aside, are fairly academic:
a) Howard likely won’t replicate the single-game insanity of 200-plus yards and two touchdowns as a senior. As such, it makes sense to turn pro off his career-best outing (the Costanza-esque high note).
b) Using the Eye Test, Howard has the size, speed, athleticism and after-the-catch running ability of a potential Pro Bowler (down the road) — even if the overall collegiate production doesn’t reflect it.
c) The 2016 class of NFL-worthy tight ends isn’t particularly deep, with Arkansas’ Hunter Henry, Stanford’s Austin Hooper, Ohio State’s Nick Vannett, Western Kentucky’s Tyler Higbee and East Carolina’s Bryce Williams ranking as the top prospects — should they all become available for the draft.
With Howard, the lack of blue-chip tight ends might motivate an NFL franchise to snag him late in Round 1 or midway through Round 2 (upside pick). And frankly, the Prattville, Ala. native should hope for being a second-round selection — as it would grant him some pressure-free time to assimilate into the NFL culture, even as a pro “redshirt.”
Here’s why: It makes zero sense for NFL teams to invest first-round picks at the tight end spot. Rob Gronkowski (5,555 receiving yards, 66 TDs through six seasons) remains the gold standard at this position … and he fell to Round 2 in 2010 (partially due to injury).
And Gronk certainly had the numbers in college, totaling 16 touchdowns in two seasons with Arizona.
2. It’s fair to wonder which quarterback will challenge Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly for All-SEC honors next season
Before the 2014 season, a popular Atlanta-area radio show spent a lot of time lamenting the perceived lack of high-end quarterbacks in the conference, saying how Auburn’s Nick Marshall might be the only worthy candidate for the All-SEC preseason team (voting during SEC Media Days).
But when the smoke cleared on the season, four QBs (South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson, Alabama’s Blake Sims, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Ole Miss’s Bo Wallace) passed for at least 3,000 yards; and nine quarterbacks (including Auburn’s Marshall) racked up at least 20 passing touchdowns by year’s end.
The larger point: The SEC might not be experiencing a golden age of passing stars right now, but the ‘established’ and ‘upside’ assets are in the pipeline, for sure. Also, one can never underrate The Vacuum Effect in sports, with talented backups rising to starring roles — when necessary.
On the veteran front, Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs (2,291 yards passing, 26 TDs in 2015), Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight (dominated Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl), Alabama’s Cooper Bateman, Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson (or Sean White), UGA’s Greyson Lambert, Florida’s Treon Harris, Missouri’s Drew Lock (or Maty Mauk) and LSU’s Brandon Harris all have the potential for dynamic seasons.
And on the novice front, it’s only a matter of time before Jacob Eason (5-star QB committed to UGA), Feleipe Franks (5-star QB committed to Florida), Blake Barnett (redshirt freshman with Alabama), Ricky Town (Arkansas transfer), Austin Appleby (Florida transfer), Luke Del Rio (Florida transfer) and Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State backup last season) hit the ground running with their respective programs.
(Obviously, there’s some overlap with the above lists, since the majority of SEC offenses would prefer to settle on a primary quarterback for the season.)
In the meantime, Chad Kelly (4,042 yards passing, 41 total TDs) shall serve as the conference’s redoubtable face among quarterbacks — but even that comes with a minor caveat, in the wake of Ole Miss losing wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (82 catches, 1,153 yards, 11 TDs in 2015) and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil to the NFL.
How good are Treadwell and Tunsil? I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re top-three picks in the upcoming draft — with the Tennessee Titans snagging Treadwell at No. 1 overall (or at least trading down before selecting Treadwell) and the San Diego Chargers identifying Tunsil as their cornerstone offensive tackle at No. 3. (The Chargers were absurdly racked by injuries in 2015.)
Of course, head coach Hugh Freeze can recruit like few other coaches in Rebels history. That should mollify Kelly in his quest to become the only modern-day Ole Miss QB to lead his squad to back-to-back Sugar Bowls.
3. It’s hard to cite the work of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele (now with Auburn) … without acknowledging the elephant in the room from his Clemson days
The 2011 Clemson defense featured future NFL talents like cornerback Bashaud Breeland, cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, defensive end Andre Branch, defensive end Malliciah Goodman, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and 2015 first-rounder Vic Beasley (then a callow freshman); and yet, West Virginia still hung 70 points on the Tigers in the 2012 Orange Bowl — one of the more notable major-bowl thrashings of the last 30 years.
And Steele, then the defensive coordinator at Clemson, paid a huge price for the Tigers’ 37-point drubbing in Miami, losing his job at the school a week later. He’d subsequently spend two seasons with Alabama — in front office/positional coach roles — before becoming LSU’s defensive coordinator for the 2015 season.
How did that work out? For the Tigers’ 7-0 start in September/October, the defense held the opposition to 22.7 points per game. (OK, but hardly dominant.)
For the 2-3 finish, LSU surrendered averages of 26 points per outing — a reasonably high figure which included the low-scoring shakedown of Texas A&M (19-7) to close the regular season.
All told, LSU ranked 33rd nationally in scoring defense for the season.
Citing the same category, let’s compare the program’s 2015 output to the previous nine seasons: From 2006-14, LSU earned national rankings of fourth (2006), 17th (2007), 56th (2008), 11th (2009), 11th (2010), second (2011), 12th (2012), 21st (2013) and fifth (2014) in scoring defense.
All this begs the question: Has Steele earned the right to have the West Virginia/70-point debacle expunged from our primary memory banks … or is it still the main talking point when discussing his resume as a defensive coordinator?
It’s hardly rare for offensive and defensive coordinators to jump directly to other SEC programs at a moment’s notice; but it is weird that Steele would move from LSU to Auburn after just one season on the job — especially with the Bayou Tigers positioned for a national-title run in 2016 (likely Leonard Fournette’s final Heisman voyage; Alabama comes to Baton Rouge).
And it’s not like Auburn’s Gus Malzahn boasts more job certainty than LSU’s Les Miles. The former might have been on the hot seat … if Auburn hadn’t defeated Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl; and the latter experienced an emotional goodbye with the LSU faithful on Thanksgiving Weekend (after beating Texas A&M) — only to get a last-minute reprieve from athletic director Joe Alleva. (Some would argue Miles has more power than ever at LSU.)
Steele might also get a last-minute gift from the football gods at Auburn … if defensive stars Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams both bypass the NFL draft in 2016. Their on-campus presence would go a long way toward rebuilding Steele’s image as a formidable coordinator.
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.