SEC Country updates its look at the SEC’s toughest players to replace from last season, a post-spring football assessment of the biggest individual shoes to fill for the 2016 campaign.
To clarify, this isn’t a listing of the conference’s most dominant departing players from last year. If that were the case, tailback Derrick Henry — the second Heisman Trophy winner in Alabama history — would have been front and center.
(The same holds true for Ole Miss O-tackle Laremy Tunsil, most likely a top-five pick in the upcoming draft.)
Instead, the vaunted Crimson Tide, who boast the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for six consecutive years — according to 247Sports — will simply have another five-star talent to plug-and-play at the running back position.
DT A’SHAWN ROBINSON
LEGACY: Anchored one of the greatest D-lines in recent college football history
REPLACEMENT CANDIDATES: Daron Payne, Da’Shawn Hand, Dalvin Tomlinson, Joshua Frazier
At first blush, Alabama should never have any indispensable assets on a Nick Saban-coached squad. The Crimson Tide are all about amazing depth (five-star recruits at nearly every spot) and unrivaled consistency (otherwise known as The Process).
Heck, the program might even absorb the loss of former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (now UGA’s coach) without skipping a beat. The Crimson Tide are that prolific, that proficient and that focused.
That said, for three decorated seasons at Alabama, which yielded two SEC crowns and one national championship, Robinson (likely first-round pick in the upcoming draft) was a certifiable defensive force in the trenches.
For 2015, Robinson (nine career sacks, 22 tackles for loss) helped Alabama notch elite-level national rankings with rushing defense (first overall), total defense (third) and scoring defense (third).
Robinson (NFL Combine tallies: 5.2 in the 40-yard dash, 106-inch broad jump) was particularly dynamic in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State. He didn’t record one sack or tackle for loss, but the Spartans offense had no success in the running game and failed to score a single point — a byproduct of Robinson nimbly and forcefully closing off rushing lanes near the line of scrimmage, essentially devouring the Spartans’ cadre of smaller interior blockers.
Note: Jarran Reed, Robinson’s linemate and potential first-round pick in the draft, should also be difficult to replace this fall.
WR LAQUON TREADWELL
COLLEGE: Ole Miss
LEGACY: Arguably the greatest receiver in Rebels history
REPLACEMENT CANDIDATES: Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow, Damarkus Lodge, Derrick Jones, A.J. Brown, DeKaylin Metcalf
NFL pundits who loathed Treadwell’s pro day 40 time (4.6 range) and vertical leap (33 1/2 inches) may no longer see his college value as irreplaceable.
But that mistake will be rectified (and regretted) in the near future, after Treadwell (82 catches, 1,153 yards, 11 touchdowns last season) lands with an NFL club that craves a top-flight receiving prospect with instant-breakout potential.
The Rebels’ personnel loss here was softened a bit on National Signing Day, when Ole Miss added a pair of top-20 receivers (A.J. Brown — No. 5 WR; DeKaylin Metcalf — No. 18 WR). For the coming season, however, it may still require a cumulative team effort 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.
For 2015, Treadwell registered six 100-yard outings (including five straight) and six consecutive games of at least one touchdown.
DE JONATHAN BULLARD
LEGACY: One of the Gators’ most accomplished defenders of the decade
REPLACEMENT CANDIDATES: Bryan Cox Jr., CeCe Jefferson
Bullard was a solid rotational defender in his first three seasons, but everything went up a few notches during his senior campaign, to the tune of 6.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.
Even at 6-foot-3, 283 pounds, Bullard possesses quick feet and great explosion off the line. As such, it’s eminently possible he’ll be more productive at the NFL level than in college.
The reason for that: Bullard’s Florida career was more about turmoil at the top (coaching changes) and contrasting defensive philosophies. And yet, he still did everything in his power to lead the Gators to an SEC East title in Jim McElwain‘s first season at Florida.
For Bullard’s remarkable final season, the Gators enjoyed supreme rankings with the following categories: Eighth nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense, 13th in passing yards allowed, 15th in sacks, 23rd in tackles for loss and 25th in rushing defense.
WR PHAROH COOPER
COLLEGE: South Carolina
LEGACY: One of the greatest wideouts of the Steve Spurrier era
REPLACEMENT CANDIDATES: Deebo Samuel, Javon Charleston, Matrick Belton, Bryan Edwards
Here are the supposed truths involving the Gamecocks’ receiving corps, as they enter Year 1 of the Will Muschamp era (a dramatic departure from his pass-happy predecessor):
Charleston may be an SEC newbie and of slight build (under 190 pounds), but he also has the raw physical prowess of a college-era Anquan Boldin, in terms of garnering quick separation from defenders at various points of route running.
The freshman Edwards (four-star recruit) tallied multiple touchdowns in the Gamecocks’ spring game — with both touchdown tosses coming from Brandon McIlwain , a four-star quarterback who also plays baseball for South Carolina.
And Samuel has the look of a more polished product. At the spring game, he was typically the first read for the quarterbacks.
Deebo is also the Gamecocks’ leading returning receiver (third on the 2015 squad), modestly collecting 12 catches, 161 yards and one touchdown.
Now for the bad part …
At best, these maturing assets are nowhere close to erasing the memory of Cooper, who had been a two-year dynamo for the Gamecocks, averaging 67 catches, 1,055 yards and 10 total touchdowns.
As a sophomore, Cooper carved up the likes of Vanderbilt (10 catches, 114 yards), Auburn (seven catches, 127 yards, two touchdowns), Tennessee (11 catches, 233 yards, two touchdowns) and Miami (nine catches, 170 yards). One season later, Cooper posted five 100-yard outings and finished his collegiate career with at least one touchdown in four straight games.
All told, when referencing the other South Carolina pass-catchers during that span, Cooper crushed the competition with essentially double/triple the production.
QB DAK PRESCOTT
COLLEGE: Mississippi State
LEGACY: Greatest quarterback in school history
REPLACEMENT CANDIDATES: Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams, Elijah Staley, Nick Tiano
We’re hoping the Bulldogs can identify a long-term quarterback option before Mississippi State completes that soon-to-be-arriving statue of Prescott (four-year starter, 9,376 yards passing, 111 career touchdowns, 63-percent passer) outside Wade-Davis Stadium.
By the widest of margins, Prescott (one No. 1 national ranking midway through 2014, two bowl victories and 34 total wins) stands as the greatest quarterback in Mississippi State history, meaning that even a five-star recruit would have great difficulty filling these immediate shoes.
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).
Speaking of receiver, Fred Ross (88 catches, 1,007 yards, five touchdowns last year) was the SEC’s most prolific wideout for November/December, averaging 9.6 catches, 115 yards and 0.8 touchdowns during that five-game span.
Also, Ross and Ole Miss star Laquon Treadwell (potential top-15 pick in the upcoming NFL draft) were the only SEC wideouts to register four consecutive outings of 100-plus yards last season.
Given coach Dan Mullen‘s track record with quarterbacks (Prescott, former Florida star Tim Tebow) and Mississippi State’s strong offensive production since 2010 (averaging 30.5 points per game), the Bulldogs should be prolific with quarterbacks along the recruiting trail for many years to come.
For 2016, the strong-armed, fleet-footed Fitzgerald (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) has the initial stature of a long-term building block for Mississippi State. With Ross wreaking havoc on the field, this provides Fitzgerald with a healthy advantage over most passers with zero career starts.
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.