Biggest Shoes to Fill in the SEC in 2021
Mac Jones had one of the best seasons of any Alabama quarterback in his only year as the starter. Even after filling in admirably for an injured Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, Jones entered 2020 as the projected backup to freshman Bryce Young. Not only did Jones win the battle in camp, but he played his way to Heisman consideration while breaking records, winning awards, and leading the Crimson Tide to yet another National Championship. Now that Jones is in the NFL with the Patriots, it is presumably Young's turn. The sophomore got some playing time in nine games last season and was the No.1 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2020 and a 5-star player with All-America honors. He'll have a ton of hype to live up to in 2021 should he indeed win the starting job.
Alabama Running Back
The Crimson Tide will also be looking for the successor to one of its greatest running backs. Najee Harris took over the starting role in 2019 and amazed fans for two years. Harris leaves Tuscaloosa holding several Alabama records--including most total touchdowns, most rushing touchdowns, and most career rushing yards. That makes for quite an accomplished college career. Senior Brian Robinson Jr will assume the role. While he hasn't had as much playing time, Robinson has been a key player on the Tide offense and has over 1300 career rushing yards.
Alabama Wide Receiver
Devonta Smith departs for the NFL after capping his college career with a Heisman Trophy. Fellow speedster and top-10 NFL Draft choice Jaylen Waddle is also gone. Both players could use their speed to stretch out defenses at will and made the offense even more of a nightmare to defend. John Metchie III returns and will likely be joined in the starting lineup by Slade Bolden and Javon Baker. Alabama could also benefit from a break-out year from junior Xavier Williams or one of the many freshmen.
Let's check in with the Georgia secondary, shall we? Tyson Campbell? Gone. Richar Lecounte? Gone. DJ Daniel? Mark Webb? You get the picture. In total, the Bulldogs enter 2020 without SIX of the defensive backs that played meaningful defensive snaps in 2020. The good news is safety Christopher Smith saw significant playing time last year and West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith was named 2nd team All-America by several media outlets. Redshirt senior Ameer Speed and freshman Jalen Kimber figure to be the starting corners and have little experience between them at the college level.
LSU Wide Receiver
Lead receiver Kayshon Boutte returns in hopes of taking yet another step toward stardom. However, Jaray Jenkins is the only other returning receiver to gain over 300 receiving yards, plus the Tigers lose three of their top five receivers from a year ago. There may be some opportunities for freshmen because this is not a very established group.
Florida Tight End
Kyle Pitts has often been described as a unicorn and anyone following in his footsteps is going to, unfortunately, receive the unfair comparison. The truth is, Pitts was a one-of-a-kind player with the frame and physicality of a tight end and the speed and athleticism of a wide receiver. Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer are the only two on the roster with any career receptions.
The Florida signal-caller won't be inexperienced, but he is a different kind of player. Where Kyle Trask was very much a pocket passer, Emory Jones is a dual-threat. He has played in 24 career games and made a difference with his legs. He has solid passing numbers for his career, but I'm interested to see how that pans out over an extended period of time. I have never thought of him as a great passer, and Trask's 7,386 yards and 69 touchdowns may be far out of range for him. Jones also isn't likely a Heisman contender like Trask ended up finishing.
The Gators saw five members of the defensive backfield depart in the offseason. Returning started Kaiir Elam and senior Trey Dean will be counted on to carry the load. Rashad Torrance, Tre'Vez Johnson, and Jaydon Hill have all had significant roles in the past but, there is little depth behind them.
Texas A&M Quarterback
The defense may have been a huge key in the Aggies' surprise run last season, but Kellen Mond leaves the program as one of its most decorated players. Mond finished his career holding many Aggie quarterback records and even passed Peyton Manning on the SEC's all-time total offense chart. He also started 44 games and was undefeated in bowl games. Zach Calzada and Haynes King are the only quarterbacks A&M has who have taken a collegiate snap.
Terry Wilson spent three seasons as the Wildcats' starting quarterback and transfers to New Mexico. Wilson quietly became one of Kentucky's best quarterbacks. He was never an incredible passer, but he did more than enough with his legs to keep the defense guessing and leaves as the only Kentucky signal-caller to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 more. Joey Gatewood is a logical replacement after splitting time with Wilson. Penn State transfer Will Levis and sophomore Beau Allen will also have a chance.
Tennessee's roster has been gutted in the offseason, and linebacker may be the most affected group. Pass-rusher Deandre Johnson and promising young starters Henry To'oto'o and Quavarius Crouch have all transferred. Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell will bring the bulk of the experience in this group, and Jeremy Banks figures to take over at the MIKE. JUCO transfer Byron Jones and backup Tyler Baron will both have a chance to replace Johnson.
Tennessee Offensive Line
After featuring a good and experienced group in 2020, the Vols may be playing musical chairs on the offensive line this season. Heralded transfer Cade Mays and junior tackle Darnell Wright return to anchor the right side of the line. Center Brandon Kennedy, who started for two years after transferring from Alabama, has graduated. Guard/tackle Trey Smith was drafted into the NFL, and left tackle Wanya Morris has transferred to Oklahoma. Mays's brother, Cooper, appears in line to take over the starting center position, while Jerome Carvin and K'Rojhn Calbert have the most substantial experience among the rest of the group. Dayne Davis may also be in the conversation at right tackle.
Larry Rountree III had a quiet college career for a guy who achieved so much. He finished his career as Missouri's all-time leader in rushing yards by a running back and rushing touchdowns while averaging over five yards from scrimmage per play. While Tyler Badie returns with over 1,000 career rushing yards himself, it isn't often you have to replace one of your program's all-time greats. Badie is a good runner, but he is following in some tremendous footsteps.
The Tigers lost two safeties out of their three-safety scheme in Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie-- both of whom are expected to make a positive impact in the NFL. Cornerback Jarvis Ware is also gone. That leaves, at minimum, three positions to fill on the back end of the defense this offseason. Tulsa grad transfer Akayleb Evans should take one corner spot while sophomore Ennis Rakestraw Jr holds down the other. The safety spot will be more adventurous with many players hoping to make their way off of special teams and into the starting lineup. Jalani Williams, Stacey Brown, and Martez Manuel have contributed the most in the past among those candidates.
Auburn Head Coach
It was absolutely the right time to move on from Gus Malzahn, but that doesn't mean he was a bad coach. Malzahn has several Coach of the Year awards to his credit and developed Auburn into one of the nation's top rushing offenses while competing in the SEC. However, things had gone stale with him in charge and the team was no longer progressing. Enter Bryan Harsin. Harsin spent seven seasons leading Boise State and won three conference titles while averaging just shy of 10 wins per year. While Harsin is no slouch, the SEC is a different breed of competition. Teams are expected to compete for national titles and 10 win seasons are not always enough to keep head coaching jobs safe. Auburn probably shouldn't expect to compete in 2021, but Harsin will need to prove he is truly SEC material.
Auburn Wide Receiver
As far as on-the-field play goes, the Tigers have holes to fill at receiver. All three starters from last year--Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and Eli Stove-- are in NFL camps this season. All three finished their careers among Auburn's all-time leaders in receiving yards. Replacing that kind of production in one offseason on top of implementing a new system is extremely difficult. The recent addition of Georgia transfer Demetris Robinson at least gives Auburn an experienced player at the position. Otherwise, the Tigers are relying on seldom-used veteran Shedrick Jackson and a bunch of young, unproven guys.
Alabama Offensive Line
Alabama loses three offensive linemen to the NFL in Landon Dickerson, Alex Leatherwood, and Deonte Brown. That fact alone, despite Bama's once again loaded group, earns a spot on this list. The unit was named top offensive line in the country and returns three key members: tackle Evan Neal, guard Emil Ekiyor Jr, and backup center Chris Owens. Presumed left guard Javion Cohen was on the SEC's All-Freshmen team, which means the biggest question mark will be left tackle. Freshmen JC Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer are expected to compete there with Kendall Randolph working as an extra blocker at tight end as needed.
South Carolina will be attempting to replace corners Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. Horn will be a particularly big loss after his 2020 performance catapulted him from mid-round prospect to the top 10 of the NFL Draft. Mukuamu will be missed for his combination of athleticism and unique size (6'4" is huge for a corner). Jammie Robinson also departs as a transfer to Florida State. First-year coach Shane Beamer will have his hands full trying to shape this unit in 2021. Returning starter RJ Roderick and key reserve Cam Smith are firmly entrenched as starters. Dominick Hill and former walk-on Jaylan Foster will get the first chances to join that lineup. Transfer David Spaulding expects to be the team's nickel, and Jaylin Dickerson and O'Donnell Fortune will compete for the final spot after spending the past few seasons as backups.
Honorable Mention: Texas A&M MLB- Buddy Johnson is a pretty big loss, but since so many starters are returning on that side of the ball for the Aggies, I decided to leave it off the list for now.