There are 27 SEC underclassmen leaving for the 2018 NFL draft, and as is almost always the case, the guy replacing the guy who is leaving isn’t going to match the production (or talent level) of the departing player.
There are four early entrants, in particular, who would seem to be the most difficult to replace. Here’s a look at that quartet and the players who have the unenviable task of trying to replace them.
Monday, we’ll look at the SEC teams that benefited the most from underclassmen not leaving.
4. Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson
The skinny: He was the SEC offensive player of the year and did yeoman work in the Tigers’ offense; Johnson carried the ball on 44 percent of Auburn’s rushing attempts in 2017. Kamryn Pettway, who missed most of the 2017 season after leading the SEC in rushing in 2016, also is turning pro, meaning the leading returning candidate looks to be Kam Martin, who rushed for 453 yards. He had 74 rushing attempts on the season and 42 in SEC play. But almost a third of his SEC attempts came in one game, when he had 13 rushes in a win over Texas A&M. Also returning are Malik Miller and Devan Barrett, who combined for 48 carries, as well as JaTarvious Whitlow, who redshirted last season. Miller has the between-the-tackles ability that the offense needs. And there will be three true freshman running backs – Harold Joiner, Asa Martin and Shaun Shivers. Shivers is not an every-down back because of a lack of size (5-7, 174). Martin already has enrolled, and it’s fair to say he will be the most heavily scrutinized of the early enrollees. Some sort of pecking order will need to be established during the spring, which means a transfer is a distinct possibility. One thing to remember: Auburn has had 11 1,000-yard rushers in the past nine seasons.
3. Georgia LB Roquan Smith
The skinny: Smith was the SEC’s best defensive player in 2017, and his decision to depart means Georgia is going to be without each of the four linebackers who started the two College Football Playoff games (the other three were seniors Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter). Natrez Patrick is set to be a senior in 2018, but given his multiple off-field issues, it’s not a certainty that he will be back. In addition, he hasn’t exactly been consistent when he has been on the field. Juwan Taylor, Monty Rice and Nate McBride would seem to be the other candidates (and remember that Georgia will be looking for two inside linebackers, not just one). Taylor will be a senior, and this will be a huge spring practice for him; if he doesn’t impress, he’s destined to fall further down the depth chart and be a non-factor in the fall. Rice and McBride will be sophomores. Rice is a physical guy who can run and looks to be especially good against the run; he also seems to have a certain nastiness about him. McBride could stand to gain a few pounds (he was listed at 223 this season), but he is a good athlete with the ability to go sideline-to-sideline. Is he physical enough? We’ll find out in the spring.
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