The emphasis has gone from wondering which SEC underclassmen were leaving early for the NFL to wondering who is going to replace those underclassmen.
Well, wonder no more: Here’s a look at the likely replacement for each of the SEC underclassmen who declared for the draft.
RB Derrick Henry
- The skinny: He rushed for 2,219 yards — the fifth-best single-season total in FBS history — and won the Heisman. He was the focal point of the offense and was a major reason for the national title. Yes, he is going to be hard to replace.
- Who’s next? There is no clear-cut replacement, though there are two former five-star guys — Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris — itching for a chance. They combined for 261 yards this past season. Ronnie Clark was recruited as a defensive back but moved to tailback during the season and could stay there. And incoming freshman B.J. Emmons — a big, burly back from Morganton, N.C., with some quickness — surely will be in the mix, too.
DL A’Shawn Robinson
- The skinny: As with Henry, he arrived amid a shower of hype. Unlike Henry, who didn’t to much as a true freshman, Robinson was a force from Day One. Alabama uses both 3-4 and 4-3 sets, and Robinson could play almost any spot in either alignment (asking him to be a 4-3 end was a bit much). He was stout at the point of attack and his run-stuffing ability will be missed.
- Who’s next? We certainly don’t want to downplay Robinson’s loss, but if there is a position at which the Tide can afford to lose a player, it’s along the defensive line. Jonathan Allen’s decision to stay for his senior season is big; the Tide is going to be fine across the defensive front. Coaches will just plug-and-play another former five-star lineman.
RB Alex Collins
- The skinny: He will be missed. He was one of just three players in SEC history — joining Darren McFadden and Herschel Walker — to run for 1,000 yards in each of their first three seasons. He was the second-leding rusher in school history, behind McFadden, and had a legit shot at becoming the leading rusher in league history had he stayed for his senior season.
- Who’s next? Coaches are high on sophomore-to-be Rawleigh Williams, who played well this past season until suffering a neck injury. Bullish 256-pounder Kody Walker — who probably fits best at fullback — could get a shot. And incoming freshman Devwah Whaley will arrive amid a ton of hype. Whaley, from Beaumont, Texas, is considered one of the nation’s top 10 high school backs, and it seems likely the chance to start right away was a reason he has committed to Arkansas.
TE Hunter Henry
- The skinny: Henry won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end and seems a lock to be the first tight end taken in the 2016 NFL draft. He was a big-time blocker and seemingly caught everything he good get his hands on. He was a good one and will be tough to replace.
- Who’s next? Jeremy Sprinkle provided a glimpse of what he can do in the Hogs’ Liberty Bowl rout of Kansas State, with four catches for 81 yards and a TD against the Wildcats. Sprinkle has the talent to contend for all-league honors this fall. No, he’s not as complete a tight end as Henry, but the fall-off in production at the position should not be all that much.
OT Denver Kirkland
- The skinny: Kirkland, a Miami native, was a recruiting coup of sorts for Bret Bielema, and he was an immediate starter. He started the first two seasons at guard, then played left tackle this past season. (Guard seems to be his likely position at the next level.) He struggled some in pass protection, but Kirkland was a physical road-grader in the running game. He and senior G Sebastian Tretola were the Hogs’ two best linemen.
- Who’s next? Coaches could move RT Dan Skipper back to the left side, but his struggles at left tackle in 2014 were one reason Kirkland was moved there this past season. Thus, the thought here is former four-star recruit Brian Wallace gets first shot at replacing Kirkland. Wallace has prototype size (6-6, 317) and was considered a top-10 tackle nationally in high school. His performance in spring drills will be worth watching.
RB Peyton Barber
- The skinny: So far, his decision has been the most surprising offseason move for the Tigers. Barber saw a crowded backfield on the Plains (if ignoring a crowded backfield in the draft) and likely is hoping his hot start to the 2015 season will boost his stock. He surely was the Tigers most dynamic playmaker as the season began, but slowly disappeared down the stretch. Auburn running backs have performed well in the NFL recently and perhaps Barber is looking to capitalize on that.
- Who’s next? Running back probably still will be a committee affair in 2016. That’s OK okay because Auburn has a few good ones left on the roster. Jovon Robinson hopefully will mature into the Tigers’ every-down back, but not without a fight (or help) from Roc Thomas. Kerryon Johnson offers Gus Malzahn great matchup opportunities, and game plans will be tailored to get him one-on-one in open space.
OT Shon Coleman
- The skinny: Technically, the NFL doesn’t consider him an underclassman, but we’re counting him as such. Coleman’s battle with leukemia has been well-documented and its effect on his career cannot be overstated. His decision to leave certainly was influenced by his past health issues. Coleman anchored the Auburn line for all 13 games of the 2015 campaign. His size and talent will be missed, and his character in the face of adversity is irreplaceable.
- Who’s next? If backup Robert Leff is indeed Coleman’s heir apparent, the Tigers will be placing a huge responsibility on unproven shoulders. Leff has seen significant time on special teams, but less on the offensive line. Left tackle is the biggest job on the line, especially when quarterback questions abound. The silver lining, though, is that that Leff is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, so he probably can figure it out.
OT Avery Young
- The skinny: Young fought through injuries throughout his Auburn career, which is more than likely what led to his early departure. He started almost every contest he appeared in for the Tigers, including all 13 games in 2015, and played four positions along the line. That experience and continuity will be difficult to replace.
- Who’s next? Highly rated Texas transfer Darius James likely will step in and fill the other tackle gap. James played in six games at Texas, starting two, before suffering a knee injury in 2014. He has recovered fully and will be looking to make an impact after being off the field for well more than a year.
CB Vernon Hargreaves
- The skinny: He was a tremendous lockdown corner who was a three-year starter and is a sure first-round pick. Hargreaves had 10 interceptions in his three-year career. His junior year saw him victimized at times by the big play, but he was a team leader and will be greatly missed on the back end.
- Who’s next? Junior-to-be Quincy Wilson was a part-time starter this past season, with two interceptions and five pass breakups. He is a physical corner who will benefit from playing opposite the nation’s best in Jalen Tabor. The question is who steps up to take Wilson’s old spot as the No. 3 corner.
DE Alex McAlister
- The skinny: McAlister missed five games, yet still finished tied for the team lead in sacks with 6.5. He was one of the best edge rushers in the SEC, adding 9.5 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. He must continue to add weight and bulk, and really is a one-trick pony at this stage. But that trick is his pass-rush ability, and that is a coveted trait for NFL teams.
- Who’s next? Five-star true freshman CeCe Jefferson had 3.5 sacks this past season and should slide into McAlister’s vacated spot in the starting lineup. Jefferson had 8.5 tackles for loss and proved more advanced against the run than some thought. He should really benefit from a full season in Mike Kent’s strength and conditioning program.
S Keanu Neal
- The skinny: Neal was a big hitter and an emotional leader. He often was asked to be the Gators’ third linebacker in the box against traditional sets. He was third on the team with 96 tackles, and while he needs to continue to improve his coverage skills, he could become a starter in the NFL.
- Who’s next? He will be replaced by either Nick Washington or Marcell Harris; both will be juniors in the fall. Both played plenty this past season and Harris had five tackles against East Carolina. Duke Dawson also could get in the mix, though he conceivably could be the nickel back, too.
WR Demarcus Robinson
- The skinny: Robinson may have caught 107 passes in his career, including nine touchdowns, but he did not come close to reaching his potential for a variety of reasons, some of them self-imposed. He is physically gifted, and some of the problems with his production stemmed from poor quarterback play. He needs to work on ball security and getting off press coverage if he is going to make it at the next level.
- Who’s next? Sophomore-to-be Antonio Callaway should lead the team in receptions this fall, and truth be told, while Callaway didn’t have as many catches as Robinson this past season, he became the go-to receiver late in the season as a true freshman. Replacing Robinson in the starting lineup could fall to a freshman. Among the holdovers, senior-to-be Ahmad Fulwood seems most likely, but the light still hasn’t gone on for him.
RB Kelvin Taylor
- The skinny: Taylor finally had a 1,000-yard season and he earned every bit of it. He could not live up to the standard set by his father, but he was the most reliable and consistent back on the Gators’ roster. He had six 100-ard games in his three seasons, and totaled 394 yards and four touchdowns against Georgia in his career.
- Who’s next? He likely will be replaced by touted junior college transfer Mark Thompson, who looks to be a bigger and faster version of Taylor. Thompson already is on campus and will go through spring practice. The competition also will include sophomores-to-be Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite.
OLB Leonard Floyd
- The skinny: This three year starter showed his versatility in 2015, with an early-season move to inside linebacker. He also showed that he can get out into space and cover receivers. He was nicknamed the “LeBron James of the defense” by one of his teammates for his athletic ability. He finished his career at Georgia with 28.5 tackles for a loss and 17 sacks.
- Who’s next? Lorenzo Carter had a strong freshman season in 2014 but took a huge step back in ’15. He had only 19 total tackles on the season, though he did have two forced fumbles. Before the 2015 season OLB Jordan Jenkins said Carter had the talent to be the best defensive player in Bulldogs history. Now we’ll see if the retention of outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer and the coaching of Kirby Smart will get Carter back on track.
OT Jerald Hawkins
- The skinny: Replacing his size and athleticism is possible. Replacing 36 career starts is tricky. That’s what LSU will have to do with Hawkins, who started at right tackle in his first two seasons before playing the left side as a junior in 2015. One of LSU’s most athletic big men, Hawkins was a quiet leader who led by example after passing on the NFL a year ago as a draft-eligible sophomore.
- Who’s next: Just like having Hawkins to replace La’El Collins a year ago, the news that Ethan Pocic is returning for his senior season makes Hawkins’ departure manageable. Pocic is the most versatile and talented offensive lineman on the team, starting at both guard spots and center during his three years in Baton Rouge. He led the team with 128.5 knockdown blocks in 2015, the most by an LSU lineman since 2010. The opportunity to play left tackle in 2016 likely is the primary reason Pocic returned to school. Rising junior K.J. Malone — Karl’s son — saw time at left tackle as a backup in 2015 but might be a more likely candidate to play right tackle in 2016.
WR De’Runnya Wilson
- The skinny: Wilson, nicknamed “Bear Force One” by teammates, offered a rare blend of size and speed seldom seen at Mississippi State at wide receiver. His frame allowed him to shield the ball from defenders on crucial down and distance plays, and he could make the hard catch around the goal line. Wilson also was a big-time factor in the running game because of his blocking ability. While senior-to-be Fred Ross had more receptions, 2015, Wilson was among the SEC leaders in touchdown catches with 10.
- Who’s next: Ross will be the go-to guy, and while Mississippi State has some talented underclassmen coming back, none have the size and athleticism of Wilson. A true freshman likely will be in the mix, perhaps Starkville native A.J. Brown, a Bulldogs recruiting priority. Dan Mullen has used freshmen receivers extensively in the past. Wilson, Chad Bumphis and Malik Dear come to mind.
DT Chris Jones
- The skinny: Jones was a five-star defensive end in the 2013 recruiting class. He put on close to 60 pounds and moved inside. For his career, Jones tallied 102 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks – modest numbers for someone of his talent. Still, he has a rare blend of size and speed and will be missed.
- Who’s next: The Bulldogs have done a solid job of stocking the shelves with quality defensive linemen in the past few years. Nelson Adams returns for his senior year, as does Nick James. Both have SEC experience and should be the leaders in the middle for the Bulldogs’ defense in 2016.
LB Beniquez Brown
- The skinny: Brown had 99 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and an interception in 2015 — a productive all-around season. While Brown didn’t play with the same flair as former Bulldogs LBs Benardrick McKinney and K.J. Wright, he did possess the same intangibles that have made several former Bulldogs mainstays in the NFL. Brown reads defenses well, doesn’t mind contact and reacts quickly.
- Who’s next: The Bulldogs have recruited well at linebacker of late. Look for J.T. Gray, Gerri Green and redshirt freshman Leo Lewis to battle to replace Brown. Gray and Green have SEC experience, and coaches have raved about their future potential. Lewis, a former five-star recruit, could be the best of the bunch. He has good size (6-2, 240), is physical and looks like a high-level all-around talent.
DT Robert Nkemdiche
- The skinny: Without Nkemdiche, Ole Miss’ historic 2013 recruiting class might never have happened. He was a three-year starter and a presence in the middle of the line. Most of his junior season was spent being double teamed, but he created opportunities for his teammates.
- Who’s next? As a redshirt freshman, Breeland Speaks helped fill in for Nkemdiche, so he was able to gain valuable experience. Even in limited action, Speaks still wreaked havoc in opposing backfields in 2015 and finished with 32 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. While Speaks will have to work on going against double-teams, he should help fill the void next season.
OT Laremy Tunsil
- The skinny: He was a mega-recruit and lived up to billing. He was a three-year starter at left tackle, though he did miss half the 2015 season because of an NCAA suspension. That suspension did not hurt his draft stock and it actually may have helped Ole Miss for 2016. Tunsil likely will go down as the most talented Rebels offensive lineman ever.
- Who’s next? That Tunsil suspension meant that Sean Rawlings got experience he otherwise would not have received, and Rawlings looks like a good fit at right tackle going forward. At left tackle, it wouldn’t be a surprise if true freshman Gregory Little — the Tunsil of this recruiting class — moves right in and starts from Day One.
WR Laquon Treadwell
- The skinny: Treadwell truly was in a league of his own, from his size to his playing style. An horrific leg injury ended Treadwell’s sophomore season, and many wondered if Treadwell ever would be the same. Turns out, he was even better, breaking numerous school records before departing Oxford.
- Who’s next? If there were a position the Rebels could afford to lose a player, it’s at wide receiver. Ole Miss still will have plenty of receiving talent, plus tight end Evan Engram is returning for his senior season. Washington transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow came on strong in the second half of the 2015 season, and he does a nice job using his size (6-2, 220) and physicality. Stringfellow should be able to take over lead receiving role and make a lot of noise.
WR Pharoh Cooper
- The skinny: Cooper was South Carolina’s only reliable threat in the passing game this past season. After originally being recruited to play defensive back, he emerged over the past two seasons as the most dynamic receiver the Gamecocks had seen since Alshon Jeffery. He also rushed for 7.2 yards a carry during his career with four touchdown passes during his “Wildcat” quarterback cameos. The play that summed up Cooper’s final season in Columbia didn’t show up in his stats. On fourth down from South Carolina’s 6 with 44 seconds to go, Cooper somehow got free and raced to the end zone for what appeared to be an upset-averting miracle 94-yard touchdown catch against The Citadel. Instead, a penalty on a receiver on the other side of the field for not being fully set at the snap cost Cooper his moment and South Carolina the game. Like many of the 2015 Gamecock losses, Cooper had done everything he could and been let down by his teammates.
- Who’s next? No one on the Gamecocks’ roster can fill Cooper’s shoes, and with a coaching change expected to steer South Carolina in a new direction offensively, no one might be truly asked to do so. Third-year sophomore Deebo Samuel is the most explosive candidate on the returning roster. Nine of his 12 catches came in the final two games, after he missed much of the season with a hamstring issue. Physically, he’s similar in build to Cooper and may have more pure speed. Cooper played through injuries most of 2015. It will be up to Samuel to be conditioned well enough to minimize his injury risk as he tries to emerge as a much bigger factor this fall.
WR Marquez North
- The skinny: North’s decision to turn pro might have been the most surprising of any SEC player. He had 38 receptions as a true freshman in 2013, but injuries limited him in the past two seasons and he had just 36 receptions, including only six this past season.
- Who’s next? North shouldn’t be missed. His receptions total was seventh among the Vols’ wide receivers in 2015.
OT Germain Ifedi
- The skinny: A three-year starter, Ifedi had moments of greatness during his A&M career. He played guard as a freshman, then shifted to right tackle and was one of the few bright spots along the 2014 offensive line. Although he was the most experienced player on A&M’s offense entering the ’15 season, his pass blocking regressed and he was the most-penalized tackle in the SEC. It will prove difficult to replace his size, experience and talent, but Ifedi’s career arc peaked in his middle season.
- Who’s next? Koda Martin was A&M’s scout team offensive MVP during his true freshman season in 2014, then saw time in six games as a redshirt freshman in ’15. At 6-6 and 300 pounds, Martin is the definition of a presence on the offensive line and has impressed Kevin Sumlin since day one. While left guard Keaton Sutherland is another possibility to replace Ifedi, Martin has experience at tackle and has looked comfortable on the right side.
OLB Stephen Weatherly
- The skinny: Weatherly was one of Vandy’s best players and will be missed. He was Vandy’s most dangerous edge player the past two seasons. Weatherly’s numbers weren’t as good in 2015 as they were in 2014 (his tackles for loss dropped from 12.5 to 9.5), but he still had to be accounted for on every pass play.
- Who’s next? From a talent standpoint, ILB Nigel Bowden can make up for Weatherly’s loss even though they play different positions. Bowden had concussion issues in ’15 and played in just two games. But if he is healthy, he has the skill set to contend for all-league honors. In terms of taking Weatherly’s spot in the lineup, Vandy looks to have three starting-caliber outside ‘backers: Landon Stokes, Nehemiah Mitchell and Josh Smith. Smith was Weatherly’s backup as a true freshman in 2015, and he looks to have the best upside of that trio.
(Feature photo by TIM HEITMAN/USA TODAY SPORTS)
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