6. Georgia RB Nick Chubb
Particulars: 5-10, 228 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: 5-star prospect in 2014 signing class, from Cedartown (Ga.) High
The skinny: When he’s at his best, there are very few running backs nationally better than Chubb. While he rushed for 1,130 yards last season, he still didn’t seem all the way back from the severe knee injury suffered midway through the 2015 season. Before that injury against Tennessee, Chubb had rushed for 2,292 yards and 21 TDs on 310 carries in 18 games – 127.3 yards per game and 7.4 yards per carry. (He was the second-team back in five of those games, too.) Though he played in all 13 games last season, he played through injuries and didn’t have the same burst. Everybody says he’s all the way back this season, and if he is, he’s going to finish his career No. 2 on the SEC rushing list, behind only Herschel Walker. Being second to Herschel puts you in rarefied air, folks. Chubb enters the season 17th in SEC history, with 3,424 yards. A 1,000-yard season puts him fourth and a 1,167-yard season puts him second. Anyone want to bet against him? He has good speed and seemingly glides through small cracks in the line. Chubb also can punish tacklers at times, too, because he’s bulkier and more physical than people think.
7. Alabama NT Da’Ron Payne
Particulars: 6-2, 308 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: 5-star prospect in 2015 signing class, from Irondale (Ala.) Shades Valley
The skinny: Payne was a key reserve as a true freshman in 2015, then started all 15 games last season at nose tackle. He is a position prototype in the 3-4 – a squatty guy with immense strength who is difficult to move and requires a double team lest he wreak havoc on the interior. He had 36 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last season; he also had a sack, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. Payne is the only returning starter along the defensive line, but he gives coach Nick Saban and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt a solid building block. His presence in the middle will enable Alabama’s new starters at end and outside linebacker to get some one-on-matchups they should be expected to win. One thing to watch this season is Payne’s pass rush; he has the ability to get three or four because of his sheer power. He could end up as the nation’s top defensive interior lineman, and we’re already looking forward to his battle with star Arkansas C Frank Ragnow on October 14.
8. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
Particulars: 6-1, 190 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: 5-star prospect in 2015 signing class, from Coconut Creek (Fla.) Monarch
The skinny: Ridley has enjoyed two strong seasons for the Tide and has a chance to become the school’s career receptions leader thus season; he also can easily move into the top three – or even top two – in career receiving yards and career TD receptions this fall. Ridley doesn’t have elite top-end speed, but he is a 4.4 guy in the 40 and is a deep threat; he also should benefit from a renewed emphasis on down-field throws this season under new coordinator Brian Daboll. He has quick feet and does a great job getting open even on short routes. Ridley has 161 receptions for 1,814 yards and 14 TDs in his career. He is 68 receptions away from owning the school record in that category. He currently is ninth in receiving yards and a 1,000-yard season puts him third. Finally, he needs just five TD receptions to become No. 2 in school history in that category. Ridley turns 23 in December, and that is just one more reason this likely will be his final season with the Tide.
9. Arkansas C Frank Ragnow
Particulars: 6-5, 317 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: 4-star prospect in 2014 signing class, from Chanhassen (Minn.) High
The skinny: The nation’s best center? It’s this guy. He was a touted offensive tackle in high school (Chanhassen is a Minneapolis suburb perhaps best known as the location of Prince’s Paisley Park studio), then was a backup center for the Hogs as a true freshman in 2014. He started at guard in 2015, then moved back to center last season and played at a high level. Some of his linemates struggled at times last season, but Ragnow was consistently good throughout the season. He is a solid interior pass protector, but he is at his best blocking for the run. Ragnow is aggressive, physical and plays with a mean streak. He can get to the second level and once he’s there, he’s like a lawn mower, laying waste to everyone in his path. He considered turning pro, but decided to return for his senior season. Ragnow should be the best offensive lineman in the SEC this season and will be a major contender for the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best interior lineman.
10. Auburn OT Braden Smith
Particulars: 6-6, 303 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: 4-star prospect in 2014 signing class, from Olathe (Kan.) South
The skinny: Smith, who went to high school in the Kansas City metro area, was one of the nation’s top-three guards in his recruiting class, and he has lived up to billing. He was a backup lineman as a true freshman, including serving as a blocking tight end at times, then started the past two seasons at guard. This season, he seems certain to start at tackle; he was moved outside during spring practice and looked good. While guard is his natural position and the one he seems destined for in the NFL, Smith is a high-level talent who will fare well at tackle if he stays there this fall. He has good strength, understands leverage and is a dominating (and punishing) run blocker. If Smith does remain at tackle, he will contend for first-team all-league honors. If he moves back inside to guard, he will contend for first-team All-America honors.
(You can follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin)
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