Yesterday, we looked at under-the-radar players who aren't quite stars but could have a significant impact in the SEC East.
Today, it's time for the West to go under the microscope.
It’s going to take much more than one man to replace Jonathan Allen. Or Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, for that matter. When Allen, Williams and Anderson left, Alabama lost its three most effective pass-rushers. Now a new crop must emerge, and Hall might be the most intriguing player of the bunch. The 6-foot-5, 247-pound sophomore has all the weapons to wreak havoc off the edge. If you want a glimpse of his athleticism, check out his pick-six during A-Day in April.
Two years ago, Arkansas had one of the best running back rooms in the country, let alone the SEC. But then Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams both turned pro, and after two scary injuries, Rawleigh Williams III hung up his cleats. Now it’s time to see what all the fuss was about regarding Whaley, whom Bret Bielema called the most talented running back he’s ever coached coming out of high school -- a list that not only includes Collins, but also Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball. Whaley had a strong start, rushing for 602 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman last season, but his development must be accelerated now that Rawleigh Williams is gone.
Nate Craig-Myers was one of the stories of the spring at Auburn, and understandably so given he amassed 154 yards during the spring scrimmage. But let’s not forget Davis, who had more catches, yards and touchdowns than his fellow sophomore last season. Davis missed the spring dealing with what coach Gus Malzahn described as personal issues, but now that he’s back in the fold, he must become an integral part of Auburn’s offense. If Jarrett Stidham is going to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, he’ll need a full compliment of receivers -- not just Craig-Myers.
For all the talk about what Matt Canada will bring to LSU’s offense, it’s important to remember what has made the Tigers perennial contenders in the SEC for the last decade: defense. A strong secondary in particular has been the hallmark of the program, but now that Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams are in the NFL, it’s time for a new top-flight DB to step up. Look no further than Toliver, who had a rough sophomore season but still has serious pro potential. After sitting out the final four games of last season, the junior enjoyed an injury-free spring, having recovered from the shoulder and knee issues that slowed his development following a strong freshman season in 2015.
There’s a reason Mississippi State made a swap at defensive coordinator, with Peter Sirmon going to Louisville and Todd Grantham join the coaching staff at State. The Bulldogs’ defense was, in a word, terrible last season, giving up 31.8 points per game and nearly 6,000 total yards of offense. For that to change, Lewis needs to become the anchor of the defense, rather a lightning rod for rumors surrounding the Ole Miss NCAA investigation. So far, he has done his part, racking up 79 tackles as a redshirt freshman last season. Now that star inside linebacker Richie Brown is gone, and given the anticipated changes in Grantham’s defense, don’t be surprised if Lewis becomes an All-SEC caliber linebacker in 2017.
Shea Patterson is an obvious talent at quarterback. And Ole Miss’ trio of receivers -- A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Van Jefferson -- might be as good as it gets in the SEC. But what the Rebs really need is a solid running game to make it all work. A lack of effective ball carriers has been a problem for Ole Miss ever since Hugh Freeze took over the program. While they’ve scored buckets and buckets of points, they’ve lacked balance without a strong between-the-tackles runner, struggling some in the red zone and in short-yardage situations while depriving their own defense of rest. If the Rebels wish to add some balance to their offense, Swinney might be the back to make that happen. While Jordan Wilkins will certainly be in the mix, Swinney might be the most talented runner on the roster, and if not for a Week 1 injury against Florida State, he might have shown that last season.
Everyone knows what the Aggies will be missing on defense next season: this year’s No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett. But even Daeshon Hall -- Garrett’s sidekick at defensive end -- is gone as well after being selected in the third round of the draft. Enter Johnson, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound senior who played in every game as a reserve last season and finished with six tackles for loss. The Texas native actually had the same number of sacks as Hall did last year (4.5) despite never starting a game.