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2012 SEC Football: Top 10 Returning Offensive Playmakers

Ryan WrightAnalyst IIIDecember 9, 2016

2012 SEC Football: Top 10 Returning Offensive Playmakers

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    The dynamic offenses that once tore up and down the fields of the SEC were hard to come by during the 2011 season due to the stifling defenses found throughout the conference.

    Five conference teams finished ranked in the top eight out of all FCS teams in total defense outdistancing the SEC from the rest of college football with Alabama finishing the season No. 1, LSU No. 2, South Carolina No. 3, Georgia No. 5 and Florida No. 8.

    The depth of talent did not stop there, as three more teams notched top 50 defensive efforts with Vanderbilt No. 18, Mississippi State No. 35 and Arkansas No. 47.

    The tough defenses in the SEC not only shut down conference rivals but showed dominance in non-conference action during the regular season and in bowl games.

    When the 2011 season concluded, University of Arkansas was the only SEC team ranked in the top 30 in total offense last season with Alabama closing in ranking No. 31.

    The pendulum appears to be swinging back to the offense with the exodus of top defensive players from all high ranking teams to graduation and early entry to the NFL. The emergence of dominating skill players on the other side of the ball promises the return of offensive firepower to the SEC and college football in 2012.

    The top returning playmakers will not only excite college football fans but could lead the SEC to their seventh straight BCS National Championship Trophy.

    Which player is the SEC’s best?

Worth Mentioning

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    Marcus Lattimore, Junior, Running Back, South Carolina

    Despite missing the final six games of the season, Lattimore’s efforts over the first seven games were good enough for him to finish seventh in total rushing yards in the SEC.

    Freshman Brandon Wilds stepped in admirably, rushing for over 100 yards in three of his final five games.

    Will Lattimore’s knee be healthy enough for him to make an impact in 2012? If Lattimore returns to his pre-injury form, he could challenge Tyler Wilson for the SEC’s top playmaker, especially with the expected growth of Connor Shaw at quarterback.

     

    Michael Dyer, Junior, Running Back, Auburn

    He did what? That’s right he transferred to Arkansas State. Not sure why, but after posting back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the SEC, he left the Tigers to follow offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to the Red Wolves in Jonesboro, Ark.

    Sun Belt Conference members, you have been put on notice.

     

    Justin Hunter, Sophomore, Wide Receiver, Tennessee

    If Hunter’s injured knee responds well to rehabilitation allowing him to regain his speed, quickness and explosive athletic ability, he could be the best wide receiver, again, in the SEC.

    Hunter had two 100-yard receiving games to start 2011 before hurting his knee against Florida.

     

    Jordan Matthews, Junior, Wide Receiver, Vanderbilt

    Much attention is given to the Commodores’ quarterback Jordan Rodgers, but Rodgers is still learning how to play quarterback on the college level. Matthews’ help hauling in his passes does not hurt Rodgers chances of becoming a solid, perhaps elite SEC quarterback.

     

    Dennis Johnson, Senior, Running Back/Kick Returner, Arkansas

    Arkansas’ depth chart is filled with potential playmakers, and Mr. Johnson is one of them. DJ missed all or parts of the first four games of the 2011 season with a hamstring injury after missing the entire 2010 campaign due to bowel surgery. In 2009, he was an All-American kick returner for the Hogs.

    He showed his ability returning kicks and finding open running lanes out of the backfield in 2011, constantly setting the Hogs up with great field position. Johnson’s only limitation is his tendency of putting the pigskin on the carpet.

     

    Donte Moncrief, Sophomore, Wide Receiver, Ole Miss

    Through all the ups and downs of Mississippi’s 2011 season, true freshman Donte Moncrief showed great flashes of potential game-breaking skills. His speed and pass catching should only improve with experience and maturity.

    With Houston Nutt out and new head coach Hugh Freeze in, the Rebels offensive production should increase dramatically. 

No. 10 Tre Mason, Sophomore, Running Back/Kick Returner, Auburn

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    Many college football fans are unaware of Tre Mason. Heck, many Auburn fans may not fully appreciate the Lake Worth, Florida native and his ability as the top kickoff returner in the SEC.

    Mason led all kickoff returners posting 26.4 yards per return average taking one 97 yards to the house.

    Mason’s role within the offense was sporadic at best through 2011. With the void left by the departure of All-SEC tailback Michael Dyer, Auburn should use running back Onterio McCalebb and Mason to carry the load in 2012.

     

    2012 Outlook

    Auburn’s defense should be improved in 2012, thus lowering the opportunities for Mason returning more kickoffs. If teams do not kick away from Mason, he should improve upon his 633 return yards in only 24 attempts.  

No. 9 Isaiah Crowell, Sophomore, Running Back, Georgia

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    Crowell lived up to his 5-star recruiting hype throughout most of his freshman season. He finished with 850 yards, ranking sixth in the SEC, while notching four 100-yard rushing games—South Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn.

    Crowell experienced what most freshman running backs endure in the SEC: SEC defenses. Georgia head coach Mark Richt did a good job of not overusing his talented tailback. Still Crowell’s production slowed in the second half of the season.

     

    2012 Outlook

    Georgia featured a veteran offensive line in 2011. How well the new starters rotate into their roles will be determined. If the line can continue their solid run-blocking and Murray gets time to throw, Crowell should benefit in the form of a 1,000-yard rushing season. 

No. 8 Tyler Bray, Junior, Quarterback, Tennessee

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    Do not mistake Tyler Bray’s swagger and confidence on the field as a sign of arrogance. The junior-to-be can play. He ripped Cincinnati for 405 yards in the second game of the 2011 season and came 12 yards shy of 300 at Florida.

    The only obstacle holding Bray’s development back is game time. A hand injury kept him out of five games last season which was also the toughest stretch of games on the Vols schedule.

    Bray showed his ability and poise as a freshman after he replaced veteran SEC quarterback Matt Simms at the end of the 2010 season. His spunk helped the Vols win four out of their final five games after Tennessee started the season 2-6.

    Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Bray has missed the grueling part of both Vols schedules. If he can stay healthy for an entire season, how will he respond against the defensive pressure of teams like Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina?

    Bray threw for over 250 yards in each of his first five starts in 2011; in two games, he topped 300. For the Vols to succeed and Bray to become an elite SEC quarterback, he will have to play better on the road.

    Before his injury he threw well at the Swamp but was picked off twice. After his return from injury, he was picked off twice by Vanderbilt at home and Kentucky on the road. The loss at Kentucky kept the Vols out of a bowl game.  

     

    2012 Outlook

    Tennessee catches a break by dropping LSU and picking up new SEC East conference member Missouri. The Vols also get Bama and Arkansas at home.

    Bray will have All-SEC wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers returning. If wide receiver Justin Hunter can return from his knee injury, Bray may have the best wide receiver duo in the SEC catching his passes.

    Bray cracked his hand on a helmet following through after a pass, making the hand injury a fluke.

    He has not thrown for more than 2,000 in a season to date. Look for that to change in 2012. If he can stay healthy, he should be able to clip 3,000 yards. 

No. 7 Knile Davis, Junior, Running Back, Arkansas

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    There are a few unproven SEC players returning in 2012 expected to make major contributions to their teams, and there are also a couple of proven SEC players with a lot left to prove. One of those players is 2010 All-SEC running back Knile Davis.

    Davis tore up the second half of the 2010 season rushing for 1,322 yards, leading all SEC running backs, and found the end zone 14 times.

    A foot injury during fall practices caused him to miss the entire 2011 season, a time when he was to be the highlighted offensive weapon for the Razorbacks and a possibly Heisman Trophy candidate.

     

    2012 Outlook

    Rumors and speculation out of Arkansas’ camp say Davis has his speed and cutting ability back. The first test for Davis will be live scrimmages in spring practice, and his ability to make it through fall practices without another injury.

    Arkansas’ offensive line will be much improved with three offensive linemen returning and two true sophomores with SEC game experience expected to earn starting positions.

    If Davis’ body can take the pounding from SEC defenses his talent, speed and field vision will make him an All-SEC performer again in 2012. Having Tyler Wilson as the starting quarterback should only enhance the running lanes for Davis. 

No. 6 Da’Rick Rogers, Junior, Wide Receiver, Tennessee

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    Da’Rick Rogers blew onto the college football scene out of nowhere during the 2011 season, his sophomore year. Even though his overall production was low in 2010, he showed signs of what was to come when he averaged over 15 yards per catch and two touchdowns on 11 receptions.

    In 2011 it did not matter who was under center for the Vols, Rogers kept producing. He completed the regular season leading the SEC in yards and receptions, but lost the overall lead to Jarius Wright in postseason play.

    Rogers’ production may have benefited from the injury to Justin Hunter, but at the same time SEC defenses focused on Rogers due to Tennessee’s lack of a running attack for most of the season.

     

    2012 Outlook

    Quarterback Tyler Bray missed time with a hand injury and fellow wide receiver Justin Henry, an amazing talent in his own right, missed most of the season with a knee injury in 2011. Henry’s return to full strength will be tested during fall practices.

    If Henry can take some of the defensive pressure off Rogers, Bray should be able to pick offenses apart in 2012 allowing Rogers to have another All-SEC caliber season.

     

    Roger’s 2011 Receiving Totals

    Receptions 67, second in SEC

    Receiving yards 1,040, second in SEC

    Touchdowns 9, second in SEC

    Average yards per catch 15.5, seventh in SEC

No. 5 Eddie Lacy, Junior, Running Back, Alabama

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    Exit Trent Richardson, enter Eddie Lacy.

    Bama head coach Nick Saban’s offense has become a college football system offense. The term system offense usually brings a negative undertone to a coach’s offense. Think a gimmick philosophy that defensive coordinators will one day figure out how to stop.

    Not true here. The results speak for themselves, two national championships and soon to be two first-round draft picks that were former Tide starting running backs.

    Richardson’s rushing statistics were a clone of Mark Ingram’s Heisman Trophy season of 2009. Why would Lacy’s ascension into the starting tailback role be any different? 

    Lacy’s 7.1 yards per rush average was higher as Richardson’s understudy than Richardson’s 5.2 yards per carry average in 2009 as Ingram’s backup.

     

    2012 Outlook

    A.J. McCarron was not asked to do a lot as the starting quarterback last season. McCarron finished third in the SEC in total passing yards posting a respectable 16-5 touchdown to interception ratio and led all SEC starters in completion percentage (66.8).

    McCarron loses his top four targets to graduation or early entry to the NFL. Senior receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, senior tight end Brad Smelley and Richardson are all gone. Wide receiver Kenny Bell (17 catches, 255 yards) is the most experienced receiver returning for the Tide’s offense.

    Much of the burden to produce will be placed on Lacy’s shoulders. One would think Lacy will be ready. He better be, or Saban could have another 2010 season on his hands.

    Watch out for running backs Jolston Fowler and Dee Hart. Fowler excelled as the third Alabama running back and true freshman Dee Hart was back on the practice field in October after tearing his ACL in July. 

No. 4 LSU’s Rushing Attack: Ford, Ware and Blue

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    Sure it may be cheating to lump three players into one spot on a top 10 list, but if you have watched LSU’s rushing attack under head coach Les Miles you should understand. The biggest question is will one of the three-headed monster rotation break out from the back?

    Michael Ford, a junior, can lay claim to being the top yard gainer for the Tigers in 2011. Of the three returning running backs, his production was more of a steady as he goes instead of overwhelming the opposition.

    Ford came close to gaining 100 yards in a game racking up 96 yards twice against Oregon and Arkansas, but he was never counted on for more than 14 rushing attempts in a game.

    Spencer Ware will start his junior season as the second leading rusher for the Tigers in 2012 having posted 707 rushing yards with eight touchdowns.

    After the first seven games, Ware appeared to be on track for a monster season, compiling 512 rushing yards. His 73.14 yards per game average over the first half of the season was deceiving because the Tigers barely used Ware against Northwestern State and Kentucky, gathering a total of 10 rushes for 25 yards.

    Over the first seven games, Ware rushed for 99 yards against Oregon in the season opener, tacked on 107 against Mississippi State and hit Florida for 109. He found the end zone six times carrying the ball and one time receiving.

    Then he was suspended for the Auburn game after failing a drug test. After his return from his suspension, Ware’s punishment for failing the drug test was not over as Miles lowered his production and role in the offense. Ware was no longer the primary back for the Tigers.

    Over the remaining six games, Ware posted 195 rushing yards for 32.5 rushing yards per game average. He scored two more touchdowns but had clearly lost favor with the Tigers’ coaching staff.

    Of the 14 games LSU played last year, junior running back Alfred Blue was used as a change of pace back only topping double-digit rushing attempts three times. What Blue did prove is his ability to be the home run threat LSU needs out of the backfield. Against Western Kentucky, Ole Miss and Georgia Blue, ripped off runs of 45 or more yards.

     

    2012 Outlook

    The lack of production in the second half of the season for Ware and the rest of the backfield could be blamed on LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson. LSU fans saw more of Jefferson running than throwing which led to grumblings from within the locker room and around Tiger nation.

    Jefferson is gone and the quarterback position is up for grabs. LSU will have to rely on their running game as Miles breaks in a new guy under center.

    Do not be surprised to see sophomore running back Kenny Hillard take rushing attempts away from the big three. Hillard caught fire against Arkansas rushing for 102 yards which resulted in snaps being taken away from Blue in the BCS National Championship Game.

     

    2011 Rushing Statistics

    Michael Ford: 127 rushing attempts, 756 yards rushing, seven touchdowns

    Spencer Ware: 177 rushing attempts, 707 yards rushing, eight touchdowns

    Alfred Blue: 78 rushing attempts, 539 yards rushing, seven touchdowns

    Kenny Hillard: 62 rushing attempts, 336 yards rushing, eight touchdowns

No. 3 Zac Stacy, Senior, Running Back, Vanderbilt

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    SEC fans, there is no need to adjust your screen. Yes, a returning Commodore, running back Zac Stacy, will be one of the top offensive players in the SEC next season. If you don’t believe it, you must have missed the 2011 college football season.

    Stacy finished his junior season third in the SEC in total rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns behind a grizzled veteran SEC offensive line last season. He will benefit from that same lineup in 2012 as well. Barring injury, Vanderbilt will return four offensive linemen only losing right guard Kyle Fischer to graduation.

    Stacy posses an Emmit Smith style of running along with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

    He doubled his career rushing numbers last season under the direction of first-year head coach James Franklin. In the process, the Commodores found their passing quarterback in senior-to-be Jordan Rodgers. Rodgers' ability to run and pass took pressure off Stacy while opening up running lanes in the ground attack.

     

    2012 Outlook

    Rodgers’ presence along with an offensive line going into their third year of playing together should make Vandy a tough game for any team and positions Stacy as a dangerous weapon in the SEC.

    Stacy’s overall numbers could have been higher, but he was limited to 11 total rushes against South Carolina and Alabama. He eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark five times nearly reaching 200 against Army (198) and Wake Forest (184). He also had three games with three rushing touchdowns in each game—Army, Kentucky and Wake Forest.

    Alabama’s running back Trent Richardson and Stacy were the only two rushers in the SEC with over 200 attempts that carried an average rushing attempt of 5.9.

     

    Stacy’s Offensive Numbers

    Rushing yards 1,193, third in the SEC

    Rushing touchdowns 14, second in the SEC

    Rushing attempts 201, third in the SEC

No. 2 Aaron Murray, Junior, Quarterback, Georgia

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    The Bulldogs undisputed leader on offense over the past two seasons has been the man under center, Aaron Murray. Murray added another 3,000-yard passing season to his resume in 2011. He was second in the SEC in total passing yards with 3,149 and led all quarterbacks with 35 touchdown passes.

    Murray has too much talent to be overlooked, but his development is still a work in progress. He threw 61 more passes during his sophomore season than his freshman year but only managed 100 more yards passing.

    The positive is his touchdown total increased from 24 to 35, but he also threw six more interceptions. For stat lovers, that means in the 61 more passes he threw over the previous season every 10th pass was picked off. He also took a league-high 35 sacks.

    What was the contributing factor for Murray’s decrease in throwing accuracy percentage? Was it a sign of him fearing a sack or did the receiving corps drop too many passes?

    The SEC was top heavy in defense this year, but one would guess that someone with Murray’s talent would have thrown for more than 300 yards at least twice last year, but he did not. Vanderbilt’s tough secondary was the only team that gave up 300 yards passing to the Tampa, Florida native.

    To be fair, Murray could have thrown for 300 yards against Auburn and New Mexico State. The Bulldogs needed him to throw for 300 in their bowl loss to Michigan State.

     

    2012 Outlook

    True freshman running back Isaiah Crowell had an excellent year for the Bulldogs. He rushed for 850 yards, good for seventh best in the SEC, and added five rushing touchdowns. With the running game on the uptick, Murray should be able to get better passing lanes in 2012.

    The big question is will the receivers help Murray out or will they bail on him like they did in the SEC Championship Game?

    The bad news is three offensive linemen graduated, including stud guard Cordy Glenn. To make matters worse, tight end Orson Charles declared for the NFL draft a year early.

    The SEC East should be better in 2012 than it was in 2011. Look for Murray to have another 3,000-yard throwing season but nothing close to 3,600 yards. 

No. 1 Tyler Wilson, Senior, Quarterback, Arkansas

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    The two biggest recruiting coups of the 2012 recruiting class came and went without much attention. In all fairness to every other freshman entering college football this year, none will have the impact of USC’s quarterback Matt Barkley or Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson. They are arguably the two best quarterbacks in Division 1-A heading into their senior seasons.

    Wilson took the reins of head coach Bobby Petrino’s offense after the departure of Ryan Mallett to the NFL and never looked back. Wilson led the SEC in passing yards (3,638), completions (277) and attempts (438), only throwing six interceptions. He also set a single-game school record with 510 passing yards against Texas A&M on a neutral site.  

    The Greenwood, Ark., native did all of this without a strong rushing attack for much of the season and in the statistically toughest defensive conference in the nation… and the toughest football division in all of college football.

    Adding to Wilson’s legend, the Hogs broke in three new starters along the offensive line and replaced Mackey Award winning tight end D.J. Williams. All five offensive line starters return for Wilson in 2012.

    The news gets better for Wilson with not only the return of running backs Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo, but All-SEC tailback Knile Davis comes back after missing all of last season with an ankle injury.

     

    2012 Outlook

    Alabama and LSU took some major hits on defense to the NFL Draft and graduation. The SEC West is Wilson’s to win.

    The bad news is two of his top wide receivers, All-SEC performer Jarius Wright and All-American Joe Adams, graduated. Wide receiver Kobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg return for their senior seasons. Hamilton caught 34 passes for 542 yards and Gragg caught 41 for 518.

    Of the plethora of wide receivers Petrino has at his disposal, who will step up for the Hogs in 2012 as Wilson’s new go-to target?

    Look for Wilson’s passing numbers in 2012 to be similar to his 2011 statistics. The difference for Wilson and Arkansas will be a stronger more cohesive offensive line and a much improved running attack. 

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