SEC Football: Every Team's Best Returning Player
Like every season that passes us by in college football, majority of the rosters seem to undergo a drastic makeover. With the SEC, it is no different, and after the 2012 season, many teams are left scrambling trying to pick up the pieces.
Players leave for the NFL and guys graduate, so keeping some of the top players in the country really isn't an option.
Before the offseason began, it was easy to pinpoint the best player on each team in this loaded conference. We knew that the defensive side of the ball carried teams like Florida and LSU, and that Arkansas was only going to go as far as the offense took it. Now, with new faces entering the starting lineup, things can be a little tricky, because those same guys aren't around anymore.
With things settling down a bit, here is the best player on each team in the SEC as we get ready for the 2013 offseason
Alabama: A.J. McCarron, QB
A.J. McCarron has been the starting quarterback for Alabama during the last two national championship runs. He even took home the offensive MVP award during the most recent title victory against Notre Dame.
Last season, he was absolutely brilliant, completing 67.2 percent of his passes and throwing 30 touchdowns to only three interceptions. He may be considered a game manager because Alabama is a run-first offense, but if this is the case, McCarron happens to be the best game manager college football has seen in quite some time.
McCarron doesn't make mistakes that hurt his team, and he makes the plays when his team needs it most. That is really all you can ask of a quarterback, and that is why he is the best player on the Crimson Tide roster.
Arkansas: Chris Smith, DE
Arkansas will look completely different heading into the new season.
Not only is there a new coaching staff, but Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton have all been removed from the offense. The defense is just as young as the offense, as it struggled last year due to injuries and depth issues.
Still, due to the offense being completely gutted, this forces me to find the best remaining player on the defensive side of the ball. That would be defensive end Chris Smith, who led the Razorbacks with 9.5 sacks and was tied with Trey Flowers with 13 tackles for loss.
Smith could have easily left Arkansas to enter the NFL draft, but he decided to return for his senior season to become the leader of such a young group of guys. This team needs all the help it can get at the moment, and Smith should provide that reliable guy to step up and make plays.
Auburn: Reese Dismukes, C
Quick question: Can you name three starters on this Auburn Tigers football team?
With a new coaching staff, a young roster and a horrifying season last year, there aren't many jobs that are safe. A good camp during the offseason should be god enough to put you in the starting lineup and earn immediate playing time as Auburn tries to climb back up the ladder.
Probably the only consistent player on this team would be Reese Dismukes. He will enter his third season as the Auburn center, and he has 23 career starts under his belt. In 2011, Dismukes started all 13 games at the position and earned freshman All-American honors.
With such a young offensive line and question marks just about everywhere on the roster, Dismukes provides that one bright spot for a program that is just trying to get back on its feet.
Florida: Quinton Dunbar, WR
Florida had the potential to have a loaded defense, but with guys such as Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam and Jelani Jenkins entering the draft, there will be a lot of new faces playing for the Gators next year. So I'll go with another Florida player who has potential oozing out of his body, and that is wide receiver Quinton Dunbar.
Dunbar was second on the team with 36 receptions and 383 receiving yards. With tight end Jordan Reed also declaring early for the next level, Dunbar will become that No. 1 receiving target and should have the breakout season Florida fans are begging for.
The Gators struggled to find any production on offense last year, but this is somebody who could provide that spark with his combination of size and sure hands.
Expect the third-year receiver to take that next step and help improve a team that found it difficult to score points.
Georgia: Aaron Murray, QB
Georgia was another team that was hit hard by players declaring early for the NFL, but even if Jarvis Jones and company didn't leave, it would be hard not to label Aaron Murray as the best player on the team.
Murray is not only the difference-maker for this Bulldog squad, but he is arguably the best quarterback in the entire country entering the new season. He has topped 10,000 passing yards and has thrown 95 touchdowns in his career. He should also have little problem owning just about every SEC passing record when his last year of eligibility is up.
You don't find many quarterbacks in the SEC who can sling it like this guy, and that is the reason Georgia has a legitimate shot to win the SEC next year.
Kentucky: Avery Williamson, LB
Kentucky only won two games last season, but don't you go blaming any of that on linebacker Avery Williamson. He finished second in the SEC with 135 tackles, and he averaged a little more than 11 a game.
Did I forget to mention that it was his first season as a full-time starter?
Williamson is a tough-nosed player who simply knows how to find the ball-carrier and bring him down. He is great at stuffing the run and has quickly developed a leadership role for a Kentucky team that is always looking for playmakers.
The Wildcats may not have the best defense by a long shot, but things would be a lot worse if Williamson wasn't on the roster.
LSU: Craig Loston, S
If there is any team in the country that has the most work to do when it comes to replacing talent, it would be the LSU Tigers. Mention a few names on the defensive side of the ball and there is a good chance they are no longer on the team.
One of the few guys who didn't leave was safety Craig Loston. The All-SEC player from a year ago had a chance to leave Baton Rouge, but he decided that he would return for his senior season to improve his draft stock. He finished fifth on the team with 55 tackles and intercepted three passes, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Loston is known for being a hard hitter in the defensive backfield and saw his first season of significant playing time last year. Now he will be a mentor to some of the younger guys who will be expected to step up immediately to keep this LSU defense at the top.
Mississippi State: Tyler Russell, QB
With quarterbacks such as Aaron Murray, Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron in the SEC, you have to be really good in this conference to receive any type of attention at the position. I get the feeling that Tyler Russell will be added to this mix starting next year.
With only one full season under his belt, Russell will likely soon become the most accomplished quarterback in Mississippi State history. He threw for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns last year, producing 20 plays that went for more than 25 yards.
At 6'4", Russell has the size and the arm strength, and he puts enough touch on each pass to be considered a true next-level prospect.
The Bulldogs defense took a real hit, but as long as Russell remains at quarterback, this remains a dangerous team to play next season.
Missouri: Dorial Green-Beckham, WR
It is no secret that Dorial Green-Beckham didn't live up to the hype in his first season. Arguably the top recruit of the 2012 class, you expected this guy to become the next Jerry Rice overnight and take over college football. Instead, he only produced 28 receptions for 395 yards and five touchdowns.
Be patient, though. Green-Beckham has all of the tools to be absolutely ridiculous beginning his sophomore season. At 6'6", there is absolutely nobody tall enough to realistically cover this guy, and he runs like a deer in the open field.
What makes things even better is that he finished his final three games with eight receptions, four of which went for touchdowns.
With the jitters out of the way and Green-Beckham now ready to roll, he remains the next big thing at the wide receiver position.
Ole Miss: Denzel Nkemdiche, LB
There weren't many who expected the type of season Denzel Nkemdiche was going to have in 2012. As a freshman, he led the Ole Miss Rebels with 82 tackles and 13 tackles for loss, and he added three interceptions and four forced fumbles for good measure.
His efforts were good enough to earn him Freshman All-American honors and second-team All-SEC.
Because of the season Nkemdiche had, folks are slowly beginning to take Ole Miss a little more seriously than before. His brother, Robert Nkemdiche, who is a 5-star recruit in the 2013 class, is now even considering becoming a Rebel.
It will be interesting to see what Nkemdiche can do next season for an encore.
South Carolina: Jadeveon Clowney, DE
Jadeveon Clowney is somebody who could play in the NFL right now if he was eligible. With his physical tools and athletic ability, it is scary to see some of the things this South Carolina defensive end can do on a football field.
He is truly the definition of a pure pass-rusher, and his explosion off the football is something a kid still in college shouldn't be capable of.
Clowney finished his sophomore season with 54 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He also forced three fumbles and left college football to remember this hit for quite some time.
There has only been one defensive player who has won the Heisman Trophy, but Clowney is one of those guys who can realistically change that. He should also be one of the top picks in next year’s draft, when he we will likely leave school a year early.
Tennessee: A.J. Johnson, LB
A.J. Johnson came out of high school as a top recruit, and he has yet to let anybody down since he stepped on the field in Knoxville.
Last season, Johnson led the SEC in tackles with 138, as he averaged 11.5 a game. He was tied for sixth in the country with that mark.
But while he has done more than his fair share on the defensive side of the ball, Johnson also had the chance to make an impact on offense. He rushed the ball 12 times last season, scoring six touchdowns for the Volunteers.
It is hard enough to find a player who can dominate one side of the ball, but when he can be effective on both sides, you have truly found yourself a keeper. Tennessee hasn't had much to cheer about the last few seasons, but Johnson provides some glimmer of hope for the program.
Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, QB
Forget Texas A&M—Johnny Manziel may end up being the best player in all of college football.
He became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, and he also took home the Davey O'Brien Award and AP Player of the Year. He broke numerous school records and NCAA records, and he currently holds the SEC single-season record for most yards in a season with 4,600. Manziel also led the Aggies to victory over the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, being the only team to give Nick Saban a loss last year.
There may not be anything the Texas A&M quarterback really can't do.
It doesn't matter who is on the roster, Manziel is going to be the best player until defenses learn how to figure him out and bring him back to reality. Because right now, Manziel is putting up video-game numbers, and there is nothing anybody can do to stop it.
Vanderbilt: Jordan Matthews, WR
Jordan Matthews could have left for the NFL, but he decided to return for one more season, giving Vanderbilt arguably the best receiving threat in the conference.
The 6'3" wide receiver led the SEC last season with 93 receptions and racked up 1,323 yards, which was good for second. Matthews was a first-team All-SEC selection, as he helped produce 34 plays that went for more than 15 yards.
You would like to see a little more than the five touchdowns he had, but it is kind of hard to argue that type of production regardless of how many times he gets into the end zone.
Matthews is a big target and is as sure-handed as you will find. He will be dealing with a new quarterback, but one thing is for sure—whoever wins the starting job will have a security blanket to throw the ball to all season.