The SEC West's Most Indispensable Players for 2016
The most misleading statistic in college football entering the 2016 season is that the majority of teams in the Southeastern Conference have their starting quarterbacks returning.
Technically, it’s true but only in spirit, especially in the SEC West.
With Jake Coker, Brandon Allen and Dak Prescott having all seen their eligibility expire, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State will all be having quarterback competitions.
Alabama will see if Cooper Bateman can hold off Blake Barnett and David Cornwell, Southern California transfer Ricky Town will compete with Austin Allen at Arkansas, and Nick Fitzgerald is considered the favorite at Mississippi State but has to beat out Elijah Staley for the job.
But they won’t be the only ones.
After Sean White and Jeremy Johnson combined to have 11 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions last season, Auburn added junior college transfer John Franklin III.
After Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen both left Texas A&M, Jake Hubenak took over, which made him the starting quarterback. However, Trevor Knight transferred in from Oklahoma and will have one chance to win the starting job.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin addressed Knight's importance to the team during his press conference on national signing day:
I count Trevor in this class and as probably the most important recruit. We secured him right after the bowl game. Trevor Knight is a young man—a man at this point—that has graduated and has enrolled in the Mays Business grad school. Was MVP of the Sugar Bowl. Has been on big stages and won big games. Brings experience, brings stabilizing factor, brings competitive nature to the position along with Jake.
That leaves Brandon Harris at LSU and, of course, Chad Kelly at Ole Miss, who might be the league’s most indispensable player in 2016.
Alabama Left Tackle Cam Robinson
Head coach Nick Saban likes to have a veteran leader with each unit. This year, on the offensive line, that appears to be Cam Robinson, who will be entering his third season as a starter.
Although Robinson was expected to be a strong contender for the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman in 2015, an inconsistent first half of the season knocked him out of the running. He still finished All-SEC.
For the second straight year, he’ll be blocking a new starting quarterback's blind side. If something were to happen to Robinson, the Crimson Tide would make do, but the drop-off would likely be significant.
"If you put the team first, then you come out here and do what you’re supposed to do, and if you do it well, you’ll eventually get to your goals," Robinson said. "If you do your job well, you’ll get to your ultimate goals as an individual."
Auburn Defensive End Carl Lawson
For the third straight year, Auburn will have a new defensive coordinator, as Kevin Steele has moved over from LSU to take over a unit that finished 13th in the conference in total defense but showed improvement down the stretch.
Having a healthy Lawson could make a huge difference for the Tigers.
He went from being an All-SEC selection as a freshman to missing the 2014 season with a torn ACL and essentially half of last season with a hip injury. Lawson was still credited with 17 tackles, including three for a loss and one sack, and 11 quarterback hurries.
"He's a special kid from a leadership standpoint, and he's got natural pass-rush instincts,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said during a conference call with reporters in January. “He could be certainly, moving forward, a first-round pick with a big year next season.”
Arkansas Linebacker Brooks Ellis
The Razorbacks have a lot of questions to answer on the offensive side—and not just at quarterback. With Bret Bielema having at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of his 10 seasons as a head coach, finding someone to join that club will be a spring priority.
Although Arkansas doesn’t have a lot of depth in the backfield, the player to watch may be Devwah Whaley. Meanwhile, the defense returns nine starters and should again be among the best in the conference against the run.
Brooks Ellis is a returning team captain, along with defensive end JaMichael Winston. The interior linebacker led the Razorbacks with 102 tackles (averaging 7.8 per game), including 8.0 for a loss and 1.5 sacks, an interception, three passes broken up, five hurries and a fumble recovery.
LSU Running Back Leonard Fournette
Leonard Fournette's being on this list is in no way a reflection of the player behind him on the depth chart at the end of the 2015 season, Derrius Guice.
It’s just that Fournette is that good.
In 12 games (as LSU’s opener was cancelled because of inclement weather), he rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns, both school records.
Because the NCAA uses rushing yards per game as its determining statistic, he was the national rushing leader and was third in three other categories: net rushing yards (1,953), all-purpose yards (183.83) and points per game (11.5).
With LSU returning 17 starters, including nine on offense (everyone except the tackles), Fournette could be poised for an epic season.
Ole Miss Quarterback Chad Kelly
In the span of a year, Kelly went from possibly being the biggest question mark in the SEC to the league’s most established quarterback after helping lead Ole Miss to a Sugar Bowl victory.
However, the Rebels have the most turnover in the league. They have just three returning offensive starters, with the others being tight end Evan Engram and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo.
Factor in Ole Miss' also having a tough schedule with Florida State in the opener and a Week 3-4 home tandem of Alabama and Georgia, and look for Hugh Freeze and the coaching staff to do everything imaginable to protect the quarterback.
In 2015, Kelly led the SEC in total offense (349.4 yards per game), total offensive touchdowns (41) and passing yards (310.9). He completed 298 of 458 attempts for 4,042 yards, 31 passing touchdowns and 13 interceptions, adding up to a 155.9 efficiency rating that was second in the league, per Sports-Reference.com.
Mississippi State Wide Receiver Fred Ross
With the departures of Prescott and wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross is the Bulldogs’ top returning offensive threat.
He ended up leading the Bulldogs with 88 receptions for 1,007 yards. The catches topped the league, while Ross became just the second player in program history to have a 1,000-yard season.
However, the receiver scored just five touchdowns.
An All-SEC selection, it’ll be interesting to see if the Bulldogs use him more as an outside or interior threat, as Ross will be the player opponents key in on the most. Regardless, he could finish his career with numerous MSU receiving records.
Texas A&M Defensive End Myles Garrett
Like with Fournette, Myles Garrett is an elite talent who could be poised to have a monster season.
As a sophomore in 2015, he led the SEC with 12.5 sacks (0.96 per game) and was tied for first in fumbles forced with five (0.38). Overall, the Aggies defense was second in the league against the pass but 13th overall against the run.
“You look for that biggest improvement that second year,” defensive coordinator John Chavis recently told reporters after an early-spring practice.
“They’ve been in the system now, they understand it. ... I think we’re bigger, a more physical football team than a year ago, and we’re more mature in terms of understanding what to do.”
If Chavis can find the improvement he’s looking for at the linebacker spots, it’ll only help Garrett, who many believe could potentially be the top pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.