If we learned one thing from Florida’s 30-3 Outback Bowl win over Iowa, it is that Randy Shannon lived up to his reputation as a defensive coordinator who fits the right players in the right spots and makes it all work.
The Gators were decimated by injuries, but Shannon meshed a patchwork of kids and veterans together to hold Iowa to 226 total yards and no points after the Hawkeyes booted a field goal on their opening drive. In that game, Shannon was without linebackers Jarrad Davis, drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions; Alex Anzalone, drafted in the third round by the New Orleans Saints; and freshman David Reese, like Davis and Anzalone, out with an injury. Shannon found a way to compensate for productivity by coaching up kids like Vosean Joseph and Rayshad Jackson along with former walk-on Christian Garcia.
Garcia had the task of replacing Davis, who made second team All-SEC even though he battled injuries all season and missed four of the last five games with injuries. Of Garcia’s five tackles in 2015, five were in the Outback Bowl.
Good coordinators like Shannon find ways to replace productivity, so don’t expect great fluctuations in the numbers at middle linebacker with Davis gone to the pros. Reese had 49 tackles last year primarily as a backup and he will probably double those numbers if he stays healthy in the fall.
But, it’s not just the stats when it comes the toughest player for Shannon and the Gators to replace heading into 2017. Davis was Florida’s best defensive player and not just because he had great stats, but because he was the unquestioned leader of the defense. He was the guy who not only made the defensive calls on the field, but the guy who led by deed and example both on and off the field.
By all accounts, Reese has good leadership qualities that he will need to assert to replace the intangibles that Davis brought to the team. Shannon will make sure Reese is in the right places to make plays. If Reese can handle the leadership aspects then he will be a fitting replacement for Jarrad Davis.
Here is the toughest to replace for the other 13 SEC teams:
Alabama: Alabama just lost a bunch of D-linemen and linebackers to the NFL. What else is new? That happens every year and a clone with a new name steps in and gets the job done. The guy who Alabama is going to have the toughest time replacing is Eddie Jackson, who was the team leader in the secondary at strong safety and one of the nation’s most gifted punt returners. Jackson had six interceptions in 2015 and only one last year but he averaged 23 yards per punt return and ran two back all the way. His only pick was also run back for a TD. When Jackson went down for the season in game eight, Alabama’s punt return game suffered dramatically and so did its play in the secondary (see Clemson throwing for a bazillion yards in the national championship game). In the spring, Alabama moved starting corner Minkah Fitzpatrick (66 tackles, six interceptions with two returned for TDs) to Jackson’s strong safety spot. Sophomore Trevon Diggs and junior Xavian Marks will battle it out to replace Jackson as the punt returner.
Arkansas: Dan Skipper started two years at right tackle and then switched to the left side in 2016. In 2014-15 Skipper was part of an offensive line that gave up only 14 sacks each year. That number ballooned to 35 in 2016, but Skipper was very good. The problems were over on the right side where he once played but a year of experience should help greatly. Four starters return on the O-line headed up by Frank Ragnow, who should be a candidate for the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center. The problem spot is left tackle where Colton Jackson (6-6, 300), who backed up both on the left side and right side last year, emerged as the starter in the spring. If he can’t block the guys coming off the edge, the Hogs offense will sputter.
Auburn: Auburn’s improvement on defense last season had everything to do with the presence of a healthy Carl Lawson coming off the edge. Despite contstant double and triple teams, Lawson got to the quarterback for nine sacks that resulted in 62 yards in losses. But that only tells part of the story. Lawson was credited with 24 quarterback hurries. By contrast, Myles Garrett of Texas A&M, who was the overall #1 pick in the NFL Draft, only had 8.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Auburn figures to have plenty of offense this year, but who’s going to be the disruptive force on the defensive side of the ball? Spring football didn’t exactly provide an overwhelming list of candidates.
Georgia: The only wide receiver with the speed to get open consistently on throws that went beyond 10 yards last year was Isaiah McKenzie, the same guy who ran five punts back for touchdowns in his three-year Georgia career. McKenzie caught a team-high 44 passes for 633 yards and seven touchdowns last season, an average of 14.39 yards per reception. He also averaged 10.65 yards per punt return (one TD) and 7.05 per rush with two more touchdowns. Not only does Georgia lack a receiver with McKenzie’s speed and elusiveness, but the punt return game has lost its home run threat.
Kentucky: The Wildcats lost 1,000-yard rusher Stanley “Boom” Williams (went undrafted) and deep threat wide receiver Jeff Badet (transferred to Oklahoma) but the tough guy to replace will be center Jon Toth, who started three years in the middle of the offensive line. With Toth anchoring the O-line and making all the calls, Kentucky averaging 234.5 rushing yards per game and an impressive 5.44 yards per attempt in 2016. The Wildcats return the other four starters on the offensive line so center is the only position in question heading into the 2017 season. When spring practice ended, last year’s right guard, Jervontius “Bunchy” Stallings (6-3, 318), was handling the first team snaps with sophomore Logan Stenberg (6-6, 318) taking over at right guard.
LSU: Leonard Fournette would be a devastating loss for most teams but LSU has Derrius Guice. Losing safety Jamal Adams and corner Tre’Davious White would be a tremendous loss anywhere else but LSU calls itself DBU for a reason. There will be talented replacements. The tough guy to lose will be middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith who was in on 252 tackles, 23.5 for loss the last three seasons. Donnie Alexander, who was in on 45 tackles last year, will try to fill Beckwith’s shoes. He’s experienced – three years as a quality backup – and extremely quick but he’s undersized (212 pounds) to play the middle.
Mississippi State: In his final two seasons as Mississippi State’s middle linebacker, Richie Brown was good for 211 tackles (102 in 2016, 109 in 2015). Last year, Brown was the lone bright spot in a beleaguered defense that gave up 31.8 points and 459.1 yards per game, an average of 6.24 yards per play. Replacing Brown in new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme will be senior Dez Harris (6-4, 243), who was in on 37 tackles last year as a backup to Brown. It wouldn’t be surprising if Leo Lewis (6-2, 235), who led all SEC freshmen in tackles last year with 79, was moved from the weak side to the middle in the fall.
Missouri: Replacing rush end Charles Harris will be the primary concern for Missouri, whose defense gave up nearly 500 yards per game last year. It would have been a whole lot worse without Harris, who had nine sacks, 61tackles, two pass breakups, 10 quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. His replacement will be fourth year junior Spencer Williams (6-3, 250), who was in on 15 tackles as a backup last year but did pressure the quarterback four times.
Ole Miss: The Rebels think there won’t be measurable drop off at quarterback with Shea Patterson taking over for Chad Kelly. The position of concern is tight end where Evan Engram has departed for the NFL. In his three years as a starter, Engram caught 141 passes for 2,052 yards and 12 touchdowns including 65 for 926 yards and eight TDs last season. Octavius Cooley (6-3, 250) and Dawson Knox (6-4, 243), who both redshirted as freshmen last year, are the replacements.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks mustered only 21 sacks in all of 2016 so the loss of defensive end Darius English to graduation is a tough pill to swallow. English had nine of those sacks, good for 70 yards in losses to go with 60 tackles, a pass breakup, five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. D.J. Wonnum (6-4, 240), who was in on 32 tackles and got 1.5 sacks as a freshman, emerged in the spring as the replacement for English, backed up by third year sophomore Boosie Whitlow, who took a redshirt last year due to injury.
Tennessee: The Vols are going to have a tough time replacing the productivity of quarterback Josh Dobbs, who accounted for 39 touchdowns in 2016. Dobbs threw for 2,946 yards and 27 touchdowns and ran for 831 yards and 12 more scores. Junior Quinten Dormady (6-4, 216) was 11-17 passing for 148 yards last year as the backup. He’s got a live arm but doesn’t offer much as a runner. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano (6-4, 210) offers the running threat but he’s never faced an SEC defense.
Texas A&M: The Aggies solved their problem with running off prime time QBs last year with graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who threw for 2,432 yards and 19 touchdowns and ran for 614 yards and 10 more. Now that Knight is gone, the Aggies are back to square one with quarterbacks. Career backup Jake Hubenak has experience. He’s thrown for 1,283 yards and nine touchdowns in the last two seasons coming off the bench but he put together a lackluster spring when he could have won the job outright. Redshirt freshman Nick Starkel has the strong arm and big play ability but he suffers with bouts of inaccuracy. True freshman Kellen Mond is a true dual threat but like Starkel, he didn’t exactly wow anyone with accuracy during the spring.
Vanderbilt: All Zach Cunningham did in three years was roam from sideline to sideline tackling anything and everything that had a football in its hands. Cunningham had 125 tackles in 2016 and 295 in his three-year career. More importantly, he was the maximum supreme leader, not just of the defense but the entire team. Jordan Griffin, he of the 30 career tackles in two previous seasons, gets the unenviable task of filling Cunningham’s very large shoes.
GATORS MOVE UP IN USA TODAY COACHES BASEBALL POLL
The red hot Gators, winners of 15 of their last 17 games and 11-2 in their last 13 SEC games, moved up to #5 in the USA Today Coaches Baseball Poll. The Gators (35-13, 16-8 SEC) were #7 last week but after going 4-0 including a three-game sweep of Ole Miss, they not only moved up in the poll but took a one-game lead over #8 Kentucky (32-16, 15-9 SEC) in the SEC East. The Gators are tied with #9 Mississippi State (32-17, 16-8 SEC) in the race for the SEC regular season championship.
The Gators will be at home tonight to face #23 South Florida (37-10) at McKethan Stadium.
A NEW TWIST ON THE HOLYFIELD ARREST AT UGA
Dean Legge, the longtime publisher of Scout.com’s Dawg Post and as accurate a reporter as you’re going to find, offers a new twist on the arrest of Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield for possession of marijuana. Writes Legge, “Long story short, as some folks inside the program understand it, Holyfield essentially took the blame for a group of players who were in the room with him. I’m not interested in naming who those players were – they were not arrested, and what happens internally with that sort of stuff is going to have to be handled by Kirby (Smart).”
RAWLEIGH WILLIAMS III RETIRES FROM FOOTBALL
Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III will not test fate a third time. Williams broke his neck seven games into his freshman year of 2015, came back to run for an SEC-leading 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016. During the Hogs’ final spring practice, Williams left the field on a stretcher for what proved to be a stinger in the neck. Rather than take a chance on a paralyzing hit, Williams elected to retire from football Monday. Writing on the Arkansas website, Williams wrote, “I really don’t have a choice. I’ve dodged the bullet twice. I realize that at the end of the day I want to have a normal life and be around my family.”
Williams plans to stay in school and get his degree. He says his longterm goal is to become a general manager in the National Football League.
Like Steve Spurrier before him, Will Muschamp has a few issues with The State, the daily newspaper in Columbia. The State recently reported that South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore and wide receiver Deebo Samuel were connected to an altercation in a Columbia bar. Both were cleared and Muschamp says Samuel wasn’t even present at the time. “The gross inaccuracies of The State newspaper sickens me,” Muschamp said, later adding, “I look at The State newspaper like the National Enquirer now.” So tell us how you really feel, Will.
Here are some interesting questions. UCLA has switched from adidas to Under Armour. Meanwhile, the Bruins just spent a year with Lonzo Ball, whose dad LaVar is marketing the new ZO2 shoe line with prices that START at $495. Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo will be a freshman for the Bruins and another younger brother (LaMelo) is still in high school but already committed to the Bruins. Does LaVar insist that the boys wear the ZO2 shoes or does he allow them to wear the Under Armours? Does UCLA cave and let him get away with it if he insists? Can you imagine the dilemma for Steve Alford (UCLA coach)? Or how about the dilemma of every NBA GM that might be thinking to draft Lonzo? Draft Lonzo and you have suddenly inherited the nightmare known as LaVar, who has this profound ability to insult everyone and rub most people the wrong way.
Auburn redshirt freshman quarterback Woody Barrett is planning to transfer out. He figured to be the #4 quarterback in the fall behind Jarrett Stidham, Sean White and freshman Malik Willis. Barrett expects to go the juco route so he can get a year of playing experience and still have three years of eligibility with a Division I team starting in 2018.
Speaking of Auburn, the school failed to sell 30% of its Sugar Bowl tickets and lost $2.1 million on the trip. To add insult to injury, the Tigers got hosed by Oklahoma, 35-19.
Cullen Neal, son of former New Mexico basketball coach Craig Neal and most recently the sixth man at Ole Miss, will transfer to St. Mary’s. Neal is a graduate so he will be eligible to play immediately.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
As you look ahead to 2017, who will be the toughest player for Florida to replace from last year’s team?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
One of my favorite Eric Clapton albums is his 2001 release “Reptile” which featured the great Nathan East on bass, the late Billy Preston on keyboards, Paulinho da Costa on percussion and backup vocals by The Impressions.