Replacing the SEC’s First Round Picks
By Matt Smith
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Nine SEC players were taken in the first 25 picks of the recent NFL Draft.
A staggering nine SEC players went in the first 25 picks of last Thursday’s first round of the NFL Draft. Maybe after the league’s six consecutive national championships, that shouldn’t come as such a shock. While it’s another year of great publicity for SEC football programs, it adds to the pressure that their replacements will face in the fall. It’s never an easy task filling the massive shoes of a first-round NFL Draft pick, but the good news is that the nine players below will have plenty of company come September.
Alabama RB Eddie Lacy (replacing Trent Richardson)
We saw plenty of Lacy last season in a reserve role behind Trent Richardson. The junior ran for 674 yards, good for ninth in the SEC, and scored seven touchdowns. A shoulder injury kept him out of spring drills, but he should be fully healthy by the Sept. 1 opener against Michigan.
Lacy is an ideal power back. At 220 pounds, he can withstand the weekly toll that life in the SEC takes on a running back. With classmate Jalston Fowler and freshmen Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon all expected to contribute, Lacy will not have to come close to Richardson’s 283 carries in 2011.
LSU CB Tharold Simon (replacing Morris Claiborne)
Simon is a more natural cover cornerback than teammate Tyrann Mathieu, and saw plenty of action last year, including two starts. The junior played in nickel situations, with Mathieu moving to a more rover-type position. He finished with two interceptions and 10 pass break-ups.
With the departure of Claiborne and Ron Brooks, the Tigers are relatively thin at cornerback compared to 2011. Simon and Mathieu are good enough to be the best duo in the SEC, but the lack of depth behind them is a concern. Projected backups Jalen Collins and David Jenkins both redshirted last season.
Alabama S Vinnie Sunseri (replacing Mark Barron)
Despite no longer having his father Sal as a defensive assistant, Sunseri steps into the strong safety role that Barron held for two national championship seasons. As a special teams player and reserve defensive back last year, Nick Saban repeatedly praised Sunseri’s development and football IQ.
While still a work in progress in coverage, Sunseri will be a significant asset against the run with a physical style of play attributable to both his Pittsburgh roots and his background as a linebacker. He had 31 tackles last year filling in for Barron, and registered a fumble return for a touchdown and an interception in Alabama’s A-Day Game on April 14.
South Carolina CB Akeem Auguste (replacing Stephon Gilmore)
Auguste was expected to team with Gilmore to be one of the SEC’s best cornerback duos in 2011, but a foot injury in the summer cost him all but one game last season. C.C. Whitlock filled in admirably for the second-best passing defense in the nation, but he also departs.
A fifth-year senior, Auguste was sixth on the Gamecocks in 2010 with 58 tackles. At just 5’9” and 188 pounds, Auguste relies heavily on his speed to be a productive field cornerback. His biggest task for the summer months will be getting his conditioning back to a pre-injury level.
Mississippi State DT Devin Jones (replacing Fletcher Cox)
The Bulldogs defensive front was impressive against SEC heavyweights last season, led by Cox and Josh Boyd. While Boyd elected to return for his senior season, Jones must replace Mississippi State’s highest draft pick since running back Michael Haddix was selected eighth overall in 1983.
Jones has played sparingly in his first three years in Starkville, recording just 10 tackles in 2011 despite appearing in every game except the Music City Bowl. He could be pushed by early-enrolling freshman Quay Evans, who has both height and weight advantages on Jones. Evans was the Bulldogs' top recruit in their 2012 class.
LSU DT Josh Downs (replacing Michael Brockers)
As has become the norm in Baton Rouge, the Tigers are extremely deep up front, despite the loss of Brockers and end Kendrick Adams. Bennie Logan returns inside, and Downs, a senior, is the leader to start next to him. Top 2011 recruit Anthony Johnson will be in the mix, as will junior Ego Ferguson.
Downs isn’t as big as either Johnson or Ferguson, but the veteran hung on to the starting role with a strong spring. He had only nine tackles last season backing up Brockers. Expect much more of a rotation this season as Ferguson and Johnson continue to develop behind Downs. Despite the loss of Brockers, the Tigers edge out South Carolina for the honor of the SEC’s best defensive line.
Alabama CB Dee Milliner (replacing Dre Kirkpatrick)
The junior was expected to start alongside Kirkpatrick last season, but senior DeQuan Menzie eventually passed him. Milliner still was on the field for the opening snap in six games with the Crimson Tide in nickel formations. He led the team with three interceptions, including a return for a touchown against Auburn.
A prized recruit in the 2010 class, Milliner’s developmental days are now over. He’ll be asked to help anchor an Alabama secondary that loses three starters from the best pass defense in college football in 2011. Milliner has good size at 6’1”, but isn’t as physical as Kirkpatrick.
South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney (replacing Melvin Ingram)
Gee, it’s kind of hard to feel bad for the Gamecocks isn’t it? Clowney, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation in the 2011 class, will become an every-down player as a sophomore, including following in Ingram’s footsteps by moving inside on obvious passing downs.
Clowney was a de facto starter as a freshman, receiving increased playing time as the season progressed. He’s as physically gifted as any defensive player in the nation. Doubling his 2011 sack total of eight is within reach for Clowney, especially with opposing offenses having to give equal focus to fellow star Devin Taylor on the opposite end of the line.
Alabama LB Trey DePriest (replacing Donta Hightower)
As the defensive signal-caller, Hightower’s role required as much work prior to the snap as it did during the actual play. He leaves as one of the best linebackers in Crimson Tide history. At 6’2 and 242 pounds, DePriest isn’t quite as big as his predecessor, but is a bit quicker.
As a true freshman, DePriest played in all 13 games in a reserve role. His knowledge gained in the year as Hightower’s understudy showed during spring practice with his quick grasp of the defensive signals. With seven new starters on defense, pre-snap communication will be imperative for the Crimson Tide to approach the dominant level of its 2011 defense.