Courtesy of Knox Bardeen and SEC Country.com
In an effort to make sense of everything that’s happening around spring practices and watching as teams welcome younger versions of their former stars who are NFL-bound, SEC Country will attempt to shine some light on the important players for 2016.
Guys climbing depth charts are interesting to watch and vital for team success, but what about the players already sitting at the top? Here are the five SEC players most invaluable to their 2016 teams.
Carl Lawson, DE – Auburn
After making numerous All-American teams (Sporting News and 247Sports, to name two) after a brilliant freshman season in 2013, Lawson missed his sophomore season with a left knee injury.
He returned in 2015 but injured a hip in the opener vs. Louisville that cost him more time. He returned for the final six games of the season and then flirted with the idea of bolting for the NFL.
Not only does Lawson carry the weight of a potential top-10 NFL pick, he also has the potential to become an All-Conference and All-American defensive force. Lawson just needs to stay healthy … Auburn needs that too.
Brandon Harris, QB – LSU
The LSU football conversation doesn’t have to last long before running back Leonard Fournette’s name pops up. Fournette remains one of the top ballcarriers in the country and should figure mightily in the Heisman race.
But he’s not the most important piece to the Tigers’ offense. That title belongs to Harris.
The college football world knows Fournette will churn yardage, and LSU will win games on the back of its workhorse. But, if the Tigers want to win a title, Harris has to step up.
With Fournette as the only real offensive weapon, LSU’s 2016 season will resemble last year, with a few hiccups along the way. If Harris can step up and become a threat — with both his arm and legs — the Tigers become more versatile with the ball, and more wins land in LSU’s lap … maybe even an SEC crown.
Chad Kelly, QB – Ole Miss
There are few that don’t already know that Kelly ranked 10th nationally with 310.9 yards per game passing last season, tied for ninth with 31 touchdowns and led the SEC in both categories.
Kelly’s offense will be without uber-weapon Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil, and the Ole Miss defense said goodbye to Robert Nkemdiche, who even scored three times on offense. Kelly will have to find new ways to remain near-elite.
With 13 interceptions, Kelly mixed in some mistakes with his greatness. If he can erase the miscues and strike a new receiving relationship, the sky may be the limit.
Reports from spring practice sessions have already raved about Kelly’s improvements.
Nick Chubb, RB – Georgia
It’s not fair in the most absolute sense of the word to call Chubb one of the most invaluable players in the SEC. But the reality of the situation forces this upon him.
Chubb currently works on the sideline of spring practice rehabbing his left knee. He’s either on schedule or ahead of it, according to coach Kirby Smart, but still has to make up a lot of ground to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season.
And while Sony Michel has history on his side as Georgia running backs are known to step up when called upon due to injury (he gained 5.3 yards per carry last season, most while filling in for Chubb), Georgia needs Chubb on the field if it wants a shot at reclaiming the East.
With a competition that could yield a freshman quarterback, Chubb — who could sneak into the Heisman conversation if he returns 100 percent in Week 1 — makes so much sense as Georgia’s X-factor.
Joshua Dobbs, QB – Tennessee
The fact that Dobbs is smarter than just about everyone in the room means that he’s going to be a great rocket scientist when he’s done with football. Sure, the brainpower helps as he captains the Vols’ offense, but until he steps up in a big way to post huge numbers, he’s never truly going to unlock his potential.
For Dobbs, 2016 has to be that year.
Dobbs nearly doubled his passing yards and touchdown passes from his freshman to sophomore season and from his sophomore to junior year, too. He made both jumps while keeping his interception total low (he tossed five picks in both his freshman and sophomore seasons and only five as a junior).
As a field general, few can compare to Dobbs … and he’s got the game manager role worked out too. Now he needs to find his inner gunslinger. He’s smart enough to make that adjustment without too many ill effects. Is he skilled enough?