- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Sticking to our offensive theme this week, we’ll rank the top receiving corps in the SEC today, and we’ll take into consideration both wide receivers and tight ends.
1. Alabama: This is the deepest and most talented group of pass-catchers the Crimson Tide have had under Nick Saban and maybe ever. Amari Cooper is the headliner and should be scary good his second time through the league, but a couple of newcomers -- redshirt freshman receiver Chris Black and true freshman tight end O.J. Howard -- will both make big impacts. There’s also Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. Think AJ McCarron is pumped about this season?
2. Georgia: If not for Alabama’s wealth of talent, Georgia would be an easy choice for the No. 1 spot. Malcolm Mitchell is one of the best big-play receivers in the league, and don’t forget about Michael Bennett. He was off to a great start last season before his knee injury. Rantavious Wooten and Chris Conley are both proven threats and only add to the Bulldogs’ depth. The tight end tandem of Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome ranks right up there with anybody’s in the league. Aaron Murray will have lots of options this season.
3. Vanderbilt: Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd formed the SEC’s most productive receiving duo last season, and they’re both back for more in 2013. Between them, they averaged 161.3 receiving yards per game and combined for 13 touchdown catches. Senior Jonathan Krause is also back, and incoming freshman Jordan Cunningham could provide an immediate boost. Kris Kentera is a polished pass-catching tight end, and there’s always a chance that versatile Josh Grady could still get some snaps at receiver despite working at quarterback in the spring.
4. Ole Miss: All nine wide receivers who lettered for the Rebels last season are back, and it gets even better when you consider that one of those guys is as talented as Donte Moncrief. He’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds-plus and has 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Ja-Mes Logan and Vince Sanders combined to catch more than 80 passes last season and are also back, while Korvic Neat returns in the slot. More talent is on the way, too. Freshman Laquon Treadwell was ranked by ESPN as the No. 2 receiver in the country last year.
5. Texas A&M: Even with Ryan Swope’s departure, the Aggies will again be loaded with guys who can make plays in the passing game. It starts with 6-5, 225-pound sophomore Mike Evans, who caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards last season. Junior Malcome Kennedy is also back, and he had the big touchdown catch against Alabama. Freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones, Ja’Quay Williams and LaQuivionte Gonzalez will all be worth watching, and junior college tight end Cameron Clear is a 270-pound target who can run and get open down the middle.
6. LSU: It’s true that LSU’s passing game was spotty last season, but juniors Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are both back and form what should be a productive combo. Landry is one of those guys who makes the tough catches, while Beckham averaged 16.6 yards per catch. It’s an experienced group as well. Seniors Kadron Boone and James Wright return, and junior college newcomer Logan Stokes should add a different dimension at tight end. Look for Cam Cameron to use the tight ends more in this offense.
7. Missouri: Too much was probably expected of Dorial Green-Beckham in his freshman season, but he still led the team with five touchdown catches. Don’t be surprised if he emerges this season as one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league. He’s that talented. Marcus Lucas led Missouri in catches last season, and he also returns along with L’Damian Washington. Those three combined for 10 of the Tigers’ 15 touchdown catches last season, and all three go 6-foot-4 or taller. Talk about matchup problems.
8. Auburn: Given how poorly Auburn threw the ball last season, the Tigers being ranked this highly may surprise some people. But Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis are both primed for breakout seasons. Quan Bray should also excel in Gus Malzahn’s system, while junior Jaylon Denson came out of nowhere this spring to be the most consistent of the bunch. Maybe this is the year Trovon Reed stays healthy, too. Throw in tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse, and this should be a very solid group.
9. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton was the heartbeat of the Hogs’ offense last season, and he’s gone. So is talented tight end Chris Gragg, who battled injuries a year ago. New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney does inherit some experience with seniors Demetrius Wilson, Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton. Sophomore Mekale McKay (6-foot-6, 195) also showed some flashes last season as a freshman. At tight end, incoming freshman Hunter Henry is a terrific looking prospect and should contribute immediately.
10. South Carolina: Losing Ace Sanders early to the NFL draft was a bummer, especially with everything he could do. But Bruce Ellington is back and should be even better after leading the team with 600 receiving yards last season. The Gamecocks also have one of the best tight end tandems in the league with Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams, but the X factor is sophomore receiver Shaq Roland. He made big strides this spring and looks like he could be one of the most improved players on the team.
11. Florida: There’s no reason the Gators should be this low, but they've struggled at the receiver position the past couple of seasons. The talk of spring practice was true freshman Demarcus Robinson, who was an early enrollee and made several highlight reel catches. The key will be consistency -- for everybody. The Gators really need veterans Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar to step up this season, and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy could be on loan from defense. Purifoy is a game-changing athlete, and Will Muschamp wants to use him some on offense.
12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost three senior starters, including Chad Bumphis, who led the SEC with 12 touchdown catches. This is a big season for junior Robert Johnson, who has the size and skills to be a feature receiver, and the Bulldogs are also looking for 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior Joe Morrow to put it all together. Malcolm Johnson has the makings of an excellent pass-catching tight end. Talented true freshman Fred Ross is the newcomer to watch along with junior college transfer Jeremy Chappelle.
13. Kentucky: This is a position where the Wildcats will definitely need help from newcomers. New offensive coordinator Neal Brown wants to throw the ball, and the three leading returning receivers -- Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins and A.J. Legree -- combined for no touchdown catches last season. With DeMarcus Sweat transferring out, junior college transfer Javess Blue and freshman Ryan Timmons will almost certainly have to play this season.
14. Tennessee: The Vols were depleted at receiver when Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers took their combined 21 touchdown catches and headed to the NFL. Also gone is tight end Mychal Rivera. Nobody really separated himself as the go-to receiver in the spring, which means much will be expected of heralded incoming freshman MarQuez North. The Vols also need redshirt freshman Jason Croom to come back strong from shoulder surgery and Pig Howard to have a big sophomore season.
1dDavid M. Hale