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Monday, February 23, 2009
Biggest shoes to fill in the SEC


Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We start a week-long primer today that should further get you ready for the start of spring practice in the SEC.

The first topic: Who are the five players or coaches in the SEC that will be the toughest to replace in 2009?

Let's face it. There are some big shoes to fill in this league.

Here goes:

 
  Charles Sonnenblick/Getty Images
  It won't be easy for Florida to replace Percy Harvin.

1. Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith: This was an easy choice for the top spot. For one, Smith is one of the best left tackles to come through the SEC in the last decade. He was dominant in every way. But go back and look at what the Crimson Tide did (or didn't do) without him last season in the two games he missed. They struggled mightily against Tulane and were torched by Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Retooling the offensive line will be a major undertaking for Alabama. Also gone are All-American center Antoine Davis and steady guard Marlon Davis. A couple of first-year players could be in line to replace Smith -- junior college newcomer James Carpenter and highly rated true freshman D.J. Fluker, who won't be on campus until this summer. If neither are ready, Alabama might have to move Mike Johnson over to left tackle from his guard spot. Johnson filled in for Smith in the bowl game before leaving with an ankle injury.

2. Florida running back/receiver Percy Harvin: How do you replace the most explosive player in the SEC, maybe the explosive player in all of college football? Harvin was a threat to go the distance as a running back and a receiver, and it didn't matter where you lined him up. The only knock on him was that he was prone to injury. He was coming back from a nasty sprained ankle in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game, but still managed to rush for 122 yards on nine carries, catch five passes for 49 yards and score a touchdown in the 15th straight game in which he'd played. Without him, Florida probably doesn't beat Oklahoma. Don't feel too sorry for the Gators, though. They still have plenty of speedy playmakers -- just nobody quite like Harvin. Some of the guys to watch are Deonte Thompson, David Nelson and incoming true freshman Andre Debose. Florida also redshirted three receivers last season who were all highly rated coming out of high school.

3. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford: As great as running back Knowshon Moreno was, strong-armed quarterbacks like Stafford, who've started since their freshman season, are invaluable. His leaving early for the NFL draft also means Georgia will be going with somebody at quarterback (whoever it is) that has little or no experience in SEC competition. With Stafford's ability to make every throw, he kept defensive coordinators honest. He could beat you a number of different ways. Some of the Georgia fans got down on him at times because of untimely interceptions, but he led the SEC with an average of 266.1 passing yards per game last season and was second with 25 touchdowns, while completing 61.4 percent of his passes. Those numbers won't be easy to replace. Taking his shot will be fifth-year senior Joe Cox, who rallied Georgia past Colorado as a redshirt freshman in 2006. True freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger are already on campus and will go through spring practice, and sophomore Logan Gray is one of the best all-around athletes on the team.

4. Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers: If you've been keeping up with the NFL combine, you're getting a feel for what kind of talent Ayers is. He was the second-best player on Tennessee's team last season behind All-American safety Eric Berry. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Ayers was the kind of defensive lineman coaches love. He could play inside or outside and finished third in the SEC with 15.5 tackles for loss. Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith said Ayers was the best player he faced last season and was equally good as a pass rusher and against the run. The other thing that makes Ayers so difficult to replace is that the Vols are scary thin on the defensive line, and they certainly don't have a proven difference-maker at this point in Ayers' mold. This is a big spring for junior defensive ends Ben Martin and Chris Walker, but neither are big enough to slide inside and help. Senior Wes Brown may get a look inside after having a solid 2008 season at end. But other than senior tackle Dan Williams, there's not much there on the interior for the Vols.

5. Ole Miss defensive tackle Peria Jerry: The only reason Jerry's not a little higher up on this list is because Ole Miss does have some quality depth in its defensive line. Former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron had recruited extremely well in the defensive line, and Jerry was the gem of that group. He was the SEC's most dominant defensive tackle during the last half of the 2008 season and completely took over games at times. He wrecked opposing teams' plays before they ever had a chance to get started and lifted the play of everybody else around him. Jerry was a first-team All-American who led the SEC with 18.5 tackles for loss from his tackle position, and that kind of player doesn't come around every day. He was also one of the leaders of the Rebels' defense. Ole Miss returns Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott and Jerrell Powe in the middle. Laurent and Scott both have star potential, and if the 335-pound Powe can keep his weight down, he also has a chance to be a real factor next season.