Here’s a look at the players on each team in the SEC that I would select as the most irreplaceable going into the 2010 season:
Alabama: Safety Mark Barron. He’s the Crimson Tide’s lone experienced guy back in the secondary and one of the best safeties in the SEC. He also worked a bunch this spring at Alabama’s all-important star/nickel position in the defense. If something were to happen to Barron, Alabama might have to rely on a true freshman, possibly Jarrick Williams or Nick Perry. Robby Green's NCAA-mandated suspension was a major hit in terms of the Tide's depth at safety.
Arkansas: Quarterback Ryan Mallett. Even though Mallett’s backup, sophomore Tyler Wilson, has worked extensively with the first unit, he’s not Mallett, whose big-play potential on every play changes the way defenses attack the Hogs. Moreover, Mallett’s a franchise type of quarterback, and those guys are never easily replaced.
Auburn: Offensive tackle Lee Ziemba. The Tigers were hopeful that freshman signee Shon Coleman would be able to come in and sort of serve as Ziemba’s apprentice this first season at left tackle. Sadly, Coleman is battling lymphoma. Right now, it’s difficult to pinpoint anybody on Auburn’s roster who would be able to come in and competently handle defensive ends in this league.
Florida: Quarterback John Brantley. He’s the purest passer Urban Meyer has had at Florida and looked terrific this spring throwing the football. He still has to prove himself against SEC defenses, but the Gators are confident in what he’ll be able to do. Behind Brantley is true freshman Trey Burton, who had a 76-yard run in the spring game and may be used to run some of the “Tim Tebow” package next fall in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Georgia: Quarterback Aaron Murray. Your first inkling is to go with junior receiver A.J. Green, who just might be the best receiver in the country. But the more you study the Bulldogs’ quarterback situation, it has to be Murray. Granted, he hasn’t taken a snap in a college game, but he’s at least gone through two spring practices at Georgia. If Murray goes down, the Bulldogs’ options are junior Logan Gray (who wants to move to receiver) and true freshman Hutson Mason, who just finished up high school.
Kentucky: Receiver Randall Cobb. What doesn’t Cobb do for the Wildcats? He’s their most effective offensive threat whether he lines up at receiver or at quarterback in the Wildcat formation. He also returns kickoffs and punts. Kentucky is optimistic that senior Chris Matthews could also be a go-to guy at receiver now that he’s in his second year in the program after coming over from junior college last season. But Cobb’s versatility makes him one of the most irreplaceable players in the conference.
LSU: Cornerback Patrick Peterson. On any level of football, lockdown cornerbacks come at a premium. Not only is Peterson a lockdown corner, but he’s an exceptional tackler, a budding leader and the kind of player who rubs off on everybody else around him with his unyielding confidence. The LSU coaches love the potential of Morris Claiborne on the other side. But if Claiborne all of a sudden has to become the “man” at corner, that changes things for the Tigers in what should be the best secondary in the SEC. Ron Brooks would be one of the candidates to replace Peterson, or the Tigers could also move converted safety Jai Eugene back to cornerback.
Mississippi State: Defensive end Pernell McPhee. The Bulldogs think they have the talent, size and athleticism in the defensive line to give opposing offenses fits next season. The guy who makes it all happen up front is McPhee, who’s powerful enough to play inside, but has the burst to play outside. He returns as one of the top defensive linemen in the SEC and is one of those difference-makers on defense you simply can’t take out of your lineup and not expect to have a steep drop-off. Junior Sean Ferguson or possibly redshirt freshman Johnathan McKenzie would be in line to replace McPhee.
Ole Miss: Defensive end Kentrell Lockett. The Rebels have more defensive tackles than they know what to do with. They’re as deep in the interior positions on the defense line as any team in the country. But Lockett is the lone wolf at end when you look at everybody that departed last season. The Rebels were encouraged by what they saw out of junior college newcomer Wayne Dorsey at the other end in the spring, but Lockett’s experience and ability to rush the passer will be one of the keys to Ole Miss’ defense. The Rebels are a lot less imposing in their front seven without him.
South Carolina: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore. It sounds like Gilmore’s duties may expand in 2010. Steve Spurrier is talking about using him a couple of series every game at quarterback in the Wildcat formation. He also returns punts and is South Carolina’s top cornerback. Gilmore was one of the top freshmen in college football last season. Even though he’s only a sophomore, he’s the heart and soul of that secondary and will be even better his second tour through the SEC. Junior C.C. Whitlock would be first in line to replace Gilmore and is plenty talented. Whitlock just needs to prove that he’s going to be more dependable -- both on and off the field.
Tennessee: Defensive tackle Montori Hughes. Nowhere on Tennessee’s roster is the depth more precariously thin than at defensive tackle. Hughes and Marlon Walls are pretty much it, and they were both pushed into action last season as true freshmen. They’re bona fide SEC tackles, too, and make for a solid tandem. They just don’t have anybody behind them who’s played many (or any) meaningful snaps in this league. There’s depth at defensive end, and Rae Sykes may be one of those guys who can also play inside. But if something happens to the 6-4, 317-pound Hughes, the Vols will be extremely vulnerable in the middle of their defensive line.
Vanderbilt: Middle linebacker Chris Marve. He’s first SEC player since former Vanderbilt great Jamie Winborn to post 100-plus tackles in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Marve has also shown incredible toughness, playing through injuries and pain, and will be the heartbeat of that Vanderbilt defense in 2010 in more ways than one. There’s also not much experience around him at linebacker. Marve will be the one getting everybody lined up. And when there’s a play to be made, he’s the one who's usually making it. Redshirt freshman Blake Southerland would get a shot in the middle if something happened to Marve. The Commodores could also potentially move Tristan Strong or DeAndre Jones into the middle, although Strong is one of the favorites to step in for Patrick Benoist at weakside linebacker.