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Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Filling early entries' spots in the SEC East

By David Ching

When roughly a third -- 29 out of 98 -- of the early entries into the NFL draft come from one conference, it is evident that the league is brimming with talent. Furthermore, 20 SEC underclassmen who left college with eligibility remaining now rank among the top 10 players at their respective positions according to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

Their departures obviously open the door for other talented players to fill their spots in 2014. It's no easy feat to replace some of these big names, but the competitions have already started between players hoping to do just that. Let's take a look at the SEC East players who are waiting in the wings to fill in for the SEC underclassmen who have left for the pros. (For a look at the SEC West, click here.)

Leaving: South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney

Gerald Dixon
Gerald Dixon made a number of big plays in 2013 but replacing Jadeveon Clowney on a full-time basis won't be easy.
The replacement: Gerald Dixon. Clowney is a once-in-a-decade talent at defensive end -- he's the No. 1 overall draft prospect according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and ESPN Scouts Inc. -- so expecting Dixon (17 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss in 2013) to fill his void is unreasonable. He was a key reserve by the end of the 2013 season and is the only defensive end on the roster physically ready to be an every-down player right now, and the Gamecocks expect Dixon to grab a starting job in the fall.

Leaving: Florida CB Marcus Roberson

The replacement: Vernon Hargreaves III. Florida almost always has ridiculous cornerback talent, and it will still be in good shape after losing top-10 corners Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy. Hargreaves was actually a first-team All-SEC pick this season as a true freshman, and he might be the league's next superstar shutdown corner.

Leaving: Florida CB Loucheiz Purifoy

The replacement: Brian Poole. Poole -- the Gators' starting nickelback in 2013 -- is probably the favorite to take over for Purifoy, although early enrollee Jalen Tabor might also land the job and allow Florida to leave Poole at nickel.

Leaving: Missouri DE Kony Ealy

The replacement: Markus Golden. Missouri loses two of the league's top defensive ends in Ealy and Michael Sam, but Golden proved himself capable of becoming a force at the position, as well. He recorded 13 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and even returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown against Toledo.

Leaving: Tennessee OT Antonio Richardson

The replacement: Dontavius Blair. Richardson's left tackle spot is only one opening on a Tennessee offensive line that will be mighty young in 2014. That was a strength of the team over the past two seasons, but will be perhaps the biggest question entering spring practice. Butch Jones' staff is depending on Garden City Community College transfer and early enrollee Blair to win Richardson's job and bring some physical maturity to the inexperienced line.

Leaving: South Carolina DL Kelcy Quarles

The replacement: Gerald Dixon Jr. Replacing Quarles, Kiper's No. 3 defensive tackle draft prospect, might be Dixon Jr., the half-brother of the Gerald Dixon who could take over for Clowney at defensive end. That should keep things interesting for the Gamecocks' broadcasting crew next season.

Leaving: Florida DT Dominique Easley

The replacement: Leon Orr and Darious Cummings. Senior Easley turned down a chance at a medical redshirt to enter the draft, but Kiper lists him as the No. 4 defensive tackle prospect, so his ability to anchor the line has not gone unnoticed. Easley's impact was certainly evident after he was injured last season and Orr and Cummings struggled to disrupt opposing offenses in a similar fashion. They need to step it up this year or redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley or Jay-nard Bostwick might steal playing time.

Leaving: South Carolina WR Bruce Ellington

Brian Poole
Brian Poole has been Florida's star nickelback but could move into a new role with the Gators losing two starting corners.
The replacement: Pharoh Cooper. One of the most dynamic wideouts in the league, Ellington (49-775, 8 TDs) could be replaced by a player with similar athleticism in Cooper (3-54, 1 TD), who played sparingly as a freshman in 2013.

Leaving: South Carolina CB Victor Hampton

The replacement: Rico McWilliams. Redshirt freshman McWilliams played a limited role in his return from a 2012 season-ending knee injury, but could be in line to replace the physical Hampton in the fall.

Leaving: Florida LB Ronald Powell

The replacement: Neiron Ball. Fifth-year senior Ball (25 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss) has started nine times and appeared in 36 games, so he should be able to slide into Powell's spot at strongside linebacker without many growing pains.

Leaving: Missouri RB Henry Josey

The replacement: Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy. Despite a solid 2013 season (1,166 yards, 16 TDs), Josey's draft stock is highly questionable following a career-threatening knee injury that forced him to miss all of 2012. He was the driving force in Missouri's impressive running game, but the other two pieces in the Tigers' three-pronged attack, Hansbrough (685 yards, 4 TDs) and Murphy (601 yards, 9 TDs) will be back.

Leaving: Vanderbilt WR Chris Boyd

The replacement: Boyd did not play in 2013 -- he was dismissed as part of a rape investigation involving several former teammates -- so it's not a matter of replacing his production in 2014. Vanderbilt's passing game faces a massive hole next season thanks to the losses of Jordan Matthews (112-1,477, 7 TDs), Jonathan Krause (42-714, 3 TDs) and Boyd.