Monday, February 8, 2010
Biggest shoes to fill in the SEC
By ESPN.com staff
Every year in the SEC, there are some big shoes to fill.
But next season, we're talking size 18s, 19s and 20s everywhere you look.
When you factor in the talented juniors leaving the conference, new faces, new leaders and new playmakers are going to have to step up like never before in 2010.
That said, here’s a look at the biggest shoes to fill in the league next season. As you might imagine, the names are familiar ones:
1. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow: Contrary to popular belief, Tebow didn’t play seven seasons at Florida. It just seemed that way to everybody he beat up on. As a starter, he was a remarkable 35-6 with a Heisman Trophy, one SEC championship, one BCS national championship, two SEC championship game appearances and two BCS bowl wins. He scored more touchdowns than anybody who’s ever played in the SEC, and he was the kind of inspirational leader that coaches dream about having on their team. It’s impossible to replace everything that Tebow was to the Gators. He’s one of the best college football players of this era. Junior John Brantley gets first chance. He’s a different kind of quarterback than Tebow and is already an extremely polished passer. The Gators’ offense will change with Brantley, a highly recruited player who’s been waiting for his chance.
2. Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain: One of the smartest players Nick Saban has ever coached, McClain was so many things, not only to the Alabama defense, but to the entire team. For one, he was that rock-solid, emotional leader all great teams have. But he was also that guy on the field who knew everybody’s position, knew everybody’s duties and made sure guys were in the right spots. On top of it all, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound McClain was one of the most productive linebackers in the country who was always making game-changing plays. With the Butkus Award winner deciding to turn pro early, Dont’a Hightower is the heir apparent to take over for McClain. Hightower is a great player in his own right, but is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. If he returns close to 100 percent, the Crimson Tide could have their second straight Butkus Award winner.
3. Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon: We’re going with Dixon at the No. 3 spot for a couple of different reasons. Most importantly, it’s always a chore to replace 126.5 rushing yards per game. Dixon led the SEC in that category. But here’s the other thing: Dixon WAS the Mississippi State offense last season. Dan Mullen rode him the entire season, and Dixon delivered with a record-setting season. With him gone (along with two other senior running backs), the Bulldogs will have to tweak things some offensively in 2010. Making it even more difficult is that there’s not a proven quarterback on campus. Chris Relf was the Bulldogs’ designated runner at quarterback last season and was good in that role. But he only attempted 41 passes in 10 games. Redshirt freshman Tyler Russell will get every chance to win the quarterback job this fall. But when things get hairy, he won't have the luxury of turning around and handing the ball off to Dixon.
4. Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster: Staying in the state of Mississippi, there wasn’t a more productive or feared player in the league during the second half of the season than McCluster. From the Arkansas game on (or once he moved full time to running back), he carved opposing defenses apart and made the Rebels’ offense so much better with his ability to strike from long distance. The Rebels didn't have to put together long drives all the time because the speedy McCluster was popping long runs left and right. There’s not player in this league, let alone on Ole Miss’ roster, just like McCluster. After all, he became the first player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 500 yards receiving in the same season in 2009. It may be that the Rebels have to divvy up his roles next season. Junior Brandon Bolden returns as the featured back, but junior college newcomer Randall Mackey looks like a great fit in the Wild Rebel formation. And Ole Miss also needs to find more ways to get the ball to Jesse Grandy. The wild card is Tim Simon, who looked great early on as a freshman before suffering a nasty knee injury. His recovery could be a lengthy one.
5. Tennessee safety Eric Berry: Even though Berry’s interception numbers were down last season, he was still the most complete safety in college football. The Jim Thorpe Award winner was used mostly as a hybrid linebacker in Monte Kiffin’s defensive system and ended up leading SEC defensive backs with 87 tackles, including seven for loss. Having a safety the caliber of Berry opens up so many other things for your defense. He makes up for mistakes, takes the pressure off more unproven players in the secondary and forces the opposing offensive coordinator to know where he is at all times. Berry was perennially around the ball and made so many things happen for the Vols the past three years. Plus, he provided some invaluable leadership for that defense. Janzen Jackson has the physical talent to be the next great safety at Tennessee. When he wasn’t suspended last season, he made his presence felt as a freshman. But he still has to prove that he’s going to do the right things both on and off the field.