The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
14 SEC Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Alabama Defensive Backs
The receiving corps also deserves a mention here, but Alabama’s defense has to do a better job against the pass if this team wants to win the national title in 2015. Two starters return in the secondary in senior Cyrus Jones and junior Eddie Jackson. However, there’s a glaring void at safety with Landon Collins off to the NFL. Replacing Collins is expected to be senior Geno Smith or sophomore Hootie Jones, while sophomore Tony Brown and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey need to step up in the battle to start opposite of Cyrus Jones at cornerback. True freshmen Kendall Sheffield or Minkah Fitzpatrick may also factor in the mix. After giving up 19 pass plays of 30 yards or more last year, the Crimson Tide need better play from this unit.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
Arkansas Wide Receivers
It’s a tossup between wide receiver or defensive end for Arkansas. The Razorbacks may not have a standout end like Trey Flowers, but the overall depth has improved to alleviate some of the pass rush concerns. At receiver, Keon Hatcher is back after catching 43 passes for 558 yards and six scores last year. And tight end Hunter Henry is poised for another solid season after grabbing 37 passes for 513 yards in 2014. But who will emerge as consistent No. 3 or No. 4 options for quarterback Brandon Allen? Is it sophomore Jared Cornelius? Or will juniors Cody Hollister or Drew Morgan fill that void?
Auburn Defensive Backs
With Will Muschamp calling the defensive signals, and end Carl Lawson back from injury, Auburn should show improvement after giving up 26.7 points per game in 2014. Getting Lawson and the performance of the defensive line on track is a key priority for Muschamp, but the secondary also needs attention after giving up 22 passing scores last year. Senior corner Jonathan Jones and junior safety Johnathan Ford are candidates for All-SEC honors, while additional help is expected to come in the form of transfers Tray Matthews (Georgia) and Blake Countess (Michigan). Depth is a concern here.
Florida Offensive Line
While the uncertainty at quarterback is a concern for Jim McElwain, the offensive line is probably the group keeping the first-year coach up at night. The Gators return only one starter (Trip Thurman), and depth is a major issue. This unit showed improvement under the direction of Mike Summers last season, and the veteran coach was retained by McElwain. Summers does have talent to build around, including sophomore David Sharpe at left tackle and five-star recruit Martez Ivey. Fordham graduate transfer Mason Halter is also expected to factor in the mix.
Georgia Wide Receivers
As we mentioned above, there’s no doubt quarterback play is the No. 1 concern on any roster. Georgia enters fall camp with uncertainty under center, as Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta are locked into a tight battle for the top spot. But regardless of which player starts, the Bulldogs will be looking for improved play at receiver. Chris Conley and Michael Bennett expired their eligibility, leaving tight end Jeb Blazevich and receiver Malcolm Mitchell as the top targets. Will Mitchell stay healthy? And who steps up outside of Mitchell this year? Those are two key questions to watch in Athens.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
Kentucky Defensive End/Rush Linebackers
There’s no doubt Kentucky will miss Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith as the defense’s top edge rushers. Dupree played the hybrid rush end position under coach Mark Stoops, while Smith was the Wildcats’ top defensive end. This duo combined for 12 of Kentucky’s 27 sacks last year. Who will replace that production off a defense that struggled (31.3 points per game) in 2014? Junior Jason Hatcher is one answer at edge rusher, while seniors Farrington Huguenin and Cory Johnson will be tasked with replacing Smith’s production.
LSU Defensive Ends
Make no mistake: Talent is not an issue for LSU in the trenches. The Tigers are anchored on the interior by junior Christian LaCouture and rising star in sophomore Davon Godchaux. But the pass rush is a concern for new coordinator Kevin Steele. Since LSU led the SEC with 38 sacks in 2011, the Tigers have watched their sack total decline for three consecutive seasons. Last year, LSU managed only 19 sacks in 13 games, with Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter (combined for 5.5 sacks) off to the NFL. Steele plans on incorporating more 3-4 looks, which adds to the uncertainty of the end/linebacker position. Juniors Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal and sophomore Deondre Clark are three names to watch off the edge, along with true freshman Arden Key (assuming he makes it to campus).
Mississippi State Offensive Line
A number of positions could be listed here for the Bulldogs. But on the bright side, coach Dan Mullen has upgraded the talent through recruiting in recent years. Only two starters return up front for Mississippi State, with left tackle Blaine Clausell, center Dillon Day and guard Ben Beckwith expiring their eligibility. Junior Justin Senior may switch to left tackle to replace Clausell or that job could fall to senior Rufus Warren. Guard Justin Malone should be among the best in the SEC. How quickly will the Bulldogs find the right mix at the other three spots? Will junior college recruit Martinas Rankin claim a starting job this fall?
Missouri Wide Receivers
Defensive end also deserves a mention in this space after Missouri loses Shane Ray and Markus Golden, but the Tigers have reloaded there in recent years without much trouble. The same could be said for Missouri’s recent history at receiver, and there is talent to work with for quarterback Maty Mauk. However, the Tigers must replace their top four leading receivers from last season, with Nate Brown (five) and Wesley Leftwich (three) returning as the top options on the outside.
Ole Miss Offensive Line
There are few areas of concern for coach Hugh Freeze in 2015. However, the two biggest problem spots – quarterback and offensive line – are enough to prevent this team from winning the SEC West. In 13 games last season, the Rebels allowed 31 sacks and generated just 3.9 yards per carry in conference play. With all five starters back in the trenches, Freeze should expect better play up front. The anchor is junior Laremy Tunsil, but he is recovering from a leg injury suffered in the Peach Bowl loss against TCU. Depth and overall talent in this group has improved. Will the performance and improvement show on the field this year?
South Carolina Defensive Line
After giving up 30.4 points per game last year, it’s fair to say every unit on South Carolina’s defense must improve. Getting the defense back on track has to start up front. The Gamecocks addressed this unit through recruiting, adding junior college recruit Marquavius Lewis and talented freshman Dexter Wideman. Both players, along with Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. are critical pieces for a unit that generated only 14 sacks and gave up 212.2 rushing yards per game in 2014.
Tennessee Offensive Line
The Volunteers had to replace all five starters from its 2013 unit last season. And it was no surprise this group had its share of struggles, allowing 43 sacks in 13 games and generating only 3.6 yards per carry. The inconsistency and development of this group last year should pay dividends for 2015. Tennessee returns four starters this season, and the depth has improved with the addition of talented freshmen Drew Richmond and Jack Jones. If this group takes a step forward in its development, the Volunteers should have one of the SEC’s top offenses.
Related: SEC Football 2015 Predictions
Texas A&M Linebackers
With John Chavis calling the defensive signals for Texas A&M, improvement should be noticeable in 2015. Personnel concerns still exist at each level, including linebacker where the Aggies struggled with injuries and overall performance last year. But there’s hope for quick improvement in 2015, as sophomore Otaro Alaka is one of the SEC’s breakout players this year, and junior A.J. Hilliard is back from a leg injury that sidelined him nearly all of 2014. Junior college recruit Claude George is also pushing for snaps, while the Aggies expect sophomore (and former four-star prospect) Josh Walker to take a step forward this season.
Vanderbilt Offensive Line
Quarterback play is easily the biggest concern for new coordinator Andy Ludwig. But regardless of which player takes the first snap, the offensive line has to improve its protection and run blocking. The Commodores featured four returning starters last season, yet this unit allowed 21 sacks and rushers averaged only 3.4 yards per carry. A year later, the same storyline is set to unfold. Four starters are back, and the starting group is expected to feature three juniors and one senior. That’s the type of experience that usually translates to improved production.