Alabama doesn't lack for talent but what DeVonta Smith did in 2020 was historic
Another college football season wrapped up, another national championship in the bag for the SEC thanks to Alabama. The SEC produced eight first-team All-Americans on offense in 2020 with each ready to start earning NFL dollars. Behind the legacy left, each team also must now replace that player's production. Doing so might be easier for some teams that recruit at a high level year to year, but talent is rarely a match for collegiate experience.
Here are a dozen SEC standouts (in alphabetical order) that leave big shoes to fill.
Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri
Finishing in the top 20 nationally in total tackles, Bolton earned first-team All-SEC honors in 2020. The compact linebacker out of Frisco, Texas, neared the 100-tackle plateau during the 10-game schedule with 95 stops, 53 solo, adding two sacks and a fumble recovery.
Bobby Brown III, DL, Texas A&M
How does a team replace a 6-foot-4, 325-pound, defensive pillar in the trenches? The Aggies are going to have to find a way with Brown moving on the NFL. The first-team All-SEC selection did it all for A&M from eating up linemen to producing the big plays. In nine games, Brown tallied 22 tackles, with 7.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. With Brown occupying linemen and running backs, A&M had the No. 2-ranked rushing defense in the nation (92.0 ypg).
Feleipe Franks, QB, Arkansas
There are multiple reasons the Razorbacks had a bounce-back season in 2020, winning three conference games for the first time since 2016, and Franks was one of those factors. The Hogs have not had solid quarterback play since that 2016 season when Austin Allen threw for more than 3,400 yards with 25 TDs under the tutelage of then-offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Enter Franks, a Florida transfer. His stats (2,107 passing yards, 17 TDs) weren't gaudy, but he was accurate (68.5 percent), limited his interceptions (4), and provided leadership to a team that needed it sorely. In limited action, KJ Jefferson completed 20 of 41 passes for 295 yards with three scores. How well Jefferson, Malik Hornsby, or incoming 3-star Class of 2021 recruits Lucas Coley and Landon Rogers can handle the Hogs' offense will be put to the test in 2021.
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
All Nick Saban does at Alabama is reload the roster with another 5- or 4-star recruit, but replacing Harris will be tough. Harris was the big bruising back who could break off an explosive play and find the end zone from anywhere on the field. The perfect balance to Mac Jones' arm, Harris was third in FBS rushing yards (1,466) while leading the way with 26 touchdowns on the ground alone. Beyond his ability to help wear down a defense, Harris was a legit threat out of the backfield in the passing attack securing 43 for 425 yards with four more trips into the end zone for the national champs.
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
Although the Gamecocks' defense struggled throughout a 2-8 campaign, Horn still stood out for his play. He was named second-team All-SEC even though he played in just seven games. He finished with 16 tackles, one tackle for a loss, six pass breakups and a pair of interceptions, both coming against Auburn. Horn is a potential first-round pick in the draft and he will be missed but South Carolina's secondary cupboard isn't bare with Cam Smith ready to step up and anchor the Gamecocks' backend.
Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Replacing a player like Tua Tagovailoa is never easy, and it takes some teams years to recover, but Jones made it look easy. Tagovailoa led the SEC in passing yards during the 2018 season and was on pace to contend again in 2019 before injuring his hip. Jones picked up the mantle in Tuscaloosa during his junior campaign leading the nation in passing yards (4,500), completion percentage (77.4), and QB rating (203.1) while finishing second in TD passes (41). The consensus All-American was a Heisman Trophy finalist and also won the Davey O'Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and Manning Award.
Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU
Technically the guy who replaced Ja'Marr Chase, who first opted out of the season before declaring for the draft, was Marshall. And he was on his way to challenging for the conference lead in all major receiving categories before opting out of the rest of the season after seven games. Marshall's numbers are more impressive when you consider he caught passes from three different starting quarterbacks. Marshall's 10 touchdown catches tied him for seventh nationally and also went for 235 yards (with three scores) against Missouri. LSU has great depth at receiver with Kayshon Boutte (SEC-record 308 receiving yards vs. Ole Miss) ready to take over and Jaray Jenkins also a potential breakout candidate.
Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
If it weren't for Alabama and LSU receivers, Moore might be a household name in SEC Land. Moore was first-team All-SEC in 2020 after bringing down 86 passes for 1,193 yards with eight scores in eight games. Even in the shortened season, with a tougher schedule, Moore pushed beyond a great sophomore run when he secured 67 passes for 850 yards with six scores.
Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
The John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end, Pitts paced the position with 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games due to injury and sitting out the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. The first-team All-American was a big reason why Gators quarterback Kyle Trask ended up as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Pitts' big fame combined with his strength and uncanny speed made him a matchup nightmare.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
The historic Heisman Trophy winner, Smith also leaves Alabama as the SEC's all-time leading receiver (3,965 yards). He led the nation and set single-season school records with his 117 catches and 23 touchdown grabs, and also paced FBS with 1,856 yards. Smith leaves enormous shoes to fill and Jaylen Waddle's big-play ability also will be missed, but John Metchie III doesn't lack for talent and he somewhat quietly finished in the top in the conference in receptions (55), yards (916), and touchdowns (six) as a sophomore.
Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
Appearing in all 13 games during his junior season, Surtain was that lockdown corner taking on the opposition's best receiver. For his efforts, Surtain was a unanimous All-American and named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. His contributions went beyond his stats — 38 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, an interception, and a team-high 12 pass breakups.
Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
If not for Mac Jones, Trask may have been the Heisman winner, SEC champion, and national leader in passing yards and completions. Gators head coach Dan Mullen must find a way to replace Trask's 4,283 passing yards and 41 TDs. Backup Emory Jones completed 18 of 32 attempts for 221 yards with two scores against a pick. Time will tell if Jones can come close to producing the nine games with 300-plus passing yards as Trask did during his senior run.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.