LSU quarterback Myles Brennan has some enormous shoes to fill as the Tigers defend their national title
In the SEC, the marquee names are not only Big Men On Campus; they are exalted rock stars. Just mention first names and you know who they are: Herschel. Bo. Jadeveon. Tua. Hell, even Nick (or Saint Nick, that is).
But the second tier of players, those that shine on the margins of fame, and those who are stars-in-the-making, these are the guys who carry a team to the next level. A player without a lot of fanfare who emerges to a big role can help a team ascend to contender status.
Here are the guys on each team in the SEC that could be the next big Johnny-come-lately (and I don't mean the artist formerly known as Johnny Football) that helps his team step up to another level in 2020. Some better known than others...
Offense: Kadarius Toney, WR
Guess who is in this spot for the second year in a row? Yep, KT. And why not? He played in just seven games after another season where he battled injuries. He is a big-play guy at wideout, as a Wildcat QB and as a return man, so he can influence a game in many ways. If he can make it through 2020 without visiting the MASH unit repeatedly, this offense will have way more bite.
Defense: Brenton Cox Jr., LB
The Gators allowed fewer touchdowns than all but three other programs in the FBS and led the SEC in sacks and red zone defense. But only five starters return for 2020. Cox, a Georgia transfer (Oooooh, a transfer from a sworn enemy? That's scandalous), will be a huge key to help their pass rush and stop the run. The former five-star recruit started in the Sugar Bowl vs. Texas two years ago, notching six tackles in that game.
Offense: Jamie Newman, QB
There is no surprise that the Wake Forest transfer is the biggest key to any improvement the Bulldogs make on offense. With Jake Fromm heading to the NFL a year early and seven other starters moving on, this will be a new-look Bulldog offense that no longer has a pro-style drop back look. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken will employ Newman for some run packages and a ton of RPO plays.
Defense: Lewis Cine, SS
With eight starters back on what should be one of — if not THE — top defenses in the country. The safety position is the lone outlier in the experience department. Cine, a former No. 3-ranked safety recruit in the nation, got extensive playing time late in his freshman year, gathering season-high six tackles against both LSU and Baylor.
Offense: Chance Poore, K
Yes, it's logical we could've put quarterback Terry Wilson, who is returning from an injury that ended his '19 season after two games. But the kicker with the very unfortunate name MUST perform better in 2020. He has gone just 7-for-13 in field goals and has missed four extra points while wearing the Big Blue. The Wildcats have a lot of returnees this year and could have a lot of games come down to the wire. Poore must not play up to his name if UK is going to win some white-knucklers this year.
Defense: Phil Hoskins, DE
Hoskins was granted a sixth year of eligibility this season and will team with Quinton Bohanna and Josh Paschal to form what could be a formidable defensive line. Hoskins missed all of 2019 but showed some promise in 2018, finishing with 21 tackles. But he still has huge untapped potential, and, if he plays up to that, this defense (with seven returning starters) could be really solid.
Offense: Shawn Robinson, QB
This wild card pick is a no-brainer. Obviously, the TCU transfer will try to do what Kelly Bryant did last year, only better. Robinson is a stoutly-built former four-star recruit who sat out last season due to transfer rules, so he has been working in the Tiger system since spring camp of 2019. There are only four starters back on offense (none at receiver), so there will be a learning curve to this offense, but Robinson has the skills to make it a positive.
Defense: Stacy Brown, NB
While the offense has a lot of new faces, the defense is just the opposite, as it's very junior- and senior-heavy, including seven returning starters. As a wiry freshman, Brown played in 11 games at nickel back and on special teams. He put on 20 pounds of muscle since last season and will be the only sophomore in the starting lineup. He must hold his own on crucial downs.
Offense: MarShawn Lloyd, RB
Whoa boy. The Gamecocks have very little returning to their skill positions this coming season. That's kind of a bummer since sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski looks to be a star in the making. But Lloyd is an incoming freshman with major acclaim and with near-zero carries back in the running back department, Lloyd will get the red carpet treatment in the starting assignment department. Let's see if he lives up to his considerable hype.
Defense: Zacch Pickens, DT
Although he was named a Freshman All-American, Pickens had six tackles in his first game vs. North Carolina but then had times where he disappeared. But as you know, that's a freshman for ya. Look for more consistency this year as the former No. 1 defensive line recruit in the country gets more acclimated to dominating. He'll team with senior Keir Thomas — who missed nearly all of last year — to form a good one-two on the interior line.
Offense: Velus Jones Jr., WR
With quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, a bevy of running backs, and possibly the best offensive line in the SEC East, the only thing that is missing is the receiving corps. Josh Palmer (34 catches) returns, but virtually no one else does. That's what makes Jones, a USC transfer, such a valuable asset to this 2020 offense. Jones has good speed and soft hands, but he also was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner in 2019 as a junior, so look for him to be a force on special teams too.
Defense: Kivon Bennett, OLB
The Vols will miss the influence of Darrell Taylor, who was a deft edge rusher with 16.5 total sacks the past two seasons. Bennett, who is not technically a returning starter, did rack up 6.0 tackles for a loss out of his 27 overall tackles last season, but he is expected to take up the Taylor role this season to give the Vols some semblance of a pass rush. By the way, if he can do anything to improve on UT's lowly four fumble recoveries from 2019, that'd be good too.
Offense: Ken Seals and Jeremy Moussa, QB (tie)
The top three quarterbacks from last year's squad have all moved on. Seals is a freakin' freshman and Moussa is a junior college transfer from California. Neither QB has taken a snap at an FBS program, and their development is key to the entire Commodore season. If they struggle, beating last year's three wins is going to be tough. Not much more to say about that.
Defense: Malik Langham, DT
The Commodores have all 11 starters back on the defensive side for 2020, so finding a wild card on this side of the ball ain't easy. But Langham is an interesting prospect to keep an eye on. He was a four-star talent coming out of high school and signed with Florida. This past year he transferred to Nashville and should have an immediate impact. Look for him to bust into the starting lineup very early in the season.
Offense: Alex Leatherwood, OT
This is another of the many talents who could've gone to the NFL last season but decided to return to campus for one more go-round. As the blindside protector for Mac Jones (or true freshman Bryce Young), Leatherwood will be leaned on even more than last year when lefty Tua Tagovailoa was in the pocket. Four of five starters are back on the O-line, so Leatherwood & Co. will certainly try to best their 0.92 sacks allowed per game, which ranked third nationally.
Defense: Dylan Moses, LB
Though there are questions along the D-line and backfield, the hyper-talented Moses gets the nod here. As the glue to the entire defense, he missed all of last season with a knee injury and was thought to be headed to the NFL. Instead, he decided to give it one more try on the Capstone and will lead the youthful linebacking corps which features sophomores Shane Lee, Christian Harris, and King Mwikuta. If Moses is back to 100 percent, this defense could get back to being a dominant group again.
Offense: Feleipe Franks, QB
Yes, you know the name. And yes, he's still in the SEC. But now the 6-foot-6, 235-pound strong-arm is a Razorback, not a Gator. The quarterback position was a mess last season, with five different starting QBs and not one of them being very effective. Franks started 25 games for Florida from 2017 to '19, and his SEC experience will be a boon to this offense, which returns most of the skill position players.
Defense: Xavier Kelly, DT
The Hogs up front weren't very Hog-like last season, and three of the four starters have moved on. That's why Kelly, a transfer from Clemson, becomes such a huge addition to the defense this season. The former Kansas High School Player of the Year had a star-crossed career in Death Valley and has yet to tap into his sizable ability. The line will also have senior end Dorian Gerald returning after he miss all but one game a year ago.
Offense: Nick Brahms, C
The last two seasons, Brahms has taken over the center position at some point in the middle of the season. In other words, he finishes strong. But this time, he is the only returnee on the offensive line that has doesn't have much experience, as all the guard and tackle positions will be greenhorns. Brahms must become a leader for that unit to have success and jell quickly.
Defense: Coynis Miller Jr., DT
This will be Year Three for the former four-star recruit who was rated the No. 12 defensive tackle nationally in the Class of 2017. Those high accolades haven't shown themselves on the field of play yet, but this could be the year it does. Miller is joining returning starters Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell in a D-line that needs to show up big this season since the entire defense returns just five starters.
Offense: Myles Brennan, QB
This is the working definition of a "no-brainer" for sure. Having to replace the man, the myth, the legend that was Heisman Joe is a daunting task. But keep in mind he'll still have Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase and Terrance Marshall Jr. at his behest, which is a certain advantage. Runner-up wild card to Brennan? How about any of the four O-line spots that need to be replaced? Will Brennan even have time to throw in their big games?
Defense: Jabril Cox, LB
Oh man, the Tiger linebacking corps was hit hard by NFL defections and eligibility exhaustion. Cox was an FCS All American at North Dakota State last year and had an extra year to burn, so it was to Tiger Town he went. He is nearly a lock to take one of the starting spots on the second line of the defense. How good can an FCS stud be in the SEC? Not sure, but Coach O and the boys will need him to step up and be a stud.
Offense: K.J. Costello, QB
The Stanford transfer has his work cut out for him since top passer Garrett Shrader returns and there was no spring practice to help him acclimate to his new surroundings. But Costello is a smart field general with a strong arm and has the talent to take over the position, if not share the duties with Shrader, who is just a sophomore. Three of the top four receivers have moved on, so some new targets on the outside will need to emerge.
Defense: Martin Emerson, CB
The Bulldog defense was a little toothless last year, especially in the defensive backfield where they gave up 246.8 yards per game (97th nationally). Emerson, a sophomore and Tyler Williams, a junior, are favorites to take the corner positions. Both players made five starts last year and Emerson was even named a Freshman All American after making 32 tackles and an interception. Let's hope for no sophomore slump here.
Offense: Jonathan Mingo, WR
There is no hiding the fact that the Rebels will need to pass the ball more this season. And I mean NEED. Running the ball 60 percent of the time or more once again won't do them many favors. Lots of targets come back, led by Elijah Moore, who had 67 catches last year. But Mingo came to Oxford with a lot of fanfare yet has caught just 12 passes despite starting every game. If he lives up to his billing, it'll help the balance on this offense immeasurably.
Defense: Ryder Anderson, DE
As a junior last year, Anderson was starting to come into his own with 14 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss and two sacks. But then he tweaked a knee in the loss to Alabama, ending his season. If the Katy, Texas, native can recapture that output and play at a consistent level, the Rebel defense could be a strength. Five of the back seven on the unit return, so the D-line is the spot of emphasis.
Offense: Kellen Mond, QB
You didn't expect the three-year starting quarterback to be the "wild card" player for the Aggies, but here we are. The main reason is that his numbers regressed from 2018 to '19 in rushing yards, passing yards, and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Still, it's hard to harsh a dude's mellow who is coming off a 2,897-yard season. Aggie fans are looking for him to be the next Joe Burrow, but that's a big ask. Still, if he can be more steady, this team could be a title contender in 2020.
Defense: Jayden Peevy, DE
The 6-foot-6 senior has played in a ton of games over the previous three seasons, so he's no stranger to playing time. But this year he'll be the only "new" starter among the entire front seven. Last year, the run defense gave up 62 runs of 10-plus yards. With Peevy as a space-eater up front, he can become an effect stop plug that this defense needs to take a step forward.
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.