Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is expected to take over the reigns for the defending national champs
Each season college football teams suffer through the attrition of losing seniors due to using up their eligibility, but some programs languish a bit more than others with draft-eligible underclassmen declaring early. Over the last decade, the SEC has consistently been the hardest hit among the Power 5 conferences with top-shelf talent going pro ahead of schedule, and 2021 is no different.
With a little bit of experience as a backup, time spent in practice, or playing second-fiddle on the field to the recently departed, here are 10 SEC players poised for big things in 2021 as they are in line to take over for a headline-grabbing all-star.
Gone: Mac Jones, QB
In: Bryce Young
Any other team needing to replace a Heisman Trophy finalist and first-team All-American under center who was the nation's leader in passing yards, completion percentage, and QB rating would be in serious trouble. But at Alabama, they just throw a five-star, dual-threat talent out there who undoubtedly will produce similar results. With Steve Sarkisian taking the head coaching job at Texas, how Alabama's offense will look under new coordinator Bill O'Brien remains to be seen. But in all likelihood, it will be Young running the show and the early guess here is that the Tide's attack will look something like the 2018 version when Tua Tagoviola led the conference in just about every major QB statistic and was a threat on the ground.
Gone: Ja'Marr Chase, WR
In: Kayshon Boutte
Chase didn't play in 2020 after opting out before the season began, so LSU already got a taste of life without him. It was clear that the Tigers missed the 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, who led the nation in both yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) during LSU's undefeated run. But Boutte showed what he's capable of this season, topping fellow wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. for the team lead in receiving yards (735) while finishing second in both receptions (45) and touchdowns (five). Boutte also got himself in the record books in the Tigers' season finale, as the freshman set new school and SEC single-game records with 308 yards on 14 catches (also had 3 TDs) in the win over Ole Miss.
Gone: Kyle Pitts, TE
In: Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer
As crazy as it may sound having to replace a first-team All-American and potential first-round draft pick at tight end, it may not be that challenging. Gamble and Zipperer both appeared in all 12 games this past season. Their numbers were similar with Gamble (10 rec. 160 yds., 2 TDs) doing a little more damage than Zipperer (11, 145, 2) but both got the job done when Pitts was out. Neither may match Pitts' production (43, 770, 12), but the tight end position should remain heavily involved in the Gators' game plan this fall.
Gone: Patrick Surtain II, CB
In: Jalyn Armour-Davis
Whoever has to replace Surtain, a unanimous first-team All-American and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, has big shoes to fill. After playing opposite of Surtain in 2020, Josh Jobe will get that spotlight. But on the depth chart, Armour-Davis is poised to take Surtain's spot. Expect Armour-Davis to be pushed by Marcus Banks and Brandon Turnage. Could the Crimson Tide move Malachi Moore from the Star position to corner?
Gone: Jaycee Horn, CB
In: Cam Smith
Even though he played in just seven games, Horn earned second-team All-SEC honors, underscoring the respect he earned throughout the conference. In his absence, Smith had quite the debut campaign, posting nearly identical stats to Horn. Both tied for the team lead with two interceptions and were credited with 16 tackles apiece. With Horn and fellow corner Israel Mukuamu headed to the NFL, new Gamecocks head coach Shane Beamer has some work to do in retooling his secondary, but Smith is a good piece to build around.
Gone: Nick Bolton, LB
In: Chad Bailey
Bolton was one of the SEC's best this past season, earning first-team All-SEC honors playing outside backer in the Tigers' scheme. Bolton was ever-present with 95 stops and 7.5 tackles for a loss. Bolton (6-0, 232) is short and compact with Bailey (6-0, 230) his physical clone. In the heightened SEC-only season, Bolton did not come off the field much as Bailey was credited with just 11 tackles and two TFLs in 10 games.
Gone: Jaylen Waddle, WR
In: John Metchie III
Simply put, there's no way to replace what Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith did for the Crimson Tide in 2020. And although he was overshadowed by Smith as well as Jerry Jeudy prior to that, Waddle was a potent weapon for the Crimson Tide in his own right. An ankle injury, cut this past season short, but he was first-team All-SEC as a return specialist and second-team all-purpose in 2019. Prior to getting hurt, Waddle was keeping pace with Smith in terms of playmaking, averaging 22.3 yards per catch with four touchdowns in his first four games. Metchie (55 rec., 916 yds., 6 TDs) stepped up in a big way in Waddle's absence and he possesses similar game-breaking speed but brings a little more size (6-0, 195) to the table. Metchie is poised to take over as the No. 1 target for the defending national champs.
Gone: Elijah Moore, WR
In: Jonathan Mingo
The Rebels have some firepower to replace, namely Moore, who put up nearly 1,200 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in just eight games. He also racked up 86 catches in that span, the only SEC receiver to average more than 10 per game. Jadon Jackson could move up on the depth chart, but expect head coach Lane Kiffin to move pieces around to create other mismatches. From a statistical standpoint, Mingo could be the next 1,000-yard receiver for the Rebels. He produced 379 yards and three touchdowns on 27 catches this past season, playing behind Moore, tight end Kenny Yeboah, and Dontario Drummond. With more looks, Mingo's numbers could really take off in 2021.
Gone: Terrace Marshall Jr., WR
In: Jaray Jenkins
In addition to being without Ja'Marr Chase's services, Marshall is off to the NFL as well. Marshall was on track to challenge Alabama's DeVonta Smith atop the SEC receiving leaderboard, but injuries and eventually opting out ended that pursuit. Marshall posted strong numbers (48 rec., 731 yds., 10 TDs) in just seven games. A sophomore this past season, Jenkins finished with 397 yards and two touchdowns on 23 catches. Consistency at quarterback this fall should help Jenkins and fellow rising talent Kayshon Boutte fill up the stat sheet.
Gone: Bobby Brown III, DT
In: McKinnley Jackson
Typically, it is difficult to replace a 6-foot-4, 330-plus-pound, defensive tackle, but A&M has done a great job of recruiting depth to fill the defensive trenches. With All-SEC selection Brown declaring early, Jackson is set for a big 2021 campaign. Jackson played in all 10 games last season putting an end to 13 plays with two tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, and four quarterback hurries. Jackson has shown he is an SEC-caliber talent and will now get the experience to follow in Brown's footsteps.
— 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.