Auburn's Carl Lawson is ready to burst onto the scene (again) in 2016.
If you pay attention to SEC football at all, or just college football in general, you probably already know names like Leonard Fournette at LSU, Myles Garrett at Texas A&M, and Chad Kelly at Ole Miss. Indeed, many of the SEC’s top players have million-dollar paydays waiting for them as presumed high 2017 NFL Draft picks just a few months down the road.
Related: SEC Football 2016 Predictions
But many of the conference’s key contributors tend to fly under the radar. Yet, often it’s these guys, not the top stars, who seemingly come out of nowhere to help their teams win. Whether it’s batting away a crucial pass on third and long, or making a key “pull and kick” block on a defensive end, these players can be just as important as the future NFL players.
Here is a look at the SEC’s wild card players on offense and defense for each team entering 2016.
Offense: Martez Ivey, Offensive Tackle
Florida didn’t have a lot of bright spots on offense last season, but the tackle position should be one the Gators feel comfortable about. Ivey, an Apopka native, played in all 12 games and started the last eight. He also was named to the SEC Coaches’ All-Freshman team. For an offense that desperately needs talented blockers and leadership, it will be nice to build around Ivey. He’s the kind of player that could anchor Florida’s offensive line in years to come.
Defense: Marcus Maye, Defensive Back
When discussing Florida’s secondary, everyone wants to talk about Jalen Tabor. But while all the spotlight was on Tabor, and Vernon Hargreaves III before him, Maye proved to be one of the SEC’s most underrated players. He finished fourth on the team with 82 tackles last season, and also broke up six passes. Perhaps the most important part of Maye’s game is his ability to scare opposing receivers. He was one of the SEC’s hardest-hitting safeties last season, forcing five fumbles.
Offense: Sony Michel, Running Back
Nick Chubb will be Georgia’s workhorse at running back whenever he gets healthy. However, nobody really knows when that will be, plus, he can’t do everything by himself. Michel has to be Chubb’s “Scottie Pippen,” if you will. Michel has proven his reliability in Chubb’s absence. While he will be recovering from a non-football related injury himself, Michel should be ready to go early in the season. The Bulldogs may need him to carry the load at times.
Defense: Dominick Sanders, Defensive Back
With pass rushers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins off to the NFL, Georgia may need its defensive backs to stick to receivers a couple more seconds on average this fall. Last season, Sanders led all of Georgia’s sophomores in tackles, with 48. He also led the team with six passes broken up. Now in his junior year, Sanders looks to be one of the Bulldogs’ top defenders. He was recently named to the Bednarik Award watch list.
Offense: Jojo Kemp, Running Back
Kentucky’s running game often relies on the big-play ability of Stanley “Boom” Williams. However, last season, Kemp had nearly as many carries (98) and amassed more than 500 yards on the ground with them. Williams and Kemp each had six rushing touchdowns. The Wildcats have an experienced offensive line returning, so they will need each of their running backs to contribute. Kemp is the one often overlooked, but Kentucky’s coaches chose him, among two other players, to represent the ‘Cats at SEC Media Days.
Defense: Marcus McWilson, Defensive Back
The Wildcats’ defense has been one of the SEC’s worst over the past couple seasons. Now, that unit has to replace a plethora of seniors. McWilson will be one of the most experienced returners on Kentucky’s defense. He had 66 tackles last year and was the only junior to finish in the top seven on Kentucky’s tackle charts. McWilson also is versatile enough to play the nickel back position.
Offense: Ish Witter, Running Back
Let’s face it. Mizzou’s running game, and the rest of the offense, was terrible last season. But as a sophomore, Witter was the Tigers’ leading rusher, finishing with more than 500 yards on the ground. That included 98 yards rushing in a key win over South Carolina. Additionally, Witter has shown some ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, finishing fifth in receiving yards. A lot of the Tigers’ offensive success will hinge on Witter’s ability to make plays.
Defense: Walter Brady, Defensive End
Missouri’s defensive line should be straight up nasty in 2016. Terry Beckner Jr. is back at defensive tackle after tearing his ACL last season and defensive end Charles Harris is one of the best in the country. The wild card? Look no further than Brady. He had 11.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks at the other defensive end spot last season. While opponents focus on double-teaming Harris, Brady can wreak havoc.
Offense: Lorenzo Nunez, Quarterback
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position at South Carolina. Connor Mitch decided to transfer and none of the players competing for the spot have a ton of experience. Nunez played in eight games last season and had the highest completion percentage (61.5) among those vying for the starting spot. He also was safer with the ball than Perry Orth, who threw nine interceptions.
Defense: Marquavius Lewis, Defensive End
South Carolina has a diamond in the rough in Lewis. The senior was one of only six players to start every game last season and amassed an impressive 45 tackles from the defensive end position. Lewis also finished second on the team with three sacks. He hurried the quarterback an additional six times, showing that he can be relied on as a pass rusher. The Gamecocks need all the help they can get on defense, and it will be nice to have Lewis as a consistent presence.
Offense: Josh Smith, Wide Receiver
Quite possibly the most underrated player on Tennessee’s roster, Smith brings reliability at the receiver position – an area where the Volunteers have a lot of talent, but are still unproven. Last season, Smith was one of quarterback Joshua Dobbs’ favorite targets, hauling in 23 passes for 307 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but Tennessee had a much stronger presence on the ground. Simply put, Smith catches the ball when it is thrown his way, and that’s what Tennessee needs.
Defense: Corey Vereen, Defensive End
Derek Barnett is one of the best pass rushers in the SEC. But while Barnett has been a star in his first two years with the Vols, Vereen has proven himself as a solid presence off the other edge. He was third on the team in sacks last season (3.5) and led the team in quarterback hurries (8). This year, if Vereen can wrap up on a few more of those hurries, he should finish even higher on the SEC sack chart.
Offense: Kyle Shurmur, Quarterback
A 43 percent completion rate isn’t going to cut it in the SEC, but there’s a reason head coach Derek Mason named Shurmur the “clear-cut starter” at quarterback last week. Shurmur still has some growing to do, but he has the most upside of any of the Commodore quarterbacks. Filling in midseason in 2015, a young Shurmur showed some bright spots when he threw for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Kentucky. In the final week of the season against rival Tennessee, Shurmur threw for a career-high 209 yards and three touchdowns.
Defense: Oren Burks, Defensive Back
Only a sophomore last season, Burks finished third on the team in total tackles with 59. Burks also broke up six passes and forced a fumble. Vanderbilt’s defense should be one of the SEC’s best once again this season, but it needs to continue to develop playmakers in the secondary. Burks is the kind of defender who can swat away a crucial pass when the game is on the line – and the Commodores certainly need those clutch players.
Offense: Ross Pierschbacher, Center
It’s always easy to find stats on skill players and point out which ones make the biggest difference for a team, but how about a little love for the center position? Because at Alabama, that position matters a ton. From Barrett Jones to Ryan Kelly more recently, the Crimson Tide have had key leadership at the center position. Pierschbacher’s move from guard to center in the offseason signifies that the offensive staff has faith in his leadership ability. He’s not a bad blocker, either.
Defense: Ryan Anderson, Linebacker
Whether you look at Alabama’s defensive line, linebacker corps or secondary, chances are you’ll find a future NFL player somewhere. Anderson will be a senior for the Crimson Tide this season, and his experience likely will be a key factor in some games. Sharing the spotlight with Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster last season, Anderson contributed 37 tackles, but more importantly, got better as the season went along. He also had 10 quarterback hurries. We know Bama’s linebackers can stop the run, but Anderson can get to the quarterback as well.
Offense: Jeremy Sprinkle, Tight End
Everyone wants to talk about the fact that Arkansas will be without Hunter Henry at tight end this fall. And sure, Henry was a great player. But the Hogs aren’t short on tight ends. Sprinkle caught 27 passes for nearly 400 yards receiving last year, and also grabbed six touchdowns. He has to get better as a blocker in Arkansas’ usual smash-mouth offense, but when the Razorbacks go to the air, Sprinkle will be a popular target.
Defense: McTelvin Agim, Defensive End
Hope, Ark., (that’s also where former president Bill Clinton is from) native McTelvin Agim will be just a true freshman this season, but he is one of Arkansas’ most decorated signees in some time. Agim is a powerful, strong-side defensive end. A former 5-star recruit, Agim already has the build to push for playing time in the SEC. He will add depth, and probably more, to an already-stout Arkansas defensive line.
Offense: Alex Kozan, Offensive Guard
This season, Auburn likely will rely on its offensive line and running game more than it will the pass. The Tigers’ strength on offense lies on the offensive line and Kozan will anchor that group from the left guard position. New offensive line coach Herb Hand was extremely impressed with Kozan’s leadership in the spring, and it’s pretty clear that he makes the rest of the group better. Kozan is a first-team offensive lineman on Athlon’s 2016 All-SEC team.
Defense: Carl Lawson, Defensive End
One would be hard-pressed to find a guy who is more eager to break out in 2016 than Lawson. In 2013, Lawson was a freshman All-American but since then, most of his college football career has been hampered by injuries. When he finally returned for seven games last season, Auburn’s defense was significantly better. Lawson is a major game-changer. He fits the definition of a wild card player, because he adds another element to Auburn’s defense – if he can stay healthy.
Offense: Derrius Guice, Running Back
Sort of how Chubb needs Michel at Georgia, Fournette needs Guice at LSU. Yes, Fournette is the star, and will certainly be in the Heisman Trophy conversation once again this fall. But Guice is a superb relief back. As a freshman last season, Guice finished in the top 20 in the SEC in rushing, despite getting only 51 carries. To put that in perspective, Guice averaged 8.5 yards per carry, while Fournette averaged only 6.5. It’s safe to say Guice is a big-play back.
Defense: Arden Key, Defensive End
There’s not exactly a shortage of defensive standouts on LSU’s roster this year, but Key could be a breakout star. He had five sacks as a freshman last season and one of his best performances of the year came in LSU’s 30-16 loss at Alabama. Key showed that he’s not afraid to get after the quarterback, and also has no problem getting around seasoned offensive linemen. Key should become a common fixture on LSU’s defensive line over the next two seasons.
Offense: Nick Fitzgerald, Quarterback
Being “the guy after the guy” is never easy, but people in Starkville should be happy about what the new quarterback brings to the table. First off, Fitzgerald is only a sophomore so head coach Dan Mullen has plenty of time to mold him. But the underclassman also performed well in limited action last season, completing 11 of 14 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns. And like Dak Prescott, Fitzgerald also showed an ability to get the job done on the ground, rushing for three touchdowns.
Defense: J.T. Gray, Linebacker
As a sophomore last season, Gray had 65 stops, good for fourth on the team. Mississippi State returns six starters on defense, and Gray should emerge as one of the Bulldogs’ key tacklers. Gray performed well later in the season, notching eight tackles against Ole Miss, then another nine in the bowl game against NC State.
Offense: Damore’ea Stringfellow, Wide Receiver
Last season, Stringfellow was Ole Miss’ No. 4 receiver, but this year he will move into a more pivotal role in the Rebels’ passing game. With Chad Kelly back at quarterback, Ole Miss will assuredly air it out quite a bit and Stringfellow should be one of the top targets. He had 503 yards receiving last season and snagged five touchdown passes.
Defense: Kendarius Webster, Defensive Back
Webster returns in the Rebels’ secondary, and it’s a good thing. Ole Miss lost two important defensive backs in Trae Elston and Mike Hilton. Webster comes into the fall as one of the most promising young DBs in the SEC. He broke up 11 passes last season and defended 12. Webster also picked off a pass against Texas A&M and finished the year with 41 total tackles. Along with Tony Bridges, Webster looks to be a threat at cornerback for the Rebels.
Offense: Trevor Knight, Quarterback
It’s pretty obvious, but Knight is still a wild card because we just don’t know what we’re going to get from him at A&M. He was fantastic at Oklahoma through the first part of the2014 season, but Baker Mayfield ended up being the more viable option for the Sooners. We know that Knight is used to slinging the ball around and can scramble, so he should fit right in Kevin Sumlin’s offensive game plan. Only time will tell.
Defense: Armani Watts, Defensive Back
Arguably one of the SEC’s most underrated defenders last season, Watts knows how to impact a game. In his sophomore season with the Aggies, Watts led the team with 126 tackles. An astounding 83 of those were solo stops. His presence on the field is truly significant. Don’t be surprised if Watts is regarded as one of the SEC’s most feared safeties by the end of the season.