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SEC Wild Card Players in 2016

Carl Lawson

Carl Lawson

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.

SEC East

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Florida Gators

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.

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Georgia Bulldogs

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.

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Kentucky Wildcats

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.

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Missouri Tigers

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.

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South Carolina Gamecocks

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.

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Tennessee Volunteers

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.

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Vanderbilt Commodores

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.

SEC West