Continuing our series breaking down the positional losses and returning talent at each SEC program, we now turn our attention to the secondary:
Alabama: Junior safety Eddie Jackson electing to return for his senior season is big. Alabama will lose senior starters Cyrus Jones and Geno Matias-Smith, so Jackson’s veteran presence would be especially valuable. Regardless, Alabama has a deep group of talented underclassmen returning, led by cornerback Marlon Humphrey, star Minkah Fitzpatrick and reserves Ronnie Harrison and Tony Brown.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks ranked last in the SEC in passing yards allowed (275.2 yards per game, 116th in the FBS), but that young group returns almost everyone except senior safety Rohan Gaines. Safety Josh Liddell and cornerback D.J. Dean, who tied for the team lead with two interceptions apiece, will return along with experienced cornerbacks Jared Collins and Henre' Toliver. Underclassmen Kevin Richardson, Santos Ramirez and Ryan Pulley all played in 2015 and will be in the mix moving forward.
Auburn: Although the Tigers will lose seniors Jonathan Jones and Blake Countess, several talented players remain on the back end. Start with cornerback Carlton Davis, who just completed an outstanding freshman season. Tray Matthews and Johnathan Ford also played extensively. Among the youngsters who could compete for playing time are Stephen Roberts, Tim Irvin, Jeremiah Dinson and maybe even early enrollee John Broussard.
Florida: No matter what happens with junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (he’s gone) and junior safety Marcus Maye (we’ll see), Florida returns one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks in Jalen Tabor. The Gators also have cornerback Quincy Wilson back after playing extensively as a sophomore. If Maye returns, Florida could play Maye and Marcell Harris at safety, Duke Dawson at nickelback and Tabor and Wilson at corner and have one of the SEC’s top secondaries. Nick Washington and Chauncey Gardner might be names to watch, as well.
Georgia: The nation’s top pass defense (156.5 ypg) gets all four starters back in the secondary: Sophomore cornerbacks Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish, junior safety Quincy Mauger and first-team All-SEC free safety Dominick Sanders. The Bulldogs lost safety Johnathan Abram to transfer, but will otherwise return several reserves including Reggie Wilkerson, Rico McGraw, Juwuan Briscoe, Jarvis Wilson and Rashad Roundtree.
Kentucky: Aside from senior safety A.J. Stamps, this was an awfully green bunch in 2015. In the season finale against Louisville, the Wildcats started true freshmen Chris Westry and Derrick Baity at cornerback and redshirt freshman Mike Edwards at safety. They lose Stamps, but the Wildcats will return nearly everyone else of note, including Marcus McWilson, Blake McClain and J.D. Harmon along with underclassmen Darius West and Kendall Randolph.
LSU: DBU didn’t have its finest season in 2015, with opposing passers connecting on a few too many wide-open deep balls. The Tigers will definitely lose senior safety Jalen Mills and could also lose junior cornerback Tre'Davious White to the draft. Otherwise, the depth chart looks promising. Jamal Adams is outstanding at safety and cornerbacks Kevin Toliver II and Donte Jackson both played extensively as freshmen. The Tigers will also return veterans Dwayne Thomas, Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson. One of their top commitments, cornerback Saivion Smith, is an early enrollee and the Tigers are also in the mix for a couple of the top uncommitted corners, as well.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs dealt with several injuries in the secondary in 2015, which might make the losses of seniors Taveze Calhoun, Will Redmond and Kendrick Market a bit easier to digest. Several young players -- such as redshirt freshman Brandon Bryant, who played well at safety in Market’s absence -- gained experience earlier than expected. The depth chart is in good shape for 2016 as starting cornerback Tolando Cleveland and safety Kivon Coman are back along with a number of reserves, including freshmen Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin and veterans Deontay Evans, Cedric Jiles and Jamoral Graham.
Missouri: The Tigers bring back most of an excellent secondary except starting cornerback Kenya Dennis, safety Ian Simon and reserve Cortland Browning. Strong safety Anthony Sherrils, who led the defensive backs in tackles with 64, is back along with consistent cover corner Aarion Penton. Mizzou doesn’t have a ton of experience behind the veterans, but there are solid options available at safety (including Tavon Ross, Thomas Wilson and T.J. Warren) and corner (John Gibson and Logan Cheadle).
Ole Miss: Three of the Rebels’ five DB starters in the bowl blowout of Oklahoma State were seniors: Rover Trae Elston, safety Chief Brown and nickel Mike Hilton. That loss of experience will make the leadership of starting corners Kendarius Webster and Tony Bridges and safety Tony Conner especially valuable. Hilton and Elston were both second-team All-SEC honorees and ranked among the league’s top playmakers in the secondary, but the importance of Conner’s return from injury cannot be overstated. As for the open spots, candidates such as rover Armani Linton, safeties C.J. Hampton and Zedrick Woods and corners Kailo Moore, Carlos Davis and Cameron Ordway will battle for playing time starting in the spring.
South Carolina: Rising seniors Jordan Diggs and Rico McWilliams both started 10 games last season and cornerback Chris Lammons started four for a secondary that did a decent job in 2015. The group will also benefit from the addition of JaMarcus King, the No. 10 overall prospect on ESPN’s JC 50 and the top juco cornerback on the list. Although the Gamecocks lose seniors T.J. Gurley and Isaiah Johnson and transfer Chris Moody, they still have some gifted young reserves back including cornerbacks Al Harris Jr and Rashad Fenton and safety D.J. Smith.
Tennessee: For now, let’s assume that junior cornerback Cameron Sutton jumps to the NFL, as he is projected as an early-round draft pick. That would mean the Volunteers would lose three valuable starters in the secondary along with safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. Regardless, the Volunteers look to be in good shape in the secondary. They get starters Malik Foreman and Justin Martin back, plus a number of solid youngsters such as Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry. In addition, Rashaan Gaulden will return from injury to likely play nickel. That’s a great start. Getting Sutton back would be even better.
Texas A&M: After a strong 2015, the Aggies are loaded at safety with the return of Donovan Wilson, Armani Watts and Justin Evans. Their bigger question is at corner since 2015 starters Brandon Williams and De'Vante Harris were both seniors. UCLA transfer Priest Willis, Nick Harvey and Noel Ellis will likely get the first crack at the starting cornerback jobs in the spring, although a pair of ESPN 300 commits -- Travon Fuller and Charles Oliver -- could add to the competition once they arrive on campus.
Vanderbilt: Andrew Williamson was a two-year starter at safety, but he is the only major departure from Vandy’s secondary. The Commodores return a budding star in free safety Oren Burks and a trio of solid performers in Torren McGaster, Tre Herndon and Tre Tarpley. Among the reserves who are also back: Corners Taurean Ferguson and LaDarius Wiley and safeties Ryan White and Emmanuel Smith.