Five toughest players to replace in the SEC

ArDarius Stewart is the heir apparent to Amari Cooper at Alabama. AP Photo/Butch Dill

Sometimes you get lucky.

Georgia did when it lost one of its best running backs in school history, Todd Gurley. Instead of agonizing over who was next, the Bulldogs simply turned to Nick Chubb as their next Heisman Trophy-caliber back.

In a sense, Florida got lucky, too. The Gators lost a top-three NFL draft pick in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., but the defense isn’t expected to experience any drop-off thanks to its young pass-rushing corps and one of the best secondaries in the country, led by everybody’s All-American, Vernon Hargreaves III.

But not all SEC programs were as fortunate as Florida and Georgia. Thanks to the attrition of stars this offseason, several schools are facing serious questions about who will replace their production.

Setting aside the obvious position of quarterback and the many ongoing battles there, here is a look at five of the most important players who need to be replaced, along with those who could replace them:

WR Amari Cooper, Alabama

Potential replacement: ArDarius Stewart

The praise for Stewart has been plentiful since Alabama lost to Ohio State in the playoff. It started in the spring, thanks to an A-Day scrimmage in which he led all receivers with eight catches, 118 yards and two touchdowns. And early during preseason camp, the hype has continued, with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin calling him “probably the most talented guy that we have.” Stewart certainly showed flashes of explosive ability last year, but he was buried on the depth chart and caught only 12 passes. Now, in the words of coach Nick Saban, “His confidence is growing, and I think he’s the next guy that we need sort of to be the man when it comes to playing receiver and playing with consistency.”

DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas

Potential replacements: JaMichael Winston, Jeremiah Ledbetter

There may not have been a more underrated player in the SEC last season than Flowers, who was third on the team in tackles (68), first in tackles for loss (15.5), first in sacks (six) and first in QB hurries (nine). The NFL knew how good he was, and the New England Patriots drafted him the fourth round. Now his production and leadership will be missed, and it’s Winston’s time to step up. Coaches have raved about the 6-foot-4, 262-pound junior’s potential for each of the last two offseasons. But despite starting 12 games last season at defensive end, he failed to register a single sack. So if he doesn’t break out, look to Ledbetter, a junior college transfer. The 6-3, 280-pound prospect put up huge numbers in two seasons at Hutchinson (Kansas) CC: 144 tackles and 22.5 sacks.

DB Senquez Golson, Ole Miss

Potential replacements: Tony Conner, Tee Shepard

No one expected Golson to develop into the SEC’s leader in interceptions last season (10). Coaches thought he had talent, but even they didn’t peg the senior as a second-round pick in the NFL draft. Now they have to replace him, along with the previous season’s leader in interceptions, Cody Prewitt. So who will be the next Reb to make a run at the SEC lead for picks? Conner is an obvious candidate. The former top-25 prospect in the class of 2013 has developed into one of the league’s most talented defensive backs, an All-SEC selection and candidate to turn pro early after this season. But if anyone can come out of nowhere like Golson did, it’s Shepard, who missed last season after tearing a tendon in his toe. Ole Miss fans will remember that the former junior college standout and Notre Dame signee was reportedly ahead of Golson on the depth chart prior to his injury.

ILB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State

Potential replacements: Richie Brown, Gerri Green

McKinney was the starter, but he wasn’t the linebacker equivalent of an every-down back. According to coach Dan Mullen, last season was McKinney’s fewest snaps as a starter. That’s because of the rotation Mullen and former defensive coordinator Geoff Collins employed, subbing in the “1B” unit as much as possible. That meant plenty of reps for Brown, who finished sixth on the team in tackles (50) as a sophomore, in addition to hauling in a team-leading three interceptions. As far as who will fill be the 1B middle linebacker now that Brown has elevated to starter, look no further than Green. The redshirt freshman has put on 20 pounds since arriving in Starkville and hasn’t lost any athleticism in the process. People there compare him favorably to McKinney, who underwent a similar physical transformation early in his career and blossomed into one of the SEC’s best linebackers.

DE Shane Ray, Missouri

Potential replacements: Charles Harris, Terry Beckner Jr.

Harold Brantley’s name is supposed to be listed here. He was supposed to be the next in line at “D-Line Zou,” replacing the production of Ray, who was a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft. But Brantley got into a car accident. Thankfully his injuries weren’t career-threatening, but he won’t see the field this season. So instead of Brantley, it will be someone else’s turn to step up. And the man most likely to do that is Harris, a projected starter even before Brantley’s injury. The sophomore and former basketball standout played in all 14 games last season, starting one game and finishing with four tackles for loss and two sacks. If Harris is to get any help rushing the passer, it could come in the form of Beckner Jr. Already being referred to as a “manchild” by one teammate, ESPN’s No. 1-rated defense tackle in 2015 is expected to contribute immediately.