The SEC has been a breeding ground for big-time receivers over the last few years. Alabama’s Amari Cooper is projected as a top-10 pick in May’s NFL draft, and look at the seasons Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews all had as rookies.
As we turn the page to the 2015 season, who in the SEC looks the strongest at the wide receiver/tight end position? Keeping in mind that this list may (and probably will) change once the season gets here, here’s our pre-spring ranking:
1. Texas A&M: Even with the departure of Malcome Kennedy, the Aggies are loaded. Eight different wide receivers return who caught touchdown passes last season. Josh Reynolds was one of the league's top breakout players a year ago with 13 touchdown catches and earned second-team All-SEC honors from the AP. Edward Pope, like Reynolds, is a big target at 6-foot-4. Ricky Seals-Jones is even bigger at 6-5 and will be two years removed from his ACL tear, and Speedy Noil is the most explosive of the bunch.
2. Tennessee: The Vols have depth, experience and versatility. Marquez North is the most physically imposing of the group, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury. Teams won’t be able to concentrate on him, though, because Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Jason Croom are all back along with Josh Smith, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Sophomore Ethan Wolf has all the tools to be Tennessee’s next All-SEC tight end.
3. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren't the same offensively last season after Laquon Treadwell broke his leg in the Auburn game. He’s working his way back, and if healthy, will be one of the top receivers in the league. Veterans Cody Core and Quincy Adeboyejo are back, while redshirt freshman Sammie Epps and transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow, who played at Washington in 2013, should be nice additions. Markell Pack was mostly a punt returner last season and is a candidate to take Vince Sanders’ spot. Don't forget about Evan Engram, either. He led all SEC tight ends with 662 receiving yards last season.
4. Mississippi State: This will be the most talented group of receivers Dan Mullen has had in Starkville, which is great news for returning senior quarterback Dak Prescott. It all starts with the 6-5, 225-pound De’Runnya Wilson, who has developed into one of the SEC’s most difficult matchups after making the switch from hoops to football. Fred Brown, Fred Ross and Joe Morrow are also back, and they combined to catch 11 touchdown passes last season. Speedy junior college signee Donald Gray is already on campus and looks like a natural in the slot. Darrion Hutcherson (6-7, 260) steps in at tight end after coming over from junior college a year ago.
5. LSU: The Tigers have the guys who can catch it and go get it. Finding somebody who can get the ball to them will be the trick. Junior Travin Dural was sensational at times a year ago and has averaged 20.5 yards per catch during his two seasons at LSU. Malachi Dupre has major star potential after catching five touchdown passes as a true freshman. John Diarse (redshirt freshman) and Trey Quinn (true freshman) were two other first-year players who contributed last season and round out a rotation capable of doing some real damage down the field. The Tigers did lose two senior tight ends.
6. Auburn: Sammie Coates might be gone, but that doesn’t mean Auburn will be hurting at receiver. Duke Williams’ decision to return for his senior season was a nice surprise, and he gives the Tigers one of the top go-to threats in the league. Ricardo Louis and Tony Stevens are also back, and both have the kind of speed to stretch the field. The Tigers will be inexperienced at the tight end/H-back position with C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse gone. No returning scholarship player has played a snap at tight end.
7. Georgia: The X-factor of all X-factors is Malcolm Mitchell. Can he stay healthy? If he can avoid injuries, he has a chance to be one of the best deep threats in the league. It’s a similar story with Justin Scott-Wesley, who played in only six games last season. Look for dynamic return specialist Isaiah McKenzie to be more involved in the passing game, and holding onto prized freshman signee Terry Godwin was huge. He’ll play early. The Bulldogs’ tight end combo of Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome is the one of the best in the SEC.
8. South Carolina: The only reason the Gamecocks are this high is Pharoh Cooper. With Amari Cooper leaving early for the NFL, Pharoh Cooper returns as the best receiver in the SEC. He earned first-team All-SEC honors last season after catching 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns. After Cooper, there are a bunch of unknowns. Four of the top five wide receivers from last year are gone. The Gamecocks think redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel could develop into a nice complement to Cooper, and tight end Jerell Adams is more talented than he has played and could be in store for a breakout senior season.
9. Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s top three pass-catchers from 2014 are gone, including record-setting Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper, who carried Alabama at times. With Cooper no longer around, look for tight end O.J. Howard to become a much more consistent threat in the passing game. Junior Chris Black will get his chance to shine. The same goes for third-year sophomore Robert Foster. The up-and-comer to watch is 6-4, 208-pound Cam Sims, who played some last season as a true freshman.
10. Arkansas: Just about all of Arkansas’ key figures in the passing game are back, but the Hogs need to find a way to be more explosive in 2015. Junior college signee Dominique Reed has the speed to fill that role. Hunter Henry returns as one of the best tight ends in the league. Senior Keon Hatcher is back after leading the Hogs in catches (43), yards (558) and touchdowns (six). Jared Cornelius showed flashes as a true freshman, and the two wild cards are sophomore Kendrick Edwards and redshirt freshman Jojo Robinson, a pair of South Florida products.
11. Florida: The Gators haven’t had a receiver sniff first- or second-team All-SEC honors from the coaches since Percy Harvin in 2008. So it has been a while since they’ve had a true difference-maker at receiver. Demarcus Robinson has a chance to blossom in Jim McElwain’s offense after catching seven touchdown passes a year ago. Tight end Jake McGee returns for his sixth season after getting a waiver from the NCAA. He’s a transfer from Virginia and led the Cavaliers with 43 catches in 2013. He broke his leg in the Gators' first game last season.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two of their most productive receivers from a year ago, Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue. Ryan Timmons is back and is the most dynamic offensive threat on the team. He just needs to catch the ball more consistently. Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson both played as true freshmen last season, and each started multiple games and combined for 41 catches. Blake Bone also played as a true freshman. Early enrollee C.J. Conrad could be the answer at tight end. The Wildcats got very little production from that position last season.
13. Missouri: Ranking the Tigers this low probably isn't very wise when you consider the way they've continued to reload at receiver and the job receivers coach Pat Washington has done. He'll have his work cut out in 2015. Mizzou lost its top three wide receivers from a year ago. Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White combined to catch 23 of the team’s 25 touchdown passes. The Tigers will be looking for Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore to grow up in a hurry as sophomores. It helps that starting tight end Sean Culkin is back.
14. Vanderbilt: It’s a big offseason for C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford as the Commodores search for a true No. 1 threat. Trent Sherfield has a chance to be the team’s best deep threat after playing some as a true freshman. In fairness, it was difficult to evaluate the Commodores at receiver last season because they played so many different quarterbacks. Ronald Monroe is a redshirt freshman to watch, and senior tight end Steven Scheu returns after tying for the team lead with four touchdown catches a year ago and earning second-team All-SEC honors.