Six pivotal players in SEC football 2016: Nick Chubb, Gregory Little, Josh Dobbs and more

Published 5:58 am Thursday, July 14, 2016

By The Associated Press

Alabama has been in this spot before, searching for a quarterback as it heads into a season, and usually it has worked out just fine.

Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide has won four national titles since 2009 and three of those championships came with a first-time starting quarterback running the offense.

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So when talking about pivotal players in the Southeastern Conference, don’t be so quick to mention Alabama’s starting QB, whoever that might be. History suggests the Tide will be OK.

No one player will ever hold the fortunes of a team and, notwithstanding Alabama’s unique situation, the quarterback is going to be really important for every team. No need to name them all. With that said, here are six players who will play a big role in determining how things shake out in the SEC this season.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

Chubb was one of the best running backs in the country, right in the conversation with LSU’s Leonard Fournette, when he blew out his knee last October. The sophomore was averaging 124.5 yards per game. New Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said he expects Chubb back by preseason camp but hedged on when he will be fully ready to roll and if he will play in the opener against North Carolina.

Now Chubb’s very capable backup, Sony Michel, is expected to be out six to eight weeks after breaking his arm. And the Bulldogs are unsettled at quarterback and receiver. The difference between a successful first season for Smart and a bumpy transition could come down to how soon Chubb is back to being the player he was before the injury.

Gregory Little, OT, Mississippi

Laremy Tunsil is gone, leaving an NCAA mess and a big hole at left tackle behind in Oxford, Mississippi. In the 305-pound freshman from Texas, coach Hugh Freeze hopes he has another plug-and-play five-star lineman.

The Rebels used redshirt freshman Alex Givens and senior Jeremy Liggins, a high school quarterback-turned-tight end and now 300-pound lineman, at tackle during the spring, and could even move center Sean Rawlings back outside. But getting Little established on quarterback Chad Kelly’s blind side could make a huge difference.

Josh Dobbs, QB, Tennessee

The Volunteers are favored to win the East as coach Butch Jones’ rebuild appears to be nearing a peak. Dobbs has already established himself as dangerous dual-threat (2,291 yards passing, 671 yards rushing, 26 touchdowns accounted for) for a potentially powerful offense.

The question is whether he can take the next step from good to great player by improving his accuracy (59.6 completion rate) and ability to stretch the field. It could be the difference between the Vols playing for an SEC championship or a national championship.

Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M

The Aggies already have maybe the best defensive end in the country in Myles Garrett. Paired with edge pass rusher Daeshon Hall, Texas A&M has one of the best combos in the country outside.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis is hoping former five-star recruit Mack, who shed 25 pounds in the offseason to weigh-in at 315, can blossom into a steady run stuffer in the middle of a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league against the rush (5.01 yards per carry against).

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn

It’s a given that the Tigers need to solve a quarterback problem that was a big part of what ruined last season. Maybe JUCO transfer John Franklin is the next Nick Marshall? But for the second straight year Auburn’s defense was bad (5.37 yards per play allowed and just 19 sacks), and having a healthy Lawson could help change that.

Lawson missed all of 2014 (knee) and much of 2015 (hip), but has the potential to solve Auburn’s pass rush problem.

Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

The sophomore’s status with the team is murky. Callaway’s attorney says he has been held out due to a university conduct code issue. Coach Jim McElwain again this week said it’s still unclear when Callaway will be part of the team again.

Solely from a football standpoint, the Gators are lacking established playmakers, breaking in a new quarterback and could really use Callaway, who averaged 19.4 yards per catch last season.

Extra point

Eight more pivotal players: Brandon Harris, QB, LSU; Kody Walker, RB, Arkansas; Alex Ross, RB, Missouri; Matt Elam, DT, Kentucky; AJ Jefferson, DE, Mississippi State; Ralph Webb, RB, Vanderbilt.