1. CB Justis Nelson. Nelson has had an up-and-down career and that’s probably generous. Nelson started as a true freshman, late in the year, thinking that he was going to be a terrific addition due to his length at cornerback. Nelson has flip-flopped between cornerback and safety, there are times where I think the coaches think that he’s too light to play safety, but when he gets to cornerback, he is consistently beat deep. Honestly, though, Nelson has probably outplayed his initial ranking. He was a 3 star prospect and wasn’t ranked or rated on any state lists with his only offers being Air Force and Harvard. Nelson has never put on weight to be able to play safety, only weighing 173 last year, and at 6’2″, that’s still very light. I still don’t know where Nelson should play and tend to think that he should be a centerfield type of player in obvious passing situations. I don’t see him as a full-time starter at this point of his career. I’d love to see him do that one thing really well.
2. WR Reginald Davis. Had it not been for a late surge by Jakeem Grant (Grant had 3 against LSU), Davis would be the leader for touchdowns last year with 8. Before that LSU game, Grant only had 7 touchdowns and Davis did score one touchdown in that LSU game as well, but consistently Davis was the leader for receiving touchdowns for the year. That’s the thing, though, is that Davis was captain consistency because he had a touchdown in 7 games last year, but he was wildly inconsistent with the yards he gained. His high was 115 yards against Arkansas, but then followed that up with 5 yards against Baylor the very next week. That’s the thing about Davis, he’s got to be there each and every week and until he can be a consistent threat, he’ll be passed up in the depth chart.
3. OL Baylen Brown. It’s nothing short of amazing to think that Brown is already a senior. Brown manned either right guard or right tackle this past year, depending on the injuries. When Justin Murphy was playing right guard, Brown was at right tackle, but when Murphy went down, Brown went back to guard, a spot he played the year before last. I wasn’t sure that Brown really had the feet to play tackle, but it seemed to work early in the year with Murphy. I don’t know how much Brown really needs to improve and somewhat feel that he’s at his peak in terms of what he’s going to do. He’ll be a very solid contributor, I think preferably on the inside, and shouldn’t hear his name very much, if at all.
4. S Keenon Ward. Ward started and then didn’t start at times last year. Jah’Shawn Johnson seemed to be the consistent guy, while Ward and J.J. Gaines seemed to trade off on who started at the other spot. Ward is a thick player, who probably is best playing in the box, while that also seems like what Johnson excels at too. That’s the thing that maybe this team has lacked, which is this free-flowing safety prospect who can cover significant ground in the secondary. That’s now what Ward does, but he will play the run, and he’s been featured by a few tweets from Rusty Whitt about Ward’s strength. He does hit and tackle well, so long as he doesn’t get sucked into a play too quickly, which happens more than I’d like to see. It will be interesting to see how David Gibbs plays the safety spots this year. You can presume it is going to be Johnson, but if Johnson can be better about playing in space, I’d love to see Ward play closer to the line of scrimmage. It will also be interesting to see how guys like Payton Hendrix and Christian Taylor can force their way into the lineup.
5. Paul Banks III. Banks had one year to get acclimated last year and now he’s a senior and he needs to perform. Banks hardly played at all towards the beginning of the year, started to see some time at cornerback, especially during that stretch where every cornerback struggled to keep the play from going for a touchdown and Banks wasn’t immune from that. That’s the thing about JUCO guys, they get a bit of time to make an impact and then they’re gone. I tend to think that Banks, Polite-Bray, Madison and Nelson will all get the opportunity to push their way on the field. My money’s on Polite-Bray, but I’m hoping that each of these players can improve on some level and with Banks being the most mature of the bunch, hope that he could make a jump.
Ed. Note: In doing this exercise and trying to come up with five seniors it dawned on me how young this team is going to be this year. Or maybe the proper term will be how this team has very few seniors leading this team. There were a ton of seniors, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, but this year, there are few seniors on this team . This may be a situation where 2017 may be significantly improved on 2016 by the time it’s all said and done.