Summer Simmer: Five Best Returning SEC Safeties
Five Best Returning SEC Safeties
As the numbers on the thermometer continue to rise, the numbers of days on the calendar until the start of College Football continue to decline. We’re under 100 days until the 2017 gridiron season kicks off. And to pass the time on summer break, we’re going to take a look at the five best returning players in the Southeastern Conference at each position. First on the block is the last line of defense, the safety position.
Check out our discussion on the five best returning SEC safeties with Mark Rogers of Mark Rogers TV here: Mark Rogers TV
5. Todd Kelly, Jr., Junior, Tennessee
Todd Kelly, Jr. lived in the shadow of Tennessee superstars Derek Barnett and Cameron Sutton last year. But Kelly, Jr.’s stat line is impressive: Two interceptions, 71 tackles, two pass break ups (PBUs), one sack, and one forced fumble. For a strong safety, that’s a complete stat line. With the numerous injuries Tennessee suffered last season, particularly on the defensive line and linebacker, Kelly, Jr. was critical in plugging some gaping holes on run defense.
Particularly in games against Missouri and Kentucky, Kelly, Jr. may have been the difference between disappointing and disaster for the 2016 Vols defense. With Barnett and Sutton off the NFL, Kelly, Jr. will certainly play more of a noticeable role for the Volunteers defense this season.
But statistics are only half the story with Todd Kelly, Jr. He is the tone setter in the secondary and a key leader in the locker room. He’s also a fan favorite and active in the community. Kelly, Jr. switched numbers before the 2016 to honor local high school hero Zaevion Dobson, who was killed while protecting friends from gunfire.
4. Mike Edwards, Junior, Kentucky
Mike Edwards might be one of the most underrated players in the entire conference. Yes, Edwards might benefit from the poor play of others around him and injuries across the Wildcat defense, but he still had to make the plays that came to him. Edwards was a machine for the Wildcat defense. He racked up three interceptions, 100 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss (tfls), eight PBUs, 11 passes defended (PDs), and .5 sacks.
You read that correctly — three interceptions, 19 total passes defended and 100 tackles. There’s almost no play that he wasn’t a part of for Kentucky’s defense last season. At a program like Kentucky, a player like Mike Edwards can be the single difference between going to a bowl and not going to a bowl.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Edwards is the most important returning player for the Wildcats this season.
3. Dominick Sanders, Senior, Georgia
Georgia’s Dominick Sanders came back down to earth last season after an incredible Sophomore season in 2015. He’s a little undersized, but his career numbers are off-the-charts. Over the last three seasons, Sanders has accumulated 12 interceptions, two touchdowns, 116 tackles, 8 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 18 PBUs.
Georgia’s defense returns ten of eleven starters, so the defensive line and linebacker play should be better. This team has a chance to be one of the top defenses in the nation — and Sanders will be a key contributor.
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Junior, Alabama
Must be nice to be Nick Saban and Jeremy Pruitt. You know, to have one of the ten best cornerbacks in the country and feel like you can move him to safety. Even without playing routinely at safety in 2016, Minkah Fitzpatrick‘s corner play and obvious talents make him the second best returning safety in the league in 2017.
Fitzpatrick accounted for six interceptions, 66 tackles, and 20 total passes defended in 2016. That’s incredible production playing on a defense with so much talent. Alabama lost five defensive players to the NFL Draft. Even among a defense that good, Fitzpatrick was able to distinguish himself.
With Alabama having to replace all but two starters on the front seven, the secondary will be key to Alabama turning in another Conference Championship season. Fitzpatrick will anchor a secondary that returns three starters. They are more than capable for that task.
1. Armani Watts, Senior, Texas A&M
Armani Watts is the most underrated player in the SEC. Over the past three seasons, Watts has six interceptions, 241 tackles, 14 TFLs, 13 PBUs, four forced fumbles, and one sack. He was the only player in the league in 2016 to record a sack, TFL, QB hurry, interception, forced fumble, and fumble recovery during the season. All of this playing for a defense that didn’t provide a lot of support outside of two all-world defensive ends.
Watts missed four games in 2016, and his absence was noticeable. The Aggies lost both games against Power 5 opponents that they played without Watts — against LSU and Kansas State. In those games, the Aggies gave up a total of 87 points to teams averaging 30 points per game. Watts in incredibly versatile as well, playing positions across the secondary for John Chavis‘ defense.
If Texas A&M wants to stay competitive in the SEC West, they will have to lean on Watts in the secondary.