LITTLE ROCK — The 2013 schedule has Arkansas in the unenviable position of assessing which of the SEC’s elite in 2012 were best able to deal with players leaving early for the NFL draft.
Six SEC teams were 6-2 or better in the league last year and the Razorbacks play five of them, more than anybody else. Among the six-game winners, LSU has the most difficult schedule, facing four others from the group and the Tigers are the unquestioned biggest loser in the early exodus from college with 10 of the 31 players not counting former cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
Only 12 underclassmen from the SEC jumped into the draft last year, but seven were taken in the first round. Many in this year’s group are held in equally high esteem.
Every team loses quality players who have completed their eligibility — for example, quarterback Tyler Wilson and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton at Arkansas — but their exit date is established. Even at Alabama and LSU, where highly ranked recruiting classes are routine, reload is overused when it comes to replacing All-SEC players who leave early.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the underclassmen who left the SEC’s best, which teams suffered the biggest personnel losses, and where those teams fall on Arkansas’ schedule:
—No. 1, LSU: The group includes linebacker Kevin Minter, defensive end Sam Montgomery, and safety Eric Reid, each a first-team All-SEC player. Add in second-team all-conference defensive end Barkevious Mingo and the Tigers’ defense has to take a step back in 2013. Les Miles’ take on the departures: “I like the fact that we send guys to the NFL early and recruit guys with the potential to go to the NFL early.” Arkansas at LSU, Nov. 30.
—No. 2, Florida: Safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd were first team All-SEC players on a unit that carried the Gators. Also gone is linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who missed so much playing time with injuries that coaches thought he would return. Tight end Jordan Reed, second team All-SEC, was on the receiving end of 45 of Jeff Driskel’s 156 completions. Arkansas at Florida, Oct. 5.
—No. 3, Texas A&M: A surprise considering the Aggies only have two players, but offensive tackle Luke Joeckel and defensive end Damontre Moore are at the top of the class. An analyst for NFL Network has Joeckel as the No. 1 pick and Moore as No. 2. Bucky Brooks describes Joeckel as a “franchise-caliber left tackle prospect” and Moore as a “disruptive edge player with exceptional first-step quickness …” A&M at Arkansas, Sept. 28.
—No. 4, Alabama: Offensive tackle DJ Fluker, running back Eddie Lacy, and cornerback Dee Milliner were all first team All-SEC. The impact of Fluker’s exit is compounded by the fact that center Barrett Jones and guard Chance Warmack were seniors, but T.J. Yeldon will make fans forget Lacy. Yes, Miliner might be the best cover corner in the class, but that’s Nick Saban’s specialty. Arkansas at Alabama, Oct. 19.
—No. 5, Georgia: Another team losing three defensive players, including Kwame Geathers, who was not good enough to start in front of noseman John Jenkins. Linebacker Jarvis Jones was first team All-SEC and running mate Alec Ogletree was second team. Not on Arkansas’ schedule.
—No. 6, South Carolina: An easy choice for the least affected. Twice severely injured running back Marcus Lattimore is the Gamecocks’ only underclassmen. South Carolina at Arkansas, Oct. 12.
Arkansas suffered slightly more than the Gamecocks from players leaving early. Guard Alvin Bailey started 38 games and the assessment of running back Knile Davis is only what might have been. A 1,300-yard rusher in 2010, Davis did not come close to that form until the season finale against LSU and nobody can blame him for leaving after four years on campus.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.