Having trouble waiting until the start of college football season? In a series on Sundays, the Times Free Press has provided top-three lists on various Southeastern Conference topics. Today's final list contains this season's most irreplaceable players.
1. Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton
Players such as South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower are far more touted and talented, but the Gamecocks and Crimson Tide still would survive and even thrive at those positions because of their depth.
Take away Newton, who has the task of extending Kentucky's program record of five consecutive bowl appearances, and the Wildcats are left with two guys who were in high school last year. The only other scholarship quarterback who went through spring practice in Lexington was midyear enrollee Maxwell Smith.
Newton, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior, completed 4 of 7 passes for 54 yards during the 2010 regular season, when he was Mike Hartline's backup. When Hartline was suspended for the BBVA Compass Bowl, Newton started and was less than overwhelming, completing 21 of 36 attempts for 211 yards in a 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh.
Kentucky second-year head coach Joker Phillips likes what he's seen in the months since.
"I saw us become a more efficient passing team this spring," Phillips said, "and I'm pleased with the way Morgan Newton has taken a hold of this offense, especially the passing game. I am pleased with his progress. Watching how he improved and how different he looked got you excited."
Newton made eight starts following an injury to Hartline in 2009, and he completed 75 of 135 attempts for 706 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. The Wildcats went 5-3 in those games, and Newton became the first starting quarterback to win at Auburn and at Georgia in his career since Tennessee's Tee Martin on the way to the 1998 national championship.
He will need not only to stay healthy this season but excel on an offense that no longer has tailback Derrick Locke (887 rushing yards last season), receiver Chris Matthews (925 receiving yards) and the do-everything Randall Cobb (1,017 receiving and 424 rushing yards). Cobb threw three touchdown passes a year ago, which were three more than Newton.
2. Florida safety Matt Elam
Elam arrived in Gainesville last year as the No. 1 safety nationally according to Scout.com and No. 2 according to Rivals.com. The early enrollee played in all 13 games and was used a lot in nickel situations, but there never was much pressure for him to shine with veteran starters Ahmad Black and Wil Hill on the field.
There is now.
Black was drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April, while Hill was passed over after electing to skip his senior season. That has left the 5-10, 205-pound Elam as the leader of the safeties and the entire secondary, which no longer has talented but troublesome cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
Elam had 22 tackles and a fumble recovery last season, and his five tackles and sack were among the lone bright spots in the 31-6 loss at Alabama.
He had an excellent spring and will start alongside junior Josh Evans, who is effective but may not be able to match Elam's upside. The backups are Joshua Shaw, who played in one game last season as a true freshman, walk-on Tim Clark and freshmen Jabari Gorman and Chris Johnson.
Florida's front seven has the potential to be impressive, but Elam must stay healthy if the Gators are to rank among the league's best defenses.
3. Georgia left tackle Cordy Glenn
Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray may seem like the better choice after his dazzling redshirt freshman season, but coach Mark Richt has proven he can develop quarterbacks and has the promising duo of Hutson Mason and Christian LeMay waiting in the wings.
The offensive line has been a different story in the Richt era, and attrition this year has been especially difficult following the injury to tackle Trinton Sturdivant and the transfers of tackle A.J. Harmon and guard Brent Benedict.
Glenn has 35 career starts but hasn't started at tackle since making four starts on the left side early in the 2009 season. Yet due to the losses of Sturdivant and Harmon, the 6-5, 320-pounder is far and away the team's best tackle and will protect Murray's blind slide.
Starting right tackle Justin Anderson was on the defensive front last year and played one game before undergoing surgery for turf toe. The next best tackle in the program is redshirt sophomore Austin Long, who underwent back surgery before arriving in Athens.