Potential SEC contenders relying on players back from injury
The fortunes of several potential Southeastern Conference contenders could hinge largely on players returning from serious injuries.
Two of Mississippi's - and the SEC's - top players, left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Laquon Treadwell, are returning from broken legs. Alabama is getting back versatile tailback Kenyan Drake, who also had a broken leg, and Auburn has defensive end Carl Lawson and guard Alex Kozan in the lineup again after they missed all of the 2014 season.
Auburn likely wouldn't be the trendy pick to win the SEC title without the return of Lawson and Kozan, starters who missed last season after playing significant roles in the Tigers' league championship season as freshmen.
Lawson's absence in particular was felt by the Tigers, who struggled to muster much of a pass rush without him.
''Both of the guys had an impact on leading us to that SEC championship and the national championship game, and both of them were big blows,'' Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. ''Especially Carl, a guy that can really rush the passer. You saw that the second half of last season, we had trouble putting pressure on the quarterback. To have him back is a very good thing.''
Lawson had knee surgery in spring 2014 and Kozan had back surgery after a weightlifting injury sustained while at home in Colorado last summer.
''We ran behind him and (then-left tackle) Greg Robinson probably the last five or six games of 2013, when everybody in the country knew we were going to do it,'' Malzahn said.
The injuries to Treadwell, Tunsil and Drake were captured on national television. Tunsil was hurt during the Rebels' bowl game while Treadwell went down on a pivotal play during a loss to Auburn in a matchup of Top-5 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings.
''Honestly he looks bigger, stronger and faster than he did before he got hurt last year,'' Engram said. ''I'm looking forward to him having a big year.''
The Rebels, and whoever emerges as their starting quarterback, are counting on it.
At Alabama, Drake is expected to play multiple roles teaming up with Derrick Henry in the backfield and also lining up at wideout after catching four touchdown passes before his injury.
Losing those players especially had an impact on teams contending much of the season for spots in the College Football Playoff. Alabama still made it in after losing Drake but lost the Ole Miss game in which he was injured and barely squeaked by Arkansas the following week before regrouping.
Ole Miss went 2-2 after Treadwell's injury. The Rebels were outscored 72-3 in losses to Arkansas and then TCU in the Peach Bowl, where Tunsil went down with a similar injury.
Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said ''all signs point to'' Treadwell being 100 percent for the Sept. 5 opener against Tennessee-Martin. Losing him was tough to overcome.
''For it to happen like it did - adversity is certainly a teaching tool, but that next week, I don't know,'' Freeze said. ''I tried everything in the world, but I didn't sense that we could rebound from it.''
Other players returning from injury in the SEC include Tennessee wide receivers Josh Smith (high ankle sprain) and Marquez North (torn labrum), who both had their seasons cut short. Florida tight end Jake McGee, a graduate transfer from Virginia, received a sixth year of eligibility after a broken leg in the opener ended his 2014 campaign.
Gators leading tackler Antonio Morrison missed the spring after injuring his left knee in the bowl game against East Carolina. Texas A&M center Mike Matthews missed the Aggies bowl game and spring practice with a broken foot.
The SEC players returning from injury are hoping for good fortune after all the rehab work and time watching their teammates play.
''It's definitely been a hard road,'' Drake said. ''I've never had an injury to that extent before. Once it happened I had to really realize this wouldn't be a two- or three-week injury, it's going to be a four-or five-month injury.
''I still kind of have aches and pains a little bit but it's all about your mindset, and I'm ready to get back on the field with my teammates.''