The Connolly Awards: Part One

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This full column appears on SECCountry.com

As we enter award season it’s time for me to hand out some honors of my own.

Welcome to the first annual “Connolly’s”. Yes, I know it’s self-indulgent, but I couldn’t get the “Vernie’s” past the copyright folks (thank you Vern).

Today we start with what amounts to the team of the year, individual awards for the best player at each position. The award is a combination of production, level of play, and schematic intrigue, with the tie-breaker going to whoever was the most fun to watch.

Quarterback — Austin Allen, Arkansas

There’s no denying that Jalen Hurts’ had the greatest impact of any individual quarterback, reinventing Alabama’s offense and propelling the team back to the Playoff. But for as good as he has been, was not the best quarterback in the SEC this season. For me, that goes to Austin Allen

Allen also remade his offense, transforming the Razorbacks into a pass first team that pushes the ball down the field. No quarterback this year was better playing in rhythm or having to make throws while under fire. But it’s down the field where he did most of his damage. A lot of what Arkansas does come off heavy play-action, and Allen has shown the ability to mix up his velocities and trajectories to all levels of the field. He led all quarterbacks in the conference in passer rating on throes of 20 yards or more. Allen won’t receive the same attention as some bigger names, but his touch, accuracy, and poise make him the most impressive quarterback this year.

Running Back — Kamryn Pettway, Auburn

The post-season running back award looks much to different to any pre-season projections. Leonard Fournette missed most of the season with an injury, Jalen Hurd had a poor year, and none of Alabama’s backs put in the type of season we’ve become accustom to.

I cut the list down to three players: Benjamin Snell, Derrius Guice, and Kamryn Pettway.

Guice is an extraordinary talent, who filled in whenever Fournette was injured. He finished second in the SEC in yards per carry and played like a human highlight reel. His ability to accelerate while he cuts, as if he’s gliding above the surface, is special. And in a one-cut and go LSU system he was devastating.

So to was Benjamin Snell at Kentucky. Whenever he was on the field the Wildcats’ offense was far more dynamic. He showed power between the tackles, a good burst, and was exceptional when asked to handle the ball as a Wildcat quarterback. Snell — a freshman — is going to be a big-time difference-maker for a number of years.

In the end, I plumped for Pettway. I’ll admit, a lot of it is based on aesthetics. His power and aggression seeps through the screen, and his high neck roll is a real throwback look.

Pettway didn’t start the season for Auburn, and he missed time at the end of it with injuries. But whenever he was in the lineup he was the best runner in the league. His power is jarring, but he isn’t just a plodder. His vision allows him to condense through small crevices and then explode into daylight. Like all great power backs, he got better as games went along, delivering blows to linebackers and safeties rather than vice versa.

In eight games, he had six 100-yard performances, five of which went for over 150-yards. But more importantly than that the sophomore was tremendous fun to watch, lighting up defenders and bringing a physical dimension to Auburn’s option-based attack.

Wide Receiver — Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M

This one was tricky.

For my money, Antonio Callaway is the best receiver in the SEC. He is a smooth runner who effortlessly accelerates through the gears, and runs some of the sweetest double-moves I’ve ever seen from an SEC receiver.

However, the production didn’t match the talent. The majority of the blame for that falls on the Florida quarterback situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t impact games as much as others around the conference.

Josh Reynolds, by comparison, has the talent and the production. He was the best deep threat in the SEC and was a constant explosive play waiting to happen. His 23 catches on balls that travelled 20-yards or more led the conference. But he wasn’t just a deep threat, his consistently down-to-down and ability to make plays after the catch, edge him past Callaway and the rest of the competition.

Tight End — Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas

If this were based purely on receiving or considering the best “offensive weapon” Evan Engram would win in a landslide. And if this were based just on talent it would be hard to argue with OJ Howard.

However, Engram is essentially a wide receiver. While he moves all over the offensive formation, it’s almost certainly to diagnose coverages for the quarterback or to run pass patterns. For this award, I’m evaluating all facets of the position: receiving, run-blocking, and their ability in pass protection.

No one can argue that Howard hasn’t been willing and able to do the dirty work. If anything, the knock-on Howard is simply that he’s been underutilized in the passing game. Alabama’s spread to run system now includes an awful lot of veer-options and split-zone options, concepts that specifically rely on Howard’s ability to move, locate defenders, and seal them with the correct angle block. In that regard he’s been a star. And as a receiver, going back to last year’s National Championship game, he has shown the talent to be an explosive game-wrecker. But we haven’t seen enough of that this year, primarily because he hasn’t been asked to do so (a majority of Alabama’s passing concepts are designed to be thrown behind the line of scrimmage).

That leaves Jeremy Sprinkle as the best overall tight end. He is a dominant blocker in the run game and is consistently kept in to protect Austin Allen on maximum protections. As a receiver, he is fantastic. He is an exceptional athlete with a naturally large frame and good speed for someone of his size. That innately creates matchup problems for defenses. However, it’s his subtly as a receiver that sets him apart. He is a smooth route runner and finds way to create late separation (the best kind of separation).

Offensive Tackle — Jonah Williams, Alabama

In a down year for tackle play, in part because of the crazy-high level of edge-rushers, Alabama’s right tackle has been the best.

It’s tough to describe just how impressive Williams has been, as a freshman, without indulging in some serious hyperbole.

He has rare feet and athleticism for his size. As a run blocker, he can do whatever is required: play with perfect technique and use the necessary angle, or run lineup and maul someone. His mobility allows him to kick or pull into space and has helped to diversify the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack.

Where he’s really impressed is in pass protection. In fact, he’s been more consistent in that department than his team-mate (and potential first round pick) Cam Robinson. Whereas Robinson raised his game against better completion, Williams has shut down everyone he’s faced. He’s shown the ability to kick-step to prevent speed, anchor against power, and redirect against counter-moves, even when facing the best competition.

Guard — Braden Smith, Auburn

Another year, another great rushing attack from Gus Malzahn, another top-level interior lineman.

The Tigers’ spent the early part of the season shuffling their offensive line, and finally found a configuration that turned their rushing attack into an out-and-out juggernaut.

A huge part of that was Smith, who has the athleticism to pull and move, or climb to the second-level to seal off linebackers and launch explosive runs.

At their best, Auburn lined up and rammed the ball down opponent’s throats, even when the opponent knew it was coming. Their demolition of Mississippi State was as impressive as any game this season, with Smith putting on as dominant a show as you’ll see from an interior lineman.

Center — Frank Ragnow, Arkansas

I know, I know, a third Arkansas player makes the offensive team.

I could have mixed this up. There’s certainly plenty of worthy candidates: Ethan Pocic, Bradley Bozeman and Jon Toth were all outstanding this year. But Ragnow was the best.

He is a key reason why they led the conference in passing yards per attempt, helping contain any interior pressure. But he was also the key man in their intricate gap running scheme: holding the point, and setting up angles while others pulled.

At times, he’s that classic “man amongst boys” type lineman, just out their fork lifting defensive lineman and making NFL scouts drool.

Edge — Derek Barnett, Tennessee

I went back-and-forth here. On the one hand, we have Myles Garrett, a player I believe to be the most talented in the country. On the other hand, we have Derek Barnett, an outrageously talented edge-rusher with gaudy numbers and a number of season-defining plays.

Ultimately, those plays tipped it to Barnett. And I’m genuinely stunned at how little national attention he has received for some this year’s top prizes.

Let’s run through some of his numbers:

  • 42.5 tackles (5.9 percent of the team’s total tackles).
  • 18 tackles for loss. EIGHTEN. ONE-EIGHT.
  • 12 sacks. TWELVE.
  • 1 interception
  • 3 pass breakups (how in the what?)
  • 2 forced fumbles.

That’s just flat-out monstrous production. Garrett may wind up being the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, but I’m giving Barnett the Connolly.

Defensive Line — Jonathan Allen, Alabama

I really need someone to answer me this: why wasn’t Jonathan Allen in the conversation for the Heisman?

I understand that at this point it’s basically an offensive award. I mean, the only to defensive representative this year is heading to New York because of the flashy things he did on offense and special teams.

In terms of pure defense, who has been more impactful than Allen?

He is a dominant interior force, and the best player on a historically great defense. His initial burst is shocking for someone of his size, and his hand-usage is as polished as any interior player I’ve ever evaluated.

If the Heisman was what it’s supposed to be: who’s the best player in college football? There’s no way that Allen is comfortably in the top-three.

I guess he’ll have to settle for this, sorry Jonathan.

Inside Linebacker — Rueben Foster, Alabama

I can already hear the outrage in Nashville.

I love Zach Cunningham as much as everyone else. He is an incredible athlete, with an unrivalled ability to shoot gaps and create negative plays.

Essentially, I have both he and Reuben Foster in a tie for the best inside linebacker this year. So the tiebreaker, as always, was awarded to the player I enjoy watching most. That’s where I give the nod to Foster.

His sideline-to-sideline speed and hitting power are both must-watch TV. His performance vs. USC at the start of the year was everything I ever want to see from a linebacker: speed, tackling, hitting, and flashing all over the field.

Cornerback — Quincy Wilson, Florida

Another crowded field.

I had to get a representative in from Florida’s defense somewhere. After all, they carried the team all the way to the SEC title game.

I couldn’t squeeze in Caleb Brantley over Jonathan Allen, and the other potential candidates — linebacker Jared Davis and safety Marcus Maye — didn’t get to play the whole year due to injuries.

As usual, the Gators were loaded at cornerback. This award could easily go to either Teez Tabor or Quincy Wilson, but I went for Wilson because, in my opinion, he is the better player.

Wilson is an elite press-man corner, and is excellent at tracking the ball down the field. He isn’t the same kind of playmaker that Tabor is (those things are shown in the box score), but he’s a better run defender, and is the best corner in the conference at following route combinations.

Safety — Jamal Adams, LSU

There isn’t really another defensive piece in the SEC quite like Adams: A genuine defensive weapon.

One of the major difficulties for any offense facing LSU’s defense this season (aside from a boatload of talent and a great coordinator) was trying to figure out where Adams was pre- and post-snap. He is such a hybrid and versatile player that he moves all over the defensive formation, aligns in funky spots, and is given unique assignments.

His ability to cover in the slot helped eliminate players who are traditionally matchup nightmares for defenses. And his freakish athletic ability (speed and length) allowed him to make big play after big play all over the field.

The SEC was blessed with great safety play this year. Justin Evans and Armani Watts at Texas A&M had excellent years. Kentucky’s Mike Edwards is one of the most underrated players in the conference. And Florida’s Marcus Maye was a crucial component of the no-fly zone that the Gators’ built in Gainesville.

But for as talented as they all are, and as well as they played, there are things that Adams did that no other player could replicate.

This full column appears on SECCountry.com

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