The Southeastern Conference, once known more for churning out 1,000-yard rushers, has become a hotbed for elite receivers and tight ends flourishing in more wide-open passing games.
DeVonta Smith is piling up yards, touchdowns and highlight-reel catches at Alabama. Ditto for Florida's Kyle Pitts and Mississippi's Elijah Moore.
And that's even minus the huge amount of talent lost to opt-outs and injuries, from Alabama's Jaylen Waddle to LSU's JaMarr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr.
No matter. Smith & Co. have picked up the slack. The Alabama senior has even joined his quarterback, Mac Jones, and Florida QB Kyle Trask in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
“If you watch the games, I’d assume you could see that DeVonta is one of the best players in the country,” Jones said.
Pitts, the Gators' mismatch-in-waiting tight end, and Mississippi receiver Moore have been awfully good too.
The SEC boasts several of the nation's top targets, even if the pool of elite pass catchers has thinned considerably.
Chase, who won the Biletnikoff Award after a record-setting 2019 season, opted out before the season. Marshall followed suit last week.
Waddle was lost for the season with an ankle injury on the opening kickoff against Tennessee. A dangerous punt returner, he was good enough to even overshadow Smith.
No receiver is overshadowing Smith now, especially after a monster four-game stretch when he has 35 catches for 749 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 219 yards and three touchdowns by halftime against LSU.
But as top-heavy as the league's group of receivers is, the collection of talent that could be catching balls this season shows how many top-flight targets have signed with SEC teams in recent seasons.
Three SEC receivers — Alabama's Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy and LSU's Justin Jefferson — were among the top 22 players in the latest NFL draft after leaving early.
No. 5 Texas A&M has somehow remained in playoff contention despite losing or moving its top six receivers. Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers left early for the NFL draft after last season. Last year’s top receiver Jhamon Ausbon opted out and two others had season-ending injuries while Ainias Smith moved to tailback.
The talent that remains in the SEC has been impressive:
— Smith is threatening to outshine a number of Alabama receivers who went on to become first-round picks. He has 80 catches for 1,305 yards and 15 touchdowns, including a highlight reel, leaping one-handed touchdown grab against LSU when the ball appeared likely to sail out of bounds.
“From a great catch standpoint, there’s a highlight reel that goes on forever with Smitty," Jones said.
Smith returned for his senior year and even in a shortened season is one receiving touchdown shy of Amari Cooper's single-season school mark set in 2014. He is making a case for Heisman consideration.
“Ultimately, I’m here to win a championship,” Smith, who already owns the SEC career mark for receiving touchdowns, said after the LSU game. “If I’m in the Heisman race I’m in it. I’m not too much really focused on it, but I’m ultimately here just to win a championship. That’s the reason I came back.”
—The 6-foot-6, 246-pound Pitts has been so productive that the Gators' tight end is a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's top wide receiver.
“I would say the Biletnikoff really surprised me because I always knew it as a wide receiver award and when I did see that I was a semi-finalist, I was like, ‘oh, ok. Kind of interesting,’" Pitts said.
Despite missing two games with injuries, Pitts has 36 catches for 641 yards and 11 touchdowns.
—Moore leads the nation with 86 catches and his 1,193 yards — the most by any SEC receiver after eight games — ranks second. Only two FBS receivers have topped his 505 yards after catch, Alabama’s Smith (677) and Clemson’s Amari Rodgers (506).
—Other standout receivers include the Auburn duo Seth Williams and speedster Anthony Schwartz, Arkansas' Treylon Burks, Florida's Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes and Alabama's John Metchie III.
And SEC teams continue to catch recruiting talent.
LSU signed the nation's top tight end Arik Gilbert for 2020 and counting him, three of the nation's top four receiver prospects signed with SEC teams based on the 247Sports composite rankings. Gilbert leads the Tigers' current players in receiving.
LSU and Alabama are set to reload at receiver. Half of 247Sports' top 14 receiver prospects in the 2021 class have pledged to either the Tigers or Tide, including No. 2-rated Jacorey Brooks of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Brooks is an Alabama commitment.
“I just think the league is better from top to bottom now, and that’s probably because of the skill players on offense and people’s capabilities of scoring points and making plays,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I mean, we’re giving up 18-1/2 points a game; 10 years ago we gave up 8 points a game.
“It’s a pretty big difference in terms of what it takes to play good defense against good offenses and the kind of skill players that you see right now in this league.”
___ AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kristie Rieken contributed to this report.
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