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SEC Football: Top five wide receivers, honorable mentions for 2017 season

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

When one thinks of talented positions that the Southeastern Conference has to offer, its mind immediately goes to running back, linebacker, defensive back, and at times, quarterback.

Going into the upcoming fall, the wide receiver position will be of the utmost importance within the conference. Though it loses Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo (Ole Miss), Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones (Texas A&M), Josh Malone (Tennessee), ArDarius Stewart (Alabama) and others to the National Football League, much experience and talented youngsters return to rosters heading into the 2017 campaign.

After seeing first-year signal callers like Jalen Hurts, Jacob Eason, Austin Allen, Kyle Shurmur, Nick Fitzgerald and more get quality experience in 2016, the question will be which one of these guys will take the next step building chemistry and timing with their respective targets?

While spring practice is in full swing, yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine lays out the top five receivers for next season along with a few honorable mentions to be known in the SEC.

5.  Donald Gray|SR| Mississippi State Bulldogs

He didn’t post a 100-yard game in meetings against Southeastern Conference teams; nevertheless, having Donald Gray back does wonders for the development of Nick Fitzgerald.

The junior college transfer brought in 41 receptions for 709 yards and five touchdowns through 13 games a year ago. Though his performance against Samford was jaw-dropping – four catches, 207 yards, three touchdowns – Gray’s best outing in conference play came against Arkansas (seven catches, 92 yards).

Being able to create separation and stepping up more in big games will be aspects of improvement for him in the fall. In the absence of Fred Ross to the National Football League, Fitzgerald will look toward Gray.

4. Jared Cornelius|SR|Arkansas Razorbacks

Jared Cornelius returns to Fayetteville, Ark., as the top target for Austin Allen.

Following a 2015 season in which he caught 24 passes for 393 yards and three touchdowns (missed four games), Cornelius finished third on the team in receiving with 32 catches for 515 yards and four scores.

The 5-foot-11, 212-pounder turned in three 100-yard performances, including five catches for 146 yards versus Alabama in a 49-30 losing effort. In talking with Cole Eddy of Hawgs 247, he said was makes Cornelius dangerous at wide receiver is having a quick first step on his routes and possessing soft hands.

“When he is able to cut fast and create separation, he becomes tough to defend,” Eddy said.

Head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Dan Enos lost wide outs Keon Hatcher, Drew Morgan, Cody Hollister and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle to graduation/ upcoming NFL Draft.

With Cornelius back, Arkansas can develop a solid core around him.

3. Antonio Callaway|JR| Florida Gators

Antonio Callaway is one of two all-purpose wide outs in the SEC.

In two years at the University of Florida, he amassed the same number of receptions that Calvin Ridley totaled in his freshman year at Alabama (89). Callaway improved upon his receiving numbers from 2015, accounting for 721 yards and three touchdowns on 54 catches last year.

He’s very dangerous in the return game, chiming in with two career punt return touchdowns and a kick return for a score in 2016. Molding an ideal quarterback is pivotal for head coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier where helping Callaway is concerned.

2. Calvin Ridley|JR| Alabama Crimson Tide

To say Calvin Ridley endured a “sophomore slump” last season is a misfire.

He did not reach the 1,000-yard plateau from his freshman year; however, it was due to him working his game to fit that of quarterback Jalen Hurts. While Jacob Coker had big time arm talent and learned Alabama’s system prior to Ridley’s arrival in 2015, Hurts would revert to running the ball in times when he’s did not immediately see his first or second option available.

With the exception of his games against Kentucky (11-174- 2 TDs) and Ole Miss (8-81-TD), Ridley was more involved aiding the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack in conference play. He did end the year with 72 catches for 769 yards and seven scores. After graduating ArDarius Stewart, Gehrig Dieter and O.J. Howard to the NFL Draft, Ridley knows this fall is his time.

1. Christian Kirk|JR| Texas A&M Aggies 

Christian Kirk hurts opponents in a variety of ways.

He came 72 yards shy — 928 — of his second 1,000-yard campaign, but Kirk managed to record more receptions (83) and touchdowns (nine) last season than he did throughout his freshman year.

Listed at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Kirk has speed, hands, a dynamic route-running prowess and exceptional return skills compacted into his frame. For his career, he’s returned 27 punts for 623 yards and five scores.

Losing Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil and Edward Pope is difficult, but returning Kirk to help with quarterback Jake Hubenak bodes well for head coach Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M.

SEC Honorable Mentions

Van Jefferson|SOPH| Mississippi Rebels

D.J. Chark|SR| LSU Tigers

Deebo Samuel|JR| South Carolina Gamecocks

Jeff Badet|SR| Kentucky Wildcats

Riley Ridley|SOPH|Georgia Bulldogs

Stephen M. Smith is a managing editor and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

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