Wednesday November 25th, 2015 7:19AM

SEC teams coping with injuries to key players

By The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY -- Playing football in the Southeastern Conference is taking its toll on teams.

Injuries could keep South Carolina's starting quarterback and one of Georgia's star running backs on the sideline Saturday. Florida already lost its starting QB and best defensive player to season-ending injuries in one week.

Top-ranked Alabama is breaking in a new center.

Sure, all teams preach the "next man up" mantra, but there's a reason a player starts.

Backups have turned in admirable performances, but losing talented starters - even temporarily - hurts because the skills they possess are not easily replaced by simply turning to the next guy on the depth chart.

The Gamecocks hope QB Connor Shaw can get back in the lineup this weekend, and the Bulldogs wouldn't mind seeing Todd Gurley in the backfield.

Georgia coach Mark Richt considers Gurley day-to-day for Saturday's game at Tennessee, even though the SEC's third-leading rusher hasn't practiced after spraining his left ankle in the sixth-ranked Bulldogs' win over No. 10 LSU.

"He was supposed to be on crutches," Richt said, "but I looked out the window and watched him walking with his crutches over his shoulder, so I don't know if that's a tell-tale sign. Hopefully it won't be too long."

If Gurley can't go, Georgia will look to Keith Marshall and freshmen Brendan Douglas and J.J. Green. Gurley is averaging 112.5 yards per game for the Bulldogs (3-1, 2-0), but Richt has faith that Marshall can handle 15 to 20 carries and that his other backs can contribute in the short term.

"When you've got great players playing great, that gives your team more confidence," Richt said. "But we've got some other really good players that'll try to prove they're great ones too."

Dylan Thompson is prepared to lead 13th-ranked South Carolina against Kentucky, but Shaw could start after showing marked improvement from a sprained right shoulder sustained at Central Florida. Originally expected to miss two to three weeks, Shaw practiced Monday and Tuesday and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier watched his QB throw 60-yard passes.

"He was out throwing the ball around very well and should be ready to play Saturday night," said Spurrier, adding that backup tailback Brandon Wilds is out about a month with a dislocated elbow.

Perhaps no SEC school has been hit harder by injuries than No. 18 Florida (3-1, 2-0).

In a four-day span last week the Gators lost defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a right knee injury in practice after quarterback Jeff Driskel went down for the year, breaking his right leg against Tennessee.

Those devastating injuries follow the losses of right tackle Chaz Green (torn labrum) and a left ACL tear by receiver Andre Debose, one of the SEC's top kick returners, in fall practice.

"It was a heartbreaker," said Gators senior defensive tackle Damien Jacobs, Easley's roommate. "It was probably one of the worst things I've been through, just losing him and losing that presence."

Still, the reserves have been getting it done.

Driskel's injury thrust Tyler Murphy into action and the redshirt junior has responded by leading Florida past Tennessee and Kentucky with the same running and passing abilities that made his predecessor a dual threat. The Gators are looking to Jacobs, junior Leon Orr, Darious Cummings and Jay-nard Bostwick to fill the gap defensively in Easley's absence.

The injuries haven't forced Florida coach Will Muschamp to change his game plan, which he said speaks volumes about the program's depth.

"When guys go down, we expect our competition level to stay the same," he said, noting his QBs' similarities. "There's some carry-over in what they do, and that helps us. It certainly helps (offensive coordinator) Brent Pease as a play-caller to have a similar skill set at the quarterback position."

Alabama junior Chad Lindsay maintained the status quo at center for the Crimson Tide (4-0, 2-0) against No. 24 Ole Miss when he replaced sophomore Ryan Kelly, out at least two games with a knee injury.

"On the first play of the game, (Lindsay's) eyes were wide open and I could just tell he was nervous," Alabama guard Anthony Steen said, "but the second and third play he was fine and after a couple of plays I didn't miss a beat with Chad than I would with Kelly. He seemed to do fine to me."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said players have to be ready. There are no excuses, especially in a league that has won seven consecutive national championships.

Said Jones, "We're banged up, but you know what? That's football."
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