Talent and the SEC can usually be found in the same sentence when it comes to talking about the best players in college football.
And with Missouri and Texas A&M set to join the conference for the upcoming season, the SEC’s pool of talent is about to increase even more.
With nine players selected in the first round of April’s NFL draft, the SEC has continued to serve as the home of not only some of the best players in college football, but also players projected to contribute at the next level.
Included in this grouping of athletes may be some of the best skill players in the nation.
From Patrick Willis and Tim Tebow to Cam Newton and Trent Richardson, the SEC has produced skill players who have not only left their marks at the college level, but are also attempting to do the same in the NFL.
Although the SEC has numerous players who are capable of having great years, here’s a look at 12 skill players from the conference who should continue the trend and shine this season.
Hamilton becomes Arkansas’ primary target this season following the exits of three of the team’s top four receivers from a year ago.
Hamilton finished with the third highest amount of receiving yards last season for the Razorbacks, but the senior may be crucial for the team to improve on its 28th ranked total offense from 2011.
In 13 games last season, Hamilton had 34 receptions for 542 yards and four touchdowns. For his career with the Razorbacks, Hamilton has 85 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 total touchdowns.
The 6’3” wide receiver began last season with 13 catches for 252 yards during the team’s first three games, but went on to catch two or fewer passes in five of the Razorbacks’ last eight games.
Furthermore, Hamilton only caught four fourth quarter passes last season.
However, in an offense that also features one of the nation’s top returning quarterbacks, Hamilton’s numbers could take a major leap this season.
Hamilton will begin the season ranked in the top 15 all-time in touchdowns and receiving yards in Razorbacks’ history.
In an offense with returning stars, and as the primary receiver headed into the season, Hamilton has a chance to shine bright in 2012.
Lacy may have competition to receive the bulk of the carries following Trent Richardson’s jump to the NFL, but the redshirt junior has a chance to continue the success that Alabama running backs have recently enjoyed.
Lacy missed all of the Crimson Tide’s spring session while recovering from surgery, and may have to compete with fellow back Dee Hart when it comes to replacing Richardson.
However, after rushing for 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons, Lacy may help the Crimson Tide witness a seamless transition at the running back position.
In 12 games last season, Lacy carried the ball 95 times for 674 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 131 yards. He has rushed for 1,080 yards on 151 attempts in his career at Alabama.
Lacy and the Crimson Tide have watched Richardson and Mark Ingram leave their marks at the college level prior to joining the professional ranks in recent seasons.
Behind the team’s offensive line this season, Lacy may be on his way to joining them.
Linebacker may not be the first position that comes to mind when considering skill players or skill positions.
But there’s a good chance that Jones will come to mind when opposing offenses preview Georgia’s defense this season.
Entering last season the redshirt junior had just 13 total tackles since his lone season at USC.
Following last season, Jones currently has 83.
In 14 games for the Bulldogs last season, Jones recorded 13.5 sacks to go with 70 total tackles and two forced fumbles. His sack number may also be a reason for the team’s 15th ranked sack total of 35.0, for a total of 261 yards lost.
The first-team All-SEC member also led the conference in sacks, while adding 19.5 tackles for loss.
Although linebackers are not always considered to be skill players, Jones may have a great case to be an exception to the rule.
And shine even brighter in 2012.
Lattimore only played in seven games for South Carolina last season, but the junior still finished in the top 10 in rushing in the SEC.
And, if healthy, his place in Gamecocks’ history could be firmly cemented this season.
Lattimore currently ranks in the top 15 all-time in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and touchdowns scored in Gamecocks history. And he’s accomplished it all in essentially a season and a half.
Lattimore had rushed for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns prior to suffering a knee injury last season. For his career, he has rushed for 2,015 yards on 412 carries, and has 27 rushing touchdowns.
And with Alshon Jeffery off to the NFL and starting quarterback Connor Shaw back for a full season, Lattimore could have even more opportunities to have his presence felt on offense.
In 20 career games, Lattimore has rushed for at least one touchdown 15 times.
With a full, healthy season, there’s no telling how bright he might shine this year.
Last season was Wilson’s fourth season with Arkansas.
And boy did he make the most of it.
Wilson’s 3,638 passing yards was not only the second highest total in Razorbacks’ history, but it was also the highest total in the SEC by nearly 500 yards.
On the season, Wilson completed 277 of 438 passes for a completion percentage of 63.2 percent, and had 24 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Prior to last season, Wilson’s highest total for passes attempted in a season was 51. The redshirt senior also rushed for four touchdowns last season.
With Cobi Hamilton and Knile Davis alongside him in the Razorbacks’ offense this season, Wilson might even have a chance to improve on his remarkable numbers from last year.
Of course, another season of getting sacked 26 times could hurt his performances.
If upright for the majority of the season, Wilson could shine bright for a second consecutive year, which could have a huge impact for the Razorbacks both in the SEC and nationally.
Banks not only led Mississippi State in interceptions last season, but he also averaged 10.4 yards per punt return, including one touchdown.
Banks decided to return to the Bulldogs for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft.
The Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist from a year ago was recently named to the 2012 Lott Impact Trophy preseason watch list, as well.
In 13 games last season, Banks recorded 71 tackles and had three sacks and five interceptions to help lead the Bulldogs’ defense. For his career, Banks has 12 interceptions.
The 2011 All-SEC Second Team member finished tied for fourth in the SEC in interceptions last season. He also had one interception that he returned for a touchdown.
After passing on the NFL and watching fellow SEC defensive backs join the professional ranks, Banks must know what a solid senior season could do for his projections.
Which means 2012 could be even better for him.
Franklin finished sixth in the Big 12 in passing yardage last season, behind three eventual first round draft picks.
With Missouri now in the SEC, Franklin may have a difficult time adjusting to the various new defenses that he’ll face. However, if he handles the adjustment well, he has a chance to shine while playing in one of the nation’s most difficult conferences.
Franklin threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Tigers last season, and had a 63.3 percent completion percentage. In his first season after taking over for Blaine Gabbert, the 6’2” passer was intercepted 11 times.
To potentially make matters worse for opponents, Franklin also rushed 217 times for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The junior finished last season by winning Independence Bowl Offensive MVP honors, but he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to continue with such success this season.
If Franklin can adjust quickly, he may be able to compete with some of the best quarterbacks in the SEC and shine just as much.
Hunter appeared in just three games for Tennessee last season and had 17 receptions for 314 yards before suffering a season-ending ACL injury.
If healthy this season, he could join teammate Da’Rick Rogers as two players with some of the most receiving yards in the SEC.
The 6’4” junior was averaging 18.5 yards per catch last season prior to his injury.
With quarterback Tyler Bray throwing him passes, Hunter has a chance to stretch last season’s small sample size of success into an entire season’s worth.
If healthy, there’s no telling how much success Hunter can have for the Vols this season, or just how bright he can shine.
Following Alabama’s fifth game last season, McCarron had just two games of 200 yards passing or more, including one game in which he threw for exactly 200 yards.
By the end of the season, he was a national champion.
McCarron completed only 48.0 percent of his passes in a mid-season game against Florida, but quickly rebounded to go 23 for 30 the following week against Vanderbilt.
On the season, McCarron threw for 2,634 yards and had a 66.8 percent completion percentage to go with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
The redshirt junior did not pose much of a threat as a runner last season, but his value at quarterback, a skill position, could make him a skill player to watch this season with a full year’s worth of starts under his belt.
The Crimson Tide witnessed a lot of talent join the professional ranks following their championship season. But if McCarron continues to shine, the team has a chance to not miss a beat.
Davis is another player who suffered an injury last season, but he’s also another player who, if healthy, can shine as bright as the best players in the nation this season.
Davis rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns during his 2010 season with Arkansas, and finished the year with five consecutive games of 100 yards rushing or more.
His total of 1,322 yards from 2010 would have put him second in the SEC last season, behind Trent Richardson of Alabama.
In 2010, Davis finished second behind Cam Newton in rushing yards while becoming just the 10th Razorbacks’ player to obtain 1,000 yards on the ground in a season.
With Tyler Wilson and Cobi Hamilton in the fold, the Razorbacks’ offense could be among the SEC’s best again this season.
A healthy Davis could not only greatly improve the team’s 81st ranked rushing total from last season, but also put the Razorbacks’ offense over the top as it competes in the SEC West.
If Davis’ year is anything like his 2010 season, the Razorbacks may have one of the best backs in the nation.
Mathieu did a little bit of everything last season for LSU, and it culminated in the defensive back becoming a Heisman trophy finalist.
The 2011 Bednarik Award winner recorded 76 tackles, had two interceptions and forced six fumbles last season.
And that was just on defense.
Mathieu also returned four punts for touchdowns, and had 421 total return yards for an average of 15.6.
The 2011 Walter Camp National Player of the Year finalist has 127 career tackles—15 for a loss—11 forced fumbles, six sacks and four interceptions.
After starting just one game during his freshman season, Mathieu capped his sophomore year by winning SEC championship game MVP honors and helping the Tigers reach the national championship game.
It may be difficult to shine any brighter than Mathieu did last season, but any improvements could lead to another chance at the Heisman.
Murray joined Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson as another 3,000 yard passer in the SEC last season.
Of course, having Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell to throw to might have helped.
Murray threw for 3,149 yards last season although he completed less than 60 percent of his passes. He did, however, throw 35 touchdowns while having nine games of over 200 yards passing.
Last season was also the second consecutive season in which Murray has thrown for over 3,000 yards. In the past two seasons combined, Murray has thrown 59 touchdowns and has already thrown for over 6,000 career yards.
Murray also recently obtained his degree from Georgia.
With a solid group of running backs with him in the Bulldogs’ offense, Murray has a chance to once again post high yardage and touchdown numbers for the third consecutive season. If he does, the Bulldog’s could once again have a good chance in the SEC East for reaching another SEC championship game.
And if Murray continues to shine, he should once again be competing to be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC.