The SEC is widely seen as the best conference in college football. The conference has been home to every BCS National Championship since 2005, and the teams consistently crank out high-level pro players.
Those big-time pro prospects have to start somewhere though. Even Marcus Lattimore and Bacarri Rambo were young-faced freshman at one point.
What young stars will take college football's best conference by storm this year and have a huge impact in 2012-13?
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia, RB
Sophomore running back Ken Malcome may have been named the starter for the Bulldogs, but freshman Todd Gurley is sure making a case to bump Malcome off the top of the depth chart.
Gurley has impressed his coaches and fellow players in practice. Quarterback Aaron Murray described the freshman back, saying (via ESPN Insider, subscription required):
He’s a great running back, very big kid. He’s just a great-looking running back and I think the one strength he has is great balance. I just see him just getting hit and bouncing off guys and bouncing off guys and spinning around and he really just doesn’t go down. It takes a lot to knock him down.
Gurley is accompanied by fellow freshman Keith Marshall in the backfield. The Dawgs should be set at running back for years to come.
2. Shaq Roland, South Carolina, WR
Shaq Roland is the reigning Mr. Football in South Carolina, and is now taking his talents to the college level with the Gamecocks.
The freshman wide receiver has drawn comparisons to Alshon Jeffery, but the young star is not letting the hype go to his head (via Anderson Independent Mail):
“It is nice to have that support, people that’ll always be there for you. I still don’t want to focus a lot on it because if you get caught up into it you probably won’t be focused on football.”
That is a pretty mature response from a freshman player.
Roland needs to do some growing both height-wise and in the weight room before he can be considered an elite threat, but he has all the physical tools to be a star.
Couple this with South Carolina being slim at the wide receiver position, and Roland could become a real impact player in his first year with the Gamecocks.
3. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama, RB
T.J. Yeldon burst on the scene during Alabama spring practices. The freshman back had 91 yards receiving and 88 yards rushing in the A-Day game, which included a highlight reel 50-yard touchdown reception.
Eddie Lacy will be the starter, but the Crimson Tide are no strangers to having multiple solid contributors in the backfield.
Yeldon is already listed at 6'1", 210 lbs, and he still has some growing to do. By the time Yeldon's junior year rolls around, expect him to be the top-rated running back prospect going into the draft.
As for this year, Yeldon will play the role he is given, and try to help Alabama defend their National Championship with his versatile skill set.
4. DeVante Harris, Texas A&M, CB
Harris originally committed to the University of Oklahoma, but decommitted to the Sooners and took his talents to the father's alma mater, Texas A&M.
DeVante Harris will start from day one in the Aggies' secondary at the cornerback spot.
Harris has been playing like a veteran in practice. He challenges the receivers and has not made the big mistakes that freshman players usually do.
There will be time where Harris struggles—there is no doubt of that. However, he will still have an impact during the Aggies' first year in the SEC.
No high school football league can even scratch the surface of what the SEC has to offer, but Harris' skill set may be enough to keep him in the game until the plays begin to slow down for him.
It all seems to have come quick for Harris, but he will shine in the spotlight. Here is a message he sent out via Twitter Aug. 25:
Hard to believe I will be playing in my first college game thursday... I'm fresh out of high school! Lol— De'Vante #BMM Harris (@Official_DH10) August 26, 2012
5. Dante Fowler Jr., Florida, DE
Dante Fowler Jr. was a 5-star prospect coming out of high school, so big things are expected of him at the next level.
Fowler is a true rush end. At 6'3", 277 pounds, with lightning fast reflexes, he is an offensive tackle's worst nightmare in pass protection.
According to gatorcounty.com, head coach Will Muschamp has spoken highly of the true freshman end saying:
“He asks the right kinds of questions,” Muschamp said last week. “He plays hard. It’s hard for a young man to come in the summer and understand the tempo and the mental gymnastics you have playing the game and all the things that happen. He’s working very hard at it.”
Fowler Jr. may not start immediately for the Gators, but he will most likely be their most impactful freshman this year.
When Ronald Powell went down with an ACL injury in the spring game, it cast a lot of doubt on the position. Now Fowler Jr. is giving Gator fans something to get excited about.