SEC Football: One Potential Spring Practice Breakout Star for Every Team
The month of March has officially arrived on the calendar, which means that spring football is here. Players and coaches will soon take the field with a chance to iron out any wrinkles. They are also using this time to try and figure out exactly where they are as a football team.
But while spring ball is a chance for teams to get better, it is also the time of year when we are introduced to new superstars. This may just be labeled as practice to the fan base, but legends and names are created during these next couple of months. Players you may have never heard of, or have been buried on the depth chart, are given chances to become that next big thing.
We all saw this last year when Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon took over the headlines with a remarkable spring game performance. He has now become a household name and is considered one of the best players on a national championship team.
Another year, another chance.
Here is one player for each SEC team that will soon become that breakout star of the spring.
Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Alabama needs the safety position to improve and there may not be a better candidate to help out than Landon Collins. A top recruit from the 2012 class, Collins spent most of last year learning the ropes and seeing limited action.
This kid has the goods to be that next breakout superstar in Tuscaloosa. He has the size, physicality, and he is a solid option in both pass coverage and run support. He also has the speed to be able to play either side of the ball, which will help him cover a ton of ground in the secondary this year for the Crimson Tide.
Nick Saban needs that playmaker in the defensive backfield with Robert Lester and Dee Milliner no longer on the team. Expect to see Collins be the guy to fill in that role.
Carroll Washington, CB, Arkansas
Carroll Washington was considered by many to be the top JUCO cornerback of the entire 2013 class. Because there is a new coaching staff in place and really a lack of depth at almost every position for the Razorbacks, he will be given every opportunity to earn a starting spot at the position.
Washington is an athletic player who has even spent some time playing quarterback. As a defender, he has those instincts that jump off the tape and allow him to get in on the action. He is not terrific seed, but he has solid quickness to be able to break on the ball and put himself in position to put his above-average ball skills to use.
Arkansas showed last year that it could certainly use reliable players on both sides of the ball. With the JUCO experience already under Washington's belt, this is somebody who should shine early in practice.
Kiehl Frazier, QB, Auburn
Remember Kiehl Frazier?
The quarterback who once had everybody fooled that he was the next Cam Newton. He then later failed miserably in his first year on the field and everybody thought that was the end of him.
Well, I'm one of the few who hasn't given up hope and expect him to produce at an improved level.
The hire of head coach Gus Malzahn isn't going to fix everything, but it will help. Besides being used in the right system, Frazier is somebody who has the skill set to succeed. The size is there at 6'2", he has the arm strength and, of course, the incredible athletic ability.
If Malzahn can't figure things out, nobody can, but I wouldn't be the one to continue to write this young signal-caller off.
Jonathan Bullard, DE, Florida
Jonathan Bullard gave Florida Gators fans a sample size last season of what he is capable of. Finishing his freshman year with 27 tackles and 1.5 sacks, this guy has superstar written all over him.
There is really nothing Bullard can't do on the defensive line. Capable of playing inside and outside, he uses his pure pass-rushing skills to get to the quarterback, but can also use his well-built frame at 6'2", 275 pounds to clog up running lanes.
Strong at the point of attack, this former 5-star recruit has the ability to become that next great SEC defensive lineman. It is just now that he will be given the chance to earn a full-time starting job on a revamped Florida defense.
If you have seen Bullard play before, you will know he is soon to become a popular name throughout college football.
Ramik Wilson, LB, Georgia
Ramik Wilson has spent the last two seasons on the Georgia roster, but hasn't really done much for folks to even know who he is. However, he does have a few things to bring to the table that allow him to make a name for himself.
One of those things would be the fact he is versatile. This kid can play either inside or outside linebacker, which is going to help him see increased reps on a team that needs help at the position. He also has the athleticism and speed to become a force in the pass-rushing game. Able to turn the edge quickly and make plays in the backfield, Wilson should help replace some of the production that Jarvis Jones left behind.
There are a lot of things to like about Wilson, and with linebacker being an area of concern for the Bulldogs, expect him to emerge as one of the front-runners for a starting spot.
Za'Darius Smith, DE, Kentucky
It is no secret that Kentucky needs help anywhere and everywhere you can turn. This is a program that isn't picky, as great players on the roster are few and far between. With an offense and defense ranked near the bottom of the SEC, more guys like Za'Darius Smith will be needed to turn things around.
Smith was mainly a basketball player in high school, but recently made the switch to football and become one of the top JUCO transfers at defensive end. It was a good choice because he is capable of doing a little bit of everything as either a pass-rusher or run defender. Smith does a good job of shedding blocks and uses his hands well for somebody who was playing a different sport not too long ago.
Smith said he wants to be an All-SEC player and rack up double-digit sacks in his first year. With that type of confidence and ability, this is somebody Wildcats fans should be keeping an eye on this spring.
Stephen Rivers, QB, LSU
Maybe more of a bold prediction? Possibly. But Stephen Rivers has now been on the LSU campus for two seasons and he didn't look too shabby in last year’s spring game, throwing for 75 yards on only six completions.
Rivers is the younger brother of NFL quarterback Philip Rivers, and he looks exactly like him when throwing the ball. He has the same weird throwing motion, and he moves around the pocket well to avoid pressure. Rivers also does a good job of seeing the field and certainly has an advantage that other quarterbacks don't, considering he stands in at a ridiculous 6'8".
LSU may or may not have its quarterback in Zach Mettenberger, but Rivers has more than enough experience in this system to see increased reps throughout the spring. I see him doing well in his third year, and we could see a quarterback competition heading into the fall.
Quay Evans, DT, Mississippi State
Despite all of the interceptions, Mississippi State ranked 13th in the SEC last season in sacks and 11th in the conference in run defense. Josh Boyd is now gone at the defensive tackle position, which opens up the door for Quay Evans.
A solid recruit coming out of the 2012 class, Evans is a massive man in the middle at 6'2", 300-plus pounds. If you want somebody to help improve those run defense numbers, it would be him, as there isn't going to be anywhere to run once he fills the gap. But despite being a big guy, Evans also carries his weight well and shows a solid get off at the line of scrimmage.
Evans saw a little bit of playing time last year, but will now be given a chance to earn a starting job with a year under his belt. If he ends up panning out like most believe he will, Mississippi State could have one of the best defensive tackles in this conference.
Lucas Vincent, DT, Missouri
Missouri learned in its first year in this conference that the play in the trenches needs to get better if there is going to be any competitiveness going on with the Tigers. Unfortunately the team lost Sheldon Richardson to the NFL draft, but there may be a silver lining going on for the newbie of the SEC.
Lucas Vincent has the ability to fill those shoes quite nicely. Physical at the point of attack, Vincent shows good explosion off the ball and may even be a better pure pass-rusher than Richardson ever was at the position. He is a tough-nosed kid who uses his hands well and should help add to a Missouri defense that struggled to get to the quarterback last year.
Tiger’s fans may be depressed that, arguably, the best talent has left the building. But there will be plenty of smiles once they get a real chance to see what Vincent can bring to the table.
D.T. Shackelford, LB, Ole Miss
Ole Miss knows all about linebacker D.T. Shackelford. In 2010 he racked up 48 tackles, five sacks and he was one of the defensive leaders on the football team.
The problem is that he has missed the last two seasons with ACL injuries. At times, it looked like his collegiate career was over, as he suffered two major operations. However, Shackelford did practice towards the end of the year and is expected to be ready to go for the first time in quite a while.
A tackling machine and somebody who use to be able to play sideline-to-sideline, Shackelford will look to bring experience and leadership to a young Ole Miss team. He may be an already established player, but is somebody who is looking to prove himself and climb back up the depth chart after missing two full years.
If you are looking for somebody to root for this spring, Shackelford is your guy.
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
The running game for South Carolina tanked once Marcus Lattimore went down with another injury. Now that he is no longer on the roster, the Gamecocks must find somebody who can shoulder the workload.
Mike Davis is the front-runner for the starting position, and I believe he has what it takes to get the job done. A freshman last year, Davis averaged more than five yards a carry on only 52 touches. He is more of a patient runner with a downhill running style. Waiting for his blocks to develop, Davis does a good job of seeing the field and he takes what the defense gives him.
The sophomore runner also has homerun ability, as he isn't the fastest back in the world, but is able to hit a second gear in the open field. With more reps coming his way, South Carolina could once again have that star in the backfield.
Alton Howard, WR, Tennessee
Tennessee fans are panicking with Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Bray all leaving for the next level. What in the world is the offense going to do with everybody gone?
Alton Howard is simply a playmaker, who will make his presence felt sooner than later. Whatever Howard lacks in size at 5'8", he makes up for in speed. This kid can absolutely fly in the open field and has solid vision once he gets the ball in his hands. Capable of playing either receiver or running back, Howard is going to be the fastest guy on the field most Saturdays, and it would be wise the coaching staff finds ways to give him the ball.
This is somebody who was often overshadowed his freshman year, but everybody will want to know who he is after a few plays.
Cameron Clear, TE, Texas A&M
There is a good chance Cameron Clear will become the starting tight end for the Aggies this season. A JUCO transfer from the 2013 class, Clear is going to be a mismatch for SEC defenses.
This is somebody who spent time as an offensive lineman due to his incredible footwork and size at 6'6", 265 pounds. But with his length and terrific hands, Clear has also shown he can be a consistent pass catcher at the tight end spot. He does a good job of catching the ball away from his body and with his frame; he is going to be a nightmare matchup for those trying to cover him.
Texas A&M will spend most of the spring looking for weapons to surround Johnny Manziel with.
It doesn’t get much better than Clear when looking for a big target.
Patton Robinette, QB, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt is really only a reliable quarterback away from being a dark horse contender in the SEC. A good portion of the defense returning and enough weapons on offense bouncing back, Patton Robinette could be the guy to help this program turn the corner.
He has a lot of positive traits to play the position: terrific size at 6'4", throws the ball with great accuracy and he adds an impressive touch to the football. But the most intriguing thing about this quarterback is that he has the ability to makes plays with his legs. Robinette is an impressive athlete who can burn defenses with his ability to step up and take off.
We have seen what adding a dual-threat quarterback can do for a team’s success. Robinette is somebody who should turn heads in the spring and turn up the pressure at the position once the fall arrives.