Every year the SEC reloads the talent pool that has kept the conference at the top of college football for the past decade. With the influx of new talent comes a few breakout stars, and last season was no different.
There were six breakout players last season who surpassed the expectations placed in front of them, and this year the challenge will be to repeat the production that occurred in 2012.
These players were able to hide from the spotlight for most of last season, but heading into the new year they will be marked men. This season is a proving ground for these six guys as they attempt to continue the climb to elite status inside the SEC.
In case you missed it, his older brother started at linebacker for Ole Miss this past year as a freshman and plowed through SEC offenses with consistency.
Nkemdiche finished the year with 82 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss and three interceptions (CFB Stats). He was the leading tackler for Ole Miss last year and also finished fourth on the team in sacks.
Heading into the new year, the older Nkemdiche is a recognized name in offensive film rooms across the SEC.
This year, Nkemdiche has to show that he can continue to improve his game and maintain his rising elite status.
Jeremy Hill arrived at LSU after facing a wealth of adversity as a high school senior.
In 2011, Hill and a former classmate were charged with oral sexual battery. In January of 2012 he pled guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge and received probation and a suspended jail sentence (h/t The Advocate).
The LSU coaches stood by their young signee, and the rest has become history for the Tigers.
In 2012, Hill was buried on a depth chart that had four quality, NFL-ready running backs. After injuries depleted the ranks, Hill was tasked with taking on the starting role.
In seven starts Hill accumulated 142 carries for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns (via CFB Stats).
Heading into the new year, Hill is expected to be the starter for LSU, but he is now receiving a ton of attention from opposing teams. Hill is now expected to become the one of the next great SEC running backs.
Whether he can live up to that hype has yet to be determined.
Jordan Jenkins stepped onto the field last year for Georgia with a lot on the line.
Jenkins had to step in for injured All-American Jarvis Jones during the year, but in the process he became a rising star for the Bulldogs.
He arrived at Georgia with a ton of fanfare as one of the best defenders in the country during the 2012 recruiting cycle. In his first year, he exceeded expectations.
By the end of the season, Jenkins had accumulated 31 total tackles, eight for loss, five sacks and 16 quarterback hurries (via CFB Stats).
There isn’t a doubt that Jenkins is one of the countries elite defenders heading into 2013, but fans are expecting a repeat of Jarvis Jones-like numbers. That will be tough to accomplish, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Jenkins was able to make it happen.
The SEC is loaded with talented running backs for 2013, but one of the most elite in the country is Georgia’s Todd Gurley.
Gurley burst onto the scene last year with fellow running back Keith Marshall to form one of the best running back tandems in the country. By the end of the year, Gurley was the lead back for the Georgia offense.
He finished the year with 222 carries for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns (h/t CFB Stats).
It was an unbelievably successful year for the young freshman back, and heading into the new season he will be keyed on by opposing defenses.
Will Gurley hit the sophomore wall, or will he keep in stride and rush for over 1,500 yards this year?
Keep an eye on this Georgia back as he attempts to prove that 2012 was no fluke.
It took Jeff Driskel just a few short weeks to win the starting quarterback job for Florida in 2012, and it didn’t take long for the young signal-caller to prove that the coaches made the right decision handing him the offense.
Florida finished the year with a surprising 11 wins, but a very disappointing loss to Louisville ended the year on a bad note.
Still, the 1,646 passing yards, 63.7 completion percentage and 408 rushing yards (CFB Stats) were impressive numbers last year as Driskel fought for the starting job early and battled through nagging injuries all season.
Driskel has to become a complete quarterback this offseason.
Last year, the ground attack was his most valued weapon, but to continue his rise in the conference he has to find a way to win more games with his arm.
Johnny Manziel took college football by storm in 2012, becoming the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy.
This season he is expected to take Texas A&M to the championship level, and anything less would be a disappointment for Aggies fans. The pressure is on the young quarterback to produce a season as good, if not better than the one that won him the Heisman.
Manziel finished 2012 with 3,706 passing yards, 1,410 rushing yards and 47 total touchdowns (via CFB Stats). Improving on that will be nearly impossible.
Living up to the hype from 2012 is going to be a daunting task for Manziel this season. Anything less than a Heisman finalist season will make the young quarterback look like a one-hit wonder.