Every SEC Football Team's Top Freshman to Watch in 2013
The SEC peddled 63 players into the 2013 NFL Draft, more than double any other conference in America. Roughly one in every four picks came from the Southeastern pipeline.
But how much will the conference truly feel that loss? The inertia of college football is like a revolving door, but the SEC's recruiting dominance makes it feel more profound than that—less like any type of doorway and more like Escher's stairs.
According to 247Sports, the SEC landed seven of the top 13 recruiting classes in 2013 and eight of the top 20. That type of prowess ensures that even as 63 NFL-caliber players leave, there will always be enough future pros to keep the conference on top.
Even when the stairs lead down, they're always leading up.
Note: All rankings and measurements via the 247Sports' Composite
Alabama: TE O.J. Howard (True)
Freshmen don't come much more "ready to make an impact" than Howard.
A daunting physical specimen, the 6'6'' tight end/H-back could become an instant contributor for the Tide's offense. Despite an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, there's no way Nick Saban can keep him off the field.
His blocking is a concern, but, purely as a receiving target, he's capable of doing things few in college football can do. That makes him a unique (and valuable) weapon for AJ McCarron in 2013.
Check out Howard's scouting report and pro comparison here.
Arkansas: RB Alex Collins (True)
New head coach Bret Bielema has always been willing to play true freshmen at tailback.
Look no further than 2012 for a great example. Even with James White and future College Football Hall of Famer Montee Ball in the lineup, Melvin Gordon couldn't be kept off the field.
Collins has no one like White or Ball in front of him, though. He actually has barely any proven competition at all. The only returning back who did anything last season is sophomore Jonathan Williams, who finished with 231 yards.
Expect Bielema to bring his run-first (and -second) offense to the SEC and expect Collins to get his feet wet early. By season's end, they're likely to be soaked.
Check out Collins' scouting report and pro comparison here.
Auburn: DE Carl Lawson (True)
If quarterback Jeremy Johnson ends up beating Nick Marshall for the starting job, he will become an intriguing candidate. But even then, despite playing football's keystone position, Johnson might be less vital than Lawson.
The nation's No. 21 recruit, Lawson is already built like an upperclassmen. But he does more than look the part of an instant contributor—he plays like one, too.
ESPN's Tom Luginbill listed him as one of five freshmen (nationally!) ready to make a huge impact in 2013. With Auburn's best defensive player, Dee Ford, lining up opposite him, Lawson should see enough single-teams to put up some sacks.
Check out Lawson's scouting report and pro comparison here.
Florida: WR Demarcus Robinson (True)
Do-it-all cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is the better player, but with regard to Florida's 2013 season, Robinson is probably the more important.
Senior wideouts like Quinton Dunbar and Trey Burton have had their chance to excel, and for the most part, the returns have been poor. Florida couldn't move the ball through the air—a Gators staple—last season and now loses three of its top four receivers.
Enter Robinson, a top-10 receiver and top-80 recruit in the Class of 2013. He has the size and separation ability to make a quick impact—and unlike with Hargreaves, whom Florida can afford to wait for, it's paramount that he steps up and does so.
Check out some of Robinson's high school highlights here.
Georgia: S Tray Matthews (True)
Matthews continues to prove his mettle in practice and appears ready for a very real (and fairly substantial) role this season.
On a Georgia defense filled with major question marks, the No. 79 recruit is expected to be a point of relative stability. He's wowed coaches with his consistency on the back end and seems mature enough to handle the pressure of SEC football.
Next to 6'5'' marvel Josh Harvey-Clemons at the other safety position, Matthews will have plenty of support in the run game. That should allow him to utilize his impressive range and make some crucial plays in the deep third.
Check out some of Matthews' high school highlights here.
Kentucky: DE Jason Hatcher (True)
During his recruitment, Hatcher bashed Tennessee coaches (to their face) about losing to Kentucky in 2011. Per Larry Vaught of the Central Kentucky News:
Last July, Jason Hatcher, star defensive end from Louisville Trinity, committed to USC. He made a comment to ESPN at that time that he told Tennessee coaches (who had heavily recruited him), “you lost to the University of Kentucky. You lose to UK, you lose to everybody because UK finishes last in the SEC every year.”
Now, through an interesting twist of fate, he's decked out in blue and ready to start atoning for those potshots.
Hatcher is already one of the best pass-rushers in Lexington and a prototypical player for new coach Bob Stoops' defense. The defensive line is laden with veterans, but Stoops has no previous allegiance to them—so Hatcher should be able to win an early job.
If/when he does, he'll get an early chance to make UK fans forgive what he said.
Check out some of Hatcher's high school highlights here.
LSU: LB Kendell Beckwith (True)
It's not every year—in fact it's quite rare—that freshman defenders stand poised to start at LSU. But after an offseason of massive attrition, the Tigers need front-seven help in a hurry.
Though the stables are always loaded in Baton Rogue, it's unprecedented for LSU to lose six of its seven starters up front. That has paved the way for blue-chip pass-rusher Kendall Beckwith to play starters' snaps in Year 1.
Find out what Beckwith might mean to LSU here.
Mississippi: DE Robert Nkemdiche (True)
Ole Miss had the most top-heavy (and out-of-nowhere) recruiting class in America last season, but among its sea of top-ranked recruits, one stands out categorically.
The nation's No. 1 player, Robert Nkemdiche, has been hailed as a game-changer since his underclassmen years. With a hype-train the size of a high-school Jadeveon Clowney, the pressure to perform will be massive and immediate.
Nkemdiche has the aid of an underrated defense around him—including his brother, sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a revelation last year—but in the end only his personal performance can justify the hype.
And while that's a daunting task, it's well within the realm of possibility.
Check out how Nkemdiche stacks up with Jadeveon Clowney here.
Mississippi State: DE Chris Jones (True)
Smith was a late riser in the Class of 2013 rankings, but his contribution should be much less delayed in Starkville. There's a reason, after all, that 247Sports ranked him the No. 2 prospect in America.
He was bigger and stronger than everyone he faced in high school, and while that won't be the universal case in the SEC, he'll still possess that advantage against most blockers. And with only Denico Autry returning among the Bulldogs' top pas rushers, there's an immediate void for him to fill.
He's added 50 pounds to his frame (ostensibly at the coaches' behest), which suggests he's taking this whole "SEC physicality" thing to heart. Don't let his anonymous-looking name fool you: Chris Jones is one of a kind.
Watch Jones declare his commitment to Mississippi State here.
Missouri: QB Maty Mauk (Redshirt)
Missouri thinks it can win now—and there are plenty of reasons to agree—so it might be reticent to play a redshirt freshman over senior James Franklin.
But Mauk might not give them a choice.
After Franklin's up-and-down year in 2012, the door has been opened for a competition in Columbia. And despite a shaky performance (to put it lightly) in Missouri's spring game, Mauk has refused to let that door close fully shut.
The precedent has been set—in a big way—for dual-threat, redshirt freshman quarterbacks from former Big 12 schools to succeed in the SEC. All Mauk needs to do is seize that opportunity.
Check out some of Mauk's high school highlights here.
South Carolina: LB Jordan Diggs (Redshirt)
Diggs is the prototypical specimen for South Carolina's "Spur" linebacker position.
Recruited as a safety, he's put on enough weight (and displays more than enough aggression) to play in the front seven. In a position that calls for sideline-to-sideline playmaking, Diggs is more than capable of fulfilling his role.
Sharrod Golightly provides quality competition, but it feels like the staff secretly wants Diggs to beat him out. Though younger than his competitor, Diggs is the superior physical prospect and possesses a higher ceiling.
Golightly will get his reps, but Diggs will still wreak more havoc.
Check out some of Diggs' high school highlights here.
Tennessee: WR MarQuez North (True)
Tennessee's passing offense is expected to regress this year and in all fairness, even with North and some other talented freshman receivers, it probably will.
But that doesn't mean the regression has to be dramatic—and if North has anything to say about it, it won't be.
Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson have gone to the NFL, but North leads a young group of Vols into battle to replace them. He's physically similar to the departed pass-catchers, and though not yet game tested, his trial by fire should expedite his progression.
The bigger problem in Knoxville won't be the receivers but the guy tasked with throwing to them.
Check out North's scouting report and pro comparison here.
Texas A&M: WR Ricky Seals-Jones (True)
After Dorial Green-Beckham's so-so year in 2012, the bar has been lowered for top-ranked receivers with hyphenated names. But Seals-Jones is good enough to raise it.
That doesn't necessarily mean he will. Green-Beckham was (and is) good enough to post huge numbers too. But having lost three of its top four receivers from last season, Texas A&M will gives RSJ every opportunity to make an impact.
If he performs like the blue-chip prospect he is, Seals-Jones and Mike Evans would give the Aggies one of America's top-two or -three receiving tandems. That should make for an explosive passing game in College Station—regardless of who's throwing them the ball.
Check out Seals-Jones' scouting report here.
Vanderbilt: OG Barrett Gouger (Redshirt)
This is a list of top freshman "to watch," and yes, techinically, it isn't very fun to eyeball offensive guards. But of all the freshmen at Vandy this year, Gouger is poised to play the biggest role.
According to David Paschall of the Chattanooga Times Free-Press, Gouger ended the spring penciled in as the Commodores starting right guard. And if he can hold that position through the fall, he'll have a large say in how Vanderbilt backs up its breakout season of 2012.
Like it is at most positions, the SEC is stacked with interior defensive linemen. Vandy doesn't get Anthony Johnson and LSU this year, but it does get Daniel McCullers from Tennessee and Kelcey Quarles from South Carolina.
Those are true road games, too, which is a tough environment for a young blocker to adjust himself to. Gouger will need to play beyond his years if Vandy doesn't want to get embarrassed up the middle in those games.
Check out some of Gouger's high school highlights (if you're into that sort of thing) here.