One Surprise Star for Every SEC Team
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Just because the SEC has been known to produce some of the nation’s top talent, doesn’t mean the conference hasn’t had its fair share of surprise talent.
For some teams, it’s a freshman who is overachieving expectations in just his first year. For others, it’s a veteran who has surprisingly put together a season unlike any he’s had before.
Whatever the case, all 14 of the SEC’s teams have that one player that has surprised fans and coaches alike.
Let’s take a closer look at each one of these players.
Alabama: RB Kenyan Drake (So.)
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Season Stats: 49 CAR, 402 YDs, 7 TDs, 8 REC, 101 YDs, 1 TD
Following a successful timeshare between Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon last year, many expected Yeldon to take over the reins of the Tide ground game this season after Lacy’s departure to the NFL.
While Yeldon has done exactly that—100 CAR, 657 YDs, 7 TDs—the phenomenal play of fellow running back Kenyan Drake has been a pleasant surprise.
After carrying the ball just 10 times over Alabama’s first three games, Drake has seen an increase in his workload. He’s racked up 349 yards and five touchdowns on 39 carries in the last four contests.
Furthermore, the sophomore has accounted for a touchdown in each of the six contests he’s appeared in.
Not surprisingly, the improvement of the Tide’s ground game has coincided with Drake’s play. In fact, the team has averaged 271.5 rushing yards per game over the last four contests. That includes racking up an absurd 352 yards on the ground against Arkansas last Saturday.
Adding a powerful rushing attack only makes a tough Alabama squad even tougher.
Arkansas: RB Alex Collins (Fr.)
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Season Stats: 141 CAR, 797 YDs, 4 TDs
It’s hard to find too many positives on a Razorbacks team that has followed up a 3-0 start with five consecutive losses. The team ranks No. 105 in scoring (20.4 PPG) and No. 114 in passing (146.6 YPG).
But if there’s one thing Arkansas does well, it’s running the ball. The team ranks No. 30, averaging a little more than 209 yards per game on the ground.
A lot of that credit belongs to the sensational play of running back Alex Collins.
The freshman burst onto the scene, racking up 100 yards or more in four of the Razorbacks’ first five games. However, he’s cooled off significantly since then, only topping the century mark once in the last five contests.
Then again, it’s tough to run when you’re faced with deficits of 20 or more regularly.
Most recently, Collins put together an impressive outing against Alabama last weekend.
Sure, his 77 yards on 18 carries doesn’t look like anything special. However, considering that the Tide had held three of its four previous opponents under 60 yards on the ground, Collins was pretty darn good.
In a rather disappointing season, Collins gives Arkansas a reason to be optimistic.
Auburn: QB Nick Marshall (Jr.)
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Season Stats: 57.3 CMP%, 1,138 YDs, 6 TDs, 4 INTs, 132.4 RAT, 75 CAR, 388 YDs, 4 TDs
Nick Marshall may not be the best passer in the nation. Heck, he may not even be the best passer on his team.
However, the junior is exactly the quarterback the Tigers need.
In just seven contests, Marshall has already doubled the team’s win total from a year ago. Auburn sits at 6-1 overall and are only a game back of rival Alabama in the SEC West.
But the most impressive part of Marshall’s repertoire is his dual-threat ability. One that he showed off in both the Tigers’ recent victories over ranked opponents.
Against then-No. 24 Ole Miss on Oct. 5, the first-year quarterback gashed the Rebels defense for 140 yards and two touchdowns on the ground for a 30-22 win. He followed that up by racking up 336 yards of total offense and accounting for four touchdowns against then-No. 7 Texas A&M on the road for a 45-41 victory just last weekend.
Now, Auburn sits at No. 11 in the first official BCS Standings of the season and expectations are beginning to climb.
It’s hard to imagine any of that would be possible if it weren’t for Marshall.
Florida: DB Vernon Hargreaves III (Fr.)
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Season Stats: 19 TKLs, 7 PDs, 3 INTs
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is quickly making a name for himself in Gainesville.
In fact, he’s been so good that CBS Sports recently named the freshman to their mid-season All-American team. Not only was he the lone freshman on the list, but he was also the only Florida player chosen.
Talk about setting the bar high.
Although the Gators have struggled this season, the secondary can’t be blamed for that. The unit currently ranks No. 6 against the pass, allowing 172.4 yards per game.
With Hargreaves III in tow, Florida has been successful at shutting down any passing attack. More recently, the team held LSU’s dangerous receiving duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham to a combined six catches for 105 yards and no touchdowns—it was the first time both were held without a touchdown in the same game all year.
With just seven games under his belt, Hargreaves III can only go up from here.
Georgia: RB J.J. Green (Fr.)
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Season Stats: 47 CAR, 313 YDs, 1 TD
It’s been a season riddled with one injury after another for the Bulldogs. That has only increased the need for other players to step in and step up.
Nobody has done a better job at that than J.J. Green.
Due to the absence of star running back Todd Gurley and the season-ending injury suffered by backup Keith Marshall, Georgia had been left with a void at running back. It left head coach Mark Richt to turn to the unproven Green.
Although he had recorded just five carries during the Bulldogs first four games, the freshman responded.
Against Tennessee, he racked up 129 yards on 17 carries to help lead the team to a gutsy 34-31 overtime win on the road. Green followed that up by rushing for 87 yards on 12 carries while catching five passes for another 42 yards in a losing effort against Missouri.
Sure, he most recently struggled against Vanderbilt—32 yards on 13 carries. However, as a freshman, he’s allowed to have a few setbacks.
But in the big picture, Georgia seems to have another great running back to carry the load moving forward.
Kentucky: DE Za'Darius Smith (Jr.)
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Season Stats: 28 TKLs, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 SKs, 1 PD
At 1-5, one wouldn’t think the Wildcats would be in possession of one of the nation’s top pass rushers. However, that’s exactly the case.
In fact, Dan Kadar of Mocking the Draft, believes Za’Darius Smith might be the second best defensive end prospect behind only South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney.
And when the junior is on, so is the Kentucky defense. That’s evident with his performance during the team’s only win against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 7.
Smith made life hell for the RedHawks offense. He recorded three sacks while recording six tackles. The Wildcats cruised to victory 41-7.
If Smith can keep up his strong play, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kentucky stand a good chance to play spoiler late in the season.
LSU: QB Zach Mettenberger (Sr.)
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Season Stats: 65.2 CMP%, 2,164 YDs, 16 TDs, 5 INTs, 173.7 RAT
Last season, the Tigers ranked No. 94 in passing, averaging just over 200 yards per game. This year, the team has jumped up to No. 34 in the category, averaging just over 271 yards per contest.
A lot of that can be credited to the work new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has done with LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
The senior has made amazing improvements across the board in comparison to last season’s numbers—58.8 CMP%, 2,609 YDs, 12 TDs, 7 INTs. That includes raising his raw quarterback rating from 39.3 to 80.0.
Through eight games, Mettenberger has thrown for over 250 yards six times. He only accomplished that feat in just three games during 2012.
Any way you spin it, Mettenberger is significantly better. And the Tigers offense is the biggest beneficiary of that.
Mississippi State: QB Dak Prescott (So.)
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Season Stats: 54.3 CMP%, 890 YDs, 3 TDs, 3 INTs, 122.1 RAT, 64 CAR, 457 YDs, 8 TDs
Nobody will say Dak Prescott is a great passer. But boy, can he sure run.
What the sophomore lacks with his arm, he more than makes up with his legs. Prescott has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the Bulldogs last four games, scoring seven touchdowns in that span. That includes a 139-yard, two-score performance in a 21-20 win against Bowling Green on Oct. 12 that featured a 75-yard scamper for a touchdown.
Mississippi State was forced to turn to Prescott after senior quarterback Tyler Russell went down with a concussion after Week 1.
Fortunately, the young signal-caller has responded. He leads the team in both passing and rushing.
Prescott still has a lot of kinks to work out. But once he gets it figured out, the rest of the SEC better watch out.
Missouri: DL Michael Sam (Sr.)
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Season Stats: 27 TKLs, 13.0 TFL, 9.0 SKs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 1 PD
While quarterback James Franklin and the ground game get most of the credit for the Tigers’ 7-0 start, the defense has been pretty solid too. The unit has allowed just 381.0 yards while conceding just over 22 points per game.
Defensive lineman Michael Sam has been the driving force behind Missouri’s defense.
Through seven games, the senior leads the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss. He’s also even returned a fumble for a touchdown.
But it’s Sam’s play in big games that has been instrumental to the Tigers’ success.
During the team’s 41-26 upset over Georgia on Oct. 12, he scooped up a fumble for a score to put Missouri up 28-10 in the second quarter. Sam followed that up with three sacks and a quarterback hurry to take down another ranked opponent in Florida last weekend.
If he can keep his stellar play up, there’s no reason to believe the Tigers can’t keep up their winning ways.
Ole Miss: DB Cody Prewitt (Jr.)
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Season Stats: 42 TKLs, 1.0 TFL, 4 INTs, 5 PDs, 2 FF,
For a Rebels defense that has lost several defensive starters already, it’s important to find leadership.
Defensive back Cody Prewitt has provided that for the unit this season.
The junior captain leads the team in interceptions and is tied for third in the nation. He also is currently Ole Miss’ second-leading tackler.
Prewitt has done his part to keep the Rebels in big games, including key interceptions against Vanderbilt, Alabama and most recently against LSU. He also forced a fumble against Auburn while breaking up three passes against Texas.
Don’t be fooled by Ole Miss’ No. 72 ranked scoring defense. Throw in the direction of Prewitt at your own risk.
South Carolina: RB Mike Davis (So.)
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Season Stats: 132 YDs, 879 YDs, 10 TDs, 17 REC, 201 YDs
The Gamecocks have had a lot of success running the ball this year. In fact, the team currently ranks No. 20 in the nation, averaging 224.6 yards per game on the ground.
A big chunk of that success belongs to running back Mike Davis.
In his first season as the feature back, the sophomore has exceeded expectations. Not only has he scored a touchdown in all seven of South Carolina’s games, but he has also topped 100 yards or more in six of them.
Furthermore, Davis has shown an ability to thrive in the passing game, recording performances of 40 yards of receiving or more three times already.
With starting quarterback Connor Shaw unable to go against No. 5 Missouri this weekend, via GoGamecocks.com, expect the Gamecocks to rely on a heavy dose of Davis this weekend.
The last game Shaw missed was the team’s 28-25 victory at UCF on Sept. 28. Davis rushed for a season-high 167 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.
Expect much of the same this weekend.
Tennessee: WR Alton Howard (So.)
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Season Stats: 23 REC, 251 YDs, 3 TDs, 11 CAR, 72 YDs
With a passing attack that ranks No. 109 in the nation (166.3 YPG), the Vols haven’t had much to look forward to through the air.
Wide receiver Alton Howard has changed that.
While he may be more known for his costly fumble during the team’s heartbreaking, 34-31 loss to Georgia on Oct. 5, many forget that the sophomore actually put together a pretty good game. He finished with 116 total yards, proving to be a headache for the Bulldogs both through the air and on the ground.
Howard continued that improvement by catching a season-high eight passes for 33 yards and a score during Tennessee’s upset of then-No. 11 South Carolina last weekend.
Quarterback Justin Worley has certainly struggled this season. But credit Howard for making his job a heck of a lot easier.
Texas A&M: DB Deshazor Everett (Jr.)
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Season Stats: 39 TKLs, 2.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 FR, 2 PDs, 2 TDs
The Aggies currently rank No. 120 in total defense, allowing an atrocious 494.4 yards per game. In fact, the team’s two losses can be credited to that.
However, the play of defensive back Deshazor Everett has been a bright spot.
Given injuries at the position, the junior has played most of 2013 at safety. He’s certainly made the most of his time there.
But what sets Everett apart is his knack for making the big play.
As you recall, it was Everett who came up with the game-saving interception during Texas A&M’s shock-upset over Alabama last year. This season, he’s already taken two turnovers back to the house—an interception to secure a 45-33 win over Arkansas and a fumble return against SMU.
In a defense that is more bend than break, Everett gives the Aggies some reason to believe they can slow down an opposing offense.
Vanderbilt: RB Jerron Seymour (So.)
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Season Stats: 78 CAR, 426 YDs, 8 TDs, 13 REC, 100 YDs
The Commodores have been a lot better than many people will give them credit for. That became largely evident during the team’s 31-27 upset of then-No. 15 Georgia last weekend.
Running back Jerron Seymour has been Vanderbilt’s spark plug.
After a 2012 campaign in which the sophomore only managed 3.2 yards per carry, expectations were low. However, he has greatly exceeded those thus far.
Although Seymour has only topped 100 yards of rushing once in seven games, he’s scored a touchdown in six of them. That includes a pair against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
As the season goes on, Seymour should only continue to get better.
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of NCAA.com.