The fast approach of national signing day means coaches everywhere will soon turn their attention to spring practice. Naturally, it means the former high-profile recruits take center stage in their attempts to launch successful careers.
More of those elite recruits seem to find their way onto the field as true freshmen.
There are, however, still players who sit out to gain experience in the college systems before embarking on careers.
Keep in mind, the last two Heisman Trophy winners—Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston—took home the award as redshirt freshmen.
This list examines the players most likely to make names for themselves by dominating spring practice.
Players were selected based on recruiting rankings, team needs, likelihood of seeing significant repetitions during spring practice and rave reviews from coaches.
Here’s a look at the SEC redshirt freshmen most likely to make an impact this spring.
How, exactly, receiver Robert Foster will break into the lineup in 2014 remains to be seen.
One thing seems likely, though: Foster will make the most of his opportunities.
Last year 247Sports rated Foster as the No. 2 receiver in the nation.
Ultimately, Andrew Gribble of AL.com reported, Foster arrived on campus too late during summer practices to make an immediate impact.
First-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin promises to bring in a more uptempo offense in 2014. That bodes well for offensive skill players because there will be more snaps, and therefore more chances to get the ball.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn showed his undeterred commitment to the run game this season. Now he must replace the engine of his offense, tailback Tre Mason.
Who will replace Mason remains to be seen, but Peyton Barber should open the spring with a great opportunity.
Brandon Marcello of AL.com reported that Barber earned an important fan—Mason.
“(Barber) is probably, skill wise, the best out of all of us,” Mason told Marcello. “That guy is good. He’s very consistent when he’s scrimmaging. He’s very consistent.”
Like Mason, Barber wasn’t viewed as an elite prospect. 247Sports rated Barber as a 3-star player, below potential backfield competition Johnathan Ford. How Ford will factor into the tailback race remains to be seen. Ford spent 2013 at defensive back because of the numerous injuries suffered in the Auburn secondary.
If Ford returns to running back, he—along with Barber—can dominate spring practice.
Replacing defensive tackle Dominique Easley won’t be easy. Gators coaches hope they have an equally dominating figure in the middle in Caleb Brantley.
Robbie Andreu of The Gainesville Sun reported Florida coaches are high on Brantley and nearly decided to pull his redshirt because of injuries.
Brantley, a 4-star prospect according to 247Sports, will seemingly have every opportunity to earn a starting position.
If not for a knee injury suffered in high school, Marcell Harris might not even be on this list. The highly rated safety did not play in 2013 while recovering from the injury.
If not, Abreu reported, Harris would have been expected to compete for playing time. Florida returns plenty of options at the safety positions, but he has the talent to stand out and dominate spring ball. 247Sports rated him as the No. 10 safety in the nation and a 4-star prospect.
Numerous true freshmen made immediate impacts for Georgia.
Davin Bellamy, meanwhile, spent time learning the outside linebacker position in former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme. Bellamy caught a bit of a break that former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who also runs a 3-4, now replaces Grantham, who left for Louisville.
Still, he could bolster the Bulldogs pass rush.
Of the two, Greg Gilmore faces an easier path to playing time.
The decisions by defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson to forgo their senior seasons create immediate opportunities.
Gilmore earned strong reviews as a high school senior. 247Sports listed him as its No. 5 defensive tackle.
That mission should be tougher for Herron, rated by 247Sports as the No. 7 defensive end in the nation.
Defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter look like stars.
The exodus of receiver talent at Missouri opens up opportunities for unknown players to emerge this spring. L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas both graduated.
Further muddling the position, superstar Dorial Green-Beckham faces potential legal troubles after getting arrested for suspicion of distribution of a controlled substance. David Morrison of The Columbia Tribune reported that it could be some time before the investigation concludes. If Green-Beckham doesn’t partake in spring practices, it would mean the Tigers would have to replace 167 receptions, 2,468 yards and 25 touchdowns.
J’Mon Moore might be one player to take advantage of additional spring snaps.
Moore, rated by 247Sports as a 4-star prospect, will have plenty of competition—headed up by Bud Sasser.
Still, quarterback Maty Mauk will need to develop additional targets. There’s no reason to think Moore can’t be one.
Both quarterback and running back positions appear to be spoken for by Dylan Thompson and Mike Davis, respectively.
Don’t be surprised, however, if quarterback Connor Mitch and tailback David Williams enjoy breakout springs. Mitch and Williams were two of the crown jewels in coach Steve Spurrier’s 2013 signing class.
Spurrier should look to develop depth at both positions this spring, too.
Tailback Mike Davis is a proven commodity. It’s difficult to imagine him getting a considerable workload during spring practices. As a result, Williams could get additional carries.
Spurrier raved about Williams to Glenn Snyder of GoGamecocks.
Mitch likely faces a tough path to a starting role in 2014. Then again, Spurrier has never shown fear of changing quarterbacks.
Though the Ol’ Ball Coach essentially declared Thompson the 2014 starter, he told Snyder that Mitch will compete for the backup spot.
Injuries to quarterbacks Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman made it clear first-year coach Butch Jones would have to play a freshman in 2013.
Ultimately, a right leg injury to Riley Ferguson made it an easy decision for Jones to go with Joshua Dobbs.
Both Ferguson and Dobbs signed as part of Tennessee’s 2013 class. 247Sports had Dobbs, a 4-star recruit, as the higher-rated prospect.
However, Evan Woodbery of The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported Ferguson has “a strong chance of earning the No. 1 spot" this spring.
Ferguson’s ability to claim the starting job hinges on his spring performance.
Receiver Ricky Seals-Jones seemed on track to be a key factor on the Texas A&M offense before the season began. In his collegiate debut, Seals-Jones caught three passes for 84 yards and a touchdown against Rice.
However, he injured his knee on the 71-yard touchdown. That injury ultimately required surgery.
His 6'5", 230-pound frame makes him a great target for whoever claims the starting quarterback job.
Perhaps the greatest parting gift former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin gave his program was the decision to allow players like Cunningham to redshirt.
Cunningham, whom 247Sports rated as the top prospect in the Commodores’ 2013 class, must learn a new system under first-year coach Derek Mason.
That shouldn’t be a difficult transition.
Mason made a name for himself at Stanford as a defensive innovator capable of slowing even the most potent offenses.
Players like Cunningham—and fellow redshirt freshmen linebacker Nigel Bowden and defensive tackle Jay Woods—should help Mason develop comparable results in Nashville.