SEC Football: 10 Players to Watch in Spring Practice

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2014

SEC Football: 10 Players to Watch in Spring Practice

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    Texas A&M is the only SEC school that opened spring camp in February—having done so on the month's final day—and most programs won't start until the second half of March.

    Still, by the end of this current workweek, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee will have joined the Aggies in starting spring practice, putting more than 25 percent of the conference out of the weight room and onto the field...where football players belong.

    The SEC lost some of the best quarterbacks in conference history this offseason, and watching the first act of the battles to replace them at Alabama, Texas A&M and even LSU will dominate the back-page headlines throughout most of March and April.

    However, in traditional cases, quarterback competitions are waged in the spring and won in the fall. Especially with important pieces like Jacob Coker unable to participate at Alabama, it might be best to keep a close eye on those players in a few months—not so much right now.

    Fear not, though. Littered up and down the depth charts of SEC rosters, there are players whose spring camps are must-follow affairs.

    From quarterbacks who already have a job to running backs who want one, from receivers replacing future pros to receivers related to current ones, from defenders trying to make a quick impact on the field to defenders trying to keep their nose clean off of it—there are more than enough reasons to watch the SEC news ticker this spring.

    Here are only 10 of them.

RB Peyton Barber, Auburn

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    Peyton Barber is not yet a national commodity. He was a 3-star recruit in the class of 2013 and a redshirt freshman last season, having little opportunity to make his name known outside of Auburn, Ala.

    Down on the Plains, though, big things are expected. He was a practice darling during his redshirt freshman season, earning high praise from teammate and Heisman finalist Tre Mason.

    "Me and Cam [Artis-Payne] talk about it all the time," Mason said, according to Brandon Marcello of "[Barber] is probably, skill wise, the best out of all of us. That guy is good. He's very consistent when he's scrimmaging. He's very consistent."

    Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are expected to start the spring No. 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart. Both played well behind—or, you could argue, in conjunction with—Mason last season, earning valuable real-game experience in Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee's offense.

    If Barber is the most skilled running back on the roster, however, it shouldn't take long for him to climb the ladder and earn some first-team reps. He is, at the very least, worth watching closely this spring.

DE Markus Golden and Shane Ray, Missouri

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    Maty Mauk will attract most eyes come spring practice, although the drop-off—or lack thereof—between him and starter James Franklin last season instills confidence in the quarterback position.

    Likewise, backup defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray were quite good when subbed in as part of a rotation behind Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. Between them, the duo had 21 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Many starting tandems in the FBS weren't that successful.

    There's a difference, though, between relieving two All-SEC-type players and replacing them. Be it mental or physical, Ray and Golden must clear a hurdle this spring and in fall practice.

    Say what you will about the offense: it was the defensive line that made Missouri so good last season, the pressure it could get by rushing four. If the Tigers want a repeat of 2013 in 2014, Ray and Golden must be every bit as good as Ealy and Sam were.

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama

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    In some ways, what happened in the Sugar Bowl felt familiar. 

    Star backup running backs always emerge late in the season at Alabama. Mark Ingram did it behind Glen Coffee, Trent Richardson behind Ingram, Eddie Lacy behind Richardson and T.J. Yeldon behind Lacy. Now, Derrick Henry has done it behind Yeldon. The cycle continues.

    In some ways, though, what happened in the Sugar Bowl felt different.

    Felt important.

    For even in this golden age of Alabama running backs, no one has ever looked as dominant as Henry during the fourth quarter of the upset loss against Oklahoma. No one has ever blended size and speed with grace in such a chiseled, 6'3'', 240-pound frame. 

    Henry is the leading rusher in high school football history, and after what he did in the Sugar Bowl, it might be impossible for Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin to keep him off the field. However, with Yeldon still in the picture and capable of playing like an All-American (e.g., at LSU in 2013), the extent of Henry's workload is shrouded in doubt.

    In both how he plays and how often he plays, Henry is someone to watch in spring practice. One good game does not a starter make, especially after he saw just 27 touches in the 12 games prior.

    But what he did in New Orleans felt special.

QB Hutson Mason, Georgia

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    How's this for irony? Georgia fans have spent the better part of a decade decrying AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy for being "game managers" at Alabama—for winning by abstaining from mistakes, while Aaron Murray carried the Bulldogs to victories—and now a "game manager" is precisely what they need.

    Everywhere except at quarterback, Georgia looks like a legit national title contender next season. Todd Gurley might be the best skill-position player in the country, the well runs deep at receiver, the defense is loaded with young, experienced talent and now boasts Jeremy Pruitt in the captain's chair.

    The key to the season will be longtime backup Hutson Mason, who took over as the starter after Murray tore his ACL at the end of last season. Decent as he looked in limited playing time, Mason still couldn't beat Nebraska in the Gator Bowl, which is not a good look for an SEC power against a team that struggled in the Big Ten all season.

    This spring, he gets a chance to make the team his own. To make his teammates feel as comfortable as they once did with Murray behind center. He doesn't need to be another Murray, though, and any attempt to do so would hurt more than it helped.

    Mason must be secure in playing like Mason, resolute in figuring out what, exactly, that means. This team does not need to be carried like last year's version; it simply needs not to be dropped.

    It needs a guy who can manage the game.

DE/LB Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

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    The Nkemdiche brothers, Robert and Denzel, are always worth keeping an eye on in Oxford, Miss.—both on the field and off.

    Unfortunately, this concerns the latter.

    Denzel was arrested for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace and then suspended indefinitely from the team on Feb. 17, according to Hugh Kellenberger of the Clarion-Ledger

    One day later, both Nkemdiche boys, along with five other Ole Miss players, were sued for $2 million after allegedly knocking out a man at a fraternity party, according to Clay Travis of Fox Sports.

    This is not good. Very not good. Aside from being two of the team's best players—Robert, of course, having been the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2013—the Nkemdiches are two of the public faces of the rebuilding project at Ole Miss. They are supposed to be emblems of the brighter days to come, not bringers of an ugly future.

    We'll be watching this spring to see the facts as they come out—in both cases. Robert and Denzel are innocent until proven guilty, but things right now do not look good in Oxford.

WR Avery Peterson, LSU

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    Avery Peterson broke his ankle before the start of the 2013 season, ending his freshman campaign before it even began.

    Now, he enters the spring of 2014 with a suspiciously small amount of fanfare, despite standing 6'2'', running a 4.4 40-yard dash and sharing the direct bloodlines of his older brother, LSU legend-turned-NFL superstar Patrick Peterson.

    Patrick's athletic ability did not get lost in the genetic code, as made plain in Avery's highlight tape from high school.

    With All-SEC second-teamers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. gone to the NFL, and with only Travin Dural having made an impact in 2013 among active players, Peterson has a chance to earn a spot on the first team as early as the end of spring.

    Without incoming freshman Malachi Dupre—a 5-star recruit who did not enroll early—around to poach touches and reps with the starters, this is Peterson's opportunity to carve out an early lead.

QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

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    Here's something interesting.

    Bovada released its second batch of 2014 Heisman odds on Feb. 6., and of the 25 players included, 14 were quarterbacks. And of the 14 QBs included, only two were from the SEC. 

    One was Auburn's Nick Marshall, the reigning SEC champion and national runner-up, who was listed at 33-1. 

    The other was Dak Prescott. Also at 33-1.

    Ipso facto, one could argue, Prescott is expected to be the best or second-best quarterback in the best conference in America next season. This despite starting the year behind Tyler Russell in 2013 and still barely having his name recognized outside of SEC country.

    It's not hard to figure out why, though. Prescott led an over-its-head Mississippi State team to a bowl game last season, clinching the .500 record with a clutch victory over rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl at the end of the regular season.

    Three times in 2013, Prescott threw for 200-plus yards and ran for 100-plus yards in the same game. One came in the blowout bowl win over Rice—not a bad way to bring momentum into the offseason—and the others came in true road games against two SEC teams, Auburn and South Carolina, that placed inside the top five of the final AP poll.

    Can Prescott keep the momentum going this spring? With Russell off the roster, this team is squarely his. And he certainly has the physical tools to make Mississippi State a dark horse in the SEC next season.

    Reports out of Starkville are worth keeping an eye on.

WR Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M

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    As he proved at the recent NFL Scouting Combine, former Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans was one of the freakiest athletes in college football last season.

    He checked in at 6'5'', 231 pounds and ran a 4.53 40-yard dash in Indianapolis. That is a physical presence most teams would not be able to replace for decades, if ever at all.

    Not Texas A&M, however. The Aggies already have the next Evans on their roster—provided he's healthy enough to play.

    Ricky Seals-Jones took a medical redshirt after injuring his knee in the early part of his true freshman season, only seeing meaningful playing time in the season opener against Rice. In that game, though, he had three catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.

    The score didn't come from Johnny Manziel, either. It was a 71-yard strike from still-active quarterback Matt Joeckel, whom Seals-Jones will continue to work with this spring. There's a reason he was a consensus 5-star recruit two cycles ago.

    At 6'5'', 225 pounds with enough speed to stretch the field vertically, Seals-Jones is a few pounds of muscle away from being a dead physical ringer of Evans.

    If his knee shows good mobility this spring—note: the picture above shows the brace he's been wearing—it wouldn't be a shock to see him get some preseason All-SEC votes at receiver.

CB Jalen Tabor, Florida

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    Five-star recruits don't always pan out. Trust me; I've checkedLess than 40 percent of 5-star defensive backs go on to become relevant NFL players, and far fewer than that became quality starters in their true freshman season of college.

    On the second front, Vernon Hargreaves III is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. He wasn't just a quality starter but one of the best cornerbacks in America in his first year out of high school. It would be a genuine shock if he didn't parlay his skills into a meaningful NFL career.

    Statistically, it is not likely that Jalen Tabor enjoys the same immediate success. What Hargreaves did is so rare, the odds of it happening twice in two years at the same school are difficult to calculate. It's a concept that's hard to even fathom.

    What if it happens, though? Tabor is certainly talented enough, and the tape shows a player who's mature beyond his years in coverage. He's not just a 5-star body but a 5-star technician with 5-star instincts and ball skills. What if the lightning strikes twice?

    Tabor enrolled early and will get a chance to learn from Hargreaves this spring, to glean what he can from a potential preseason All-American. If he's even 80 percent the player Hargreaves was in 2013, Tabor's presence will again make Florida one of the nation's best pass defenses in 2014.

    And who in the country could throw on UF the year after that?

QB Dylan Thompson, South Carolina

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    When last we saw Dylan Thompson play quarterback—at least in a meaningful capacity—he was leading South Carolina to zero points through 39 minutes at Missouri.

    What happened past that is history. Connor Shaw hobbled off the bench with a sprained left knee and led the Gamecocks to 17 fourth-quarter points to force overtime, where eventually they would hand Mizzou its only loss of the regular season, 27-24.

    It was a thrilling, euphoric high for South Carolina's 2013 season, but the victory cast a shadow over 2014. Thompson was supposed to be one of the best backup quarterbacks in college football, the obvious heir apparent once Shaw left Columbia.

    Can he still be counted on to lead this team?

    Steve Spurrier seems to think so.

    "Why open (the quarterback job) up when (Thompson is) the only one that has played, and played well,” Spurrier said, according to Scott Hood of The Times and Democrat. "He is without question going to be our quarterback unless he gets hurt. Dylan is our quarterback."

    That's a promising vote of support from the Old Ball Coach, although the lack of quality options behind Thompson makes it predictable.

    That lack of quality options also makes his improvement more imperative. If he struggles as he did against Missouri, Shaw won't be waiting on the sidelines with a white horse ready to save the day.

    Instead, South Carolina will simply lose the game.


    Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT