Ranking 10 Most Exciting SEC Football Players Heading into 2014 Season
They can completely change the momentum of a game the moment the ball touches their hands, or as soon as they arrive at a ball-carrier.
They're dynamic athletes, game-breakers and superstars who coaches have to include in the game plan every single time they enter the film room to devise a plan of attack.
And the Southeastern Conference is full of them.
From quarterbacks to running backs to receivers to defenders, the league has more than its share of freak athletes who invoke excitement—or fear—the second they step on the field.
Since predictions like this need some historical evidence on college football's biggest stage, true freshmen were not considered while making this list, as they've not proved themselves.
Do guys like Leonard Fournette, Speedy Noil and Jalen Hurd have a chance to make this list by season's end? Absolutely. But for now, we'll stick with the talented players who've already showcased what they can do in this league.
Narrowing down a top-10 list of exciting players in a power conference like the SEC is akin to choosing the best-looking swimsuit model. No matter who you pick, somebody out there thinks you're a blind, bumbling idiot.
The criteria for this ranking was how much of an impact these players have on their team's success, their ability to make clutch plays and propensity to make the major out of the minuscule.
It was an arduous task whittling down a list like this, but here's the final verdict.
10. Maty Mauk, Missouri Quarterback
The SEC had to say goodbye to Johnny Manziel, who left Texas A&M early and landed with the NFL's Cleveland Browns. But there could be a mini-Manziel emerging at the league's other "new" school.
Missouri redshirt sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk appears poised to build off an electrifying introduction to SEC football in 2013 when he replaced injured senior James Franklin and passed for 1,071 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
He also made plenty happen with his wheels.
Now Mauk must take on more of a leadership role with Franklin's departure, and—thanks to the exits of Henry Josey, Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas—he doesn't have the safety net available.
Mauk told the throng at SEC media days last week that he'll look toward the former Texas A&M star quarterback as a player who he can impersonate, according to USA Today's Nick Cole:
[Manziel is] somebody that I want to—not necessarily be like—but I can model my game after him. He can change a game so quick by being able to make plays, and that's something I feel like I can do and something I have to do. He's someone that I can look to. I watch him on film all the time. He was a great player and someone I'm going to try to play like.
Regardless of whether he becomes Maty Football, Mauk can play a little himself. Now's the time for him to make his own name in Columbia.
9. Marquez North, Tennessee Wide Receiver
A season ago, Marquez North was thrust immediately into a starting role despite playing most of his high school career as a running back or option quarterback.
Though he was raw and lacked the polish of a more seasoned receiver, the 6'4", 221-pound pass-catcher had a quality freshman campaign despite being thrown to by three underperforming quarterbacks and having little help on the perimeter.
North wound up with 38 catches for 496 yards and a score, but he had a flare for the dramatic, hauling in a tiptoeing touchdown against Georgia that led to college football's photo of the year, according to USA Today's Nina Mandell.
Two weeks later against South Carolina, North made a highlight-reel 39-yard grab on 3rd-and-10 to set up Michael Palardy's game-winning field goal. It was easily the play of the season for the Vols and one of the best catches of the year.
So, he already has proved he can make key plays with games on the line.
Now with Pig Howard and Jason Croom back and the addition of Josh Malone, Von Pearson, Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, the Vols have plenty of weapons to take some of the pressure off North. If UT can find a quarterback to consistently get him the ball, North is going to have a huge season.
Sure there are more proven receivers in the league, but North is a big-play machine.
8. Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State Linebacker
At 6'5", 245 pounds, Benardrick McKinney hits ball-carriers with the force of a human heat-seeking missile.
Much like his teammate on offense, quarterback Dak Prescott, there will be no hiding in Starkville's lack of media spotlight this season. Many around the country are beginning to notice what kind of talent the Tupelo, Mississippi, junior possesses.
Though McKinney can line up in various places if necessary, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required) listed him as one of his top inside linebackers for the 2015 NFL draft. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman named him one of the top "freaks" in college football.
He also made the Butkus Award Watch List (among several other "watch" lists) released this month, and was noted by USA Today's Tess Quinlan as being "widely considered one of the best linebackers in the SEC."
Playing on an extremely talented defense that could do a lot of growing up this season, McKinney should improve upon last year's seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 71 tackles. This will probably be his final year to show what he can do on this level.
NFL.com's Chase Goodbread caught up with McKinney last week at SEC media days, and the linebacker indicated 2014 would be his final season in college.
"I thought about (coming out early last year), but after talking to my coach and my family, I felt it was best for me to stay another year," he said.
In a league with star linebackers such as Trey DePriest, Ramik Wilson and A.J. Johnson everywhere, McKinney's elite athleticism stands out. He'll be one of the biggest impact players in the league.
7. Derrick Henry, Alabama Running Back
You see a 6'3", 238-pound running back, and the first thing that comes to mind is "There's no way he can get low enough." When he does, the second thing you think of is "Well, he's just a power back."
Alabama's Derrick Henry is certainly powerful. But he's also so much more.
Anybody who doesn't think the sophomore from Yulee, Florida, who set national high school rushing records before heading to Tuscaloosa is explosive, exciting and fast needs to rewatch last year's Sugar Bowl. Especially that 43-yard touchdown scamper.
Henry's 161 all-purpose yards was a coming-out party, but it also proved he has all the tools to be a complete running back who stands out even in a crowded backfield with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. A freak like Henry will be impossible to keep off the field no matter who's back there with him.
It's going to be very interesting to see how Nick Saban uses Henry this year. A season removed from averaging 10.9 yards per carry and taking his only reception 61 yards to the house, Henry has proved he can make the big plays.
With his size, he's also a between-the-tackles terror for opponents.
Saban told ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough in the article linked above, "Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring. He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."
That size? That speed? And a work ethic to go along with it? That's truly scary for the rest of the SEC.
6. Amari Cooper, Alabama Wide Receiver
Amari Cooper was not himself through much of the 2013 season, hobbled by injuries that hampered his production.
Then, as he began to feel better toward the end of the year, he busted through against Auburn and Oklahoma, catching 15 passes for 299 yards, according to ESPN.com. Suddenly, he'd regained the form that made him a 1,000-yard receiver as a true freshman.
Now entering Cooper's junior season, getting the ball to the 6'1", 202-pound pass-catcher is the key to the Crimson Tide's offensive firepower.
If new signal-caller Jacob Coker (or insert any other quarterback in Bama's competition) can find ways to get the ball in Cooper's hands, the Tide will be extremely tough to handle again.
Everybody knows they're going to run the football well, but Cooper may be the most dynamic weapon on a team full of them.
With Cooper as the centerpiece, it's no surprise Saban said during his appearance on ESPN's "Car Wash" where coaches make stops on all platforms that this was his best group of skill players, per The Anniston Star's Marq Burnett:
"I don't think in comparison individually, but I think in total...just three really good receivers that all have made a lot of plays, three really good runners that have all made lots of good plays. I think probably in total, depth-wise, it probably is the best group," he said.
Cooper is fast, makes huge plays and has shown the propensity to turn short-to-intermediate routes into long touchdowns. Speaking of scoring, Cooper's 15 touchdown grabs in two seasons prove he knows how to make them count.
5. Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida Cornerback
Very few defensive backs ever have the opportunity to excite because the ball is rarely thrown in the direction of the best.
This year, the SEC has a couple of back-level defenders who are worthy of the dynamic label. The first of which is 5'11", 192-pound sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
VHIII burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2013, which came as a surprise to exactly nobody after a prep career at Tampa's Wharton High School that saw him ranked as the nation's top cornerback and No. 3 overall player, according to the 247Sports composite.
Still, the level at which he excelled was extremely impressive. He was named a third-team All-American as a freshman and was a first-team all-conference player.
"I wasn't sure what to expect," VHIII told The Gainesville Sun correspondent Zach Abolverdi at SEC media days last week. "I didn't know how well I was going to adjust to the game. Obviously, I came along pretty well, so I just kind of went with it."
Even in a star-studded secondary and even with the Gators suffering through a forgettable 4-8 season, VHIII shone. He ended up with three interceptions, 38 tackles and 11 passes defended.
He also displayed so much speed and elite athleticism that Will Muschamp put him back to return punts some, which may be a wrinkle used again in the future.
Given the Gators' offensive woes, Muschamp should consider giving the dynamic playmaker a handful of snaps on the other side of the ball. Especially considering it's opponents' goal to keep the ball out of VHIII's hands.
4. Landon Collins, Alabama Safety
If you were wondering why Alabama is a consensus favorite to win the SEC, meet the third representative from the Crimson Tide on this list.
There was a reason why there was uproar across the entire state of Louisiana when Landon Collins picked Alabama over the LSU Tigers in the 2012 recruiting cycle.
It's because he is a 6'0", 222-pound elite playmaker who is rangy, fast and packs the kind of punch that causes offenses to avoid him at all costs.
Though Collins has started just nine games in his Alabama career, he has played in every contest since getting to Tuscaloosa. Last year, he more than compensated once he took over for an injured Vinnie Sunseri, finishing with 70 tackles and earning second-team All-SEC honors.
Collins hasn't even reached his incredibly high ceiling yet because this is the first season where this is "his" defense. No longer will he have to take a back seat to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or C.J. Mosley. Collins is the Tide's centerpiece.
The Tuscaloosa News' Glendon Poe spoke to Collins at SEC media days last week about that increased leadership role:
I'm putting as much work as I can into learning this defense and doing everything I'm supposed to do on and off the field. A lot of guys look up to me and I’m grateful for that because it was the same situation when I was looking up to Vinnie Sunseri, C.J. Mosley, Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix), (Damion) Square, all them that I looked up to.
Collins is on the Jim Thorpe Award list, according to AL.com's Andrew Gribble, and as the complete package at defensive back, he'd better win his hardware this year if he's going to. The NFL will probably come calling next season.
3. Sammie Coates, Auburn Wide Receiver
When it comes to the art of going deep, few wide receivers in the nation are the long-range threat that Auburn's Sammie Coates is.
A season ago, the 6'2", 201-pound target was one of the biggest playmakers in the entire country, finishing third nationally with 21.5 yards per catch and averaging an eye-popping 54.1 yards for his seven touchdown receptions.
Numbers like that will get you to the top of Feldman's freak list.
With the passing game being more of a focus for the Tigers as they try to become more balanced in their defense of last year's SEC title and national championship game appearance, Coates is a key.
He needs to become more consistent, but it's impossible to be more electrifying. Last year, he showed a tendency to be a bit of an all-or-nothing receiver at times, which was probably more of an indictment of an overall inconsistent passing game.
The Tigers didn't always need to be balanced, and when they did, Coates was routinely the target. He's one of the fastest receivers in the nation, and he also has a knack to make things happen at important times.
The addition of JUCO star pass-catcher D'haquille Williams should ease some of the attention off Coates and enable him to do what he does best: Run toward paydirt.
Coates' stardom and Williams' potential have everybody excited on the Plains. Gus Malzahn told ESPN's Joe Tessitore this week, "At least since I've been at Auburn this is the best receiving group that we've had."
What is Coates going to be as an encore to 2013?
2. Todd Gurley, Georgia Running Back
That's dreadlocks—not fire—flaring out of the back of Georgia running back Todd Gurley's helmet, though you'd swear otherwise.
The Bulldogs junior takes the handoff and runs like his hair is on fire, hitting the line of scrimmage as quickly and violently as any running back in the country.
Even after a bit of a down year in 2013 where he battled injuries, Gurley still finished with 989 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 10 games. Despite not being 100 percent for virtually the entire season, he was a (ho-hum) second-team All-SEC running back.
Now, he is completely healthy, and the 6'1", 232-pound Tarboro, North Carolina, native leads a stable of UGA runners into 2014 that should be among the best in the country. If Keith Marshall is healthy, the Dawgs also will boast Marshall, A.J. Turman, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
And all that talent will take a back seat to Gurley. He's a consensus All-SEC preseason selection, and there are plenty more than whispers about bigger hardware if he can stay healthy.
Last week, Gurley was one of UGA's representatives at SEC media days, even though he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chip Towers he wasn't thrilled about the method of travel to Hoover, Alabama.
"I'd never been on that plane before," Gurley said. "It was a little small. It was fun though. We just talked the whole way."
Uh oh. If Gurley has the type of season many think he will, he'll probably be having to face the fear of that small private plane again. Next time, it'll be on its way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony with Gurley in tow.
1. Nick Marshall, Auburn Quarterback
There are fewer more dynamic college football players than a really good dual-threat quarterback.
Two years removed from being a University of Georgia defensive back who rode the bench, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall switched positions and became one of the nation's best in 2013.
He ran Malzahn's offense to near-perfection in amassing 1,974 passing yards, 1,068 rushing yards and 26 total touchdowns.
He beat teams with his feet. Then, when the Tigers had to have it, he beat others (Georgia) with his arm. Sure, there was a bit of good fortune involved in AU's improbable run to the title game, but Marshall was also a huge part of it.
Everything was lining up for Marshall to enter his senior season as the face of Auburn's revitalized program when he was issued a citation for a small amount of marijuana, which caused him to be removed from representing AU at SEC media days.
Malzahn said going to media days was a reward that Marshall "didn't deserve" after the citation, according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello. Marcello reported that Malzahn said on an appearance on ESPN's Numbers Never Lie:
He understands he made a mistake. He has been remorseful. Up until that point, he had been a model student, citizen, all of the above, but he made a mistake. He's our quarterback. The quarterback is the face of our program, so he'll have some things he'll have to pay for. I have not decided that for sure right now, but it will be in a short period of time I'll have that figured out.
Whatever Marshall's team punishment is, it likely won't keep him out of too much (if any) game action. When he is on the field, there's no denying his dynamic capabilities.
There are a handful of guys in the league who could be considered better all-around players than Marshall, but he's the most exciting. When he gets back on the field, the Tigers will be harder to handle with him at the helm.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: