10 SEC Players Primed to Be the Stars of the Spring
Over the next couple of weeks, pads will begin to pop around the south as SEC teams kick off the 2016 season with spring practice sessions.
With that comes inevitable superstars.
Some of the players who will rise to prominence this spring are those who you've heard of, while others will be former hot-shot recruits who have been biding their time behind stars who have moved on.
Who will be the stars of the spring? Our picks based on talent and opportunity are in this slideshow.
Florida: DE Cece Jefferson
A year ago, Cece Jefferson was one of the stars of national signing day.
The 6'1", 275-pounder played a role for the SEC East champs as a true freshman, notching 29 tackles, 8.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks on a defense that finished third in the conference in yards per play (4.65).
Now, it's time for him to become a star.
With a full year in head coach Jim McElwain's strength and conditioning system and Jon Bullard leaving a hole along the defensive line that needs to be filled by a versatile, playmaking defensive lineman, Jefferson is set up to live up to the hype that followed him to Gainesville.
Auburn: DE Byron Cowart
Byron Cowart is being counted on to be a difference-maker up front for Auburn's new-look defense under coordinator Kevin Steele, and he has the running mates to help him out.
Auburn gets end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams back after both flirted with the NFL, which means a ton of one-on-one situations for Lawson to take advantage of. At 6'3", 277 pounds, Cowart has the size to be a force against the run, but also the speed to be either a force off the edge or someone who drops down inside in obvious pass-rushing situations to get more speed on the field.
He finished last year with just six tackles playing more of a backup role under former coordinator Will Muschamp, but should elevate to the top of the depth chart as a sophomore and reach the potential that made him a 5-star prospect 13 months ago.
Georgia QB Jacob Eason
You've heard enough about 5-star pro-style passer Jacob Eason to make your head spin at this point, but you haven't heard anything yet.
After Georgia struggled at the quarterback position last year with Greyson Lambert at the helm, all eyes will be on the Lake Stevens, Washington, native when first-year head coach Kirby Smart opens spring practice.
Is Eason going to make mistakes? Sure.
But every spring (especially during Smart's time at Alabama), there are one or two scrimmages that are specifically geared toward quarterbacks lighting up defenses just to see what they've got. When Eason completes 486 of his 35 passes for 3,000 yards and 14 touchdowns in one scrimmage (yes, that's all sarcasm), get ready for the Eason hype train to kick into overdrive.
"He’s acclimated well, doing a good job in the classroom," Smart said on national signing day, according to quotes emailed by Georgia. "We’re holding him to a high expectation as a leader on this team."
Tennessee WR Josh Malone
The one missing piece of Tennessee's offense that is preventing it from becoming a legitimate national title threat is the absence of a consistent downfield passing attack. Quarterback Josh Dobbs shoulders most of that blame, but his wide receivers have consistently failed to live up to the hype.
Josh Malone needs to change that narrative.
The 6'3", 197-pound junior has the size to be a matchup problem, can be a weapon over the middle and should be able to get off the line of scrimmage more consistently than he has over his first two seasons on Rocky Top.
He will show flashes of his potential this spring.
Dobbs needs somebody to rely on outside, and Malone has the experience and skills to be that guy. He will start to put it together over the next few weeks during spring practice.
Alabama QB Blake Barnett
For the third straight season, Alabama will be embroiled with a quarterback battle that will draw the attention of the college football world.
The last two winners seemed to fare quite well—Blake Sims with an SEC title and College Football Playoff berth in 2014 and Jake Coker with SEC and national titles in 2015.
No pressure, Blake Barnett.
The 6'5", 200-pound redshirt freshman has the arm to stretch the ball deep, is mobile enough for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to implement some of the zone-read elements he was successful with in 2014 with Sims and got a full season running the Crimson Tide scout team against one of the best defenses in the country under his belt.
From a talent standpoint, he's the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has had in Tuscaloosa, and should make a strong case to be the front-runner for QB1 by the end of spring practice.
Ole Miss DL Breeland Speaks
With all of the talk surrounding Ole Miss' defensive line centering around the absence of former tackle Robert Nkemdiche, the fact that the Rebels have a ton of depth and versatility up front seems to get lost.
Breeland Speaks is one of the guys who gets lost.
Speaks had 32 tackles, 5.5 for loss and one sack as a freshman role player in 2015, and the 6'3", 313-pounder who can move all over the line should be a big piece of the puzzle for head coach Hugh Freeze in 2016.
He has the quickness to jet into the backfield, strength to shed blocks and now the opportunity to become a star. He will take advantage this spring.
Texas A&M DB Priest Willis
What's that? Texas A&M doesn't have a defense?
Don't tell John Chavis that, because his group grew by leaps and bounds in 2015 and will get another boost this season with former UCLA corner Priest Willis gaining eligibility after sitting out his transfer year. A former 4-star prospect from Arizona, Willis had 22 tackles and two pass breakups as a sophomore back in 2014, and he should be a starter right away in 2016 for the Aggies.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin did his best on national signing day to point out just how important Willis and fellow transfer Keith Ford are to the Aggies in 2016.
"Able to add two really good transfers last year—Priest Willis as a corner who started at UCLA and [running back] Keith Ford who was a really fine player at Oklahoma," he said, according to Texas A&M. "Those guys don't show up on this list but you add them to this class and you start to see the depth pile up real quick."
Willis has a ton of potential, will get plenty of help up front with Texas A&M's disruptive defensive line forcing quarterbacks to throw on the run and will make some noise in Aggieland this spring.
Arkansas RB Kody Walker
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema always seems to find running backs to shoulder the load, and Kody Walker is the next in line in Fayetteville.
Walker, a 6'2", 256-pounder from Jefferson City, Missouri, rushed for 394 yards and six touchdowns behind Alex Collins last year.
Don't be fooled by his size. Walker can be a bruiser when he needs to lower the pads, but he is much faster than any 256-pound man should be.
With Rawleigh Williams still recovering from a scary neck injury suffered last fall and 4-star signee Devwah Whaley yet to arrive on campus, it's going to be the spring of Walker for the Hogs. If that continues into the fall, opposing defenders are going to have to make business decisions often when Walker is coming at them through the hole.
South Carolina LB Skai Moore
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp recruited well down the stretch, but his best recruiting effort during his short time in Columbia was convincing linebacker Skai Moore to stick around for his senior season with the Gamecocks.
The 6'2", 218-pounder from Cooper City, Florida, has led the team in tackles in each of his first three seasons, is a hard hitter, has a nose for the football and was the one bright light on a defense that left a lot to be desired elsewhere in 2015.
As Josh Kendall of the State noted in January, Muschamp might experiment with Moore at safety this spring to take advantage of his experience and quickness.
“When we’re in our regular package, he may be able to play some safety and be able to increase his role as far as playing in space,” Muschamp said. “He’s got a pretty wide skill set.”
Watching how he handles the transition and how he fits into Muschamp's plans will be incredibly interesting to see over the next few weeks.
LSU DE Arden Key
The world got a glimpse of Arden Key as a true freshman in 2015, and he impressed the masses in a part-time role with 41 tackles, 6.5 for loss and five sacks as a force off the edge in pass-rushing situations.
The best is yet to come, as former LSU assistant Pete Jenkins told Matt Moscona of ESPN 104.9 in Baton Rouge:
While he looks like a lanky pass-rusher, the 6'6", 234-pounder is much stronger than he appears, has the long arms and strength to get off of blocks and should become much more of a three-down defensive end under new coordinator David Aranda.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.