Now that spring practices are starting to gear up, we are getting our first glimpses of the teams that will take the field this fall. Some players are looking to improve on last year’s performance and others are just trying to get on the field.
Most, if not all, of the teams are incomplete with student-athletes still coming off of injuries and most of the freshman still in high school and yet to officially move to the next level.
With that in mind, it is time to look at some potential stars and playmakers who can have an impact in the SEC.
Obviously, it is very unlikely that we will see any player of Cam Newton’s caliber come in, turn a good team into a great one and dominate the league.
But with the wealth of talent headed to the NFL and seniors moving on, there will be plenty of opportunities for new players to come in and contribute in a meaningful way.
2010 Stats: 700 Yards, 112 Attempts and 6 TDs Rushing, 266 Yards, 23 Receptions and 4 TDs Receiving
Alabama’s BCS Championship win over Texas two years ago initially introduced America to Trent Richardson.
Commentators were quick to give Mark Ingram everything he was due as the Heisman Trophy winner. But even in Richardson’s freshman year, there were rumblings that he was, in fact, the better of the two running backs.
Now that Ingram has left for the NFL, Trent Richardson is expected to exert his dominance on the SEC.
At 5-11 and 220 pounds, Richardson is a compact runner who has the power to bulldoze defensive backs and smaller linebackers. He also has an unexpected extra gear that allows him to break off large gains once he has turned the corner.
With more opportunities come this fall, Richardson has the potential to join Ingram as the only Alabama Heisman Trophy winners.
2010 Stats: 453 Yards, 66.7% Completion, and 4 TDs Passing
Most people are familiar with Ryan Mallet; the strong-armed quarterback who has led the Razorbacks the past two years.
Some draft pundits have the quarterback going as high as the late first to early second round of this April’s draft.
The kicker, though, is that Tyler Wilson could actually be a better quarterback than Mallet.
By all indications, Wilson has the intangibles that Mallet is rumored to have lacked.
While he doesn’t have Mallet’s cannon of a right arm, he does outperform him in short to intermediate throws as well as altering the velocity of his passes in order to throw a more catchable ball.
Wilson’s relatively high completion percentage should increase the efficiency of an Arkansas offense that is returning some very good wide receivers and was already explosive to begin with.
2010 Stats: 1,093 Yards, 182 Attempts and 5 TDs Rushing, 9 Yards and 1 Reception
I’ll get the obvious statement out of the way first: Cam Newton was Auburn’s and the nation’s breakout player last year.
That being said, there is now a massive hole to fill in the Tigers’ offense.
Michael Dyer had a phenomenal rookie season when he rushed for over a thousand yards. Newton is gone and there is no one who can single-handedly replace his production. Therefore, Coach Chizik will have to lean on his sophomore running back a little more.
Dyer only had one reception and five touchdowns last year. Those numbers won’t be good enough this fall.
In order to be a more complete back, he will need to work on catching passes out of the backfield. Not only will this increase his touches, but it will also take pressure off of Auburn’s new quarterback.
Dyer is a strong between-the-tackles runner because he is a short, stocky back with great balance. If he can become a well-rounded player, then there is no reason Dyer can’t become one of the top running backs in the SEC.
2010 Stats: 25 Tackles, 2.5 TFL and 1 Sack
The 2010 season didn’t fall in line with either the Florida Gators’ or Ronald Powell’s expectations.
The number one prospect coming out of high school, Powell could only manage one sack and a couple of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He struggled early and often to acclimate himself to the college game.
Now that new coach Will Muschamp has begun to install some 3-4 looks into the Gator defense, it appears that Powell has found a home at the new “buck” position.
This is good news for Florida fans. A similar position was created for Texas A&M standout Von Miller and resulted in 17 sacks his junior year.
Going into his sophomore season, Powell has the athletic ability and football intelligence to be as productive as Miller. He is not quite as explosive off of the line as his Aggie counterpart, but he is much larger and should be able to be a more dominant run stopper.
Now with more opportunities to showcase his versatility, Powell is set up for a much-improved year that could see him rise as one of the top defenders on a talented unit.
2010 Stats: 3,049 Yards, 61.1% Completion and 24 TDs Passing, 167 Yards, 87 Attempts and 4 TDs Rushing
Last year, Aaron Murray surprised many with a fantastic season despite being a redshirt freshman.
He threw for more than 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns to only eight interceptions and did all of this with an inconsistent running game.
Murray won’t have the benefit of throwing to All-World receiver A.J. Green this year, but the Bulldogs have plenty of talent to help their young gunslinger. Five star recruit Isaiah Crowell should bring some production to a running game that ranked 73rd nationally and take some pressure off of Georgia’s quarterback.
Aaron Murray has a similar playing style to Drew Brees when he played in the spread at Purdue. Both Murray and Brees stand between 6-0 and 6-1, have good, but not great, arm strength, can make plays with their legs and rely on elite accuracy to pick apart defenses.
Murray proved to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC last year. This year he will make his mark as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
2010 Stats: None
Kentucky has the potential to be an absolute mess on offense this year.
The Wildcats will have a new quarterback and are losing quality players, like Locke and Cobb, at all of the skill positions. With a depth chart that is completely in flux, I’m not comfortable declaring anyone on that side of the ball as a potential breakout player.
Kentucky’s defensive backfield will be returning seniors in the safety and cornerback positions. However, to make up for what could be horrid offensive production, the defense will be forced to play a very aggressive scheme.
That is where Priester comes in. The 5-9, 170 pound corner is a natural-born playmaker.
He has been noted by Coach Phillips as being the most explosive player on the roster. A defense looking to force turnovers and score with them will need playmakers all over the field.
Priester has fantastic speed and agility and plays much stronger than his lean body would indicate. He was a running back in high school so he knows how to avoid tacklers, set up blockers and find running lanes.
I don’t expect him to start for the Wildcats early. Just don’t be surprised if Jerrell Priester finds a niche for himself and forces one of the seniors to the bench.
2010 Stats: 18 Tackles, 6 TFL, and 2 Sacks
Sam Montgomery had previously only played one season of high school football before signing onto Les Miles’s squad. That one season was enough to garner him a five-star ranking due, in large part, to his size and considerable athletic ability.
LSU had a very stingy defense ranked 11th nationally last year, but the defensive line, usually a strong point, failed to consistently put pressure on quarterbacks.
Montgomery had a good start to his first season, but it was ended after only five games due to a knee injury. Still, in five games the natural pass rusher already sacked the opposing quarterback twice and had six tackles for a loss.
He is tall enough to play defensive end at 6-4 and his frame is built to hold muscle while not slowing him down or limiting his agility. Montgomery has shown a knack for fighting off blocks and contending with even the larger tackles.
His long wingspan, good motor and an intuitive feel for the position could help Montgomery carve out a place in the upper echelon of LSU linemen— no easy feat.
2010 Stats: 45 Tackles and 1 Sack
Brandon Maye was a three-year starter for the Clemson Tigers. He decided to transfer and finish his collegiate career at Mississippi State in order to be closer to home. The NCAA will not likely force Maye to sit out a year because he plans on earning his Bachelor’s degree from Clemson in May and then enroll in the graduate program at Mississippi State. This was the loophole Jeremiah Masoli used to play for Ole Miss last year.
The Bulldogs are losing all three of their starting linebackers from last year’s team. Maye’s experience and leadership will be a welcome addition to a unit that will not return any starters.
Maye was injured much of last year and was not a large factor for Clemson’s defense. Earlier in his career, however, he recorded more than a hundred tackles and five forced fumbles as a sophomore.
The main contribution that Maye will bring to a Bulldog team is his leadership. He isn’t the most impressive athlete and he doesn’t run the quickest 40-yard dash, but he makes up for what he lacks in playmaker ability by being accountable and playing technically sound.
2010 Stats: 149 Tackles, 5 TFL, 1 Sack and 2 Interceptions
Ole Miss’s defense, ranked 107th nationally, was not up to SEC standards last year. Johnson, a five-star linebacking recruit from Philadelphia, Mississippi, should shore up a defense that could be in for another year of sub-par performances.
C.J. Johnson caused quite a stir when he decommitted from Mississippi State to play for Houston Nutt and the Rebels. There were allegations of pay offs and unscrupulous Facebook messages from fans.
He is a predominantly run-stopping linebacker who excels in avoiding blockers and finding the ball carrier. He routinely knocks runners backwards and displays sound fundamentals with his form tackles.
The one hole in Johnson’s game is his pass coverage skills. He has smooth hips and is a smart player. It should not take him long to hone both his zone and man coverage abilities.
Johnson’s natural instincts should allow him to crack the starting line up quickly, and, after some quality coaching, he should be well on his way to making a name for himself in the SEC.
2010 Stats: 162 Tackles, 29.5 Sacks, 11 Forced Fumbles, 6 Fumble Recoveries and 1 Interception
South Carolina has three players who had breakout 2010 seasons on the offensive side of the ball. Their version of the “Triplets” paved the way for the Gamecocks’ first ever SEC East title.
Building off of that success, Coach Spurrier managed to snag the number one prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.
Jadeveon Clowney will join one of the most talented defensive lines in all of the SEC. As a true freshman, he will likely be given one of the starting defensive end positions based on his potential.
Clowney is a physical freak. He is 6-6, has a large wingspan, weighs 250 pounds and is sure to get bigger once he hits a college weight room.
He accelerates of the ball exceptionally fast and has the strength to collapse the pocket. His technique is good, but not great, and thus far he has relied on his genetic gifts to succeed.
In terms of athleticism and potential, Clowney is in the same class as Julius Peppers and Mario Williams.
2010 Stats: 167 Yards, 11 Receptions and 2 TDs Receiving, 117 Yards and 16 Attempts Rushing
Da’Rick Rogers came to Knoxville in 2010 with a lot of fanfare after decommitting from Georgia. He was a five-star recruit with a ton of ability and all of the tools necessary to be a great collegiate wide receiver.
As a true freshman, Rogers only produced a couple of touchdowns in what was, for the most part, and under-whelming season.
Rogers should see more passes thrown his way as the offense tries to put the ball in their playmaker’s hands.
He is a tall, thickly built player much in the same mold as Julio Jones, is willing to attack the ball at its highest point and make plays. He has great top end speed and can blow the top off of the coverage. Most importantly, Rogers has great hands.
The one negative trait for Rogers is his off-the-field problems. Before the start of the season last year, he had already found himself in trouble for his involvement in a bar fight.
Rogers will need to be able to stay on the field and on the team if he is going to contribute to the Volunteers this season.
2010 Stats: None
This pick is all about bloodlines.
You may have heard of Rodgers’s brother Aaron.
So far, Jordan Rodgers has followed his brother’s path to football success. He spent two years playing for Butte Community College before transferring to Vanderbilt. He was forced to redshirt his junior year due to a shoulder injury.
Now that he is almost fully healed from corrective surgery, the younger Rodgers is expected to challenge for the starting quarterback spot.
Jordan Rodgers has most of the gifts that make his brother a successful NFL quarterback. He is an accurate passer who is quick to recognize coverages and can use his legs to make plays. The one part of Aaron’s game that Jordan does not possess is his rocket arm.
Given the evidence for successful quarterback brothers (the Palmer’s, the Hasselbeck’s, and most notably the Manning’s), I would rather not bet against Rodgers becoming the starting quarterback for Vanderbilt and possibly working that into a spot on an NFL roster.