Each season there are a handful of players who separate themselves from their respective teams.
They are the athletes who demonstrated a season or two ago that talent was there, it just had to be tapped. They teased you with greatness as they began to break away from team performance and show you individually they are just as important as the team itself.
They are the elite players who forget they are playing college football, and start putting on a 13-game display for every NFL scout and agent to ponder over. Find your popcorn and wallow out the sweet spot in your recliner, because watching these guys will be just like going to the movies.
Here are the SEC's top 20 players—in no particular order—who will step it up in 2011.
Hell, even his name sounds like he should be fighting in a Rocky movie.
An Alabama teammate once referred to him as a freak who could play any position on the field and do it with surprising results.
It's not surprising at all considering the things he has done.
During his sophomore season in high school, he switched to RB, and in the last four games of the season he compiled more than a thousand yards rushing—yeah, 250-yard average per game. He then transitioned seasonally to TE and LB, and gained the attention of more than 26 universities, but he was bound for Bama.
Again, without surprise, even medical adversity seems to hold no sway over the junior LB. During the first quarter of Alabama's fourth game in the 2009 season, Hightower tore his ACL, and many Tide fans wondered if he could come back.
Alas, Hightower is back and out of Rolando McClain's shadow. He will emerge as the team's defensive leader—that is if DC/LB coach Kirby Smart uses him wisely. If Hightower makes it through November, he will be a late first-round, or early second-round draft choice.
Morgan Newton was happy to sit back and watch when starting QB Mike Hartline suffered a knee injury midway through the season. The young freshman tightened his laces and led the Wildcats to win five of their last eight games, finishing the season with 109.72 QB rating.
Newton's numbers were, well, mediocre, but what was impressive was the way the young QB showed up to play against SEC powerhouses. He won stunners at Auburn and Athens against the Bulldogs, where he completed nine of 17 passes for 137 yards and three TD's. On the season, he finished with 171 all-purpose yards.
Yes we all know just how unimpressive this is when you stack it against Tebow, McElroy or Cam Newton. But to have any kind of success at Kentucky given its disadvantages should really highlight the ability and talent of their QB's—or any player, for that matter.
This season Newton will have his hands full with young receivers, but he has an experienced OL that is deep with talent; that should give him plenty of time to surpass Hartline's 146.38 QB rating. He is unshakable on the field and won't let defensive supermen intimidate him into mistakes. This season he should double his rush and throw for at least 2,500 yards.
Morgan Newton will be the Kentucky equivalent of a Cam Newton in 2011.
If you ask any of his teammates, they will tell you Rambo will "bust out" this season.
His 2010 numbers don't immediately jump off the page; three interceptions for 64 yards, one punt catch for no yards.
But what does jump off the page is his 58 solo tackles and 24 assists.
Rambo lives up to his tough name. His best game was the team's worst heart-breaker; in a close loss to Florida, he compiled 10 solo tackles and one broken pass play.
Rambo can definitely rise to the next level if DC Todd Grantham doesn't bury him deep every game.
This season Rambo should have 100 or more tackles, and double his interceptions and return off the INT.
McCalebb's collegiate career was often in question due to his size (5'10", 172 lbs.), but what he lacks in size he makes up for with a helmet and a ball.
At his coming out party against Louisiana Tech, the freshman rushed for 152 yards, the first player since Bo Jackson to rush for more than a 100 yards in a game. Many of his critics thought it was a fluke, and against an SEC opponent, he would be recognized as a speedster for trick plays and nothing more.
So what does he do?
In his next game against Mississippi State, he rushes for 157 yards.
McCalebb had to ride shotgun while Cam Newton lit up Auburn's offense in 2010. Still he became recognized as a decent RB and ended the season with nine TD's and 810 rushing yards, averaging 8.53 yards per carry.
With Newton out of the picture, McCalebb will become one of the SEC's top rushers and will most likely get drafted as a returner somewhere in the second or third round.
The photo speaks for itself.
Davis can cut corners like a barrel horse and never use his heels. Last season he gave the Razorbacks a reason to smile with 1,322 yards rushing and 13 TD's, finishing second behind Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
With the departure of Ryan Mallett, Davis will step into a leadership role and demonstrate offensive performance throughout the season. However, he has lost many of his veteran linemen and must step up his game to compensate for those big holes that were opened by departed veteran tackles DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominquez.
Given Davis' size (6'0", 230 lbs.), it is still remarkable to see him cut up the field like he was a third of his actual self. If the line improves, the junior should find himself somewhere in the first round of the draft.
I honestly expect Murray to remain at Georgia until he graduates. He is one of those players fans will stand behind and threaten you with bodily harm if you say anything remotely disparaging about him.
Although he is just a sophomore, Murray demonstrated last season that he could be a great QB, providing OC Mike Bobo can maintain the level of consistency with the receivers.
Still, Murray posted stats in 2010 any frosh QB could be proud of. Splitting the season 6-6, he threw for 3,049 yards, completed 209 of 342 attempts, tossed 24 TD's and eight interceptions with a QB rating of 154.48.
If the offensive line holds up, Murray's stock will go through the roof, which could present him with a junior year draft dilemma.
Should I stay, or should I go?
At 5'11" and 220 lbs., Richardson is almost a mirror image Mark Ingram.
It could be argued though that despite his lessened stats, he could be a more versatile back than Ingram.
Last season Richardson posted 112 attempts with 700 yards and six TD's. He also caught 266 yards with 23 receptions and four TD's. Wait—then he ran 24 kickoffs for 634 yards and one TD.
For bargain shoppers, that is a really good bulk order.
Still it is hard to compare Richardson to Ingram because they are vastly different runners; Ingram was an explosive downfield runner who relied on his powerful legs to get him through traffic, whereas Richardson is an evasive sprinter who will make you pay for one missed step.
I honestly think he has the tools to be great runner this season, but having a full toolbox doesn't make you a mechanic. Richardson will need a little help from the usual blockers, but I don't think it's unreasonable for him to rush for 1,100-1,250 yards this season.
If I were him, I would wait it out until my senior year to see if the stock goes up for RB's.
Now that Ryan Mallett is gone, you could flip a coin and probably decide better for yourself as to the fate of Joe Adams' success.
Razorbacks fans will quickly tell you Arkansas will be fine with Tyler Wilson at the helm, but there is still a completion vacuum when veteran WR's are thrust in front of a new QB. Well, not exactly new, he did complete 34 of 51 attempts last season and warmed the receivers up for his delayed firing style. But to be fair, he did throw three interceptions.
Adams will have trouble with Wilson early, but should overcome any missed communications before the season starts getting heavy.
In 2010, Adams caught 50 receptions for 813 yards and six TD's, averaging 16.26 yards per catch. I do see him getting the same receptions, as he will be a clutch receiver, but his yardage will suffer due to an increase in screen-play. The upside is his TD's should probably double from goal-line stands.
If my predictions hold water, Adams should go early in the third round.
"I need a hero,
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night.
He's gotta be strong,
And he's gotta be fast,
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight.
I need a hero,
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the morning light.
He's gotta be sure,
And it's gotta be soon,
And he's gotta be larger than life."
I don't see Demps becoming that atypical RB the Gators are used to rushing, so it's up to John Brantley to be that hero.
Last season Brantley carried the Gators through a 7-5 season and showed up to win an impressive battle against Penn State in the Outback Bowl.
This year he will most assuredly need a better showing if they expect to do better.
Brantley is as capable as the next spread QB, but now that Charlie Weis is in town, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Plus, it's not really fair to be the guy who follows Tebow; he could still be markedly better than last season, but he will still not be Tebow.
Brantley could be drafted, but it would be very late. With Weis calling the offense, it could be a very tough time for Brantley, but I believe Muschamp will give him plenty of room to shine.
He's a decent QB, but he won't be recognized for it.
Regardless of whenever he decides to go, Alshon Jeffery will be a first-round draft pick. He simply has amazing hands; if he gets a finger on it, it's caught.
But if Connor Shaw becomes the starter, he will have some starting-itus for a few games, and Jeffery will have to be on target to really work for the reception. I don't expect a whole lot of confusion on either front though, so expect an easy transition.
From a statistical view, I don't see higher numbers from Jeffery, but pencil pushers probably didn't see him practice in the spring, nor did they see him get those 88 receptions for 1,517 yards in 2010.
If the evil genius with the clipboard makes up with Garcia, you should expect SEC honors for Jeffery in abundance.
Waggner broke the school record for interceptions returned for TD's with three scores in 2010 and earned honors as a Second-Team All-SEC performer and Scout.com Second-Team All-American.
On the season, he finished second in the backfield with 38 solo tackles and 19 assists, and he also returned two fumbles for 45 yards. Waggner is a superb thief who isn't selfish. He is good at pressing the QB into bad throws and knows how to keep receivers out of the sweet spots.
He will finish with good numbers, but will probably get drafted lower because of stamina. Waggner goes all out on the play, but because of that, he needs to be rested frequently to keep his motor strong.
Hatcher was the leading backfield tackler last season for the Tigers with 36 solo tackles and 28 assists. He was noted by Chavis as one of the best defensive readers on the team; he usually hovers in the backfield and directs operations, leaving the rest of the secondary open to more targets.
There is an air of uncertainty, as Hatcher has been doing time at middle LB during spring drills. If he does stay at LB, it could open up a field of possibilities for broader defensive schemes.
Inevitably, he is who you want defending the run. His speed and power are a perfect match for the position, and with ability to read pass plays, he should add a couple interceptions to his resume and double his tackle numbers.
Providing all of these factors go just right, Hatcher could go as high as the second round if he shows up at the combine.
At this stage of the game, you have to wonder just how bad the blood is between Stephen Garcia and Steve Spurrier for him to suspend his veteran QB before the season has even started.
It's really hard to speculate what Darth Visor will do come fall, but if nothing changes, Connor Shaw will be the next man in line.
As a freshman, his numbers were completely eclipsed by Garcia's, but I think Spurrier really just wanted to get Shaw's SEC feet wet.
Shaw was a dual-threat QB in high school who displayed good success on the ground and through the air. His senior year he threw for 3,100 yards and 30 TD's, while rushing for 800 yards and 17 TD's.
This will be Shaw's season to step into the leading role. I have no clue how Spurrier will use him, but I have seen him play in person, and it is nothing short of exciting. At 6'1" and 205 lbs., he looks heavier and runs with a Tebow-like efficiency. When he passes, he is very deceiving as to where he the ball is going.
I think Shaw will be whispered in the Heisman candidacy his junior year.
Like the little engine that could, Bolden keeps pushing each season to get better; 535 yards in 2008, 614 in 2009 and 976 in 2010.
At this rate, he should easily break 1,000 yards rushing in 2011.
You can suggest Bolden is seemingly average when compared to other rushers, but nothing is further from the truth.
He is a great clutch receiver and shows great hands when his QB needs an open number; last season he netted 32 receptions for 344 yards and three TD's. On the ground he had nearly six games where he rushed for 100 yards or better. His biggest performance came at home in the Rebels' fourth game of the season against Fresno State, where he barreled over defenders for 228 yards on 19 attempts, averaging 12 yards per carry.
This season Jeff Scott will still need to step up, and Bolden will leave him with a fine example. Every SEC team has a tough schedule (in my opinion) because they routinely face each other. Having said that, it will still be hard, as Ole Miss has a few unanswered questions on the line.
Bolden ranks second in school history for scoring TD's and rushing TD's, and this season he will look to surpass those marks with 1,350 yards rushing.
His lack of consistent play from the last two seasons will lower his draft stock, but he should be drafted early in the third round.
If you look up smart safeties in the dictionary, Richardson will be there with a halo over his head.
Ranked fourth in the SEC last season for solo tackles at 62, it is easy to understand why he is so valuable to Vanderbilt's defensive squad. Adding to his yearly quota, Richardson also tacked on 32 assists, five broken pass plays and one-and-a-half sacks for topping.
He also earned Defensive Player of the Week for his nine-tackle spree against Tennessee.
Richardson flies under a lot of radars because of Vanderbilt's track record, but given his athleticism, he should have another good year despite losing their head coach. He is consistent at play where he averages 5.2 tackles per game.
His success isn't hinged around team performance, as he plays more of the lone wolf role. He is best at 4-4, which was used sparingly last season for the Commodores, but the 4-3—which dominated much of their formations—suits his style just as well.
Richardson should reemerge this season as one of the SEC's top solo tacklers and sneak into the bottom of the second round, if the combine guys give him a chance.
What better place can you think of for your coming out party than the Gator Bowl against Michigan?
And what better way to end your 8-4 season than with a 52-14 bowl win against a Big Ten opponent?
Relf was the star of the season with wins over Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss. Plus he scared the crap out of Auburn, throwing for 110 yards and rushing for 26 in a close 17-14 loss. On the year, the junior passed for 1,776 yards and rushed for 701, exhibiting that dual-threat, Vince Young persona.
The buzz on the wire is the OL will be greatly improved, despite the loss of Derrek Sherrod. This should spell great success for Relf, as he continues to rush and connect on the fly with the likes of Chad Bumphis and Arceto Clark.
Relf is a decent QB, and if he has the same success as last year, he should be a late second-rounder.
Yea, DC Justin Wilcox better hug him.
Jackson left the station house and began to run when the Lane train arrived at USC, and he kept running even as Ed Orgeron chased after him. The fact that he ran for Tennessee was even sweeter, as it softened some of the sting left by absconding recruits.
His time at Tennessee has been nothing but selfless.
"I need you to switch to DT, we're too shallow." No problem.
"Hey I need you to switch back, a guy got hurt." No problem.
"By the way, we need you to be productive." Five sacks, 29 solos and 29 assists through two positions.
If they leave him at one spot, Jackson's production should improve, and his numbers should reflect that. He does a tremendous job at DT, but is better suited at DE. He gets his arms high under the shoulder and can penetrate quickly against any TE.
With a good a showing at the combine, Jackson could go early-to-mid second round in the draft.
Unsung, but still a hero.
The Tigers certainly have one in Jefferson. He is a relentless runner who could easily double as an effective RB. The fact that he is QB just highlights how valuable he at his position.
Jefferson's numbers aren't immediately flashy, but if you break them down you see he not selfish. He could be though by throwing into traffic for a very tight reception, when sprinting for a hash mark would be much much easier. Considering his quickness, he spreads the ball around by giving many Tigers a chance to shine.
On the season, he passed for 1,411 yards and rushed for 450 yards, finishing off the year with 41-24 bowl win over Texas A&M.
More than likely, Jefferson will be drafted somewhere in the late-third to early-fourth round in the draft.
As talented as they come at the LB position, Bostic is like Dennis the Menace, always looking for trouble—but not in the bad way.
Bostic is a traditional LB who simply looks for the ball, and that is where he goes. He was all over the field last season with 31 solo tackles and 21 assists; 2.5 were for a loss with a sack.
He also managed to get airborne and pull down three interceptions, while also breaking up three pass plays and hurrying the QB once.
It is easy to define this as versatile.
With Muschamp taking over, it could be a little worrisome at first, but Bostic should prevail and match his numbers again with marginal increases at tackles. Reports are he wants to finish his education, so the Gators could be looking at the next Dick Butkus award-winner.
Leading the team in TD receptions, Blake quickly notched a spot for himself on this season's lineup for the War Eagles.
Playing all season, he caught 32 receptions for 526 yards. He was used repeatedly on third-and-long, while also gaining well-deserved media attention as a first-down WR.
I'm still unconvinced Trotter will keep his job as the starter. Even if he does, he is unproven, and this will factor heavily into Blake's success, as it would any receiver.
It is unclear how Chizik will run the offense with the departure of Newton, but I don't see Trotter having the same success. If Blake can keep his reception numbers up and stay through his senior year, he should go high in the draft, but it will still depend on the choice at QB.
Okay I know I didn't list everybody, so who should be on the list or rather who shouldn't?
Like or don't like what you've read? Let me know.