SEC Football: Top Offensive Immediate-Impact Freshmen for 2015
There are many SEC football players who'll play key roles during their freshman year in 2015, but a few could become immediate-impact stars.
On the offensive side of the ball, teams have several difference-makers coming in at the skill positions and along the offensive front. One team even has a quarterback who could see immediate action.
Florida and Tennessee hope to answer offensive line questions with elite tackles Martez Ivey and Drew Richmond, respectively. Alabama has an incoming receiver in Calvin Ridley who could help ease the sting from losing Amari Cooper.
In a conference that consistently has to replace more players taken in the NFL draft than any other, it's a conga line of incoming and outgoing talent every year. The NFL stars of tomorrow go out, and the SEC stars of tomorrow shuffle in.
Let's take a look at some of the top candidates to provide instant aid to their respective teams, taking into account their recruiting rankings, their teams' needs and—in the case of the redshirt representatives—the ability they've shown in their time on campus.
Terry Godwin, Georgia Wide Receiver
The Georgia Bulldogs bring in elite talent every single season, and the 2015 recruiting cycle was no different.
Hogansville's Terry Godwin is a dynamic talent who projects as a wide receiver in Athens. The 6'0", 168-pound athlete could play on either side of the ball, but he needs the ball in his hands.
The Dawgs gave him his first offer as a sophomore, and the nation's elite teams followed suit. Godwin wound up a 5-star player and the nation's 28th-ranked prospect overall. He's inexperienced at receiver and still small, but once he gets in a college weight room, he'll thrive.
UGA has a major void to fill at receiver with the departures of Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph. Godwin could project as a flanker or in the slot, but he'll almost certainly get snaps immediately.
Jake Rowe of 247Sports noted of Godwin:
A lightning quick athlete with large hands for his overall build, Godwin is the kind of prospect that will have no trouble creating space from the slot or the outside at the next level. He has no issue getting in and out of his breaks and is at top speed shortly after he starts. He has an excellent burst that allows him to clear defenders in space, and while he isn't the biggest pass-catcher on the planet, he believes that any ball that comes his way in the air is his.
UGA had a similar, but faster player last year in Isaiah McKenzie, and the staff used him well. Look for Godwin to have a similar impact.
Derrius Guice, LSU Running Back
There's no mistaking who LSU's primary running back will be this year. As long as he's healthy, that distinction will belong to last year's top-ranked recruit Leonard Fournette, who enjoyed a breakout freshman season.
But another Louisiana prospect may be getting some significant carries when Fournette and fellow sophomore Darrel Williams need a break.
Baton Rouge product Derrius Guice pledged to the Bayou Bengals, and the 5'10 1/2", 213-pound runner is a huge reason why the Tigers were rated by 247Sports' Chad Carson as having the nation's top-ranked running back class.
He and fellow Baton Rouge 4-star prospect Nick Brossette elected to stay home, and the Tigers are going to have a loaded offensive backfield because of it.
Guice has the ideal SEC back's build. He has plus speed for his size and runs with the power to break through the first level and shed tacklers.
He also showed a propensity for catching the ball out of the backfield at Baton Rouge Catholic, piling up 617 receiving yards to go along with his 1,341 rushing yards, according to 247Sports. He also had 29 total touchdowns in a season that saw him awarded with a U.S. Army All-American Bowl invitation.
That kind of elite skill set is why teams such as Alabama made strong late pushes to try to flip him. Instead, the nation's 46th-ranked player stayed true to his commitment, and he will have the opportunity to earn meaningful carries right away.
Martez Ivey, Florida Offensive Tackle
This year's recruiting cycle wasn't the best for offensive tackles, but one player stood above the rest as elite.
On national signing day, the Florida Gators and new coach Jim McElwain were the beneficiaries of a long, heated recruiting battle when Martez Ivey elected to stay home and play for UF, not far from his Apopka home.
Ivey was the nation's second-rated player in the class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and while he needs to add some weight to his 6'5 1/2", 275-pound frame, he is the complete package on the exterior.
He's big, athletic and powerful. He has all the tools to be the league's next great offensive lineman. With Florida's dire current line situation—the Gators had just six scholarship linemen available this spring—Ivey is a sure thing to get an extended look.
Even he knows it.
"They haven't really told me much right now, just because you can see it for yourself," Ivey told 247Sports' Luke Stampini. "There is need for improvement on the offensive line. My plan is to come in, work hard and hopefully start."
The Gators are in for a difficult rebuild on offense after former coach Will Muschamp left them in shambles on that side of the ball. But building blocks such as Ivey and running back Jordan Scarlett are going to be huge cornerstones of McElwain's project.
They'll both play a lot in 2015, and both could have been included in this article. They are the future of the Gators offense.
Christian Kirk, Texas A&M Wide Receiver
As if sophomore gun-slinging quarterback Kyle Allen needed another weapon to throw to, Texas A&M's rich stable of weapons got richer when Christian Kirk pledged to the Aggies.
The nation's fourth-ranked receiver is already in College Station and has gone through a spring session, and he looks as if he'll be able to help offensive coordinator Jake Spavital's unit right away.
Even with a wide receiving corps that includes Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Edward Pope, Ricky Seals-Jones, Frank Iheanacho and others, Kirk could carve a niche for himself.
With Noil and Iheanacho experiencing some "off-the-field issues" according to 247Sports' Jeff Tarpley and All-SEC receiver Reynolds out for the spring, Kirk saw an increased workload and thrived.
Kirk has been a revelation ever since he arrived on campus. He carries himself like an upperclassman and physically he looks like one too. He's impressed everyone around the program with his work ethic and attention to detail. He’s learned how to use his athleticism to get separation (he's got astoundingly quick feet) and work over linebackers and safeties on the inside. In fact, Kirk has already become something of a security blanket for Allen.
If he can break through in that receiving corps, Kirk is special.
His numbers as a senior at Scottsdale, Arizona's Saguaro High School were video-game sick. According to 247Sports, he had 1,692 rushing yards, 1,187 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns. Essentially every team in the country wanted him.
He wound up committing to Kevin Sumlin's Aggies, and he'll fit perfectly in that potent offense. It seems he already has a role.
Drew Richmond, Tennessee Offensive Tackle
Tennessee's offensive line situation isn't anywhere near as alarming as Florida's, but the Vols must improve drastically from a season ago if they're going to have the breakout season many are predicting.
Four starters return from last year's porous unit. Additionally, redshirt sophomore Brett Kendrick enjoyed a stellar spring that has him firmly entrenched at right tackle heading into the offseason with senior Kyler Kerbyson on the left.
But Drew Richmond hasn't arrived in Knoxville yet either. He'll have a say in the race before it's done.
The Memphis University School product provided a little positive drama to head coach Butch Jones' top-five recruiting class by flipping from Ole Miss on national signing day following a whirlwind, 11th-hour visit.
Not only did his signing represent a major win for the Vols in the SEC battleground of Memphis, but it also gave them an elite prospect at one of their biggest positions of need. Richmond is the nation's third-ranked OT prospect, and he has the ability to step in and play right away.
At 6'5", 310 pounds, Richmond looks the part. Though he could use a year in the weight room, he neutralized top defensive end prospect Byron Cowart as much as anybody did at Under Armour All America Game practices.
Once he gets a little stronger at the point of attack, he should shine. He's athletic and versatile enough to play on the right or left side of the line.
Tennessee has proven in recent years that it isn't shy about playing freshmen tackles, and Richmond has the ability to be the next in line. He'll get that opportunity this summer.
Calvin Ridley, Alabama Wide Receiver
Alabama has piled up so many years of top-ranked classes that you'd think any freshman who heads to Tuscaloosa is going to have to sit in line and wait his turn.
That hasn't been the case at all. Coach Nick Saban has shown over and over that he isn't shy about playing freshmen who are talented enough to beat out upperclassmen.
The next in line at receiver may just be Calvin Ridley. The 5-star prospect from Pompano Beach, Florida, was the nation's top-ranked pass-catcher in the 2015 cycle and the 11th-rated player overall.
At 6'0", 170 pounds, he doesn't cast the most physically imposing image. But, then again, neither did Amari Cooper, another Florida product who was listed at 6'1", 183 pounds. All he did was immediately begin ripping the league to shreds and was taken fourth overall by Oakland after three years.
It's unfair to heap the expectations of following in Cooper's footsteps on Ridley, but he has those same raw skills. He may just be faster than Cooper, too.
The Crimson Tide have several options at receiver for whoever wins their quarterback derby. Both ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster flashed elite skills in the spring-ending A-Day Game, winning co-MVP honors.
Plenty of other options are there, too. But Ridley has the ability to step right in and earn key reps. He and 5-star running back Damien Harris have direct paths to playing time, and both have the talent and likely the opportunity to make plays right away.
Deebo Samuel, South Carolina Wide Receiver
As if a name like Deebo isn't already a ticket for greatness, South Carolina redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel is doing a pretty strong job of making a first impression.
With the Gamecocks having to replace virtually everybody surrounding All-SEC returning starter Pharoh Cooper, they needed impact players on the perimeter. Enter Samuel, who showed some promise in practice last season and was the talk of spring practice.
Then, he went out and backed it up with a big spring game that saw him catch three passes for 94 yards and a touchdown.
Playing the X position where many other Gamecocks have thrived, including Alshon Jeffery, the 6'0", 206-pound redshirt freshman will have plenty of opportunities to make plays. That's exactly what he's been doing.
While Samuel isn't the fastest receiver on the field, all of the other attributes are present. He did battle some consistency issues this spring, but he still had plenty of moments of brilliance.
He wasn't a highly rated prospect coming out of Chapman High School in Inman, South Carolina, but the nation's former No. 109-ranked receiver isn't letting mis-evaluations by analysts slow him down.
Samuel won the Big Plays award from Carolina's spring. With Cooper being the do-everything receiver, that tandem could really produce big numbers the next couple of years in Columbia.
Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt Quarterback
When Patton Robinette made the announcement in late March that he was quitting football due to a series of injuries, a bad quarterback situation in Nashville got even worse.
Robinette was the favorite to start at quarterback for a Commodores team that had a carousel at the position in 2014 under first-year coach Derek Mason. Now, the job is expected to come down between Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck with Shawn Stankavage being another option.
But the wild card is incoming true freshman Kyle Shurmur.
Arguably the biggest coup for VU on the recruiting trail during the '15 cycle was getting the son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to commit to them over Pittsburgh and others.
The 4-star prospect was the nation's 14th-best pro-style signal-caller according to the 247Sports composite rankings, and he is a marksman with the football in his hands. At 6'4", 215 pounds, Shurmur has the size and pedigree to excel.
According to the Sporting News' TJ Gaynor's scouting report:
Shurmur demonstrates the ability to consistently place the ball in the perfect spot for his receiver. I had the joy of playing for the late great Bill Walsh, who would spend hours drilling his quarterbacks on the critical importance of ball placement. I'll never forget his words: "put it one foot in front of the numbers, put it on the numbers, put it parallel to the crossbar." Every pass had a precise target for the football's planned arrival. Shurmur, despite his father being a few branches removed from the coaching tree, has apparently heard the message loud and clear.
Given that no Vandy quarterbacks impressed a season ago, that job is wide open. It may be a stretch to put him on the list, but no other position makes a bigger impact on the game than the quarterback, and Shurmur will have every opportunity to be the guy in the driver's seat.
Eric Swinney, Ole Miss Running Back
Ole Miss may have a freshman starter on the offensive line in Javon Patterson, but a player who could step right in and help a struggling running game is Eric Swinney.
The 4-star product from Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia pledged to the Rebels over teams such as Auburn and Tennessee, and he will play snaps as a true freshman.
Coach Hugh Freeze went into the recruiting cycle wanting to take just one running back, but that was before I'Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodson elected to transfer. Though returning leading rushers Jaylen Walton and Jordan Wilkins both come back, Swinney is a more complete back than either of them.
At 5'10" and now 198 pounds, according to a recent article by 247Sports' David Johnson, he has good size and speed and appears to be a prototypical SEC back.
ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf said of Swinney:
Hugh Freeze and his staff only wanted to take one running back in the 2015 class, so they set their sights on Swinney, an ESPN 300 prospect from Georgia. He was their guy, and that loyalty paid off on signing day. Now, Swinney has a chance to come in and help a running game that finished in the bottom half of the SEC last season. Jaylen Walton is back and Jordan Wilkins ran well in the spring game, but the coaches can’t wait to get Swinney on campus and work him into that mix.
Despite his high ranking, he may even be underrated. Swinney runs with a low center of gravity, and he was the player Ole Miss targeted from the very beginning to be its running back of the future.
With all the inconsistency in the Rebels' backfield the past couple of years, he may be the answer right now.
Aeris Williams, Mississippi State Running Back
This spring signified a coming-out party for a pair of Mississippi State freshman running backs who all of a sudden makes replacing departed Josh Robinson not so daunting.
Redshirt freshmen Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee made strong cases for the starting job during the past month, but the nod goes to Williams, who has elite potential. Both—along with Ashton Shumpert—will get plenty of action.
That's not even to mention change-of-pace back Brandon Holloway.
Running backs coach Greg Knox has a ton of weapons.
"I like our depth at the position," he told the Starkville Daily News' Ben Wait. "I think everybody is putting themselves in a position to play. It's just going to be a matter of who can execute at a high level consistently."
But Williams is the most talented back on the roster. He appears to be the most likely to follow in the footsteps of NFL backs such as Anthony Dixon, Vick Ballard and Robinson.
At 6'1", 205 pounds, the former Mr. Football winner in the state of Mississippi finished six yards shy of 4,000 career yards at West Point, and Bulldogs fans have been buzzing about him for a couple of years.
Lee is the dark horse who could steal carries after a stellar spring—247Sports' Robbie Faulk has him ahead of Williams on the post-spring depth chart—but both will play a lot.
Either one fits for this article, and either one could be primed for a big future that will get kick-started in 2015.
All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. Quotes and observations gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.