SEC Football: New Starters Who Will Dominate in 2016
From a touted freshman quarterback and a veteran signal-caller determined to make the most of his second opportunity to players emerging from the shadow of stars and another one poised to be a top-five pick in next year's draft, SEC football is full of new starters ready to take their swings at stardom.
Yes, the league still has plenty of firepower with guys like LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Georgia running back Nick Chubb, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley. But there are some new guys who should make their marks in 2016.
Will Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason live up to the massive hype surrounding him? How excited are you to see Alabama pass-rushing monster Tim Williams wreak havoc before bolting Tuscaloosa for a big NFL payday?
The answers to those questions are some of the reasons why we're so excited about college football season starting.
Obviously, not everybody can be included, and there are even some assumptions being made about whether or not some of these guys will even start. Still, the conference is full of players whose names you may not know now but will soon enough.
That's what makes the SEC so great; it just reloads with top-tier talent.
So, taking into consideration performances in limited action, past successes of players in their systems and sheer star power, let's take a look at some of the new guys ready to take their places in the spotlight.
As always, tell us who you think should be on this list to make noise once they leave the sideline.
Jacob Eason, Georgia Quarterback
He has already reached rock-star status in Athens, and Eason has never even played a college snap.
The former 5-star Washington native who was the nation's second-ranked quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class showed out this spring after enrolling mid-term following a recruitment that saw him commit to former UGA coach Mark Richt then stick with the Dawgs when Kirby Smart took over.
At 6'5 ½", 208 pounds and with a rifle for an arm, Eason has all the physical tools. While there's normally a learning curve for the majority of true-freshman quarterbacks, he looks as ready as anybody to step in and play meaningful snaps.
That's big news for the Bulldogs, who desperately need a difference-maker at the position. Senior former transfer Greyson Lambert is still on campus and could wind up beginning the year as the starter, and Brice Ramsey is in the picture, too. But neither looked like he has the ability to hold off a force like Eason.
It seems it's a matter of "when" and not "if" for the Eason Show to take center stage in the SEC East. But Smart isn't biting just yet on anointing Eason the man at quarterback.
"I don't disagree Jacob's very talented, but Jacob's got to earn the trust of that team," Smart said on ESPN's Mike and Mike radio show, per 247Sports' Jordan James. "The other guys on the team are going to matter too. They come in and they get some input on which guy is the best leader, which guy throws it the best."
With Chubb and fellow running back Sony Michel being questionable for the beginning of the season as they return from injuries, does Georgia want to face North Carolina in the opener with a first-year quarterback? How much of an issue will taking care of the ball be for Eason?
Those are questions that must be answered, but what is unquestionable is Eason's immense talent. It's hard to imagine he won't be the best option for Georgia early in the season, and once he gets a couple of games on his resume, he could get into a rhythm and make the Bulldogs tough for anybody.
If he lives up to expectations, Smart's first year in Athens could wind up in Atlanta.
Bryan Edwards, South Carolina Wide Receiver
When you think of first-year South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, "offensive excitement" certainly isn't the first phrase that comes to mind.
The longtime defensive coordinator fielded Florida teams that were stagnant on offense during his time as head coach in Gainesville, but while the Gamecocks may find footing a little difficult in the SEC East this year, the future is extremely bright.
Especially in the passing game.
As if freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain's spring game wasn't enough to get folks in Columbia excited, team him up with fellow first-year receivers Korey Banks and Bryan Edwards, and things sure enough get interesting.
Edwards, especially, has a bright future that could manifest itself in an immediate impact. The former 4-star pass-catcher is 6'3", 210 pounds and has the physical skills to step into the void Pharoh Cooper left when he went to the NFL.
Deebo Samuel may be the favorite to be Carolina's leading receiver, but he had just 12 catches in an injury-plagued season a year ago. Edwards is a wild card. When you throw in that his position coach told the State's Ben Breiner that Edwards also has important intangibles, it's an intriguing combination.
"I think Bryan is a very, very intelligent," Gamecocks wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon said. "And he's very coachable. That’s something that he kind of came up here with. He allows you to coach him and coach him hard and understand that everything is for his benefit a little bit."
No matter whether McIlwain is under center or if favorite Perry Orth beats him out, Edwards is almost a certainty to get a lot of reps. The Gamecocks need some talented playmakers, and it will be an impossibility to keep him off the field.
Todd Kelly Jr., Tennessee Safety
Todd Kelly Jr. is not a new name to Tennessee Volunteers fans, and he isn't a stranger to the football field, either.
Though he has patiently waited his turn behind departed seniors Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, the junior legacy whose father was a standout defensive end under Johnny Majors before an NFL career, did log five starts over his first two years.
All he proved during his time in Knoxville is he has a nose for the ball, registering 79 tackles and corralling six interceptions to go along with four pass breakups and a fumble recovery. The seven turnovers during that span came for a defense that didn't force that many.
Now, the Vols welcome elite defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who came down from Penn State, and with the veteran coach's history of producing star safeties, Kelly looks like a safe bet to be the next great one at UT.
At 5'11", 208 pounds, Kelly is built like an outside linebacker, and he packs the punch of one, too. He should have played and even started more under former coordinator John Jancek, but he was quizzically left off the field during too many crucial situations.
That won't happen this year. He and classmate Rashaan Gaulden, who is a redshirt sophomore, are two main reasons why the Vols aren't fretting the losses of Randolph and McNeil too much. They actually will get much more athletic on the back end in the process.
If you are looking for No. 6 to make some big plays in orange this year, you need to rewire your brain to focus on jersey 24 instead.
Kelly changed his number to honor friend and deceased Knoxville high school student Zaevion Dobson, who was killed protecting classmates from gunfire and received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at this year's ESPY Awards.
The nice tribute and added motivation is something that could fuel a huge season for Kelly. With Shoop on campus and talent all around him, 2016 looks like the year Kelly will break out.
Trevor Knight, Texas A&M Quarterback
Texas A&M's hopes of returning to "hot program" status and perhaps even head coach Kevin Sumlin keeping his job hinge on the shoulder of Oklahoma transfer quarterback Trevor Knight.
With Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen having transferred out of the program, Knight will play his final season in College Station. It's an important one, too.
He has talent all around him at receiver with players such as Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Christian Kirk, and all they need is somebody who can get them the ball consistently. If the Aggies defense takes a major leap forward in John Chavis' second season, they could give the SEC West fits.
But none of that will happen if Knight is the inconsistent, injury-prone player he was in his final two seasons with the Sooners. Last year, Baker Mayfield beat him outright for the job and wound up having a huge season in leading OU to the College Football Playoff.
Not everybody thought that decision was so clear-cut, however. Former OU and Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Tony Casillas tweeted (then deleted) a comment that said, "Great seeing Trevor Knight execute in spring practice, he may be better than Mayfield in a real conference."
Those are strong words, but they speak to Knight's ability. He proved as a freshman in the Sugar Bowl dismantling of Alabama what kind of player he could be. No, his college career hasn't gone as he'd hoped since then, but Knight has some unfinished business.
He has the players in place around him to have a huge season, and with new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone tailoring the offense to suit his skill set, there's no reason to believe Knight will fall short of the challenge.
If he has the kind of year he's capable of having, A&M could return to contention in the western division and shut up the Sumlin naysayers in the meantime.
Greg Little, Ole Miss Offensive Tackle
One of the biggest recruiting victories of the 2016 cycle was Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze convincing Allen, Texas, offensive tackle Greg Little to come to Oxford over Texas A&M, Alabama and others.
The former 5-star and nation's third-ranked overall recruit wasn't brought to Ole Miss to watch from the sideline. He is expected to step in and be the heir apparent to Laremy Tunsil for the Rebels, an anchor at left tackle who will star for the next three years.
While talented lineman Alex Givens and some others are capable of putting up a fight for the tackle jobs, a player like Little won't be denied long.
He's an athletic, physical freak at 6'5", 305 pounds, and while the chatter hasn't been too loud about him yet, Little will make big noise soon.
The Rebels are virtually starting over on the offensive line, and with some potential playmakers abounding at receiver to go along with the league's best passing quarterback in Chad Kelly, it's important to get that passing game some protection.
Enter Little, who may have the best pure tools of any freshman offensive tackle since Alabama's Cam Robinson. With all the questions surrounding the offensive front in Oxford, it's difficult to believe Little won't have an answer. There's a reason why everybody in the nation wanted him.
As the Daily Journal's Parrish Alford wrote, "Little was an elite high school recruit, and the Rebels are trying to replace an elite player at the position in Laremy Tunsil."
Coming off a 10-win season, the Rebels have a lot of excitement about 2016 despite losing Laquon Treadwell and a slew of defensive stars. But you can't win in the SEC without good offensive linemen. Little will get his chance to shine early, and it won't take long to see why he was rated as highly as he was.
T.J. Neal, Auburn Linebacker
There are so many questions on the offensive side of the ball for Gus Malzahn's Auburn Tigers that it's easy to forget all the talent they've got returning on defense.
New coordinator Kevin Steele has a lot of pieces with which to work, beginning with a stellar line that should have a duo of stars in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. With talent on the back end of the defense, AU needs some linebackers to emerge, and Steele is really good at developing them.
The Tigers must replace a slew of production with Cassanova McKinzy, Kris Frost and Justin Garrett exhausting their eligibility.
Thankfully for them, they had a gift fall into their hands this offseason when Illinois graduate transfer T.J. Neal decided to play his final season on the Plains. His arrival could mean big things for a defense that will be expected to carry the team at times this season.
As AL.com's James Crepea noted, it's really not a matter of if Neal will start but only which linebacker position he'll anchor.
At 6'0", 235 pounds, he seems a prototypical fit for the middle linebacker role, and the future pro prospect Neal had 109 tackles with 14 tackles for loss including two sacks in '15 to rank fifth in the Big Ten and 32nd nationally in tackles per game.
He'll try to make it the second consecutive season AU had a successful Big Ten transfer. Last year, former Michigan defensive back Blake Countess headed south before getting drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Now, Neal will take his turn helping Auburn rebuild that defense under a new coordinator. There may be a lot of question marks for Malzahn this season, but putting Neal in the lineup isn't one of them.
Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas Tight End
It's going to be tough to replace star tight end Hunter Henry, who didn't drop a single pass last year as he went on to become a consensus first-team All-American and John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end, setting career highs with 51 catches for 739 yards.
But Jeremy Sprinkle may be able to hold his own.
In head coach Bret Bielema's system, the tight end is a vital cog, and for new quarterback Austin Allen or whoever beats him out, looking Sprinkle's way is going to be a common occurrence.
At 6'6", 256 pounds, Sprinkle is a specimen. ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough recently wrote a story about him where teammates and coaches talked about how much more physically gifted he is than Henry, a player who may be the best tight end to come out of college football in a few years. From Scarborough:
If the overt praise and NFL talk feels premature for a career backup, consider this: Sprinkle had the sixth-most receptions (27) and more touchdowns (six) than any tight end in the SEC last season. He made the most of his opportunities, too, with a whopping 77.8 percent of his catches going for a first down or touchdown, which ranked third in the country at his position.
Granted, Sprinkle did all that as a sophomore playing a complimentary role. As an upperclassman, he’ll slide into the primary 'Y' tight end position where he will become a more focal part of the passing game.
The Razorbacks haven't been known for stretching the field under Bielema, and they won't again this year. Their game is smashmouth, drive-it-down-your-throat football that's conducive to the running game and helps tight ends thrive.
That's why Sprinkle can wind up having as big of a season as anybody on this list, the type of year that may propel him into the NFL a year early. He's that talented. And, after Henry, plenty of pro scouts' eyes will be focused on Fayetteville.
Mark Thompson, Florida Running Back
Many of Florida's offensive issues late last season came because the Gators struggled to find a replacement for quarterback Will Grier after he was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs.
But the Gators' problems on that side of the ball long-term revolve around the absence of a dominant running game.
They didn't have one under former head coach Will Muschamp, and though Kelvin Taylor wound up with 1,035 yards and 13 touchdowns in his junior season a year ago, a four-yard average wasn't anything eye-popping. UF needs a yards-chewer new quarterback Luke Del Rio can depend upon.
That's where JUCO transfer Mark Thompson comes into play. Yes, Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite could be nice complementary running backs for Florida, but Thompson looks like the real deal.
At 6'2", 242 pounds, Thompson is the kind of running back the Gators haven't been able to boast in a long time. He's the workhorse who could help UF's offense keep the ball, keep its stout defense rested and repeat in the SEC East.
Thompson isn't shy. He tweeted recently that he expects to have 1,000 rushing yards by the bye week. That's just seven games, which means he'd have to churn out 143 yards per contest to reach that goal. That's coming from a guy some aren't even sure will start.
Good luck keeping Thompson off the field. He'll be able to pack the same kind of punch and wear down defenses the way Tennessee's Jalen Hurd, Georgia's Chubb and LSU's Fournette do. This is just the kind of player head coach Jim McElwain needs to take the pressure off his first-year starting quarterback.
If the Gators get the kind of production from Thompson he believes he can give, it'll be a monstrous year.
Toby Weathersby, LSU Offensive Tackle
The LSU Tigers return more starters than anybody in college football with 18 guys coming back who logged significant snaps in 2015.
That's a big reason why they're a favorite to win the SEC West and why some even think they could be a dark-horse pick to win the national championship. But those holes that head coach Les Miles must fill are pretty big, including both tackles.
One of them shouldn't be an issue.
That's where sophomore Toby Weathersby will reside. The 6'5", 302-pound road-grader was the nation's sixth-rated tackle out of high school, and he lined up in 11 games at both guard and tackle a season ago.
LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes told the Advocate's Ross Dellenger the Tigers will rely on Weathersby's experience, even though he's only a sophomore:
He's a guy, even though he didn’t start last year like Maea (Teuhema) and Will (Clapp) did, he got a lot of experience. He was with us whereas those other guys were down on scout team. He played a lot the latter half of the season. He's much better than he was last year, and I think is showing he's going to be a really good player for us this year.
It seems no matter who LSU has plugged into those offensive tackle spots recently, they've wound up being solid players. More than a handful of them wound up stars. Weathersby looks like the next one in a long line of them.
Blessed with athleticism, freakish strength and already with a lot of reps, Weathersby gained 10 pounds of muscle this offseason and is more prepared to endure the rigors of the SEC season. Players such as him will be a reason why the Tigers' championship hopes will again see the focus turn to quarterback Brandon Harris.
If the signal-caller can have a quality season, LSU could do huge things. Weathersby will make sure the line isn't an issue.
Tim Williams, Alabama Outside Linebacker
This is what you call saving the best for last.
If there's a surprising player who returned rather than entered the NFL draft a season ago, it would be Alabama outside linebacker Tim Williams, who laughably didn't even start for the loaded national champion Crimson Tide a season ago.
The 6'4", 237-pound pass-rusher elected to return to Alabama for his senior year, much to the chagrin of offensive tackles everywhere. Now, he'll be a massive force coming off the edge in Nick Saban's 3-4 defense.
Former NFL All-Pro outside linebacker Shawne Merriman told AL.com's Matt Zenitz that Williams was "disruptive as hell," and even Saban joked in the spring game that they needed to consider double-teaming Williams to keep him off UA quarterbacks.
He's so good it's difficult to imagine anybody totally stopping him. If you slow him down, the Tide can throw a lot of other weapons at you in that front seven, too. It's the machine that just keeps churning out NFL talent, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. currently has Williams second on his big board for next year's draft.
With the NFL putting a premium on pass-rushers, Williams and Garrett are at the top of everybody's list.
"On a per-snap basis, Williams is as disruptive as any player in America, and I think he would have easily been a first-rounder in the 2016 draft," Kiper wrote. "The question is whether he can be as dominant when he's playing more snaps."
Everybody will get to see that larger sample size this year, and the ceiling will be high for Williams with more time on the field. You simply can't put too much attention on him with Bama having so many elite defenders, but if you miss him, your quarterback gets smeared.
He's a big reason why Alabama could win yet another championship. Williams just may be the best player on the best team in the nation.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.