CFB Recruiting: 10 Under-the-Radar Recruits Who Could Star in the SEC
The 5-star players get all the publicity and are treated like royalty, and the high 4-stars are just as celebrated on fan sites across the college football cyberscape when they commit to their schools of choice.
But not every college superstar is a prep phenom.
In the 2020 NFL draft, 11 of the 32 players selected in the first round were 3-star prospects or worse coming out of high school. That group included guys like Justin Herbert, Isaiah Simmons, Mekhi Becton, Justin Jefferson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
If you still don't believe it, 12 first-team All-Americans last season were neither 5- nor 4-star prospects, and only one of those (Simmons) was taken in the first round. Others, like Chuba Hubbard, Jonathan Taylor, Tyler Biadasz, J.R. Reed and Harrison Bryant, proved their prowess on the field.
Twenty-three of the most impactful players from a season ago were underrated. So, who are the candidates to do the same in the 2021 class?
To be considered under-the-radar, a recruit needed to be outside of the 247Sports Composite Top 247 rankings. Still, each player's upside is obvious from film evaluation or offer sheets.
Here are some incoming SEC prospects who are hoping to become the next Edwards-Helaires, Jeffersons and Reeds of the league.
Dekel Crowdus, Kentucky Wide Receiver
After the Kentucky Wildcats pieced together a quality class with trenchmen along both lines of scrimmage in the 2020 cycle, they have struggled.
Head coach Mark Stoops has just two 4-star prospects in the haul for next year.
One of that duo is wide receiver Dekel Crowdus, who narrowly missed the top 247 (sitting at No. 252). With the Wildcats needing tons of help in their 121st-ranked passing game and hoping Beau Allen is the quarterback of the future, the focus is on Crowdus to be an instant-impact weapon.
The 5'10½", 165-pound speedster and Lexington, Kentucky, native turned down several major opportunities to stay close to home. Though he is a small, lean receiver, he is an explosive playmaker who could be what UK hoped Wan'Dale Robinson would be when he flipped to Nebraska as part of the 2019 class.
Crowdus' size shouldn't be too big of a deterrent to his future stardom. Lynn Bowden Jr. isn't the biggest pass-catcher at 5'11", 204 pounds, and he is seeing time on the field for the Miami Dolphins after being one of the top players in the SEC the past few years.
Stoops hasn't had a player with Crowdus' skill set since Bowden left for the NFL, and Kentucky is feeling the impact of having few game-breakers on offense. A player like Crowdus can help them build for the future.
Even if he does need time to develop strength, he's got star and potential all-conference athlete written all over him.
Amari Daniels, Texas A&M Athlete
These days, there are few prospects in the all-purpose backs category who get much love. It's kind of like tight ends versus wide receivers.
But these guys are typically players who, if developed properly, can help in a lot of different capacities.
One such player in this year's class is 3-star running back Amari Daniels. The Miami Central High School recruit produced big-time at a powerhouse and has the interest to back up his skill set.
Daniels ultimately chose the Aggies over Georgia, but the No. 354 overall prospect was also recruited by Auburn, Florida State, Ole Miss and others. He is a 5'8", 200-pound compact runner who accelerates through the hole and possesses the speed to run away from defenders on the second level.
What makes us think he could be a star? His high school program has churned out elite runners such as Dalvin Cook and Devonta Freeman. Miami Central head coach Roland Smith praised Daniels while speaking with 247Sports' Andrew Ivins last month:
"He has been a four-year starter. That's tough to do at Miami Central.
"When he came in we had [Georgia running back James Cook] and five other running backs that went to D1 schools, and he didn't shy away from the competition. So wherever he's going to go, he's ready to compete against the best. He's a special player and a special talent. Not only is he a good running back, but he's a good receiver coming out of the backfield."
Daniels can do it all, and Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher needs depth and more talent at the running back spot. Daniels may have to wait his turn, but he's going to be a primary back before long. And when he gets that chance, good luck getting him off the field.
Khari Gee, LSU Safety
Several college football programs stake the claim on the DBU moniker, and most have legit arguments. Alabama, Florida and Ohio State have all churned out stars lately.
But the LSU Tigers and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond are as good as anybody at putting defensive backs in the NFL, and guys like Derek Stingley Jr., JaCoby Stevens and Eli Ricks should eventually be next despite a difficult 2020 season.
Head coach Ed Orgeron has reinforcements coming, though, in his top-five recruiting class. One of the guys who isn't being talked about enough is 3-star safety Khari Gee of Woodward Academy in Atlanta.
One of the reasons may be Gee's project potential; the No. 353 overall recruit is still growing into his body. But that didn't keep several elite SEC programs and other teams from wanting him to play for them.
The 6'3", 185-pound defensive back can do a lot of things. He's athletic enough to play on the boundary corner, and he could grow into a linebacker. But he'll most likely stick at safety, where he can be a force. His high school film proves he would be an ideal player against spread offenses, and LSU needs a guy like him.
He isn't afraid to play in the box and pack a punch, and he is a sure tackler. Though he needs to polish his coverage skills, Gee has the speed and the skill set to develop that. He also is a great player coming off the edge and getting after quarterbacks, so he can play the nickel too.
Don't sleep on Gee just because he isn't rated among the nation's best. He has high upside.
Tyler Macon, Missouri Quarterback
Missouri quarterback commitment Tyler Macon has a chip on his shoulder.
The Tigers are getting a talented, hungry prospect out of East St. Louis who wants to prove everybody he belongs in the same breath as the top signal-callers in the nation. So far, the recruiting services are unsure, mostly because of his 5'11½", 200-pound stature.
He's ranked as the 379th prospect and just the No. 15 dual-threat quarterback in the country, according to the 247Sports composite. And that's a big deal to him.
"It matters to me because I know the work I've put in," Macon told St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Dave Matter in July. "I know what I deserve. I feel like I need my proper respect because I’ve done everything those other guys have done. So why can’t I have the same ranking or even better?"
At the Elite 11 camp in Nashville, Macon entered ranked 19th out of 20 but showed out and finished with a top-five mark in the final pro-day session, per Matter. That shouldn't be surprising considering he threw for 4,241 yards and 39 touchdowns and ran for 827 yards and 17 more scores for the Illinois Class 6A champion Flyers as a junior.
With 2019 4-star redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak enjoying a breakout season for first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz at Mizzou, Macon doesn't have to step right in and start, and nobody is expecting him to. But he has the arm strength and the athleticism to do it all.
Missouri is going to be Macon's team before long, and with Drinkwitz's history of mentoring top-notch quarterbacks, he will get the most out of Macon. Yes, Macon is a little short, but with the way the position is developing in the college game and even in the NFL, that may not matter too much.
Macon can roll the pocket and make plays all day. He's going to be a future star in the SEC.
Jackson Meeks, Georgia Wide Receiver
What is it about that little pocket of Phenix City, Alabama, and Central High School that churns out elite receivers?
Though the program is situated in one of the most football-crazed states and home to traditional powerhouse Alabama and quality program Auburn, the school's players frequently head out of state.
It's happened again in the 2021 recruiting cycle, as 3-star Jackson Meeks committed to play for head coach Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs. The 6'2", 190-pound pass-catcher committed to UGA early in the process when he didn't have a lot of high-profile offers, and he hasn't wavered.
If you're not familiar with Meeks, don't worry; you likely will be soon.
How can you not recruit a player from the high school that recently produced Clemson star Justyn Ross and freshman E.J. Williams? Though Ross is sitting out this season for medical reasons, he is expected to be taken in the 2021 NFL draft, and Williams has 12 catches for 143 yards in his first season with the Tigers.
"I had to wait my turn," Meeks told Jordan D. Hill of the Opelika-Auburn News in September. "Sitting behind those great receivers, they taught me a lot. They showed me what to do and what not to do, what moves to make, what not to make. They helped me prepare for this moment right now."
According to Hill, in Meeks' first game as the No. 1 receiver, he grabbed 13 catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to powerhouse Hoover. His high school coach is former AU Tigers quarterback Patrick Nix.
Instead of playing on the Plains, though, Meeks is heading to one of AU's most bitter rivals. To add insult to injury for Auburn, Phenix City is not even an hour from Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It won't be long until he's doing big things.
Marquis Robinson, Auburn Defensive Tackle
When it comes to evaluating players for recruiting rankings, the offensive and defensive lines are perhaps the most inexact science.
Sometimes, the future stars are obvious. Other times, they develop depending on how they change their bodies.
One of the high-ceiling prospects in this year's class is defensive tackle Marquis Robinson. Marquee programs such as Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Florida State and others coveted the 6'3", 300-pound Milton, Florida, native, but he elected to play on the Plains.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has seen a drop-off after Derrick Brown and Co. left for the NFL following last season, and players like Robinson can provide reinforcements on a line that needs them.
Robinson was a priority target for Steele and defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who is known for his recruiting prowess.
Once the 324th-ranked prospect grows into his "new" body, he is going to be more of a force. He trimmed down this offseason, according to Eric J. Wallace of the Pensacola News Journal. Now, once he gets into a strength program, watch out.
Steele's pedigree of developing playmakers in the front seven is noted, and Robinson is the type of athlete who can develop into an all-conference-caliber player before perhaps getting the opportunity to go to the NFL.
Look for him to make an impact in a year or two and be a guy offenses have to run around.
Landon Rogers, Arkansas Quarterback
Developmental quarterbacks are a crapshoot and don't always work out, but when they do, they can be special players.
When you have God-given size and ability, it helps the developmental process as well.
The Arkansas Razorbacks are one of the most pleasant surprises in the SEC, if not the nation, this year under first-year coach Sam Pittman, and a big reason for that is transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks, who is speeding along the rebuilding process under offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.
With KJ Jefferson and Malik Hornsby on campus, the Hogs have some bright, young signal-callers ready to step in after Franks leaves. But don't turn your back on Landon Rogers, who is ranked 1,058 overall. The 6'4", 215-pound quarterback from Little Rock is used to playing against excellent competition and is enjoying a big senior year.
Don't be surprised if he waits his turn and eventually stars on the field, but the Hogs have Lucas Coley coming in at quarterback too. So the question is: Where does Rogers ultimately fit in that QB room?
He has a big arm and terrific athleticism that have allowed him to already pass for 1,158 yards and six scores while rushing for 1,048 yards and 22 touchdowns for Little Rock Parkview, according to WholeHog Sports.
There are several players blocking Rogers' path to immediate playing time, but nobody is really expecting him to step right in.
Give Rogers a redshirt year, let him get stronger and learn the system, and who knows what will happen? He is torching high school opponents, and with his size and his athleticism, even if he doesn't wind up under cener, he could fit in other places on the field.
He's worth a bet to be a future impact player in the SEC.
Devonta Smith, Alabama Cornerback
Alabama coach Nick Saban has enjoyed such wild success with players named DeVonta Smith, he recruited another one.
This one doesn't capitalize the "V" in his name like the elite wide receiver who torched opponents for the Crimson Tide and had one of the biggest plays in school history, winning them a national title over Georgia, but he has high upside.
In this recruiting cycle, Saban flipped 4-star defensive back star Devonta Smith from Ohio State. Saban is known for his ability to develop defensive backs, and Smith should fit right in.
At 6'0", 183 pounds, he is a big-bodied, athlete defender who is terrific in coverage and could play multiple roles in the secondary. With several spots expected to open up, including Patrick Surtain II's, it's not out of the question for the 310th-ranked player to find himself in the rotation as a freshman.
Of course, the top-ranked class boasts a ton of top-tier talent, and the defensive backs are led by Ga'Quincy "Kool-Aid" McKinstry. But Saban doesn't care where you were ranked. He cares how you perform on the field in Tuscaloosa and when the lights are on.
Several times over the Saban era, there have been kids who were not the most highly rated who wound up being All-Americans. Smith has that type of upside.
Roc Taylor, Tennessee Wide Receiver
Tennessee has had one of the most impotent, uninventive offenses in college football during the 2020 season.
Not only has senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano continued an inconsistent career that has the fanbase wanting a change, but the Vols also haven't found any playmakers to replace receivers Jauan Jennings (now with the San Francisco 49ers) and Marquez Callaway (now playing for the New Orleans Saints).
While there were high hopes for freshmen receivers Jalin Hyatt, Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Holiday and Jimmy Calloway this season, only Hyatt has made an impact on Saturdays. UT is in desperate need of more stars to catch the ball from whoever is playing quarterback next year.
Enter Oxford, Alabama, big-bodied receiver Roc Taylor, the 428th-ranked recruit in the nation.
Despite the struggles of 2-5 Tennessee, the 6'2", 212-pound matchup nightmare who has enjoyed an outstanding high school career seems sold on coach Jeremy Pruitt's program, despite Auburn and others making a run at him, per Keith Niebhur of 247Sports.
Taylor has not received a lot of love during the recruiting process, but a year ago, he had a huge game against Alabama commit Ga'Quincy McKinstry, proving he can perform against the best.
That's big news for freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey and incoming recruit Kaidon Salter, who should battle Bailey for the starting job a year from now.
Tennessee grabbed a few guys in the '20 class who can stretch the field and are fast, but Taylor can team with Wideman to out-physical opponents and go up and grab 50-50 balls. He could be a future star on Rocky Top.
Gage Wilcox, Florida Tight End
The Florida Gators have enjoyed a spectacular season and should wind up at least in the New Year's Six, if not the College Football Playoff.
The emergence of quarterback Kyle Trask from a strong player into a Heisman Trophy candidate has been a big part of it, as has the performance of his biggest weapon: tight end Kyle Pitts.
That duo should be off to the NFL next year, and the Gators will be breaking in a new quarterback (likely Emory Jones). The offense will change some, sure, but head coach Dan Mullen will still want to feature an athletic tight end.
There are a couple of candidates on campus, but Florida secured another one in Tampa native Gage Wilcox from Jefferson High School. At 6'4", 228 pounds, Wilcox has the frame and the athleticism to develop.
At No. 303 overall, he has not been as highly recruited as Pitts, and it would be asking too much for him to become that type of player. But several programs, including Alabama and Georgia (his other two finalists), believed in him enough to recruit him heavily.
Gage discussed his excitement to play in Gainesville with Swamp247's Blake Alderman in March:
"It's crazy and it still doesn't feel real. I have talked with Pitts before on other visits and stuff and he has always told me how Florida was the best place for him still. I hope I can fill those shoes, and it's crazy there too. I know now watching that TV that it's going to be making these plays there in a few years. They love that I am a receiving tight end and how I am an all-around ball player."
Wilcox needs to refine his blocking, but his pass-catching and route-running skills are already obvious. He could be the next star at the position for the Gators.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.