For all the attention that the 2016 recruiting class is getting at the moment, it’s important to remember that it could be years before most of these players make any kind of significant contribution to their teams. The majority of the prospects that sign on next Wednesday’s National Signing Day will do little more than provide depth and contribute as backups behind their more experienced teammates as freshmen — if they even play right away at all.
However, at least a few 2016 recruits could do a lot more than that. Some will have a chance to become stars right away, and the recent history of the SEC provides a suggestion for which incoming freshmen are most likely to find early opportunities to shine.
Over the last three years, there have been a total of nine freshmen — excluding specialists — that have appeared on the Associated Press All-SEC team as either a first or second team selection. In 2016, here are the recruits most likely to duplicate those performances.
Shyheim Carter, four-star DB, Kentwood, La. — uncommitted
In 2013, Vernon Hargreaves III made the AP All-SEC first team as a freshman at Florida. Carter could also pull off that feat next season, but his college choice will be crucial. The best possible fit might be Alabama — his predicted leader according to the 247Sports crystal ball predictions. The Crimson Tide showed a willingness to play freshmen in the secondary in 2015, as both Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick saw extensive action. Plus, there will be a starting cornerback spot up for grabs at Alabama next season as departing senior Cyrus Jones moves on to try his hand at the NFL.
Greg Little, five-star OL, Allen, Texas — committed to Ole Miss
Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil was named a member of the AP All-SEC second team in 2013. The season that resulted in that honor was an early glimpse at the promise that makes Tunsil one of the most talked-about prospects in this spring’s NFL draft. Little appears to be the perfect replacement for Tunsil at Ole Miss, and the Rebels shouldn’t skip a beat during the transition.
Mecole Hardman, Jr., five-star ATH, Elberton, Ga. — uncommitted
Hardman hasn’t announced his college decision yet and isn’t a lock to choose a school in the SEC, but if he does, Hardman will immediately draw comparisons to two other athletes that took the league by storm last season. Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk was an AP All-SEC first team selection as an all-purpose performer on offense, and Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley made the second team. Although Hardman could play defense next season, he’ll be just as tough to tackle as Kirk and Ridley proved to be if he does indeed end up at receiver.
Isaac Nauta, five-star TE, Buford, Ga. — enrolled at UGA
Nauta gave first-year UGA coach Kirby Smart a big endorsement when he chose UGA over Alabama and Michigan during an announcement at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Nauta’s reward should be plenty of catches from the Bulldogs’ quarterback next season. An inability to involve tight ends was one of the most common criticisms of UGA in 2015, but that aspect of the game plan has been a strength for UGA’s new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in the past — including when Chaney guided then-freshman tight end Hunter Henry to an All-SEC season as offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2013.
Jeffrey Simmons, five-star DE, Macon, Miss. — uncommitted
Simmons is still weighing offers from multiple SEC schools, but whether it’s Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Alabama that wins his services, the result should be the same — Simmons should be an impact player right away. He could be the next in a line of recent pass rushers that emerged quickly in the conference — including Myles Garrett from Texas A&M, who was an All-SEC first team pick last year in his freshman season, and Derek Barnett from Tennessee, an All-SEC second team selection in his freshman year of 2014.
Devwah Whaley, four-star RB, Beaumont, Texas — committed to Arkansas
Whaley may be a surprising name to include on this list. He’s only the 96th-ranked recruit overall in the class of 2016 and the third best running back in the country, but when UGA running back Nick Chubb won All-SEC honors as a freshman in 2014, he did so after only being ranked as the fifth best running back in America coming out of high school. Furthermore, Arkansas has rushed for a team total of at least 2,500 yards in each of coach Bret Bielema’s three seasons with the Razorbacks. Maintaining that level of productivity could make an early contribution from Whaley a necessity due to the departure of running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, and the ongoing recovery from a neck injury for Rawleigh Williams III.
All rankings and ratings are according to the 247Sports Composite.