SEC football lost 51 players to the 2016 NFL Draft, but a new generation of performers ensured that the level of talent across the conference didn’t change.
Whether it’s players thrust into a bigger role or others that took an unexpected step forward, SEC football is filled with players this season who have exceeded expectations.
To clarify, these have to be players that were on an SEC roster last season. While there has been a special crop of true freshmen, especially at quarterback, calling one a “breakout player” isn’t really a fair comparison.
Here are 10 of the biggest SEC football breakout performers in 2016.
RELATED LINK: Year of SEC freshman quarterback brings hope for future
QB Austin Allen, Arkansas
Stats: 185-306 for 2,501 yards, 20 TDs, 10 INTs
With Chad Kelly now down for the season, Allen is the unquestioned best pocket passer in the SEC. Fans wondered whether Arkansas would recover after losing Brandon Allen last year, but Austin has been nearly as productive. This is despite getting much, much less help from the offensive line. Allen has held up under pressure and is poised to get real NFL looks in 2018.
LB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Stats: 104 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, pass breakup, forced fumble
It might seem absurd to put an All-SEC First Team member on the list of breakout players, but it’s hard to quantify just how good Cunningham has been this season. In his first year as a full-time starter, Cunningham leads the SEC and ranks No. 2 nationally among all Power Five players in tackles. If he leaves school early, he could be a top 20 pick.
TE Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Stats: 59 catches for 824 yards, 7 TDs
Engram has been a great tight end for some time now and came into 2016 with nearly 1,400 career receiving yards. But no one expected Engram to lead the entire SEC in receiving yards. Engram not only leads the conference by more than 80 yards, he may be the only player who reaches 1,000 receiving yards on the year.
SS Justin Evans, Texas A&M
Stats: 78 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions, 6 pass breakups, blocked kick
Armani Watts was supposed to be the star in the defensive backfield, but Evans quietly become one of the best safeties in the conference. He leads his team in tackles, ahead of fellow breakout performer Shaan Washington, and is the second most productive defensive back in the conference. He’s suddenly transformed himself into a top NFL prospect.
WR J’Mon Moore, Missouri
Stats: 47 catches for 743 yards, 8 TDs
After a great game last week against Vanderbilt (8 catches for 138 yards, 2 TDs), Moore wrested the wide receiver yardage lead away from Josh Reynolds. No player has benefitted more from the move to a spread offense at Missouri than Moore, who has posted four 100-yard receiving games and nearly doubled his career production through 10 games.
RB Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
Stats: 173 carries for 1,106 yards, 7 TDs
This time last year, Pettway was a reserve functioning more as a fullback. He only got on the field this year after Roc Thomas’ transfer, Jovon Robinson’s dismissal and as Kerryon Johnson dealt with an injury. Thank goodness Pettway got his chance. Despite missing two games (and not getting a single carry against Clemson), Pettway leads SEC football in rushing yards and ranks No. 5 nationally with 138.3 rushing yards per game.
OL Jon Toth, Kentucky
Granted, Toth was a known commodity coming into the year. Regardless, the senior has quietly become one of the most reliable linemen in the conference. He has been the unquestioned leader of an offensive line that has cleared the way for the No. 3 rushing attack in the SEC, behind only Auburn and Alabama. Look for him to keep helping his NFL draft stock to close the year.
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) November 12, 2016
QB Sean White, Auburn
Stats: 129-198 for 1,644 yards, 9 TDs, 3 INTs
Need any proof of just how important White is to his team? Just look at how Auburn has performed without him fully healthy. White mustered only 1.4 yards per attempt with an injury last week and Auburn produced just 7 points. With John Franklin III at the helm for the first half against Vanderbilt, the Commodores took a 13-10 lead. White’s efficient passing has been the difference this season.
RB Rawleigh Williams, Arkansas
Stats: 192 carries for 1,004 yards, 7 TDs; 13 receptions for 175 yards, TD
Even though Williams is still trying to build consistency in SEC play, he has quickly emerged as a potential All-SEC running back playing next to Austin Allen. Williams ranks No. 3 in the SEC in rushing yards and has improved to 5.2 yards per carry in 2016, up from 4.5 as a freshman. The next step will be putting together better performances against top SEC defenses.
DL Jabari Zuniga, Florida
Stats: 16 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 8 QB hurries, forced fumble
Classification: Redshirt freshman
Florida has a loaded rotation, but Zuniga has made his imprint. In a balanced front seven, Zuniga leads the team in sacks and has also consistently gotten pressure on the quarterback. As just a 3-star prospect, Jim McElwain got a steal.