Nick Saban leaned on several freshman en route to his fifth national championship last season. Most of those personnel decisions were talent-based, and not need-based.
As fans of other schools are painfully aware, not everyone recruits as well as Saban. Teams often need freshmen to step up because the other options are either inept or nonexistent.
Here’s a look at nine new SEC players who could be thrust into big roles by default this fall:
Ole Miss offensive lineman Greg Little
Arguably the nation’s best true freshman, Little was a huge snag for Hugh Freeze’s staff, which beat out LSU for the 6-foot-5, 305-pound teenager’s services.
The Rebels lost a pair of offensive tackles — Laremy Tunsil and Fahn Cooper — to the NFL this spring. That leaves two spots open for Little, who destroyed fellow Texas high schoolers on a weekly basis last year. Can he step in immediately? Recent history says yes: Tunsil was an opening-day starter for Freeze in 2013, as was Cam Robinson for Alabama in 2014.
On the field, Tunsil was golden for Ole Miss, and fans likely expect Little to be the same. Senior quarterback Chad Kelly could use the protection, but if Little has a slow start, freshman signal-caller Shea Patterson will be happy to see him blossom as a sophomore in 2017.
Arkansas running back Devwah Whaley
The Razorbacks lost a mammoth amount of talent this spring, including star running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who skipped town for the NFL Draft.
Most pundits consider this a rebuilding year for Bret Bielema’s squad, while few coaches envy the lack of continuity he will endure in the absence of starting quarterback Brandon Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, and guard Sebastian Tretola, among others.
Whaley will probably get several chances to prove himself and stir up the Arkansas faithful.
The nation’s No. 3-ranked running back is thick enough — 6-foot, 205 pounds — to be productive between the tackles, but it’s his nimble feet and a 4.4 40-yard-dash time that have coaches excited. He’ll need to beat out a few holdovers, most notably senior Kody Walker and sophomore Rawleigh Williams III, but count on hearing Whaley’s name early in the SEC Freshman of the Year race.
Florida wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland
Coach Jim McElwain is currently without top receiver Antonio Callaway and quarterback-turned-receiver Treon Harris. It’s unclear if the pair are ever returning to the Gators.
If they don’t, Cleveland, the nation’s No. 33-ranked overall prospect, could vault into the starting lineup this fall.
Only one of the Gators’ top four receivers last year — junior Brandon Powell, a slot guy — exited spring practice in the mix, so Cleveland is expected to push for significant playing time in Year 2 of the McElwain era.
McElwain and Florida have options at their disposal, but none that scored more than two touchdowns last year. Cleveland, a 6-foot-2 speedster from Houston, could blow past that number as early as September if the depth chart shakes out in his favor.
LSU linebacker Michael Divinity
This is a make-or-break year for Les Miles, and he’ll need some help from Divinity to fill the biggest question mark on LSU’s defense: outside linebacker.
The Tigers’ 3-4 scheme requires a pair of players on the outside who can both rush the passer and handle pass coverage when needed. Divinity, a four-star recruit from just south of New Orleans, can do both, and he’ll be one of the favorites to replace Deion Jones and Lamar Louis.
When he committed to LSU late last year, he got a message from Heisman-hopeful running back Leonard Fournette about getting on the field early: “It’s going to be hard to transfer from high school to college,” Fournette told him. “You’re going to have to work hard. You’re going to have to study and focus and … you’re going to hit the ground running.”
South Carolina quarterback Brandon McIlwain and wide receiver Bryan Edwards
South Carolina’s run of three straight 11-win seasons between 2011-13 feels like it occurred a decade ago. With Steve Spurrier out of the picture, new boss Will Muschamp must figure out a way to bring the Gamecocks back to relevancy, and he might tab McIlwain as the man to put the squad on his back for the foreseeable future.
The 6-foot, 200-pound dual-threat quarterback from Pennsylvania went head-to-head with uninspiring fifth-year senior Perry Orth in spring ball, and fellow signal-caller Connor Mitch recently announced plans to transfer.
For now, the starting job is up in the air, with McIlwain and Orth battling, but it speaks volumes that a teenager with no college experience is taking snaps from a player who’s entering his fifth year on campus.
Whoever wins the gig will be tossing the ball to Edwards, who’s ranked as the nation’s No. 44 receiving prospect. He’s a 6-foot-3, 208-pound with the kind of size and speed that will make it impossible to keep him off the field, especially in a program that appeared to sleepwalk through most of the 2015 season.
Pharoh Cooper was one of the lone bright spots in that doomed campaign, but Edwards might make fans forget about the former Gamecocks receiver with some big plays early.
Auburn wide receivers Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis and Eli Stove
The trio of incoming receivers were all ranked No. 20 or higher in their position, and they will be needed immediately. Gus Malzahn’s spread offense will be missing a combined 66 receptions and 995 receiving yards from departed seniors Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray, while former star Duke Williams was kicked off the team last autumn.
Marcus Davis (30 receptions for 181 yards and one touchdown), Tony Stevens (14 for 177 yards and one) and Jason Smith (13 for 203 and two) are all returning, but they don’t have the kind of experience that warrants automatic spots in the starting lineup.
Craig-Myers, a 6-foot-2 prospect from Tampa, was the nation’s No. 43-ranked player in the Class of 2016, and he wants to play immediately.
“Watching the spring game and talking to coaches, the players, they tell me all the receivers’ jobs are wide open,” he told SEC Country this April. “Just come in and compete. I feel like if I go out there and do my best, I’ll have a shot to start in the first game.”
Along with Davis and Stove, Craig-Myers has plenty to prove in fall camp, but combined, they will likely be a nice safety blanket for whichever quarterback steps under center against Clemson in Week 1.
Other notable freshmen who could compete for starting jobs: Landon Young, OL, Kentucky; Marlon Davidson, DL, Auburn; Marquez Callaway, WR, Tennessee.
All rankings courtesy of 247Sports.com unless otherwise noted.