Every football season, it’s always interesting to see what high-profile recruits can make the jump from high school football to the SEC and become impact players in their freshman seasons.
Last year, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk took the league by storm at wide receiver, and two seasons ago, it was LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett who became household names in year one.
With the way the SEC dominates recruiting, there are plenty of talented, young players hoping to etch their name in the list of great SEC freshmen.
Who will break out? Let’s take a look at nine of the SEC’s top freshmen and predict what the realistic best-case scenario is for each player in 2016.
OT Greg Little, Ole Miss
Although he was the top offensive lineman in the class of 2016, former 5-star recruit Greg Little may be counted on too much for Ole Miss this fall. Little enters as the replacement for star offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, but there’s one thing everyone needs to remember: Not every top offensive tackle prospect will turn out like Tunsil.
Tunsil started from the second game of his Ole Miss career. Little will have every opportunity to assert himself as a starter with the Rebels looking to replace both offensive tackles. There’s no doubt he’ll play a lot, but etching himself as a starter by midseason is much more realistic for Little.
QB Jacob Eason, Georgia
Like Little, former 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason enters his debut season in the SEC with unreasonably high expectations. UGA fans are looking for Eason to play like Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray from the start, but let’s pump the breaks on those unfair predictions.
Eason is very talented, but he’s still stepping into football’s toughest position as a true freshman in the best conference in America. That doesn’t come without some bumps in the road. So when he isn’t lighting the world on fire in his first game, don’t panic. He’ll be fine. Eason may or may not start from Week 1, but it’s reasonable that he’ll find himself as the Bulldogs starting quarterback by midseason.
OT Jonah Williams, Alabama
It’s not often you see so many question marks surrounding an Alabama offensive line, but the Crimson Tide have to replace some key players this season. Former 5-star Jonah Williams is hoping to fill the void at right tackle, and if spring practice were any indication, he seems very able.
As stated with Ole Miss’ Little, it’s hard for true freshman to step in and play right away. But Williams has the luxury of starting off his collegiate career at right tackle as star left tackle Cam Robinson returns for his junior season. It’s not fair for any freshman tackle to enter their first season with super high expectations, but Williams looks like he’ll provide solid play while getting his feet wet and preparing to slide over to left tackle in 2017.
DE McTelvin Agim, Arkansas
It won’t be easy for former 5-star McTelvin Agim to make an early impact for Arkansas in 2016, but he showed plenty of potential during spring drills. The Razorbacks return most of their defensive line from last season, but Agim has a high ceiling and should get every opportunity to be a vital piece of the defensive line rotation.
As is the case with all freshmen, Agim will go through the usual highs and lows. But as an early enrollee, don’t be shocked to see Agim solidify himself as one of the conference’s standout freshmen by midseason.
DE Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State
We all know the situation surrounding Jeffery Simmons. Suspended one game after allegedly punching a woman repeatedly on video this spring, the former 5-star prospect will be a big piece of Mississippi State’s defensive line rotation this fall.
Simmons is college ready and enters at one of the easier positions to make an early impact, but there will be ups and downs. He’ll have stretches where he looks like an all-American and stretches where you wonder why he’s getting so many snaps. Becoming a steady contributor that doesn’t get caught out of position will set up Simmons for a big sophomore season in Starkville.
DT Rashard Lawrence, LSU
With LSU returning one of the nation’s best defensive lines in 2016, it is no easy task for any freshman to obtain playing time. But former 5-star Rashard Lawrence has done just that.
Lawrence is doing everything you want a freshman to do. LSU quarterback Brandon Harris told SEC Country he’s most impressed with how Lawrence handles himself both on and off the field. That business-like approach should get Lawrence into a role that could expand as the season moves forward, which is all you can ask for in the Tigers’ loaded rotation.
DE Antonneous Clayton, Florida
Entering 2016, Florida will be relatively young along its defensive line, so there’s an open opportunity for former 4-star Antonneous Clayton to get into the rotation as a true freshman. It remains to be seen how much Clayton can move himself up the depth chart before the season begins, but the talent is there.
As far as goals go, Clayton should look to get a spot in the defensive line rotation by the time the season opener rolls around and absorb as much information as possible. Then if the light bulb comes on and things slow down midway through the year, Clayton can grow into a more important role.
DE Marlon Davidson, Auburn
While many are looking at what fellow super freshman Derrick Brown could do in his first season at Auburn, former 4-star Marlon Davidson may make the biggest early impact. Obviously, Davidson will be behind Carl Lawson in the pecking order at defensive end, but the talented freshman appears to already be past former No. 1 recruit Byron Cowart thanks to an exceptional spring.
Time will tell if Davidson can keep that lead on Cowart for the other defensive end starting spot, but at the very least, the true freshman will be a big piece of the Tigers’ ultra-talented defensive line in 2016.
S Nigel Warrior, Tennessee
It remains to be seen how big of an impact Nigel Warrior will make in his debut season for Tennessee, but pretty much everyone expects to see Warrior in some role this fall. The former four-star recruit has all the talent needed to become a big-time player for the Vols, but how quickly he can adjust to life in the SEC will define how much he gets on the field in 2016.
Being the son of former Tennessee great and NFL player Dale Carter, Warrior should have a good understanding of what’s expected of him at the collegiate level. Don’t expect Warrior to take the SEC by storm early in the season, but if he works hard, he should be a steady contributor for the Vols by the time mid-October rolls around.