The competition is so intense in the SEC that a recruit won’t even be offered a scholarship in the league unless he has a chance to be special. The conference’s 2016 recruiting class is loaded with these kinds of players; they’re the best of the best at their respective positions, and many will begin making names for themselves right away in their college careers. Eventually, all of them will have their opportunities to prove themselves to be important additions to their programs.
However, some of these players are more important than others. With that in mind, here is the most important signee for each SEC school for the class of 2016:
Alabama: Ben Davis, five-star LB, Gordo, Ala.
Davis is valuable to Alabama not only because of his abilities — he’ll likely fill a role similar to that of departed linebacker Reggie Ragland —but also because Davis’ decision to choose Alabama presumably influenced five-star linebacker Mack Wilson to sign with the Crimson Tide as well.
Arkansas: McTelvin Agim, five-star DE, Hope, Ark.
The man from Hope certainly gives the Razorbacks plenty of… ummm… I think you see where this pun is going. Bad wordplay aside, Agim is a huge acquisition for Arkansas. He’ll be famous across the SEC before the end of his true-freshman year.
Auburn: Derrick Brown, five-star DT, Lawrenceville, Ga.
Auburn signs yet another impressive recruiting class for 2016, but Brown is the headliner. The Tigers’ biggest rival on the recruiting trail is always UGA, so Auburn’s ability to come into Georgia and pluck away the state’s No. 1player makes a huge statement for the program.
Florida: Tyrie Cleveland, four-star WR, Houston
There are a lot of choices for the most important recruit in what’s another loaded class for the Gators, but it’s hard to match the excitement that comes from a flipped commitment on Signing Day — which Florida got in Cleveland when he decided not to stick with his hometown school, The University of Houston. Cleveland is also important for Florida because he will help upgrade a Gator offense that scored 15 points or fewer in four of its final six games in 2015.
UGA: Isaac Nauta, five-star TE, Buford, Ga.
Chalk this one up to an attempt to avoid the obvious. Everyone knows how valuable five-star quarterback Jacob Eason will be for UGA, but Nauta is the guy who will make Eason’s job easier. Wide receiver hasn’t been a strong position group for UGA; a Bulldogs receiver has eclipsed 900 yards in a season just twice in the last eight years. Therefore, Nauta could end up being Eason’s No. 1 target.
Kentucky: Landon Young, four-star OT, Lexington, Ky.
The Wildcats actually signed three four-star prospects as a part of this year’s recruiting class — all of them offensive linemen. However, Young is the jewel of the class. He’ll anchor an offensive line that should make Kentucky a much tougher team to beat in the SEC East for years ahead.
LSU: Willie Allen, four-star OT, New Orleans, La.
LSU coach Les Miles didn’t lose his job at the end of last season as many people expected he would. This means the power running style Miles favors will presumably be back too. However, that style of play was exposed against Alabama in 2015 as running back Leonard Fournette was hit behind the line of scrimmage over and over. In future meetings with the Crimson Tide, stronger offensive line play will be crucial, and Allen is expected to provide that. Allen also stands as a symbol of Miles’ recruiting prowess in-state. Allen was one of many prospects from Louisiana who was courted by other SEC schools, but Miles closes his borders better than any coach in the league.
Mississippi State: Jeffery Simmons, five-star DE, Macon, Miss.
Simmons isn’t just the Bulldogs’ most important signee this year, he’s the most important recruit for any SEC program in 2016. The reason is simple: MSU lost out on a ton of in-state prospects, and its arch rival Ole Miss continues to build momentum. Simmons decision to choose Mississippi State changes that conversation — even if only briefly.
Missouri: Natereace Strong, four-star RB, East St. Louis, Ill.
The Tigers struggled mightily on offense in 2015, and losing running back Russell Hansbrough to graduation doesn’t help. Therefore, Strong isn’t just the centerpiece of new Missouri coach Barry Odom’s first recruiting class, he’ll also need to play well right away.
Ole Miss: Shea Patterson, five-star QB Hidalgo, Texas
Patterson may be the only player on this list who won’t play as a true freshman. The Rebels will still have quarterback Chad Kelly in 2016. However, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is sending the message with this recruiting class that his team will be a contender in the SEC for years to come, and Patterson will be the recruit who points the way to that bright future.
South Carolina: Brandon McIlwain, four-star QB, Newton, Penn.
McIlwain excited Gamecocks fans when he postponed a pro baseball career to play football and baseball at South Carolina. He’ll be a part of a crowded field battling for the quarterback job with the Gamecocks in 2016. However, new coach Will Muschamp shouldn’t let the fact that McIlwain is a true freshman prevent him from naming him as the starter.
Tennessee: Tyler Byrd, four-star DB, Naples, Fla.
As big a recruiting win as four-star defensive back Nigel Warrior was for the Vols, it had to be somewhat expected. After all, Warrior is the son of Tennessee legend Dale Carter. However, Byrd’s choice of Tennessee over Miami on National Signing Day is the kind of explosive moment Tennessee coach Butch Jones needed. Byrd’s arrival will only intensify the talk that the Vols are legitimate contenders to win the SEC in 2016.
Texas A&M: Travon Fuller, four-star CB, Athens, Texas
Aggies defensive coordinator John Chavis demands a lot from his defensive backs. Therefore, his teams need as much talent at those positions as possible. Fuller — along with fellow four-star cornerback Charles Oliver — will provide the depth that Chavis needs as Texas A&M’s identity shifts to a program that will soon be known more for its defense than its up-tempo offense.
Vanderbilt: Joejaun Williams, four-star CB, Hendersonville, Tenn.
The challenge with recruiting the state of Tennessee is that there are fewer elite prospects in that state than other states in SEC country. Any time the Commodores can acquire a four-star prospect from in-state then, it’s is a big deal. The fact that Williams plays defense only makes it that much sweeter for a Vanderbilt program that showed a lot of toughness on that side of the ball last season.