SEC football fans know the stars, even the ones who haven’t yet emerged, thanks to recruiting. Players including Kellen Mond at Texas A&M and Devwah Whaley at Arkansas will emerge with more snaps.
However, every SEC team has at least a few future stars. It takes the players in between to win at the highest level. Those guys are the “X-factors” on their respective roster.
Here is every SEC West teams’ X-factor heading into the 2017 season. Make sure and also read about our SEC East X-factors.
Alabama: DE Da’Shawn Hand
2016 stats: 21 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 5 QB hurries
The Crimson Tide have the best defense in the nation and it’s not really that close. Only a senior-laden Michigan team was in the same stratosphere last season, and most of the Wolverines contributors left for the NFL. This is when ‘Bama’s elite recruiting will pay off.
There are several notable stars across the Alabama defense. Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Shaun Dion Hamilton are virtual locks for All-SEC. However, Alabama needs someone to replace Jonathan Allen. Hand must be that guy. He was the No. 5 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, and must take the next step in 2017.
Arkansas: TE Austin Cantrell
2016 stats: 13 catches for 120 yards, 2 TDs
Arkansas became a tight end factory the past few years. Hunter Henry was the best in the nation in 2015. While his career ended poorly, Jeremy Sprinkle had a heck of a senior season. Now, fans will focus on Cantrell.
The Razorbacks use the tight end in their offense more than almost any other team in the conference. On power runs, Cantrell must function as a sixth offensive lineman. However, Hogs tight ends also caught 124 passes over the past two years. Cantrell is next in line to become an All-SEC tight end.
Auburn: WR Nate Craig-Myers
2016 stats: 4 catches for 70 yards, TD
Auburn received a massive injection to its offense with Jarrett Stidham at quarterback. The Tigers were undefeated when Sean White threw for 200 or more yards last season — that only happened seven times.
However, Stidham needs receivers. Tony Stevens was the only wideout with more than 300 receiving yards last year. He’s gone to the NFL.
Craig-Myers was the No. 6 receiver in the 2016 recruiting class, behind only Tyrie Cleveland and A.J. Brown among SEC prospects. He has the physical tools to high-point the ball and beat defensive backs downfield. Stidham needs Craig-Myers to do that immediately.
LSU: FB J.D. Moore
2016 stats: 10 catches for 58 yards; 7 rushes for 17 yards
Moore is one of the most beloved players on LSU’s roster, and for good reason. He arrived on campus as a walk-on tight end and earned a scholarship after working his butt off to become the starting fullback. LSU awards the No. 18 to an exemplary leader — Moore will wear it this fall.
LSU’s offense remains a work in progress. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada will likely bring a system with more spread concepts and less fullback use. However, Moore’s lead blocking was essential to a running game that led the SEC with 6.1 yards per attempt.
Regardless of how he’s used, Moore must be a leader on and off the field.
Mississippi State: WR Keith Mixon
2016 stats: 19 catches for 228 yards, 2 TDs; 25 carries for 106 yards
Mississippi State’s offense runs through Nick Fitzgerald. That much is obvious. However, the Bulldogs need playmakers, especially with top receiver Fred Ross gone to the NFL.
Mixon isn’t the Bulldogs’ best skill position player, but he might be the most versatile. Dan Mullen used him at running back and wide receiver last season. Mixon’s versatility forces defenses to account for him all over the field. Especially for a quarterback still developing as a passer, the ability to accumulate yards in different ways is a vital commodity.
Ole Miss: OT Greg Little
2016 stats: n/a
All eyes will be on quarterback Shea Patterson this fall. Even though the Rebels will not be eligible for a bowl game, Ole Miss fans want to see growth. Nothing will be more important than keeping Patterson healthy and upright.
Little was the No. 3 player overall and No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2016 recruiting class. Many thought he would replace Laremy Tunsil right away. However, Hugh Freeze brought Little along slowly. Now is the time for Little to help create a better push.
Texas A&M: DT Daylon Mack
2016 stats: 25 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks
Texas A&M fans were thrilled when Mack spurned TCU and kept his commitment to the Aggies. Some hoped he could replicate Myles Garrett’s freshman production from the 2014 season. Of course, transitioning at defensive tackle is difficult.
The Aggies have a strong secondary and improving — albeit shallow — linebacker corps. However, both defensive ends left for the NFL. It’s time for Mack to take the pressure off a young collection of contributors.