For the last couple of years, it was Tennessee coach Butch Jones who was touting the youthfulness of his talented roster.
But a quick glance at this fall’s projected starters for the Vols reveals those youngsters have blossomed into a group of junior and seniors, which is, in part, why expectations are so high in Knoxville for the upcoming season.
It is time for Jones to pass the “youth torch” to another SEC coach for the time being. But who will that be? That’s up for debate, but with the way that the league continually places teams near the top of the national recruiting rankings, there are many teams that are worthy of consideration for the title of the conference’s team with the “best young talent.”
While this is by no means a definitive answers, here’s a look at three of the league’s teams with some of the best young talent coming into the 2016 season:
When you have the league’s “quarterback of the future” in true freshman Jacob Eason, you almost make this list by default. Though he may not start right away, his spring game performance has visions of future SEC championships dancing in the heads of Bulldogs fans.
But the crop of talented Georgia youngsters goes beyond Eason, making the Bulldogs an easy choice for this list.
The Georgia coaching staff is hoping to surround Eason with some youngsters that will have the chance to grow with him on the offensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs signed the nation’s No. 1 TE Isaac Nauta in the 2016 recruiting class, and he too enrolled early this spring. Four-star wide receiver Riley Ridley, who is the younger brother of Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, is another freshman pass-catching option who has already worked on building chemistry with Eason. Ben Cleveland is a large offensive tackle that should be tasked with protecting him. When you combine those guys with sophomore WR Terry Godwin and four-star freshman RB Elijah Holyfield the accumulation of young offensive talent in Athens becomes evident.
Former five-star recruit Trenton Thompson, who rated as the No. 1 player in the 2015 recruiting class according to 247Sports, headlines a group of young, talented contributors on the Georgia defensive line.
The top athlete in the 2016 recruiting class, Mecole Hardman Jr., will be yet another five-star prospect on the roster this fall. He’s likely to play defensive back, but can potentially impact the game in a number of ways.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Come on, you didn’t think we’d skip the defending national champions on this list, did you?
Alabama lost several key contributors to the NFL Draft in the spring, but when you’re able to continually replenish the roster with one of the nation’s top-rated recruiting classes year after year, you’re bound to be perpetually stocked with top-tier young talent. That is the case for the Crimson Tide in 2016.
Calvin Ridley, who led the team with 1,045 yards receiving and seven touchdowns during his freshman season, returns as one of the premier pass catchers in the league.
Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, a pair of talented sophomore running backs, are expected to be charged with replacing Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake in the Alabama backfield. On the offensive line, youngsters such as Ross Pierschbacher, Lester Cotton and Jonah Williams are among those that could contribute significantly.
While they may not earn a starting role this season, sophomore Blake Barnett and freshman Jalen Hurts give the Crimson Tide some promising young options at the quarterback position as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Crimson Tide touts a talented, youthful secondary. Cornerbacks Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey should see significant time as sophomores, along with sophomore safety Ronnie Harrison.
Lyndell Wilson and Ben Davis, who were two of the most talented linebackers in the 2016 recruiting class, give the Crimson Tide defense another pair of young playmakers to add to the fold, though Wilson may be slowed by recovery from offseason shoulder surgery.
We started by analyzing the offensive side of the ball first for both Georgia and Alabama, but we’re going to switch things up for the Tigers.
The Auburn defense has some young players that are both exciting and ready to contribute to a unit that could use their help after a couple of seasons of less than ideal results on that side of the football.
In the secondary, cornerback Carlton Davis has seemingly locked up playing time after a strong freshman season and could be considered one of the best young corners in the league entering his sophomore season. He’ll be joined by freshmen CBs Jamel Dean and John Broussard Jr. in an effort to improve upon a Tigers pass defense that has ranked no higher than No. 63 in the FBS during the last three seasons.
On the defensive line, five-star recruit Derrick Brown could step in and have an immediate impact as a freshman. He’ll look to join defensive end Marlon Davidson, who enrolled early, as an infusion of youth and talent in the trenches. Sophomore Dontavius Russell turned in significant playing time on the interior of the defensive line as a redshirt freshman last fall, and though he did not live up the billing during his freshman season last fall, defensive lineman Byron Cowart is a former five-star recruit who was the No. 3 overall player in the 2015 recruiting class.
Offensively, freshman wide receivers Nate Craig-Myers and Kyle Davis should bring size, strength and athleticism to a Tigers receiving corps that will be looking for new playmakers this fall.