SEC 2017 breakout players: Each school’s star waiting to shine
With spring football now in the books, it’s time to look ahead to which players will be breakout stars when the 2017 season begins. Here’s a look at one candidate from each SEC school.
Rashard Lawrence, DL, LSU
Lawrence is a former 5-star recruit who is often listed as a defensive tackle but who fits snugly as a base-down five-technique in coordinator Dave Aranda’s system.
A sophomore, Lawrence jumped out to LSU coach Ed Orgeron throughout spring practice.
“On defense, one guy who caught my eye the most was Rashard Lawrence,” Orgeron told Nola.com. “Rashard is a starter now. He solidified that position. Along with being a starter, he has a 4.0 grade point average, one of the top players in the state. I’m excited about him.”
Lawrence’s smarts show up on tape, too. He is a quality read-and-react defender. He will lock into the armpits of linemen, control the point-of-attack and chuck them away at will, often scooping up a ball carrier too in one effortless motion.
It will be interesting to see how Lawrence develops as a pass-rusher. He had the first sack of his career in the Tigers’ bowl game victory over Louisville and flashed as an interior rusher in his other nine games. His bull rush is already an effective weapon and he continues to work on other techniques — his sack came with a nice swim move. He plays with fierce hands, swiping away attempted blocks like they’re inconvenient flies. He pairs that with tenacity.
Lawrence looks the part of a future first-round pick. For now, though, he will have to content himself with putting clown suits on students for our entertainment on Saturdays.
Marlon Davidson, Edge, Auburn
I’m grabbing all the Davidson stock I can before the midseason rush. This soon-to-be Auburn star had an impressive freshman season as a well-rounded run-defender and pass-rusher.
His stat sheet might not jump out, but his video does. Davidson has a magnificent blend of quickness, power and hustle. His technique needs refining, and he must deal without having Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson alongside, but Davidson has the potential to lead the SEC in sacks.
Kevin Pendleton, OL, Missouri
Pendleton will be the key to Missouri expanding its run game and getting the most from all-world back Damarea Crockett.
Entering his junior season, Pendleton is a remarkable move-blocker, with outstanding location skills and an excellent understanding of leverage. He does a nice job sealing the backside of plays. But he’s at his best when asked to pull, locate a second-level defender, and carve a more advantageous lane for a running back.
In Year 1 of the Josh Heupel experiment, the Tigers offense was explosive by production but bland by design. Sure, there were a lot of bells and whistles, but there was little substance. Going by the Mizzou spring game, there’s unlikely to be any major expansion this fall. But the offense will be served well to feature its best run blocker, be it on inside-zone plays where he can climb up to a linebacker, or using him as a pulling guard — the best chance to get Crockett to the second level unblocked.
Pendleton, a redshirt junior, must improve his functional strength. Despite his big frame at 6-foot-4, 335 pounds, he’s more of a technique blocker than a mauler (though I know which I’d rather have). He’s prone to being run over at the point of attack if he doesn’t sink into a perfect pass set, although Heupel’s passing offense helps cover up this flaw.
Pendleton has the potential to be an all-conference player if voters can get past name recognition bias.
Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
If he’s not already, this true freshman will soon be a household name. Jeudy is the latest receiving prospect off the Crimson Tide conveyor belt, following in the footsteps of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper.
Like Jones and Cooper, Jeudy is a height-weight-speed freak who can stretch the field. During Alabama’s spring game, he showed he’s already an SEC-caliber downfield receiver, where he’s able to better take advantage of his natural gifts — tracking the ball over his shoulder and contorting to throws.
New Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll continued the unusual Lane Kiffin design of giving quarterback Jalen Hurts deep drop-backs out of the shotgun during the A-Day game. The intent is to give Hurts longer to survey the field, and give receivers extra beats to get open. Hurts’ accuracy beyond 10 yards is scattershot at best. But he was on-point last season, and in this year’s spring game, when taking deep drops from the ‘gun. That should help Jeudy rack up early production.
As he develops, Jeudy must learn the nuances of the position: creating initial separation, playing with rhythm, and creating throwing windows. But for now, he can coast by on his frame, speed and natural ability to pluck the ball out of the air.
McTelvin “Sosa” Agim, DL, Arkansas
Agim has the talent to be as impactful as any defensive player in the conference. He’s 6-foot-3, 289 pounds, agile and capable of playing any spot in any front.
By traditional definitions, the Razorbacks are shifting to a 3–4. But Agim’s ability to play any technique, on any down, will make coordinator Paul Rhoads’ scheme more flexible than that, shifting opponent to opponent. There will be a heavy reliance on stunts and twists to generate pressure. One week Agim will be attacking mostly inside, the next mostly outside, whether he lines up initially at those spots or not. His agility, at his size, will make Razorbacks stunt packages things of destructive beauty. It will be one challenge to pick up the exchange, and another thing to stop it.
Agim can improve as a run-defender. Sometimes he gets washed in the traffic. Other times, he bites hard before being ridden along the line of scrimmage by a down-blocker. But as a pass-rusher, he has the talent to torment any offense.
Jawaan Taylor, OT, Florida
Not only is Taylor one heck of a talent, he’s also a terrific story. SEC Country’s Zach Abolverdi detailed Taylor’s rise here. In short: He shed 50 pounds during his senior year of high school. That followed a disastrous camp after his junior year in which Mike Summers, then Gators offensive line coach, told Taylor to lose weight. Taylor, who was 383 pounds, slimmed down, earned his scholarship and is now the undisputed right tackle for the Gators.
Taylor is a wide-based, run-game punisher. He hauls his 6-foot-5, 339-pound body upfield and can deliver devastating blows to open holes by himself. He might not be as gifted, or as well known, as teammate Martez Ivey, but he’s just as important to Florida’s offense in 2017.
How Taylor develops as a pass blocker will be crucial. He had issues in 2016. He lacks the foot speed to use his size and sink into a full pass set against dip-and-rip rushers with elite first-step quickness. If pass-rushers attempt to fight him, Taylor will take them on all day. But he isn’t twitchy enough to slide out against the most explosive rushers. I’m intrigued to see how he develops — and whether he can add muscle mass to better deal with the highest level of competition.
Justin Young, Edge, Georgia
The Bulldogs need an impact pass-rusher, whether it’s an every-down player or a sub-rusher. A redshirt sophomore, Young is more of the latter. He has the athleticism to catch blockers off guard and close to the quarterback in a flash. But he lacks the in-line strength and technique required to be a down-in and down-out player.
“He’s kind of a specialist guy,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart told 247 Sports during spring practices. “He’s a pass-rush specialist. He’s not super big and he knows that. He has a knack for running [stunts and slants] inside and pass rushing. We’re excited about the effort and toughness he’s brought to us so he’ll have a role.”
Not super big? Young is 6-foot-4 and 279 pounds.
Anyone who can regularly hit opposing quarterbacks will find a way to get on the field.
Jonathan Kongbo, DL, Tennessee
Kongbo — the No. 1 junior college prospect a year ago — reportedly lost 20 pounds and is moving outside after a year doing the dirty work at defensive tackle. A year inside gave Kongbo a good understanding of the nuances of playing along the defensive line and showcased his core strength.
Technically, he’s raw for a redshirt junior. Kongbo can be stiff out of his stance and is prone to wasted movements. He concedes his breastplate too easily, and, at times, can be too slow off the snap. But his talent is evident. He uses his athletic ability to stymie opponents with his arm extension and explosiveness, often beating blockers by being a superior athlete.
Kongbo fits more naturally outside and should deliver the impact Tennessee expected last season.
Eli Brown, LB, Kentucky
What do you want your linebackers to do? Find a way to be around the ball.
That’s exactly what Brown brings. “Eli has a knack of getting to the ball,” former Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot told Jennifer Smith of Kentucky.com before last season. “He has very good instincts. He’s always in good body position. He’s an excellent tackler. He makes a lot of plays.”
He sure does. Brown, a redshirt sophomore, is a crafty linebacker who has all kinds of talent.
However, Brown had a questionable work ethic early in his career. He redshirted his first year and was accused of “loafing” through his first few practices.
The light bulb seems to have gone on. He played well in spurts last season as the Wildcat’s weakside linebacker, getting better as the level of competition rose — his best games came against Alabama and Tennessee.
He can do it all. At one moment Brown will cut in from the weakside, zip into the backfield and level a running back. The next, he’s reading, reacting and firing from the middle of the field. It’s exactly what a defense needs in a linebacker when it plays upwards of 70 percent of its snaps in nickel.
The more he plays (and works), the better he will get. Jordan Jones is the expected starter, but the job should be Brown’s based on talent alone. Kentucky’s staff has more trust in Jones than Brown at this point.
Nevertheless, Brown should win the job and play alongside Courtney Love in one of the most talented linebacker corps in the SEC — if he wants it and works for it.
Jeffery Simmons, DL, Mississippi State
Simmons’ time with the Bulldogs was overshadowed after video of him repeatedly hitting a woman surfaced before he enrolled. He showed during his freshman year, however, why Dan Mullen was willing to leave his morals at the door in order to sign the former 5-star recruit.
Simmons’ talent is undeniable. He shows the first-step speed to be an effective disrupter in a one-gap system, and the power and balance to anchor and hold the point-of-attack when he is asked to two-gap. His giant mitts allow Simmons to keep linemen off his pads so he can penetrate into the backfield.
Simmons will garner his on-field reputation as a pass-rusher, but the Bulldogs need him to be a dominant run-defender. Their front was repeatedly blown off the ball and allowed runners to get to the second level unchallenged. Mississippi State was 114th in the country in IsoPPP.
If Simmons can become a one-man wrecking crew inside, he will be a building block to the Bulldogs run defense and make life easier for everyone — except opponents.
Joejuan Williams, CB, Vanderbilt
Williams was in and out the rotation as a freshman in 2016, but he saw playing time down the stretch, including an impressive game against Tennessee.
At times he struggled to keep up with the pace of the game, but he improved as the season went along. Williams has the physical tools at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds to compete with SEC-caliber talent and disrupt receivers in man coverage.
He will vie for the starting job vacated by Torrean McGatser.
Larry Pryor, S, Texas A&M
No team in the SEC features more “big nickel” packages — using three safeties — than the Aggies. And no team uses more pre-snap and post-snap safety movement.
That should give Pryor every opportunity to make plays in 2017. He was forced into action last season as a freshman after Armani Watts was injured, playing well enough for the Aggies to feel confident in him replacing Justin Evans as the defense’s center fielder.
Like all John Chavis-coached defensive backs, Pryor can play multiple spots in the secondary based on the down-and-distance or play call. That should allow A&M to keep Donovan Wilson in the slot, where he’s at his best.
Pryor has good instincts as a middle-of-the-field safety and the smarts to re-route tight ends or running backs when he is asked to play closer to the line of scrimmage. He isn’t a like-for-like Evans replacement, but he will be equally productive.
Dennis Wonnum, Edge, South Carolina
D.J. Wonnum was an under-the-radar recruit who is set to become a pivotal part of Will Muschamp’s defense. A sophomore, he will replace Darius English as the starting “Buck” in Muschamp’s hybrid system — a flexible player who shifts between a two-point stance and playing with a hand on the ground.
Essentially, Wonnum will be the playmaker on defense. In multi-gap fronts, he will be freed up to one-gap and constantly be in attack mode. His job is to knife into the backfield, create tackles for loss and drop quarterbacks, as well as slide into coverage when the situation demands.
Wonnum is up to the challenge. He has impressive power for his build, enough fluidity to drop into coverage, and excellent hand-to-hand combat skills. Size? He is 6-foot-4, 248 pounds. He isn’t overly explosive; he won’t be wrecking linemen anytime soon. Rather, he’s a technician who plays with physicality, grit and guile.
He might not have been an elite recruit, but Wonnum will be an impact piece in 2017 and beyond.
A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss
Ole Miss continues to churn out star power from its receivers. Brown had an excellent freshman campaign, finishing with 29 catches, 412 yards and 2 touchdowns, playing in all 12 games.
He’s set to see an increased workload in 2017 now that Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow are out of the door. He will likely be Shea Patterson’s go-to target in short yardage while providing the big-play threat he did during his freshman season.