11 SEC players that will make a first-year impact in 2017
Spring football is almost here. So, let’s take a look at guys you should be keeping tabs on and who can become impact players in their first season.
Isaiah Buggs, Alabama
No. 1 junior college defensive end
Buggs is a plug-and-play edge rusher. Although he’s stout enough in the run game, he will likely be a sub-package player as Nick Saban and his defense revert to their hybrid multi-gap system akin to 2015. Buggs overwhelms linemen by converting speed to power.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
No. 1 junior college quarterback
Stidham lands at Auburn and changes the face of the West. His fit within Gus Malzahn’s offense — though it’s still to be seen what influence new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey will have — is perfect, and he’ll help elevate the play of those around him.
Robert Beal, Georgia
No. 8 defensive end
Georgia’s defense failed to disrupt quarterbacks enough in 2016, finishing 58th in the nation in havoc rate. While the Bulldogs welcome back their front-line starters, they need immediate help from their most recent recruiting class.
Beal is an exciting prospect. He has length, an explosive first step and the athletic ability to line up anywhere on the Bulldogs’ front — be it with his hand on the ground or standing up. There’s no denying he must add weight. Beal also is raw in terms of technique, but he’s a good enough athlete to get by in his first season and make plays in opposing backfields.
Tedarrell Slaton, Florida
No. 3 guard, transitioning to defensive tackle
247 Sports lists Slaton at guard, but the plan is for him to convert full time to defensive tackle — though he’ll likely mix and match reps in 2017. Florida lost a ton of size up front, particularly inside. The Gators will be relying on Slaton to work into the rotation early in the season.
Anthony Hines, Texas A&M
No. 2 inside linebacker
Kevin Sumlin has done a great job of adding depth to his top-end, star-studded roster in recent years. But the middle on defense is where the Aggies continually struggle. They just get run over when forced to play in nickel or dime. Well, Hines might just be the linebacker they’ve been seeking.
Hines is a downhill thumper with enough athleticism to stay on the field for all three downs. He might even see early playing time as a box safety or dime linebacker.
It’s often hard to gauge the diagnose-and-attack instincts of middle-of-the-field players in high school. Hines flashed as much as you could hope for, keying plays, stacking guys and flying to the ball.
Santino Marchiol, Texas A&M
No. 17 Inside linebacker
Look for Marchiol to flash across your screen on Saturdays, but I don’t expect him to be a starter in his first season.
The Aggies have a bunch of production to replace after losing Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. And while Marchiol is listed as an inside linebacker, he likely will start his career as a sub-package ‘backer who rushes off the edge. He will kick inside later in his career. Marchiol shows fluid movement, plays angry and can make game-changing plays. He might not have a huge role, but he’ll make plays as a freshman.
Willie Gay, Mississippi State
No. 3 outside linebacker
Gay is a stud. He’s a true 3-down player who has the athletic ability and instincts to line up at any linebacker spot. He will make an impact playing any role: dropping into coverage, rushing the passer or roaming sideline to sideline. He’ll be too good, too soon, to keep off the field.
Trey Smith, Tennessee
No. 1 offensive tackle
As the No. 1 offensive tackle in the nation and an early enrollee, Smith faces pressure to be a star right away in Knoxville. When you add in Tennessee’s disaster of an offensive line last season, Vols coach Butch Jones needs Smith to step in right away and be an anchor.
Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina
No. 1 junior college defensive tackle
Will Muschamp must replace a lot of production from his defense and add girth for 2017. Kinlaw fits the bill. He’s a massive prospect who can sit in the middle of defense, play 2-gap, do the unseen work and create 1-on-1 opportunities for everyone else. The Gamecocks will need Kinlaw to be a presence from his first snap.
Brad Stewart, Florida
No. 20 cornerback
Speaking of replacing production, the Gators lost a slew of defensive backs for the second year in a row. Seriously: 2 potential first-round picks this year and 2 first-round picks a year ago. Given the volume of nickel and dime that Florida plays, coaches will rely on 1 or 2 freshmen to step in and contribute from the opening snap.
Stewart fits the bill. He can switch between safety, corner and playing in the slot, giving him enough versatility for a young Gators secondary to limit its vulnerability.
Florida has studs returning, but it needs Stewart from the jump.
Austin Deculus, LSU
No. 10 offensive tackle
LSU’s offensive line flat-out bullied people in 2016. It was as athletic as any in the conference and got its running backs uncontested to the second level. Heading into 2017, the line is down 2 starters — meaning Tigers likely need someone to step in right away.
That someone might just be Deculus, a huge lineman who can line up at almost any spot. His athletic ability and movement skills fit seamlessly within LSU’s zone-based offense. The biggest questions will be how quickly he can tune his skills in pass protection and where he’ll play.
All recruiting rankings via 247 Sports’ composite rankings