1 Freshman to Watch for on Every SEC Football Team in 2014

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

1 Freshman to Watch for on Every SEC Football Team in 2014

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    The SEC dominated recruiting for the better part of the BCS era, and instead of tailing off in the last cycle before the College Football Playoff, the trend only seemed to grow stronger.

    According to the 247Sports team rankings, seven of the top nine classes in America belonged to SEC schools in 2014. Seven! That means half of the conference finished with a top-nine class.

    The top class from the Big 12 was Oklahoma at No. 14.

    Which means, once again, that SEC fall camps will play host to a majority of the top true freshmen in college football. Some enrolled early and are trying to build off what they learned this spring, while others are making their practice debuts, but all of them are fighting to justify their prospect ratings and crack the playing rotation.

    In putting together this list of "Freshmen to Watch," we did not simply highlight the highest-ranked prospect in each camp. Pedigree was a factor, but so was potential for early playing time, team need at a certain position and how they performed (if at all) this spring.

    In simple terms, this list is the freshmen whose development this fall is most important to their team's 2014 season. Some schools are counting on numerous freshmen to step up and play early, in which case it might be easy to (respectfully) disagree with whom I chose.

    Sound off below, and let me know if/where you do.

Alabama: LT Cam Robinson

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    Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey will be in the starting mix at cornerback, but any time the No. 2 team in the country might have a true freshman left tackle protecting the blind side of a new starting quarterback, it feels wrong to start anywhere but there.

    Cam Robinson is not your average true freshman left tackle, however, having ranked as the No. 4 overall prospect and top offensive lineman in the class. He is 6'7", 335 pounds and follows the footsteps of last year's top-ranked offensive lineman, Laremy Tunsil, who enjoyed a fine first season against SEC defenders at Ole Miss.

    Robinson started at left tackle in the A-Day game, and even though reviews from that performance were predictably mixed, it spoke volumes that the coaching staff stuck with Robinson the entire time.

    "We need for him to learn from those mistakes, which he will, and he'll develop and improve," said Nick Saban of Robinson after A-Day, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "He did some good things, and he's done some really good things all spring long, but we have been consistently better on the offensive line when he's playing."

    Can Robinson hold off Brandon Greene for the entirety of fall camp? Probably. But can he limit the mistakes and keep (probably) Jacob Coker clean against a live defense? That part remains to be seen.

    Tunsil allowed just one sack for the Rebels last season, which is an unlikely but not impossible precedent to meet. How Robinson develops in the fall is of utmost concern for this offense.

Arkansas: DT Bijhon Jackson

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    Bijhon Jackson will forever be known as the guy with the incredible…um, backside. Head coach Bret Bielema made sure of that at SEC media days. Even if he never plays a down, Jackson's fate is sealed.

    But Jackson will be counted on to play some downs this season. A lot of downs. He was the No. 81 recruit in the country, highest in the Razorbacks class, and Bleacher Report's Bryan Heater had him listed as a starter on his predicted 2014 depth chart.

    Arkansas' defensive line was great against the pass but poor against the run last season, ranking No. 80 in adjusted line yards (overall rush defense), No. 109 in opportunity rate (percent of carries that went for five yards) and No. 99 in power success rate (percent of converted 3rd and 4th-and-shorts) and stuff rate (percent of tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage), per Football Study Hall.

    Throwing Jackson and his massive rump into the mix could drastically improve those numbers in 2014. You don't find 334-pounders growing on trees. If he shows well during fall camp, Jackson could be a game-changer in Week 1 against a run-first Auburn team that just lost its starting left guard, Alex Kozan, for the season with a back injury.

Auburn: RB Peyton Barber (Redshirt)

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    Auburn does not lack for running back options. Cameron Artis-Payne is a between-the-tackles bruiser, Corey Grant ran a (speciously timed) 4.2 in the 40-yard dash and Roc Thomas is a 5-star freshman.

    Little-known Peyton Barber, however, might be the best of the bunch. Thomas is the true freshman most likely to make an impact on the offense this season, but after redshirting and impressing in 2013, Barber might be the overall freshman who is best set up to play.

    His teammates certainly seem to think so.

    "[Barber] is probably, skill wise, the best out of all of us," said former backfield mate Tre Mason, a 2013 Heisman finalist, per Brandon Marcello AL.com. "That guy is good. He's very consistent when he's scrimmaging. He's very consistent."

    "I've been hearing from some of the defense that Peyton is untouchable," echoed tight end C.J. Uzomah this spring, per Bleacher Report's Justin Ferguson. "Going against our first team all last year helps him tremendously as a running back. I think that helped him adjust to the game and adjust to the speed."

    There are other, more important newcomers to watch in Auburn's camp this next monthnamely, receiver D'haquille Williams and safety Derrick Moncrief. But both of them came from JUCO, and both play at positions where Auburn is less stacked than running back.

    Barber may not be needed, per se, in 2014, but if he's as good as his teammates seem to say he is, that doesn't mean he won't get a shot.

Florida: CB Jalen Tabor

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    Florida hit the jackpot with its 5-star freshman cornerback last season. Vernon Hargreaves III justified every bit of his No. 3 national ranking and became one of the best defensive backs in the country—true freshman or otherwise.

    But is it possible that lightning strikes twice?


    Jalen Tabor wasn't quite as highly regarded as Hargreaves, but he was a consensus 5-star recruit, checking in at No. 14 in the 2014 class. He enrolled early and endeared himself to the coaching staff, which led defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to confirm that Tabor will "play a great deal this season," per Robbie Andreu of The Gainesville Sun.

    But how well will he play in that "great deal" of reps? The reports coming out of fall camp will lend us some valuable insight.

    If it counts for anything, though, defensive backs in the national top 20 are becoming one of the few sure things in recruiting circles. Last year's group—Hargreaves, Su'a Cravens, Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller—all had spectacular true-freshman seasons, and the only pure defensive backs in the top 20 in 2012 (Landon Collins) and 2011 (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) both became star safeties at Alabama.

    Tabor is 6'1" and polished for a player his age, and with the guidance of a staff that has never had trouble developing defensive backs (dating back to Will Muschamp's days at Texas), there is no reason to believe he will not continue that trend and produce early.

Georgia: CB Malkom Parrish

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    Lorenzo Carter is the 5-star addition to Georgia's defense, but he plays along the defensive line, where the Bulldogs are in pretty good shape. He's still worth watching this fall, but his development is not imperative (at least not yet).

    The same cannot be said for high 4-star recruit Malkom Parrish, the No. 69 overall player and No. 8 cornerback in the class. Damian Swann is locked in on one side of the secondary, but an uninspiring group (tentatively led by unknown walk-on Aaron Davis) is competing for the job across from him, so Parrish's development would be big.

    Fortunately, the early reviews have been good.

    "Malkom Parrish is standing out," said converted running back J.J. Green, who is also competing for the No. 2 cornerback job, per Seth Emerson of The Macon Telegraph. "Dude's a baller."

    Don't be surprised if Parrish cracks the rotation early.

Kentucky: DT Matt Elam

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    Drew Barker plays the sexier position, and in most cases, a true freshman with a legitimate shot to start at quarterback for an SEC team deserves the utmost attention. But this is not most cases.

    Matt Elam is the Wildcats freshman to keep an eye on—and not just because he's hard to take your eye off. It's not every day that a 6'7", 375-pound mountain spurns Alabama to come play in Lexington.

    Kentucky needs the help in the middle, too. It finished No. 91 in adjusted line yards and No. 121 in power success rate last season, per Football Study Hall. Opposing offenses—especially those within the conference—knew that they could bully the Wildcats in short-yardage situations. There just wasn't enough size across the line.

    But now there is, and according to Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journaldefensive coordinator D.J. Eliot sees the value in that:

    He definitely is for real. Here's what you gotta remember: As coaches, we evaluate them way more than Internet guys do, and they don't take into consideration his size. They watch somebody on film and they say, 'Oh, he's not that fast' or 'He's not making that many plays' or 'He's not hustling to the ball.' But what they don't understand is, when you're a giant like that, it doesn't matter. The highest-paid players in the NFL never make a play – the D-tackles.

    There's a lot of value at that position in size – and not only that, but on top of that, he can move. From what I've heard, the reason people dropped his rating is they thought he didn't play hard, he didn't run to the ball, he just manhandled a bunch of small kids. But none of that changed his ability. He's still a giant that could run. That's what he was so valuable to us – and to Alabama. I think he's got all the potential in the world.

    The drop in his rating that Eliot refers to made Elam one of the most divisive prospects in the country this past cycle. He was the No. 164 overall player on the 247Sports composite rankings, which aggregate a consensus from across the four major scouting services, but 247Sports' own rankings had him at No. 21 with a 5-star rating.

    If he proves 247Sports correct, Elam is the type of prospect who can alter the course of Kentucky football. Even if he doesn't…well, having a 375-pound defensive tackle is never a bad thing.

LSU: RB Leonard Fournette

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    On the Kentucky slide, we ignored a potential true freshman starting quarterback because of a 6'7", 375-pound defensive tackle. The same exception can be made for the No. 1 overall prospect in the class.

    Leonard Fournette is the freshman to watch over quarterback Brandon Harris (and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) because he comes to Baton Rouge with nearly unprecedented hype. Even his own teammates have likened him to Adrian Peterson, which is an impossible but telling comparison to have made.

    Keep an eye on the substantive reports coming out of Tigers camp, on any coach or writer giving updates about how often Fournette might play. Those are the actual, forward-looking reasons to watch.

    But also keep an eye on the little things—the videos, for example, where Fournette obliterates some LSU veterans in a blocking sled drill. If and when he does become the next Peterson, we'll look back on these moments as important checkpoints in his mythology.

    There's a chance we're watching history being written.

Ole Miss: OL Roderick Taylor

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    C.J. Hampton enrolled early and impressed in the defensive backfield, but Ole Miss is already set on the back end, where Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee thinks it could field the surprise unit of the SEC.

    Things are a lot more muddled along the offensive line, which is anchored by all-universe sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle but riddled with questions everywhere else. Aaron Morris should claim the job at left guard, but the other three spots are up for shuffling.

    Roderick Taylor was the top-ranked recruit in Ole Miss' 2014 class, checking in as the No. 47 overall player in the country. He already has a college-capable frame (6'3.5", 305 lbs), although ESPN Scouts Inc. (subscription required) suggests he might be too raw to play early.

    There's only one way to find out, though, and Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has not been afraid to play true freshmen the past couple of seasons. He didn't have any 5-stars to consider this cycle, but Taylor wasn't far off and fills a position of need.

Mississippi State: RB Aeris Williams

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    Aeris Williams was Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi last season, and he enters an open running back competition that has no shortage of options (four players were listed together on the preseason depth chart) but also no clearly distinguished leader .

    It's not likely for Williams to crack the starting lineup early in the season, but with LaDarius Perkins leaving and Josh Robinson the only returning back who had more than 200 rushing yards in 2013, it is not crazy to think he could begin seeing meaningful reps.

    "We know Aeris Williams is a talented player," teased Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen, per Courtney Cronin of The Clarion Ledger. "We just need to see what happens when the pads are on."

    If this Vine from the first week of camp is any indication, Mullen's question has already been answered.

    Williams looks ready to go full-contact.

Missouri: WR J'Mon Moore (Redshirt)

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    J'Mon Moore took a redshirt last season, which afforded him the chance to learn under L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas without spending a year of eligibility.

    Now, all three of those former mentors are gone, and Moore might be counted on to emerge in one of their spots. Unlike some of the other options at Missouri's disposal, he has the size (6'3") and speed to stretch the field in a similar, vertical way.

    Fellow receiver Jimmie Hunt pointed to Moore as a breakout player this offseason, telling Nate Latsch of FoxSports.com that Moore has "been showing some really big plays." Quarterback Maty Mauk and the Tigers offense are in desperate need of a new big-play threat.

    Let's see if Moore can keep it up.

South Carolina: CB Chris Lammons/Wesley Green/Al Harris Jr.

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    Sure, maybe this is cheating a little bit, but it's hard to distinguish all of the South Carolina cornerbacks so early in fall camp.

    It felt like we had to list three.

    Rico McWilliams is the only experienced cornerback on the Gamecocks roster, and according to Avery Wilks of Rivals.com, head coach Steve Spurrier pointed to Chris Lammons, Wesley Green and Al Harris Jr.—son of former NFL cornerback Al Harris—as three players who can contribute as true freshmen this season.

    Lammons and Green only recently found out that they would be academically eligible, which was a huge boost for South Carolina at a position it couldn't afford to have losses at. But they still have to prove their worth on the practice field, lest converted running back Jamari Smith have too much pressure heaped on his shoulders.

    One or all of these guys must step up, and step up early.

Tennessee: RT Coleman Thomas

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    Yes, there are sexier alternatives. A lot of sexier alternatives. Running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone were both top-40 overall players, and both should have a part to play this season.

    But no Tennessee freshman has a more important part to play this season than Coleman Thomas, a meager 3-star recruit who came to Tennessee an interior lineman but left spring practice as the likely starting right tackle. Recruiting rankings aren't always gospel!

    Thomas steps in along an offensive line that loses all five starters from last year's group, and there are bound to be some bumps in the road along the way. But if he proves a quick study once again in the fall, there is no reason he can't provide at least adequate tackle play by the time the conference schedule arrives. 

    On that front, early-season games against a pair of very good "group of five" teams—Utah State and Arkansas State—should provide Thomas a valuable learning experience. So should the bound-to-be-humbling task of blocking Oklahoma's front seven.

    Tennessee doesn't need Thomas to play like a freshman All-American or an All-SEC candidate. It just needs him to be sound, consistent and to not have mental lapses that result in negative plays.

    Fall camp is a good place to prove he can do that.

Texas A&M: QB Kyle Allen

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    You can't go wrong with any of Texas A&M's top-three recruits; all are worth watching for their own, unique reasons.

    Defensive end Myles Garrett was the No. 2 overall player and No. 1 defender in the class and should be counted on to contribute from Week 1; receiver Speedy Noil was the No. 8 overall player and won the SPARQ Rating National Championship in 2013.

    But this time, unlike the Kentucky and LSU slides, it's impossible to not watch the true freshman quarterback.

    Kyle Allen was the top-ranked passer in the 2014 class, checking in at No. 10 overall. He's battling Kenny Hill for the starting job, but Hill's suspension during spring camp gave Allen a valuable chance for extra first-team reps, which could prove important. It's a big reason why, at SEC media days, Billy Liucci of TexAgs.com told Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report that he thinks Allen will be the Week 1 starter.

    Starting for a Kevin Sumlin-coached team, by the way, is not the worst thing to be. Sumlin's last two quarterbacks were Case Keenum (the leading passer in FBS football history) and Johnny Manziel (the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy). Both could make a realistic—if not probable—case for inclusion in the College Football Hall of Fame.

    And Allen had (by far) the best pedigree of all of them.

Vanderbilt: DE Nifae Lealao

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    James Franklin pillaged the Vanderbilt class after leaving for Penn State, but Derek Mason did a pretty good job rebuilding it in a short amount of time. Landing Nifae Lealao was a big reason why.

    Formerly committed to Stanford, Lealao agreed to follow Mason across the country from his old school to his new school, and in the process he became the biggest recruit in Vanderbilt history, per Barton Simmons of 247Sports.

    Lealao is 6'5", 285 pounds and checked in as the No. 103 player in the country, which is a new domain of caliber for Vanderbilt prospects. That is Stanford size and pedigree, and we all saw what Mason did with the Cardinal front seven these past few seasons.

    According to David Climer of The TennesseanMason said that "17 or 18" of his 21 true freshman are going to play this season. If that's the case, Lealao is almost guaranteed to be one of them. He's already one of Vandy's best counters to the size of SEC offensive linemen.


    Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.

    Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT