SEC Football: 12 New Starters Who Will Dominate in 2014
After the SEC ushered out one of the most decorated classes ever, it's time for new starters to emerge as the next wave of superstars.
Opportunities abound for elite underclassmen everywhere.
With many of its top-tier quarterbacks gone to the NFL, the SEC could be run-heavy, so three running backs pepper this list. The list also includes a couple of signal-callers who could help restore the star power lost when Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Zach Mettenberger departed.
Several defenders are primed to stand out, and even a couple of freshmen have enough buzz surrounding them to warrant inclusion.
Players had to start fewer than half of their team's games a season ago to be considered for this list. They also have had previous college success, possess can't-miss talent or have a combination of both.
Let's take a look at a dozen new starters who are going to have an immediate impact in 2014.
Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn Running Back
Even with Gus Malzahn's Auburn Tigers hitching their wagon to Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason time and time again in 2013, Cameron Artis-Payne thrived.
The former JUCO transfer finished his first season on the Plains with 610 yards, a 6.7-yard average and six touchdowns, proving he had plenty of ability.
Now, with Mason gone to the NFL, it's Artis-Payne's show.
Even if the Tigers attempt to throw the ball more with senior Nick Marshall running the offense, they're always going to be a run-first, run-second offense.
Marshall will get his yards on the ground, of course. Malzahn also has several able runners in his stable, including Corey Grant, Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas and Kamryn Pettway.
But Artis-Payne is poised to be the workhorse.
The 5'11", 210-pound runner was the nation's top-ranked JUCO running back, according to 247Sports. He has the size to shoulder a load in the rugged SEC and flashed breakaway speed several times last year in the open field.
Artis-Payne has the complete package to step right in and churn out the yards Malzahn's offenses always produce. This is his year to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards.
Leonard Fournette, LSU Running Back
With recruiting being such big business now, every season produces prospects with ridiculous buzz surrounding them before they ever even take a college snap.
Leonard Fournette's hype machine thrummed louder than any in several years.
The craziest thing is, after one week of camp, there's nothing coming from the LSU faction to pull the plug.
Tigers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron—the same Cam Cameron who has coached in the NFL and has been an offensive coordinator for 10 years—said, according to The Times-Picayune's Ron Higgins, "I knew he was smart, and he's smart. I knew he was tough and he's tough. I knew he loved football and he loves football. But I didn't know that for someone 235 pounds he can run all day. That can separate backs from other backs."
At a listed 6'1", 230 pounds, Fournette is massive for a freshman. There hasn't been anything to suggest he was overrated coming out of New Orleans' St. Augustine High School, even though it's impossible to be rated any higher.
With Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield, LSU can afford to bring Fournette along slowly. But as long as he excels and keeps playing beyond his years, there's really not a good reason to.
Talent like his doesn't come along every year.
Just how much of a sure thing is Fournette? He became the first high school person ever to win the Corbett Award, awarded to Louisiana's outstanding male amateur athlete for the past year, according to The Advocate's Ted Lewis.
No pressure, kid.
Markus Golden, Missouri Defensive End
Many of the accolades and headlines during Missouri's unexpected run to the 2013 SEC Championship Game belonged to defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.
In actuality, neither was as productive on a down-to-down basis as 6'3", 260-pound freak Markus Golden. When he got on the football field in situational work, big things followed.
Even Mizzou's official website says Golden was "arguably MU's most productive DE, despite playing only about 40 percent of the snaps at a spot loaded with future NFL talents."
Though Golden didn't start a single game in 2013, he finished with 55 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Those are All-America numbers projected over a larger workload.
When a tremendous pass-rushing presence is accompanied by a tireless work ethic and a nonstop motor, it can produce a star player. That's exactly what Golden is in line to be this year.
Per the Missourian's Michael Shaw and Wade Livingston, MU coach Gary Pinkel said Golden is "special." He'll be the anchor of a Tigers defense that hopes to be as opportunistic as it was a season ago.
Sam and Ealy were stars, but now they're gone. This year, it's Golden's turn, and the senior from St. Louis, Missouri, should have a dominating season and play himself right into the top of the NFL draft.
Chris Jones, Mississippi State Defensive Lineman
It's going to be impossible to keep from comparing Mississippi State sophomore Chris Jones with the former star prospect from that other state school—Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche.
They're big and athletic. They were heavily recruited. They play at rival schools. And both are on tap to shift inside from their defensive end positions from a season ago and play tackle.
Nkemdiche was the highest-rated player coming out of high school, but it's possible Jones could be a better college player.
At 6'5" and 308 pounds, Jones has defensive tackle size with the speed to rush from the end if necessary. He's going to be hard to handle for opposing offenses, and his versatility is one of the reasons he has been named to several preseason All-America teams, including Sports Illustrated's second team.
Jones didn't start much a season ago, but he was a playmaker when he got on the field, amassing 32 tackles, seven tackles for a loss and three sacks. Jones' first year earned him freshman All-American honors from Bleacher Report, Athlon and 247Sports.
He more than lived up to his 247Sports composite rating as Mississippi's top-ranked player, the nation's second-ranked strong-side defensive end and the No. 18 player overall in the 2012 recruiting class.
ESPN.com's Chris Low said of Jones, "He says he’s still an end at heart, and the scary thing is that he’s athletic enough to still move out there and be effective. But where he’ll wreak the most havoc is from a tackle position. [He]…will be an absolute beast in the middle of that Mississippi State defense."
Jones could be poised for a monstrous season.
Curt Maggitt, Tennessee Defensive End
It has been years since Tennessee trotted out a formidable defense.
With an abundance of freshman talent and All-America candidate A.J. Johnson in the middle of the unit at linebacker, the Vols could be better this year than they've been in a while.
But the biggest key to making that happen is the health of junior defensive end Curt Maggitt.
The former outside linebacker has moved up a level and will be terrorizing offenses coming off the edge in 2014. He also can move back to his old position and be a jack-of-all-trades threat for UT.
He just needs to play somewhere.
After starting for much of his first two seasons on Rocky Top, Maggitt suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament against Missouri in November 2012 and missed the rest of that season and all of last year. He returned this spring, shook off the rust and has been lauded by coaches ever since.
Second-year coach Butch Jones said this about Maggitt at SEC media days, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker:
He is the leader of our football team. He was the leader last year, but unfortunately he wasn't able to participate on the field, so being able to get him back on the grass for our football team, he's going to be a presence. He's a very talented football player. He'll add an edge presence to our defense, but also we'll move him around at linebacker.
Right now, Maggitt isn't moving much at all. An ankle injury will sideline him for a while, keeping him from valuable practice time. The Vols need him healthy and on the field. If he is, Maggitt has the potential to be one of the best defenders in a loaded league.
Hutson Mason, Georgia Quarterback
Hutson Mason isn't the physical specimen who will make you do a double-take when he steps onto the field. He isn't flashy like Matthew Stafford and doesn't boast the career accolades of Aaron Murray.
But he's talented enough to be placed at the controls of a Georgia offense that has a wealth of playmakers for him to orchestrate.
A year ago, Mason led UGA to wins over Kentucky and Georgia Tech after Murray was lost for the season. Though the Bulldogs lost to Nebraska to end the year, Mason posted respectable numbers, finishing 67-of-110 for 968 yards and five touchdowns.
He distributed the ball well enough throughout spring practice and the early part of camp to earn the confidence of his coaches.
Richt told the throng of media in Birmingham at SEC media days that it's a "blessing" to have Mason leading the way as a fifth-year senior. The nation's experts seem to believe in Mason as well, naming him to the Davey O'Brien Award watch list.
Few quarterbacks nationally are going to know their offensive systems as well as Mason will know Mike Bobo's. He's got star power all around him, and being able to turn around and hand off to Todd Gurley and Co. is about as comfy a safety blanket as a quarterback can have.
A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama Defensive Tackle
A'Shawn Robinson is not a guy offensive linemen look forward to meeting on Saturdays.
For an Alabama defensive line that struggled to generate much of a pass rush a season ago, Robinson's true freshman season in Tuscaloosa was a breath of fresh air.
The 6'4", 320-pound Texan led the Crimson Tide with 5.5 sacks and was second with eight tackles for a loss despite starting only two games all season, and he'll only improve against the run as his career progresses. That's scary, as Robinson may be the league's best jumbo defensive lineman right now.
It's hard to believe Robinson, at that size, can shift to end in UA's base 3-4 set, but he is big, versatile and athletic enough to play nose guard too.
When he was completely healthy this past spring, Robinson turned heads, including that of fellow lineman Jeoffrey Pagan, according to AL.com's Andrew Gribble:
"I've seen A'Shawn just completely destroy our starting offensive line with no moves or pass rush. Just straight bull rush," Pagan told Gribble. "I've seen him walk starters back to the quarterback."
Robinson has been nursing a sprained knee, according to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough.
Once healthy, he'll be the anchor of a line that will feature incredible talent such as Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway and Da'Shawn Hand. He's one of the main reasons The Montgomery Advertiser believes this group of defensive linemen could be Nick Saban's best yet.
Cameron Robinson, Alabama Left Tackle
Another Robinson who'll have plenty of opportunities to live up to his massive expectations is true freshman Cameron Robinson.
The 6'6", 323-pound tackle (no relation to A'Shawn) was the nation's top-ranked player at his position in the 2013 cycle, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
He's more than living up to that ranking so far.
It's extremely difficult to step right in and start at left tackle anywhere in the nation, much less at a program like Alabama, which sees the nation's top talent gravitate toward its recruiting class every year.
But Robinson quickly escalated to the first team this past spring and started the A-Day Game at left tackle. This fall, he's taking first-team reps at the blind side again, according to Bama OnLine's Charlie Potter.
The person to Robinson's immediate right, guard Arie Kouandjio, told Potter that Robinson reminds him of somebody else Bama fans know well, Arie's brother Cyrus, who was a second-round draft pick this year.
"He's a hard-working guy and reminds me a lot of my younger brother," Kouandjio told Potter. "It's been pretty smooth, and it's been pretty fun. It's a good experience."
Since winning the Ozzie Newsome Most Improved Freshman award this spring, Robinson has continued to wow everybody around him.
It's difficult for left tackles to stand out unless they're doing something wrong, but Robinson has the ability to slide right in and make forgetting CyKo's career as painless as possible for Bama.
Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M Wide Receiver
It's going to be extremely difficult for Texas A&M to replace Mike Evans on its football roster. So, why not deploy an Evans clone to make up for it?
At 6'5" and 225 pounds, Ricky Seals-Jones was one of the most talked-about newcomers in college football heading into the 2013 season.
Before his season could really get going, the Sealy, Texas, native was injured and lost for the season following a sparkling debut in which he had three catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in the season opener against Rice.
This fall, he's working out in the slot, according to GigEm247's Jeff Tarpley, and he also could be used as a flex tight end or in an H-back role.
The latter role is one that could wind up making Seals-Jones a ton of money at the next level. The Dallas Morning News' Michael Florek likened A&M's youngster to NFL tight end hybrids like Jimmy Graham.
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin talked further about the topic with Florek, saying, "This whole Graham situation in New Orleans has created a whole nother deal in recruiting. Guys are starting to like to move inside a little bit. He came to us and talked to us about moving around, being a kind of H-back situation, still playing on the perimeter. We're going to see what he can do."
With talented Speedy Noil stretching the field on the outside, the tandem will give the winner of the Aggies' quarterback derby a nice duo of pass-catchers to target. Add massive tight end Cameron Clear, and A&M will be able to throw some mismatches at defenses.
Kelvin Taylor, Florida Running Back
Fred Taylor's kid isn't so bad himself.
The former Florida Gators and Jacksonville Jaguars great had a long, fruitful NFL career. Now, his son Kelvin is trying to follow in his footsteps.
Back when the younger Taylor was being recruited, his father told GatorNation's Michael DiRocco that his son was better than him. That's lofty praise considering Pops is fourth on Florida's all-time rushing list and enjoyed a 13-year pro career that featured more than 11,000 rushing yards.
Florida's leading rusher the second half of the season should get plenty of options early and often this season. Florida Today's David Jones wrote that Taylor received just six carries in 2013's first five games in Brent Pease's old offense.
He wound up with 508 yards and a 4.6 yards-per-carry average. That should only get better this year.
With former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper at the helm and calling plays, the Gators offense should be much more wide-open. If that's the case, it fits Taylor perfectly, Roper told Jones.
"I'm very excited about this offense," he said. "Playing in space is what I love to do. To get one-on-one with different linebackers, I just feel like we're going to have a great season. I don't feel like too many linebackers will be back to tackle (the running backs) this year."
At 5'10" and 214 pounds, Taylor is going to be a load to tackle, just like his father. If he continues to take steps forward, he may just pass his old man's numbers in Gainesville.
Dylan Thompson, South Carolina Quarterback
During Dylan Thompson's sophomore year, when he completed 23 of 41 passes for 310 yards with three touchdowns to beat Clemson, he seemed ticketed for greatness.
Inconsistency and a major roadblock in Gamecocks great Connor Shaw derailed his path to playing time.
In spotty action over the course of three seasons, the 6'3", 218-pound signal-caller has completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,827 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. Those are pretty strong numbers for a career backup.
Now, it's Thompson's show in Columbia.
He told The State's Josh Kendall that he was going to dial back his daring mentality, which led to schizophrenic results. With Mike Davis behind him, perhaps the league's best offensive line protecting him and a stable of talented receivers led by Damiere Byrd, he may not need to take so many chances.
"As a quarterback, you always have to be in the mentality of, 'I want to make the defense fear me,'" Thompson said. "You saw Connor, 'Take what the defense gives you, take what the defense gives you.' My thing has always been, I want to stretch the field, so it’s kind of meeting in the middle."
If Thompson can walk that tightrope successfully, he'll thrive in an offense with a wealth of potential stars. If he turns the ball over, head coach Steve Spurrier loves to play games with his quarterbacks, and Thompson could get the hook.
That likely won't happen this season. This looks like his offense, and he appears ready to seize the opportunity.
D'haquille Williams, Auburn Wide Receiver
It's hard to remember a unique name like D'haquille, but the Auburn JUCO transfer receiver has the potential to become an unforgettable player.
After D'haquille Williams (better known as "Duke") enjoyed a breakout spring on the Plains, the 6'2", 216-pound target has grown even more in Gus Malzahn's offense over the summer, the coach told Auburn Undercover's Phillip Marshall.
"I think he’s improved since the spring," Malzahn said. "He has a better understanding of our offense. We’ve kind of zeroed in on one position for him. The thing that has stood out to me is he has given outstanding effort. He wants to be good and he wants to be coached. That’s the thing that stands out to me."
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee put it more frankly to the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea: "Duke's role is get him the ball. He's a playmaker."
Plays like the one-handed practice grab he made do nothing but fuel the legend and leave Tigers fans with visions of national championships dancing in their heads.
If Williams can provide an electrifying presence to go along with Sammie Coates' home run ability, Nick Marshall's athleticism at quarterback and too many quality running backs to mention, Auburn's offense may be even more special than a season ago.
Williams has the size, the speed and the ability to be the kind of one-and-done JUCO receiver talent that Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson was a couple of years ago before becoming a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings and an All-Pro as a rookie.
He's that talented.
SEC defensive backs will find out soon enough. Fans won't have to remember his name, because it'll be all over the morning sports page.
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: @Brad_Shepard.