Last season there was plenty to watch in the SEC. If you didn’t notice, the Southeastern Conference had a team play in the last game of the year and they won it. There was so many stars that the SEC might as well have stood for the Southeastern Constellation. Cam Newton ran away with the Heisman, Nick Fairley made people want to watch the interior of a defensive line, Patrick Peterson stole the Thorpe Award, and Marcus Lattimore shined as a true freshman.
As we head into 2011, the landscape has surely changed but there are still plenty of guys to watch as the SEC vies to win their sixth national title in a row.
The SEC East features a guy looking for redemption under a new coaching staff, a freshman with huge expectations heaped on his shoulders, and the nation’s top recruit from the 2011 class. The West is full of intrigue as well with Auburn quarterbacks having to rise out of the shadow of the previous Heisman winner and a quarterback who desperately needs to improve to help his team challenge for the conference title.
Without further ado, we continue our summer camp look aheads with a list of SEC players worth keeping an eye on during this upcoming season.
Florida- QB John Brantley
The big reason to watch Brantley this season is to see if he can make good on all the promise he brought coming out of high school. The biggest key to whether or not he can shake off his nine touchdown, ten interception season is if new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis can turn him into the next polished passer of his production line. Brantley has all the skills as a passer to do the job but was miscast in Urban Meyer’s spread option system. Under the new pro-style offense, Brantley has already made it known that he is much more comfortable.
Even if Weis can turn around Brantley, the senior signal caller will need a feature back to develop and will need a consistent go-to receiver. Deonte Thompson was Brantley’s favorite target last year but had trouble with drops. One position that could help Brantley get through his growing pains as a passer could be at tight end. If Brantley can at least double his touchdown output while limiting turnovers, the Gators should be back in the thick of it in the SEC East.
Georgia- Isaiah Crowell, RB
Head coach Mark Richt has made it a point to say that the team does not need Crowell to be their savior but make no mistake that he will be a big part of the offense from the moment he enters Athens until he leaves. Crowell is the crown jewel of the 2011 recruiting class and is expected to get the starting job in time for the season opener against Boise State.
As if being a five-star recruit wasn’t enough to get him some playing time, any contenders to the No. 1 spot have vacated campus. Caleb King has entered the NFL Supplemental draft after being declared academically ineligible. Washaun Ealey found himself suspended once again and decided to transfer to Jacksonville State. Crowell is built solidly at around 210 pounds and has a second gear that the Dawgs haven’t had since Knowshon Moreno. Crowell may not have the impact that Marcus Lattimore had last year but he will be one to watch for Georgia.
Kentucky- Morgan Newton, QB
Can Newton handle being a full-time starter in the grinding SEC? That is the question that Newton will attempt to answer this year. Newton has considerable game experience after starting eight games as a freshman (finishing 5-3 in those games) including the team’s bowl game as well as starting in the bowl game last season.
Unlike previous years, Newton will not have the benefit of distributing the pigskin to playmakers like Derrick Locke, Chris Matthews, and Wildcat great, Randall Cobb. However, Newton himself is more than just a distributor as he can take off running to hurt an opposing defense. Paired with rising tailback Raymond Sanders and the vertically gifted La'Rod King at wide receiver, Newton is not starting from scratch. Look for the Indiana native to continue to show moxie and lead his team to their third straight bowl appearance.
South Carolina- Jadeveon Clowney, DE
Anytime a team snags the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, they will most certainly be one to keep an eye on. Clowney is already built like an upperclassman and runs like a deer. While the Gamecocks are blessed with arguably the best defensive line in the SEC, Clowney will certainly see playing time early and often.
To utilize the talented freshman, expect Spurrier and Company to slide pass rusher Melvin Ingram to the inside and line up Clowney opposite Devin Taylor on the perimeter. The extra pass rusher could help the secondary limit big plays which could be the key to a consecutive trip to the conference title game in Atlanta.
Tennessee- Justin Hunter, WR
Hunter finished last year having caught just 16 passes but he certainly made them count. At nearly 26 yards a pop, Hunter took those passes for 415 yards and seven touchdowns. Now that Denarius Moore is gone, Hunter should slide in as Tyler Bray’s go-to guy. Paired with the big arm of Bray, the 6’4 track standout should be the next great receiver to come out of Knoxville.
One thing that makes Hunter so intriguing is that he is a football player who also runs track and not the other way around. A top level high jumper, Hunter will always beat out smaller defensive backs for jump balls but he’s also fast enough to straight burn them. Hunter should emerge as Bray’s favorite target and possibly the next 1,000-yard receiver for the Vols.
Vanderbilt- Jordan Matthews, WR
The last time there was someone actually worth watching for the Commodores, it was Jay Cutler (or maybe Warren Norman during his freshman year). With a fiery new head coach in James Franklin, the ‘Dores should be able to put up a few more points and Matthews could be a big part of the offensive landscape.
At 6’3, 200 pounds, Matthews is the team’s biggest target but also possessed good deep speed. Last year he reeled in just 15 passes but four of those went for scores. Matthews is worth keeping an eye on in SEC leagues, especially if quarterback Larry Smith can improve as a passer.
Alabama- Duron Carter, WR
First of, I would like to say that there are far more exciting players to watch for the Crimson Tide this season. Trent Richardson is finally out of the shadow of Heisman winner Mark Ingram and could be even better than his predecessor. The defense is loaded with studs who are all worth watching. However, the guy who could be the biggest x-factor for the Tide is former Ohio State wide receiver Duron Carter. Sure the Fighting Sabans have Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks but for a new quarterback (either A.J. McCarron or Philip Sims) the biggest security blanket is a big, tall receiving target (see Julio Jones during his freshman year).
At 6’3, 210 pounds Carter is a poor man’s Jones and could be a terror on play-action passes. If he can build a rapport with whichever youngster wins the starting job, the learning curve for the new quarterback will be much smoother and could have the Tide back in the SEC title game and possibly (to coin Cliff Harris)… the Natty.
Arkansas- Tyler Wilson, QB
When you replace a signal caller of Ryan Mallett’s caliber, the next guy will have plenty of eyes on him. Wilson had battled Mallett down to the wire in the spring leading up to the 2010 season so it’s not like Wilson comes out of nowhere. In actual game time, the Razorback field general looked sharp as witnessed by his 332-yard, four-touchdown performance against eventual national champs Auburn.
All of the team’s arsenal of weapons are back so Wilson will have the luxury of getting the ball to a bevy of receiving targets as well as one of the top running backs in the conference. All the Razorbacks will need Wilson to do in order to keep the offense humming is effectively and efficiently distribute the ball and limit mistakes. Mallett was good but there will be little, if any, dropoff with Wilson at the helm.
Auburn- Michael Dyer, RB
While the quarterback battle between Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter is certainly worth viewing, I think the guy to watch on the Plains is the Tigers' now-sophomore phenom tailback. Even though Cam Newton is gone, the cupboard is far from bare and now it will be time for someone else to rise up and be the BMOC. Dyer has all the tools of being the workhorse that the offense straps their cart on. Thickly built with soft hands and enough of a second gear to be a difference-maker (Eddie Pleasant knows what I’m talking about), Dyer could really help Auburn in the post-Newton era.
Onterio McCalebb is still in the backfield but is not ever going to be the 20-carry-a-game back that the team needs. If Dyer can carry the load, his impact will go well beyond the stat sheet which makes him one to watch for the Auburn Tigers.
LSU- Jordan Jefferson, QB
When a quarterback throws for 1,411 yards, seven touchdowns, and 10 interceptions at a 57% completion rate, there is nowhere to go but up, right? Well that is the reason to watch Jefferson in 2011. If he fails to improve, the future for Zach Mettenberger could be now. If he does improve as a passer, the Tigers could wind up in the SEC title game and possibly the National Championship.
After working all offseason with quarterback tutor and new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, Jefferson has received his seal of approval and at least Kragthorpe thinks the senior could be poised to breakout. Jefferson is worth watching because LSU will go as their quarterback goes.
Ole Miss- Barry Brunetti, QB
Brunetti will be the guy to keep your eye on for the Rebels because he could be the future face of the program. Currently the West Virginia transfer is ahead of but is still battling Zack Stoudt and Randall Mackey but is favored to lock down the starting job. If Brunetti can seal the deal, Houston Nutt could have the most continuity he has had at the position in years.
Brunetti is the best blend of all the quarterbacks with the arm of Stoudt and the athleticism of Mackey. With Brandon Bolden in the backfield, Brunetti will not be asked to be the guy the offense is run through which will help his development. On a team that is rebuilding on defense, needs vertical threats at receiver, and an underrated tailback, Brunetti is one of the biggest reasons to tune into the Rebels.
Mississippi State- LaDarius Perkins, RB
It seems like everyone has been trying to find their version of Percy Harvin since he showed his speed and versatility for the Gators. Ole Miss found one in Dexter McCluster and now it appears their Egg Bowl rivals have their own iteration. Perkins was a dual-threat last year who rushed for 566 yards, caught nine passes for 247 yards, and scored six total touchdowns.
With a bruising backfield mate in Vick Ballard and a senior triggerman in Chris Relf, the Bulldog offense should have no problem putting up points. Watch for Perkins to be heavily involved as the coaching staff gameplans ways to get the ball in the hands of this talented speedster.