Top Candidates for a Breakout Season from Every SEC Team
Finding the Next Big Thing in the SEC
The quest for a breakout season in the SEC is a tireless effort that has players constantly grinding as they hope to climb the depth chart and impress their coaching staff in order to have a breakthrough season. Last year the SEC gave us breakout seasons from Eddie Lacy, Donte Moncrief, Mike Gillislee and, of course, Johnny Manziel, and this year’s crop of SEC talent features no shortage of breakout candidates.
I defined the term breakout as a player who has experienced a small degree of success, but has yet to achieve full-blown star status. For example, players like Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney or AJ McCarron are not going to be on this list because they already have broken out. Furthermore, I excluded freshmen from this list and whereas there will be freshmen who burst onto the scene much like Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall did last season, the top freshmen in the SEC will be unveiled in another list before the season starts.
Essentially, a breakout player is someone that teams are hoping takes his game to the next level and can challenge for All-SEC consideration and catch the eye of NFL talent evaluators. Factors that played into players making the cut are position changes, players moving up the depth chart after starters moved to the NFL and coaching changes bringing new philosophies that will put these players in better positions to succeed than their predecessors did.
Without further ado, here are the top breakout candidates for each SEC team. Who do you think will emerge to help their team the most from the players on my list, and who do you think I snubbed in leaving off the list?
First it was Trent Richardson starring as the understudy to Mark Ingram, then it was Eddie Lacy under Richardson and last year it was T.J. Yeldon under Lacy. This year it’s Drake’s turn to be the backup to Yeldon and assume his role as Tide’s No. 2 back which has been a sign of future greatness in years past. He will have competition from Derrick Henry and others, but after he averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2012, Drake should have a nice complementary role to Yeldon in the Alabama backfield.
Smith is already well known in Fayetteville after a 9.5 sack campaign in 2012, but he is still a relative unknown commodity outside of Razorback country as a result of the disappointing season Arkansas had last year. The senior ranked fourth in the SEC in sacks last year with 9.5 behind stars like Clowney and Jarvis Jones. Look for him to improve on that number this season and approach 13 sacks and be one of the top defensive end prospects in next year’s NFL draft.
Justin Garrett-Auburn-Star LB
The biggest story to come out of Auburn this spring has been the play of Garrett at the “Star” position in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense. Garrett has looked like an absolute beast at the safety hybrid position and made several big plays in the Tigers spring game, including running a fumble back for a touchdown. With only one start and 12 tackles last season, Garrett has the potential to eclipse those numbers in the season opener.
Mitchell is as talented an athlete as you’ll find in the SEC, which is really a testament to his ability on the football field. It’s also been a detriment to his statistical production at wide receiver because of his double-dipping on defense thus far in his Georgia career. This year Mitchell can focus solely on offense and as a result, should have a monster season catching passes from Aaron Murray. At 6-1, 192-pounds, he possesses good size, speed and hands to double the 40 catches, 572 yards and four touchdowns he posted in 2012.
Jones is in line to be the Gators starting tailback after serving as the backup to Mike Gillislee in 2012 when he posted 275 yards on 52 carries and three touchdowns. Despite the presence of top recruit Kelvin Taylor this spring, Jones took his game and mental preparation to another level proving to be the team’s top option at running back. Gators head coach Will Muschamp tells Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com, “He has attacked the offseason, and I use the word ‘attacked’ in bold letters,” Muschamp said. “He had an outstanding spring. He’ll carry it a bunch this fall.”
Dupree made the move form linebacker to defensive end this spring after making a combined 91 tackles with 6.5 sacks and 12.5 for loss, which were all top-10 numbers within the SEC. His combination of size (6-4, 255), speed and exceptional athleticism makes him a big-play waiting to happen coming off the edge. Dupree will benefit with better coaching in Kentucky this season and is the Wildcats' best defender that could end up being an All-SEC first team performer if he doubles his sack total from last year.
Landry made a huge jump in production from his freshman to his sophomore season at LSU going from four catches for 43 yards in 2011 to 56 for 573 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. Landry closed out the 2012 season averaging 6.6 catches for 71.4 yards per game and scored in four of the team’s final five games. Landry looks poised to make a similar leap in 2013 after a productive spring where he looked unstoppable and could be a home run threat for the Tigers this season.
Denico Autry-Mississippi State-DT
Autry was a terror off the edge for East Mississippi Community College prior to his arrival in Starkville, but he didn’t have a great start to his 2012 season. However, Autry started to show improvement toward the end of the season when he had two of his four sacks, forced two fumbles and had three tackles for loss in the final four games. Autry picked up where he left off last season this spring and has shown signs of living in the opposition’s backfield and should be a good leader for top recruit Chris Jones. If Autry can improve his consistency and be a force every week, he can post double-digit sack totals.
The hype that preceded Green-Beckham’s arrival to Missouri may have been too much for the top recruit in 2012 to live up to. However, the 6-6, 220-pound receiver has grown up after maturity and legal issues in his first season in Columbia and will match his 2012 totals of 28 receptions, 395 yards and five touchdowns by week four. I'm expecting the wide receiver to have a monster sophomore season and challenge the Tigers single-season receiving yards mark held by Danario Alexander when he had 1,781 yards in 2009. The Tigers had injuries and inconsistencies at quarterback last year, which undoubtedly hamstrung his stats, but that won’t be the case this year with James Franklin primed for a bounce-back season.
C.J. Johnson-Ole Miss-DE
The former high school All-American linebacker has found a home on the defensive line for the Rebels and led Ole Miss with 6.5 sacks in 2012. Coming off a 55-tackle season with eight coming for loss, Johnson is poised to be a star for the Rebels this season. The Ole Miss defensive line is full of breakout candidates with Channing Ward, Isaac Gross and top recruit Robert Nkemdiche looking like they will make life miserable for SEC offensive lines this season, but it’s Johnson who will be the biggest breakout star.
Sherrod Golightly-South Carolina-Spur LB
The top defensive storyline for South Carolina this spring outside of anything related to Clowney was who the Gamecocks “Spur” linebacker would be after losing Devonte Holloman to the NFL. The favorite to start at the hybrid linebacker-safety position is Golightly, who will be challenged by Jordan Diggs in fall camp, but I’m going with the experienced Golightly to earn the nod based on his knowledge of the defense and ability in pass coverage.
Neal is ready to assume a bigger workload this season with the inexperience at quarterback and wide receiver putting the onus on running the football more. In addition to the uncertain future of Marlin Lane in the Volunteer backfield, look for Neal to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier this season and approach 10 touchdowns. Neal is coming off a 708 yard season in 2012 and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. With a veteran offensive line, which could be the best in the SEC, the opportunity is there for Neal to have a career year as a senior.
Floyd Raven-Texas A&M-S
Raven was a reserve cornerback last season and was relatively ineffective in that position, but a move to safety this spring has proved to be a brilliant move by Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin. Raven’s speed, athleticism and exceptional range will allow him to make plays on the ball and stymie the opposition’s pass game. Once he learns the nuances of the position, he has all the potential to be one of the conference’s best safeties. He already has one of the best names.
Overshadowed by his more heralded teammate Jordan Matthews, Boyd is going to benefit from the double coverage that Matthews receives and will exploit the man-to-man coverage he receives. Last season was a solid one for Boyd posting 50 receptions, 774 yards and five touchdowns, but he had five games with fewer than 40 yards. If Boyd eliminates the down games he had in 2012, a 1,000-yard season is in store for him in 2013. He scored all of his touchdowns in the ‘Dores final six games and will pick up where last season ended and form with Matthews to be one of the top wide receiver duos in the conference.