Going from high school to division one football is a huge jump. It takes most players a season or two, to become fully adjusted to the difference in size, speed, and strength of their peers. The last two Heisman Trophy winners have been redshirt freshman. Last year, some of the most productive offensive players in the SEC were in their second seasons: Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans, Jeremy Hill, Dorial Green-Beckham, T.J. Yeldon, Todd Gurley, and Mike Davis to name a few. The youthful movement is seeming to become a trend. Lets take a look at some of the top freshmen and sophomores in the SEC for the 2014 football season:
1.) Sophomore WR – Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss) – The number one wide receiver in the class of 2013 (Rivals.com) had a ton of hype coming into last season. Treadwell had a very successful campaign, finishing 18th in the conference in yards (608), 15th in the conference in TD catches (5), and 3rd in the conference in receptions (72). Donte Moncreif, Mississippi’s receiving leader in yards and touchdowns from last season is now in the NFL so expect Treadwell’s number of targets and production to go up from a year ago. The only thing missing from Treadwells resume last season were big plays. He only averaged 8.4 yards per catch. I fully expect that number to rise with a year of experience playing in the SEC, as Treadwell will continue to build off the chemistry he has built with returning starting quarterback, Bo Wallace.
2.) Sophomore RB – Derrick Henry (Alabama) – Like nearly every Alabama commit, Derrick Henry was highly touted coming out of high school. Henry has a rare combination of size (6’3″ – 240 lbs.) and speed (4.5/40 yrd dash). As a true freshman last year Henry was buried in the depth chart behind T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, and was slowly recovering from a broken fibula that occurred in Bama’s spring game. Although he only had 36 carries last season, he averaged 10.6 yards per carry, for a total of 382 yards. His most impressive game in 2013 came in Alabama’s 45-31 loss in the Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma. Henry had 8 carries for 100 yards and 1 touchdown, and also had a 61 yard touchdown reception. He may look like an outside linebacker but he has tremendous vision, speed, and toughness a la Eddie Lacy. The Sophomore from Yulee, Florida may be in line to be the featured back in Tuscaloosa. TJ Yeldon has had ball security issues in the past and Kenyan Drake was recently arrested, which may lead to him being excused from the team. Saban is notorious for having a two headed monster in the backfield, if Henry gets his fair share of carries, a monster season should be in store.
3.) Sophomore RB – Alex Collins (Arkansas) – When you start your career as the first true-freshman running back to open with three straight 100 yard performances since Adrian Peterson, your future looks incredibly bright. Collins continued to tear it up all season and quietly became the SEC freshman of the year in 2013. He finished the season with 1,026 yards while carrying the ball 190 times (5.4 YPC). Although he shared carries with Jonathan Williams, who also accumulated 900 yards on the ground last year, Collins was viewed as the feature back. Bret Bielema loves pounding the football. Year two is going to be crucial in determining Bielema’s future in Fayetteville. He needs to have an improved season from last years 0-8 conference record and who better to rely on than the most talented back in his run-heavy offense? Expect big things out of Collins this season.
4.) Sophomore TE – O.J. Howard (Alabama) – Nick Saban has never had such a talented pass catching tight end in Tuscaloosa. The sophomore from Autauga, Alabama somewhat resembles elite NFL tight end, Jimmy Graham. Listed at 6’6″, 240 pounds, with blazing speed, and gifted pass catching abilities, Howard is an athletic freak. Imagine being in the red-zone, having this guy on your team. With his versatility the possibilities are endless, he could line up as a wide receiver and run precision routes, or he could be matched up against a linebacker as a tight end. Howard could end up being the biggest matchup nightmare for opposing defenses in SEC. As a true freshman he caught 14 passes for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns. Howard was recently named to the “Mackey Award” watch list, given to the nations top tight end. Look for Howard to be a huge part of newly acquired offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffen’s playbook.
5.) Sophomore WR – Marquez North (Tennessee) – Ranked just below Treadwell as the number two ranked wide receiver in the 2013 class was Marquez North, North had a very successful true-freshman campaign. On his way to being named to the “SEC All-Freshman” team, Marquez finished his rookie season with 38 catches for 496 yards. As the season progressed, the talented wide receiver seemed to improve every game, even though he caught balls from three different starting quarterbacks. An ankle injury in the Vanderbilt game cut his season short, as he sat out the last game of the year vs. Kentucky. The 6’4″ wide receiver is a human highlight reel. After playing his first full season ever at wide receiver, and Tennessee becoming increasingly more talented on the offensive side of the football, look for Mr. North to have a breakout season for the Vols.
6.) Sophomore TE – Hunter Henry (Arkansas) – Along with Alex Collins, Hunter Henry was one of the few shining stars for the Razorbacks in Coach Bielema’s 1st season in Fayetteville. Named by many outlets as a “First Team Freshman All-American”, the 6’6″ tight end from Little Rock, Arkansas had a very impressive freshman season. Henry finished the season with 28 receptions for 409 yards and 4 touchdowns. Things should be looking up for Henry, when you consider it was a transition year with a first year coach (Bielema), and a first year starting quarter back (Brandon Allen). In Bielema’s run-heavy attack, Henry could prove to be the most valuable threat in the play action passing game, especially in the red-zone. Henry is incredibly talented (4th ranked TE according to Rivals.com in 2013) and his numbers should only improve in year-two for the Razorbacks.
7.) Sophomore RB – Kelvin Taylor (Florida) – During his high school career, the son of former NFL running back Fred Taylor, broke Emmitt Smith’s, Florida High School’s all time leading rushing record. The highly touted freshman didn’t see the field very often early in the season. Taylor only had 6 rushes in the first 5 games for the Gators last season, until a combination of injuries and surprisingly poor team play catapulted Taylor into a significant role. While showing a combination of speed and patience, Taylor finished the season with 508 yards on 111 carries. Taylor averaged over 5 yards per carry last season against Top-25 teams, even with opposing defenses selling out to the run due to poor QB play. Kelvin may have been the only bright spot on the offensive side of the ball for Mike Muschamp’s Gators last season. Taylor was selected to the “SEC All-Freshman Team” and bigger things are yet to come from the Belle Glade, Florida product. Many expect a much improved offense for Florida this season with the return of injured QB Jeff Driskel. Taylor should be the focal point of the offense.
8.) Freshman RB – Leonard Fournette (LSU) – Although the nations number one recruit has yet to play a single down of college football, people are expecting huge things out of Fournette. Touted by some as the best running back recruit since Adrian Peterson, Les Miles has plenty to be excited about. With the departures of RB Jeremy Hill, QB Zach Mettenberger, and WR’s Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. , Fournette could instantly become the focal point of LSU’s offense. Senior Terrence Magee, who carried the ball 86 times last year for 626 yards and 8 touchdowns could prevent Fournette from getting as many touches as he’d like. But if Fournette is really everything scouts have made him out to be, he shouldn’t have a problem with making his way atop the depth chart in Baton Rogue. New Orleans based rapper, Lil Wayne tweeted that Fournette is “The Truth” last year, after attending one of St. Augestine’s games. It is incredibly hard to project how a true-freshman’s game will translate to the SEC but with physical tools Fournette possesses the sky could be the limit. Only time will tell, but the intrigue alone got me excited enough to put him on this list.
9.) Sophomore QB – Maty Mauk (Missouri) – Mauk came into Missouri as one of the most decorated high school quarterbacks of all time. The two-time Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year, Mr. Football of Ohio, and Sports Illustrated, All-American broke national records for passing yards (18,932), touchdown passes (219), pass completions (1,353) and total offense (22,681). After redshirting his first year in Missouri, Mauk entered his redshirt-freshman campaign as the back up to James Franklin. In game 6, Franklin got injured against the 7th ranked Georgia Bulldogs, Mauk came in for relief when the score was 28-26 and led the Tigers to a convincing 41-26 victory. Mauk started the next 4 games in the brutal SEC, going 3-1 with the only loss being in overtime to the very tough South Carolina. Mauk went on to being named to the “SEC All-Freshman Team” while amassing 1,071 yards passing with an 11/2 touchdown to interception ratio. He also showed some promise on the ground, rushing for 221 yards on 41 attempts and a touchdown.
10.) Freshman WR – Ricky Seals-Jones (Texas A&M) – The redshirt freshman was well on his way to being an impact player as a true freshman last season until he was injured on a 71 yard touchdown reception in the season opener against Rice. Seals-Jones received a medical redshirt after undergoing season ending knee surgery. The 2nd ranked “athlete” in the class of 2013 (Rivals.com) has a ton of potential. With a 6’5″ frame and blazing speed that is said to be in the 4.5/40 range, Kevin Sumlin may have a replacement for 1st round NFL draft pick, Mike Evans. But, with the departure of Mr. Football himself, Johnny Manziel, the Aggies have a lot of question marks entering the 2014 season. The number one ranked quarterback recruit in the country, Kyle Allen is expected to compete for snaps in his true-freshman campaign. Seals-Jones looks the part of a true number one receiving threat, when you combine that with Allen’s potential, and Kevin Sumlin’s incredibly potent spread offense, fantasy owners could reap the rewards by drafting Seals-Jones with a late round flier.
11.) Sophomore WR – Jordan Cunningham (Vanderbilt) – Cunningham was the most highly rated recruit in Vanderbilt’s freshman class last year. Although he only had 15 catches for 123 yards, Jordan showed flashes of being a go-to receiver who can haul in big time catches across the middle. Cunningham was listed as the no. 3 receiver behind record setting Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause. Both of which are currently on NFL rosters, Cunningham should replace Matthews as the number one receiver for the Commodores this upcoming season. Cunningham’s offer list coming out of high school included the who’s who of college football programs (Alabama, Auburn, Florida State & Ohio State to name a few), which shows the type of talent this young man possesses. Vanderbilt could have a long season with the departure of head coach, James Franklin to Penn-State. But that shouldn’t hurt Cunningham’s numbers as Vandy could be playing “catch-up” for most of the season. Look for Cunningham to make a name for himself this season in the SEC.
Others to keep an eye on:
Fr. QB – Kyle Allen (Texas A&M)
Fr. WR – Malachi Dupre (LSU)
Fr. RB – Jalen Hurd (Tennessee)
Fr. WR – Speedy Noil (Texas A&M),
Fr. RB – Racean Thomas (Auburn),
Fr. WR – Josh Malone (Tennessee),
Fr. QB – Brandon Harris (LSU),
So. WR Demarcus Robinson (Florida),
So. WR – Pharoh Cooper (South Carolina),
So. WR Ahmad Fulwood (Florida),
So. WR Ryan Timmons (Kentucky),
So. WR Reggie Davis (Georgia),
So. WR Travin Dural (LSU),
So. RB Jojo Kemp (Kentucky)
Who else belongs on this list? Who did I miss? Share your thoughts and/or questions in the comments section below.