Once, not so long ago, a college player’s career arc followed a pretty typical path. He learned his ropes as a freshman, oftentimes redshirting to mature and develop physically. He paid his dues the following year, then got his opportunity to shine as an upperclassmen.
That still exists, sure. And there have always been exceptional freshmen who emerged as instant impact players. The root of exceptional is, of course, exception.
Freshmen stepping into starring roles is the rule in today’s college football landscape. Two of the SEC’s best running backs in 2012 were freshmen: Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon. Amari Cooper broke out as one of the conference’s premier wide receivers, as well.
More first-year players integrate seamlessly into the collegiate style every year. An especially deep and talented 2013 class of SEC newcomers should continue that trend.
Impact newcomers aren’t always just high school recruits. Transfer players can have profound and lasting impressions on programs. Look no further than the SEC, where Auburn won the BCS championship with JUCO transfers leading the offense (Cam Newton) and defense (Nick Fairley).
1. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss Rebels
The most high profile recruit in the 2013 class headlined Hugh Freeze’s stellar haul. Nkemdiche joined South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (2011) as consensus No. 1 recruits. Nkemdiche is hard pressed to match Clowney’s freshman season production — both because Clowney made an impressive eight sacks, and because Nkemdiche is a different style of end.
Nevertheless, the comparisons are there. He is also sure to draw comparisons to his teammate and brother, 2012 SEC All-Freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche. All eyes are squarely on Nkemdiche’s debut.
2. Kelvin Taylor, Florida Gators
His early enrollment allowed Taylor to begin competing for the featured running back vacancy Mike Gillislee left. Taylor is already built like a consummate SEC feature back at over 210 pounds, and has the pedigree of a star running back — his dad is former NFL great Fred Taylor.
3. Vernon Hargreaves, Florida Gators
Hargreaves was the star of January’s Under Armour All-America Game, garnering Most Valuable Player recognition. The five-star cornerback prospect should find an immediate place in the Gator secondary. Florida head coach Will Muschamp told reporters earlier this month:
“He’s a guy that’s very mature; obviously his father’s a coach. But a guy that in the recruiting process was very driven, smart on and off the field, has all the physical capabilities to contribute immediately for us.”
There’s a level of coach-speak prevalent in Muschamp’s assessment, but the Gator defense does need support in the secondary with the loss of Matt Elam and Josh Evans. Hargreaves’ versatility, athleticism and play making ability should prove to be of immediate use to new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.
4. Lavon Hooks, Ole Miss Rebels
Nkemdiche is the face of the 2013 Ole Miss signing class, but JUCO transfer Hooks might be the breakout star. He made 9.5 sacks for Northeast Mississippi CC in 2012, recorded 51 total tackles and recovered three fumbles. Hooks gives Ole Miss a dangerous pass rusher up the middle, making the job that much easier for blitzing Rebels coming off the edges.
5. Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn Tigers
Anticipation for Artis-Payne’s arrival reached a fever pitch following Auburn’s spring game, when the running back was named MVP. New head coach Gus Malzahn’s multifaceted offensive philosophy will likely use Artis-Payne on the perimeter, if the spring showcase is an accurate indication. Artis-Payne told AL.com that he wants to make plays up the middle as well.
6. Tray Matthews, Georgia Bulldogs
A big spring from the early enrollee Matthews has him in prime position to replace Baccari Rambo in the Bulldog secondary. He earned Most Improved Player over the course of Georgia’s 15 practices.
7. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss Rebels
Five-star wide receiver prospect Treadwell should integrate into Freeze’s free-wheeling offense quickly. With returning No. 1 target Donte Moncrief commanding attention from opposing defenses, Treadwell will have opportunities to demonstrate why he was the nation’s top ranked wide receiver recruit.
8. Derrick Henry, Alabama Crimson Tide
A broken leg curtailed some of Henry’s head start on the loaded crop of incoming Crimson Tide tailbacks. Still, a recovery by Week 1 should have Henry in position to back-up returning T.J. Yeldon. Operating as the No. 2 back in Nick Saban and Doug Nussmeier’s rush-heavy offense is no low profile gig. Yeldon surpassed 1100 in the role last season. Eddie Lacy went for 674 yards in 2011, and Trent Richardson racked up 700 and 751 in his two seasons relieving Mark Ingram.
Henry will see meaningful carries, particularly in goal line situations that require his battering ram frame.
9. Chris Jones, Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldog defense ranked No. 100 in sacks last season, accruing just 18. Compare that to conference leader Jarvis Jones, who had 14.5 on his own. Mississippi State needs a reliable pass rushing presence, especially with the secondary no longer being able to rely on the play making abilities of Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks. Five-star Texas product Jones is that pass rushing presence.
10. Brandon Williams, Texas A&M Aggies
Kevin Sumlin’s wide open offensive employs a balanced rushing attack. Johnny Manziel will man one portion, returner Ben Malena another, and Oklahoma Sooners transfer Williams is in line to take the third.
Williams rushed for 219 yards on 46 carries in 2011, his one season with the Sooners.
11. O.J. Howard, Alabama Crimson Tide
Howard’s early enrollment allowed him to make a case for a starting tight end role in 2013 — and what a case Howard made. He was one of the stars in Alabama’s spring game last month to cap a strong off-season. The Crimson Tide offense utilized Michael Williams effectively last season, and the talented freshman Howard is capable of playing an even bigger role for quarterback A.J. McCarron.
12. Max Garcia, Florida Gators
Garcia was a Ralph Friedgen recruit for the Maryland Terrapins, and one of the high profile transfers who left after Randy Edsall’s first season. He landed with Florida last spring and sat out the mandated season, giving him a year to get acclimated with the program and coaches. His experience as a redshirt, combined with his starting experience at Maryland, gives Florida much needed depth on the front five.
The Gator offensive line ranked an underwhelming No. 11 on our SEC offensive line projections. Quarterback Jeff Driskel needs more effective protection than was afforded last year — UF gave up a league-high 39 sacks. Garcia steps into an important role at left guard.
13. Marquez North, Tennessee Volunteers
The departures of both Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson leave sizable gaps in the Vol passing game, but North is a wide receiver of comparable skill set. He’s long at 6-foot-3, and agile. Mallard Creek High used him as both a pass-catching target and ball carrier, a la Vanderbilt’s Wesley Tate.