SEC Impact Recruits
By Matthew Osborne
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While it is difficult to earn early playing time in the nation's premiere conference, these high-profile recruits are poised to make a huge splash in the SEC next season.
While most college coaches prefer to redshirt as many incoming freshmen as possible, situations always arise where a first-year player is forced into early action at the collegiate level.
As high school seniors across the nation have faxed their letters of intent to their college programs, let’s take a look at one prospect from each SEC team’s recruiting class who is a likely candidate to see the field as a true freshman.
Alabama: WR Cyrus Jones (Gilman School) Baltimore, MD
It is tough to pinpoint an area of weakness for the current national champions, but if there is an area where the Crimson Tide would like to improve, it is at the receiver position. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks were the top wide outs for Alabama in 2011 and they both have exhausted their college eligibility. Their departures will open the door for a player likes Jones to make an early impact in Tuscaloosa. While Jones is on the smaller side of the scale (5-10, 185), he is a tremendous athlete who has the skill-set to play a multitude of positions at the next level. Jones has exceptional burst off the line-of-scrimmage and is extremely dangerous in the open field. He also excels as a return man on special teams. His elite athleticism and versatility will help him earn early playing time at a place where early playing time isn’t easily earned.
Arkansas: WR Courtney Gardner (Hug HS) Reno, NV
The general consensus amongst college football experts was that Arkansas had the top group of wide receivers in the country this past season. Unfortunately for Razorback fans, three of the top four receivers from that team will not be back on campus in 2012. The Razorbacks signed five wide receivers yesterday, which should tell you just how desperately they need playmakers at that position. At 6-3, Gardner is a junior college signee who will present Tyler Wilson with a large target out wide to compliment Cobi Hamilton. Gardner is more than just a big-bodied flanker, however. He has 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and is capable of making big plays in the vertical passing game. His experiences at the junior college level should also help him make a quick transition to life in the SEC.
Auburn: DT Tyler Nero (Escambia County HS) Atmore, AL
The Tigers have desperately been searching for impact players on the defensive side of the ball since Gene Chizik took over as head coach, and they have landed a quality candidate to assume that role as an impact player with Tyler Nero. A tremendous athlete who acquired more than a dozen scholarship offers during the recruiting process, Nero has an extremely quick first step and is very adept at anticipating the snap count. He is probably fast enough to make a living as a defensive end, but his size will make him a defensive tackle at the collegiate level. Auburn was very poor on the defensive side of the ball last year, and Nero is a player who could come in and make an immediate impact due to his outstanding quickness.
Florida: RB Matt Jones (Armwood HS) Seffner, FL
With the exits of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, the Gators will be in need of help at the running back position. Matt Jones brings a different style of running to the Florida program, as he is a large back (6-3, 225) who can still hit the big play. New Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease has shown that he likes to use his running backs as workhorses, and Jones has a frame that sets him up perfectly to handle the wear and tear of a treacherous season. Although Jones has still not completely learned how to use his size to his advantage, he shows a good burst when darting through the line, and he has outstanding balance when he gets caught in traffic. Jones still has a lot of room for improvement, but the Gators are going to need a young running back to step in and produce next year, and it looks like Jones is going to be that guy.
Georgia: OT John Theus (The Bolles School) Jacksonville, FL
My general rule is that offensive linemen simply do not get playing time as true freshmen at major FBS programs. However, in the case of John Theus, I am willing to make an exception. Georgia is graduating both starting tackles from this past season and there is a lack of proven commodities heading into the spring. Theus will be given a fair shot to earn his way into the Bulldog starting lineup as a young pup (no pun intended). He is a special talent who certainly has the makings of a future NFL tackle. The best aspect of Theus’ game is that he plays with a ferocity and tenacity that seemingly has been missing from the Georgia offensive line in recent years. He plays the game with an attitude and he definitely is the epitome of playing through the whistle. The transition to college ball is always tough for any offensive lineman, but Theus has the talent to see the field next season.
Kentucky: CB Fred Tiller (Clinch County HS) Homerville, GA
This was a difficult decision to make, as there are a number of Kentucky commitments who could end up making an impact next season. In the end though, I chose Fred Tiller as the player most likely to earn his way into early playing time as a true freshman. The first thing that experts will notice about Tiller is his size. At 6-1, he matches up very well against bigger receivers. He is very adept at going up and high-pointing the football to come down with clutch interceptions. Although he is far from the fastest cornerback in this class, he understands zone concepts very well and does a good job of not getting beat deep in coverage. In my opinion, the Kentucky coaches will ultimately end up giving him playing time due of the fact that he rarely makes mental mistakes.
LSU: OLB Kwon Alexander (Oxford HS) Oxford, AL
Much like Alabama, LSU is a school where it is difficult to get on the field as a true freshman because the talent pool is so deep. Regardless, the Tigers will need assistance at linebacker next year, even if it isn’t in a starting capacity. Alexander was an Under Armour All-American who had his pick of the littler when it came to choosing a college program. He tore his ACL at the beginning of his senior year, but that did not stop recruiting experts from ranking him as one of the top outside linebackers in the nation. Expect Alexander to return to the field at full strength in the near future. When that happens, you can rest assured that he will have plenty of pent up aggression that he will release on ball carriers everywhere. His speed and agility are what separate him from the rest of LSU’s linebacker commits.
Mississippi State: DT Quay Evans (Morton HS) Morton, MS
Quay Evans was one of two five-star commits on the defensive line in Mississippi State’s 2012 class. With Fletcher Cox prematurely leaving Starkville to pursue a career in the NFL, the door has been left ajar for Evans to come in and start from day one. Evans weighs in at almost 320 pounds, but he moves more like a defensive end who weighs 250 pounds. He has freakish quickness and speed for a man of his stature, and he likely will get even faster when he sheds a little bit of the bad weight from his frame. Evans has a tremendous motor and there is no doubt that he is prepared for the intensity of college football. Once he tweaks his technique, he very well could emerge as the Bulldog’s best option at defensive tackle in 2012.
Missouri: WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Hillcrest HS) Springfield, MO
At the risk of becoming “that guy”, if you don’t know why Green-Beckham is Missouri’s representative on this list, the only explanation is that you have never seen his film. He was the top recruit in the nation this year, in my opinion, and he will be one of the top receivers in the country next year as a true freshman.
Ole Miss: RB I’tavius Mathers (Blackman HS) Murfreesboro, TN
Five-star defensive end Channing Ward is by far the most talented of Ole Miss’ commitments in this class, but the fact of the matter is that the Rebels are in dire need of help at running back. Ole Miss signed five high school running backs in this class, with Mathers being the highest-ranked out of the bunch. While he won’t blow you away with his straight-line speed, Mathers is a slippery runner who excels at dancing his way through narrow holes in the defense. There is no doubt that a true freshman running back will be a major contributor next season, and Mathers is the leading candidate.
South Carolina: WR Shaq Roland (Lexington HS) Lexington, SC
With the loss of Alshon Jeffery to the NFL, the Gamecocks will be looking for a young receiver to step in and provide some production next season. Roland is the highest-rated player in South Carolina’s 2012 class and he is one of the top overall athletes nationally this year. Standing 6-1, Roland presents a nice target for quarterbacks, particularly down the field. While he still needs to get bigger, Roland has an amazing set of hands and he does a great job of high-pointing the football. He played a number of positions in high school, so there will be some room for improvement as a route runner and blocker, but he has the physical tools to become a focal point of South Carolina’s offense next season.
Tennessee: S LaDarrell McNeil (Wilmer-Hutchins HS) Dallas, TX
Although Cordarrelle Patterson was the highest-ranked commit for the Volunteers this year, Tennessee is very deep at wide receiver, so he will have to fight for a starting position. LaDarrell McNeil certainly isn’t guaranteed a starting position at safety, but the opportunity will undoubtedly be there. McNeil is a very balanced safety who does well in coverage and run support. The best aspect of McNeil’s game is his physicality. He reads plays very quickly and he has excellent explosiveness and acceleration when attacking the ball. McNeil is already a ferocious hitter, and he will be a true enforcer once he adds some additional weight.
Texas A&M: CB De’Vante Harris (Horn HS) Mesquite, TX
RB Trey Williams and WR Thomas Johnson are getting the most attention amongst Texas A&M’s recruits, but I think that many people are underestimating what the Aggies are losing at cornerback. The Aggies graduated three of their top four players at cornerback, and they will not have a lot of returning experience at the position. Harris is slightly undersized for the position, but his athleticism more than makes up for anything that he lacks in size. He has outstanding burst out of his break and has proven that he has elite recovery speed. Harris also has a very thorough knowledge of coverage principles, which should ease his transition to the collegiate level.
Vanderbilt: RB Brian Kimbrow (East HS) Memphis, TN
Kimbrow is the gem of James Franklin’s first full recruiting class. Running back isn’t really even a position of need for the Commodores, but Kimbrow is so athletically talented there is no way that the coaching staff can keep him off of the field. Kimbrow still needs to add quite a bit of strength, but he is arguably the fastest running back prospect in the entire 2012 class. He has been clocked at a 4.25 40-yard dash and there is no hope of catching him if he breaks away in the open field. With Zac Stacy returning at running back, it is unlikely that Kimbrow will be the starter next year. However, Kimbrow will be a huge weapon on special teams, and the coaches are sure to implement special packages that will utilize his superb speed on offense.