10 SEC Breakout Players for 2013
By Matt Smith
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Every fall, a new crop of off-the-radar players emerges from the shadows of the unknown to become household names throughout the South.
Johnny Manziel. Mike Gillislee. Jeremy Hill. Jordan Matthews. Donte Moncrief. Every fall, a new crop of off-the-radar players emerges from the shadows of the unknown to become household names throughout the South. Part of the beauty of breakout players is that they’re often difficult to identify before the season. Despite the likelihood of being wrong come November, I’ve identified 10 SEC players that should make a major leap forward next season.
Florida DE Jonathan Bullard
One of the many intra-conference coaching changes in the SEC this offseason saw Brad Lawing leave South Carolina after seven years to join Will Muschamp’s staff at Florida. After developing Jadeveon Clowney into a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate while working with the Gamecocks defensive line, Lawing's new task will be attempting to mold Bullard into a player who can at least be mentioned in the same breath as Clowney. The rising sophomore lived up to his hype as a freshman with five tackles for loss and a sack in a reserve role. He should give the Gators an elite pass rusher next season, which they lacked in 2012 with Ronald Powell injured.
Auburn WR Sammie Coates
Like many recent Auburn recruits, we’re still waiting for Coates to take his game to the next level. In his defense, his six-catch season as a redshirt freshman was due more so to ineffective quarterback play than Coates himself. Coates did make his few touches count, as those six catches went for an average of 19 yards, with two of them for touchdowns. With Emory Blake and Phillip Lutzenkirchen gone, the Tigers are in severe need of a go-to receiver. If new coach Gus Malzahn can develop Kiehl Frazier or Jonathan Wallace into a viable quarterback, Coates and his 6’3” frame could go from 6 catches to 60 as a redshirt sophomore in 2013.
Alabama RB Kenyan Drake
T.J. Yeldon and….? Someone is going to emerge to replace Eddie Lacy as a second running back in Alabama’s offense, but that role could go to any of five players. The call here is for Drake, a rising sophomore who ran for 281 yards and five touchdowns in 2012, primarily in mop-up duty to hold off Dee Hart, Jalston Fowler and freshmen Derrick Henry (enrolled) and Altee Tenpenny (current commit). He doesn’t have to be Lacy between the tackles, but he’ll need to improve his inside running to fend off the plethora of competitors for the position. Regardless of who wins the role, there are far more quality running backs than there are available carries.
Georgia DE Ray Drew
The Georgia offense should be one of the best in the country in 2013, but the defense is full of question marks after the departure of nine starters. Drew has been fairly underwhelming in his first two seasons in Athens despite being a consensus five-star recruit, but now must go from a backup to anchoring the defensive line. He finished the season strong, including an eight-tackle performance against Georgia Tech. If the Peach State native can’t lock up one of the starting defensive end positions, he can officially be considered a bust. With such an inexperienced defense, that is something the Bulldogs simply cannot afford.
Ole Miss DT Isaac Gross
At this time last year, it was hard to find a breakout player for Ole Miss. As it turned out, almost the entire starting 22 became breakout players, as the Rebels improved from 2-10 to 7-6 in Hugh Freeze’s debut. The challenge in Oxford now is to build on the foundation laid in 2012. The biggest strides must come on defense, particularly up front. Gross, a 6’3”, 270-pound sophomore from nearby Batesville, Miss., is a bit undersized for an ideal nose tackle, but gives the Rebels a big body with a good amount of athleticism. He, much like his team, overachieved as a true freshman in 2012, and is now poised to be a leader both on the field and in the locker room for the 2013 Rebels.
LSU DT Anthony Johnson
Much like Georgia and Drew, the Tigers need Johnson to become the player they thought they signed two years ago. The Bayou Bengals bid adieu to Bennie Logan, Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery up front as part of a mass exodus of juniors from Baton Rouge. Nicknamed “Freak” coming out of high school, the 6’3”, 310-pound New Orleans native was part of a four-man rotation last season with Logan, Josh Downs and Ego Ferguson. With Logan gone, Johnson’s role will increase, He'll need to be much more than just a serviceable player in the middle of the defense against a schedule as daunting as any in the country this fall.
Texas A&M WR Malcolm Kennedy
What will Texas A&M do for an encore in 2013? No one foresaw just how quickly Johnny Manziel and the Aggies would begin lighting up scoreboards across the SEC. The always reliable Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu are gone, and the status of Thomas Johnson remains in question after withdrawing from school in December. While leading receiver Mike Evans will be Manziel’s No. 1 option, Kennedy, a rising junior, should be the main beneficiary from the losses of Swope and Nwachukwu. Kennedy caught 26 passes last season, including the game-winning touchdown in the monumental upset of Alabama.
Vanderbilt RB Brian Kimbrow
The Memphis native was the crown jewel of James Franklin’s second recruiting class at Vanderbilt. Kimbrow averaged five carries per game this season as a true freshman, sharing backup duties behind the now-departed Zac Stacy with junior Wesley Tate. His 6.3 yards per carry led the team and he found the end zone three times. Kimbrow and Tate are likely to share the lead back role in 2013. Tate is still stronger between the tackles, but Kimbrow’s speed is unmatched. The Commodores should have little trouble stretching the field vertically with wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but Kimbrow gives them someone who can do the same horizontally.
South Carolina WR Shaq Roland
The Ace Sanders is he going/is he staying rollercoaster finally was halted when the speedster officially declared for the NFL Draft earlier this month. That leaves the Gamecocks with a major void on the outside without Connor Shaw’s top target. Dameire Byrd, Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones all return, but all are below 5’10”. Roland backed up Sanders at the X position as a freshman last season and caught just five passes. He’s by far the most talented receiver on the roster, and for the Gamecocks to reach 11 wins for the third year in a row, Roland will have to land in the 30-40 catch range as a sophomore.
Arkansas RB Jonathan Williams
How can you not be intrigued by what Bret Bielema will do with the Arkansas offense? The three-time Big Ten champion brings physicality to the Razorbacks, something it often lacked under Bobby Petrino and certainly was missing under John L. Smith in 2012. Knile Davis left early for the NFL, and Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo are also gone, leaving Williams as the Hogs’ leading returning rusher. His 231-yard freshman season was highlighted by a 61-yard day in a loss at South Carolina. At 6’0” and over 200 pounds, he has good size and hits holes hard, something Bielema wants in a running back. With a new quarterback and the loss of Cobi Hamilton on the outside, Williams may have to carry the Arkansas offense early in the season.