The Next Wave of SEC Impact Freshmen
By Anthony Richards
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As the SEC continues to produce the nation’s best recruiting classes, the role of incoming freshmen will continue to expand.
Over the last seven years, the SEC has controlled the BCS by winning a title each season. The success demonstrated on the field has translated to the recruiting rankings, where the SEC has become the place to play for not only a region of the country, but for the entire nation.
Freshmen are expected to be contributors in some way by the end of their first season, on top of learning about life in the SEC. This was none more evident than last fall when Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
As the SEC continues to produce the nation’s best recruiting classes, the role of incoming freshmen will continue to expand. Let’s take a look at the 10 freshmen who will make the most impact during the 2013 season.
10. Frank Herron DE (LSU)
LSU has a history of producing elite defensive linemen and Herron seems to fit that mold. His size at 6-5 and 260 pounds presents a bevy of options for defensive coordinator John Chavis. Herron has the quickness to play at end and the strength to play at one of the tackle spots within Chavis’ 4-3 scheme. His raw size and speed will be too irresistible for Les Miles and the LSU coaching staff to pass up, so expect him to be in the defensive line rotation early.
Even with the loss of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, LSU possesses depth and talent along the defensive front. Herron will be a part of the depth and should see his share of playing time as the season moves along. Miles and Chavis understand when they have a talented player and will find ways to put that talent to good use.
9. Larenz Bryant LB (South Carolina)
Bryant is a linebacker out of Charlotte, N.C. whose primary position is in the middle. However, his quickness and ability to roam in space will help him to make an easier transition to one of the outside positions. Bryant’s ability to play multiple positions and Cedrick Cooper continuing to recover from a knee injury suffered before the Outback Bowl, opens the door for possible playing time.
Regardless of what happens, Bryant will most likely establish himself within South Carolina’s linebacker rotation, which consists of very little experience and is the Gamecocks' biggest question mark on defense. The Gamecocks' projected starting linebackers have no career starts and have combined for just seven tackles. If Bryant played on any other unit along the South Carolina defense, he would have to wait his turn. Due to the current linebacker status, he is in the middle of a position battle with an opportunity to contribute right away.
8. Laquon Treadwell WR (Ole Miss)
In Hugh Freeze’s first season, the Rebels offense made drastic improvement by becoming a top five SEC offense after finishing near the bottom in 2011. Freeze hopes to continue the offensive strides into year two, and the addition of Treadwell adds to an already promising receiving corps. Treadwell may not take a starting spot from senior Donte Moncrief, or juniors Vince Sanders and Ja-Mes Logan, but he will find the field.
At 6-3 and 195 pounds, Treadwell has the size and speed to be a dangerous option in Freeze’s spread offense. Treadwell has the speed to stretch the field and the size to give junior quarterback Bo Wallace a big target. Treadwell gives Ole Miss its third 6-3 wide receiver, offering the Rebels plenty of mismatch possibilities. During his senior season of high school in Crete, Ill., he finished with 1,077 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. Freeze is establishing his offense behind the strong arm of Bo Wallace and a talented group of receivers that includes Treadwell.
7. Ricky Seals-Jones WR (Texas A&M)
In Texas A&M’s offense, it is easy to make an impact, especially with the play calling of Kevin Sumlin and play making of Johnny Manziel. Seals-Jones will be a part of the offensive machine that produced an SEC leading 7,261 yards of offense and 44.5 points per game in its first SEC season. The losses of Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, two of the top three receivers from 2012, allow an opportunity for Seals-Jones to be a focal point of the Aggies offense.
Besides sophomore Mike Evans, no returning Aggies receiver caught more than 30 passes a year ago. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, Seals-Jones will combine with Evans to give Texas A&M one of the tallest and most physical receiving corps in the SEC. Seals-Jones was an athlete in high school and has the ability to line up in the backfield and play cornerback. His versatility will not keep him on the sideline, and it will not be long before he is a part of the Aggies stat sheet.
6. Carl Lawson DE (Auburn)
Lawson is a force as a pass rusher and someone who can become a reliable presence coming off the edge. The departure of Corey Lemonier to the NFL creates an opening for Lawson to fill. Auburn’s defense finished No. 13 in the SEC after allowing 420.5 yards per game. Lawson joins a rotation that includes senior defensive ends Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter, Craig Sanders and Nosa Eguae. Dee Ford is the returning leader with six sacks, and no other returning defensive end had more than one sack in 2012.
After going winless in the SEC last fall, the Tigers hope that the hiring of former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will turn around their fortunes. In order to see improvement in Malzahn’s first season, the defense must improve as well, especially with four of the top five SEC offenses on the schedule. Malzahn constantly searches for playmakers to match his offense and in his first year it seems he has found a future playmaker on the defensive side of the ball.
5. Marquez North WR (Tennessee)
Tennessee’s top four receivers from 2012 are all gone and its current receivers have a total of 30 career receptions. Because of the lack of experience, North has a great chance to make an immediate impact in the Volunteers receiving corps. His rare combination of size and speed, 6-4 and 214 pounds, provides offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian an array of options with which to work. North presents the size to catch the ball in traffic over the middle of the field and the speed to be a vertical threat.
Butch Jones is the Volunteers' new head coach and Justin Worley replaces Tyler Bray as the starting quarterback. Because of the recent personnel changes that the offense has had to undergo, Jones has decided to help it along by initiating a no-huddle offense designed to wear down opposing defenses. North should become a key contributor in the no-huddle scheme and expect the ball to be in his hands a lot as the offense looks to get it out quick and often.
4. Alex Collins RB (Arkansas)
Bret Bielema is looking to change the offensive philosophy at Arkansas. Bielema looks to get away from the pass heavy offense that Hog fans have become accustomed to, and establish a balanced attack led by a dependable running game. His first step was to find a running back for his system, and he was able to do that with the signing of Alex Collins out of Plantation, Fla. At 5-11 and 207 pounds, Collins resembles Monte Ball who broke the FBS record for career rushing touchdowns while under Bielema at Wisconsin.
Collins has the size to pick up the tough yards at the line of scrimmage and the speed to get around the corner of the defense. He will be in a battle with sophomores Jonathan Williams, Nate Holmes and Kody Walker for the starting spot. However, Bielema has a track record of using a combo of running backs, so expect packages of plays to be drawn up for Collins. It seems Bielema has found his running back, and now they look to lead Arkansas’ offense into the future.
3. Demarcus Robinson WR (Florida)
The only thing preventing Florida from becoming a legitimate title contender is the play of its receiving corps, which last fall ranked last in the SEC with an average of 146.3 yards per game. Due to the lack of production and the return of one receiver that had more than 20 receptions in 2012, Demarcus Robinson is in the discussion to earn a starting spot. He will also be joined by two other highly touted freshmen: Ahmad Fulwood and Alvin Bailey.
However, Robinson holds the advantage entering his freshman season because he was able to enroll early and participate in spring practice. His participation throughout the spring has given him the opportunity to learn the playbook and develop chemistry with starting quarterback Jeff Driskel. Robinson looks to become the receiving playmaker that the Gators have been missing the last three years. He has size at 6-2 and 200 pounds and sure hands that make him a reliable target for Driskel and offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
2. Tray Matthews FS (Georgia)
The loss of Bacarri Rambo has thrust Matthews into an immediate starting role as the Bulldogs' free safety. Matthews enrolled early and shortly after taking part in spring practice, was penciled in as the opening game starter. He attended high school in Newnan, Ga., a couple hours from the Georgia campus. He has the speed and athleticism to cover space, accompanied with the physical nature to come up and deliver a hit. This combination of strength and skill gives Matthews plenty of potential moving forward in Todd Grantham’s defense.
Georgia goes from having one of the most experienced safety tandems in the SEC a year ago, to one of the least experienced tandems in the league. Matthews and his counterpart Josh Harvey-Clemons look to provide Bulldog fans with the memories that Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams provided throughout their Georgia careers. Matthews will have the chance to make an impact on a Georgia team that has its focus set on a title.
1. Robert Nkemdiche DE (Ole Miss)
Regarded by most recruiting sites as the No. 1 player in the country, Nkemdiche will start from day one and look to become the cornerstone of the Rebels defense moving forward. He is a relentless pass rusher that can also help against the run, and at 6-5 and 270 pounds, can hold his own against any SEC offensive lineman. His brother, Denzel, is a sophomore linebacker who led the Rebels with 82 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and three interceptions a year ago.
Nkemdiche joins an already dominant pass rush that finished second in the SEC in 2012 with 38 sacks. The transition to the college level should be smoother for Nkemdiche with junior C.J. Johnson as the other defensive end. Johnson will draw opponent’s attention and prevent Nkemdiche from having to face consistent double teams. Nkemdiche was the highlight of a top 10 recruiting class, and in Hugh Freeze’s second season, the Rebels seem to be headed in the right direction.