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10 Redshirt Freshmen to Watch in the SEC

By Matt Smith
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Taking a look at 10 players in the SEC who could go from redshirt to household name this season.

With enhanced physical development of high school players and increased frequency of injuries, the luxury of redshirting freshmen has become increasingly rare. 

Quarterbacks are the lone exception to the rule, as the past two Heisman Trophy winners, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Florida State’s Jameis Winston, were redshirt freshmen. Even at other positions, a year of learning the playbook and adding strength often serves young players better than simply being thrown to the fire.

Let’s look at 10 players in the SEC who could go from redshirt to household name this season.

Auburn RB Peyton Barber

The phrase “system quarterback” has been a long-used term in college football. Thanks to Gus Malzahn, “system running back” has now taken on a life of its own. From Darren McFadden to Onterio McCalebb to Tre Mason, Malzahn’s running backs have put up eye-popping numbers both with and without quality quarterback play. Despite a crowded Tigers backfield, Barber could be next in line after working with the scout team last season. An ankle injury in April’s A-Day Game provided a brief scare, but there should be no lingering effects when fall camp opens. He’ll have to overcome the experience edge held by seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, but Barber will be a factor if he can remain healthy.

LSU WR John Diarse

Cam Cameron stepped into a great situation in Baton Rouge when he was named offensive coordinator prior to last season. That narrative has changed after the departures of Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry. If Cameron’s offense is to be as explosive as it was last year, it will require players like Diarse to take giant steps forward. A nagging ankle injury kept Diarse from seeing the field last season. Classmate Travin Dural, the hero of LSU’s win over Arkansas, and five-star freshman Malachi Dupre will be in the mix as well, but Diarse has earned himself plenty of playing time this fall. Who will be throwing him the ball is the bigger question.

Georgia S Reggie Wilkerson

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this offseason, you know Georgia’s secondary depth chart has been ravaged by transfers and dismissals. That has opened the door for players like Wilkerson, who missed 2013 after tearing his ACL in the summer. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews, forever heroes in Auburn for their botched interception attempt last November, have both moved on. Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger are the likely starters at safety, but now at full health, Wilkerson should regain the confidence of the staff that he earned a year ago in the spring prior to his injury.

Texas A&M WR Ricky Seals-Jones

We saw flashes of Seals-Jones freakish ability last season in a short three-game stint before a knee injury forced him to take a medical redshirt. Texas A&M has bid farewell to star receiver Mike Evans as well as reliable targets Travis Labhart and Derel Walker. Assuming true freshman Kyle Allen is named the starting quarterback, there is no greater comfort for a young quarterback than a 6’5” monster on the outside. Most signs point to the Aggies regressing a bit from 2012 and 2013, but 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns is well within reach for Seals-Jones.

South Carolina CB Ali Groves

Many familiar faces on the South Carolina defense have left for the NFL, leaving coordinator Lorenzo Ward with many open spots to fill. Two of those are at cornerback after the loss of multi-year starters Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. Only four cornerbacks were on the roster during spring practice, with Groves in line to go from redshirt to starter in less than a year. Groves was not a highly-coveted recruit despite playing in talent-rich Stone Mountain, Georgia, but the opportunity has presented itself for early playing time. He’s not tall, but has excellent quickness. Could an opening-night battle with Seals-Jones be on the horizon?

Tennessee OG Austin Sanders

Tennessee’s strengths and weaknesses have done a complete 180-degree turn since last fall. Veteran line play and a dearth of skill position talent have given way to a promising group of backs and receivers and a whole slew of question marks in the trenches. An East Tennessee native, Sanders has a chance to crack a starting lineup that will feature all new faces when the Volunteers open the season against Utah State on Aug. 31. At 6’5”, he’s on the tall side (some would say too tall) for an interior lineman, but the Vols won’t have the luxury of ideal depth along the offensive line for another year. He has work to do in fall camp to become a starter, but he’s a lock to be in the rotation at guard and center.

Vanderbilt CB Tre Bell

Under head coach James Franklin and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, the Vanderbilt secondary was both opportunistic and efficient, finishing 23rd and sixth nationally the past two seasons in pass efficiency defense while forcing 29 interceptions. Both coaches and starters are now gone, leaving new coordinator David Kotulski with a youthful back end of the defense. Bell was the most impressive of that bunch during the spring. Franklin’s staff flipped Bell from Florida, and the Commodores think they have their next great cornerback to follow in the footsteps of Casey Hayward, Trey Wilson and Andre Hal.

Missouri WR J’Mon Moore

Of the Tigers’ 31 receiving touchdowns last season, players responsible for 27 of them have left, including dismissed former five-star recruit Dorial Green-Beckham. Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White return, but in Missouri’s spread offense, three receivers won’t cut it. Moore didn’t see the field a year ago, but impressed in the spring with the best showing among those who weren’t significant contributors on last year’s division-title team. At 6’3”, he and White will be the tallest options for quarterback Maty Mauk, who loses both 6’4” L’Damian Washington and 6’5” Marcus Lucas from his arsenal.

Florida DT Jay-nard Bostwick

Despite its comically bad offense last season, Florida’s defense made the most of a lousy situation. The Gators return six starters in their front seven in a make-or-break season for head coach Will Muschamp, but nose tackle Leon Orr missed all of the spring after wrist surgery. The senior’s absence paved the way for Bostwick to work with the first team during the spring. 2015 will likely be his true breakout season when Orr and Darrious Cummings move on, but Bostwick should be the first man off the bench to spell the two seniors this season.

Arkansas S De’Andre Coley

You can point to a number of reasons why Arkansas went 3-9 last season, but youth on defense is not one of them. New coordinator Robb Smith spent the spring searching for replacements for seven departed starters, with Coley one of the young Hogs who impressed with consistent play-making in every spring scrimmage. At around 190 pounds, Coley is not quite where he needs to be physically for someone who hits as hard as he does, but that can be improved with a summer in the weight room. He’ll find himself in a three-way battle for two starting spots with Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines in the fall.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.