GN finishes its countdown of the SEC’s top 50 players this season; we’ve unveiled one player per day and today we’re at the top.
“Top” doesn’t necessarily mean the most pro potential or even the most sheer talent. Instead, it’s a mix of what the player has accomplished and what we think the player will accomplish this season. Production does trump potential, though.
Every school had at least one player in the top 50.
1. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Particulars: 6 feet 1, 202 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: 5-star prospect in 2015 signing class, from Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep
The skinny: He’s the best player on the league’s best team, and he also might be the nation’s best defensive back, no matter where he plays – corner, nickel or safety. He has started at all three spots for the Tide, and that type of versatility gives coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt a lot of leeway in the secondary. Fitzpatrick has great size, can run, possesses big-time ball skills and has a knack for the big play. He had six interceptions last season and has eight in his career – and he has returned a school-record four for TDs. He has great range and high-level coverage ability. Fitzpatrick also is a standout special teams player: Tide coaches selected him as Alabama’s special teams player of the week three times last season. A consensus All-American thriving on special teams? Impressive.
2. LSU OLB Arden Key
Particulars: 6-6, 250 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: 4-star prospect in 2015 signing class, from Atlanta Hapeville Charter
The skinny: If there weren’t any questions about Key’s health, he would be No. 1 on this list. He had personal issues that caused him to miss the spring semester, then had shoulder surgery during the late spring and that means he won’t be ready for the start of fall camp. Could he miss the opener against BYU? That’s possible, and you wonder how long it will take him to truly get into game shape. At his best, Key is lethal off the edge. That’s Key, who was second in the SEC with 12 sacks last season and has 17 in his two seasons with the Tigers. He needs 8.5 sacks to become LSU’s career leader and, if healthy, he should get that many easily. Key is a great fit for coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme; he is at his best as a standup outside ‘backer, but he has the ability to put his hand down and is a serviceable end in those instances. His best trait is his quickness and he puts that to good use when simply outrunning opposing offensive tackles. Can he get better against the run? Sure. But pass rushing is an art form, and Key has the ability to become a true master. (And let’s not forget that it’s an art form that the NFL seeks – and pays handsomely for.)
3. Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk
Particulars: 5-11, 200 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: 5-star prospect in 2015 signing class, from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro
The skinny: Kirk is a big-time playmaker. He has 16 TD catches and five punt-return TDs in his two seasons. He has averaged 23.1 yards on his 27 punt returns. The average length of his 16 career TD receptions is 30.3 yards. And while his average catch went for 11.2 yards last season, Kirk had four receptions of at least 50 yards and two of at least 60; both figures were second-most in the league. A&M uses him in a variety of ways: He can be a possession receiver, is dangerous on slant routes and can get deep. Kirk gets raves for his route-running ability, and is both fast and quick. Kirk has 163 receptions in two seasons (already fifth-most in school history), good for 1,937 yards (seventh in school history) and 16 TDs (also seventh). An “average season” – 82 receptions for 969 yards and eight TDs – would enable him to move up to second in receptions, third in yards and third in TDs. He seems certain to go pro after the season. While he has been used in the slot and out wide by the Aggies, he looks like a slot receiver at the next level.
4. LSU RB Derrius Guice
Particulars: 5-11, 212 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: 4-star prospect in 2015 signing class, from Baton Rouge (La.) Baton Rouge Catholic
The skinny: Guice was a national top-50 prospect in the 2015 signing class, but he spent most of that fall on the bench watching Leonard Fournette run wild. Guice had just 51 carries in ’15 and he went into last season projected as maybe a 100-carry guy behind Fournette. But Fournette was nagged by injuries for much of the season, and Guice took advantage of the opportunity. Guice rushed for 1,387 yards (first in the league) and 15 TDs (second), and had six 100-yard games, including five with at least 150. Included were a 252-yard explosion against Arkansas – on just 21 carries – and an incredible 285-yard, four-TD masterpiece against Texas A&M. The 285-yard outing was the most productive in school history (beating an early-season outing by Fournette by 1 yard), and the 252-yarder was the third-highest in school history. His season rushing total was fourth-best in LSU history. Guice doesn’t have elite speed, but he does reach top speed quickly and still can run away from folks; he also has excellent balance and sometimes resembles a pinball because he is adept at taking contact and staying upright.
5. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald
Particulars: 6-5, 230 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: 3-star prospect in 2014 signing class, from Richmond Hill (Ga.) High
The skinny: If he makes the same type of jump this season that he made last season, 4,500 yards of total offense is a legit goal. Fitzgerald led the SEC in total offense last season with 3,798 yards; he threw for 2,423 yards and 21 TDs and rushed for 1,375 (second-most in the league) and 16 TDs (led the league). His development at MSU has been nothing short of staggering. He was a lightly recruited three-star prospect who completed 33 passes as a high school senior – 33 total – because his high school near Savannah ran the wing-T. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2014, then barely played in 2015 (23 rushes, 14 passing attempts) before bursting on the scene last season. Fitzgerald is deceptively fast – his stride is long, yet the guy is moving – and more physical than he looks. Again, if he makes the strides as a passer that coaches expect, his numbers could skyrocket.
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