We conclude our countdown of the top 50 players in the SEC this season; we’ve unveiled one player per day and today we reach the No. 1 guy.
It shouldn’t be a surprise.
Now, “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 except one had at least one player in the top 50.
1. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
Particulars: 6 feet 1, 230 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from New Orleans St. Augustine
The skinny: Fournette was the nation’s top prospect in the 2014 recruiting cycle and he has lived up to billing. He has rushed for 2,987 yards in two seasons, including 1,953 last season when he led the nation by averaging 162.8 yards per game. That was an LSU single-season record; he is 1,570 yards away from tying the school carrer record of 4,557 yards held by Kevin Faulk (1995-98). And Fournette has piled up big yardage totals despite not getting much help from LSU’s passing attack. Fournette has had 12 career games with at least 20 carries; in those outings, he has rushed for 200 yards three times and 100 yards 11 times. Fournette had 22 rushing TDs last season, a single-season school record and the most by any returning player nationally. He is both fast and physical; in short, he can run by defenders and also run them over.
2. DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
Particulars: 6 feet 5, 262 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from Arlington (Texas) Martin
The skinny: Garrett was a top-three player nationally in the 2014 recruiting cycle and he has lived up to the hype. He might be the best pure pass rusher in college football, and has 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in his career. His pass-rush ability puts him in the mix as the possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft; at the least, he could be the first non-quarterback off the board. Garrett can get better against the run, but he showed improvement in that facet last season. He has made 110 total tackles and has forced five fumbles in his career. Garrett does a nice job of tracking plays from behind and showed marked improvement in shedding blocks last season. Garrett has excellent quickness and does a nice job converting that speed to power. He also has a variety of moves, and his spin move can be devastating to opposing tackles – and quarterbacks.
3. CB Jalen Tabor, Florida
Particulars: 6 feet 0, 199 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from Washington (D.C.) Friendship Academy
The skinny: He was Florida’s best cornerback last season even though first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves was the Gators’ other corner. In a league filled with excellent defensive backs, Tabor is the best. Tabor has immense confidence, is athletic, possesses a good size/speed mix and shows excellent ball skills. He had five interceptions and 27 pass breakups in his first two seasons; he has returned two of those picks for TDs. He can play outside or over the slot, and is at ease in press or “off” coverage. Tabor has excellent instincts and also has proved effective as a blitzer, with three sacks. Tabor is physical as a tackler but also a bit sloppy; he needs to clean up that part of his game.
4. S Jamal Adams, LSU
Particulars: 6 feet 1, 211 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from Carrollton (Texas) Hebron
The skinny: Adams was a national top-35 prospect who saw extensive time as a part-time starter in 2014, then became a full-time starter last season. He has good size, possesses solid ball skills, runs well and absolutely delivers a big blow. He covers a lot of ground and woe be to the ball-carrier when he arrives; the only safety nationally who is more physical is Florida State’s Derwin James. Adams is an effective blitzer and should stand out in that facet under new coordinator Dave Aranda. He has four interceptions, 11 pass breakups, 133 tackles and 10 tackles for loss in his career. His dad, George, was a first-round pick at running back in 1985 by the New York Giants out of Kentucky.
5. QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Particulars: 6 feet 2, 224 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 3-star prospect in 2015 signing class; from East Mississippi CC. (Originally signed with Clemson in 2012 as a 4-star prospect from Buffalo St. Joseph University School.)
The skinny: He easily is the best quarterback in the SEC. Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 TDs last season, when he completed 65.1 percent of his passes. He should be even more comfortable in the scheme than he was last season. That means he should legitimately challenge the SEC single-season passing record; the mark is 4,275 by Kentucky’s Tim Couch in 1998. Kelly did throw 13 interceptions last season and that number needs to drop below 10 this season. One positive: He threw just one pick in the final four games after throwing nine in October, a sign that he became more comfortable as the season progressed. Kelly accounted for 4,551 yards of total offense last season, the third-highest single-season total in league history. Can he get to 5,000 this fall? Only one SEC player has done so: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel had 5,116 in 2012. He also won the Heisman that season.
6. WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
Particulars: 6 feet 1, 188 pounds, sophomore
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2015 signing class; from Coconut Creek (Fla.) Monarch
The skinny: Ridley was considered the nation’s top wide receiver and a top-15 player overall in the 2015 recruiting class, and he quickly lived up to the hype. Well, sort of. He had 17 receptions in the first four games – but for just 125 total yards (7.4 yards per catch). Then, almost as if a light switch was flipped in Lane Kiffin’s head, Ridley became a deep threat. He finished with a league-high 89 receptions, for 1,045 yards and seven TDs. Ridley was No. 2 among freshmen nationally in receptions, third in receiving yards and tied for fifth with seven TD catches. His TD catches averaged 41 yards and he led the SEC with six receptions of at least 50 yards (three of those went for touchdowns). Ridley also had eight receptions covering at least 40 yards, nine covering at least 30 and 12 covering at least 20. He has an excellent size/speed mix and showed a definite ability to run past – and away from – opposing corners. While he could stand to add strength and bulk, he has a high football IQ; the only thing that can hold him back this fall is inconsistent quarterback play.
7. DE Charles Harris, Missouri
Particulars: 6 feet 3, 255 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 2-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Kansas City Lincoln College Prep
The skinny: Harris is the latest model off the Mizzou d-end assembly line, and his upside looks tremendous. He started for the first time last season, and finished with seven sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss (second-most in the SEC). He was a better basketball player than football player in high school in Kansas City – his lone FBS offer was from Mizzou – and his upside is so high because he’s still learning the nuances of the position. Harris is dangerous off the edge and is stronger than he first appears; he has a surprisingly good bull rush. He is an instinctual player, and once he becomes more consistent with his technique, he will be truly dangerous.
8. DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama
Particulars: 6 feet 3, 294 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Ashburn (Va.) Stone Bridge
The skinny: Allen, who will be a three-year starter for the Tide, is a former national top-20 recruit. He is a big-time pass rusher, one of the best in the nation. Allen led the Tide with 12 sacks last season. He also had 14.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries and four pass breakups. Allen was at his best in big games, as 11 of his sacks came against ranked opponents. He surprised more than a few analysts by staying for his senior season. Allen has excellent instincts and is well-versed in using his hands in keeping opposing linemen off him. He doesn’t have a great burst off the line, but makes up for that in a variety of ways, including sheer strength. He can play all over the line, which is one reason Alabama coaches can mix and match so successfully with their defensive linemen.
9. OT Cam Robinson, Alabama
Particulars: 6 feet 6, 327 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from West Monroe (La.) La.
The skinny: His offseason hasn’t been a good one, but his talent is undeniable. He was a five-star recruit who was considered the nation’s best offensive lineman and one of the top five players overall in the 2014 recruiting class, and he has started every game in his college career. Robinson had some nagging injuries last season and struggled at times, especially as a pass protector. At his best, though, there are few – if any – tackles nationally who are better. He can be a dominant run blocker, and once he gets locked onto a defender, it’s over. Robinson has the agility and footwork to be a dominant pass protector, as well.
10. DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Particulars: 6 feet 3, 265 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 4-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from Brentwood (Tenn.) Brentwood Academy
The skinny: He has been a vital part of the Vols’ defense since arriving on campus from the Nashville suburbs. Barnett became first the true freshman defensive lineman to start a season opener in school history in 2014 against Utah State. He has been incredibly productive in his two seasons with the Vols: 20 sacks, 33 tackles for loss and 141 tackles. He has had a tackle for loss in 20 of his 26 career games. Barnett’s 20 sacks are tied for eighth in school history, and he is 12 sacks away from tying Reggie White as the Vols’ leading career sack man. Barnett has a good blend of power and speed. He plays hard, can get to the quarterback and always seems to be around the ball. He also does a nice job of setting the edge against the run.
11. RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
Particulars: 5 feet 10, 220 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from Cedartown (Ga.) High
The skinny: The unknown surrounding Chubb’s health is the only thing keeping him out of the top 10. How soon can he play this season? And how soon once he starts playing until he is truly back to 100 percent? He suffered a knee injury in an October 10 loss at Tennessee, and coaches have not divulged any kind of timetable for his return. He was in a non-contact jersey for spring. Chubb has good speed and quickness, and is as elusive as any back in the nation. Last season, he played in just six games – well, five games and one play – and still rushed for 747 yards. He averaged 8.1 yards per carry and more than 20 percent of his carries (21 of 92) went for at least 10 years. As a true freshman in 2014, he rushed for 1,547 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry. In his 19-game career, he has 13 100-yard games and two 200-yard outings.
12. WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
Particulars: 5 feet 11, 200 pounds, sophomore
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2015 signing class; from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro
The skinny: Kirk was a national top-25 prospect who made an immediate impact last season. He led the Aggies in receptions (80), receiving yards (1,009) and TD receptions (seven). The receptions total was the third-highest single-season total in school history, and he became just the fourth Aggie with 1,000 receiving yards in a season (Mike Evans did it twice). Kirk also is a dangerous return man; he averaged 24.4 yards on his 14 returns (too few to be ranked nationally) and took two back for scores. Kirk has big-time speed (he has been clocked in the 4.3s in the 40) and exceptional quickness. He scored nine total TDs last season, and the scoring plays averaged 39.1 yards. Kirk had five receptions of at least 40 yards, seven of at least 30 and 15 of at least 20. In all, he averaged 14.3 yards per touch on 125 touches (receptions, returns and runs) last season. He finished with 1,789 all-purpose yards, which is an A&M freshman record.
13. RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Particulars: 6 feet 4, 240 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 4-star prospect in 2014 signing class; from Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech
The skinny: Hurd, a former national top-40 prospect, has an excellent chance to become the leading rusher in school history this season. He has rushed for 2,187 yards in his first two seasons; the school’s career record is 3,078 yards by Travis Henry (1997-2000), meaning Hurd is 892 yards away from setting the record. Hurd has run for at least 899 yards in each of his two seasons. While he lacks elite top-end speed (he’s a low 4.5 guy in the 40), he is a physical runner who does have a burst; given his size, he also is fine with just plain running guys over. While Hurd shares time with TB Alvin Kamara and QB Josh Dobbs gets his carries, too, Hurd still had at least 20 carries seven times last season and had 18 or 19 in four others games. In short, while UT has a deep backfield, Hurd figures to get his share of attempts. He also is a good receiver, with 57 career catches.
14. LB Jarrad Davis, Florida
Particulars: 6 feet 2, 240 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 3-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Kingsland (Ga.) Camden County
The skinny: Davis has far exceeded his recruiting rankings, to the point that he is considered a potential first-round pick in the 2017 draft. He served as a backup in each of his first two seasons, then became a fulltime starter last season, when he filled the stat sheet: 98 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, four pass breakups and one interception. He moves well, ranging from sideline to sideline, and he has a high football IQ. He is a physical player and delivers a blow. While Davis’ aggressiveness is a plus, it also is a hindrance at times; he sometimes overruns plays and said he knows he needs to play more under control this season. Barring an injury, he’s a lock to get to 100 tackles and should be among the SEC leaders in that category.
15. LB Tim Williams, Alabama
Particulars: 6 feet 4, 237 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 4-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Baton Rouge (La.) University Laboratory School
The skinny: It might be hard to believe that we’d pick a guy who never has started a game in his college career as one of the top 15 players in the SEC. Well, meet Tim Williams. He was a national top-100 player in high school (more on that in a minute) who never redshirted. But he didn’t do much in his first two seasons, with eight total tackles in 2013 and ’14. But he blossomed last fall, to the point that he is seen as a likely first-round pick in 2017. As a situational player on passing downs, he had 10.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss; he was second on the team in both categories. Williams is quick off the edge, and can beat an opposing tackle both outside or inside; he also makes great use of his hands. Williams is expected to be a fulltime starter this season, and while he needs work against the run, it’s his pass-rush skills that will make him NFL money. As for his high school career, LSU fans must feel like weeping: Williams went to University Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, which is associated with LSU’s College of Human Sciences and Education. Williams, Arden Key and Lewis Neal on the field at the same time? Geez.
16. DE Carl Lawson, Auburn
Particulars: 6 feet 2, 253 pounds, junior
Recruiting background: Former 5-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Alpharetta (Ga.) Milton
The skinny: Lawson, who was a national top-25 prospect out of high school, has had trouble staying on the field. He missed all of 2014 with a knee injury and six games last season with a hip injury. While he has undeniable talent as a pass rusher, he has just five career sacks; four of those came when he was a true freshman in 2013, when first-round pick Dee Ford was the other end. Lawson had one sack and three tackles for loss in seven games last season; the sack and two TFL came in the opener. Lawson does a nice job with his hands, has good quickness off the edge and can generate a lot of power. But can he remain healthy? There’s no question Auburn’s defense is better when he is on the field. He is the type of edge rusher other teams must game-plan around.
17. CB Tre’Davious White, LSU
Particulars: 5 feet 11, 191 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 4-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Shreveport (La.) Green Oaks
The skinny: White, a former national top-60 prospect, is going to be a four-year starter for the Tigers; basically, he has been a starter since he stepped foot on campus. A look at his stats – a modest four interceptions and 20 pass breakups in three seasons – and you might think, “What’s all the fuss about?” Well, he simply doesn’t get thrown at very often. He has good speed and ball skills, and is excellent in press-man coverage. White has exceedingly quick feet and can change direction on a dime. He can play both outside and over the slot receiver. White also is a solid punt returner, with two TDs and an 11.2-yard average on 44 career returns.
18. S Marcus Maye, Florida
Particulars: 6 feet 0, 210 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 4-star prospect in 2012 signing class; from Melbourne (Fla.) Holy Trinity Episcopal School
The skinny: Maye is a rarity of sorts – a fifth-year senior expected to be an early-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft. He toyed with the idea of turning pro after last season, but decided to stay in school, which will help the Gators again have one of the nation’s top secondaries despite losing two first-round picks. Maye redshirted as a true freshman in 2012, was a key reserve in ’13, then became a full-time starter in 2014. He had 82 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups last season; he also forced five fumbles, tied for the most in the nation. The athletic Maye is one of the most versatile safeties in the nation: He can play in the box, over the slot receiver or as a deep safety.
19. S Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Particulars: 6 feet 0, 194 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 3-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Lauderdale Lakes (Fla.) Boyd Anderson
The skinny: Jackson is proof that not every Alabama star is a former five-star recruit. He played cornerback in his first two seasons, starting a combined 14 games, before moving to safety in the spring of 2015. He adapted quickly, to the point that he was one of the best safeties in the SEC last season and should contend for All-America honors this fall. Jackson has better coverage skills than the average safety, as evidenced by his team-high six picks last season; he returned two for touchdowns and set a school single-season record with 220 interception-return yards. He also had 46 tackles. Jackson has good size, range, athleticism and ball skills; in addition, his versatility will appeal to NFL scouts.
20. QB Josh Dobbs, Tennessee
Particulars: 6 feet 3, 210 pounds, senior
Recruiting background: Former 4-star prospect in 2013 signing class; from Alpharetta (Ga.) High
The skinny: Dobbs, who is from the Atlanta suburbs, is as impressive a student-athlete as you can find. He is an aerospace engineering major who has interned during the summer for Pratt & Whitney, and he is arguably the most important player on a team expected to win the SEC East. He has accounted for 5,579 yards of total offense and 47 TDs in his career. Dobbs is an extremely effective rushing threat; he rushed for 671 yards and 11 TDs last season and helped the Vols finish second in the league and 20th nationally in rushing at 223.7 yards per game. He needs to improve as a passer, though: In 24 career games, he has thrown for 200 yards just eight times, with two 300-yard games. Last season, Dobbs’ pass efficiency rating was ninth among SEC quarterbacks.
(You can follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin)
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