The SEC East race will be interesting this year. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and reigning division champion Missouri all have the talent to make it to Atlanta. Butch Jones and his Volunteers are also poised for a good season after experiencing some growing pains in 2013. While Kentucky and Vanderbilt are clearly at the bottom of the totem pole don’t be surprised to see some interesting games from those two this year. This list will examine each SEC East team’s offensive and defensive impact players.
After missing most of 2013, Jeff Driskel is ready to be back in the Swamp leading the Florida Gators offense. No disrespect to Tyler Murphy, who took over for Driskel for most of the season, but Driskel is the guy who needs to be under center. For the situation that he was put in, Murphy did a commendable job, but head coach Will Muschamp does not want a repeat of last year. With Driskel on the field, the Gators finished second in the SEC East and received a Sugar Bowl bid in 2012. Driskel’s injury was one of many injuries that decimated Florida’s roster and also ruined their season. With Driskel back, the Gators get more than just a signal caller, they get a playmaker. The Gators had plenty of issues after so many key injuries and it was apparent that after Driskel went down that the Gators started to have issues. If Driskel can protect that left leg and stay healthy in 2014, the Gators will be back in the hunt for an East crown.
Vernon Hargreaves III
With a defense that is losing a bunch of talent, Will Muschamp needs young guys to step up, and Vernon Hargreaves is just the person to lead the Gators’ defense. Hargreaves has to be the go to guy in the Florida secondary after losing Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson to the NFL draft and Jaylen Watkins to graduation. As a freshman in 2013, Hargreaves received numerous accolades and was named All-SEC by the coaches, the AP, Athlon sports and also Sporting News. His 11 passes defended and three interceptions were the best on the Gators defense. With ten starts under his belt, Hargreaves already has plenty experience going up against elite passers as well as elite receivers which will help him in 2014. Hargreaves was one of the few positive points in Florida's abysmal 2013 season and if he can continue to progress from his freshman year he will be the anchor of the secondary and probably the entire defense.
Everyone knows that Todd Gurley is a top running back and one of the best players in the nation…when healthy. After a stellar freshman year where Gurley rushed for 1385 yards and 17 touchdowns, everyone knew that the Tarboro, N.C. native was something special. In 2013, the injury bug that crippled the UGA football team did not spare the SEC’s best back. Gurley injured his left ankle in the second quarter against LSU and would sit out for the next three games. Gurley returned just in time for the annual Georgia-Florida showdown and played injured for the rest of the season. While missing four games, Gurley was still one of the best rushers in the SEC falling 11 yards short of 1000 yards. If Gurley stays healthy in 2014 he will be the leader of this Georgia Bulldog offense and he should be in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Simply put, Gurley is a beast and knows how to break past the line and run over someone for 5 yards or break away for a 60 yard run; and if all goes to plan for him, this should be his final year in Athens before he plays on Sundays.
Ramik Wilson was somewhat unknown coming into the 2013 season. With current NFL players Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree headlining the 2012 linebacker corps, Wilson didn’t have much of a chance to prove his talent. In 2013, Wilson not only proved his talent but he proved that he could be a first round pick like Jones and Ogletree. With an SEC-leading 133 tackles in 2013, Ramik Wilson returns for his senior season as the leader of a UGA defense that returns 9 starters. Wilson is a ball hawk, and his 2014 stats should be just as good if not better than his stats from 2013. Two years ago, Wilson had no chance to prove himself between the hedges. In 2014, Wilson leads another stacked linebacker corps with fellow inside linebacker Armarlo Herrera and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. With the recent dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons from the team, the UGA defense will need to be prepared for Clemson in week one and South Carolina in week two.
In his first season for the Wildcats, Javess Blue led the team with 43 catches and 536 yards. The highly touted Junior College transfer immediately made his presence known for the Wildcats. Kentucky head coach, Mark Stoops, is going to ask more of Blue in 2014 as the Wildcats might be breaking in a new quarterback. Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith split most of the snaps last year, however Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, and Drew Barker are all competing for the opening starting position. Blue might not be the biggest receiver standing only 6’0” and weighing 190 pounds, but is probably the Wildcats best receiving threat.
Going into his senior season, Alvin Dupree is the returning tackles and sacks leader for Mark Stoops’ squad. Dupree is one of those hybrid players who have played at both the end and the linebacker spot and it will be no different this season. The best thing for him to do is to continue to increase the number of sacks this year. His 6.5 in 2013 was sixth best in the SEC but is something that he and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot both want him to improve on. After an 0-8 record in SEC play Coach Stoops needs his defense to step up and cut down on opponent touchdowns and yards allowed. While Dupree was one of the bright spots the Cats ranked near the bottom of the SEC in most defensive categories. Dupree is going to be another shining spot in 2014 but will the rest of his team step up?
Dorial Green Beckham EDIT (4/8/14): Suspended Indefinitely
There is a reason why Dorial Green-Beckham was the number one player coming out of high school in 2012. Standing at 6’6” 225 lbs., Dorial Green-Beckham is a freak of nature. The Springfield, Mo., native had an average freshman year but then went off in 2013 leading the Tigers in receptions with 59 and touchdown grabs with 12. Green-Beckham was instrumental in helping the Tigers win the SEC East division and a get a shot for the SEC championship against the Auburn Tigers. Green-Beckham hauled in six receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns. With fellow receivers Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington graduating, Green-Beckham has to step up which he is more than capable of doing. Realistically, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Green-Beckham will be anything less than stellar, barring any freak incident or injury.
It seems that Missouri’s defense will look almost brand new in 2014. With SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam and potential first round pick Kony Ealy gone, Markus Golden now becomes the number one defensive end. While sharing time with two of the best defensive players in the SEC, Golden still was able to get 6.5 sacks on the season; and also an impressive PICK SIX against Toledo. It will be interesting to see what Golden can do now that he will be a starter and won’t be behind guys like Sam and Ealy. While Golden might draw double teams he will still be quite a disruptive force.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Mike Davis capped off his second team All-SEC season with 1138 rushing yards and 11 touchdown runs. Although the Ole’ Ball Coach lost Marcus Lattimore, Mike Davis immediately stepped in and became the workhorse that South Carolina loves to run. Davis doesn’t have the size that Lattimore had, but has no less power and physicality. The only fear that Gamecock fans and coaches alike have is what will happen if Davis goes down. While no one in Columbia wants to think about that, it is becoming extremely common for power running backs to either loose a bit of steam halfway through the year or go down for an extended amount of time. If Davis can break the running back hex and stay healthy in 2014, he might prove to be right up there with guys like Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon as one of the top runners in the SEC.
No Jadeveon Clowney, no Kelcy Quarles, no Chaz Sutton, no Vic Hampton, no Jimmy Legree, no problem…maybe. It seems like South Carolina is losing some of the biggest names in college football to graduation or the NFL draft. That said, South Carolina seems to be returning some big names like All-SEC player Sharrod Golightly and also Skai Moore. While Moore has not sealed up the "Will" linebacker spot he will be in the rotation. In 2013, Moore was named to the coaches All-Freshman team after leading the Gamecocks with 56 tackles and four interceptions while only starting four games. While Moore has to beat Marquis Roberts for the Will spot, Moore might prove to be one of the best players coming off the bench if he is not named as the starter.
Marquez North is no stranger to the Pick Six Previews lists. Like Florida Gators quarterback, Jeff Driskel, North, has already been slated as one of the players in the SEC with something to prove. While North had an impressive freshman year, he has plenty of room to improve. That said, Marquez North goes into 2014 as the Volunteer’s number one receiver and there’s a reason why. North has a great amount of upside and he will have plenty more than just one touchdown reception. He checks in at 6’4” and 221 pounds, so he obviously has a good size advantage over most cornerbacks in the SEC. The only concern for North is who will be throwing him the ball. The quarterback battle is between Justin Worley, who was the starter for most of the 2013 season until a thumb injury sidelined him, Josh Dobbs who started the final four games of last season, Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson. Whoever comes out on top needs to get North the football.
Tennessee was very fortunate to hear that linebacker A.J. Johnson decided to return for his senior season. The Gainesville, Ga. native has been one of the SEC’s top tacklers since he was a freshman in 2011; and 2014 should not be any different. In Johnson’s second season, he led Tennessee and the entire SEC with an outstanding 136 tackles. In 2013, Johnson’s number dipped a little as he only had 106 tackles which still led the Volunteers’ defense and was fifth best in the SEC. Johnson was selected as a coaches and AP All-SEC first team player. With 324 total tackles it is easy to see why Johnson is one of the most feared defenders in the SEC; he is the kind of player that quarterbacks need to locate every down.
Jerron Seymour might not be the biggest back in the country, but he has the speed to be a nightmare for defenses. With Austyn Carta-Samuels and Jordan Matthews graduating, Jerron Seymour is one of the only known weapons for new head coach Derek Mason and the Commodore offense. Seymour had respectable numbers in 2013 rushing for 716 yards and 14 touchdowns. If the Commodores want to have any success on the ground this year it needs to start with Seymour. While Seymour shared most of the snaps with Brian Kimbrow, Seymour should be the starting back at the beginning of the season and is going to have to get his feet under him pretty quick when Robert Nkemdiche and the Ole Miss Rebels come to Nashville in week two. Seymour will still have to share the load with Kimbrow and incoming freshman Dallas Rivers, who might steal some reps if he impresses the coaching staff during summer practice. While Seymour will not get a workload like Zac Stacy, if the Commodore offense is going to have success this season, Seymour is going to have to be the one to carry them first.
Darreon Herring started every game at outside linebacker in 2013 and his 87 total tackles and 11 passes defended was second best on the Commodore defense. Herring always seems to be around the ball, and will need to continue his high level of play this season in Derek Mason's first year as head coach. Current Penn State head coach and former Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin would always talk about the new Vanderbilt attitude and aggressive philosophy on both sides of the ball. If Mason wants to continue that philosophy than Herring will be the first person that Mason goes to. Herring is an aggressive player and also an outstanding tackler, don’t be surprised if Herring turns into one of the leading tacklers in the SEC in 2014.
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