As we enter the spring football season, it's time to look ahead to the 2014 season and which players are ready for a breakout year. This list ranges from starters that need to take leadership, former starters battling injury recovery, young guys with an increased role, or stars ready for the SEC spotlight. The one thing they all have in common - they have something to prove in the toughest conference:
JEFF DRISKEL - FLORIDA
Florida head coach Will Muschamp does not want his quarterback sitting on the bench unless his team is winning in a blowout. He definitely doesn’t want his quarterback sitting on the bench with a season ending leg injury. Jeff Driskel sat out nine games in 2013 with a broken leg and is now ready to get back out there and lead the Gator offense. Driskel had a solid sophomore year (his first year as a starter) leading the Gators to a Sugar Bowl berth. His stats weren’t on par with quarterbacks like Aaron Murray, Johnny Manziel, Zach Mettenberger or AJ McCarron, but Driskel proved that he has the talent to compete in the SEC. It’s very unlikely that Driskel’s replacement, Skyler Mornhinweg, will dethrone Driskel as the Gator signal caller in 2014, so Driskel needs to take that next step in his progression. If the Gators want to be a contender in the SEC East this year, Driskel has to be the one to lead them. There is no doubt that he will have some growing pains; and it will be interesting to see his reaction when he gets up from his first few hits. The Gators have a favorable schedule early on and Driskel will be able to regain his footing against Idaho, Eastern Michigan, and SEC foe Kentucky. Driskel has to be back at full form after these games though, or the Gators will have a tough time during the second half of their season which includes games at Tuscaloosa, Knoxville and Tallahassee.
ROBERT NKEMDICHE - OLE MISS
There’s a lot of pressure in being the nation’s number one high school player. Robert Nkemdiche had all of the tools and the stats coming out of Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga. Nkemdiche posted solid numbers and earned Freshman ALL-SEC and American honors but needs to really break out in 2014. Two sacks are not enough for Nkemdiche, who is one of the SEC’s best defensive linemen, nor are eight tackles for loss. Nkemdiche has the potential to be one of those players that can change the course of the game in one play, but needs to prove it in 2014. The stud defensive lineman is off to a bad start. Both Nkemdiche and his older brother Denzel are being sued by an Ole Miss student for an altercation that happened at an Oxford fraternity house in Feb. 2013. There is no knowing how the courts or Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze will handle this situation; but if Nkemdiche can move past this as quickly as possible it will be quite the bullet that he and the entire Rebels defense avoids. For the Rebels to be successful in 2014 Nkemdiche needs to be in the starting lineup; especially during week one against Boise State, who is hungry for another win against an SEC team.
AMARI COOPER - ALABAMA
Alabama needs all of its offensive weapons to help break in a new quarterback in 2014. There is no doubt that Amari Cooper is one those weapons, and a dangerous weapon at that. Cooper had a stellar freshman year, hauling in 59 balls for 1000 yards and 11 touchdowns. He earned Freshman All-SEC and American honors and helped the Tide to its third National Championship in four years. Cooper was AJ McCarron’s number one target going into 2013 and still performed well, but his numbers took a huge hit because of injuries. In 2013, Cooper only had 45 receptions for 736 yards and 4 touchdowns. Those numbers are still impressive for a solid receiver, but Cooper has to assert himself as an elite receiver and the go to guy for the Tide offense. The departure of AJ McCarron, Cyrus Kouandijo and Kevin Norwood leaves a somewhat depleted offense to guys like Cooper and junior running back, T.J. Yeldon, to pick up the slack. Cooper is now one of the most experienced receivers on the depth chart and this spring needs to become the new quarterback’s favorite target. If Cooper stays healthy in 2014, then his numbers will be right back to where he and Nick Saban wants them to be.
DAMIAN SWANN - GEORGIA
Dawg fans knew that there would be issues on defense after losing 7 players to the NFL after the 2012 season. Dawg fans knew that there would be issues with a young secondary facing elite passers like Tahj Boyd, Connor Shaw and Zach Mettenberger in the first four weeks of 2013. Dawg fans didn’t know however, that those issues in the secondary would continue against Mizzou, Florida, Auburn and even Georgia Tech’s Vad Lee who passed for a season high 232 yards. Damian Swann, the leader of both last year’s young defense and this year’s more experienced defense, will have the eyes of the Bulldog faithful zeroed in on him. While Swann was not the only player in the Georgia secondary to give up big plays and look lost on the field, he became the scapegoat. The image that Dawg fans remember of Swann, was in week one, when he was trucked by Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, before he ran 50 yards for a touchdown. That was the beginning of a season that Swann and the rest of the secondary wants to forget. Swann has the talent to be an ALL-SEC player and with new Defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, Jeremy Pruitt, he might become just that. But Swann has to be the playmaker that Pruitt will ask him to be. UGA’s schedule looks much easier without Boyd, Mettenberger and Shaw throwing against the Dawg’s secondary but Swann will still be asked to shut down receivers and cause coverage sacks. Even though Swann is the number one corner this Dawg will be on a tight leash.
MARQUEZ NORTH - TENNESSEE
Butch Jones has a plethora of talent coming in from that 30 plus man recruiting class. But don’t sleep on the talent that could already be in Knoxville. Marquez North was one of the Vols greatest receiving threats leading the team in yards with 496 and was second in receptions with 38. But North needs to start catching balls in the end zone, and needs to improve on his one touchdown reception in 2013. North has all of the tools to make a big progression in 2014 but needs to use those tools. North is a big body at 6’4” and 220 lbs, has some great athleticism and can make an acrobatic catch if he needs to. Similar to the situation with Amari Cooper, North has to become the go to guy for whoever is going to be under center for the Vols. With the recent news of Tennessee’s other receiver, Alton “Pig” Howard, taking a leave of absence from the team, North is now Tennessee’s number one threat. If North doesn’t step up this spring and really impress the coaching staff, then don’t be surprised to see a guy like Josh Malone take receptions away from him. It shouldn’t happen though, North should be ready to continue adding catches and yards to his stats; but also touchdown receptions. Barring injury, or a “sophomore slump” Marquez North might be the receiver to watch in the SEC in 2014.
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