SEC Football: 10 true freshmen who’ll have instant impact in 2017
With multiple five-star recruits being highly sought after, SEC football coaches face tremendous pressure to play highly-regarded incoming true freshmen.
Recruiting has become so important to today’s college football that it is, in some ways, more important than coaching itself. A program risks losing a player to a potential transfer if a big-time player doesn’t play right away.
From a player’s standpoint, many recruits are graduating high school early and enrolling at a school of choice early to participate in a program’s spring practice and spring scrimmage. This helps increase the odds of a player having a chance to start as a true freshman.
In 2016, multiple SEC teams had true freshmen wind up as the team’s starting quarterback. Jalen Hurts and Jacob Eason didn’t get the start in the first game of the season but started every game thereafter. Jake Bentley didn’t get a chance to start until midseason, but started for the remainder of the season. Ole Miss wanted to redshirt Shea Patterson, but Chad Kelly’s season-ending injury forced Patterson into action for the team’s final three games.
In addition to four true freshmen starting at what is viewed as the most important position, plenty of other true freshmen made an impact in 2016. Tennessee started defensive back Nigel Warrior and he is expected to be a leader on defense in 2017. Alabama started Jonah Williams at right tackle.
This season, he is expected to shift over to left tackle. Devwah Whaley rushed for 602 yards as Arkansas’ secondary option at running back. With Rawleigh Williams done with football, Whaley is expected to be the team’s primary back in 2017.
So, who are some SEC true freshman who will make an instant impact in 2017? Let’s take a closer look.
QB, Texas A&M
Kellen Mond could easily jump to the top of the list by the end of the season, but at this point, Mond is in a similar position to Jalen Hurts circa 2016.
Hurts faced competition from an upperclassman with experience and a highly touted redshirt freshman. Similarly, Mond is competing against redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and last season’s backup, rising senior Jake Hubanek.
There is a real chance the Texas A&M coaching staff goes with the most experienced option in Hubanek, but much like Hurts, there is a strong belief for some that Mond may emerge as the starter. He has many of the qualities necessary for the job, including athletic ability, composure and a strong arm. Hubanek would be the safe choice, but Mond has a much higher upside.
Mond makes some sense, too, when one considers offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone spent a great deal of time recruiting Mond. Mazzone inherited Hubanek.
Calvin Ashley arrived at Auburn as the school’s top recruit of the 2017 class with a consensus five-star rating. He firmly believes he will compete for the starting left tackle position.
Likely, he will compete and there is a chance he could win the starting left tackle position by the end of the season. At the very least, he will likely gain reps, even if he starts the season as a backup.
Darius James started nine games at left tackle last season, although he isn’t a slam dunk to earn the role again in 2017. Braden Smith played right guard the past two seasons and spent this spring at right tackle. If the team moved Smith back inside, the Tigers could shift James to right tackle and start Ashley at left tackle.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Ashley reminds him of former Auburn tackle standout Greg Robinson. Ashley has great size at 6-foot-6 and listed at 310 pounds, Ashley also moves well for his size and possesses outstanding athleticism.
LB, Mississippi State
Willie Gay originally verbally committed to Ole Miss. In the end, he committed to stay in Starkville, where he went to high school. Among prep prospects, Gay is the best incoming freshman in 2017, a consensus four-star recruit.
Gay likely won’t earn a starting spot to begin the season but should earn reps in a reserve role and may work his way into a starting role by the end of the season. Gay is simply too talented for the coaching staff to not find creative ways to get him on the field.
The Bulldogs have strength at linebacker, including the second-leading tackler from the 2016 team, Leo Lewis. Gay finished his senior season in high school with 83 tackles.
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen described Gay as having size, speed and athleticism. Mississippi State finished 25th in the nation in recruiting according to 247Sports, and Gay is a big reason for the upward tick (the team was ranked 28th in 2016).
JaCoby Stevens is a five-star recruit and, while LSU has plenty of talent among defensive backs, he will likely work his way into the team’s rotation.
Senior Ed Paris is the favorite to win Jamal Adams’ vacated starting safety spot. Paris played in all the team’s 12 games last season and started two games. He tallied one pass defensed and one pass breakup. John Battle started alongside Adams and figures to start at safety again this season.
Stevens was an early enrollee to increase his odds of pushing for a starting position. He possesses many of the same traits as Adams — great instincts, good ball skills and an ability to win jump balls when one-on-one against a receiver.
After LSU fired Les Miles, Alabama head coach Nick Saban made a hard push for Stevens, but Stevens maintained his commitment to LSU, in part due to Ed Orgeron keeping the staff largely intact.
Najee Harris is one of the top overall prospects of the 2017 class. While Alabama has more than enough talent at running back, the team did an excellent job of spreading carries around last season. Harris is far too talented to not work his way into the rotation barring an unforeseen injury.
He is slightly lower on the list simply because he will receive carries, but Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris are likely to be the first options. Harris will have a chance to display his talents as a running back and he figures to play prominently into the teams’ special teams plans.
The consensus five-star prospect from California has drawn comparisons to former workout partner Joe Mixon, another former Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, and former Alabama running back Derrick Henry. In terms of size, it is easy to see the Mixon comparisons. Both backs have identical weights and Mixon is 6-foot-1, while Harris is 6-foot-2.
Alabama did not hesitate to use Derrick Henry right away and his situation was similar to that of Harris. He had a few other more experienced running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, but Alabama found a way to get Henry carries and the program will do the same with Harris.
Dylan Moses disappointed LSU fans when he spurned his hometown Tigers for Alabama. Former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster played a role in persuading Moses to come to Tuscaloosa. While Foster was freakish in his ability to chase down the opposition and make opponents pay with tough hits.
Moses is a freakish athlete with incredible speed for a linebacker. Alabama has Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton at inside linebacker. If Hamilton is fully healthy, he will likely earn the starting role.
However, if Hamilton isn’t fully recovered at the start of the season, there is a good chance Moses earns a starting role. At the very least, Moses will work his way into the rotation in a reserve role and earn playing time on special teams.
Moses is another consensus five-star prospect and one of the top 15 overall prospects in the 2017 class. Harris and Moses will earn significant playing time right away, but Moses has a better chance to make an impact because of a far greater turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
CB, South Carolina
Jamyest Williams should be able to make an instant impact as the team’s primary punt returner. Williams is a potential home run threat with elite speed.
South Carolina has good depth at cornerback with seniors Jamarcus King and Chris Lammons and junior Rashad Fenton battling with Williams for the starting spots.
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Williams measures just 5-foot-9 but shows a great deal of toughness and seems to play with a chip on his shoulder. He has good ball skills and is an instinctual player.
The four-star prospect should at least be able to compete as the team’s starting slot corner, although he will probably compete with Lammons for the role. Williams committed to South Carolina, despite strong efforts by Georgia to keep the seventh-ranked cornerback in the 2017 class in-state.
Williams is the highest-rated recruit to come to Columbia since Jadeveon Clowney. He will find his way on to the field for South Carolina.
Isaiah Wilson was the top prospect in a strong recruiting class for Georgia. Georgia’s biggest weakness by far is the offensive line, so there is a strong chance he will compete for a starting offensive tackle role.
Wilson is a five-star prospect standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 350 pounds. For his size, Wilson moves well.
He is known for playing with a mean streak, although he will need to work on hand placement at the college level. At the Under Armour All-America game, where Wilson played against other top prospects, he still managed to stand out as one of the best offensive linemen.
Senior Isaiah Wynn should earn a starting role at left tackle, but Wilson has a good chance to win the starting right tackle position and strengthen the Georgia offensive line. Junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes will compete with Wilson and Wynn for a starting role at tackle.
WR, Texas A&M
Four-star prospect Jhamon Ausbon has a legitimate shot to start right away due to the attrition the Aggies experienced this offseason at the receiver position.
Ausbon attended IMG Academy, where he was teammates with Mond. To have such a familiar target would be beneficial for a potential true freshman quarterback.
Ausbon has the size Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin looks for in his receivers at 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds. Ausbon excels with jump balls where he must go one-on-one against a cornerback.
The Aggies have Christian Kirk entrenched at wide receiver, but after Kirk, the position is wide open. Kirk Merritt is a transfer from Oregon who, along with senior Damion Ratley will compete with Ausbon for a starting role.
Ausbon originally committed to LSU before flipping his commitment to the Aggies in the fall of 2016.
Even though Tennessee has seven players on the offensive line with prior experience, Trey Smith should compete for a starting role in 2017.
Landing Smith was a big get for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, as Smith is an in-state recruit who grew up an Alabama fan and lived closer to Tuscaloosa than Knoxville.
Tennessee offensive line coach Walt Wells has consistently talked up Smith’s maturity and high football IQ. Smith enrolled early and has been noted for his strong work ethic in the weight room. At 6-foot-6 and 313 pounds, he already possesses great size.
While he played offensive tackle in high school, he will likely slide over to left guard in his freshman season and start for the Vols.
Tennessee’s strongest unit is offensive line and the strongest position along the line if Smith does start at guard would be at guard. Right guard Jashon Robertson is the leader of Tennessee’s offensive line as a returning starter, a senior, and a player who is vocal on the field. Even as a true freshman, Smith is the most talented player on the offensive line.
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