Ready for the spotlight: SEC's top breakout players for 2014
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The SEC is college football’s No. 1 conference, and there’s a handful of players waiting to emerge as stars in 2014. The SEC is losing several standout quarterbacks from last season, which opens the door for Missouri’s Maty Mauk and Georgia’s Hutson Mason to contend for all-conference honors. Mauk and Mason are joined on the offensive side with players like Texas A&M receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and Alabama running back Derrick Henry, On defense, sophomores Robert Nkemdiche and Chris Jones are two linemen due for a big season in 2014.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
SEC BREAKOUT PLAYERS FOR 2014
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Cooper didn’t make a huge impression on the stat sheet last year, recording 202 rushing yards, 29 passing yards and three receptions for 54 yards. However, expect that to change significantly in 2014. The sophomore is an all-purpose threat for the Gamecocks and should see some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Cooper is also expected to handle returns this year.
Jordan Cunningham, WR, Vanderbilt
Jordan Matthews dominated the stat sheet for Vanderbilt receivers last year, catching 112 of the Commodores’ 243 passes. With Matthews off to the NFL, it’s up to Cunningham and a host of youngsters to fill the void at receiver. Cunningham played in 13 games as a true freshman last year and caught 15 passes for 123 yards. The sophomore should be the No. 1 target for Vanderbilt’s offense in 2014.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
It’s a bit of a stretch to put Floyd on this list after he recorded 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks last year. However, we think the sophomore goes from All-SEC contention to All-America honors while earning national recognition. Floyd should anchor one of the edges in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, and the sophomore is expected to push for 10 sacks.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The No. 1 player in the 247Sports Composite rankings for 2014 could have a monster season in Baton Rouge. The LSU offensive line is one of the best in the SEC with four returning starters, and with a young quarterback (Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings) slated to start, expect the Tigers to lean on the ground attack. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Fournette has the size and skill-set to be an every-down back in the SEC. If he gets enough carries, the Louisiana native could finish near the top of the conference in rushing yards.
Kris Frost, LB, Auburn
Frost started just one contest for Auburn’s defense last year but played in all 14 games and finished fifth on the team with 59 tackles. The junior is slated to move into the starting lineup in 2014 and should team with Cassanova McKinzy to form a talented duo at linebacker. Frost also tied for the team lead on last year’s defense with two forced fumbles.
Braylon Heard, RB, Kentucky
Heard was a four-star recruit for Nebraska in the 2010 signing class, and the Ohio native rushed for 462 yards and four scores from 2011-12 with the Cornhuskers. Heard averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2012 and will team with Jojo Kemp to form a much-improved Kentucky rushing attack in 2014.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Fans around the SEC are familiar with Henry through recruiting and his limited playing time last year, but it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Henry rushed for 382 yards and three scores last season, capped by a 100-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl. The Florida native should provide the thunder to T.J. Yeldon’s lightning in 2014, as his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame is a handful for opposing defenses. Don’t be surprised if Henry surpasses the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
For any first-year starting quarterback, a potential All-American at tight end is a nice security blanket to have. That’s the case for junior quarterback Jacob Coker in his first season in Tuscaloosa, as Howard should be one of the top tight ends in the nation after a solid freshman campaign. Howard caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two scores last year, averaging 19.2 yards per reception. Expect Howard to be an even bigger part of the Crimson Tide offense this season, likely doubling his catches under new coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State
Jones ranked as the No. 18 overall player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and the Mississippi native didn’t disappoint as a true freshman. Jones recorded 32 tackles (seven for loss), three sacks and three pass breakups. He was at his best late in the year, recording three tackles for loss and a sack against Ole Miss. After a solid freshman year, the best is yet to come from Jones. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under coordinator Geoff Collins, Jones should build off a promising finish to 2014 and challenge for All-America honors.
Denver Kirkland/Dan Skipper, OL, Arkansas
Bret Bielema wants to establish a run-first, smashmouth mentality at Arkansas, and the second-year coach has two budding stars in the offensive line in sophomores Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. Both players started eight games last year and earned all-freshman honors from Athlon Sports. Considering Bielema’s track record from Wisconsin recruiting and establishing offensive lines, look for Skipper and Kirkland to develop into future stars for the Razorbacks.
Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia
Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury allowed Mason to gain valuable experience in 2013, and the senior heads into 2014 with two starts under his belt. Mason threw for 189 yards and one score in relief of Murray against Kentucky, threw 299 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-34 victory over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws for 320 yards and one score in the Gator Bowl versus Nebraska. Mason has waited his turn by sitting four years behind Aaron Murray. Expect the senior to deliver a big season in his first chance at the full-time starting job in Athens.
Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
Most around the SEC are probably familiar with Mauk after his short stint as Missouri’s No. 1 quarterback in 2013, but the sophomore is poised for bigger and better things in 2014. Mauk threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while recording 229 rushing yards. The Ohio native needs to improve his completion percentage (51.1), but he should continue Missouri’s run of successful quarterbacks under coach Gary Pinkel.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
With the departure of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with tackle Kelcy Quarles, the Gamecocks may use more 3-4 looks in 2014. The linebacking corps should be the strength of Lorenzo Ward’s defense, as Moore led the team with 56 tackles as a true freshman last year. Moore also intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 tackles for loss in 2013. Expect Moore to challenge for All-SEC honors this season.
Emmanuel Moseley, CB, Tennessee
The Volunteers will have a handful of young players receiving snaps on the defensive line and in the secondary this year, but Moseley has already made an impression on the coaching staff. Moseley was an early enrollee for spring practice and worked his way to the top of the depth chart at cornerback. The three-star recruit will be pushed for time in the fall, but he’s slated to play a key role in the Volunteers’ secondary this year.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Yes, as the No. 1 recruit from the 2013 signing class, it seems obvious to mention Nkemdiche as a breakout player. However, the Georgia native seemed to find his role late last year. Nkemdiche finished with 34 tackles (eight for loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. Six of Nkemdiche’s 10 starts came at defensive end, with the other four coming at tackle. The Rebels will regain the services of end C.J. Johnson (who missed most of last year due to injury), and the other end spot is expected to go to FIU transfer Fadol Brown. With Brown and Johnson anchoring the end positions, Nkemdiche should settle back into the interior. The sophomore played better as the season progressed in 2013 and should build off that momentum.
Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Evans, Derel Walker and Travis Labhart departing, the Aggies will be young (and very talented) at receiver in 2014. Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones also makes our list of top breakout players from the SEC, but Noil is another name to remember. The Louisiana native ranked as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2014 247 Sports Composite and could see touches in a variety of ways – special teams, catches or handoffs – for coach Kevin Sumlin.
Marquez North, WR, Tennessee
North or running back Jalen Hurd deserves a mention in this space as a breakout player for Tennessee’s offense. North quickly established himself as one of the Volunteers’ top playmakers in the passing game in 2013, catching 38 passes for 496 yards and one score. The North Carolina native only had one 100-yard game last season, but his numbers should get better if Tennessee has more consistency at the quarterback spot.
Aarion Penton, CB, Missouri
The Tigers must replace both starting cornerbacks from last year’s defense, including standout E.J. Gaines. Two sophomores – Penton and John Gibson – should have an inside track to replace Gaines and Randy Ponder. Penton played in all 14 games (two starts) and recorded one interception and 16 tackles as a true freshman last year.
Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas
After redshirting his first season on campus, Philon quietly emerged as a force on Arkansas’ defensive line in 2013. The Alabama native played in all 12 games, recorded 46 tackles (nine for loss) and three sacks. Philon recorded eight stops against Alabama and six against LSU in the regular season finale. Expect the sophomore to push for All-SEC honors in 2014.
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
It’s not easy starting as a true freshman on the offensive line in the SEC. However, that’s the likely assignment handed to Robinson in 2014. The touted true freshman – No. 4 player in the 2014 247 Sports Composite – could start at left tackle for the Crimson Tide this year. The talent is certainly there for Robinson to have a standout freshman campaign similar to Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil last season.
Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State
Dak Prescott will play a key role in Mississippi State’s rushing attack, but the Bulldogs need to find a new running back to replace LaDarius Perkins to take some of the pressure off of their quarterback. Robinson finished third on the team with 459 yards last season and averaged an impressive 5.9 yards per rush. Expect to see Robinson emerge as the No. 1 back in Starkville.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
A number of LSU defenders could earn a mention here, but Robinson is Athlon’s pick to have a breakout year on defense for coordinator John Chavis. The 6-foot-3 corner has the size to match up against the bigger receivers in the conference, along with the speed to prevent big plays in the passing game. Robinson was a late arrival to preseason camp last year but finished with 16 tackles and broke up three passes in 12 games. The emergence of Robinson and sophomore Tre’Davious White should give LSU one of the top cornerback tandems in the nation.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
Seals-Jones was slated to be a key cog in Texas A&M’s receiving corps last season, but an injury sidelined him for the year after the first two games. The Texas native caught three passes for 84 yards and one score in the limited playing time. With Mike Evans departing, the Aggies are counting on Seals-Jones – the No. 25 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 – to become one of the top options in the passing game. Whether it’s Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill under center for coach Kevin Sumlin, expect to see Seals-Jones making his share of big plays in 2014.
Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
We could pencil in Tabor or fellow freshman corner Duke Dawson here. Tabor ranked as the No. 14 recruit in the 247 Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete this spring. The Washington, D.C. native could start opposite of sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback this year.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Running back is a position of strength for new coordinator Kurt Roper, as the Gators return three running backs that recorded at least 330 yards last year. Mack Brown led the team with 543 yards, but Taylor turned plenty of heads as a true freshman. In 10 games, Taylor rushed for 508 yards and four scores, including 90 or more yards in two of his last three outings. If the offensive line is improved, Taylor could push for 1,000 yards.
Ryan Timmons, WR, Kentucky
Kentucky’s offense averaged only 20.5 points per game last year, but there’s hope for improvement with more consistent quarterback play expected in 2014. If Patrick Towles, Drew Barker or Reese Phillips stabilizes the passing game, look for Timmons to have a breakout year. As a true freshman last season, Timmons caught 32 passes for 338 yards and two scores.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
Donte Moncrief’s big-play ability will be missed in Oxford, but quarterback Bo Wallace won’t have to look far for his replacement. Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five scores as a true freshman last year and is slated to move from the slot to the outside in 2014. Treadwell averaged only 8.4 yards per catch in 2013, but that number could easily double in 2014.
D’haquille Williams, WR, Auburn
The Tigers may look to throw more in 2014, as running back Tre Mason departed for the NFL, and quarterback Nick Marshall should be more comfortable in his second year under center in the SEC. Auburn’s receiving corps is also deeper in 2014, largely due to the emergence of junior Sammie Coates and the arrival of Williams in the spring. Williams ranked as the top junior college recruit in the 247 Sports Composite and caught five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Andrew Williamson, S, Vanderbilt
New coach Derek Mason must replace all four starters in the secondary, but the coaching staff should be encouraged by the players stepping in. Williamson is one of the names generating buzz on West End, as he’s slated to step into a starting role after working as a top reserve in 2013. Williamson recorded 20 tackles and two interceptions last season and should emerge as one of the leaders for Mason in the secondary this year.
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