Considering that five of the top six players in the 2015 ESPN 300 signed with SEC schools, and none of them developed into immediate superstars, it seems likely that we’ll see a bunch of breakout sophomore seasons around the SEC this fall.
Plenty of SEC freshmen made an immediate impact last season. Think names like Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk or Florida’s Martez Ivey and Antonio Callaway. Those guys have already broken out and established themselves as legitimate SEC performers.
Here are the next five members of the 2015 recruiting class we expect to explode onto the scene this fall -- plus a list of 15 candidates to join them.
DT Terry Beckner Jr., Missouri: The No. 2 overall prospect from 2015 was starting to come into his own when he suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the fall against BYU. In the first nine games of the season, he tallied eight tackles for loss and three sacks. Beckner will become a dominant force on the interior of Missouri’s defensive line, continuing the Tigers’ long history of excellent play up front, and that will happen sooner rather than later.
CB Carlton Davis, Auburn: The Tigers trotted out a group of experienced defensive backs in 2015, but Davis might have been playing as well as any of them at season’s end. The SEC All-Freshman cornerback started nine of the last 10 games and picked off three passes, tying for the most among all SEC freshmen. Entering his second college season, he will already rank among the top cover corners in the conference.
DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama: The question for Fitzpatrick’s sophomore season is not whether he will fill a key role in Alabama’s secondary. The question is whether he will play nickel, corner or safety. He can do it all and do it all well. He picked off two passes last season and led the team with 11 pass breakups and 13 passes defended. It seems highly likely that he will become Alabama’s next All-America defensive back, and it wouldn’t be a shock if that happens this season.
WR Terry Godwin, Georgia: Somebody has to catch the passes at Georgia this season, and Godwin looks like the odds-on choice to take over Malcolm Mitchell’s role as the Bulldogs’ featured receiver. Godwin threw and caught a touchdown pass in the Bulldogs’ bowl win over Penn State and started to come on a bit in the second half of the season after a quiet start. Although he completed his freshman season with just 35 catches for 379 yards, it would not be a surprise to see him add to those totals considerably in 2016 -- especially if the Bulldogs find a consistent answer at quarterback.
DE Arden Key, LSU: It’s only a matter of time until Key develops into the SEC’s next fearsome edge rusher. In fact, he’s well on his way there. He notched 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in LSU’s final five games last season and figures to become even more effective after a full year in college to add weight to his lanky frame. The opportunity to work under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron this season will only make Key that much more dangerous.
Other candidates: Alabama: Ronnie Harrison, Daron Payne; Auburn: Byron Cowart, Jeff Holland, Kerryon Johnson; Florida: Cece Jefferson; Georgia: Trenton Thompson; Kentucky: Chris Westry; LSU: Derrius Guice, Maea Teuhema, Kevin Toliver II; Mississippi State: Brandon Bryant; Tennessee: Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle; Texas A&M: Daylon Mack.