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Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Handing out some SEC freshman awards

By Edward Aschoff

We already took a look at our All-SEC Freshman Team, so it's time to hand out some awards for all those talented youngsters.

But we have to make a major adjustment to our awards. We won't be handing out any to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The only reason for his omission is because we know that he was not only the top freshman but the top player in the SEC -- and the country -- this season.

He IS our top offensive freshman and made the biggest impact, so we are respectfully leaving him off in order to give praise to other deserving freshmen:

Todd Gurley, Deion Belue
Todd Gurley became the first Georgia true freshman to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season since Herschel Walker did it in 1980.
Best non-Johnny Manziel offensive performance: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. He made an immediate impact from Day 1 after rushing for 100 yards on eight carries and returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown in the opener. He eventually became the primary back and finished the year leading the SEC in rushing (1,260 yards) and was tied for second in rushing touchdowns (16). He also recorded eight 100-yard rushing outings and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

Best defensive performance: Denzel Nkemdiche, LB, Ole Miss. Nkemdiche was all over the field for the Rebels this fall. He led his team and all SEC freshmen with 78 total tackles, including 12 tackles for loss. He also forced four fumbles and grabbed three interceptions during the season. His little brother, who is the No. 1 high school prospect in the country, might garner most of the family attention, but Nkemdiche made a real name for himself this season.

Biggest non-Manziel impact(s): Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M and Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State. Johnny Football might have taken all of the headlines in College Station, but he probably doesn't have the year he did without help from Evans. He wasn't just the most productive receiver on his team but he was fourth in the SEC with 75 catches and receiving yards (1,022). McKinney was one of the most productive defenders in the SEC. He became the Bulldogs' middle linebacker and started the last nine games, finishing fourth in the nation among freshmen and seventh overall in the SEC with 97 tackles. He also registered 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, four pass breakups and recovered a fumble.

Biggest upside: Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida. There's a reason why Florida State coaches were so upset and why Florida coaches were giddy when Fowler flipped from the Seminoles to the Gators on national signing day. He was exactly what the Gators needed up front with the loss of Ronald Powell. He started out as a third-down pass-rusher, but saw his time increase as the season went on. He finished the season with 27 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. He has the ability to be a top pass-rusher and will definitely push Powell for playing time when he returns from his ACL injury.

Best lineman: Evan Boehm, OG, Missouri. There were some solid offensive and defensive linemen in this year's freshmen class, but Boehm was thrown in the fire earlier than anyone expected and he performed well enough to keep his job at left guard all season. He was also the first-ever true freshman to start under Gary Pinkel on the offensive line and was the only Mizzou lineman to start every game. Injuries forced him into a starting role from the start of the season and he only got better and tougher as the season continued.

Most likely to make you look silly: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama. A lot of people want to compare Yeldon to former Bama stud Trent Richardson. And you can see why when he runs over people and juts past them with his quick moves. Or you can just ask LSU safety Craig Loston, who was embarrassed by Yeldon and the slick move he put on him for the game-winning touchdown in Alabama's comeback win over LSU in Baton Rouge. But Loston wasn't Yeldon's only victim when it came to his elusive moves. A few Georgia defenders needed their ankles wrapped after Yeldon's performance in the SEC championship game.

Biggest high-flyer: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. Cooper became AJ McCarron's top weapon all season. He also became one of the best deep threats in the league during the second half of the season. He averaged 16.9 yards per catch, but showed real top-flight speed on more than a handful of plays this year, especially that 45-yard, game-winning touchdown catch in the SEC championship game. Barrett Jones describes him as a player who has gear that normal people don't have.

Hardest hitter(s): Trae Elston, S, Ole Miss and Antonio Morrison, LB, Florida. Suspension aside, Elston laid the legal lumber more than a few times this season against opposing offensive players. He's probably best known for his hit on UTEP WR Jordan Leslie that resulted in a suspension, but throughout the year he was a player who delivered a lot of big-time hits. Morrison laid some big hits all year, but his hit on Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel resulted in a fumble and led to the Gators' go-ahead touchdown in their win over the Noles. Morrison developed into one of Florida's toughest defenders and smashed into a lot of opponents.