The SEC lost several of its stars to the NFL after last season. All-conference players like Shane Ray, Todd Gurley, and Amari Cooper were all first-round selections in April, leaving big shoes to fill on their respective teams. Cooper and Gurley were already known commodities last season, but Ray was a backup to Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Despite this, Ray accumulated 4.5 sacks in a backup role that season. In 2014, Ray broke out, setting the Mizzou single-season sack record, with 14.5 and becoming the 2014 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Here’s a look at some guys who have the potential to be the next breakout player in the SEC.
Arkansas TE Hunter Henry
Henry has the opportunity to cement himself as the top tight end in the SEC while boosting his draft stock as a potential second day draft pick. Listed as 6-foot-5 and 253-pounds, Henry caught 37 passes for 513 yards and a pair of scores as a true sophomore in 2014. His size and receiving ability makes him a red zone target, but he also has the heft to block for Arkansas’s rushing attack. The loss of running back Jonathan Williams for the season will force head coach Bret Bielema to throw the ball more, and Henry will be one of the top beneficiaries of that. Don’t be surprised if Henry catches 6-8 touchdowns and adds another 300 or so receiving yards to last season’s total.
Texas A&M WR Ricky Seals-Jones
While it might be a cop out to say that a receiver in Kevin Sumlin’s offense will be a breakout candidate, Seals-Jones has the potential to become Mike Evans 2.0. Seals-Jones came into College Station in 2013 as a five-star recruit ready to take the college game by storm, but was sidelined after being hurt two games into the season. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, it was meant to be his big breakout season and he caught 49 passes, good for seventh in the SEC. However, he only managed 9.49 yards per catch and a paltry four touchdowns, a drastic inefficiency in a high-powered offense. Seals-Jones has the size of an NBA guard (6’5”, 235-pounds), a season of experience under his belt, and a known quantity at quarterback, three ingredients that make Ricky Seals-Jones primed to be the next star Aggie receiver.
Florida DE Alex McCalister
For a guy who had six sacks last season, McCalister was largely overshadowed. The redshirt junior is 6-foot-6 defensive end who actually lead the team in sacks until Dante Fowler Jr. surpassed him the final game of the season in the Birmingham Bowl. McCalister has the timeline of a college athlete primed for a breakout. He came to Gainesville as a wiry, lean freshman who had to fill out his body thus was redshirted. Over the past two seasons he’s slowly garned more playing time, playing in all 12 games last season, but starting none. That will change this year as Fowler is now gone and McCalister is ready to step into the full time role. Look for McCalister to finish the season in the 9-10 sack range and getting some looks from NFL scouts.
South Carolina LB Skai Moore
The Gamecocks middle linebacker is third-team All-SEC pick Athlon Sports, and goes into his junior year as the leader of Steve Spurrier’s defense. Normally a guy who has led his team in tackles for two years in a row (which is even more impressive considering his first year was a as a true freshman), would be more well-known. However, due to the fact Moore plays a position that doesn’t lend itself to sexy numbers, his talent has gone relatively unnoticed to those outside of Columbia, S.C. Moore put himself in the spotlight at the SEC Media Day after declaring that the guy he wants to hit is Maty Mauk, but will be looking to show it on the field. He’ll be the centerpiece of South Carolina’s defense, so don’t be surprised when he’s voted to first or second-team All-SEC at the end of the season.
Tennessee CB Cameron Sutton
Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd are the two Tennessee players who have Vols fans salivating over their untapped potential, but junior Sutton could be just as important as either of those players. As a true sophomore last season, Sutton ranked fourth in the SEC in passes defended, with 16. If Tennessee is going to live up to their preseason hype, it’s going to need another guy like Sutton to take the next step. The Vols already have stud defensive end Derek Barnett destroying offensive lines, and will look for Sutton to capitalize off the misthrows his chaos will cause. While he’s not the biggest cornerback (5-foot-11, 186-pounds) Sutton has been named to almost every preseason All-SEC team possible. I doubt he’ll be a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, but he’s positioned to move into the elite level of SEC defensive backs.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Perhaps this isn’t a breakout pick in the truest sense of the word. Henry was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and rushed for almost 1,000-yards last season. However, Henry has never been the bellcow back he should be, splitting carries with the likes of T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy over the past two seasons. Now that those two have departed for careers in the NFL, and Alabama hasn’t exactly settled on a quarterback, this could be the season where Henry becomes a destroyer of worlds. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season, and while I’d expect that number to go down with more carries, it’s not out of the question to see his rushing yardage in 1,300-1,500 range. LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb get the majority of the hype as the SEC’s freak-athlete running backs, but don’t forget Derrick Henry is 6-foot-3, 242-pound machine with 4.4-speed. Chubb and Fournette might be more important to their respective offenses, but Henry will finish the season with the most exciting highlight tape and the numbers to match.
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