On Wednesday, we highlighted the three players we feel like will be the top impact true freshmen in the SEC this season as well as the three sophomores we feel like will have the biggest impacts.
That’s a perfect segue to picking the teams in the league that have the best young talent. And in young talent, we’re talking about players who will be sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen in 2011.
No. 1 on our list is an easy choice -- LSU. The Tigers might have as much talent in their freshman and sophomore classes as any team in America.
Here’s a look at how our top 5 teams stack up:
1. LSU: Check out that LSU defense. The Tigers have at least 10 players who are sophomores or younger that will play key roles this season, and most of those have star potential. In the secondary alone, you’ve got sophomores Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon, Eric Reid and Craig Loston, not to mention redshirt freshman Ronnie Vinson. And up front, defensive coordinator John Chavis can’t wait to turn redshirt freshman Ego Ferguson and true freshman Anthony Johnson loose at tackle, while sophomore Michael Brockers also returns inside. Chavis has said sophomore defensive end Barkevious Mingo will be one of the premier pass-rushers in the league, and don’t forget that sophomore Sam Montgomery is back at the other end. Montgomery started the first five games as a redshirt freshman and had six tackles for loss before injuring his knee. Sophomore Kevin Minter is the favorite to replace Kelvin Sheppard at middle linebacker. On offense, there aren’t as many talented underclassmen that stand out -- yet. But sophomore tailback Spencer Ware is primed for a huge season and might be the SEC’s top breakout player. Sophomore guard Josh Williford was one of the team’s most improved players in the spring, and the Tigers like their entire crop of young offensive linemen. True freshman receiver Jarvis Landry has dynamic playmaker written all over him, although a broken foot will cause him to miss the first three weeks of camp. Last but not least, the Tigers’ quarterback of the future, former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger, is only a sophomore and has three years of eligibility remaining after spending last season at junior college. Don’t be surprised if Mettenberger plays some this season.
2. Florida: It’s hard to beat the Gators’ young collection of talent in both the offensive and defensive lines. On offense, sophomore guard Jon Halapio is one of three underclassmen who could wind up in the starting lineup or at least be in the rotation. And on defense, the second time around for Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley should be a lot better. All three are supremely talented. Sophomore safety Matt Elam leads a secondary that is full of promising newcomers. Coach Will Muschamp thinks true freshman cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson both have a chance to be special, and watch sophomore Jelani Jenkins take off this season and become an All-SEC caliber player at linebacker. Redshirt freshman receiver Quinton Dunbar has had an excellent start to camp, and true freshman Ja’Juan Story is another receiver the Gators think will provide more plays down the field. Sophomore tight end Jordan Reed and sophomore running back Trey Burton have already proven that they have what it takes to make plays in this league (at a number of different positions), and true freshman Jeff Driskel was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country last year.
3. Auburn: The Tigers’ past two recruiting classes have ranked among the top 5 nationally, and you’re going to see a ton of those players on the field this season. The sophomore class will be especially important. Guys like defensive ends Nosa Eguae, Corey Lemonier and Craig Sanders, defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker and running back Mike Dyer will be the heart and soul of this team. Redshirt freshman receiver Trovon Reed would have made a big impact last season had he not had the knee problems, and coach Gene Chizik is already on record as saying the true freshmen would be playing and not watching this season. The ones who might play the quickest are Reese Dismukes and Christian Westermann in the offensive line, Jermaine Whitehead at cornerback, Robenson Therezie at safety and Kiehl Frazier at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Chad Slade and sophomore Blake Burgess have been working some with the first-team offensive line, and true freshman Quan Bray is one of those guys who just makes plays no matter where he lines up.
4. Tennessee: The Vols were one of the youngest teams in the SEC last season and will be again this season. They started three true freshmen in the offensive line – tackle Ja’Wuan James, guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone – and then added to that base with Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard, a sophomore, and true freshmen Marcus Jackson and Antonio Richardson. Second-year coach Derek Dooley thinks it’s an offensive line that has a chance to be dominant. There’s also sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who threw 18 touchdown passes as a true freshman, and his top two targets are sophomores Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. Already immensely talented, Rogers was one of the Vols’ most improved players in the spring. The Vols brought in several reinforcements on defense. Junior college nose guard Maurice Couch will be just a sophomore. The same goes for junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. The guy the Vols’ defensive staff thinks might really break out this season is sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith, and true freshman running back Marlin Lane could be that breakaway threat Tennessee was missing a year ago.
5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide probably deserve to be ranked even higher. But they’ve been so talented over the past few seasons that the younger players simply haven’t had a chance to play. We’ll see more of them this season, guys like sophomore cornerback Dee Milliner, sophomore running back Eddie Lacy, sophomore defensive end Ed Stinson, sophomore safety Jarrick Williams, sophomore safety Nick Perry and redshirt freshman receiver DeAndrew White. Sophomore offensive tackle D.J. Fluker was a starter last season, and so was sophomore linebacker C.J. Mosley. Coach Nick Saban has yet to make a decision at quarterback, but the thinks he has two he can win with -- sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. True freshman Cyrus Kouandjio was the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country last year, and even though true freshman running back Dee Hart was injured this offseason, he’s certainly going to be heard from in the future. On defense, true freshman end LaMichael Fanning has been impressive to this point in camp, and that’s a position the Tide could use some help at this season.