The SEC's 10 best players nobody knew about

Every year, there are players who fly in under the radar to have big seasons.

We’ve gone through and picked the 10 best players in the SEC that you really didn’t know about when the 2009 season began that everybody knows about right now.

These guys all had major impacts on their team after playing limited roles the season before for various reasons. Some were hurt. Others were buried on the depth chart, and a few just simply came into their own. True freshmen and transfers were not included in this list, but redshirt freshmen were.

So here are the 10 best players in the SEC this season that went from anonymity to starring roles:

1. Montario Hardesty, RB, Tennessee: He’d never rushed for more than 384 yards in a season and only carried the ball 76 times in 2008. But when finally given a chance, Hardesty showed he could stay healthy and also proved he was one of the best backs in the SEC with 1,306 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He didn’t lose a fumble, either, in an SEC-high 264 rushing attempts.

2. Mark Barron, S, Alabama: A fixture on special teams as a freshman, Barron developed into a star in his first season as a starter on defense and led the SEC with seven interceptions. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches and helped ease the loss of senior captain Rashad Johnson with his ball-hawking play at strong safety.

3. Darvin Adams, WR, Auburn: The Tigers were searching for playmakers at receiver, and Adams answered the call. The speedy sophomore tied for the SEC lead with 10 touchdown catches. He was third in the league with 855 receiving yards and fourth with 48 catches. That’s after catching a total of three passes, all against UT-Martin, as a freshman.

4. Greg Childs, WR, Arkansas: He was listed as a backup coming out of spring practice after catching 18 passes as a freshman, but exploded as a sophomore to finish third in the SEC in receiving yards per game (71.8). Childs caught seven touchdown passes and averaged 19.2 yards per catch.

5. Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama: McElroy was about as unproven as it gets at the college level coming into the season. He’d never played a meaningful snap. That sure changed in a hurry. The steady junior directed an Alabama offense that improved in just about every category from last season, and then played his best game in the most important game, earning MVP honors in the 32-13 SEC championship game victory over Florida.

6. Sean Richardson, S, Vanderbilt: After playing in Reshard Langford’s shadow as a freshman, Richardson started all 12 games at strong safety as a sophomore and led all SEC defensive backs with 84 tackles. He established himself as one of the best tackling safeties in the league.

7. Justin Houston, DE, Georgia: With all of the grumbling about Georgia’s defensive problems, Houston’s big season was sort of lost in the shuffle. The 6-foot-3, 259-pound sophomore bounced back from a two-game suspension to start the season to finish second in the league with 7.5 sacks and also had 15 tackles for loss.

8. Corey Broomfield, CB, Mississippi State: Talk about making the most of your opportunities. Broomfield only started in three games for the Bulldogs, but finished with six interceptions and returned two of those for touchdowns. He redshirted his first year at Mississippi State in 2008, but is part of a nucleus of young talent in Starkville that has everybody in maroon so excited.

9. Sam Maxwell, LB, Kentucky: He went from dependable backup to one of Kentucky’s best big-play defenders as a senior. Maxwell was second on the team with 80 tackles and led all SEC linebackers with six interceptions and 13 passes defended from his strongside position. Unfortunately for Maxwell, he will miss the bowl game because of surgery to repair a torn labrum.

10. Eryk Anders, LB, Alabama: One of the most overlooked players on Alabama’s vaunted defense, Anders has made his senior season a memorable one. He has 12.5 tackles for loss, including five sacks, from his jack linebacker position. This coming from a guy who’d all but decided to transfer following the 2007 season.