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College Football’s Pivotal Players: Eight from the SEC


This week, teams around the nation moved from preseason camp mode and into game-week preparation.

We’re starting to see coaches name starting quarterbacks and settle on position battles.

Although questions are still out there before the season, some weigh more heavily than others. As the preseason winds down, we’re picking who we believe to be “pivotal players,” or in other words, key players who need to step up where their teams need them most.

Athlon Sports’ characteristics of a “pivotal player:”
• He plays for a conference or division contender.
• He plays at a position of weakness for his team.
• He’s an unestablished player with potential to solidify his team’s position of weakness.

We begin our look at pivotal players with the SEC on our final day of the series.

Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida
The Gators’ post-Tebow quarterback conundrum will continue into its third season. And by the sound of things, Will Muschamp doesn’t have an answer yet.  Brissett and Driskel will both play in the opener against Bowling Green and will rotate series by series or quarter by quarter -- a recipe that generally isn’t conducive to success. Florida has little time to make a decision with road trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee in the second and third weeks of the season.

Trey DePriest, LB, Alabama
Few places on Alabama’s defense could be classified as a ”weakness.” There’s too much talent for that, but without Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, the Crimson Tide is looking to break in new faces at linebacker. The sophomore may be a good bet to make a name for himself as he steps in for Hightower at middle linebacker. DePriest had 25 tackles as a freshman last season. He may have little trouble topping that number this season.

Kendial Lawrence, RB, Missouri
Pass-heavy teams can win in the Big 12, but can it be done in the SEC in 2012? With quarterback James Franklin and wide receivers T.J. Moe and Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri should be among the best passing teams in the SEC. How Lawrence performs in the absence of Henry Josey will be the key to a balanced offense. Lawrence returned from a leg injury last season to fill in for an injured Josey, topping 100 yards twice in his last four games against standout defenses for Texas and North Carolina.

Rajion Neal, RB, Tennessee
It’s mind-boggling the school that produced Arian Foster, Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry had the worst run game in the SEC for the last two seasons. Neal played running back and receiver last season, but Derek Dooley named him the starting tailback during preseason camp. Neal solved fumbling issues from earlier in his career and was the most consistent candidate in practice. Now, he needs to perform during the season.

Kenarious Gates, OT, Georgia
Gates started nine games last season, but he’ll take a bigger role in 2012 on Georgia’s biggest question mark on offense. After two seasons at right and left guard, Gates steps into the left tackle position vacated by NFL second-round draft Cordy Glenn. A 6-foot-5 and 328 pounds, Gates has the size to play tackle in the SEC. He’ll soon find out if he can hold his own over the course of the season.

Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina
Alshon Jeffery had a down season last year, but he was still a clear No. 1 target with nearly twice as many receiving yards as South Carolina’s second-leading receiver Sanders. At 5-8, Sanders doesn’t match Jeffery’s size, but Sanders wins in the speed department -- he averaged 9.3 yards on punt returns. South Carolina has a handful of candidates to replace Jeffery, but Sanders is the most experienced.

Tharold Simon, CB, LSU
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger may be the key player to LSU’s season, but the Tigers already proved they could win the SEC despite a question mark at quarterback. Tyrann Mathieu was LSU’s best defensive playmaker, but he wasn’t the most technically sound defensive back. Simon, though, can be a lockdown cornerback. With Mathieu gone and a freshman likely to start alongside Simon, opponents may try to test the LSU secondary more than a year ago.

Tenarius Wright, LB, Arkansas
Wright was a somewhat established player the last two seasons with nine starts and 20 tackles for a loss, but that was at defensive end. With Jerry Franklin gone, Arkansas moved the 6-2, 252-pound senior to middle linebacker. He’s played linebacker before, but that was in high school. Back at the position since spring, Wright might hold the key to the Arkansas defense.

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Previous pivotal players

Big 12
Big East

Big Ten


-David Fox 

Follow @DavidFox615