by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Big East fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.
Emory Blake, WR, Auburn –Even with the departure of quarterback Cam Newton, it’s a safe bet Auburn will generate some offense with coordinator Gus Malzahn at the controls. The Tigers lose their top two receivers, but Blake is more than capable of becoming the No. 1 receiver, as evidenced by his 33 receptions and eight scores in 2010. He also displayed big-play ability, averaging 16.8 yards per catch and posting one score in each of his last three games. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect Blake to easily surpass 2010’s totals.
Josh Boyd/Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State – The Bulldogs will miss Pernell McPhee off the edge, but the line shouldn’t suffer too much in terms of production. Boyd and Cox are an underrated pair in the middle of the line, combining for 53 stops and five sacks last year. Cox forced one fumble and also blocked two kicks last season. Interior linemen always have trouble earning national respect, but this duo should be near the top of the SEC when it comes to defensive tackle combinations.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina –Clowney won’t have the opportunity to sit and learn as an incoming freshman, as South Carolina expects him to make an immediate impact. Clowney ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100 and could start in the season opener against East Carolina. With Devin Taylor on the other side, Clowney’s presence should make South Carolina’s defensive line one of the best in college football. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, he is physically ready to play in the SEC and will be a nightmare for opposing linemen to contain.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia – Crowell is the second true freshman to make it on this list. The Bulldogs lost Washaun Ealey and Caleb King this offseason, which makes his arrival even more important. Crowell ranked as the No. 9 overall prospect and the No. 2 running back by Athlon Sports in the 2011 recruiting class. Although there’s no doubt Crowell can be an effective running back right away, Georgia needs him to be solid in pass protection, especially with some losses on the offensive line following spring practice. A true freshman running back (Marcus Lattimore) was the difference for South Carolina to win the SEC East last year, and Georgia hopes to find the same success in 2011.
Matt Elam, S, Florida – The Gators will be breaking in three new starters in the secondary this season, but thanks to some top-notch recruiting, the pass defense could still rank among the best in the SEC. Elam played in all 13 games last year, registering 22 tackles and one sack. He was one of the nation’s top prospects in the 2010 recruiting class and should use his experience from last year to emerge as one of the nation’s top safeties.
Melvin Harris, WR, Ole Miss – The Rebels posted a disappointing 4-8 record last year, but there’s optimism in Oxford for 2011. New quarterback Barry Brunetti is inexperienced, but isn’t short on talent. The Rebels have a solid offensive line and rushing attack, the receiving corps needs to give Brunetti some help. Harris finished second on the team with 30 catches last year and will be counted upon to take a bigger role in the offense in 2011.
Justin Hunter/Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee –With the departure of wide receivers Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker, Hunter and Rogers should become the new go-to threats for quarterback Tyler Bray. Hunter grabbed 16 receptions for 415 yards and seven scores last year, while Rogers caught 11 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. Hunter averaged an impressive 25.9 yards per reception last season and should be one of the top redzone threats in the SEC. Rogers may end up leading the Volunteers in receptions, but both should become impact players in 2011.
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia –Despite three new starters in the linebacking corps, Georgia feels pretty good about this group heading into 2011. Sophomore Alec Ogletree is sliding from safety to linebacker, and Jones is eligible after sitting out last season as a result of NCAA transfer rules. Jones will be counted upon to help replace Justin Houston, who led the team with 10 sacks last year. The Bulldogs struggled at times due to the transition to the 3-4 scheme on defense last season. However, with another offseason to work with coordinator Todd Grantham, Georgia should show improvement, especially if Jones becomes the player most expect.
Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn – Line coach Mike Pelton will have his hands full in 2011, as Auburn will be breaking in three new starters up front. However, the cupboard is far from bare. Lemonier was a top 50 recruit by most services in the 2010 recruiting class. He played in 14 games last year, registered 17 tackles and collected two sacks. Auburn could start four sophomores up front this year, so there will be some struggles along the way. Lemonier shined in limited duty last year, and with Nosa Eguae established on one side, the Tigers should maintain a solid pass rush. With so much young talent stepping in, expect Auburn’s defensive line to get only get better as the 2011 season goes along.
Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU – With Patrick Peterson getting all of the acclaim, Mathieu’s 2010 season was overlooked nationally. He played in all 13 games last year, made 57 stops, registered 4.5 sacks, picked off two passes and forced five fumbles. Mathieu shined in the nickel back role last year and should team with junior Morris Claiborne to form one of the top cornerback duos in the nation. Peterson was a first-round selection in the NFL Draft and considering his early success, Mathieu is on a similar track to become one of the top defensive backs in college football.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt – Improving the passing attack is one of the top priorities for new coach James Franklin. The Commodores ranked 11th in the SEC in passing offense, averaging only 159.4 yards per game. Franklin was a successful quarterback tutor at Maryland and Kansas State, and his background should help senior quarterback Larry Smith. Although Matthews ended the year with only 15 catches for 181 yards and four scores, he finished the year as one of Vanderbilt’s top weapons. Matthews caught a touchdown in each of the final four games and 12 passes over his final two contests. The sophomore may not post 50 or 60 catches this year, but should emerge as Vanderbilt’s top weapon, particularly in the red zone.
LaDarius Perkins, RB, Mississippi State – Although Vick Ballard was one of the SEC’s breakout players last year, don’t be surprised if another Mississippi State rusher earns that honor in 2011. Perkins was more involved in the offense as the season progressed, finishing with 566 yards and three scores and catching nine passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. His best performance came in the 31-23 Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss, rushing for 98 yards and catching three passes for 140 yards and two scores. Expect Perkins to get more touches in 2011 and establish Mississippi State’s backfield as one of the deepest in the SEC.
Ronald Powell, DE/LB, Florida – The 2010 recruiting class was hailed as one of the best in Florida history. It’s time for that group to live up to the hype. Powell, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd were three anchors of that class and each could start in 2011. Powell will play the Buck position, which is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot. He registered 25 tackles and picked up one sack last year. Powell is a perfect fit for the 3-4 scheme and should be one of Florida’s top pass rushers in 2011.
Raymond Sanders, RB, Kentucky – The Wildcats must replace their top two running backs from last year, including former All-SEC rusher Derrick Locke. Sanders played sparingly last year, rushing for 254 yards and three scores on 68 attempts. He also caught 16 balls for 114 yards and a touchdown. Sanders’ best performance came against Mississippi State, as he collected 71 yards on 24 attempts. The sophomore is only 5-foot-8 and 198 pounds, so durability is a question mark. With an underrated line leading the way up front, Sanders has the opportunity to post 1,000 yards this year.
Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama –The Crimson Tide finished sixth in the SEC with 27 sacks last year – a number Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart want to increase in 2011. Upshaw battled a high ankle sprain early last season, but became the defense’s top pass rusher at the end of the year. In Alabama’s final two games (Auburn and Michigan State), Upshaw registered five sacks and three forced fumbles. Assuming Upshaw can avoid injury, he should contend for the SEC lead in sacks. The senior’s emergence adds another element to one of the top defenses in college football.
Spencer Ware, RB, LSU – Even with the departure of Stevan Ridley, depth is not an issue in the LSU backfield. Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard are all capable of starting for the Tigers this year. Ware played sparingly last season, rushing for 175 yards and a touchdown on 24 attempts. He also added 10 receptions for 101 yards and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass against Auburn. Ware’s best performance came against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, rushing for 102 yards on 10 carries. The Tigers will get other backs involved, but Ware is the team’s best all-around option and should be LSU’s next 1,000-yard rusher.
Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas – Ryan Mallett is gone, but Arkansas doesn’t expect to miss a beat on offense. Wilson has played well in limited action and will be throwing to one of the nation’s best receiving corps. He threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn in relief of Mallett last year and has completed 61.5 percent of his career passes. Wilson still needs some work and will take a few lumps in his first year as the starter. The loss of Knile Davis was a huge blow, but Arkansas should still rank as one of the SEC’s top offenses. Wilson may not beat Mallett’s numbers from last year, but he should be one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC by the end of the 2011 season.
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