Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2012 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season.
Predicting the SEC's Breakout Players for 2012
Denico Autry, DE, Mississippi State – Despite Fletcher Cox leaving early for the NFL Draft, Mississippi State should still have a productive defensive line. Josh Boyd is a standout on the interior, while sophomore Kaleb Eulls had a solid freshman campaign last year. Autry earned first-team NJCAA All-American honors last season and was rated as one of the top junior college recruits in the nation. The Bulldogs would like to upgrade their pass rush, and a key part of that equation is Autry and his performance in 2012.
Trey DePriest/Adrian Hubbard/Xzavier Dickson, LB, Alabama – Rather than single out one of these three sophomores, we are highlighting the entire trio as breakout candidates. DePriest, Hubbard and Dickson will be part of Alabama’s rebuilding effort on defense, as the Crimson Tide must replace Donta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris at linebacker. DePriest had the best statistical season last year, recording 25 tackles in 13 games. If Alabama’s defense wants to finish No. 1 in the nation once again, it needs a big year from this sophomore linebacking trio.
Alvin Dupree, LB, Kentucky – With Danny Trevathan moving onto the NFL, the Wildcats are searching for a new leader in the linebacking corps. As a true freshman last year, Dupree played in all 12 games and recorded 21 stops. At 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds, the sophomore has the size and strength to hold up against the run, while remaining a threat to get after the passer. Dupree is slated to play in Kentucky’s hybrid end/linebacker role, which should allow him to thrive in only his second season of college ball.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri – It’s hard to be a breakout candidate if you rank as the No. 1 player in the 2012 signing class. However, it will be a major surprise if Green-Beckham isn’t a household name by the end of this year. The freshman has been as good as advertised in fall camp, leading the Tigers with six catches for 68 yards during the team’s second fall scrimmage. As long as quarterback James Franklin’s shoulder isn’t an issue, Green-Beckham should finish as college football’s most decorated freshman receiver for 2012.
Todd Gurley/Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia – Ken Malcome is expected to enter the season as the starter, but Mark Richt will find it difficult to keep Gurley and Marshall off the field. Both backs were ranked among the top 15 running backs in the 2012 signing class by Athlon Sports and will be counted upon to see a handful of carries each game. All signs point to a committee approach, but Gurley and Marshall should make plenty of noise in 2012.
Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU – Despite losing Michael Brockers to the NFL Draft, LSU isn’t too concerned about its defensive line. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are back to wreck havoc against opposing quarterbacks off the edge, while the interior is solid with Bennie Logan, Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the rotation. Johnson ranked as the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100 and played in all 14 games last year, recording 12 tackles and one sack. The sophomore is primed for a monster year and could challenge for All-SEC honors.
Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt – The SEC is loaded with talent on the offensive line this season, but Johnson shouldn’t be overlooked when discussing some of the top tackles in the conference. The Nashville native has started every game on the line for the Commodores over the last two years and was named the team’s Offensive Lineman of the Year for 2011. Johnson played at left tackle, center and guard last season but is expected to stay at left tackle for 2012. The Commodores have a few holes to plug on the offensive line, but there’s no question Johnson should be a reliable presence on the left side.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M – Manziel finished spring practice just behind Jameill Showers for the starting quarterback spot. However, the redshirt freshman staked his claim for the job in the fall and was picked as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback for the season opener against Louisiana Tech. New coach Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury produced some of the nation’s top offenses while at Houston, but will likely seek more balance as the Aggies’ transition to the SEC. Manziel is a slightly different quarterback than the ones Sumlin tutored at Houston, as the freshman brings more of a dual-threat approach to the lineup. There’s no question Manziel has the talent – he was ranked among the top quarterbacks in the 2011 signing class - however, having no game experience and learning a new offense will be a challenge.
Mekale McKay, WR, Arkansas – With Jarius Wright and Joe Adams catching passes in the NFL, the Razorbacks are searching for a new group of receivers for quarterback Tyler Wilson. Cobi Hamilton is slated to be the No. 1 option, and the Razorbacks have tight end Chris Gragg, but there’s no clear No. 2 target at receiver. McKay was ranked among the top 50 receivers in the 2012 recruiting class and has been one of the standouts of fall practice. At 6-foot-6, the freshman has potential to be a valuable weapon inside of the redzone and instant impact player for Arkansas.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU – After finishing 10th in the SEC in passing yards per game last season and watching Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee struggle at times, LSU fans are excited for Mettenberger’s potential under center. He only threw 11 passes last year, but is expected to be the missing piece for LSU’s offense. Mettenberger began his career at Georgia but was dismissed from school and spent one season at Butler Community College. There will be growing pains with the junior quarterback, especially since 2012 will be his first year as a starter on the FBS level. There’s little doubt Mettenberger should be an upgrade at over Lee and Jefferson, but it may take a couple of games for him to get comfortable as the team's No. 1 quarterback.
LaDarius Perkins, RB, Mississippi State – Vick Ballard wasn’t the flashiest running back, but he amassed 2,157 yards and 29 rushing scores during his tenure in Starkville. Replacing Ballard is no easy task, but the Bulldogs have two capable options. Perkins is expected to ascend to No. 1 on the depth chart after rushing for 988 yards and five scores over the last two years. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Perkins doesn’t have Ballard’s size or power, but he should be a big-play threat for Mississippi State. Sophomore Nick Griffin will also figure into the battle for carries.
Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida – Purifoy was thrown right into the mix as a true freshman last season, playing in all 13 games and recording 27 tackles. He also forced one fumble during his limited action. At 6-foot-1 and 189 pounds, Purifoy has the size and athleticism to go up against the top receivers in the SEC and should be ready for a breakout year after spending much of 2011 in a reserve role.
Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee – If Tennessee wants to have any shot at finishing among the top three in the SEC East , the offensive line and rushing attack has to perform much better than it did in 2011. The Volunteers finished 12th in the SEC in rushing offense last season and recorded just 332.7 yards per game. The coaching staff shuffled the line in the spring, sliding Dallas Thomas from tackle to guard and promoting Richardson to the starting group. Richardson was ranked by most as a top-100 recruit coming out of high school and played in 12 contests last year. If Richardson can stabilize the offensive line, Tennessee should have no trouble improving on last season’s paltry rushing totals.
Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri – Richardson’s path to Missouri took a slight detour, as he spent two years at the College of the Sequoias, before making his first appearance at Missouri last season. Richardson made a huge impact in his first year in Columbia, recording 37 stops, three sacks, eight tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. A shoulder injury sidelined him in the spring but all signs point to a return to full strength in the fall. With another offseason under his belt, look for Richardson to pickup his performance even more in 2012.
Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn – With only one returning starter on the offensive line last season, the Tigers were a work in progress most of 2011. The line allowed 2.5 sacks per game but led the way for Auburn to average 182.3 yards per game on the ground. This unit should be one of the most improved in the SEC this season, especially with the emergence of Robinson and sophomore center Reese Dismukes. Robinson was one of the top linemen in the 2011 signing class but redshirted his freshman year. With a full offseason to build strength, look for the Louisiana native to excel in his first season as Auburn’s starting left tackle.
Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina – Alshon Jeffery is gone, meaning South Carolina needs a new No. 1 receiver to emerge. Sanders doesn’t have Jeffery’s size, but the Florida native developed a nice rapport with quarterback Connor Shaw over the second half of last year, finishing with 29 receptions for 383 yards and three touchdowns. The junior is also a valuable contributor on special teams, averaging 9.3 yards on 16 punt returns last year. Even though Sanders doesn’t have Jeffery’s skill set, look for the junior to push for 50 receptions in 2012.
Jeff Scott, RB, Ole Miss – The Rebels were one of the worst offenses in the SEC last season, averaging only 16.1 points per contest and ranking 114th nationally in total offense. New coach Hugh Freeze should help improve the offense, especially after leading Arkansas State to the No. 1 rank in the Sun Belt for total offense, scoring and passing in 2011. Scott is one of the few proven playmakers for Ole Miss and should be a bigger part of the offense after recording only 116 attempts last year. At 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, Scott probably won’t handle 275 carries, but he should finish with over 1,000 all-around yards in 2012.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
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