It’s no secret that there are some pretty good football players in the SEC. The league had 21 players drafted across the first two rounds of this past NFL draft alone, a new record for a conference.
But what about those who fly slightly under the radar? Sure, they may eventually be NFL-bound, too, but not everyone is a five-star recruit, or a guy coming off an All-American season.
Here are the SEC’s wild card players for the 2017 season.
Offense: Malik Zaire, QB
Zaire has to win the job first, but the Notre Dame graduate transfer looks like the guy who can lead Florida to its third straight SEC East title — and perhaps more. Zaire was 3-0 as the starter for the Fighting Irish and did not commit a single turnover. A combination of bad luck (broken ankle) and bad timing (DeShone Kizer’s rise) conspired against Zaire, but he could be just the guy to capitalize on a clean slate.
Defense: Jabari Zuniga, DE
Zuniga made the SEC’s all-freshman team last season after tallying a team-best five sacks. He had 8.5 TFLs and one forced fumble while making three starts as a redshirt freshman for the nation’s No. 5 defense, a unit that will look to continue its dominance with Randy Shannon now being promoted to coordinator after Geoff Collins took the Temple head job.
Offense: Isaac Nauta, TE
Georgia struggled to score during Kirby Smart’s first season, ranking 102nd nationally in scoring offense. A bright spot, however, was Nauta, who tallied 361 yards and three touchdowns last season on 29 catches. The former five-star prospect lived up to the hype in 2016, making numerous freshman All-America teams and setting high expectations for this fall.
Defense: Julian Rochester, DL
The Bulldogs return almost everyone from last year’s defense, which is one of the biggest reasons expectations are so high for 2017. Rochester was an early contributor to last year’s 16th-ranked unit, starting six games as a true freshman and tallying 36 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble. He’s reportedly dropped a ton of weight this offseason in an effort to get quicker, which could mean bigger things are on the horizon.
Offense: Stephen Johnson, QB
Running back Benny Snell Jr. made most of the headlines last season and should be the focus of opposing defenses in 2017, but for the purposes of a “wild card,” the quarterback has to go here. Yes, there are technically two of them for the Wildcats, as Drew Barker is working his way back from a back injury. But Johnson drove the bus in his debut season, helping the Wildcats get to seven wins. Johnson enters his final season of eligibility with his program facing heightened expectations, and the junior college transfer can help Kentucky meet them if he builds off last season.
Defense: Eli Brown, LB
The Wildcats’ defense has been heavy with upperclassmen in recent years. But Brown was able to carve out some opportunities for himself as a redshirt freshman last season, seeing action in 12 games. He had 24 total tackles — including a career-best seven against Alabama — to go along with 0.5 TFLs and one fumble recovery. Mild improvement should mean more opportunities for Brown on a defense that needs to get better in order to make a real run at the SEC East crown.
Offense: Johnathon Johnson, WR
Perhaps this label should be “all-purpose,” neither offense nor defense, as Johnson found a myriad of ways to make an impact last season. He had the Tigers’ longest rush, catch, kick return and punt return in 2016, as the jack-of-all-trades averaged 17.6 yards per touch and was a threat anytime he had the ball in his hands. He’s a wild card considering the unpredictable trajectory of multi-purpose players, as opportunities are often out of their control.
Defense: Ronnell Perkins, S
Perkins burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman, tallying 43 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, three pass breakups and one QB hurry en route to SEC all-freshman honors. Mizzou has to get better defensively, and Perkins will be a big reason for that jump, if it happens.
Offense: Jake Bentley, QB
Is this the best returning quarterback in the SEC? Probably not... yet. But Bentley burst onto the scene as a freshman, going 4-3 as a starter while throwing for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns while leading Will Muschamp’s first Gamecocks team to a surprise berth in the Birmingham Bowl.
Defense: D.J. Wonnum, DL
Wonnum led all South Carolina freshmen with 32 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks, along with two quarterback hurries. Wonnum has added weight this offseason as he takes on more responsibilities as the Gamecocks’ “buck,” a linebacker/end hybrid position.
Offense: Quentin Dormady, QB
The Vols have yet to announce their starter, as the junior Dormady battled it out all spring with redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano for the right to replace Joshua Dobbs. But Dormady had a terrific spring game, completing all 10 of his pass attempts for 120 yards and two touchdowns. And, of course, he’s the older player — and when competitions like this one seem too close to call, the veteran always has the upper hand. Whoever the quarterback is, the pressure will be on him to deliver in a crucial year for Butch Jones and Co.
Defense: Nigel Warrior, DB
Warrior made an immediate impact last year as a freshman, tallying 22 tackles and seeing extensive playing time in the secondary when others were hurt. The son of Vols legend Dale Carter, the awesomely named Warrior made an impact on special teams as well.
Offense: C.J. Duncan, WR
Duncan returned from a leg injury last season and led the Commodores in catches (44) and receiving yards (494). Those are decent numbers, but you need more from a No. 1 receiver. Now in his redshirt senior season, Duncan can improve off last year’s comeback campaign and add another threat to an offense led by tailback Ralph Webb.
Defense: LaDarius Wiley, S
Wiley is the leading returning tackler from last season, as he tallied 76 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, four pass breakups, four passes defended, one quarterback hurry, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Wiley and Ryan White should make up one of the SEC’s fiercest safety tandems in 2017.
Offense: Bo Scarbrough, RB
We all know who he is and all know what he’s capable of, but let’s face it: The unfortunate reality with Scarbrough is that injury has given him this “wild card” designation. He broke a bone in his right leg in the national title game and we all saw how the Tide’s offense stalled without him. If he returns at full strength, this offense might be unstoppable.
Defense: Ronnie Harrison, DB
It’s tough to make a name for yourself on a Nick Saban defense as an underclassman, but Harrison did just that during his sophomore season. He finished second on the Tide with 86 tackles, and he had 1.5 TFLs, seven pass breakups, one field goal block, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. And two of those turnovers he created were returned for touchdowns.
Offense: Dave Williams, RB
The South Carolina grad transfer rushed for 239 yards last season with the Gamecocks, and he should get plenty of opportunities to eclipse that total this season, as Devwah Whaley is the only returning back on the roster after the unfortunate retirement of Rawleigh Williams. By Bret Bielema standards, the Hogs struggled to run the ball last season (4.13 ypc), so Williams could provide a boost in 2017.
Defense: McTelvin Agim, DL
Everything starts in the trenches, and Agim had a great start to his Hogs career there last season, tallying 5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries en route to SEC all-freshman recognition. The deceptively quick 289-pounder had a strong spring game and looks poised to take the next step in 2017.
Offense: Jarrett Stidham, QB
Stidham hasn’t been named Auburn’s starter just yet, but it would be a shock if he wasn’t the guy in Week 1. The former Baylor signal-caller impressed seemingly everyone in the spring, and the hype around the Tigers is growing by the day, as they seem to have a proven downfield passer who also can provide another threat with his legs.
Defense: Marlon Davidson, DL
What didn’t Davidson do during his first season on the Plains? He became Auburn’s first defensive lineman to start in an opener in 30 years — against Clemson, no less. He started every game afterward, too, tallying 38 tackles, six TFLs, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and four passes defended. He could be an SEC Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and he’s only a sophomore.
Offense: Danny Etling, QB
Etling told reporters at the Manning Passing Academy that he felt great following back surgery, and that’s good news for the Tigers. If healthy, can Etling help the LSU offense turn the corner? The addition of coordinator Matt Canada makes this position — and unit, really — worth paying plenty of attention to.
Defense: Devin White, LB
The nation’s No. 1 fullback from the 2016 class was a force in the middle of the Tigers’ defense as a freshman, tallying 30 tackles, three TFLs, one sack, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble. He’s back and looking to build on that rookie campaign for a defense that finished No. 5 nationally in scoring.
Offense: Aeris Williams, RB
The great news about QB Nick Fitzgerald was that he was a great runner. The bad news is that Fitzgerald was MSU’s leading rusher — something that likely needs to change to balance his workload and make the offense more versatile. Williams led Bulldogs running backs last season with 720 yards and four touchdowns, and a rise from the redshirt junior — along with the rest of his backfield mates — would provide tremendous relief for Fitzgerald.
Defense: Leo Lewis, LB
Lewis had a standout campaign as a redshirt freshman, finishing second on the Bulldogs with 79 tackles. He had 4.5 TFLs, one sack, one pass breakup and one pass defended, but he’ll need to do more as an expected leader of a defense that struggled immensely in 2016.
Offense: Van Jefferson, WR
Jefferson is the Rebels’ leading returning pass catcher, with 49 receptions last season as a redshirt freshman. His 543 yards and three receiving touchdowns both ranked third on the team, and he earned SEC all-freshman honors for his production. If he follows the Hugh Freeze blueprint, Jefferson can find himself as the next great Ole Miss receiver.
Defense: Jaylon Jones, DB
Jones made some nice plays for the Rebels last season, tallying 26 tackles, breaking up five passes, defending five more, recovering one fumble and forcing another. Ole Miss is in desperate need of creating more turnovers after finishing 111th nationally last season, but young playmakers like Jones offer some promise.
Offense: Trayveon Williams, RB
The quarterback decision — and its fallout — could decide Kevin Sumlin’s future in what is a crucial season in College Station. But the constant of the A&M offense should be Williams, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry last season while rushing for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns. Keith Ford (669 yards, 6 TDs in 2016) gives the Aggies another viable backfield option, too, and if the duo can continue to take pressure off the quarterback, all the better.
Defense: Kingsley Keke, DL
The Aggies have plenty of returning talent in the secondary, but the real difference-makers almost always come up front, especially in this league. Keke produced last season as a sophomore, tallying seven tackles for a loss, four sacks and breaking up four passes. If he builds off those numbers he could find himself with a tough decision to make at season’s end.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.