Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts. With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 12 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
Related: SEC Predictions for 2016
The SEC features a loaded group of talent returning on defense, but there's a lot of uncertainty on offense, especially at quarterback and on the line of scrimmage. With only two proven passers - Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs and Ole Miss' Chad Kelly - no quarterbacks make the underrated list, but keep an eye on Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara, LSU receiver Malachi Dupre and Kentucky center Jon Toth as players who deserve more attention in 2016.
The SEC's 12 Most Underrated Players for 2016
Otaro Alaka, LB, Texas A&M
It might seem strange to list Alaka here after he missed nearly all of the 2015 season due to injury. However, prior to last year’s injuries, Alaka was on his way to emerging as Texas A&M’s top linebacker and a potential candidate for all-conference honors. In three games last season, Alaka recorded 12 tackles and one pass breakup. How quickly will Alaka return to full strength? It’s critical he’s back at 100 percent this fall for a run defense that allowed 213.7 yards per game in 2015.
Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
Florida has three potential all-conference candidates in the trenches this season with the return of Brantley, Cece Jefferson and Bryan Cox. Brantley won’t post huge numbers as an interior player, but the 6-foot-2 tackle anchors a rush defense that gave up only 128.1 yards per game in 2015. In 13 appearances last season, Brantley recorded 29 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and three sacks. Even though the SEC is loaded with talent up front, Brantley should make a strong push for all-conference honors this year.
Richie Brown, LB, Mississippi State
The SEC has its share of standout linebackers returning for 2016, but Brown shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to discussing the league’s top performers at that position. The Mississippi native has been a key cog in the Bulldogs’ defense over the last three years and racked up 109 stops (13 for a loss) in 2015. And with the departure of defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Beniquez Brown, the senior should take on an even bigger role in leadership for new coordinator Peter Sirmon and anchor the middle of Mississippi State’s 3-4 scheme.
Oren Burks, LB/DB, Vanderbilt
Burks is slated to play a key role for coach Derek Mason’s defense this fall by shifting from to a hybrid “star” defensive back/linebacker position. Moving Burks to this role will allow Vanderbilt’s defense to match up better against some of spread attacks this unit will face in 2016. Burks is coming off his best season for the Commodores after accumulating 59 tackles (two for a loss), one forced fumble and three interceptions in 2015. The Virginia native’s versatility is a huge asset for a defense that allowed only 21 points a game last fall.
Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU
Lost in the discussion about the inconsistent play of LSU’s passing attack last season was a solid 2015 campaign by Dupre. The former five-star recruit led the team with 43 catches for 698 yards and six touchdowns. Dupre posted two 100-yard efforts (Florida and Arkansas) and also caught four passes for 96 yards in LSU’s bowl win over Texas Tech. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Dupre. He just needs more opportunities and targets in his direction to push for All-SEC honors this fall.
Rudy Ford, S, Auburn
New coordinator Kevin Steele inherits a unit that gave up 26 points a game last season, but each level of the defense returns a potential All-SEC candidate, including the secondary where Ford and Tray Matthews form one of the league’s top tandems at safety. Ford played a limited role in 14 games as a freshman in 2013 but quickly emerged as a key cog in the defense over the last two seasons. Ford recorded 93 stops and three interceptions in 2014 and followed up with a strong 2015 campaign. In 13 games last year, Ford accumulated 118 tackles (3.5 for a loss), two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
Tennessee’s backfield tandem of Jalen Hurd and Kamara is among the nation’s best, and it’s no secret Hurd gets most of the preseason attention as an All-America candidate. But let’s give Kamara some credit, as the former Alabama running back quietly had a standout debut in his first season on Rocky Top. Kamara rushed for 698 yards and seven scores and caught 34 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
As we mentioned earlier in this article with other linemen, it’s not easy to judge the effectiveness of a defensive tackle just by glancing at the stat sheet. And in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme, it’s essential to have a couple of space-eaters in the middle to clog the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to make plays. That’s exactly the role Payne contributed in last fall, as he worked as a rotational player on Alabama’s standout defensive front. Payne received snaps in all 15 games and recorded 13 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble. He is expected to anchor the interior of Alabama’s defensive line this fall, with Jonathan Allen and D’Shawn Hand working off the edges.
Aarion Penton, CB, Missouri
Most of the attention on Missouri’s standout defense surrounds its standout line, but the back seven has its share of All-SEC candidates, including Penton at cornerback, Michael Scherer at linebacker and Anthony Sherrils at safety. Penton was quietly effective in 2015, recording 59 tackles, one interception and eight pass breakups. Additionally, his play at cornerback was a big reason why the Tigers allowed only 10 passing scores last season.
Damore’ea Stringfellow, WR, Ole Miss
Even though Laquon Treadwell will be missed, Ole Miss’ receiving corps is still among the best in the SEC. Coach Hugh Freeze has amassed plenty of talent for quarterback Chad Kelly, with Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo, and tight end Evan Engram likely to be the top targets in 2016. Stringfellow played as a freshman at Washington in 2013 and sat out the 2014 campaign due to transfer rules. In his first season with the Rebels, Stringfellow caught 36 passes for 503 yards and five scores. The California native could double those totals with more targets in 2016.
Jon Toth, C, Kentucky
Toth has been a fixture on Kentucky’s offensive line over the last three seasons. The Indiana native has started 35 consecutive games and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list for the 2016 campaign. Toth should clear plenty of running lanes for dynamic running back Boom Williams this season, and the senior should rank as one of the SEC’s top linemen.
Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas
In SEC-only matchups last fall, Wise ranked third in the league with eight sacks generated. In a conference that features Derek Barnett (Tennessee), Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama), it’s easy to overlook Wise’s production for the Razorbacks. However, Wise was one of the SEC’s top defenders in November last season, recording seven of his eight sacks over Arkansas’ last four games. He also finished the year with 10.5 tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles. Wise is a darkhorse candidate to lead the SEC in sacks this fall.