Alabama's rushing attack won't miss a beat with Trent Richardson moving into the starting job.
Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the SEC.
Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 40 players:
Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.
In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?
Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.
Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?
1. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina (JR)
2010 stats: 88 rec., 1,517 yds., 9 TDs
Jeffery has emerged as one of the nation’s best receivers over the last two seasons. He posted a solid freshman year, catching 46 passes for 763 yards and six scores. He followed that up with a monster sophomore effort, leading the SEC in receptions (88) and receiving yards (1,517). Jeffery’s 88 catches tied for 13th nationally. He posted eight 100-yard games last year, including 127 against Alabama and 130 against Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. At 6-foot-4, Jeffery has the size and athletic ability to be a handful for any defensive back.
Why he's ranked 1st: Jeffery is a second-team preseason All-American by Athlon Sports. The junior is one of the top playmakers in the SEC and should be a lock for first-team honors at the end of 2011. As long as Stephen Garcia stays out of trouble and under center for South Carolina, Jeffery’s numbers shouldn’t drop much this year. Receivers may be easier to replace than quarterbacks, but there’s no denying Jeffery is a special player and one of the best in college football.
2. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (SO)
2010 stats: 1,197 yards, 17 TD, 29 rec., 412 yards, 2 TD
Few running backs have ever impacted the game as a true freshman like Lattimore did in 2010. He literally carried South Carolina to victory over Georgia (37 attempts), Alabama (23), Tennessee (29) and Florida (40), while leading the Gamecocks to a SEC East title for the first time in school history. He was the unanimous choice for National Freshman of the Year.
Why he's ranked 2nd: Lattimore might be the most physically talented running back in the nation. He runs through tackles, can pick-up the blitz, is an excellent receiver and has only gotten stronger in the weight room – adding 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. With talent returning all around him, Lattimore is in for huge things in 2011.
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama (JR)
2010 stats: 700 yds., 6 TDs, 23 rec., 266 yds., 4 TDs
Richardson has spent the last two years as a backup to Mark Ingram, but he’s tallied 257 carries during that span. With Ingram suiting up for the New Orleans Saints, Richardson will takeover as Alabama’s No. 1 back. Over the last two years, Richardson has posted 1,451 yards and 14 scores. He also has 39 receptions for 392 yards and four scores. One of Richardson’s best performances came in the national title game against Texas, rushing for 109 yards and two scores.
Why he's ranked 3rd: With a full complement of carries, Richardson should easily surpass 1,000 yards this year. With injuries to Eddie Lacy and Dee Hart, the junior will have to shoulder most of the workload in the Alabama backfield. With one of the best offensive lines returning in the SEC, Richardson should finish among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards. With Alabama expected to be in the national title hunt, the junior could be one of the finalists for the Heisman Trophy at the end of this year.
4. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama (JR)
After a freshman All-American season in 2009, Jones garnered first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American honors in 2010. In his second season at right guard, he helped lead the No. 22 ranked offense in the nation at 444.15 yards per game. He has started 25 games at right guard, but could be moved around the line this year. Jones also helped quarterback Greg McElroy post the fourth-most efficient season in the nation (168.98).
Why he's ranked 4th: Jones is a preseason Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2011. He will be paving the way for preseason first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American running back Trent Richardson. Jones is one of the key cogs of what ranks as the top offensive line unit in the nation.
5. Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
2010 stats: 46 tackles, 13 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 11 QB hurries
After a breakout sophomore year, Taylor is poised to take his game to the next level. He led the Gamecocks with 13 tackles for a loss and finished behind Melvin Ingram for the team lead in sacks. Taylor was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week, after scoring on an interception return against Tennessee and recovering two fumbles. He earned second-team All-SEC honors last season.
Why he’s ranked 5th: Taylor has increased his production over the last two years and is a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports. He should have plenty of help along the defensive line, including incoming freshman Jadevon Clowney – widely regarded as the No. 1 recruit. With a loaded defensive front, all of the attention won’t be focused on Taylor. Expect the junior to approach 10 sacks and emerge as the SEC’s best lineman.
6. Mark Barron, S, Alabama (SR)
2010 stats: 75 tackles, 3 INT, 3 TFL, 2 sacks
Barron led the Crimson Tide in tackles in 2010, as Alabama led the SEC in total, scoring and pass efficiency defense. The 13.5 points allowed per game ranked third nationally, while the 286.38 yards per game ended up fifth nationally. He earned first-team All-SEC honors by both the media and the coaches.
Why he's ranked 6th: As a preseason Athlon Sports first-team All-American selection in 2011, Barron returns to anchor what has been dubbed the best secondary in the nation. He is one of the nation’s top candidates for the Thorpe Award this year. Barron enters the season with 26 starts under his belt over the last two seasons and 10 interceptions.
7. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (SO)
2010 stats: 3,049 yards, 24 TDs, 8 INT, 167 rush yards, 4 TDs
In only his first season on a college gridiron, Murray finished 14th nationally with an incredibly impressive 154.48 rating in passer efficiency. In one of the best seasons by SEC freshman quarterback, Murray finished with a flurry of production in the final four weeks of the regular season. He threw three touchdowns in each of the final four games and averaged 271 yards per game over that span.
Why he's ranked 7th: The unquestioned 2011 preseason first-team All-SEC quarterback proved his recruiting hype – and prep championship pedigree – was no fluke. His development and efficiency over the course of his freshman season has UGA fans excited about Murray’s possibilities in 2011. With as easy a schedule as an SEC team can have, Murray could easily have the Dawgs sniffing a trip to Atlanta this fall.
8. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama
2010 stats: 69 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 9 QB hurries
Hightower shook off the rust from a torn ACL in 2009 to earn second-team All-SEC honors last year. He ranked second on the team with 69 tackles and seemed to play his best football as the season progressed. Hightower will man the weakside spot in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme and should be one of the leaders for one of the top defenses in college football.
Why he’s ranked 8th: Although Hightower’s 2010 campaign was solid, he still has plenty of room to improve. Now that he is a full season removed from ACL surgery, the junior should look a little more like the player that was one of the top freshmen in the SEC in 2008. Expect Hightower to be the SEC’s best linebacker and should contend for All-American honors this year.
9. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas (JR)
2010 stats: 1,322 yards, 13 TDs, 19 rec., 136 yards, TD
Davis didn’t start the season as the No. 1 running back in Fayetteville, but he certainly finished it that way. After taking over the starting gig, Bobby Petrino’s high-powered offensive attack exploded. Davis topped 100 yards in six of his last seven games, scoring at least two touchdowns in four of those contests. He led the SEC in rushing by a running back (Cam Newton led the league) and carried the ball 86 times in the final three games, including wins over LSU and Mississippi State to end the regular season.
Why he's ranked 9th: At 6-foot-0 and 226 pounds, there are few players in the nation who can boast Davis’ explosiveness. The Hogs have to replace three starters along the line and Ryan Mallett under center, but the preseason second-team All-American should once again be the featured piece of Petrino's attack. With loads of skill players around new quarterback Tyler Wilson, there figures to be plenty of space for Davis to work.
10. Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas (SR)
2010 stats: 32 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7 sacks
As a junior, the 6-foot-5 270-pound blue collar defensive end earned second-team All-SEC honors. Bequette helped lead the SEC’s No. 2 pass rush a year ago as the Hogs averaged 2.85 sacks per game – good for ninth nationally. He led Arkansas in sacks and finished fifth in the SEC. He has played in all 38 of his career games in Fayetteville.
Why he's ranked 10th: Entering his final season in college, Bequette starts the year 10th all-time on the Razorbacks all-time career sack list with 13.5. His 32 starts lead all Arkansas defensive lineman. Bequette is a preseason third-team All-American will lead what is ranked as the nation’s No. 9 defensive line by Athlon Sports.
11. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina (JR)
2010 stats: 79 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 PBU
After a standout freshman campaign, Gilmore had an up-and-down sophomore year. Despite going through some growing pains, Gilmore earned first-team All-SEC honors. He also led the team in tackles (79) and interceptions (three). One of Gilmore's three interceptions was returned for an 80-yard score against Furman.
Why he’s ranked 11th: The fact Gilmore was inconsistent, but still earned all-conference honors should speak volumes about his talent. The pieces around Gilmore should be better in 2011, which can only help South Carolina's secondary. Gilmore could jump to the NFL after this season, so there is certainly motivation to have a big year. Look for the junior to put everything together and contend for first-team All-American honors this season.
12. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama (JR)
2010 stats: 53 tackles, 3 INT, 4 TFL
Kirkpatrick excelled in his first full season as the starter. He finished fifth on the team in tackles and second in interceptions, as his outstanding length and raw physical talent continued to develop. Along with some talented Alabama teammates, Kirkpatrick helped lead the SEC’s top pass efficiency, total and scoring defense in 2010.
Why he's ranked 12th: As an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American selection, fans can expect Kirkpatrick’s ability to flourish in what should be the nation’s top secondary. The 6-foot-3 195-pound corner has elite NFL-type athletic ability that could translate into lockdown corner status by the end of 2011.
13. Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky (SR)
2010 stats: 144 tackles, 16 TFL, 3 sacks
Trevathan finished 2010 as one of the SEC’s best linebackers, but did so without much national fanfare. Considering Kentucky’s defense ranked near the bottom of the SEC against the run and in points allowed, Trevathan didn’t get the credit he deserved. Trevathan led the SEC with 144 tackles and finished second with four forced fumbles. He earned first-team All-SEC honors and was named conference player of the week with his performance in the season opener against Louisville.
Why he’s ranked 13th: Kentucky’s defense is under the direction of new coordinator Rick Minter, but Trevathan’s role shouldn’t change. The senior is one of the SEC’s top linebackers and is a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports. Trevathan is the leader of Kentucky’s defense and should be one of the team’s building blocks for improving that side of the ball this year.
14. Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas (SR)
2010 stats: 100 tackles, 13 TFL, 6.5 sacks
A playmaker all over the field, but especially behind the line of scrimmage, Franklin registered 13 tackles for a loss. He also was in on eight quarterback sacks (5 solo, 3 assist). Franklin led the Hogs in tackles a year ago and was awarded second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches. As the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week on Nov. 22, Franklin registered 20 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack in the Razorbacks overtime win over Mississippi State.
Why he's ranked 14th: Few players can play all over the field like the 6-foot-1 245-pound Franklin. He has started 37 games in his illustrious career - the most by any current Razorback. He has 281 career tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and five interceptions. He enters his final campaign as an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-SEC performer.
15. Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama (SR)
2010 stats: 52 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 4 FF
A high ankle sprain limited Upshaw early on, but he became Alabama's best pass rusher by the end of last year. Upshaw registered three sacks and two forced fumbles against Auburn. He followed up that performance with another monster effort in the Capital One Bowl, collecting two sacks and a forced fumble against Michigan State. Upshaw led Alabama with seven overall sacks and tied for third in the nation with four forced fumbes.
Why he’s ranked 15th: If Upshaw was healthy for the entire 2010 campaign, he could be much higher on this list. However, after showcasing his ability late in the year, he should contend for a spot on the All-SEC first-team ballot. Upshaw is Alabama's best pass rush option off the edge and should approach double-digit sacks in 2011.
16. Bradley Sowell, OL, Ole Miss (SR)
Sowell was one of the driving forces behind the success of the Ole Miss rushing attack last year. The Rebels finished third in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 207.6 yards per game. Ole Miss also allowed 14 sacks – the fewest in the SEC last year. Sowell started all 12 games and earned second-team All-SEC honors by the Associated Press.
Why he’s ranked 16th: With four starters returning, Ole Miss could have one of the best offensive lines in the SEC. Sowell is expected to be one of the top linemen in the conference and should pave the way for running back Brandon Bolden to top 1,000 yards. Expect the senior to finish with first-team all-conference honors at the end of 2011.
17. Greg Childs, WR, Arkansas (SR)
2010 stats: 46 rec., 659 yds., 6 TDs
A patellar tendon injury sidelined Childs for the final five games of last season. Even though Childs played in only eight games, he still finished third on the team in receiving yards, second in receptions and tied for first with six touchdown catches. Had Childs remained healthy, 2010 would have been a career statistical season. However, even with the loss of quarterback Ryan Mallett, Childs should easily threaten 1,000 receiving yards this year.
Why he’s ranked 17th: Mallett will be missed, but Tyler Wilson has played well in limited action. The bigger question for Arkansas will likely be the offensive line, where three starters must be replaced. Childs is one of four talented options in the receiving corps, so he won’t put up monster numbers similar to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery. However, Childs will likely finish with first-team All-SEC honors this year.
18. William Vlachos, C, Alabama (SR)
Vlachos earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2010, after starting at center for the second straight season. He helped lead the Crimson Tide to the No. 22 ranked offense in the nation at 444.08 yards per game (good for third in the SEC). The Tide finished 29th in the nation in rushing offense at nearly 183 yards per game. His battery mate, quarterback Greg McElroy, finished fourth nationally in QB efficiency, due in large part to the play of the offensive line in front of him.
Why he's ranked 18th: Vlachos is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American and a first-team All-SEC selection. He has started 27 straight games at center and should be in the running for the Rimington Trophy in 2011.
19. Cordy Glenn, OT, Georgia (SR)
Glenn earned second-team All-SEC honors by the coaches voting in 2010. The massive mauler, at 6-foot-5 and 348 pounds, helped produce one of the best freshman seasons by an SEC quarterback in recent memory by protecting Aaron Murray. Glenn earned Pro Football Weekly All-American honors in 2010.
Why he's ranked 19th: Glenn has started all 26 games over the last two seasons, and as he shifts to the all-important left tackle position, Glenn enters 2011 as a fringe All-American candidate and easy first-team All-SEC selection. He is charged with protecting the blind side of “franchise quarterback” Murray in 2011.
20. Michael Dyer, RB, Auburn (SO)
2010 stats: 182 car., 1,093 yds., 5 TDs
Dyer ranked as the No. 2 running back among 2010 high school seniors by Athlon Sports. So far, he has lived up to the hype. Dyer posted four 100-yard performances and averaged six yards a carry last year. Dyer collected offensive MVP honors against Oregon in the national title game, rushing for 143 yards on 22 carries.
Why he’s ranked 20th: With Cam Newton off to the NFL, it's up to Dyer to pickup some of the slack on offense. However, the Tigers have four new starters on the offensive line. Dyer won't be asked to do everything in the backfield, as junior Onterio McCalebb will see his share of snaps. Even with a revamped line and new starting quarterback, expect the sophomore to rush for over 1,000 yards and emerge as Auburn's top offensive threat in 2011.
21. Larry Warford, OL, Kentucky (JR)
The 6-foot-3 340-pound hog molly returns to what should be the strength of Kentucky's offense. The preseason first-team All-SEC guard led the team in knockdown blocks with 43 in 2010.
22. Robert Lester, S, Alabama (JR)
With Lester and Mark Barron returning, Alabama boasts one of the nation's top safety tandems. Lester ranked second in college football with eight interceptions last year. He also earned second-team All-SEC honors.
23. Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas (SR)
The talented in-state receiver led the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns a year ago. He is a dynamic player in the slot and is extremely difficult to catch in the open field.
24. Orson Charles, TE, Georgia (JR)
The talent is dripping from the junior’s 6-foot-3 240-pound frame. Charles simply needs to put a consistent season together to validate his Athlon Sports third-team All-American preseason honor. Expect big things from Charles and high school teammate Aaron Murray in 2011.
25. Malik Jackson, DL, Tennessee (SR)
The 2010 All-SEC second teamer returns after a solid five-sack, 11-TFL season in Knoxville. The preseason first-team All-SEC pick will be called upon to lead a young group of front seven defenders in 2011.
26. Ben Jones, C, Georgia (SR)
If it wasn’t for that star at center in Tuscaloosa, Jones would be an easy first-team All-SEC preseason selection in 2011. He enters his final season with 35 career starts at center for the Dawgs.
27. Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt (SR)
The talented defensive back put it all together in 2010, finishing second in the SEC with six interceptions and earning second-team All-SEC recognition. Hayward returns for his final season to lead a veteran-laden Vandy secondary.
28. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU (SO)
Mathieu was one of the top freshmen in the SEC last year. He served as LSU's nickel back, collecting 57 tackles, five forced fumbles and 4.5 sacks. Expect the sophomore to stay in the nickel back role, but remain one of the key playmakers for this defense.
29. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU (JR)
With Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the same secondary last year, Claiborne was often overlooked. However, the junior earned second-team All-SEC honors last season, while collecting five interceptions. Even though Peterson left for the NFL, the Claiborne-Mathieu tandem could be among the best in college football.
30. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas (JR)
Even though Ryan Mallett is taking snaps with the New England Patriots, Arkansas should feel pretty good about its quarterback situation. Wilson has looked good in limited action and with the SEC's best receiving corps returning, Arkansas shouldn't miss a beat on offense this year.
31. Kentrell Lockett, DE, Ole Miss (SR)
32. Chris Marve, LB, Vanderbilt (SR)
33. Tramain Thomas, S, Arkansas (SR)
34. Chris Relf, QB, Mississippi State (SR)
35. Brandon Bolden, RB, Ole Miss (SR)
36. Corey Broomfield, CB, Mississippi State
37. Bobby Massie, OL, Ole Miss
38. Jadevon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
39. Sharrif Floyd, DL, Florida
40. Blair Walsh, K, Georgia
Just Missing the Top 40
Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State
Chad Bumphis, WR, Mississippi State
Drew Butler, P, Georgia
Jelani Jenkins, LB, Florida
Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
Tauren Poole, RB, Tennessee
Bacarri Rambo, S, Georgia
Tenarius Wright, DE, Arkansas
More SEC Content:
Athlon's 2011 SEC Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-SEC Team
Countdown to College Football Kickoff 2011
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
Will Mark Richt Coach at Georgia in 2012?
Ranking the College Football Coaching Jobs: SEC