1 player from every SEC team that I underestimated in the preseason
I was wrong.
Not about everything, but at least about some things. I’m humble enough to admit that not all of my preseason takes were spot on.
In terms of teams within the SEC, I doubted Georgia against Clemson. I thought LSU would take care of business out West against UCLA and I predicted that Tennessee would find a way to beat Pitt.
But in terms of actual players within the SEC, buddy, I was wrong on plenty of those guys already. Maybe “wrong” isn’t the proper word. Instead, why don’t we say that I underestimated them.
This is reserved for the guys I didn’t have on my preseason All-SEC ballot who already look the part, albeit in a limited sample size:
Alabama — Jameson Williams, WR
I knew some people at Ohio State who were crushed to see Williams go. We’re talking about someone who contributed in a significant way in a Playoff game last year. I was looking forward to seeing his impact, but I’d be lying if I told you I thought he’d essentially match his entire 2020 production in the first 2 games of 2021 with his new team. Basically half of that came on 1 play, too.
JAMESON WILLIAMS 94-YARD HOUSE CALL 🚀🚀
— 247Sports (@247Sports) September 4, 2021
It wasn’t just that play, either. Against Mercer, he ran a beautiful out route that got him some separation and an easy score. He’s already the team’s leading receiver and a clear answer to the popular preseason question “who will be the No. 2 alongside John Metchie?”
Arkansas — Zach Williams, Edge
A major issue for the Razorbacks heading into 2021 was who was going to rush the passer. Williams wasn’t a starter from Day 1, but in that Texas game, he certainly looked the part. He had a key strip-sack of Hudson Card on a backside rush that allowed Arkansas to put that game on ice. Now starting in place of the injured Dorian Gerald, Williams is going to consistently get more reps than the 23 snaps he got vs. Texas in that Jack linebacker position. He had half a sack in the opener against Rice, as well. A guy who came to campus weighing just north of 200 pounds — he enrolled at 204 pounds — now looks the part of a veteran edge rusher for a Top 25 Arkansas team.
Auburn — Jarquez Hunter, RB
If you’re sensing a theme here, you’re smart. It’s guys who have filled holes in areas that appeared to be wide open coming into the season. That was the case for Auburn’s backfield depth. We knew Tank Bigsby was going to be the feature back, and that Shaun Shivers would be a low-volume option. What we didn’t know was what to expect from Hunter after he enrolled over the summer. It turns out, the dude can jet. In both of the Tigers’ first 2 games, he came in and dominated once Bigsby’s day was done. That included a 94-yard touchdown run, which was the longest in program history.
Jarquez Hunter. 94 yards. Untouched.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 11, 2021
Hunter added another 63 yards on 9 carries against Penn State, including one that went for 24 yards. That was on the road against a defense who hadn’t allowed a run of 20 yards all season. The former track star is a major home-run threat every time he touches the rock. Perhaps even more important, he looks like a legitimate complement to Bigsby, who is going to take no shortage of hits this season. Hunter earned himself a role in this offense.
Florida — Anthony Richardson, QB
Ah, yes. Where do we start? How about the fact that Richardson has been nearly perfect in just 37 snaps this year? Or what about his 21 yards per touch? What about the pregame somersault/backflip at 6-4, 240 pounds? If you erase the minimum snap requirement, the guy is already PFF’s No. 1 graded quarterback in America. By the way, he’s the leading rusher on the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense … with 11 total carries. That’s after missing the Alabama game. Not bad for someone who was assumed to be the backup. There’s no debate that Richardson outperformed Emory Jones so far. And it’s not that everyone was sleeping on Richardson eventually be this good.
SEC Network analyst and former Florida great Chris Doering told me in May that there wasn’t this perceived gap between Jones and Richardson. As long as Richardson can return from the hamstring injury he suffered against USF, he’s going to continue to put pressure on Jones.
Georgia — Brock Bowers, TE
If you had told someone in August that there was a game-changing young Georgia tight end, they would’ve assumed you were referring to Darnell Washington or Arik Gilbert. Nope. There’s a new stud tight end in Athens and it’s Bowers. DawgNation’s Mike Griffith told me before the start of the season they thought the blue-chip recruit was going to be like George Kittle. That’s lofty praise. All Bowers has done is live up to that. He was the leading receiver in his first college game, and for an encore, look at this play that he made against UAB.
Tight ends usually don’t run this fast…
— Matt DeBary (@MattDeBary) September 11, 2021
That’s a tight end blowing past a safety with an angle. For 88 yards. Mercy. This kid is already special. He’s the team’s leading receiver through 3 games, and he’s already got more catches and receiving yards than Darnell Washington last year. Bowers only needs another 10 catches for 178 yards to match UGA’s entire 2020 passing game production from the tight end position.
Kentucky — Jacquez Jones, LB
It’s not often you see a leading tackler of a Power 5 team transfer without a coaching change. Jones did just that, and Kentucky welcomed the Ole Miss transfer with open arms over the summer. Speaking of Jones’ arms, they hauled in what was a ridiculous interception of Connor Bazelak against Mizzou that flipped the field early in the second half for Kentucky. That’s what a veteran like Jones can do. He can drop back in coverage and make that game-changing play.
So far, PFF has him as the SEC’s third-highest graded inside linebacker behind only Grant Morgan and Nakobe Dean. Kentucky already had a wealth of experience in the front 7 before Jones arrived in June. Getting him added another key presence to a group looking to its 2018 ways.
LSU — Jaquelin Roy, DT
I could’ve gone with Maason Smith, but I went with his defensive line mate, Roy, who has been solid to start his second season in Baton Rouge. Against McNeese, he forced and recovered a key fumble that gave LSU a short field when the Tigers clung to a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter. He was part of the reason McNeese was held to 1.2 yards per carry, as well. Roy graded out as PFF’s No. 5 Power 5 interior defensive lineman through Week 3, and his pass-rushing grade is tops among all FBS defensive tackles.
The homegrown former 4-star recruit might be more of a pass-rushing force for now, but he looks like a guy who should continue to move closer to an every-down player. His snap count increased every game on Ed Orgeron’s defensive line. With 6th-year veteran Andre Anthony out for the rest of the year, LSU needs Roy to be that consistent force up front.
MSU — Makai Polk, WR
We knew that if MSU was going to truly establish the Air Raid in Year 2 of the Mike Leach era, a few things had to happen. The offensive line play had to improve, Will Rogers had to develop with his decision making and MSU was going to need receivers more comfortable with the Air Raid route tree. Polk is exactly who MSU needed to accomplish that last item. The Cal transfer stepped in and immediately become Rogers’ go-to target split out wide. MSU is going to consistently see double coverage downfield, but when you’re 6-3 with next-level ball skills, that’s less of a concern:
Junior, Makai Polk showing his high pointing ability on a big 3rd down pic.twitter.com/N2QZiyEU1N
— Tyler Browning (@DiabeticTyler) September 20, 2021
How valuable has Polk been? Besides being the team’s leading receiver, the guy played 81 (!) snaps against Memphis. He’s got 11 more catches than any other MSU receiver — we’re excluding the running backs because the majority of those targets are swing passes that serve as stretch plays in Leach’s offense — and he’s leading the SEC with 25 catches. Don’t be surprised if that holds through 2021.
Mizzou — Tyler Badie, RB
It’s not that I was down on Badie. He was excellent as a pass-catching, change-of-pace back alongside the workhorse Larry Rountree last year. With Rountree gone, that’s exactly what I thought Badie would continue to be. I didn’t think Eli Drinkwitz wanted to use Badie in a high-volume role, and Elijah Young was the most likely to see a significant uptick in workload. Boy, did I whiff on that one. Look at the volume for Badie so far:
- No. 2 in SEC in carries (48)
- No. 2 in SEC in rushing yards (345)
- No. 1 among SEC running backs in total offensive naps (155)
- 21 scrimmage touches per game
- 72 snaps played vs. Kentucky
Keep in mind that in game No. 3 against Southeast Missouri State, Badie only had 22 snaps … he still scored 3 touchdowns on his 11 touches. Badie has been a machine so far. Can he hold up for the entire year? That remains to be seen. He runs with such burst that surely Drinkwitz is going to take extra precautions to keep him fresh during the week. If Badie continues his fast start, he’s well on his way to an All-SEC season.
Ole Miss — Chance Campbell, LB
Not many Power 5 all-conference selections transfer. It’s a good thing Campbell did because he’s been a major part of Ole Miss’ defensive turnaround in 2021 so far. Reuniting with DJ Durkin, Campbell fittingly made the very first defensive play of the year for Ole Miss, which was a tackle for loss. His instincts have been a welcome presence for an Ole Miss defense that appears to be in the midst of a total 180 from last year. The guy gets off blocks and pursues ball-carriers like he’s Brian Urlacher.
Chance Campbell is THAT guy pic.twitter.com/h5ezpvLm4G
— TJOxley1 (@TJOxley1) September 7, 2021
In addition to being the team’s leading tackler, he recorded either multiple tackles for loss, a fumble recovery or a sack in every game so far. You can use him to spy, he can blitz and he can make that key tackle in the open field. Don’t expect the proven grad transfer’s production to fade in SEC play, either.
South Carolina — Josh Vann, WR
There weren’t a ton of highlights from that Georgia game, but man, Vann delivered one of them:
YOU. GOT. MOSSED. pic.twitter.com/FBB9dZyb7x
— The Spurs Up Show (@TheSpursUpShow) September 20, 2021
Of course, that was a bit overshadowed by the taunting penalty that Vann picked up. He made up for it later with a touchdown on the left sideline, which marked the first offensive touchdown allowed by the UGA defense all year. He nearly had another long touchdown against ECU, but he fumbled on the goal line.
Vann has had an interesting go at South Carolina so far. The former U.S. Army All-American receiver admittedly fell out of love with the sport during the Will Muschamp era. Now, that’s back with Shane Beamer’s staff. He’s already got career highs in yards (282) and receiving touchdowns (2). For a South Carolina passing offense who desperately needed a WR1 to emerge, Vann appears up to the task.
Tennessee — Matthew Butler, DT
I’m on record saying I thought the Vols would have the SEC’s worst defense in 2021, so to say I had low expectations for Tim Banks’ group would be putting it mildly. I certainly didn’t envision a world in which the Vols would go into the Florida game ranked No. 9 against the run. Butler has been a huge part of that. So far, he ranks No. 2 among Power 5 interior linemen in PFF run-defense grade. And among the 96 FBS interior defensive linemen with at least 120 snaps, Butler has the highest overall grade.
He really made his presence felt against Pitt with 7 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss for a Tennessee defensive line who held Pitt to just 2.1 yards per carry. We’ll see if Butler can continue that fast start against Florida’s No. 2 rushing offense, but regardless of how that shakes out, he and Tyler Baron have been massive in the front 7. The 5th year defensive tackle was recruited by Butch Jones’ staff, so he’s no stranger to some strange times in Knoxville. Perhaps he saved his best for last.
Texas A&M — Antonio Johnson, CB
It wasn’t that I lacked belief in A&M’s defense. I thought it was poised to be Mike Elko’s best yet at A&M. So far, so good. The Aggies have the No. 1 scoring defense in America. I didn’t doubt the A&M secondary, either. But I’d be lying if I said I expected Johnson to be this impactful from the jump. He was everywhere against Colorado, which so far, is the only really competitive game the Aggies played in.
He’s the team’s leading tackler through 3 games, and he’s PFF’s No. 6 corner in FBS. Better yet, he’s the only FBS corner with grades of at least 79.0 both in coverage and defending the run. Elko loves playing Johnson in nickel because of his versatility (88% of his snaps were at slot corner so far). He’s far more impactful there then at safety, where he originally played at last year. Getting a full offseason after entering 2020 as a true freshman has certainly done Johnson wonders.
Vanderbilt — Chris Pierce, WR
To be fair, Pierce led Vandy in receiving touchdowns last year, and he was one of the few bright spots down the stretch in 2020. But did I see him making highlight reel catches like this from the jump in this new offense? Nope.
— The Dore Report (@dore_report) September 12, 2021
If he’s gonna make plays like that at 6-4, 235 pounds, that’s huge for Ken Seals and that offense. Pierce took advantage of the free year of eligibility in 2020 and returned for a 5th year. So far, that’s paying off in a major way for a desperate Vandy offense. He’s the team’s leading receiver with 181 receiving yards through 3 games. In his last 9 games dating back to last season, he’s got 6 touchdown grabs. If Vandy is going to keep its head afloat in SEC play, it’ll be because Pierce continued to emerge as a go-to target for Seals.