25 names to know in the SEC in 2020
One of the unique paradoxes of college football is that fans remain loyal to the brand and school, even as they become deeply drawn to players who are only with their favorite teams for a short while.
Unlike professional sports, there aren’t “lifers,” save the occasional coach. Players have only 4-5 years to make their mark, and the best last only 3 years and in most instances, are only bona fide stars for 2 seasons. Still, the passion that surrounds supporting the institution and logo means players can make the jump from hopeful recruit to hero and program legend in a short time span.
Recent SEC history is full of great examples of college football’s quick path to immortality.
Tim Tebow was just another 5-star quarterback in 2006, but when he lofted the perfect jump pass to Tate Casey in the 2006 Florida-LSU game, the makings of a legend were born. Derrick Henry was a small-town running back who some college recruiters thought profiled better as a linebacker when he arrived at Alabama in 2013. He played sparingly as a freshman but broke out in a powerful timeshare with TJ Yeldon as a sophomore. By his junior year, he was the bellcow in a powerful rushing offense, rushing for an SEC record 2,219 yards and winning the Heisman Trophy. Jake Fromm wasn’t even supposed to play much at Georgia as a freshman. He stepped in when starter Jacob Eason got hurt early in the year and never looked back, leading Georgia to an SEC Championship, a national championship game and 3 SEC East titles. Joe Burrow, well. What else is there to possibly say about Joe Burrow?
The point is that even with the pain of seeing your favorite players gone so quickly, college football’s constant roster turnover carries its own reward: Someone is always “next.” Sometimes it’s a player who takes a big leap, like Henry or Burrow. Sometimes it’s a hotshot recruit or two come good, like Alabama’s Julio Jones in 2009 or Georgia’s pairing of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in 2017. Sometimes it’s a redemption story, like Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010. But someone is always “next.”
Here are 25 names to know in the SEC when thinking about who is “next” in 2020.
25. Jordan Burch, DE, South Carolina
Will Muschamp needed this recruiting win like crops need rain. Like Jadeveon Clowney years before him, Burch is the type of electric talent who can play — and make a difference, immediately. Muschamp has always been a master at moving defensive ends around, stunting and putting young, physical linemen like Burch in a position to succeed. He’ll do the same here, and this 5-star freshman is a great early candidate for SEC Freshman of the Year on a defense that needs to get back to the Muschamp standard in 2020.
24. Shawn Robinson, QB, Missouri
The TCU transfer was a big recruit for Gary Patterson in Fort Worth, and he should be expected to take the reins in CoMo next season.
His dual-threat capability seems like a perfect fit for Eli Drinkwitz’s offensive system. The Malzahn disciple made the most of his 1 season with Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas in his system, as Thomas threw for 2,718 yards and ran for 440 more. Robinson will be the focal point of a Missouri offense that struggled mightily down the stretch in 2019.
23. John Rhys Plumlee, QB, Ole Miss
By November of last season, no young player in the SEC excited me more than John Rhys Plumlee. The man whose name sounds more like a law firm than a quarterback went savage mode against eventual national champion LSU, rushing for 212 yards and 4 touchdowns and adding 123 yards and a TD through the air. Usually, 5 TD performances from freshman quarterbacks win games. That wasn’t good enough vs. LSU, but it got my attention.
It will be interesting to see Lane Kiffin handle a dual-threat quarterback, especially with 4-star Matt Corral still very much on campus and competing. But my guess is Kiffin finds a way to make this kid work — just as he’s always been able to adapt for his talent. The results could be extraordinary.
22. Rakeem Boyd, RB, Arkansas
One thing that flew under the radar in the middle of the tire fire that was Arkansas’ 2019 season was the emergence of Boyd, who is by some distance the most underrated RB in the SEC. Boyd ran for 1,133 yards at a 6.2 yards per carry clip and did so despite playing in an offense that lacked any consistency in the passing game.
The arrival of Feleipe Franks and offensive line whisperer Sam Pittman should mean even bigger things for Boyd in 2020. If you didn’t know who he was in 2019, you will be the end of this football season.
21. Josh Palmer, WR, Tennessee
There will be people on the Tennessee hype train in 2020 and I might just end up joining them. The offensive line has a chance to be great (more below) and Jay Graham should improve the running back unit. The biggest issue? Are the Vols ready to replace Marquez Callaway and Tennessee great Jauan Jennings? They fueled the Vols passing game last season and there’s no real certain answer behind them — except for Palmer. Palmer had 34 catches for 457 yards last season but did his best work down the stretch, including a 6-reception, 68-yard performance in Tennessee’s come from behind Gator Bowl win. He’ll be the guy next year on a good team — which usually gets you national attention.
20. KJ Costello, QB, Mississippi State
A graduate transfer with 3 years of starting quarterback experience who once threw for over 3,500 yards at Stanford in Mike Leach’s Air Raid system?
Costello was universally considered an All-American candidate before his star-crossed, injury-plagued 2019 season in Palo Alto. If he’s healthy, he’ll not only get a chance to play in a modern, pass-happy offense — he’ll get to do it with Kylin Hill, the best running back Mike Leach has ever had the privilege to coach, in the backfield with him. That’s a scary thought.
19. Jerrion Ealy, RB, Ole Miss
Lane Kiffin has a way of coaxing marvelous production out of his running backs. Ask Derrick Henry. Ask FAU legend Devin Singletary. Henry won a Heisman, Singletary was a Doak Walker finalist. Both excelled under Kiffin.
If he has a guy who can tote the rock, he’ll make sure he has the football. Plus, with Kiffin almost certain to make John Rhys Plumlee pass a bit more, Ealy’s ability to catch passes (20 receptions as a freshman) could come in handy. The slippery Rebel running back averaged nearly 8 yards a touch as a freshman. Imagine that production in Lane’s scheme.
18. Daijun Edwards, RB, Georgia
Am I spraining my shoulder on this reach? Maybe.
Then again, here are the facts. D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien are gone. James Cook is in limbo. That leaves Zamir White, but we all know Kirby Smart loves to play two dudes.
I like Edwards, a compact runner with great leg turnover who can get tough yards, to come out and seize that spot. With Zachary Evans out of the fold, he’ll have every opportunity.
17. Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A & M
A four-year starter in year three under Jimbo Fisher? Seems like a prime candidate for a player that make take the next step. Mond’s 2019 was a disappointment compared to the leap he took in 2018, with his yard production down and his yards per attempt (6.9) below the national average (7.2). But the schedule softens a bit for the Aggies in 2020 and it’s now or never for Mond to finally put all that talent together and produce a consistent, complete season. EJ Manuel took that leap for Jimbo Fisher as a senior. Why not Mond?
16. Henry To’o To’o, LB, Tennessee
Want to know what a future All-American linebacker profiles as during their freshman season? How about a 72-tackle campaign that involves being a 3-down linebacker who can cover the boundary and get to the football? That’s To’o To’o, and while the Vols have questions all over the place at the other linebacker spots, this is one dude they’ll be able to rely on in 2020. He’ll be the heart and soul of Jeremy Pruitt’s defense and maybe the football team.
15. Kavosiey Smoke, RB, Kentucky
Lynn Bowden Jr. and the single-wing era ended in the Belk Bowl, which opens the door for Smoke. A bowling ball with underrated speed, he runs a little bit like Benny Snell Jr., and his 616-yard redshirt freshman season– which came with little threat of a passing game — backs up the heady comparison. Look for another 1,000-yard plus tailback on the bluegrass in 2020.
14. Tyrion Davis-Price, LSU
Someone has to step into Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s formidable shoes. Why not Davis-Price? He wasn’t as highly-touted as John Emery Jr., but he played more football last season spelling Helaire, and I think he’s a bit better in the passing game. LSU’s personnel losses are massive, as is often the case with a national champion. But at nationally elite programs, the next guy is ready to step up. There’s always a good running back in Baton Rouge. Why would 2020 be any different?
13. Feleipe Franks, Arkansas
What if I told you there was a returning starting quarterback in the SEC who beat Joe Burrow head-to-head and actually posted better numbers in his first year under Dan Mullen than Burrow did in his first season in Baton Rouge? You’d probably chuckle, but Feleipe Franks is that man. No, Franks isn’t going to pull a Joe Burrow at Arkansas, of all places. But here’s a little secret: No one’s going to pull a Joe Burrow. What I do think is that Franks can steady an Arkansas program starved for talent and production at the quarterback position. And Franks is a winner — having led Florida to a New Year’s 6 Bowl win as a sophomore. It’s a huge upgrade for the Hogs — and potentially a great 2020 story.
12. Zamir White, Georgia
It’s finally his time. No more D’Andre Swift. No more getting beat out by Brian Herrien for the two spot. Smart says he’s healthy. He just played the best football game of his career in the Sugar Bowl.
All signs point to White being the bellcow for the Dawgs in 2020, and it could be fun to watch.
11. Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
One guy who doesn’t get enough love? How about Mac Jones, the Jacksonville product who committed the cardinal sin of not being Tua Tagovailoa this past season.
Sure, Alabama lost the Iron Bowl. But did y’all see how Jones played? 26-39 for 335 and 4 TD? Then he strafes a Don Brown defense in the Citrus Bowl?
There’s only one more underappreciated quarterback (see below) in the SEC coming back in 2020. Jones is legit and Alabama will be just fine.
10. Trevon Grimes, WR, Florida
The Ohio State transfer came into his own late in the 2019 season, posting huge games against Vanderbilt and Missouri in Florida’s stretch run to the Orange Bowl. He was mostly an afterthought behind Florida’s sensational quartet of senior wide receivers last season, but his combination of size and speed make him a 1st- or 2nd-round NFL Draft prospect as he heads into his senior season. Grimes’s growth as a route-runner will be critical to Florida’s offense in 2019, but departing Van Jefferson had this to say about that at the Orange Bowl: “Tre, when he’s the dude, no one can cover him.” A pretty big-time endorsement from one of the best players at the Senior Bowl, and a reason for Gators fans to be excited about 2020.
9. Isaiah Spiller, RB, Texas A&M
Another one of those under-the-radar young running backs that came on strong for Jimbo Fisher’s club in 2019. His bowl game performance- and some tough yards in a lost cause against LSU- were particularly impressive. Look for Spiller to break the 1,000-yard barrier in 2020.
8. Jhamon Ausbon, WR, Texas A&M
Staying in College Station, the Aggies received a huge boost when leading receiver Jhamon Ausbon (66, 872, 5 TD) elected to return for his senior season. Very highly recruited out of Houston, Ausbon took a while to find his bearings. But with Kellen Mond (a name you already know) returning for his senior season, Ausbon will have every opportunity for a memorable senior year as the frisbee catcher portion of a duo that could light up some defenses in the SEC.
7. George Pickens, WR, Georgia
If you watched the Sugar Bowl, you saw the 5-star talent everyone in America recruited. Focused. Fast. Strong and physical.
By his own admission, Pickens battled maturity issues in 2019 as a freshman, struggling with the adjustment to college and SEC defenses. It looks like he’s figured it out — just in time to be the leader of Georgia’s revamped, really talented but still inexperienced wide receiver corps.
If Jamie Newman lives up to the hype, Pickens will be a big reason why.
6. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Florida’s leading returner in terms of passing game production, Pitts will be a consensus All-American in 2020. He’s too fast for linebackers and too physical for safeties. Ask Grant Delpit:
Kyle Pitts is a beast. That's Grant Delpit he's up against here. Also a great throw from Kyle Trask. pic.twitter.com/jNnf84SvJj
— Sam Cooper (@SamDCooper) October 14, 2019
With an improved offensive line, Florida should also have more balance — something that will only benefit a player as smooth in his route running as Pitts.
5. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Harris’s decision to return for his senior season raised some eyebrows nationally, but in truth it made sense. With Mac Jones taking the reins and attrition at wide receiver, Alabama figures to be a bit more of a run the ball to set up play-action offense in 2020. That will directly benefit Harris, who might not surpass his 1,223-yard junior season, but should equal it and find more of his touches end in 6 points.
4. Kylin Hill, RB, Mississippi State
Before the running back became devalued in the NFL, Kylin Hill never would have returned for his senior season. Fortunately for Mike Leach, Hill did.
There’s a decent argument Hill is the best running back who has ever played for Leach, and while Leach’s offense isn’t necessarily set up to allow Hill to replicate his 1,350-yard performance last season, he’s still going to be the best football player Leach has.
How fun could that be?
3. Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
The best returning quarterback in the SEC from a production standpoint, Trask nearly threw for 3,000 yards in only 10 starts in 2020. He tossed 25 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions and seemed to enjoy the big stage, with a brilliant game against Auburn and a hard-fought back and forth tilt with Joe Burrow on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge. Trask also should benefit from more balance this year, which should open up pieces of Dan Mullen’s play-action game that weren’t available to the heady senior quarterback a year ago. That could spell a special season in The Swamp.
2. Seth Williams, WR, Auburn
Williams put together one of the best single-season campaigns for a wide receiver in Auburn history in 2019, grabbing 59 receptions for 830 yards and 8 touchdowns. With young quarterback Bo Nix only improving, and Williams getting another year to develop as a route-runner, the idea that he might only be getting started is a frightening thought. Almost as frightening as trying to cover a player as fast and physical as Williams with a corner. He’d be the scariest wide receiver in college football, except …
1. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Look, he’s not going to have 1,780 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns next season. But he’s still the best wide receiver in the sport. No one can cover him. Georgia couldn’t, and they dropped 7. Clemson couldn’t, and they … played man? Florida couldn’t, and they had CJ Henderson. Alabama couldn’t, and they had Trevon Diggs, Nick Saban mixing up coverages and safety help. It can’t be done. So Ja’Marr Chase will be open and he will score touchdowns. And this was the easiest spot on the list.