Ranking the Top 25 freshmen in the SEC for 2020
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Top 25 week continues with the ranking of the best freshmen in the SEC.
The Southeastern Conference loses more talent every offseason to the NFL than any other league, yet manages to stay at the top of the sport due to the fact the league annually brings in more elite talent than everybody else.
Losing star power is never easy, but thanks to players like the 25 listed below, the SEC is going to prove once again this fall that it’s home to some of the best young talent in the country.
One note on this list: I’ve attempted to combine several factors in making these selections, including raw talent from each player, playing at a position of need and early buzz from training camps. These rankings are not projections of the careers these players will have — these rankings are based purely on impact for the 2020 season.
We also wanted to show some love for South Carolina’s MarShawn Lloyd and Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, both of whom would have made this list had they not suffered injuries leading up to the season.
25. QB Will Rogers, Mississippi State
We all know graduate transfers arrive planning to start, and while I expect that will be the case for KJ Costello, I expect to see Rogers on the field this fall in Starkville. The freshman has been a target for Mike Leach for a long time and while Mississippi State fans may have been disappointed to see Gardner Minshew leave the state to play his college football, at least the Bulldogs managed to land his heir apparent at Brandon High School. Leach has consistently praised the freshman signal-caller during camp and it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if Rogers is named Mississippi State’s backup heading into the season.
24. DL Jordan Burch, South Carolina
South Carolina already looked to have some solid depth on the defensive line heading into the season and that was before the Gamecocks signed several promising prospects, headlined by Burch. All of these players are going to see the field now with the NCAA handing out a free season of eligibility. Look for Burch to play a role in South Carolina’s defense, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be an immediate star this fall. That time will come, it just won’t be immediate.
23. WR/QB Jimmy Holiday, Tennessee
After spending spring — all 2 practices of it — at quarterback, Holiday was moved to receiver by Tennessee’s coaching staff in order to expedite his path to the field this fall. The former high school QB is a dynamic play-maker, so look for Jim Chaney to scheme up as many ways as possible to feed the freshman. Whether it’s on screens, sweeps, Wildcat or even under center, Holiday is likely to line up all over the field this season. Having an athlete with the ability to throw is only going to make him that much more difficult to contain for defenses.
22. OL Marcus Dumervil, LSU
Dumervil has a few things going for him. LSU has struggled to get consistent play at the offensive tackle position in recent years, the starting offensive line is being completely rebuilt and following the news that the unit was hit hard by COVID exposure last week, the freshman was not among the players missing from practice. Sooner or later, potentially right out of the gate, Dumervil will have an opportunity to show what he can do on the field.
21. WR Xzavier Henderson, Florida
It might be accurate to say Florida lost a ton of receiving production from last year’s team, but the narrative that the room has been left bare is far from accurate. That should suit Henderson well, as he won’t be asked to carry the load immediately but will have an opportunity to come in and make plays early during his freshman season. Don’t be surprised if Henderson is a starter by the end of the season in Dan Mullen’s offense.
20. DL Andy Boykin, Arkansas
Arkansas signed higher-rated prospects than the Georgia product, but they didn’t sign any defensive prospects who were bigger than the 6-3, 301-pound run-stuffer. In fact, the Razorbacks only have one defensive lineman on the roster who bigger than Boykin (Jonathan Marshall) heading into the fall. But it’s not just size that sets Boykin apart, he’ll bring the energy, enthusiasm and attitude that’s been missing in the trenches for the Razorbacks in recent seasons and it will be tough for Arkansas to keep him off the field for long.
19. RB Elijah Young, Missouri
Eli Drinkwitz was brought in to fix the offense. To accomplish that goal, the first-year Mizzou coach has to utilize every weapon he has. That includes a talented athlete like Young, who could line up at running back and will be used in the slot and on special teams. Young possesses the ideal versatility that Drinkwitz envisions for his offense and given all the extra time the coach has had this offseason to scheme up plays, expect many big plays from the freshman running back this fall.
18. WR Javon Baker, Alabama
Alabama has been on an outstanding run of receivers in recent seasons and early buzz from camp suggests Baker is the next. With defenses focused on the established star offensive players, there will be plenty of opportunities for a freshman to shine. The big question is, which freshman will make the most of those chances? The early camp reviews suggest Baker will be that player.
17. RB Kevontre Bradford, LSU
Expect LSU to use a committee approach following the offseason departures of Clyde Edwards-Helarie and Joe Burrow — they combined for 330 carries last season. And while the focus of the LSU running game is likely to shift toward John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price, Ed Orgeron had been quick to praise his freshman tailback, Bradford. “I want you to remember this name now, Kevontre Bradford. He is a talented young man,” Orgeron said leading up to the start of camp. If Coach O believes in him, that’s all I need to know to put him on this list.
16. LB Demon Clowney, Ole Miss
The Rebels were already in need of pass rushers and now with Sam Williams currently suspended in Oxford, the path to field opens even wider for Clowney. A former LSU commit, the Tigers cut ties with Clowney leading up to the Early Signing Period. Those moves often come back to haunt programs and considering Clowney stayed in the same division as LSU, he’s unlikely to forget what happened to him during his recruiting process. (And, yes, his cousin is former South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney.)
15. WR Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin, Mississippi State
One of the biggest question marks for the Bulldogs following the hire of Mike Leach was whether the program has the receivers capable of excelling in the Air Raid offense. While Mississippi State did manage to lure Alabama graduate transfer Tyrell Shavers to Starkville, the offseason addition to the receiver room generating the most buzz in camp is Griffin. “I think he’s a special young man, he’s tough. He’s going to make a difference for us this year… He does a lot of the things I’m looking for,” MSU receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. recently said of Griffin. We all know there are going to be plenty of passes to catch this season in Starkville and Griffin could be on the receiving end of many of them.
14. DB Key Lawrence, Tennessee
Tennessee enters the season with solid depth at cornerback, which Lawrence could end up playing during his career, but considering he’s likely to get his first college action at safety, it might not be long before the Tennessee native sees the field. Jeremy Pruitt and Derrick Ansley have never shied away from playing young players if they earn their way, and Lawerence looks to be the next in a long line of defensive backs to emerge under the noted secondary coaches.
13. QB Haynes King, Texas A&M
This pick might surprise many, but don’t be stunned when King sees the field this fall. There’s so much uncertainty in general this season, but you can bank on this: King is likely the future of the program. If Kellen Mond struggles, which isn’t that unbelievable based on what we’ve seen from — or finds himself unavailable for whatever reason — look for King to slide into the starting lineup and flash his massive potential. He was the No. 5 dual-threat QB in the 2020 class.
12. OL Tate Ratledge, Georgia
Georgia’s offensive line is being rebuilt this season. Or, in terms of talent, reloaded. One freshman already turning heads during camp is Ratledge, who could be a starter by the time the season rolls around. The nation’s No. 3 tackle recruit, he already looks the part at 6-6 317 pounds. Even if Ratledge isn’t a starter for Week 1, he likely will work himself into the starting lineup by the end of his first season.
11. LB Will Anderson, Alabama
Alabama needs pass rushers to emerge this fall and Anderson looks like the prime candidate among the newcomers. Anderson, along with fellow freshman Drew Sanders, recently received praise from their coach following the first scrimmage of camp.
“(They) both have shown some promise,” Nick Saban said of Anderson and Sanders. “They’re still working through understanding exactly what to do and how to do it, but they’re both guys that I think can probably contribute to the team.”
10. DL Gervon Dexter, Florida
This selection has less to do with Florida’s need for a freshman to come in and play immediately on the line and more to do with Dexter’s potential and massive frame that’s going to make it hard for the Gators to keep him off the field. The towering 6-7, 289-pound Dexter should get plenty of opportunities to prove his worth as a run stopper, and considering the 10-game league schedule, having depth in the trenches should prove to be in invaluable this fall.
9. QB/WR Luke Doty, South Carolina
After 2 weeks of fall camps, there might not be a true freshman being mentioned more by his head coach than Luke Doty. South Carolina fans were initially perplexed to see the freshman quarterback get reps at receiver, but when you consider the Gamecocks’ current need for help at that position and Doty’s elite athleticism, the decision to give him multiple looks makes a ton of sense. Now with the NCAA allowing freshmen to play without losing a season, that’s going to clear Doty to be on the field in every game, if called upon to do so. Doty might prove to be the versatile freshman in the SEC this fall.
8. QB Bryce Young, Alabama
Young certainly could rate much higher on this list, but it’s difficult to predict how much he’ll play. Should Mac Jones struggle — Nick Saban was quick to challenge his veteran QB following the first scrimmage of camp — the Tide could quickly insert Young into the lineup. He’s that talented. However, it seems unlikely that Saban would want to start Young before the Week 4 matchup against Georgia’s defense. If Jones struggles in that game, it might be time to turn over the keys of the offense to Young.
7. WR Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee
Tennessee has a ton of production to replace in the passing game. Among freshmen, Hyatt has made the most of the opportunity. Jeremy Pruitt and his coaching staff were desperate to add speed to the receiver room this offseason and they found plenty of that in the blazing Hyatt. Look for Hyatt to push for a starting spot right out of the gate when the Vols travel to South Carolina to open the season.
6. QB Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
Probably not a name many expected to see on this list, but there’s an excellent chance the freshman from Texas begins the season as Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback. The Commodores completely turned over the QB room from this point last season and Seals not only was garnering buzz during spring practice (yes, Vanderbilt did get in several spring practices), the coaching staff was prepared to start him entering training camp a source tells SDS. Of all the quarterbacks signed by SEC programs in the 2020 cycle, Seals will likely be the first to start a game.
5. OLB BJ Ojulari, LSU
Coach O hasn’t even tried to hide his excitement when it comes to his freshman edge rusher, who has a clear path to the field this fall. The Tigers need help rushing the passer and the former two-way star at Marietta (home of the 2019 Georgia state champions) will now get to shift his full attention to the defensive side of the ball in Baton Rouge.
4. RB Tank Bigsby, Auburn
Gus Malzahn’s program has several options at running back, but Bigsby has the most star potential. For all the hype surrounding Bo Nix’s potential progression in Chad Morris’ offense and all the receivers on The Plains, Malzahn’s program is at its best when it has an elite running back as the focal point of the offense. If Bigsby turns out to be that player, he’s going to have a huge first year for the Tigers.
3. WR Demond Demas, Texas A&M
If Demas doesn’t come out too rusty — he missed his senior season in high school after being ruled ineligible after transferring — he should be an instant impact performer. Texas A&M was already down Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers (both left early for the NFL) and now with Camron Buckley lost for the season due to injury, Demas will have every opportunity to play and potentially start by season’s end. His challenge will be typical freshman obstacles such as learning the playbook and blocking more than anything else; he’s already the most talented receiver on the roster.
2. TE Darnell Washington, Georgia
If Georgia is going to go to the air more often under Todd Monken, look for Washington to be one of the key targets for Jamie Newman. The 6-7, 260-pound freshman will be a nightmare matchup for just about any defense. Georgia may have one of the most talented receiver rooms in the country but it doesn’t have a target as tall as Washington. He’s going to be trouble in the red zone.
1. TE Arik Gilbert, LSU
The Tigers obviously have a ton of production to replace this fall, but that leaves the door open for talent to shine. The player poised to take advantage of that opportunity the most is Gilbert. He is more of a big-bodied receiver than a traditional tight end. Maybe that’s why Myles Brennan has been raving about the freshman. Ed Orgeron says his program has changed the way it utilizes the tight end following Gilbert’s addition and Derek Stingley Sr. has said Gilbert has gotten the better of his son during at least one practice. Don’t be surprised if Gilbert is named All-SEC by season’s end, not All-Freshman, but All-SEC.