Projecting which SEC defensive recruits will have the biggest impact in 2022
If you’re gonna start from the jump in this league, you’ve got big things ahead.
Brock Bowers? Yeah, that dude’s got big things ahead. Of course at this time last year, nobody could’ve predicted that he’d turn into a revelation as a true freshman as Georgia’s tight end, and they especially wouldn’t have predicted that once Arik Gilbert was with the Dawgs.
So consider that my way of saying it’s not easy to project which true freshmen will be called upon to play immediately. Getting enrolled at a college strength program can change things, as can injuries and transfer portal additions. Ideally, SEC teams wouldn’t need to rely on true freshmen to play significant snaps, but in some cases, it’s inevitable.
On the defensive side, the SEC only had 3 true freshmen All-Americans from PFF and ESPN. One was Texas A&M’s Tyreek Chappell, who blossomed as a lockdown outside corner in Mike Elko’s defense. Of course, it helps when you’re surrounded by a whole lot of veterans like A&M had on defense. The same goes for Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry and Dallas Turner, who starred immediately for Nick Saban’s defense.
Remember that because it plays into why it’s pretty rare to see a random 3-star take off as a true freshman at a middle-of-the-pack SEC program. The game speeds up. For most, at least. Not all.
These 10 SEC true freshmen defensive players are in line to make the biggest impact from the jump:
10. Bear Alexander, Georgia DL
Sure, let’s start with a dude named “Bear.” On a Georgia defensive line that’ll lose a couple of key pieces with Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, Alexander can become a rotation guy as a true freshman like Jalen Carter was in 2020. Alexander played against elite competition as a Texas 5A standout before transferring to IMG Academy. The guy was so fired up to commit to Georgia that he already talked about having that Oregon game circled on his calendar. Bear is ready to maul.
9. Laterrance Welch, LSU CB
Gone are Eli Ricks (transfer to Alabama) and Derek Stingley Jr. Ergo, an opportunity awaits for Welch to emerge in a young group of defensive backs. With Corey Raymond gone, everyone should essentially be starting from scratch. If Cordale Flott is off to the NFL after a banner junior season, an even greater opportunity could await the 6-1 Welch. If not for a knee injury, Welch could’ve inched closer to being a 5-star guy. Now healthy, he’ll have a chance to emerge immediately.
8. Daylen Everette, Georgia CB
Clemson’s loss was Georgia’s gain. Everette dropped his Clemson commitment once Brent Venables took the Oklahoma job. At Georgia, we already saw how much Kirby Smart relied on Kelee Ringo as a second-year player. If Derion Kendrick is off to the NFL at season’s end, Georgia will need a lengthy outside corner to pair alongside Ringo and Tykee Smith, who missed most of 2021 after transferring from West Virginia. The 6-2 Everette should fit the build.
7. Malaki Starks, Georgia S
I’m assuming that the hard-hitting Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith are both off to the NFL at season’s end. I’d assume Dan Jackson and Tykee Smith will both return as safeties, but the latter plays that hybrid “star” role. In other words, there’s a spot up for grabs. Starks and David Daniel should see pretty significant reps for the Dawgs. Kirby Smart isn’t afraid to play young defensive backs, and Starks, who is rated as the No. 1 athlete in the 2022 class, should thrive once he’s able to lock in on playing 1 position. We could see Starks earn some reps behind Tykee Smith in the “star” role.
6. Shemar James, Florida LB
Linebacker was a mess for Florida once Ventrell Miller went down. In steps James, who recommitted to the new coaching staff on Wednesday. The No. 7 linebacker in the 2022 class has some size to put on, but the speed is already there. Not many college linebackers are competing in the 100-meter dash. Channeling that speed into making open-field tackles will be the next challenge. Mohamoud Diabate is in the transfer portal, meaning there’s a significant vacancy in the middle of Florida’s defense. James might not fill it full time from the jump, but he’s in a nice spot to make his presence felt if he can make some game-changing plays early.
5. Bryce Anderson, Texas A&M S
We’ve now reached the A&M portion of this column. The Aggies are losing a ton of production defensively, including Leon O’Neal Jr. and likely Demani Richardson, both of whom have seemingly been in College Station forever. No other A&M safety played 150 snaps last year (remember that Antonio Johnson is technically a corner now). That should bode well for Anderson, who certainly has the speed to play the position in the SEC. There will be questions about his size and instincts making the full-time transition to safety (he was also a dynamic quarterback in high school). But with a new defensive coordinator, Anderson’s path to playing time should be there from the jump, just as it was for O’Neal and Richardson back when they were true freshmen.
4. Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy, Texas A&M DL
Man, the Aggies have to be glad that there was so much coaching carousel movement at big-time programs. One of those was Oklahoma, which was where Brownlow-Dindy was committed. But a December flip by the Central Florida native allowed the Aggies to swoop in and land a potential DeMarvin Leal replacement. To be fair, nobody should be expected to replace the ever-versatile Leal. But the Aggies lost basically that entire defensive line with Tyree Johnson, Michael Clemons and Jayden Peevy all expected to be off to the NFL. Consider that a prime opportunity for a 5-star, 280-pound stud like Brownlow-Dindy to carve out immediate playing time. He’s not the only Aggie defensive lineman who could do just that (more on that in a minute).
3. Jeremiah Alexander, Alabama OLB
It’s no longer a rarity to see true freshmen front-7 players at Alabama. That 2019 group really changed that for Saban. A certain Will Anderson dominating as a true freshman in 2020 only added to that youth movement in Tuscaloosa. Alexander, perhaps either rotating in with Anderson or playing opposite of him, should play immediately. He has the size at 235 pounds. His ability to play won’t depend on him getting into a strength program. It’ll be about developing those instincts and refining his craft as an edge-rusher. Fortunately for him, he can learn from one of the best edge runners the sport has had in the 21st century.
2. Walter Nolen, Texas A&M DT
Go figure that Nolen is technically the highest-graded FBS signee with No. 1 overall recruit Travis Hunter making the stunning flip to FCS Jackson State. For all the reasons outlined with the aforementioned Brownlow-Dindy, A&M’s major defensive line turnover should create a path for the other 5-star defensive lineman heading to College Station. And if he can’t play there, well, make him a Wildcat QB:
— Overtime (@overtime) November 6, 2021
It’s crazy that Powell High School (Tennessee) legitimately turned to the 325-pound interior defensive lineman in those spots. My guess? Fisher won’t go that route and he’ll instead have Nolen get an early opportunity to blow up SEC backfields. We’ll see Nolen working on that tackle rotation with Isaiah Raikes and the rising McKinnley Jackson. Nolen is going to be a game-changer for A&M new-look defense.
1. Kamari Wilson, Florida S
One of the biggest victories by any coach Wednesday was Billy Napier landing Wilson, AKA the 5-star safety out of IMG Academy. I would assume Trey Dean isn’t sticking around for Year 5, and if that’s the case, Rashad Torrence is the only locked-in starting safety. Donovan McMillon and Mordecai McDaniel might have a leg up on the 5-star true freshman with experience, but neither graded out particularly well as second-year guys in 2021. I have to imagine that Wilson, who has the physicality to play near the line of scrimmage, is going to be a building block immediately for the Napier era. Dan Mullen was criticized for not landing elite talent, especially from IMG. Napier wants to land elite talent and showcase it. Wilson can be just that.