Ranking the Top 25 transfers in the SEC
Editor’s note: Our annual Top 25 preview week continues with a look at the SEC’s best new arrivals — the transfers. You can previous Top 25 stories here.
The most tumultuous transfer portal window in college football history ended Aug. 1, with more than 1,500 FBS transfers finding new homes. The ever-evolving, wild west world of NIL and the debates over repeal of the NCAA’s one-time transfer rule could plunge the sport into even more portal chaos in the future, which is hard to believe given that the buzz around the transfer portal is a time-consuming side gig as it is.
The trickle-down effect of the massive increase in player transfers and freedom of movement rules is twofold, at least for the time being.
First, recruiting classes are seeing record attrition, especially at institutions where coaching changes occur. The one-time transfer rule and the allure of playing time, particularly for a program where a player may already have an established relationship due to recruiting, has made even high-profile program to high-profile program transfers common when players lose the head coach that signed him or see a better playing time opportunity elsewhere.
Second, programs can address needs immediately through the portal, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because, similar to free agency, a team that desperately needs a quarterback can go sign one. It’s a curse because the expectations on coaching staffs and the “wait and see” period is smaller than ever. With the portal at a coach’s disposal, programs expect coaches to field highly competitive products quickly.
As you might expect, the richest conferences feast first in the portal, which means the SEC leads the way in landing high-profile transfers. More than 1,000 Power 5 players hit the portal, with hundreds more from the Group of 5 joining them. SEC programs didn’t have “first choice” in every situation, but they did land some of the biggest names, including a few stunners.
Here’s SDS’ ranking of the top 25 transfers in the SEC for the 2022 season.
25. Noah Cain, RB, LSU (Penn State)
A top-100 running back out of national power IMG Academy in high school, Cain was a force as a freshman, rushing for 443 yards and 8 touchdowns at Penn State. An ankle injury derailed his sophomore season, and after a junior year as a backup in State College, LSU’s hiring of Brian Kelly — who recruited Cain at Notre Dame — coupled with a crowded depth chart at Penn State has Cain back in his hometown of Baton Rouge for the 2022 season. He now gets to share the backfield with another top-100 back from the 2019 class in John Emery Jr., whom he has known since middle school football camps. Cain caught 26 passes in 2 seasons at Penn State, so he provides versatility to a backfield that will look to improve on a rushing offense that ranked 13th in the SEC in success rate and yards per game in 2021.
24. Mason Brooks, OT, Ole Miss (Western Kentucky)
Underrecruited out of high school, Brooks became a starter and first-team All Conference USA player at Western Kentucky, leading the Hilltoppers in pancake blocks in 2021. Brooks is now projected as a late-round NFL Draft pick, and he should provide stability and experience to Lane Kiffin’s offensive line, where he’s expected to start at right tackle.
23. Christian Beal-Smith, RB, South Carolina (Wake Forest)
The graduate transfer from Wake Forest was a 2-time All-ACC selection who generated more than 2,000 yards in his career with the Demon Deacons. A versatile player who also returned kicks for Wake Forest, Beal-Smith is coming off a season in which he scored 7 touchdowns for the ACC Atlantic champions. He’ll pair up with the talented MarShawn Lloyd to give the Gamecocks a terrific 1-2 punch in the backfield this fall.
22. Justin Robinson, WR, MIssissippi State (Georgia)
Robinson kicks off the “SEC to SEC” theme, joining the Hail State version of the Bulldogs after 2 seasons with the Georgia Bulldogs. A blue-chip recruit, Robinson was hampered by shoulder and foot injuries in his 2 years in Athens. He’s healthy now, and he should post massive numbers in Mike Leach’s Air Raid, where he will immediately become a top target for Will Rogers III, who is coming off a season in which he passed for the 3rd-most yards in a single season in SEC history.
21. Bru McCoy, WR, Tennessee (Southern Cal)
Circle this name, because McCoy’s ceiling is as high as almost anyone on this list. A 5-star recruit ranked among the top 10 players in the country in the 2019 class, per the 247Sports composite, McCoy is now at his 3rd school and as of yet is not eligible to play for the Vols in the autumn. McCoy has battled off-field issues, including a mystery illness that saw him lose 20 pounds as a freshman and land in the hospital. He’s healthy now, and with his off-field issues behind him (from both a health and criminal punishment standpoint), the 6-3, 220-pound receiver would add yet another explosive weapon to Josh Heupel’s already stacked arsenal in Knoxville. McCoy might end up being a classic “Whatever happened to?” story. There are 1 or 2 from the top 10 in basically every recruiting class. But he also has All-America ability. Which will it be on Rocky Top Tennessee?
20. Max Johnson, QB, Texas A&M (LSU)
Jimbo Fisher is playing coy on who is ahead as the Aggies’ fall camp begins. But the smart money is on Johnson, a former starter at LSU who has, among other things, a win over a great Florida team in The Swamp under his belt as a collegian. Haynes King is healthy, and Conner Weigman is the future, but Johnson, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards with an impressive 5-1 TD-INT ratio in Baton Rouge, could be the present. The Aggies are a program with national championship ambition, and Johnson has the talent and experience to be a “plus” game manager in Fisher’s pro-style offense, which might be enough this year considering the defense in College Station.
19. Jeremy Lucien, CB, Vanderbilt (UCONN)
The senior corner arrives in Vanderbilt and gives the Commodores a lockdown corner who projects as a top-3-round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. Lucien had 29 tackles and 2 interceptions for the Huskies last season, grading out among the top 25 percent of corners in the country, per Pro Football Focus. He’s another nice piece in a Vanderbilt defense that should improve on its last-in-the-SEC total defense ranking from 2021.
18. Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU (Arizona State)
Could Daniels be too low on this list? That’s very possible. After all, it isn’t often you get a high-level athlete with a big IQ (Daniels was an honors student at Arizona State) who is also a 3-year Power 5 starter to join your program. That said, Daniels was asked to do a bit more than be a game manager last year and with mixed results, as he tossed 10 interceptions after throwing only 3 combined in his first 2 seasons as the starter in Tempe. His yards per completion were also down (7.9, a career low). None of that means he’s a reclamation project. Kelly could have done a whole lot worse. But the reality is Daniels is in a heated battle to win the starting job at all, and while we think he wins it because he’s the lone dual threat on Kelly’s roster, how he adjusts to life in the SEC remains to be seen.
17. Ricky Pearsall, WR, Florida (Arizona State)
One of the later portal additions on this list, Pearsall arrives in Gainesville with All-Pac-12 credentials after leading the Sun Devils in catches, receiving yards, touchdown catches and receiving yards per target in 2021. Pearsall is also a different type of receiver than what the Gators have elsewhere on the roster: Dan Mullen had largely recruited tall, physical talents who could win 50-50s in the red zone. Pearsall isn’t small (6-1, 200), but he’s a fluid route runner, comfortable out on the boundary or in the slot. Think Freddie Swain, but without the elite NFL speed. Still, he’s far and away the best receiver the Gators have on their roster, which says something about both Florida and about the type of year Pearsall should have in 2021.
16. Jermaine Burton, WR, Alabama (Georgia)
Another SEC-to-SEC guy, Burton caught 26 passes for 497 yards and 5 touchdowns last fall during the Bulldogs’ national championship season in 2021. Is Burton going to stretch the field like Jameson Williams, Alabama’s last high-profile transfer at the position? Probably not. But he’s going to give Bryce Young a veteran target who has played at the highest level consistently, which is more than can be said for much of the rest of Alabama’s immensely talented but inexperienced receiver room.
15. Isheem Young, S, Ole Miss (Iowa State)
Young was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2020, and he has made 106 tackles over 2 seasons on a very good defense in Ames. The Rebels finished 68th nationally in pass defense in 2021, and 77th in explosive pass plays allowed, both improvements from 2020 but still among the bottom half of the country. With Ole Miss replacing both its starting safeties from 2021, Young will start — and matter — right away.
14. Antwane Wells Jr., WR, South Carolina (James Madison)
A simple Google search reveals why we’re so high on Wells, who led the FCS in touchdown catches last season with 15 while finishing 3rd in the FCS in yards per target. At 6-1, 204, he won’t be undersized in making the transition to the Power 5, and he’s a polished route runner who was consistently open at the lower level. South Carolina’s passing game should be vastly improved thanks to Spencer Rattler, and with defenses expected to key on Josh Vann, Wells could feast in Columbia this autumn.
13. Jayson Jones, DT, Auburn (Oregon)
At 6-6, 330 pounds, Jones will be the biggest dude on an Auburn defensive line full of dudes. The Oregon transfer was in for spring football and quickly won a starting job, where he’ll be the Tigers’ 1st-team nose tackle playing alongside returning starters Colby Wooden and Marcus Harris. He has won the admiration of defensive end Derick Hall already, who compared him to (gulp) Derrick Brown in terms of how he has dominated reps in camp, commanding double teams. Jones was considered a coup for Oregon when the Ducks came into Alabama and plucked him away to the Pac-12 out of high school. Back home in Alabama, he will make an immediate impact in the SEC.
12. Tayvion Robinson, WR, Kentucky (Virginia Tech)
Robinson has big Robinson shoes to fill in Lexington: He’ll be the lead man trying to replace All-SEC selection Wan’Dale Robinson (Round 2, New York Giants), who caught more than 100 passes and gained more than 1,500 total yards for the Wildcats in 2021. Tayvion isn’t Wan’Dale. But what he does offer Will Levis is a vertical threat with outstanding speed who can stretch a defense, a skill he put on display at the end of the 2021 season when he hauled in a 61-yard touchdown pass against rival Virginia. An All-ACC Freshman team selection, Robinson hasn’t quite replicated that type of production in the years since. But he has the talent to make an immense impact in both the passing and kick return games for the Wildcats in 2022.
11. Mekhi Wingo, DE, LSU (Missouri)
Lightly recruited by the Power 5 out of high school, Wingo showed up at Mizzou and earned All-SEC Freshman honors in 2021, collecting 27 tackles and 1 sack while adding 17 pressures, 12 in his final 4 games. In other words: Wingo was only just beginning to figure out what he’s capable of doing. LSU desperately needed to improve its pass rush (the Tigers finished 10th in the SEC in pressures in 2021 despite ranking 5th in sacks, per Stats Solutions), and Wingo gives Kelly immediate help on that front.
10. Jadon Haselwood, WR, Arkansas (Oklahoma)
Haselwood was 1 of a number of Sooners who bolted Norman after Lincoln Riley’s ignominious departure for Los Angeles and Southern Cal. In 2 full seasons with the Sooners, Haselwood caught 62 passes, including 6 touchdowns (all in 2021). At 6-3 and a stout 215, Haselwood is the natural candidate to replace Treylon Burks (1st round, Titans), who scored 12 touchdowns and produced more than 1,200 total yards for the Hogs last season. A 5-star recruit and the No. 1 receiver in the country out of high school, Haselwood hasn’t quite lived up to his recruiting billing. But he’ll have every opportunity to change that narrative this season in Fayetteville.
9. Drew Sanders, LB, Arkansas (Alabama)
Pittman cleaned up, folks. But nowhere was an Arkansas need met more than when Sanders elected to leave Alabama for Arkansas. A 5-star recruit out of Dallas, Sanders collected 33 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2 seasons on the Capstone. But buried behind living legend Will Anderson Jr. and freshman All-American Dallas Turner on the depth chart, Sanders headed to Fayetteville for a new start. He’ll start at middle linebacker, where he brings size (6-5, 220) and elite speed to a defense that ranked 7th in the SEC in total defense and opponent success rate in 2021. Replacing Grant Morgan won’t be easy, but Sanders is an upgrade talent-wise, as great as Morgan was on gameday.
8. Latavious Brini, S, Arkansas (Georgia)
Perhaps the least discussed of Arkansas’ sterling transfer class, Brini isn’t as intriguing as Haselwood, but he has certainly been the more consistent, productive player. Brini started 18 games in Athens, and his 8 pass breakups last year ranked 2nd on the national champions, a testament to his ballhawk ability in coverage. With the All-American Jalen Catalon manning the other safety spot, Brini can mostly focus on keeping opponents honest over the top, playing a deep free safety that allows him to read formations and make plays. The SEC is loaded at free safety, but Brini has All-SEC written all over him as a graduate transfer.
7. Jaxson Dart, QB, Ole Miss (Southern Cal)
A high 4-star recruit when he signed with Southern Cal, Dart never expected to play immediately but was forced into duty when Kedon Slovis was injured late in the season for the Trojans. All Dart did with the 6 games he got to play is throw for 1,353 yards and 9 touchdowns. While Dart isn’t as mobile as Matt Corral, he’s still an ideal fit for Kiffin’s (err, Charlie Weis Jr.’s, err, Kiffin’s) offense. And once he beats out Luke Altmyer for the starting gig, he has the arm strength and the familiarity with Ole MIss’ best weapons (see USC transfer Michael Trigg, who just missed this list) to be a very productive starter in his 1st season in Oxford.
6. O’Cyrus Torrence, OT, Florida (Louisiana)
It isn’t often you see a Group of 5 player transfer into the best conference in college football and immediately earn consensus All-SEC honors in the preseason. But if you watch Torrence on film, you get why he was on the preseason All-SEC team and why he falls anywhere from late 1st round to early 3rd round on NFL mock draft boards. Torrence is a mountain of a man, standing 6-6 and weighing in at 330. He has great hands and fluid feet, and he was the anchor of 2 Louisiana offensive lines that were semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the nation’s best offensive line. Torrence will start at guard. He’ll give an All-America-caliber talent to an underrated Florida offensive line that will enter 2022 as the largest, pound for pound, in the SEC.
5. Jarrick Bernard-Converse, CB, LSU (Oklahoma State)
Bernard-Converse is one of the more fascinating transfers in the 2021 portal class, because he leaves a winning Cowboys program where he was an entrenched, productive starter for an established coaching staff for no real reason beyond the chance to play closer to his Shreveport, La., family and friends as a graduate transfer. Bernard-Converse led the Big 12 in pass breakups in 2021 with 12, registering 51 tackles in the process. He is fast enough to blitz from the boundary (4 career sacks), and his completion percentage on targets against number has improved every season, ranking in the top 25 percent of college football in 2021. With Eli Ricks (see below) gone to Alabama, Bernard-Converse gives the Tigers an elite cover corner in 2022. Would you expect anything else from DBU?
4. Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama (Georgia Tech)
Gibbs rocketed up recruiting rankings late in his senior year, when people started realizing that what he lacked in top-end speed and size he more than made up for with exceptional vision and elusiveness. Gibbs is a verstatile player whom Nick Saban will use to impact winning in the running and passing game and on special teams, where he gives the Crimson Tide a tremendous return man weapon. His 5.2 yards per carry last year won’t wow you, until you evaluate this stat: The Yellow Jackets were 98th in rushing success rate when Gibbs didn’t carry the football, and 31st nationally when he did. He’s immediately Alabama’s RB 1 and a bigger home-run threat than they had at the position a season ago.
3. Eli Ricks, CB, Alabama (LSU)
Ricks is an All-American with top-2-round NFL talent. He’s also coming off shoulder surgery, and the 1st season of his collegiate career where he did not rank among the top 100 defensive backs in the sport, per Pro Football Focus. Whatever caution flags fly, Ricks was a 5-star recruit out of IMG Academy in Florida, and his penchant for baiting quarterbacks and making explosive plays could be heaven-sent for an Alabama defense that struggled to generate takeaways in big games last season (just 1 turnover produced in the College Football Playoff). If he is healthy, Ricks will be the best corner in an Alabama secondary that has the chance to be the best unit ever under Saban.
2. Spencer Rattler, QB, South Carolina (Oklahoma)
Rattler is the biggest talent upgrade for any SEC team at any position. For those who point to him losing the job in Norman, consider that he was the Cotton Bowl MVP as a freshman in 2020 and lost the job only because Caleb Williams is a certifiable freak in the mold of Kyler Murray. If you lose your job, it might as well be to a Caleb Williams or a Tua Tagovailoa. Just ask Jalen Hurts. SDS isn’t buying the Rattler Heisman buzz yet. But the Gamecocks have a strong running game and a deep wide receiver room, which means if Rattler has time to throw, he could post big numbers reuniting with Shane Beamer and give South Carolina a great shot at a New Year’s Day bowl game.
1. Zach Evans, RB, Ole Miss (Texas Christian)
Evans was the nation’s 2nd-ranked running back in the 2020 class, and the 5-star, who originally signed with Georgia, will finally play SEC football in 2022. With Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy gone to the pros, Evans will be the bellcow for a Rebels offense that ranked 2nd in the SEC in rushing success rate in 2021. Evans averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per carry in 2 seasons in Fort Worth, as he’s tough to bring down after initial contact and lethal once he reaches the 2nd level. What’s more, he carried the ball only 146 times for TCU, something that drove Horned Frogs fans crazy but leaves him well-rested to be RB 1 for Kiffin and Ole Miss. Evans will win the SEC rushing title and garner All-American honors in 2022, the final step on a circuitous but worth-the-weird trip to the NFL Draft next spring.