When an elite recruit signs with an SEC program, the expectation from most fan bases is for those players to make an impact immediately. While that will be the case for some, many players, for a wide variety of reasons, won’t be put in a situation to make an impact as soon as they step foot on campus.
Based on a blend of talent and path to playing time, these 10 freshmen stand out as defensive players who we expect to make an impact next season.
DJ Dale, DL, Alabama
If you had to pick one breakout star of the spring for Alabama, DJ Dale would be the best selection. Teammates already are comparing the freshman to Daron Payne and coaches praised him following his outstanding spring. With the departures of Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs, Alabama has two starting spots up front available. Competition is steep. Dale, a 4-star recruit, stepped up and appears poised to start the season on Alabama’s first-team defensive line. The Crimson Tide annually reload up front and this year looks to be no different thanks to Dale.
“DJ is playing some with the 1s at nose. He’s got good initial quickness, good power, strikes, seems to be pretty conscientious, shows a little maturity about being able to go out there and do his job,” Nick Saban said of Dale during the spring.
Jalen Catalon, DB, Arkansas
The list of Lone Star State products who got away from Texas and went on to become household names is lengthy and soon enough, Jalen Catalon could be etching his name to the list. A 4-star recruit, the 5-9, 188-pound defensive back missed the vast majority of his senior season due to injury, but the silver lining in being sidelined so early is he’ll have plenty of time to rehab before his debut season in Fayetteville. While his size and injury history might suggest he doesn’t belong on a list like this, the former Mansfield Legacy star racked up top honors prior to his senior season, including winning District 10-5A Overall MVP as a junior and 5A Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore.
“Jalen Catalon from Mansfield Legacy High School and the state of Texas, one of the best high school football players that I’ve ever seen — top 5 for sure,” Chad Morris said after signing the Texas native. “Fantastic player. Plays safety, can play a lot of different positions, but I’ve been watching high school football for a very long time and recruiting a very long time and this young man is one of the best that I’ve seen. Played a lot of positions.”
— Michael Florek (@michaelflorek) December 2, 2016
Another interception by Jalen Catalon. pic.twitter.com/85mXHKVkqw
— Live Legacy Events (@LegacyLiveNow) December 3, 2016
Owen Pappoe, LB, Auburn
Owen Pappoe started receiving college interest during his middle school days and instead of resting on his prep accolades, the Georgia native developed into one of the most explosive and speedy linebackers in the nation. While some might have targeted the 6-foot, 210-pound Pappoe as a defensive back, he has all the tools to develop into the perfect linebacker in today’s age of football. A 5-star, he was the No. 1-ranked OLB in the 2019 class. With more and more college offenses moving toward the spread looks with mobile quarterbacks, linebackers need to be able to cover receivers and tight ends, and also stop the run and track down scrambling quarterbacks. The Tigers are losing a ton of production at the linebacker position, meaning Pappoe, an early enrollee, will likely be expected to see the field next fall.
“He’s going to be really special, I’ll tell you that,” Deshaun Davis recently said to AL.com about Pappoe. “I’m not going to play with him, but I actually told him before I left that I really wish I had the chance to be in the room with him. He’s that type of talent.”
Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
Following the fallout from the Chris Steele saga, Florida now desperately needs Kaiir Elam to show up ready to play. There’s a reason Georgia went so hard after Elam leading up to his decision to sign with the Gators: He was one of the nation’s most outstanding prep defensive backs last season at The Benjamin School and with defensive depth limited on Florida’s back end, Elam will be called upon early and often next season. The Gators might have the best collection of starting defensive backs in the entire conference this fall, but the depth behind those players leaves much to be desired, and with two projected starters potentially leaving for the NFL following the 2019 season, Elam is in line for a starting role in 2020 if he shows potential next season.
Nolan Smith, LB, Georgia
For all Georgia has going for it heading into the fall, pass rush remains arguably the biggest question mark. Thankfully, the Bulldogs look to have addressed that issue by signing the nation’s No. 1 high school prospect, defensive end/outside linebacker Nolan Smith. The IMG Academy product already turned some heads in Athens this spring. Considering his role likely won’t be much more than rushing the passer his first year, Smith could quickly find himself on the field and disrupting offensive game plans on a weekly basis for Kirby Smart’s defense.
That’s #UGA freshman DE Nolan Smith, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, at his first Georgia practice.
— UGA Football Live (@UGAfootballLive) March 19, 2019
“I’ve seen hunger out of both of those guys. They don’t know exactly what to do yet, but man they do it hard. There’s something to be said for that,” Smart said this spring regarding Smith and JUCO signee Jermaine Johnson. “We’re going to play kids at the University of Georgia who give effort and play hard and do the right things. Those two guys, they play hard. They don’t know what they’re doing yet, and that’s our job.”
Derek Stingley, CB, LSU
To say Derek Stingley comes with some hype would be an understatement. He was the No. 1-ranked cornerback in the country and No. 3 player overall in the 2019 class. Not since Patrick Peterson has a more hyped defensive back arrived at LSU. As crazy as that might be, Stingley already appears to be living up to the hype. The Baton Rouge native was so highly regarded coming out of high school that Nick Saban, who we all know a defensive backs coach, offered Stingley the opportunity to play receiver in an attempt to get Stingley to sign with Alabama. Of course, those efforts failed and Stingley is already making plays for the Tigers’ defense. Even if LSU didn’t have a starting spot open at cornerback, Stingley would be in the mix to grab one. LSU’s defense might not even miss Greedy Williams thanks to the freshman from Baton Rouge.
— Brooks Kubena (@BKubena) April 6, 2019
Siaki Ika, DL, LSU
LSU’s offense this spring grabbed the majority of the headlines, especially when the Tigers’ new-look unit was in the shotgun for every single snap of the spring game, but one player who emerged as a potential missing piece for Ed Orgeron’s defense was the massive Siaki Ika. The 6-4, 347-pound lineman was a wrecking ball, which is all the more impressive when you consider LSU’s strength on the offensive line is in the interior and had the task of trying to slow down Ika.
The majority of linemen who have this size are slow, but the 4-star freshman appears to have the explosiveness and athleticism necessary to stuff the run and be a legitimate threat to rush the passer. LSU’s defensive line depth is set to be the best it has been since Orgeron took over, but even with that being the case, it’s going to be impossible for Dave Aranda to keep Ika off the field this fall.
— InsideBamaRecruiting (@RTRnews) May 15, 2018
Jaylen McCollough, DB, Tennessee
Of the hyped freshmen Tennessee landed this offseason, there’s a chance 4-star Jaylen McCollough turns out to be the best player Jeremy Pruitt’s staff signed in the 2019 recruiting cycle. The biggest weaknesses of Pruitt’s defense in Year 1 was the secondary. Despite several players returning with starting experience, I expect McCollough will be one of Tennessee’s starting safeties by season’s end. The Under Armour All-American displayed his nose for the ball in Tennessee’s spring game by registering 2 interceptions, which resulted in some teammates campaigning for him to win MVP honors.
That honor ultimately went to quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, but based on his performance in that game, it won’t be long before McCollough manages to show just how valuable he is to Pruitt’s unit serving as a ball-hawking safety who has the size and toughness to also be a force against the run.
Henry To’oto’o, LB, Tennessee
The California native hasn’t arrived yet, but once he does, the path to the field is clear for Henry To’oto’o. If Tennessee’s defensive backs were the biggest issue for Pruitt’s unit last season, the linebacking corps wasn’t far off as injuries mounted and several players failed to adjust to the new defense.
To’oto’o has the right combination of speed, size and explosiveness that Tennessee’s coaching staff was missing from their linebackers last season. Quavaris Crouch might seemingly have an advantage over To’oto’oto based on the fact he participated in spring practice, but linebacker is not his natural position. That hurdle will likely be enough to make To’oto’o the more productive player in the middle of Tennessee’s defense next fall.
Brian Williams, DB, Texas A&M
Mike Elko worked wonders for Texas A&M’s defense last season, but the Aggies’ pass defense was not up to par with the rest of the unit. Jimbo Fisher and company addressed the unit in recruiting by signing arguably the best group of defensive backs in the nation, but the player I expect to make the biggest impact in Year 1 is Brian Williams.
Brian Williams, the younger brother of former Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams, has all the tools to compete immediately for a role on the defense. Getting to campus in time for spring would have helped his development, but considering the Aggies’ issues in the secondary and the maturity Williams displayed during his outstanding career at Bishop Dunne in Dallas, expect the learning curve to be ramped up for this A&M defender.
Two pick-6's and a punt return touchdown. pic.twitter.com/n9AXBkZY2Q
— Zack Poff (@Zack_Poff_MP) September 30, 2018