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 offensive players who we expect to make an impact next season.
Trey Sanders, RB, Alabama
Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs combined to carry the ball 270 times last season for the Tide and while many are predicting a big season for Najee Harris, I don’t believe he’s an elite running back capable of carrying the load. With Harris and Jacobs in the NFL, there’s an opportunity for a young player to seize a chunk of those carries, and I expect Trey Sanders to be the running back most capable of filling that role. Don’t be surprised if Sanders finishes with more rushing yards than Brian Robinson and finishes second on the team behind only Harris.
Trey Knox, WR, Arkansas
One camp into his Razorback career, Trey Knox might already be the best receiver on Chad Morris’ Arkansas roster. The 6-5, 218-pound Tennessee native is by far the most physically imposing receiver on the roster and could be the Razorbacks’ version of Courtland Sutton, who starred in the same offensive system at SMU. Knox is far more than a possession target, however, and considering Morris didn’t inherit much talent at receiver and Mike Woods has already suffered an injury in 2019, it’s possible that Knox is the team’s No. 1 target to start the season.
“It was defended very well, great catch, and to see him with the ball in his hands, he’s definitely a difference maker,” Morris said regarding the play below during his press conference following the spring game. “But again, we’ve seen that. That’s been consistent all spring.”
Trey Knox, ladies & gentlemen. pic.twitter.com/VDHwGzw1PB
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) April 6, 2019
Bo Nix, QB, Auburn
Considering he’s already been announced as one of two options to start following his first spring, there’s no way we could leave Bo Nix off this list. The fact is, more true freshmen quarterbacks are playing at a high level than ever and Nix appears poised to become the next to do just that for the Tigers. Getting on campus early and impressing the coaching staff was huge for the Auburn legacy, and if he takes care of business during the summer, he should only continue to progress with a better grasp of the offense, more knowledge of the players around him while getting his body in shape to handle SEC competition. Nix has massive upside and while I’m not ready to predict that he opens the season as Auburn’s starter, I’m willing to bet he finishes the season that way.
“You know, he’s earned it,” Malzahn recently said of Nix being named a co-leader to be Auburn’s starter in the fall. “We went into spring with a very open mind and wanted to put in a lot of different scenarios and situations. So, he’s earned it, as has Joey Gatewood.”
Bo Nix showing the wow factor pic.twitter.com/lUvUBV6iSz
— Skye Underwood (@SkyeUnderwood) January 3, 2019
George Pickens, WR, Georgia
If he qualifies academically, George Pickens will make some plays for the Bulldogs this fall. Much like Sanders at Alabama, Pickens should have a huge opportunity to make his presence felt considering all the production the offense lost. Pickens is a rare talent who dominated the Under Armour All-American Game practices before signing with Georgia. At an event that annually features the best of the best, Pickens was one of the alpha dogs.
— John Garcia, Jr. (@JohnGarcia_Jr) May 20, 2018
John Emery Jr., RB, LSU
The Tigers aren’t desperate for a running back to come in and play early as Clyde Edwards-Helaire is returning, but in LSU’s new-look spread, RPO offense, John Emery Jr. could be the perfect addition to complement the offense. A smaller, explosive player capable of catching the ball out of the backfield or flexing out into the slot and contributing as a downfield target, Emery’s high school numbers were off the charts. The hype around LSU’s addition of Joe Brady has reached a fever pitch in Baton Rouge, but one key player the Tigers are missing from that offensive system is an Alvin Kamara-type player. If Emery can carry the ball a handful of times while consistently contributing in the passing game, there’s an outstanding chance he develops into that role as a freshman.
As if Ed Orgeron’s biggest win to date of his LSU tenure — last season’s 36-16 beatdown of No. 2 Georgia on Oct. 13, 2018 — could have been any sweeter, Emery was committed to the Bulldogs at that time. That win might have been enough for the Louisiana native to decide to stay home and play for Coach O.
“I told him, ‘We want you. This is what it’s going to be like. You can have your family here. You can see that crowd. You can be the tailback running touchdowns for LSU, and you don’t have to go all the way to Georgia. Your family’s not going to be there. You’re going to play for us as a freshman. Both you and Tyrion (Davis) are going to play for us.’ That was a big point,” Orgeron recalled after signing Emery, according to Glenn Guilbeau of USA TODAY Network.
— SB Nation Recruiting (@SBNRecruiting) July 2, 2018
Jerrion Ealy, RB, Ole Miss *
His inclusion comes with an asterisk because we still don’t know if Jerrion Ealy will enroll at Ole Miss. He’s considered an elite baseball prospect in the coming Major League Baseball Draft, but if he does, he will see the field immediately in Oxford despite the return of Scottie Phillips — who is one of the SEC’s most underrated running backs. During his appearance at the Under Armour All-American Game, Ealy ran for a record 119 yards on only 16 carries. He also scored 2 touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP. Rich Rodriguez likely stays up at night dreaming up ways to get Ealy the ball and if the talented in-state prospect does enroll, look for the team’s new offensive coordinator to scheme ways for Ealy and Phillips to be on the field at the same time next fall in order to keep defenses guessing.
“I think him making the decision to stay in Mississippi makes a statement for a lot of different reasons. Not only is he a great player, but he is also a very good person. He is one of the top players, if not the top player in Mississippi. I am very excited about that decision,” Matt Luke said on National Signing Day following Ealy’s decision to stay home instead of signing with defending national champion Clemson.
Ole Miss commit Jerrion Ealy shows off his speed on this 38-yard TD run! pic.twitter.com/7yg7yiNIxA
— Sports Daily (@SportsDGI) January 4, 2019
Charles Cross, OL, Mississippi State
Offensive linemen rarely get as much love as skill position players, but one big man who should see the field early is Charles Cross. Credit Joe Moorhead and company for keeping Cross, an elite in-state recruit, away from a Florida State program that desperately needs offensive linemen to come in and play. While MSU’s interior offensive line played well last season, the tackles struggled at times to protect the pocket and even if Cross doesn’t immediately start as a tackle, expect him to see playing time somewhere on the line early in his career.
Garrett Shrader, QB, Mississippi State
This might be the boldest selection on this list, but I expect Garrett Shrader to continue to be a factor in Mississippi State’s offseason competition and by season’s end, I anticipate he will be the starting quarterback. Based on what Keytaon Thompson has done in limited action, you’d think he would have already been named the team’s starter, but for whatever reason, that’s not the case. When you factor in that MSU attempted to land Kelly Bryant and are now after Tommy Stevens, it would appear their confidence in Thompson is low heading into the 2019 season.
Meanwhile, Shrader has long been targeted by Moorhead to run this offense and enrolled early enough to get the basics down this spring. Shrader has the dual-threat capability necessary to excel in this system: 4,866 passing yards, 53 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions with 1,406 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in final two high school seasons. If Thompson struggles this fall, look for Shrader to take over.
Garrett Shrader. 17 ans. QB 4 étoiles. Alabama, Ole Miss, South Carolina et Vanderbilt sont sur le coup.pic.twitter.com/dxWlgRbkYI
— TBP College Football (@thebluepennant) October 2, 2017
Wanya Morris, OL, Tennessee
The early enrollee appears destined to start at left tackle as a true freshman and was essentially entrenched in that role during the spring. Wanya Morris has the build to develop into an All-SEC player and, frankly, Tennessee doesn’t really have many other options. Morris’ main competition at left tackle could come from fellow true freshman Darnell Wright, but considering he hasn’t arrived, the head start Morris got this spring will likely be too much for the West Virginia native to make up in fall camp. The Vols might take some lumps early by starting Morris, but if he quickly develops, the position should be locked down for the next 3 to 4 seasons.
Tennessee commit Wanya Morris is a pancake blocking machine 👀 pic.twitter.com/u8NIRUw9tF
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) August 25, 2018
Baylor Cupp, TE, Texas A&M
Jace Sternberger was a revelation last season, but he now plays for the Green Bay Packers. That’s the bad news. The good news is few knew who Sternberger was this time last year and Jimbo Fisher signed the nation’s No. 1 tight end, Baylor Cupp, to replace the All-SEC performer.
That doesn’t mean the freshman will be expected to come in and dominate the way his predecessor did, but the path to the field is clear and the Aggies worked hard this spring to get Cupp up to speed in time for the fall. The tight end role in Fisher’s offense isn’t easy to pick up and there’s no guarantee Cupp will have it down by late August, but by the time the fall ends, Cupp should be playing a significant role in an offense that needs its tight ends in order to maximize its production.