7 SEC players who have to take the next step in 2018
Being “poised to break out” and “having to take the next step” are different things.
The former means that they haven’t had an opportunity yet, and once given said opportunity, a star will be born. A player who has to take the next step is doing so because they’ve either underperformed, or it’s a major area of need for their team.
Sure, there could be some crossover. But those who make the list of “players who have to take the next step” are the ones who could be feeling a little more heat to get the job done.
Here are 7 SEC players who fall into that category:
1. Natrez Patrick, Georgia LB
Patrick ruined his chance to step up in 2017 because of a drug suspension that cost him a chance at playing in the College Football Playoff. He was suspended for 4 games while the Dawgs had a storybook season without him. Now, though, the Georgia defense needs him to get his priorities straight.
The former starter watched the likes of Roquan Smith, Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter, all of whom started in the Dawgs’ Playoff games. That means Patrick has a chance to be the most experienced linebacker returning. Once upon a time in 2016, he was a tackling machine who appeared to have made the next step. As a senior, he’ll have to play even better than he did as a promising sophomore.
Patrick isn’t guaranteed to get another chance to take the next step. If the linebacker messes up again, one has to think it’ll be the last straw. Kirby Smart did say that Patrick has done everything the team asked of him since entering the drug treatment program, which he’ll have to continue the rest of his career just to stay on the team.
The linebackers were the heart and soul of Georgia’s defense in 2017. If Patrick can take care of business on and off the field, he can lead a new-look unit in 2018.
2. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama WR
In case you haven’t heard, the Tide weren’t exactly a team that liked to spread the ball out in 2017. Jalen Hurts locked in on Calvin Ridley, and Alabama’s freshman receivers had extremely inconsistent production. Jeudy was the second-leading receiver on the team and he averaged 19 receiving yards per game, though he made some big-time plays.
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) November 25, 2017
Now Ridley is gone, and Hurts’ days as an Alabama starter could be gone, too. Does that mean we should expect Tua Tagovailoa and Jeudy to start lighting up scoreboards? I won’t go that far yet, but there’s certainly pressure on the latter to become the go-to target.
The expectation is that Alabama won’t skip a beat at receiver because of the way things unfolded in the national championship. True freshman DeVonta Smith caught the game-winner while classmate Henry Ruggs III hauled in a touchdown pass from Tagovailoa, as well. It was easy to forget that Smith had just 8 catches all year and Ruggs’ only games with multiple catches came in the Playoff.
Even if Jeudy doesn’t become Ridley overnight, he still has to be the one who moves the chains for the Tide.
3. Rashard Lawrence, LSU DE
Lawrence is definitely one of those guys who will show up on some “breakout” lists. The expectation is that the former 5-star recruit is going to lead the Tigers’ front 7 with Devin White. But to put White and Lawrence in the same breath in terms of past production wouldn’t be fair.
Injuries slowed down Lawrence’s first 2 seasons in Baton Rouge. He did still play in 10 games last year, and he finished the season with just 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. If those marks don’t see a major spike in 2018, it’ll be a major disappointment.
Lawrence is LSU’s only returning starter on the defensive line. Healthy ankles are obviously key, as is consistency. Dave Aranda needs Lawrence to be a run-stopping machine who can also take on double teams and free up White and the LSU linebackers. A year like that would help the Tigers on the field, and it would make Lawrence an attractive next-level prospect at season’s end.
4. Tyrie Cleveland, Florida WR
Remember when Cleveland made the catch of Florida’s season?
Did you know: If you play this video at 11:59:48 PM tonight, Tyrie Cleveland will catch a game winning 63 yard touchdown as the clock strikes midnight. Start your 2018 off the right way. pic.twitter.com/0amZIXffhC
— Gators24/7 (@Gators247_) December 31, 2017
Take away that 63-yard Hail Mary, though, and Cleveland finished 2017 with just 21 catches for 347 yards and 1 touchdown. Also take away that time that Kentucky FORGOT TO COVER HIM and he would’ve finished with 302 receiving yards and zero touchdowns. Obviously those plays still happened, that’s telling.
With those plays, he was still Florida’s leading receiver. Somehow.
It’s hard to punish someone for poor play in Jim McElwain’s offense. Cleveland might’ve been a victim of the system and some poor quarterback play, but that won’t fly under the new regime. If he’s healthy, Cleveland will be expected to contribute in a big way in Dan Mullen’s offense.
We know that Cleveland has the ability to stretch the field. With Florida’s new run-pass option offense, the hope is that secondaries will get caught peaking in the backfield and Cleveland can beat them over the top. That’s where he’s most dangerous. But whoever starts at quarterback wouldn’t mind if Cleveland could develop into a move-the-chains guy, as well.
5. Calvin Ashley, Auburn OT
For all the amazing moments the Auburn offense had in 2017, they mostly came in spite of some shaky offensive line play. A lot of that was because of injuries. The former 5-star offensive tackle didn’t see the field in 2017 after he suffered an undisclosed injury.
The good news is that Ashley got to practice with the scout team during Peach Bowl prep. Gus Malzahn said that the 6-6, 350-pound true freshman “took the next step” and that he “stood out.”
That’s key because Auburn graduated All-American Braden Smith and three other starters are gone. It’ll be up to Ashley and Nick Brahms to usher in the new phase of the Tigers’ offensive line.
With a new-look running game and Jarrett Stidham coming off shoulder surgery, an All-SEC season from Ashley would go a long way.
6. Ty Chandler, Tennessee RB
Let’s be clear. A whole lot of Vols have to step up in order to turn around a winless season in the SEC. One player isn’t going to flip that switch.
Chandler got the nod because while Butch Jones free fell the last few years, the Vols were actually building a pretty steady stable of backs. Alvin Kamara was underutilized and John Kelly was, too. Now, it’s up to Chandler to maximize his opportunities. Something tells me the Vols aren’t going to want to build the offense around an aerial attack, which means there’s no reason for Chandler to be underutilized (unless they play in a bunch of blowouts, of course).
The No. 5 running back in the 2017 class got to play sparingly in his true freshman season, but he provided reason for optimism when he racked up 120 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns with Kelly sidelined against Kentucky. In a perfect world, Chandler will develop into a do-it-all player and the Vols would have several backfield weapons.
It’ll be interesting to see the way Tyson Helton gets Chandler involved. One has to think Chandler will have a chance to make an impact, regardless of game flow.
7. Daylon Mack, Texas A&M DT
Jimbo Fisher is set on establishing his offensive culture in College Station, but let’s not forget the Aggies need a serious defensive overhaul. And if you don’t think that, perhaps you missed when they allowed an average of 50 points to LSU and Wake Forest to close the season.
That overhaul would be easier if a former 5-star defensive lineman like Mack could put it all together in 2018. Since arriving in College Station in 2015, Mack has been in a reserve role with the occasional huge play.
It’s not hard to see why he’s called “Mack Truck.”
That time Daylon Mack almost took the handoff in the Alabama backfield. pic.twitter.com/sFqo0Pk3eA
— BCH Sports (@BCHsports) October 17, 2015
He had a few viral moments and his best overall season back when he was a true freshman. But as a senior, Texas A&M needs Mack to have a much bigger role. He’s expected to start after an up-and-down 3 years. Weight issues and inconsistency won’t be valid excuses for Mack in his final season.
The good news was that then-interim coach Jeff Banks said that Mack was playing much more consistently before the Belk Bowl. Only time will tell if that rings true heading into 2018.
Fisher would certainly appreciate if Mack lived up to that 5-star billing…and that nickname.