SEC players who need to break out in 2015
There are players who will be stars if healthy, players without the requisite talent to become a household name, and then those in between.
Call them wild cards, potential difference-makers, breakout players, whatever you’d like. There are plenty of them in the SEC in 2015 — immense talents yet to play to their potential.
Some are more significant than others due to the position they play or the circumstances of their team.
Here are five potential breakout players in the SEC whose teams really need them this fall.
QB JACOB COKER, ALABAMA
Brought to Tuscaloosa last summer with some calling him more talented than Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron, both national championship quarterbacks for Alabama and coach Nick Saban, Coker instead lost the starting job to a fifth-year senior in Blake Sims. (As well as he played last year, Sims didn’t even sign as a street free agent following the NFL draft.)
Now he’s threatened by David Cornwell and perhaps even by Everett Golson, a potential transfer who lost to Bama in the 2012 season BCS championship game.
It’s time Coker, now a senior, seizes control of the offense and makes the most of playing for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
DT CHRIS JONES, MISSISSIPPI STATE
A former five-star player, it’s time for the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior to perform like a star.
Recruited in the same class that saw Robert Nkemdiche head to Ole Miss, Jones was supposed to be Mississippi State’s answer. And he did manage 7 sacks as a true freshman. Partially due to double teams, he faded somewhat in 2014.
But the Bulldogs lost Preston Smith, Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones along the line from last year’s stellar defense, not to mention linebacker Benardrick McKinney. The return of quarterback Dak Prescott is a huge plus, but if Mississippi State wants to avoid a slip to the bottom of the SEC West, it needs more than a Heisman-worthy quarterback.
If Jones can grow into his physical ability and lofty expectations, it will be a huge added benefit to Mississippi State’s retooled defense.
OT DONTAVIUS BLAIR, TENNESSEE
A four-star JUCO transfer at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds, Blair was supposed to waltz into the Vols’ starting lineup at left tackle last season.
Instead, even after his second spring — on a line that hasn’t been very good since he arrived in Knoxville — he’s stuck working with the second unit. Offensive line coach Don Mahoney offered some insight into Blair’s current trajectory via 247Sports:
“I’m encouraged in the last couple of practices that we’ve had,” Mahoney said of Blair. “He still is not as consistent as he needs to be. But between now and fall camp, there’s more time for him to continue to grow, and the biggest reason I say that in that I’m encouraged is, again, he’s matured a lot. He’s grown up a lot.
“He has some goals on the field and some goals off the field that he’s been working extremely hard to reach those, and some of the goals off the field, I’m really proud of him from that standpoint.
“I think his overall makeup, I think the urgency level in the room and the fact that Coach (Butch Jones) is constantly preaching to us as a team and to our positions is the power of the unit, and he doesn’t want to let the guys down in the room. He definitely doesn’t want to let Vol Nation down, as well, so I think his attitude (is good) in terms of knowing that now is the time.”
MATT ELAM, KENTUCKY
Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith just got selected in the first and fourth rounds of the NFL draft, respectively.
To maintain the level of play with those losses at any one position would be challenging at a program like Alabama or LSU. UK can’t replace Dupree easily, but it would help if Elam, a five-star Kentucky-grown defensive tackle, could at least become a significant player for the Wildcats.
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 365 pounds, Elam arrived without the requisite conditioning to make an impact in ’14. He still looks huge and needs to lose “15 or 20” more pounds, according to a recent Lexington Courier-Journal article.
One caveat: it’s nearly impossible to star at defensive tackle in the SEC as a true freshman — more challenging and rare than defensive end or left tackle.
TE O.J. HOWARD, ALABAMA
The 6-foot-6, 242-pound tight end, spring-loaded with muscles and explosiveness, caught just 17 passes in 2014 after several publications called him an All-SEC and even an All-American candidate before the season. He made just six catches in the team’s first eight games before perking up — slightly.
To be more productive on the field, he must convince the coaches he’s worth more targets. That means high-pointing every ball in practice, not taking off any snaps and commanding the ball.
The team’s top three receivers from ’14, including Amari Cooper, are gone. Despite a young core of talented pass-catchers, now would be a good time for Howard to emerge into at least a semblance of the player for which everyone has been waiting.