Spring football in the SEC is in the books, so it’s a good time to take a look at some freshmen who may have an early impact on the league in 2024.

For the purposes of this story, only early-enrollees were considered. However, numerous other 4-and-5-star prospects are set to hit SEC campuses this summer.

Here’s a look at 1 exciting true freshman at every SEC program following spring practices:

Alabama: Zabien Brown, CB

Alabama needs to find some contributors at defensive back this offseason after losing numerous key players in the secondary to the NFL Draft or the transfer portal.

Brown, a 5-star cornerback out of California, seems like a good candidate to play a significant role as a true freshman in 2024. Head coach Kalen DeBoer was very complimentary of Brown (and fellow freshman DB Red Morgan) while speaking to reporters back in March.

“Red made a nice play or two today, and Zabien has been super consistent,” DeBoer said. “Really beyond what you would expect from guys who are so young. It has been really positive with those guys.”

Brown was in coverage on perhaps the most memorable play from Alabama’s spring game — a 52-yard completion between Jalen Milroe and Germie Bernard. Brown got beat on the play, but the fact that Alabama is challenging a true freshman with that assignment sheds some light on how the Tide’s coaching staff feels about him.

Arkansas: Braylen Russell, RB

Braylen Russell has earned some high praise from the Razorbacks’ coaching staff this spring. A 4-star prospect out of Bentonville, Russell is Arkansas’ highest-rated offensive signee from the Natural State in this class.

Russell is listed at 6-foot-1, 252 pounds, so he has the frame to compete in the SEC right away. If he’s able to get a better understanding of the offense, as OC Bobby Petrino said, Russell could have a big impact as a true freshman in 2024.

“The youngster, Braylen, has done a great job,” Petrino said. “He’s big. He’s really physical. He’s got great hands. It’s all new to him, so there’s times he has a far-away look in his eyes when he doesn’t know the play or can’t picture it in his mind, but he’s got a chance to be special.”

Arkansas does have at least a couple of running backs who are expected to be higher than Russell on the depth chart come Week 1. Rashod Dubinion returns after rushing for 260 yards in a limited role last season. Arkansas also added Ja’Quinden Jackson, who rushed for 797 yards at Utah in 2023, out of the transfer portal this offseason. But it’s not too much of a stretch to think Russell could work his way into the lineup at some point this fall.

Auburn: Cam Coleman, WR

This is an easy pick, as Coleman might be the most impressive true freshman nationally so far this spring. Coleman was the No. 3 prospect nationally for the class of 2024, per 247Sports Composite rankings.

He’s expected to have a chance to super-charge Auburn’s offense this fall after the Tigers often struggled to move the ball through the air in 2023. Coleman has the potential to join a long line of elite wide receivers who played for Hugh Freeze before moving on to the NFL.

“He is the most humble, coachable kid,” Freeze said in an interview earlier this spring. “And that’s rare in today’s time … he’s just humble. So you’ve got to give credit to his mom and dad and his family.

“Obviously there’s a lot of things he doesn’t know. You see it on film. I can see it out there before the ball is snapped. ‘Uh oh, he’s unsure.’ But that’s to be expected. When he’s sure, he’s really, really, really good.”

Auburn has not produced a 1,000-yard receiver since Ronney Daniels in 1999.

Florida: LJ McCray, DL

On a lot of teams, 5-star quarterback DJ Lagway would have been the pick here. But since Lagway isn’t likely to play much this season barring injury, I’ll give the nod to a talented defensive lineman in LJ McCray who could make a big impact from Day 1.

McCray is listed at 6-foot-6, 274 pounds so he has the size and physicality to play right away in the SEC.

Florida defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong had this to say about McCray back in March:

“I mean, I think obviously, you know, he walks in, he’s 6-foot-6, he weighs 270-something pounds. He can run, he can bend. He’s really smart. He loves football, he’s highly motivated. He wants to be really good, he’s humble. He’s really everything you want. And I think coach Peterson has done a really good job coaching him. He plays our field defensive end, you know, he’s a hybrid guy that can play 4i [technique], that can play 5 [technique], can drop, can rush. I mean, I think the sky’s the limit for the guy.”

McCray was the No. 20 defensive end in the country for the class of 2024, per 247Sports Composite rankings.

Here’s a highlight from Florida’s spring game when McCray brought down running back Montrell Johnson:

Georgia: KJ Bolden, safety

Georgia flipped 5-star safety KJ Bolden away from Florida State on signing day back in December, and it was arguably the Bulldogs’ biggest recruiting win of the cycle.

Bolden is a Georgia native who could figure into the Bulldogs’ loaded defensive back depth chart from day 1. He was impressive in Georgia’s spring game last weekend — his day was highlighted by this 3rd down stop:

It’s unlikely that Bolden will start on UGA’s defense as a true freshman, but that says more about what the Bulldogs have returning at safety than it does about Bolden. Here’s what Kirby Smart had to say about Bolden (and fellow freshman Ellis Robinson) earlier this spring:

“They’re first-spring players. They’re talented players and everything they were advertised to be in terms of being good football players. Instinctive, they both learn well, they both have toughness. I think both of them will contribute on special teams because they can run, hit, tackle. I’m excited about those guys.

“The expectation of the outside world is they’re going to set the place on fire, but we have good football players here. They’re going to compete with those guys and hopefully earn some ability to play and playing time.”

Kentucky: Hardley Gilmore IV, WR

Hardley Gilmore went somewhat under-the-radar during his recruitment, at least by SEC standards. A Pahokee, Florida product, Gilmore was the No. 52 receiver in the country for the class of 2024, per 247Sports Composite rankings.

And yet, he’s established himself early on as a potential Day 1 contributor in Lexington. Head coach Mark Stoops is very high on the true freshman receiver.

“He’s a guy that I think everybody has respect for because he really is just one of those guys who just comes in and puts his head down and is very hungry,” Stoops said. “He goes to work every day. He has a great attitude about him. He’s one of those guys, his personality is a little bit infectious, a little bit contagious. People gravitate towards him in a positive way and kind of look up to him as a young guy that has that kind of work ethic, that kind of mentality.

“The nice thing is … you don’t need that true freshman to come in and be ‘the guy.’ But he could certainly help us sprinkling in.”

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LSU: Gabe Reliford, DL

LSU has some openings in its defensive line rotation, and true freshman pass rusher Gabe Reliford may be ready to step up.

Reliford was impressive in LSU’s spring game earlier this month, recording multiple sacks. Here’s a highlight of one of the times he got to the quarterback:

Head coach Brian Kelly spoke about Reliford in his postgame press conference. While he tried to quiet expectations a bit, Kelly acknowledged that Reliford is ready to take the next step.

“Gabe was going up against the freshmen,” Kelly said. “And he’s a freshman, I get that. But now, we’re going to have to take Gabe and we’re going to have to get Gabe some reps against Will Campbell. We’re going to have to get him up against Emery (Jones). Because he’s earned that now, that we’ve got to be able to see what he looks like against those guys.”

Mississippi State: Braylon Burnside, WR

Mississippi State has a talented freshman wideout in Braylon “Stonka” Burnside who could be ready to contribute right away in Jeff Lebby’s offense.

Burnside was a 4-star prospect and was Mississippi State’s 2nd-highest ranked high school recruit in the class of 2024, per 247Sports Composite rankings. Lebby was very complimentary of the Starkville native when he spoke with reporters earlier this spring.

“He’s a guy who has got some natural football IQ. He’s naturally a tough kid. He’s got a strong body,” Lebby said. “Man, he’s having fun. That’s what I love to see. Because so many of the times, you get these young guys in here that are 18 years old and feel overwhelmed. Stonka is finding ways to have fun, enjoy his teammates and fight like heck to get better every single day, just like the rest of those freshman.”

Here’s one of Burnside’s top highlights from Mississippi State’s spring game:

Mississippi: Kam Franklin, DL

Kam Franklin was Ole Miss’ top-ranked early-enrollee in the class of 2024 and is expected to have some sort of role on the Rebels’ defense as a true freshman.

The former 4-star prospect is listed as a defensive end on Ole Miss’ roster. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, Franklin has the size and physicality to be an immediate-impact contributor for the Rebels this season.

Franklin was ranked as the No. 78 overall player in the country for the class of 2024, per 247Sports Composite rankings.

Missouri: Trajen Greco, CB

Cornerback Trajen Greco is by far Mizzou’s highest-ranked early enrollee in this class. The Tigers signed a stacked 2024 class from the high school ranks, led by 5-star defensive lineman Willian Nwaneri. But Nwaneri won’t be in Columbia until this summer, making him ineligible for consideration on this list.

Greco was a 4-star prospect and fills an immediate need on the depth chart as a highly-rated cornerback. Mizzou lost both of its starting cornerbacks from last season to the NFL Draft, so re-loading at this position is a must.

The Tigers do have some more experience at this position elsewhere, so it’s unlikely Greco will have a major role on the first-team defense as a true freshman.

In addition to Nwaneri, Mizzou has 6 other blue-chip true freshmen set to arrive in the summer.

Oklahoma: David Stone, DL

David Stone was a top priority for Oklahoma in the class of 2024 for years, and he’s now set to finally take the field this fall. Stone was a 5-star prospect this cycle, ranking as a top 10 player in the country per 247Sports Composite rankings.

In addition to his talent, head coach Brent Venables had plenty of praise for his intangibles this spring as well.

“There’s not a more humble, hard-working guy on our team than David Stone right now,” Venables said. “And he’d be the first to tell you, ‘man, I’ve got a lot to learn, a lot to get better at.’ But man, he’s showing up to work every day with that mindset. That’s how you do it.”

Stone is expected to be an immediate-impact contributor for the Sooners in 2024.

South Carolina: Josiah Thompson, OL

South Carolina landed the No. 1 prospect in the state in this past cycle in 5-star offensive tackle Josiah Thompson. At 6-foot-7, Thompson went through spring practice with the Gamecocks and is expected to compete for a starting job throughout the rest of the offseason.

South Carolina does not have an obvious choice to start at left tackle this fall, as returners Tree Babalade and Jakai Moore both struggled at times last season. Thompson, the No. 3 OT in the nation for the class of 2024, could compete for that spot if South Carolina doesn’t add an established starter via the transfer portal.

“Josiah’s been doing really good,” offensive line coach Lonnie Teasley said earlier this spring. “He’s a really gifted mover. So, that stuff comes natural to him. And then, what he’s really done a really good job of is getting in the weight room … and adding the bulk to his frame.

“So he’s done a good job with football, with the nutrition, the weight room, just becoming that complete player. He’s doing really good. We’re happy we have him.”

Tennessee: Mike Matthews, WR

Mike Matthews is Tennessee’s only Composite 5-star who enrolled early this spring, so it shouldn’t be a surprise here to see him get the nod. It especially shouldn’t be a surprise after Matthews was one of the Vols’ standout performers at Tennessee’s spring game earlier this month.

Here’s one of Matthews’ highlights from his spring game performance:

Matthews was considered the No. 24 overall player in the country for the class of 2024, per 247Sports Composite rankings.

“He’s a guy that goes about his business every day and competes extremely hard,” head coach Josh Heupel said about Matthews after the spring game. “He’s got a high competitive care-factor makeup.”

Texas: Ryan Wingo, WR

By all accounts, 5-star wide receiver Ryan Wingo had an excellent spring for the Longhorns.

Wingo is stepping into a loaded Texas WR room that also includes transfers Isaiah Bond, Matthew Golden and Silas Bolden. Still, Wingo is expected to play a role in Texas’ offense this season as the program transitions to SEC play.

“I would say the one guy that has probably shown up the most in my eyes would be Ryan Wingo,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said earlier this spring. “I feel like the last week, he’s really starting to make some plays, and you’re starting to see the size and speed and athleticism.”

A couple weeks after Sarkisian made that comment, Wingo showed off his skillset during Texas’ spring game:

Texas A&M: Blake Ivy, OL

Texas A&M’s freshman class includes 9 early enrollees, but none were higher ranked than 4-star offensive tackle Blake Ivy. At 6-foot-4, Ivy was ranked as the No. 143 overall player and the No. 12 offensive tackle in the country for the class of 2024, per 247Sports Composite rankings.

Like most — if not all — of Texas A&M’s freshmen, Ivy will likely struggle to earn significant playing time this upcoming fall in Mike Elko’s first year at the helm. Earlier this spring, Elko downplayed the impact that this class of freshmen could (or even should) have on Texas A&M in 2024.

“Regardless of who the coach is, regardless of what the program is, it is a challenge when you should be a senior in high school and you are playing SEC football. I do not think anybody can really quantify what that really is like,” Elko said. “You should be hanging out, going to prom and skipping class, and you are out here trying to rush on Trey Zuhn or tackle Rueben Owens or Le’veon Moss. You know what I mean? I just think it’s such a huge jump.”

Still, Ivy is a player with tremendous upside who may end up contributing at Texas A&M relatively early in his collegiate career.

Vanderbilt: Dontae Carter, DB

Dontae Carter is Vanderbilt’s only 4-star early-enrollee in the class of 2024, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see him get the nod in this spot.

Carter’s emergence comes at a time when Vanderbilt is hurting for some safety production. All 3 of the Commodores’ top safeties from their 2023 roster departed the program this offseason.

Dontae is a guy we think can come in and have an immediate impact,” head coach Clark Lea said on signing day back in December. “He’s gonna have to earn it and he knows that. Nothing will be given to him but we believe in his abilities, I love his mentality.”

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