Seven key players in the SEC East
August 12th, 2012 By Chris Lee
Football season is just a couple of weeks away, and once again, it appears that the Southeastern Conference will be the preeminent BCS league once again. Today, we take a look at each team in the East and name the one player on each team who, while he may not necessarily be that particular team’s MVP, he might be its most important player on the field this fall for whatever reason.
Anyway, here’s a look at each player, and why he’s that team’s “key” for this season.
Florida: running back Mike Gillislee
We’re still not sure whether the Gators’ quarterback will be Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel, and it may not matter anyway since both have performed so similarly at this point in their careers. The one thing we do know is that Gillislee, a senior, will be UF’s featured back. The 210-pounder made a bold prediction that he’d run for 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns this year, which is fairly outlandish given that he’s run for exactly 916 in his career so far, and is considered just a marginal draft prospect.
But look closer, and you’ll find that Gillislee could approach those numbers more than you’d think. His career per-carry average is a robust 6.4, and Gator coaches have admitted that perhaps they made a mistake sitting Gillislee behind a slew of a number of track stars who could never quite hit the mark as football players over the past few years. Now they’ve made it clear that he’s the guy, and given the lack of proven playmakers on the Gator offense combined with the fact that the Sunshine State native is playing for future coin, those things could translate into a big year for Gillislee.
Georgia cornerback/receiver Malcolm Mitchell
From the time that Malcolm Mitchell played his first game last season, it was evident he’d be a force: he caught a 51-yard touchdown pass vs. Boise State that day. Through six games, he had a very respectable 438 yards receiving before missing the next three contests and still managed to finish with 665 yards and four scores. As Rivals.com’s 30th-ranked player in his class coming into last season, it came as little surprise.
Mitchell had a good case as a preseason first-team All-SEC receiver coming into the season… except that he may not be a receiver coming into the season. With coach Mark Richt handing out a slew of suspensions to defensive backs, Mitchell is going to help out at cornerback for at least the first couple of games until the regulars start returning. That makes sense, considering that Rivals considered Mitchell a corner coming out of high school.
Mitchell’s performance will be huge to Georgia either way he plays. How he performs at defensive back – especially against Missouri in Game 2 – could be especially key in determining whether the Bulldogs can get by the first few weeks and position themselves for a national title run.
Kentucky: linebacker Alvin Dupree
The bad news for Kentucky: its best two defensive players (by far) off a unit that wasn’t that good last year are gone now that Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy are in the NFL. The good news: there’s a guy on the horizon who could be more spectacular as a prospect than either of them. He’s Georgia native Alvin Dupree, and just about any time his name comes up in conversation with a Wildcat player or coach, the phrase “he could be a great one” usually isn’t far behind.
How good an athlete is Dupree? Rivals considered him a tight end prospect out of high school, but Dupree filled in at linebacker when a starter got hurt last year, and was listed as a starter at defensive end in some preseason magazines. He’ll start at linebacker in 2012 – even though he’s bulked up 30 pounds to 255 from a season ago. Dupree’s goal for 2012: 24 sacks, which would tie Terrell Suggs’ NCAA record. It’ll be interesting to see how that turns out, because the Wildcats have told him he has one job: go get the quarterback.
Missouri: running back Kendial Lawrence
This time a year ago, Lawrence was Missouri’s starting running back. Then Lawrence cracked his fibula before Week 2 and got Wally-Pipped by freshman sensation Henry Josey, who ran wild for 8.1 yards per carry. Then Josey tore his knee and Lawrence got the job back, posting a pair of 100-plus yard games in his final four contests.
Josey had a pair of knee surgeries in the off-season and may be back at some point, but nobody has a clue as to when – so Lawrence is now the starter. Lawrence was a highly-recruited high school player who showed some explosiveness early on as a freshman, but never asserted himself to become The Guy. Now, that’s what he is by default.
Missouri’s offense is built around the aerial combo of quarterback James Franklin and a bunch of capable targets, including the nation’s No. 1 recruit in Dorial Green-Beckham. But at some point in the SEC, you’ve got to get those tough yards on the ground to keep drives alive. Will Lawrence be up to the call?
South Carolina: defensive end Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney but didn’t start last year because the Gamecocks were loaded on the line and the true freshman was slow to learn the system. The guy who made Carolina’s defense go a year ago was Melvin Ingram, but now that the Chargers took Ingram in the first round, somebody’s got to step up in his absence. Devin Taylor could be the guy to do that, but naturally the expectation first falls to Clowney by virtue of being the nation’s top recruit two years ago.
Clowney is a special, special athlete: think Jevon Kearse as a rookie and you’re in the ballpark. Carolina’s defense was ranked No. 2 in America last year in large part because Ingram and his cohorts got to quarterbacks so quickly. If Clowney is dialed-in mentally, perhaps there won’t be much of a drop-off there in 2012.
Tennessee: quarterback Tyler Bray
Talk of the nation’s top receiver units starts with Southern Cal’s dynamic duo of Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, but truth be told, Tennessee’s Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rodgers could easily be in the discussion. The Vols added junior college All-American Cordarrelle Patterson, too, giving defensive coordinators one more thing to worry about if they didn’t have enough already.
But someone’s got to get them the ball, and when Bray went down last year, so did the Vols’ offense. Before he got hurt, Bray looked as if he might be developing into a talent on par with Peyton Manning, and his name had started to appear early on mock drafts.
But Bray might be his own worst enemy. Many publicly questioned whether Bray played hard in UT’s improbable loss to Kentucky in the season finale last season. His maturity has been questioned many times, and his name linked to off-field incidents more than coach Derek Dooley would care.
If Bray’s head on is straight, the Vols could be looking at a nine- or 10-win season, and Bray, at a lot of future money. But given what we know about him, he could also just as easily be the second coming of Todd Marinovich or Jim Druckenmiller.
Vanderbilt: quarterback Jordan Rodgers
The Vandy offense went from terrible before Jordan Rodgers took over at quarterback to pretty good almost the instant the junior took over for Larry Smith. The reason: Rodgers had the ability to make long completions to receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, and to scramble for first downs on those third-and-8s when he was flushed out of the pocket. Without him, VU may not have made a bowl.
However, Rodgers fell flat in Game 11 vs. Tennessee and also in the Liberty Bowl vs. Cincinnati. He also had a falling-out with coach James Franklin during the bowl game over not running the offense as he’d been asked. But the biggest issue he had, even during his better games, was consistency with his accuracy as he only completed 50 percent of his throws on the season.
Rodgers has matured enough to where he’s been elected captain, and has settled things with Franklin. Through the first couple of weeks of August practices, he’d shown improved arm strength and the ability to make the move-the-chains throws with much more consistency. Rodgers says his goal for this year is a 70 percent completion rate, but just hitting 60 percent would likely put the Commodores in a bowl once again.
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