Seven key players in the SEC West
August 26th, 2012 By Chris Lee
Football season is here, and once again, it appears that the Southeastern Conference will be the preeminent BCS league once again. In another feature, I named the key player on each team in the SEC East and today, I do the same for the West. Once again, this player may not necessarily be that particular team’s MVP, he might be its most important player on the field this fall for whatever reason.
Alabama: running back Eddie Lacy
Quickly… which Alabama back with at least 50 carries had the best yards-per-carry average on the team in each of the last two years? Nope, not Trent Richardson – it was Eddie Lacy, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry on 95 attempts last year (1.2 better than Richardson) and 7.3 on 56 tries in 2010. It’s probably not fair to compare the two, since Lacy got a lot of his yards in garbage time after the Crimson Tide had already worn defenses to a pulp, but it’s still pretty impressive because Lacy may not have always been running behind his own first-team offensive line, either.
The 6-foot, 220-pounder is ‘Bama’s go-to guy this year, and with a lot of departed skill players from the past two seasons, the ‘Tide needs him to step up. The problem is, Lacy can’t seem to stay healthy. A foot injury hampered him for a few games last season, and he’s battled minor ankle and knee problems all through August.
Coach Nick Saban always recruits well enough to ensure that Alabama has running back talent, but this isn’t 2010 Alabama with Richardson and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram on the roster, either – and if Lacy’s hurt, Alabama will have to turn to true freshman T.J. Yeldon. ‘Bama needs a healthy year, as well as a big year, from Lacy if it hopes to compete for another national title.
Arkansas: linebacker Alonzo Highsmith
Just as they’ve been the last few years, the Razorbacks are loaded on offense. Because of it, Arkansas hung in as a dark-horse national title contender until late into last season, and some think that the Razorbacks could do that again given that Alabama and LSU lost a lot of key players.
But the reason that ‘Bama and LSU were a couple notches above Arkansas was solely because Arkansas’ defense was nowhere in the universe as the other two. Rush defense was a big problem a lot of the year. Check out these totals that opponents put up on the ground last season (total yards followed by yards per carry): Alabama (197, 5.1), Texas A&M (381, 7.1), Auburn (291, 5.6), Vanderbilt (222, 5.3) and LSU (286, 6.2).
So the Razorbacks have got to get tougher on the ground, and a lot of that starts at linebacker. Highsmith is probably Arkansas’ best returning defender, having finished third on the team in tackles and first in stops for loss. But the Razorbacks are otherwise thin at the position, especially after leading tackler Jerry Franklin is gone. Highsmith had a pectoral injury that kept him out of a lot of August practices, and that didn’t help anything. Highsmith is an NFL prospect, and coach John L. Smith needs him healthy and playing like one if the Razorbacks have any hope of challenging the big boys.
Auburn: quarterback Kiehl Frazier
Former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn hand-picked Frazier to run the Tigers’ high-powered, spread offense in 2010, but Malzahn has now departed to Arkansas State to become its head coach. Meanwhile, there are serious questions about the Tigers’ offense even without one of college football’s true offensive geniuses, as Auburn had major troubles doing anything in the passing game last season.
Frazier wasn’t ready for the spotlight a year ago, but the Tigers had better hope he is now since starter Barrett Trotter has graduated and backup Clint Moseley can’t keep his shoulder healthy. In fact, Moseley has been very limited in practice because of it, and even when he’s gotten snaps, he’s had to change his throwing angle to keep from hurting. But what does it say about Frazier’s performance that coach Gene Chizzik still hasn’t committed to a starter between Frazier, Moseley and true freshman Jonathan Wallace as camp winds down?
Frazier put up big, big-time numbers with his arm and his feet in high school. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with the offense and getting reps, but that offense also isn’t the same one to which Frazier was recruited. Auburn needs an answer here to have a big season, and Frazier remains the team’s best hope.
LSU: receiver Odell Beckham
The Tigers were in contention for a national title last year because of a stout defense and a solid running game, but didn’t blow anyone away through the air. With Zach Mettenberger behind center this year, LSU has a chance to be more explosive – and a big reason for that is the sophomore Beckham
Rivals.com rated Beckham the No. 6 receiver in the 2011 recruiting class, and he looked the part as a freshman, quickly becoming LSU’s No. 2 receiver with 41 catches for 475 yards. Now, he’s the Tigers’ go-to guy as a receiver as well as the guy who’ll take over for Tyrann Mathieu as LSU’s punt returner. When the Tigers need a big-play guy in big games, Beckham’s the one who’s got the best chance to make something happen.
Ole Miss: quarterback Bo Wallace
There are so many holes on this Ole Miss team that it’s hard to say what the Rebels need most, so let’s settle on the most important position on the field: quarterback. Ole Miss was terrible there in 2011, so the Rebels went in search of a quick-fix option. They hope they’ve found one in the person of JUCO transfer Bo Wallace.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder threw for 4,604 yards and 53 touchdowns last year at East Mississippi Community College. Both are all-time JUCO records. He was 16-for-26 for 240 yards and two scores in the Ole Miss spring game, but the bad news is that the job was still a dead-heat between he and Barry Brunetti heading into the fall.
Wallace may have a slight edge as camp winds down, but coach Hugh Freeze was probably hoping for more separation by now. The Rebels open with Central Arkansas and UTEP, so perhaps Wallace (assuming he wins the job) will have a couple of weeks to get more confidence and familiarity with the offense.
Corey Broomfield, defensive back, Mississippi State
Broomfield is one of the SEC’s premier big-play guys on defense with nine picks and three scores from his cornerback position. But his value goes beyond that: with the Bulldogs having some depth issues at safety, coach Dan Mullen has moved him over there during August practices. However, Mullen hinted last week that he’s reserving the right to move Broomfield back to corner if needed.
Broomfield accepted the transition with a good attitude and no reservations. He’ll still be able to make big plays in the air, but Broomfield will also get a chance to blitz and make big plays other ways at safety. The combination of versatility and play-making ability makes him State’s most important player this fall.
Texas A&M: quarterback Johnny Manziel
Replacing a first-round draft pick isn’t easy, especially as a freshman, but “Johnny Football” will try to do that this fall. Success has never eluded him so far: as a high school senior in Kerrville, Texas, he rushed for 1,674 yards and 30 touchdowns and threw for 3,609 with 45 touchdowns and five picks as a senior.
Manziel’s athleticism and his vision have always been natural gifts, but he needed to work on footwork and mechanics. Practice insiders say he improved tremendously at those things this August, enough to overtake Jameill Showers as the starter. Now, the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder will get to do it for real against the SEC.
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