It’s no secret that there are some pretty good football players in the SEC. The league had 21 players drafted across the first two rounds of this past NFL draft alone, a new record for a conference.
But what about those who fly slightly under the radar? Sure, they may eventually be NFL-bound, too, but not everyone is a five-star recruit, or a guy coming off an All-American season.
Here are the SEC’s wild card players for the 2017 season.
Offense: Malik Zaire, QB
Zaire has to win the job first, but the Notre Dame graduate transfer looks like the guy who can lead Florida to its third straight SEC East title — and perhaps more. Zaire was 3-0 as the starter for the Fighting Irish and did not commit a single turnover. A combination of bad luck (broken ankle) and bad timing (DeShone Kizer’s rise) conspired against Zaire, but he could be just the guy to capitalize on a clean slate.
Defense: Jabari Zuniga, DE
Zuniga made the SEC’s all-freshman team last season after tallying a team-best five sacks. He had 8.5 TFLs and one forced fumble while making three starts as a redshirt freshman for the nation’s No. 5 defense, a unit that will look to continue its dominance with Randy Shannon now being promoted to coordinator after Geoff Collins took the Temple head job.
Offense: Isaac Nauta, TE
Georgia struggled to score during Kirby Smart’s first season, ranking 102nd nationally in scoring offense. A bright spot, however, was Nauta, who tallied 361 yards and three touchdowns last season on 29 catches. The former five-star prospect lived up to the hype in 2016, making numerous freshman All-America teams and setting high expectations for this fall.
Defense: Julian Rochester, DL
The Bulldogs return almost everyone from last year’s defense, which is one of the biggest reasons expectations are so high for 2017. Rochester was an early contributor to last year’s 16th-ranked unit, starting six games as a true freshman and tallying 36 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble. He’s reportedly dropped a ton of weight this offseason in an effort to get quicker, which could mean bigger things are on the horizon.
Offense: Stephen Johnson, QB
Running back Benny Snell Jr. made most of the headlines last season and should be the focus of opposing defenses in 2017, but for the purposes of a “wild card,” the quarterback has to go here. Yes, there are technically two of them for the Wildcats, as Drew Barker is working his way back from a back injury. But Johnson drove the bus in his debut season, helping the Wildcats get to seven wins. Johnson enters his final season of eligibility with his program facing heightened expectations, and the junior college transfer can help Kentucky meet them if he builds off last season.
Defense: Eli Brown, LB
The Wildcats’ defense has been heavy with upperclassmen in recent years. But Brown was able to carve out some opportunities for himself as a redshirt freshman last season, seeing action in 12 games. He had 24 total tackles — including a career-best seven against Alabama — to go along with 0.5 TFLs and one fumble recovery. Mild improvement should mean more opportunities for Brown on a defense that needs to get better in order to make a real run at the SEC East crown.
Offense: Johnathon Johnson, WR
Perhaps this label should be “all-purpose,” neither offense nor defense, as Johnson found a myriad of ways to make an impact last season. He had the Tigers’ longest rush, catch, kick return and punt return in 2016, as the jack-of-all-trades averaged 17.6 yards per touch and was a threat anytime he had the ball in his hands. He’s a wild card considering the unpredictable trajectory of multi-purpose players, as opportunities are often out of their control.
Defense: Ronnell Perkins, S
Perkins burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman, tallying 43 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, three pass breakups and one QB hurry en route to SEC all-freshman honors. Mizzou has to get better defensively, and Perkins will be a big reason for that jump, if it happens.
Offense: Jake Bentley, QB
Is this the best returning quarterback in the SEC? Probably not… yet. But Bentley burst onto the scene as a freshman, going 4-3 as a starter while throwing for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns while leading Will Muschamp’s first Gamecocks team to a surprise berth in the Birmingham Bowl.
Defense: D.J. Wonnum, DL
Wonnum led all South Carolina freshmen with 32 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks, along with two quarterback hurries. Wonnum has added weight this offseason as he takes on more responsibilities as the Gamecocks’ “buck,” a linebacker/end hybrid position.
Offense: Quentin Dormady, QB
The Vols have yet to announce their starter, as the junior Dormady battled it out all spring with redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano for the right to replace Joshua Dobbs. But Dormady had a terrific spring game, completing all 10 of his pass attempts for 120 yards and two touchdowns. And, of course, he’s the older player — and when competitions like this one seem too close to call, the veteran always has the upper hand. Whoever the quarterback is, the pressure will be on him to deliver in a crucial year for Butch Jones and Co.
Defense: Nigel Warrior, DB
Warrior made an immediate impact last year as a freshman, tallying 22 tackles and seeing extensive playing time in the secondary when others were hurt. The son of Vols legend Dale Carter, the awesomely named Warrior made an impact on special teams as well.
Source: Athlon Sports