|Alabama running back Derrick Henry is considered another star in the making.|
We're a long way from the start of the 2014 college football season (not that we're counting, but it's 77 days away), but that doesn't mean we can't start going in-depth about what we think will happen this fall.
To that end, we're going to pick 10 players who will go from well-known in their leagues (actually, in some cases, it might even be little-known in their leagues) to well-known nationally this season -- the top 10 breakout players in each league, as it were.
Today, we look at the SEC's top 10 breakout candidates -- 10 players everyone will know about when November rolls around. We'll look at the Big 12 on Thursday.
10. Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&MParticulars: 6-5, 225 pounds, redshirt freshman.
Buzz: With Seals-Jones' immense size, immediate comparisons will be made to former Aggies star and top-10 pick Mike Evans. That's not fair, particularly given that Seals-Jones will never have the benefit of Johnny Manziel throwing him passes and scrambling all day when Evans needed more time to get open. Still, even with a new quarterback, Seals-Jones will be a matchup nightmare for opposing cornerbacks in single coverage this fall. As a freshman last year, he introduced himself with a 71-yard touchdown catch against Rice, but an injury ended his season prematurely and he sat out the rest of the year to protect his redshirt status. Don't be surprised if Seals-Jones leads the team in receiving over veteran Malcome Kennedy and hotshot newcomer Speedy Noil.
9. DL Darius Philon, ArkansasParticulars: 6-3, 283 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: The Razorbacks played Philon sparingly early in the year, but he earned increased playing time and when starting defensive tackle Robert Thomas went down for the year with a broken leg, Philon impressively took over a key role. He ended up with 46 tackles and nine tackles for loss, great production for an interior player. There is a spectacular class of sophomore defensive tackles developing in the SEC led by Mississippi State's Chris Jones (see below), Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche, and Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson. Philon isn't quite in that conversation right now, but he could be by the end of the season.
8. WR Pharoh Cooper, South CarolinaParticulars: 5-11, 200 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: With Bruce Ellington now in the NFL, the Gamecocks will be in search of a new impact receiver for quarterback Dylan Thompson, who finally takes over for Connor Shaw. Some believe it will be Damiere Byrd. We expect it to be Cooper, who emerged last year as a freshman do-it-all threat. He touched the ball in five different capacities last year (rushing, passing, receiving, punt returns and kickoff returns), and thus his 655 all-purpose yards ranked third on the team. He's got breakaway speed, he's strong enough to break a tackle, and he's even got a spin move. This fall, the creative Steve Spurrier could have a lot more fun with Cooper's role. But it will be no fun at all for opposing defensive and special-teams coordinators.
7. LB Caleb Azubike, VanderbiltParticulars: 6-4, 260 pounds, junior.
Buzz: An NFL-caliber athlete who hasn't quite lived up to his potential to date, Azubike found the perfect home as the Jack linebacker in the Commodores' new 3-4 defensive scheme under new coach Derek Mason. He'll be a stand-up, pass-rushing linebacker on pretty much a full-time basis, opening more opportunities for big plays than he's ever had before. Last year, he recorded four sacks, including one from a defensive tackle position in which he blew past talented Florida guard Ian Silberman like he wasn't even there. This fall, Azubike could double or triple that total, particularly with his role in the new defense.
6. LB Leonard Floyd, GeorgiaParticulars: 6-4, 220 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: Consider Floyd a threat to lead the SEC in sacks this year. That's a bold statement considering he'll be challenged to even lead the team in that category ahead of talented teammates Ray Drew and Jordan Jenkins. But if any of those three develops into a real star, the bet here is on Floyd. He made 6.5 sacks last year as a freshman, despite a thin, angular frame that he'll grow into more as a sophomore. His performance was somewhat lost in Georgia's defensive struggles as a team, but this fall, Floyd could make a huge individual splash.
5. TE O.J. Howard, AlabamaParticulars: 6-6, 237 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: Tight ends just aren't supposed to be able to beat the LSU secondary for a 52-yard touchdown the way Howard did last year as a freshman. Yet with ability like that, he only caught 14 passes all year and wasn't a central part of the Tide offense. That could change this fall with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and a new quarterback who can find Howard on easier, quicker reads. Howard is a complete mismatch for linebackers in coverage, particularly when lining up in the slot where he can get an easy, clean release off the line of scrimmage. As such, he'll draw more safeties in single coverage, but if Alabama looks his way enough, he will beat them, as well.
4. WR Marquez North, TennesseeParticulars: 6-4, 221 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: With all the quarterback woes Tennessee had last year, there was no way for North to show the nation exactly how good he is. Still, he managed to grab 38 catches for 496 yards as a freshman. With better quarterback play, he could have done far more. He's among the biggest receivers in the SEC and knows how to use his size and strength, yet he can also get open with speed, and make amazing catches like this one. "He has that look in his eye that he is chasing greatness," said UT coach Butch Jones. With Dorial Green-Beckham's ouster from Missouri, North is the most talented receiver returning in the SEC East. If the Vols can get him the ball enough, there is no telling what kind of season he could put up in 2014.
3. DL Chris Jones, Mississippi StateParticulars: 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: It could be argued that Jones' impressive debut as a freshman last year disqualifies him from breakout status, but if you think the ceiling for Jones isn't much higher, you're not listening to MSU coach Dan Mullen: "He's got freaky talent," Mullen said after spring drills. "But there are a lot of people out there who have had freaky talent and did nothing with it." He began the season at end last year and eventually moved to tackle. Now, he's a tackle full-time. He had seven tackles for loss last year, and three sacks. But even without the benefit of rushing off the edge in 2014, he has the talent to double those numbers as a sophomore.
2. OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole MissParticulars: 6-5, 315 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: An immensely talented left tackle, Tunsil started as a freshman last year and absolutely dominated. But let's face it: The low profile shared by all offensive linemen requires more than a year for even the very best to get their due. That's why Tunsil, even though he was a second-team All-SEC pick last year, remained largely anonymous behind an extremely deep class of SEC tackles that included six NFL draft picks, including three first-rounders ( Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Ja'Wuan James). This year, Tunsil will be as good as any left tackle in the league, including 2015 draft prospects Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M), La'El Collins (LSU) and Corey Robinson (South Carolina). Ole Miss fans already know that. Soon enough, the rest of the nation will, too.
1. RB Derrick Henry, AlabamaParticulars: 6-3, 238 pounds, sophomore.
Buzz: When Alabama fans bemoaned an embarrassing 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the days following the Sugar Bowl, Derrick Henry's performance is what lifted their hopes for the future. With eight carries for 100 yards and this impressive touchdown catch, he served notice that the Crimson Tide has yet another star in the making in its backfield. Henry's size/speed combination is freakish, and as talented as starter T.J. Yeldon is, Henry might lead the team in carries this season if Yeldon's well-documented fumbling bug (five last year) doesn't go away. Even if Yeldon holds the starting role, Alabama has always split carries between two backs, and Henry will definitely get his chances.
Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.