Every team has one. He’s not necessarily a team’s best player, but he’s perhaps the guy who could have a break-out year, or the guy in a key role where the team doesn’t have a reliable “other option.” He’s the guy that, if he has a great season, it might mean an extra win or two for his team. I’ll call them “pivotal players,” and here’s my pick of one for each team in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division.
Florida: wide receiver Trey Burton
The Gators’ receiving corps last year was pedestrian, and that’s being quite kind. No Gator topped 600 yards receiving, and three of the team’s top four pass-catchers aren’t back for 2013. The Gators need a difference-maker, and the best candidate here is Trey Burton, a jack-of-all-trades who can run, throw and catch. This year, the Gators desperately need him to catch.
If you want to see what Burton’s upside looks like, glance back to his freshman year, when he accounted for 559 yards and 12 scores on 107 plays from scrimmage (32 were receptions). But Burton’s last two seasons combined barely surpassed that freshman year in terms of total yards. The Gators need somebody to make plays, and this year, the 6-foot, 225-pound senior — who is considered an NFL prospect — seems as good a bet as anyone to become that difference-maker.
Also considered: Quarterback Jeff Driskel is the other half to that passing equation, and with the transfer of backup Jacoby Brissett… well, let’s just say an injury there could set off an offensive disaster. In fact, if you think of it that way, Driskel probably rates as the most important overall player to the Gators’ well-being.
Georgia: linebacker Jordan Jenkins
UGA lost a slew of defensive talent to the NFL, including a pair of first-round picks in linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree. With all those stars, I’ll bet that you didn’t know that a true freshman, Jordan Jenkins, ranked second on the team in sacks.
Well, Jenkins is a sophomore now, and this time, he’ll probably lead the Bulldogs in sacks. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will certainly try to help him do that, lining him up on the edge in certain situations.
Also considered: Cornerback Damian Swann is UGA’s lone returning starter at defensive back, and will probably draw the assignment on No. 1 receivers most of the year.
Kentucky: running back Raymond Sanders
Rookie coach Mark Stoops has a rebuilding project on both sides of the ball, since the Wildcats gave up 31 points per game and scored just 18 last season. But Stoops is a defensive coach and the ‘Cats actually have a few talented players on that side of the ball, so there may be some hope on that side.
What UK doesn’t have, though, is much offensive talent: a quick scan of Phil Steele’s four All-SEC teams reveals nary a single Wildcat on offense. Stoops needs someone to make some plays, and the most obvious non-quarterback candidate seems to be senior tailback Raymond Sanders, UK’s leading rusher last year (669 yards, five TDs.) The Wildcats like his versatility and feel that he’s a great fit for their new offense.
Also considered: He enters the summer behind Jalen Whitlow, but watch out for quarterback Maxwell Smith, who played well (68.7 percent completion rate, eight TDs/four interceptions) before getting hurt early last season.
Missouri: running back Henry Josey
As a freshman, Henry Josey was one of the Big 12’s most explosive players, rushing for 1,168 yards on an incredible 8.1 yards per attempt. Alas, Josey tore his knee towards the end of that 2011 season, and so the SEC doesn’t know what he can do just yet.
Neither do the Tigers, for that matter. Reports out of Columbia in the spring were that Josey looked good, but we’ll have to wait and see. If he’s back close to his former self, the Tigers have enough talent elsewhere to be pretty good on offense.
Also considered: The Tiger offense is full of guys who could determine whether Missouri returns to its winning ways. Chief among them are quarterback James Franklin, who combined for nearly 4,000 yards of total offense in 2011 but played hurt last year and was just a shell of himself, and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation’s top-rated freshman who disappointed on the field (395 yards) and off (a drug-related suspension).
South Carolina: wide receiver Bruce Ellington
My running knock on the Gamecocks over the last year is that they’ve lacked play-making receivers. Well, basketball-playing Bruce Ellington seems to be coming into his own in that regard, finishing with 40 catches for 600 yards last season — with some of the bigger ones coming later in the season.
With the league being as deep with quality wideouts as I remember in some time, Ellington isn’t likely to be an All-SEC pick. But that’s okay: all coach Steve Spurrirer needs to do is see him approach 1,000 yards. If he does that, Carolina’s got a good shot at posting another 10- or 11-win season.
Also considered: Carolina lost its top five tacklers at linebacker, meaning someone who didn’t make a lot of plays before must do so now. That leaves sophomore Kaiwan Lewis, who mans the middle, as the guy probably most on the spot.
Tennessee: defensive tackle Daniel McCullers
Any time you can line up a 6-foot-8, 377-pounder on your defensive line, he’s got a chance to be a difference-maker. But it’s hard to do that when you’re not on the field, and because McCullers was out of shape last year, he spent too much time on the sidelines.
The good news is, the Vols now list McCullers at 351 pounds. Should he stay in shape, he’s a potential high-round NFL draft pick next spring. After allowing 471 yards and 35.7 points per game last year, UT needs impact players somewhere on its defense. With his natural size, McCullers seems to have the best chance to be that guy.
Also considered: The Vols’ offense was excellent last year, but lost most of its playmakers. UT’s outstanding offensive line should make the Vols a run-first team, but much also depends on whether quarterback Justin Worley can make throws when called upon.
Vanderbilt: quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels
With each team, I tried to avoid making the quarterback the “pivotal player” as much as possible, because it’s just too easy of a pick. But in this case, there’s not much avoiding it. The Commodores are a borderline Top 25 team this fall, and one reason most people seem to be leaving them out is the fact that starter Jordan Rodgers graduated and Carta-Samuels, who hasn’t played much in three years, is a mystery in most people’s mind.
Carta-Samuels looked good in the spring, and his history at Wyoming suggests he’s up to the task. Some at Vandy think the ‘Dores will actually be better at quarterback this fall, but nothing’s been proven yet. Carta-Samuels has talent, but also has shown a tendency to press at times. VU has two huge games (Ole Miss, South Carolina) in its first three contests, and will need Carta-Samuels performing at an optimal level early to win either.
Also considered: VU got burned by running quarterbacks too often last year, but replacing starter Archibald Barnes with sophomore Darreon Herring — who’s faster — may help the ‘Dores improve on one of their few real defensive weaknesses from a season ago.