Who were the breakout stars in SEC spring football practices?

·7 min read

Spring practice is over for Southeastern Conference football teams. The annual spring exhibition games are in the books, and players and coaches have turned the page to offseason workouts and preparation for the fall.

The USA TODAY Network tasked its team of writers who cover league teams to identify an emerging player on each side of the ball coming out of spring practice. These are players who could make big impacts when the 2021 season begins.

From Alabama to Vanderbilt, here are a team-by-team look at the breakout spring football players from each SEC team as chosen by USA TODAY Network reporters:

White quarterback Bryce Young (9) rolls out to avoid the rush during the University of Alabama A-Day game Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Bryant-Denny Stadium. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]
White quarterback Bryce Young (9) rolls out to avoid the rush during the University of Alabama A-Day game Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Bryant-Denny Stadium. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Alabama

2020 record: 13-0

Emerging offensive player: Bryce Young, sophomore quarterback. Young came to Alabama as one of the top prospects in the country and sat behind Mac Jones. Now is his chance to shine. He finished 25 for 44 passing for 333 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

Emerging defensive player: Ga'Quincy McKinstry, freshman cornerback. McKinstry is already elite in coverage after just one spring at Alabama. He demonstrated in the spring game why it will be hard to keep him off the field with an interception and a fumble recovery.

— James Fletcher

Arkansas

2020 record: 3-7

Emerging offensive player: KJ Jefferson, sophomore quarterback. He only complete 6 of 11 passes in Arkansas' spring game, but two of those were for touchdowns. He's in line to replace Feleipe Franks.

Emerging defensive player: Chris Paul Jr., freshman linebacker. Arkansas returns most of its defensive production from last season, but the Razorbacks need linebacker depth. Freshman Chris Paul had eight tackles in the spring game, more than any other player.

— Will Backus

Auburn

2020 record: 6-5

Emerging offensive player: Elijah Canion, sophomore wide receiver. Ja'Varrius Johnson was the talk of spring practice, but it was the 6-foot-4 Canion who shined with six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown on A-Day, building on his breakout three-catch, 80-yard, one-touchdown performance in January's Citrus Bowl.

Emerging defensive player: Ladarius Tennison, sophomore safety. Tennison became a starter at nickelback late last season, moved to safety this spring and instantly became one of the players Auburn's new coaching staff is the most excited about on defense. He has a great chance to start next to senior Smoke Monday.

— Josh Vitale

Florida

2020 record: 8-4

Emerging offensive player: Emory Jones, redshirt junior quarterback. After backing up Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask for two seasons, Jones now takes the reins at quarterback. Florida’s offense will be less pass-heavy with the dual-threat ability of Jones, who averaged a team-high 6.8 yards per carry last season.

Emerging defensive player: Mohamoud Diabate, junior linebacker. Diabate recorded the second-most tackles on the team last season, his first playing inside linebacker. With a spring under his belt, he’s now more comfortable at the position and will be “special” this year. according to position coach Christian Robinson.

— Zach Abolverdi

Florida quarterback Emory Jones looks to throw against Oklahoma during the 2020 Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones looks to throw against Oklahoma during the 2020 Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.

Georgia

2020 record: 8-2

Emerging offensive player: Adonai Mitchell, freshman wide receiver. He made a splash in G-Day spring game with seven catches for 105 yards and a TD. Mitchell could soften blow of losing star George Pickens to a torn ACL.

Emerging defensive player: Devonte Wyatt, senior defensive tackle. On a defense that lost key secondary starters, Wyatt took a big step for a formidable front seven. That was highlighted by his two-sack spring game.

— Mark Weiszer

Kentucky

2020 record: 5-6

Emerging offensive player: Wan’Dale Robinson, junior wide receiver. Robinson is not a new name for college football fans after two productive seasons at Nebraska, but he is new to the SEC. The former Mr. Kentucky football should be Kentucky’s most dynamic offensive playmaker, earning raves throughout spring practice from teammates and coaches.

Emerging defensive player: Marquan McCall, senior nose guard. Following the graduation of Quinton Bohanna, McCall will assume a starting role. The Michigan native looks poised to finally cash in on his recruiting hype after a breakout spring that saw defensive coordinator Brad White proclaim McCall has a chance “to be a force for us.”

— Jon Hale

Kentucky defensive tackle Marquan McCall (50) celebrates an interception during the first half against Georgia in their game in 2020.
Kentucky defensive tackle Marquan McCall (50) celebrates an interception during the first half against Georgia in their game in 2020.

LSU

2020 record: 5-5

Emerging offensive player: Garrett Nussmeier, freshman quarterback. An early enrollee in January, Nussmeier put his name in the mix for the starting quarterback job by just looking the part. He threw three interceptions in the spring game, but he has some clear zing on the ball and a presence as he completed 15 of 25 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.

Emerging defensive player: Jared Small, senior linebacker. It may just be a spring thing as Small has not played in a game since 2018, but he was all over the field with 14 tackles, including nine solo stops and an interception. He is at a position where LSU is thin, so if he does this in August, he will play.

— Glenn Guilbeau

Mississippi State

2020 record: 4-7

Emerging offensive player: Lideatrick Griffin, sophomore wide receiver. Last year’s leading receiver Jaden Walley went down with a knee injury in the first quarter of the spring game. Griffin stepped up and had five catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.

Emerging defensive player: Jalen Green, senior safety. The Texas transfer scored on a fumble recovery in the spring game. He adds experience and depth to a secondary that is trying to rebound from finishing 10th in passing defense in the SEC last season.

— Tyler Horka

Missouri

2020 record: 5-5

Emerging offensive player: Mookie Cooper, freshman wide receiver. One dimension Eli Drinkwitz's team lacked last season was a vertical passing game. Enter Cooper, a speedy redshirt freshman and Ohio State transfer who should be featured next season.

Emerging defensive player: JC Carlies, sophomore defensive back. He saw a little playing time last season as Missouri's roster depth lessened. Now, with a few starters from the secondary trying to make NFL rosters, Carlies could step into a leadership role.

Mississippi

2020 record: 5-5

Emerging offensive player: Braylon Sanders, senior wide receiver. It's hard to call a fifth-year senior an emerging player. But after waiting his turn behind the likes of AJ Brown, DK Metcalf and Elijah Moore and sustaining injury after injury, Sanders emerged as Ole Miss' No. 1 receiver, catching for more than 100 yards in the spring game.

Emerging defensive player: Tysheem Johnson, freshman defensive back. Johnson was the talk of camp for Ole Miss. An early enrollee, he intercepted a pass in the spring game and was the answer every teammate gave when asked the question, "Which freshman has stood out this spring?"

— Nick Suss

Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin celebrates after his team scores a touchdown during its spring game.
Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin celebrates after his team scores a touchdown during its spring game.

South Carolina

2020 record: 2-8

Emerging offensive player: Dakereon Joyner, redshirt junior wide receiver. In just his second full season at the position since transitioning from quarterback, he continues making big strides. Joyner never found a niche on a last year's bad offense and now looks to make his mark.

Emerging defensive player: Tonka Hemingway, redshirt sophomore defensive end. The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder has continued to develop his body and knowledge of the game. He showed flashes near the end of last year and has received rave reviews from coaches this spring.

Tennessee

2020 record: 3-7

Emerging offensive player: Dayne Davis, sophomore offensive lineman. The former walk-on emerged as a serious candidate at left tackle during the spring.

Emerging defensive player: Byron Young, junior linebacker. The junior college transfer signed with Tennessee in December and generated buzz throughout the spring for his speed and pass-rush moves.

— Mike Wilson

Texas A&M

2020 record: 9-1

Emerging offensive player: Haynes King, freshman quarterback. The biggest question for Texas A&M? Replacing Kellen Mond. King, who was his backup last season, has emerged as the top candidate to take the reins.

Emerging defensive player: Edgerrin Cooper, sophomore linebacker. Cooper did play in all 10 games as a freshman, mostly as a special teamer. Jimbo Fisher has raved about Cooper throughout the spring and that was reflected in his spring game performance, with nine tackles, 2½ for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.

— Will Backus

Texas A&M quarterback Haynes King warms up before his team's game with Alabama in 2020 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Texas A&M quarterback Haynes King warms up before his team's game with Alabama in 2020 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Vanderbilt

2020 record: 0-9

Emerging offensive player: Will Sheppard, sophomore wide receiver. He caught three touchdown passes in the spring game and another one in an earlier intrasquad scrimmage. New coach Clark Lea said Sheppard needs more consistency, but his goal-line work is already noticeable.

Emerging defensive player: Alex Williams, junior defensive lineman. The Ohio State transfer had a couple of tackles for loss in the spring game, which was otherwise lackluster by the defense. Williams’ 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame could find a role in Lea’s defense.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: SEC college football breakout stars from spring practice

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