Believe it or not, SEC football media days begin four weeks from today, which means preseason camps are right behind and soon enough the start of the 2019 season. So far this summer we’ve counted down the SEC’s best nonconference games, the best quarterbacks and best coordinators.
Now it’s time to look at the league’s top newcomers for 2019, a group that includes freshmen, redshirt freshmen, junior college transfers and FBS transfers, starting with one that should be no surprise to Missouri fans.
1. Kelly Bryant, quarterback, Missouri
As the successor to Deshaun Watson, Bryant led Clemson to 12 wins in 2017, an ACC championship and College Football Playoff appearance in his only full season as a college starter. We all know what happened next: He split time with five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence last fall, lost the starting job after four weeks then put his college career on pause while looking for another team for 2019. At the time Bryant was the top free agent QB on the market — soon followed by Jalen Hurts (Alabama to Oklahoma) and Justin Fields (Georgia to Ohio State) — and has since already endeared himself to Mizzou fans by shunning other schools after the NCAA put the Tigers on a postseason ban. Whether or not the ban sticks, Bryant provides Mizzou a short-term succession plan for Drew Lock and gives the Tigers a proven, dual-threat quarterback who completely changes the complexion of Derek Dooley’s offense.
2. Derek Stingley Jr., cornerback, LSU
Meet the next great LSU defensive back. Stingley was the No. 1 ranked high school recruit for the 2019 class by Rivals.com and all he’s done since arriving on campus in Baton Rouge is assert himself as a starter for a defense that annually churns out NFL talent. He picked off a pass on the first play of his first spring scrimmage.
3. D.J. Dale, defensive tackle, Alabama
By Alabama standards, Dale cruised under the radar during the recruiting process, as much as a 314-pound teenager can. He was only rated the nation’s 18th-best defensive tackle and the 22nd-best player in the Tide’s recruiting class. Then he showed up for spring practices and dominated on the line of scrimmage. The rookie figures to be the team’s leading candidate to replace All-American Quinnen Williams in the starting lineup. You remember him? The Outland Trophy winner. The only defensive player in the top 10 of the Heisman voting. The No. 3 pick in the draft to the New York Jets. All those accolades and Alabama isn’t sweating his departure with Dale settled into the middle of the D-line.
4. Jermaine Jonson, outside linebacker, Georgia
Netflix watchers will remember Johnson from the popular series “Last Chance U.” The Minnesota native made the most of that last chance at Independence, Kan., Community College and developed into the nation’s top-ranked junior college player. He’ll give the Bulldogs an instant burst off the edge.
5. Baylor Cupp, tight end, Texas A&M
Playing under new Aggies tight end coach Joe Jon Finley, who coached the same position at Mizzou the last three years, Cupp steps right in for All-SEC tight end and third-round NFL draft pick Jace Sternberger. The nation’s top-rated high school tight end became a popular target for Aggie QBs in the spring and should start immediately.
6. Nolan Smith, outside linebacker, Georgia
Some recruiting outlets had Smith the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit over Stingley, and whether the converted defensive end starts or comes off the bench for Kirby Smart’s defense, the IMG Academy product and Georgia native has a chance to be one of the country’s most impactful freshman defensive players.
7. Jonathan Greenard, linebacker, Florida
The graduate transfer from Louisville was one of the ACC’s top pass rushers in 2017 with seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss before missing last season with a wrist injury suffered in the opener against Alabama. At Florida he reunites with former Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and will be expected to help replace departed pass-rush specialist Jachai Polite.
8. Ben Hicks, quarterback, Arkansas
Speaking of reunions, Arkansas coach Chad Morris and Hicks are back together again. Hicks was Morris’ quarterback in 2016-17 at SMU, when he threw for more than 6,400 yards and 52 touchdowns over two seasons. He’ll face far better defenses in the SEC, but the league’s least efficient passing offense in 2018 will gladly take the upgrade. The Hogs also brought in former Texas A&M starting quarterback Nick Starkel to challenge for the job.
9. Matt Corral, quarterback, Ole Miss
The redshirt freshman is the oldest of the Rebels’ scholarship quarterbacks and gets the first shot at running Rich Rodriguez’s offense. He got into four games last year but preserved his year of eligibility thanks to the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, making him a newcomer for the sake of this purpose.
10. Jonathan Nance, wide receiver, Missouri
Nance is the rare transfer who jumps from one SEC division to the other. Two years ago he was Arkansas’ leading receiver in the team’s final season under Bret Bielema, but he didn’t last long under Morris and left the program early last season, opting for the grad transfer. He visited Mizzou the same weekend as Bryant, committed the same day as Bryant in early December and then moved in with the quarterback when they moved to campus in January. The two quickly built a relationship on and off the field as Nance surged to the top of the depth chart and should start for the Tigers this fall.
Just missed the cut
Wanya Morris, offensive tackle, Tennessee
The Volunteers might have signed the country’s best class of offensive linemen, inking a couple five-star tackles and a four-star guard. Morris wasn’t the highest rated — that would be Darnell Wright, the nation’s No. 2 tackle — but Morris enrolled early and made it to campus for spring practices, giving him an edge on becoming the Vols’ left tackle.
Joey Gatewood/Bo Bix, quarterbacks, Auburn
Gus Malzahn will hand the controls over to Gatewood, a redshirt freshman, or Nix, the true freshman Auburn legacy. Technically, Gatewood isn’t a complete newcomer: He got in for a few plays in Auburn’s Music City Bowl pillaging of Purdue.
Sam Williams, outside linebacker, Ole Miss
An All-American edge rusher in junior college, Williams should only help what’s been one of the SEC’s worst defenses the last few years.
Trey Sanders, running back, Alabama
The nation’s top-rated offensive player in the 2019 class isn’t bashful about his expectations for his rookie year. When he chose Alabama on national signing day — over Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Texas — he predicted that he’ll be a Heisman Trophy finalist, if not the winner … this year
Trey Knox, wide receiver, Arkansas
The four-star wideout should give the Hogs’ passing game a much-needed boost.
Elijah Blades, cornerback, Texas A&M
The junior college transfer first signed with Nebraska, then committed to Oregon then settled on Texas A&M. He could be an instant starter.
Others to watch
Dontario Drummond, wide receiver, Ole Miss (junior college transfer)
Zacch Pickens, defensive lineman, South Carolina (true freshman)
Riley Neal, quarterback, Vanderbilt (FBS transfer)
Bryce Oliver, wide receiver, Kentucky (redshirt freshman)
Matthew Hill, wide receiver, Auburn (redshirt freshman)