SEC Media Days will descend on Nashville next week, with four days of wall-to-wall coverage on the best conference in the country. Programs will be spotlighted, and players featured.
So why not get a head start? Yesterday, I looked at my 10 most intriguing players in the Big 12 this fall. Notably, this is not a ranking of the Top 10 players in the league or even the 10 best future NFL Draft picks. Perhaps some of the guys mentioned — Masson Smith perhaps? — checks both boxes this fall, but instead, this is a look at 10 players who offer legitimate curiosity heading into the season.
My 10 most intriguing SEC players in 2023:
QB Joe Milton, Tennessee
Joe Milton has spent the last two seasons honing his game and waiting for his opportunity to lead Tennessee’s offense. The former Michigan transfer beat out Hendon Hooker for the starting job in 2021, but a minor injury and inconsistency relegated Milton to the bench. He was great in a backup role in 2022 (10 touchdowns to zero picks, led the Vols to an Orange Bowl win over Clemson), and now it’s his show.
Milton has perhaps the best pure arm talent in America. He could be this year’s Anthony Richardson or Will Levis, generating Top 5 buzz thanks to some freakish plays. He also could get benched again if the accuracy issues return, as 5-star freshman Nico Iamaleava is the heir apparent for Tennessee’s offense.
QB Carson Beck, Georgia
Carson Beck has yet to officially be named Georgia’s starting quarterback, but the veteran backup has bided his time, was fantastic in the Bulldogs’ spring game and looks primed to be QB1 for the two-time champs.
While Beck faces plenty of pressure replacing Stetson Bennett, he’s also positioned for a unique one-and-done, storybook season: What if Carson Beck — supported by the best OL in the country and a very deep group of playmakers — leads Georgia back to the College Football Playoff, is a Heisman Trophy candidate and becomes a Day 1-2 NFL Draft pick? In a new age of transfers, he’d become the poster child for why staying at a program is an avenue for some, too. Conversely, Beck might not be “the guy” and lose his job to former 5-star Brock Vandagriff, who also stuck around.
DL Maason Smith, LSU
Maason Smith has just 19 career tackles, but he’s a potential 1st Round pick in 2024 based on raw talent and traits alone. As a freshman, Smith had 4.0 sacks and multiple QB hurries. He cut some weight and looked primed for a big sophomore season before tearing his ACL early in LSU’s loss to Florida State in the last season’s opener.
The former 5-star spent the spring rehabbing the injury, but was fully cleared for all football activities last month. Smith is a potential menacing force for LSU’s defense this fall, helping shore up the Tigers’ middling run defense (63rd nationally) while providing an interior pass rush. A bonus? The joy of watching a 6-5, 310-pound freak wreaking havoc wearing No. 0.
WR Malik Benson, Alabama
The Crimson Tide’s receiving room was a disappointment in 2022, so Nick Saban went out and sought immediate help in 5-star JUCO transfer Malik Benson. The 6-1, 195-pound wideout is a true burner, showcasing his electric speed and YAC ability throughout spring practice with the Tide.
Benson had 21 touchdowns in two seasons at Hutchinson C.C., setting the program record with more than 2,000 receiving yards. Benson has been comped by some as Jameson Williams 2.0, and if that ends up being true, then Alabama’s passing game might not be as problematic as many expect in 2023.
Will Rogers seems like the forgotten man in the SEC. It feels like the senior quarterback has been playing at Mississippi State for a decade, and after three seasons operating in Mike Leach’s pass-happy Air Raid offense, Rogers’ skills (see: mobility, footwork) will be put to the test in a more hybrid scheme this fall.
Although Rogers’ numbers dipped a bit in 2022 (3,900 yards and 35 touchdowns with eight picks), he still led the SEC in passing and helped the Bulldogs win nine games for the first time since 2017. A repeat season looks tough for first-year head coach Zach Arnett, but he does have the most experienced quarterback in the SEC — one who is frequently overlooked in many preseason conference rankings.
QB Devin Leary, Kentucky
Which Devin Leary are we getting in 2023? Two years ago, the former NC State transfer was among the best QBs in America, throwing for 35 touchdowns to just five picks. But last season, Leary was up and down before tearing his pectoral and missing most of the fall. He’s healthy now, and Kentucky has one of the most underrated receiving rooms in the country with Barion Brown, Dane Key and Tayvion Robinson.
With Liam Coen back as OC, Leary will be operating in pro-style offense that produced big numbers at Kentucky just two years ago. Just like Will Levis, Leary has an NFL arm but he’ll be surrounded by more talent than he ever had at NC State. If the pairing clicks, he could be one of the best QBs in the SEC in 2023.
DL Cam Jackson, Florida
Florida ranked 12th in the SEC (and 100th nationally) in rush defense in 2022, but could Cam Jackson be the cog that fixes the Gators’ defensive woes? The Memphis transfer was dominant in spring practice, wrecking UF’s OL in both camp and the Orange & Blue Game.
The 6-6, 355-pound mauler had 41 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks for the Tigers last season and he could be even more impactful for Florida this fall. How new DC Austin Armstrong deploys Jackson — both with usage (snaps) and alignment — will be interesting to watch.
Head coach Shane Beamer is adamant that Spencer Rattler has “unfinished business” as he enters his senior season with the Gamecocks. The former Oklahoma transfer had a rollercoaster first year in Columbia, struggling with consistency for the first 10 weeks of the season before turning into John Elway to spearhead historic upsets over Tennessee and Clemson.
So what’s in store for Year 2? Rattler has a new OC in Dowell Loggins, who has worked with all manors of NFL QBs. Juice Wells, perhaps the No. 1 WR in the SEC this fall, is back, yet South Carolina has real concerns at offensive line and tailback. If Rattler flashes his former 5-star, top-recruit potential he could be a 2024 1st Round NFL Draft pick, but if protection is an issue again, Rattler could be plagued by the same inconsistencies that have followed him from Norman to Columbia.
The former 5-star recruit caught 45 balls as a freshman in 2022, but he had just three touchdowns in SEC play and his usage was largely hit or miss at times. Missouri did well to keep Burden in Columbia this offseason after rumors of a potential transfer, and now he’s a candidate for a sophomore surge as he moves into the slot following the departure of Dominic Lovett, who transferred to Georgia.
The transition inside should provide Burden, a 5-11, 210-pound playmaker with real after-the-catch ability, more space to make plays against nickel-backs and safeties. He could be even more involved in the Tigers’ jet sweep/run game, where he rushed for two touchdowns last season. Burden has legitimate All-SEC potential this fall — as a wideout and punt returner.
RB Jarquez Hunter, Auburn
After serving as Tank Bigsby’s backup the last two seasons, Hunter is RB1 for the Tigers now in a new-look offense under Hugh Freeze. Hunter has explosive potential, averaging over 6.5 yards per carry during his career. He rushed for 675 yards and seven scores on just 104 carries in 2022, and while he’ll share touches with USF transfer Brian Battie, Hunter will be the guy Freeze leans on this fall.
This offseason, Freeze called Hunter the “best running back I’ve ever coached.” Auburn has question marks at quarterback and receiver, but the Tigers did overhaul their offensive line via the transfer portal, so Hunter could have more room to operate — while being more heavily relied on.