Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle is the Southeastern Conference’s top freshman, and it’s not really even close.
Waddle has 21 catches for 457 yards and three touchdowns and has been equally valuable as a punt returner, averaging 16 yards and taking one back for a score. He’s turning in the kind of performances coaches, players and fans envision annually on national signing day.
Nearly every SEC signee enrolls with high expectations, some more realistic than others.
Reaching those is a sometimes-daunting task. The talent-rich league is filled with future first-round draft picks, often making it difficult for first-year guys to get on the field, let alone break into the starting lineup.
But a deeper look reveals a number of youngsters carving out roles, making plays and setting themselves up to be the SEC’s next wave of stars.
Waddle heads the list. He caught four passes for 117 yards and a touchdown in Alabama’s last game, a 58-21 victory at Tennessee .
“If you’re going to play young guys, they’ve got to be mature,” Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “They’ve got to know how to prepare. Lots of times the guys can start off really well early, but because of the grind of the season, the academic part, sometimes sustaining throughout the year (can be difficult).
“You look at it all over the country. There are teams that play with lots of freshmen, but probably more times than not, the teams that have experience, it probably shows on Saturday. There’s nothing more valuable you can get than just going out there and playing and kind of getting used to it.”
Although injuries often thrust freshmen onto the field — like Florida cornerback Trey Dean and Mississippi linebacker Kevontae’ Ruggs — a number of newcomers earn playing time without any assistance:
— Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. has started the last five games and has 16 tackles, four pass breakups, an interception, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble.
— Auburn running back Shaun Shivers had 10 carries for 45 yards two weeks ago at Mississippi, getting more snaps behind redshirt freshman tailback JaTarvious Whitlow.
— Auburn receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz rank third and fourth, respectively, in yards and catches while averaging 22 yards a reception.
— Florida place-kicker Evan McPherson had made 12 of 13 field goals and all 27 extra points.
— Georgia quarterback Justin Fields appeared to have a growing role before not playing last weekend against the Gators.
— Missouri receiver Jalen Knox has 23 catches for 396 yards and three scores, including one against the Crimson Tide.
— South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn has started six of seven games and has 30 tackles, a team-high six pass breakups and one sack.
— Tennessee cornerback Alontae Taylor has started five games, including the season opener, and has 25 tackles, two forced fumbles and a touchdown.
—Tennessee safety Bryce Thompson has 23 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in eight games.
— Vanderbilt receiver C.J. Bolar has 20 catches for 281 yards and a touchdown.
“You start out, you’ve got your freshmen and you know they’re talented,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “There’s a period of time that they get their feet wet and you get to evaluate them and see what they can do. Then, there’s a point that you see the guys that are comfortable making plays and can execute and everything that goes with it.”
Making plays in Year 1 in the SEC is usually a sign of bigger things to come.
Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams, LSU linebacker Devin White, LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, Mississippi offensive tackle Greg Little and Mississippi State defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons are projected first-round picks in the 2019 NFL draft . Each of them made the SEC’s All-Freshman Team in the last two years.
Getting on the field is relatively easy compared to standing out.
“A lot of guys, you try to keep the package somewhat simple,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Look at this freshman, what are his strengths? Tim Tebow as a freshman, maybe he’s the easiest explanation for you. When we put him in, we’re going to put in plays that highlight his strengths and his strengths only. … That allows them to do things well on the field that builds up their confidence, even though they don’t have a big menu of things. ‘Hey, here the couple things I need you to know. Go do them really well.'”
Then it’s typically only a matter of time before experience turns freshmen into, well, no longer freshmen. Just look at last year’s national championship game, which ended up featuring a pair of freshmen quarterbacks — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm.
“All of a sudden, they’re very confident in what they’re doing,” Mullen said. “That helps them to go and you can expand it more and more.”
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