Because of the pandemic, college football has been forced to ease into the 2020 season. Some FCS programs got underway earlier this month, and smaller FBS schools, along with the ACC, Big 12, and AAC, have followed suit. But on Saturday, the SEC returns to the field for the first time and whoo boy this conference is stacked with NFL talent. Not surprisingly, it starts with Alabama, Georgia, Florida and LSU, but you can find talent on every team. Who are the names to know for the upcoming season? Let's get to it.
DeVonta Smith played alongside two first-round wideouts last season in Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, and he caught passes from another first-rounder, Tua Tagovailoa. And while we spent much of the spring talking up just how good Ruggs and Jeudy were going to be in the NFL, it was Smith who led the 2019 Crimson Tide in receiving yards (1,203), touchdowns (13) and yards per catch (18.80). And he's set to be the next Alabama pass catcher to go in Round 1. He dropped just one catchable target last season, according to Pro Football Focus, as the most polished receiver on the roster. Smith does everything at a high level, from getting off the line of scrimmage, to his route running to his ability to catch the football.
The one knock against Smith, however, is his slight frame -- it's part of the reason he returned to Alabama for 2020. He's also not as freakishly athletic as Ruggs or current teammate Jaylen Waddle but neither is Jeudy and he's already flashed for the Broncos. We're not worried about Smith at the next level, especially if he can add 10 pounds.
MORE TO WATCH: Get comfortable because there are a lot of names, starting with the aforementioned Waddle, who is a once-every-decade type athlete unless, of course, you're at Alabama. He scored six touchdowns on just 32 receptions last season and he's also a threat in the return game. Cornerback Patrick Surtain was the best defensive back on the team last season and that included second-rounders Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney, and he's currently our No. 1 CB in the '20 class. And linebacker Dylan Moses would've been a first-round pick last spring had he not suffered a torn ACL in August 2019. He returns and he could be a top-15 pick with a solid season.
Christian Barmore and LaBryan Ray are next men up along the defensive line and both look poised for breakout seasons. On the other side of the ball, left tackle Alex Leatherwood returns for his senior season and has flashed first-round skills, as has guard Deonte Brown. They're responsible for blowing open holes for running back Najee Harris, who runs angry but has also shown he can be nimble with the ball in his hands.
Unfortunately, we won't get to see wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who has opted out of the 2020 season. He's not only the best wideout in this draft class, he likely would've been tops in the last class, too, had he been eligible. So what makes Chase so special? For starters: pound for pound, he's one of the strongest wide receivers in recent memory, excelling at contested catches that often then involve dragging defenders downfield as they try to gang-tackle him. He's listed at 6-feet, 208 pounds so it's not like he towers over defensive backs -- even though he plays like he's four inches taller and 20 pounds lighter.
Chase broke 31 percent of tackles last season, according to Sports Info Solutions, which was No. 2 among all FBS wideouts behind only University of Tennessee's Jauan Johnson (who was a seventh-round pick of the 49ers in May). But that strength isn't just with the ball in the air; Chase, who saw plenty of press-man coverage, consistently won at the line of scrimmage, man-handling cornerbacks as he got into his routes. He stood out on an LSU team that was littered with first-rounders and set all sorts of offensive records on the way to a perfect season. Given his mental toughness and his physical dominance there's no reason to believe Chase won't have similar success in the NFL.
MORE TO WATCH: We don't think there will be any Joe Burrow-type catapulting up the draft board this season but there are plenty of players to watch on this roster. Terrace Marshall and Racey McMath return as the leading receivers after Chase, Justin Jefferson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire -- two first-round picks and one who will hear his name called in Round 1 in the spring.Defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin and safety Kay Vincent Jr. have, like Chase, opted out of the season, and both have a chance to be Day 2 picks. Meanwhile, linebacker Jabril Cox might be the most interesting name to watch. He transferred from North Dakota State where he dominated. Will that athleticism transfer to the SEC? There's plenty of reasons to think it will, and if so, he'll find himself moving up draft boards in the coming weeks and months.
Newman transferred from Wake Forest to Georgia in the spring and perhaps no other player would have had an opportunity to prove their worth in 2020. The Bulldogs lost Jake Fromm to the NFL where he was taken in the fifth round by the Bills. Newman, meanwhile, arrived from an offense that featured slow mesh RPO concepts, and worked in part because he's an athletic marvel. He's also short on experience, something he certainly could've used for the Bulldogs. But Newman opted out, which means all the questions about the breadth of his game remain. Newman has a big arm, but accuracy was an issue at times at Wake Forest. And perhaps more than any of the top quarterbacks in this class, he needs to get better at going through his progressions, improving his touch on downfield throws and avoiding forcing balls into nonexistent windows that at times led to interceptions last season.
Newman has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton but right now, for us, Jalen Hurts, who came into the 2019 campaign with plenty of questions, is a better quarterback comparison. The difference: Hurts balled out at Oklahoma after transferring from Alabama. Newman's next chance to compete could be the Senior Bowl.
MORE TO WATCH: The Bulldogs secondary is one of the best in the conference. Richard LeCounte III is a rangy safety who explodes downhill in the run game. Eric Stokes is the most experienced of the cornerbacks and while he doesn't have an interception he did have 18 PBUs last season. Perhaps the most intriguing player in this secondary is cornerback Tyson Campbell. He's long, athletic and looks like an NFL DB. He needs to gain some weight -- and experience -- but a good season could land him in Round 1.
Quarterback Kyle Trask, who only took over the starting job in 2019 after Feleipe Franks suffered an injury (Franks has since transferred to Arkansas), showed the type of poise and decision-making you'd expect to see from a player with a lot more experience.
In fact, Trask attempted just 22 passes before last season when, in 12 games, he completed 66.9 percent of his attempts for 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He's not flashy but he's efficient, and in the NFL the ability to do the right thing from one play to the next is more important than flashing once a series while drives stall out. Trask's nickname should be 'Textbook' because his footwork in the pocket is consistently on point, and more importantly, he gets the ball out on time, accurately, and he rarely looks confused by what he sees pre-snap. While we're not expecting him to make a Joe Burrow-like leap in '20, we wouldn't be surprised if he continues to improve and ultimately find his way into mix as a possible Round 1 target. He ranked 32nd on our preseason Big Board.
MORE TO WATCH: Trask has a chance to find his way into the first round but tight end Kyle Pitts is already there. He moves and runs like a wide receiver but can also contribute as a blocker. Pitts is a YAC machine who is a matchup nightmare for linebackers, safeties and even some cornerbacks. Here's a Trask-to-Pitts hook up that could become commonplace this season:
Wide receiver Trevon Grimes is a 6-foot-5 long strider who plays mostly outside while 5-foot-11 Kadarius Toney patrols the slot and can be incredibly difficult to tackle in the open field. The Gators also have a trio of safeties in Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart Jr. who showed potential in part-time duties and are eyeing bigger roles this season.
Who else to watch
Cornerback Israel Mukuamu made a living off former Georgia QB Jake Fromm, and the fact that he's 6-foot-4, 200 pounds make him an intriguing prospect. The other Gamecocks cornerback, Jaycee Horn, has NFL bloodlines; his father is Joe Horn. Jaycee doesn't yet have an interception in college (Mukuama had four last season) but he does have 17 PBUs in two seasons and has all the athleticism to be a top-flight cover corner at the next level.
Quarterback KJ Costello is hoping a move from Stanford to Mississippi State will do for him what playing for Mike Leach did for Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon at Washington State (Minshew threw for 4,779 yards in '18; Gordon totaled 5,579 yards in '19). Leach is now at Mississippi State and Costello, who played in just five games last season for the Cardinal because of injury, is looking to jump-start a once-promising college career. He plays like we think he can, he'll be a top-100 player.
Costello will benefit from having Kylin Hill alongside him in the backfield. He's 5-foot-11, 215 pounds but is a tough between-the-tackles runner despite his size, who also has the speed to outrun everyone to the end zone when he gets to the second level. Hill needs to improve in pass protection but that's not uncommon for college backs.
Offensive lineman Trey Smith is a first-round talent all day long. The only thing preventing that would be a history of blood clots that forced him to miss time as a sophomore. Still when he's on the field he is dominant and currently ranks as No. 2 guard behind only Ohio State's Wyatt Davis. Cade Mays, who transferred from Georgia, can play guard or tackle and that versatility could make him attractive to NFL teams. Cornerback Bryce Thompson will be just a junior but he has the talent to make the leap from "amazing athlete" to "legit NFL prospect" this season. He had a breakout freshman season but struggled at times in 2019.
Linebacker Nick Bolton led the Tigers with 103 tackles in 2019 to go along with two picks, seven PBUs and a sack. He's the prototypical NFL inside linebacker in that he's listed at just 6-foot, 235 pounds but he flies all over the field. He has sideline-to-sideline speed, is a tackling machine and is surprisingly stout against the run. Some may questions his instincts but he can prove those doubters wrong in '20.
Quarterback Kellen Mond's completion percentage has improved in all three years he's been under center for the Aggies (it was 61.6 last season) but he'll need to play with more consistency in 2020 to be considered one of the best passers in this class. He has the arm to make every throw but he'll need to show he can do it play in and play out because the lack of consistency is the biggest obstacle to him finding his way into the top 100.
Ole Miss didn't have any players selected in the 2020 NFL Draft but defensive end Sam Williams should change that. The JUCO transfer can play with his hand in the dirt or as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. At 6-foot-3, 251 pounds, he's twitched up and uses a blend of speed and power to win around the edge. Lakia Henry, who probably would've been drafted had he declared after the 2019 season, finds himself on the Butkus Award preseason watch list for the country's best linebacker. He led the team tackles with 88 and has the athleticism NFL teams are now looking for a the linebacker position.
Wide receiver Seth Williams more than doubled his reception totals last season, going from 26 to 59, and the expectation is that he'll only continue to get better. Quarterback Bo Nix enters his sophomore season with Williams, who at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds is a solid route runner with good hands but who needs to show that he can consistently create separation.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks transferred from Florida, where he lost his job to Kyle Trask. He's a good athlete who needs to make better decisions on a consistent basis, and he'll have that opportunity with the Razorbacks. Helping Franks will be running back Rakeem Boyd, the Last Chance U alum who is coming off an 1,133 yard season that included 6.3 yards per carry and eight touchdowns.
Dimitri Moore had 99 tackles a season ago and is more run stopper than coverage linebacker. And Dayo Odeyingbo, who is 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, looks the part off the edge but he has yet to put it together week in and week out; Odeyingbo has just 2.5 career sacks in three seasons but he did log 12 tackles for loss in 2019.
Center Drake Jackson has started 33 straight games for the Wildcats and has a chance to play at the next level. And offensive tackle Landon Young, who thought about entering the 2020 draft, returns for his senior season with the Wildcats.