The SEC witnessed the emergence of several top players, including Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson, who surpassed expectations for a Razorbacks team that has historically struggled in the SEC over the last few seasons. As deep as it is, these underrated SEC players need more love as they should step out of the shadows and become future stars of the conference.
Top Five Under the Radar SEC Players
With numerous talented SEC players now in the NFL, these players were selected based on the potential they had shown last season, even if their performances weren’t perfect. Some had exceptional seasons but were overlooked due to the teams they played for.
Let’s be clear, though – these players are poised to bring their talents to the frontlines this season and emerge as breakthrough players.
Robby Ashford, QB, Auburn
Last season did not go the way the Auburn Tigers are accustomed to, seeing a 5-7 record, a coaching change, and movement at the quarterback position. While things did not work out for opening game starter TJ Finley after three games, Robby Ashford stepped in the rest of the season, and while it also wasn’t a smooth ride, there was plenty of upside shown in his performance.
Ashford finished last season throwing for 1,613 yards, with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Where he excelled was his running ability, recording 710 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The aspect of his stats that fans wished would have been better was his completion percentage, which stood at 49.2.
Fans must remember one thing about last season, though: He was a freshman. He made the typical mistakes a freshman is bound to make when making his first few starts in his college career. It isn’t always going to be rainbows and butterflies with a young quarterback.
What he did show was that if Ashford can move out of the pocket, he is dangerous, whether throwing the ball on the run or just taking off with his speed. Accuracy in the pocket and decision-making can improve. His saving grace is new head coach Hugh Freeze joining the team, being well known as a quarterback developer.
Expect Auburn to run many RPOs and get Ashford on the move to create big plays. His sophomore season might not end up being perfect either, given the new offensive system, but he should make huge strides and do enough to get War Eagle fans excited for the future.
Luther Burden III, WR, Missouri
If any year is the time for him to break out, Missouri’s 2023 season is it for Luther Burden III to become one of the school’s best receivers since Jeremy Maclin.
The former five-star recruit out of St. Louis, Missouri, flashed during his freshman season last year, providing a glimpse into the future. Burden recorded 45 catches for 375 yards and six touchdowns, returning for his sophomore year as the top returning leading receiver on the team.
Missouri losing 2022 leading receiver Dominic Lovett to Georgia opened the doors for Burden to take the top spot on the depth chart at receiver. With a lack of playmakers on the Tigers’ offense, they will likely lean heavily on Burden to carry the load, getting him the ball every which way possible.
Fans have high expectations for Burden to be the leading man, and with good reason.
His speed makes him a threat to spread the field and not only opens opportunities for him to make big plays but also leaves other receivers open as defenses need to respect him. It would be a massive surprise if Burden isn’t able to record at least 800 yards receiving this season and become the Tigers’ top receiver.
Jared Ivey, DE, Ole Miss
After transferring from Georgia Tech, senior defensive end Jared Ivey sought a school that fits his skill set better. And he found it with the Rebels. Last season, as a starter at defensive end, Ivey recorded 37 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
He played a significant role on the defensive line, participating in 562 snaps for the Rebels, thus helping improve their pass rush.
All eyes appear to be on his counterpart, senior defensive end Cedric Johnson, who has been named Third-Team All-SEC by multiple outlets. People shouldn’t forget what Ivey can do and how quickly he can rush off the side of the line with his slim 265-pound frame.
His strength also aids him in playing with a high motor, allowing him to get to the ball carrier or cause havoc at the line of scrimmage.
Back for one final season, Ivey is poised to have a more substantial role for Ole Miss and help alleviate the pressure from Johnson. Those two could arguably form one of the best defensive end duos in the SEC.
Should the focus be on Johnson, Ivey could end up producing significant numbers for the Rebels on the line.
CJ Taylor, LB, Vanderbilt
CJ Taylor is absolutely a name to watch this fall for Vanderbilt.
Last season, for the Commodores, Taylor led the returning players by recording 59 tackles, seven tackles for loss, six pass deflections, one sack, and one interception on the season. His best games came late in the season against Kentucky and Florida, where he recorded a sack and interception against Kentucky.
In the Florida game, he had a season-high 10 tackles to lead the team.
Taylor is a lot of fun to watch, as he is a hybrid safety/linebacker with great coverage skills and an instinctive ability to find the ball. He was arguably the MVP of the defense last season and enters 2023 as their top defensive player.
Jordan Watkins, WR, Ole Miss
Adding another Ole Miss Rebel to the list, Jordan Watkins comes into the season as the team’s top returning receiver from 2022. Last season, Watkins was third on the team in receiving as he recorded 40 receptions for 449 yards and two touchdowns.
Heading into 2023, Ole Miss lost their top two receivers, Malik Heath and Jonathan Mingo, which leaves Watkins as the top guy. He won’t be alone, though, as Lane Kiffin dipped into the transfer portal to pick up Texas A&M’s Chris Marshall, Louisiana Tech’s Tre Harris, and UTSA’s Zakhari Franklin to make up for it.
Watkins has great breakaway speed and can make big plays when needed. Heath and Mingo took targets away from him, given that they were ahead of him in skill. This is the season where Watkins needs to take a bigger role, especially with the mixup at quarterback needing a reliable number-one target for this season.
Franklin, Marshall, and Harris will challenge him, but with Watkins’ experience in Kiffin’s system, he should take a step forward as the go-to man.