By Justyn Spanski
Phil Steele Publications Associate/PhilSteele.com Contributor
**NOTE**: All PS #’s of players mentioned can be found in Phil Steele’s 2020 College Football Preview, which is now on sale only at your local Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or on the philsteele.com Store! All statistics and power ratings can be found on PhilSteele.com as a subscriber to Phil Steele +. Subscribe to Phil Steele + right now for just $69.00 through Super Bowl LV on the philsteele.com Store. Follow Phil Steele on Twitter to receive all of Phil’s insight and analysis for this week’s upcoming games and all your latest college football news @philsteele042!
After a three-week delay to begin the season, the SEC officially will kick off their season this Saturday with a seven-game slate. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the conference announced back on July 31 that they will play a 10-game conference only schedule for the 2020 season. This season and schedule will certainly be different than a normal year given the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that all games played will be played within the conference and the increase from 8 SEC games to 10, it will make the hunt for an SEC title that much more challenging.
Last year the country saw many breakout stars from the SEC, but none more prolific than LSU true freshman sensation defensive back Derek Stingley Jr, Alabama sophomore wideout and dynamic kick and punt returner Jaylen Waddle, and Ole Miss true freshman dual threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. The PS#1 defensive back from the Class of 2019, Stingley stepped onto the scene in a big way for the Tigers, winning the No. 1 corner spot in Fall camp and following up with 38 tackles, 15 pass breakups, and six interceptions during the Tigers 15-0 national championship season. Despite being stuck behind first round draft picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Waddle still found a way to make an impact in his second season with the Crimson Tide, hauling in 33 catches for 560 yards and six scores. The versatile and speedy Waddle also made his presence felt in the return game as one of the best in the country, averaging an incredible 24.4 yards per punt return, scoring a touchdown against LSU while also returning five kickoffs for 175 yards including a 98-yard touchdown in the Iron Bowl against rival Auburn. Despite only starting 8 games for an Ole Miss squad that went 4-8, Plumlee proved why he was one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the Class of 2019 and gave fans in Oxford something to be excited about for the next three years. A standout on the Rebels baseball team as well, Plumlee showcased his athleticism and speed, running for 1,023 yards and 12 scores while also passing for 910 yards.
This year, a new crop of SEC breakout players is sure to emerge, and last year’s breakout stars will look to build upon their success in 2020. Below we will take a look at five key players who figure to make an impact in Week 1.
ELIAS RICKS, LSU
FRESHMAN, CB, RANCHO CUCAMONGA, CA
The rich keep getting richer, as Ed Orgeron and the LSU secondary signed yet another highly talented defensive back from the Class of 2020 in Elias Ricks. Ricks, a 6-2 195 lbs. corner prepped for two seasons at California powerhouse Mater Dei High School before transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida for his senior year. A consensus four-star recruit, Ricks had offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Miami Florida, Ohio State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and USC before ultimately announcing his commitment to LSU.
Ricks, the PS#2 defensive back for the Class of 2020, joins a highly talented LSU secondary that includes PS#5 senior safety JaCoby Stevens, PS#14 sophomore safety Maurice Hampton, and PS#1 sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley, who was named a Phil Steele 1st Team Preseason All-American. The unit however does lose 2019 Jim Thorpe Award winner safety Grant Delpit (#2DC Cleveland), cornerback Kristian Fulton (#2DC Tennessee), and nickelback Kary Vincent, who opted out of the 2020 season. Despite these losses, the Tigers secondary, also referred to as “DBU,” will still contend as one of the best secondaries in the nation.
On the secondary, Ed Orgeron said expect to see Cordale Flott or Jay Ward (questionable for the game right now) at nickel. He suggested Elias Ricks will start at outside corner.
— Wilson Alexander (@whalexander_) September 21, 2020
On tape, Ricks displays good athleticism and excellent length, very similar to former LSU and current Cleveland Browns cornerback Greedy Williams. He will be tested by fire early and often this Saturday when the reigning national champion Tigers open up their season against Mississippi State. This offseason the Bulldogs brought in former Texas Tech and Washington State head coach Mike Leach to take over the reins in Starkville. Leach brings over from Pullman his signature Air Raid offense as well as transfer quarterback in KJ Costello from Stanford, who is also one of the players to watch in Week 1.
Many opponents this year will look to not target Stingley and instead challenge Ricks. Mississippi State only returns one of their Top Six leading receivers in 2019 in Osirus Mitchell, who Stingley will most likely matchup against. Ricks most likely will not face any serious challenges at receiver until LSU’s October 17 matchup at Florida, but it will still be intriguing to see how he fares against an up temp, pass-happy offense in his college debut.
DEMOND DEMAS, TEXAS A&M
FRESHMAN, WR, TOMBALL, TX
Also known as “Hollywood,” Demas is ready to shine under the lights of Kyle Field in College Station. The PS#2 wideout from the Class of 2020, Demas figures to play a prominent role for the Aggies as a true freshman. Demas was slotted to be the No. 3 receiver entering Fall camp behind seniors Jhamon Ausbon and Camron Buckley. However, Ausbon announced a few weeks back that he will opt out of the 2020 season and Buckley tore his ACL in late August, making Demas’ role that much more important for Jimbo Fisher and company, who are Phil Steele’s No. 1 Surprise Team for 2020!
Demas will be a matchup nightmare for any defense that faces him. He projects to be the top Z wideout, but Demas can also line up in the backfield or in the slot thanks to his amazing athletic ability and speed. Although he can line up in the slot, Demas also doesn’t mind beating his opposing corners on the outside with a healthy mix of speed and physicality, going up and catching balls at the highest point. The versatile Demas will also get some action in the return game, potentially splitting punt and kick return duties with running back Ainias Smith.
— Brian Perroni (@Perroni247) January 19, 2020
In many ways, Demas draws similarities to Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle in terms of his versatility and great athleticism. Demas and Texas A&M will face Vanderbilt this Saturday evening in College Station to open up the 2020 campaign. The Aggies are 30 ½ point favorites against the Commodores and figure to have very little problem with handling Vanderbilt who finished 3-9 last season. It will be intriguing to see how Fisher and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey utilize Demas in Week 1, especially with the big matchup against No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa on deck next week.
KYLE PITTS, FLORIDA
JUNIOR, TE, PHILADELPHIA, PA
The leading returning pass catcher for the Gators in 2020, Pitts returns poised for a big season and hungry to help lead the No. 5 Gators to their first SEC East title since 2016. A dynamic weapon in the passing and run games, Pitts currently ranks as ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper’s No. 2 tight end and No. 22 player overall eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft. Pitts saw very limited action in his freshman season, only registering three catches for 73 yards and one score. However, Pitts emerged as one of the nation’s best tight ends in his sophomore season last year hauling in 54 catches for 649 yards and five touchdowns. Pitts’ blocking is still very much a work in progress, but there is no denying his pass-catching ability with a gigantic 6-6 athletic frame.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 13, 2020
Pitts and the Gators return senior quarterback Kyle Trask who took over for starter Feleipe Franks after he tore his ACL in the second game of the year against Kentucky. Having not started a game since his junior varsity high school days, Trask would go on to amass 2,941 passing yards with a 25-7 touchdown to interception ratio while completing 67% of his passes. Trask would form a strong connection with Pitts, completing 22.8% of his passes to the 1st Team All-SEC tight end.
Pitts and the Gators will open their season against Ole Miss this Saturday. The Rebels have a new confidence and swagger with the arrival of former Tennessee, USC, and Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin. Ole Miss is aiming to rebuild their defense which has struggled in recent years after being one of the SEC’s most dominant and physical just a few short years ago. The Florida offense on the other hand will be looking to build off of a strong 2019 and emerge as one of the nation’s best passing attacks. There is no doubt that will begin with Pitts, who should have a very strong and efficient Week 1.
DARIAN KINNARD, KENTUCKY
JUNIOR, RT, KNOXVILLE, TN
Kentucky has quietly emerged as boasting one of the best offensive lines in the SEC and if not the entire country over the past five years. Head coach Mark Stoops and his staff have done a great job on the recruiting trail, bringing in blue chip offensive line prospects and developing them as NFL prospects. This year the Wildcats boast three high caliber offensive lineman, but none has more potential and upside than right tackle Darian Kinnard.
Kinnard, the PS#49 offensive lineman from the Class of 2018, stepped right into a role as the sixth offensive lineman as a freshman. He helped provide support for a deep and experienced offensive line, earning two starts and playing nine games during the Wildcats 2018 campaign which saw them finish 10-3. Last year Kinnard stepped into the opening right tackle spot and became one of the most reliable and consistent pieces on the line. The Knoxville native would go on to start all 13 games, registering 32 knockdowns while only being called for one penalty in 706 snaps.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) July 14, 2020
Known for his mean streak and dominant presence in the run game, Kinnard returns as the highest-graded returning SEC Offensive Lineman by Pro Football Focus College, earning an 89.2 grade. Kinnard currently projects anywhere from a 1st to 3rd round selection in next year’s NFL Draft, but has the potential to be a high 1st round pick if he is able to build off of his strong 2019 season. Kinnard and the Wildcats will receive a tough test in their opening week as they will travel to Auburn. The Tigers do lose defensive tackle Derrick Brown (#1DC Carolina) but return Phil Steele 2020 Preseason 1st Team All-SEC defensive end Big Kat Bryant as well as sophomore linebacker Owen Pappoe. Kinnard and the rest of the Big Blue offensive line will be tested, but if they are able to establish good blocking in the run game and provide a clean pocket for quarterback Terry Wilson, they should be right in the thick of things and will have an opportunity to pull off the upset.
KJ COSTELLO, MISSISSIPPI ST
SENIOR, QB, SANTA MARGARITA, CA
One of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 in 2018, KJ Costello and Stanford were poised to take the next step in 2019, establishing themselves as a legit Pac-12 title contender and Costello a high-end NFL quarterback prospect. However, neither of those things would come to fruition. Stanford would suffer a multitude of injuries and struggle to just 4-8 after back-to-back 9-win seasons. None of the injuries were as demoralizing as Costello and left tackle Walker Little, who both went down in the season opener against Northwestern. Little, a projected first round draft choice, would be out for the year after suffering a torn ACL. Costello on the other hand would return and start four more games for the Cardinal but was never able to consistently find his 2018 form where he threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns.
After the season there was discussion of how the quarterback situation would unfold for Stanford in 2020. Davis Mills, the PS#2 quarterback from the Class of 2017 started in place Costello when he was out and showed lots of promise, throwing for 1,960 yards with an inexperienced offensive line protecting him. Costello, a former PS#4 quarterback, knew he would most likely have to enter a quarterback battle with Mills and compete to regain his starting job. Ultimately, Costello’s decision would decide the looming questions in the Bay Area as the California native would pack his bags and head south to Starkville, Mississippi to join new head coach Mike Leach as his quarterback for the 2020 season.
Both have connections to Leach & the Air Raid
Read more ⤵️ | #HailState🐶
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) September 16, 2020
A big signal caller at 6-5 with a lively arm, Costello is a perfect fit for Leach’s Air Raid passing attack, where it is not uncommon for the quarterback to throw the ball 50-60 times per game! A year ago, Stanford head coach David Shaw believed Costello could have been one of the top quarterbacks taken in the 2020 NFL Draft. Obviously an injury riddled season derailed that hope, but Costello has a real opportunity to revive that beginning this Saturday in a highly anticipated matchup against LSU. The Bulldogs receiving corps are certainly unproven and young but they do return their leading receiver in Osirus Mitchell. However, Mitchell only caught 29 passes last season for 430 yards and six scores. Costello will have good support though in Phil Steele 2020 Preseason 1st Team All-SEC running back Kylin Hill who ran for 1,350 yards and 10 scores a year ago. The LSU defense did lose some key members from a year ago but should still have the same nastiness and relentless pass rush as they are known to have. If Costello is able to find his 2018 form early in the matchup and get good support out of the backfield from Hill, the Bulldogs have a chance to make this game closer than expected.