KNOXVILLE — Playing in the SEC means regular head-to-head matchups with future NFL talent. Tennessee faced eight of the top 25 picks in the first round of the 2012 draft in 2011. That number could be similar when the 2013 draft comes around.
Here’s a look at ten of the most talented players the Vols are scheduled to run across this year:
1. Marcus Lattimore — RB, South Carolina
When healthy, the 6-foot, 230-pound Lattimore might be the most talented player in the SEC. He has 2,015 career rushing yards on 412 attempts to go along with 27 touchdowns. He also has 594 receiving yards in just two seasons. He’s coming off a torn ACL, so he’ll have to prove he hasn’t lost a step, but look for the Gamecocks to rely on him again in 2012 before he rides off into the first round of the NFL in 2013.
2. Aaron Murray — QB, Georgia
Heading into his third season at the controls of the Georgia offense, Murray is generally considered the second best quarterback in the league, behind only Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson. He is approaching the 6,000-yard mark and has just under a 3-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio. Murray was strong against the Vols in 2011, completing 17 of 25 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
3. David Amerson — CB, NC State
Amerson could easily be a top-10 pick in the 2013 draft. He set an ACC record with 13 interceptions in 2011. The 6-3, 200-pound junior in an elite talent who in two seasons has already made 22 starts. He is big and physical enough to help in run support but also athletic enough to lock down a team’s best opposing receiver. Whether he shadows Justin Hunter or Da’Rick Rogers, it should be a great matchup when the Vols play the Wolfpack.
4. Barrett Jones — C, Alabama
There are multiple Alabama offensive linemen who could make this list, but Jones might be the best of the bunch. His versatility is unmatched. He started his career as a guard, moved to tackle (where he won the Outland Trophy in 2011) and will start at center in 2012. A consensus All-American, the 6-5, 305-pound Memphis native will anchor one of the best lines in the nation.
5. Jarvis Jones — LB, Georgia
Jones transferred from USC after the 2009 season and after redshirting in 2010 made a huge impact for the Bulldogs last season. He compiled 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks — including four against Florida — last season. Jones is an outside linebacker in Georgia’s 3-4 defense, meaning he is versatile enough to play in the box, or drop back in coverage.
6. Johnthan Banks — CB, Mississippi State
Banks has been overshadowed by big-name cornerbacks in the league in recent years, but he might be the best pure cover corner in the SEC. He had five interceptions in 2011 and ran one back for a touchdown against Auburn. NFLDraftScout.com ranks Banks as the top cornerback prospect in the 2013 NFL draft.
7. Jadeveon Clowney — DE, South Carolina
Clowney, a true sophomore, is the youngest player to make the list. He might have the most upside, too. He racked up 32 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks and five forced fumbles as a true freshman in 2011. What’s even more frightening is that his coaches said Clowney really didn’t know what he was doing last season. He knows the defense better now, and he could play some linebacker, too. SEC quarterbacks are already losing sleep at that thought. Go ahead and pencil Clowney into the top-10 of the 2014 NFL draft.
8. Zac Stacy — RB, Vanderbilt
Stacy burst on to the scene for the Commodores in 2011 with 201 attempts for 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s strong and compact at 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, but he has no problem breaking long runs. Just ask Wake Forest, Arkansas, Army, Ole Miss or UConn. They all gave up a run of over 45 yards to Stacy in 2011.
9. Robert Lester — S, Alabama
Lester opted to return to Alabama in 2012, foregoing a chance to be a first-round pick in the 2012 draft. He can do a little bit of everything. He has good size at 6-2 and 210 pounds, but he fast in coverage as well, clocking a 4.54 40-yard dash. He put up huge numbers as a sophomore in 2010 with eight interceptions and 52 tackles. He made only two interceptions in 2011 as part of the Tide’s loaded secondary, but nobody could question the unit’s overall production. With teammates Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick now in the NFL, Lester will be the top player in Alabama’s secondary.
10. James Franklin — QB, Missouri
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron or NC State signal caller Mike Glennon could’ve gone here as well, but Franklin is a true dual-threat QB. He put up huge numbers in 2011, completing 238 of his 376 pass attempts for 2,971 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also ran for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns — giving him 37 total scores on the year. With a talented bunch of receivers, including senior T.J. Moe and freshman Dorial Green-Beckham, he could have another huge year despite facing tougher defenses in the SEC.
Also in the conversation: QB AJ McCarron (Alabama), G Chance Warmack (Alabama), T D.J. Fluker (Alabama), NT Jesse Williams (Alabama), LB C.J. Mosley (Alabama), CB Dee Milliner (Alabama) QB Mike Glennon (NC State), WR Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), LB Jelani Jenkins (Florida), LB Jonathan Bostic (Florida), DL Sharrif Floyd (Florida), S Matt Elam (Florida), S Brynden Trawick (Troy), LB Cameron Lawrence (Mississippi State), S Baccari Rambo (Georgia), NT John Jenkins (Georgia), WR T.J. Moe (Missouri), WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri), DE Devin Taylor (South Carolina), G Larry Warford (Kentucky)