SCOTT: SEC Frosh of the Year Race

Midway through the season, South Carolina rover Ko Simpson had seen enough.

As the 2004 SEC Freshman of the Year, Simpson was ready to hand over the 2005 trophy to Gamecock receiver Sidney Rice.

"He came up to me right before the (Vanderbilt) game and he showed me his plaque, Freshman of the Year," Rice said. "That put a smile on my face, and he said, 'Let's go get it.'"

Not so fast, Sidney. You'd think a receiver with who leads the SEC with 952 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, despite missing one game, would be an obvious choice for SEC Freshman of the Year.

But what about Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett, who entered this past weekend leading the SEC with 79 receptions? Bennett also ranked second with 876 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches, despite not becoming a regular fixture in the Vanderbilt offense until midway through the season.

"He and Sidney Rice are the two best freshmen in the league," Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said. "He returns punts and kicks and runs reverses. He's good."

But is Bennett or Rice as good as Arkansas' Darren McFadden? He finished his first college season ranked third in the SEC with 1,113 total yards and 101.2 yards per game, to go with 11 touchdown runs and a 6.3-yard per carry average that ranked second nationally, behind only USC's Reggie Bush. After seeing McFadden play against Auburn, former Auburn coach Pat Dye called McFadden the him the best SEC freshman he'd seen since Bo Jackson.

"I don't know where he came from, but he's got to be the fastest back I've ever seen," Georgia tackle Darrius Swain said of McFadden. "He was tough to bring down, too. I'm not sure if we had Ray Lewis we could have stopped him."

Rice, Bennett and McFadden may be the most talented trio of freshman skill players the SEC has ever seen at one time. Of course, it's difficult to equate. It's also difficult to decide which one is best.

Then again, they aren't the only talented freshmen already making an impact. The future of the SEC is loaded with capable young players. Here are several to look for:

ALABAMA: Running backs Jimmy Johns and Glen Coffee picked up some valuable playing time behind starter Ken Darby this season, while defensive end Bobby Greenwood showed plenty of potential with three sacks, 14 tackles, 4.5 tackles for losses and five quarterback hurries in a part-time role. Redshirt freshman guards BJ Stabler and Antoine Caldwell started throughout the season and took a beating late in the season but should be better with time and experience.

ARKANSAS: One reason coach Houston Nutt didn't come close to losing his job after two consecutive losing seasons was a talented freshman class that starts with McFadden, the first Razorback freshman and only the eighth SEC freshman ever to rush for 1,000 yards.

"Darren hits the hole quicker than anyone; he gives you a chance," Nutt said. "He's a home run hitter."

McFadden isn't the only one. Far from it. Fellow freshman tailback Felix Jones is second in the SEC in all-purpose yardage and his 100-yard kick return for a touchdown against Mississippi State two weeks ago Jones leads the nation with 33.7 yards per return. He's also second on the team with 626 yards on 99 carries for a 6.3 average with three touchdowns plus eight catches for 100 yards.

"With Darren rushing for 1,000 yards, people may tend to overlook Felix at times," Arkansas junior guard Jeremy Harrell said. "But everyone on our team understands what kind of job Felix has done, too. He's been a complete back for us."

Arkansas' late-season rise has a lot to do with the emergence of true freshman Casey Dick's ability to stay in the pocket and make plays with his arm and head.

"It's hard to explain," Nutt said. "He just has it. And he's always been pretty cool headed."

On the offensive line, Jonathan Luigs has started seven games at offensive guard and leads the team in knockdown blocks, but the Razorbacks are convinced he's a future star at center, where he has started three games. In fact, Luigs is so good at center the Razorbacks moved senior Kyle Roper to guard for the LSU game so Luigs could stay in the middle.

At linebacker, Freddie Fairchild has started nine games and ranks sixth on the team with 57 tackles to go with 6.5 tackles for losses and two sacks.

AUBURN: It's a good sign when you don't have to rely on a ton of freshmen, but Auburn coaches are excited about the future of redshirt freshman tailback Brad Lester, despite being limited by injuries throughout the season, and strong safety Steve Gandy, who won the starting job midway through the season.

FLORIDA: The Gators haven't had to depend on a lot of freshmen either, but running back Markus Manson, quarterback Josh Portis, receivers Nyan Boateng, David Nelson and Louis Murphy and linebacker Jon Demps have all shown positive signs of their potential.

GEORGIA: The Bulldodgs' receivers have been frustratingly inconsistent this season but freshman Mohamed Massaquoi has risen to third on the team in receptions with 32 for 447 yards and two TD's. He played his best football in the second half of the season and led the Bulldogs with six receptions for 71 yards last week against Georgia Tech.

KENTUCKY: Kentucky is too young for its own good, but at least those freshman have helped. The Wildcats have played 14 true freshmen this season.

"We've had no choice," said coach Rich Brooks. "We had to do that last year as well. We've gotten good production out of our freshmen and that will make them better players next year."

Braxton Kelley became an immediate and positive fixture at middle linebacker, starting the first seven games, making 44 tackles, two for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and one caused fumble before a knee injury ended his season. When he went out, he was replaced by redshirt freshman Ben McGrath.

Cornerback David Jones has averaged 22.4 yards on kickoff returns and made 20 tackles and has two pass breakups as a reserve cornerback and on kick coverage.

Both Garry Williams and James Alexander have started on the offensive line at the same offensive tackle position. Myron Pryor also started at defensive tackle.

LSU: The Tigers have been able to do without a lot of freshmen in the playing rotation, but defensive end Tyson Jackson has displayed plenty of potential in a backup role, playing in all 11 games with 12 tackles, a sack, two tackles for losses and five quarterback hurries.

OLE MISS: Redshirt freshman Mico McSwain moved from defensive back to tailback late in the season and rushed for 612 yards and three touchdowns before a late-season injury sent him to the sideline.

Ole Miss coaches knew true freshman Michael Oher was an outstanding prospect when they signed him last February but Oher exceeded early expectations when he moved into the starting lineup at guard in the second game of the season. He's been there ever since and should grow into one of the SEC's best linemen.

Redshirt freshman Jamarca Sanford started all 11 games at strong safety for an improved defense and ranks fourth on team in tackles with 43, including 35 solo stops, four tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Second-year coach Sylvester Croom has also been forced into using too many freshmen the past two seasons. This season's relied on cornerbacks Keith Fitzhugh and Derek Pegues, quarterback Michael Henig, outside linebackers Jamar Chaney and Anthony Littlejohn, punter Blake McAdams, guard Anthony Strauder and tackle Calvin Wilson for immediate help.

Of all the players on that list, the one with the most potential might be Wilson, who got off to a slow start because of injuries and has become a regular member of the playing rotation.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Receiver Kenny McKinley, running backs Mike Davis and Bobby Wallace and defensive end Dakota Walker have all made positive impacts as true freshmen, but the best of the best is Rice, who has emerged as coach Steve Spurrier's go-to receiver with his size (6-4) and ability to go up and get the ball, even in double coverage.

"He's a big target and catches everything, and as a quarterback those are the guys you like," Spurrier said. "He's got a chance to help us win big around here and has a chance to break some records because we're going to be firing."

Rice is also smarter than the average true freshman.

"He has great ball skills," Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning Koenning said. "If the ball gets in there, he has a great way of finding it. If he doesn't get to the ball, he does a good job floating along. He gets the calls to go his way – he's had a lot of interference calls, similar to what (Georgia Tech star wideout) Calvin Johnson had."

TENNESSEE: The Vols' disappointing season hasn't been without its bright spots, most notably redshirt freshman tailback Arian Foster. He moved into the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to starter Gerald Riggs Jr. in the sixth game of the season. Since then Foster has rushed for 879 yards on 183 attempts with five touchdowns in 11 games. In his five starts, Foster is averaging nearly 30 carries, 153 rushing yards and one touchdown per game.

VANDERBILT: Auburn and Alabama didn't offer a scholarship to Bennett, a Birmingham native, so he took his skills where he was wanted.

"One thing I told him was that we're building something here," Vanderbilt offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said. "I told him `if you come here you'll make history.'"

Bennett got off to a nice start, catching 30 passes through the seven games, but then he exploded up the charts with 16 catches for 204 yards against South Carolina, caught 13 passes for 99 yards and five touchdowns against Kentucky and finished strong with 14 receptions for 167 yards and the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee.

Along the way he broke Florida receiver Jabar Gaffney's freshman record of 71 receptions set in 2000 and set the Vanderbilt record for receiving yards in a season.

"I wish I would have had Earl a long time ago," senior quarterback Jay Cutler said. "He makes plays every time he gets the ball. He understands the game."

Bennett isn't Vanderbilt's only freshman star. The Commodore coaches signed Bryant Hahnfeldt to make an immediate impact in the kicking game and he won both starting jobs, kicking 12 of 17 field goals and averaging 41.7 yards per punt.

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