OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Robert Nkemdiche was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country in 2013, and the defensive lineman arrived at Mississippi with lofty aspirations of dominating the Southeastern Conference.
Then, as the transition to high-level college football often does to young players, Nkemdiche was humbled. He struggled to learn a new position while also trying to get a handle on the playbook. Then came a hamstring injury.
For many highly recruited SEC players, early hype can lead to unrealistic expectations. Now, Nkemdiche is part of group of young but experienced players around the league hoping to have breakout seasons.
While Nkemdiche had a productive season with 34 tackles, including eight for a loss, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound sophomore said in retrospect, he often tried too hard.
"That's where I was mixed up," Nkemdiche said. "I felt like I had to do everything."
Alabama running back Derrick Henry is another former marquee recruit hoping to make an impact.
He has played behind some terrific players at Alabama and he'll fight for carries in a crowded backfield this year with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — established veterans who have played in a lot of big games for the Tide.
But Henry's talent is getting harder to ignore.
The 6-foot-3, 241-pound five-star recruit arrived at Alabama after breaking the career high school rushing record. And when he did get on the field during his freshman season, he averaged more than 10 yards per carry and caught a 61-yard touchdown pass in the Sugar Bowl.
"Last year humbled me a lot," Henry said. "It gave me the fuel to go into this season, this fall camp, working hard. I just tune it out (the hype) ... just come here and go to work."
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said managing expectations for highly recruited freshmen is an ongoing battle.
"This circus around recruiting now and the social media and everything that builds these kids up to be something so phenomenal ... ," Freeze said. "They are good players, but when they get to the real world of this level of football, there are also a lot of good players here."
Here are other SEC players who could have breakout seasons:
— Shaq Roland, junior WR, South Carolina: Roland was South Carolina's Mr. Football in 2011 and the wide receiver was touted as another immediate in-state star like fellow Gamecocks Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney. But the 6-foot-1 Roland's first two seasons have not been as impactful as hoped. He's looking to improve on his career totals of 30 catches for 535 yards and six touchdowns, although his yards-per-catch average of 18.2 yards a game last fall led South Carolina. Now he's the unquestioned leader of the receiving corps.
— Reuben Foster, sophomore LB, Alabama: Foster is battling with junior Reggie Ragland — another highly-rated recruit — for a starting linebacker job. Foster had just nine tackles in 12 games last season after being one of the nation's most sought-after linebacker prospects. Said Ragland: "Reuben's a stud and when you're a stud, you're going to learn what you need to learn to be successful and that's what we're doing."
— Montravius Adams, sophomore DL, Auburn: A key sub at defensive tackle last season, Adams opens as a backup to Angelo Blackson. The 6-foot-4, 306-pounder has also worked some at defensive end where the Tigers have less depth. He had 20 tackles last season and figures to play an important role on the line.
— Patrick Towles, sophomore QB, Kentucky: Towles was named the starting quarterback by coach Mark Stoops last week after an impressive offseason. The 6-foot-5, 238-pounder was Kentucky's Mr. Football in 2012 and signed by Joker Phillips, but a coaching change and installation of a new offense slowed his development. He redshirted last season to work on his throwing mechanics and decision-making but now looks much more comfortable in offensive coordinator Neal Brown's Air Raid scheme.
— Curt Maggitt, junior DE/LB, Tennessee: Maggitt made 56 tackles at linebacker as a true freshman in 2011 and appeared to be a future cornerstone for the defense. Injuries have derailed his last two seasons and he was redshirted in 2013. The Volunteers hope he'll be fully healthy this fall, though he's been bothered by an ankle injury during camp. Said Maggitt: "I'm more than excited. Every time I step on the field, whether it's a practice or at Neyland, I'm going to leave my all out on the field. I'm excited to be back out there. It's been a while."
AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Pete Iacobelli, Gary B. Graves, Teresa M. Walker and Steve Megargee contributed to this story.
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