With spring football wrapped up across the SEC, we’ve been ranking position groups this week across the league as they stand currently. Today, we take a look at the front seven for each SEC team:
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide are rebuilding up front, but are still deep and talented. Three future NFL players are gone, but Nick Saban shouldn't be too worried. Lineman Jonathan Allen (12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2015) turned down the draft to return to school and should anchor a line that features up-and-coming freaks such as Da'Shawn Hand and Daron Payne.
2. LSU: The Tigers really made a lot of progress up front with Ed Orgeron coaching it up. With a year under Orgeron's belt, this group could take off in 2016. Davon Godchaux worked outside some but is set at nose tackle. Christian LaCouture made his home at end. Add Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley at middle linebacker and Tashawn Bower and Arden Key on the outside, and there’s a ton of speed and athleticism up front.
3. Ole Miss: The Rebels might have the deepest defensive line in the SEC. Even with two members dealing with injuries this spring, tackle Breeland Speaks believes Ole Miss can go three-deep at every position. Speaks and D.J. Jones are disruptors up front and Marquis Haynes is an excellent pass-rusher (17.5 sacks in two years), and ESPN 300 prospects Benito Jones (five-star) and Charles Wiley played this spring. After losing 19 of 26 starts at linebacker, there are certainly questions, but leading tackler DeMarquis Gates is back.
4. Missouri: There are a lot of questions for this team overall, but the front seven should be its strongest area. Mizzou could have a front four of Charles Harris (seven sacks/18.5 tackles for loss last year), Terry Beckner Jr. (three sacks/eight tackles for loss), Josh Augusta (8.5 tackles for loss) and Walter Brady (seven sacks/12.5 tackles for loss). And there’s solid depth behind them. Kentrell Brothers is gone, but No. 2 tackler Michael Scherer (93) is back, as is Donavin Newsom (fourth in tackles with 63). Finding Brothers’ replacement is a priority.
5. Florida: The Gators lost workhorses Jonathan Bullard and Antonio Morrison and pass-rusher Alex McCalister. However, Florida could just be reloading along its defensive line. Caleb Brantley could be a special talent at tackle, and Joey Ivie and Jordan Sherit provide length and athleticism. Bryan Cox Jr. (3.5 sacks/10.5 tackles for loss) also returns. Redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga could be a sleeper outside. Jarrad Davis turned down the NFL and could be one of the SEC’s top linebackers this fall. If Alex Anzalone is healthy – which is a big if -- he could have a big season next to Davis.
6. Tennessee: The Vols had a lot of injuries to deal with this spring, particularly up front: Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Kendal Vickers were among the 2015 starters out for most or all of spring with an injury. Once they return to the fold, this unit will be a deep, experienced one and one of the better groups in the league, with Barnett (10 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss) and Reeves-Maybin (105 tackles, 14 tackles for loss) leading the way.
7. Texas A&M: The Aggies have gradually accumulated quality defensive line talent in recruiting. The defensive-end tandem of Myles Garrett (12.5 sacks/19.5 tackles for loss) and Daeshon Hall (7 sacks/14.5 tackles for loss) is one of the league’s better duos. There’s quality depth behind them and a solid, athletic three-man rotation at defensive tackle with junior Zaycoven Henderson, sophomore Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke, who really impressed defensive coordinator John Chavis this spring. Linebackers remain a question mark, but mostly because of depth. If the Aggies can stay healthy, Otaro Alaka and Shaan Washington are experienced, solid players.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs already lost a lot up front via graduation and the draft, but injuries had an impact on the defensive line this spring, too, claiming Michael Barnett and DaQuan Hawkins in spring drills. Suspensions claimed Chauncey Rivers and Jonathan Ledbetter for the season opener. Trenton Thompson and John Atkins provide some experience up front. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy step into the starting outside linebacker roles, and how well they succeed Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins will be key. Natrez Patrick turned in a strong spring and could open some eyes in the fall.
9. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return virtually their entire 2015 defensive line two-deep, but are also moving folks around. Returning sack leader Deatrich Wise flashed well in the spring game and could be in for a double-digit sack season. Jeremiah Ledbetter made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle and Taiwan Johnson moved to nose guard, where he succeed two years ago. At linebacker, the Hogs’ defensive leader, Brooks Ellis, anchors the group and a talented sophomore, Dre Greenlaw, looks to build on a solid freshman campaign.
10. Vanderbilt: Having a first-team All-SEC selection back to anchor the front seven is important, which the Commodores have in Zach Cunningham. They also regained the services of linebacker Nigel Bowden, who had his 2015 season cut short by concussions. Adam Butler and Nifae Lealao provide some experience up front as returning starters, but replacing departed linebackers Darreon Herring and Stephen Weatherly is no easy task.
11. Auburn:The Tigers have Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams back and there’s quality depth on the defensive line. Will Byron Cowart make a bigger impact this season? As for the linebackers, Tre' Williams will lead the group and the Tigers are getting a graduate transfer from Illinois (T.J. Neal), but there isn't much quality depth at the position.
12. Mississippi State: Two key players are back in senior linebacker Richie Brown (109 tackles, 6.5 sacks in 2015) and senior defensive end A.J. Jefferson (team-high 13.5 tackles for loss) but beyond those two there are a lot of new faces in the front seven. J.T. Gray (65 tackles) and Gerri Green (49 tackles) have some experience to build on from 2015. After a solid spring, redshirt freshman Leo Lewis might be the player to succeed Beniquez Brown.
13. Kentucky: If the spring game is any indication, Denzil Ware is headed for a solid season rushing the passer after finishing with 15 tackles and four sacks. But who else will accompany Ware in that effort? That remains to be seen. Experience is thin at linebacker overall as the Wildcats try to replace Josh Forrest, Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson. Up front, Regie Meant is the only returning starter, but there is some experience with Courtney Miggins and Matt Elam, among others. Still, lots of question marks for this group as a whole.
14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were without their best player all spring -- linebacker Skai Moore-- because of injury, and there’s a lot of work to be done for a group that has struggled pressuring opposing quarterbacks in recent years. Even so, new coach Will Muschamp said he was pleased with the unit’s progress and talent in the front seven. T.J. Holloman, the Gamecocks' third-leading tackler, is back at weakside linebacker and there are two starters returning up front (Marquavius Lewis, Taylor Stallworth), but there's a long way to go for this group, which was last in the SEC in rush defense and near the bottom in sacks last season.