- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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With that said, here’s a look at the top five defensive players who could give the Crimson Tide offense trouble in 2014:
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida -- Sept. 6
There might not be a more talented cornerback in the SEC than Hargreaves, who burst on the scene as a freshman last season, starting for the Gators and hauling in three interceptions in his first four games. He was a bright spot amid Florida's tumultuous 4-8 campaign. A year wiser and more physically mature, he could present a real challenge for whoever starts under center for the Tide. His likely matchup with star wideout Amari Cooper will be worth setting your DVR.
S Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss -- Oct. 4
It isn’t just Hugh Freeze’s offense that’s loaded with talent. Ole Miss has a great nucleus on defense with Robert Nkemdiche at defensive tackle, Serderius Bryant at linebacker and Tony Conner at safety. But the man every quarterback must pay attention to is Prewitt, who wasn’t a high-profile recruit like many of his teammates, yet produces like an All-American. The 6-foot-2 junior led the SEC with six interceptions, finished fifth in passes defended (13) and ninth in fumbles forced (2).
DL Trey Flowers, Arkansas -- Oct. 11
Quietly, Flowers has developed into one of the top defensive ends in the SEC. It started with a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2011 and continued through last season, when he posted one of the best all-around stat lines you’ll ever see: 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and one interception. He could have skipped his senior season and entered the NFL draft but decided to stay, providing new defensive coordinator Robb Smith an important cornerstone to build around.
DL Chris Jones, Mississippi State -- Nov. 15
Everyone knows about Nkemdiche at Ole Miss. The former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300 came in with high expectations and flashed plenty of promise as a freshman last season. But another rookie defensive end in the same state showed just as much potential on the field. Jones, who is a tweener end/tackle for Mississippi State, is jam-packed with talent. Dan Mullen referred to him a “freaky athlete” this spring. Big, strong and nimble, Jones led the Bulldogs with 10 quarterback hurries and tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss.
DL Carl Lawson, Auburn -- Nov. 29
Cam Robinson is going to have his hands full if he winds up starting for Alabama as a freshman left tackle. We already mentioned Flowers, Nkemdiche and Jones in this post. Somehow, Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida didn’t make the cut. LSU will surely have a few impressive d-linemen crop up, too. And then there’s Lawson, who grew leaps and bounds as a freshman last season. The 6-foot-3 former five-star prospect showed himself to be a menacing pass-rusher, turning in four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. With Dee Ford now off to the NFL, Lawson will get even more reps.