- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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The linebackers are up next in our SEC position rankings.
These are the guys who put up the big numbers and have the versatility to chase sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage, and rush the passer.
Here’s what we came up with as a group. Check back later today and we’ll rank the top 10 linebackers in the league.
1. Alabama: It’s unfair to expect anybody to replace all of the things that C.J. Mosley provided for the Crimson Tide, but senior Trey DePriest is ready to step up as the leader of that defense after starting 12 games at middle linebacker last season. The Tide are never hurting for talent, so look for some new stars to emerge. Among them: Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster, and look for heralded true freshmen Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand to play early at outside linebacker and in pass-rushing situations. Both should help the Tide immensely in that area.
2. LSU: Even with the loss of leading tackler Lamin Barrow, LSU is still brimming with talent at the linebacker. Senior D.J. Welter returns in the middle, but will be pushed by sophomore Kendell Beckwith. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is always going to give up size for speed at linebacker, and Kwon Alexander and Deion “Debo” Jones can fly. Alexander is moving from the strong side to the weak side to take Barrow’s spot. Look for him to make more plays there. Juniors Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist also return and will be in the rotation. The Tigers won’t lack for depth.
3. Georgia: First-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a Georgia defense that returns everybody at linebacker. The Bulldogs might not be as talented as some around the league at linebacker, but are long on experience. Seniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both return inside after each collecting more than 100 total tackles last season. The difference-maker of the group is sophomore outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman. On the other side, junior Jordan Jenkins is back after racking up 12 tackles for loss a year ago. Nobody in the league returns more production at linebacker, but the Dawgs did finish tied for 10th in the league a year ago in scoring defense and were eighth in total defense.
4. Mississippi State: There’s a lot to be excited about in Starkville this fall, especially with nine starters returning on defense. Redshirt junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney thought about turning pro, but returns as one of the top defenders in the league. Senior Matthew Wells is one of the most versatile linebackers in the SEC, while sophomores Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown will both see their roles expand. This should be as good a linebacker corps as Dan Mullen has had at Mississippi State, and he’s had some good ones.
5. Florida: With so many players injured this spring, getting a read on Florida at linebacker was difficult. The key contributors from last season return, and there’s no shortage of talent. Antonio Morrison was up and down at middle linebacker before getting hurt. The Florida coaches expect him to come back strong. Michael Taylor is also back in the middle after leading the team in tackles last season. Jarrad Davis was forced into action last season as a freshman and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. If Alex Anzalone, Neiron Ball and Matt Rolin can all stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the better linebacker groups in the league.
6. South Carolina: One of the reasons the Gamecocks are thinking about tinkering with a 3-4 is that they like this group of linebackers and want to get their best players on the field. Sophomore Skai Moore was outstanding as a freshman last season and is only going to get better. The best news for South Carolina is that there’s competition at all of the linebacker spots among players with experience. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman are both back in the middle, and sophomore Jonathan Walton could be a dark horse. Sharrod Golightly was one of the team’s most improved players last season and is back at the hybrid “spur” position.
7. Tennessee: Senior A.J. Johnson has been a tackling machine for the Volunteers, but the challenge for him is to make more big plays. Redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is back at outside linebacker after missing all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. Butch Jones says Maggitt will be the key for the Vols defensively. They want to use him in several different spots and turn him loose on the opposing quarterback, meaning he could spend more time at end than outside linebacker. Several younger players also could factor into the mix. But if the Vols are going to improve defensively from last season, Johnson and Maggitt both need to have big years.
8. Ole Miss: The Rebels will be without junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the opener against Boise State following his offseason arrest. But once Nkemdiche returns, he and senior Serderius Bryant form one of the best one-two punches in the league at linebacker. Ole Miss should also be faster across the board at linebacker with the addition of junior college newcomer Christian Russell in the middle. Don’t forget about sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford, who’s weathered injuries and looked a lot faster this spring after two knee surgeries.
9. Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson would like to see more consistency from his linebackers this season. Juniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are both back, and McKinzy is moving to middle linebacker. The Tigers would love to see junior Justin Garrett stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He could help at weakside linebacker or the hybrid “star” position. True freshman Tre Williams, ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect, has the size and speed to play right away.
10. Vanderbilt: With the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 scheme, that means Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann will shift from end to outside linebacker. Both are outstanding and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Darreon Herring had a breakout season in 2013 and finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He will move from outside to inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden also has a big upside and is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season.
11. Missouri: The Tigers have to replace two starters, including middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Michael Scherer’s development will be key. He started the spring at strongside linebacker but moved to middle linebacker after redshirt junior Kentrell Brothers underwent surgery for a torn labrum. The Tigers will need a healthy Brothers come fall.
12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks weren’t very healthy or productive a year ago at linebacker, but they’ve got just about everybody back. Sophomore Brooks Ellis has a chance to be really good in the middle, and junior Otha Peters looks like he’s finally healthy. A year after coming over from junior college, Martrell Spaight should be a much bigger factor his second time through the league. Seniors Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr also are back.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats have had a stream of quality linebackers to come through Lexington the last few years. The latest was middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Heading into this season, it’s difficult to pinpoint who will follow in Williamson’s footsteps. Junior Khalid Henderson has a chance, and it’s likely that junior college newcomer Ryan Flannigan will have to step in and play immediately. Early enrollee true freshman Dorian Hendrix had a big spring.
14. Texas A&M: Sophomore Darian Claiborne was one of the few proven playmakers returning on Texas A&M’s defense, and now he’s gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs are the only returnees with any experience. The Aggies are hopeful that TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard can provide immediate help. Either way, there are a lot more questions than answers at a position that didn’t need any casualties.