Florida Gators: Markus Golden

Ranking the SEC defensive ends

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
5:20
PM ET
It's Defensive Line Day on the SEC blog.

We ranked the top defensive line groups earlier today along with the top 10 tackles in the league. Now, we rank the top 10 ends in the SEC heading into the 2014 season.

1. Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida: Technically he plays the "buck" position in the Gators' defense, which is part end and part outside linebacker. He's versatile enough that he's a force against the run and also a dynamic pass-rusher. Florida has produced its share of big-play performers on defense. Look for the 6-foot-3, 266-pound Fowler to explode this season after racking up a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesArkansas' Trey Flowers is back for his senior season.
2. Trey Flowers, Sr., Arkansas: His partner on the other side, Chris Smith, is gone, but the 6-4, 267-pound Flowers has already proven that he's a difference-maker regardless of who lines up around him or who he's going against. Flowers had five sacks and three forced fumbles a season ago and decided to come back for his senior season after considering a jump to the NFL.

3. Markus Golden, R-Sr., Missouri: Last season, it was Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Two years ago, it was Sheldon Richardson. Missouri just keeps cranking out the talented defensive linemen. The 6-3, 260-pound Golden only played about 40 percent of the snaps last season, but still managed to lead the Mizzou ends with 55 total tackles and was third to Sam and Ealy with 13 tackles for loss.

4. Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Sr., Kentucky: Having successfully made the transition from outside linebacker to end last season when Mark Stoops and his staff arrived, the 6-4, 267-pound Dupree has finished in the top 10 in the SEC in sacks each of the past two seasons. He's the essence of consistency and has made at least three tackles in each of the 26 games he's started in his college career.

5. Carl Lawson, So. Auburn: The 6-2, 261-pound Lawson was the toughest of the ends to rank because he recently underwent knee surgery. There's a chance he could miss some time to open the season. But when fully healthy, there's no question that Lawson ranks up there with any of the defensive ends in this league. He was a Freshman All-American last season and racked up 7.5 tackles for loss.

6. Shane Ray, R-Jr., Missouri: Similar to Golden, Ray was also a reserve on that talented Missouri defensive line a year ago, but was still plenty productive. He finished second on the team with 11 quarterback pressures and also collected nine tackles for loss. The 6-3, 245-pound Ray is a a super athlete and has blazing speed off the edge as a pass-rusher.

7. Danielle Hunter, Jr., LSU: His enormous wing span makes him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks when he's bearing down on them. At 6-6 and 241 pounds, Hunter came into his own last season with eight tackles for loss, including three sacks. Look for those numbers to soar in 2014, as Hunter is poised to be the Tigers' next star defensive end.

8. C.J. Johnson, R-Jr., Ole Miss: The 6-2, 237-pound Johnson was on his way to an All-SEC season a year ago until an ankle injury sidelined him for the season. He had four tackles for loss in his first four games and, as a sophomore in 2012, led the team with 6.5 sacks. The biggest hurdle for Johnson has been avoiding injuries. But if he stays healthy, he'll make a ton of big plays for the Rebels this season.

9. Jonathan Allen, So., Alabama: Yep, yet another one of those talented sophomore defensive linemen. The 6-3, 264-pound Allen has "star" written all over him and should help bolster the Crimson Tide's pass rush this season after playing in a reserve role last season. He has all the physical tools and instincts to be that finisher off the edge that Alabama has lacked the last couple of seasons.

10. Za’Darius Smith, Sr., Kentucky: The other half of Kentucky's talented end tandem, the 6-6, 264-pound Smith made a big impact a year ago after coming over from junior college. He finished with six sacks and had a sack or tackle for loss in six games. Junior college players typically make a big jump in their second year in the program, which means Smith could really take off in 2014.
Some around the SEC suggested that the defensive line talent in the league might have been down last season.

Only five SEC defensive linemen went in the top four rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, and only two of those were tackles.

But as we look ahead to the 2014 season, there’s a promising crop of young defensive linemen in the SEC, particularly the sophomore class.

Today, we kick off our defensive position rankings with the defensive line. We’ll come back later in the day and rank the top 10 tackles in the league and the top 10 ends.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The defensive line should be the strength of an Alabama defense that will again be rock-solid. The Crimson Tide are big, physical and deep with some talented players joining the mix. Sophomore A'Shawn Robinson is an absolute beast. Jonathan Allen played in every game last season as true freshman, and D.J. Pettway is back at end after a year at junior college. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake return at nose guard, and look for Dalvin Tomlinson and Dee Liner to make big impacts as well along with incoming five-star freshman end Da'Shawn Hand. There’s no such thing as being too deep in the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore defensive tackle Montravius Adams is one of several talented, young Auburn defensive linemen.
2. Auburn: There’s a bit of an asterisk associated with Auburn’s ranking. Sophomore Carl Lawson would have easily been one of the top defensive ends in the league, but he recently underwent knee surgery, and his status for the season is unclear. But even without Lawson, the Tigers are still extremely talented. Sophomore tackle Montravius Adams is ready to explode after having a big spring. Sophomore end Elijah Daniel also has gobs of talent, while seniors Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeff Whitaker are back at tackle.

3. Missouri: The Tigers just seem to keep reloading up front defensively despite losing Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson the last couple of years. That shouldn’t change in 2014. Markus Golden and Shane Ray form an imposing defensive end tandem. They combined for 11 sacks last season, and the Tigers also have experience in the middle of that line with Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley returning.

4. Ole Miss: As Hugh Freeze moves into his third season on the job, the hope in Oxford is that the Rebels can make some noise in the West race. They have the depth, talent and experience in the defensive line to make a move. Sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most talented of the bunch and primed for a huge season, but there’s also depth inside. If C.J. Johnson stays healthy at end, defensive line should be the Rebels’ strongest position in 2014.

5. Florida: The Gators breed athletic defensive linemen, and junior Dante Fowler Jr. is the next star in the making. He plays the hybrid “buck” position, but will wind up rushing from an end position much of the time. Fellow junior Jonathan Bullard started eight games at end last season and is another guy ready to take off in this defense. Senior Leon Orr is back at tackle, but there’s not much proven depth inside. True freshman Gerald Willis III has a chance to be special and will play immediately.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return three senior starters in their defensive line -- tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones and end Preston Smith. That’s not to mention sophomore Chris Jones, the kind of player who makes everybody around him better. The 6-5, 300-pound sophomore will line up both inside and outside and has star potential. Second-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has plenty of pieces to work with up front in what should be Dan Mullen’s best defense yet.

7. LSU: The Tigers are set at end with senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter, although Rasco missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Sophomore Tashawn Bower should also prosper as a pass rusher in John Chavis’ system. The big question is at tackle, where redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain will be counted on to step in and fill the void. Sophomore Christian LaCouture also returns at tackle and had a solid spring. LSU has recruited well up front defensively, and similar to previous years, new playmakers will emerge for the Tigers.

8. South Carolina: Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers last season, Jadeveon Clowney was the cog that made that defense go. Kelcy Quarles will also be a big loss inside, but senior tackle J.T. Surratt is underrated. The Dixon brothers -- tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. and end Gerald Dixon -- are also poised to make big moves this season. Junior college transfer Abu Lamin went through spring practice and will add muscle in the middle. Finding another pass-rusher will be critical. Third-year sophomore Darius English, who’s bulked up to 245 pounds, will be one to watch.

[+] EnlargeSterling Bailey
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesGeorgia needs big things from defensive end Sterling Bailey to help make up for the loss of Garrison Smith.
9. Georgia: The only loss up front for the Bulldogs was senior end Garrison Smith, which was a big one. First-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker looked at several different combinations this spring. Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew are both back at end, although Rocker demoted Drew this spring for a few practices. It looks like John Taylor and James DeLoach will avoid suspensions after their off-the-field trouble, and both are good enough to push for starting jobs. Chris Mayes, Mike Thornton and Toby Johnson are all nose guard types in the 3-4. Johnson was dominant this spring.

10. Kentucky: It all starts for the Wildcats defensively with their combo on the outside of Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. They combined for 13 sacks last season and complement each other well. Smith, in particular, should be even better in his second season after coming over from junior college. The issue is inside. The top three tackles from a year ago are gone. Junior college transfer Cory Johnson will be key, and it helps that he enrolled early and went through spring practice.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are shifting to a base 3-4 and have stocked up over the last few years with the kind of big, physical defensive linemen you’re accustomed to seeing in the SEC. Sophomore Adam Butler could be one of the breakout players in the league after moving over to defense from offense last season as a redshirt freshman and playing extremely well. Seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are both 300-pounders with experience, while redshirt freshman Jay Woods has a huge upside.

12. Arkansas: Senior defensive end Trey Flowers is the centerpiece and one of the more accomplished pass-rushers in the league. Third-year sophomore Darius Philon is the Hogs’ best interior lineman after leading all Arkansas tackles a year ago with 46 total tackles. The Hogs need big seasons out of third-year sophomore ends Deatrich Wise Jr., JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis. Wise had five sacks in the spring game.

13. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost one of their most promising defensive linemen when sophomore tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed from the team earlier this month. They were forced to play several younger players last season and took their lumps in what was a forgettable season on the defensive side of the ball. Still, some of those younger players such as sophomore end Daeshon Hall gained valuable experience. They need a big year out of senior end Gavin Stansbury and are hopeful prized freshman signee Myles Garrett can add some pop to the pass rush.

14. Tennessee: The Vols lost six seniors, including all four starters, on their defensive line, which means there will be a lot of new faces playing heavy minutes in 2014. That’s never a good thing in the SEC, especially when you’re particularly thin at tackle. Sophomore end Corey Vereen came on last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp, and Curt Maggitt could end up playing as much end as linebacker. The Vols like the defensive linemen they signed in this class, but having to play so many freshmen so soon up front has a way of catching up to you.
In honor of the greatest movie monster to ever live making his much-anticipated return to the silver screen, we only thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the monsters the SEC has to offer.

Can any of them live up to the legendary status Godzilla holds? Only time will tell, but you still wouldn’t want to get caught in their path. Nothing good can come of those who oppose these monsters from the SEC East and West:

EAST MONSTERS

1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia -- During his first year on campus, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 quarterback hurries. Jordan Jenkins gets a lot of attention on this defense, but Floyd might have the most NFL talent out there. He's ferocious off the edge and should wreak plenty of havoc this season with even more teaching. Double-team him if you want to have a chance.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. isn't a player that you want to mess with too often.
2. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida -- At 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds, you don't want to cross his path if you're in his backfield hunting grounds. Fowler is Florida's best edge rusher and can play standing up or with his hand on the ground. He has incredibly fast, violent arms to go with a truckload of speed. Fowler has six career sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss and is already viewed as a top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft.

3. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri -- Well, with that head of hair, he already has the Predator look down. And he's just as lethal on the field. With fellow ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy both gone, Golden will have a lot more time on the field, giving him more room to roam and track down his next victims. He's got a scary burst and a load of strength that should help him pass the 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss he had last season.

4. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia -- He can bowl you over or blow past you with his speed. He has a scary combination of speed, strength and elusiveness that make him an absolute terror to bring down. Nagging injuries have plagued him during his two years on campus, but he still has 2,374 career rushing yards and has averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 387 career carries. Gurley is arguably the nation's best and scariest running back when healthy.

5. Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina -- He already has a menacing frame at 6-8, 348 pounds, which is just frightening in itself. But his job is to push guys such as Fowler around all season, and he seems to really get a kick out of it, too. Robinson can smother oncoming defenders with his size and strength. Trying to hit his quarterback comes with a price.

WEST MONSTERS

1. Landon Collins, S, Alabama -- You want a safety who can cover a lot of ground and deliver bone-rattling hits? Well, Collins is the guy for you. He really started to understand the safety position more last season and proved to be a real terror for the Crimson Tide's defense. Collins has first-round draft pick capability, and he's upset with how last season ended. You don't want to see him when he's angry.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesSophomore WR Laquon Treadwell is an absolute monster, pun intended, in the open field for Ole Miss.
2. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama -- I know that T.J. Yeldon is still the starter in Tuscaloosa, but Henry has that scary talent that just doesn't come around all that often. Like Gurley, he can pound the ball through the middle with all that strength, but has the ability to make defenders miss and hit that gut-wrenching home-run play. Henry is going to be a force to be reckoned with this fall, no matter how many carries he gets.

3. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn -- Big things are expected from the rising sophomore after a season in which he slowly started to develop into a solid player off the edge. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson loved how he started to combine that freaky athleticism with technique and knowledge this spring. He's arguably Auburn's most talented lineman and will be doing plenty of head hunting this fall.

4. Jameon Lewis, WR, Mississippi State -- Don't let his 5-9, 183-pound frame fool you, Lewis will make plays on you. He has all the speed and athleticism to run circles around opposing secondaries and he's learning how to be a better route-runner. He just missed out on grabbing 1,000 yards last season and is the kind of player who will slash his way through defenses with an offense that is perfect for his quickness.

5. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss -- He can leap out of any gym and he's the kind of person who is already more athletic than you, no matter the setting. As a freshman last season, Treadwell led the Rebels with 72 receptions, but is now the main attraction at receiver for Ole Miss. Treadwell is a freak of nature that isn't afraid to get physical with defenders, and he can hit the deep ball with all that speed he owns.
The 2014 NFL draft is over, and the SEC made quit the impression with a nation-leading 49 draft picks.

But that was the past. It's time to look into the future, and NFL draft guru Todd McShay has us covered, even though he's due for a long vacation.

On Wednesday, McShay debuted his first 2015 mock draft Insider. These are never perfect, but that doesn't make them any less fun to look at. And the SEC is yet again well represented in McShay's first mock draft with 10 players, including four in the top 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTodd McShay doesn't expect Amari Cooper to be available for very long in the 2015 NFL draft.
USC junior defensive end Leonard Williams is projected to go first overall to the Oakland Raiders, while the highest pick from the SEC is Alabama junior wide receiver Amari Cooper, who is projected to go No. 2 to the Cleveland Browns. I guess Johnny Manziel won't make that much of an impact with the Browns this year.

McShay then has Texas A&M junior offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi going third to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida junior defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. going fourth to the Washington Redskins and Alabama junior safety Landon Collins going 10th to the Browns.

The biggest surprise to me was the fact that McShay had Missouri defensive end/linebacker Shane Ray going 31st overall to the New Orleans Saints. Ray is certainly someone flirting with breakout status this season after collecting 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss in 2013, but what makes him such an intriguing prospect is that he has a ton of speed and athleticism on top of that 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame. He was second on the team last season with 11 quarterback hurries.

Ray should have a lot of fun coming off the edge with fellow end Markus Golden, who could have easily left for the NFL this season. Golden is more of a name right now after registering 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, but Ray has a chance to be a really special player.

Who are some other guys who could help their draft cause this fall? Well, ESPN Insider KC Joyner listed his five players poised for big seasons in 2014 Insider, and Auburn's Corey Grant and D'haquille Williams made the cut.

Grant rushed for more than 600 yards last year and had six touchdowns as one of Tre Mason's backups. Now the starting running back spot is up for grabs, and Grant has every chance to take it while competing with Cameron Artis-Payne, who also rushed for 600-plus yards and six touchdowns last season.

As for Williams, the junior college transfer has yet to play a down at this level, but his new coaches see something very special in him. Co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig went as far to say this spring that Williams could have a Jameis Winston-like impact on Auburn's offense at receiver. Will he direct the Tigers to another national championship run? Not sure, but he could be a real spark for Auburn's passing game this fall.
Now that the NFL draft has come and gone, we thought it was only appropriate to get some of the excitement started for next year's draft. We can say goodbye to the Class of 2014 by ushering in the Class of 2015.

Now, I'm no draft guru or anything like that, but I do know there are a handful of solid, draft-eligible prospects lurking around the SEC. You don't lead the nation in draft picks for eight straight years without having some more guys to churn out in future drafts.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley figures to be prominent among SEC East draft-eligible players in 2015.
With that thought in mind, esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I will be looking at 10 players from the SEC Eastern Division and SEC Western Division who we believe will be top prospects for the 2015 NFL draft. I'll go first with the East; Alex will have his 10 West prospects later on Monday.

Let's see what I came up with (in alphabetical order):

  • A.J. Cann, OG, RSr., South Carolina: He has a team-high 38 career starts entering the year and has started all but one game during the last three years. He's one of the top guards around and has been South Carolina's anchor up front for a while now. He's also a tremendous leader and has ideal size to plug holes at left guard.
  • Mike Davis, RB, Jr., South Carolina: One of the toughest runners in the SEC, Davis had a fun coming-out party last year with 1,183 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Davis can grind out tough yards and explode for the home-run play. For his career, Davis has seven 100-yard games.
  • Alvin Dupree, DE/LB, Sr., Kentucky: Dupree might be one of the most versatile defenders here. He started his first two years at outside linebacker, proving to be a solid pass-rusher, but moved to defensive end last year and was even better, leading Kentucky with 9.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He has ranked in the top 10 of the SEC in sacks the last two years.
  • Leonard Floyd, LB, So., Georgia: Three years removed from his graduating class, Floyd will definitely be eligible for the draft. During his first year, he was Georgia's best pass-rusher, notching a team-best 6.5 sacks. People around the program think he's Georgia's most talented player, and he could really jump up draft boards this fall.
  • Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Jr., Florida: Another versatile defender, Fowler has the ability to push himself into the first round of next year's draft with his combination of power and speed. He has 18.5 career tackles for loss and can play both linebacker and defensive end, which will be very appealing to NFL scouts.
  • Markus Golden, DE, Sr., Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Golden returns as one of the SEC's best edge players. He was third on his team with 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year and could have easily left early for the NFL draft this year.
  • Chaz Green, OT, RSr., Florida: When healthy, Green is Florida's best offensive lineman. Losing him last year really hurt the Gators' offense, and his return is a huge boost. Green has the size and ability that scouts want, but his health is key. If he's healthy this year, he could battle for first-round status.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Jr., Georgia: Like Jadeveon Clowney, Gurley probably could have left for the NFL after his sophomore season. While he has dealt with nagging injuries in his first two seasons at Georgia, he has 2,734 rushing yards, 27 touchdowns, and 12 100-yard games. He's a bully of a back with a rare combination of size, speed, and elusiveness that make him a first-round pick.
  • Corey Robinson, OT, RSr., South Carolina: NFL scouts are already drooling over his 6-foot-8, 349-pound frame. With 22 career starts under his belt, Robinson has plenty of experience going into his final year and has all the talent and skill to be one of the top tackles in next year's draft.
  • Ramik Wilson, LB, Sr., Georgia: Though he led the SEC with 133 tackles last year, Wilson still has that "underrated" tag attached to his name. He has ideal size and athleticism to hear his name called early in next year's draft, and his field instincts are exceptional.
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
As the NFL combine winds down and we watch another class of SEC players move on to professional careers, it’s important to keep an eye on the future and the next wave of stars.

Spring practice begins at Texas A&M on Friday and will open throughout the SEC in the weeks to come. And while it’s a tad premature to be asking the question, we’re doing it anyways: Who will be the top defensive linemen in the league next season?

Chris Low, my colleague on the SEC blog, gave his pick for the best offensive linemen last week, and we figured it best not to leave out their combatants in the trenches.

With that said, here's our early take on the SEC's top-four defensive linemen going into the 2014 season. They're listed alphabetically:

Trey Flowers, Arkansas

He’s been doing his thing for a while now so you should know his name. Flowers hasn’t won many games in his career at Arkansas, but that’s not his fault. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end has quietly become a premier lineman in the league, beginning with a rookie campaign that landed him on the SEC All-freshman team in 2011. Last season, he was second-team All-SEC after recording five sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss. He also forced three fumbles, hauled in an interception and had two pass breakups. Bret Bielema didn’t have a lot of wins his first season at Arkansas, but convincing Flowers to return for his senior season was one of them.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDante Fowler Jr. led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss in 2013.
Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

To be fair, he does play some standing up at linebacker. But Fowler, at 6-foot-3 and 277 pounds, is all pass-rusher in coach Will Muschamp’s defense. The All-SEC second team selection led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and finished with 3.5 sacks. He’ll be asked to do more in 2014, and the former four-star prospect has the tools to pull it off. The lightning-quick rising sophomore will need some help, though. If a second pass-rusher emerges to take away double-teams, look for Fowler to take off.

Chris Jones, Mississippi State

You might not have known his name as a recruit, but Jones has worked his way into the conversation as one of the most talented young defensive players in the SEC. Dan Mullen and his coaching staff found themselves a gem at Mississippi State. Jones was a late bloomer in high school but came on quickly in college, developing into an SEC All-freshman team selection with the size (6-5, 305 pounds) to play on the interior of the line and the speed and burst to play outside at end. His seven tackles-for-loss and three sacks only serve to underscore his team-leading 10 quarterback hurries. For perspectives sake, the former No. 1 recruit in the country at the “School Up North” had just three quarterback hurries.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

Yes, that player was Nkemdiche, the former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300. And while his numbers weren’t quite as impressive as his counterpart at Mississippi State (isn’t that rivalry going to be fun?) Nkemdiche did nothing to disappoint in his first season at Ole Miss. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound athlete showed why he was so highly thought of coming out of high school. He not only played both end and tackle for the Rebels, he also carried the ball at running back a few times. Eight tackles-for-loss and two sacks should just be the tip of the iceberg in his career under coach Hugh Freeze.

Four more to watch

How they fared vs. SEC competition

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
1:30
PM ET
One of the most revealing things to do every year is going back and looking at how players fared against SEC competition.

The numbers always look a little different when you take out some of the teams that were sacrificial lambs. With that in mind, here’s a quick checklist of the league leaders and their numbers against SEC foes (not counting the SEC championship game):

RUSHING

1. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 988 yards, 6.2 yards per carry
2. Tre Mason, Auburn: 985 yards, 5.1 yards per carry
3. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 875 yards, 6.1 yards per carry
4. Mike Davis, South Carolina: 830 yards, 5.9 yards per carry
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 769 yards, 6.6 yards per carry

TOUCHDOWNS

1. Tre Mason, Auburn: 13
2. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: 11
3. Henry Josey, Missouri: 10
4. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
4. Jeremy Hill, LSU: 9
4. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 9
4. Jerron Seymour, Vanderbilt: 9

TOTAL OFFENSE

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 394.6 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 300.8 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 275.4 yards per game
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 269.3 yards per game
5. Nick Marshall, Auburn: 257.5 yards per game

PASSING YARDS

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 336.9 yards per game
2. Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 283.4 yards per game
3. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 257.9 yards per game
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 246.4 yards per game
5. Zach Mettenberger, LSU: 244.6 yards per game

PASSING TDs/INTs

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 22/11
2. Aaron Murray, Georgia: 21/6
3. Connor Shaw, South Carolina: 18/1
4. AJ McCarron, Alabama: 18/3
5. Maty Mauk, Missouri: 10/2

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMichael Sam had 7.5 sacks in SEC play, and Missouri players ranked 1-2 and tied for third in that statistic.
RECEIVING YARDS

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 122.5 yards per game
2. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: 113.4 yards per game
3. Jarvis Landry, LSU: 104.9 yards per game
4. Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss: 79.5 yards per game
5. Odell Beckham, LSU: 72.9 yards per game

TOUCHDOWN CATCHES

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 9
2. L'Damian Washington, Missouri: 7
3. Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: 6
3. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: 6
3. Kevin Norwood, Alabama: 6

SACKS

1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 7.5
2. Markus Golden, Missouri: 6.5
3. Kony Ealy, Missouri: 6
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 6
3. Garrison Smith, Georgia: 6

TACKLES FOR LOSS

1. Markus Golden, Missouri: 11
1. Michael Sam, Missouri: 11
3. Dee Ford, Auburn: 10
4. Trey Flowers, Arkansas: 9.5
5. Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina: 9

Ten SEC surprise players in 2013

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
11:40
AM ET
Today, we're looking at 10 players who surprised us in the SEC.

These are players who didn't enter the season with a ton of hype, weren't big-time recruits in the 2013 recruiting class or made big splashes after pedestrian 2012 seasons.

There were a lot of names that could have made it onto this list, but we put our SEC brains together and came up with these 10:

1. Serderius Bryant, LB, Ole Miss: Heading into the season, Bryant was listed as a reserve behind Denzel Nkemdiche. But after Nkemdiche injured his knee in the season opener, Bryant went on a tear for the Rebels. He started nine games and is tied for the team lead with 70 tackles, leads the Rebels with 10.5 tackles for loss and is second with three sacks.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coates
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSammie Coates emerged as a playmaker in Auburn's high-scoring offense.
2. Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: Before the season, no one was quite sure who would be catching the brunt of passes in Auburn's offense. Well, Coates took the lead and went from six catches in 2012 to a team-high 38 with 841 yards and seven touchdowns. The Tigers didn't throw a lot, but when they did, Coates was usually the top target.

3. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: Everyone knew he was going to be the guy to replace Marcus Lattimore, but Davis looked like a seasoned veteran on the field this season, rushing for 1,134 and 11 touchdowns. He was also very good in the passing game, catching 32 passes for 342 yards.

4. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: Fellow linebacker Jordan Jenkins was supposed to be the star on defense, but Floyd looked like the Bulldogs' best pass rusher at times. The former prep schooler led Georgia with 6.5 sacks and finished the year with 8.5 tackles for loss and 47 total tackles.

5. Markus Golden, DT, Missouri: After registering just 10 tackles last season, Golden was one of the Tigers' most active defensive players. He got tons of push up the middle and was second on the team with 13 tackles for loss and had 6.5 sacks. He also took an interception 70 yards for a touchdown.

6. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: The former Georgia defensive back was one of the nation's biggest surprises. He wasn't asked to do a lot with his arm, but made some big-time throws and got more comfortable with his arm as the season went on. Marshall passed for 1,759 yards and 12 touchdowns, but did most of his damage with that deadly read option, rushing for 1,023 yards and 11 more scores on his way to leading Auburn to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

[+] EnlargeSolomon Patton
AP Photo/John RaouxWR Solomon Patton was one of the few bright spots in a down year for the Florida offense.
7. Solomon Patton, WR, Florida: Like Auburn, no one knew who would be the top pass catcher in Gainesville. But after spending most of his career as a role player and more of a gimmick guy, Patton was Florida's most dangerous receiver and the go-to guy for whichever quarterback lined up under center. He was a big-play threat and finished the season leading the Gators with 44 catches, 556 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He also registered 642 yards and a touchdown on kick returns.

8. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: In a year in which the Bulldogs spent a lot of time rotating guys in at the quarterback spot, Prescott came up big when he was in. A reserve in 2012, Prescott led Mississippi State with 1,657 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Where Prescott really did his damage was on the ground, where he bullied his way to 751 yards and 11 touchdowns.

9. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn: Last year, Robinson started in 11 games last year, but he exploded in 2013. Helping to protect the nation's best running game, he pushed his way to being an All-American, All-SEC member and someone who could be an early pick in the 2014 NFL draft if he decides to leave school.

10. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: He was easily the biggest surprise of the league for most of the season. A year after starting nine games and recording 3.5 sacks, Sam took the SEC by storm with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Both led the SEC. The consensus All-American was named the Associated Press' SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award.

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
2:00
PM ET
On Monday, we gave you guys our All-SEC first team. Today, we thought we'd unveil our second team for 2013. There are so many guys in this league who deserve recognition that we just wouldn't feel good about not having another team to give props to during the holiday season:

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia

DEFENSE

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama

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