Georgia Bulldogs: Adrian Hubbard
This had to be one of the toughest lists to come up with, but here goes nothing:
2. Jordan Jenkins, So., Georgia: Even though he was a backup last year, Jenkins was second on the team with five sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. Now he's taking over Jarvis Jones' position and has all the skill to be an elite pass-rusher in this league. He learned from one of the best in Jones, but might be even better suited for the position than his predecessor, which has to scare opposing offenses.
3. A.J. Johnson, Jr., Tennessee: Johnson was one of the hardest working linebackers in the league last year, leading the SEC with 138 total tackles. Sixty-three of those tackles were solo stops. The change to the traditional 4-3 scheme should help him, but Johnson also looked to become even more focused this spring. Johnson's next step is becoming a real field leader for this team.
4. Adrian Hubbard, Jr., Alabama: Nick Saban wants his front seven to get to the quarterback more, and Hubbard is expected to be even better at that this fall. He led the Tide with seven sacks last year and 11 tackles for loss. Hubbard and his coaches want more. Hubbard has great speed off the edge and can make plays all over the field. A big year could push himself into position to be a top draft prospect at his position.
5. Lamin Barrow, Sr., LSU: Kevin Minter might have been the star of LSU's defense last year, but Barrow was extremely productive with his 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss, broke up five passes and recovered two fumbles. Barrow is the quarterback of LSU's defense and shouldn't have any problem dealing with more responsibility now that Minter is gone.
6. Antonio Morrison, So., Florida: Morrison served as a backup for the Gators last year, but started three games and registered 34 tackles and a sack. The coaches are expecting even more from the rangy and hard-hitting stud, as he moves to middle linebacker. He'll now be relied upon to be the quarterback and captain of this defense, meaning he still has a lot of growing to do, which showed after his offseason arrest.
7. Benardrick McKinney, So., Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney had a very impressive year with the Bulldogs last year. He was eighth in the SEC with 102 tackles. He also registered 45 solo tackles and had 10 or more tackles in four games last year. He's the anchor of Mississippi State's linebacking corps and should catch the attention of a lot more people this fall.
8. Denzel Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss: He was one of the biggest surprises around last year and earned second-team All-SEC honors after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (three). Nkemdiche isn't the biggest player, but he can play all the linebacker positions and has the athleticism and speed to cover a ton of ground on the defensive side of the ball.
9. Ronald Powell, Jr., Florida: He missed all of last season after suffering two ACL injuries, but the word out of Gainesville is that he'll be fully ready to go when fall starts. His dedication to rehab and his humbled approach have his coaches and teammates excited about his 2013 season. He was playing his best ball before he was hurt last spring and if that Powell shows up this fall, he should be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC.
10. Kwon Alexander, So., LSU: A broken ankle cut Alexander's freshman year short, but the coaches are very, very excited about his potential. He doesn't have a lot of stats to live off of, but he might be the most physically gifted linebacker in LSU's stable. He covers a lot of ground and should be a big-time playmaker for the Tigers.
Linebackers need love, too:
1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.
3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.
4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.
5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.
6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.
8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.
9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.
11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.
12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.
13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.
14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.
I'm not sure it's realistic to expect that kind of haul next year, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2014 draft class.
So, similar to a year ago, I've come up with our list of the SEC's top 20 draft prospects for 2014.
This isn’t a mock draft. Likewise, it’s not a ranking of who I think will be the best players in the SEC next season. Rather, it’s a projection of who will be the most coveted NFL prospects from the SEC when the 2014 draft rolls around in April. In coming up with this list, I’ve talked to several draft analysts as well as NFL personnel, SEC coaches and others who are clued in to the whole draft process.
Some players will obviously play their way onto this list next season, while others will play their way off it. Injuries undoubtedly will be a factor, and then occasionally, guys will come from nowhere to be first-round picks.
Among the prospects I nailed this time a year ago were Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and LSU safety Eric Reid.
Among those I missed the boat on were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker.
I had Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson No. 1 overall and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in my top five. So it never goes exactly the way anybody predicts, especially 11 months before the draft.
Here goes with our 2014 list. Again, we’re not suggesting all 20 will go in the first round or even the first two rounds. It’s simply the order we think they will come off the board in next April’s draft and includes only draft-eligible players:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.: The ultimate game-changer on defense, Clowney would have been a first-rounder had he been draft-eligible after his freshman season. Clowney then excelled in 2012, elevating his status as the 2014 No. 1 favorite.
2: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, Jr.: A potential top-five pick in next year's draft, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio is everything you're looking for in a left tackle.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: We know Matthews has the bloodlines, but he also has the game. He's shifting over from right tackle to left tackle for his senior season.
4. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee, Jr.: The man they call Tiny has the size and athleticism to be a franchise left tackle. Clowney said Richardson was one of the best tackles he faced a year ago.
5. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU, Jr.: There's a reason they call him Freak. They just seem to breed great defensive linemen at LSU, and Johnson is next in line.
6. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida, Jr.: He's a pure cover cornerback with good size and an explosive athlete to boot. The Gators also will play him at receiver next season.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, RSo.: Yes, Manziel is shorter than the NFL typically likes its quarterbacks, but do measurables really matter when you make as many plays as Johnny Football does?
8. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida, Sr.: Easley is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. He's sliding inside to tackle next season and will be a force for the Gators.
9. Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, RJr.: We saw his ability to get to the quarterback in flashes last season. Look for Hubbard to take that next step in 2013 and become a premier finisher.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Sr.: As the saying goes, he's a football player. Mosley is a sure tackler. He's excellent in coverage and is always money whenever Alabama needs a big play.
11. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.: In the past four drafts, Alabama has produced four first-round selections in the secondary. Clinton-Dix could be the top safety off the board next year.
12. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, RSo.: In his first season in the SEC, the 6-5, 225-pound Evans was sensational with 82 catches and 1,105 yards. He'll be even better his second time through.
13. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.: Sure, he's been surrounded by great talent, but McCarron also has an NFL arm, delivers in the clutch and takes care of the football.
14. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Sr.: The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so smooth that he makes it look easy. And talk about productive. He averaged 109.6 receiving yards in eight SEC games.
15. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: One of the more underrated players in the SEC, the 6-3, 215-pound Moncrief has a knack for finding the end zone with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
16. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee, Sr.: This mountain of a man (6-8, 360 pounds) is still developing, but he should make an imposing nose tackle for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme.
17. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.: The "other" Florida cornerback also has big-time skills and was second in the SEC in passes defended last season with 14.
18: Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina, RJr.: Clowney will get most of the attention next season, but don't be surprised if Sutton blows up and has a monster senior season.
19: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.: Jackson thought about coming out early this year. He returns as one of the top offensive guards in college football.
20: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, Sr.: The opinions are mixed on Murray, who's bearing down on several SEC records. His numbers speak for themselves, and so does the way he approaches the game.
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The Bulldogs’ veteran defense thoroughly dominated a line that had to replace three NFL draftees at first before offensive line coach Will Friend’s group finally began to make progress. And that process has continued during the regular season, with the line exceeding its coaches' modest expectations as the new lineup continued to grow more comfortable as a group.
“They’ve improved each week and we’ve got to keep going that way,” said Friend, whose players are among the biggest factors in Saturday’s SEC championship matchup with Alabama according to many analysts. “The season’s a long way from over and there’s still another month left, I guess, to keep improving and keep going. So they’ve gotten better, but at the same time we’ve got to be more consistent.”
The low point of the season was certainly Georgia’s 35-7 loss to South Carolina, when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, in particular, helped whip the Bulldogs up front. That was a painful experience for the line, but it was also a valuable lesson for the group.
“It wasn’t that hard for them to realize what we had to work on and we needed to play better,” Friend said. “We try to be pretty honest with how we think guys played and I feel like they kind of respond better when you tell them the truth and tell them how you feel. So they knew.
“And of course, if you’ve got a good group, they know anyway, so they could tell and they saw what they needed to work on and it was just go back to work. It would have been no different if we would have played better.”
Alabama’s dominant defense is not particularly similar to South Carolina’s in structure, but it is even more effective when it comes to results. The Crimson Tide rank among the national leaders in every major defensive category and represents perhaps the biggest matchup challenge that Friend’s line will have faced this season.
“They’ve got a great defense,” Friend said. “Obviously the stats speak for themselves. When you put the tape on, you see how well they play the techniques and how hard they play and how physical they are. They’re well coached, they’re focused on what they’re doing, they play it just like their coaches want them to play it and they’re very impressive, so it’s a big challenge.”
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.