- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.
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.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.
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.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.
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.