LSU Tigers: Chris Jones

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.

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:
Earlier this month, ESPN colleague Adam Rittenberg took a look at some of the stars around the country who you can't forget about in 2014. Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the cut as the 10 stars to watch out for.

As far as sleepers, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who had a coming out party in the Crimson Tide's Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche made the cut.

You can't argue with any of those guys. Nkemdiche can play any position on the defensive line and might make his hay inside in 2014. Hargreaves has shown signs of having true elite corner status -- and he'll be a true sophomore. And we all know that Gurley is capable of being the nation's best back when he's healthy.

So who are some other guys to keep an eye on in the SEC in 2014? Here are 15 other SEC players to keep an eye on next season (in alphabetical order):

Note: These aren't obvious big-name guys, like South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham or Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.

    • Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: The junior defensive end quietly had four sacks and led the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss. He has all the athletic ability to be a star in this league. If he plays with the motor he's capable of, he could wreak havoc in 2014.
    • Darian Claiborne, LB, Texas A&M: As a freshman, Claiborne was a pleasant surprise on a bad Texas A&M defense. He finished the year with 69 tackles, hitting the double-digit mark in games five times. With Steven Jenkins gone, Claiborne could be relied up even more at linebacker, as he turns more into the quarterback of the defense.
    • [+] EnlargeAlex Collins
      Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsArkansas RB Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four TDs in his freshman season.
      Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: He finished his freshman year with 1,026 rushing yards and four touchdowns. After rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his first five games, Collins failed to reach the century mark again. He's the pounder Bret Bielema wants, but he can also make moves and be a home run threat.
    • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior-to-be had a solid 2013 season. He filled in at both free and strong safety because of injuries and will see even more time on the field with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri leaving early for the NFL draft. He was second on the team with 70 tackles, defended eight passes and had two interceptions.
    • Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: The 2013 season was supposed to be about Jordan Jenkins taking over for Jarvis Jones on the outside. But it was Floyd, a freshman, who stole the show at times at linebacker, leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10 tackles for loss.
    • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: While he only caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, Howard could have a bright future ahead. He's too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Getting him on the field more this fall will go a long for Alabama's new quarterback.
    • Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State: He lived up to his billing as a top high school defensive end in Year 1. He finished the year with three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries. He has all the qualities of an elite pass-rusher and could be even more of a problem for offenses in 2014.
    • Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn: Another freshman standout in 2013, Lawson finished the year with 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He only had 20 tackles on the year, but with Dee Ford leaving, Lawson has a chance to see the field even more in 2014, but needs to get in the weight room and needs to be more consistent.
    • Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia: He has had to sit and bide his time for a few years, but this is his team in 2014. He filled in for Aaron Murray (ACL) during the last two games of the season, passing for 619 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the starter. He'll have plenty of offensive weapons to use next fall as well.
    • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: He filled in while starter James Franklin dealt with a shoulder injury, passing for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns as a starter. Mauk also went 3-1 during that span and helped the Tigers win the SEC East in their second season in the league. Now, he's the full-time starter in Columbia.
    • [+] EnlargeMarquez North
      Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIWR Marquez North showed all the skills to be a big-time playmaker for the Vols.
      Marquez North, WR, Tennessee: North made some noise as a freshman, leading the Vols with 496 yards on 38 catches. He only caught one touchdown, but showed flashes of being a consistent go-to threat for the Vols moving forward, and he certainly showed off his athleticism with this sweet catch against South Carolina. Getting more comfortable with the offense this spring will pay dividends.
    • Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: He spent most of the year switching in and out with Tyler Russell, but now takes over the offensive reins. After throwing for 283 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for another 78 yards and two more scores in the Bulldogs' bowl win over Rice, Prescott made a lot of heads turn. He's perfect for Dan Mullen's offense and should be even better with his top five receiving targets returning.
    • Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU: Yet again, another freshman corner stepped up nicely for the Tigers. Robinson only started two games during the season, including the Outback Bowl, but displayed a lot of upside when he saw the field. He's fast, athletic and rangy, and could be even more of a nuisance for quarterbacks in 2014.
    • Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida: Taylor saw his carries increase during the second half of the season. The son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor rushed for 525 yards and four touchdowns. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's shifty and can grind out extra yards.
    • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell becomes the guy at receiver for the Rebels. He led Ole Miss with 72 catches and should improve on his 608 yards. The thing about Treadwell is he's so gifted athletically. He's the kind of person who can step on any field or court, or put a tennis racket in his hand, and he'll make something special happen.
We couldn't finish our lists of SEC all-stars without talking about the youngsters who help make this league go round.

For our all-underclassmen team, we decided to use players who are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or true sophomores. That means Johnny Manziel, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't eligible. I mean he can't make every list!

The criteria for our other lists once again apply. We're basing things on the season they had in 2013, not who will be the better draft prospect in the future.

Here's what we came up with:

OFFENSE

QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Jerald Hawkins, LSU
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
C: Evan Boehm, Missouri
AP: Mike Davis, South Carolina

DEFENSE

DL: Carl Lawson, Auburn
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
DL: Chris Jones, Miss. State
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Rashard Robinson, LSU
DB: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Georgia
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
RS: Trey Williams, Texas A&M

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Top SEC recruiting rivalries 

October, 1, 2013
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From year-to-year the Southeastern Conference is full of recruiting battles. This year it appears that Alabama and LSU could have some of the best recruiting battles we've seen in a while. Here's a closer look at the five top recruiting rivalries in the SEC.

SEC recruiting primer

February, 6, 2013
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ESPN RecruitingNation has signing day covered. Follow ESPNU’s coverage, chat with analysts and get breaking news on our Signing Day Live page beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET through 7 p.m. ET. For more on what to expect on signing day, check out the SEC conference breakdown Insider.

Bold Prediction for the SEC:

Ole Miss' class will eventually be ranked in the top five nationally with the addition of No. 1 overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche from Loganville (Ga.) Grayson and possibly ESPN 150 prospects Chris Jones from Houston (Miss.) High and Antonio Conner from Batesville (Miss.) South Panola.

SEC East

Florida
Biggest need: Florida wants immediate help at defensive tackle. Jarran Reed from Scooba (Miss.) East should be able to provide that if he decides to sign with the Gators on national signing day.
Biggest recruit: The Gators have two five-star commitments: cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III from Tampa (Fla.) Wharton and running back Kelvin Taylor from Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades. No other school in the country can say that.

Georgia
Biggest need: The Bulldogs would like to pick up another top offensive lineman. They looked destined to land Laremy Tunsil from Lake City (Fla.), but the competition has heated up for him lately.
Biggest recruit: With 12 ESPN 300 commitments, Georgia has plenty of star power. However, it's impossible to overvalue the commitment of Brice Ramsey from Kingsland (Ga.) Camden, a quarterback the Bulldogs can build around.

(Read full post)

Nkemdiche thinks Ole Miss is sitting pretty 

January, 28, 2013
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Perhaps no program in the country had more talent on campus for official visits this weekend than the staff at Ole Miss. The Rebels hosted more than 15 prospects, headlined by No. 1 prospect Robert Nkemdiche (Loganville, Ga./Grayson) but also including No. 5 prospect Laremy Tunsil (Lake City, Fla./Columbia) and a surprise in-state visitor.

Nkemdiche said he thinks Ole Miss is sitting pretty as signing day approaches.


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