Texas A&M Aggies: A.J. Johnson

The linebackers are up next in our SEC position rankings.

These are the guys who put up the big numbers and have the versatility to chase sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage, and rush the passer.

Here’s what we came up with as a group. Check back later today and we’ll rank the top 10 linebackers in the league.

[+] EnlargeTrey DePriest
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTrey DePriest will fill the big shoes vacated by C.J. Mosley.
1. Alabama: It’s unfair to expect anybody to replace all of the things that C.J. Mosley provided for the Crimson Tide, but senior Trey DePriest is ready to step up as the leader of that defense after starting 12 games at middle linebacker last season. The Tide are never hurting for talent, so look for some new stars to emerge. Among them: Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster, and look for heralded true freshmen Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand to play early at outside linebacker and in pass-rushing situations. Both should help the Tide immensely in that area.

2. LSU: Even with the loss of leading tackler Lamin Barrow, LSU is still brimming with talent at the linebacker. Senior D.J. Welter returns in the middle, but will be pushed by sophomore Kendell Beckwith. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is always going to give up size for speed at linebacker, and Kwon Alexander and Deion “Debo” Jones can fly. Alexander is moving from the strong side to the weak side to take Barrow’s spot. Look for him to make more plays there. Juniors Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist also return and will be in the rotation. The Tigers won’t lack for depth.

3. Georgia: First-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a Georgia defense that returns everybody at linebacker. The Bulldogs might not be as talented as some around the league at linebacker, but are long on experience. Seniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both return inside after each collecting more than 100 total tackles last season. The difference-maker of the group is sophomore outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman. On the other side, junior Jordan Jenkins is back after racking up 12 tackles for loss a year ago. Nobody in the league returns more production at linebacker, but the Dawgs did finish tied for 10th in the league a year ago in scoring defense and were eighth in total defense.

4. Mississippi State: There’s a lot to be excited about in Starkville this fall, especially with nine starters returning on defense. Redshirt junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney thought about turning pro, but returns as one of the top defenders in the league. Senior Matthew Wells is one of the most versatile linebackers in the SEC, while sophomores Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown will both see their roles expand. This should be as good a linebacker corps as Dan Mullen has had at Mississippi State, and he’s had some good ones.

5. Florida: With so many players injured this spring, getting a read on Florida at linebacker was difficult. The key contributors from last season return, and there’s no shortage of talent. Antonio Morrison was up and down at middle linebacker before getting hurt. The Florida coaches expect him to come back strong. Michael Taylor is also back in the middle after leading the team in tackles last season. Jarrad Davis was forced into action last season as a freshman and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. If Alex Anzalone, Neiron Ball and Matt Rolin can all stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the better linebacker groups in the league.

6. South Carolina: One of the reasons the Gamecocks are thinking about tinkering with a 3-4 is that they like this group of linebackers and want to get their best players on the field. Sophomore Skai Moore was outstanding as a freshman last season and is only going to get better. The best news for South Carolina is that there’s competition at all of the linebacker spots among players with experience. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman are both back in the middle, and sophomore Jonathan Walton could be a dark horse. Sharrod Golightly was one of the team’s most improved players last season and is back at the hybrid “spur” position.

[+] EnlargeCurt Maggitt
Skip Williams/Icon SMICurt Maggitt will return for Tennessee after missing the 2013 season with a knee injury.
7. Tennessee: Senior A.J. Johnson has been a tackling machine for the Volunteers, but the challenge for him is to make more big plays. Redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is back at outside linebacker after missing all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. Butch Jones says Maggitt will be the key for the Vols defensively. They want to use him in several different spots and turn him loose on the opposing quarterback, meaning he could spend more time at end than outside linebacker. Several younger players also could factor into the mix. But if the Vols are going to improve defensively from last season, Johnson and Maggitt both need to have big years.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels will be without junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the opener against Boise State following his offseason arrest. But once Nkemdiche returns, he and senior Serderius Bryant form one of the best one-two punches in the league at linebacker. Ole Miss should also be faster across the board at linebacker with the addition of junior college newcomer Christian Russell in the middle. Don’t forget about sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford, who’s weathered injuries and looked a lot faster this spring after two knee surgeries.

9. Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson would like to see more consistency from his linebackers this season. Juniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are both back, and McKinzy is moving to middle linebacker. The Tigers would love to see junior Justin Garrett stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He could help at weakside linebacker or the hybrid “star” position. True freshman Tre Williams, ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect, has the size and speed to play right away.

10. Vanderbilt: With the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 scheme, that means Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann will shift from end to outside linebacker. Both are outstanding and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Darreon Herring had a breakout season in 2013 and finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He will move from outside to inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden also has a big upside and is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season.

11. Missouri: The Tigers have to replace two starters, including middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Michael Scherer’s development will be key. He started the spring at strongside linebacker but moved to middle linebacker after redshirt junior Kentrell Brothers underwent surgery for a torn labrum. The Tigers will need a healthy Brothers come fall.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks weren’t very healthy or productive a year ago at linebacker, but they’ve got just about everybody back. Sophomore Brooks Ellis has a chance to be really good in the middle, and junior Otha Peters looks like he’s finally healthy. A year after coming over from junior college, Martrell Spaight should be a much bigger factor his second time through the league. Seniors Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr also are back.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats have had a stream of quality linebackers to come through Lexington the last few years. The latest was middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Heading into this season, it’s difficult to pinpoint who will follow in Williamson’s footsteps. Junior Khalid Henderson has a chance, and it’s likely that junior college newcomer Ryan Flannigan will have to step in and play immediately. Early enrollee true freshman Dorian Hendrix had a big spring.

14. Texas A&M: Sophomore Darian Claiborne was one of the few proven playmakers returning on Texas A&M’s defense, and now he’s gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs are the only returnees with any experience. The Aggies are hopeful that TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard can provide immediate help. Either way, there are a lot more questions than answers at a position that didn’t need any casualties.

SEC's lunchtime links

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Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.

SEC's lunch links

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It's Johnny Manziel's big day! Will he or won't he leave Texas A&M to go to the NFL? Start biting those fingernails now.

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
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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

Alabama leads coaches All-SEC team

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
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The SEC coaches have spoken, and Alabama has once again taken over their end-of-the-year All-SEC team.

The Crimson Tide led the rest of the league with nine representatives on the coaches' teams, including an SEC-leading five first-team selections. LSU followed with eight total representatives. Texas A&M had four first-team members, while Auburn and Georgia both had three each.

Twelve of the league's 14 teams had at least one player on the first team, while every team was represented on at least one team. Coaches weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

Here are the coaches' first- and second-team selections:

First team

OFFENSE
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

DEFENSE
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Christion Jones, Alabama *
RS: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU *

Second team

OFFENSE
QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
TE: Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: Anthony Steen, Alabama
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
AP: Marcus Murphy, Missouri

DEFENSE
DL: Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ed Stinson, Alabama
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
P: Cody Mandell, Alabama
RS: Solomon Patton, Florida

-- (*-ties)
There won’t be any shortage of outstanding linebackers in the SEC this season, and a few of the teams are absolutely loaded.

In this era of hybrid roles, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish whether somebody is a defensive end or an outside linebacker. The same goes for that outside linebacker/safety position we’re seeing so much of these days.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireSenior Nico Johnson will lead a strong group of linebackers at Alabama this season.
Here’s a look at how we would rank the linebacker units in the SEC heading into the 2012 season. It’s clearly a position of strength, which means even those teams ranking in the bottom half of the league are plenty stout:

1. Georgia: It starts with senior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (19.5) last season. Junior Alec Ogletree is just as disruptive on the inside, and the Bulldogs have quality depth inside with seniors Michael Gilliard and Christian Robinson. Senior Cornelius Washington could end up playing some at both end and outside linebacker.

2. Alabama: Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are both gone, but senior Nico Johnson and junior C.J. Mosley return as two of the top linebackers in the SEC. Mosley might be the best coverage linebacker in the league. The Crimson Tide have also recruited like mad, and younger players such as sophomore Jack linebacker Adrian Hubbard are ready to make their move.

3. Florida: Senior Jon Bostic and junior Jelani Jenkins are back to form the nucleus of a Florida defense that should again be one of the top units in the league. They racked up a combined 169 tackles last season. Senior Lerentee McCray missed time with a shoulder injury last season. With Ronald Powell recovering from an ACL tear, McCray factors in at the hybrid Buck position on the outside.

4. Texas A&M: The Aggies are moving to a 4-3 defense this season under new coordinator Mark Snyder. The star of the group is senior Sean Porter, who had 17 tackles for loss, including 9.5 sacks, last season. He’ll have plenty of support with leading tackler Jonathan Stewart returning for his senior season, not to mention senior Steven Jenkins, who was the star of the spring.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are deep and experienced. Five seniors return, including four of the top 10 tacklers on the team last season. DeVonte Holloman plays the hybrid Spur position and is poised for his most productive season yet. Shaq Wilson is back at middle linebacker, while Reginald Bowens, Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith are three more seniors who’ve played a lot of football.

6. Tennessee: The Vols boasted some of the best young talent at linebacker in the league last season with A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, both of whom were named Freshman All-SEC. With the Vols moving to a base 3-4 this season, Maggitt’s a guy who can play a couple of different roles. The Vols will also get back senior Herman Lathers, who missed all of last season with a fractured ankle.

7. Missouri: Three proven starters return at linebacker for the Tigers, including seniors Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner. The 6-2, 230-pound Gooden has the size-speed combination to be an All-SEC player. Ebner just needs to stay healthy. He’s been beset by injuries the last two seasons. Junior Andrew Wilson led the team with 98 tackles last season. After filling in for Ebner in the middle, Wilson will move to strong side this season.

8. LSU: Some of the best news for the Tigers this spring was the way junior Kevin Minter played in the middle. As a second-year starter in 2012, he’s primed to take a big step. Defensive coordinator John Chavis also liked what he saw out of junior Tahj Jones. There won’t be much experience and some younger guys will have to come through, but talent shouldn’t be a problem.

9. Arkansas: The big move for the Hogs this spring was senior Tenarius Wright shifting from end to middle linebacker. It’s imperative that Arkansas holds up better against the inside run, and Wright has been a playmaker throughout his career. Senior Alonzo Highsmith had a big debut season for the Hogs after coming over from junior college. He led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss in 2011, but missed the spring with a torn pectoral muscle.

10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs probably deserve to be ranked a little higher, but such is life in the SEC. Senior Cameron Lawrence returns after finishing third in the league last season with 123 tackles. Establishing a presence in the middle will be key. Redshirt freshman Benardrick McKinney and sophomore Ferlando Bohanna both have a ton of talent. They just don’t have much experience.

11. Ole Miss: It would be huge for the Rebels if they can get junior D.T. Shackelford back this fall. He’s trying to make it back from two ACL surgeries. He’s a terrific leader and can play any of the linebacker spots. Junior Mike Marry is back after leading the team with 81 tackles last season. Serderius Bryant also returns after earning Freshman All-SEC honors a year ago.

12. Auburn: Senior Daren Bates might be undersized at 205 pounds, but he was a rock for Auburn’s defense last season at weak side linebacker. He’s going to need some help in 2012 if the Tigers are going to improve on that side of the ball. Jake Holland battled injuries last season in the middle and should be more consistent as a junior. The guy to watch is redshirt freshman Kris Frost, who’s freakishly athletic.

13. Vanderbilt: The unquestioned leader of the Commodores’ defense, middle linebacker Chris Marve, is gone. Junior Chase Garnham will move into Marve’s spot in the middle after showing a ton of promise at outside linebacker in 2011. Senior Archibald Barnes is also back after finishing fourth on the team in tackles last season, and the staff is excited about getting freshmen Darreon Herring and Jake Sealand on the field.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats were gutted at linebacker. Gone are Danny Trevathan, who led the SEC in tackles the last two seasons, and Winston Guy, who was right behind Trevathan last season in his hybrid safety/linebacker role. Ridge Wilson was also dismissed from the team following his arrest. Junior Avery Williamson is the only returnee with any real experience, and the Wildcats will need several younger players to come through.

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