Texas A&M Aggies: Dante Fowler

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.
The past two NFL drafts have come and gone without a running back being selected in the first round, which had never happened in the common draft era, which dates to the NFL-AFL merger in 1967.

Teams are waiting until later in the draft to get their running backs, or maybe there simply haven't been any running backs special enough the past two years for a team to feel like it warranted using a first-round pick.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
AP Photo/John RaouxGeorgia RB Todd Gurley has 33 touchdowns in two seasons.
Nonetheless, the fans on the SEC blog have made their choice for next year, and Georgia running back Todd Gurley has been tabbed as the SEC's top pick in the 2015 draft. With more than 8,400 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Gurley received 32 percent of the vote.

Texas A&M offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was a close second with 28 percent of the vote. It's getting to the point that we can't have a draft without a Texas A&M offensive tackle going in the first round. Ogbuehi is moving over from right tackle to left tackle to replace Jake Matthews, who was the sixth overall pick this year. Matthews made the same move a year ago to take over for Luke Joeckel, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

Alabama receiver Amari Cooper finished third in the poll with 17 percent of the vote followed by Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. with 15 percent and Alabama safety Landon Collins with 8 percent.

Cooper, if he stays healthy, could easily shoot up into top-10 status, especially if he flashes the same kind of production he did as a true freshman. He will be working with a new quarterback, though, as Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is expected to win the job.

The big question with Gurley also is injuries. He was banged up for much of last season. But his size and breakaway speed make him the kind of back NFL teams are looking for.

It's worth noting, though, that LSU's Jeremy Hill has that same kind of size and also showed the ability to break long runs in college and didn't go until the 23rd pick of the second round this year. So we'll just have to see.

Much like Cooper, Gurley was a force as a true freshman. For both players, this is their "money" season.
In the last two NFL drafts, the SEC has produced a staggering 23 first-round selections. This past draft, 10 of the first 23 picks were SEC players.

Already, we're seeing mock drafts for 2015, and the SEC is sure to be well represented again.

SportsNation

Who will be the SEC's highest draft pick in 2015?

  •  
    8%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    32%
  •  
    28%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,203)

Who will be the top SEC player selected next year?

That's your job, so go vote in our SportsNation poll and tell us who will emerge in 2015 as the SEC's highest-drafted player.

That can be a tricky assignment at this point in the year and with so much that can happen between now and the next draft. Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was thought to be one of the SEC's marquee draft prospects heading into last season and didn't even go in the first round. By contrast, did anybody have Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson going with the No. 2 overall pick this time a year ago? I'm not even sure that thought crept into Robinson's mind last May.

The five candidates we've come up with all made Todd McShay's first mock draft for 2015, and I'm sure there are a handful of players we didn't consider putting on this list who will emerge as legitimate first-round picks.

The five we went with are all poised to have huge 2014 seasons.

Two of them are from Alabama -- safety Landon Collins and receiver Amari Cooper. If Collins does indeed go in the first round, that would mark the fifth time in the last six years that an Alabama defensive back will have gone in the first round. Cooper was slowed by injuries a year ago, but here's betting he returns to his freshman form that made him one of the most dangerous receivers in college football.

If healthy, Georgia's Todd Gurley is the total package at running back, even if running backs don't seem to be going in the first round a whole lot anymore.

Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi has a chance to be the third straight top-10 pick at offensive tackle for the Aggies, while Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. returns as one of the top big-play defensive threats in the league.

Go cast your vote, and we'll go over the results in the coming days.

Inside look: Q&A with GatorNation

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
10:30
AM ET
Each week this season, GigEmNation will visit with a reporter that covers Texas A&M's upcoming opponent. This week, we visit Michael DiRocco of ESPN's GatorNation.

Sam Khan Jr.: After playing two quarterbacks -- Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett -- against Bowling Green, coach Will Muschamp named Driskel the starter for Saturday. What's your assessment of the quarterback situation heading into the Texas A&M game?

Michael DiRocco: This will be Driskel’s game from start to finish. Muschamp has elected to go with the more mobile Driskel because that adds an additional element to the Gators’ offense. Driskel was solid against Bowling Green (10-for-16, 114 yards, 1 TD) but he missed several throws and hesitated on several others. That’s normal for all young quarterbacks, though, but getting past that is something that could have been accelerated a bit had he not had to split practice reps with Brissett throughout the spring and in August.

SK: With Texas A&M starting a redshirt freshman quarterback (Johnny Manziel) who will be making his first start, what kind of approach do you think we should expect to see from Florida's defense?

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kim Klement/US PresswireFlorida sophomore QB Jeff Driskel will be the starter against Texas A&M.
MD: The Gators will play almost exclusively nickel against the Aggies, which allows them to take advantage of their deep and talented secondary. The best way to rattle a young QB is to put pass rushers in his face and make him make quick decisions. UF would love to do that with just the front four, but the Gators were inconsistent with that last week against Bowling Green. If they can’t, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has got several blitz packages designed to get pressure up the middle. Safety Matt Elam is a pretty good blitzer who may figure prominently in those plans.

SK: After piling up 220 rushing yards on the ground against Bowling Green, do you see the Gators continuing to emphasize the run, and particularly Mike Gillislee, when they come to College Station?

MD: Absolutely. Muschamp wants to be a pro-style, power-run team – Alabama is the blueprint – and that means a heavy dose of Gillislee. He’s the Gators’ best back and he’s coming off a 24-carry, 148-yard performance. The question will be whether the Gators will continue to be stubborn and try to run the ball against stacked fronts or if they’ll open the offense up a bit. Muschamp says he’ll take the handcuffs off offensive coordinator Brent Pease this week, but with a young QB making his first career start, the safest play would be to go conservative.

SK: It appeared that the Gators struggled in short-yardage running situations on Saturday. Is that an aberration or do you suspect that could be a lingering issue for Florida?

MD: That’s could be a lingering issue because it’s on the offensive line. The unit didn’t get much movement at all in those short-yardage plays. It’s a group that was supposed to be tougher and stronger this season after working with new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman. It didn’t look that way against Bowling Green in those short-yardage situations. Maybe that was an aberration, but if the line had trouble with the Falcons, what will it do against SEC defensive lines?

SK: The Gators' defense is clearly fast and athletic. How do you see the unit responding to an accelerated offensive tempo, which Texas A&M is expected to employ?

MD: It’s a concern, but it’s a veteran defense in its second season in Quinn’s system. That should mean better communication from the sideline and on the field between players. The Gators have studied tape of Kevin Sumlin’s Houston teams and should be prepared for the up-tempo style. Plus, it’s Texas A&M’s first game and there’s bound to be glitches, especially with a freshman QB. That might keep the Aggies from being as crisp with the up-tempo pace as they will be later in the season.

SK: Though his tenure hasn't been long, give me your assessment of the job Will Muschamp has done so far.

MD: He’s done a very good job recruiting, although his first class – which he assembled in about two months – hasn’t produced much in the way of significant contributors. This year’s group of freshmen shows promise, specifically defensive ends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler, offensive linemen Jessamen Dunker and D.J. Humphries, tight end Kent Taylor and receiver Latroy Pittman. His game-day coaching ability remains a question mark.

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