Texas A&M Aggies: Jelani Jones

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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