The SEC, a league that is known for its hard-nose, physical style of play is slowly transforming into a spread-offense, up-tempo league. It's a change that hasn't happened overnight and teams like Alabama, LSU, Georgia, with their pro-style offenses, will always have their imprint on the toughest league in all of college football.
With fast-paced offenses such as Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M having much success over the last few years, it's forcing defenses to change their philosophy on who they recruit to defend against these spread attacks.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound middle linebackers are dwindling and replacing them are hybrid linebackers that can rush the passer and run sideline-to-sideline. There are 23 outside linebackers committed to SEC schools currently, all but one, Darrell Williams, weigh less than 220 pounds. There are only four inside linebackers committed to SEC schools.
Prospects who were once thought of as safeties, are now playing outside linebacker; outside linebacker prospects are more defensive ends and middle linebackers are now looked at as future defensive line prospects. Auburn, who's ranked No. 8 in the Recruiting Nation team rankings, has no defensive end or inside linebacker commits but five outside linebacker commits. Other teams in the SEC are doing much of the same.
Florida, despite having the eighth best defense in the country, gave up 500 yards and 36 points to Missouri's spread attack last season. Gators head coach Will Muschamp said his challenge is finding guys who can defend the spread as well as face traditional two-back teams.
"First of all, it's very hard to find linebackers now, because in high school -- and I would do the same thing -- I'm gonna have my 6-foot, 6-1, 6-2, 210-212 pound linebacker back 10, 15, 20 years ago, he's gonna play defensive end now. He's not playing linebacker anymore. And you're gonna have those guys, so you've got speed on the field and you've got speed rush to force the quarterback to throw the ball so you don't have to pressure all the time. Very difficult to find those guys."
Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson is a prospect many teams, including Alabama and Florida, are recruiting to be a hybrid stand-up defensive end/outside linebacker.
"Alabama has told me that -- they tell me I'm a hybrid type of guy," Jefferson said. "First, second down I'm a defensive end, third and fourth down I'm a stand up rush the passer type of guy. I'm not that big, I'm only like 6-3, 255-pounds right now. There are monsters at offensive tackle, so I try to use my athleticism and elusiveness to my advantage and I guess the coaches see that."
On the back end of a defense, just like the front seven, prospects must be versatile. Corners must also be able to play the nickelback position and safety. Safeties, much like linebackers, must also be able to come up in to the box and help defend against the run and the quick passing game. Muschamp said ESPN 300 defensive back Duke Dawson, a player who signed with Florida last year, is a good example of what he's looking for from his defensive backs.
"Safeties are now playing linebackers, and I'm not projecting a guy front to back," Muschamp said. "Because, if he can't play the ball on the deep part of the field, you've got some major issues. So I think from a recruiting standpoint, very difficult in those situations, because you've got to be able to have safeties, which you know, guy like Duke Dawson offers you a lot from a cover safety standpoint. He can cover in the slot. I'm just giving him as a young player as an example of a guy that played corner but has the physical tools, the box instincts to play safety in the two-back situations. He can play the ball in the deep part of the field and he has man coverage skills. So he has a lot of skill set as far as what you're looking for."
It's traits like these that make ESPN 300 defensive prospects such as Jefferson and Iman Marshall, Kendall Sheffield, Roquan Smith, Jeffery Holland and Malik Jefferson, such hot commodities in the college football world.
As the spread era evolves in the SEC there are sure to be new recruiting trends. There appears to be more emphasis on speed and versatility rather than size and physicality early on in a players career. With Auburn and Missouri playing in the SEC championship game last year, no one can argue the success of the spread in the SEC but how traditional defensive powers such as Alabama, LSU and Florida change their approach from recruiting to schematically will certainly be something to watch going forward.