Alabama Team News

UF secondary is best SEC defensive unit

As usual, the SEC is blessed with more NFL-ready talent than any other league, and as such, the league also is filled with strong position groups.

The top SEC defensive unit is Florida’s secondary, which should be one of the best defensive backfields in the nation. The second- and third-best SEC defensive units are the Alabama defensive line and the Tide linebackers.

Here is a look at how each SEC team ranks in terms of defensive position groups.

LINE

14. Kentucky: UK never seems to have a strong defensive line, and the Wildcats will have to make do this season without their two best defenders from last season (Es Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith). Senior NT Melvin Lewis is a key in the middle of the ‘Cats’ 3-4 set.

13. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ pass rush was an embarrassment last season, and JC transfer E Marquavius Lewis needs to produce.

12. Vanderbilt: The starters along the line in Vandy’s 3-4 set are solid, but depth is an issue.

11. Missouri: Mizzou always seems to have one of the SEC’s best defensive fronts, but all four starters will be new. Still, line coach Craig Kuligowski likely will have this group playing above its perceived capabilities.

miss state DL chris jones

While he technically is a new starter, Chris Jones has played a lot of important football for Mississippi State. MARVIN GENTRY/USA TODAY

10. Mississippi State: Three starters are gone. One “new” starter is senior T Chris Jones, who has played a ton and is extremely talented. Will there be a pass rush?

9. Texas A&M: E Myles Garrett set the SEC freshman record with 11.5 sacks last season, and you can expect new coordinator John Chavis to get imaginative in an effort to get Garrett more one-on-one matchups. The tackles must play better after A&M was last in the league in rush defense.

8. Georgia: There are some extremely talented newcomers and some solid veterans. It will help that Georgia’s linebacking corps is so good.

7. Arkansas: The Hogs did a nice job against the run last season, ranking 24th nationally, and while two starters are gone, there is solid returning talent and good depth.

6. Tennessee: DE Derek Barnett was a revelation as a true freshman last season, finishing with 72 tackles and 10 sacks. He will contend for all-league honors. He heads what should be a good group of ends. There is a ton of potential at tackle, and the upperclassmen need to up their games or risk being overtaken by underclassmen.

5. LSU: The Tigers look good at tackle, but there are some questions at end for new coordinator Kevin Steele, who replaces Chavis.

4. Auburn: The return of DE Carl Lawson is expected to make a big difference in the pass rush, but the interior needs to get much tougher against the run.

3. Florida: Senior Jon Bullard is the star; he can play both end and tackle. Junior DEs Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. will need to step up their games as UF attempts to replace first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. There should be a nice tackle rotation, with sophomore Caleb Brantley the guy to watch. He has a ton of talent, but will he work to take advantage?

2. Mississippi: The Rebels allowed 136.9 rushing yards per game, but that figure skyrocketed to 212.0 per game in their four losses. Ole Miss has to get better vs. the run this fall, and the Rebels certainly appear to have the talent to do so. Junior T Robert Nkemdiche is the standout, and he seems a certain first-round pick in the 2016 draft.

1. Alabama: Gee, what a surprise that Alabama has the makings of a great defensive front. Junior NT A’Shawn Robinson is tough in the middle, and he headlines a group filled with talented players. There is ample depth, but there is no elite pass rusher.

LINEBACKERS

14. Kentucky: The run defense was bad last season and it wasn’t just because the defensive line had issues. There are some youngsters, most notably E/OLB Jason Hatcher, with potential, but that needs to show up on the field this season.

13. Arkansas: Brooks Ellis is a given. But some heretofore unsung guys need to step up to help him out.

12. Mississippi: Senior Denzel Nkemdiche’s return from injury is vital. As a whole, though, this group is underwhelming, especially compared to the Rebels’ d-line and secondary.

11. Mississippi State: The loss of Benardrick McKinney to the NFL is huge. Matt Wells’ graduation also hurts. Beniquez Brown is back and he’s solid, but he needs help from some young guys.

10. Texas A&M: This was a disaster area last season, but Chavis’ scheme changes should help. Sophomores Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker are the guys to watch.

9. South Carolina: Junior Skai Moore is active and productive, and should contend for All-SEC honors. Junior Jonathan Walton is an able running mate, and depth should be OK.

vandy LB nigel bowden

Vandy doesn’t have a lot of marquee players, but Nigel Bowden certainly fits that description. CHRISTOPHER HANEWINCKEL/USA TODAY

8. Vanderbilt: This is Vandy’s strongest position group. Talented ILB Nigel Bowden is solid against the run and OLB Stephen Weatherly has some pass-rush skills.

7. Tennessee: Junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin is an All-SEC contender and heads a group that lost just one key contributor from last season (that was A.J. Johnson, who is a big loss).

6. Florida: This ranking is predicated on senior ILB Antonio Morrison being healthy enough to play; he suffered a leg injury in the Birmingham Bowl and missed spring practice. If he can’t go, this ranking drops three or four spots. Junior Jarrad Davis would become the key guy if Morrison is out.

5. LSU: Junior Kendell Beckwith is a star on the rise. He moves well, plays a physical band of ball and will contend for all-league honors. Senior Lance Louis must become more consistent.

4. Auburn: Seniors Kris Frost and Casanova McKinzy combined for 178 tackles last season, and both flirted with the idea of turning pro. Then again, being standouts on a mediocre defense last season really wasn’t that big a deal. Both must play better this season – and have the talent to do so.

3. Missouri: Senior Kentrell Brothers had 122 tackles last season, which was No. 2 in the league. He doesn’t get enough acclaim. Junior Michael Scherer is solid in the middle.

2. Georgia: There is an embarrassment of riches at outside linebacker with senior Jordan Jenkins, junior Leonard Floyd and sophomore Lorenzo Carter. Still, as gifted as that trio is physically, more big plays are needed. Both starting spots at inside ‘backers are open in the Bulldogs’ 3-4 set, but while there don’t look to be any stars, Georgia should get – at the least – consistent play at the position.

1. Alabama: Senior ILB Reggie Ragland is a physical presence who will be one of the best linebackers in the nation. Junior OLB Denzel Devall is another returning starter. While there will be two new starters in the Tide’s 3-4 set, there are plenty of talented players from which to choose.

SECONDARY

14. Vanderbilt: Vandy was OK against the pass last season, but that was because it was so easy to run on the Commodores that opponents saw no need to throw. Sophomore SS Oren Burks is an intriguing talent, though.

13. Texas A&M: Chavis goes from having one of the best secondaries in the SEC (and the nation) at LSU to having one that was shredded on an almost-weekly basis last season. JC transfer Justin Evans should be a huge upgrade at safety. The corners remain a concern, though.

12. South Carolina: This is another secondary that struggled last season, though the lack of a pass rush was a huge burden to overcome. Senior S Isaiah Johnson, a transfer from Kansas with immediate eligibility, is an important newcomer.

11. Kentucky: Another UK defensive unit with something to prove. Safety looks OK, but while there are two returning starters at corner, that is a potential trouble spot.

10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were last in the league and 114th nationally in pass defense last season, and lost three starters. Senior CB Will Redmond will be a first-time starter, but he is talented, has played a lot and should contend for all-league honors. Safety is a potential problem area.

Auburn cb jonathan jones

Jonathan Jones (left) is the league’s returning interceptor. SPRUCE DERDEN/USA TODAY

9. Auburn: New coordinator Will Muschamp knows how to coach defensive backs, but he has a tough task on his hands. Sophomore Tray Matthews, a transfer from Georgia, needs to provide some stability at safety. Senior CB Jonathan Jones is the league’s leading returning interceptor (six). There isn’t much proven depth.

8. Arkansas: There isn’t much star power, but there are a number of solid defensive backs. Junior CB Jared Collins had 13 pass breakups last season and is the guy to watch.

7. Tennessee: Junior Cameron Sutton will be one of the best corners in the league, and senior S Brian Randolph is a good one. But the Vols will miss senior S LaDarrell McNeil, who seems likely to miss the season with a neck injury. The Vols also took a hit with a season-ending injury to Rashaan Gaulden, who would’ve been the nickel back.

6. Alabama: The Tide struggled against the pass at times last season, and the secondary’s best player (S Landon Collins) turned pro early. Senior CB Cyrus Jones is the standout, but there are a lot of guys with a lot to prove.

5. Missouri: Three starters return for the Tigers, and there also is a lot of experienced depth. CBs Kenya Dennis and Aarion Dennis combined for 19 pass breakups last season, and form a solid duo.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs were excellent against the pass last season, ranking fifth nationally, and they look good at safety with returning starters Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders. Cornerback is a potential concern, but there is experience at the spot.

3. Mississippi: The Rebels use a 4-2-5 scheme, and there is a ton of talent at safety. Junior Tony Conner is one of the biggest hitters in the nation and is stout against the run. Returning starters Trae Elston and Mike Hilton – both seniors – join him at safety. Both starting corners will be new, but juniors Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard certainly have the needed athleticism to excel. Both are JC transfers – Shepard signed in 2014 and redshirted, while Bridges came aboard this year.

2. LSU: Junior CB Tre’Davious White and sophomore S Jamal Adams are big-time talents who should contend for all-league honors. But the loss of senior S Jalen Mills for up to half the season with an injury hurts, literally and figuratively. Mills is the SEC’s best safety in pass coverage.

1. Florida: Junior Vernon Hargreaves III is the headliner and is one of the top two or three corners nationally. Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson saw a lot of action as true freshmen last season, but playing opposite Hargreaves mean they will get lots of passes thrown their way. Junior SS Keanu Neal is a big hitter and leads a solid group of safeties. The Gators play a ton of nickel and there is ample depth and experience.

 

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