SDS will be looking at superlatives for many different positions as we head into season. Next up are the linebackers.
In the SEC, we boast about how fast and physical our 240-pound plus linebackers are, and how they can outrun any other conference’s running backs. While that’s a slight exaggeration, it is the banter you hear in the SEC.
And it has been very justifiable by almost anyone’s standards, especially last year, but there are some certainly intriguing ‘backers returning this season as well.
Let’s take a stab at the linebacker superlatives:
NFL Ready: OLB Jarvis Jones, Georgia (JR)
Jarvis Jones was a question mark entering 2011, but he exerted his will on opposing offenses last season and arrived on the scene with a bang. Jones could have entered the NFL this past draft, but he’s coming back and is hungry for more. He led the SEC with 19.5 tackles-for-loss and 13.5 sacks. How’s that for a debut? He boasts a quick first step and will attack quarterbacks in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense again this season.
Highest Ceiling: MLB AJ Johnson, Tennessee (SO)
AJ Johnson had such a great year for the Vols as a freshman. Inserted into the lineup to start off the year, Johnson was one of four true freshmen to rank among the top two on his team in tackles (80). Johnson has transformed his body and lost all the ‘baby fat’ he had last year and converted it into muscle. This kid will rack up some tackles, and there is no sophomore slump in sight.
Fastest: OLB Jelani Jenkins, Florida (JR)
Jelani Jenkins is the fastest and possibly the most athletic linebacker in the conference. But along with his great speed came some issues in stopping the run last season. Jenkins can flat out fly from his OLB spot, and look for him to improve on rushing the passer in 2012, as well as being a better overall tackler. Jenkins could play running back for the Gators…he’s that athletic.
Best Senior: OLB Sean Porter, Texas A&M (SR)
Sean Porter is looking to make a name for himself in the SEC. Coming from the Big 12, he racked up 17 tackles-for-loss and 9.5 sacks last year. But you’ll be quick to point out it was in the Big 12. That’s why he enters 2012 with a chip on his shoulder to prove all you haters wrong, and that he’s worthy of his hype entering the SEC. This guy is a stud.
Most to Prove: MLB Jon Bostic, Florida (SR)
Jon Bostic was the most improved player for Florida last year. He progressed as a tackler, and his overall mindset changed once he had a few games under his belt in Will Muschamp’s new defensive scheme. He’s a senior with something to prove…that’s he’s the best middle linebacker in this conference this year. He led Florida with 94 tackles and is hungry to get better in 2012.
Best Tackler: OLB Cam Lawrence, Mississippi State (SR)
Cam Lawrence doesn’t get the pub he deserves in Starkville, but this kid can really make some plays. He is the SEC’s leading returning tackler with 123 tackles, and he is a tremendous athlete. He’ll be key in MSU’s two young middle linebackers’ development and in overall leadership. I love the way this kid plays football.
Best Leader: WLB Nico Johnson, Alabama (SR)
Really, the lone returning starting linebacker for Alabama is Nico Johnson. Johnson combined with Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris to form one of the best corps in SEC history. And he certainly has much experience playing on arguably the best defense in the history of college football. How’s that for leadership? He’ll be key in breaking in two new linebackers with returner CJ Mosley.
Most Irreplaceable: OLB Alonzo Highsmith, Arkansas (SR)
Let’s face it: if Alonzo Highsmith goes down for the Hogs, there will be trouble. He is the only returner at the position. Former defensive end Tenarius Wright moves to middle linebacker, but he has zero experience there. Even though some freshmen have emerged as possible players in fall camp, linebacker is a big question mark for the Hogs, and Highsmith is the best one on the roster.
Ready to Break Out: JACK Adrian Hubbard, Alabama (SO)
You want a freak athlete at linebacker? Look no further than 6-6, 245 pound Adrian Hubbard. Hubbard will likely excel at the JACK position, played by the scary Courtney Upshaw a year ago. Hubbard entered Alabama as a two-sport athlete but gave up on basketball to be dominant in Nick Saban’s defense. Look for this kid to become Saban’s next great linebacker.
Best You’ve Never Heard Of: MLB Mike Marry, Ole Miss (JR)
Never heard of Mike Marry? Outside of Oxford, hardly anyone else has either. But this kid can play middle linebacker. He’s a hard-nosed hitter who has good speed at the position. Marry led the Rebels in tackles with 81 and completed two sacks and three tackles-for-loss. He and Serderius Bryant will combine to form a respectable corps for the Rebels.
Good to Great: ILB Alec Ogletree, Georgia (JR)
Alec Ogletree has so much potential, it’s crazy. He’s yet to be a great SEC football player though. He entered as a big safety and has developed nicely into an inside linebacker, ready to take the next step. If he can stay healthy on the field this year, look for him to really improve to a great player.