Ranking the SEC’s 10 best linebackers ahead of spring practice

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The SEC says goodbye to three of the top linebackers in the country in Jarvis Jones, Kevin Minter and Alec Ogletree, who will all likely land in the first round of next month’s draft. But there’s a new crop of linebackers waiting in the wings to take their places.

Players not listed will have breakout years during the ‘13 season, but we’re not forecasting breakout stars. We are looking at known commodities.

Here are the 10 best linebackers opening spring practice:

Game changers

1. CJ Mosley, Alabama
2. AJ Johnson, Tennessee

CJ Mosley made the somewhat surprising decision to return to Alabama after back-to-back championships, and he is becoming one of the country’s finest linebackers. Now, he enters 2013 as the weathered veteran of the Bama corps and, again, one of the most talented players in college football. Not only has Mosley showed his tackling ability, racking up 211 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in three years, but he’s one of the best linebackers in coverage, adding five INTs and returning three for touchdowns…AJ Johnson’s stellar season was lost in the fact that Tennessee’s overall defense was just putrid. Just a sophomore, Johnson racked up 138 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. He’s a tackling machine, totaling 218 in just two seasons. One thing that sets Johnson apart is his athleticism, and he’s showed that by notching 12 carries on offense for six touchdowns.

High Ceilings

3. Adrian Hubbard, Alabama
4. Benardrick McKinney, Miss State
5. Denzel Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

Adrian Hubbard is still nowhere close to being as good as he can be, yet. He plays Nick Saban’s coveted Jack position, where his predecessor Courtney Upshaw dominated. However, Hubbard has posted 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks in mainly one year of work, along with three forced fumbles. The ceiling is certainly high for the rising junior Hubbard. Will ‘13 be the year he finally puts it all together?…Benardrick McKinney is one of the best young linebackers in the country. Just a freshman in 2012, McKinney racked up 102 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack, and he will man the middle of MSU’s defense in 2013. He’ll remind you of former MSU star and current Seahawks linebacker KJ Wright…One of the fastest rising superstars in the SEC is Denzel Nkemdiche. Yes, Nkemdiche wasn’t even good enough to be ranked out of high school by Rivals, but he exploded in his freshman season, notching a team-high 82 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, three sacks and three INTs. This kid brings the hammer, and with that hammer he brought an identity of toughness to the Rebels’ defense.

Seasoned veterans

6. Chase Garnham, Vanderbilt
7. Steven Jenkins, Texas A&M
8. Mike Marry, Ole Miss
9. Lamin Barrow, LSU

One of the best veteran players in the SEC you’ve never heard of is Chase Garnham. Garnham registered 84 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2012 to bring his totals to 143 career tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He’s no sure-fire top pick in the draft, but this guy isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and hit you in the mouth…Texas A&M will rest on Steven Jenkins’ veteran leadership in 2013. He’s one of only two returning starters in the front seven, and he’ll miss the spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Jenkins has notched 139 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in his career…Another savvy veteran and former greyshirt who is better than advertised is Ole Miss’ Mike Marry. Marry has registered 181 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in three years of work. He’s one of the better middle linebackers in the SEC, and the Rebels feed off Marry’s play on defense…Lamin Barrow’s production was overlooked by Kevin Minter’s dynamic season in ‘12, but Barrow enters as one of LSU’s veterans on defense. Buried on the depth chart for his first two years, Barrow broke out as a junior and notched 104 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss, bringing his career numbers to 139 tackles and nine tackles for loss. He’s not Kevin Minter, but he’ll be one of the leaders of the Tigers’ defense in ‘13.

‘Budding’ superstar

10. Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Kentucky

Along with being a budding superstar, Alvin “Bud” Dupree has one of the better nicknames in college football. Kentucky expected Dupree to put up numbers in ‘12, and he did just that, racking up 91 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. If Bud isn’t a household name already, he’ll prove it soon enough by being one of the bigger forces in Mark Stoops’ new look defense.

Honorable Mention

Jordan Jenkins, Georgia: I promised I wouldn’t throw an honorable mention into any position rankings heading into spring, but I’m going to break that with Jordan Jenkins. Jenkins played behind Jarvis Jones in 2012, so he didn’t see the field as much as he would have at any other school in the country. Jenkins posted 31 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in very limited time. Jenkins could be the SEC’s biggest breakout player in 2013, and you could make the argument that he belongs on this list.

Previous position rankings

Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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