The SEC is home to some of the nastiest defensive ends in the country year after year, but losing star players like Damontre Moore, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo is no makeshift, fill-in task. But there’s a new crop of talented defensive ends emerging in the SEC who stand above the rest.
Some may be new names, but they’ll become household names in 2013. That starts this spring. And others 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 defensive ends opening spring practice:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
Jadeveon Clowney is in a league of his own, as far as his athleticism, talent, skill and amazing play-making ability. Clowney’s Heisman campaign officially kicked off against Michigan in the Outback Bowl when he wrecked the Great Lakes State with just one hit, and since then the rest of the country has taken note. It’s nothing new to us, because we experience it every Saturday. Clowney has registered 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss in just two seasons, and he remains the biggest overall freak and the most terrifying player in college football.
2. Chris Smith, Arkansas
3. Trey Flowers, Arkansas
4. CJ Johnson, Ole Miss
5. Ed Stinson, Alabama
Arkansas rising senior Chris Smith isn’t in the league of Clowney, and there’s a sizable chasm between #1 and #2. However, Smith had a strong campaign in 2012 that was minimized by his teams’ overall struggles on the field. The Hogs had one of the worst defenses in the league, thanks in part to a horrible secondary. But Smith quietly had 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, and he was the best player down the stretch for a struggling team…Wait, Arkansas returns two good defensive ends? Trey Flowers jumps on the rankings next, and he could be better than his counterpart Smith by the time his career is over. Flowers racked up 13 tackles for loss and six sacks in 2012 as a sophomore and returns with Smith to form one of the more intriguing and underrated defensive end duos in the league…CJ Johnson entered Ole Miss as a five-star linebacker, and he has made his impact as a talented defensive end. He registered 6.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2012. Johnson isn’t close to the finished product, but his upside is very high because of his athleticism, size and motor…Ed Stinson is the most decorated veteran in the SEC. After all, he owns two championship rings in the last two seasons, and he’s had an impact on both teams. Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense isn’t made for crooked defensive end numbers, and Stinson doesn’t have overly impressive numbers. He registered 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2012. Stinson is the Tide’s only returning starter at the position.
Unknowns you need to know about
6. Denico Autry, Mississippi State
7. Walker May, Vanderbilt
8. Kony Ealy, Missouri
9. Chaz Sutton, South Carolina
Denico Autry probably didn’t have the splash impact everyone thought he would as a JUCO transfer, but that doesn’t mean he won’t pop in 2013. Autry racked up 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in ‘12, and he returns in ‘13 overshadowed by fellow end Kaleb Eulls and incoming freshman Chris Jones, who have higher ceilings. Autry racked up 11 sacks in JUCO, and he’s primed for a big season, starting this spring…Walker May is the lone returning starter and anchor on the Commodores defensive line. May racked up an impressive 10.5 tackles for loss with three sacks as a junior, and the rising senior aims to improve those numbers this season…Kony Ealy could be Missouri’s next big defensive lineman. He totaled 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as just a sophomore last season, and this spring will be very important for growth and further development. With Sheldon Richardson and Brad Madison gone, Ealy will anchor the Tigers’ line…One emerging player not named Clowney or Devin Taylor on the Gamecocks’ line was Chaz Sutton. He wasn’t a starter in ‘12, but Sutton racked up five sacks, spelling Taylor and Clowney from time-to-time. Sutton has been used as a pass-rushing specialist, but he should replace Taylor as an every-down player opposite Clowney in ‘13.
10. Dante Fowler, Florida
Dante Fowler is going to be a star in the SEC in the near future, and I’m not afraid to put him in this countdown coming off an impressive freshman campaign. Fowler signed at Florida to man Will Muschamp’s Buck hybrid position, but he will likely outgrow it and become a regular defensive end already at 277 pounds. Fowler notched 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, but I think he’ll more than improve on those numbers in 2013.
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