You know Derek Stingley Jr., Malachi Moore and Jordan Davis. That is, if you’re an SEC fan who paid attention in 2020. Those guys are all coming back in 2021, and they could wind up all over the preseason All-America teams.

They’ll get plenty of attention this year, but not here today.

With spring football here before you know it, I thought it’d be a good chance to provide some names that you should know in the SEC. Sunday, we talked offensive players. Today, it’ll be all defense.

This list won’t consist of players who earned All-SEC honors last year, and I’ll avoid the former 5-star guys who are a bit too obvious of breakout candidates (Kelee Ringo, Jordan Burch, DeMarvin Leal, etc.). These are the guys who won’t necessarily show up on preseason All-SEC teams, and they aren’t high-profile guys who are known across the SEC. These are guys who could turn into that by season’s end.

Here are 10 SEC defensive players to know in 2021:

Jayden Peevy, Texas A&M DT

As long as Mike Elko is in College Station, it’s safe to assume there will be no shortage of studs on that defensive line. Peevy, alongside 2020 breakout player Leal, is in position to wreak all sorts of havoc. He did a pretty good job of that in his first year as a full-time starter in 2020. PFF graded him No. 6 among interior SEC defensive linemen, though he’s more of a pass-rusher than the typical run-stuffers that Elko’s defensive lines have become known for. Peevy had 34 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack and 1 fumble recovery.

Peevy returned for Year 5, but more importantly, he’ll be the first Year 4 defensive tackle in Elko’s system in College Station. That feels significant.

Marquan McCall, Kentucky NG

The former 4-star recruit has some massive shoes to fill with Quinton Bohanna off to the NFL. And by massive, I mean literally. Now that the 357-pound Bohanna is gone after 33 starts, it’s finally McCall’s time to shine in Mark Stoops’ defense (McCall actually played just 30 fewer snaps than Bohanna because he missed 3 games). McCall, AKA “Bully,” has to be just that in order for Kentucky’s defense to be one of the SEC’s best. In a reserve role, McCall showed flashes of being exactly what the Cats need up front. He had 4 tackles for loss as a sophomore reserve in 2019, and he graded as the SEC’s No. 14 interior defensive lineman in 2020 (he was No. 8 defending the run).

Kentucky’s run defense held it back from being a 2018-like unit. McCall, who will be surrounded by a defense that’s loaded with upperclassman experience in 2021, is plenty capable of turning that around. If he makes plays like this on a consistent basis, the Cats will be a brutal matchup for 60 minutes:

Ali Gaye, LSU DE

LSU fans saw Gaye emerge as one of the bright spots of an otherwise frustrating defensive year. His return for another year in Baton Rouge — he was a JUCO transfer in 2020 — is also part of the reason the Tigers are expected to bounce back in 2021. Gaye led LSU with 9.5 tackles for loss, and he actually tied for the team-high with 6 passes defended. He’s got PFF’s highest pass-rushing grade among returning SEC edge defenders.

Gaye likely won’t get the same sort of preseason buzz as BJ Ojulari, who flashed major potential as a true freshman and already has a familiar last name for SEC fans (his brother is Georgia standout Azeez Ojulari). But Gaye saved his best for last, and with another year of Ed Orgeron’s tutelage, he could find his way to a first-team All-SEC honor by season’s end.

Blaze Alldredge, Mizzou LB

Besides being an obvious all-name team selection, Alldredge was a stud in his last full season a first-team All-Conference-USA selection in 2019. The Rice transfer is being tasked with filling the spot of the invaluable Nick Bolton. Much like Bolton, Alldredge can do it all. In 2019, he had 102 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovered. Nobody in FBS had more plays resulted in a loss (27) than Alldredge. He has 214 tackles and 28.5 tackles for loss in just 30 career games, though obviously that was in C-USA, not the SEC.

In a variety of ways, Alldredge is such a prototypical Mizzou guy. He’s a lightly recruited, somewhat undersized player with Texas roots (he’s from Florida but Rice is obviously in Texas). He’ll be someone that new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks can rely on a ton in the post-Bolton era. Eli Drinkwitz’s awareness to land a player with experience like Alldredge to fill Bolton’s shoes could be the difference in Mizzou’s defense avoiding a step back in 2021.

Aaron Brule, MSU LB

If there’s a list of things I was dead wrong about heading into 2020, it was the potential of the MSU defense with new coordinator Zach Arnett. Thanks to guys like Brule, I ate my words. He racked up 8.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks, and he had 10 hurries in Year 1 of the new system. With a full, normal offseason, Brule should thrive even more in the 3-3-5. He’ll have to do so without the aid of longtime MSU starting linebacker Erroll Thompson, but his instincts should be that much better after his first season as a starter.

Brule is a hard-hitting weak-side linebacker who is asked to do a lot, but is more than capable of handling it. He has All-SEC upside in 2021.

Martin Emerson, MSU CB

Remember how I told you that Arnett’s defense made me eat my words? Well, Emerson was a big part of that, too. MSU fans saw him turn into a lockdown corner as a sophomore, and I’m including this because he didn’t get All-SEC love (besides PFF).

I could’ve easily put freshman All-American Emmanuel Forbes in this spot as the conference’s leader in interceptions (he had 3 defensive scores), but Emerson feels like the guy who will get snubbed for preseason All-SEC when he actually graded out better than the aforementioned Malachi Moore (he tied for the 5th-highest PFF grade among Power 5 corners).

Emerson won’t be as decorated in the preseason as Moore, Stingley or Eli Ricks, but he could easily be more productive. The 6-2 corner didn’t have an interception, but he racked up 72 tackles and an SEC-high 11 pass breakups in 11 games. Emerson is just one of several returners on the MSU defense who needs to be talked about more.

Ennis Rakestraw Jr., Mizzou CB

Wait, does that name sound familiar? It should. Rakestraw’s commitment to Mizzou was what sparked one of the better coach reaction videos we’ve ever seen on Signing Day:

Eli Drinkwitz was right to get so fired up by Rakestraw. He started as a true freshman and was No. 9 in the SEC with 6 passes defended, and PFF graded him No. 3 among SEC cornerbacks against the run. He got picked on a decent amount as a first-year player, but the potential is there. His pass breakup on Kadarius Toney was a little glimpse of some potential All-SEC talent. He’ll have a new defensive coordinator to work with after Ryan Walters left for Illinois, which didn’t sit well with Rakestraw.

Still, he has the makings of a 3- or 4-year starter who will frustrate many an SEC wideout.

Nehemiah Pritchett, Auburn CB

After an offseason in which 4 of Auburn’s 5 secondary starters were replaced, Pritchett was massive. He evolved into a reliable No. 2 corner in Kevin Steele’s defense. Steele is no longer on the Plains, but Derek Mason is. Mason entered a solid situation with Pritchett, Jaylin Simpson and Roger McCreary locking down the corner spots. Pritchett played mostly on the outside, where he logged 531 snaps (PFF).

Pritchett actually had more passes defended (10) than Patrick Surtain (9), though obviously the All-American was rarely targeted in 2020. PFF had Pritchett graded No. 5 among returning SEC cornerbacks with grades north of 77 in run defense and in coverage. He was about an inch away from diving into the end zone for his first career pick-6, too:

I don’t know what Year 1 of the Bryan Harsin era holds, but cornerback is clearly not an issue with Pritchett and Co.

Latavious Brini, Georgia DB

So I’ll admit here that recency bias is playing a part in this spot after what Brini did in the Peach Bowl, but hey, last impressions matter. Brini had 5 tackles, 2 of which were for a loss, in Georgia’s comeback win. In 2020, he graded as the SEC’s No. 9 safety albeit in just 89 snaps (PFF). Nearly 2/3 of those came in the Peach Bowl, where he broke up screens and played well in coverage. I know, it’s a super limited sample size from 2020, but this is Year 4 in Kirby Smart’s system. That matters.

Brini also figures to step into a much more significant role for a Georgia secondary who has loads to replace. Like, this is more turnover than Smart has had on the back end in any year in Athens:

In the event he starts in the “Star” role, there’s plenty of work to be had. Brini waited a long time for an opportunity like this. Don’t be surprised when the former 3-star recruit capitalizes on it.

Otis Reese, Ole Miss DB

Why Reese got the runaround from the SEC and NCAA is beyond me. This was was a year in which eligibility didn’t even count, yet he couldn’t play until late in the season. Now that he’s not getting a raw deal by circumstances outside of his control, the former Georgia transfer steps in as a legitimate All-SEC candidate. Ole Miss co-defensive coordinator Chris Partridge said before his first game back that he was already the defense’s best player. That’s how good is (and also how bad the Ole Miss defense was).

But when Reese was on the field, his presence was felt in a major way. Wondering why the Ole Miss defense was so much better in the bowl game? Reese had a lot to do with that because he covers up holes, of which, Ole Miss’ defense had many in 2020. It probably gets thrown out there too much that certain guys “do it all.” Reese truly does do it all. Besides the fact that the guy played over 80 snaps per game in his 3 contests, look at this breakdown of his snaps (via PFF):

  • Slot CB: 99
  • Box: 73
  • D-Line: 64
  • Free safety: 24
  • Wide CB: 8

That’s insane. With Richard LeCounte and Jacoby Stevens off to the NFL, Reese is going to be the next position-less stud in the SEC. Had he been eligible before late-November, that would’ve already been a unanimous thought by now.