Breaking down every team’s roster with an emphasis on experience and potential impact, here’s a team-by-team look at the SEC’s best position groups at linebacker heading into the 2014 season.

Note: These are based on every team’s roster at the linebacker spots, not individual player rankings.


14. Texas A&M: Short on experience at the linebacker position, the Aggies received a blow they didn’t need recently when projected sophomore starter Shaan Washington went down with a broken collarbone. With Washington on the mend for 4-6 weeks, senior Donnie Baggs must step up for Texas A&M in a leadership role along with middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni. JUCO transfer Tommy Sanders, a senior, started two games last season on the outside and is battling for position this fall with sophomore A.J. Hilliard at the Will.

13. Kentucky: Replacing Avery Williamson won’t be easy for the Wildcats, but Kentucky’s coaching staff is confident in the progress converted wideout Josh Forrest has made in the middle. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Forrest has natural ability as a freakish athlete but had to learn the position after signing with the Wildcats in 2011 as a pass-catcher. Forrest roams sideline to sideline like a safety and has the strength to handle the middle.

12. Mizzou: The Tigers’ fierce defensive front gets most of the love, but Kentrell Brothers and Michael Sherer hope to lead a potentially potent linebacking corps in Columbia this season. Sherer’s a first-year starter in the middle and was one of the team’s defensive MVPs during Saturday’s second fall scrimmage. Only a sophomore, Sherer’s excellent in run support and is still developing in coverage. Darvin Ruise is a big-play threat on the outside.

11. Arkansas: Randy Shannon had a tough go of it last season as the Razorbacks’ linebackers coach. Most of his starters were primarily special teamers in previous years and his projected impact newcomers often found themselves out of position, still adjusting to the college game. Senior Braylon Mitchell is the unit’s top returner after posting 77 tackles last season. He’ll start at strongside with Martrell Spaight manning the weak position. In the middle, coaches are expecting a breakout campaign from sophomore Brooks Ellis who recorded a pair of double-digit tackle outings against Ole Miss and LSU last season.

10. Tennessee: After All-American candidate A.J. Johnson, Tennessee’s leading tackler each of the last two seasons, it’s uncertain who will make an impact at the position when the Vols open the season against Utah State on Aug 31. Curtis Maggitt, who is nursing a sprained ankle, has split time at linebacker and defensive end to help take some of the pressure of an all-new front four, while arguably the team’s best player in pursuit, sophomore special teamer Jalen Reeves-Maybin, is a rookie at outside linebacker. True freshman Dillon Bates could work his way into a starting role by season’s end and has really impressed Butch Jones during the fall.

9. Vanderbilt: This position group gets a sizable push this season in Nashville after Derek Mason moved athletic defensive ends Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann to outside linebacker spots in his 3-4 scheme. Mason has former coach James Franklin to thank for developing second-year players Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham last fall. Both players were key signees in the Commodores’ 2013 class, but redshirted as true freshmen. Cunningham is battling Darreon Herring and Ja’Karri Thomas at the weakside spot while Bowden has impressed on the other side.

8. Auburn: The Tigers are solid at the second level under Ellis Johnson with Cassanova McKinzy taking over a more substantial role in the middle this season and Kris Frost doing his part as Auburn’s best linebacker in coverage. Junior Anthony Swain is Auburn’s pinch-hitter at both positions and made an impact as a reliable reserve last fall.

7. Ole Miss: Denzel Nkemdiche and top returning tackler Serderius Bryant are regarded as this group’s top playmakers, but there’s two other guys who will make just as much, if not more, noise this fall. JUCO transfer Christian Russell and sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford have had quite the intriguing battle during fall camp for the middle linebacker spot. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack let Russell know early that learning the 4-2-5 playbook was a necessity for playing time. Shackelford has the edge with experience and will likely start on Aug. 28 against Boise St., but Russell should see substantial playing time since Nkemdiche’s suspended. Pass rush threat C.J. Johnson has been converted to defensive end since the Rebels have some depth in the second tier.

6. Florida: The Gators have five players — Michael Taylor, Antonio Morrison, Jarrad Davis, Neiron Ball and Alex Anzalone — competing for the Will, Mike and Sam spots on D.J. Durkin’s defense. Morrison’s a junior and one of Florida’s more gifted players defensively, but off-the-field problems and knee issues have stunted his overall development. Thrust into action earlier than expected as a freshman last season, Davis shined at linebacker over the final three games with 17 total tackles. Davis has shown a strong work ethic throughout fall practice and could be the Gators’ leading tackler this season with a better understanding of scheme and game experience under his belt.

5. South Carolina: A position of weakness and inexperience at this point last season, Skai Moore blossomed into one of the SEC’s top first-year defenders in 2013 and as a sophomore, could be the Gamecocks’ best player on his side of the football. He’ll start along with junior Kaiwan Lewis. Sharrod Golightly, a playmaking freak despite his size at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, holds down the spur position as a fifth-year senior. He earned his stripes as a special teamer early in his career before breaking out last fall. True freshman Bryson Allen-Williams could be an instant impact player on the outside.

4. Mississippi St.: Bulldog fans should savor what we’re projecting as Benardrick McKinney’s final season in Starkville, a likely first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Few linebackers possess the game-changing ability McKinney provides at the heart of the Mississippi St. defense. Second-year starter Matthew Wells, a senior, should be the Bulldogs’ second-most productive linebacker on the outside and showcases great speed in run support. The other projected starter on the outside for defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is Beniquez Brown, a redshirt sophomore who came on strong as the season progressed last fall.

3. LSU: At this point, Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis understand that, every year, the NFL Draft is going to suck talent right out of Baton Rouge. It’s a good thing the Tigers have established a recruiting stronghold on defense and have depth at the linebacker position. Kwon Alexander is poised for a breakout junior season after earning the starting strongside spot in 2013. He has above average ball skills and is one of the Tigers’ fastest defenders. LSU’s most experienced linebacker is D.J. Welter, a senior who started every game in the middle last fall. His 80 tackles are the most for any returning Tiger.

2. Alabama: Kirby Smart’s defense may have lost its outspoken leader and enforcer in C.J. Mosley, but there’s still a few high-profile players left in the chamber at the linebacker position for the Crimson Tide. Senior Trey DePriest steps into Mosley’s quarterback of the defense role with the potential to have an All-American season if he stays healthy. Reggie Ragland is one of Alabama’s more physically imposing linebackers while Reuben Foster, a sophomore, will see more playing time this season from the inside spot. Foster’s often had stingers and shoulder issues early in his career due to his reckless style of play. After the running backs, this group is likely Alabama’s deepest and most skilled.

1. Georgia: The Bulldogs return all four starters in the middle of their defense led by Ramik Wilson, the SEC’s leading tackler last season. Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera each possess all-conference talent and will shoulder the burden of providing pressure to help an inexperienced secondary. First-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt likes to blitz, so we expect sacks to rise for each player. Floyd was raw last season as a true freshman, but still notched a team-high 6.5 sacks and was a constant disruptive force off the edge.