Creating the perfect SEC linebacker for 2021
The SEC has been known for producing talented linebackers. When the 2021 season kicks off, it could be another great year for linebacking corps all across the league.
Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas all have multiple elite players at the position. There are also a couple of big-time impact transfers joining the conference. But sadly, I can’t use all of them when putting together the perfect SEC linebacker for 2021.
Now, before y’all try to call me out in the comments for some outside linebackers who didn’t make the cut, let me direct you to this earlier piece about creating the perfect SEC edge rusher for 2021. Perhaps you’ll find the player mentioned there.
Now then, let’s dive into how I’d build the perfect SEC linebacker for the 2021 campaign:
Leadership: Grant Morgan, Arkansas
Arkansas DC Barry Odom has always had great linebackers, dating to his time as Mizzou’s head coach. Morgan is up there with the best of the bunch. He does it all for the Hogs. In 2020, he recorded 110 tackles (7.5 for a loss), 2 sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown and 5 pass breakups.
Oh, and he’s not above playing special teams for the Hogs. In fact, he plays a ton of special teams snaps:
Already working on my 'Special Team Aces' for 2022 NFL Draft Prospects…
Over 500 snaps – Solid
Over 600 snaps – Impressive
Over 700 snaps – Ridiculous
S Tycen Anderson – Toledo 736 snaps
S Nolan Turner – Clemson 694 snaps
LB Grant Morgan – Arkansas 650 snaps@seniorbowl 👀
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) June 3, 2021
He also serves as an emotional, vocal leader for the team. Look at this incredible pregame speech:
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) April 17, 2021
He’s the leader of the Hogs, no question about it. He’s a coach on the field and is capable of making big-time plays. When he’s not on the field, the Hogs aren’t the same team. He’ll be a big part of any improvements Arkansas makes this year.
Speed: Bumper Pool, Arkansas
Straight-line speed is, of course, an important thing in football. But, with linebackers, 40-yard dash times aren’t all that important. If your linebackers are running 40 yards on a play, something has gone horribly wrong.
So, the reason I put Pool in this spot is because he pops up all over the field making plays. He anticipates plays really well, which puts him a step ahead of the offense. If that doesn’t qualify as speed, I don’t know what does.
In 2020, in addition to having 101 tackles (6.5 of which for a loss), he managed to knock down 5 passes. He’s adept at stuffing the run and holds his own in coverage.
This highlight reel is full of plays where he shows his speed, but check out the very first play where he comes from nowhere to deliver a big hit on Georgia QB D’Wan Mathis:
For linebackers, speed is a mental and physical attribute. Pool diagnoses plays and gets to the right spot quickly. He should put up at least 100 tackles again in 2021.
Body: Henry To’o To’o, Alabama
At 6-2 and 225 pounds, Henry To’o To’o has the size and strength that NFL teams love to see in middle linebackers. He also has the sort of highlight reel that made him very attractive to every team when he entered the transfer portal this offseason:
He ultimately chose Alabama, and he’s going to be a huge part of Nick Saban’s defense this fall. He’ll line up alongside Christian Harris (more on him in a second) as the Will and Mike linebackers in Pete Golding’s 3-4 scheme.
It’s safe to say opposing offenses won’t love seeing To’o To’o and Harris staring across the line of scrimmage at them this fall.
Versatility: Christian Harris, Alabama
Speaking of Harris, we get to him now when it comes to versatility. Harris makes plenty of tackles, recording 79 in 2020 (7.5 of which were for a loss). But he can also provide pressure up the middle, recording 4.5 sacks last year, including this one that ended the SEC Championship Game:
Christian Harris : 3 tackles & 2 sacks (Sacked Kyle Trask on the final play of the game to help run out the clock) pic.twitter.com/5Sty5anJNt
— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) December 20, 2020
He proved himself adept at getting pressure from his linebacker position quickly, racking up several pressures in 2 seconds or less through the first few weeks of the 2020 season:
Most QB pressures in 2 seconds or less this season (SEC):
1. Jonathan Marshall, Arkansas – 6
2. Christian Harris, Alabama – 5
3. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia – 4
3. Joseph Evans, LSU – 4
3. Brenton Cox Jr, Florida – 4 pic.twitter.com/V898smqY8W
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 9, 2020
He was also solid in coverage, though, recording 2 pass breakups and an interception. After stepping up in the absence of Dylan Moses in 2019, Harris has quickly become a star. He should be poised for a huge 2021 season alongside To’o To’o.
Tackling/run defense: Zakoby McClain, Auburn
McClain was a tackling machine for Auburn last year, leading the SEC with 113 tackles. He had 5.5 tackles for a loss and 3 sacks, too.
What he loves most is breaking through the offensive line and stonewalling a running back behind the line of scrimmage. He did it time and time again in 2019 and 2020, as you can see in this highlight video:
It will be a huge boost for Auburn’s defense to have him and Owen Pappoe coming back in 2021. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see McClain lead the SEC in tackles once again this fall, even in a new system under Derek Mason.
Pass defense: Mike Jones Jr., LSU
Jones joins the LSU program from Clemson, where he was a standout in 2020. Pro Football Focus gave him a 90.2 coverage grade last season, which ranks among the elite. He made this play in the College Football Playoff semifinal, dropping back in zone coverage to snag an interception to keep Clemson’s hopes alive:
Mike Jones Jr. makes the huge INT to keep Clemson’s hopes alive! 35-14 Buckeyes in the 3rd pic.twitter.com/BPrezu9FDt
— Zach McKinnell (@zachmckinnell) January 2, 2021
He’s not always the best tackler in the run game, but he is instinctive and can bring down receivers in space, as he did against Wake Forest:
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) September 13, 2020
LSU doesn’t need Jones to be a tackling machine. They need him to be a wildcard who pops up where opposing quarterbacks and receivers don’t expect him. He’s shown a natural ability to do just that, so we’ll see how he develops now that he’s at LSU instead of Clemson.