Handicapping the SEC East defenses
Earlier this year, we set out to dissect what to make of the SEC East this season, a top-heavy division led by three teams ranked inside the preseason Top 25 that hasn’t won a league championship since 2008.
Now that we’re closer to the season, we’re going to re-rank the division’s offenses and defenses based on what we’ve seen during fall camp including various position battles, notable injuries, players emerging, etc.
We’ll finish up with defense where several teams have future pros in the projected starting lineup:
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Strength: Abundance of pass-rushers
Weakness: Defensive line depth
Best Player: LB Leonard Floyd
You won’t find a better 1-2 punch at the heart of an SEC defense than Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, outspoken leaders of the self-proclaimed ‘Wolfpack’ — the nickname for Georgia’s bevy of talented outside linebackers. There’s so much depth at linebacker that is appears third-year sophomore Davin Bellamy could get more snaps than rising superstar Lorenzo Carter in the early portion of the season based on his performance during the last week of practice. His stock is rising and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has taken notice.
Potential. That’s been the buzz word when describing the Bulldogs’ three-man front heading into the season. Consistent pressure was an issue last season but Georgia hopes the arrival of Trent Thompson changes that a bit. He’s worked his way into the rotation with a solid fall camp and is putting pressure on other pass rushers like John Atkins and Josh Dawson to perform.
Sterling Bailey is the veteran up front and the Bulldogs need him to be a force in his final season. Bailey has played in 28 games with 10 starts during his career.
2. Florida Gators
Weakness: Linebacker depth
Best Player: CB Vernon Hargreaves
There’s no public timetable for linebacker Antonio Morrison’s return, but Florida has been working on a backup plan since spring practice, inserting former five-star 2013 signee Alex Anzalone into the lineup in the middle. Anzalone has flourished with more reps and looks to a lead a front seven anchored by pass rushers Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister. Freshman CeCe Jefferson will make an immediate impact off the edge.
Florida’s obvious strength is its core of defensive backs, an upperclassmen group led by two-time All-American Vernon Hargreaves. College football’s top cornerback is a first-round lock next season barring injury. He aims to headline a unit that will challenge LSU for the title of ‘DBU’ this fall. Sophomore Jalen Tabor, who starts opposite of Hargreaves, is a budding superstar. Safeties Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal are feared hitters.
3. Mizzou Tigers
Strength: Linebackers, secondary
Weakness: Defensive line
Best Player: LB Kentrell Brothers
I had the Tigers ranked as the East’s No. 2 on defense in our pre-summer rankings, but the unfortunate season-ending injury to All-American candidate Harold Brantley potentially cripples Mizzou’s pass rush — its strength coming in. Without a doubt, the Tigers could be in the 1-2 range by season’s end (I’m confident in new DC Barry Odom and DL assistant Craig Kuligowski), but the new crop of defensive linemen are unproven playing behind the likes of Markus Golden, Shane Ray and Brantley last fall. Charles Harris is a potential star in the making, as is five-star freshman Terry Beckner.
The back end of Mizzou’s defense will be its strength this season. Allow me to cheat a bit and put include possible All-SEC linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer in that mix. The pair will combine for more than 200 tackles this fall — they’re that aggressive. Aarion Penton and Kenya Dennis, returning starters at corner, provide stability on the edge.
4. Tennessee Vols
Strength: Defensive line
Weakness: Middle linebacker
Best Player: DL Derek Barnett
Two true freshman tackles. Unsettled at linebacker. Two starters unavailable in the secondary. Are we asking too much of Tennessee’s defense early in the season? Pass rusher Derek Barnett is my preseason SEC Defensive Player of the Year pick and Curt Maggitt is not far behind, but depth will be an issue in September while the Vols solve the situation at middle linebacker and in the secondary where Cam Sutton now shoulders most of the leadership burden.
Losing cornerback Rashaan Gaulden to a season-ending injury last week was unfortunate as was Butch Jones’ revelation concerning senior safety Ladarell McNeil’s ongoing neck issue, but Tennessee’s hoping the personnel losses at the back end aren’t fatal to the overall success of a talented secondary. Sophomores Evan Berry and Todd Kelly will play more snaps than perhaps they expected early, but both are capable of replacing the production. While JUCO transfer Justin Martin recovers from a knee sprain, Micah Abernathy and Malik Foreman are competing for Gaulden’s spot at nickel.
5. South Carolina
Weakness: Defensive line
Best Player: LB Skai Moore
The Gamecocks are cautiously optimistic that offseason additions on defense will pay dividends this season on a unit that ranked near the bottom of the SEC last fall in several categories. Finding a pass rush was the first priority and South Carolina accomplished that goal with JUCO transfer Marquavius Lewis, who quickly earned first-team reps during spring ball. Redshirt junior Gerald Dixon has moved back up the depth chart this month and will start opposite of Lewis at end. Gerald Dixon Jr. and Phillip Dukes are projected with the 1s inside.
This defense is strong at linebacker led by Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton. Sophomore Bryson Allen-Williams should flourish as a hybrid pass rusher who was forced to play out of position off the edge last season. Moving to his more natural outside linebacker spot will show on the stat sheet. Kansas transfer Isaiah Johnson could be a star in the secondary. South Carolina only has him for one season but new co-DC Jon Hoke likes the progress he’s made at safety and he’s projected to start in next week’s opener vs. North Carolina.
Weakness: Defensive line
Best Player: LB Josh Forrest
We know Kentucky’s offense will be solid this season with depth at the skill positions and an above-average quarterback in Patrick Towles, but the Wildcats’ bowl hopes will rest on D.J. Eliot’s defense and whether this unit can withstand the loss of pass rushers Bud Dupree, Mike Douglas and Za’Darius Smith. Melvin Lewis takes a leadership role at the line of scrimmage, a senior nose guard who becomes the face of the defense along with Josh Forrest and safety A.J. Stamps.
The defensive linemen behind Lewis have experience, but are unproven as SEC starters. Mark Stoops is expecting JUCO Courtney Miggins to make an immediate impact in the trenches and wants to see more out of C.J. Johnson and Matt Elam inside.
Weakness: Secondary depth, defensive line
Best Player: DL/LB Caleb Azubike
Derek Mason’s move to defense is going to strengthen a unit that has several underrated playmakers in the front seven, but ultimately Vanderbilt’s offense will determine this side of the football’s overall success. The Commodores were on the field far too many plays last season thanks to their offense’s ineptitude and it showed late in the season. Mason expects serious production from pass rushers Caleb Azubike, Nigel Bowden and Stephen Weatherly, three players who would get all-conference buzz playing elsewhere.