Handicapping the SEC East: Ranking the defenses
Defense wins championships, right?
The SEC East hasn’t won an SEC title since 2008 — the last year the division had a team ranked first in the league in total defense (Tennessee).
Coincidence? Probably not.
RELATED: Ranking 2015 SEC East offenses
In 2015, three Eastern Division squads are expected to have defenses ranked inside the Top 20 nationally, the primary reason one of those three could present a serious challenge to the West winner in December.
1. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Strength: Outside linebackers
Weakness: Interior defensive line
Best Player: OLB Leonard Floyd
Wait until September when we’re all able to see what the Bulldogs have to offer on defense once Floyd returns to full strength following offseason shoulder surgery. Jeremy Pruitt has the SEC’s most athletic unit this fall, a defense stacked with future draft picks including three at outside linebacker — Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and budding superstar Lorenzo Carter. Considering Prewitt’s penchant for blitzing, the three pass rushers could easily combine for 25 (or more) sacks this fall. Floyd and Carter are hybrid defenders, both capable of spending time at rush end as edge sealers.
The Bulldogs return three starters including Dominick Sanders who started all 13 games as a true freshman last fall as a playmaker within a secondary that picked off 15 passes. Limited on available scholarship defensive linemen this spring, Georgia assistant coach Tracy Rocker sifted through the inexperience and small numbers to try and pinpoint a handful of players he feels comfortable putting up front in Pruitt’s 3-4. Senior Sterling Bailey is one of the veteran leaders who is battling Josh Dawson to replace Ray Drew at defensive end.
2. MIZZOU TIGERS
Strength: Pass rush
Weakness: Secondary depth
Best Player: DT Harold Brantley
Just how deep are the Tigers at the point of attack defensively? They aren’t known as ‘D-Line Zou’ for nothing. Mizzou’s one of the few SEC teams capable of absorbing the dismissal of a projected starter without a noticeable production drop thanks to Craig Kuligowski’s expertise off the snap. Down several edge rushers including two who went early in the NFL draft, the Tigers still have depth at the line of scrimmage led by dynamic interior talents Brantley and incoming star freshman Terry Beckner. Brantley’s an All-American candidate with a vast skill set as a fleet-footed 6-foot-3, 280-pounder.
Featured in the talented front seven are veteran linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer. Brothers is the SEC’s top returning tackler after making 122 stops as a junior. The Tigers are strong from front to back with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton locking down the corner spots in the secondary. Multi-year starter Braylon Webb is a substantial loss at strong safety, a position to watch this season.
3. TENNESSEE VOLS
Strength: Edge rushers
Weakness: Overall depth
Best Player: DE Derek Barnette
Strong at the back end with one of the SEC’s most versatile defensive backs in Cam Sutton and lethal off the snap, Tennessee’s defense in 2015 has extreme balance and very few weaknesses other than depth. Replacing a leading tackler of A.J. Johnson’s caliber will be a challenge, but the Vols have several players capable of matching that production including Jalen Reeves-Maybin and multi-positional threat Curt Maggitt.
Barnette’s the star, one of the league’s super sophomores and a leading candidate for defensive player of the year honors. He bolsters what should Butch Jones’ best defense during his tenure. This unit will ultimately be defined by the production of players taking on more expansive roles this season. John Jancek needs to rely on guys like Dillon Bates and Emmanuel Moseley at their respective positions whose development at linebacker and in the secondary is vital to the overall worth of this defense.
4. FLORIDA GATORS
Best Player: CB Vernon Hargreaves
Thanks to four returning starters in the secondary and Jonathan Bullard up front, the Gators expect to be solid on the defensive side of the ball this season under former Mississippi State coordinator Geoff Collins. Bullard and Alex McCallister will share pass-rushing duties to try and make up for the loss of Dante Fowler, the No. 3 overall pick in May’s NFL draft. Future first-rounder and franchise player Hargreaves anchors arguably the SEC’s most talented secondary, though it underperformed last fall.
Florida’s linebackers will be a major cause for concern if All-SEC tackler Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis do not return to 100 percent by the start of the season. Morrison’s time table from a knee injury suffered in the bowl game is still up in the air while Davis isn’t back from a late-season meniscus tear. Behind those two playmakers, the Gators are thin at the position with only a handful of scholarship players available. Florida will lean on Alex Anzalone, a player who has never started a game but developed substantially this spring, in their absence.
5. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Weakness: Defensive line
Best Player: LB Skai Moore
South Carolina’s taken the necessary steps to ensure another pass-rush embarrassment doesn’t happen this season, an SEC-low number of sacks that nearly cost veteran defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward his job. Defensive end Marquavius Lewis is one of several newcomers who will make an early impact (and start) on the Gamecocks’ restructured defensive line and pass rush scheme under first-year assistant Jon Hoke. Without a consistent rush, South Carolina’s secondary could struggle.
The silver lining on defense comes at linebacker where South Carolina’s blessed with speed, power and strength. Moore’s the proven All-SEC competitor while Bryson Allen-Williams expects a standout sophomore season and Jonathan Walton moves into a full-time starting role after breaking out during the latter half of the 2014 campaign. The Gamecocks should be much-improved against the run in season and as a result, fare better as a unit on defense.
6. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Best Player: RB Ralph Webb
Coming in just ahead of Kentucky is Derek Mason’s Commodores, a defensive unit that finished 10th in the SEC last fall despite shouldering the burden of staying on the field thanks to the league’s worst offense. Mason takes over play-calling duties this season which will benefit Vanderbilt from a pressure standpoint. He has two all-league caliber inside-out threats at linebacker to build around in Stephen Weatherly and Nigel Bowden along with defensive end Caleb Azubike, the team’s active sacks leader with 12. The Commodores are hoping the interior DL combo of Adam Butler and Nifae Lealao produces quality numbers behind the line of scrimmage.
7. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Weakness: Defensive line
Best Player: LB Josh Forrest
Void of game-changing talent following the departure of edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree, Kentucky returns nearly every other starter on defense but is missing a true star on its 2015 unit. Senior linebacker Forrest certainly has the upside to become that player and based on his athleticism, could lead the SEC in tackles this season. He’ll be on the field for 99 percent of the Wildcats’ defensive snaps alongside Ryan Flannigan in the middle. The coaching staff is hoping junior pass rusher Jason Hatcher, who fits the Dupree mold as a hybrid defender, brings it this season. Safety A.J. Stamps is a ballhawk at the back end and helped Kentucky substantially improve its impact plays against the pass last season. Still, the Wildcats gave up an Eastern Division-high number of touchdown passes (22) for the second consecutive year.