Predicting every SEC team's defensive MVP in 2020
They say that middle linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense.
With that in mind, I’ll make the same promise I made when I predicted every SEC team’s offensive MVP for 2020. That is, I won’t be boring. In the same way that quarterbacks are the default answer there, I’d argue that the same is true for middle/inside linebackers as it relates to predicting a defensive MVP.
Now there are obviously some cases in which it will call for that. Spoiler alert, Auburn and Mizzou fans. You have a middle linebacker who qualifies as an obvious pick for defensive MVP. There are a few others in there, as well. Actually, the linebacker position as a whole looks loaded in the SEC. In many cases, it’ll be difficult not to predict a linebacker as the team MVP.
Consider yourself warned:
Alabama — Dylan Moses, LB
The quarterback of Alabama’s defense is back after a season-ending injury stopped his 2019 before it began. Moses’ decision to return to school was as big as any in America. The shortcomings of Alabama’s defense last year stemmed directly from not having Moses. Communication issues were a problem, as was tackling in the front 7. Moses’ range is special. It’s what made him a projected Round 1 pick entering last year. Regardless of where he lands in the 2021 NFL Draft, Alabama’s defense will be better for having Moses in the middle of it.
Arkansas — Bumper Pool, LB
It’s not a direct comp, but there’s reason to believe that Pool can play the Nick Bolton role in Barry Odom’s first Arkansas defense. Like Bolton, Pool will be asked to do a lot for Odom. That is, blow up plays in the backfield, cover in space and lead a defense that suffered greatly during the Chad Morris era. Pool seems like a lock to hit triple-digit tackles and lead the Hogs in that department, but more important than that will be how he leads Arkansas’ improved run defense.
Auburn — K.J. Britt, LB
Remember that time I said I wouldn’t pick all linebackers? Whoops. In my defense, Britt is an overwhelmingly obvious candidate to be the most indispensable player for Kevin Steele’s defense in the post-Derrick Brown/Marlon Davidson world. Britt had a breakout season as a run-stopping inside linebacker, but he could just be scratching the surface. It’s always a good sign when the first-team All-SEC running back (Kylin Hill) from an opposing team dubs you “the hardest hitting linebacker in the country” and says it’s “not close.” An All-American season doesn’t seem far-fetched, especially if Britt records double-digit tackles for loss en route to leading another top-20 defense.
Florida — Kaiir Elam, CB
No, he didn’t have the snaps that Derek Stingley did, and he didn’t play on as big of a stage, but Elam had a dominant freshman season. It’s the reason Florida fans aren’t fearing the worst after losing C.J. Henderson, who was a worthy top-10 pick. Elam might not have the stat-sheet stuffing numbers that other elite returning corners have, but this is something:
Passer rating targeting Florida CB Kaiir Elam in 2019: 18.3
Passer rating throwing the ball into the dirt on every snap: 39.6 pic.twitter.com/yQ5YmUBI8j
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 13, 2020
And according to Pro Football Focus, Elam didn’t allow a catch of 20-plus yards in his 207 coverage snaps last year. Again, it’s a small sample size, but those early returns are all sorts of promising. He can take away a team’s best receiver and perhaps give Florida’s promising young edge rushers a little more time to get to the quarterback.
Georgia — Richard LeCounte, S
I thought J.R. Reed was was well-respected in the SEC but never got enough love nationally for how he led Georgia’s defense. I think with Reed gone, that’s the role LeCounte plays in 2020. Georgia’s “no-name defense” certainly has a few names who could become All-Americans, and LeCounte is one of them. He never gets beat over the top, he tackles well in the open field and he can make a quarterback pay for making a mistake. LeCounte is an ideal safety to build a defense around. Kirby Smart will be thanking his lucky stars all year that LeCounte returned for 1 more season.
Kentucky — Jamar “Boogie” Watson, LB
I’m not saying that Watson is Josh Allen 2.0, but statistically, the junior year production in Mark Stoops’ defense certainly matches up:
(Allen also wore No. 41 while Watson is No. 31. Reaching? OK, moving along.)
The edge-rushing skills are there. Watson is the SEC’s highest-graded returning pass-rusher (PFF). But what made Allen elite was that he also made game-changing plays in coverage, too. Kentucky’s veteran-laden defense should allow for Watson to continue making plays at a high level. This year’s defense probably doesn’t need a player to have an Allen-like impact in order for it to be one of the nation’s best again, but if anyone has a shot to do it, it’s Watson.
LSU — Derek Stingley Jr., CB
I mean, is there any debate? Even though Stingley’s interception numbers are due for an inevitable decline as teams avoid him, don’t get it twisted. Unless we start seeing him consistently get beat on the outside for the first time in his career, there’s no reason to assume that Stingley isn’t still a special player at the cornerback position. He has a legitimate chance to become the best cornerback in SEC history, which is saying a lot considering the talent we’ve seen at the position. Again, we’re talking about someone who just completed Pro Football Focus’ most valuable season for a non-quarterback since they’ve been charting college games. He has hardware in his future.
Mississippi State — Erroll Thompson, LB
I always say this about Thompson, but it feels like he’s been in Starkville for about a decade. That’s because he emerged as a redshirt freshman and has been a valuable player for 2 different defensive staffs. The goal for him with his 3rd defensive staff at MSU is to get back to his 2018 level of production. That year, he was a versatile piece of one of the nation’s top units. He benefited from operating behind future 1st-round picks Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. The lack of experience up front suggests Thompson’s 2020 surroundings won’t exactly resemble that, but in Zach Arnett’s defense, he should still be put in plenty of spots to make plays. Thompson came back to lead this new defense, which he’ll be given all the opportunity to do.
Mizzou — Nick Bolton, LB
I admitted that I was late to the Bolton party, but I’m here now. He’s a no-brainer choice for this because he’s elite as a run-defender and as a linebacker in coverage. The lightly-recruited junior won’t have the aid of playing for Barry Odom, but defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is still in Columbia. One has to think that Bolton should at least be in position to match his impressive 2019 production. The guy easily became Mizzou’s most valuable defensive player last year after the midseason loss of Cale Garrett. There’s no reason to expect Bolton’s instincts will struggle with a (somewhat) new coaching staff.
This play still amazes me:
Nick Bolton with the jam pic.twitter.com/lhgy8gfoDm
— Represent Mizzou (@RepresentMizzou) November 24, 2019
My advice? Don’t be like me and sleep on Bolton.
Ole Miss — Keidron Smith, CB
It was awfully tempting to go with Ole Miss’ top returning tackler Lakia Henry, and I resisted the urge to roll with a promising true freshman like Demon Clowney partially because of this weird offseason. But Smith intrigues me. Yes, the fact that the dude picked off and sacked Joe Burrow is part of that. Smith is a solid open-field tackler, and he’s coming off a season in which he led Ole Miss with 8 pass breakups. He’s 6-2 with the frame to be a true top corner. I question how Ole Miss’ defense avoids a step back, especially defending the run. Smith seems like he can be a constant to go about his business regardless of those potential issues in the front 7.
South Carolina — Jaycee Horn, CB
Welcome to 2020, where I find myself naming cornerback after cornerback in a list of potential defensive MVPs for SEC teams. Horn’s ball skills will make him an invaluable piece of Will Muschamp’s defense. The secondary should be the foundation of the Gamecocks, and as much as Israel Mukuamu turned heads with his Georgia performance, overlooking Horn would be a mistake. He has major NFL potential, and not just because of his bloodlines. Horn has an incredibly high floor because of how well he tackles, too. Nobody should be surprised if he earns All-SEC and Round 1 consideration by season’s end.
Tennessee — Henry To’o To’o, LB
I can’t imagine many SEC programs have finished with a winning conference record with a true freshman leading the way in tackles. That was Tennessee last year. More specifically, that was To’o To’o, who already looks like one of the biggest recruiting wins of the Jeremy Pruitt era. To’o To’o still has room to add some weight without really losing speed, which is why he projects extremely well moving forward. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s used more as a pass-rusher this year with the Vols searching for a Darrell Taylor replacement. Either way, the sophomore has next-level instincts that make him a lock to rack up a ton of tackles and become even more prominent of a player in Year 2.
Texas A&M — Bobby Brown III, DT
In Mike Elko’s defense, it seems inevitable that someone who fuels the run defense will be the most valuable player. Last year, that was Justin Madubuike. This year, that’s Brown. Despite some relatively quiet stat sheet numbers last year, Brown is actually the SEC’s No. 2 returning defensive lineman (PFF). The SEC’s sports information directors even voted Brown as the league’s top returning defensive lineman, too. Brown should be the one who sets the table for a veteran defense who somewhat quietly improved by 3 points per game last year. With that schedule, the A&M defensive tackle should make his presence felt against some interior offensive lines.
Vanderbilt — Dayo Odeyingbo, DL
There weren’t many bright spots for the Vandy defense last year, but Odeyingbo was one of them. He had nearly twice as many tackles for loss (12) as the next-closest Vandy defender. That group ranks No. 4 in America in percentage of returning defensive production, too, which suggests improvement is imminent. Odeyingbo is Vandy’s top 2021 NFL Draft prospect because of how good he is in the run game. He showed last year that he’s plenty capable of winning pass-rushing matchups, as well, but getting those game-changing sacks is the part of his game that needs improvement. He should be at the top of every scouting report in 2020.