Michael Sam. Dee Ford. Jadeveon Clowney.

Several of the SEC’s top defenders have moved on to the professional level, but the next crop is buckling their chinstraps and ready to perform. Will Mizzou’s Markus Golden make the most of his opportunity? Can Robert Nkemdiche help improve the Rebels’ numbers defensively? Which highly-touted freshman will make an early impact off the edge?

Another exciting SEC season is upon us and this week, we’ll try and guess the numbers for the league’s top talent at several positions.

To projected stat leaders for 2014:

Let’s break down the SEC’s best defensive linemen by class before moving into statistical projections:


Bud Dupree, Kentucky: In no particular order, Dupree is the first member of an SEC pass-rushing foursome that’s nearly impossible to contain 1-on-1. The Wildcats should be much faster off the snap in Mark Stoops’ second season and Dupree’s the main ingredient along with fellow end Za’Darius Smith. Don’t sleep on Dupree because he plays in Lexington. He’s a future first-round pick.

Markus Golden, Missouri: Gary Pinkel’s lucky to have a replacement playmaker for Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, two defensive stars who ranked first and second in tackles for loss last season. Golden’s learned from the best and now gets his shot as the vocal defensive leader for the defending Eastern Division champions.

Trey Flowers, Arkansas: Flowers’ 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013 is the most for any returning player, a half-stop better than Golden. He no longer has Chris Smith alleviating some of the pressure at the other defensive end spot, but Flowers should still perform at an elite level and with a touch of tenacity, will finish as the Razorbacks’ best player on his side of the football.

Dante Fowler, Florida: Likely Will Muschamp’s most important player on defense, Fowler returns at full strength hoping to turn the tides on an eight-loss season with a division title run. Fowler will line up at multiple positions but can be dominant from a three-point stance off the edge. A monster who can play inside or out, Fowler’s transition from good to great won’t go unnoticed.


Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: We’re calling it now: barring injury, this guy’s going to be Butkus and Nagurski finalist. Nkemdiche generated Clowney-caliber buzz out of high school and he delivered despite the sizable expectations in 2013. No need to worry about a sophomore slump from No. 5. This fall, he’ll break out into the league’s premiere defensive lineman, a not-so-hidden scud missile aimed at opposing quarterbacks.

Chris Jones, Mississippi State: The ongoing debate this summer between rivals is an intriguing one: Is Jones better than Nkemdiche? Jones’ counterpart has the name and highlight film, but this Bulldogs’ defensive end was equally productive after leading his team in tackles for loss. Just a sophomore, Jones perhaps has the biggest upside of any player on this list, but heightened bust potential is there too if he doesn’t sharpen his technique. Heading into fall practice, he’s listed as a second-teamer but that won’t last.

A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: Standing almost 6-foot-5 at 320 pounds, Robinson clogs up the middle for the Crimson Tide. Expect a spike in numbers from a sophomore who better understands his role and has earned a starting position since starring as a situational player during an All-Freshman first season.


Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: Coach Kevin Sumlin has raved about Garrett since his arrival on campus and teammates say he’s comparable to a third-year performer along the defensive line. My personal pick for the SEC’s defensive rookie of the year, Garrett bolsters a front seven in College Station that was in desperate need of his services despite 10 returning starters.

Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama: The second five-star freshman pass rusher out West, Hand won’t see as many snaps as Garrett with expansive talent of ahead of him, but should make an impact no matter how he fits into Kirby Smart’s plans as a first-year player. Keep an eye on Hand’s total number of forced fumbles despite limited action. He’s a lethal hitter, especially against unexpecting passers.


Tackle Leaders (minimum 40)

Dupree 66; Golden 56; Fowler 52; Flowers 50; Nkemdiche 47; Philon 44

Tackles For Loss Leaders (minimum 9)

Nkemdiche 15.5; Fowler 14.5; Golden 13; Flowers 11.5; Jones 10; Robinson 10; Garrett 9

Sack Leaders (minimum 7.5)

Fowler 11.5; Nkemdiche 11; Golden 10.5; Flowers 8.5; Dupree 8.5; Robinson 7.5