Projecting SEC stat leaders: Linebackers
One of the SEC’s positions of dominance in the past, the league’s elite group of returning linebackers this fall is already drawing comparisons to previous top classes.
Can Georgia’s Ramik Wilson surpass his impressive 133-tackle junior season? How will Trey DePriest respond to the pressure of replacing All-American C.J. Mosley as the ‘IT’ on defense in Tuscaloosa? Is it time for South Carolina’s Skai Moore to emerge as the Eastern Division’s breakout star?
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.
Top projected stat leaders for 2014:
Let’s break down the SEC’s top linebackers by class before moving into statistical projections:
CREAM OF THE CROP
Ramik Wilson, Georgia: The SEC’s top returning tackler with a jaw-dropping 133 total stops, Wilson’s final season should be a special one in Athens as one of four starting linebackers back for the Bulldogs. An All-SEC lock at year’s end, there’s a chance Wilson could surpass his junior campaign if he maintains his durability.
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi St.: Defensive end. Wide receiver. Tight end. McKinney could probably play three other positions in addition to his linebacker duties for the Bulldogs, an athlete with a near perfect blend of size, speed and strength. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, McKinney’s a physically imposing threat and one of Mississippi St.’s leaders on a stacked unit this fall. NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper has McKinney as the top underclassmen inside linebacker.
A.J. Johnson, Tennessee: A three-year who has led his team in tackles each of the past two seasons, Johnson’s back for one more go in Knoxville hoping to direct the Vols to a bowl game. Tennessee’s still a year or two away from competing for a division championship and Johnson anchors a unit that should get extensive work this fall thanks to an all-new defensive front four.
Trey DePriest, Alabama: The next great linebacker for the Crimson Tide, DePriest will use Alabama’s marquee opener against West Virginia to assume the role of superstar on an uber-talented defense for coordinator Kirby Smart. He’ll shatter his single-game tackle high (11) as a senior and set a career-best number for total stops.
PRECISE IN PURSUIT
Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss: One of the nation’s top outside linebackers, Bryant’s speed gives him an edge against other players at his position. He led the Rebels in tackles as a junior despite only starting seven games at stinger. At times, Bryant controlled games by himself including a 15-tackle effort against Southeast Missouri State and 11 stops at Texas. Despite his success, Bryant’s often the third or fourth mentioned on the Ole Miss defense and will be one of the league’s leaders in tackles for loss while opposing teams focus on the Nkemdiche brothers and defensive end C.J. Johnson.
Cassanova McKinzy, Auburn: Ellis Johnson thinks McKinzy’s better suited as a middle linebacker and expects a seamless switch this fall. McKinzy was able to flow to the football last season on the weak side in Auburn’s 4-2-5, but his primary role is to direct others as a junior. Don’t expect a huge dip in production however. Should the Tigers notice he’s not comfortable, Kris Frost and McKinzy could flip-flop positions again.
Amarlo Herrera, Georgia: Bulldog linebackers are often some of the SEC’s most productive and with Jeremy Pruitt’s recent admission he would call heavy blitzes this fall, fans can expect Herrera to flourish. He’s an enforcer in third-and-short situations and lurks over the middle. Often on top of the pile, No. 52’s easy to spot near the line of scrimmage.
STARS IN THE MAKING
Skai Moore, South Carolina: Starring as a wide-eyed freshman on the grand stage, Moore led his team in tackles and interceptions as a surprise impact player on Lorenzo Ward’s defense. Moore has great instincts and above average hands for a linebacker one year removed from the prep level. Fellow Gamecocks Sharrod Golightly and Kaiwan Lewis could have fit in this spot, but it appears Moore — in only his second season — has the highest upside.
Jarrad Davis, Florida: Davis broke into Will Muschamp’s rotation late in his freshman season after injuries decimated Florida’s depth at linebacker. He took full advantage of the opportunity, recording 24 tackles while carving his niche as a threat in run support.
Tackle Leaders (minimum 65)
Wilson 121; Herrera 110; Johnson 92; McKinney 79; DePriest 72; Bryant 70; Moore 65
Tackles For Loss Leaders (minimum 9)
Bryant 13; Wilson 10.5; DePriest 10; McKinney 9.5; Moore 9.5; McKinzy 9; Herrera 9
INT Leaders (minimum 2)
Moore 3; DePriest 3; Johnson 2; Wilson 2