Ranking SEC defenses entering the 2016 season
The SEC had 51 players chosen in the NFL Draft this past April, yet again more than any other conference.
The defensive side of the football was well represented, including 13 who went in the first three rounds alone — four in the first, five in the second, four in the third. This league will always play D.
RELATED: Ranking SEC offenses in 2016
Alabama, the defending national champion for the fourth time in seven years, saw four defenders get selected in Round 2. Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Cyrus Jones were all sensational in Tuscaloosa. But they won’t be missed. It’s not an insult to say so. No team reloads like the Crimson Tide.
As is usually the case, the SEC features an embarrassment of riches at the defensive line positions. Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, as a matter of fact, could go No. 1 in next year’s draft. He’s a vicious pass rusher.
Here are our Top 5 defenses in the conference as we prepare for 2016. Spread offenses, you’ve been warned.
Statistically, the Volunteers weren’t overly impressive a season ago. It was a middle-of-the-back defense.
But practically every starter that matters returns, so the Vols will feature one of the more experienced units in the nation. It’s time for all that talent and potential to pay some legitimate dividends, though.
The front four is anchored by pass rusher Derek Barnett, who was a double-digit sack man as a freshman and sophomore. The heart and soul on D is linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who’s a sideline-to-sideline terror. In the secondary, while he doesn’t pick off many passes, cornerback Cameron Sutton can be a shutdown guy.
All three were preseason All-SEC first-team selections by the media. The only other program to put a trio of players on the first-team defense was Alabama. Tennessee’s blue-chippers can play with anybody.
While the Vols didn’t have any second- or third-team picks — the Tide did, of course — more stars are in the pipeline.
Purely in terms of recruiting rankings, the Tigers have just as much talent in the facility as ‘Bama does.
The Bayou Bengals have had at least one defender taken as early as the second round in every draft since 2011, including five in Round 1. But the Tide have enjoyed more consistent success as a unit defensively.
Coaching could have something to do with it, as Nick Saban is always a defense-first guy and Kirby Smart was his coordinator the past nine years — now he’s the top Dawg at Georgia. Dave Aranda comes to Baton Rouge after three strong seasons coordinating the D at Wisconsin. Insiders simply love the hire.
Aranda has never had horses like this before. Lewis Neal leads a ferocious pass rush. Kendell Beckwith is a tackling machine at linebacker. Tre’Davious White (above) has the skills necessary to be a lockdown cornerback.
Many are saying that Aranda is the most important new assistant in the SEC. He could be a head coach soon.
The aforementioned Smart, previously a safety for the Dawgs, takes over for Mark Richt between the hedges.
His first task will be locating pass rushers. The speedy Leonard Floyd and powerful Jordan Jenkins are now gone. Fellow linebacker Davin Bellamy is the lone returning Bulldog with multiple sacks from a season ago. Lorenzo Carter has all of the measurables, but he hasn’t broken through yet.
Scheme familiarity shouldn’t be a problem for Smart. Former coordinator Jeremy Pruitt went from Alabama to Florida State to Georgia to Alabama a second time — coincidentally, he returned to Tuscaloosa to replace Smart. New coordinator Mel Tucker spent the 2015 campaign with the Crimson Tide coaching defensive backs.
Smart should be quite excited to inherit safety Dominick Sanders, as he played the position himself. Fresh off an All-SEC performance, Sanders leads the secondary and has intercepted nine passes in just two years.
In the trenches, be on the lookout for a breakout season from tackle Trenton Thompson. He’s a future stud.
The Gators watched five defenders go in the draft this April, including a pair of first-rounders.
Holes need to be plugged at every level. Jonathan Bullard was nasty up front. Antonio Morrison led the team in tackles. Vernon Hargreaves locked down half the field. Keanu Neal delivered crushing hits.
Fortunately, there are several candidates up and down the depth chart ready to make a name for themselves. Cece Jefferson (above) flashed a lot of upside immediately as a freshman pass rusher. Jarrad Davis turned down a shot at the NFL to be the top linebacker. Jalen Tabor was perhaps better at corner in 2015 than Hargeaves.
Second-year coach Jim McElwain is an offensive guy. There is a lot of work to do on that side of the ball, as UF was downright horrid finishing out the slate a year ago. He’ll again ask his D to pick up the slack.
Only Alabama had more sacks last season than UF’s 40. A similar number helps win the field-position game.
The Crimson Tide were tops in the SEC in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense a season ago.
No matter how many players coach Nick Saban sends to the NFL, there are simply more future pros to choose from once spring ball arrives. The amount of four- and five-star prospects at his disposal is staggering.
Robinson and Reed are gone. But Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand are back. Ragland has departed. Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams — each is on the Butkus Award watch list — remain, though. The defensive backfield, led by safety Eddie Jackson, is deep as ever. That’s saying something in Tuscaloosa.
Don’t expect Smart’s defection to have much of an effect, either. Pruitt’s only year as the coordinator at FSU was 2013. The Seminoles won a national championship and fielded the No. 1 scoring defense in the land.
Saban must find a new starting quarterback yet again. As usual, he won’t feel the need to score that much.
MISSING THE CUT
Arkansas: Deatrich Wise Jr. was one of the better pass rushers in the league last season with 8.0 sacks, but no other Razorback had more than 2.0.
Auburn: Kevin Steele is Gus Malzahn’s third defensive coordinator in four years. He didn’t get much out of Will Muschamp in 2015, either.
Kentucky: While Mark Stoops put together one of the best defenses in the country as a coordinator at FSU, he doesn’t have the same level of athlete on hand in Lexington.
Ole Miss: The Rebels didn’t slow down many teams last year. They just outscored opponents with Chad Kelly at quarterback. Expect a similar game plan most weeks.
Mississippi State: Richie Brown, the leading tackler and sacker this past season in Starkville, is one of the SEC’s most underrated players. Get the young man some help.
Missouri: The Tigers would have made the Top 5, but Walter Brady’s dismissal hurts the pass rush badly. Mizzou’s front four is its strength, and all of a sudden that strength isn’t what it once was.
South Carolina: In terms of total yards allowed per game, the Gamecocks were the worst defense in the conference a year ago. And now Skai Moore is done for 2016 with an injury.
Texas A&M: Considering how good their front four is, with Garrett and Daeshon Hall outside and Daylon Mack inside, the Aggies shouldn’t have been such a ho-hum unit last season.
Vanderbilt: Like in-state rival Tennessee, the Commodores warrant Top 5 consideration. Zach Cunningham and Oren Burks would be standouts for any program in the country.