Ranking the SEC's 5 best rushing defenses in 2016
While being blown out by five touchdowns against a high-octane aerial attack is no fun, being forced to watch your team get battered and bruised by three touchdowns against a powerful running game is worse.
That’s just one person’s opinion, which is coming from a New York Giants fan who experienced both types because they stunk in both departments last season.
Fortunately, these five defenses shouldn’t have that problem this season.
Let’s take a shot at ranking the top five rushing defenses in the SEC this coming season. Here they are in reverse order:
Some SEC programs have built a strong reputation against the run over a long period of time, while others have come on the scene much more recently. Florida is the former.
The Gators are always among the SEC’s top five at stopping the run, placing there in 10 of the last 11 seasons with the only exception being 2014.
Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins still has plenty of talent to keep that trend going despite losing some key playmakers against the run like DT Jonathan Bullard, DE Alex McCalister, ILB Antonio Morrison and SS Keanu Neal.
The Gators should have a solid defensive line with Cece Jefferson, Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie on the interior while Bryan Cox Jr. and Jordan Sherit will be outside. Those are the five that should see the field the most as others earn their playing time.
Jefferson’s move inside and how he deals with guards and centers will be key.
The linebacking group is more of a question mark, but Jarrad Davis returning is huge for the position. Kylan Johnson, a converted safety, turned some heads in the spring game. If Alex Anzalone can stay healthy, this group can plug some holes.
Let’s just face it. There won’t be any replacing linebacker Kentrell Brothers. The candidates to replace him at the middle spot enter 2016 unproven.
However, Mizzou’s defense will be able to lean on redshirt seniors Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom on the outside.
As for the defensive line, let’s just say there aren’t as many worries there. Missouri returns all nine defensive linemen who were on the two-deep depth chart to finish last season.
Plus, it gets back redshirt senior DT Harold Brantley, who missed last season due to injuries he suffered in a vehicle accident. He was hard at work during spring, much to the delight of coach Barry Odom.
At defensive end, Second-Team All-SEC performer Charles Harris coming off a season in which he went for 56 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss (second in the SEC), 7 sacks, 10 QB hurries and 2 forced fumbles.
Joining him to form one of the conference’s best edge-rushing tandems is Walter Brady, who had 12.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 7 QB hurries and a forced fumble of his own.
Add in talents like Nate Howard, Terry Beckner Jr., Josh Augusta and Rickey Hatley, and that gives Odom a terrific front seven in Year 1.
The Hogs have come a very long way in rushing defense since Bret Bielema’s first season on The Hill.
In 2013, the Razorbacks were 11th in the SEC in both rushing yards per game and average yards per rush. In each of the two seasons since, Arkansas has ranked second in the conference in opponent rushing yards per game, also placing in the top five in yards per rush.
There’s no reason to believe the unit won’t be just as good if not better against the run this season. The team’s top two tacklers from last season return in senior Brooks Ellis (102 tackles, 8 tackles for loss) and sophomore Dre Greenlaw (95 tackles, 3 tackles for loss).
The front has a bevy of players that defensive line coach Rory Segrest will be comfortable scheming with.
Ends Deatrich Wise, JaMichael Winston, Tevin Beanum and five-star signee McTelvin Agim will line up outside of tackles Jeremiah Ledbetter (moved inside) and Taiwan Johnson.
Sure, defending the pass proved to be the Hogs’ Achilles heel, but the team took pride in stopping the run. That was evident in its performance against Alabama. The Tide only managed 2.9 yards per rush on 46 carries, and Derrick Henry posted a season-low 3.5 yards per rush on 27 carries.
Running the ball against the Bayou Bengals is always tough, but it’ll be especially hard this season, and that’s saying a lot.
The Tigers have ranked among the top five in the SEC against the run in 9 of the 11 seasons since Les Miles came to Baton Rouge in 2005.
That success shouldn’t go anywhere. This year’s Tigers return all four starting defensive linemen from a season ago as first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda switches the unit from a base 4-3 to a 3-4.
LSU should be great up the middle with Christian LaCouture at nose tackle and Kendell Beckwith behind him at middle linebacker. Davon Godchaux, Lewis Neal and Frank Herron highlight the defensive ends.
There will be a lot of experimentation in the fall as Godchaux can rotate inside, the team may switch to a 4-3 at times, getting Greg Gilmore on the field somehow, etc.
Beckwith is joined by Arden Key, Donnie Alexander and Duke Riley as the projected starters at linebacker. Other players like Tashawn Bower and Michael Divinity, who stood out this spring, are sure to see the field.
Until someone takes away the rushing defense title from the Tide, it only makes sense to put them here.
Stopping the run is like breathing for Alabama under coach Nick Saban. His program has led the SEC in opponent yards per rush in an amazing eight straight seasons dating back to 2008, his second year in Tuscaloosa.
Since that same year, Alabama has only allowed seven 100-yard rushers. Just how incredible is that? The next-best team in that area is the program we just got done talking about, LSU, which has allowed more than three times that amount (25) over that span.
The Tide’s defensive front seven was the best in recent memory last season, and it has all the talent to duplicate that performance in 2016.
Even after losing middle linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed to the NFL Draft, first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt isn’t pressed with too many big concerns.
Reuben Foster, second on the team with 73 tackles to go with 8 tackles for loss and 9 passes broken up, will be filling in for Ragland and got a lot of spring love from the team.
The rest of the front seven is loaded with playmakers like ends Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand as well as outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson.
The only question for this group is will it be as deep as last season’s.