SEC East ballhawks: Likely INT leaders in 2016, and a surprise pick
As passing has become more prevalent in the SEC, more pressure and praise has gone to the guys who shut down the passing game.
Here’s a look at each SEC East team, projecting their likely interception leader in 2016, and offering a surprise pick as well.
The Gators picked off 14 passes in 2015, which tied them for third in the conference. They were led by Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen “Teez” Tabor, with four picks each. Hargreaves was a first-round NFL Draft choice, but Tabor is back.
The 6-0, 192 pound junior was a first team All-SEC preseason pick, and is the likely candidate to lead the team in picks this season. But Tabor is so good in coverage that teams will try to scheme away from him.
Of course, teams tried to stay away from Hargreaves last year, which is how Tabor emerged. This year’s surprise guy? All-SEC safety Marcus Maye is a likely candidate to step up in Tabor’s shadow, but don’t sleep on cornerback Quincy Wilson, who had two picks in 2015.
The Dawgs intercepted 12 passes in 2015, with half coming from safety Dominick Sanders.
The second team All-SEC pick has nine interceptions for his career, and will use his speed to work the entire field to prey on sloppy cornerbacks.
Another Bulldog to watch? Senior safety Quincy Mauger is more of a hitter than a cover threat, but he did have four interceptions in 2014. If defenses scheme too much to avoid Sanders, the 200-pound senior can make them pay.
The Wildcats picked off 11 passes last year, eight more than they had in 2013. The lead interceptor was reserve cornerback J.D. Harmon with three. Harmon is a 6-2, 197-pound former walk-on who has played at receiver and returned kicks.
UK’s most likely interception leader in 2016 is sophomore cornerback Chris Westry, who had two picks in 2015, and at 6-4, has the size and speed to make life tough for quality receivers.
A dark horse leader might be cornerback Derrick Baity, who is a true sophomore like Westry and has impressed his coaches in fall camp.
The Tigers picked off just nine passes in 2015, placing them 13th in the SEC. For 2016 to be a positive year, that number will need to improve.
The most likely candidate to help bring about that improvement may be cornerback Aarion Penton. Penton, a senior, has started for two years, and had three interceptions in 2014.
Penton had just one interception last year, but he did lead Mizzou with nine break-ups. If he isn’t the man, then safety Anthony Sherrils might be. Sherrils is a hitter, but he did break up seven passes and had an interception in 2015.
USC had 12 interceptions in 2015, and would love to improve that number in 2016. Linebackers Skai Moore (who is out for the season) and T.H. Holloman are the top returning players in the category, but the most likely Gamecock to lead the team in picks in 2016 is cornerback Chris Lammons.
Lammons is a 5-10 junior who broken up five passes, including one interception, in 2014. A surprise pick for USC might be juco cornerback Jamarcus King, who is very highly regarded, but hasn’t competed at the SEC level before.
The Vols also had 12 interceptions in 2015. Their interceptions leader was safety Todd Kelly, who picked off three passes while mostly playing off the bench.
But the preemptive favorite to lead Tennessee in picks in 2016 is senior cornerback Cameron Sutton. The 5-11, 186-pound Sutton was a first team All-SEC preseason pick and is, along with Tabor, one of the best cover corners in the league, if not in football entirely.
Given his skills, it’s hard to pick against Sutton, but if you do, a Kelly repeat could occur, or junior cornerback Emmanuel Moseley could have a big season.
The ‘Dores picked off just six passes in 2015, fewest in the league, and coach Derek Mason is doubtlessly targeting that figure as ripe for improvement.
Oren Burks led Vandy with three, but Burks has moved from safety to linebacker, so he is somewhat unlikely to repeat that achievement.
Cornerback Torren McGaster may be the 2016 Vandy leader — a two-year starter, McGaster broke up 13 passes last year, although he had no interceptions.
A surprise candidate might be safety Emmanuel Smith, who had been somewhat disappointing, but could emerge with a big junior season.