Boom! Here are 10 of the most ferocious hitters in the SEC
Quick, what’s the first thing you the SEC fanatic thinks about when Jadeveon Clowney’s name is brought up?
Yeah, we thought so. The Hit. When Clowney threw caution to the wind and knocked the wind and maybe more out of some unfortunate Michigan running back — it was Vincent Smith, by the way — during the fourth quarter of the 2013 Outback Bowl.
Clowney had 129 tackles, a staggering 47 of them for losses, 24 sacks and nine forced fumbles during his three years terrorizing offenses at South Carolina. But it’s that one frightening moment during a sunny New Year’s Day afternoon in Tampa that he’ll always be known for — in college, anyway. Do you even remember who won that game? It was the Gamecocks, 33-28, by the way, and Clowney recovered the fumble he caused by The Hit, and it set up a South Carolina touchdown.
The point is, football is about a lot of things, but at its ruthless core it’s a sport that, for better and sometimes worse, makes its reputation on violent moments. Clowney’s became legendary. So in honor of this hard-hitting SEC stalwart of the past, we give you 10 current conference ballhawks who have consistently left running backs, wide receivers and kick returners dizzy. The list isn’t in any particular order of hardest hitters — they’re all scary to see across the line of scrimmage.
Darrin Kirkland Jr., Tennessee middle linebacker
The junior isn’t surrounded by a wealth of talent anymore, at least not the experienced kind, as he pointed out this spring, but all that means is that Kirkland this fall will be the leader and main enforcer on a defense without Derek Barnett, Cameron Sutton and Jaylen Reeves-Maybin.
It’s not like Kirkland is new at this intimidation thing. The 6-1, 230-pounder has been dishing out vicious hits since he was a freshman, when he had 66 total tackles and three sacks. Last season, Kirkland found a way to play through pain. This fall, he’ll resume inflicting pain.
Mike Edwards, Kentucky strong safety
Last fall, Wildcats defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale called Edwards “a natural” and a hard worker. Wildcats defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot went a few compliments further, labeling Edwards the team’s best overall defensive player — their best cover guy, best tackler and best blitzer.
The 6-0, 200-pound backbone of the Kentucky defense is both studious and relentless. The junior-to-be led all SEC defensive backs in tackles last year with 100, and more than a few of them were of the bone-crunching variety. He was a rock in the Wildcats’ resurgent 2016 season, starting all 13 games, and he never failed to make his presence felt.
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Ronnie Harrison, Alabama free safety
Harrison packs a punch on fall Saturdays and isn’t afraid to fire off a verbal blitz in the spring either. He grew up in the shadows of Florida State in Tallahassee and almost was a Seminole, and so the 6-3, 216-pound fireball who took flight with 86 tackles as a sophomore can’t wait to get his junior season started against his hometown team on Sept. 2 in Atlanta.
On that early September night in Atlanta’s new palace, Harrison will merely start adding to the reputation he’s built in SEC circles as a fearless hitter and playmaker in Alabama’s secondary. It’ll just be the first time Florida State gets to experience Harrison’s wrath.
Arden Key, LSU linebacker
The Tigers’ menacing linebacker missed the spring for personal reasons, and LSU coach Ed Orgeron revealed that Key recently underwent shoulder surgery. No matter. The 6-6 junior-to-be will be back this fall, patrolling SEC backfields and punishing those who come his way.
Last fall, Key set the LSU single-season sack record with 12, and his 55 tackles probably seemed like double that to the SEC offensive players Key hit. This fall, Key’s ferocity will be even more welcomed in Baton Rouge with all the talent gone from last year’s defense.
Deshaun Davis, Auburn outside linebacker
Another SEC West intimidator is Davis, the junior-to-be who last year had 63 tackles, including a career-best 10 at Ole Miss and a team-high eight in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. And guess what? Davis was hardly satisfied with his 2016 season, which is surely bad news for the SEC this fall.
Watching Davis dish out the hits last fall, you would hardly notice he’s undersized at 5-11 and 246 pounds. We’re guessing Davis doesn’t feel like an undersized outside linebacker at impact, and he sealed his hard-hitting reputation while starting all 13 games last season.
Mack Wilson, Alabama linebacker
OK, officially Wilson is listed as a linebacker, but look up his 2016 statistics and you’ll only see eight tackles combined and a few games where no statistics were available, meaning the freshman might not have even appeared on defense that day. So how can Wilson possibly be anywhere near this list? Two words: Speedy Noil.
The Texas A&M wide receiver and — unfortunately for him against Alabama last year — kick returner couldn’t live up to his name and avoid a hard-charging Wilson during a first-quarter kickoff last fall in Tuscaloosa. Wilson made a name for himself with one stunning hit on national TV. The announcers knew who Wilson was and said he’d be “an elite player some day.” Noil wouldn’t argue that.
Lorenzo Carter, Georgia outside linebacker
He’s 6-6, 242 and seemingly always flying downhill to connect with whoever has the ball. He’s also never absent, unfortunately for offenses, as Carter has appeared in all 39 games during his first three merciless seasons in Athens. Last season, he piled up 44 tackles, tying for a team-high five sacks and finishing second with 13 quarterback pressures.
Carter can’t wait to get back at it again this fall, causing more bruises and showing why he and a litany of other Bulldogs seniors-in-waiting who could have gone pro stayed in Athens for a final crack at an SEC East crown. Oh, and a heads-up to the SEC: Carter’s main focus this spring was his physicality and skills as a pass-rusher. Quarterbacks beware.
Armani Watts, Texas A&M safety
The Aggies lost a ton of talent from their defense, including No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, but Watts decided to stick around for his senior season and make receivers pay a little more for coming over the middle.
Watts piled up an astounding 126 tackles two years ago, becoming the first Aggies defensive back with 100 tackles since 2003. And when Watts was injured late last season, the secondary suffered greatly as well as the team, which quickly went from SEC contention to oblivion. His teammates are thankful Watts is back to resume all that punishment, and Aggies offensive players are grateful they don’t have to feel the pain.
“He’s an animal,” star wide receiver Christian Kirk said this spring. “You see him off the field — he’s quiet, laid back. And when he gets on the field, he just goes crazy.”
Duke Dawson, Florida cornerback
Yes, Dawson has had to wait his turn behind elite corners Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, but it hardly meant the senior-to-be didn’t make his presence felt as a slot cornerback. In fact, Dawson led UF last season with seven pass breakups, forced a fumble and had 24 tackles, and naturally a few of those tackles were of the hard-charging variety.
Expect the nasty hitting in the Gators’ secondary to continue this fall, especially with Dawson starting on the outside and taking on a leadership role now that Tabor and Wilson are gone. His leadership by example will surely include a continuation of his hit parade.
Todd Kelly Jr., Tennessee safety
Kelly has followed in his father’s orange-and-white footsteps in not only his excellence on the defensive side but the way he’s forging that legacy — by attacking. Todd Kelly Sr. was an All-SEC first-team defensive end in 1992 who was named Tennessee’s 2014 SEC Legend. His son could be named a Vols legend one day, too, although for now he’ll have to settle for being a safety ballhawk who’s always buzzing around receivers.
Kelly has played in 38 of a possible 39 games in his three seasons, piled up 150 combined tackles, with his total increasing each season from 33 to 46 to 71. More tackles each season have meant more big hits, and a reminder of what Kelly is sure to do this fall for an encore.