SEC Football Post-Spring Defensive Unit Rankings
Offensive players from the SEC have taken home four of the last six Heisman Trophies, but the foundation for success in America's toughest football conference is still defense.
Alabama has shown this with its title teams in three of the last four seasons, but it isn't just the Crimson Tide whose identity is "D."
Four SEC team finished in the top 11 in total defense last season, and four of the top five defenses in 2011 hailed from the SEC.
How do the defensive units stack up after spring practice? Our post-spring rankings are in this slideshow.
14. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee's defense is going to be better in 2013 thanks to the switch back to the 4-3 from the 3-4, but how much better remains to be seen.
The Vols were dreadful last season, giving up 471.3 yards per game. That's 50.8 yards behind 13th-place Auburn. New defensive coordinator John Jancek has SEC experience from his time on the Georgia staff, which should accelerate the transition under first-year head coach Butch Jones.
A solid core exists on Rocky Top, with linebacker A.J. Johnson, defensive linemen Maurice Couch and Daniel McCullers and safety Brian Randolph.
They have a chance to be really, really good; but until we see it on the field, there's no reason to expect it quite yet. The Vols will show flashes of brilliance, but transition creates inconsistency; and the Vols will be just that in 2013.
13. Kentucky Wildcats
Defensive tackle Donte Rumph injured his shoulder this spring but should be fine once the season rolls around. When he gets back, he will find himself in the middle of a defensive line that's loaded with potential.
Rumph, along with fellow defensive tackle Mister Cobble and defensive ends Alvin Dupree and Za'Darius Smith will comprise a pretty solid foundation up front.
The back end, though, is loaded with question marks.
Leading tackler Avery Williamson returns at linebacker, but he's the only known commodity in that group. Three contributors are gone from last season's secondary
12. Auburn Tigers
Auburn's talented, yet under-achieving defense got a boost this offseason when former South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson signed on to Gus Malzahn's staff after one ill-fated season as Southern Miss' head coach.
He found a potential star this spring in "star" Justin Garrett, who will be manning that hybrid linebacker/safety position for the 2013 Tigers.
Up front, there's a solid foundation with defensive tackles Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright, and defensive ends Ken Carter and Dee Ford. Add in super-recruit Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel at end and Montravius Adams at tackle this summer, and all of the sudden, Auburn has a ton of depth.
The Tiger secondary was picked apart last season, but should be better especially if that front seven can put pressure on the quarterback.
11. Missouri Tigers
Missouri's first season in the SEC didn't exactly go according to plan.
The offense wasn't anywhere near as potent as head coach Gary Pinkel expected, and the defense struggled against top SEC offenses finishing the season 10th in the SEC in total defense at 390.7 yards per game.
Cornerback E.J. Gaines and linebacker Andrew Wilson return, but a mountain-sized hole in the form of former defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson exists on the defensive line. Matt Hoch is a versatile defensive lineman, but it's going to be hard to replace Richardson.
Replacing linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner won't be easy either, although senior Donovan Bonner has the experience and now the opening to take the next step.
10. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas finished 12th in the SEC in total defense last season, but has perhaps the most upside of any defensive unit in the country.
Chris Smith finished fourth in the SEC in sacks last season with 9.5, and will benefit from the return of fellow defensive end Trey Flowers who finished last season tied with Smith for fifth in the SEC with 13 tackles for loss.
Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines are better than advertised at safety, and cornerback Tevin Mitchel was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2011 but missed part of last season due that big hit in the Louisiana-Monroe game.
New defensive coordinator Chris Ash is known for his ability to develop a solid pass defense, and he has the pieces to do just that in Fayetteville in 2013—especially if the Hogs get pressure up front.
9. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State has a solid foundation returning with defensive end Denico Autry and linebacker Benardrick McKinney, but the absence of leading tackler Cameron Lawrence and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay is a tall order for head coach Dan Mullen to overcome in 2013.
Mullen is happy with where his linebackers are at this point.
"I was pleased with the play of some of our young linebackers, with Richie [Brown] and Beniquez Brown and Zach Jackson stepping up," Mullen said during the SEC post-spring coaches' teleconference. "They add to a crew with Benardrick McKinney who played last year, Deontae Skinner, Matt Wells and Ferlando Bohanna, Chris Hughes. They’ve really added some good depth right there for us."
Jamerson Love and Justin Cox will likely man the cornerback positions for the Bulldogs. Mullen likes they way they played this spring, but Banks and Slay have left some rather large shoes to fill.
8. Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M is in a fortunate position heading into the 2013. The Aggies are a known commodity offensively with the return Johnny Manziel at quarterback and a star-studded roster of skill players.
With that kind of firepower, all the Aggies need to be defensively in opportunistic. They have the talent on that back end with a talented secondary featuring cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, and safety Floyd Raven.
But that front seven is very much a question mark.
Linebacker Steven Jenkins will return this summer and join Donnie Baggs in the linebacking corps, and Julien Obioha can be a star at defensive end if he comes back healthy from a back injury.
Texas A&M's defense doesn't need to be great to get the Aggies in the BCS National Championship hunt as long as it can be opportunistic. Whether they are depends on that front seven.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
Remember when Ole Miss' defense was viewed as a pushover? It wasn't too long ago—early in the 2012 season, in fact—that the Rebels were more punch line than power on the defensive side of the ball.
Quietly though, they posted the SEC's seventh-best defense last season at 375.8 YPG and laid a solid foundation for what Rebel fans hope is a New Year's Day bowl game following the 2013 season.
Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche was a boss last season notching 82 tackles and 13 tackles for loss, and will return to form the centerpiece of a solid group of linebackers in Oxford.
Defensive ends C.J. Johnson and Channing Ward have the potential to be a dynamic duo at defensive end and will be joined by No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche later this summer.
Don't be blinded by Ole Miss' video game stats on offense. This defense is pretty darn solid and is going to get better with a talent injection from the incoming recruiting class.
6. Vanderbilt Commordores
Don't look now, but Vanderbilt has another talented linebacker quarterbacking that defense.
Senior Chase Garnham returns to lead a very underrated Commodore unit that is looking to break through that glass ceiling and contend for the SEC East title for the first time in the modern era. Garnham finished second on the team last season with 84 tackles and led the team with 6.5 sacks.
Behind him, the 'Dores' leading tackler Kenny Ladler returns at safety as does cornerback Andre Hal. Those two could anchor the most underrated secondary in the conference.
If guys like Kyle Woestmann and Stephen Weatherly can step up on that defensive line, the entire unit could be one of the most pleasant surprises in the SEC in 2013.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is already a superstar in the SEC, and that won't change in 2013 as the Rock Hill, S.C. native looks to make a legitimate push to win the Heisman Trophy.
Around him, though, there are some questions marks on that defense—particularly at linebacker.
Seven senior contributors departed from last year's defense, including both linebacker spots. Kaiwan Lewis, Kelvin Rainey and T.J. Holloman played well this spring and will be joined by Cedrick Cooper this summer.
Behind them, though, the Gamecock secondary will be solid. Cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree are both experienced players who will benefit immensely from the pass rush Clowney and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles are going to be able to generate.
4. LSU Tigers
Don't fall into the trap. Despite massive roster turnover, LSU's defense is not in rebuilding mode—it's in reloading mode.
Replacing talented players is nothing new for head coach Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis. Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are certainly capable of taking on larger roles on the interior line, and Jermauria Rasco showed what he was capable of this spring before an injury ended his spring session.
Lamin Barrow can play either middle or outside linebacker, Kwon Alexander played well before an injury forced him to miss the final six games of the regular season, outside linebacker Tahj Jones is back after academics sidelined him last season and D.J. Welter could make a push in the middle this summer.
Jalen Mills played great at corner as a freshman last season, and Jalen Collins saw significant time off the bench as well. Safety Craig Loston stuck around and will take on the role of veteran leader of this rebuilt defense.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
I know, I know.... Georgia lost Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins and a small village off last year's defense.
Georgia's defense in 2013 is going to be just fine, and will be remarkably better than its most immediate predecessor which finished 12th in the SEC in rush defense.
With the emergence of linebackers Jordan Jenkins, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, along with safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews this spring, Georgia solved most of its pressing defensive issues.
If Mike Thornton can be the force at nose, it will solidify a defensive line that features Garrison Smith and Ray Drew at defensive end.
Don't worry about Georgia's defense. The personnel on this unit is better equipped to be more consistent, which may be all Georgia needs to contend for the BCS National Championship.
2. Florida Gators
Florida lost some key pieces off of last year's stifling defense, but returns its fair share of studs as well.
Head coach Will Muschamp wants to get the best 11 players on the field, and is chomping at the bit to see former BUCK Ronald Powell—who missed last season after suffering a torn ACL last spring—at "Sam" linebacker."
"I can’t wait," Muschamp told GatorBait.net. I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know if I’m more excited or him. The guy’s worked hard."
Dominique Easley returns at defensive tackle, and will be joined by stars-in-the-making Jonathan Bullard at defensive end, Dante Fowler Jr. at BUCK and linebacker Antonio Morrison—who moved from inside to occupy the middle this spring.
The back end of that defense is stout with cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy returning, along with safety Jaylen Watkins.
Florida's defense is the least of its worries. Muschamp and first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will find themselves near the top of the SEC pecking order with this talented group of Gators.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
At this point, Alabama's defense has earned the benefit of the doubt.
Roster turnover doesn't seem to be an issue in Tuscaloosa, as head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have proven over the run of three BCS National Championships in four years that plugging in holes is more a formality than anything else.
Middle linebacker C.J. Mosley returns after leading the Tide last season with 107 tackles, and will be joined by Xzavier Dickson, Trey DePriest and the underrated Adrian Hubbard in group that Saban seems to clone every year.
The biggest question is at corner where Deion Belue is stepping up to fill the rather large shadow left by the recently-departed Dee Milliner. Belue was inconsistent at times last season, and somebody needs to step up at corner. Could Geno Smith, John Fulton or Bradley Sylve be that guy? Saban better find out quick, because Texas A&M and its talented and tall wide receiving corps will host the Crimson Tide during Week 3.
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