Approaching the final few weeks of college football, some familiar names have fallen off the tongues of many.
Jadeveon Clowney, the pick of many as a dark-horse defensive Heisman underdog for 2013, racked up 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks a year ago. This year, he's on pace for around a quarter of those numbers.
New faces have taken the SEC's center spotlight, which is strangely dominated by offense in 2013-14. Still, the SEC touts the nation's top-scoring defense in Alabama and a total of five of the nation's top-25 scoring defenses.
SEC coaches are well aware that playing the best isn't easy. With the year of the SEC quarterback, the league's defensive coordinators covet players that can force turnovers, hold tackles and generate pass pressure.
It's not all about the name; it's about doing your job. This is a list of the SEC's best at doing their jobs on the defensive side of the ball.
The Vanderbilt Commodores have quickly learned how easy it is to be good in the SEC and just how difficult it is to be great. After a series of close losses and a big upset win over Georgia, the Commodores find themselves two wins away from a bowl.
Kenny Ladler, a senior safety, has played a huge role in Vandy's recent renovation. In 2013, he's forced four fumbles in eight games along with two interceptions and 68 tackles.
After missing a bowl in 2012's SEC debut, the Missouri Tigers' potential SEC Eastern Division title-winning 2013 campaign has rocked the status quo.
Though the Tiger offense has impressed despite the loss of starting quarterback James Franklin, E.J. Gaines has led his team to ranking in the nation's top-25 scoring defenses.
Gaines, one of the premier defensive backs in the league, has pulled in four interceptions in seven games and generally caused havoc downfield. He's notched 40 tackles, three tackles for loss and two pass deflections.
Named to the 2013 Bednarik Award watch list, Gaines undoubtedly has the attention of opposing quarterbacks every time he steps onto the field.
Steve Spurrier and his South Carolina Gamecock defense is no secret. Relying heavily on Clowney, however, the unit has seen a drop-off in production in 2013.
Kelcy Quarles, a junior, is picking up the slack and showing up on scouts' radar screens. The 298-pound defensive tackle has recorded 11 solo tackles for loss for an SEC-high 86 yards. He also has picked up seven sacks: more than triple any other team member.
Quarles has been named to the 2013 Outland Trophy watch list for the nation's best interior lineman and expects to be a hot commodity in May.
After going winless in the league in 2012, a new year brought a new coach and a new record for 2013.
The Auburn Tigers find themselves ranked seventh in the nation with just a single loss and in very real contention to play for a national title.
A key part of the team's 22nd-ranked scoring defense is Dee Ford, a senior defensive end named to the 2013 Bednarik Award watch list. Voted second-team All-SEC in the preseason, Ford's averaging a solo sack per game, recorded 9.5 tackles for loss and is doing his part to live up to the hype.
With seven quarterback hurries under his belt on the year, Ford's put his name in the minds of every opposed SEC signal-caller.
No list of the top defensive players in the league is complete without Ramik Wilson (and his dreads).
The Georgia Bulldogs entered the season with national title hopes, and though those have shown their way out, their defense is getting it done on Wilson's shoulders.
Wilson, a junior, leads the league in tackles with 80 and is the only player averaging double-digits in tackles per game (10.0). With six tackles for loss and two sacks to add to that impressive number, few will ignore the capabilities of Ramik Wilson.
The Auburn Tigers' second player to make the list, Jonathon Mincy has made his statement as one of the team's most valuable and athletic players.
In nine games, Mincy ranks second on the squad in tackles with 41—and that's out of the defensive back position. Mincy has defended an SEC-high 11 passes, including 10 passes broken up and an interception.
Auburn, ranked 22nd in scoring defense, utilizes the threat that Mincy brings to the defensive backfield to force quarterbacks into shifting toward one side of the field, simplifying the entire game plan.
Few SEC defensive backs have the combination of vision and athletic ability that makes Sunseri so special.
For an Alabama Crimson Tide defense ranked tops in the country in scoring defense, Sunseri seals up the backfield. He's the only player in the league with two pick-six's (totaling 111 yards) and has racked up four pass breakups with six passes deflected.
Though the Tide's front lines get a lot of praise, the job that Sunseri has done against the pass puts him among the most elite in the nation.
You might want to sit down for this.
Michael Sam might just be better than Jadeveon Clowney.
At least this year.
Finishing up his senior season as a Missouri Tiger, Sam leads the SEC with 10 sacks in nine games (good for fourth in the country), all of them solo, for 63 yards. Clowney's total of 13 from 2012 could be eclipsed.
Sam also leads the league in tackles for loss with 16, all of them solo as well.
The Bednarik Award semifinalist and fourth-ranked defensive end by nfldraftscout.com, Sam has been underrated by the media, but his performance on the field is something to be reckoned with. With a potential matchup against Alabama for the right to play for a national title, Michael Sam will be an important cog in the machine for the Tigers.
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