Top 10 Pre-Spring Practice Candidates for SEC Defensive Player of the Year

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

Top 10 Pre-Spring Practice Candidates for SEC Defensive Player of the Year

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The Southeastern Conference lost a bounty of star defensive talent after the 2013 season, but that doesn't mean that the league is going to be devoid of dominant defenders.

    A conference that recruits the way the SEC does simply recycles great players. So, while there will be another strong representation of Southern stars donning various NFL hats in the upcoming draft, plenty of others will take their place on the SEC gridiron next year.

    There may not be the same national-headline star power such as Jadeveon Clowney, Michael Sam, C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but there will be ample stars in this new crop.

    You know when names like Montravius Adams, Skai Moore and Jermauria Rasco didn't make the list, there's a lot of talent.

    With less than a month remaining until spring practice starts across the South, let's take a look at the heirs to the defensive throne.

    Who will inherit the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award from Sam and Mosley?

Landon Collins, S, Alabama

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    The former 5-star talent returns to anchor a Crimson Tide defense that lost a slew of All-Americans, but that just means he'll have an even bigger stage to showcase his immense talent.

    At 6'0", 215 pounds, the Geismar, La., product is the prototypical safety who boasts elite coverage skills and packs enough punch to punish receivers.

    When Vinnie Sunseri went down with an injury in 2013, Collins was saddled with more of a leadership role and wound up making second-team All-SEC sharing the same backfield with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

    Entering his junior—and likely final—season in college, he will make the leap to stardom and become a household name. With his abilities, Collins already is at the very top of draft boards across the nation.

    He finished 2013 with 69 total tackles, four tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Collins also returned one of those picks for a touchdown. He may be the top returning DB in the league in 2014, and it's not a stretch that he'll become the next great Nick Saban-coached DB.

Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida

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    Ever since he flipped from Florida State to Florida on national signing day 2012, Dante Fowler Jr. has been turning heads.

    Blessed with blazing fast quickness off the edge, "Flipper" as he's known by some around Gainesville (because of the flip from the 'Noles to UF), surged to second-team All-SEC in his second full year in orange and blue.

    He terrorized Tennessee in early September, earning league Player of the Week honors.

    But as the year progressed, a disappointing Gators team couldn't find anybody else to take the pressure off him rushing the passer. Fowler's stats suffered a bit. He didn't quite break out the way it looked like he would earlier in the year.

    Still, Fowler finished with 10.5 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. His work ethic led to some serious praise from coach Will Muschamp, who told, "When he makes a mistake, he wants to know what he can do to get better," Muschamp said. "He's just a very coachable player. That's what makes him a really good player."

    With a little more help this year, he could be the league's best player.

Benardrick McKinney, OLB, Mississippi State

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    Starkville isn't exactly the epicenter of the football universe, so a guy like Benardrick McKinney can slip a bit under the radar.

    But SEC opponents certainly know his name.

    The outside linebacker grew into a big, athletic terror in 2013, blossoming into one of the best defenders in the conference as a redshirt sophomore. He finished with 71 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.

    That performance came on the heels of a redshirt freshman season where his 102 tackles were second among FBS freshmen.

    Though he was eligible to head to the NFL after this past season, McKinney gave head coach Dan Mullen big news when he announced he'd return for his redshirt junior season. At 6'5", 235 pounds, he can do everything on the football field.

    "I just want to let everyone know I'm staying one more year," McKinney said in his YouTube announcement published by MSU athletics, via's Chase Goodbread.

    On the surface of that comment, it looks like 2014 will be McKinney's final year. He will team with bruising middle linebacker Deontae Skinner to give the Bulldogs one of the most formidable linebacking duos in the country.

A.J. Johnson, MLB, Tennessee

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    "The Freak," as he is known around Knoxville, gave coach Butch Jones huge news when he announced he'd return for his senior season in orange and white.

    Even in a year where the Volunteers boasted a nationally recognized recruiting class, getting A.J. Johnson to return was the coaching staff's biggest coup.

    However, the 6'2", 245-pound middle linebacker needs to learn from a recent alcohol-related arrest, detailed by the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Evan Woodbery (subscription required), that is a black eye for the expected leader and cornerstone of UT's defense.

    Johnson has been a starter for the Vols since Day 1 on campus, garnering first-team Freshman All-America honors and then leading the SEC and finishing fourth in the nation with 138 tackles as a sophomore.

    Switching back to a 4-3 base defense, Johnson still amassed 106 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and recovered a fumble as a junior in 2013. He has proven he has the versatility to play either scheme.

    Though Johnson needs to work on his coverage skills, he has the resume and the ability to hoist the hardware at the end of the year. 

Ramik Wilson, ILB, Georgia

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    Georgia's defense was disappointing in 2013, but one of the bright spots was interior linebacker Ramik Wilson.

    The SEC's leading tackler decided to return for his senior season after registering 128 tackles last season. At 6'2", 232 pounds, the Tampa product is an excellent pro prospect who moves well in space and is a sure tackler.

    But he will benefit greatly from staying another season in Athens, especially under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who led the defense for the national champion Florida State Seminoles last year.

    He noted to's Gentry Estes (subscription required) how important it is to get his degree:

    Yeah, I'm coming back. It was just nice to think about. I'm blessed to have the opportunity. I was just enjoying the moment, like 'The dream is coming true. I have a chance to get drafted and all that.' But school is more important. I need my degree at the end of the day.

    With Wilson returning, the Dawgs should have 13 players coming back who have started games, and they really could blossom into a formidable force with Wilson leading the charge.

Trey DePriest, ILB, Alabama

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    Death, taxes and Alabama All-American linebackers.

    The Crimson Tide Football Factory has gotten to the point where it produces at least one nationally-lauded linebacker every season. From Rolando McClain to Dont'a Hightower to C.J. Mosley, Alabama has a knack for churning out star linebackers.

    Though he isn't as talented as those guys, the next on the list is sturdy and steady Ohio product Trey DePriest.

    With so much talent around him, DePriest hasn't ever really been an every-snap linebacker for Kirby Smart's defense, but Mosley told's Michael Casagrande prior to the Sugar Bowl that DePriest was a player to watch in 2014: "If he comes back like I did, he'll evolve into that every down linebacker role so people will be able to see his true talents," Mosley said.

    The 6'2", 245-pound interior 'backer finished with 65 tackles in '13, third-most on the team and good enough to pick up second-team All-Conference honors.'s Travis Reier (subscription required) said DePriest is "a prime candidate to take over play-calling duties from Mosley."

    With Mosley cracking skulls in the NFL, DePriest easily could produce a 100-tackle season and parlay it into a high draft selection.

Vernon Hargreaves III

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    When you've achieved mass recognition via a first name, nickname or an abbreviation, you know you've arrived.

    King James. RGIII. Johnny Football. Jameis.

    The best freshman in all of college football achieved that status when Vernon Hargreaves III—or "VHIII," as you probably know him—roamed the backfield for the Florida Gators and achieved Associated Press first-team All-SEC honors during his first year.

    So, what's next for VHIII? Perhaps the SEC's top defensive award.

    While it's extremely difficult for a cornerback to win the award, the 5'11", 185-pound Hargreaves may be the man. He tied for the SEC lead with 14 passes defended, picked off three passes, broke up 11 and had 38 tackles. He was the true definition of shut-down corner.

    Recruiting services didn't miss when they rated Hargreaves the nation's top cornerback recruit in the country two years ago, and he lived up to those massive expectations, stepping in for injured UF CB Marcus Roberson and dominating.

    He became the first UF true freshman on the first-team AP All-SEC team since Emmitt Smith in 1987. His career turned out OK. VHIII looks like a can't-miss, as well.

Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss

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    While Cody Prewitt had burst onto the scene during Hugh Freeze's first year in Oxford, few expected what happened in 2013.

    The 6'2", 220-pound junior free safety from Bay Springs, Miss., was honored as a first team All-American by the Associated Press and USA Today, among other publications. He led the SEC with six interceptions and also had 70 tackles and 13 passes defended.

    Prewitt narrowly edged out Serderius Bryant as Ole Miss' defensive MVP, mainly because of his hard-hitting ability, jumbo size for his position and his ability to stuff the run. He also is a ball hawk whose interception numbers and knack for being where he needs to be speak for themselves.

    Taking a hard-nosed approach to every snap is how he went from unheralded, unknown prospect to an every-down player to an All-American.

    With Ole Miss brimming with talent all over the field, Prewitt should team with Tony Conner to give the Rebels one of the best safety tandems in the league, if not the entire nation.

    Another season like 2013, and it may be difficult to keep his name off the top of the list for top defender.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn

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    It wouldn't be a typical pre-spring, way-too-early projection without a wild card, and Auburn rising sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson is the pick here.

    Though he didn't have as strong of a first year statistically as a rookie like Mississippi State's Chris Jones or Alabama freshman A'Shawn Robinson, Lawson gets the slight nod because of massive potential.

    Also, it's much more common for a defensive end to get the accolades than a tackle.

    Lawson—a former 5-star prospect rated by 247Sports—finished with 20 tackles, four sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss in limited action as a freshman for the BCS national championship-losing Tigers.

    He also teamed with Montravius Adams to give Auburn fans a freshman DL duo to be excited about for the future.

    He is a physical freak of nature who is a prototype pass-rusher. Blessed with blazing speed off the edge and bullish strength, it is only a matter of time until he emerges. Will it be as a sophomore?

    That's difficult to predict, but once Lawson masters gap control and gets better against the run, the sky is the limit.

Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss

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    It was going to be impossible for Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche to live up to the massive hype that surrounded him as a freshman in 2013.

    While he didn't quite meet those expectations in a year that saw him get banged up, he improved throughout the year and finished with 29 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and two sacks.

    There's no doubt Nkemdiche possesses impressive abilities, and the more time he gets learning the defense and developing his incredible skills, the better he's going to get. It would not be out of the ordinary to see him take a massive leap as a sophomore.

    He and his brother Denzel are expected to terrorize opponents on the field, but they've got to stay in trouble off it to do so. They were named in an assault complaint recently, detailed by Fox Sports' Clay Travis, that made national headlines.

    Nkemdiche may have some growing up to do on the field and off, but if he can maximize his potential, there are few more talented players in the conference.