SEC Football: Power Ranking Best Defensive Players Pre-2014 Spring Practice
You wouldn't know it by some of last year's scores, but the SEC is still a defense-driven league.
The abundance of talent coming through the SEC was on display earlier this month, when former SEC stars like Jadeveon Clowney, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Michael Same dominated headlines at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
While several stars have departed, others are ready to buckle up the chin strap this spring and shut down what have become diverse and dynamic offenses.
Who are the best SEC defensive players heading into spring practice 2014? Our picks are in this slideshow.
7. Florida 'Buck' Dante Fowler Jr.
It was a down season for Florida in 2013, but several stars emerged on the defensive side of the ball who could help lead a quick turnaround in Gainesville.
One of those stars was "Buck" defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. The 6'3", 266-pound monster finished fifth on the Gators with 50 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
He's quick off the ball, big enough to be a force against the run and fast enough to chase down running backs and dual-threat quarterbacks. Even when he's not making tackles or sacks, Fowler routinely finds himself in the backfield or disrupting the play, allowing his teammates to clean up the mess.
Snubbed by the SEC's coaches for the All-SEC team after the season, Fowler will return to a loaded Gator defense in 2014 and should become one of the SEC's brightest stars by the time the season comes to a close.
6. Alabama S Landon Collins
Alabama's secondary was a bit of an enigma last season, looking great on paper but struggling against teams that could stretch the field. Safety Landon Collins wasn't the problem, though.
The 6'0", 215-pounder bounced around the defensive backfield, filling in for free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix when he was suspended and then starting for strong safety Vinnie Sunseri when he was lost for the season with a knee injury.
All he did was finish second on the team with 69 tackles, pick off two passes and return one for a touchdown. He'll be back for more as a junior for head coach Nick Saban's crew as they look to rebound from two straight losses to close out the season and return to the top of the college football mountain in the first year of the College Football Playoff.
If the Crimson Tide is going to return to the top, they'll need Collins to be the force he was last season and be the leader of a defensive backfield that is in desperate need of stability.
5. Arkansas DE Trey Flowers
When you think of great SEC defenses, Arkansas doesn't typically pop into your head. There's a reason for that: Arkansas was remarkably mediocre last season. But hidden in the mediocrity was defensive end Trey Flowers.
The 6'4", 265-pound rising senior had 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, and he passed on jumping to the NFL after receiving a third-round grade, according to ArkansasMatters.com (h/t to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com).
"Even though my draft grade was good, I believe another year with coach [Bret] Bielema will help improve my draft status," Flowers said in a statement in January. "I am looking forward to another season at Arkansas, where we have support from our administration, some of the best fans in the nation and a bright future for the football program."
He won't have Chris Smith to bookend that defensive line this season, but there's no denying how good Flowers is. He has notched 11 sacks over the last two seasons and was named a second-team All-SEC performer last season by the conference's coaches.
4. Alabama LB Trey DePriest
No C.J. Mosley, no problem?
If that's going to be the case, it might be up to Trey DePriest to carry the load at linebacker for the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2014.
He can handle the responsibility.
The 6'2", 242-pounder from Springfield, Ohio, finished last season with 65 tackles, 7.5 for a loss and two sacks. Mosley himself told AL.com's Michael Casagrande prior to the Sugar Bowl that DePriest could be a player to watch in 2014.
He's a hard hitter, has fantastic football instincts and is the next in line at what has become known as the SEC's version of "Linebacker U."
3. Georgia LB Ramik Wilson
Georgia's defense was more of a punchline than a power in 2013, but quietly, the Bulldogs produced two of the top three tacklers in the SEC. Leading the conference was linebacker Ramik Wilson, who finished with 133 tackles, 11 of which were for loss.
Like many returning stars, Wilson passed on the NFL to come back to school and should build upon his breakout season in 2014.
The 6'2", 232-pounder flies to the football and is a ferocious hitter. Now that defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is calling the shots, the first-team All-SEC performer from last season should be primed for an even better season as a senior. Pruitt relies heavily on fast, athletic linebackers making plays in space, which means good things for Wilson and the Bulldogs.
2. Ole Miss S Cody Prewitt
All Cody Prewitt did as a junior in 2013 was lead the SEC in interceptions with six and finish fifth in the conference with 13 passes defended. That earned him first-team All-American honors from the Associated Press and set him up to be a superstar for head coach Hugh Freeze's Rebels in 2014.
The best is yet to come for the 6'2", 220-pound native of Bay Springs, Miss.
He's already established himself as one of the premier ball hawks in the country, but he proved last season with his 71 tackles that he's capable of being a force in run support. That gives Freeze options. With Tony Conner and Trae Elston on campus and C.J. Hampton enrolled early, Prewitt can drop down into more of a hybrid role or move to linebacker if needed, which would allow Freeze to get more stars on the field.
If you don't know Cody Prewitt yet, get to know him now. He's well-positioned to make a run at SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior.
1. Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves III
It's rare that true freshman live up to the hype, but Vernon Hargreaves III did just that in his first season with the Florida Gators in 2013.
In a defensive backfield that included stars Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, it was Hargraves who emerged as the brightest star for head coach Will Muschamp. The 5'11", 192-pound native of Tampa, Fla., finished the season with three interceptions, 11 pass breakups and 38 tackles, locking down one side of the field for the Gators. According to Florida's official website, those 11 pass breakups tied for the most in program history for a true freshman.
That was good enough to earn him first-team All-SEC honors from the SEC coaches.
He boasts track-star speed, is physical at the line of scrimmage and has tremendous leaping ability. VHIII is already a superstar, and the best is yet to come for Hargreaves, who could become an All-American as sophomore at Florida.