College Football 2011: Mark Barron and the SEC's 10 Best Defenders
After leading the SEC with seven interceptions in 2009, Mark Barron (6'2", 210 pounds) was named to the 2010 preseason Jim Thorpe watch list. But the numbers were not the same, as Barron and the Crimson Tide secondary lacked experience and depth in replacing numerous starters.
Barron had a down year in 2010, ending the season with a pectoral injury vs. Auburn and finishing with only three interceptions. Coming back from a torso injury, fans expect Barron to once again lead the defensive explosion in Nick Saban’s complex defensive scheme.
With a great physical build, Barron can not only play safety but also man an outside linebacker position in several Saban packages.
If Barron continues to provide excellent run support, expect his already first-round draft stock to improve en route to an SEC championship.
This short slideshow will give a rundown of the best defensive players in the Southeastern Conference.
Danny Trevathan (Kentucky)
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The Leesburg, Florida native exploded onto the scene in 2010, leading the SEC with 145 tackles. Trevathan (6'1", 223 pounds) then became the first player in Kentucky history to earn All-America honors at the linebacker position.
When announcing the return of his senior year on Twitter, Trevathan stated he had “unfinished business” in 2011. Sure, Trevathan has the right idea, but the talent of the Kentucky program won’t finish better than third in the SEC East.
Playing for a school that is not known for its football prowess, Trevathan continues to stand out, averaging 11.5 tackles per game in SEC contests.
With Trevathan possessing great speed and moving quickly to the football, look for him to capture more defensive honors as Kentucky goes to another early December bowl.
Dont'a Hightower (Alabama)
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In 2009, Hightower (6'4", 260 pounds) suffered a knee injury during the fourth game of the season. The Tide went on to win the national championship thanks to the heroics of Rolando McClain and a defense that was full of household names.
In 2010, Hightower made his return, but the Tide defense struggled while replacing nine starters. Having the talent to be an consensus All-American, Hightower's inconsistent play and knee injury bring huge concerns to fans in Tuscaloosa.
Even with Hightower's subpar performance of 70 tackles in 2010, Nick Saban needs a healthy linebacker who can lead the defense—not emotionally, but mentally.
"I feel a lot better," Hightower said to The Randolph Leader after A-Day. "I just feel like my old self. I'm back in shape and my weight is down and I am playing a lot faster. It feels great after all the hard work I put in."
Hightower does possess the physical tools, but he must overcome the shadow of an injury and lead the Crimson Tide defense to a new height if they are to make a run for a national title.
With a hectic schedule that includes stops in Happy Valley, The Swamp and Jordan-Hare Stadium, it is imperative Hightower knows his assignments getting the defense in place.
Ryan Baker (Louisiana State)
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After missing an early part of the season with a broken jaw, Ryan Baker (6'0", 227 pounds) returned to the LSU defense, finishing with 87 tackles. With Baker’s help down the stretch, LSU finished second in scoring defense and 11th nationally.
Nicknamed “The Missile,” the weakside linebacker looks to start the season off with a bang against Oregon in Jerry World. With Oregon running a play every eight seconds, expect Baker to showcase his speed against LaMichael James and the Oregon offense.
Baker must face the daunting task of going through a brutal SEC schedule and non-conference foes that includes a trip to Morgantown, WV to take on the Mountaineers.
With a great exposition of power and speed, expect to see Baker improve his NFL draft stock during the 2011 season, leading to Tigers to 10-plus wins.
Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina)
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The Rock Hill, South Carolina native was a 4-star cornerback coming out of high school and became a heralded pickup by Steve Spurrier. Since then, he has started every game for South Carolina, racking up 147 tackles his last two seasons.
Recently Gilmore (6'1", 189 pounds) was named to the 2011 Playboy Preseason All-America team and Lott Impact Trophy watch list.
Gilmore is an explosive player who has the ability to play on both sides of the football if needed. He has precise footwork and the ability to use his close-out speed on routes to the flats.
Even though Gilmore obtained All-SEC honors, he still had bit of a slump in 2011. Gilmore looks to regain his control of the Gamecock secondary to improve his NFL first-round draft stock for 2012.
Jarvis Jones (Georgia)
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With NCAA sanctions in place, Jones was granted a release from Southern Cal and chose to play closer to home for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Jones coming out of high school was rated the No. 3 linebacker at his position and looks to contribute to the Georgia defense immediately in 2011.
Though being freakishly athletic, Jones must continue to develop footwork to help his pass coverage skills in zone schemes.
This is the year where Mark Richt must win, or he is finished. With opening games vs. Boise State in Atlanta and a meaty SEC East schedule, look for Jones to make his presence felt, saving Richt’s job with a nine-win season.
Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama)
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Dre Kirkpatrick (6'3", 192 pounds) is currently ranked ninth on Mel Kiper’s 2012 NFL draft board. But these numbers can quickly fall if Kirkpatrick continues to give inconsistent play alone on the island.
At times last season, you could still sense there was a learning curve as Kirkpatrick made mistakes in defensive assignments. But many would argue his play has improved, as he finished fourth on the team in tackles in 2010.
Kirkpatrick is the prototypical specimen physically, but so far he only looks the part and has a lot of growing up to do.
In 2011, expect a better effort mentally as he will naturally mature into his position. Remember, Coach Saban turned a not confident Marquis Johnson into a respectable corner in a matter of just one season.
Morris Claiborne (Louisiana State)
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In 2010, Morris Claiborne (6'1", 177 pounds) formed one of the most impressive cornerback duos in the nation with Patrick Peterson. In 2011, Claiborne looks to carry that torch and lead the LSU secondary to a SEC West title.
Claiborne led the Tigers in interceptions with five and finished second in the SEC in passes defended (11) in 2010. But can Claiborne step out of the shadows of Peterson and become his own man?
LSU fans think so, and it actually should be easier than one thinks.
Possessing great ball skills and body control, Claiborne developed his ability to defend passes due to quarterbacks throwing away from Peterson last year.
If Claiborne can continue to hold his own against SEC West passing foe Arkansas and produce decent numbers during his trip to Tuscaloosa, writers and coaches will vote for him when it's time to place their SEC Defensive Player of the Year ballots.
Jelani Jenkins (Florida)
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Jelani Jenkins in 2010 was named to the Freshman All-SEC team and looks to improve his accolades during his time in Gainesville.
The 6'1", 223-pound linebacker has a great nose for the football, collecting 77 tackles his freshman year. The most productive game showcasing his skills came against South Carolina, finishing with 11 tackles.
Jenkins is a versatile player who not only has the physical strength to play middle linebacker but the agility and instincts to play outside as well.
With the acquisition of Will Muschamp at Florida, look for Jenkins to play more aggressive roles on a 3-4 defense this fall putting up huge numbers. Currently NFLDraftScout.com ranks him No. 1 in the class of 2014 for outside linebackers.
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Coming into the 2011 season, Jake Bequette (6'5", 271 pounds) will be ranked 10th on Arkansas’ all-time sack list. The only problem is that he may not get the snaps to achieve a better ranking, finishing with 7 sacks in 2010.
Arkansas looks to have six defensive line players rotating throughout 2011.
After starting all 13 games and garnering second team All-SEC honors, will Bequette be able to obtain the same numbers with fewer snaps?
Finishing with 16 percent of the vote in Chris Low’s ESPN Top SEC defender poll, Jake Bequette looks to produce effectively to help Arkansas win an SEC West title.