1. Alabama Crimson Tide
With All-American C.J. Mosley back in the fold, the always-outstanding Alabama linebacker corps promises to be outstanding once more. Going a step further, the 2013 Crimson Tide linebackers might be the best the program has had amid this run of three BCS championships in four seasons. That’s a bold assertion, but consider the talent returning from last year’s No. 1 ranked rushing and scoring defense.
In addition to Mosley, the Tide welcomes back Adrian Hubbard (11 tackles for loss, seven sacks); Trey Depriest (59 tackles); Denzel Devall (two sacks, three quarterback hurries). Four-star 2012 recrit Ryan Anderson also looks ready to break into a contributing role after redshirting last season, and filling in for an injured Depriest during spring workouts. This isn’t just the best linebacker corps in the SEC; it’s the best in college football.
2. Ole Miss Rebels
SEC All-Freshman selection Denzel Nkemdiche leads an experienced group of three returning starters from last season’s tremendously improved defense. Nkemdiche was a key reason, leading the Rebels with 85 tackles — 13 of which were for loss. Joining him are Mike Marry (78 tackles, 10.5 for loss) and Serderius Bryant (28 tackles, 3.5 for loss). All told, this group contributed to an impressive rush defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per carry: good for No. 25 in the nation, and an improvement of nearly 2 yards and 87 spots from the previous season.
3. LSU Tigers
LSU sustained tremendous depletion from its linebacker unit, with the departures of Kevin Minter and Barkevious Mingo. Still, defensive coordinator John Chavis should have one of the best groups in the SEC with Lamin Barrow returning (104 tackles in 2012) and Deion Jones presumably having more opportunities to demonstrate his play making ability off the edges. Jones made three tackles for loss last season. Another Jones — Tahj — should complement Deion on the outside if Barrow makes an anticipated move to middle linebacker.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia loses All-American sack-machine Jarvis Jones, but moving into his high activity, blitzing role is Jordan Jenkins, who made eight tackles for loss and five sacks in 2012. Jenkins has a lofty bar to meet as the star outside linebacker of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 set, but he’ll have support. Returning from last season’s No. 18 ranked scoring defense at inside linebacker is Amarlo Herrera (70 tackles), with Chase Vasser potentially moving into a more prominent role at SAM linebacker. Should a shoulder injury hinder Vasser’s progression, James DeLoach made strides in the spring.
Jon Bostic departs after helping to key Florida’s impressive 2012 defense, but the Gators remain rich with talent at linebacker. Five-star prospect Alex Anzalone is sure to command some attention, though Antonio Morrison has a leg up at the middle linebacker position after a solid spring playing in Bostic’s former spot.
Freshmen will have an integral role in the Gator linebackers corps. In addition to Anzalone, Daniel McMillian could see significant playing time. He was an early enrollee, and gained invaluable reps during the spring.
The Gator youngsters have plenty of support up front from an athletic group at Buck, which includes Dante Fowler, Jr. and returning Ronald Powell.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
All-Conference selection A.J. Johnson is one of the SEC’s most outstanding defensive play makers. His presence alone puts UT on the top half of the conference’s rankings.
Johnson made 138 tackles in 2012, including 8.5 for loss. He was far-and-away the most productive member of the Vols linebacker unit, and his lack of support against the rush manifested in a 4.8 yard per carry rush defense. New coordinator John Jancek told GoVolsXtra, “I think we’re a poor tackling team right now. There are a lot of things we need to get cleaned up.”
Curt Maggitt made 30 tackles with five for loss and a pair of sacks, while Brent Brewer recorded 27 tackles.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores
Chase Garnham enters his fourth season as a primary contributor to the Vanderbilt defense. He heads a group that held opponents to 3.8 yards per rush and ranked No. 38 nationally against the run. Senior Karl Butler is also a well-tenured returner with 38 game appearances in his three-year career. He’s also a proven blitzing threat (11.5 tackles for loss in 2012).
The two upperclassmen make a formidable pairing, and could key Vanderbilt to the top of the conference by season’s end.
8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs lose Cameron Lawrence, an All-SEC selection and 120-tackle dynamo. His presence is difficult to replicate, and explains Mississippi State falling at the cutoff line between top and bottom halves of the conference. Still, Benardrick McKinney returns after one of the best freshman seasons in the SEC. He recorded 102 tackles en route to All-Freshman recognition. Joining McKinney is Deontae Skinner, coming off a solid 62-tackle, five for-loss campaign.
The duo sets a foundation for a group that, by season’s end, could rank among the conference’s elite. But replacing Lawrence’s production is a hurdle.
9. Kentucky Wildcats
Mark Stoops has a proven knack for developing talent on his front seven. Florida State consistently ranked among the nation’s best run-stopping defenses during his three years as defensive coordinator. At Arizona, he routinely coached top 25 rushing defenses, getting the most from linebackers like Spencer Larsen and Ronnie Palmer. He has pieces in place at Kentucky for a solid group in his debut season.
Avery Williamson was among the nation’s leading tacklers in 2012, registering 135 (including 4.5 for loss). Miles Simpson was Kentucky’s third leading tackler (70) and broke up four passes. The duo keyed a decent rush defense (4.02 yards per carry) gives Stoops a foundation on which to build.
10. Arkansas Razorbacks
A pair of Razorback linebackers landed on the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2012, A.J. Turner (52 tackles) and Otha Peters (32 tackles). They are the foundation for new defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s linebacking corps, which loses Alonzo Highsmith and Terrell Williams. Highsmith and Williams were two of Arkansas’ leading tacklers, combining for 110. Replicating their production will prove challenging.
11. Missouri Tigers
Mizzou was stout against the rush last season, allowing fewer than four yards per carry and 150 per game. However, leading tackler Andrew Wilson is the sole returning starter on the Tiger linebackers unit. Donovan Bonner did garner significant playing time though, and he returns as a likely first stringer off a 39-tackle campaign. Darvin Ruise competed for a starting spot during the spring, reportedly showing flashes of brilliance.
12. South Carolina Gamecocks
Coordinator Lorenzo Ward must break in an entirely new group of linebackers after losing the entire corps from last season’s 18.2 point per game defense. Among the departed Gamecocks is Shaq Wilson, the team’s leading tackler in 2012, and No. 3 tackler Reginald Bowens. Together, that’s 145 tackles to be accounted for. South Carolina also loses Damario Jeffery and DeVonte Holloman.
13. Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggie linebacker corps is brand new, losing every starter from 2012. That’s a difficult proposition for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. Gone is the Aggies’ No. 2 tackler, Jonathan Stewart (81 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Steven Jenkins, the No. 3 tackler, is also gone. Inside linebacker Donnie Baggs was the most productive returner with 27 tackles. Newcomers Tommy Sanders and Brett Wade are likely to step into immediate roles to try plugging the gaps.
14. Auburn Tigers
Auburn returns just one starter from its group of linebackers that contributed to the conference’s worst rushing defense. Now, that could be seen as a good thing. But new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is essentially starting from scratch — a long-run benefit, but prone to growing pains in the short term. Gone is leading tackler Daren Bates. Will linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is among the more experienced first stringers on the Tiger depth chart. He appeared in eight games last season.