NFL executives have said, in a big way, that it knows the caliber of the defensive line products from the SEC. Alabama and LSU, alone, seemingly churn out as many defensive linemen as some smaller conferences.
Most, if not all, SEC coaches will say defensive success starts with stopping the run. That, of course, begins with the big uglies in the trenches and their ability to make offenses one-dimensional.
Here is a look at our rankings of the SEC defensive lines:
- South Carolina – Starting to write about South Carolina’s defensive line without mentioning DE Jadeveon Clowney – arguably the best player in the nation – doesn’t make any sense. So let’s start there. Clowney has spent his first two seasons in college by largely dominating the league’s best offensive tackles. The manbeast is a 6-foot-7, 256-pound hybrid of physical strength and scary acceleration. Clowney is a game-changer on every snap he’s on the field simply because offensive coordinators must consider him when selecting plays. A darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, Clowney, barring injury, is as close to a sure thing to make the First Team All-America team that there is. Clowney has a strong line-mate in DT Kelcy Quarles. Last year Quarles recorded 36 tackles, including seven TFLs.
- Arkansas – DEs Chris Smith and Trey Flowers likely make up the best defensive line book-end combination in the conference. The duo recorded 26 TFLs last year, including 15.5 sacks. The middle of the defensive line also poses problems for defenses with DTs Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Additionally, the Razorbacks possess depth on the defensive front for which other teams can only dream. Arkansas had several freshmen make significant contributions in 2012.
- Alabama – While Alabama doesn’t return much along the defensive front, the program has proved for long enough that it reloads instead of rebuilding to earn the benefit of the doubt. DE Ed Stinson is the top returner among the group. He earned 8.5 TFLs a year ago, including three sacks. NT Brandon Ivory seems to be the leader to inherit a position that has churned out three consecutive studs. In limited play last year, Ivory recorded 22 tackles. While other programs have great unknowns along their front three or four, Alabama has every right to expect potential first-time starters such as DE Dalvin Tomlinson to become immediate stars.
- LSU – Like Alabama, the Tigers have a track record of developing D-line stars on an annual basis. Forget that LSU replaces all four starters because it hasn’t mattered how many or who it has lost previously under coach Les Miles. DT Anthony Johnson brings the stoutest track record to the table. As a part-time contributor in 2012, Johnson had 30 tackles, 10 TFLs and three sacks. Expect him to be the next big thing along LSU’s defensive line. Remember the name “Ego Ferguson” as well. Ferguson is another tackle licking his chops to finally get his opportunity as a starter.
- Kentucky – This unit could have been ranked much higher on this list because of the overall skill of individual players, but the defense allowed 161.2 rushing yards per game last season. With Clowney being etched in stone as the conference’s top DE this year, everyone else is left to play for second. That mantle might very well belong to DE Alvin Dupree. As a sophomore last year, Dupree finished second on the team with 91 tackles and also posting team-leading figured in TFLs (12.5) and sacks (6.5). DTs Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble combine to clog lanes up front and make life for Wildcats linebackers much easier. Rumph has been the more dynamic of the two, as evidenced by his six TFLs and four sacks in 2012. DE Za’Darius Smith, the No. 2 JUCO end in the nation a year ago, is expected to come in and produce immediately.
- Florida – Helping fill a defensive line that lost someone the caliber of Shariff Floyd is never an easy task. Easley is capable of doing so. The former five-star recruit has never quite lived up to such billing, but has never lost the promise. He went for four sacks and 8.5 TFLs a year ago, tallying 3.5 TFLs during the Sugar Bowl. DE Jonathan Bullard showed enough last year to earn a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team. The former five-star recruit lived up to potential a year ago and should continue to thrive under coach Will Muschamp. DT Damien Jacobs could also play a big role along the line this season.
- Ole Miss – The Rebels’ best player along the defensive line, DE C.J. Johnson, broke his leg during spring practice. Johnson, who recorded 55 tackles and 6.5 sacks last year, will likely be back for practice in August, but certainly got off to an inauspicious start. Ole Miss landed the highest-rated defensive player in the nation on National Signing Day when Robert Nkemdiche signed. He should play – potentially a lot – immediately and could have a Clowney-like impact as a freshman. One person who might keep Nkemdiche from playing time is DE Channing Ward – a talented pass rusher in his own right. Undersized DT Isaac Gross emerged last year as a freshman to rack up 40 tackles, including 10 TFLs.
- Georgia – Can NT Mike Thornton man the middle? That’s the biggest question facing the Bulldogs’ defensive front heading into 2013. Replacing John Jenkins is no easy task. He was an absolute presence for Georgia as a senior last year. To either side of Thornton are experienced DEs in Garrison Smith and Ray Drew. The duo combined for 80 tackles a year ago – 57 from Smith. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme asks his line to allow linebackers to make big plays – a task they lived up to quite well a season ago.
- Auburn – First-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson thinks he has a strength in his defensive front, though the unit appeared largely lifeless a year ago. Last year’s inability to stop, well, anyone it seemed, keeps this talented group from being higher on the list. DE Dee Ford returns for his senior season and headlines the group. He accounted for six sacks and eight quarterback hurries last year. DTs Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright all possess a great deal of talent even if it hasn’t translated onto the field the way recruiting hounds expected quite yet. True freshman DT Carl Lawson, one of the top hauls from the 2013 signing class, could make an immediate impact as well.
- Vanderbilt – For the Commodores to succeed along the defensive line this year they will need to seamlessly replace three starters from last season. The lone starter, DE Walker May, has a chance to build off momentum after registering 10.5 TFLs last season. Fellow DEs Kyle Woestmann (six sacks) and Caleb Azubike (four sacks) give Vandy a formidable pass-rush team. Azubike could move inside to tackle to provide more quickness along the line. Coach James Franklin likes the idea of putting pass rushers all along the line, utilizing a strategy popularized by the NFL’s New York Giants. Stopping the run will be the question mark to start the season.
- Mississippi State – DEs Denico Autry and Preston Smith proved to be forces off the edges. They finished last season with 15 TFLs and 8.5 sacks while earning nine quarterback hurries. The middle of the line is less established with the loss of DT Josh Boyd. Quay Evans and Nick James are among those who could be called upon by the Bulldogs this season. Neither has great experience to speak of, though they did combine to play in 18 games last season as freshmen.
- Missouri – DT Matt Hoch’s role increased dramatically during an offseason that saw All-SEC DT Sheldon Richardson declare for the NFL after just one year with the program. Hoch was a steady starter for Missouri a year ago, recording 36 tackles including 4.5 TFLs. However, filling Richardson’s shoes will be virtually impossible – and not a fair expectation for anyone on the Tigers’ roster. On the edge, DE Kony Ealy proved his potential with 10 TFLs as a sophomore. Fellow DE Michael Sam is expected to be a significant contributor again after being a part of a team-high 4.5 sacks a year ago.
- Tennessee – The Volunteers have some nice returning starters, led by DT Maurice Couch, but there is no single player that openly intimidates opposing offenses. Coaches seem to be high on JUCO-transfer DT Daniel McCullers, who returns for his senior season. Couch and McCullers played well as a starting duo last year, combining for 77 tackles, 9.5 TFLs and two sacks.
- Texas A&M – Losing DE Damontre Moore cannot be overstated. A season ago he led the Aggies in tackles, TFLs, sacks and quarterback hurries. It should be underscored that Moore accomplished all this as a defensive end. DT Spencer Nealy, another huge contributor in 2012 with 42 tackles and 7.5 TFLs. DT Kirby Ennis returns as the unit’s most prominent starter. However, Ennis was suspended indefinitely after getting arrested on a gun charge during the offseason. His status for the start of the season is unclear. DE Julien Obioha showed promise as a full-time starter during his freshman year. Even he is somewhat of a question mark after suffering a back injury last season.
Topics: Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, Auburn Tigers, Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Kentucky Wildcats, Louisiana State Tigers, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Missouri Tigers, Ole Miss Rebels, SEC, South Carolina Gamecocks, Tennessee Volunteers, Texas A&M Aggies, Vanderbilt Commodores