The SEC’s Top 10 Position Groups
By Matt Smith
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The SEC is once again filled wih talented position units this season.
Fall camps have finally arrived, and we are only three weeks away from the start of the season, a season in which the SEC will be shooting for its seventh consecutive national championship. Which units will help lead that charge? Here are the league’s top 10 position groups.
10. Tennessee Linebackers
The Volunteers have an ideal mix of youth and experience in their first year of Sal Sunseri’s defense. The defense is a base 3-4 scheme that will also show 4-3 looks, much as Alabama has done in recent years.
Junior Jacques Smith will play the role known as the JACK linebacker at Alabama, which Courtney Upshaw excelled at last season for the Tide. The middle of the defense welcomes back team leader and fifth-year senior Herman Lathers from a broken ankle that cost him the 2011 season. Joining him will be talented sophomore A.J. Johnson, who registered 80 tackles a freshman. Johnson’s classmate, Curt Maggitt, will man the strong side after a debut season that included 19 tackles for loss. Adding depth are senior Willie Bohannon and converted fullback Channing Fugate.
9. LSU Running Backs
There’s no single dominant back in this group, but there are four who could start for most any team in the league. Junior Michael Ford is the team’s best outside option, and was given the majority of carries in the team’s win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Spencer Ware finished with just 49 fewer yards than Ford on the season, but a one-game suspension at midseason saw his playing time drop over the final six games.
Despite not getting a carry in the BCS Championship Game, Alfred Blue led the team with 94 yards on the ground against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. He’s the tallest of the bunch, but not the most physical. That honor belongs to sophomore Kenny Hilliard, who emerged late in the season, topping 100 yards against Arkansas and scoring a pair of touchdowns against Georgia. Head coach Les Miles said he would like one or two to separate themselves in fall camp, but having to divide carries between four quality backs isn’t a bad problem to have.
8. Alabama Defensive Line
If you watched the NFL Draft, you’re well aware that the defending national champions were hit hard by personnel losses. However, if you’ve watched Nick Saban’s teams over the past decade, you’re also aware that his defensive fronts are always strong. That will again be the case in 2012 despite the departure of nose tackle Josh Chapman.
319-pound monster Jesse Williams moves inside to man the nose. The JUCO transfer lined up both inside and outside last season depending on the formation. A pair of fellow seniors, Quinton Dial and Damion Square, will bookend Williams on the outside. Star 2011 recruit Jeoffrey Pagan is poised for a breakout year spelling Square and Williams after playing in six games last season.
7. Florida Linebackers
Florida might not have the deepest linebacking corps in the conference, but it has the best duo in senior Jonathan Bostic and junior Jelani Jenkins. Bostic, the team’s top tackler, is the Gators’ emotional leader (he didn’t switch to the No. 1 jersey just because it makes him look slimmer). Jenkins is a bit undersized for an outside linebacker, but his athleticism if off the charts, much like his older brother and former Gator, Janoris.
Sophomore Michael Taylor is the team’s third-best linebacker, but he might not be the best fit for the vacant SAM position. Freshman Antonio Morrison could be asked to step in early with Lerentee McCray moving to the BUCK rush end spot while Ronald Powell recovers from a torn ACL.
6. Arkansas Running Backs
Clearly, this group starts and ends with Knile Davis, but as the Hogs proved last year when Davis missed the season, there’s plenty of talent behind him. Dennis Johnson, seemingly back for an eighth season in Fayetteville (OK, only five, but he was recruited by Houston Nutt), is a speedy outside runner who will also handle kick returns. Senior Ronnie Wingo, Jr. is the bruiser of the group at 6’3” and over 230 pounds. He is very good in short yardage situations and surprisingly, given his size, as a pass catcher.
Davis was itching to return late last season from a broken ankle, but the coaching staff chose to hold him out entirely. He was as physically impressive as any player at SEC Media Days and could exceed his 1,322-yard 2010 season. Playing with the best quarterback in the league won’t hurt either.
5. Tennessee Receivers
If Derek Dooley is to save his job this season, it will be in large part due to the play of his wide receivers. Juniors Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers are perhaps the second-best duo in the country, behind only USC’s Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Hunter is coming off of a torn ACL suffered last September, but has both the skill set and drive to be an All-American.
Rogers has battled some off-field issues in his time on Rocky Top, but his talent has never been questioned. The Volunteers also welcome the nation’s top JUCO signee Cordarrelle Patterson. Tight end Mychal Rivera is a downfield threat as well, making 29 receptions last season.
4. LSU Defensive Backs
It’s rare when a defensive back is a Heisman Trophy finalist, but Tyrann Mathieu was more than deserving of his trip to New York last December after helping change the course of games against Oregon, West Virginia, Arkansas and Georgia with forced turnovers and punt returns. The Honey Badger is back, with last year’s nickel cornerback, Tharold Simon, stepping in to replace top-ten NFL Draft pick Morris Claiborne.
Eric Reid, whose memorable interception against Alabama preserved the Tigers’ chances to win the game, returns as the best safety in the SEC. He’ll be joined by Craig Loston, who has battled injuries throughout his career but was one of the best recruits in the country when he signed with LSU in 2009. Depth isn’t great with this unit, but at the top it’s the best secondary in college football.
3. Georgia Linebackers
Most thought Jarvis Jones would have a very good season in 2011 after transferring from USC, but no one saw 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss coming from the Bulldog outside linebacker. Jones proved an ideal fit in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 system, and gave little thought to turning pro early despite likely being a high pick. Chase Vasser (who faces a two-game suspension) takes over on the strong side after Cornelius Washington moved to defensive end.
The two middle spots will likely be split between Alec Ogletree (also serving an indefinite suspension), Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard. Ogletree is the most talented of the bunch, but Robinson and Gilliard have been on the field since 2009. With Jones arguably the best defensive player in the league, this group should go from very good to great.
2. LSU Defensive Line
There are two likely top-ten NFL Draft picks on this unit in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Florida State and South Carolina have an argument, but no pair of defensive ends is better than these two. Add in a strong rotation of tackles in Josh Downs, Ego Ferguson, Anthony “Freak” Johnson and Bennie Logan, and you have the best defensive front in college football.
Montgomery led the Bayou Bengals with nine sacks last year, while Mingo was tops in tackles for loss with 15. The duo has nearly identical size at around 6’4” and 250 pounds, and it will take a team with two elite tackles to keep its quarterback upright against the Tigers. Even without first-round NFL Draft pick Michael Brockers, the defensive line is the main reason why LSU is starting the season ranked No. 1.
1. Alabama Offensive Line
In a league dominated by defense, it might be a surprise to the see the No. 1 unit come on offense, but the Crimson Tide have built a deep, talented and versatile offensive line. Senior Barrett Jones continues his tour of all the positions, this time at center, taking over for William Vlachos. The moves allows sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio to assume the left tackle position with D.J. Fluker established as one of the better right tackles in the nation.
Veteran guards Chance Warmack (left) and Anthony Steen (right) return, both topping 300 pounds. Warmack has started all 26 games over the past two seasons, while Steen has been an occasional starter in the rotation with the departed Alfred McCullough. Jones and Fluker could be All-Americans, with Kouandjio having the potential to reach that point in a year or two.
Honorable Mention: Alabama linebackers, Auburn defensive line, South Carolina running backs, South Carolina defensive line, Vanderbilt receivers