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Who’s the Best Duo in the South?

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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There are a number of dynamic duos returning to college football this year, but which one is the best of the best?

Everyone loves a good duo -- Michael and Scottie, Batman and Robin, Ashanti and Ja Rule, apparently some people like peanut butter and jelly even though the former is gross. Football is no different. A dominant tandem, at any position, is always a nightmare for opposing coaches and the partnership, at its best, usually heighten one another’s devastation. So, with programs across the country participating in spring practice or preparing to do so, what will be the top returning twosome in the South, in 2018?

To narrow the field I went back to my post-2017 Top 100 ACC and Top 100 SEC player rankings from January. Sure, a new face (or even a pair of new faces) could, and probably will, emerge next season, but a lot of things could happen. I feel more comfortable betting on something that did happen to continue happening. With that in mind, I combed through each set of rankings for a pair of players from the same position group on the same team. Also, with the offensive linemen, I initially only wanted to include players that played beside one another (i.e. left tackles and left guards, right tackles and right guards, or centers and guards), but at the behest of Southern Pigskin publisher B.J. Bennett I’m allowing tackle pairs and guard pairs (so a left tackle and right tackle or left guard and right guard, but not a right tackle and left guard or vice versa because that’s lame and cheating).

Here are the 16 eligible duos:

- Alabama’s backfield of QB Jalen Hurts and RB Damien Harris
- Alabama defensive linemen Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs
- Arkansas linebackers De’Jon Harris and Randy Ramsey
- Clemson defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins
- Duke defensive backs Mark Gilbert and Jeremy McDuffie
- Florida State running backs Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick
- Georgia’s backfield of QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift
- Georgia defensive backs Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed
- Kentucky edge rushers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware
- Louisville wide receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick
- Miami defensive backs Jaquan Johnson and Michael Jackson
- Mississippi State defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons
- Mississippi State offensive linemen Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins
- Missouri pass catchers TE Albert Okwuegbunam and WR Emanuel Hall
- NC State wide receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers
- Wake Forest offensive linemen Phil Haynes and Ryan Anderson

Now, rather than just do a basic evaluation of each duo and then rank them in the most boring way ever, I’ve devised a rubric of four prerequisites that must be met to filter out the best of the best from the best of the rest.

1. No Terrific Trios or Fearsome Foursomes

This is the part where we punish teams for literally being too good and/or deep at a given spot. If a third (or in one case even a fourth) player from the same position group also appeared in one of the top 100’s, the whole group is eliminated. It doesn’t feel right, but it’s a necessary evil.

Alabama’s defensive linemen Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs are first on the chopping block here, albeit on a bit of a technicality. Although he’s listed at linebacker, edge rusher Anfernee Jennings is basically a stand up defensive end in Alabama’s 3-4. He took the majority of his pass rush snaps coming from the left side, but a significant number from the right, as well. Buggs and Jennings both rank in the top 20 of their respective position groups for pass rush efficiency, among returning players, while Davis was a first team all-conference selection in 2017 by the league’s coaches.

With key departures along the Tide’s defensive front, including Da’Ron Payne and Da'Shawn Hand, these three are poised to take up the mantle in a big way next season. Unfortunately, that also means they’re ineligible to continue in our quest to find the south’s best duo.

Albert Okwuegbunam emerged as one of the SEC’s top breakout stars in 2017 as Missouri’s tight end and Drew Lock’s go-to guy in the red zone, while Emanuel Hall proved to be as an elite a deep threat as they come, catching all but one of his 14 catchable targets 20 or more yards downfield, with eight of them going for scores, according to Pro Football Focus.

Really, Missouri’s entire passing offense was on point, though. Lock led the nation in touchdowns thrown. The unit, as a whole, ranked in the top 20 in S&P+. And, as good as Okwuegbunam and Hall were, they were only auxiliary pieces to J’Mon Moore. They weren’t the only other pieces, either. Slot receiver Johnathan Johnson was actually Lock’s second most targeted receiver, behind Moore, over Okwuegbunam and Hall in last season. Even with Moore heading to the NFL, Lock and his next three leading receivers are back to reprise their roles in one of college football’s most prolific passing attacks. In fact, on a list of prolific passing attacks they would probably place quite high, however, as it pertains to this list, they are eliminated.

Last season, Wake Forest finished in the national top 20 for adjusted sack rate, boasting one of the best pass blocking offensive lines in college football. Led by center Ryan Anderson and left guard Phil Haynes, the Demon Deacons gave up a sack on just 3% of passing downs -- good for fifth in the FBS. Of course, it wasn’t just Anderson and Haynes that kept quarterback John Wolford upright and Arm & Hammer clean, left tackle Justin Herron made that entire side of the line a force to be reckoned with.

Of returning tackles and guards, Herron and Haynes both rank in the top 30 at their position for pressures allowed per pass pro snap. Meanwhile, no returning center in all of college football allowed fewer pressures per pass than Ryan Anderson. All three are back to make Wake Forest’s incumbent starting signal caller’s life a whole lot easier, but, as such, this trio can not move on.

Clemson’s interior defensive line pair of Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins are a headache unlike any other for opposing offensive coordinators. Both earned first team All-ACC honors whilst leading Clemson to the top adjusted sack rate in the country, and a top ten finish in percentage of carries for 5+ yards allowed.

Then again, the guy to their right, Clelin Ferrell, had more tackles for loss during the 2017 campaign than any returning ACC player, and the guy to their left, Austin Bryant, led the team in run stops (tackles that constitute a win for the defense). As a whole, Clemson’s defensive line boasted the seventh highest havoc rate in college football and with all four of Bryant, Ferrell, Lawrence, and Wilkins back for 2018, the Tigers might have the best front four in the history of the sport. That said, they are well over the maximum number of players allowed for a duo, and are henceforth ineligible.

Remaining 12 Duos:

- Alabama’s backfield of QB Jalen Hurts and RB Damien Harris
- Arkansas linebackers De’Jon Harris and Randy Ramsey
- Duke defensive backs Mark Gilbert and Jeremy McDuffie
- Florida State running backs Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick
- Georgia’s backfield of QB Jake Fromm and RB D’Andre Swift
- Georgia defensive backs Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed
- Kentucky edge rushers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware
- Louisville wide receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick
- Miami defensive backs Jaquan Johnson and Michael Jackson
- Mississippi State defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons
- Mississippi State offensive linemen Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins
- NC State wide receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers

2. No member of the duo can be engaged in a (fairly) serious position battle.

Alabama and Georgia were both in the National Championship last season. Both return their starting quarterbacks. Bama’s Jalen Hurts had the best TD:INT ratio in the SEC, while the Bulldog’s Jake Fromm finished in the top ten in the country with 160 passer rating. Somehow, both are, even more incredibly, justly, fighting to retain their starting jobs.

Hurts was replaced at halftime of the aforementioned title bout by Tua Tagovailoa, who led the Tide to an overtime victory. The team they beat in overtime is bringing in the top dual-threat quarterback prospect, Justin Fields, to compete with Fromm. A player of Fields’ caliber doesn’t go to any program without a genuine chance to start, and it would be awfully hard for Nick Saban to continue sitting the guy whose most recent throw was a 40 yard dime to give him his sixth ring. There’s real fire in the fight for snaps in Tuscaloosa, whereas Georgia’s may be more smoke than anything else. Still, it’s too risky a proposition to say that the best duo in the South is 50% comprised by a guy who may not start.

Regrettably, Damien Harris and D’Andre Swift must be the additional casualties here -- Harris, who forced more missed tackles per touch than any back in college football last season, save Bryce Love, and Swift, who had the third highest yard per carry average of any freshman since the turn of the century in the SEC (and did so while splitting time with, speaking of duos, the sport’s all-time leaders for career rushing yards by a pair of ball carriers, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel).

We’re going to have to take out Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick here, too, sort of by default. Part of what makes great duos so special is that they accentuate each other’s strengths and help to mitigate the weaknesses. That’s tough to do if they’re never or hardly ever on the field together. I suppose there’s a case to be made that the two are better off together because one can spell the other or vice versa, but that feels like reaching.

Florida State may have limped through 2017, but their rushing game did not. With Akers and Patrick taking a lionshare of the carries, the Seminoles finished 29th in rushing S&P+, which is especially noteworthy given what we’ll charitably call lackadaisical offensive line play.

Nevertheless, the Noles must be eliminated because, at the end of the day, one starts, one doesn’t. Rules are rules.

Remaining 9 Duos:

- Arkansas linebackers De’Jon Harris and Randy Ramsey
- Duke defensive backs Mark Gilbert and Jeremy McDuffie
- Georgia defensive backs Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed
- Kentucky edge rushers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware
- Louisville wide receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick
- Miami defensive backs Jaquan Johnson and Michael Jackson
- Mississippi State defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons
- Mississippi State offensive linemen Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins
- NC State wide receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers

3. Obviously, the best duo in the South must be the best on it’s own team.

There were a couple of programs that had more than one duo on the initial list of 16, but the only to keep both of them in play thus far is Mississippi State, with offensive linemen Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins, and defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons. Talk about a squad that is all set in the trenches...

The Bulldogs’ offensive front was one of the best in the country last season. When it came to run blocking, they averaged 3.41 line yards per carry on standard downs (7th in FBS), allowed stops at or behind the line of scrimmage on just 14.3% of carries (7th), helped their ball carriers to gain at least five yards on 44.8% of attempts (6th), and created enough push on 84.2% of rushes with two or fewer yards to go to either move the chains or earn six points (2nd).

In pass pro, the unit ended up 7th in the country in adjusted sack rate, with top 20 rankings on both standard downs and passing downs. The only lost starter from last season’s unit is left tackle Martinas Rankin, the most heralded of the group, who was an all-conference pick by both the media and coaches in 2017. Yet, contrary to popular opinion, Calhoun and Jenkins have been the more reliable offensive linemen in Starkville over the past two seasons.

NFL scouts love Rankin because of his athletic upside, but our returning duo have both consistently outperformed him since 2016. The right guard and center have been pillars of stability and will continue to be just that as the team undergoes a coaching change.

Still, even with all of that in mind, this one’s no contest. If only one of Mississippi State’s duos can move on, it’s Sweat and Simmons all day long.

Remaining 8 Duos:

- Arkansas linebackers De’Jon Harris and Randy Ramsey
- Duke defensive backs Mark Gilbert and Jeremy McDuffie
- Georgia defensive backs Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed
- Kentucky edge rushers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware
- Louisville wide receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick
- Miami defensive backs Jaquan Johnson and Michael Jackson
- Mississippi State defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons
- NC State wide receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers

4. The best duo must help their team to contend for titles.

Certainly, a number of very good, even great, duos could be littered throughout college football’s more middling or even bad teams. To be the best duo, though, I want a pairing that has, at least, an outside chance to help their team achieve the ultimate goal -- a national championship.

Arkansas linebacker De’Jon Harris graded out as the third highest linebacker in the SEC last year, according to Pro Football Focus, after leading the Razorbacks in tackles, tackles for loss, and run stuffs, while Randy Ramsey built on a solid sophomore campaign to join the ranks of college football’s elite pressure artists -- posting a top ten pass rush productivity among returning edge rushers (per PFF). That said, Arkansas has a better chance to finish last in its division than it does to go to the college football playoff, so they’re out.

Duke quietly finished 2017 with one of the nation’s top 25 pass defenses, by S&P+, with an incredible 32.7% allowed success rate (6th), thanks in large part to cornerback Mark Gilbert and safety Jeremy McDuffie. Gilbert led the ACC and finished in the top five in the nation with 20 passes defensed. McDuffie did his part, as well, placing third among the conference’s safeties in passes defensed. I know I said I just want an outside shot, and if Miami falters, Duke is good enough to sneak into the ACC championship this season, but with them travelling to the Hurricanes and facing Clemson in their crossover, this one’s too far outside for my liking.

Kentucky’s defense was too talented last season for it to have been as bad as it was. The Wildcats have a handful of a all-conference caliber talents littered throughout that side of the ball, edge rushers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware the foremost examples of which. Both of them rank in the top 20 of returning edge rushers in 2017 pass rush productivity, and Allen graded out as the SEC’s second best edge defender, according to PFF. In fact, if I were an NFL GM, I’d rather use a first round pick on this Josh Allen than I would on the quarterback from Wyoming, but that’s for another story on another day. These guys are really good. Kentucky is not. They’re out.

Louisville wide outs Jaylen Smith and and Dez Fitzpatrick may have benefited from catching passes from the best college football player ever, but it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Smith finished second in the ACC in receiving per game and top 25 in the country in yards per route run. Fitzpatrick averaged over 25 receiving yards per game more than the next best freshman receiver in the league. There were some issues with drops, but that was Louisville’s entire pass catching corps. Without Lamar Jackson, there’s no reason to expect the Cardinals to get better in 2018, not to mention some heavy personnel attrition elsewhere, so although they are far from being a contender, they’re set at receiver.

The only ACC team to return two pass catchers that ranked in the top ten of the conference last year is NC State. Kelvin Harmon finished fourth with 78.2 yards per game and Jakobi Meyers finished eighth with 60.6 yards per game, and both graded out in the top five among ACC receivers, per Pro Football Focus, at second and fourth, respectively. Ryan Finley will be glad to have those two back and the passing game -- one that ranked in the top 15 of S&P+ -- should continue to thrive as such. However, the only team in the league that loses more overall production from 2017 is Louisville, so it could be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Wolfpack. They’re eliminated as well.

Remaining 3 Duos:

- Georgia defensive backs Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed
- Miami defensive backs Jaquan Johnson and Michael Jackson
- Mississippi State defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons

And then there were three. Here’s the case for each of our finalists:

Deandre Baker & J.R. Reed

Georgia had one of the best defenses in college football last season, en route to a national championship appearance, a great deal thanks to the game’s best linebacking corps. Next season, they may, yet again, be amongst the elite on that side of the ball, but if they are it will have to start in the secondary.

The pass defense was already excellent, ranking in 6th in S&P+, but gone are cornerback Malkom Parrish and safety Dominick Sanders. It’s tough to say, at this juncture, who will take Parrish’s spot, but Richard LeCounte could actually be an upgrade over Sanders who, after putting together an All-SEC performance as a sophomore, markedly regressed during his last two seasons. Even so, the leadership, and level of play, must trickle down from Baker and Reed.

Baker, as a junior, made the leap into the cream of the SEC crop, as far as lockdown cornerbacks go. He finished in the top five among SEC defensive backs in passes defensed, the top ten in interceptions, allowed the league’s second lowest passer rating on throws into his coverage, and graded out as PFF’s third best cornerback in the conference.

Meanwhile, Reed became one of the most pleasant surprises in all of college football. His run stop percentage ranks in the top 25 among returning safeties, and he was one of the sport’s most sure tacklers, from that position, having missed just six tackles during the regular season on just shy of 650 snaps. For his efforts, his PFF grade led all SEC safeties. As good as Baker was and will continue to be, as much of a breakout star as I expect defensive lineman Tyler Clark to become, if forced to wager on who will be Georgia’s best defensive player in 2018, my money’s on Reed.

Jaquan Johnson & Michael Jackson

Miami forced more turnovers in 2017 than all but two teams, obviously motivated, first and foremost, by the instantly legendary Turnover Chain. Through eleven games they swaggered and performed, to some extent, in a fashion reminiscent of ‘The U’ of yesteryear. Granted, the final leg of the season did not go according to plan, but it was nonetheless a magical, star-making campaign.

Two of the stars that shone the brightest were safety Jaquan Johnson and cornerback Michael Jackson. For a minute it seemed that the only member of what was one of college football’s top three or four secondaries that would be departing was graduate transfer Dee Delaney, who came in from the Citadel for a year. However, after Malek Young was forced to retire from football, a truly heartbreaking occurrence, Johnson and Jackson are faced with a greater leadership burden than previously anticipated. A stellar freshman campaign from Trajan Bandy, coupled with a junior year in which Sheldrick Redwine showed off extreme versatility should go a long way in assuaging any concerns, but, not dissimilar to Georgia’s Baker and Reed, it all starts with Johnson and Jackson.

Johnson is coming off of a season in which he earned a second team All-ACC selection from the media, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ third ACC safety. That distinction really doesn’t do the season he had justice, however, as he happened to be stuck in the same conference as three or four (maybe five or six?) of college football’s best safeties. The group was absolutely loaded and he was as good as any of them.

Jackson’s sheer passes defensed production may not jump off the page, but he did total the third most interceptions in the ACC and his allowed passer rating on throws into his coverage, during the regular season, was surpassed by only Jaire Alexander and Greg Stroman, among conference cornerbacks, both of whom are off to the NFL.

Only time will tell if ‘The U’ is back for real, but these two make a compelling case.

Montez Sweat & Jeffery Simmons

We highlighted just how good Mississippi State’s offensive line was, led by Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins, earlier, but that duo still couldn’t get by a pair of their own teammates, defensive end Montez Sweat and interior lineman Jeffery Simmons. Good ‘ole rule #3 -- gets ‘em every time.

That’s because, even with Martinas Rankin, the o-line wasn’t even as good as the defensive front led by Sweat and Simmons, a group that ended the season ranked third in adjusted line yards allowed and sixth in adjusted sack rate. The only other team in all of college football to rank in the top ten of both categories was Michigan (and, frankly, the Wolverines were working with significantly greater talent along the d-line than Mississippi State, beyond our duo).

Sweat and Simmons were each awarded first team all-conference honors by both the media and coaches, and ranked in the top four at their respective positions, per PFF’s grades.

Sweat tied for the league lead in tackles for loss and sacks, had the highest pass rush productivity of any FBS edge defender during the regular season, and, fittingly, he tied Simmons for Mississippi State’s lowest allowed success rate.

Speaking of which, Simmons led the Bulldogs with 14 run stuffs, at or behind the line of scrimmage, posted an impressive five sacks from the interior, forced two fumbles, and even saved his best for last, tallying a sack and eight (EIGHT!) pressures against Louisville in the Taxslayer Bowl. Oh, and he blocked as many kicks/punts than any other player in America.

With all due respect to Baker & Reed and Johnson & Jackson, these guys win.

We love great pairs. There’s a sort of symmetry, a yin and yang to all the best twosomes. Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons exemplify that better than any other returning duo in Southern college football, and perhaps the sport at large.

Simmons demands double teams and still puts up numbers. Sweat, an almost equally dominant pass rusher from either side of his partner (although he is a little better from the left) takes advantage of the mismatches Simmons creates and finishes sacks at an elite rate.

No one in the country is equipped to stop Sweat and Simmons. Few have the personnel to even slow them down, or ever-so-slightly reduce their impact. That’s the power of a great pair -- two elite players joining forces to make one another better… to form an entity that’s the best.

These two terrors from Starkville are your most dominant duo.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP