There’s more turnover than seems normal at linebacker this season, but maybe because this is the first time in four years we’re not going to write about Skai Moore. Also, Georgia’s elite duo was there for what seemed like a full decade. Anyway, some serious talent leaves the SEC this offseason, making way for…
1. LSU. Devin White is far and away the best linebacker in the SEC. Making a case for anyone else seems like an exercise in futility. But it’s not a one-man unit, as Jacob Philips, Michael Divinity, and Tyler Taylor fight for two open starting slots. The unit is deep, talented, and productive.
2. Alabama. Yet another year in which Bama loses a bunch of highly productive players of high acclaim in the middle, only to replace them with another batch of obscenely talented players. They return one starter, Anfernee Jennings, and if all goes right for the Tide, he won’t be starting by season’s end.
3. South Carolina. There’s a huge gap between the top two and everyone else. We pause here to pour one out for Skai Moore, one of the most consistent performers over the past four years in the SEC. Everyone else returns, but he leaves a big hole.
4. Georgia. Speaking of big holes… this is a reputational ranking. I’m not sure how you lose Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter and recover, but they’ve recruited well. This is the unit that has to perform right away for the Bulldogs to compete for a title.
5. Missouri. The Tigers return virtually the entire depth chart and all of their starters. They like that one top end stud, but depth and productivity will go a long way, and they are almost impervious to injury given how they can come at you in waves.
6. Texas A&M. Tyrel Dodson is a dynamic playmaker who can make plays in the backfield (11 TFL) or drop into coverage (8 PBU, 3 INT). The Aggies return virtually their entire starting lineup as well. The defense was a question mark last year, but not because of the LB corps.
7. Auburn. Deshaun Davis is talented, but I hesitate to call him an elite playmaker. This is a unit that lost a lot of talent and everyone seems to assume it’s going to be fine. Tre Williams was second team All-SEC and Jeff Holland was a sack machine. Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson need to find another level in their senior years to keep pace.
8. Mississippi St. The one unit that the Bulldogs don’t seemingly bring back everyone, though Leo Lewis is a pretty good place to start. Errol Thompson was a quietly productive freshman, now he gets a chance to shine in a fulltime role.
9. Tennessee. They get Darren Kirkland back, which should radically improve this unit. Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp had a trial by fire last year and largely acquitted themselves well. This unit could be much better this season.
10. Florida. David Reese kept the lights on last season as the defense fell apart around him. He needs help and pretty much the same cast comes back around him. Maybe they will all improve.
11. Arkansas. I don’t know what to do with the Hogs. They return two guys with over 100 tackles (DeJon Harris and Dre Greenlaw), but their defense was terrible last season. Sometimes, huge tackle totals don’t mean much if you’re not stopping anyone.
12. Kentucky. The loss of Courtney Love leaves a huge hole in the middle of the defense. I’m not sorry for that. It’s a bad defense and it’s probably going to get worse.
13. Ole Miss. The Rebels lose their top three tacklers, so they are essentially starting over. The good news is, the defense wasn’t very good to start with.
14. Vanderbilt. Where have you gone, Zach Cunningham?
This is a harder group to rank than the returning stats suggest -- because there are a number of guys with impressive tackle numbers on unimpressive defenses, and that doesn’t tell me much about the unit. But at the same time, some individuals deserve their plaudits, like a David Reese or a Josh Allen. So you have to balance it all, just like rewarding returning production versus projecting breakout players.
1. LSU. League’s leading tackler (who still has a lot of room to improve), check. Host of talented young veterans poised to break out, plus top-quality depth? Check. K’Lavon Chaisson is the next big thing as a pass rusher, and Jacob Phillips will be solid next to Devin White.
2. Alabama. Only one returning starter, but Anfernee Jennings is a rock on the edge. And Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson will almost certainly step in well. The beauty of all the talent Alabama has around them is their jobs are remarkably easier.
3. Auburn. They don’t have the individual standouts, but they have two starters that understand their roles very well, plus a senior as the new starter. It really is amazing how well the talent he inherited at Auburn fits what Kevin Steele wants to do on defense. Curious to see if they keep it up.
4. Georgia. Not much in terms of proven players coming back, but so much talent. Monty Rice and Natrez Patrick may not be Roquan Smith, but they should be pretty solid in the middle.
5. Texas A&M. Dodson and Olaka put up impressive numbers, but I’m hard-pressed to think of many games where they were of major consequence last year. Still, most linebacker coaches in the league wish they had three starters returning.
6. South Carolina. I think TJ Brunson breaks out a bit here, and the Gamecocks are in a really good spot in the East overall, and I think the defensive front will be part of that.
7. Arkansas. Same deal as the Aggies. Two starters back, productive on bad defenses. But hard to put units that have one individual standout ahead.
8. Florida. David Reese is a player, and CeCe Jefferson should be a a strong outside guy once he comes back from his injury.
9. Kentucky. Josh Allen is really good, in Kentucky’s recent tradition of having one standout linebacker who has the weight of a defense on his shoulders and probably winds up being a solid pro.
10. Missouri. Three starters and more than 200 tackles returning, but we need to see that start to translate to a better overall unit.
11. Mississippi State. Really need Leo Lewis to step up.
12. Ole Miss. Detric Bing-Dukes is impressive in thin slices, but overall, this is just not a very good unit.
13. Tennessee. Returning starters, but nobody that impresses.
14. Vanderbilt. Jordan Griffin has some potential to maybe emerge, but otherwise there isn’t much to like here.
While we agree that linebackers are hard to rate, we don’t have a whole lot of disagreement. Billy is higher on Auburn than I am, and I get that, but I think their personnel losses are much better than anyone wants to admit. But Billy’s rank is more in line with the general consensus.
The other disagreement is between Mizzou and A&M. Both units return nearly everybody, but Billy dings Mizzou for the overall quality of their defense. Mizzou allowed fewer yards per play and yards per rush than the Aggies, and their pass defenses were almost the same. I’m comfortable in my assessment that Mizzou had the better defense, though not by a huge gap, and both return their full units.
4 South Carolina
6 Texas A&M
10 Mississippi St.
13 Ole Miss