After the statistical wasteland that is the offensive line, you would think turning to the linebackers would be a relief. But really, it’s more of the same.
Linebackers, because they touch nearly every part of the defense, are difficult to rate. You end up simply asking, who has a good defense? And that’s where our inquiry starts, with last year’s defensive stats, broken down by passing a rushing averages.
2018 SEC Defensive Averages
|Name||Yards/Play||Yards/Pass||Yards/Rush||Def S&P+||Nat Rank||Ret Start|
|Name||Yards/Play||Yards/Pass||Yards/Rush||Def S&P+||Nat Rank||Ret Start|
I threw in some S&P+ for good measure and it tells us what we already knew: Mississippi St had an awesome f’n defense last year. The problem here is that their awesome defense was more of a function of their front four than their linebackers, so how do we measure that?
Well, you’re not going to be able to on a macro level, but we can at least look not just how many players a team is bringing back, but who they are bringing back. Linebackers tend to dominate the tackle totals, so I listed every returning LB with at least 75 tackles.
That got most of our teams taken care of, but I then included the leading returning LB tackler from the three schools without a 75 tackle man.
Then, for good measure, I looked at returning linebackers with at least ten TFL. These are our disruptive edge rushers who didn’t get pulled up in the tackles sweep. Only five guys qualified, and of them, two were already on our list with 75+ tackles. I looked at a few other stats to see who was well-rounded, and then turned to our friends at Athlon for the preseason All-SEC teams. We’re left with this list:
Top Returning SEC LB
|T.J. Brunson||S Carolina||JR||59||47||106||10.5||1||3||1||4th|
|Erroll Thompson||Miss St||SO||31||56||87||9||0||3||0||1st|
And just like that, we have a rough list of the best returning linebackers in the SEC. From there, it’s really a bunch of a judgment calls based on the quality of players and the overall quality of the defense.
I will say, from looking at it this way, you can find something to like in nearly every team in the conference. There’s a ton of returning talent, including 13 of the top 20 linebacker tacklers from last season. There’s not a big margin between most of the teams in the conference.
Last season’s preseason ranking in parenthesis (please click the link and enjoy the comments).
1. LSU (1). The Tigers lose one of the best linebackers in school history and might somehow improve at the position. Jacob Phillips has quietly become one of the most dynamic performers in the conference: he has a boatload of tackles even playing with White, but also has 5 QB hurries and 3 Pass Break-Ups to go with 5.5 tackles for loss. Michael Divinity had 10.5 TFLs, and he’s not even the team’s best returning edge rusher, K’Lavon Chaisson is. The Aranda Effect is real, he has transformed the linebacking corps in his own image.
2. Alabama (2). More of a 1A. Dylan Moses is one of two players to appear on both our lists, with 86 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. And he’s not even Bama’s best linebacker, Anfernee Jennings is. His numbers look absurd in our chart. 13 TFL and 11 pass break-ups doesn’t even seem like a real player’s stat line. Jennings is neck-and-neck with Grant Delpit for best defensive player in the conference, and I could be easily talked into Bama being No. 1 simply based on the presence of Jennings. He’s that good. So why in the hell is he still playing college football as a senior? Jennings is a no-doubt NFL player who decided to play for free for one more year.
3. Mississippi State (8). Sure, they will miss that front four, but Erroll Thompson is no slouch. 87 tackles and 9 TFLs make him a fairly even comp for Dylan Moses’ production. The Bulldogs return their starting trio and while I expect their overall defensive numbers to decline, it won’t be because of the linebacker corps.
4. Georgia (4). The Dawgs lose almost their entire starting unit and were one of our three teams without a returning player with at least 75 tackles. But former production matters, and Georgia has proven they can rotate new guys in to the job and not miss a beat. This year is just like last year, and last year went fine when it came to replacing production. Monty Rice showed some flashes last season and actually lead the LB corps in tackles last year. Georgia is so deep, they spread around the love which should make the attrition easy to handle.
5. South Carolina (3). The Gamecocks are a middle of the pack defense, but TJ Brunson is a bad man. He’s the only returning player in the SEC with 100-plus tackles and 10-plus TFL. He can also drop into coverage. South Carolina returns three starters in the middle of its defense and will hope that allows them to take a defensive step forward.
6. Tennessee (9). On the one hand, the Vols’ defense wasn’t very good last year. I get that. But on a per play basis, they were eighth in the SEC against the run and ninth against the pass. That’s not as hopeless as their 13th place finish in S&P+ hints. They return three of four starters, but most importantly, it’s the quality rather than the quantity. Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor make one of the most potent one-two punches in the conference outside of Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa. Taylor can get at the quarterback and also forced three fumbles last season. That’s someone who can lay the lumber. Could be underrated unit.
7. Missouri (5). This is mostly a ranking for Cale Garrett. Mizzou had a solid defense last season (I like that the standards of the SEC are such that ranking 25th in the nation in S&P+ merits a shrug of the shoulders and a disinterested meh). But Garrett can make a legitimate case for the best returning linebacker in the SEC after Jennings and will be asked to carry the defense.
8. Arkansas (11). Speaking of guys who have to carry their defense, De’Jon Harris already pulled that trick last season, and now has to do it again. He’s got a crazy statline which shows not just his talent, but how much he has to do it himself: 118 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 5 pass break-ups. If Arkansas can get their defense to perform at a slightly higher level, it could earn Harris the first team All-SEC honors he deserves.
9. Florida (10). I’m going to give the Gators the benefit of the doubt because I don’t want to get accused of too much anti-Gator bias. David Reese barely made the cut with 77 tackles, but the rest of his statline is pretty empty, only 2.5 TFL and nothing else. The Gators return two of their four starters from a very good but not superlative defense. They should hold steady, but it’s hard to see them performing much higher than this.
10. Kentucky (12). The Wildcats enjoyed a terrific defense last year, but Josh Allen and his 21.5 tackles for loss walked out that door. That’s an impossible number to replace. Kash Daniel isn’t the pass rusher Allen was, but he pulled down 84 tackles and 7.5 TFL while in Allen’s shadow. That should at least soften the blow of losing such a terrific player.
11. Auburn (7). The Tigers had a terrific LB corps last season, so… oops (Billy called it correctly, seeing two returning starters and a solid senior). Deshaun Davis, Daniel Thomas, and Montavious Atkinson combined for 231 tackles and 23 TFL. They formed the centerpiece of a defense which ranked sixth in the nation the S&P+. And now… they are all gone. KJ Britt is their returning leader, he of 23 tackles and a pass breakup. It’s not like Auburn ignored recruiting, so I’m sure there is talent there, but in a year in which so many SEC teams return so much production at linebacker, it seems like a bad time for Auburn to be starting back from ground zero.
12. Ole Miss (13). The Landsharks are a distant memory, as Ole Miss defense simply imploded last season. They gave up over five yards a carry and just shy of eight yards a pass. It was a horrorshow. The good news? All four starters return, and it seems like they came through the trial by fire stronger than they were. Mohamed Sanogo emerged as a playmaker and while I don’t expect the Rebels to suddenly rocket to the top of the conference, there is something to be said for consistency and experience. They almost certainly won’t be as terrible as last year, and the linebackers will form the foundation of the rebuilt defense.
13. Vanderbilt (14). Dimitri Moore quietly had a nice year. It’s not just the 84 tackles, but he also added 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 pass break-ups, and 4 QB hurries. That’s a nice all-around statline. He can do it all. Vanderbilt’s not gonna wow you out there, but this is a solid group.
14. Texas A&M (6). The Aggies lost a ton of talent in the front four, but I gave them a bit of the benefit of the doubt there due to some returning playmakers behind the studs that left. At linebacker? Not the same thing. They are similarly gutted by so many starters leaving, but who in the heck is going to replace them? Their most productive returning player is Deboine Renfro, who at least showed some ability to break up passes. Other than that, the depth chart looks like a wasteland. The Aggies rode a spectacularly great run defense last year to a good overall S&P+ rating, covering up a below average pass defense. I simply don’t see how they can replicate that rush defense with this returning front seven.