Unit Rankings: 2012 SEC Defensive Lines

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Sam Montgomery leads a deep LSU defensive line.

<p> Unit Rankings: 2012 SEC Defensive Lines</p>

Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.

Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.

Ranking the SEC's Defensive Lines for 2012

1. LSUIt seems like a broken record, but once again, the Tigers are absolutely loaded on the defensive line. Michael Brockers departed a year early to the NFL, but Anthony Johnson, Ego Ferguson and Bennie Logan are more than capable of holding down the interior of the line. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo could be one of the top pass-rush combinations in the nation. These two players combined for 17 sacks in 2011 and could increase that number in 2012. Senior Lavar Edwards and sophomore Jermauria Rasco will provide the depth at ends. This unit allowed only 90.1 rushing yards per game last year and led the SEC with 39 sacks.

2. South Carolina  Replacing a talent like Melvin Ingram won’t be easy at all, but the Gamecocks are one of the few teams that could afford the lose of two starters. In fact, the Carolina front line might even be better, which is a scary thought for SEC backfields. Jadeveon Clowney, the nation’s No. 1 prospect last year, posted 8.0 sacks and five forced fumbles and didn’t even know where to lineup. He now has a better grasp on the playbook and will team with Devin Taylor to form one of the nation’s top DE combos. Byron Jerideau appears to be poised for his best season and Kelcy Quarles is going to be that much better as a sophomore on the interior. Few teams have as much raw talent along the line as the Gamecocks.

3. Georgia – Todd Grantham wants his 3-4 scheme to be led by a mamouth, run-stuffing, space-eating defensive line. With 700 pounds of between John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers stuffing the middle of the line, he has just that. They are impossible to move and will slow any rushing attack. Meanwhile, a versatile collection of defensive ends lead the way on the edge. Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington are seniors who bring a veteran presence while talented youngster Ray Drew and experienced Garrison Smith bring plenty of upside. These four should all get plenty of snaps. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is easily the best pass rusher on the team and plays the hybrid DE/OLB position that 3-4 coordinators so desperately need.

4. Alabama – Shockingly, Bama returns a defensive line in which no player has more than one sack. Finding pass rushers will obviously be a primary focus for Nick Saban. Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial and Damion Square provide loads of experience and leadership as all three are upperclassmen. However, names like Jeoffrey Pagan will provide a youthful spark off the bench. Look for former end Jesse Williams to slide inside to tackle where he will join Brandon Ivory and Wilson Love. Getting pressure on the QB isn’t always the D-Lines job, however, and players like Xzavier Dickson, Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee would be considered defensive ends by most teams. At Alabama, they are outside linebackers. Will this group be as strong as the 2009 or 2011 title winning defensive lines? Likely not, but the Tide isn’t hurting for talent up front.

5. FloridaThis unit has the potential to finish higher on this list this year, but injuries to Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley have clouded its potential or 2012. The Gators were solid up front last season, finishing fifth in the SEC in rush defense and registering 28 sacks. Junior Sharrif Floyd is poised for a breakout year after recording 46 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He will anchor the interior of the line, while senior Omar Hunter and junior college recruit Damien Jacobs will fill the other tackle spot. Dominique Easley is expected to man the 3-4 end spot, but he suffered a torn ACL late in the 2011 season. It usually takes a full year to recover from ACL injuries, but all signs point to a return at full strength by the season opener. The buck/rush end position was expected to be a strength, but it’s uncertain if Powell will be able to return at 100 percent in 2012. With Powell potentially sidelined for the first month of the season, look for senior Lerentee McCray, sophomore Gideon Ajagbe or freshmen Dante Fowler to help pickup the pass rush.

6. AuburnThere’s no question the strength of Auburn’s defense will be the line. Four starters are back from last year, and the depth is improving with another offseason for the young players to develop in the strength and conditioning program. End Corey Lemonier is back after recording 9.5 sacks in 2011 and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012. Nosa Eguae is expected to man the other end spot after registering 38 tackles last season. Juniors Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter will anchor the middle, but sophomores Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson will compete for snaps. Auburn allowed 189.2 rushing yards per game last season – a number that is sure to decrease with the talent and depth returning in 2012.  

7. Arkansas – The middle of this unit shouldn’t be a problem at all. In fact, the deep collection of tackles might be one of the best in the league. D.D. Jones, Byran Jones, Alfred Davis, and Robert Thomas form one of the best two-deeps at the position in the nation. Losing Jake Bequette, who was dealt with nagging injuries all season last year, will hurt, but the coaching staff felt comfortable enough with the returning names that Tank Wright was moved to linebacker. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers will get the first shot at starting with Austin Flynn and Colton Miles-Nash used off the bench to rush the passer.  The Hogs could be strong again on defense but the D-Line will be measured how they perform against LSU and Alabama — two teams that rushed for a total of 483 combined yards in Arkansas’ only two losses last fall.

8. Mississippi State The Bulldogs quietly ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring defense last season. Seven starters are back from that unit, including senior tackle Josh Boyd and standout cornerback Johnthan Banks. The line allowed 153.5 rushing yards per game last year but registered 27 sacks. Tackle Fletcher Cox will be missed, but Boyd’s return should keep this unit playing at a high level. Sophomore Curtis Virges finished spring atop the depth chart at the other tackle spot, but P.J. Jones, Devin Jones and touted freshman Quay Evans will see snaps. The Bulldogs need more production from the ends, and the pass rush should get a boost with junior college transfer Denico Autry winning one starting spot out of spring practice. Sophomore Kaleb Eulls is back after recording 30 tackles and one sack as a freshman last year.

9. Vanderbilt – This defense was hit hard with graduation, but not the defensive line. Certainly, they don’t have NFL stars like LSU or South Carolina, but this is a veteran group with plenty of experience. Walker May, Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter return to the line and Johnell Thomas steps into a starting roll, giving the Dores three seniors and one junior up front. May might have the most upside and needs to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The two-deep will have some intrigue to it as Barron Dixon and Kyle Woestmann offer a solid glimpse of the future. This was an underrated defense last year, but was led by the back seven. The front line needs to step to the forefront this fall.

10. MissouriThis unit has been a strength in recent years but injuries and the loss of three key players has created question marks. End Brad Madison is capable of contending for All-SEC honors in 2012, but he missed spring practice with a shoulder injury. If Madison is able to return at full strength, he should push for eight sacks in 2012. Sheldon Richardson was solid in his first year at Missouri, recording 37 tackles (eight for a loss) and two sacks. However, he also missed spring practice with a shoulder injury. Sophomore Kony Ealy is a potential breakout candidate at end, while sophomore Matt Hoch or senior Jimmy Barge will start at opening at defensive tackle. If Madison and Richardson return at full strength, this unit will finish higher on this list. However, with the uncertainty surrounding both players, combined with the departure of underrated nose guard Dominique Hamilton, Missouri has to be ranked in the bottom half of the league. 

11. Tennessee – Trying to quantify the defensive front at Tennessee might take all season. New coordinator Sal Sunseri is still trying to slot the pieces into the right places in an effort to improve the 69th-rated rush defense and the second-to-worst pass rushing team (1.33 sacks per game, 100th nationally). Jacques Smith has the skills to be a terror off the edge if he can realize his full potential and Marlon Walls returns with a steady game that fits in most schemes. Daniel Hood, Maurice Couch, Steven Fowlkes and junior college transfer Darrington Sentimore will all get time at tackle. Sentimore will be joined by fellow JUCO prospect Daniel McCullers — who is listed at 6-foot-6, 360 pounds. There are a lot of bodies up front for the Vols, but sorting out what system and what players work best could be a work in progress all fall long.

12. Texas A&M If the Aggies want to contend for the SEC West title in the next five years, this is one area of the team that has to improve, especially in terms of depth. Texas A&M gave up only 101.9 yards per game on the ground last season, but end Tony Jerod-Eddie and tackle Eddie Brown have finished their eligibility. The headliner should be junior Damontre Moore, who registered 8.5 sacks as a 3-4 linebacker/end last season. He will be counted upon to be the unit’s top pass rusher once again in 2012. Spencer Nealy is expected to start at the other end spot after recording 45 tackles in 2011. While the end spots are in good shape, the interior is a question mark. Jonathan Mathis missed most of last season with an injury, and the coaching staff hopes he can start at one tackle spot. The other spot on the interior will likely go to Kirby Ennis, while Shayvion Hatten and Gavin Stansbury compete for snaps.

13. Kentucky The SEC is full of solid defensive lines, so it’s a bit misleading to call this area a weakness for the Wildcats. Three starters are back from a unit that ranked 10th in the SEC against the run and registered 20 sacks last year. The production has to be better in 2012, but that shouldn’t be a problem with Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble returning to anchor the middle. Both players recorded over 30 tackles last season and should help Kentucky’s run defense improve in 2012. End Collins Ukwu brings experience but needs to raise his sack total from last year (2.5). The other spot on the line is a hybrid linebacker/end position, which will go to sophomore Alvin Dupree. 

14. Ole Miss – The Rebels defensive line was 112th in the nation in stopping the run and 110th in sacking the oppositions quarterback. Both were the worst in the SEC last fall and things aren’t pointing to a quick turnaround for Hugh Freeze. At least two sophomores will be starting with a couple other underclassmen dotting the two deep. Freshman Channing Ward could see playing time early if he lives up the recruiting hype. Seniors Uriah Grant and Gerald Rivers will attempt to lead this unit while C.J. Johnson might have the most upside. This unit has little experience, some upside and needs to add depth. It could be another long year in The Grove.

by Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

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