Which defensive players are due for a breakout year?
The SEC has a never-ending stockpile of defensive talent, and the next wave of stars is poised to emerge with spring practice just around the corner for all 14 teams. Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, LSU defensive end Arden Key and Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis are just a few of the league’s impact freshman from last season, and all three players are poised for even bigger things in 2016. Additionally, players like Auburn defensive end Byron Cowart, Alabama defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand and Florida defensive end CeCe Jefferson are ready for a bigger role on their team after working as a reserve.
Spring practice is the first glimpse at teams and how they stack up for the upcoming season. To prepare for spring workouts and preseason predictions, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the players poised for a breakout season. Here are 15 defensive players on the rise in the SEC:
SEC's Top 15 Defensive Players on the Rise for 2016
Terry Beckner, DT, Missouri
The defensive line was an annual strength for Missouri under former coach Gary Pinkel and assistant Craig Kuligowski. While both coaches are gone, the run of talent for the Tigers up front isn’t going to end in 2016. Beckner was the top recruit in Missouri’s 2015 signing class and played in 10 games before a season-ending knee injury. Beckner recorded 27 tackles (eight for a loss) and three sacks in his first action with the Tigers. He will be a key cog on the interior for new coach Barry Odom in 2016.
Brandon Bryant, S, Mississippi State
Change is the first word that comes to mind when examining Mississippi State’s defense for 2016. The Bulldogs will have a new defensive staff, including first-time coordinator Peter Sirmon. Additionally, key starters Chris Jones (DT), Beniquez Brown (LB), Taveze Calhoun (CB) and Ryan Brown (DE) have departed Starkville. But the cupboard is far from bare for coach Dan Mullen, as the defense features a couple of rising stars to watch this spring. One of those players is Bryant, who started the final eight games for the Bulldogs at strong safety in 2015. As a redshirt freshman last season, Bryant recorded 63 stops, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions and six passes defended.
Byron Cowart, DE, Auburn
Coach Gus Malzahn and coordinator Kevin Steele wasted no time looking for upgrades and overall depth to its front seven. On Signing Day, the Tigers inked five defensive linemen, as well as linebacker/end Paul James from the junior college ranks. In addition to the incoming class, Auburn will be looking for more out of Cowart in 2016. The Florida native was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and registered only six stops in 13 games last year. With Carl Lawson manning one of the end spots, and Cowart emerging on the other side, Auburn’s pass rush should find a spark after recording just 19 sacks in 2015.
Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn
Improvement on defense is a must for Auburn after allowing 28.6 points a game in SEC contests last year. New coordinator Kevin Steele inherits five returning starters, but there are reasons for optimism with a healthy Carl Lawson back in the trenches. Davis is one of the building blocks in the secondary after a solid debut as a true freshman in 2015. The Miami native played in all 13 games, registered 56 tackles, broke up eight passes and recorded three interceptions. Davis could emerge as an all-conference cornerback in 2016.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
Fitzpatrick leads the next wave of stars on Alabama’s defense, helping to anchor a secondary that improved from No. 30 nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2014 to No. 8 last season. Fitzpatrick worked in the “star” role for coach Nick Saban and finished the year with 45 stops, two sacks, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups. The New Jersey native was a first-team selection on the Athlon Sports’ All-Freshman Team for 2015 and is ready to emerge as one of the SEC’s top defensive backs.
Dre Greenlaw, LB, Arkansas
Greenlaw was a good find on the recruiting trail for coach Bret Bielema and coordinator Robb Smith. The Arkansas native was only rated a three-star recruit and the No. 825 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite last year. However, Greenlaw was an impact defender for the Razorbacks in his first season on campus. In 13 games, Greenlaw recorded 95 tackles (3.5 for a loss), one sack and two forced fumbles. Greenlaw should take another step forward in his development this spring.
Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama
Just how loaded was Alabama’s defensive line last season? Consider this – Hand was the No. 5 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and has only 23 tackles as a reserve the last two years. Expect those totals and his playing time to change significantly in 2016. With A’Shawn Robinson leaving for the NFL and Jarran Reed expiring his eligibility, Hand should be a bigger part of the defensive line rotation and will easily have the best season of his career in Tuscaloosa.
CeCe Jefferson, DE, Florida
Jefferson ranked as the No. 7 overall recruit in the 2015 247Sports Composite and wasted no time making an impact for coach Jim McElwain. Jefferson played in all 14 games as a true freshman, recorded 29 tackles (8.5 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble. With Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister departing, Jefferson is expected to step into a starting role in 2016.
Arden Key, DE, LSU
Key was an instant-impact recruit for LSU last season, recording 41 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and five sacks in 12 appearances. The 6-foot-6, 231-pound defensive end from Georgia stepped up in some of the biggest games for the Tigers last year, generating sacks against Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi State and Texas A&M and finishing the season with a solid performance against Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. Key should be one of the league’s top edge rushers in 2016.
Darrin Kirkland, LB, Tennessee
Much of the attention in Tennessee’s 2015 recruiting class centered on its defensive line haul, but it was Kirkland – a four-star recruit from Indiana – that drew the most attention last year. Kirkland played in all 13 games (started 10) and registered 66 tackles. Additionally, 6.5 for his stops went for a loss, and he recorded three sacks and one interception. Kirkland and teammate Jalen Reeves-Maybin should form one of the SEC’s top linebacker duos next season.
Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M
Offense has carried Texas A&M since it joined the SEC in 2012. However, the Aggies have made strides on defense, and the 2016 version of the Wrecking Crew could be one of the best in the SEC. End Myles Garrett is one of the best players in the nation, but the junior is surrounded by plenty of help in the trenches. Mack is a rising star for coordinator John Chavis after playing in 13 games as a true freshman last season. He recorded 32 stops (9.5 for a loss) and forced one fumble in 2015.
Josh Smith, LB, Vanderbilt
Derek Mason’s decision to take over the play-calling for Vanderbilt’s defense paid big dividends for this group in 2015. After giving up 35.4 points a game in SEC contests in 2014, the Commodores cut that total to 23 a game last season. With seven starters returning, this unit could take another step forward in 2016. Even with Stephen Weatherly leaving for the NFL, the linebacking corps is in good shape. Zach Cunningham is the anchor for this group, and Nigel Bowden returns after missing nearly all of 2015 due to injury. Smith was the top-rated recruit in Vanderbilt’s 2015 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and recorded seven tackles in 12 games. He could push for a starting job this offseason.
Breeland Speaks, DT, Ole Miss
The Rebels have a few voids to fill up front, but coordinator Dave Wommack has plenty of talent to keep this defense performing at a high level. Robert Nkemdiche is the biggest loss on the interior, and Speaks, D.J. Jones, Issac Gross and incoming freshman Benito Jones is a strong group to build around in the middle. Speaks is poised to become a difference maker in 2016 after playing in 13 games as a redshirt freshman last year. Additionally, Speaks recorded 32 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and one sack. He should push for All-SEC honors in 2016.
Trent Thompson, DL, Georgia
New coach Kirby Smart has a few key losses to address on defense, but the Bulldogs return enough talent to rank among the SEC’s best once again. Two sophomores – Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith – are poised for a breakout year in 2016. Thompson ranked as the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2015 247Sports Composite and played in 12 games as a true freshman. The Georgia native also started six games and registered 25 stops. At 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds, Thompson has the necessary size to plug the interior of Smart’s 3-4 scheme, or he could shift to the outside as an edge player. The talent and versatility is there for Thompson to make a huge impact in 2016.
Chris Westry, CB, Kentucky
Kentucky went with a youth movement at cornerback last season, which should pay off for coach Mark Stoops in 2016. Derrick Baity started the final four games for the Wildcats at one corner spot, while Westry started all 12 games on the other side. The 6-foot-3 Florida native recorded 36 stops, one sack, eight pass breakups and two interceptions. Westry will be a key cog in Kentucky’s defense next fall.