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 Linebackers for 2012
1. Georgia – After sitting out the 2010 season following his transfer from USC, Jarvis Jones quickly emerged as one of the SEC’s top linebackers last year. He recorded 70 tackles and 13.5 sacks en route to earning first-team All-SEC honors. Jones will man the outside of Georgia’s 3-4 scheme along with sophomore Ramik Wilson or Chase Vasser. The interior spots are expected to go to junior Alec Ogletree and senior Michael Gilliard. Ogletree made 52 stops and three sacks last season and should contend for a spot among the All-SEC squad in 2012.
2. Alabama – Not many teams can withstand the loss of multiple NFL Draft picks and All-SEC performers from one unit like the Crimson Tide. But after losing the law firm of Hightower, Upshaw and Harris, Nick Saban isn’t too concerned with the heart of his defense. Trey DePriest, Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard bring length, physicality, pedigree and versatility to the always stout Bama defense. The lone holdover, senior Nico Johnson, will be in charge of getting his compatriots lined-up correctly. C.J. Mosley will also feature prominently in the mix as well as Tana Patrick and Dillon Lee. Additionally, Saban landed a deep and extremely talented corps of freshman prospects.
3. Florida – Few players have as much raw explosiveness and talent as Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic. And with the loaded defensive line up front, these two upperclassmen have no excuses in 2012. Jenkins is lighting quick and can get to the football but needs to show greater toughness. Bostic is a rock inside. While Will Muschamp needs these two to take the next step into stardom, he will need support from some new faces. Darrin Kitchens and Lerentee McCray have the physical tools to be the breakout stars this defense needs. A trio of freshman backers will help provide depth, while early enrollee Antonio Morrison has already impressed the staff.
4. Texas A&M – With some losses on the interior of the line, the Aggies will rely on their linebacking corps to repeat last season’s No. 12 national ranking in rush defense. Senior Sean Porter will be the leader of this group but must adjust to the new 4-3 scheme after playing a rush/outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment last year. He recorded 79 tackles and 9.5 sacks last season. Senior Jonathan Stewart will anchor the middle after leading the team with 98 stops last season. The third starting spot is expected to go to senior Steven Jenkins, who finished 2011 with 61 tackles. Depth is an issue, which could lead freshman Jordan Richmond (Athlon Sports No. 27 overall linebacker in 2011 recruiting class) to receive playing time right away.
5. Missouri – The return of Will Ebner was a must for a team entering the extremely physical SEC East. His veteran presence in the middle will be key if Mizzou expects to compete in its new league. He will be surrounded by two talented tacklers in third-year starters Zaviar Gooden and junior Andrew Wilson. These three are stable, dependable and have plenty of experience. However, should an injury befall this group — like Ebner’s last season — Gary Pinkel could be scrambling to find replacements. The depth chart is thin and inexperienced behind the three starters.
6. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs may not have a star like Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, but this group should be solid in 2012. Senior Cam Lawrence was steady in his first year as a starter last season, recording 123 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. He is an Athlon Sports third-team All-SEC selection for 2012. Junior Deontae Skinner will join Lawrence as a starter on the outside, and he finished 2011 with 69 tackles and two forced fumbles. The Bulldogs lost Brandon Wilson and Brandon Maye in the middle, so it will be up to a pair of youngsters – freshman Benardrick McKinney or Ferlando Bohanna – to step into the starting lineup.
7. South Carolina – Two starters are gone from last year’s group, including leading tackler Antonio Allen. Rodney Paulk also expired his eligibility after making 57 stops last season. Although the Gamecocks have some holes, there’s a lot to like about this unit. Senior DeVonte Holloman will slide from safety to linebacker and should have a standout season. The other two spots in this group should go to seniors – Shaq Wilson and Damario Jeffery. Wilson ranked fourth on the team with 52 tackles last year, while Jeffery recorded 14 stops. Depth is solid, especially with Reginald Bowens back after picking up 44 tackles last year.
8. Arkansas – The Razorbacks must replace Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson, but the cupboard isn’t bare for new coordinator Paul Haynes and linebackers coach Taver Johnson. Alonzo Highsmith made an instant impact after transferring in from the junior college ranks, recording 80 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He is expected to be one of the top linebackers in the SEC this year but missed spring practice due to a pectoral injury. Tenarius Wright was limited due to injuries last season and moved from defensive end to linebacker this spring. He is expected to see snaps on the interior, while helping the Razorbacks bolster the pass rush. Senior Matt Marshall is expected to start at the other spot. This is a solid overall group, but there’s also a wait and see feeling with Highsmith’s injury and Wright’s transition to linebacker.
9. Tennessee – There are a lot of talented bodies for new coordinator Sal Sunseri to work with in Knoxville. No mater which scheme he will run this year — 4-3, 3-4, 5-2, 4-4 — slotting the right pieces into the right places will be a difficult task. A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt proved to be plenty capable last year as freshmen and both can hit as hard as any player in the league. Getting Herman Lathers back healthy is a huge boost inside if he fits in the new scheme. Willie Bohannon and Channing Fugate provide plenty of beef on the depth chart. How Sunseri, who was a linebacker guru at Alabama, organizes his players and calls games will be one of the most intriguing developments of the entire SEC East season.
10. LSU – This was clearly Les Miles biggest area of concern heading into the recruiting cycle of 2012. He signed more linebackers (6) than any other position on the field and is hoping for a few of them to contribute right away. The good news is the defensive line should keep lanes plenty clear for the backers. Kevin Minter returns to the middle and is the only backer on the roster with significant experience of any kind. Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist are two of those freshmen who could earn starting spots right away, should names like Main Barrow, Tajh Jones or DJ Welter falter. For a team poised for another national title run, linebacker could be considered a glaring weakness.
11. Vanderbilt – No team can simply replace a stalwart like Chris Marve. He has been the heartbeat of the Dores huddle since 2008 and will be greatly missed. The good news is Chase Garnham and Archibald Barnes return with upperclass experience. Garnham was a huge surprise last fall but will need to adjust to life inside. Tristan Strong also returns but will need to prove to be fully recovered from his torn ACL a year ago (Week 4). Depth could be a major concern for this unit in 2012.
12. Auburn – With the entire defensive line returning intact, the linebackers will be counted on to plug gaps. Daren Bates returns as the senior leader of the group but is severely undersized. Jake Holland is a stable force inside but must become more of a vocal presence in the huddle. And Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans will both see plenty of snaps outside opposite of Bates. Frost has loads of upside and could eventually steal Evans’ starting spot. That said, behind these four is little to no depth after the loss of Jawara White. A key injury could be crippling.
13. Ole Miss – This unit has some promise, but it’s hard to rank the Rebels’ linebacking corps any higher after finishing last in the SEC in rush defense. You can’t blame the entire struggles against the run on the linebacking corps, but this unit needs to play better in 2012. Junior Mike Marry is the headliner for this group, leading the team with 81 stops last season. Serderius Bryant finished fourth on the team with 61 tackles as a freshman in 2011. Look for Bryant to nail down an outside starting spot. Seniors Aaron Garbutt and Joel Kight will provide depth, but the biggest question mark surrounding this unit is the health of D.T. Shackelford. He missed 2011 with a torn ACL and his status for 2012 is up in the air.
14. Kentucky – This unit suffered some huge losses from last season, as All-SEC performer Danny Trevathan and Ronnie Sneed depart. Although the Wildcats have some holes to fill, sophomore Alvin Dupree and junior Avery Williamson are two players to build around. Dupree will play the rush end in Kentucky’s 3-4 alignment, while Williamson recorded 49 stops in 12 games last year. Sophomores Miles Simpson and Malcolm McDuffen could earn the other two starting spots, but incoming freshman Khalid Henderson will have a chance to crack the rotation.
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