The SEC's 25 best players: No. 13

As middle linebackers go, this next guy on our countdown of the SEC’s 25 best players might have been underrated in the past, but he returns next season as one of the premier defenders in the league.

No. 13: Kelvin Sheppard, LB, Sr., LSU

2009 numbers: Finished fourth in the SEC with 110 total tackles, including 8.5 for loss.

Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the preseason or postseason countdown for 2009.

Making the case for Sheppard: The SEC was loaded with talented linebackers last season, and when you started listing them, Rolando McClain, Eric Norwood, Brandon Spikes, Rennie Curran, Jamar Chaney, Patrick Benoist and Micah Johnson were the names you usually heard first. The 6-foot-3, 239-pound Sheppard deserved to be in that group then, and he enters the 2010 season at the forefront of the top linebackers in the league and the country. He’s coming off his best season in more ways than one. Not only was he the Tigers’ leading tackler, but he was also their emotional leader on defense. That role will be even more important in 2010 when you look at all of the quality players the Tigers lost on defense. Plus, they will be especially young and inexperienced around Sheppard at the other linebacker spots. The good news for LSU is that Sheppard is a tackling machine and makes plays sideline to sideline, in the opposing backfield and even dropping into coverage on occasion. A weakside linebacker earlier in his career, he’s an extremely instinctive player, which is the reason he’s always around the ball. It’s also the reason he’s so consistent. In three straight games last season against Florida, Auburn and Tulane, he recorded 13 tackles and had at least seven tackles in 11 of LSU’s 13 games. So when you start reeling off the top linebackers in college football heading into this next season, don't forget about the guy on the Bayou.

The rundown

No. 14: Randall Cobb, WR/QB, Jr., Kentucky

No. 15: Janoris Jenkins, CB, Jr., Florida

No. 16: Mark Barron, S, Jr., Alabama

No.17: Darvin Adams, WR, Jr., Auburn

No. 18: Alshon Jeffery, WR, So., South Carolina

No. 19: D.J. Williams, TE, Sr., Arkansas

No. 20: Cliff Matthews, DE, Sr., South Carolina

No. 21: Clint Boling, OT, Sr., Georgia

No. 22: Greg Childs, WR, Jr., Arkansas

No. 23: Washaun Ealey, RB, So., Georgia

No. 24: Chris Marve, LB, Jr., Vanderbilt

No. 25: Luke Stocker, TE, Sr., Tennessee