Today we take a look at the SEC linebackers. The front sevens in this league are always good and 2011 shouldn't be any different.
Here's how the teams stacked up:
1. Alabama: There are a lot of strengths on this Alabama team, but the linebackers should be very fun to watch this fall. Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are back to full speed and are considered top players at their positions. With them back, the Tide should have a much more aggressive pass rush. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley improved even more this spring and will get time in the middle when Hightower is outside at the "Jack" position. Mosely blossomed as a freshman and could be a star in the making. Jarrell Harris seems to finally be coming around and Chris Jordan gives them another body in the front seven.
2. Florida: This group struggled to stay consistent at times last fall, but the new coaching staff was pleased with the progress it made this spring. There is a lot talent out there and now there are two distinct leaders in Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, who should occupy the middle when the Gators go to the 3-4. Both are tremendous athletes and should be a solid duo this fall. Florida also has former No. 1 high school prospect Ronald Powell playing that linebacker/defensive end hybrid spot called the Buck. He’ll stand up a lot this season and should elevate himself near the top of the SEC pass-rushing list. Cal transfer Chris Martin earned a ton of praise last year on the practice squad and will be a hybrid as well. Converted safety Dee Finley will play outside and there is some good, but young, depth in the wings.
3. Arkansas: This area of the team improved a lot during the season and this spring. It’s headlined by Jerry Franklin, who has led the Razorbacks in tackles the last three seasons. He has 271, including 21.5 for loss in his career. Strongside hybrid Jerico Nelson was second on the team in tackles and has the speed to get all over the field. Nelson will occasional drop back and play safety as well. This linebacker tandem will be one of the best out there this fall. The major plus for the Razorbacks is that there is finally some really good depth at the position. Bret Harris, Jarrett Lake and Terrell Williams came on strong on the outside this spring, while Ross Rasner was making strides until he was arrested and suspended indefinitely this spring.
4. Georgia: There is no shortage of athleticism in Georgia’s linebacker corps. Alec Ogletree moved down from safety and while he’s bulked up, he’s still got tremendous closing speed and will make a ton of plays at middle linebacker. Next to him is defensive leader Christian Robinson, who left spring as one of Georgia’s most consistent linebackers. On the outside, USC transfer Jarvis Jones will occupy the weak side and the coaches feel he might be more of a complete player than Justin Houston. On the other end, Cornelius Washington might not be getting a ton of publicity, but he’s no slouch and can run with the best of them.
5. LSU: Like most of the Tigers’ positions, this one might not have a ton of in-game experience, but the athleticism is too good not to praise. LSU lost leading tackler and monster in the middle Kelvin Sheppard, but there should be enough able bodies to make this unit one of the tops in the league this fall. Ryan Baker is now the leader out there and can keep up with some of the best offensive weapons out there. He’ll play on the weak side, while converted safety Karnell Hatcher moved down from safety and took reps at middle linebacker, but could find his home outside. Sophomore Kevin Minter spent his spring trying to fill Sheppard’s void and has made vast improvements. Senior Stefoin Francois provides veteran depth for the Tigers on the outside, while there are a few young, able bodies ready to contribute as well.
6. Kentucky: Things start with one of the nation’s best in Danny Trevathan. He led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and the word out of Lexington is that he’s looking to be even better this fall and wants to move around the field a lot more. Ronnie Sneed returns as the starter in the middle, after grabbing 61 tackles a year ago. He made some nice improvements this spring. Ridge Wilson will be another hybrid on the outside, and will occasionally lineup as a rush end for the Wildcats. The talented Winston Guy, who has played just about everywhere on Kentucky’s defense has finally settled into his home at linebacker and should play closer to the line of scrimmage and be a nickel linebacker.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks got an immediate upgrade to this position with the return of Shaq Wilson, after he missed last year with a hamstring injury. Wilson is known as the quarterback of the defense and led South Carolina in tackles in 2009. The player that could really make noise in this unit is DeVonte Holloman, who is moving from safety to the hybrid Spur position. He’ll drop back into coverage and rush from the outside to give the Gamecocks another weapon in the pass rush. Upperclassmen Reggie Bowens and Rodney Paulk will get some reps in the middle this fall, while Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will compete for time outside.
8. Tennessee: The Volunteers are still trying to find out what this group is made of. Junior Herman Lathers will be back after he heals from an ankle injury this spring and he’s the most experienced player at the position. He had 75 tackles last season and will man the weak side for the Vols when he returns. Senior Daryl Vereen should get time at strong side, but he still has some developing to do. Senior Austin Johnson, a converted fullback, will get time in the middle with All-SEC freshman pick John Propst. The jury is still out on this unit and youngsters like A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Christian Harris will have to develop quickly.
9. Auburn: The Tigers are almost back to the drawing board at linebacker. Both Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are gone, leaving Daren Bates as the lone returning starter. Bates is a converted safety, but settled nicely into the linebacker position well last fall. Inexperience looms after that as sophomore Jake Holland is a projected starter in the middle and junior Jonathan Evans will get time at weakside. Former junior college standout Eltoro Freeman, has the potential to be a menace, but has yet to truly step up for the Tigers. They’ll need that light bulb to go on this year.
10. Mississippi State: First thing’s first -- the Bulldogs must replace three starting linebackers this season. That won’t be easy or fun in Starkville. But help could be on the way in Clemson transfer Brandon Maye, who was a three-year starter with the Tigers. Coach Dan Mullen said he’s a player they expect to come in and take one of those openings at linebacker. Mississippi State still has senior leader Brandon Wilson, who players fed off of this spring. Chris Hughes and Cam Lawrence also made strides, but expect a lot of rotation from new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson.
11. Vanderbilt: Chris Marve is one of the top linebackers in the nation. He’s got great field instincts and matches his skill with the best of them. Just having him on the field makes this group better. But after him, the Commodores have a lot of questions. Vanderbilt must replace outside linebackers John Stokes and Nate Campbell, and though there are six candidates, they have just start among them. Coming out of spring, juniors Tristan Strong and Archibald Barnes and sophomore Chase Garnham are the leading candidates to see valuable playing time.
12. Ole Miss: Losing D.T. Shackelford was an enormous blow to the Rebels. Not only was he Ole Miss’ best defensive player but he was the emotional leader of the team. He was going to carry this team as far as he could go. Now, the Rebels have a wealth of inexperience to deal with. Things got even worse when sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was dismissed following his arrest for public drunkenness. The pressure is now on incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top prospect coming out of the state of Mississippi. He could jump right into Shackelford’s spot. Mike Marry and Ralph Williams worked in Shackelford’s spot this spring and Joel Knight returns as a starter outside.