Our countdown of the SEC's top 25 players entering the 2016 season continues today with Nos. 15-11. We'll continue the countdown through the week until we get to No. 1 on Friday.
Physical, intelligent, emotional and versatile, Adams is a complete package at safety. He’s a strong tackler, he can play away from the ball or close to the line of scrimmage, and he’s undoubtedly one of the best defensive backs in the SEC. Last season, as a true sophomore, Adams finished third on the team with 67 tackles (47 solo), five tackles for loss, six pass breakups and four interceptions. This upcoming season should be his best.
The Commodores had one of the better defenses in the nation last season (18.5 offensive points allowed per game, 19th nationally), and Cunningham was a key part of that effort. Cunningham is fast, physical and productive. A strong tackler, Cunningham had 16.5 tackles for loss, third in the SEC in 2015, and a team-high 103 tackles along with 4.5 sacks, three pass breakups, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He was a postseason All-SEC first-team pick last season. He’s explosive, has great anticipation and is great in coverage, too. The junior has just about everything you’re looking for in a linebacker.
He has been an impact player in Knoxville since he first arrived as a true freshman in 2014. Last season, Hurd surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the first time, compiling 1,288 to go with 12 touchdowns on 277 carries. He’s also a receiving threat (22 catches, 190 yards, two touchdowns). He’s fast -- just watch him run 23.1 miles per hour on a treadmill -- and does so at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds. He’s set to become the program’s rushing leader (he needs 892 yards to make that happen), and though he doesn’t receive the attention that Leonard Fournette or Nick Chubb does, Hurd is becoming one of the nation’s top backs.
Williams played all 15 games last season, but came off the bench for each one. He compiled an impressive season as a pass-rusher, enough so that he almost decided to enter the NFL draft early before returning for his senior season. The 6-4, 237-pound Williams looks to build on his 2015 campaign, which included 10.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He’s explosive and quick off the ball in a way that few are. The question is how he’ll transition into being an every-down player and playing the run when needed. But his ability makes him one of the SEC’s best defenders going into the season.
Injuries have marred his past two seasons, but if he can stay healthy, Lawson has the ability to be one of the league’s best defenders. He’s quick off the line of scrimmage, and blockers have a hard time controlling him, thanks to his power, and that makes him a proficient pass-rusher. As Gus Malzahn said: “If you can block him one-on-one, there’s a good chance you can block most people in our league.” Auburn’s defense felt the impact of his absence, and when he’s on the field, the Tigers are better at getting to the quarterback. If he can stay healthy all season, it would be huge for him and the Tigers.