We thought ranking the running backs was hard -- then the linebackers came along.
It shouldn't come as much of a shock that we had trouble getting our rankings in order with all of the talent out there in the SEC, but it's pretty hard to go wrong with this list.
Here's what we came up with:
1. Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, Jr.: He was never truly 100 percent last season after that devastating knee injury in 2009. However, the pain is finally gone and Hightower is looking to really take off in 2011. When he’s healthy, he’s as exciting to watch as any linebacker out there. He'll start in the middle, but moves outside the "Jack" position and plays in different spots on passing downs. Even though he was hobbled last year, he was second on the team with 69 tackles.
2. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, Sr.: Upshaw is back to full health after dealing with a nagging ankle injury in 2010. This spring, he was flying around practice and should be one of the top pass-rushers on the outside. He's another one of those Jacks who might start on the outside, but Upshaw will make plays all over the field this fall. He ended last season with some mighty playing momentum, registering five sacks in the final two games.
3. Jerry Franklin, Arkansas, Sr.: Franklin has been an absolute beast for the Razorbacks. He’s lead Arkansas in tackles the last three seasons, and there’s no reason for us not to think he won’t do it again. Franklin is also pretty quick on his feet and has a nose for the ball. He has five career interceptions and five forced fumbles.
4. Danny Trevathan, Kentucky, Sr.: Talk about being the hardest working man on the field. Trevathan led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and was third with 16 of them behind the line of scrimmage. He’s Kentucky’s most trusted defender and was the first Kentucky linebacker to ever earn any sort of All-America first-team honors.
5. Chris Marve, Vanderbilt, Sr.: Marve is arguably Vanderbilt’s best overall player. If not for a knee injury that cost him one game in 2011, Marve might have made it three straight years with 100 or more tackles. He played the entire last season in some sort of pain and was still able to cover a lot of ground over the middle of the field.
6. Ryan Baker, LSU, Sr.: One thing that makes Baker so imposing against offenses is his speed. He has tremendous closing speed and his play could be the key to the functionality of LSU’s young but very athletic defense. Kelvin Sheppard is gone, so the defense will be leaning on Baker for not only his play but his leadership skills. Baker had 87 tackles last year and led the team with seven sacks.
7. Jelani Jenkins, Florida, So.: Jenkins developed as last season went on, but he was inconsistent at times. He showed he’s got wheels and somehow found the ball a ton, finishing second on the team with 76 tackles. Jenkins really took to Dan Quinn’s multiple defense this spring and will be called on to be one of the voices on defense. He’ll line up outside in the 4-3 and will be inside when Florida is in the 3-4.
8. Ronald Powell, Florida, So.: Powell could have made this list as a defensive end, but with him playing the hybrid Buck and primarily playing linebacker last year, we stuck him here. After struggling through his first year, Powell was a changed man this spring and from all accounts finally looked like what the No. 1 high school prospect should look like. The defensive staff has complete trust in Powell and with his freakish athleticism and ability, he immediately becomes Florida’s top pass-rusher.
9. DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina, Jr.: Holloman made the switch form safety and will now be the Gamecocks’ hybrid linebacker known as the Spur. With defensive back speed and weighing 230 pounds, he should be just fine at his new position. The question is whether the staff will keep him there. The strong safety spot was never filled this spring, so Holloman could move back. As long as he’s here, he’s going to add a quality roving weapon to the Gamecocks' defense.
10. Jarvis Jones, Georgia, So.: He finally gets on the field after sitting out a year because of his transfer from USC. He’ll line up on the weak side, so he’s not exactly Justin Houston, but the coaches at Georgia think he might be a more complete player at linebacker. He can rush the passer and stop the run. Jones should have a big year in his new conference.