- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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If you think the front sevens in the SEC are athletic, just wait until you see the speed and range the defensive backs have. These last lines of defense could have a field day considering the inexperience at quarterback around the league.
1. Florida: The Gators lost very little from a secondary that ranked third in the SEC in pass-defense effiency (107.4). This unit is headlined by All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who has defended 30 passes with six interceptions in two years. Florida’s coaches feel they can confidently rotate seven guys in the secondary, including SEC All-Freshman cornerback Jalen Tabor, nickelback Brian Poole and safety Keanu Neal, who combined to defend 30 passes with eight interceptions last season.
2. LSU: The Tigers are convinced they own the "DB U" banner that Florida claimed earlier this year. LSU has an argument after leading the conference in pass-defense efficiency last season (101.6). Excellent cover corner Tre'Davious White (two interceptions) and up-and-coming safety Jamal Adams (66 tackles) lead a deep secondary. Junior Rickey Jefferson must replace star safety Jalen Mills (ankle) for a few weeks, but he has played in 20 games in two years.
3. Ole Miss: Losing All-Americans Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson hurts, but Ole Miss has plenty of talent and athleticism. Senior Mike Hilton is a firecracker at safety and can play all five of Ole Miss' secondary positions. Tony Connor could be a first-round pick as a safety, linebacker or hybrid, and Trae Elston is a natural ballhawk. There should be no drop-off with new cornerbacks Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges.
4. Georgia: Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt really turned this unit around in Year 1, ranking fifth nationally in pass defense (170.4 ypg). Georgia defensive backs had 15 interceptions last season and four guys with starting experience return. Leader Damian Swann is gone, but sophomore safety Dominick Sanders could be a big-play star. Aside from Swann, all the other cornerbacks from the two-deep return.
5. Tennessee: Headlined by All-SEC contenders Cameron Sutton (cornerback) and Brian Randolph (safety), the Vols are deeper, faster and more athletic than Tennessee has seen in a while. Sutton is the star (16 passes defended, three interceptions), but senior safety LaDarrell McNeil and sophomore cornerback Emmanuel Moseley are more than solid. Young depth like Evan Berry and Todd Kelly Jr. means Tennessee can have a constant rotation.
6. Arkansas: The growth from 2014 should carry over. Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre Toliver have a chance to be true, lockdown cover guys, and senior Rohan Gaines returns with a ton of experience. Though there is solid depth here, the Hogs have to be better than the 244.4 pass yards they allowed in SEC games.
7. Missouri: Three starters return, and cornerbacks Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton could be one of the SEC’s best cornerback duos (23 passes defended/four interceptions). However, the loss of reliable safety Braylon Webb leaves a big hole in this secondary. Safety Ian Simon is experienced, which helps, but it will be interesting to see how the coaches rotate in at the other safety spot.
8. Alabama: This has been the knock on Alabama for the past couple of seasons, but moreso in 2014. The Tide ranked 11th in the SEC in pass defense (226 ypg) and allowed 43 passes of 20-plus yards. Starters Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson are back, but the Tide needs youngsters like Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey to step up.
9. Auburn: Will Muschamp will have a major influence on a unit that returns good experience, but was so inconsistent last season. Auburn gave up 22 pass touchdowns, but grabbed 22 interceptions. The Tigers allowed 253.8 yards and only had 11 picks in conference play. Cornerback Jonanthan Jones is an All-SEC contender and Jonathan Ford led the team in tackles last season (93). The nickelback spot has to be figured out and depth is still a concern.
10. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have a chance to be better here if cornerbacks Chris Lammons, Al Harris Jr. and Rico McWilliams keep progressing. Getting to the ball better is key, as South Carolina gave up 12 touchdowns with just two interceptions in league play last season. Jordan Diggs and Isaiah Johnson are to start at safety, despite never playing there as Gamecocks.
11. Kentucky: Safety could be a strength of this defense, especially with senior A.J. Stamps coming back, but the Wildcats need to find consistent cornerbacks. That’s where this group has really struggled, and Mark Stoops is going young, as freshman Chris Westry has been named the starter opposite Cody Quinn, who has served as a part-time starter.
12. Mississippi State: Even with all the speed and athleticism, this group really struggled with the big play last season. Mississippi State surrendered a league-high 25 passes of 30-plus yards, including nine of 50-plus. The Bulldogs ranked 114th nationally allowing 272.8 passing yards per game. Taveze Calhoun is the only starter returning, but senior Will Redmond could be a breakout candidate.
13. Vanderbilt: Inconsistent play from the cornerbacks led to breakdowns in the secondary last season. Senior Torren McGaster has one cornerback spot locked down and there is experience to work with, as Taurean Ferguson, Andrew Williamson and Oren Burks return. Coach Derek Mason will have to be more hands-on with this group, which has to be better than 19 touchdowns to six interceptions.
14. Texas A&M: The Aggies were second-to-last in the SEC in pass defense last season (234.8), gave up a league-high 14 40-plus-yard throws and lack a true shutdown cornerback. De'Vante Harris is an experienced starter at cornerback, but has been wildly inconsistent. Brandon Williams moved from running back to cornerback. Sophomore safety Armani Watts could be a star, and the coaches hope JUCO transfer Justin Evans can assist him at safety.
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