By the end of this week, half the schools in the SEC will have started spring practice.
In this league, it’s never too early to look at who’s bringing back what on defense.
We went back and looked at the number of top tacklers returning at each school. Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee all return eight of their top 10 tacklers from a year ago.
Of course, just because you return a bunch of your leading tacklers doesn’t guarantee success.
Tennessee returned 12 of its top 15 tacklers from 2011 and proceeded to have its worst defensive showing in school history last season. The Vols finished 107th nationally in total defense and gave up 37 or more points in eight of their 12 games.
By contrast, Alabama lost four of its top five tacklers and nine of its top 18 tacklers from 2011. The Crimson Tide never blinked and repeated as national champions in 2012. They finished first nationally in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense and were seventh in passing defense.
We’ll take a closer look at each SEC school and what it has coming back on the defensive side of the ball in 2013.
We’ll start with the Eastern Division and come back later today with the Western Division:
Eight of the Vols' top 10 tacklers return.
Leading returning tackler: Linebacker A.J. Johnson, who led the team with 138 total tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. His 138 tackles led all SEC players.
The Vols return four of their top five tacklers. They’re also getting back safety Brian Randolph, who tore his ACL last season and was fifth on the team in tackles in 2011 and earned SEC All-Freshman honors.
Six of the Wildcats' top 10 tacklers return.
Leading returning tackler: Middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who led the team with 135 total tackles last season and was second among all SEC players.
The Wildcats return four of their top five tacklers, including linebacker Alvin “Bud” Dupree, who led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Six of the Commodores' top 10 tacklers return.
Leading returning tackler: Safety Kenny Ladler, who led the team with 90 total tackles.
The Commodores return their top three tacklers and six of their top seven. Middle linebacker Chase Garnham, outside linebacker Karl Butler and end Walker May all had more than 10 tackles for loss last season, and all three players return.
Five of the Gators' top 10 tacklers return.
Leading returning tackler: Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who was fourth on the team with 51 total tackles.
The Gators lost five of their top six tacklers. Gone are tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam, who combined for 24 tackles for loss. End Dominique Easley and "buck" end Dante Fowler, Jr., return after combining for 16.5 tackles for loss last season.
Five of the Tigers' top 10 tacklers return.
Leading returning tackler: Middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team with 79 total tackles.
Three of the top five tacklers are gone, including tackle Sheldon Richardson and linebacker Will Ebner. They tied for the team lead last season with 10.5 tackles for loss. End Kony Ealy is back, and he had 10 tackles for loss in 2012.
Four of the Gamecocks' top 10 tacklers return.
Leading returning tackler: End Jadeveon Clowney, who was fifth on the team with 54 total tackles and led the team with 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
The Gamecocks lost their top four tacklers and six of their top eight. Nobody returns at linebacker or the hybrid "spur" linebacker/safety position that had more than five total tackles last season.
Three of the Bulldogs' top 10 tacklers return.
Leading returning tackler: Inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who was fifth on the team with 70 total tackles.
The Bulldogs lost their top four tacklers. Gone are outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, who combined for 36 tackles for loss. Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is back after finishing third on the team with eight tackles for loss and second to Jones with five sacks.