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Wednesday, August 26, 2009
SEC position rankings: Linebackers

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

This was the toughest duty yet. Ranking the linebackers in this league is impossible, which tells you a little bit about the depth at that position in the SEC:


1. Alabama: The one-two punch of Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower is as good as there is anywhere in the country. Watch some of the younger guys take off at linebacker this season, too, like Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris. The Crimson Tide have depth, talent and smarts to go around at linebacker.


2. Florida: Brandon Spikes is one of the best middle linebackers in the country and a terrific tone-setter for this defense. The guys flanking him aren't too shabby, either. Brandon Hicks, Ryan Stamper and Dustin Doe are all big-time players in their own right. Remember the name Jelani Jenkins, too. He's only a freshman.


3. Georgia: All three starters from a year ago return, including junior Rennie Curran, the league's top returning tackler. Curran was one of four SEC defenders to have at least 100 tackles last season. The Bulldogs have a bunch of guys at linebacker who can play. Now, let's see if they tackle better than they did a year ago.


4. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are legit. Senior Brent Trice didn't even start last season, but has been so disruptive that it's going to be hard to keep him off the field. Senior Patrick Benoist was a second-team All-SEC selection a year ago, and Chris Marve was one of the best freshman linebackers in the country.


5. Ole Miss: Starting middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell returns along with starting strong side linebacker Allen Walker. Both players have extensive SEC experience and the kind of speed this league demands. The guy to watch is Patrick Trahan, who's a prime candidate for Breakout Player of the Year honors.


6. South Carolina: Ellis Johnson, who oversees the Gamecocks' defense, wishes he had the kind of depth everywhere else he does at linebacker. Eric Norwood, the Gamecocks' senior outside linebacker, is the SEC's career active leader in sacks, and Rodney Paulk returns in the middle after missing most of last season.


7. Mississippi State: The depth might be a little iffy, but it's hard to beat the Bulldogs' top three linebackers, all of whom are 240-plus pounds. Jamar Chaney is back in the middle after breaking his leg in the opener last season. K.J. Wright is another All-SEC caliber player, and junior college newcomer Chris White is the third starter.


8. LSU: The Tigers return both starting outside linebackers from a year ago, Perry Riley and Kelvin Sheppard. First-year coordinator John Chavis has also moved Harry Coleman from safety to outside linebacker. Stepping into the middle is senior Jacob Cutrera, who's been a spot starter for most of his career.


9. Auburn: If the Tigers stay healthy, they probably deserve to move up a little bit. But they're razor thin at linebacker and can't afford for anybody to go down. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are back after starting most of last season, and junior college newcomer Eltoro Freeman has fit nicely into this defense.


10. Kentucky: Senior Micah Johnson is one of the most imposing middle linebackers in the league and a tackling machine. He just doesn't have much around him in the way of experience. Senior Sam Maxwell steps in as a full-time starter on the outside, and sophomore Danny Trevathan is the Wildcats' fastest linebacker.


11. Tennessee: Senior weakside linebacker Rico McCoy is the anchor of the Vols' unit and has a ton of experience and talent, but the Vols will play a former walk-on, Nick Reveiz, at middle linebacker and don't have anybody else on the roster who's played a meaningful SEC snap.


12. Arkansas: The entire Arkansas defense took a beating last season, not just the linebackers. Wendel Davis, Jerry Franklin and Freddy Burton are all back after starting in four of the last six games a year ago. They get a chance to prove that they're a lot better than the numbers from 2008 would suggest.