- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our SEC preseason position rankings continue today with a look at the defensive front sevens:
1. Alabama: Not much to argue here. The Crimson Tide has size, depth and talent up front led by A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Jarran Reed. They also have one of the SEC’s top linebackers in Reggie Ragland. Alabama must replace Trey DePriest and leading sack man Xzavier Dickson but has several promising options, including Ryan Anderson, ready to claim starting roles.
2. Georgia: The Bulldogs added Trenton Thompson -- ESPN’s No. 3 overall prospect for 2015 -- to a veteran group up front. They lost two key linebackers in Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, but appear to have serviceable replacements in the middle -- plus the best collection of outside linebackers in the SEC. Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter will all play on Sundays.
3. Ole Miss: There are a lot of familiar names back here, which means Ole Miss’ defensive front should be in great shape. Star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the first name that jumps off the page, but linemates Issac Gross, Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown give Ole Miss a formidable foursome. Senior C.J. Johnson is shifting from end to linebacker alongside Denzel Nkemdiche, which will provide a tough second line of defense.
4. Tennessee: With two of the SEC’s three top returning sack artists -- Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett, who combined for 21 sacks last year -- back along with budding star Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker, the edges are in great shape. But what about the middle? Can Kenny Bynum lock down the middle linebacker job? And will massive freshmen Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle be able to hold their own at defensive tackle? The answers will help determine where Tennessee belongs on this list.
5. Auburn: How big a leap can Auburn’s defense make in Year 1 under Will Muschamp? That’s the big question surrounding the Tigers, but the return of edge rusher Carl Lawson and the addition of the nation’s top prospect, end Byron Cowart, will help. Auburn also returns three starters on the defensive line and a gifted bunch of linebackers led by seniors Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy.
6. LSU: As long as the Tigers avoid major injuries at defensive tackle and linebacker, their defense should be fine. Tackles Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux started to jell in the second half of last season and Kendell Beckwith is back to lead a speedy linebacking corps. The Tigers’ edge rush is the concern. With starting ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco gone, the Tigers could use a spark from Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal and freshman Arden Key.
7. Missouri: Linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer plus a healthy Harold Brantley at tackle would have helped alleviate concerns over losing Shane Ray and Markus Golden -- who helped Mizzou lead the SEC with 44 sacks last season. But with Brantley out for the season, not only must the Tigers replace their two star edge rushers, but they also have some questions to answer in the middle. Keep an eye on how quickly ESPN’s No. 2 overall prospect, Terry Beckner Jr., develops.
8. Arkansas: This is certainly not a well-known group after losing Trey Flowers, Martrell Spaight and Darius Philon from last season, but Arkansas likes what it has with guys like JaMichael Winston and Taiwan Johnson. They might not become big names, but the deep defensive line will be just fine. There are still some questions at linebacker, however.
9. Florida: Dante Fowler Jr. is gone, but Alex McCalister is back. Maybe that’s not an even trade, but it isn't horrible for Florida. If returning linebacker Antonio Morrison looks like his old self, new coordinator Geoff Collins appears to have a promising mix of old (end Jonathan Bullard and linebacker Alex Anzalone) and young (end CeCe Jefferson) talent on his hands.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have Myles Garrett and a lot of questions. Opponents thrashed a porous defensive front last season, but A&M thinks it has some answers with linemen such as Daeshon Hall and Julien Obioha. The Aggies addressed their defensive problems in recruiting (hello Daylon Mack!) and might have a couple of budding stars, but how much of a jump should we expect in Year 1 under John Chavis?
11. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return some experience, but not many starters from last year’s formidable bunch. Losing players such as Preston Smith, Benardrick McKinney and Matt Wells will unquestionably hurt. The good news is that State played a lot of guys up front and several of them -- like defensive tackle Chris Jones -- are back. But with so many new starters and a new defensive coordinator, it’s difficult to know what to make of the Bulldogs.
12. Kentucky: With Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith both moving to the NFL, Kentucky’s front seven becomes a much bigger question mark. However, there is some developing star power. Outside linebacker Jason Hatcher will be an impact player once he returns from a two-game suspension to start the season. And keep an eye on other breakout candidates such as Denzil Ware and former super recruit Matt Elam.
13. South Carolina: The Gamecocks upgraded their defensive front with their 2015 recruiting class, specifically by adding junior college transfer Marquavius Lewis. They’ll surely be better than in an awful 2014, but how much better? This group could move up these rankings rapidly -- there are some pieces that will help, like junior linebacker Skai Moore -- but we haven’t seen anything from them yet.
14. Vanderbilt: Defense is not Vanderbilt’s problem. There are some talented players in place up front -- Caleb Azubike, Jay Woods, Adam Butler -- and at linebacker. This bunch might have to be good, as Vandy’s offense is still searching for weapons beyond Ralph Webb.