SEC: Bud Dupree

As the NFL combine winds down and we watch another class of SEC players move on to professional careers, it’s important to keep an eye on the future and the next wave of stars.

Spring practice begins at Texas A&M on Friday and will open throughout the SEC in the weeks to come. And while it’s a tad premature to be asking the question, we’re doing it anyways: Who will be the top defensive linemen in the league next season?

Chris Low, my colleague on the SEC blog, gave his pick for the best offensive linemen last week, and we figured it best not to leave out their combatants in the trenches.

With that said, here's our early take on the SEC's top-four defensive linemen going into the 2014 season. They're listed alphabetically:

Trey Flowers, Arkansas

He’s been doing his thing for a while now so you should know his name. Flowers hasn’t won many games in his career at Arkansas, but that’s not his fault. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end has quietly become a premier lineman in the league, beginning with a rookie campaign that landed him on the SEC All-freshman team in 2011. Last season, he was second-team All-SEC after recording five sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss. He also forced three fumbles, hauled in an interception and had two pass breakups. Bret Bielema didn’t have a lot of wins his first season at Arkansas, but convincing Flowers to return for his senior season was one of them.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDante Fowler Jr. led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss in 2013.
Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

To be fair, he does play some standing up at linebacker. But Fowler, at 6-foot-3 and 277 pounds, is all pass-rusher in coach Will Muschamp’s defense. The All-SEC second team selection led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and finished with 3.5 sacks. He’ll be asked to do more in 2014, and the former four-star prospect has the tools to pull it off. The lightning-quick rising sophomore will need some help, though. If a second pass-rusher emerges to take away double-teams, look for Fowler to take off.

Chris Jones, Mississippi State

You might not have known his name as a recruit, but Jones has worked his way into the conversation as one of the most talented young defensive players in the SEC. Dan Mullen and his coaching staff found themselves a gem at Mississippi State. Jones was a late bloomer in high school but came on quickly in college, developing into an SEC All-freshman team selection with the size (6-5, 305 pounds) to play on the interior of the line and the speed and burst to play outside at end. His seven tackles-for-loss and three sacks only serve to underscore his team-leading 10 quarterback hurries. For perspectives sake, the former No. 1 recruit in the country at the “School Up North” had just three quarterback hurries.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

Yes, that player was Nkemdiche, the former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300. And while his numbers weren’t quite as impressive as his counterpart at Mississippi State (isn’t that rivalry going to be fun?) Nkemdiche did nothing to disappoint in his first season at Ole Miss. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound athlete showed why he was so highly thought of coming out of high school. He not only played both end and tackle for the Rebels, he also carried the ball at running back a few times. Eight tackles-for-loss and two sacks should just be the tip of the iceberg in his career under coach Hugh Freeze.

Four more to watch

Returning tacklers in the SEC: East

March, 12, 2013
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.