SEC: Dontavis Sapp

Midseason report: Tennessee

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
5:30
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There have been more downs than ups for Tennessee over the last month, but the Volunteers came ever so close to the program-establishing win that first-year coach Butch Jones covets the last time they took the field.

The Vols (3-3, 0-2 SEC) came oh so close to upsetting then-No. 6 Georgia in overtime, but Alton Howard fumbled into the end zone for a touchback just before reaching the pylon on what might have been the game-winning score. Instead, the Vols had to dwell on the bitter 34-31 defeat over an open week, with most of a daunting October schedule still ahead.

Following the Georgia game, Tennessee next faces South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn -- all of which are ranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25. With three losses in his team's last four games, Jones might have to do the coaching job of his career simply to get his first Vols team to a bowl.

The resurgent second half against Georgia was a bright spot -- and maybe a sign of exciting things to come with Jones at the helm -- but this Tennessee team has already exhibited too many holes to expect a strong second half with the toughest part of the schedule still ahead.

Offensive MVP: Rajion Neal. There haven't been many bright spots on offense at Tennessee, but its rushing attack has been better than average, particularly since quarterback problems has rendered the passing game almost nonexistent at points. Senior running back Neal (108 carries, 616 yards, seven touchdowns) has been the focal point in the run game, ranking fourth in the SEC with an average of 102.7 yards per game. Neal has delivered back-to-back strong outings, rushing 25 times for 169 yards in the Vols' win against South Alabama and 28 times for 148 yards and two scores against Georgia.

Defensive MVP: Dontavis Sapp. A converted safety, Sapp has been an invaluable leader in his first stint as an every-down player on defense. And when we say “every down,” we mean that almost literally. Because of his well-rounded skill set, Sapp almost never leaves the field at linebacker -- and he still contributes on special teams as well. He has coverage skills -- he's tied for third on the team with three pass breakups -- and also helps defend the run, ranking third on the team with 33 tackles. Sapp is also tied for second with 3.5 tackles for a loss, has three quarterback hurries and has both forced and recovered a fumble.
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.
We saw a lot of bright spots all over the SEC this spring. And things were pretty close when we asked our readers who was the league's biggest star this spring.

With more than 5,500 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Tennessee senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp narrowly beat Georgia freshman safety Tray Matthews by grabbing 29 percent of the vote, compared to Matthews' 28 percent.

Sapp didn't enter the spring with a lot of experience (he has only made two career starts), but he really impressed his new coaching staff. With the Vols moving back to a 4-3 defensive scheme, Sapp was Tennessee's most consistent defender this spring. And that was really important to this team because Curt Maggit was out for the spring, recovering from his ACL injury from the fall. Sapp might have locked up a starting spot.

Matthews had a tremendous spring as well. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham lit up when I talked to him back in March about Matthews' development this spring. He'll start at one of the safety spots this fall. Remember, he should still be in high school. He has the speed and athleticism to make plays all over the field for the Bulldogs.

LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry had a big spring with the Tigers and captured 16 percent of the vote. He might have proved that he can be the go-to, big-play receiver in this offense.

Auburn junior Justin Garrett grabbed 14 percent of the vote, while Florida running back Matt Jones earned 13 percent. Garrett really impressed the Tigers' new coaching staff at Ellis Johnson's coveted "Star" hybrid position. Garrett seems ready for more responsibility to be thrown his way.

Jones really impressed his coaching staff this spring. He's become a more physical back and picked up the playbook faster than anyone expected. His teammates were raving about his speed and strength all spring.
Spring stars can break your heart.

Sometimes, guys look like All-SEC material during spring practice and then don't do much of anything during the season.

Other times, we get a glimpse of what's to come during the spring, guys who tear it up during spring practice and then ride that momentum into big falls.

SportsNation

Who was the biggest star of the spring in the SEC?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    27%
  •  
    30%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,683)

We've come up with five players who had excellent springs this year, and we're going to leave it up to you the fans to pick who was the biggest spring star by voting in our SportsNation poll.

It's a good mix of players.

Georgia's Tray Matthews is only a true freshman who enrolled early. He played well enough this spring (and handed out enough bone-crunching licks) that he enters preseason camp as one of the starters at safety.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp. A senior with just two career starts, Sapp was the Vols' most consistent defender this spring, and first-year coach Butch Jones couldn't say enough good things about the way Sapp performed.

Florida thinks it's found its go-to running back in sophomore Matt Jones. LSU junior receiver Jarvis Landry caught everything in sight this spring and put up big numbers, while Auburn junior Justin Garrett found a home in Ellis Johnson's new 4-2-5 defense at the hybrid "star" position, which is part linebacker and part safety.

Go ahead and start voting, and we'll unveil your pick as the SEC's biggest spring star in the coming days.

Spring blooms in the SEC

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
10:15
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One of the most rewarding parts of spring practice for coaches is finding those pleasant surprises, whether it’s players who fly in under the radar and step up at positions of need or players little-used to this point who look like they’re going to be key contributors in the fall.

Several of those guys have emerged this spring in the SEC.

Here’s a look:

Sterling Bailey, DE, Georgia, RSo.: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained his defensive linemen at all three positions this spring, and Bailey stood out at both end and nose guard. He’s poised to be a valuable run-stopper for the Bulldogs after playing in only three games last season as a redshirt freshman.

Kentrell Brothers, LB, Missouri, RSo.: Brothers appears to be all the way back from the broken leg he suffered in preseason camp two years ago. He’s pushing Darvin Ruise hard for the starting weakside linebacker job and has been impressive this spring. Brothers had 14 tackles last season and didn’t make any starts.

Justin Garrett, LB/S, Auburn, Jr.: Stuck behind Daren Bates the past two seasons and playing only sparingly, Garrett has gone from an undersized linebacker to the “Star” in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme. He’ll be part-linebacker and part-safety and has shown the kind of speed and tackling ability this spring that Johnson is looking for at that hybrid position.

Joe Morrow, WR, Mississippi State, RSo.: Morrow has been a spring sensation for the Bulldogs in the past, but it’s yet to translate during the season. He caught just five passes last season as a redshirt freshman and was plagued by a bum knee. But this spring, Morrow has been much more consistent and has given his teammates and coaches confidence that he can be a go-to receiver. He’s an inviting target at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds and a tough matchup for smaller cornerbacks.

Floyd Raven, S, Texas A&M, Jr.: A backup cornerback a year ago, Raven has moved to free safety and is currently sitting atop the depth chart. His athleticism and playmaking skills make him a natural back there. He’s intercepted Johnny Manziel a couple of different times in scrimmages. The key will be fully understanding his role at safety and what all that entails. If he gets that down, look out.

Dontavis Sapp, LB, Tennessee, Sr.: First-year coach Butch Jones said following Saturday’s second scrimmage that Sapp has been “amazing” this spring. Some pretty lofty praise for a guy who made just 17 tackles last season. But with a new staff and a new defensive scheme, Sapp has prospered. The former safety can play any of the three linebacker positions and is a fixture on special teams.

Austin Shepherd, OT, Alabama, RJr.: The Crimson Tide lost three starters from an offensive line that most people considered the best in the country a year ago. Shepherd, entering his fourth year in the program, has waited his turn and has the edge right now over junior-college newcomer Leon Brown in the battle for the starting right-tackle job.

Mitch Smothers, OG, Arkansas, RSo.: Smothers has found a new lease on his football life under first-year offensive-line coach Sam Pittman. After redshirting last season, Smothers has played his way back into the starting lineup at left guard. He was a starter at tackle to open his true freshman season in 2011, but was benched after the first four games and spent the rest of the season watching from the sideline.

Carlos Thompson, DE, Ole Miss, RJr.: A big get for the Rebels out of high school, Thompson has played in just 11 games during his first three years on campus. He redshirted last season to get stronger, and the Ole Miss coaches have been impressed with the results. He’s been more physical and has held up better at the point of attack. With C.J. Johnson out for the rest of the spring with a broken fibula, Thompson has made the most of his opportunities. He could be a breakout player in the fall for the Rebels.

D.J. Welter, LB, LSU, RJr.: Academics derailed Welter last season after he played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The feeling coming into the spring was that Lamin Barrow would move from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker to replace Kevin Minter. But so far, Welter has played well enough in the middle that the Tigers haven’t felt like they needed to move anybody.
The feeling coming into this spring was that this would be the deepest and most talented group of receivers Alabama has put on the field under Nick Saban, and DeAndrew White's performance last Saturday was another reminder of just how explosive the Crimson Tide should be in the passing game next season.

White, coming back from a knee injury that ended his season a year ago, caught seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns in Alabama's first scrimmage of the spring. Quarterback AJ McCarron threw four touchdown passes. Amari Cooper had three catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Running back Kenyan Drake had a 58-yard touchdown run.

For more on the Tide's scrimmage, read here and here.

ARKANSAS

The Hogs focused on their situational running game as well as their goal-line offense and goal-line defense in Saturday's scrimmage. Jonathan Williams led the way with 85 yards on 16 carries, and coach Bret Bielema said Brandon Allen moved a step ahead of Brandon Mitchell in the race for the starting quarterback job. For more on Arkansas' scrimmage, read here and here.

AUBURN

There wasn't much separation between quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace in Auburn's first scrimmage of the spring. For more on the Tigers' scrimmage, read here and here.

KENTUCKY

The defense has been the story most of the spring at Kentucky, but the Wildcats' offense fired back last Saturday. Running back Josh Clemons was impressive and didn't show any ill effects of missing a season and a half with a knee injury. For more on the Wildcats' scrimmage, read here.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins liked his unit's aggressiveness and the way it attacked last Saturday in the Bulldogs' scrimmage. Quarterback Tyler Russell wound up having a big day with six touchdown passes. For more on Mississippi State's scrimmage, read here and here.

MISSOURI

Quarterback Maty Mauk held his own during Saturday's scrimmage with James Franklin in their competition for the Tigers' starting quarterback job. The other good news for Missouri is that running back Henry Josey continues to look closer to his old self running the ball after missing last season with a knee injury. For more on the Tigers' scrimmage, read here.

OLE MISS

The Rebels' offense regrouped in Saturday's scrimmage after a tough practice on Friday. Several key offensive players are missing this spring, including starting quarterback Bo Wallace, but coach Hugh Freeze made quarterbacks Barry Brunetti and Maikhail Miller live in the scrimmage to get a longer look at Ole Miss' option game. For more on the Rebels' scrimmage, read here and here.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Sophomore Mike Davis made a convincing statement in Saturday's scrimmage to be the Gamecocks' starting running back this fall. He had 54 yards on four carries. South Carolina held out several starters, including defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. For more on the Gamecocks' scrimmage, read here.

TENNESSEE

After being shredded a year ago on defense, the Vols were looking to regain their edge on that side of the ball this spring. They got the best of the offense in last Saturday's scrimmage with constant pressure and not allowing the offense to move the ball with any consistency. One of the stars this spring for Tennessee has been senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp, who played in a reserve last season. For more on the Vols' scrimmage, read here and here.

VANDERBILT

The Commodores' defense put together one of its best outings of the spring in last Saturday's scrimmage. Paris Head and Steven Clarke both had interception returns for touchdowns, and defensive end Kyle Woestmann continued his big spring. For more on Vanderbilt's scrimmage, read here.

Lunchtime links

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
12:00
PM ET
In the middle of grilling out, take some time to check out some Labor Day lunch links:
 
We move to linebackers today in our postseason position rankings.

Defensive lines are very important in this league, but there are other guys in the box who have to be pretty reliable as well in this league. This league has done a pretty solid job of producing some top talent at this position as well.

You can see what are preseason linebacker rankings looked like here.

And here are our postseason rankings:

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDont'a Hightower had career highs in tackles (79), sacks (3.0) and interceptions (1) this season.
1. Alabama: This unit was at the top of our preseason rankings and didn't budge throughout the season. When you have two All-Americans in Courtney Upshaw, who was the defensive MVP in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and Dont'a Hightower it's pretty understandable to see why. Those two combined for 136 tackles, including 29 for loss. Nico Johnson was fourth on the team in tackles, while C.J. Mosley added 37 of his own. Alabama's defense was first nationally in total defense and first in rushing defense, allowing 74.2 yards per game.

2. Georgia: Linebackers are essential to any 3-4 defense, and the Bulldogs' group did quite well in 2011. Georgia ended up with one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 19 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. He also had 49 quarterback hurries. Michael Gilliard was third on the team behind Jones with 65 tackles. While Alec Ogletree missed part of the first half of the season, the speedster still finished with 52 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. Cornelius Washington, Amarlo Herrera Christian Robinson combined to add 101 more tackles, as Georgia's defense ranked fifth nationally.

3. Arkansas: Arkansas' defense had a lot of bend in it last season, but the linebackers found ways to make plays. Newcomer Alonzo Highsmith was third on the team with 80 tackles, led with 12.5 tackles for loss and had 4.5 sacks. The star continued to be Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles (101) for the fourth straight year. Then there was Jerico Nelson, who was all over the field as that hybrid linebacker/safety. He came away with 70 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Ross Rasner, who played outside with Nelson, added 53 more tackles and two sacks.

4. Florida: The Gators' defense ranked eighth nationally in part because of the aggressive play of its front seven. Jon Bostic commanded the middle, leading the team with 94 tackles, including 10 for loss. Jelani Jenkins seemed to come more into his own outside, finishing third on the team in tackles. The big surprise was Lerentee McCray, who played both Sam linebacker and the hybrid Buck. He was one of Florida's most active linebackers and grabbed 7.5 tackles for loss. Ronald Powell started at the Buck, but saw most of his production from defensive end.

5. Vanderbilt: The Commodores entered the season needing to replace three starting linebackers and ended the year with a very impressive linebacking corps. It was led by vet Chris Marve, who was 10th in the league in tackles. Archibald Barnes had a solid year at the Will, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and grabbing two interceptions. Chase Garnham and Al Owens manned the Sam position and combined for 72 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Against conference foes, Vandy's rush defense ranked fourth in the league.

6. LSU: The Tigers were in search of that dominant middle linebacker all season and might have found a budding star in Kevin Minter, really grew into the position by the end of the season and was fifth on the team in tackles. He started 11 games, but shared time with Karnell Hatcher, who finished with 24 tackles. Ryan Baker was LSU's best linebacker, was an outstanding leader and was fourth on the team with 64 tackles. Stefoin Francois was the starter at Sam, but he accumulated just 11 tackles, while backup Tahj Jones registered 27. Still, LSU owned the No. 2 national defense.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks saw improvement from this group as the season went on. While the defensive line got a ton of credit, the linebackers did their part in securing the defense's No. 3 national ranking. Antonio Allen spent some time in the box at the Spur position and led South Carolina with 88 tackles and had 9.5 for loss. Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson, who returned from injury, rotated at the Mike and combined for 109 tackles. Will linebacker Reginald Bowens added 44 tackles.

8. Kentucky: The Wildcats owned the SEC's top tackler in Danny Trevathan (143), who should have received more national attention. Trevathan was one of the most active defenders around at the Will. Winston Guy played the hybrid linebacker/safety and was third in the SEC with 120 tackles. Ronnie Sneed added 71 more tackles. Kentucky's defense was much more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Rick Minter and got more exotic looks from its linebackers.

9. Mississippi State: Cameron Lawrence was a beast for the Bulldogs in 2011. He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles, and had 49 solo. Senior Brandon Wilson added 94 more tackles. Brandon Maye, who transferred from Clemson, was expected to make a bigger impact for the Bulldogs, but played behind Wilson and was 11th on the team in tackles. Sophomore Deontae Skinner added 69 tackles and Mississippi State ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total defense.

10. Tennessee: The Vols' top three tacklers were linebackers. The leader was senior Austin Johnson, who finished the season with 81 tackles, including 41 solo. Next were two true freshmen on the outside in A.J. Johnson (80) and Curt Maggitt (56). Both freshmen experienced up-and-down seasons, but were SEC All-Freshman selections. Herman Lathers, who was a projected started, missed 2011 with a fractured ankle, and after the big three, the Vols didn't get a ton out of their linebackers, as Dontavis Sapp was their next most productive linebacker with 20 tackles.

11. Auburn: The Tigers' defense really struggled in 2011 and gave up more than 200 rushing yards a contest. Auburn had to basically start over at linebacker, but lone returning starter Daren Bates had a heck of a year, ranking fourth in the league with 104 tackles. He really tried to make sure he played all over the field last fall. After that, the play was up-and-down. Senior Eltoro Freeman took over in the middle halfway into the year and finished with 58 tackles, while Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans combined for 83 tackles.


12. Ole Miss: The Rebels' defense had all sorts of problems defensively, including allowing 256.5 yards per game and 21 rushing touchdowns. The linebackers took a major hit with the absence of D.T. Shackelford, who missed the season with a knee injury. Mike Marry stepped up at the Mike and led Ole Miss with 81 tackles and five for loss. Freshman Serderius Bryant and junior Joel Kight combined for 122 tackles. Damien Jackson played the Spur and added 64 tackles, but Ole Miss' defense ranked dead last in the SEC.

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