Pass-rushers thrive in SEC

Originally Published: August 23, 2012
By Edward Aschoff | ESPN.com

Florida coach Will Muschamp has been around the SEC long enough to know how important and dangerous pass-rushers can be around these parts.

Muschamp used to coach up menacing pass-rushers as a defensive coordinator at LSU and Auburn, but he suffered firsthand the true piercing pain of the pass rush during his first season as a head coach last fall.

"You lose your quarterback, you lose your season," Muschamp said. "What happened to us [last] year?"

What happened was Alabama "Jack" linebacker Courtney Upshaw jacked up quarterback John Brantley and Muschamp's first season in Gainesville when he mauled Brantley on a sack, twisting Brantley's knee and ankle in the process.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Jones
AP Photo/Paul AbellGeorgia's Jarvis Jones (13.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss in 2011) made life tough for opposing QBs.

Florida went on to lose six of its final eight games after its 38-10 loss to the Crimson Tide, including all four in October.

In this league, teams live and die by the pass rush. From outside linebackers to defensive ends to hybrid ends/backers, the SEC thirsts on getting to and manhandling quarterbacks.

"You can scheme it up a lot of times and you can protect yourself, theoretically, but the athletes are so good that sometimes you're gonna get beat -- and they're gonna get you," Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said.

Last season, the top 11 sack artists were ends or linebackers. Of those 11, six registered nine or more sacks. Every league prides itself on getting to the quarterback, but it's an art in the SEC. It's a feared position, and it's something coaches obsess over in recruiting.

Muschamp recently recalled speaking with a recruit who worried Florida was full at his position. Muschamp's response was that he could never be full of pass-rushers in the SEC.

"You can never have enough," Muschamp said. "I'll take as many pass-rushers as I can get."

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said finding the right pass-rusher takes thorough planning and teaching. You don't just throw an athlete on the field and say, "run, hit." It starts by finding the "most relentless" defensive players in recruiting and continues with what he says is a yearlong developmental program to help players with body movement, understanding offenses and timing before they can properly punish quarterbacks.

No one punished more than Georgia's Jarvis Jones last season. The USC transfer debuted in the SEC with 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss but admits he's still learning his position. After all, last season was his first as a rusher.

For Jones, it wasn't all about speed and athleticism. He learned that in order to hit a quarterback, he had to think like one. He dissected hours of film in 2011 and memorized everything from snap counts to tendencies in order to play faster than quarterbacks.

"A quarterback watches film, so he knows what you do," Jones said. "If you're a good pass-rusher, the quarterback is going to know who you are. He isn't going hold the ball long to let you hit him."

But with the talent in this league, something says quarterbacks will have to think a lot faster in 2012.

Here are just some of the top pass-rushers the SEC possesses in 2012:

Auburn
Corey Lemonier, DE: He sported a sophisticated bow tie at SEC media days, but he's a monster on the field and leaves his manners in the tunnel on Saturdays. He registered 9.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles and 15 QB hurries last fall.

LSU
Barkevious Mingo, DE: He isn't the biggest end, but he sure is fast, collecting eight sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries in 2011.

Sam Montgomery, DE: He might be the best all-around end with his size, speed, strength and knowledge. Montgomery registered nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season.

South Carolina
Jadeveon Clowney, DE: He enjoyed a solid rookie season with eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He improvised through his first season but could be terrifying now that he understands South Carolina's defense more and is moving all around the field.

Devin Taylor, DE: He grabbed six sacks in 2011 and should have even more opportunities with Melvin Ingram gone.

Texas A&M
Damontre Moore, DE: He moved from linebacker to end after collecting 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. Word out of camp is that he might be even better with his hand in the ground.

Sean Porter, LB: He has tremendous speed and strength and is coming off a season when he enjoyed 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Can teams consistently block both him and Moore?

There are plenty of other players to keep an eye on this season, including Alabama's Adrian Hubbard, who has drawn rave reviews in camp; Missouri's Brad Madison and Kony Ealy, who has the talent to have a breakout season; and Florida's Lerentee McCray, who is taking over for the injured Ronald Powell at the hybrid Buck position.

Other names should emerge as the season progresses because we all know how much defenders tire of seeing quarterbacks stand upright.

"I love hitting the quarterback," McCray said. "I love feasting on quarterbacks. That's my favorite part of football, just getting back in that backfield and hitting that quarterback because they never get hit [in practice], and they're always smiling all the time."

Something says you'll continue to see SEC defenders snatch away those smiles this fall.