Our ongoing (and utterly futile) quest to predict the 2016 SEC standings continues with a long look at SEC East defenses. We’re ranking each division’s teams on offense, defense, coaching and X-factors, and when it’s done, we’ll tally the results and project the order of finish.
THE SERIES SO FAR
Huge personnel losses for Florida, Georgia and Missouri, plus the return of several stars at Tennessee, made picking the top East defense pretty simple. After that? Throw the next three in a hat.
1. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Strength: NFL talent everywhere
Best Player: DE Derek Barnett
Eight starters are back from a defense that ranked second nationally in opposing third-down conversions (27.6 percent), ninth in opposing completion percentage (50.7) and 16th in points allowed (20.0 per game). The Vols also recorded the second-most sacks in the East (Florida was No. 1).
New coordinator Bob Shoop, who coached under James Franklin at Vanderbilt and then Penn State, has led a top-25 defense (yards per game) each of the last five years (including No. 2 nationally in 2014). That streak is not likely to end with the talent he’s inheriting in Knoxville. There’s an All-SEC candidate at every level of the defense.
Junior end Derek Barnett is a projected first-round pick with 33 career tackles for loss. His 20 sacks put Reggie White’s school record (32) within reach. Senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin passed on the NFL after ranking sixth in the SEC with 105 tackles and first on the team with 14 for loss. Senior corner Cameron Sutton has 26 career pass breakups and three punt-return touchdowns.
Combine this fast, athletic group with Shoop’s affinity for blitzing – Penn State ranked third nationally in sacks last season – and the Vols might just have the most suffocating squad in the SEC.
2. FLORIDA GATORS
Strength: Intimidating secondary
Weakness: Depth after heavy losses
Best Player: CB Jalen Tabor
Defense carried Jim McElwain, a former offensive coordinator, to the SEC East title in his first season as Florida’s head coach. The Gators led their division last fall in run defense, sacks (by a mile) and turnovers forced. They ranked top-three in the East in total, scoring and pass defense.
But replicating that success will be a challenge after losing five NFL draft picks: first-round defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal, third-round tackle Jonathan Bullard, fourth-round linebacker Antonio Morrison and seventh-round end Alex McAlister. Gone are last year’s leaders in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions (co-leader).
Fortunately for Florida, there was still plenty of talent in the pipeline. Corner Jalen Tabor, who would like to be called “Teez,” is back after leading the SEC with 18 passes defended. He and outside linebacker Jarrad Davis (98 tackles, 11 for loss) are projected NFL first-rounders. Safety Marcus Maye, who ranked second nationally with five forced fumbles in 2015, is also a future pro.
Tackle Caleb Brantley (10 1/2 career tackles for loss) and former 5-star CeCe Jefferson (6 ½ TFL in his last six games as a freshman) give the Gators some pop up front. It might not be enough to replace all that’s been lost, but Florida won’t drop off much on defense.
3. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Strength: Elite, veteran secondary
Weakness: Totally unproven front seven
Best Player: FS Dominick Sanders
Four starting defensive backs return – including SEC interceptions leader Sanders – but after that it’s pretty murky. Georgia led the East in pass defense last season and ranked second in yards and points allowed, as well as turnovers forced and fewest explosive plays surrendered. That was before its linebacker corps got gutted.
New coordinator Mel Tucker, a former NFL DC who followed Kirby Smart from Alabama, is replacing three of the team’s top four tacklers: Jake Ganus (102 stops), NFL first-rounder Leonard Floyd and third-rounder Jordan Jenkins. He’s also tasked with revving up a pedestrian defensive line whose returning players combined for just 3 ½ tackles for loss in 2015.
The hope is that sophomore Trenton Thompson, a 6-4, 309-pound defensive end who was once rated the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit by 247Sports, and promising junior linebacker Lorenzo Carter can break out this fall. And that the secondary can duplicate last season, when it led the nation in passing yards allowed (156.5 per game) and ranked top 10 in opposing passer rating, completion percentage and touchdown passes.
4. MISSOURI TIGERS
Strength: Stuffing the run
Weakness: Rarely force turnovers
Best Player: DE Charles Harris
Imagine what Missouri might’ve done with even the hint of an offense last season. Under then-coordinator and now head coach Barry Odom, the Tigers led the East in total and scoring defense – ranking top-six nationally in both – and were second in the division in run and pass defense. No one in the league gave up fewer big plays (20-plus yards).
A solid returning nucleus includes Harris, a projected first-round pick who was second in the SEC with 18 ½ tackles for loss last season, and freshman All-American tackle Terry Beckner Jr. (8.5 tackles for loss in 10 games). Middle linebacker Michael Scherer (93 tackles) and safety Anthony Sherrils, the secondary’s leading tackler, are also back.
There are nevertheless some significant concerns. Returning defensive backs produced just three interceptions between them last year and linebacker Kentrell Brothers, who led the nation with 152 tackles in 2015, is in the NFL now. End Walter Brady, who had 12 ½ tackles for loss and seven sacks as a freshman, was kicked off the team right before camp, as was tackle Harold Brantley (five sacks in 2014).
With an established culture of toughness and a proven veteran at every level of the defense, though, our money is on another solid unit.
5. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Strength: Playmakers at linebacker
Weakness: Unintimidating pass rush
Best Player: LB Zach Cunningham
Head coach Derek Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator, got more involved last fall and things got better. Although still just a solid defense, Vanderbilt ranked fourth or better in the East in total defense, sacks and run defense. It was a bit of a bend-but-don’t-break approach, as the Commodores ranked sixth nationally in third-down defense and fourth in red-zone touchdown percentage.
Now they return Cunningham, an All-SEC pick who recorded 103 tackles (16 ½ for loss) last fall, and fellow linebacker Nigel Bowden, who led the team in tackles in 2014 before missing the final 10 games of 2015 with a serious concussion. Also back: corner Torren McGaster (fifth in the SEC with 13 passes defended) and safety/linebacker hybrid Oren Burks (96 tackles, 13 passes defended the last two seasons).
Those are strong building blocks, but where will the pressure come from? Primary pass rushers Stephen Weatherly, an NFL draft pick, and Caleb Azubike combined for 53 ½ career tackles for loss and 26 ½ sacks that must be replaced.
6. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Strength: Much-improved secondary
Weakness: Totally unproven front seven
Best Player: CB Chris Westry
Mark Stoops knows a strong secondary when he sees one – he coached arguably the best in college football history at Miami in 2001 – and believes he has one finally at Kentucky. Supersized corners Westry (6-4) and Derrick Baity (6-3) played a lot, and quite well, as true freshmen in 2015, as did ball-hawking safeties Darius West and Mike Edwards as redshirt freshmen. Westry, who broke up 8 passes last fall, looks like a bona fide star.
The Wildcats’ problem is all the uncertainty at linebacker and defensive line. Six of the top seven tacklers from last season are gone, including middle linebacker Josh Forrest, an NFL draft pick who had 203 tackles the past two years. That’s a lot of holes to plug for a defense that ranked last in the East in sacks and sixth in total, scoring and run defense.
Kentucky is counting on former 4-star recruit Matt Elam to become a force at nose guard in his third season and Nebraska transfer Courtney Love to be as good at middle linebacker as he looked while sitting out last fall. But the fact remains: Love and sophomores Josh Allen and Jordan Jones – all projected starting linebackers – have combined for just 20 career tackles in college.
7. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Strength: Solid linebacker group
Weakness: Talent-deficient secondary
Best Player: DE Marquavius Lewis
The Gamecocks were atrocious in every way a year ago, ranking last in the division in total, scoring, run and pass defense. They ranked 122nd nationally in third-down defense, giving up a conversion 47 percent of the time. Adding injury to insult, they lost All-SEC linebacker Skai Moore, who led them in tackling each of the last three seasons, to a summer neck surgery that will cost him all of 2016.
So while new head coach Will Muschamp can certainly fix a defense, first he needs some players. Steve Spurrier seems to have left that cupboard a little understocked. The 6-3, 270-pound Lewis, who came to Columbia last season rated the top junior-college defensive end in the country, is one exception.
After a solid debut for USC (45 tackles, 4 ½ for loss), the hope is Lewis will return to his more dominant JUCO form (18 ½ sacks, 39 ½ tackles for loss in two seasons) and upgrade a pass rush that ranked tied for 99th nationally in sacks last fall. And even with the loss of Moore, there are some decent options at linebacker. But the secondary …
Muschamp joked that he might have to play some safety this season. It’s that bad, and it’s going to take some time to turn around.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.