July 28, 2008

SEC position rankings: Linebackers

BamaOnLine.com's annual Southeastern Conference position rankings return this summer with a special emphasis on the SEC West, and rankings now divided by division. True freshmen are not listed. The series continues with a look at the league's linebackers.


SEC West

1.] LSU
Projected starters: Darry Beckwith, Perry Riley, Kelvin Sheppard.
Next up: Jacob Cutrera made 21 stops as a backup last year.
Best of the bunch: Beckwith, an experienced senior, will be the emotional leader of a solid group.
Key loss: Ali Highsmith.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 6.5 (Beckwith's 6.5 TFLs last year were more than any returning LSU linebacker).
Spring postcard: Sheppard turned in an impressive spring, and could be LSU's next up-and-coming standout at the position.
Biggest concern: Replacing Highsmith's 101 tackles, which led the team, won't be easy. At least one new starter must step up to take some pressure off Beckwith.
Biggest reason for optimism: Athleticism won't be a problem in this group, and playing behind a dominant defensive line will make for a much easier transition for the new blood at linebacker.

2.] Auburn
Projected starters: Craig Stevens, Tray Blackmon, Chris Evans.
Next up: Merrill Johnson may yet earn a starting role after playing in nine games last year.
Best of the bunch: Although he didn't quite the numbers that Evans did last year, Blackmon is the best athlete and has big-play potential from the middle position.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 144 (combined tackles for Evans, Blackmon and Stevens).
Spring postcard: Evans and Johnson shared a role at the Tigers' weakside spot during the spring.
Biggest concern: What strides can be expected from Stevens? The Tallahassee, Fla., native made 35 tackles last year as a part-time starter, and now takes on a crucial full-time role.
Biggest reason for optimism: With a few question marks on the line and in the secondary, the linebacking unit returns a talented and experienced group to help both in front and behind.

3.] Mississippi State
Projected starters: K.J. Wright, Jamar Chaney, Dominic Douglas.
Next up: Anthony Littlejohn gives MSU some senior experience off the bench.
Best of the bunch: Chaney led the Bulldogs with 89 stops a season ago, including four TFLs from the middle position.
Key loss: Gabe O'Neal was MSU's third leading tackler.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 19 (Chaney made 19 more assists than solos last year, suggesting he wasn't the first defender to the ball as often as a leading tackler usually is).
Spring postcard: Wright came up with two interceptions and one of seven sacks recorded in the MSU spring game.
Biggest concern: Wright is the primary question mark as he looks to fill an open position next to veterans Chaney and Douglas. Wright played sparingly a year ago, making just seven tackles, but is highly thought of by the MSU staff.
Biggest reason for optimism: The Chaney-Douglas duo gives the Bulldogs some valuable experience, with Chaney inside and Douglas on the outside.

4.] Ole Miss
Projected starters: Ashlee Palmer, Jonathan Cornell, Allen Walker
Next up: Tony Fein.
Best of the bunch: No doubt it's Palmer, who led the Rebels in tackles (89), interceptions (3) and break-ups (7) last season.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 174 (Palmer and Fein combined for 174 stops last season for the Rebels).
Spring postcard: Former starter Fein worked from a third-team doghouse in the spring, and the new coaching staff is sending Ole Miss' second-leading tackler from 2007 a message.
Biggest concern: How will Cornell rebound from a serious shoulder injury that cost him almost all of the 2007 season? Ole Miss is already short on depth at linebacker, and Cornell's health will be important.
Biggest reason for optimism: Assuming Fein resurfaces in the starting lineup, he and Palmer give Ole Miss two experienced starters to hold down the unit.

5.] Alabama
Projected starters: Brandon FanneyChavis Williams, Rolando McClain, Cory Reamer.
Next up: None of the twos stood out a year ago, but MLB Charlie Higgenbotham may be the most ready to contribute.
Best of the bunch: McClain was a Freshman All-SEC performer last year with 75 tackles from the middle position.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 11 (Three projected starters - Fanney, Reamer and Williams - combined for just 11 tackles a year ago).
Spring postcard: UA tried multiple experiments at linebacker in the spring, including the move of Baron Huber from fullback. Reamer worked at a couple of different linebacker spots, as did Huber.
Biggest concern: There are several. Strongside linebacker Ezekial Knight is unlikely to return from a heart-related health issue, which will make an inexperienced group even more so. Though he wasn't likely to start, the dismissal of Jimmy Johns didn't help matters depth-wise, then there is the pending announcement on Prince Hall's indefinite suspension.
Biggest reason for optimism: McClain looks like a long-term leader for a group that needs one. Williams' speed on the outside is also not to be overlooked - he came up with a sack in the spring game and could be a pleasant surprise.

6.] Arkansas
Projected starters: Ryan Powers, Elston Forte, Jerry Franklin.
Next up: Freddy Burton.
Best of the bunch: Definitely Forte, by far the most experienced in the group, who had 51 stops a year ago.
Key loss: Dismissed starter Freddie Fairchild.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 194 (Fairchild and Weston Dacus made 194 stops between them last season.
Spring postcard: Wendel Davis, a candidate for a starting role who missed the spring while rehabbing an injury, is facing a legal charge of criminal mischief, but disciplinary action, if any, has not yet been announced.
Biggest concern: Where to begin? Fairchild's dismissal and the loss of Dacus leave this group very short on returning experience. Definitely the biggest area of concern for the Hogs' defense, it will be up to Forte to not only have a big season himself but also provide a leadership role for younger linebackers who must play.
Biggest reason for optimism: Watch for Franklin, a freshman who got first-unit reps during the spring thanks to Davis' injury rehab. While inexperienced, Franklin showed promise in spring drills, and Burton made 10 stops in the Hogs' spring game.

SEC East

1.] South Carolina
Projected starters: Rodney Paulk, Jasper Brinkley, Eric Norwood.
The bottom line: This unit has the potential to be best in the entire league this season, and certainly one of the most improved. Start with Brinkley, an All-SEC talent who returns from an injury that cost him most of 2007. Norwood was USC's primary playmaker at defensive end last year (19.5 TFLs, 6 sacks) but was moved to linebacker during spring drills. Whether he takes well to the new role will be crucial. Paulk has been a fixture since his freshman year and already has 100 career tackles. Marvin Sapp provides experienced depth.

2.] Florida
Projected starters: Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, A.J. Jones.
The bottom line: After recording 131 tackles and 16 TFLs last year, Spikes is clearly among the league's elite returners at the position. Doe was solid last season with 85 stops, while Jones made nine starts but is somewhat smallish. Jones' spot will be challenged in the fall by several promising youngsters, including Brandon Hicks, but Jones turned in a solid spring as well. Look for another big year from Spikes in leading this unit.

3.] Georgia
Projected starters: Dannell Ellerbe, Akeem Dent, Rennie Curran.
The bottom line: All three starters return here, led by Ellerbe, who led the team in tackles (93) a year ago. Few opponents got him blocked with any consistency at all, and Curran was plenty active with nine TFLs and three sacks. This position should be an overall strength for UGA, particularly if the defensive line in front of them plays as well against the run as expected. Look for Darius Dewberry, who made five starts last year, to be among the most active reserves.

4.] Tennessee
Projected starters: Rico McCoy, Ellix Wilson, Nevin McKenzie.
The bottom line: With the loss of Jerod Mayo to early NFL entry, McCoy goes from young up-and-comer to the leader of this unit in one year. He's got the talent to answer that bell. Wilson and McKenzie are seniors but both are short on SEC experience. As a whole, the trio is somewhat undersized and the biggest test will come against the power running teams.

5.] Kentucky
Projected starters: Micah Johnson, Johnny Williams, Braxton Kelley.
The bottom line: Last year Wesley Woodyard made almost as many solo tackles (78) as this year's three projected starters combined for (89). Replacing him will be a stiff challenge for this unit, although there is plenty of experience in this unit. Kelley has moved to Woodyard's position, while Johnson is expected to take over at the middle position. Reserve Sam Maxwell will also make a push for playing time.

6.] Vanderbilt
Projected starters: John Stokes, Brandon Bryant, Patrick Benoist.
The bottom line: Benoist returns as Vandy's most experienced linebacker in a young group after making 32 tackles last season. Both Benoist and Bryant have missed some time with injuries, and VU can't afford to be without either for too long. Stokes is a former four-star recruit whose improvement will be crucial. Among the reserves, watch for redshirt freshman Chris Marve.

BOL's top five overall

1. Brandon Spikes (Florida)

2. Jasper Brinkley (South Carolina)

3. Dannell Ellerbe (Georgia)

4. Darry Beckwith (LSU)

5. Rico McCoy (Tennessee)

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