July 19, 2008

SEC position rankings: Defensive line

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 defensive lines.

Defensive line

SEC West

1.] LSU
Projected starters: Ricky Jean-Francois, Tyson Jackson, Charles Alexander, Kirston Pittman.
Next up: Marlon Favorite may earn a starting role anyway - if not, he'll be as talented and experienced as any reserve DL in the league.
Best of the bunch: Even though he only played a couple of games due to an academic suspension, Jean-Francois has NFL written all over him and will be a force for the Tigers. He was dominant in the national championship game.
Key loss: DT Glenn Dorsey.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 8 (Pittman's eight sacks last year led all returning LSU defenders).
Spring postcard: Alexander was limited early in spring drills due to an injury that cost him most of the 2007 season, but he projects as a starter among a deep and talented group.
Biggest concern: None. Despite the loss of the All-American Dorsey, LSU returns plenty of experience and ability up front.
Biggest reason for optimism: While most defensive lines get little push in the pass rush from the tackles, LSU's group - and not just the starters - can collapse the pocket from the middle. That will make things all the easier for Pittman on the end, who is primed for a big season already.

2.] Auburn
Projected starters: Antonio Coleman, Jake Ricks, Sen'Derrick Marks, Michael Goggans.
Next up: End Antoine Carter played in every game last season and provides solid depth.
Best of the bunch: Although Coleman is undoubtedly the big-play guy, we'll go with Marks (43 tackles last year) for his versatility and consistency.
Key loss: DE Quentin Groves, DT Pat Sims, DT Josh Thompson.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 31 (AU's four projected starters combined for 31 TFLs last year, 18 of them by Coleman).
Spring postcard: Coleman, Ricks and Marks all missed action in the spring with injuries, paving the way for more reps for Carter and others.
Biggest concern: After losing three starters, Auburn will need immediate production from some unproven players, primarily Ricks and Goggans.
Biggest reason for optimism: Coleman showed he can step into Groves' shoes as a primary playmaker, and in fact outplayed Groves in one stretch last year. Meanwhile, Marks will give AU a solid, proven presence inside.

3.] Ole Miss
Projected starters: Greg Hardy, Ted Laurent, Peria Jerry, Marcus Tillman.
Next up: Former Alabama recruit Kentrell Lockett worked with the first unit all spring as a wake-up call for Hardy, but he played in seven games as a freshman last year and has starter potential.
Best of the bunch: Hardy made 10 sacks and 18.5 TFLs last season, far and away the team leader. Despite a two-game suspension, he finished the year with 64 tackles, including 40 solos.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 32.5 (Hardy and Jerry combined for 32.5 TFLs last season as the Rebels' top two producers in that category, and both return).
Spring postcard: The on-again, off-again saga of defensive tackle Jerrell Powe dragged through the spring and into the summer. The elite recruit whose academic eligibility has been a two-year sticking point may indeed finally suit up for the Rebels this fall. He is awaiting clearance from the SEC, and if it comes, look for him to make a significant impact.
Biggest concern: Standout Greg Hardy, Ole Miss' top defensive lineman a year ago, worked with the second team all spring for effort reasons. It's a common tool for coaches that often loses its teeth when the fall arrives, but how will Hardy respond if benched when it matters?
Biggest reason for optimism: Jerry and Hardy already give Ole Miss one of the better inside-outside duos among the league's defensive lines. If Powe is cleared and makes the impact most expect, this unit could go from good to great.

4.] Arkansas
Projected starters: Jake Bequette, Ernest Mitchell, Malcolm Sheppard, Adrian Davis.
Next up: Senior end Antwain Robinson was listed as a post-spring backup, but should see plenty of action.
Best of the bunch: Mitchell's 66 tackles are more than any returning Arkansas defensive lineman, and his 10.5 TFLs led all Hogs last year.
Key loss: DT Marcus Harrison.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 3.5 (No Arkansas defensive lineman had more than 3.5 sacks last season).
Spring postcard: Robinson made a statement about his place on the depth chart in the spring game, making 1.5 sacks, 2.5 TFLs and recovering a fumble.
Biggest concern: Who is going to anchor the pass rush? Robinson may have the capability, but only started six games last season and apparently isn't blowing away the new staff, either.
Biggest reason for optimism: Mitchell and Sheppard are a pair of solid run stoppers in the middle, something the Hogs can use to protect a questionable linebacking corps.

5.] Alabama
Projected starters: Brandon Deaderick, Lorenzo Washington, Bobby Greenwood.
Next up: NG Josh Chapman and DE Alfred McCullough had the best springs among the backups.
Best of the bunch: Washington, although it's not an easy call. None are proven stars, but Washington's 12 starts, 36 tackles and three sacks last year were tops among UA's returning defensive linemen.
Key loss: DE Wallace Gilberry.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 6 (UA's returning defensive linemen managed just six sacks combined last year).
Spring postcard: McCullough won the Dwight Stephenson Most Valuable Lineman award for the spring game with six solo tackles, a sack and two deflections.
Biggest concern: It's difficult to tell where UA's pass rush is going to come from. Greenwood is more steady than spectacular, and the other end, Deaderick, had just two sacks last year.
Biggest reason for optimism: The Crimson Tide's depth up front made some significant strides in the spring, particularly Chapman, who could be ready to split time with Washington at the nose position.

6.] Mississippi State
Projected starters: Brandon Cooper, Kyle Love, Jessie Bowman, Tim Bailey.
Next up: Inside, LaMarcus Williams provides depth, while Cortez McCraney backs up at end.
Best of the bunch: Bowman will anchor things inside after making 26 stops last season, including five TFLs.
Key loss: DE Titus Brown.
Round Table Ranking: x
2007 By the numbers: 0 (The projected starters at end, Cooper and Bailey, made zero starts between them last season).
Spring postcard: McCraney was the star of the MSU spring game, making six tackles, five TFLs and three sacks.
Biggest concern: With Brown now out of the picture, there isn't a proven playmaker on the entire line. Size is also a concern, as both Cooper and Bailey are listed in the 240-250 range. The dismissals of Quinton Wesley and Rodney Prince don't help the depth outlook, either.
Biggest reason for optimism: Bowman is a big, solid run-stopping presence inside who could be primed for a fine season. He and Love will make MSU difficult to run against between the tackles.

SEC East

1.] Georgia
Projected starters: Roderick Battle, Jeremy Lomax, Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins.
The bottom line: Though he's a tackle rather than an end, Atkins may be the primary replacement for Marcus Howard as the Bulldogs' top pass rusher. Atkins came up with 7.5 sacks in 2007, more than any other returner on defense, and makes plays in the backfield against the run as well. Battle started every game in 2007, but with just 24 tackles, he wasn't around the ball much. Inside, Owens looks for a standout senior season. He been a solid contributor since his freshman year, but his statistical production was no better last year (27 tackles, no sacks) than it was the year before.

2.] Florida
Projected starters: Jermaine Cunningham, Troy Epps, Lawrence Marsh, Carlos Dunlap.
The bottom line: The Gators have a pair of young, speedy pass rushers in Cunningham and Dunlap who could be a productive long-term duo. Cunningham ranked second on the team in sacks last year (6.5) and added 12 TFLs. Dunlap, a former five-star recruit, played sparingly last year but had an impressive spring and could be primed for a breakout year. With Terron Sanders making a strong push, Epps and Marsh handle the interior.

3.] Tennessee
Projected starters: Wes Brown, Robert Ayers, Dan Williams, Demonte Bolden.
The bottom line: Ayers is the most reliable member of this front, and can play pretty much any spot on the line. He should improve on his 2007 sack total of four. As a group this unit came up short of expectations last year, in part because the big senior season expected of Xavier Mitchell never really materialized. Brown is athletic but a little undersized - he will need to make an impact in the pass rush area.

4.] Kentucky
Projected starters: Ventrell Jenkins, Myron Pryor, Corey Peters, Jeremy Jarmon.
The bottom line: Jarmon is the primary playmaker up front, returning off a nine-sack, 13.5-TFL season for the Wildcats. Pryor and Peters will hold things down in the middle at the tackle positions. This unit has plenty of returning experience among the starters, but very little depth. There are question marks of both experience and injuries among the reserves. If healthy all season, UK's defensive line could be a strength for this team, but injuries could be costly.

5.] South Carolina
Projected starters: Jordin Lindsey, Marque Hall, Ladi Ajiboye, Cliff Matthews.
The bottom line: Last year, USC's entire front seven disappointed with a low sack total (21) and a league-worst rush defense. Two new faces at defensive end will be charged with improving the pass rush - Lindsey, who missed last season with academic issues, and Matthews, a natural pass rusher with high potential who worked at linebacker last year. Hall and Ajiboye return at the tackle spots. Travian Robinson is another up-and-comer who could provide support at an end position.

6.] Vanderbilt
Projected starters: Steven Stone, Broderick Stewart, Greg Billinger, Adam Smotherman.
The bottom line: Stewart has been an effective pass rusher the past two years as a part-time player, and now steps into a full-time role where VU will need his ability to pressure the pocket on every down. Stone is a returning starter at end, giving Vandy the makings of a solid end tandem. The loss of Theo Horrocks will be felt inside, where Billinger and Smotherman are largely unknowns at the tackle positions.

BOL's top five overall

1. Kirston Pittman (LSU)

2. Greg Hardy (Ole Miss)

3. Jeremy Jarmon (Kentucky)

4. Antonio Coleman (Auburn)

5. Geno Atkins (Georgia)

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