We continue our summer series looking at the best returning players at each position in the Southeastern Conference. In this installment, we examine the five best returning SEC linebackers.
Summer Simmer: Five Best Returning SEC Linebackers
The SEC normally has a tremendous amount of talent at the linebacker position. This year, there is a little less star power coming back. The conference lost a ton of talent to the NFL draft, with Zach Cunningham, Kendell Beckwith, Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, Jarrad Davis, and Ryan Anderson all gone after the 2016 season. But there’s still some bona fide starts and certainly some emerging talent. What’s most different about this season that previous years are the question marks surrounding many of the best returning players. Three of our top five have some lingering questions from either injuries or discipline issues.
Linebackers are the most versatile players on defense. They’ve got to be big and strong enough to stop the run and athletic and fast enough to drop back in pass coverage. And, on top of the athletic demands, they have to be the play callers on defense as well.
Here’s the previous position groups:
- Five Best Returning SEC Safeties
- Five Best Returning SEC Receivers
- Five Best Returning SEC Cornerbacks
- Five Best Returning SEC Running Backs
So, who are the five best returning SEC linebackers? Here’s the list:
6. Honorable Mention:
Rashaan Evans, Alabama: Evans has waited his turn in the linebacker factory that is Alabama. He’ll finally get his turn to play a large portion of the defensive snaps this season. With his talent and potential, he could be another Alabama All-SEC linebacker.
Darren Kirkland, Jr., Tennessee: Kirkland, Jr. missed five games due to injury last season. After playing in every game as a freshman in 2016, recording 66 tackles, Kirkland would likely be on this list were it not for his injury last season. The Vols will look to him to anchor a defense that lost three starters to the NFL Draft.
DeMarquis Gates, Mississippi: Gates has put up great numbers over the last two seasons in Oxford, including 155 total tackles. He struggles with consistency, however. He was the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after Ole Miss‘ win against LSU in 2015. But he was also suspended for the game against Memphis last season.
Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Carter’s career in Athens has been up and down. After a phenomenal freshman campaign in 2014, he disappointed in 2015 by not recording a single tackle-for-loss or sack. He Carter bounced back nicely in 2016, with 44 tackles, six TFLs, and five sacks. Many observers think that there’s an even larger ceiling for Carter. He should get plenty of opportunities this season playing on a defense that — at least on paper — should be one of the best in the nation.
5. Roquan Smith, Junior, Georgia
As mentioned above, Georgia‘s defense is primed for a great season. They return ten of eleven starters and have depth to go along with that. Roquan Smith will anchor this unit from his inside linebacker position. Smith recorded 95 tackles in 2016 to go along with five TFLs and three quarterback hurries (QBHs).
He has great size (6’1″, 225) for a middle linebacker and was impressively consistent last season. Almost all of his statistical splits were within one tackle/game average. He seemed to get better as the season progressed, highlighted by a 13-tackle performance against a fast TCU offense in Georgia’s bowl victory.
4. Jordan Jones, Junior, Kentucky
Jordan Jones‘ numbers from 2016 are incredible. Jones recorded 109 total tackles, 74 of which were solo. He had 15.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks, four pass breakups, and nine quarterback hurries. His tackles put him third in the SEC in 2016, behind two guys named Zach Cunningham and Reuben Foster. That’s not bad company to be in.
Jones played better against better competition. He had 9.4 tackles per game against teams with winning records versus only seven per game against teams with losing records. He had a 9:8.2 ratio with ranked and non-ranked teams in the same category. Sure, circumstances can help that statistic, but you’ve still got to make the play.
Jones will headline a surprisingly good Wildcats linebacking trio with Courtney Love and Josh Allen. If the Wildcats want to finally challenge for the SEC East title, Jones will have to be even better this season.
3. Arden Key, Junior, LSU
Arden Key may be the best athlete returning in 2017 in the entire Southeastern Conference. He’s 6’6″, 255, and defensive coordinator Dave Arranda says that he’s never seen anyone who can do what Key can do. Key plays a hybrid Defensive End/Oustide Linebacker position in Arranda’s 3-4 scheme, so you argue that he’s more of an defensive end. What you can’t argue is Key’s production.
Key was eighth in the league last season with 14.5 TFLs and was second, behind Derek Barnett, in sacks with 12. He added three pass breakups, eleven QBHs, and three forced fumbles as well. Key was a one man wreaking crew in opposing offenses’ backfields. In 2015, Key was a freshman All-American for the Tigers.
The biggest question with Key isn’t on the field. Key was suspended for the Texas A&M game last season for a violation of team rules. And this spring, Key took a leave of absence from the team, missing the entire spring practice session. Key just recently returned to the team with the start of summer classes.
Key is projected as a possible first overall draft selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. With Alabama reloading and Auburn primed to make a run for the SEC West title, Key will be essential to LSU’s success this fall from his outside linebacker position.
2. Skai Moore, Senior, South Carolina
Skai Moore missed the entire 2016 season due to a herniated disc injury in his neck. Still, based on his first three seasons, he must be considered as one of the top returning linebackers in the SEC. Over his career, he has 260 tackles, 11 interceptions, 12.5 TFLs, and three forced fumbles. That includes 111 tackles in his junior season of 2015.
But as good as his numbers are, his football intelligence is his most important asset. His in-play adjustment allows the diminutive Moore (6’2″, 218) to overcome his relatively small frame. And unlike Smith or Hamilton, Moore hasn’t had a strong supporting cast on the Gamecocks defense. He’s done this pretty much on his own, especially in the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
South Carolina is another team trying to claw their way up in the SEC East. With a promising young quarterback and revamped coaching staff, Moore might finally be able to translate his talent to a Division title run.
1. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Senior, Alabama
Shaun Dion Hamilton is one of the few draft eligible players to choose to return for their senior season. Hamilton was overshadowed by Reuben Foster and Tim Williams last season. This season promises to be Hamilton’s among the linebacking corps, as he is the only returning starter for the Crimson Tide. With the Tide’s strength being in its secondary, Hamilton can expect to see plenty opposing running backs coming his way.
He’s one of the few proven commodities for Alabama‘s front seven. And he is certainly proven. Hamilton recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions, nine TFLs, and two sacks last season. That’s on a defense surrounded by five players drafted in the NFL on the front seven. There’s only so many numbers to go around on that unit. He’ll get plenty of opportunities in 2017. And Hamilton did what you want to see from every leader; he played better against better competition and improved as the season went along.
The only question mark with Hamilton is his health. He had an ACL injury in December. If Hamilton can stay healthy, he could help lead the Tide on another title run from his middle linebacker position.