The Southeastern Conference is known for their fast and strong defenses. No position embodies that combination of athleticism like the linebacker position. The SEC has had more than it’s fair share of great linebackers. Much like the running back position, however, the normal depth of SEC linebacker talent isn’t quite there in 2018. That’s in part because of the loss of talent to graduation and the NFL Draft.
Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of hard-hitting talent in this group. Here are the top five returning SEC running backs in 2018.
Top Five Returning SEC Running Backs In 2018
It’s impossible to produce a definitive list of anything subjective. This is a holistic approach, including past performance, future potential, system, and performance in different situations. Most importantly, it considers who would get picked if we were building our own team from each position group around the conference.
5. David Reese, Junior, Florida
Reese, an inside linebacker in Florida’s 3-4 alignment, enters his junior year as the leader of the Gators defense. Last season, Reese picked up 102 total tackles, which was good for eighth-best in the conference. He was one of only five players in the SEC to average more than nine tackles per game. At 6’1″, 240, Reese is a prototypical college middle linebacker. He’s most effective in the run defense as he’s better at plugging up holes than in pass coverage or moving laterally. But, let’s face it, you don’t get 100+ tackles in the SEC if you’re slow–so those are minor critiques.
He added 10 tackles-for-loss (TFLs) last season, one interception, and 1.5 sacks. Reese will make a formidable duo with hybrid OLB/DE Cece Jefferson, Reese focusing on the run defense and Jefferson as one of the best pass rushers in the league. The Gators return six of seven starters in the front seven and expect to have another stout defense.
4a. Josh Allen, Senior, Kentucky
This is where things get tricky. Allen plays the Kentucky “Jack” position, which is, similar to Jefferson at Florida, a hybrid OLB/DE position. Allen’s job is to focus primarily on the pass rush. Allen racked up 10.5 TFLs last season to go along with his 7.0 sacks. The seven sacks were good enough for eighth in the conference. That’s two straight seasons with seven sacks for Allen. Allen’s value lies in his versatility. In addition to those stats, Allen added three Pass Break Ups (PBUs), three QB Hurries (QBHs), and two forced fumbles. Allen’s 6’5″, 230 lb. frame is well suited for the pass rush.
Kentucky’s defense isn’t Alabama. So it’s critical to have one or two playmakers who can do what Allen can do. In a down SEC East, one or two turnovers or a timely sack can mean the difference between 2-6 and 4-4 in conference play. Like Reese, he’ll complement his inside linebacker, Jordan Jones, to make a formidable inside-out duo. Jones is hoping to return to form after injuries dampened his 2017 campaign.
4b. Charles Wright, Senior, Vanderbilt
Wright’s script looks very similar to Josh Allen‘s at Kentucky. That’s why I have a 4(a) and a 4(b)–they’re essentially the same player. Wright is the outside linebacker in Vandy’s 3-4 defensive scheme. At 6’3″, 240, Wright is a little more stout and more effective in setting the edge on run defense. Additionally, with the departure of Oren Burks, Wright won’t have the benefit of a beast middle linebacker to help him out.
Wright’s numbers from 2017 are completely underrated. Wright had 10.5 TFLs and 9.0 sacks. He was constantly in the opponent’s backfield as well. That shows with eight QBHs, tops in the SEC. With Vandy losing four of their front seven starters, including three of the four top front seven tacklers, Wright will need to expand his game to get Vandy back to a bowl game.
3. De’Jon Harris, Junior, Arkansas
Harris is another of the gritty, multi-faceted 4-3 middle linebackers that just grind. Harris had 115 tackles last season, averaging over 9.5 tackles a game. In fairness, the Razorback defense was on the field, a lot. He added 8.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. He also had two PBUs and four QBHs. Those numbers are significant for a 4-3 middle linebacker, whose sole responsibility is normally to stop the inside run game. At 6’0″, 240 lbs., Harris looks the part of the middle linebacker as well. Athleticism is all well and good, but Harris has a toughness to him that resonates with Arkansas fans.
Harris’ inside-out partner this year will be Dre Greenlaw. If Chad Morris‘ offense can find more success than last season’s Razorback offense, this linebacking corps might make some noise in the SEC West.
2. Tyrel Dodson, Junior, Texas A&M
Another linebacker flying under the radar is Tyrel Dodson of Texas A&M. He amassed 102 tackles last season for the Aggies, fifth best in the conference. He added 5.5 sacks and 11.0 TFLs to go with those tackles. At 6’2″, 242 lbs., Dodson is the perfect fit for an outside linebacker in a 4-3 system.
He’s dynamic, playing rush defense, pass rush, and pass defense equally well. He had three interceptions, eight PBUs, and four QBHs along with his traditional statistics. He even had a touchdown on an interception return. Numbers-wise, he probably has the most well-rounded resume of any returning linebacker in the conference.
1. Devin White, Junior, LSU
White is the consensus top returning linebacker in the league. White was a First Team All-SEC selection last season and has been named to several Pre-Season All-American First Teams. The 6’1″, 250 lbs., inside linebacker collected a gaudy 133 total tackles last year, good for second in the SEC. His 10.23 tackles per game was easily the best in the SEC. He complemented that run-stopping effort with 14.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, one interception, three PBUs, and five QBHs.
He’ll play outside linebacker when the NFL comes calling, but for now, he serves as the epitome of the versatile linebacker in LSU’s still-vaunted defense. There’s a ton of great athletes on the LSU defense, and that allows the Tigers to move White around. White is a match-up nightmare for any offensive blocking scheme or protection plan.
White loses two of this three linemen and his other three starting linebackers from 2017. But with the pipeline of talent running through Baton Rouge, he’ll have enough help to be just as potent in 2018.
Deshaun Davis, Auburn: Best hitter in the league.
Dre Greenlaw, Arkansas: 103 tackles from an OLB position is impressive. It’s also a bad sign for a team.
Jordan Jones, Kentucky: Trying to come back from an injury-shortened season and get back to 2016 form.
D’Andre Walker, Georgia: Can Walker replicate 2017’s success with all of those starters departed off of Georgia’s defensive roster?
Anfernee Jennings, Alabama: What? No Tide LB on the list? It’ll be Jennings’ job to fill in for all those Alabama linebackers drafted last season.
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