They call them “safeties” for a reason. They are the last line of defense between the opposition and the end zone. And they are the most versatile players on defense as well. Safeties are equal part run defenders and pass coverage defenders. Their versatility and athleticism are greatly under-rated. We look at the best the position has to offer with the top five returning SEC safeties in 2018.
Top Five Returning SEC Safeties In 2018
In a conference known for defense, the safety position is often overshadowed by freakish defensive linemen, speedy linebackers, and shut down corners. There’s no lack of talent at the position, however. Here are the top five returning SEC safeties in 2018.
5. Santos Ramirez, Senior, Arkansas:
Ramirez’s 2017 statistics might be padded due to the futility of the Razorback offense. But the 6’2″, 200 pound safety kept Arkansas’ season from being any worse than it was. The three year player accounted for 63 tackles, eight Pass-Breakups (PBUs), three forced fumbles (FF), two tackles-for-loss (TFLs) and an interception last season.
In his three year career in Fayetteville, Ramirez has 141 tackles and three interceptions. He might not be the biggest name around the SEC, but with safety partner Ryan Pulley, the Razorback back end should serve as the backbone for a revamped defense.
4. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Junior, Florida:
Along with Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson, Florida might have the best defensive backfield in the SEC this season. Junior Safety Gardner-Johnson is the unquestioned leader of that group. Gardner-Johnson was all over the field last season. He had two interceptions, 58 tackles, 6 TFLs, a sack and seven PBUs. That comes after a freshman campaign with three interceptions and 32 tackles.
With questions still lingering at quarterback for the Gators, it will again fall on the Florida defense to carry the team this season. Gardner-Johnson will be a key component if Florida wants to return to the top of the SEC East.
3. Mark McLaurin, Senior, Mississippi State:
The Mississippi State Bulldogs are a favorite under-the-radar pick in the SEC West this season. And with good reason. Two great athletes return in the offensive backfield, a stellar defensive line, and a defensive backfield led by senior Mark McLaurin. McLaurin has the best size of anyone on this list at 6’2″, 215 pounds.
McLaurin led the SEC last season with six interceptions. He also added 79 tackles, six PBUs, 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and one FF. In his three year career in Starkville, he has over 150 tackles and eight total interceptions and a touchdown.
The best part about McLaurin is that he’s a big game player. He had three interceptions against Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl. He also recorded interceptions against Ole Miss and Texas A&M last season. That’s stepping up in the critical moments, and that’s how a team like Mississippi State gets to the next level.
2. J.R. Reed, Junior, Georgia:
Reed finished 2017 as a second-team All-SEC (A.P.) player. He’s currently rated by Phil Steele as the nation’s #2 safety prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft. Those are big expectations, but that’s not uncommon in Athens heading into this season.
Reed had two interceptions and 79 tackles for the reigning SEC Champions last season. He added five TFLs, five PBUs, four quarterback hurries (QBHs), 1.5 sacks, one blocked kick, one forced fumble, and one fumble return touchdown. In short, he was all over the field getting his on a defense full of prime time performers. Like McLaurin above, most of his significant performance came against top tier opponents, specifically Auburn, Notre Dame, Mississippi State, and Florida.
But Reed had a first hand view of the last play of the season. The Bulldog safety watched as Alabama scored on his teammates to end the Bulldogs national title hopes. If Georgia is finally going to break through, they’ll have to replace a lot of talent on defense and Reed will have to be even better in 2018.
1. Mike Edwards, Senior, Kentucky:
While Reed might get most of the headlines, Edwards has quietly made his case as the best returning safety in the SEC. In three seasons in Lexington, Edwards has amassed 235 tackles and eight interceptions, one going for a touchdown. In the past two seasons, Edwards has 96 and 100 tackles, respectively. That’s over seven tackles per game.
And, much like the previous two safeties, he padded his stats against the best competition. Edwards had five games with 10+ tackles last season: Florida, Missouri, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Ole Miss. In three games against non-G5 teams, he only accounted for 13 tackles. Like his Wildcat teammate Benny Snell, he’s about as clutch as they come.
Edwards is all over the field. He also has 11.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 17 PBUs, one QBH, and one FF in his three seasons at Kentucky. Edwards has earned some preseason recognition, but not what he deserves.
LaDarius Wiley, Vanderbilt: Only 172 tackles over two seasons in Nashville. He’s another perfect fit in Derek Mason’s defense.
Nigel Warrior, Tennessee: Did just about everything for a depleted Vols defense last season. He will benefit greatly from Jeremy Pruitt’s hire.
Grant Delpit, LSU: A stellar freshman season has expectations for Delpit sky high on the Bayou.
Also, see our other SEC positional rankings:
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