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2014 SEC Preseason Football Position Rankings: Linebackers

In a measure designed to help us all avoid the doldrums that are summer life without football, we – those that make up the SEC blogosphere here at SB Nation – will be voting once a week until football season, ranking the position groups for SEC football as we count down to the first weekend of the season. Our fourth position group ranking focuses on the defensive QBs – the linebackers.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We're three weeks deep into our efforts of ranking each position group of SEC teams, and after a second week spent on the offensive side of the ball, we're switching back over to the defensive side this week with a look at the linebackers.

This may surprise some people, but last week's WRs/TEs rankings found Alabama to (again) be ranked first.  Will they repeat that AGAIN this week with the linebackers, or can someone else such as Georgia overtake the Tide?  Let's find out as we take a look at linebacker rankings from SB Nation's SEC bloggers.

Ballot Posts: And the Valley ShookA Sea of Blue, Garnet and Black AttackRed Cup Rebellion, Rocky Top Talk, Rock M Nation

1. Alabama (3 First Place Votes, 2.0 Average )

Returning Starters/Contributors: Trey DePriest, Denzel Devall
Key Losses: C.J. Mosley
Our Thoughts:

--The loss of CJ Mosley will hurt, but this is 'Bama we're talking about and they will just reload. Trey Depriest returns along with his 65 tackles from last season. I suspect this'll be the year college football fans become acquainted with the names Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall. Maybe this year we see Reuben Foster and Da'Shawn Hand's get blooded and how their games translate to the collegiate level? (A Sea of Blue)

--Oh, what's that, Nick Saban's defense has elite linebackers again? Huh. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- "KNOX COUNTY LEVEL ORANGE ALERT!!!!!! Rocky Top Talk did not rank Alabama's linebackers as being the best in the SEC. All Oak Trees are to be immediately barricaded, and all former SEC starting QBs are placed on house arrest until further notice." Bama fans craaaaay. Bama only has two proven returning linebackers in run-stopping thumper Trey DePriest and mediocre pass-rusher Denzel Devall, but here's the thing about recruiting that we keep harping on: while individual player ratings are highly inaccurate, ratings aggregated across an entire recruiting class are pretty darn meaningful. We don't know which of the horde of blue chips on campus will produce, but adult Osh Kosh model Kirby Smart should be able to find two decent starters out of a group that includes Dillon Lee (I can't believe the children of people who watched 90210 are old enough to play college football), Xzavier Dickson (that extra letter bothers me as much as my cousin who named his first child Alexzander-- come on people! Did no one read the chapter on names in Freakonomics?!), Rashaan Evans, and noted flip-flopper Reuben Foster (he was originally supposed to be named Grilled Cheese Foster, but his parents changed at the last minute). For my part, I'm hoping Foster wins the job so that Ronny from Muscle Shoals can throw up in his mouth a little bit remembering last year's Iron Bowl every time he sees Foster's giant Auburn tattoo. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- DePriest is good but overhyped. He's not done anything more than Kwon Alexander but cracks pre-season award lists? I'm not even sure he's the best player in this unit, as Denzel Devall could be on the cusp of breaking out. Really it's their insane depth and talent and the fact that their LB play rarely dips from anything other than good, and this unit will be strong once again. (And the Valley Shook)

-- If there's any program in the league that could lose the likes of C.J. Moseley and not lose a beat, it's Bama. (Dawg Sports)

-- How does one program produce so much talent at linebacker? Even with C.J. Mosley gone, the Tide have a proven leader in Trey DePriest and an unbelievably deep roster full of former bluechip recruits. (Garnet and Black Attack)

2. Georgia (3 First Place Votes, 2.17 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Ramik Wilson, Amarlo Herrera, Jordan Jenkins
Key Losses:
Our Thoughts:

-- The return of three really good linebackers - Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, and Ramik Wilson - along with the arrival of Pruitt as DC will be a potent combination. Floyd may have the most potential of the trio, but Wilson is no slouch and led the SEC in tackles last season. Jenkins and Floyd will probably combine for at least 19.5 sacks. Easily my top choice. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Georgia returns everybody from a strong group of linebackers. Ramik Wilson and Leonard Floyd are incredibly talented. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- This is an insanely talented linebacking unit. But this is also the University of Georgia, an institution known for nothing if not taking insane defensive talent and coddling it into a weak and generally forgettable defense as a whole. What is it about Athens that turns ostensibly tough, scrappy alley cats into Garfield. Does Michael Stipe come back to campus to perform Shiny Happy People before every practice? Does Ryan Seacrest greet all incoming defensive players at the Arches as they arrive on campus? These are options we are simply unable to rule out at this point. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- They return the SEC's leading tackler and the SEC's third leading tackler in Herrera. They also return a starter with 6.5 sacks and another with 12 TFL. This is a deep, talented unit surrounded by, unfortunately, the rest of the Georgia defense. (And the Valley Shook)

-- Georgia returns all four starters from 2013, including the top two returning tacklers in the league, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson. But the guy to keep an eye on is sophomore Leonard Floyd. The former Dodge County Indian racked up 6.5 sacks as a true freshman, and will likely better that mark in 2014. (Dawg Sports)

-- The Dawgs return all their significant production from a year ago at linebacker. This defense was near the bottom of the SEC in many categories, though, and the linebacking corps lacks the star power UGA has enjoyed in the past, so is having these guys back really going to help this group break into the league's upper echelon?(Garnet and Black Attack)

3. LSU (3.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: D.J. Welter, Kwon Alexander
Key Losses: Lamin Barrow
Our Thoughts:

-- DJ Welter returns along with his 80 tackles and 6.5 TFL. Kwon Alexander will also have a strong season. (A Sea of Blue

-- D.J. Welter and Kwon Alexander are back, and bring their combined 145 tackles from last year with them. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- The Bayou Bengals lose starting weak side linebacker and last year's leading tackler Lamin Barrow, but return rising star Kwon Alexander, who will move from the strong side to replace Barrow. Alexander was overshadowed at times last year, but he is the type of speedy undersized player who former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis has been making stars out of for years. Make all the third-and-Chavis jokes you want, but watching him coach LSU's defense in BCS bowl games while having to suffer through Sal FULMERIZED Sunseri was like breaking up with your loyal girlfriend out of boredom only to see her on television looking like a knockout on Ryan Gosling's arm at the Oscars while you're at home in stained pajamas eating Easy Mac so that you can afford the rent on your crumbling McMansion. Steady but unspectacular D.J. Welton also returns at middle linebacker after winning the job last year to replace superhero Kevin Minter. The Chief still needs to find a strong side linebacker, but with quality depth (Lamar Louis, Ronnie Fiest), more experience than last year, and a candidate for the All-Name team (Debo Jones), the task shouldn't be too difficult. In fact, it's well documented that a defense automatically becomes better when you add in a guy named Debo. Kinda sorta like putting a cowbell into a song, or, alternatively, removing many many cowbells from a football stadium. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- We might have been a year too early on this group. It didn't meet expectations last year, but Kwon Alexander closed out the season really really well. D.J. Welter was everybody's favorite punching bag last season but he still finished with 80 tackles. This group also drew a lot of rave reviews in the spring. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Tigers go two deep with good talent at each position. Look for weak-side OLB Kwon Alexander to be one of the league's breakout defensive stars.(Garnet and Black Attack)

4. MSU (4.5 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Benardrick McKinney, Matthew Wells, Beniquez Brown
Key Losses: Deontae Skinner
Our Thoughts:

-- Nine returning defensive starters is usually a harbinger for good things defensively. On top of that Benardrick McKinney returns, and will inevitably end up on an All-SEC team. I also really like Matthew Wells game. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Benardrick McKinney is one of the SEC's most under-the-radar talents. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Benardrick McKinney (who I really want to call Benardrick McKendrick for some reason and definitely not because I watched Pitch Perfect last night) is a really talented football player who doesn't get the recognition he deserves. I mean, did you know that when tested, he had the highest Midichlorian count ever recorded? After winning a pod race against then-Memphis head coach Larry Porter, Dan Mullen secured McKinney's freedom and apprenticed him to Mississippi State linebacker coach Geoff Collins. Will McKinney be able to channel his talents and become the Chosen Linebacker (while saving the Queen of a backwater), or will he fall prey to anger and frustration and be lured to the dark side (aka Shreveport)? (Rocky Top Talk)

-- Benardrick McKinney is straight out of central casting for Mississippi State linebackers. Big and fast like Jamar Taylor a few years ago and Mario Hagan back in the day. Matthew Wells was solid last season as well. (And the Valley Shook)

-- MSU returns tons of experience at linebacker from a 2013 team whose defense usually stood its own against good teams outside of a few bad games.(Garnet and Black Attack)

5. Florida (5.17 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Antonio Morrison, Dante Fowler Jr., Jarrad Davis
Key Losses: Ronald Powell
Our Thoughts:

-- All of their linebackers return including their leading tacklers Michael Taylor and Antonio Morrison. Dante Fowler Jr. also returns and this season should be a breakout year for sophomore Jarrad Davis. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Florida is one of many teams whose fortunes at linebacker hinge on previously injured players returning to form. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Will Muschamp is a bit of a dummy (and of course the worst coach in college football), but even dummies can be useful sometimes. Don't believe me? I'd like to see you try and set up an artistic window display at Harrod's or govern Alaska without one! In any case, Muschamp's one talent (besides providing an endless selection of gif-worthy faces and non sequiturs) is churning out talented linebacker corps. From the Plains to the Swamp, and even in the Forty Acres in between, Muschamp has recruited, trained, and managed one nasty unit after another. The old aphorism about everything looking like a nail to a hammer applies here: you wouldn't want him to manage a top twenty football program or try to walk and chew gum at the same time, but you do want him coaching your linebackers. FYI, he'll be available to coach at your school in 2015, so send your employment offers to Gainesville c/o Jeremy Foley. If you offer him a contract laden with Nickelback-related incentives, you may have a deal. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- Florida ranked 1st in the SEC in pass defense and 2nd in rush defense. They return two starters, but also a ton of depth due to the massive amounts of injuries forcing playing time up and down the roster. They also lack that one star player, but they boast a ton of talented depth. (And the Valley Shook)

-- No Gator is among the 20 leading returning tacklers in the SEC. Part of that is injuries in 2013, and part of it is something more concerning for Florida fans: as with every other position on the field for the Gators, this unit simply needs to live up to the talent everyone knows they have. I'll be really curious to see if Jarrad Davis advances from his surprising freshman campaign. (Dawg Sports)

-- This group is loaded with talent but was heavily impacted by injuries last season, with some of those injuries extending into the spring. With most of the injured players slated to be back this fall, though, this could be an excellent group.(Garnet and Black Attack)

Benardrick McKinney

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

6. South Carolina (5.33 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Skai Moore, Marcquis Roberts
Key Losses:
Our Thoughts:

-- Skai Moore, Marcquis Roberts, and Kaiwan Lewis all had great seasons as underclassmen last season. Very impressive Moore led the team in tackles as a freshman. I watched his high school team destroy a good Ohio program his senior season, and he was one of the more impressive players I've ever watched in person. This unit is a year away from being truly elite but they are very good this season. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Over the last three recruiting classes, the Gamecocks have signed 70 players, and 12 of them are academically ineligible (17% or so). Which, great news, everyone: only one of the academic casualties was a linebacker! So while the back end of the defense has some serious questions, South Carolina can put four or five quality linebackers on the field. Ellis Johnson is fairly creative as a defensive coordinator and the HBC is only sort of vaguely aware in the abstract that defense exists (hey, you tell me how much of the strong or weak force you can explain, Captain Science! Maybe after you stop weakly gasping for air like that time Will Muschamp almost choked to death on an Everlasting Gobstopper I left in his top drawer you'll have time to climb down off your high horse), so we could be looking at the first 3-6-2 defense fielded since the early 30s. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- Skai Moore was the man as a freshman. They return all three starters, and it's not a sure thing any of them other than Moore will start again this year. Another deep, experienced unit. Detect a theme, yet? (And the Valley Shook)

-- South Carolina doesn't have a lot of star power in its linebacker corps, but it is one of the position groups that has benefitted from Steve Spurrier's solid recruiting over the past 3 cycles. (Dawg Sports)

-- The Gamecocks had one of the youngest linebacking corps in the country last season, and while the group was a liability early on, it became a strength by the end of the season. Each position is loaded with talented depth. Skai Moore is another player who is primed for a breakout season.(Garnet and Black Attack)

7. Ole Miss (7.5 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Denzel Nkemdiche, Serderius Bryant
Key Losses:
Our Thoughts:

-- Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant each return, and Bryant will contend for All-SEC honors this season. I'll hold off ranking Ole Miss higher for now because JUCO transfer Christian Russell is a bit of an unknown. Solid group. (A Sea of Blue)

-- The big question mark here is whether or not Deterrian Shackelford can successfully make the transition from defensive end to middle linebacker. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Serdarius Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche return to anchor a stout but thin Rebel linebacker unit. Relying on a converted defensive end and an incoming JUCO recruit to play and provide quality depth is a tricky proposition, but if it all comes together, Oxford could have its best defense since Patrick Willis roamed Vaught-Hemingway. The type of unit that misunderstood genius Ed Orgeron had in mind even before JoJo told us about it. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- Serderius Bryant is one of the best LBs in the conference, and if Denzel Nkemdiche can keep his head on straight, they have a solid duo. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Rebels return talented linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant, and they'll be joined by strong players Hugh Freeze and his staff have brought in over the past two cycles. Look for this group to get better as the season progresses.(Garnet and Black Attack)

8. Auburn (7.67 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Roninson Therezie, Cassanova McKinzy, Chris Frost
Key Losses: Jake Holland
Our Thoughts:

-- This group was not very good last year, but they all return with another year of experience. No doubt, there is a lot of potential there as Auburn doesn't miss often for the high profile recruits it wants. I'm curious if true freshman Tre Williams is starting at MIKE by the end of the year. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Linebacker has been the most difficult of the units to rank so far. Even now, I'm wondering if we should have Auburn higher. The only guy they're losing is Jake Holland (who exactly zero people have accused of being the nail that held The Barn together), and they return all other major contributors from last year, plus a healthy Justin Garrett and highly-touted freshman Tre Williams. There's no question this unit will be improved from last year. It turns out that sometimes doing these rankings is difficult. This conference has more stud linebackers than Kristi Malzahn has embarrassing television appearances. There is no shortage of linebacker talent in this league. (Rocky Top Talk)

Auburn's group is sneaky good without much hype. They return 113 solo tackles from McKinzy, Frost and Therezie. Therezie's an interesting player as sort of a combo DB/LB, but he plays in the box almost exclusively. This is a good group playing behind a talented DL even with the losses of Dee Ford and potentially Carl Lawson. (And the Valley Shook)

-- I can't wait to see what former uber-recruit Reuben Foster can do for the Tigers. {Whispering off camera . . .} Oh, well then, never mind. In all seriousness, you bet on Ellis Johnson not putting fast, versatile linebackers on the field at your own peril. Cassanova McKinzey and Kris Frost could be just as good at what they're asked to do as anyone else in the league. (Dawg Sports)

-- The Tigers return a fair amount of production from what was a so-so unit a year ago. Highly ranked true freshman Tre Williams may be able to help immediately.(Garnet and Black Attack)

9. Tennessee (8.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: AJ Johnson, Curt Maggitt
Key Losses:
Our Thoughts:

-- AJ Johnson returns for his senior campaign, and he's great, but the next linebacker on the roster returning with tackles will be sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Curt Maggit returns but will he truly be 100%? He'll be needed because there is not much proven depth in this unit. If Maggit and Johnson both have big years this unit could finish borderline top five in the SEC. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is a player who is fantastic when allowed to simply do his own job instead of trying to compensate for the deficiencies of the players to his left and right. While Tennessee lost senior starters at both outside linebacker positions, the Vols badly needed an injection of talent and speed at the position to allow A.J. to do his job in the middle. Fan favorite and special teams terror Jalen Reeves-Maybin will hold down one outside linebacker position and brings tremendous speed and coverage ability as a former high school safety. No one is entirely sure what the other linebacker position will look like with Curt Maggitt's spring move to defensive end, but it's likely he will play at the position at least part-time in a hybrid linebacker/lineman role. Incoming players from Tennessee's highly touted 2014 class will provide depth with freshmen Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, and newly qualified JUCO transfer Chris Weatherd jockeying for playing time. Overall, this is a unit which will be an asset and not a liability for the first time in three seasons. If we knew exactly where everyone would play and could be assured that the starters would be injury-free, we'd rank them higher. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- A.J. Johnson is a really, really good linebacker playing without much help. That gives Tennesee an edge here because most of these units can't even match a returning player like him. (And the Valley Shook)

-- With A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt leading the unit, the Vols potentially have a breakout linebacking corps for 2014.(Garnet and Black Attack)

10. Vanderbilt (10.5 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Darreon Herrin, Jake Sealand
Key Losses: Karl Butler
Our Thoughts:

-- Caleb Azubike, Darreon Herring, and Kyle Woestmann are all good SEC linebackers. Herring may end up being the best of the entire group. Jake Sealand also returns with his 45 tackles from last season. The looming unknown is how will the transition to a 3-4 defense impact this group's abilities. They'll have a great coaching but it would be natural for everything to come together. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Yes, the 'Dores get back their two leading tacklers from this spot in Darreon Herring and Jake Sealand. Yes, moving defensive linemen Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike to linebacker adds some girth and dynamics to the unit. Yes, we understand that this will be one of Vandy's most talented units. However, we are going to go ahead and bring a lovely dish well-seasoned with skepticism to any and all dinner parties celebrating a switch to the 3-4 defense. We can tell you from experience that sometimes that doesn't work out so well in the first year. But let's not talk about that anymore, or ever again. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- Woof. (And the Valley Shook)

-- Vandy returns a reasonably talented depth chart at linebacker. One concern for the 'Dores, though, is that they're moving to a 3-4. There may be growing pains, particularly given that they'll be relying on former ends to produce at linebacker.(Garnet and Black Attack)

11. Missouri (11.5 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Kentrell Brothers, Darvin Ruise
Key Losses: Andrew Wilson
Our Thoughts:

-- Lost two linebackers including their leading tackler. Kentrell Brothers was set to have a breakout year but then had surgery on his labrum. Darvin Ruise you will be relied upon. Perhaps Mizzou's outstanding defensive line will pick up the slack for their linebacker corps this year. (A Sea of Blue)

-- It turns out that Kendall Brothers is actually just one guy. Our mistake. Though, to be fair, when you factor in Gary Pinkel's ability to coach him up, he should probably be considered at least like 1.05 guys. Or 1.3 guys. Or somewhere in between the two. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- Losing your top few players and replacing them with players without distinction usually isn't a recipe for success. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Tigers have to replace two starters, including leading tackler Andrew Wilson. They have enough players in the pipeline to field a decent unit, though.(Garnet and Black Attack)

12. Arkansas (11.67 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Brooks Ellis, Braylon Mitchell
Key Losses:
Our Thoughts:

-- This unit wasn't very good last season, but they are all back. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Braylon Mitchell, who was the best linebacker the Hogs had in Bert's Year Zero campaign, returns for his Senior season and should be productive. He'll be joined by Brooks Ellis, who was productive in '13, and Martrell Spaight, who was less productive, but who Phil Steele tells me caused three concussions last season. And herein lies the problem for Arkansas this year: when Phil Steele adds in a parenthetical noting that a returning linebacker caused three concussions, that tells me that ole Phil -- yes, he of the "jam-packed" preview mag lore -- didn't have a whole lot else to write about. Next. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- 142 tackles returning, including senior Braylon Mitchell. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Hogs' young linebacking corps struggled a year ago, but they have just about everyone back and healthy, and it seems likely improvement is imminent.(Garnet and Black Attack)

T-13. Kentucky (13.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Khalid Henderson, Ryan Flannigan
Key Losses: Avery Williamson
Our Thoughts:

-- This unit wasn't very good last season, and they lost leading tackler Avery Williamson to the NFL. The only returning linebacker with much experience is Khalid Henderson, and UK will rely on a JUCO transfer who isn't set to arrive on campus until August. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Did you know the Wildcats had a linebacker taken in the NFL draft this offseason? Me either! So now they don't have that guy which I had never heard of who was apparently pretty good, and yet they're ostensibly a member of the Southeastern Conference. Stated differently:: "they sposed to be SEC". (Rocky Top Talk)

-- When there is a cellar, Kentucky will be there to fill it. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The 'Cats graduate lose one of their best defensive players from a year ago in draft pick Avery Williamson, and they may not be able to replace the lost production immediately. They do have some good players in the pipeline, though, such as true freshman Dorian Hendrix, who impressed the coaches with his play as an early enrolee in the spring. This group may get better as the season progresses.(Garnet and Black Attack)

T-13. Texas A&M (13.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Ryan Flannigan
Key Losses: Steven Jenkins, Darian Claiborne
Our Thoughts:

-- This defense was the worst in the SEC last season by many statistical standards, and they lost their best linebacker Darian Claiborne. The returning linebacker with the most experience is Donnie Baggs and he was A&M's 14th leading tackler last season. (A Sea of Blue)

-- The Aggies return so few players with actual gametime experience at linebacker. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Darius Claiborne is pretty good at football, but less good at avoiding arrest. Sumlin has recruited well enough that his dismissal may not matter, but as Butch Davis and Dennis Erickson can tell you, looking the other way while your student athletes misbehave will eventually catch up with you after a very very long and profitable career. Maybe. Which is why they always give a tip of the cap to guys like Mike Shula who tried to do it the right way. That's a tip of the cap in addition to the regular tip, because it's not easy to make ends meet as a former Crimson Tide football coach, busing tables during the day shift at an Alabama Zaxby's. (Rocky Top Talk)

-- This was a bad unit that was returning almost all of their starters, now it's a bad unit missing its best player. Good luck. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Aggie defense wasn't really scaring anyone before they lost breakout 2013 performer Darian Claiborne. It's cool, Kevin Sumlin doesn't mind winning 63-56. (Dawg Sports)

-- The Aggies came into the summer knowing they'd hurt at linebacker in 2014, and now with sophomore Darian Claiborne has been dismissed, and he was one of the few reliable players returning players on this defense. You think Dylan Thompson and company are chomping at the bit to welcome this defense to Williams-Brice?(Garnet and Black Attack)

Kendell Beckwith

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports