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Ranking the SEC’s linebacker units: Alabama is No. 1

KEVIN JAIRAJ/USA TODAY SPORTS
KEVIN JAIRAJ/USA TODAY SPORTS

Another day of SEC unit rankings on defense, which means another day of a stacked position group. Today, it’s linebackers.

The SEC’s defensive line and secondary groups are better than the linebacking groups, but the SEC has a number of stud linebackers – and thus a number of really good linebacking units.

We have ranked the SEC's linebacker units from first through 14th; here they are in reverse order. This is the fifth part of our position-ranking series. Offensive backfields are here, receiving corps are here, offensive lines are here and defensive lines are here.

We'll look at secondaries Saturday.

14. Kentucky

The skinny: Big things are expected of Nebraska transfer Courtney Love, who sat out last season but is considered a team leader nonetheless. This is a young and inexperienced group – and it plays behind an extremely questionable defensive line.

Hard-hitting T.J. Holloman will be one of South Carolina's defensive leaders this season. JEREMY BREVARD/USA TODAY SPORTS

Hard-hitting T.J. Holloman will be one of South Carolina's defensive leaders this season. JEREMY BREVARD/USA TODAY SPORTS

13. South Carolina

The skinny: There's a big gap between Nos. 13 and 14 in our list. The Gamecocks will be without Skai Moore, their best defensive player, for the season. But the Gamecocks should be able to weather the storm, and T.J. Holloman and Bryson Allen-Williams are a nice duo.

12. Texas A&M

The skinny: The Aggies' run defense was rancid last season, and mediocre, at best, defensive tackle play didn't help. But the linebackers didn't help much, either. Coaches think the talent is there; it just needs to play with a lot more consistency. Sophomores Otaro Alaka and Richard Moore are the key guys. This season, the d-tackles shouldn't be a problem; will the linebackers up their game, too?

11. Auburn

The skinny: The Tigers need Illinois transfer T.J. Neal to come though; he made a combined 207 tackles the past two seasons. Tre' Williams is the best of the holdover linebackers. While there are concerns, this group should be, at the least, adequate.

10. Ole Miss

The skinny: DeMarquis Gates played a lot more than expected last season and played well, leading the Rebels with 76 tackles. The other holdover linebackers? Well, uhhh … there are some, but they are nothing special. Ole Miss is another team that needs a graduate transfer to come through. In this case, it's Oregon State grad transfer Rommel Mageo, who led the Beavers in tackles last season. JC transfer Detric Bing-Dukes, who began his career at Georgia, also needs to provide immediate help. The Rebels play a 4-2-5 set, and if they get consistent play from that trio, they should be OK.

Jarrad Davis should vie for All-America honors, but will Florida get solid play from any other linebacker? KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS

Jarrad Davis should vie for All-America honors, but will Florida get solid play from any other linebacker? KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS

9. Arkansas

The skinny: There isn't much depth, but given that the Hogs run a 4-2-5 and have two high-level starters, that might be enough. Senior Brooks Ellis and sophomore Dre Greenlaw combined for 197 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss. Which reserve or two is going to step up?

8. Florida

The skinny: Senior Jarrad Davis may be the best linebacker in the league and is an All-America candidate. But who is his running mate? Junior Alex Anzalone is talented, but can't stay healthy; he has 23 tackles in 24 career games covering three seasons (he ended up getting a medical redshirt last season). Florida will play a lot of nickel this season; one reason is the Gators' plethora of talented defensive backs, but another is the alarming lack of proven talent at linebacker.

7. Missouri

The skinny: Mizzou will miss tackle machine Kentrell Brothers, but senior Michael Scherer will be a three-year starter who could lead the league in tackles. Senior Donavin Newsom is a steady presence on the outside. Sophomores Terez Hall and Brandon Lee and junior Joey Burkett will see time, too.

6. Mississippi State

The skinny: This has the look of a solid group. Richie Brown returns after a huge 2015 season – 109 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, an interception and two pass breakups. J.T. Gray (6-0, 196) is built like a safety, but he is a physical guy with coverage skills. Big things are expected from redshirt freshman Leo Lewis – big things as in eventually becoming an All-SEC player. Sophomore Gerri Green and senior Will Coleman also will be important in new coordinator Peter Sirmon's 3-4 set.

Zach Cunningham was one of the best linebackers in the SEC last season, when he had 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. JOHN RUSSELL/VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Zach Cunningham was one of the best linebackers in the SEC last season, when he had 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. JOHN RUSSELL/VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

5. Georgia

The skinny: There is talent here, for sure, but how much consistency will these guys show? Juniors Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter have big upsides as pass rushers, but Carter must rebound from a poor 2015 season. There should be a solid four-man rotation on the inside with Reggie Carter, Natrez Patrick, Tim Kimbrough and Roquan Smith. This could end up being the second-best group in the league; it depends on Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter.

4. Vanderbilt

The skinny: The inside duo of Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham should be one of the best in the league – and nation. Cunningham was a first-team all-league performer last season; he is a big guy (6-4, 230) who runs well and has excellent instincts. Bowden was a member of the SEC's all-freshman team in 2014 but missed most of last season with concussion issues. Vandy coaches have moved Oren Burks from safety to a hybrid outside linebacker role, and he should flourish. Landon Stokes has potential at the other outside 'backer spot.

3. Tennessee

The skinny: The Vols are another team that figures to use a lot of nickel, so a lack of depth isn't that big a concern. The two starters are Darrin Kirkland Jr., who is solid, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who is one of the best linebackers in the league. Reeves-Maybin has excellent speed, good instincts and flows well sideline-to-sideline. Colton Jumper, Cortez McDowell and Quart'e Sapp are the key reserves.

2. LSU

The skinny: There isn't much difference between No. 2 and No. 10 on our list. Kendell Beckwith is a star, and sophomore Arden Key should thrive – to the tune of double-digit sacks – as an edge-rushing outside linebacker in new coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 set. Converted S Corey Thompson should fit nicely into an outside 'backer role, too. Duke Riley, Donnie Alexander and Isaiah Washington are others who will see time. Big things are expected from true freshman ILB Devin White, a 252-pounder from northwest Louisiana who was recruited by some schools as a power running back.

1. Alabama

The skinny: There is a huge gap between Nos. 1 and 2 on our list. Huge. Once again, the Tide is loaded at this position. OLBs Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams are seniors who never have started a college game, yet both are prime NFL prospects; Williams, in particular, has the look of a first-rounder. ILB Reuben Foster can run and is a ferocious hitter; he should also be one of the team's emotional leaders. Shaun Dion Hamilton should start next to Foster on the inside, and he should do fine. Rashaan Evans, who had two sacks in the national title game, can play both inside and outside, and is a rising talent. And there are a handful of other 'backers who will see spot time but still make plays. What has to truly irk Auburn and LSU fans: Evans and Foster attended Auburn (Ala.) High, and Williams went to high school at Baton Rouge University Lab school, which is affiliated with LSU's education department.

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(You can follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin)

© 2016, Mike Huguenin. All rights reserved.

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