The Southeastern Conference is known as a defensive league, though that trend has shifted a bit in recent seasons thanks to the likes of Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and last year’s impressive Missouri Tigers. However, there is still arguably more pure talent on the defensive side of the football, which you will notice as we rank the top ten SEC inside linebackers.
This year’s crop of inside linebackers are not only talented, but they are experienced as well. All ten players on our list were starters last season, seven of them inside, and three moving from outside linebacker.
1. Ramik Wilson, ILB, Georgia
Ramik Wilson is the leading returning tackler in the Southeastern Conference. He registered 133 tackles, seven tackles for a loss and four sacks last season as a junior, and will lead the best group of linebackers in the entire country this season. Wilson is a fixture on pre-season All-American teams and award watch lists, and early scout projections list him as a first round talent.
2. AJ Johnson, MLB, Tennessee
Johnson broke the century mark in tackles again last season, and now has more than 300 in his career. The senior is obviously one of the most active players in the SEC, but he has not made many game-changing plays. In three years, Johnson has recorded just one career sack, and has not intercepted a pass. However, he has had a solid career, and should have more opportunities to make big plays in 2014.
3. Benardrick McKinney, MLB, Mississippi State
You’d better get a good look at Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney this year, because it is likely to be his last in Starkville. The junior led the Bulldogs with 71 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season in 2013 and has the ability to increase those numbers this season. McKinney is a prototypical late bloomer. He was an underrated skinny quarterback recruit that developed into a 6-foot-5, 250-pound monster with 4.6-second speed. Already known as a leader in the locker room, he could be a first rounder in 2015.
4. Trey DePriest, ILB, Alabama
The Crimson Tide seems to churn out great players at nearly every position, and inside linebacker is no different. DePriest returns to Tuscaloosa as the only starter on the linebacker unit, and will now make the defensive calls on the field for Nick Saban after spending last season as an outside ‘backer. Last year, DePriest recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and was an honorable mention on the All-SEC squad.
5. Cassanova McKinzy, MLB, Auburn
Fans that watched the Auburn Tigers last season, either on television or at Jordan-Hare Stadium, heard the name Cassanova McKinzy a lot. The junior was all over the field for the Tigers in 2013, and finished the season as the team leader with 75 tackles. Very athletic for someone listed at 6-foot-3 and 249 pounds, McKinzy is also versatile. He started all 14 games for Auburn at weak side linebacker in 2013, but will move into the middle this season. If he stays healthy, 100 tackles is possible.
6. DJ Welter, MLB, LSU
Like Alabama, LSU never has trouble finding a capable middle linebacker. DJ Welter, who finished second on the team with 78 tackles last season, moves to the middle this season after Lamar Louis played there last year. Welter started all 13 games on the weak side last season, and has a reputation as a tough and gritty player – something you want in a middle linebacker.
7. Amarlo Herrera, ILB, Georgia
You would think that Ramik Wilson’s 133 tackles wouldn’t leave many for the rest of the linebackers, but Amarlo Herrera racked up 112 stops himself. That number ranks as the second most among returning SEC players. Herrera is less of a pass rusher than Wilson, and had just half a sack last season, but he is a solid run stopper (4.5 tackles for loss) and had an interception in 2013.
8. Michael Taylor, MLB, Florida
The weakest unit on the strong Florida defense last season was linebacker. That has changed. Three starters return, including senior leader Michael Taylor. Taylor was the team leader with 62 tackles last season, and he could make even more plays this year thanks to a solid defensive line plugging up holes in front of him.
9. Kaiwan Lewis, MLB, South Carolina
Similar to Florida, the South Carolina linebackers were considered a bit of a weak spot on an otherwise solid defense in 2013. Yet, heading into 2014, the linebackers are clearly the best unit the Gamecocks have. Junior Kaiwan Lewis has already played in 23 games in his career and returns to the middle linebacker position after compiling 54 tackles, four tackles for a loss and two picks last season.
10. Kentrell Brothers, MLB, Missouri
The Missouri Tigers are one of the least experienced teams in the entire nation, but at least they have an experienced linebacker to lead their defense. Kentrell Brothers was a first-teamer on the outside last year, and started all 14 games for Missouri. He had 70 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and three interceptions last season.