SEC teams look to find defensive stoppers after draft exodus

STEVE MEGARGEE (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- This week's NFL draft showcases some of the Southeastern Conference's top defensive players from a year ago.

It also is a window into the SEC's challenges this year.

Last year's Associated Press All-America team featured six defensive linemen or linebackers from the SEC: Alabama's Quinnen Williams, Kentucky's Josh Allen, LSU's Devin White, Mississippi State teammates Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons and Florida's Jachai Polite. All of them left for the NFL.

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Now a conference that prides itself on producing great defensive linemen and linebackers must find candidates to replace all the guys entering the pros. Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt doesn't expect that to be a major problem.

''There won't be a drop-off of defensive football in this league,'' said Pruitt, a former Alabama defensive coordinator. ''Guys in this league recruit too well. Lots of teams have depth, so there's always elite pass rushers in this league.''

The SEC's definitely losing some elite defenders. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay did a combined mock draft last week that had Allen, Williams, White and Sweat all getting taken within the first eight overall picks and Simmons going later in the first round.

But there's still plenty of talent left.

Alabama's Raekwon Davis and Auburn's Derrick Brown earned second-team all-SEC honors from the AP last season. The two linemen enter the summer as legitimate All-America candidates as they attempt to lead their teams.

''That's the whole reason I came back, to teach the younger guys and just help the team (as much) as I can, to the best of my ability,'' Davis said.

Tennessee outside linebacker Darrell Taylor had eight sacks in 2018 - the most of any returning SEC player - but must get more consistent after collecting seven of those sacks in just two games. Texas A&M returns Justin Madubuike, who had 10 + tackles for loss and 5 + sacks last year.

According to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports, Georgia signed the nation's top high school prospect in outside linebacker Nolan Smith and the No. 1 junior-college recruit in outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson. Missouri's Jordan Elliott is another player to watch.

The SEC also should get breakthrough seasons from plenty of pass rushers who haven't yet made names for themselves. That happens just about every year in the SEC.

''The biggest thing that sticks out in the SEC on the front four is the athleticism,'' Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. ''On a consistent basis, there are guys who can stop the run, rush the passer and do some unique things from a blend of size and skill that you don't find many other places.''

Here are some other SEC stories to watch.

NO NEW HEAD COACHES

Nobody in the SEC had to worry about adjusting to a new head coach this spring. After five of the league's 14 members had new coaches in 2018, the league didn't make any head coaching changes this offseason. This shapes up as the first season since 2006 in which the SEC has no first-year coaches.

FAMILIAR FAVORITES

Alabama and Georgia faced off in last season's SEC championship game after the Crimson Tide edged the Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff championship game a year earlier. Those two teams could meet in December again this season as they'll head into the fall as clear favorites in their respective divisions.

EXPERIENCED EAST QBs

Every team in the SEC East has a quarterback who has started at least 13 games. Returning starters in the East include South Carolina's Jake Bentley (32 career starts), Georgia's Jake Fromm (28), Florida's Feleipe Franks (21) and Kentucky's Terry Wilson (13). Missouri's top candidate to replace four-year starter Drew Lock is graduate transfer Kelly Bryant, who started 18 games at Clemson.

Ball State graduate transfer Riley Neal, who made 32 starts at his former school, is competing with Deuce Wallace for the right to take over for four-year starter Kyle Shurmur at Vanderbilt.

QB COMPETITIONS IN WEST

With so many experienced quarterbacks in the East, most of the notable quarterback competitions are in the West.

Auburn has freshman early enrollee Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood seeking the job. Mississippi State is choosing between Keytaon Thompson and Jalen Mayden. SMU transfer Ben Hicks worked out with Arkansas this spring and will receive a challenge from Texas A&M transfer Nick Starkel this summer.

COORDINATOR MOVES

SEC teams made changes at nearly 40 percent of the offensive and defensive coordinator positions during the offseason.

Ole Miss made two high-profile hires by bringing in former Power Five head coaches Rich Rodriguez as offensive coordinator and Mike MacIntyre as defensive coordinator. Alabama brought back former Washington and Southern California coach Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Former Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney left for the same position at Tennessee.

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AP sports writer David Brandt in Starkville, Mississippi, contributed to this report.

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