December 2, 2022

Ranking the SEC’s most feared defenders of 2021

SEC's 20 most feared defenders of 2021

Missouri defensive tackle Akial Byers makes a tackle at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Mo. on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Zach BlandMizzou Athletics

It’s all about intimidation.

These players come with different skill sets, from relentless edge rushers, to hard hitting linebackers, and ballhawking defensive backs, who can blacket an entire side of a field. They’re all versatile and can dominate their respective positions in the almighty SEC.

With a full slate of games on the schedule this fall, expect an increase in production from these defenders and for them to wreak havoc on quarterbacks and ball carriers.

20. Adam Anderson, DE, Georgia: He’s a pass rusher who knows how to make signal-callers eat grass. In a limited role last season, Anderson finished second on the team in sacks, including two apiece in wins over Auburn and Cincinnati. The six-foot-five, 225-pound Anderson also got to the quarterback against Tennessee and South Carolina. The Bulldogs finished first in the FBS against the run because of studs like Anderson. The Georgia native can plug in gaps and fly from sideline to sideline. With eight career sacks, he’s poised to duplicate that and possibly more in 2021.

19. Tyrus Wheat, LB, Mississippi State: The former three-star recruit made his presence felt in the nine games he played in last season. Wheat generated a sack against LSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Missouri. His performance against the Commodores was promising, with six stops, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Wheat kept the momentum going in the bowl win over Tulsa, with six tackles, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage. The Louisiana native will be the enforcer for the Bulldogs’ defense and poised for a monster senior year this fall.

18. Andre Anthony, DE, LSU: The former four-star prospect is an elite edge rusher, who disruptive and has 13 career starts. Anthony finally came into his own last season and led the Bayou Bengals in sacks. He generated two sacks in the win over Arkansas, plus he got to the quarterback against South Carolina, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. The New Orleans native has 47 career stops and is poised to penetrate backfields all season long. Anthony along with Ali Gaye, form one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league, and opposing quarterbacks will need to keep their heads on swivel.

17. Akial Byers, DT, Missouri: What he contributes to the Tigers’ defense doesn’t stand out on a stat sheet, but Byers has been a vital piece for the past three seasons. The six-foot-three, 288-pound Byers has started 10 games, generated 53 tackles and scored a defensive touchdown during that span. Byers is that brick wall blockers have a hard time moving, which opens up opportunities for his teammates to make plays. The former four-star prospect is now a graduate student, with a boatload of experience, which means Byers’ production should increase drastically in 2021.

16. Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn: The Alabama native excels in pass coverage and run support. McCreary picked off a pass against Kentucky, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He took down at least one ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage in six of the Tigers’ 10 games. McCreary has been active over the past two seasons, with 81 total tackles, plus he broke up 17 passes. The former three-star prospect is due for an All-SEC caliber season this fall. Auburn’s secondary is loaded with talent, which should produce better results than 79th nationally against the pass.

15. Will Anderson Jr., LB, Alabama: The former five-star prospect started every game for the Crimson Tide last season and ended with Freshman All-SEC honors. Anderson finished third on the team with seven sacks and had 10.5 tackles for loss. The Georgia native combined for 12 tackles and three sacks in back-to-back victories over rivals Auburn and LSU. The six-foot-four, 243-pound Anderson followed up those performances with two sacks apiece against Arkansas and Florida. Anderson was even a terror on special teams and blocked a field goal in the Playoff win over Notre Dame.

14. Eli Ricks, CB, LSU: The former five-star prospect lived up to his billing last season. Ricks represented to the fullest for Defensive Back U and led the Bayou Bengals in interceptions. The California native picked off a pass in four different SEC games. Not to mention Ricks returned an interception for a touchdown in victories over South Carolina  and Florida. His speed and vision gives him the ability to break on balls in the air. Ricks has natural instincts coaches can’t teach, which is a scary thought for quarterbacks. Having a new Defensive Coordinator should amplify Ricks’ skills.

13. A.J. Finley, FS, Ole Miss: He’s the enforcer of the Rebels’ secondary, who flies to the ball. Finley can blanket an entire side of a field and he’s a ballhawk. The former three-star prospect had a breakout season as a true sophomore and picked off a pass against Florida, Vanderbilt and South Carolina last season. Finley also finished third on the team with 62 tackles. The Alabama native is versatile and can provide run support. Coach Lane Kiffin will need more playmakers like Finley in the secondary this fall, after Ole Miss finished dead last in the SEC and 126th in the FBS in pass defense.

12. Bumper Pool, LB, Arkansas: He’s one part of the Razorbacks’ dynamic duo at linebacker. Pool is relentless with his pursuit and always delivers a hard hit on ball carriers. The former four-star prospect stockpiled 101 tackles in 2020 and earned second-team, All-SEC honors. Pool recorded double-digit tackles in six of the nine games he played last season, including 20 stops in the win at Mississippi State. The Texas native can penetrate backfields and drop back in coverage to break up passes. Over the past two years Pool has wreaked havoc on ball carriers, with 195 tackles, including 13 for loss.

11. Yusuf Corker, FS, Kentucky: The Georgia native finished second on the team, with 77 total stops last season. Corker is a natural at making plays all over the field. He had double-digit tackling performances in two SEC games, including 17 solo stops against Missouri. Not to mention Corker picked off a pass in victories over South Carolina and NC State. Corker has stockpiled 159 tackles over the past two seasons, including 89 solo stops. The senior safety will have to lead a Wildcat secondary short on production this fall. However, he’s due for an All-SEC caliber campaign.

10. Jalen Catalon, FS, Arkansas: The 20-year old is a ballhawk and a versatile defender. Catalon had a breakout season last year and racked up 99 tackles, plus he finished with second-team, All-SEC honors. The former four-star prospect recorded double-digit tackling performances in six different conference games. Catalon also picked off a pass against Ole Miss, Tennessee and Florida. The Texas native is always around the pigskin, whether it’s tackling a ball carrier, forcing a fumble or intercepting a pass. If he can duplicate last year’s numbers, Arkansas’ defense will be in great shape.

9. Ali Gaye, DE, LSU: The Washington native is a former JUCO, who made his presence felt off the edge last season. Gaye is just one part of a two-headed monster the Bayou Bengals have at defensive end. He led LSU in tackles for loss in 2020 and earned second-team, All-SEC honors. The six-foot-six, 250-pound Gaye has ideal size for a defender to rush the passer, knock down passes and disrupt the timing of plays. Gaye has a non-stop motor and he loves bringing down ball carriers in the backfield. It remains to be seen if Gaye will continue his success with a new Defensive Coordinator.

8. Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State: He’s one of the best corners in the SEC, with speed and instincts that frustrates receivers. Forbes was the Bulldogs’ top defensive recruit last year, and delivered with 44 tackles, to go along with Freshman All-SEC honors. Forbes had two interceptions in the win over Missouri, plus he picked off a pass against LSU and Texas A&M. However, the Mississippi native proved he was a true ballhawk after he returned an interception 90 yards to the house, in the bowl win over Tulsa. Opposing quarterbacks will try to avoid throwing his way this fall.

7. Grant Morgan, LB, Arkansas: The former two-star prospect has molded himself into arguably the best middle linebacker in the country. Morgan earned first-team, All-SEC honors last season, after he racked up 111 tackles. He can fly from sideline to sideline, isn’t afraid to get his jersey dirty and cleans up anything that comes across the middle. Morgan is also a natural at haunting down ball carriers, with six double-digit tackling performances in the nine games he played in last year. His 19 tackles against LSU and pick-six against Ole Miss, raised eyebrows across the league.

6. Trajan Jeffcoat, DE, Missouri: Last season the Tigers made a lot of plays along the defensive line because of him.  Jeffcoat established himself as a pass rushing demon, with six tackles for loss and six sacks through nine games. He put the quarterback to the turf in six different SEC tilts. The six-foot-three, 265-pound Jeffcoat also earned first-team, All-SEC honors. The former three-star prospect will need to hold down Missouri’s front seven and be the enforcer with Nick Bolton now in the NFL. Still, Jeffcoat is the last individual a ball carrier wants to see when he’s coming across the edge.

5. Malachi Moore, S, Alabama: As a true freshman he started the first 11 games of Alabama’s National Championship season, and finished with second-team, All-SEC honors. Moore is a natural at stopping the run and a terror in pass coverage, which is why he plays the STAR position. The former four-star prospect racked up eight tackles against Mississippi State and seven against Ole Miss. He also picked off a pass against Texas A&M, Georgia and Auburn. Alabama fans are wondering what Moore will do for an encore, because if it’s similar to his 2020 campaign, lookout.

4. Zakoby McClain, LB, Auburn: Anytime a defender finishes third in stops in the almighty SEC, he’s a force to be reckoned with. McClain is a tackling machine, and racked up 113 last season. He put the quarterback to the turf against Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M. The Georgia native also had four double-digit tackling performances, including a jaw-dropping, 17 stops in the loss to the Aggies. Over the past two seasons McClain has generated 168 total tackles. McClain didn’t receive enough recognition last year, but will use it all as motivation to demolish ball carriers this fall.

3. Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia: He’s massive, standing six-foot-six and weighs 330 pounds. The big fella could’ve went the NFL route, but decided to return for his senior season. Davis is a space-eating monster in the interior, who shuts down foes’ rushing attacks. Running into Davis is like running into a big black hole. The Charlotte native had three solo tackles, including one for loss and a sack in Georgia’s bowl win over Cincinnati. Davis reminds fans of former Alabama defensive lineman Terrence Cody. He has 58 career tackles, five sacks and earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2020.

2. Christopher Allen, LB, Alabama: The Baton Rouge native tied for first on the team in tackles for loss last season. Allen established himself as one of the hardest hitters in the league. He also earned second-team, All-SEC honors. The six-foot-four, 242-pound Allen made a quarterback eat grass against Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Florida. Defensive Coordinator Pete Golding will be licking his chops this fall with arguably the best trio of linebackers in the country. Allen is an intimidating presence along the edge. Ball carriers need to be ready for his collisions. He’s like a machine.

1. Kingsley Enagbare, DE, South Carolina:  He led the Gamecocks in sacks and tackles for loss last season. The Atlanta native had five solo tackles, two sacks and forced a fumble against Tennessee. Enagbare also put the quarterback to the turf against Vanderbilt, Auburn, Ole Miss and Missouri. Although South Carolina suffered a second-straight losing campaign and fired Will Muschamp, Enagbare completed a promising season. He finished with seven tackles for loss and six sacks in the nine games he played in, plus Enagbare earned first-team All-SEC honors. Shane Beamer will find new ways to utilize Enagbare’s skill set.

Honorable Mention

Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU: His production dropped in 2020, but that’s because quarterbacks were scared to throw his direction.

Henry To’Oto’O, LB, Alabama: He led Tennessee with 76 tackles last season and been turning heads in the Crimson Tide’s fall camp.

Ventrell Miller, LB, Florida: He led the Gators with 88 stops last season and will hold down the front seven for Todd Grantham this fall.

Marcus Harris, DE, Auburn: The Alabama native made his presence felt along the Jayhawks defensive line and generated 7.5 tackles for loss in 2020.