August 12, 2022

Ranking the SEC’s most feared defenders of 2022

SEC's top defenders of 2022

LSU defensive tackle Jaquelin Roy (99) jogs with his teammates towards the locker room before Texas Bowl against Kansas State Tuesday January 4, 2022 at NRG Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

It’s the almighty SEC.

A conference where speed, passion and physicality rules. So much blood, sweat and tears through the years has made the league synonymous with elite recruiting. In return the SEC has turned into the baby NFL. All of the hard hits and game-changing plays, has gained the conference notoriety.

These 20 elite defenders can make ball carriers and quarterbacks tremble in their shoes. Offensive Coordinators spend countless hours game-planning around them, and they’re out to wreak havoc again this fall.

20. Tyrus Wheat, LB, Mississippi State: The former Juco led the Bulldogs in tackles for loss and sacks last season. Wheat is the enforcer and sets the tone every game. He stockpiled four solo tackles, including two for loss and two sacks in the victory over Vanderbilt. Wheat also generated four solo stops, including three for loss, and put the quarterback to the turf twice in the win over Tennessee State. Not to mention he racked up a season-high, eight total stops and made a sack against Arkansas. The Louisiana native made the quarterback eat grass at Memphis and Texas A&M. After a stellar campaign in 2021, Wheat proved he’s one of the best backers in the SEC West.

19. Jaquelin Roy, DT, LSU: The former four-star prospect is a huge, space-eating monster along the interior. Roy stands six-foot-three, and weighs 315 pounds. He has the strength and athleticism to maul opposing offensive linemen. Roy tallied four total tackles, including three solo at UCLA. The following week, he recorded four stops apiece in victories over McNeese State and Central Michigan. He generated three solo tackles against Arkansas. Not to mention Roy added two additional solo stops and put the quarterback to the turf in the finale against Texas A&M. The Bayou Bengals will have a very talented defensive line in 2022, and Roy will be anchoring the unit again.

18. Martez Manuel, S, Missouri: The hometown kid is the enforcer of the Tigers’ secondary. Manuel finished second on the team in stops and fourth in tackles for loss last season. The former three-star prospect registered six tackles, including five solo at Kentucky. He racked up 11 total stops, including seven solo at Boston College. Manuel had a season-high, 10 solo tackles and a sack against Tennessee. The six-foot, 207-pounder also made the quarterback eat grass against Texas A&M, South Carolina and Arkansas. There’s no denying Manuel was one of the most productive safeties in the SEC East, with 36 solo tackles over Missouri’s final seven games of the regular season.

17. Christopher Smith, CB, Georgia: The Atlanta native is one of the few returning starters from the Bulldogs’ star-studded defense. Smith is a ballhawk, who has exceptional cover skills. He finished second on the team in interceptions, and returned one 74 yards to house in the opening victory over Clemson. The former four-star prospect also picked off a pass against Vanderbilt. Smith stockpiled five total tackles, including four solo in the SEC Championship Game. Not to mention he had a season-high, five solo stops and an interception in the National Championship Game. With Lewis Cine in the NFL, Smith will be the general in Georgia’s secondary.

16. Jalen Catalon, S, Arkansas: The Texas native is the leader of the Razorbacks’ secondary. Although a shoulder injury forced Catalon to miss Arkansas’ final seven games of last season, he still put together a solid campaign. The former four-star prospect racked up a season-high, 11 total tackles, and intercepted two passes in the opening victory over Rice. He followed up that performance with eight total stops in the win over Texas. The former four-star prospect tallied six solo tackles against Georgia Southern. Catalon combined for 16 total stops against Ole Miss and Georgia. Over the past two years the ballhawk has stockpiled 145 tackles and picked off five passes.

15. Deandre Square, LB, Kentucky: The Detroit native finished second on the Wildcats in tackles last season. Square is one of the best inside linebackers in the SEC, and makes plays all over the field. He tallied six total tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe. The former three-star prospect put the quarterback to the turf against LSU and Georgia. Square racked up a season-high, 13 total tackles in the victory at Florida. The six-foot-one, 224-pounder recorded 12 total stops at Mississippi State. Not to mention Square picked off a pass in the bowl win over Iowa. Square alongside Jacquez Jones will form the best linebacker duo in the SEC East in 2022.

14. Antonio Johnson, S, Texas A&M: The former four-star prospect was the Aggies’ No. 2 tackler in 2021. Johnson excels against the run and in pass coverage. He capped off his campaign with second-team, AP All-SEC honors. The Illinois native tallied six solo tackles, in the opener against Kent State. The following week he recorded a season-high, nine solo tackles, and broke up two passes in the victory over Colorado. Johnson stockpiled nine solo stops against Mississippi State. Not to mention he hauled in an interception in the win at Missouri. Johnson had five solo tackles, including two for loss against Ole Miss. He left a lasting impression with eight solo tackles against LSU.

13. Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State: The Mississippi native led the Bulldogs in interceptions, and finished fourth on the team in tackles last season. Forbes is the league’s No. 1 ballhawk, with eight interceptions and 104 tackles over the past two years. Not to mention Forbes earned second-team, All-SEC honors in 2021. The former four-star prospect stockpiled a season-high, nine solo tackles, and a sack in the victory over NC State. The next game Forbes picked off a pass at Memphis. The six-foot, 180-pounder snagged an interception against LSU and Vanderbilt. Forbes  tallied 10 solo tackles over the Bulldogs’ final two games. His production in run support is second to none.

12. Isaiah McGuire, DE, Missouri: The Oklahoma native finished second on the Tigers in tackles for loss and sacks last season. McGuire generated three solo tackles, including one for loss, and put the quarterback to the turf in the opening victory over Central Michigan. The following week he recorded two tackles for loss and a sack at Kentucky. He also made the quarterback eat grass against North Texas. The former three-star prospect made several plays against South Carolina. McGuire racked up six solo tackles, a sack, plus he forced and recovered a fumble. Not to mention McGuire stockpiled a season-high, 13 total stops, including two for loss against Army.

11. Anfernee Orji, LB, Vanderbilt: The Texas native led the Commodores in stops and tackles for loss last season. Orji is the heart and soul of Vanderbilt’s defense, and a natural at bringing down ball carriers. He stockpiled eight total tackles, including five solo in the victory over Eastern Tennessee State. The following week he tallied a season-high, 13 total stops in the win over Colorado State. Orji recorded eight tackles and put the quarterback to the turf against South Carolina. Two weeks later he generated 12 stops against Missouri. Orji had nine tackles against Ole Miss. The former four-star prospect left a lasting impression, with 11 stops in the season finale at Tennessee.

10. Cam Smith, CB, South Carolina: The former four-star prospect is arguably the best corner in the SEC. Smith broke up 11 passes last season, which ranked second in the league and ninth in the FBS. He earned AP second-team, All SEC honors because he can blanket an entire side of a field. Smith recorded four solo tackles apiece in victories over Eastern Illinois and East Carolina. The six-foot-one, 187-pounder hauled in an interception against Florida. The next game Smith had a season-high, 10 total stops, including nine solo and picked off a pass against Missouri. Smith also snagged an interception against rival Clemson. Opposing quarterbacks will try their best to avoid throwing his direction this fall.

9. Brenton Cox Jr., DE, Florida: The former five-star prospect led the Gators in tackles for loss and sacks last season. Cox recorded four tackles, including one for loss and a sack against Alabama. The following week Cox generated two tackles for loss in the victory over Tennessee. However, the six-foot-four, 253-pounder turned it up a notch over Florida’s final four games. He made the quarterback eat grass against Samford, Missouri and Central Florida. The Georgia native racked up a jaw-dropping, four sacks in the win over rival Florida State. As impressive as Cox was, he didn’t receive no All-SEC consideration. Cox will likely use that as motivation and approach the fall with a huge chip on his shoulder.

8. Jordan Battle, S, Alabama: He finished fourth on the team in tackles and earned first-team, All-SEC honors last season. Battle is a natural at covering the opposition’s No. 1 wideout, and can read the quarterback’s eyes with ease. The former four-star prospect recorded seven solo tackles in the win over Ole Miss. Battle tallied six solo stops in the victory over Cincinnati. The six-foot-one, 206-pounder picked off two passes and returned one to the house against Mississippi State. Battle returned another interception for a touchdown in the SEC Championship Game. With his speed and natural instincts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise why Battle is poised for an All-American caliber campaign in 2022.

7. Derick Hall, DE, Auburn: The former four-star prospect led the Tigers in tackles for loss and sacks in 2021. His athleticism and non-stop motor allows him to dominate the trenches. Hall capped off his campaign with second-team, All SEC honors. He had four solo tackles, including one for loss and a sack in the opener against Akron. Hall also tallied four solo stops against Penn State and Ole Miss. The six-foot-three, 251-pounder stockpiled a season-high worth of tackles, and sacked the quarterback at LSU. Hall recorded a sack and forced a fumble against Arkansas and Mississippi State. The Mississippi native registered 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in the Iron Bowl.

6. Henry To’oto’o, LB, Alabama: The California native led the Crimson Tide in tackles last season. To’oto’o averaged 7.5 tackles per game. He recorded seven solo stops and put the quarterback to the turf at Mississippi State. The 21-year old generated an additional seven solo stops in the SEC Championship Game. His eight solo tackles, including three for loss and two sacks against Arkansas, were all season-highs. To’oto’o also took the quarterback down against New Mexico State. The six-foot-two, 228-pounder stockpiled six solo stops, including one for loss in the overtime thriller at Auburn. To’oto’o capped off his campaign with second-team, All-SEC honors.

5. Bumper Pool, LB, Arkansas: The former four-star prospect is arguably the most productive linebacker in the SEC. Pool is coming off back-to-back seasons of 100-plus tackles. Not only did he lead Arkansas in stops in 2021, but he tied for second in tackles for loss. Pool also earned second-team, All-SEC honors. He averaged 9.6 tackles per game, which ranked second in the conference. The Texas native generated five solo stops apiece against Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Missouri. Pool had a season-high, seven solo tackles against Georgia, plus six in the victory at LSU. Now he needs 60 tackles this fall to become the program’s all-time leader, which will be a major accomplishment.

4. B.J. Ojulari, DE, LSU: The Georgia native led the Bayou Bengals in sacks, and was No. 2 in tackles for loss last season. Ojulari recorded two solo tackles and a sack in each of the Bayou Bengals’ first two games. He had two solo stops and a season-high, 2.5 sacks in the win over Central Michigan. In back-to-back games against Florida and Kentucky, Ojulari registered six solo tackles and 1.5 sacks. The former four-star prospect tallied three solo stops apiece against Ole Miss and Louisiana-Monroe. His five solo tackles in the win over Texas A&M were a season-high. Ojulari left a lasting impression with four solo stops and a sack against Kansas State.

3. Jeremy Banks, LB, Tennessee: He led the almighty SEC in tackles in 2021. Jones tied for first on the team in tackles for loss and sacks. Not to mention he was No. 2 in the conference and 12th in the FBS in tackles per game. The former four-star prospect recorded five solo stops, including two for loss and a sack against Pittsburgh. Banks had two tackles for loss, a sack and an interception in the win over Missouri. In back-to-back games against South Carolina and Ole Miss, he combined for 13 solo tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. Banks saved his best performance for last,  with a season-high, 10 solo tackles and put the quarterback to the turf against Purdue.

2. Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia: The former five-star prospect is the lone returning starter from the Bulldogs’ defensive line. Carter dominated the trenches and helped Georgia finish No. 2 rushing and total defense. He recorded a tackle for loss and sacked the quarterback in the opening win at Clemson. Carter also had a tackle for loss against Vanderbilt and UAB. The Florida native generated three solo stops, including 2.5 for loss and a sack in the victory over Kentucky. Carter generated a season-high, four solo tackles, including two for loss against Georgia Tech. The six-foot-three, 310-pounder also earned second-team, All-SEC honors. Carter will anchor the big boys up front this fall.

1. Will Anderson Jr., LB, Alabama: The Georgia native raised eyebrows with his dominance, and won the Nagurski Award last season. Anderson finished first in the country with a jaw-dropping, 34.5 tackles for loss. He was the Crimson Tide’s second-leading tackler. His 17.5 sacks were the third most in a single-season, behind Derrick Thomas. Anderson’s four sacks in the win over Mississippi State tied for No. 2 all-time in a single game for Alabama. The former five-star prospect stockpiled a season-high, eight solo tackles against LSU. Anderson tallied two sacks apiece in victories over Cincinnati, New Mexico State and Tennessee. For his efforts, Anderson garnered first-team, AP All-America honors.

Honorable Mention

Jaylon Carlies, S, Missouri: He led the Tigers in interceptions and finished second on the team in tackles last year.

Cedric Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: The Alabama native finished third on the Rebels in tackles for loss and sacks in 2021.

Jacquez Jones, LB, Kentucky: He’s the heart and soul of the Wildcats’ defense, who led the team in stops last season.