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May 7, 2013

Among DEs, it's Clowney and everyone else

AggieYell.com's preseason breakdown of the best of the SEC continues with a look at the league's best defensive ends and a breakdown by group.

Top Individuals:

1) Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
2) Chris Smith, Arkansas
3) Ed Stinson, Alabama
4) Trey Flowers, Arkansas
5) C.J. Johnson, Ole Miss
6) Jonathan Bullard, Florida
7) Chaz Sutton, South Carolina
8) Dee Ford, Auburn
9) Denico Autry, Mississippi State
10) Walker May, Vanderbilt

Ok, let's get the simple stuff out of the way first: is there any question Clowney (54 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 13 sacks) is the best defensive lineman in college football? No? Didn't think so. Moving on.

The overall atrocious play of Arkansas last fall overshadowed their great pair of defensive ends, Smith (52 tackles, 13 TFL, 9.5 sacks) and Flowers (50 tackles, 13 TFL, 6 sacks), both of whom played at an extremely high level. Having both of them back gives new coach Bret Bielema something to take comfort in as he tries to rebuild a program that disintegrated quickly.

Stinson (30 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks) is the sole remaining starter from the 2012 defensive front, but his numbers become all the more impressive when you consider he's a lot bigger (6 feet, 4 inches tall, 292 pounds) than the faster 4-3 defensive ends on this list. He's a good building block for the Tide as they move forward in their 3-4 scheme.

Johnson (55 tackles, 8 TFL, 6.5 sacks) racked up impressive numbers in spite of starting only 10 of Ole Miss' 13 games. He'll rightfully get pre-season All-SEC consideration in 2013. Bullard (27 tackles, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries) started for the Gators as a true freshman and could well become a star this season.

Sutton (25 tackles, 7 TFL, 5 sacks) didn't even start for South Carolina last year and racked up impressive numbers. Starting across from Clowney this year, he gets one of the sweetest gigs in college football. Ford (34 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 6 sacks) is a legitimate pass rushing threat off the edge, but he'll endure double team hell in 2013 until someone steps up to help.

Autry (42 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4 sacks) ended 2012 on a tear, but was like many of his teammates in that he vanished against the upper echelon (A&M, Alabama, LSU of the SEC). That can't happen in 2013 if he's going to be ranked higher. May (41 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3 sacks) gets the unenviable task of being the sole remaining starter as the Commodores rebuild their defensive line.

By group:

1) South Carolina
2) Arkansas
3) Florida
4) Mississippi State
5) Ole Miss
6) Alabama
7) LSU
8) Georgia
9) Auburn
10) Texas A&M
11) Missouri
12) Vanderbilt
13) Tennessee
14) Kentucky

If Clowney was standing alone as South Carolina's defensive line, they'd still come in first. The distance between him and everyone else is immense. Arkansas, with their quality tandem, deserves a high ranking.

Mississippi State and Ole Miss both return key cogs on their offensive line and have talented reserves and new arrivals coming to fill holes. With Johnson and incoming monster Robert Nkemdiche, the Rebels could have their best duo ever.

Four teams that have legitimate national title hopes -- A&M, LSU, Georgia and Alabama -- are ranked down on this list as they attempt to rebuild their defensive end corps. LSU and Georgia, especially, are still looking for answers, while A&M may be able to plug in established players in Julien Obioha and Gavin Stansbury (who reshaped the equation for the Aggies with a strong spring) but will be looking for depth. Alabama has a ton of talent, but not a ton of experience.

As for Auburn, Tennessee, Vandy and Kentucky, there's glaring holes and a dire need for people to step up. The Wildcats may have one of the top 10 on the postseason list with JUCO arrival Z'Darius Smith, but that's a long way away from right now.

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