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June 17, 2013

2013 brings changes to SEC safety pairings

AggieYell.com's preseason position evaluations for the SEC continues with a look at the conference's safeties.

Top individuals:

1) Craig Loston, LSU
2) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
3) Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt
4) Javon Marshall, Vanderbilt
5) Braylon Webb, Missouri
6) Howard Matthews, Texas A&M
7) Rohan Gaines, Arkansas
8) LaDarrell McNeil, Tennessee
9) Demetruce McNeal, Auburn
10) Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

It seems like Loston has been in Baton Rouge forever, but he's finally a senior. He had a breakthrough year in 2012, winning second-team all SEC honors while racking up 55 tackles and 3 INTs. He's fast, rangy and physical, and he's as good as it gets in a year where there aren't a ton of upperclassmen in SEC defensive backfields.

When compared to the rest of the names on this list, Clinton-Dix's tackle totals (37, .5 TFL) are not at all impressive. His numbers in pass coverage, however (5 INTs, 9 passes defensed) are sterling. He was extremely good down the stretch for the Crimson Tide, including a pick in the national championship game, and he'll be counted on to lead the secondary this year.

The Vanderbilt combination of Ladler (a team-leading 90 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT, 1 fumble recovery) and Marshall (83 tackles, 2.5 TFL) were as productive a pair of tacklers as any two safeties around. They're not the biggest guys (6 foot and 5'10", respectively), but they're smart, fearless and make plays.

Webb may be one of Missouri's best players overall, bringing two years of starting experience back in 2013. He contributed 64 tackles and a fumble recovery to a defense that gave up 341 points last year.

Matthews went from absolute afterthought to indispensable for the Aggies last season, becoming a dominant force for A&M down the stretch last year. He filled up the stat sheet last year (58 tackles, 6 passes defensed, one fumble forced, 1 TFL), but starting with his huge interception-forcing hit against Alabama, he had 34 tackles and 3 passes defensed in A&M's last four games. Mark Snyder expects him to lead the secondary this fall.

Gaines was another guy who wasn't a starter at the beginning of the year who proved his worth in 2012. He racked up 75 tackles and four passes defensed last year, and he won't have to earn a starting job this fall.

LaDarell McNeil started seven games as a freshman and posted 55 tackles, earning him Freshman All-SEC honors. Demetruce McNeal was highly productive (90 tackles, 7 TFL, 1 sack), but got himself in trouble at the end of spring practice and missed the last five. Prewitt (80 tackles, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) was almost as productive and should team with Trae Elston to give Ole Miss a pair of very good safeties this season.

By group:

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

Vandy's safeties are both in the top 10, they're both experienced and productive. It may be a shock to see the Commodores so high, but they're deserving of the spot. Ole Miss is in the same boat; Elston and Prewitt both return, both are ballhawks and provide stability to the Rebel defensive backfield.

Alabama knows Clinton-Dix will be one of their safeties; the other remains a question mark. There are a ton of talented options, though, including 28-year-old former major league baseball player Jai Miller.

The Aggies know who their other safety is to go with Matthews -- it's Floyd Raven, who is moving over from corner. This is a position that seems to fit Raven like a glove, and he performed well this spring. If he continues to perform at a high level and newcomers like Kameron Miles can add quality depth, the Aggies could end up higher on this list by the end of 2013.

For LSU, Loston is set. The other safety job is up for grabs between Micah Eugene and Ronald Martin, and will probably take a while to sort out.

For South Carolina, Brison Williams and Kaedrix Marcus provide a pair of experienced starters, but after that, there's a lot of inexperience for the Gamecocks at safety. Mizzou has Webb, but their secondary wasn't good last year and probably won't make a quantum leap forward this year.

Georgia has to replace its starting safeties and one of the players it was counting on to step up, sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, has already been suspended for a game for a marijuana-related arrest. Tennessee has McNeil, and then question marks, as it tries to rebuild a secondary torched frequently in 2012.

For Arkansas, it's Gaines and a competition to replace Ross Ranser, the team's leading tackler in 2012. Florida is replacing both safeties, as are Mississippi State and Kentucky. The Gators have a ton of incoming talent at safety and could jump up the list; the Bulldogs and Wildcats may find the going tougher. Auburn has McNeal back (probably), but is paper thin otherwise; the Tigers had walk-ons getting significant playing time during the spring game.

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