AggieYell.com's preseason positional previews continue with a position largely in a state of flux across the SEC: Defensive tackle.
1) Anthony Johnson, LSU
2) Dominique Easley, UF
3) Kirby Ennis, Texas A&M
4) Byran Jones, Arkansas
5) Kelcy Quarles, SC
6) Isaac Gross, Ole Miss
7) Robert Thomas, Arkansas
8) Donte Rumph, Kentucky
9) Angelo Blackson, Auburn
Yes, there are only nine, and not 10, players on this list. Why? Because trying to make predictions about this year's SEC tackles is a big challenge. Most, if not all, the teams in the conference will go into fall camp looking to continue rebuilding their lines or have questions about new starters.
There's no clearer example of this than the top guy on the list. Johnson only started three of 13 games for LSU last year, but his talent level is tough to top. He racked up 30 tackles, including a remarkable 10 for loss, and 3 sacks in 2012. Now that he'll be playing full-time, he'll be the guy opposing offensive lines worry about.
Easley (26 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4 sacks) is a little undersized for a defensive tackle, but he's a veteran player who knows how to get into the backfield. Ennis (24 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack), on the other hand, is the traditional big body looking to take up space and blockers. He was a key to A&M's success last year and saved his best for the biggest games (Alabama comes to mind); this year, he'll be the centerpiece of a rebuilt front four.
Arkansas probably has the best defensive front in the conference going into the season, with Jones (52 tackles, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and Thomas (18 tackles, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) adding about 620 pounds of bulk in the middle of the front line with two talented defensive ends.
Quarles (38 tackles, 8 TFL, 3.5 sacks) should have a very nice year in Columbia, as teams will have to figure out how to block him while dealing with an All-World defensive end next to him. Gross is massively undersized at 255 pounds, but that didn't stop him from racking up 40 tackles, 10 TFL and 2.5 sacks and a Freshman All-American nod.
The lack of proven depth becomes clear at the bottom of the list, where the 6 foot, 3 inch, 323 pound Rumph (36 tackles, 6 TFL, 4 sacks) is trying to recover from surgery after suffering a knee injury this spring. If he were healthy, he may be higher on this list. Blackson (26 tackles, 7 TFL, 1 sack) isn't even listed as a starter at this point after missing spring practice, but odds are his superior talent level will have him on the field at the start of the season.
3) South Carolina
9) Ole Miss
10) Mississippi State
The Gators come out on top here because they only have one interior line position to fill, but they've got a lot of depth they can throw at it. Arkansas will be able to sport an outstanding defensive line in 2013 -- they just don't have a lot else.
South Carolina has both veteran presence and experienced reserves this year, which should help out with the entire world scheming to stop Jadeveon Clowny at defensive end. Much like Johnson himself, LSU has talent, but little experience and a lot of uncertainty on what they're going to get.
A&M will start Ennis and somewhat undersized Alonzo Williams (who, to be fair, is already bigger than Spencer Nealy was). They're ranked this high, and could end up a lot higher, due to the size they can throw at this problem. Isaiah Golden, Justin Manning and Hardreck Walker could end up being the strongest group of tackles in the conference as soon as 2014.
Kentucky has Rumph and two other established big bodies in the middle. Normally, that wouldn't be enough to rank in the middle of the pack in the SEC, but this is not an ordinary year. Auburn has Jeff Whitaker and new arrival Ben Bradley inside along with Blackson, which could make them better -- but they've got a long way to go from last year.
Ole Miss hopes Lavon Hooks, a JUCO arrival, can help Gross on the interior. But they really have no clue what they're going to get. Mississippi State is moving Kaleb Eulls from defensive end -- where he rarely played -- to first team tackle, showing their lack fo depth as well.
Georgia says they're going to use "rotational depth" at tackle and on the rest of the defensive line, which could well be code for "we don't have real starters." Vandy is optimistic they'll be able to find at least a pair of tackle, but they'll be breaking in new bodies too. Missouri and Tennessee were gouged by the run repeatedly last year, and things don't look much better for them this year, either.