Eight of the SEC’s top nine sack men from 2016 are gone, and the one who remains on an active roster -- LSU’s Arden Key -- is not participating in spring practice because of personal issues.
A year ago, the conference was loaded with returning sack masters like Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, but there are few sure things as we examine SEC rosters this spring.
Who might cause SEC quarterbacks to quake in fear this fall? Here are 10 candidates to rank among the conference sack leaders in 2017:
McTelvin Agim, Arkansas: It looks like Agim will slide out to defensive end in Arkansas’ new-look 3-4 defense this year, and that might give him a better opportunity to penetrate into opponent backfields. He posted 2.5 sacks last year as a freshman defensive tackle, but that number will rise significantly if he plays to his potential. Agim was the No. 11 overall prospect on the ESPN 300 last year.
Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: We could have gone with any of Georgia’s three players who totaled five sacks last season -- the others were Davin Bellamy and Trenton Thompson, who is currently not with the team -- but settled on the guy with the highest ceiling. Signing Carter was a huge deal in 2014, when he was ESPN’s No. 14 overall prospect, but he has not fully tapped into that potential. In three seasons, he has just 9.5 sacks. This is the senior’s final opportunity to break through.
Marlon Davidson, Auburn: Davidson started every game last year as a freshman. In fact, he was the first Auburn freshman defensive lineman to start the opener in 30 years, but his overall impact was overshadowed by All-SEC veterans Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Now that they’re gone, don’t be surprised if Davidson adds to last season’s 2.5 sacks and emerges as the Tigers’ newest impact defender up front.
Marcell Frazier, Missouri: The rising senior went on a tear at the end of last season, registering 6.5 sacks in the final three games, capped by his three in the season-ending upset of Arkansas. He’s the SEC’s top returning sack man behind Key and seems on pace to become the next edge rusher to have a huge final season at D-Line Zou.
Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama: It’s nice to be Nick Saban. With Alabama’s front seven looking to replace numerous key players from last season, he has a five-star talent like Hand waiting in the wings for his senior season. Hand registered just two sacks a year ago, but now that Allen and fellow senior end Dalvin Tomlinson are out of the picture, his playing time will increase considerably. So will his sack total.
Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss: Haynes notched seven sacks last season, which was actually the low for his three seasons in Oxford. His career best was 10 as a sophomore in 2015, and he has 24.5 through three seasons. Haynes could have been an NFL draft pick had he entered. His speed off the edge will eventually fit in well at the next level. However, he’s back for his senior season and is probably the safest pick among the players on this list.
Christian Miller, Alabama: Hand won’t have all the fun. Somebody also has to come flying off the edge from the outside linebacker spot like Anderson and Williams did so effectively last year. Our money is on the blazing-fast Miller, who posted two sacks and four quarterback hurries as a reserve in 2016.
Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State: Yet another pick based on potential. Simmons didn’t do much from a pass-rushing perspective last year, but he’ll have a much greater opportunity as a sophomore on a defensive front that lost a ton of veteran talent. Coach Dan Mullen recently named Simmons as a leader in that group, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the interior lineman make a bigger impact as a pass rusher soon.
Denzil Ware, Kentucky: Josh Allen is actually Kentucky’s top returning sack artist with seven a season ago, but we’re taking Ware here. The junior logged 4.5 of his 5.5 sacks in SEC play last season and ranked second on the team with 12 tackles for loss. He’ll be a regular problem for opposing offensive lines this year.
Jabari Zuniga, Florida: Although Zuniga posted a team-high five sacks in 2016, that number is a bit deceptive. He notched two apiece against nonconference opponents UMass and North Texas and just one against anybody else (Vanderbilt). Florida coaches love Zuniga’s potential, but are still waiting for a true breakthrough. It could come this fall.