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SEC Football: Top 5 linebackers in 2015

It lost A.J. Johnson, Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Benardrick McKinney, Xzavier Dickson and Trey DePriest to the NFL Draft, but the Southeastern Conference returns some of the best enforcers at linebacker this fall. With new faces under center, the conference could return to a heavy run game mixed with solid defense. Yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine has compiled a list breaking down the top five linebackers returning to the SEC in 2015.

 

5. Beniquez Brown

  • Team: Mississippi State Bulldogs
  • Classification: Junior
  • Size: 6-foot-1, 235 pounds

Summary: Beniquez Brown will don a leadership role this fall, in the absence of Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney. He is a smart, instinctive outside linebacker that saw action in 13 games last season. Brown finished second on the team in tackles (62), and tied for second in interceptions with two. He put in seven tackles for loss and two sacks in 2014. Brown is a working progress as a pass rusher, but he is exceptional against the run. He’s played in 26 career games, totaling 101 tackles with 11.5 for loss, two sacks and two interceptions.

 

4. Denzel Nkemdiche

  • Team: Mississippi Rebels
  • Classification: Senior
  • Size: 5-foot-11, 212 pounds

Summary: A fractured ankle limited Denzel Nkemdiche to seven games last season. He accounted for 28 tackles with 3.5 for loss and a sack. His brother, Robert, returns to Ole Miss’s front line, but the Rebels will be without Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt. Nkemdiche is an athletic outside linebacker with exceptional lateral quickness.

He desires to return to the production he had during his freshman season in 2012, after suffering two lackluster years. Nkemdiche has appeared in 30 career games, tallying 145 tackles with 18.5 for loss, four sacks, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and five passes defended (three interceptions).

 

3. Kendell Beckwith

  • Team: LSU Tigers
  • Classification: Junior
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 245 pounds

Summary: With Kwon Alexander in the NFL, Kendell Beckwith takes over as LSU’s alpha dog at outside linebacker. He had a solid year in 2014, collecting 76 tackles (36 solo), two sacks and an interception in 13 games. Beckwith punishes running backs with big hits, but he’s improved his footwork in coverage. He chimes with 87 tackles and three sacks in 25 games.

 

2. Reggie Ragland

  • Team: Alabama Crimson Tide
  • Classification: Senior
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 252 pounds

Summary: Reggie Ragland is a member on a distinguished list of dominant linebackers under Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban. Ragland replaced C.J. Mosley at weakside linebacker last season, and emerged as a star. He recorded 95 tackles with 10.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, an interception and a quarterback hurry in 2014.

Ragland’s efforts earned him first-team All-SEC honors by the Associated Press. He finished last season as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award (nation’s best linebacker). Ragland turned down an early exit to the NFL Draft, and decided to return to Alabama for his senior season.

He’s played in 38 career games (13 starts), and has accounted for 120 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and an interception.

 

1. Cassanova McKinzy

  • Team: Auburn Tigers
  • Classification: Senior
  • Size: 6-foot-3, 253 pounds

Summary: Auburn returns Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams to its defensive line, but they will need help. Senior weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy should provide vocal leadership for a defense in year one under Will Muschamp. He finished second on the team in tackles last season (91), and has totaled 189 tackles in his career. McKinzy sells out against the run, but his coverage skills are a working progress. He has improved his hands as a pass rusher.

McKinzy led Auburn in tackles with 75 as a sophomore in 2013. He became the first underclassmen to do it since 2008. Fellow senior and teammate Kris Frost will join McKinzy on defense this fall, but McKinzy the individual that opposing offenses need to watch for.

 

Stephen M. Smith is a staff writer and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine, Pick Six Previews and SB Nation. You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, @ESPN_Future.

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