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SEC Football: Top five inside linebackers returning to conference play in 2017

Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (No. 20) celebrates a 45-40 win over Clemson in the 2016 CFP National Championship: Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports

We’ve now made it to the captains on defense: inside linebackers.

The patience to follow gap assignments, strong hands to make tackles, and smooth footwork in not overpursing plays are important keys to becoming an instinctive middle linebacker on both the college and pro level. Last season, the Southeastern Conference was full of prime time leaders at the center of defenses.

While Reuben Foster of Alabama won the Butkus Award – nation’s top linebacker – LSU had both Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley, Tennessee boasted Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jarrad Davis got Florida to its second straight SEC Championship Game appearance and Zach Cunningham delivered Vanderbilt to its first bowl season since 2013.

With these names now in the National Football League, our eyes will feast on the new leaders for the upcoming fall. Yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine breaks down the top five inside linebackers returning to the SEC.

5. Roquan Smith, Georgia

During his second season at Alabama (2009) as a defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart had an inside linebacker in Rolando McClain that tore up the field. He would collect 104 tackles in his junior year, including 14 for loss and four sacks. The Decatur, Ala., native was credited with 14 quarterback hurries and five pass breakups, en route to winning the Dick Butkus Award in 2009.

Am I saying Roquan Smith is the next McClain? No. However, the situation is similar with Smart entering his second year at head coach for Georgia. Smith made a huge jump between his freshman year and last season, going from 20 tackles to a team-high 95 tackles in 13 games.

His lateral quickness was smooth, as he aided the Bulldogs in creating 15 interceptions while allowing 14 touchdown passes. Despite having three quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles, stopping the run and forcing a lower completion rating is next for Smith’s development.

4. Donnie Alexander, LSU

Since 2000, Louisiana State University has placed eight inside linebackers into the National Football League and Donnie Alexander is next. The departures of Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley now forces Alexander to the middle in taking on a role of leading next season’s squad.

He chimed in with 45 tackles in 2016, with two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.

Behind him, the Tigers gave up 117.3 rushing yards (3.3 yards/carry) a game and 197.2 passing yards per contest. Alexander’s instincts and footwork in coverage helped LSU rack up nine interceptions, while it allowed just nine touchdown passes on a 53.3 percent completion percentage from quarterbacks.

3. Tre’ Williams, Auburn

Although it hopes to have something special offensively in Jarrett Stidham at quarterback, Auburn’s road to Atlanta for a conference championship will rely on its defensive front.

In losing both Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams to the NFL, Tre’ Williams is now a leader vocally, emotionally and by example for the Tigers. He posted 67 tackles during his junior season, including 3.5 stops for loss and a sack. Williams also picked up four quarterback pressures and two pass breakups through 11 games, en route to Auburn finishing at 8-5.

2. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama

If Alabama had both Shaun Dion Hamilton and safety Eddie Jackson in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship, its outcome versus Clemson might have been different.

Hamilton, a native of Montgomery, Ala., broke out at inside linebacker in 2016. He stood among the team leaders in tackles (64) and registered nine tackles for loss with two sacks. One of his biggest plays a season ago was intercepting a pass off Florida’s Austin Appleby in the SEC title game. The aftermath of his performance was bittersweet, as Hamilton would sustain a torn anterior cruciate ligament – forcing him to miss the entire College Football Playoff session.

With Hamilton back and fully healthy, the mantle from Alabama’s great lineage of middle linebackers under Nick Saban now falls on him. Prior to getting hurt, he assisted the Tide in allowing just 64 yards rushing a game and generating 16 interceptions – six for touchdowns.

1. Jordan Jones, Kentucky

Whether you agree on Kentucky being a legitimate threat in the SEC or not, one can’t deny its tackling machine in Jordan Jones. He not only led his team in tackles in 2016, but he also returns as the linebacker with the most stops for the entire conference (109). His 8.4 tackles a game was third-most in the SEC, aiding him to second team all-conference honors from the Associated Press, the SEC’s coaches and Phil Steele.

Jones also carried a team-high 15.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, nine quarterback hurries and four pass breakups. Of his nine quarterback pressures, a career-high of three came against Alabama at Bryant Denny Stadium in a 34-6 loss to the Tide. As he enters his junior season, Jones anchors a Wildcats program that’s very excited for the coming football year. It’s coming off its first winning season since 2009 (7-6) and first bowl season since 2010, with high hopes that it can win the SEC East.

Stephen M. Smith is a managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

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