Headlined by Clowney, SEC boasts top pass rushers

Anything Jadeveon Clowney does makes news these days. Even turning over a sled in practice — a fairly common occurrence during summer workouts — becomes a viral Internet sensation when Clowney is involved. There is good reason for this: The young man is, by far, the best defensive end in the nation and possibly the top player in college football.

But he is not the only standout defensive end on South Carolina’s roster. Here are the top 10 play-making defensive ends in the SEC to watch this year:

10. Dee Ford, Auburn

Being the best player on an awful team is always a mixed bag. How good would Ford be if he were playing 159 miles up the road in Tuscaloosa? Would he be playing at all? Those are inexorable unknowns, but what can be said is that Ford came back from back surgery with speed, intensity and a nose for the football that set him apart on an otherwise inglorious Auburn defense.  

He posted 21 solo tackles, including 8.5 for losses, and seemed to be the only defender on the field during some games. His six solo tackles against Georgia were a season high, but the Bulldogs still trounced the Tigers 38-0. Without Ford the Auburn loss would have been much worse.

9. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

OK, putting a true freshman who hasn’t played a down of college football on this list is a gamble, but Nkemdiche shows the potential to adapt to the Rebels’ system and have an impact quickly.

“He’s physically gifted enough to play,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said over the weekend after the first phase of workouts, where Nkemdiche took some reps with the starters. “It’s all about can he understand what we’re trying to accomplish, what his assignments are. If he can get that, there’s no question he can play. They (his defensive staff) better be trying to get him ready.”

That sounds like a coach who can’t wait to put a freshman on the field.  

8.  Ronald Powell, Florida

Powell missed all of last year with a knee injury but supposedly has come back stronger and faster than ever, much to the delight of his coaches and teammates.  

“To not be able to play, to not know if I ever will play again, or how I’d be if I did play — just that thought process of losing something that you love so much, which is the game we play and the lifestyle, it’s scary,” Powell said to assembled reporters during last week’s media availability in Gainesville. “It was one of the most humbling pieces of adversity I ever faced. It taught me so much as a man. It’s opened me up more to share, to let my guard down as a person. … The experience humbled me so much and is one of the biggest factors in my life.”

In Will Muschamp’s scheme, Powell will play both outside linebacker and defensive end, and he will be pushed by the other defensive end on the field, sophomore Dante Fowler, Jr., who had eight tackles for losses and 2.5 sacks last year. But expect Powell to rise to the occasion. He is, after all, a man with something to prove.   

7. C.J. Johnson, Jr., Ole Miss

Having two Rebels on the list speaks volumes for what Hugh Freeze has been able to do in Oxford in a short period of time. And no Rebel is more deserving than Johnson, who led the team with 6.5 sacks and 28 solo tackles last year.  

Johnson broke his leg in the spring and hasn’t joined the team for full practice yet, but defensive line coach Chris Kiffin expects him to begin drills in a matter of days. When healthy, Johnson’s down-the-line skills are among the best in the league.

6. Bud Dupree, Kentucky

When Paul Johnson took over as head coach at Navy, he sent a message in his first summer practice by telling his team, “You went 0-11 (last year). How good could you be?”

Kentucky was a little better than 0-11 (2-10, 0-8 in the SEC), but the point is the same. No one questions that Alvin “Bud” Dupree is one of the best pass rushers in the conference, but he will be moving from outside linebacker to defensive end and will be playing for a new coaching staff.  

Based on his size (6-foot-4, 254 pounds), speed, strength and past performance (54 solo tackled in 2012), the junior should separate himself this season. But for Dupree’s performance to mean much, the Wildcats need to play better.

5. Walker May, Vanderbilt

Walker May is the Alabama native who got away, or at least that is what Tide and Tiger fans have to be thinking as the 6-foot-5, 250-pound end from Birmingham enters his senior season at Vanderbilt with one of the most impressive résumé in Commodores history. His numbers last year are nothing short of astonishing given Vandy’s schedule: May had 41 tackles including 10.5 for losses and three sacks.

Those tackles didn’t all come against Presbyterian or UMass, either. May had five games in 2012 with three or more solo tackles and eight games in which he registered at least one tackle for loss. If the Commodores go to a third consecutive bowl game and improve on their 9-4 record, May likely will be a big part of the team’s success.  

4. Chris Smith, Arkansas

Defensive ends usually get a reputation as either being great pass rushers or great run defenders. Rarely do you find one who could be called both. Chris Smith, a 270-pound senior for the Razorbacks, could be that rare exception. He recently was named to the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year watch list and his numbers show that he can rush the passer and find the runner with equal aplomb.

Smith had 9.5 sacks last year (fourth overall in the SEC), 28 solo tackles and 13 tackles for losses. Coach Brett Bielema also thought enough of Smith’s leadership to bring him to SEC Media Days in July where he was one of the more diplomatic spokesmen for his team: “We have been focusing on Coach Bielema right now. He has the entire Hog nation fired up and he just wants us to be uncommon and shock the world. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

3. Chaz Sutton, South Carolina

Chaz Sutton was a backup last year and still had 24 tackles and five sacks, numbers that a lot of SEC starters would love to have at the end of this year. At 6-foot-5 and 270, he isn’t as quick as Clowney, but very few in the college game are. But being on the field with the best defensive end in the nation will be both a blessing and a curse for Sutton.

Clowney will receive most of the attention and double-teams, but Sutton can expect to have a lot of plays run in his direction and away from Clowney.   

2. Ed Stinson, Alabama

In Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s schemes, Stinson has been standing up and playing outside linebacker most of the time, but he occasionally will put his hand down and take on any offensive tackle in the league. During the Tide’s championship season last year, Stinson had a career-best 29 tackles, 19 solo and 8.5 for losses. He also had three sacks, which was a good number given how many times he dropped back in coverage.  

Plus, Stinson has something that sets him apart on this list: He is the only defensive end with two BCS championship rings.

1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

In short, the best defensive player in the country and one of the best defensive ends in college football history. If he remains healthy, Clowney almost certainly will be the overall No.1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.