By John Zenor/The Associated Press
The Southeastern Conference appears poised to maintain its reputation as the Sack Exchange Club.
The SEC once again features an array of hard-to-block pass rushers including the freakishly fast Barkevious Mingo at LSU, South Carolina’s twin towers Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor and Georgia All-American Jarvis Jones.
They bring speed, size and nifty moves to their dogged pursuit of quarterbacks and are a trademark of a league that has won six straight national titles.
“That’s what separates the SEC from every other league is having guys that can put their hand on the ground — not just the front four but the next four on the depth chart — and can get after the quarterback,” said David Pollack, a former Georgia All-American defensive end and current ESPN analyst.
“It’s the great debate, is it that SEC quarterback play isn’t great or is it great defensive lines? It’s tough for any quarterback in any conference to throw off their back. They’re not going to be very successful.
“That’s why the SEC separates itself as far as defense.”
Five SEC defenders ranked among the nation’s top 16 in sacks last season, and 10 in the top 50. The league ranked second among the six BCS conferences in sacks per pass attempt, bringing down quarterbacks once for every 13.3 passes thrown. The Big East led the way at 11.9 while the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, Big Ten and Pacific-12 all averaged more than 16 attempts between sacks.
All that was before Texas A&M joined the SEC. The Aggies led the nation with 51 sacks last season, nearly four a game.
Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease returns to the league 10 years after a stint at Kentucky. The challenge remains the same: Finding ways to block defensive lines loaded with top recruits.
“I think even when I wasn’t coaching in the SEC, that has always been the thing in recruiting, that the difference is the kids up front,” said Pease, who coached at Boise State the past six seasons. “They’re bigger, they’re faster, they’re stronger, there’s more of them.”
And when one bunch moves to the NFL, there are blue-chip replacements waiting in the wings.
South Carolina might not miss a step even though defensive end Melvin Ingram, who had 10 sacks, became the league’s fifth defensive lineman in two years selected in the NFL draft’s first round. Clowney, a 6-foot-6 sophomore who had eight sacks after arriving as the nation’s top recruit, will replace him and play along the Gamecocks’ line with the 6-8 Taylor.
Georgia’s Jones, an outside linebacker, racked up 13.5 sacks last season. Mingo, a former track star who still runs a 4.5 40, and fellow end Sam Montgomery collected 17 sacks between them. Auburn end Corey Lemonier and Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter had 9.5 sacks apiece.
“They all bring something different and they all have different moves,” said Pollack, a three-time All-American who finished with 36 career sacks. “I enjoy watching Corey Lemonier a lot, because he’s one of those guys you’ve got to stab to kill. He plays so dadgum hard. He gives a bunch of effort and is just always all over the place.
“Jarvis is extremely quick, a 3-4 outside linebacker that can get up the field. Mingo is a genetic freak that could play safety, probably, in the SEC. Clowney coming off (eight) sacks as a freshman is almost unheard of, especially not even knowing what he’s supposed to do. He didn’t know what the heck’s going on. He’s just like ‘see ball, hit ball.'”
Clowney expects more blitzes under new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who “pretty much likes to go get ‘em.”
“So I’m really excited about that,” Clowney said.
The more established Mingo might be poised to be more than a pass rushing specialist. He had 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks and 11 quarterback hurries while starting only four games behind the now-departed Kendrick Adams.
LSU coach Les Miles didn’t hesitate to name Mingo when asked this week for the team’s most improved player.
Tigers guard Josh Dworaczyk said every SEC team has a standout pass rusher, or two.
“Something that they all have in common is speed,” Dworaczyk said. “The Southeastern Conference is known for its speed and elite pass rushers are going to be fast. They’re going to be fast off the edge and a combination of that speed and power is what makes them so dangerous. You can’t just kind of bear down and throw your head at them because you’re worried about the power, because they’ll make you miss with the speed.
“And if you stand up tall and you’re trying to kick back fast for a speed rush they’re going to go into you with a bull rush and the next thing you know you’re in the quarterback’s lap.”
That kind of pressure can make life easier for the whole defense.
“When you have a pass rush, your entire defense becomes so much better,” first-year Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze said. “That defensive end just made your cornerback an All-SEC caliber player because you just don’t have time for people to win one-on-ones. There’s no worse feeling as a coach or a quarterback to know that you’re going to have pressure and you only have about two seconds to get a play off.”
Welcome to the SEC.
AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Mark Long, Teresa Walker, David Brandt, Kurt Voigt, Charles Odum and Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.