Witness the fitness of the SEC’s defensive linemen

nwhite@thestate.comJuly 23, 2013 

Jadeveon Clowney did something that defenders rarely do last week at the SEC Media Days. The South Carolina junior defensive end stole the spotlight from the usual parade of quarterbacks and running backs with a bold combination of star power, jaw-dropping playmaking ability and brash talk.

He spoke of the quarterbacks who were scared of him. Of course, it’s no coincidence the SEC has won a string of national championships due in part to big-play defenders on the line who can neutralize the nation’s top offensive stars.

New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who spent the past seven seasons in the Big Ten leading Wisconsin, said his eyes were opened after watching film of the Razorbacks playing conference opponents this past season.

“One thing that jumps out is the defensive line talent. The speed, the size, the ability that they bring is a little more up than the previous league I was in. (There are) a lot of really good players,” Bielema said.

He looks at his team and likes what he sees from defensive ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers.

“Upfront play is going to dictate the way we play the game, and fortunately, I think we’re going to be all right,” he said.

Smith fits in with pass-rushers like Clowney when it comes to approach and attitude. The 6-foot-3, 266-pound senior would like nothing more than to say a big hello to the returning Heisman Trophy winner, elusive Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

“Everybody wants a piece of him. He’s a great player,” Smith said. “Being a defensive end, if you sack him, it makes you feel pretty good about yourself. That’s what I want. I got to him a little bit last time. I haven’t gotten a big hit on him, but we will see about that this year.”

Clowney and Smith lead their own parade of defensive-line standouts, a group that includes LSU’s Anthony Johnson, Florida’s Dominique Easley, Alabama’s Ed Stinson, Auburn’s Dee Ford, Georgia’s Garrison Smith, Kentucky’s Alvin Dupree and Donte Rumph, Mississippi’s C.J. Johnson, and Tennessee’s Daniel McCullers.

The 6-2, 283-pound Easley has an engine that never stops, as evidenced by his flamboyant dancing on the field between plays, on the sideline and in the pregame huddle.

“You ever wake up and you just want to dance? You just wake up in a happy mood,” Easley said at Media Days. “You come to a realization of life that it won’t last that long, so you take advantage of every second.”

Missouri quarterback James Franklin, who played his first season in the SEC a year ago after his school moved from the Big 12, quickly learned how tough it is to get away from the league’s elite linemen.

“They’re bigger and they’re faster. They can really get to the ball well,” Franklin said. “When I’m scrambling, I don’t have as much time as I may have had before. They’re big enough so that sometimes they don’t have to necessarily wrap up. They can just grab you with their hand and take you down. It was a big difference.”

Tiny Richardson, Tennessee’s 6-6, 327-pound offensive tackle, knows that he’s going to face a big challenge against the linemen in front of him every week.

“Every team in the SEC has their big players that you have to game-plan against them every week,” he said.

USC quarterback Connor Shaw remembers being pursued last season by linemen such as LSU’s Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery and Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, who will play in the NFL this season.

“It was unbelievable week-in and week-out. You’re going to have outstanding players on defense, at least one (on each team), in this league. You just expect it at this point,” Shaw said. “That’s what preparation is all about. Fifty percent of it is won in the meeting room and learning what they do, carrying it out on the field, and understanding what’s going to happen.”

New Tennessee coach Butch Jones also understands that games are won upfront, which makes having a strong offensive line even more critical in this conference. He’s well-versed in the havoc created by a dynamic player like the 6-6, 270-pound Clowney, the 2012 SEC defensive player of the year and Hendricks Award winner who set the school single-season record with 13 sacks a year ago.

“He can change the complexion of a game in one play, as we’ve seen throughout the course of a season,” Jones said.

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