Southeastern Conference quarterbacks take plenty of heat off the field, and this year will probably take even more on it.
The league is loaded with star pass rushers, some of them highly rated NFL prospects, even if the SEC is short on established passers.
The SEC’s top 10 pass sack leaders return. Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, Alabama linebacker Tim Williams and defensive end Jonathan Allen, Tennessee end Derek Barnett and Mississippi end Marquis Haynes all are back after reaching double digits in sacks last season.
That surplus of talented, hard-to-block edge rushers is nothing new considering the SEC has had 36 defensive linemen or linebackers selected in the first round of the NFL draft over the past decade, many of them outside linebackers and ends.
So maybe Williams, Alabama’s quarterback-harassing outside linebacker, can follow Von Miller, the No. 2 overall pick in 2011. Perhaps Texas A&M’s Garrett can at least come close to Jadeveon Clowney’s status as the top pick two years ago.
“If you can do it in the SEC, you can do it anywhere,” said Charles Harris, Missouri’s latest in a line of stellar pass rushers. “That’s how I feel.”
Of the five sack leaders all but Williams ranked among the nation’s top 20 in sacks per game, and he was a specialist on a deep front seven who played limited snaps.
“Only played on third down,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. “Never had another role on the team.”
OK, few teams have that luxury. But Williams, whose role is expected to increase significantly, and Allen both opted to return for their senior seasons instead of entering the draft.
At least seven SEC ends and outside linebackers have already been listed as potential first-round picks according to various mock drafts, with Barnett and Garrett pegged as candidates for the Top 10.
“We’ve got a bunch of good d-linemen in this conference — a lot,” said Barnett. Enough of them that Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze notes the importance of a viable play action threat, “because pass setting against the defensive linemen that we face in this league, it’s hard to make a living at that.”
Here’s a look at some of the SEC’s top pass rushers:
—The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Garrett has racked up 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in his first two years and was a finalist for the Lombardi and Hendricks awards. He plays opposite Daeshon Hall, who’s even bigger and had seven sacks.
“We’ve got two of the best defensive ends in the country in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall,” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said at SEC media days.
Garrett said they create openings for each other. “He’s just as effective as me,” he said.
—With Allen and Williams, Alabama also has a formidable pass rushing duo. The 6-3, 291-pound Allen had 12 sacks last season, with 11 coming against ranked teams. “He plays like a bullet,” Tide safety Eddie Jackson said.
Williams had 10.5 sacks on just 148 pass rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, which said he had an average of one pressure per 2.8 pass rushing attempts. Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, the third overall draft pick, averaged one pressure for every 4.9 attempts, PFF said.
—Barnett’s 20 sacks through two seasons is just 12 shy of Reggie White’s Tennessee record set from 1980-83. He had nine sacks in the last eight games in 2015. “He’s a savage when he’s out on the field,” Volunteers defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
—Ole Miss’s Haynes tied the school record as a sophomore with 10 sacks and has 17.5 in his first two seasons.
—Missouri’s Harris led the SEC in tackles for loss per game, racking up 18.5 in 12 outings. He follows in a line of pass rushing ends like 2015 first-rounder Shane Ray
“Charles is one of the next great ones, in my opinion,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said.