SEC Saturday Week 6: Forget The Quarterbacks, Defense Owns SEC

Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to SEC Saturday, a new weekly series now that conference play is getting underway! Each week, the TDN staff will divide up the conferences, watch the games pertaining to their assigned conference and then write up an extensive overview of the key takeaways from that weekend in college football.

Fun week in the SEC! The top draft-eligible quarterbacks struggled, a couple finishes came down to the wire and the surplus of defensive talent in the conference continued to shine very bright as the season moved to the halfway point.

Ole Miss WRs dunk on Louisiana-Monroe (as expected)

The final stat lines from the Ole Miss trio against ULM?

D.K. Metcalf: 4-115-1

DaMarkus Lodge: 9-179-1

A.J. Brown: 9-133-1

That's impressive stuff, but against an obviously inferior opponent. Why aren't their numbers as impressive against a team like LSU?

The reason isn't as simple as you might think. Yes, there is some truth to the fact that the Ole Miss trio has done most of their damage against low-level competition, but they aren't as much to blame for that as you may think. Although they've all had their share of drops at times, quarterback and coaching are more of the issue for Ole Miss.

The Rebels offense features a ton of isolation routes without an intricate structure that could help scheme receivers open. Because of that, their routes are pretty predictable, especially for outside receivers. 90 percent of what Metcalf and Lodge run are linear routes, either nine routes, comebacks, curls or hitches, with an occasional in-breaking route thrown in.

That means if you're a corner that can run with them, you're probably only going to be tested at the catch point. If you can't run with them, or your defensive coordinator doesn't want to find out if you can, just play off of them and tackle the routes back to the quarterback while keeping everything in front of you. That's what Greedy Williams did.

Ole Miss' offense is easy to defend for teams that can match their talent level with something comparable in the secondary, that's why LSU and Alabama have had success, at least on paper. With a more creative scheme, my guess is those guys would be producing a lot more.

Florida AND their top prospects make a statement

What a win for Florida, at home against a terrific LSU team. What head coach Dan Mullen has done with this offense, making it competent despite the woeful limitations of Feleipe Franks, is truly incredible. When the Gators get a real threat at quarterback, look out.

In the meantime, watching Florida is still all about scouting the prospects for me. Edge defender Jachai Polite, who debuted on my big board at no. 16 overall this past week, added two more sacks to his already career high four to give him six on the season, all over the course of his last four games.

Polite's burst, speed up the arc and flexibility to corner are scary good, but my favorite thing about his game is that he has the awareness to spin back inside when he needs to as well. The junior is a legit first round-caliber prospect.

But he's not the only Florida defender balling out this season. Fellow junior Jabari Zuniga also has freakish athleticism, and is bigger, longer and stronger than Polite. He's not as polished as a pass rusher, but he's a better run defender and has real upside for passing downs.

Zuniga is now up to 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks this season, and was consistently in the backfield wreaking havoc against LSU. His ability to rush inside and outside will make him even more attractive to NFL teams as a prospect.

Safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who had great traits coming into the season, but was widely regarded as one of the softest and worst-tackling prospects in the country, has also improved. He still misses some tackles badly, but his athleticism is obvious, and his ability to match up in man coverage in the slot or play deep is valuable versatility to the NFL.

CGJ is also active in run support and has great range, he just needs to become more consistent as a finisher. His physicality, on the other hand, definitely seems to have improved this season.

Take Nick Brossette seriously as a prospect

Not because he's from LSU or because he was simply stuck behind star running backs for years, but because he is actually good. Brossette reminds me a ton of James Conner, subtly elusive and versatile, terrific balance and good enough vision to be a viable option in an NFL backfield.

Brossette churned out 95 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries against a tough Florida front, while adding two catches for 28 yards. He's not going to wow you with burst or athleticism or flash, but I think he's a legitimate, draftable running back who can absolutely stick in the NFL.

Alabama corners?

It's going to be weird if it happens, but right now I'm not sure we see an Alabama corner declare for the draft. It's the first year in the starting lineup for juniors Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith and Shyheim Carter, but I'm not sure any are ready to make the leap to the NFL.

Smith has been benched at times this season and lost playing time to freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. Carter had a pick-six and looks good this season, but I'm not sure the profile is there to make an early leap yet.

Diggs is the most intriguing of the group right now, and with his length, long speed and Alabama pedigree I could see the NFL being interested. But Diggs is super raw technically, getting exposed by Arkansas early and often throughout the first half Saturday. He's had some great flashes this season, but I'm not sure the tape has been strong enough to warrant an early declaration.

Two risers for Alabama

By now you all know about Deionte Thompson, the top safety on TDN's big board coming into the season. He's going first round, first safety off the board. Put that one in Sharpie. He could be special.

The Alabama player you might not know about that is also on the rise is junior right end Irv Smith. Mostly used as a blocker early in his career, Smith is finally getting his crack as a receiver in Alabama's new, aggressive offense, and boy are the early returns promising.

An excellent athlete for the position, the 6-foot-3, 243-pound Smith might get slapped with a "big receiver" moniker, but remember he was primarily an in-line guy before this season, even staying in for pass protection. Smith added two catches for 123 yards and a touchdown to his season totals on Saturday, bringing his 2018 average to almost 21 yards per catch. He's the kind of weapon NFL teams want on their side on Sundays.

Stay with Scarnecchia

With Jake Bentley nursing an injury, South Carolina's addition by subtraction represented itself in the form of new starting quarterback Michael Scarnecchia, who led the Gamecocks to crucial last second win over Missouri.

Scarnecchia was far from perfect, but he played tough, smart, turnover-free football while consistently finding Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards. Those are all things Bentley failed to do as a starter, which was a big reason why South Carolina was fighting to stay above .500 going into the game. With Samuel and Edwards both going over 70 yards receiving and combining for three touchdowns, the Gamecocks offense looked better than it has all season. The change needs to be permanent, despite the potential Bentley carried into the year.

Lock's struggles continue

Drew Lock made some throws that should be commended in this game, especially considering the weather was extremely adverse. But in the first half, before the rain even began, his limitations when the play breaks down were extremely obvious.

Lock isn't a quick enough processor to make consistently great plays at all levels of the field from the pocket, and he's especially weak outside of it. On a designed screen, his receiver fell down and was on the ground for a full two seconds, yet Lock still threw the screen which was easily intercepted for a pick six. He can't operate well enough when things break down around him, an issue that I think will only exacerbate itself in the NFL.

Quick Hitters

  • Limited by injury early in the season, Georgia's leading returning receiver Terry Godwin had yet to make his presence felt this season until Saturday night. His 75-yard touchdown opened the scoring when the receiver ran away from Vanderbilt defensive backs before breaking several tackles inside the opposing five-yard line to finish the play in the end zone. He finished with two grabs for 95 yards a score despite coming into the game with just four catches for 46 yards on the year.
  • It feels like an infinite number of potential top tight end prospects in the 2019 crop, but we might have to add Texas A&M's Jace Sternberger to the group as well. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound junior scored his fifth touchdown of the season against Kentucky, absolutely running away from the Wildcats' secondary in the open field.
  • 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits and countless more pressures. That was Montez Sweat's night for Mississippi State, as he continues to post unbelievable production for the second straight season. With all the attention buzzing about Polite, Zuniga, Josh Allen, Darrell Taylor and others the past few weeks, Sweat has more sacks than all of them with eight in six games. He was unblockable against Auburn.
  • Continue to be impressed with Kentucky safety Mike Edwards and Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram this season. Edwards has some man coverage versatility as well as the range to play deep, while Abram is the more NFL-coveted prospect with size, speed and physicality. He's raw and misses too many tackles, but the kid loves to hit and flies around with an abandon the NFL will love.
  • Trayveon Williams looks fully back to form after a disappointing 2017 season. Jimbo Fisher's offense has been a great fit for him, as he torched Kentucky for 138 yards on the ground and another 72 through the air. He's quietly crept back into the conversation as one of the top backs in the weak class.
  • So Jarrett three prospect? I'm here for that conversation.

SEC Power Rankings

1. Alabama

2. Georgia

3. Florida

4. LSU

5. Kentucky

6. Texas A&M

7. Mississippi State

8. Auburn

9. South Carolina

10. Missouri

11. Ole Miss

12. Vanderbilt

13. Tennessee

14. Arkansas