SEC loaded with dominant pass-rushers
Living on the edge in the SEC is a dangerous thing. Just ask the quarterbacks or the offensive tackles in this league.
Everywhere you turn, there's a marquee pass-rusher, the kind of player who can kill a drive with a sack, set the tone for a game with a punishing hit on the quarterback or take a team out of a game by rendering the offensive tackle in front of him helpless.
Who's the best pass-rusher in the league?
That depends on who you ask.
But a good place to start is any combination of South Carolina's Eric Norwood, Ole Miss' Greg Hardy, Auburn's Antonio Coleman, Florida's Jermaine Cunningham, Florida's Carlos Dunlap and LSU's Rahim Alem. Among them, they head into this season with 91 career sacks.
Norwood, the Gamecocks' senior outside linebacker, is the SEC's active career leader with 22. Hardy is right behind him with 21.5, followed by Coleman (14.5), Cunningham (12.5), Dunlap (10.5) and Alem (10).
"Every week in this league, you face a great one," Auburn junior left tackle Lee Ziemba said. "The biggest difference is the speed of these guys. All it takes is one slight mistake and they're by you.
"And one slight mistake can mean your quarterback doesn't make it through the rest of the game."
For much of his career, Hardy has been a bit of an enigma. At times, he's been unblockable. And at other times, he's had a tendency to disappear.
Injuries have kept him from exploding and having one of those 20-sack type of seasons. He underwent surgery in January on his right foot, a problem that plagued him all of last season.
During his past two seasons, he's been limited to 19 games, but has still managed to collect 18.5 sacks in those 19 games. That's nearly a sack a game, which raises the question: What would he do if he were completely healthy?
His Ole Miss teammates think the rest of the SEC is going to find out this season.
"The thing about Greg is that he opens it up for everybody," Ole Miss junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. "A guy of his caliber is going to draw a lot of attention. And when he's healthy the way he is now, he does what Greg does and that's cause a ruckus for the offense."
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Hardy has been dominant this preseason, according to Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
"The best way to describe him is that he has true basketball moves on the edge," Nutt said. "What I mean by that is that he has a point guard shake but he's 270 pounds. He's just so quick and can turn and get skinny. I watched him one-on-one with some of our new tackles, and it's unfair. John Jerry is the only one that can at least get a tie with him. He's a special, special guy."
Hardy said the last time he felt this good physically was his sophomore season, when he had 10 sacks in 10 games to lead the SEC.
"I feel fast, mobile, agile, able to do whatever I conceive in my mind," said Hardy, who nearly turned pro following last season. "I've got a lot more to do here. This team has a lot more to do."
The latest "freak" of the bunch in the SEC is Dunlap. The Florida defensive end is 6-6, pushing 285 pounds and just beginning to come into his own. Despite starting in just two games last season, Dunlap led the SEC with 9.5 sacks.
He's also dialed up his work ethic this offseason, which probably isn't good news for opposing quarterbacks.
"I've seen a different version of him, back in the spring and over the summer," Florida junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "He's been working so hard and doing everything right now. He's just a baller, and when you get somebody that big and that fast coming around the corner, there's not a lot you can do."
The hard part for Florida opponents is that Dunlap has Cunningham on the other side.
"All I can say is that you better get rid of it in a hurry," Haden said.
Auburn may do a few different things with Coleman this season. He played some standing up two years ago when Will Muschamp was running the Auburn defense, and first-year coach Gene Chizik said the Tigers would also have a few new wrinkles for Coleman this season.
"He keeps people off balance because he's got a lot of speed," Chizik said. "But the thing that's so good about him is that he also has a good counter move. Tackles that don't have help are going to have their hands full with him."
Coleman, who was about 210 pounds when he arrived at Auburn, said working under new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker has made him a more complete player. Rocker won both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award during a Hall of Fame playing career at Auburn.
"One of the things I had to learn was how to use my hands better, and Coach Rocker has taught me so much about that," Coleman said. "I'm getting off blocks better. Rushing the passer has always come natural to me, but my goal is to be a guy who can do it all. My first objective is to stop the run.
"Once you've done that, it just opens up that lane to the quarterback."
Whether it's Coleman, Hardy, Dunlap, Norwood or any of the other talented SEC pass-rushers lined up on the edge, you can bet SEC quarterbacks will be looking over their shoulders this season.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covers the SEC for ESPN.com's blog network. Send your questions and comments to him at email@example.com.
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