LAURINBURG — High school teams across North Carolina open the regular season in two weeks, and the Southeastern Conference features no shortage of quality players set to hit the gridiron.
In the second of a two-part series examining the top talent in the SEC, the best defensive players in the conference are ranked based on past production and projected future impact. Scotland, Richmond, Pinecrest, Lumberton, Hoke and Purnell Swett all feature talented players — these rankings are sure to fluctuate and feature new faces by season’s end.
1. Senior Mazani Stubbs (Scotland) — Stubbs is the anchor in the middle of Scotland’s defensive line, notching 59 tackles and five sacks last year in a breakout campaign after rarely seeing the field his sophomore season. Fourteen of the all-SEC performer’s tackles were for a loss, and he also added four quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery to his résumé.
2. Senior Qawi Alim (Pinecrest) — Alim, who earned all-SEC honors last season, turned in an impressive junior campaign with 42 tackles, 10 that went for a loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles and recovered a fumble for a touchdown. He also added an interception return for a score in the Patriots’ 38-9 playoff win against Middle Creek.
3. Senior Donovan Wirt (Hoke) — Though Wirt didn’t rack up the sack numbers of his fellow all-SEC brethren, Wirt notched more tackles than both Stubbs and Alim with 65. The 6-2, 225-pounder had half a sack with three tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery last season.
1. Senior Jonathan Smith (Scotland) — Smith rebounded from a knee injury that wiped out his sophomore season to win the SEC Player of the Year award in 2014. He led the Scots in tackles last season, recording 156 stops and also notched 22 tackles for loss, four sacks and an interception. In addition to earning all-SEC honors, Smith was also named to the Associated Press all-state team.
2. Senior Devon Hunt (Richmond) — Hunt is expected to be the leader in a revamped Raider defense this season. He recorded 68 tackles last season on a linebacker corps that featured three members with 100-plus tackles. Hunt also had an interception in 2014.
3. Senior Carson Maples (Pinecrest) — Maples is another starter returning to a loaded Patriots’ defense this season, and though he lined up at times on offense last season, he made his mark on the defensive side of the ball. Maples made 70 tackles, four that went for a loss, and nabbed two interceptions and forced one fumble. He also recovered two fumbles and returned one for a touchdown.
1. Junior Quinn Maynor (Hoke) — Maynor was a revelation for the Bucks’ secondary in 2014, making an eye-popping 107 tackles despite lining up several yards from the line of scrimmage. The Hoke coaching staff took advantage of his tackling ability, sending him on blitzes to pressure the quarterback and he responded with 1 1/2 sacks, five quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and two recoveries. He also defended a pass and blocked one punt to boot.
2. Senior Jaelin Beugre (Richmond) — Beugre is one of the Raiders’ top returning players on either side of the ball and heads into his third season as a starter in Richmond’s secondary. Beugre totaled 83 tackles with two interceptions, four passes defended and one fumble recovery for a touchdown last season. He also blocked two field goal attempts.
3. Junior Jaylen Dickerson (Pinecrest) — Dickerson was an impact performer as a sophomore and thrived in the Patriots’ secondary, recording 58 tackles while picking off three passes and recovering one fumble. Dickerson also defended four passes during an all-SEC season.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.