This is the fourth of a position-by-position look at the best tandems of NFL prospects in the SEC this season. We tried to veer away from superstars and their sidekicks, instead looking to highlight truly strong pairs where the headliner and the supporting role are harder to distinguish, and where a pro career is most promising for both. High-level production last season was a must.
Defensive linemen: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles
Clowney needs no introduction just two years into his college career. No SEC observer with any credibility, or sanity, disputes that he is the league's most impactful defensive lineman. His 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore last year established him as one of the SEC's elite defenders, and nothing less is expected in 2013. Clowney admitted at SEC Media Days that he believes his junior season can vault him into the NFL draft next spring as an early entrant, and even coach Steve Spurrier seems resigned to the reality that he is almost certainly a three-year college player. One NFL scout indicated that because Clowney's frame is so lean at 6-6, 275 pounds, he could project easily in a 3-4 or a 4-3 NFL scheme. As a rush linebacker in a 3-4, he is physically NFL-ready. Or, he could easily add the weight necessary to handle a 4-3 end spot.
Quarles certainly doesn't have the name recognition of Clowney, but his ability to disrupt offenses from defensive tackle will get him more notice in time. It might have been just as easy to pair Gamecocks end Chaz Sutton with Clowney as the tandem choice, but we went with Quarles in part because he was just as productive as Sutton last year from the interior, which is more difficult than it is on the edge. Quarles (6-4, 298 pounds) made 38 stops last season and had eight tackles for loss with 3.5 sacks, showing solid big-play ability and athleticism for a sophomore. He returns for his junior season far less likely to turn pro early than Clowney, but his time will come where the NFL is concerned.